The Sublette County Journal
Volume 5, Number 16 - 12/14/00
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The Cook Tent
by Russell Nelson
I had the opportunity to substitute teach Music (labeled, along with Art and P. E. under the collective descriptor, "specials") for three weeks this fall in the Big Piney school district. Challenges aplenty were amply balanced by rewards, I met some wonderful kids and great adults, plus I got paid, so it was a very gratifying experience. It presented the perfect occasion for firsthand observations, which is what I do for this column, and from those I can draw a couple of clear, sobering conclusions.
First, our children's teachers don't get paid a fraction of what they're worth. Anybody that's going to editorialize about WYCAS and other pigeonholing methodologies should substitute specials for a month and put their money where their mouth is. The first thing you learn is that content has little to do with anything. I have an undergraduate degree in music theory and composition; it is meaningless before a class of 3rd graders.
The dictated "standards" decree that by 5th grade students should know clefs, note and rest values, time signatures, key signatures, and tempo and dynamic markings. They should know the lines and spaces on the grand staff, and be able to tell between music played in major or minor keys, and time in three versus four beats to the measure. This is pretty rudimentary stuff: basic grammar in another language.
Some do it well. To an individual, it is not the ones that sit quietly waiting to be fed information, while chaos reigns around them. It is those people who have music in their homes and play an instrument, who meet the "standards" list.
I shudder to think that rather than pointing the usual accusatory finger at classroom teachers, I am suggesting the foundation of education lies within the family. Classroom teachers direct some content but in reality have their hands full in the much (by orders of magnitude) broader theatre of sociocultural development. When the student gets to the point where a guiding parent cannot any longer supply technical details, maybe then the bulk of educational content begins a shift from foundation to superstructure, and content provision shifts to the state. It's a fuzzy shift, as are all things sociocultural, but accommodations must be made for students falling probably within two standard deviations of the mean in a normalized performance distribution. Of course, this leaves out those falling on the tails of the distribution- the very challenged, who get lots of official attention, and the very bright, who basically get ignored. This brings me to my second conclusion.
Before anything positive is going to happen, we need a state government that favors educating all of our children, and has the spine and vision to make educational opportunities available for students even in small districts. Now, any candidate will say they're all in favor of it, but look at where they're going with policy- what is this "distance learning" thing? Kids are going to turn on a TV to watch math? How do you learn with no classroom interaction or exchange of ideas with a live human? This is Orwellian. Consider the long-term costs of maintaining all those computers and TV sets. It has a darker side. By espousing "distance learning", Gov. Jim can make fewer jobs for teachers in Wyoming, because one person can teach a TV dinner class and beam it all over the state, Scotty. So Gov. Jim can say he's all in favor of education at the small district level, even as he's cutting out jobs for Wyoming teachers.
When I was in Jr. High in Green River, Big Piney had one of the best schools in the state. Wyoming was in the top ten states for quality education, quality faculty, and facilities. Right now we are about 48th in the Union, at least in teacher's salaries, and the Casper paper is saying that Wyoming simply can't attract teachers because Wyoming won't pay them even close to what they can make in other states. Why?
We need teachers and support, we don't need a damn computer in every classroom. We need to turn out students who can think beyond turning on a tube and surfing the Internet. We need to turn out students who can read and reason, even be able to do simple arithmetic, like making change without relying on a bloody machine.
"Distance Learning", while it can have a lot of positive impact at the college level- for people who want to learn- is a big mistake at the primary and secondary level. I hope Gov. Jim and his pal Judy Catchpole turn their thinking around before Wyoming comes in dead last.
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