Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Real Education

I graduated from the School of Education at UW-Madison.  Looking back, so much of my own education on education was purely theoretical. When we talked about the psychology of teens, the last teen I had any experience with was myself!  We were lectured about how lecturing was not the most effective means of relaying information...ANYway...

One of my professors, who taught "History of American Education", started out the semester by questioning the true point of public education.  I distinctly remember thinking, 'duh, to educate you!', but as he brought up reasons like to create a cohesive society, to create a workforce, to keep kids off of the streets, I found myself really, for the first time, turning a more critical eye to our schools, and that eye has not blinked since.

I loved school.  Always did.  Now don't get me wrong, when my mom tried to wake me up for high school, I wasn't always eager to go, but I never remember disliking the experience as a whole.   I think the best teachers either really liked school, and remember why, or despised it, and know what they don't wish to repeat.

Now, I get to live in three distinct worlds of education.  Our family homeschools, my husband teaches at a public high school,  and I teach at a technical college.  All three of these worlds forever bring the question of "what is the purpose of a meaningful education?" to the forefront for me.  It's  not as easy as it seems.  I believe in public schooling  and the amazing professionals that try to keep the fires burning in the bellies of children wanting to learn.  I see the magic of homeschooling, and how the world is our children's classroom.  I see adults returning to school to finally get that high school diploma after working for thirty years, only to be let go because of a factory moving overseas.

Is school merely a series of hoops that one has to jump through?  Like the guy that comes to the Student Success Center at MPTC day after day to do his math, does he need to figure out how to find the area of an isoceles triangle to deem himself  'educated', to finally get that carrot of a GED?  As an adult, he can truly ask the age old question, "When will I ever need to know this?" and after 30 years of adult life, he knows for a fact he doesn't need to know it.  Is it just the struggle in and of itself that we accredit? 

I remember complaining to my father about my own geometry class and asking "When am I ever...?", and my dad's response was something to the effect of it will show me how I deal with a difficult situation, and how I overcome adversity.  'How do I do something that I really don't want to do'.  It makes sense when justifying the need for geometry to someone, but is that the entire organized schooling experience?  Are we teaching how to cram, regurgitate, and then move on?  To put collective 'noses to the grindstone through the struggle'?

I really don't remember very much information from my 15+ years of  schooling.  I do remember doing the projects, the speeches, or reading the books, but not the hours and hours I spent passively sitting in classes.  That is my learning style; I have to DO something to remember it.  I am, by nature, an active learner.  You know the old "teach a man to fish" thing; I have to fish MYSELF.  I think most people are like that.  Most of the history that I taught in high school, I learned while preparing to teach it.  Learning is a verb. I need my learning to have a purpose and an action.

My husband Tony is an amazing high school social studies teacher.  He just won a huge award from his school district for making such a profound impact in the lives of his students.  You know why?  He trusts them to have the innate desire to learn.  He gives students credit for their intelligence.  Tony teaches a class called "War and Peace", a senior semester elective.  He inherited the class with one section of about 10 students, and turned it into one of the most popular classes in the school with 6 sections of 30, sometimes literally running out of desks.  What is the difference?  He has conversations with his students, integrating what they are learning with what is going on in the ever expanding daily curriculum of global affairs.  He challenges them to think without an expected outcome of a specific fill-in-the-blank answer. 
Some of his students, well-trained after 11+ years of schooling, are uncomfortable with this unknown quantity. "Where are the worksheets? What can we do for extra credit?"  He challenges them to think outside the box and outside of themselves.  

One day the kiddos and I were shopping in town when a young man approached us.  "Mrs. Zappia?  Are you Mr. Zappia's wife?"  I will happily claim that man any day. 
"I have to tell you, your husband was my absolute favorite teacher in high school.  He treated all of us with such respect.  (isn't that sad?)  Because of your husband's class, I talked to my grandfather for the first time about his experiences in Vietnam.  (Tony's final exam is to interview a war veteran)  I didn't know how to approach it before, but because of Mr. Zappia's class, my grandpa and I had the most amazing conversation, and we both cried.  I thank your husband for giving me a real education." 
Needless to say, after wiping away tears of my own in that shopping aisle, I thought, now there is an 'educational outcome' that is immeasurable and bigger than any grade. 

How we can replicate that experience ad infinitum is the next question. 

Thanks for reading...

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