The Dangers of Deadly Dull Classrooms

Should I climb these dull stairs or a fun tree?

A concerned friend of a second grade child sent me an email the child’s teacher recently sent the parents.  The friend wanted to get my impressions.  Here was my immediate reaction to the email (which you will have a chance to read not just once, but twice):  my body tightened.  I felt sorrow for the child. I felt a combination of disgust and despair that the teacher clearly has no idea how dull and dispiriting this classroom and teaching approach sounds.  I was curious to see what Natalie and William thought.  I printed out the letter and asked them to jot down their responses.

I’ve pasted in the teacher’s email below, first in its original form and then with William’s and Natalie’s reactions to specific words or phrases that bothered them (underlined) and comments (all caps).

If a learning disability has been ruled out, this child is exhibiting clear signs of not thriving in what sounds to me like a deadly dull classroom.  The child has little power.  The options are misbehave, or check out.  Also, people who have no power, who feel they cannot enact change, or express their anger, tend to become depressed.  This child is indeed exhibiting signs of depression.

I sent a recommendation that the parents run, not walk, to their library or bookstore and read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. Also, I remembered a couple of notes I jotted down as I began to gather and frame my ideas for our two-year learning adventure while “skipping middle school.” Both quotes are by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Harvard Professor, Author, and American sociologist.  Her interests include “the culture of schools, the patterns and structures of classroom life, socialization within families and communities, and the relationships between culture and learning styles.”

“In our schools, students are mostly trained to get to the answer quickly.”

“When you’re worried about discipline or preoccupied with completing a prescribed curriculum in a particular amount of time, you lose the sense of joy and possibility—the sense of play.”

I have changed the name of the child; however, please take note that the name of the parents was not included in the original email.  This, I confess, is turning into a pet peeve of mine.  Coming from a letter-writing tradition, I still think it is courteous and respectful to include the name(s) of the person with whom one is corresponding/communicating.

*****************************

Good Evening,

I wanted to touch base with you both regarding Sam’s lack of attentiveness.  As I told you before, I have him sitting right in front so I can cue him and he can see everything clearly that I am presenting on the smartboard/whiteboard.  He is really struggling with staying on task and completing his work.  He often stares off into space, plays with anything (ex: a pencil), hums or just sits doing nothing.  His work output is very poor and I am very concerned about whether he is actually listening to or focusing on what I am teaching.  I feel he is capable of completing most work assigned, but loses focus almost immediately.

Today he just sat and failed to complete two of the assigned papers.  In the morning, we did a worksheet that I had explained. He finished only a little of this page.  I continued to prompt him and explain what he was to do (read the paragraph and find details as to what it said that you need to do to take care of a hamster).  Then, when we graded it as a class (using the smartboard), I had him close his book to listen and watch.  I told him I wanted him to come in at recess time to finish the page.  He did come in, but he still did not complete it correctly (it should have been very easy for him to do since I modeled exactly what to do when we graded it).  Unfortunately, I don’t think he was tuned in at all when I did this.  He was sitting there and looking forward, but I’m not sure it was registering. Then, in the afternoon, he completed only 2 of the 10 problems in a 15-20 min. time period.  I was prompting him again and asked why he was just sitting there.  He said he was thinking.  I know math is a little more challenging at times for him, but I feel he could do most of the problems on his paper since they were mostly review.

I am at a loss as to what I can do to help him focus more.  I have moved students away from him who might distract him and he has an empty desk next to him (so he doesn’t have a neighbor to distract him), but I still see a lack of attentiveness.  He struggles with following directions throughout the day and his work output is being compromised and therefore this will effect his grades.  Another concern is that he is not learning the material he needs for future success. I truly don’t believe he is trying to misbehave , he is just having a difficult time.  I am also worried about his self esteem due to the fact that when I have to remind him and cue him so much, he seems discouraged.

Please let me know any suggestions that you can provide.  I need your input so that we can work as a team to ensure his success every day.  If you’d like to meet, I’d be happy to do so as soon as we can schedule a meeting.  Thanks so much.

Good Evening,

I wanted to touch base with you both regarding Sam’s lack of attentiveness.  As I told you before, I have him sitting right in front so I can cue him and he can see everything clearly that I am presenting on the smartboard/whiteboard (NOT INTERACTIVE).  He is really struggling with staying on task and completing his work.  He often stares off into space, plays with anything (ex: a pencil) (I DO THIS!), hums or just sits doing nothing.  His work output (THIS PHRASE BEING USED FOR LEARNING?) very poor and I am very concerned about whether he is actually listening to or focusing on what I am teaching.  I feel he is capable of completing most work assigned, but loses focus almost immediately.

