Monday, January 15, 2007

Causes and Dates

I talked with an old acquaintance this weekend. I can't really call him a friend, because we've only ever met within the confines of a working relationship.

Red used to be the producer for one of the local sports teams.* He left a few years ago to go back to school and get his teaching credentials. Now he teaches eighth-grade Social Studies at one of the more affluent suburban schools. He still gets hired by the local teams as a freelancer, much like myself, so I've seen him from time to time, but we've never talked much outside of the usual mindless pressure-relief headset banter.

But it was payday, and as we waited for our checks, I struck up a conversation.

"So how's school going?" I asked him. He responded with a shrug-nod.

For those of you who have never met what is commonly known as a 'guy,' the shrug-nod is the standard response to most questions. Just about all the mid range of emotions and mindsets--roughly everything from "Jennifer Aniston and I have taken up residence at Disney world," to "At least my cell-mate has told me that I'm his only bitch,"--can be covered by the shrug-nod.

So I pressed further. "Is it everything you thought it would be?"

His smile was bright and brittle. "I go to school, I teach, and I go home."

I know--and know of--many people with nine-to-five mentalities. Accountants, electricians, dentists, bankers, and others, who strap on the tools of their trades, do their jobs, and go home. They leave their work at their work. As a rule, producers aren't like this. Nor are teachers.

And a guy who leaves one job and goes back to college in order to enter a not-very-well-paying career certainly does not fit that category.

"Sounds like you're not enjoying it," I said.

Again, the shrug-nod. "Right now, I'm teaching about World War II. All I teach them, though are causes and dates. I don't talk about the battles--do you think D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge are important? I don't even mention them. It's just causes and dates. Causes and dates."

The legacy of No Child Left Behind: causes and dates. No living history. No chance to enthrall. No chance to expose kids to things that might grab their interest. I don't know much about Red, but I can imagine a past for him--one where, some teacher grabbed his interest by making a topic real to him. Perhaps it was a social studies teacher. Perhaps it was the way they learned about World War II. Perhaps it was stories about D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.

I doubt it was causes and dates that caught his fancy.

I remember my eighth-grade social studies teacher very well. Mr. L'Ameroux was a balding man with coke-bottle glasses. He was supposed to teach something like 'American history from 1850-1950.' But this was 1973, and instead we talked about Viet Nam. Watergate. Roe v. Wade. Salvador Allende. August Pinochet. We talked about democracy. We talked about freedoms. We talked about impeachment. We talked about constitutional crises.

'Talked,' in this sense, was a euphemism for argue. Mister L would come in and take a position, or make a statement, and then the arguing began.

I was reading newspapers. I was reading magazines. I was researching the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I was forming opinions.

I was, for the first time in my life, thinking.

This was one of the greatest gifts I got from school. I have no idea what Mister L's positions were on the things we were talking about. He seemed to be taking the 'Establishment'** position on many events, but I'm guessing he was doing it simply to get us to respond.

Since I grew up in New York State, we have state-wide examinations known as Regents exams. Sometime during the third week of June, I was going to have to sit in a room and answer about 100 multiple-choice questions about something like 'American History from 1850-1950,' so starting the first week of June, we plowed through what was supposed to be the real syllabus.

For two weeks, I learned causes and dates.

I don't know what I got on the exam. Probably something in the upper eighties to lower nineties percentage-wise. That's what I usually got in everything non-math.

So what's my point? I learned nothing but causes and dates in eighth grade, just like Red's teaching. But the difference is I had a teacher who was allowed to teach. He taught us to think. In time, I learned quite a bit about American History from 1850-1950. Certainly more than I need to know in my daily life--probably enough to make me a decent contestant on Jeopardy!***

Red's school won't let him teach anything other than causes and dates. Because funding is tied up in the results. This means that Red's goal is not to open the minds of his students; rather, it's to keep the money coming in.

This administration has used fear quite well--it's used it to get us into war, and it's used it to keep itself in power. And it's used fear--the fear of losing money--to prevent our kids from actually thinking.


*When you go to watch your local sports team, every event that happens in the stadium outside of the actual game is scripted. The person who puts that script together and makes sure stuff happens when it's supposed to-from the pregame announcements, to the sausage races--is the producer.

**And for anyone who grew up in the seventies, you know what a bad word that was.

***I truly hope so--I'm taking the contestant's exam on the 23rd.


Blogger Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Great post, governments seem to do their best to make many subjects dull when in reality that offer so much that in the hands of the best teachers can fly.

4:34 PM  
Blogger elaine said...

lots of people asked me why didn't want to do teaching. THis is the very reason.

It's AWFUL for the teachers and even worse for the kids.



6:04 PM  
Blogger terry said...

depressing. totally depressing.

and in a few years...months, even... these kids won't even remember the causes or dates.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

Oh boy. I could fill this with inflammatory statements but I don't have to. Thank you for very efficiently demonstrating what's wrong with education. I don't even live in the same country as you, but I relate. We have testing in this province that forces the teachers to "teach to the test."

