Recently finished The Way It Spozed To Be, by James Herndon, a memoir of his year teaching at a ninety-eight percent African-American junior high in an unnamed city in California (published in 1965). The title is altogether ironic, since Herndon sets out merely to describe the way things are, and offers no suggestions as to how they really ought to be.
So, here's the basic story:
Everyone else at the school shares a common philosophy of education: teachers must maintain as much order in the classroom as possible, because otherwise the children won't learn anything. Herndon observes that this strategy does not work, because the children are evidently learning nothing, in spite of the semblance of order the other teachers establish.
So he decides not to impose order on his classrooms. He allows the kids to do whatever they want, as long as they're not physically harming each other. He spends a lot of time thinking about what he can do to help the children learn. But he doesn't come up with any ideas. None. So he just sits back and waits to see if anything will happen by itself.
His classrooms are so chaotic, the principal talks to him about it, and so do two other teachers, and a woman from the district sent in to help him. He rejects all of their advice, since they are just trying to get him to conform to a method he knows is bankrupt.
At the end of the year, the principal lets Herndon know he won't be asked to teach there again. Herndon protests that his method has acheived a small degree of success: the kids in the social studies class spontaneously started watching some old science videos for fun (also bringing in lots of snacks, which was against school policy). And in his English class, some of the kids had gotten into reading some fairytales adapted for theatre. They were actually learning a little bit, on their own initiative.
The principal was not impressed. Herndon was fired.
In the final chapter of the book, Herndon reflects that even students in nice suburban, white, middle- to upper-class schools aren't really learning anything. They just do what they're "spozed" to, because grown-ups force them into it, and they protest less against it, but they have no real interest in what they're doing, so it doesn't stick. He suggests that there is simply no hope for change or transformation of the system, because that would require giving the children some freedom, which is the last thing the teachers and administrators (on the whole) are willing to try.
I found this book interesting. Any description of what actually goes on in a school classroom is fascinating to me, because I never experienced it myself. I feel more grateful than ever for having been homeschooled. But I also find it hard to believe that things are as hopeless as Herndon implies. Surely people have come up with ways of teaching that can better engage students and make them feel they have a vested personal interest in what they're doing.
But I really don't know hardly anything about the situation. I hope my brother, who is a teacher, will read this and have some comments.
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