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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ode to Desks

I picture buried under a few years worth of mundane city trash piles of discarded school desks.  Or maybe old desks are warehoused in school district mobile storage units collecting dust and cobwebs.  Or better yet, perhaps these now disrespected former tools of education have been shipped off to third world countries for use in one room village schoolhouses. 

Where have all the school desks gone....and why?  I find myself pondering another topic due to my son's situation that I would probably not have considered were it not for his sensory issues...

When I was visiting umpteen private schools this time last year searching for a good Kindergarten fit for Finney, I visited a very traditional Catholic elementary school in town.  As I toured the school and its long hallways with extra high ceilings, thick stucco walls and solid wood floors, memories of my 13 years of Catholic education came flooding back. The familiar feel of a cold draft in the hallways, the echo in the indoor auditorium, the genteel priest, the lack of fanfare on the walls and in the classrooms, the statues of the Virgin Mary, and the quiet soberness in the air.  I had forgotten how different such a school is in a town of mostly "progressive" educational institutions.  But it felt like home to me, safe, secure, somber.

I recall the deacon who was showing me around explaining to me that he had just this past year "modernized" the classroom setting and teaching method by getting rid of desks and chalkboard teaching and organising the classrooms into "learning centers".   I remember thinking, wow, it took them THAT long to catch on to the way every other school was teaching these days? Not impressed.  I recalled such boredom in elementary and especially, high school, sitting at a desk trying to pay attention to the teacher, praying not to be called to the chalkboard, all the while being passed notes from friends because we could not talk while at our desks.  "Learning centers", yes, that made sense to me. Engaging and cooperative - fun, not boring I thought.

Fast forward one year and my son is having a LOT of trouble learning in the learning centers and if we do not find a solution to his problems soon, I do not know what we will do.  Why is he having such trouble, I have to ask myself?  Well for starters, learning centers are chaotic.  Picture twenty 5-yr olds, splitting into 2 or 3 groups, moving from floor carpet squares to chairs, chairs and tables that are squeezed into a small area, chairs that screech across the floor as they are moved. The students don't have desks with all the supplies they need to work with right there, so they wander around the room finding the glue stick box, the pencil box, the crayon box, etc.  All the while, kids chattering away. No order.  No quiet.

So the kids take the expected 5-10 minutes to settle down in their learning groups.  I, a parent, now acting as a volunteer "teacher" one hour a week  to one of these groups, attempt to talk the children through the concept that they are supposed to learn and their requisite activities, raising my voice over the noise of the other kids in the other centers, and asking them to turn their little bodies in my direction to pay attention.  My son is lost within 2 minutes. Too many steps to recall for his ADHD type mind amidst the noise.

While we are working, there are other kids moving about the room, some doing free choice on the floor, others choosing a different workspace because there may not be enough room for their taste at the group table, others walking around to find supplies. Voices come and go. I patiently go around the table offering help and keeping kids on task.

Finbar succeeded the first week in efficiently completing his work in this setting.  Each week thereafter his behavior and ability to work in the group setting has declined to being completely out of control this week.  I'm not making excuses for my son. There is ONE girl in the group who can completely work independently and finish her work with virtually no assistance. But I must say that the other 5 children get distracted by the stuff going on and have to be prompted to continue working every few minutes. Finbar is the worst of them usually. His sensory system simply cannot process the background noise or filter it out. He has told me this.  He consequently can't think straight, forgets what he is supposed to do, feels overwhelmed and helpless and has a breakdown. 

The close physical proximity of the other children is a challenge as well.  He is tactile defensive, so his sensory system fears invasion of personal space, so he is tensed all the while worrying about being touched inadvertently.  Sometimes the fear is so great that he kicks or shoves another kid in anticipation of being touched.  If he were in a desk, he would not be close enough to kick anyone and everyone's personal space would be clearly defined.

