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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Art of Education

I volunteered for the Ellis island simulation at my youngest's elementary school yesterday. This simulation was for the 4th and 5th grade classes.

For a week they have been doing in-class simulations of a European immigrant's journey to the United States in the late 1800s - early 1900s. A small group of 5 students per class (15 total) were randomly selected to be 1st class, another 5 second class, and the rest were steerage passengers.

During the simulation the teachers were wonderfully solicitous of the 1st class passengers, helping them move their things, allowing them to talk as much as they wanted while everyone was moving in to place, etc. 2nd class passengers were allowed to whisper quietly among themselves if necessary and had to move their own things and got slightly less comfy chairs. The teachers gruffly told the steerage passengers to hurry up and sit on the floor with no talking at all. My youngest said, "all the steerage passengers hate us because of our privileges." Pretty real, but luckily the "hate" ended with the simulation.

Of course they spoke about this all beforehand so the students knew not to take it personally.

Well, after a week of dealing with fake illness and death, money and food shortages, etc., they "arrived" at "Ellis Island" yesterday to be processed. Their documents all had to be in order, then they had to pass a number of tests. If they didn't walk a straight line or jump rope they got a dot rather than a star. Or perhaps the "medical examiner" detected a rash or a cough--off to quarantine they went. They had to present letters of recommendation, be able to sign their names, have their spelling homework completed to show they would be good workers, etc.

Today they find out who got enough stars to enter America.

The kids have been learning that ships were required to take back rejected immigrants to their original ports, but not anyone else in their family. As a result, a sick child might be sent on the ship while the parent stayed in America because he or she could not afford the return fare, or vice versa. They also heard about the sometimes arbitrary nature of judgments pronounced on hopeful immigrants.

However, they didn't really feel it until yesterday.

This school, Washington Elementary in Kingsport, TN, also has run simulations of colonial settlers that involved students making a list of their 20 favorite people then finding out that those people might be "injured" or "sick" or might even "die" during the course of the simulation as they strove against time limits to "build" houses, "plant" crops, and "survive" the voyage and their first winter. My youngest lost an uncle and an adult friend.

The Underground Railroad simulation earlier this year involved groups with a leader physically trying to sneak by "bounty hunters" from safe house to safe house (some of which had been raided and were no longer safe) and, at the end, trying to run through the remaining hunters to reach "Canada." Only 7 children out of 65 made it, and they really felt the unfairness of it all.

This is education as art. These teachers literally bring history to life and help the children feel empathy for those who struggled in difficult situations.

And this is why standardized testing is not the answer to our education woes.

Standardized testing has led to our teachers being given less and less freedom to creatively engage their students. It has led to minute-by-minute structuring of the school day.

If we retain excellent teachers and retrain or let go indifferent or uninspired teachers, we bring up children who are engaged and curious and actively seek learning opportunities.

The current environment leads to spoon-fed students with little inclination or training for independent study. That loss of initiative and independence is detrimental to their future success, to their ability to innovate and advance when they are adults.

I'm just saying . . .


BJ said...

What wonderful learning 'hands on' experiences. I applaud the school and teachers for doing this. These are things the kids will never forget and it gives them a real understanding of how things were.
My grandfather came through Ellis Island in the early 1900's. I have a copy of the ship's manifest, etc. It was great when Ellis Island opened up the records several years ago on the internet, or I would never have learned some things about my grandfather.

Kathy said...

If people only knew how some perfectly able children just fill in the dots on the tests and create random answers, they might be shocked and perhaps they wouldn't place such an importance on them. Test scores do not tell the true picture.