Sunday, September 04, 2016

Learning outside the box

Every adult has particular memories of school, or school supplies. For those of us who started school in the 1970's, it might be Bic Banana pens, or (for the Canadians) packs of Laurentien/Laurentian pencil crayons. Newsprint fliers for Scholastic paperbacks. Library books that had pockets and cards in them. Glue in clear bottles with rubber tips (or, earlier, the ever-discussed white paste in a jar that the bad kids would eat). And of course the also-ever-discussed smell of ditto-machine fluid.

There are times when nostalgia is supplanted by what-were-they-thinking curiosity or even resentment. Times change, and what was thought to be cute or appropriate sometimes takes on a different light. One of the Squirrelings was unimpressed with the Kimmy doll I found recently, because of Kimmy's obviously not-that-authentic Native connections. Yes, Kimmy was a popular Canadian toy fifty years ago, but no, a relaunch of Kimmy wouldn't fly these days.
I've often talked about my "experimental '70's" elementary education. Some parts of that were good, or at least fun; other things we could have done without. The photo above is a 1960 SRA Reading Laboratory (SRA meaning Science Research Associates, which should tell you a lot right there). We used a box like this maybe once a week in the 1970's. I didn't hate it. I liked, somewhat, the challenge of jumping ahead through those coloured levels. Each learning card had a story, which I thought was sort of like reading a Sunday School paper. The activities were a bit like doing word games. And I suppose I thought that it was better than some other things they might have had us doing instead. (This blogger isn't even that charitable, although she does include the fascinating story of where the first "box" came from.)

I found a scanned-in review of this, also from 1960, and this is what it said:
"This is a U.S.A. attempt to individualize reading instruction in a large class with a wide range of reading ability. A triumph of pedagogical ingenuity combined with superb industrial design, it provides, in a container 16 x 8 x 8 inches, sufficient material to keep a class of forty students with a reading range of over six years purposefully busy for at least fifty-four periods...The levels, each of which is identified by a distinctive colour, are very carefully graded and cover a reading range of approximately 7.5-15 years and are designed to interest children from 9 to 12 years. The material, however, is stimulating and so attractively presented that the laboratory would be acceptable to most children up to the age of fourteen years."
Are you excited so far?
"The laboratory consists of:--  150 Power Building Cards, 15 at each of 10 levels, all very attractively illustrated and laid-out, which give carefully planned training in reading for comprehension, word recognition and semantic skills; a Key Card for marking each Power Builder; 150 Rate Builder Cards..."
and so on and so on and so on.

If I told you that the review of the learning kit came from a journal called The Slow Learning Child, would that make a difference?
"I am jealous for the children; every modern educational movement tends to belittle them intellectually; and none more so than a late ingenious attempt to feed normal children with the pap-meat which may (?) be good for the mentally sick..." (Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education)
And that, I think, was what was wrong with this attractively presented triumph of pedagogical ingenuity. It taught us to read reprinted stories on folded cards, answer multiple-choice questions about main idea, and work through lists of antonyms. You might become very good at answering main-idea questions and picking out antonyms, just like you might master the technique of shaking chicken parts in a bag of something that comes out of a package and then putting them in the oven for the required time. It's a programmed skill, but it doesn't make you a chef.

And those cards didn't make us readers.

According to the blog post I linked above, the teacher who first came up with the idea was working with seventh graders and had too limited a budget to get fancy consumable materials, so he cut and pasted some workbooks to make them re-useable. (Shades of some homeschoolers, yes?)  But here's the thing...he could have used books. He could have done what Marva Collins did (without a box). He could have asked the students to narrate, to tell and write about the books they were reading. He could have taken advantage of the natural world around them.  Maybe I have the completely wrong impression, and they spent every afternoon reading classic novels and going out for nature walks. He could have done a lot of things, and maybe he did, I have no idea.

But I think he should have skipped the box.

At any rate, we can. Our boxes these days may look like computer pages instead of shiny cards, but they're no more real or necessary than SRA kits were in my classroom. Don't buy or do the things that make you feel more like a teacher. Do what matters for the students. Do the things that really feed mind-hunger. Nurture the readers and writers, curious human beings, creative spirits, and care-takers of all kinds.

That's my back-to-school post.

Linked from the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, Fall 2016.


DHM said...

Isn't it interesting that the originator of these was not a teacher, but a psychologist stuck in a classroom, and he did not know what to do. And somehow, he brokered this into a better position for a curriculum company which was looking to expand its market.

I loved these for the competitive effect- I tore through them as fast as I could, trying to beat my whole grade. One girl was faster than I was, and that's mainly what I remember- not any of the stories or dumb questions.

I do wonder how the kids stuck in the lower levels fared. There's nothing in those cards that helps you learn. You are asked how well you did, and given questions about the content, some of them require the student to make inferences from the reading. But I do not recall anything explaining *how* you could improve those skills you didn't already have.

Lynn Bruce said...

Oh good heavens, I had almost forgotten the SRA box. When I passed the last level during the first month of the school year, my 6th grade Reading Class teacher sent me to an empty classroom with a cassette recorder for the remainder of the school year, where I recorded audio books for the school library. So the irony there is that out of my entire class, I was the only student who got to actually READ... and I had to be sent out of Reading Class to do so.

Mama Squirrel said...

So those at both ends of the spectrum missed out: the quick ones who didn't need the lessons and just tried to score high enough to jump to the next level, and the slow ones who maybe needed a different approach too. It reminds me of when Charlottd Mason said that we don't need to give children chewing instruction or food-digestion lessons.

Lynn, you were lucky to spend that time reading. In our class we just got to staple papers.

Crunchy_Conservative said...

"Don't buy or do the things that make you feel more like a teacher..." That's a sobering reminder.

Lynn, you WERE lucky to read. I had to sit, still and quiet. I was told that if I brought out my own book to read, it would cause problems among the other students, who would all, apparently, expect class reading time to become free reading time. *sigh* I spent so much time in elementary school bored—quite literally—to tears. Now that I have kids on both ends of the spectrum, I'm so glad that I can offer them better.

Sarah L