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A concerned member of the human race

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Teaching "Stuff" vs. Teaching Kids

When I first became a teacher, I was pretty young.  I thought it was pretty much all about "the stuff."  "The stuff" was history.  And that stuff seemed to be my calling.  I could feel my ancestors across the pages of history and even when I couldn't find a name or a date or a place, my imagination filled in some of the details.  I love that "stuff."  It surely wasn't all sunshine (people were expulsed, banned and such), but it's the reason I'm here today.  History and how our ancestors coped with it, or forged it ahead, is the reason we're all here today.  History is more than the famous battles of kings.  It's more than the struggles of the common people.  To me, it's everything under the sun (that has been done), all that is human, including music, art, technology and ideas. One day, it will become what we are living today.  Time marches on.

It wasn't long after I started teaching that it struck me that one of the reasons why I love history so much is because it is all about people.  I love the kids in front of me.  Occasionally, someone makes trouble, but thankfully not in a malicious way.  One of two things usually happens.  Either another kid says something to the instigator or we all share in a harmless laugh, aimed at no one.  I have been very lucky in my career.  The kids are alright.  And, given I grew up with two older brothers with the best sense of humor, I may be better equipped than most to handle some situations.  

Now, although I know as much and probably more about history than ever (I say this even as I continue to learn and grow), and I teach it with all the vigor I had when I first set foot in the classroom, it is more about the kids.  I will hold the kids up to the standards of the Regents, as it is in their best interests to graduate.  Yet, I am under no false impression that all of that information will be retained for life or that it will be of much use to them in the wider world.  

I think the people who promote the Core Tests fail to realize the most important and underlying purposes of education, purposes which will ultimately elude measures of standardized testing.  They have shifted the balance to make education exclusively about "rigorous" material and punitive tests.  They will beat down students.  They will turn students away from school.  They will brand a generation as failures.  They will pull the threads from the fabric of society.  

So, "the stuff" is there, I teach it, but it is not my bottom line.  Hopefully, I will teach students how to think, not what to think.  Hopefully, I will teach them how to question, not just how to answer multiple choice.  Hopefully, some of my God-given optimism will be contagious.  Hopefully, students will feel comfortable in my classroom.  Hopefully, they will make new friends.  Hopefully, we will find some humor along the way.  Hopefully, together we will build a community.  Hopefully, some of that will follow them into the wider world long after many of the facts have faded from their memory. The older I get, the more I am sure we must teach kids more so than teach "stuff"--no matter what any reformer or his high-stakes test would tell us.  


  1. I agree with you about the "stuff." I studied a lot, and have forgotten a lot. In fact I've forgotten an awful lot of science, math and history. I'm fortunate in that I teach ESL and the stuff I teach is the stuff of everyday life, the stuff that is pretty much indispensable to everyone. I can say to my kids that I use this every day, and so will they, for as long as they stay here.

  2. Happily, social studies naturally demands the discussion of current events. Yet, the emphasis on test prep and review throughout the year (particularly at the end of the year) means we are forced to slight some of the most relevant topics. It's a great disservice.