Equity & Diversity Opinion

Considering How One ‘Sees’ Things

By Deborah Meier — May 19, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m writing you while you are probably also writing me, on Sunday the 15th because I get up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to go to a board meeting at the Panasonic Foundation and then must drive five hours to Concord, N.H., where I’ll spend a few days at the Upper Valley Educators Institute with Rob Fried. The institute runs a program where would-be teachers are placed in school four days a week and take classes one day a week—in order to earn a teaching license. It’s the kind of “alternative” system I applaud and is just one of many which immerses interested would-be teachers inside classrooms—day after day. More later.

Yesterday I talked for hours with Dennis Littky whose new MET one-on-one college is coming to the end of its first year. The big turning point, he said, was sending young people to far-away lands largely on their own for a few months. Maybe it’s one way of shifting their perspectives, going from seeing-like-a-teenager to seeing-like-an-adult, an American. Dennis is always learning on the job!

How we take in the world is so critical to what we can understand about it. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a must read. It gets to the heart of our problem. Aside from those who truly believe that public enterprises are themselves evil, inefficient, and/or tyrannical, and those whose self-interests are tied into privatization, or testing, etc., I think the reforms also are the outcome of the vast number of people who see the world from their bird’s-eye view. Libertarian critics are right, in part, that such ambitions are not unnatural perhaps in young, well-intended, but ambitious, people—especially young idealists. They are attracted to being “change agents” (changing others), vanguards, “policymakers.” Scott gives examples of this from friend and foe alike.

In fact, every time I prepared for class the next day I was doing something similar—although it must seem an odd comparison. My scale is so different. And, consistently, I was—unlike today’s reformers—brought down to earth the next day when I tried to implement my grand plans. Some things worked, some fell absolutely flat, and some went nowhere so fast that I had no back-up plan. The same thing happened to some of my best ideas for the school reforms I had in mind and brought before the staff or parents, only to discover that even as I laid them out to this real-life audience I could see flaws I hadn’t noticed the night before.

That’s true of many of one’s own favorite ideas. [Text revised per author.] In the real world, of course, the reformers and the schools and the teachers (who carry the weight of many of the reformers’ grand schemes) may or may not even agree with each other about something as fundamental as “the purpose” of it all.

We may not agree, either, on the kind of evidence that we need to use as we revise our schemes, as they go from inside our heads, to paper and pencil to actual implementation. For example, I just don’t believe, based on 45 years of experience, that most poor and black children enter kindergarten without strong language skills, loving families, and strong and lively minds. But I’ve been told otherwise since the 1950s when the “culture of poverty” hit the academic/policy world.

Given where I was situated I saw and heard something very different. In the classroom, “those children” were often silent, children of few words, confused by complexity, and fidgety and looking for clues. But on the playground, at home with their families or at home with mine they were chatterers, filled with questions and as much fun to talk with as the children of my middle-class friends. And in time they were openly full of powerful ideas. But only once they were convinced I and my classroom were “family,” trusted members of their world. They had thoroughly imbibed one message that their families and most schools repeated over and over: Do not act in school the way you would in your far-from-ideal families. Shut up, watch the teacher carefully, and avoid getting into trouble. Some succeeded at this; others gave up and became the “bad kids.” We didn’t use their strengths—including their talent at figuring things out for themselves, creating strong social bonds, and reading adults.

We rarely picked up on some of the worldly experiences they had. Instead, we saw only their limitations. We treated their language as non-language/deviant/slang/"black English,” etc.

They brought the same “disadvantage” to the tests. Their strengths were precisely those that the tests intended to punish, to expose. They could not thus fall back, in the classroom or in the test sessions, on their intuitive knowledge, as I had been able to do and as the middle-class kids in my school did. They had to ask themselves: “What do ‘they’ want me to say?” As did idiosyncratic middle-class kids like my son, Nick—kids who have a harder time “thinking and seeing like a State.”

This idea—which was so much part of the incipient pedagogy and curriculum “revolution” of the 1970s and early 1980s, often in distorted and half-thought-through ways—has disappeared. Those entering the profession today know nothing of that literature: John Holt (How Children Fail), or Sylvia Ashton-Warner (Teacher), or Herb Kohl (36 Children), et al.

Yes, it’s true that children come to us with some of the handicaps that poverty and oppression create. But even worse perhaps is that we drive a wedge between their “natural” selves and their school selves. We offer an appallingly dull alternative to the rich lives they live, the families they love, the world as they know it.

That much we can and did undo. That’s what we discovered by watching and hearing from our graduates. They took away from school a self-confidence in their own judgment based on the knowledge and experience which the school helped them hone and expand upon.

Practice, practice, practice is an extraordinary teacher once one can tell the difference between dutiful practice and practice that one owns.

More on these different ways of “seeing” in future letters—maybe a book! Enough, I have to get my seven hours of sleep.


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