The main character in my novel Hattie’s Place (soon to be available on Kindle) is based on the life of my grandmother, who began her first teaching job shortly after she graduated from Greenville Female Academy in 1906. Sixty-one years later, I began my first teaching job after graduating from Furman University in 1967. Many things had changed in the interim years. As a nation, we had come from ankle length dresses to mini skirts; Model T Fords to Mustangs; Victrolas to stereos; movie projectors to televisions; suffragettes to women’s lib. We had survived two major wars and the Great Depression, and had moved on to a nuclear arms race, a cold war, Viet Nam, and the Civil Rights Movement. However, one thing that remained fundamentally unchanged was the way we did school.
Just as my grandmother must have done on her first day as a teacher, I entered my classroom at Wake Forest High School, closed the door, and greeted my students. My desk was situated in the front of the room with a blackboard behind it; the student desks were arranged in rows, tombstone style. Each student received a U.S. History textbook, which we would navigate through–all at the same pace–primarily using the lecture method. Students would copy notes from the chalk board and answer questions printed at the end of the chapter. If we kept a steady pace and did not spend too much time on the Founding Fathers and the Civil War, we might make it to World War II and into the fifties. It was all about teaching the material; never mind about the learning. My job was to cover the textbook by June. Too bad if some students got left behind. After all, we were operating on the bell curve. Our system graded and sorted: the top students would excel and go on to higher education; the majority in the middle would become hourly wage earners; and, the bottom 13.5% would probably drop out and not make it at all.
My grandmother was an elementary teacher, and would have been responsible for teaching all of the core subjects, plus art and physical education; but, her approach would have been as textbook-driven as mine was at the high school level, except for the fact that she would have had more books to issue and her kids would have been given recess. And for both of us, as teachers of a certain age will attest, we were on our own when we closed the door and began teaching. Each classroom was its own little fiefdom, with the teacher the overlord, in possession of all of the knowledge that would be imparted to the students–empty vessels waiting to be filled with dates and names of people and events that had shaped our history–facts deemed by some textbook authority as important enough to be memorized.
Both my grandmother’s classroom and my own were teacher-centered, textbook-driven, and essentially non-collaborative environments. They were modeled after the nineteenth century factory system, operating in a top down fashion, ensuring that most students would leave school to work for hourly wages, some would supervise the workers, and a few would manage the factories/businesses or own them.
In the interim between 1967, when I began teaching, and 2011 when I retired as a school administrator, extraordinary changes had occurred in our world. Advances in Technology and communication had flattened the landscape and made information accessible at the click of a mouse to anyone, anywhere; the Cold War had morphed into the War on Terrorism; the gap between the 1% and the 99% had widened and the country had become more polarized on every issue. Through it all, our public schools–at least those in North Carolina–continued to operate with the same old factory system mentality.
It’s true that there were pockets of innovation and reform. Creative teachers were bringing the real world into their classrooms; visionary principals and superintendents were introducing collaborative practices into their schools and districts; parent and community groups were partnering with the schools to provide essential twenty-first century technology for twenty-first century learning. Some districts began offering high school alternatives such as “Early College” and online courses through North Carolina Virtual Public Schools. But far too many kids remained untouched by the pockets of reform and change.
Even with a vast body of educational research contradicting these outmoded practices, the factory mentality persists. It shows itself in movements such as those to make cursive writing a requirement for every student, and in the determination to withold calculators and require kids to master “naked math” before allowing them to become involved in real world pro blem solving.
I was both thrilled and dismayed when I saw the clip on CBS Morning News about the success of the AltSchool in San Francisco, founded by Max Ventilla, an engineering executive with Google. Ventilla became concerned over the quality of education for his children and quit his five million dollar a year job to do research and raise money to fund a school structured for twenty-first century learners. Check out this link to see why I was so intrigued by the learning environment that Ventilla has created in his pilot schools that are now located in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn. This is the kind of schooling I want for my grandchildren and it is the kind of schooling that I envision and desire for all children in North Carolina and all over the world.
What is dismaying to me is that presently, AltSchool and those of similar quality, come at a hefty price. Annual tuition for students who attend is between twenty and twenty-six thousand dollars, making it accessible only to the very wealthy, and thus reinforcing the notion that a first class education is out of reach for all but the privileged. Doesn’t that smack of the factory system, where only those to the far right of the bell curve will rise to the top? Will we ever come around to understanding that the best education for the children of the affluent is the best education for all kids?
To be fair, Ventilla’s vision is for all kids to be included, and there is a section on the AltSchool admission form to request financial aid for those unable to pay full tuition. But his major concern is with finding and piloting a new model for schooling that can be replicated across the nation and world by others who take on his vision to fund AltSchools in their own local communities. I applaud his innovative approach and will look forward to reading his research findings.
I would so dearly like to believe that we will establish twenty-first century classrooms similar to the AltSchools in all of our public schools in North Carolina. I know first-hand of many teachers and administrators who are working tirelessly to this end. However, I am afraid that the politicians who currently control the State House lack the vision to fund that kind of effort, clinging instead to the notion that what was good enough for the children in my Grandmother’s classroom is good enough for the children today. Hopefully, these myopic politicians will not have the last word and will eventually be replaced by leaders with a vision to create twenty-first century learning environments for all of our children.