Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Rural Education: Donors Choose

For those who are not aware, myself and my BF grew up in the very rural, very poor parts of Arkansas. Though BF is 8 years older than me and from an area about 3 hours from where I grew up, we had a comparable school life in that our teachers had to do some very creative "making due" to get the point across. Which brings me to my main point, the need for the donors choose program most science bloggers are now involved in. I love the idea of fostering a love of learning and influencing the lives of future mad scientists. After looking through the items many classes have requested I'm left a little stumped. Some are wanting books and other supplies, but many are requesting items that could be made with a bit of ingenuity and help from the community. I understand teachers aren't in a position to spend so much of their own income to make these things happen, but why aren't the parents more involved?

I don't accept the argument that they don't have the money either, because I grew up in an impoverished area too but we still scraped together the things we needed for creative learning. Is it a change in the way parents view the student's relationship with the school? I've heard more times than I'd care to admit that learning is the responsibility of the school and the parent shouldn't be forced to participate in their child's education. Most of this attitude seems to have come about in the last several years, but maybe there is more to it than that.

When I was in 6th grade we started learning about ancient Egypt and the pyramids. To help us understand the tools and methods they used at the time, my [absolutely awesome] history teacher sent a request out to our parents for supplies. She needed lumber and nails to construct molds for blocks, sand and straw for building materials and buckets for mixing. A parent who worked in construction donated scrap lumber and creating the boxes became the first step of our class project in pyramid construction. Another family donated the sand, and a farm donated a bale of straw. Before you knew it we were elbow deep in pyramid creation, and the teacher had whole lessons around each step so we would see and do instead of just passively listen. In another class while learning about the judicial system, we put the big-bad wolf from the three little pigs on trial, with each of us taking an active role through a lottery system.

Is today's "teach to the test" system killing these kinds of learning opportunities or are the parents just not as involved as they were when the BF and I grew up? Sometimes I want to think the detachment is because these are urban schools that don't have the sense of community you find in lower populated areas, but is this really the case? Granted our little pyramid project took up a large block of class time, but considering it has been more than 15 years ago and I still remember that lesson, I think it's time well spent.

The BF taught 4-5th grade before returning to school for a life in science, and has stated that it's hard to work creativity into the class when school funding is based on the results of standardized tests. Teachers are often forced to move on with lessons and stick to ridged pre-approved lesson plans even when a large portion of the class doesn't necessarily get what they just covered. It's more about quantity of material than quality of learning, in that he was required to teach certain skills and wasn't given the time needed for the students to do more than memorize for tests. I think this shotgun type approach is a major reason programs like donors choose are necessary, though it saddens me that the teachers have to rely on programs like this instead of the participation of parents and the community in which they live. This shouldn't be a blame game, but it seems as though each incoming freshman class has less and less critical thinking skills. A teacher friend recently called me at a complete loss for words because she put a "what do you think this means and why" kind of opinion question on an exam and the vast majority of her students answered with "idk." When she explained that it was an opinion question and if they had put anything down and rationalized their response they would have been given credit, the students replied that it wasn't a fair question because the answer wasn't stated in the passage they had to read.

Scary, right?


  1. You know, I think it is a lot about that "how can we measure what they've learned if the are 'only' building a pyramid?" ... test, test, and %... although, in my very humble view, that means that you can repeat facts but not pout them together yourself.

    In today's world I think it would be even more important to teach things as "why would they say that?" or "how do these things influence eachother" - since you can look up plenty "facts" but not get the overall understanding. I'd say that is where the teachers could teach something of value.

    Of course, it's not the teachers' fault that school is the way it is - it's the overall view that we need to measure success by some arbitrary number and multiple choice questions are always giving a %...

    *bitter in the corner* ^^

  2. I agree! I think too much emphasis is put on passing a test instead of actually thinking (no the two do not necessarily coincide). We're teaching kids how to look up answers but not how to read between the lines and infer things that are not clearly spelled out. It seems like each entering freshman class is getting more and more inept at this, which is beyond ridiculous.