Chicago Connections

Eons ago, Learning Magazine asked me to leave my long teaching career in New York and move to the San Francisco area to become their first staff writer. As a charter subscriber, I eagerly looked forward to the magazine's arrival each month, and the publication of a Chicago teacher's expose of the fraud of Mastery Learning convinced me I wanted to join them. George Schmidt wrote that article about the Marva Collins hoax. Marva Collins

My New York school didn't have Marva Collins but the woman in charge of our curriculum was similarly devoted to Mastery Learning. She did it with the conviction that teachers weren't smart enough to figure things out and needed a step-by-step grand master plan.

Sad to say, over the years, things have just gotten worse for teachers and students.

I would mention another Chicago connection. I now live in the village of Charlotte, Vermont, where John Dewey taught elementary school for one year. His ashes are buried 13 miles from here at the University of Vermont, where he earned his undergraduate degree (in the city where he was born).

The story goes that his experience teaching one year at the Charlotte elementary school convinced Dewey that he was unsuited to the task of teaching young children and he decided to go to John Hopkins to get his doctorate. After writing a dissertation on the psychology of Kant he moved on to the newly-founded University of Chicago, where he's credited with help founding the Chicago Lab School. This seems worth mentioning for two reasons:

1) Dewey recognized his own limitations.

2) These days too many people in positions of power think anybody can teach elementary school, just so long as they follow a script.

I like to mention this because George convinced me that every bad education idea starts in Chicago. We sent Dewey to Chicago, and he did something noteworthy. But then Chicago sent back Mastery Learning and school turnarounds.

I just reread "The Girl with the Brown Crayon" by Vivian Gussin Paley, and it again broke my heart. This is a remarkable account of a teacher embarking with her kindergartners at the University of Chicago Lab School on a remarkable journey--a year-long study of the works of one student’s kindred spirit, Leo Lionni.

Here is Paley, who won a MacArthur "genius" award for her classroom work, describing the project: “Is it possible for a kindergarten class to pursue such an intensely literary and, yes, long-term intellectual activity, one that demands powers of analysis and introspection expected of much older students? Why not?

I have seen five- and six-year-olds debate their concerns with as much fervor and insight as could any group of adults. Leo Lionni will make the existing intellectual life of the classroom more accessible because he offers us a clear and consistent frame of reference for our feelings and observations.”

Is Paley recommending that all kinders study Lionni? Of course not. She is inspiring teachers to build on their own students' interests.

But answering the calls of Bill Gates and other corporate leaders as well as our various presidents, Republican and Democrat, to prepare children to become global workers, here’s what kindergartners in public school across the country get: DIBELS Nonsense Word Fluency Assessment

hoj rij ad bol em buv haj en wof loj tuc rul vab fum han hol mun yud dav dub paj jav lak diz nom vif kon juf miz vuv zep yac dac jom rej zuz vum zus tej zub wob jec oc rit def neb kif wab ov ruj

Put DIBELS into a search at the University of Chicago Lab School and you get this notice: “No results.”

Put “art” into a search at the University of Chicago Lab School and you get 1,360 results—from first graders getting inspiration from Andy Warhol prints in his limited-edition cookbook, Wild Raspberries to make their own three-color prints, to the Arts Expo featuring nearly 1,000 pieces of art created by Lab students of all ages.


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