How Schools Might Work. . .

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

This is a variation on a topic proposed in The Daily Post last week, which was, “Name One Thing You Wish You Could Go Back and Change About Your Education?”

In my case, there are several thing I’d like to change, starting with my parents. I went to good schools, but between a couple of teachers totally unprepared for girls with brains (and  no modesty about that) and my parents’ uncontrolled neuroses, I really thought I’d gone to bad schools.

But then, I moved to a foreign country and was able to teach, which changed my perspective. Therefore, many years later, with the advent of digital whatever, as well as my memories and experiences, I’ve come to the following conclusions. Rest assured that my ideas and recommendations will never be incorporated into any curriculae, but at the very least, I’m hoping that parents of young children will think about what I’m saying. So, herewith, how schools [and parents] might work.

First of all, education and general culture start in the home. Turn off that damned TV and any other screen projecting movement. Leave on the radio, but tune it a classical music station. And then, depending on the age and abilities of the child(ren), teach them to read. My mother taught me to read when I was four, and never told me what I could or could not read. (Of course, we’re talking about 1949 to 1950-ish, long before Peyton Place and novels like it became “Must Read!”) Anyway, she did teach me, and when I got to kindergarten and first grade, she was harangued by misguided teachers (or rather, power-tripping teachers and principals) who insisted I was “too young” to be taught to read! (So be prepared for a lot of flack when you decide to help your intelligent child become more intelligent.)

Because of this, she did not teach my brother to read and therefore did not discover he was dyslexic til he was flunking out of third grade. She did, however, read to him (and to me; REO and I are 14 months apart), as did our grandmother GaGa (real name: Gladys Olds Anderson, but the “gla” was difficult for us to pronounce; hence, “GaGa.” More about her at a future date.). In both cases, these women would invent different voices to match the characters and the narrative.

Okay, Point #1–First the parents teach children, and then the school follows up and has teachers read to students, at least among the little kids.

Second–and so radically old-fashioned I’m anticipating a lot of protest–reinstate penmanship, starting in second grade.

Pencils and pens (and brushes) are not war clubs. Several years ago, I was in line at the check-out counter at a supermarket and watched a college girl (this was in East Lansing, home of the Michigan State Spartans) write a check. Gripping the pen was so difficult for her that she stood at the little shelf in front of her all hunched over, frowning in concentration, the pen in a kind of strangle-hold between three fingers and a thumb. She seemed to be in agony while writing out the sum of her purchase, to Goodrich’s (the supermarket) and then her own name.

In contrast, my penmanship was honed by my maternal grandmother and my mother who had been taught the Palmer method (advanced cursive script without flourishes). Yes, by the fifth grade I had learned to join letters together and the whole class labored over the exercises at least twice a week. Those who became doctors (and I know that one became a pediatric neurosurgeon in Seattle and the other a psychiatrist in California) have certainly forgotten those lessons by now, but ‘way back then, the future Dr. Westerman learned to write a complete book report legibly, by hand. In the meantime, I used to be asked to address invitations and these days, all my notetaking for my novels is done on lined notebook paper. I have tried to do all this on typewriters and computers, but mybrain freezes. I really need the pen in my hand and the movement of the two across the paper in order for the ideas to flow freely.

There have been innumerable neurological and educational studies that show over and over the importance of hand and eye coordination. These days, that’s been subverted to show that video games help soldiers become better and more accurate shooters. Cute. Too bad the long term results of learning to kill vicariously aren’t measured at the same time, because I doubt there’s a positive outcome to this training.

Essentially, the eye/hand coordination developed when learning penmanship also helps the eyes deal with three dimensions (“depth-of-field,” for photographers and the artistically-inclined drivers’ ed teachers), which is not a bad thing either. But mostly, on deeper levels, penmanship (writing cursively) helps the brain develop the ability to connect ideas. The letters in an alphabet are merely symbols. Each symbol represents one thing. When a word is printed, the brain sees a collection of symbols that represent just one thing in isolation. Cursive writing eliminates the isolation of ideas and the brain deals with complex ideas. In other words, cursive writing helps a person think, and even learn to think, as well as to see with his/her brain.

This raises a question–why don’t schools teach penmanship anymore? Usually the reason is economic, as well as cultural and even psychological. Schools believe that teaching penmanship will cost them more money; they might even have to hire someone with a master’s degree in this area. (Today, they might be right, considering how many people never learned to use a pencil correctly, much less a pen. On the other hand, this is confusing penmanship with calligraphy, which is a separate issue.) Culturally, it’s probably unheard-of now to compliment someone on his/her penmanship, so just the concept of cursive writing is no longer a “hot button” item. Psychologically, there’s nothing like envy to squash even the most modest educational ideas. A teacher who actually can teach penmanship and who has beautiful handwriting may hesitate to ruffle feathers in the teachers’ lounge because her teaching draws student acclaim.

So we’re back to the parents. Turn on the computer and/or go to the library and used book stores. Find the material and then sit down with your child(ren) at least one day a week to practice the lessons. This is even cheap–just a couple of pencils and some lined notebook paper. And then talk about what you’re doing and praise each other for going from boxy isolation to eventual elegance. To reinforce the idea, put on Baroque music in the background (Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann, etc.). Part of the brain will follow the music, and then the hand and the eyes will do the same over the paper.  Children learn something, parents get to spend time with their children. What better way is there to educate anyone?

So, to answer the question about how schools might work, the answer might be–encourage the parents to do some of the teaching. However, the schools should be prepared for the backlash–parents demanding better teaching in basic subjects.

Hm-m-m-m. . . Too radical?

(c) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

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