15 September 2009

Listen, Lady, Let Me Tell You the Moral of This Story

Last week there was a combo welcome-back/PTA meeting at Matilda's elementary school. I hadn't realized it, but because of their emphasis on arts integration in the curriculum, Lee is a magnet school, which is one of the reasons turnout was so high. I went with one of our neighbors and listened to the head of the PTA for a few minutes (who I decided right then and there I could never work with - she managed to pull off a tone that was both patronizing and insipid), before we split up to go to each child's classroom.

Matilda's new teacher has been working with first and second graders for longer than I've been alive. I'm all for experience, but I can't help being wary of someone so embedded in an institution. She seemed very nice, very competent: she's got a system worked out for just about everything and I'm sure it helps the days go much more smoothly when she can keep her little ducks in a row. She showed the parents who were there the math materials and explained the reading schedule. She went over what the children are expected to do when they have questions and how discipline is handled in the classroom. I left that night with a pretty good idea of what Matilda's days will look like this year, and while she’s in no danger of thinking outside of any boxes while she’s there, I felt okay about how second grade was shaping up.

You can tell there's a "but" coming, can't you? Yeah, you know Steve and I too well to believe for a second that we could hand our children over to a conformity factory government-run institution without almost instantly making ourselves a pain in their ass. It's true. It's natural. It's right.

Matilda's teacher sends home a hand-written note every two weeks detailing Til's progress, or areas she's having trouble with. Which is great, and believe me, having just started teaching myself I am more than a little in awe of this woman's ability to remain committed to each individual student after teaching for 38 years.

This week she wrote about Til's reading assessment and how, although she read very well, and was able to summarize the story with plenty of detail, she missed the "moral or lesson" of the story. I don't know exactly which story she read, but according to the note, the moral was that "a small animal can help a big one, or that size doesn't matter." And apparently, when Matilda relayed what had happened in the story, she said it was about one character helping another character.

And yet, she "missed the point."

I wrote a note back. I had to; I couldn't help myself. I needed to know what the point of the retelling was, really. Was it to understand that size doesn't matter? Because if that was the point, then didn't Matilda's reading suggest a pre-existing, internalized understanding of the "moral" of the story? Is it really necessary to remind her that most of the time size does matter, simply to point out that the story is saying it doesn't? WTF? On the other hand, if the purpose of exploring the "moral" of a story is to develop analysis skills, then I'm all for it: make sure she sees all of the social and cultural elements that went into the writing of the story, think about who the author is and why they might have chosen to write such a story, explore things that might have been left out, encourage her to examine each characters motivation.

I have a feeling that as soon as my note hits her desk it'll go right into a file labeled Problem Parents. My feelings about public education and its benefits and limitations are complicated enough without having to deal with teachers so entrenched in the system that they see no problem asking a question with only one right answer. I don't know yet what the moral of this story will be, but I'll keep you posted, and let's just all keep our fingers crossed that the moral isn't sit down and shut up, cause that won’t end well for anyone.

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