It’s Not all Academic

Below is a post I wrote for The Open School:

I was talking to a 7th grade math teacher the other day and the topic of Minecraft came up.

“What’s Minecraft?” she asked.

“Umm, really? Don’t you teach 7th grade?” I didn’t meant to be rude, but I was a little shocked she hadn’t heard of it. After all, Minecraft is probably played by at least a few of her students. And they are probably pretty passionate about it.

“Yes, but they aren’t allowed to talk about outside topics in my class,” she answered. “Only things related to math.”

Ahhh. Yes, of course. In math class, you talk only of math. This is, after all, school. You aren’t supposed to enjoy it. Or find ways to relate it to your life. Stay on task, and talk only of what is sanctioned by the teacher.

There are so many things here that I could address: the fact that Minecraft is filled with math, or that kids’ interests aren’t validated by our system, even though they are extremely valid. But what struck me as the saddest part of this scenario was that this teacher didn’t know her students at all. She didn’t even attempt to get to know them.

Before I am indicted for setting up a straw man argument, let me say that there are lots of traditional teachers out there who do value and pursue relationships. And thank God for them. But, the system itself doesn’t value relationships, and in fact, often devalues them. ¬†This is not only true for relationships between students, where they are not allowed to talk to one another for most of their day, but also between adults and kids. Our system is run by tests and assessments, and it is so fearful of subjective assessment, any relationship between a teacher and a student is looked upon with suspicion. The student who considers a teacher to be a friend is often ridiculed as a teacher’s pet, and a teacher who takes special interest in any student is accused of favoritism.

We know a few things about learning that need to be addressed here. First, we know that people learn when they are interested in a topic. This is a basic assumption of The Open School. But, second, and nearly as important, people learn from people they care about and respect. A child won’t listen to an adult they don’t like and who they feel doesn’t care about who they are. Regardless of how interested they are in the topic, the relationship to the “teacher” is paramount. And staff members need to know the students to know who they are and what they need. Are they interested in punk rock? Do they need some alone time? Are their parents getting a divorce? An adult who is invested in a child will be able to respond to their needs much better than one who simply talks at them.

The Open School won’t just be a place where kids can pursue their own interests. It’s not just about democratic votes or personal responsibility. It will be a place of relationship; of community. ¬†Every individual, regardless of age, will be respected, valued, and known. That is the only way our school will be able to respond to the needs and interests of the kids. And the only way the kids will be empowered to truly learn.

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