I Want a Picnic

David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “No Picnic for Me Either.” Most of us probably remember that phrase from speeches given by then-candidate Barack Obama. He told of how his mother would wake him before sunrise to tutor him so that he would excel in school, telling him that waking up early to do so was “no picnic for me either.” I can picture cute little Barry rubbing his eyes and yawning, but doing what his mother asked.

What I can’t picture is myself asking my child to do that.  In fact, I did an experiment. I tried to say aloud, “This is no picnic for me either,” and I couldn’t do it. The words would not come out. I mean no offense to Mrs. Obama. I truly believe that she did what she thought was best for her child, and that’s the most a person can do in this life. I guess that, from my vantage point, I just don’t think what she did would be best for my child.

According to Brooks, the new administration, like the old one, seems to think  Mrs. Obama’s  approach to education is best for all children in America, to my dismay. He describes this as a positive thing, as children having “relationships with teaching adults.” Unless we build many more schools and have much smaller-sized classes, I don’t think too many of those relationships are going to develop. I know that not everyone is going to homeschool their children, but you have to admit, relationship-wise, it’s the best way to go.

Brooks also writes about the new education plan’s commitment to “rigor,” as in rigorous testing. Well, you can imagine how unschool-y me feels about testing. I liked Brooks’ definition of a good teacher — one who develops “emotional bonds with students” — but when he went on to talk about how we all have had teachers we remember forever, teachers who changed our lives, I got confused.

You see, I know what he means about special teachers. I had several:

  • the one who first made me think, in ninth grade, and who introduced me to the world of film.
  • the one who challenged me to become a better writer, in high school.
  • the one in college who discussed seventeenth-century poetry in such a way as to make me love reading it to this day.

But none of those relationships with teachers had anything to do with test scores. I don’t think anybody has ever said, “Gosh, I’ll remember Mr. X forever because he helped me get a good score on the state test.” Maybe I’m wrong about that (and if I am, I’m very depressed).

So, if the new plan is to reward “good” teachers (the ones who build relationships) with merit pay, and the teachers are going to be judged, as Brooks says, on student testing data that will “measure teachers based on real results,” I think the folks in Washington and the folks running the schools still don’t get it.

A teacher can excite your intellect, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to score a grade level ahead in math. The intellectual excitement may drive you to write a play, read lots of books about the Middle Ages, or draw lots of pictures in your private sketchbook. Life and learning don’t follow the simple pattern of teacher inspires/student excels academically. I happen to be writing this on Einstein’s birthday, and his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled. Today, he’d be in Special Ed, not in the Gifted and Talented program.

Brooks tells us that “progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates,” and that’s why the testing is so important. Sure, it’s important if you’re in the school business. If you’re interested in having children learn, there really is no way to predict what’s going to happen. That’s why unschoolers are so brave. They opt for the picnic.

Classrooms could be more like a picnic. Picture a small group, sitting in the grass, discussing a book. If the teacher really had a relationship with each child, and grades were really necessary, she could assess their knowledge or improvement by simply talking with them.

I know; it’s unlikely that schools are going to turn into anything like my vision of them. That’s why I’m glad I live here in Picnicville, where the red gingham-checked blanket is always spread out on the grass, the grill is always fired up and ready to go, and the learning never stops.


10 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Sunnymama said,

    The phrase “it’s no picnic for me either sounds similar to one I remember as a child which was “it hurts me more than it hurts you”, – but Picnicville sounds awesome!

    (I’ve just changed the page layout for comments on my blog now. Thanks so much for letting me know that it still wasn’t working, hopefully it will now.)

  2. 2

    sgaissert said,

    Ouch! It hurt to hear that phrase! Thanks (I think) for bringing it up. You have Picnicville, too, you know, and it’s always sunny. ; )

  3. 3

    I am a new reader of your blog, and just have to comment right away to say I totally agree with your take on Brooks’ recent piece. School could indeed be more like a picnic; one of my favorite films, “It all starts today [Ca commence aujourd’hui], depicts just such a school. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0186730/
    But since I haven’t seen a school like that in real life, I love having the picnic at my house!

  4. 4

    Sunnymama said,

    Hi again!
    I nominated you for an award. Please do come and collect it at my blog if you would like it 🙂

  5. 5

    Colleen said,

    Hi Susan. Thanks for the award. 🙂

    I’m always so conflicted about what they’re doing to try to “improve” schools. Well, maybe conflicted isn’t the right word. I disagree with most of it: testing, starting kids younger, extending the school day, homework, the list goes on…but I find myself wondering, what is the answer? I don’t really know what positive reform looks like in our world today where most families need two incomes to get by and people are so entrenched in the belief that learning can and should be measured by tests, or that it’s the same thing as memorization. When I try to think of answers to the problems with our schools, that the general public would be willing to accept, I always come up empty-handed. Seems like it’ll take a revolution to get our schools on the right track. It’s kind of depressing really! Still, if revolution is what we need I do feel like we unschoolers are at the forefront–bravely going our own (better!) way so others can follow. 🙂

    I love the idea of choosing the picnic, by the way. I’m going to have to remind myself that I chose the picnic when I start to worry about silly things.

  6. 6

    sgaissert said,

    Thanks, Colleen. I too sometimes need to remember that I chose this way of life; it isn’t a burden someone else placed upon me. I know what you mean about positive school reform. Our society has been so conditioned to think that only experts can educate — even down to sports: kids go to baseball tutors now instead of just playing baseball with their friends to improve their skills. Anyway, I’m glad to be in the same revolution with you.

  7. 7

    Karen said,

    Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been trying to find a way to sum up my feelings about Obama’s education policy, which from my unschooling standpoint seems kinda “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” and you did it perfectly.

  8. 8

    […] Note: Partial credit for the idea in that last paragraph goes to Colleen, with whom I shared a brief “Comment” conversation about revolution. […]

  9. 9

    Heather said,

    I love Picnicville and can’t imagine any other life. My oldest son and I went to hear Pres. Obama speak while he was campaigning and my son was so very dismayed at the Presidents views on education. Loudly dismayed to the amusement of those around us 😉

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