Friday, January 10, 2014

Past Tense America

One of the things I truly love about schooling my kids at home is that I have the opportunity to also learn things I wasn't taught myself.  In the morning, I read the kids a classic poem (or two...or three) and/or a portion of a classic text.  This morning we read the Pied Piper of Hamlin by Robert Browning.

After the reading (sometimes as we are reading, if paragraphs are difficult for those under 12 to understand easily) the four of us discuss the reading.  What was the author trying to say?  What does this word mean?  What is the moral of the story?

I direct the conversation and steer the kids toward the meaning of the text or words if they are not grasping an understanding themselves.

This was the way school was taught years ago.  This is the way my mother, a now-retired English teacher with at least three Master's under her belt, used to teach her public middle school classes.  She LOVED the classics.  Why?  You HAVE to THINK to understand what words such as "gilder", "ermine" and "pottage" might mean today by determining their context in the passage or the sentence.  You HAVE to THINK to then understand the entirety of the passage or poem.

These texts give you the opportunity for endless learning - looking words up in a dictionary, determining context in a sentence, determining the purpose of the poem, studying about the writer....I could go on and on.

Dr. Terrence Moore of Hillsdale College has written a book called, "The Story Killers" about this very thing.  I suggest to anyone who doesn't understand the damage our new "shallow and fewer" standards are doing to the learning process of children, read this book.

I am posting two classic poems below - one by Emerson and one by Browning.  Both poems extol the virtue of what I will call "Past Tense America".
A Nation's Strength - By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not gold, but only man can make
A people great and strong;
Men who, for truth and honor's sake,
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly -
They build a nation's pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.
Reading this particular poem really brought home how far America has fallen (to me) since Emerson's time. Look at the words of that poem.  Do we "stand fast and suffer long" today? No, we want the quick, drive through version of EVERYTHING from religion to food! 
I Hear America Singing By Walt Whitman

I hear America Singing, the varied carols I hear:
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam;
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat; the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on is bench; the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song; the ploughboy's on his way in the morning or at noon intermission or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing;
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day - at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious song.
Whitman is not describing white-collared executives sitting behind a desk with an iPad below their hovering fingers.  Whitman is not describing Professors in Ivory Towers decrying the goodness of America as they simultaneously take research funds (hand over fist) from private corporations who have made their fortunes from the American work ethic and free enterprise system.  

No, Whitman is describing America in past tense.  An America in which calloused hands provided a tale of untold riches to anyone that shook them.  An America in which students were taught the value of independence through reliance on one's own efforts, and the benefits reaped by America because of the values therein instilled. 

Our education 'reform' measures (ie; Common Core) will never work in present-tense America because we are now the America of the soft underbelly that expects and deserves instead of works and perserveres.
Our education 'reform' measures (ie; Common Core) will never work in present-tense America because they are based on punishments and not an embracing of learning for the sake of learning. 

Our education 'reform' measures (ie; Common Core) will never work in present-tense America because we desire results without effort - critical thinking without foundational knowledge - tests (assessments) that teach instead of teachers who teach.

Our only hope will be a Great Awakening of learning in our country, and until (and unless) we extricate ourselves from the cycle of government instilled poverty of effort, we will never summit that Everest.