Today he just sat and failed to complete two of the assigned papers. In the morning, we did a worksheet (UGH) that I had explained. He finished only a little of this page.  I continued to prompt him and explain what he was to do (read the paragraph and find details as to what it said that you need to do to take care of a hamster)(BORING TO ANYBODY!).  Then, when we graded (GRADING IN SECOND GRADE! YUCK) it as a class (using the smartboard), I had him close his book to listen and watch.  I told him I wanted him to come in at recess time (ISN’T THIS THE WORST SOLUTION?) to finish the page.  He did come in, but he still did not complete it correctly (it should have been very easy for him to do since I modeled (ALL ABOUT THE RIGHT ANSWER; NO SENSE OF DISCOVERY) exactly what to do when we graded it).  Unfortunately, I don’t think he was tuned in at all when I did this.  He was sitting there and looking forward, but I’m not sure it was registering. Then, in the afternoon, he completed only 2 of the 10 problems in a 15-20 min (2 MINUTES/PROBLEM) time period.  I was prompting him (WHAT’S ALL THIS PROMPTING?) again and asked why he was just sitting there.  He said he was thinking.  I know math is a little more challenging at times for him, but I feel he could do most of the problems on his paper since they were mostly review.

I am at a loss as to what I can do to help him focus more.  I have moved students away from him who might distract him and he has an empty desk next to him (so he doesn’t have a neighbor to distract him)(ISOLATE HIM AND STIGMATIZE HIM) but I still see a lack of attentiveness.  He struggles with following directions throughout the day and his work output (HE IS 7!) is being compromised and therefore this will effect his grades.  Another concern is that he is not learning the material he needs for future success (THIS DOESN’T MATTER NOW). I truly don’t believe he is trying to misbehave , he is just having a difficult time.  I am also worried about his self esteem due to the fact that when I have to remind him and cue him so much, he seems discouraged (WELL, DUH!!!)

Please let me know any suggestions that you can provide.  I need your input so that we can work as a team to ensure his success every day.  If you’d like to meet, I’d be happy to do so as soon as we can schedule a meeting.  Thanks so much.

 

 

 

 

2 comments to The Dangers of Deadly Dull Classrooms

  • Andy McEwan

    Hello, Pamela,
    How very sad this post will make anyone who cares for learning or children. How sorry I feel for “Sam”! “Touch base…on task…work output…worksheet…tuned in…your input…work as a team…schedule a meeting” – This seems more like a memo, crammed with cliches, from a businessman to collegues rather than a letter from a teacher to parents. And “this will effect his grades” – affect, surely?
    The teacher certainly seems to have spent a lot of time noting what Sam is not doing right but absolutely none on considering whether their teaching might be part (all?) of the problem. The word that immediately springs to my mind is “joyless”. There is no sense of learning being a process of stimulation, of discovery, of delight. I remember, even after, so many years, every teacher who ever taught me, the good and the bad, and I know what the difference between them was – it was their way of teaching. The good teachers loved their subjects, communicated their enthusiasm, fired my imagination and, very importantly, were never dismissive of my doubtlessly jejune and juvenile comments and opinions – they encouraged me to discuss, question and learn. I sometimes wish I could go back and tell them how much it meant to me but I suspect they already knew.
    Sadly, education on this side of the Atlantic, too, has largely become a regime of cueing, prompting and testing on strict, undeviating curricula, which to my mind seem designed deliberately to drain any joy from the learning process. I was appalled to learn from young relatives that they “studied” speeches from Shakespeare but didn’t read the whole play! Another told me she loved poetry and had been set to read and analyse a poem by Seamus Heaney but as I spoke with her I learnt that she knew nothing of the work of Keats, Wordsworth, Burns, Shelley, etc., etc.
    I sometimes think that the most important thing about education is not teaching children facts and figures: it’s about teaching them how to learn…or at least it should be. That joy of learning, once inculcated, never leaves you. To stifle it in a child is unforgivable.
    I hope Sam finds a more congenial and competent teacher who will open up the world of learning to him and in so doing open up the world.

    • TwointheMiddle

      Oh Andy, Maybe there should be “learning advocates” whose mission it is to march in where learning is at risk and defend it with passion, joy, imagination, and ideas. I’d also add conversation, play, questions (vs. answers), and laughter. I would elect you to send on this mission. You noticed every single dreary word in this missive, including the misuse of “effect” vs. “affect.” What to do? What can Sam’s parents do?
      Our family was lucky. We were able to step away for two years and take a “sabbatical” and then found a high-school that believes in true learning. But I keep thinking, what would we have done if we hadn’t had those two options? What you say is both gloriously and painfully true, “The joy of learning, once inculcated, never leaves you (GLORIOUSLY TRUE). To stifle it in a child is unforgivable (PAINFULLY TRUE)” Painful, because he is stuck behind his desk with no place to go.

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