Saturday, January 5, 2008

Kids Teaching Kids

Several years ago I was bamboozled into babysitting one evening for a seven-year-old girl and two boys aged five and three. Since one of my main purposes in life is to lie on the couch and dream of partially clad women feeding me grapes (as Bob Hope once said in a movie, "I've had women chase me before, but never when I was awake"), I had to figure out how to get these kids to leave me alone.

The girl was old enough to be okay, but the two boys were monsters in the truest sense of the word – "offenses against the natural order." Plan A was to tie them up, hang them upside down in a closet and tell them they were vampire bats who had to sleep until their parents came home. I decided against this since these little potential felons might have ratted me out.

So I began to rummage around the house in the hope of discovering Plan B. I did find a Louisville Slugger, but I figured it would probably break right in half, considering how thick-headed the boys were. I also found something else which I decided was much more useful: a blackboard, an easel and some chalk. I set the blackboard on the easel in one of the bedrooms, sat the boys in front of it, gave the girl the chalk, and told her to teach her brothers the alphabet.

Much to my surprise, the boys sat there expectantly and the girl took on a rather teacherly air. This intrigued me enough to put my babes-and-grapes fantasy on temporary hold. The girl drew letters on the board and had her brothers repeat the names of them. She enjoyed it, and so did the monsters.

This lesson lasted about an hour before they got bored and started to annoy me. So I told them about the headless guy outside in the dark snuffling around the house looking for his noggin, which sent them shrieking back into their rooms.

The lesson I learned from watching these kids is that our schools are set up completely wrongly. Instead of separating children into grade school, jr. high and sr. high, it would probably be better if it was done as it was in the little red school of our past (or, for that matter, the home school) – all kids go to school together. Then the older ones could teach the younger ones.

I don't know enough about the history of American schooling to know why children have been separated into these three different groups, but having spent 12 years in the public schools, I know it's been a catastrophe. Especially jr. high, which I consider (to put it mildly) a most uncivilized place. There were times I couldn't even go into the bathroom without a fight breaking out. If nothing else, jr. high should be merged with high school.

I found – just like everyone else in the US – that grades K through 6 aren't much trouble, but once kids got into jr. high, everything fell apart. The ninth-graders bullied the seventh-graders. Terrorized them, actually. When I was a senior the administration finally figured out the problem and placed the ninth-grade with the rest of the high school. Then they were called "freshmen."

After that, there was never any problem with them, since they were at the bottom of the rungs, and there wasn't anyone under them for them to bully. I had exactly one problem with a freshman, when my sister told me he was bothering her. I fixed the problem permanently with five words: "You leave my sister alone." That's all it took. 'Course I was six-foot-tall and weighed 160 pounds, and he was about eight inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.

I think that if all children had to go to school together, and each grade had to help teach the ones behind them, it would go a long way into helping the kids grow up. The high school kids could easily control the jr. high kids, and the jr. high kids would have to help teach the grade school kids. That "jr. high" mentality just might come close to disappearing, if they had to assume somewhat of a parental role with the younger kids.

I did have some experience with this parental role when I was 17, but didn't realize what it meant until some years after the chalkboard incident. A friend and I were camping on a lot his parents owned, some 150 miles from where we lived. While he was off swimming one day, I decided to shoot some basketball. A ten-year-old boy who lived nearby wandered over, wanting to play. I showed him some basketball games and how to how to shoot the ball. After about an hour I was ready to leave, but he protested, "No, don't go; show me some more." He was impressed that an older kid would actually teach him something. And I enjoyed it, too. It wasn't boring for either of us.

Boredom is a big problem with school. Maybe the biggest problem. Kids are supposed to sit quietly at their desks and somehow absorb knowledge radiating from a teacher at the front of the class. If students had a more one-on-one relationship with the younger kids, I think it would alleviate that boredom a great deal. They would be doing something useful instead of just sitting there. It might even be fun.

Jesse Stuart, in his autobiography about his teaching days, The Thread That Runs So True, wrote about his inability to reach his students. Then one day he noticed all of them absorbed in play outside. It was a revelation: learning should be play; it should be fun. He made it a game, and had very few problems after that. He also had the older kids help teach the younger.

"Absorbed" is the important word. If students aren't absorbed they're bored. School then becomes a chore or else a sentence to be served. It becomes meaningless. And what helps kids become absorbed is when the older teach the younger, as when my seven-year-old charge decided to instruct her brothers in the alphabet.

I doubt this older-teaching-the-younger will ever happen until the public schools are shut down. They've been around for too long; there is too much bureaucracy and red tape, and too much turf and ego to be protected.

Unfortunately, it's the students who lose.

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