Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No one is KISSing these days

warning: rant to follow, which may or may not be caused by the fact that I had to pick up my son's kindergarten registration papers this week

KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I think I learned that approach to delivering information while I was teaching school years ago, and by golly, it continues to be more useful every day. When I remember to keep it simple, I am never sorry. People have short attention spans that grow shorter every day, they are accustomed to quick changes of pace and lots of pretty graphics and shallow information... we've all been groomed of late to be ADHD, it seems. So keeping information simple just makes sense.

But honestly, I always thought that keeping it simple just made sense. Why do more than necessary? Why confuse people when you needn't? Although I've been out of the field of education until recently, now I find myself on the fringes of that whole strange world of imparting knowledge—and I am so disappointed in the way it has plummeted since I left.

In the hoity-toity districts north of our fair city, now there is often no lower option that pre-algebra in 7th grade. Huh?! Are all the 7th graders of the area ready for pre-algebra in 7th grade? I think not. Was I? Doubtful, although I must have been introduced to the concepts at that age all those years ago because I was, indeed, taking algebra in 8th grade. Which led to my near-demise in 9th grade geometry...but that's another story. Seriously, though, it's not just the higher maths that are being pushed. I have recently assisted at least five 9th and 10th graders in nearby school districts, all of them average students, all of them saddled with full-tilt research papers that include rubrics and point breakdowns and lists of requirements that I honestly feel are more appropriate for honors English juniors and seniors, if that.

People. Our public education systems stink. We are falling behind every other modern country I can think of. Yet we insist on pushing our students harder, faster, sooner than before. It's not working. Just because you call every student gifted will not make it so. Even worse, this push for higher-level thinking at an earlier age has resulted in the near-abandonment of the basics. Apparently, the basics are just not flashy enough for us to press upon many students. Times tables? Pshaw. Just use your calculator. Subject-verb agreement? That's why we have Microsoft Word, isn't it?! And spelling... don't even get me started.

I feel sick when I attempt to help a student with the basics and see how that student has slipped through the cracks. I am equally sick as I walk a kid who doesn't know a run-on sentence when it slaps him to maneuver his awkward, fumbling way through a research paper full of citations and defenses. Where is the KISS method these days? Why are we teaching advanced MLA research methods to 9th graders who are barely passing their classes? Why must the entire world be groomed for college? What is wrong with trades, with labor, with jobs that will NEVER require any serious knowledge of algebraic substitutions and pi and a works cited page and gerunds?

We are all getting so damned clever that no one knows how to tie his shoes, let alone read a clock with a face, and it's making me want to retreat to a homestead in Alaska.

When I taught English, so long ago, I was encouraged by my district to attend the annual Pennsylvania state writing assessment scoring seminars. I forget the actual title of those assemblies, but they were filled with local PA English teachers who had volunteered to come assess real writing samples of students. We were all gathered together, then taught a 6-point scoring rubric, and lastly we graded papers. And we graded more papers. Then, we graded some papers. But my point is this: the vast majority of the time, we all agreed within one point on the appropriate score for a given writing sample. We'd been taught how to do it, we applied the knowledge, and we all could identify "good" writing. We knew when the piece was effective, when it had succeeded. We did not require fancy grading systems or long, drawn-out explanations of what we should identify as high quality. We came to recognize it very quickly, all of us. There was by and large agreement. We knew with very little training when the writing worked and when it didn't.

So, why all the complications now? Why the complexities? Most of the students I see would benefit greatly from a huge helping of common sense in their teachers. Most of these kids today need to know how to figure out the most basic mathematical problem, percentages, division problems. They need to be able to express themselves on paper, clearly and concisely. They need to learn clarity and the value of a well-turned, grammatically correct phrase. They would benefit greatly from more practice making a simple point, an opinion even, with accuracy and skill. They would be better for having learned to crack a book instead of searching endlessly through feeble online resources. Few will ever require the ridiculous level of detail and pomp that is already being asked of them in their first year of high school.

For goodness sake, what is wrong with people? I want America to be smart and educated, too—but mostly I want the kids today to be able to hold a conversation without a *!?#@ cell phone in their hands. It would be a bonus if their end of the conversation made sense and consisted of lucid thoughts expressed in complete sentences.

I'm not down on the kids, honestly. I think we've steered them wrong by pushing them to do too much, too soon. Let's start with tying shoes, then move onto clocks that are round, and after that we'll divvy up pieces of pizza and talk about fractions. We must, we simply must, give these children of ours a real foundation for learning—the type of learning that will enable logical problem-solving when they grow up.

Because then, you see, they'll have to figure out a way to pay that fool Obama's bill.


Cari Skuse said...

I totally agree. Why is it that my 2nd grade twins seem to have the same homework (only differing by 2 weeks) that my 3rd grader has? Huh? Can most kids do this? They are doing multiplication and fractions. And forget about History. Why would they need that? I cannot believe they have yet to have a Social Studies class (or one that I have seen any homework ).
I agree about the basics. I was woefully lacking in the basics of English grammar. Luckily I had a very tough professor in college that fixed that. Too bad not everyone is that lucky to have a teacher that cares to make you learn the basics. I don't profess to have a mastery of English, but I do try.
And those &(*^&%$ phones. I will not allow my kids to have them as long as I can put it off. I hate seeing people ignoring those they are with (in the same physical space) talking or texting to those who are not in the same physical space. I find it utterly stupid. I wonder what our ancestors would think.
I wish we still had more of the "what would (insert other people who talk..gossips) say!" and that people actually cared. I guess I am guilty as well, spending way too much time at my computer, but I am trying to break that habit.
Hope you are looking forward to that homework that starts in Kindergarten.

chris h. said...

Here, here, Mel. This is so insightful. Even 20 years ago when my nieces were in elementary school & jr. high, I couldn't believe the amount of work they had vs. what I had had. And forget about the assignments they had to complete in high school. It made me question my own education and ability to compete had I been in their shoes -- and I was one of the smarter kids. (Though I didn't have formal algebra until 9th grade, geometry in 10th...and that was bad enough!)

And what does it get us? Probably a few really advanced students and many more who can't possibly keep up and fall behind without having mastered the basics.

More and more, I think if I had kids I'd have to home school -- as intimidating and hard as that would be. I haven't read any stats on it, but I've never heard that home-schooled kids are behind their peers. It seems it would eliminate so much garbage.

Mel said...

Cari, Cari--homework in kindergarten?! Say it ain't so! I am with you completely on the annoyance with subjects studied by little ones, pressure on increasingly younger children, and cell phones instead of face-to-face interaction. I am certain our ancestors would be disappointed if not disgusted at times. And Chris, yes, for all my statements about never home-schooling, I am honestly wondering if it might come to that. Of course, if society collapses first, we'll ALL be home-schooling, and the subjects studied will likely be much more appropriate to real daily living. A step back? I truly wonder...