Thursday, October 21, 2010
Ode to Desks
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 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 :)