I am not an educator so I am sticking my neck out a bit here - But why is this the new BETTER way to teach? Where is the benefit over desks? What happened to order and quiet in the classroom?  Can we really expect 5 yr olds to learn on the floor and in groups in such a distracted manner?  I can't help thinking that Finbar's sensory system and brain would function much more attentively in a hard, wooden desk FACING the teacher and learning materials (not another child across the table from him), his and everyone else's personal boundaries clearly defined, all work materials and personal belonging in one spot within reach, and the focus being in one place - a chalkboard.  Now the chalkboards are used to hang up class artwork and pictures of the kids.  And in this setting, every child would be expected to STOP TALKING AND DO YOUR WORK. Peace and quiet - ahh.

I vividly recall my Kindergarten days. "Take out your phonics books please" Mrs. Bahan would say. Everyone heard, no need for her to raise her voice. We were quiet and sitting still in our desks. We all did what she said when she said it in synchronicity.  She proceeded to show us the lesson on the chalkboard, sometimes having one or two of us go up to practice on the board. Allowing time for questinos, we would raise our hands from our desks. Then we took our pencils out of the little slot carved in the desktop for such a tool and did the requisite exercise in our very own phonics textbooks - what happened to textbooks?  And the teacher REQUIRED us to work QUIETLY. If you were a disturbance to the class work, your desk was put up front by the teacher's desk. How's that for focus?

What was so wrong with this desk learning model I wonder?  Don't we all go to the library or a quiet place to read and learn?  Even at Starbucks you see everyone studying with headphones on blocking out the background noise. And unless it is a study group, you don't see strangers studying around the same table at a coffeeshop invading someone's personal space.  When I am at home on my PC working, I don't pull up a chair next to my husband while he is working at his desk, saying "Hey, let's learn and engage together".    If adults need quiet and space to study and learn, why on earth would we expect 5 yr olds to learn BETTER without quiet and in such close proximity to each other?  They are not MBA students.  Arent' we asking a bit much increasing class sizes to 25 or 30 kids and then expecting teachers and kids to maintain calm and focus in such a configuration? It's no wonder there is a seemingly increasing number of kids who have "ADD"  and "learning disabilities" identified at school. But is that a fair assessment when we put children in this kind of learning environment?

I would like to emphasize greatly, that this is NOT ANY teacher's fault.  Finbar's teacher is executing the educational format common in today's schools.    My theory is that "learning centers" are an excuse for accomodating budget cuts to public schools.  You don't need to buy textbooks to fill desk cubbies.  You break the larger classes down into manageable pieces for the teachers and pray for decent parent volunteers to take on a learning group or two.  And I suppose you can cram more kids into the classroom if you don't have desks set up. And in today's world of increasingly loose boundaries the idea of learning centers gels with the out with the old and dull, in with the new and groovy mentality.

I spent my whole school career at Catholic schools sitting in a desk.  I graduated with Honors from a top MBA school, so I certainly did not suffer from a lack of learning centers. Perhaps this old Catholic school had it right.  They were willing to work with Finbar. Ultimately I did not send him there because the school's test scores were quite low - I believe due to an outdated curriculum, not the desk teaching model.  But if that school still had desks, I might just be re-visiting it at this point.  I am thankful for St. Francis Cabrini, St. Pius X and Ursuline Academy for their desks :)


Christine said...

THANK YOU JEN! I feel the same way. As a parent of a four year old in Pre K who can not seem to function well in the "group" and being the room mom for this "group" I can not figure out how the teacher thinks they are going to learn ANYTHING in this situation. And it is not just me. As the room mother, I have had more than half of the students' parents call me and tell me that their children AT 4 are "faking" illness in order to avoid school. I think this "learning center" based education is not teaching any of our children. I'm all for individual desks.

finbarsmom said...

Thanks for the validation Christine...for some reason it is really irking me, this whole change in the learning environment..I never have been comfortable with loosey goosey set ups period...but for many kids, it really is diogn them a disservice...almost feel like I should get a petition going and go before the schoolboard. And I am considering requesting a small desk for my son to work at as a "classroom accomodation", especially if he misbehaves tomorrow when I teach his group - I dont know how much more I can take LOL.

Mommy Bunny said...

