Monday, December 08, 2008

PLAs Please

Today we have my two most dreaded words – freezing rain. So I’m staying home, waiting for the temperature to rise and the slick roads and sidewalks to disappear. It’s the last week of classes here. Reading “Day” is Thursday, then final exams. I think everyone is ready for the semester to end. It seems interminable. We need some refreshment, a diversion from the grind, a way to kindle energy anew. In anticipation of that, I’m going to offer some suggestions via a little Proust-like exercise – remembrance of things past. And I’m going to do that via this operative question. What is it that school did for me that I couldn’t have done on my own?

I was a large kid. Early on, till I was about 9 or 10, maybe even a little older, my big issue was (not so) fine motor skills. Hands and eyes didn’t coordinate. In the private nursery school I attended (I really don’t know the difference between that and kindergarten, since I didn’t go to the latter, starting public school in the first grade) they coached me quite a bit on functions other kids could just take for granted. I made progress, but it was slow. I got something of a different sort of that a few years later. You wouldn’t normally think of reading as a fine motor activity, but apparently I read the way most people watch a ping pong match. My head would move to follow the text across the line, then back again, a hard return sans keyboard. I have a recollection of somebody with their hands on my head holding it in fixed position as I read aloud, literally forcing me to have my eyes do the work instead of my head.

Perhaps five years later when I was in summer camp, I played “flinch,” not the card game but rather a game where one person has their hands behind their back and the other with their hands straight ahead, palms and fingers touching, almost as if praying. The person with the hands hidden would try to slap the other person’s hands. If the slap was a hit or if it was a “fake” and the other person flinched, the person with the hidden hands could go again (and with a flinch there was a free slap). If it was a miss or the fake went too far so the faker’s hands were exposed, the roles reversed. We all played that game growing up, but in camp that year I played with a counselor who was a football lineman who could bench press over 300 pounds, and he slapped hard and fast. He was trying to toughen me up a bit. I did get much better at it, although my hands remained raw much of the time. Put in the right incentive and there is rapid learning, at least of that sort.

The other part of school that I recall being coercive was fifth grade arithmetic with Mrs. Stone. We did drill on multiplication, five minutes per day, rapid fire on the times table up through 12 times 12. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t have a choice. Eventually I got it. Now I think it is indispensable.

Reading was different. Pretty early on, perhaps fourth grade, we had SRA. This history by Don Parker is a fascinating read, if a little melodramatic. We also had individualized reading. (Those who preach a learner centric approach likely will be intrigued at how early this piece is and yet that its critique is not about “teacher centric” so much as it is about “grouping,” where all students read the same book.) And now I must confess that my memory fails, or that I’m not able in looking backward to attribute cause to school or elsewhere or in some combination.

Elsewhere in this case was the public library, but also books that were at home. I recall a series that I believe Random House produced. The books were numbered, each around 150 pages, dealing with a character or event in American History – Kit Carson, The Transcontinental Railroad, Fulton’s Folly, Appomattox, etc. I’d read at least one of these a week, sometimes one in an evening. And there were biographies by Clara Ingram Judson from the school Library. This was an enormous education. I soaked it in. Once the momentum started it self-sustained. I’m really not sure of the spark. What does it matter?

A little later I got a job during the school day working in the school library. My sixth grade teacher was also the Librarian. The work was putting those clear plastic covers onto the new book jackets, to protect them. The covers came in two pieces that you sandwiched onto the book jacket. There was some adhesive on one that you made stick to the other, with the entire thing adhering to the book itself. I must have done a hundred books that way. It was an opportunity to see the new titles. Somehow I wound up with a baseball craze, among which I read the Kid from Tompkinsville. Then soon thereafter a biography of Bob Cousy, and Go Up for Glory, which Bill Russell may or may not have been involved in writing.

In Junior High School, we had The Oxford History of the American People (hard cover) at home and I pompously, though naively, brought it into school so I could quote from it in class and do quick lookups during discussion. Somewhere around that time I must have first tried to read a newspaper. My dad was a dedicated Herald Tribune reader, not switching to the Times until after the Newspaper Strike. I believe I discovered Red Smith around then and then Russell Baker. A year or two later I was subscribing to the New Republic and Scientific American. Both were a bit over my head, at least at the beginning. But I gathered up nuggets and put things together. I recall the first week of biology class in 10th grade we were talking about origins – the Big Bang and that sort of thing. I had read about some alternative and offered it up to the class. The teacher put on the board, “Lanny’s Passing Star Theory,” my five minutes of fame.

The reading was accompanied by attendance at presentations, serious music and theater, along with the schmaltzy Gilbert and Sullivan and Broadway Musicals that my mom favored. Growing up in New York was a huge advantage for this. There was a wealth of stuff and once riding the train into Manhattan became an ordinary thing, I did it pretty often, with friends or acquaintances.

