Things I Know 241 of 365: We’ve been talking about this for a while

There is no book I know of that shows so well what a free and humane education can be like, nor is there a more eloquent description of its philosophy.

– Herbert Kohl on The Lives of Children

For A-107 this week, we read a few chapters from George Dennison’s The Lives of Children. Dennison writes about the pedagogy and practice of The First Street School. I’ve read the book before as part of my teacher preparation, but haven’t visited it since then.

I’m glad I did.

It reminded me how beautiful the relationships between caring adults attending to the needs of children caring teachers attending to the needs and personhoods of students can be.

It also left me a bit saddened.

Dennison was writing 50 years ago about what schools can be and how we can most humanely treat children. He was writing half a century ago and still we have stories of school-regulated caste systems based on test performance. And so, I thought it important to type up and stow away some of the bits and pieces of Dennison that resonated most with me as I read. I’ll archive them in the cloud and pull them out when I need to be reminded of what we can do and how we can care for kids.

The closer one comes to the faces of life, the less exemplary they seem, but the more human and the richer. (p. 5)

Learning, in its essentials, is not a distinct and separate process. It is a function of growth. (p. 5)

We might cease thinking of school as a place, and learn to believe that is is basically relationships: between children and adults, adults and adults, children and other children. (p. 7)

We did not give report cards. We knew each child, knew his capacities and his problems, and the vagaries of his growth. This knowledge could not be recorded on little cards. The parents found – again – that they approved of this. It diminished the blind anxieties of life, for grades ha never meant much to them anyway except some dim sense of problem, or some dim sense reassurance that things were all right. (p. 8)

They had discovered each other – and had discovered themselves – in more richly human terms. (p. 11)

Motivated, of course, means eager, alive, curious, responsive, trusting, persistent; and its not as good a word as any of these. (p. 13)

Rousseau: The most useful rule of education is this: do not save time, but lost it. (p. 13)

Now what is so precious about a curriculum (which no one assimilates anyway), or a schedule of classes (which piles boredom upon failure and failure upon boredom) that these things should supersede the actual needs of the child? (p. 17)

…by accepting her needs precisely as needs, we diminished them; in supporting her powers, in all their uniqueness, we allowed them to grow. (p. 18)

But let me replace the word “freedom” with more specific terms: 1) we trusted that some true organic bond existed between the wishes of the children and their actual needs, and 2) we acceded to their wishes (though certainly not to all of them), and thus encouraged their childish desiring to take on the qualities of decision-making. (p. 21)

We read of statistics and percentages, and are told that learning is the result of teaching, which it never is and never was. We hear of new trends in curriculum and in the training of teachers, and of developments in programmed instruction – of everything, in short, but the one true object of all this activity: the children themselves. (p. 33)

School was not a parenthesis inserted within life, but was actually an intensified part of life. (p. 33)

Why is it, then that so many children fail? Let me put it bluntly: it is because our system of public education is a horrendous, life-destroying mess. (p. 74)

It can be stated axiomatically that the schoolchild’s chief expense of energy is self-defense against the environment. When this culminates in impairment of growth – and it almost always does – it is quite hopeless to reverse at the trend by teaching phonics instead of Look-Say. The environment itself must be changed. (p. 80)

Would growth be possible – indeed, would there be a world at all – if the intake of the young were restricted to those things deliberately offered them by adults? (p. 83)

We cannot raise children to be free men by treating them like little robots; we cannot produce adult democrats by putting children in lock step and placing all decisions in the hands of authorities (p. 88)

I know that in the course of our lessons I committed errors and God knows how many omissions, yet this physical base was so important and so reliable that it provided all kinds of leeway. It took the sting (though not the seriousness) out of my rebukes, it expressed a concern I could not have put into words, it gave a reality and continuity to sessions which were sometimes of the most ephemeral content. If one single formula were capable of curing the ills of our present methods of education, it would be this physical formula: bring the bodies back. (p. 169)

Dennison, G. (1999) The lives of children: The story of the First Street School. New York, NY: Boynton/Cook


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