I volunteered last year too (Thur 8:15-12:15). You should try an entire day, it is exhausting. I would go insane if I were a kindergarten teacher b/c the constant din of noise and activity would be too much. No wonder the teachers ask for volunteers.

R had a hard time with the close proximity (she can't keep her hands to herself). If you are around next year, I do think it gets better. The 1st graders have their own desk but I've no idea if it is quieter since I can't volunteer.

I think it's a great idea to ask for a desk to see if it minimizes his stress.

Rebecca Royce said...

Jen-Believe it or not I think this new learning style was designed with boys in mind. I think there is this idea that boys learn better when they can 'move their bodies' and that the sitting still in the desk model was really only thought to be effective for girls. I don't know if this is going to prove to be true. I just remember reading it. As a person with ADD, I can tell you that it mattered if I was too close to the window, I would lost a whole days worth of learning if I had the window to look out of so I can only imagine how the new chaos of learning would have thrown me.

Kerry said...

There is a great book you should read by Leonard Sax called "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men" INVALUABLE. Our library carries it and I couldn't put it down. He also wrote a book called "Why Gender Matters" that completely debunks the whole "girls/boys are the way they are because of the culture/how we raise them." It points out all the biological differences that hard wire the differences in boys and girls. Anyway, he talks about the "desks optional" approach, but I believe he sees it as more beneficial for middle school students. I agree with you that structure works better with the youngers. My kids have a hard time when we try to school outside. They seem more comfortable and focused when we are in our homeschool room sitting at the table with me teaching things on our white board. :) Hope you are well, and again I highly recommend reading both those books. He talks a lot about ADD/ADHD as well. He is a proponent of single sex education, and goes around the country talking to public school districts about the benefits of single sex schools. VERY insightful.

finbarsmom said...

Goobs, I miss our chats. Thanks for writing in! I always value your mother of 4 homeschooled kids wisdom ;) I will pick up that book. Yes, I think there is something going on with educating boys (or not) that is bigger than Finbar's issues. Surely he is affected, just perhaps to a greater degree. I thought of that as I watched one boy slumped across the table today, while the 3 girls on the other side all sat up perky and listening. hmmm. Yes, I think we can speak from experience that single sex schools is a huge positive in this day in age - talk about eliminating distraction, I LOVED wearing no make up to school LOL!

Emily said...

Hey Jen,
So I totally agree with you about the desk thing. When I was in second grade I came home from school and told my mom "it is so loud at school that I can't hear myself think". Seems like something that Fin would say!? The teacher was just not able to create the type of learning environment I needed (quiet and structured). Anyways my mom took me out of that class Mid-year and moved me to Montessori. I absolutely loved it there. I remember feeling like my teachers actually cared about me individually and not just the class which I never felt at public elementary school. I remember feeling so alone in public school. Like no one was there to help me the way I needed to be helped. I never felt that at Montessori. Being that I was a year young for my grade and very shy I was a bit of a soical outcast in public school. Montessori was the first place that I actually remember having a friend to sit with at lunch and play with at recess. I just know that the whole learning centers things would have been miserable for me because of my lack of social skills. I guess the whole point of it is that it is supposed to help students to improve their social skills through cooperative learning. Well at least that is why my book for school says. Funny that the book also says that kids "will enjoy the opportunity to work in groups and teams with their peers" I guess this book was not written with the shy-kid of kid on the spectrum in mind. I don't think it would have helped my social skills at all and also wouldn't have helped me academically either. I know that at that age I totally would not have been able to be actively engaged in learning if I was forced to be in a group. Also, the fact that I was forced in the group would have made me more introverted because being forced to be social was when I would become even more introverted. I would have had so much anxiety about being around the kids that I would not have been able to focus on the work and probably would not have been as good of a student as I was. That is probably what it is like for Fin when he is forced to be in the learning centers. I am sure that the learning centers thing totally works for kids who learn well in groups but it doesn’t give much opportunity for those who don’t and isn’t a teachers job to be able to create a learning environment that supports all different types of learners? I am not saying that I am a fan of the completely quiet room where children sit at their desk and don’t talk and do their work individually either. Isn’t there a happy medium? I wonder what Montessori would be like for Fin. Not enough structure perhaps? I don’t even know what it is like these days or what its reputation is now around Santa Barbara. I just know of my experience and that it fit my learning style a whole heck of a lot better than public school. I just know as you also mentioned that Fin’s sensory system gets overloaded pretty easily. If other kids are getting distracted every few minutes like you say then how is that ever going to be a positive learning environment for Fin? I love that you are a parent who totally knows your son and is on point will all of this stuff. I don't even know why I am telling you all of this because I know that you know it! I know some other parents whose kids would be in 6th grade by the time they realized that maybe this school wasn’t the best place for them. Anyways, you have always made the right choices for Fin in my opinion because you always are there to support him through all of the good and hard times. I hope that the kids settle into the learning centers and the noise and distraction level begins to come down or that you find a better environment for Fin. What an amazing boy you have raised! He deserves the best and I hope his teacher is able to accommodate nothing less! Would love to see my friend and of course Decky soon if you feel like you need a night off let me know!