By now the point should be clear – this was all education outside of school. It was entertainment, leisure if you will, but leisure that is nurture of an intellectual sort. School may have been the driver early on. It had long ceased to be the driver by High School. Something else gave the motivation. It was me doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be exposed to new ideas and found them wherever they came. This is not to say that I was all work and no play. I played piano, street football, basketball, and other ball sports. And I watched a huge amount of TV as a kid. (I can sing the theme song from My Mother the Car! How’s that for obscure?) But some of that time that was mine, not the school’s, was for things most would call learning. And the subject matter really had little to do with school although school and my independent learning would overlap now and again.

* * * * *

Caring more about alliteration and making bad puns than about accurately labeling the behavior, I’ve termed the above a Personal Learning Agenda, the PLA from my title. Really there isn’t an agenda, certainly not one that can be itemized or scheduled in advance. It’s a more amorphous concept, a recognition of a need to learn from the ideas of others by experiencing their works, through reading, watching performance, or observing their creations. And then out of that there is a putting sense to it all, fitting it into a larger picture, developing a sense of taste as to what is pleasing and what not, learning to write about the ideas and to talk about them, becoming aware of self in this and how self is other than these external ideas yet being part of them.

A kid with a PLA will do ok in school, perhaps very well. School will become a piece of a larger tapestry for them. They’ll see it that way and adjust their efforts accordingly. The exception is where they are overcome with boredom at school because there not enough intellectual fodder there, in which case the PLA will trump school and then perhaps some need for self-expression in the kid will prevail. But then the kid will do ok anyway, because the kid is grounded in a good way. The kid has learned judgment and to trust himself at some level, to know when he doesn’t understand something and to have a sense of when he does, and not to take things on faith just because somebody else says to.

How many kids have a PLA? Do we know enough to say what starts them down the path? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Access to plenty of interesting things to read and view would certainly seem necessary. Whether it’s enough, I can’t really say.

I do have this feeling that we’re trying to do in College what individualized reading and the public library did for me in elementary school. And that if the kid doesn’t have a PLA by the time he graduates from High School, it sure will be tough sledding trying to get the kid to establish one thereafter.

I think its fine to think of kids learning in a broader community online, where the synthesis, analysis, and argument are a group activity. I'm not trying to argue against it here with my pun on PLEs. But I don’t believe that’s possible unless each participant has something to bring to the table first. That’s why I say, PLAs Please.


bgblogging said...

Lovely post, Lanny. I could just picture you as that boy, exploring books and theories and libraries and obscure television shows.

I think you are right on the mark about PLAs and so why reading to kids at home and giving them the chance to explore ideas (having newspapers around, for instance, and talking about them) is so important. Every kid needs an adult (or older sibling) who can model this kind of discovery process, or encourage it, or show that it is possible. I think it is rare for someone to be able to develop your PLA without at least some encounter with the possibility of a world of this kind of exploration.

I also think we had more time as kids to develop our own areas of interest and to noodle. Our lives weren't scheduled up the wazoo, at least mine wasn't, and homework was negligible until I got to high school. My parents believed in imposed boredom, meaning that we spent our summers in a cottage on the coast of Maine with no neighbors, no television, no telephone. We made stuff out of the scraps we found on the beach, and my dad, a teacher, gave us each a buck to spend at the local used book place (10 books/a buck). We'd read and read those books, the newspapers and magazines that came to the house, do puzzles, play board games, complain sometimes when the fog rolled in too thickly for too long, but we sure developed imaginations. And we talked. Ideas, books, people.

Who could do that for their kids now?

I guess that's one reason I'm keen on setting up centers for community digital exploration--they'll be a place kids and adults could come and get that kind of space, materials, and mentoring. We need many approaches to help create a culture that values the intellect, creativity and self-directed learning.


Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara - thanks for the comments.

The part of my story that I really have no clue about is whether it was like that for all the kids I knew growing up with the PLAs or if it didn't take root in most of them. What I am clear on is that the opportunity was there.

My dad also had interesting ideas about education and play. He took us to a recreation center on Saturdays when we were in grade school - did various arts and crafts like paper mache (I didn't like the smell but it was inexpensive) and I recall handing around a medicine ball in a gym although it was too heavy for us. It is interesting to think of the different roles for parents and school. I also like your point about the homework and the freedom.

Perhaps we've actually gone backwards. Kind of ironic in that the forced approach to education we seem to have now has happened at a time when the ideology is all free market - but not in school.


bgblogging said...

Perhaps the Obamas will move the country forward on this score.

With their plan to invite school children to the White House to read, to perform, to listen, to talk, to absorb; and their open modeling of reading to their own kids as well as insisting on their taking responsibility around the house, maybe, just maybe, they'll have a positive impact on families and schools.


Lanny Arvan said...

Before Obama was running, Kozol was prominently featured on Obama's Website. The campaign itself focused on restoring the middle class rather than reducing poverty. Not sure how to reconcile this.

There is a lot of discussion now about folks taking early retirement at the university for budget reasons. If there were some creativity in government, a good number of those would somehow get involved in the schools. I could see doing individualized or small group tutoring - math or possibly something else. Maybe that can happen as volunteer work only. But I'd like to see it with some organization structure to it.