Rebecca Royce said...

I actually had a similar situation as the above commentator. My Mom pulled me out of public and put me in a small, Montessori environment for 3 years. I made friends and had more space and quiet to learn before I went back to public school.
Ah...sigh. Its so hard to be parents and to know what to do!!

Annie41378 said...

I'm a college friend of Rebecca's, so she brought me here. I teach middle school Literacy in Philadelphia public schools. Although I know you are posting about early childhood classrooms, I can relate to your issue with the constant hum of children at work in Learning Centers.

Although I do not use "centers" in my classroom, I use something I call "Reading Options" is based on a program I found called the Daily 5, where students choose from 5 activities that help them practice the skills they need to become better readers and writers. This makes it very similar to learning centers, however the students make a choice based on their wants and needs, and all are print-rich activities (independent reading, independent writing, buddy reading, listening to reading, working with words).

Before my response becomes too long, my kids could do these things with a rumbling noise throughout the classroom, however it is not the expectation in my classroom. They are to be silent when they are working, and if they are reading with someone else, I cannot hear them. The expectation is set from day 1 and we PRACTICE building the stamina that we need in order to be able to do this for 30 minutes each day. The ladies who developed the Daily 5 program actually teach teachers to TRAIN their kids (and they teach K/1st grades) how to train their bodies and minds to stay focused on one activity without interrupting the rest of the class. We time ourselves each day from day 1. The second someone stares off into a daydream, the timing stops and the class is brought together to discuss what went well, and what didn't go well. Students model the proper and improper way to complete activities....over and over and over again.

I strongly believe that classrooms that are highly organized for this type of activity can work without causing chaos. There are a bazillion things that teachers need to plan for in order to make something like this run smoothly -- including things like turning down the classroom telephone, hanging a "do not disturb" sign up on the outside of the door, etc. Students who finish work quickly need to be taught what to do when they are finished (that doesn't bother ANYONE). I don't think every teacher considers every little distraction -- although this can also be explained by the teacher's threshold for noise. I joke with my co-workers that I do not have a threshold, which is why my room is the quietest on our floor.

Are there modifications that can be made for your son? Does he follow a specific rotation of centers every single day/week? Are there activities that he can do that will help him grow academically but also allow him to keep his focus? I had a 6th grader last year with Autism (higher-functioning, although not as high as students I've had with Asperger's). He absolutely loved listening to reading, which completely sucked him into books that he wouldn't have read on his own. In fact, he chose NOT to watch a movie at the end of the year so he could finish a novel. Things like this make me wonder if your son's teacher had access to materials like this.

...and now I realize how long my post is. (BTW, I've read some of your other posts and I can feel your worry about your son's success in a classroom. If it helps in any way, I do have to say that I try not to play favorites, but some of my favorite past students have had autism...including my avid reader from last year. Students without autism have demonstrated some of the most accepting and protective behaviors I have seen when it comes to their classmates who do have autism.)