As a parent, I believe in opening my kids' minds. I love taking them to museums and reading to them, with them, talking about movies and music and exploring our thinking together. I don't expect the school to put the care into them that I do, but it's sad that there isn't enough thinking going on at school.

Just jump through the hoops, and I'll take you to the library later.

I feel sorry for parents and children who don't have the resources/energy/imagination to fill in those gaps.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Pablo said...

I had a horrible eighth-grade social studies teacher. Mr. Richwine....he taught causes and dates in a monotone voice and hated everything very much.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Madame X said...

Once in my HS English class one of the jocks wanted to know why we were studying 'usless crap' like Shakespeare when 'we'd' never use it outside of school. Sister Mary Frieda (real name!) said, "To open your mind and teach you how to love learning"
It seems to me no one's mind are being opened anymore.

11:50 AM  
Blogger cadbury_vw said...


in the socialist paradise where i live the only testing that is done is for national statistics

the only standardised tests outside of the above mentioned national achievement tests are for people who are home schooled - we call them "departmentals"

in areas where it can be demonstrated that there are a given number of people who fit a demographic profile that is called "disadvantaged", the school gets extra money for extra resources, extra teachers and teachers aides, extra-curricular activities, and for free school meal/nutrition programs.

we are a relatively progresive jurisdiction.

even given all that, the times my son gets/has gotten into trouble is when he disagrees with the line he is fed by his teachers. when he questions their facts, or questions their interpretation of facts.

i remember one time he argued with his grade 8 teacher that a gondola was also a boat in venice (the teacher said it was a thing on a wire going up a mountain) - and his teacher kicked him out of the classroom for arguing. when my son told me about this we did a dictionary search and came up with four definitions of gondola and printed them out complete with pictures. he left them on his teacher's desk without raising it in class (to save the teacher public embarrassment/humiliation).

the teacher gave him detention for being insubordinate. when i heard that i went to the school and told the teacher he would not serve detention and complained to the principal.

he didn't serve detention and the principal said she would "talk" to the teacher. eventually we had to move my son to a different school.


a culture of learning is different than just the rules we live under.

remember - the old soviet union had the most democratic constitution in the world. sweden and canada are still constitutional monarchies...


George W and No Child Left Behind are symptoms of a larger cultural problem in the United States (and elsewhere). A desire for a worldview that wants simple solutions and explanations for everything.


(sorry to go off on a huge rant)

1:13 PM  
Blogger Miss 1999 said...

You know it's so sad, because teachers aren't allowed to teach anymore-- my dear Aunt is a teacher, and refers to, that thing we have to call our president's view on education, "Every Child Left Behind"-- because everyone is losing with his program *sighs*

5:24 PM  
Blogger mal said...

The OH students have to meet "standards". He adamantly refuses to teach to the test however. The students do well anyway. The pressure on a good teacher is unnecessary and unfair. On a bad teacher???

I am not sure how I would change it, but I am not real crazy about the current policy

5:50 PM  
Blogger Åsa said...

Nice post! And frightening! There is something totally wrong here. Time to vote for a change in government?...

Oh and Cadbury VW: what’s wrong with being a constitutional monarchy?! It’s not like the king has any say in the educational system or anything. (by the way: he’s a dyslexic).

11:10 AM  
Blogger cadbury_vw said...


nothing wrong with being a constitutional monarchy. i live in one.

i was trying to say that the formal rules that we live under are less important than the culture we exist within - the soviet union had good political rules - lousy political culture

that "a culture of learning is different than just the rules we live under"

that George W.'s rules are symptomatic of a larger crisis in the american polity than just a bad set of rules with the "no child left behind"...

6:30 PM  
Blogger Mississippi Songbird said...

Hopefully, there are teachers out there, brave enough to do more that just the causes and dates.. otherwise, we won't learn from our mistakes..Interesting Blog.. Thanks

10:17 PM  
Blogger GC (God's Child) said...

re jeopardy
knock em dead

re regents
I remember every June locking myself in my Mom's room --the only one with an AC--and getting to know a guy named Barrons very well

5:50 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

1/15/07--Conversation with a disgruntled teacher<-- Restricted curriculum<-- Data-driven funding<-- NCLB

Will this be on the test?

But to be the voice of contention (because that's what Mister L would have wanted)...
* With every new year under his belt, your friend will learn how to slip in a few more of the real "teachable moments" amidst the tedium.

*The best way to remember all the causes and dates are stories and context.

*Standards ain't all bad. There's something wonderful for a ninth grader in Minnesota to transfer to a high school in California and have essentially the same language arts skills and even some of the same familiar texts (and certainly genres) in his/her background knowledge. It also saves them from reading To Kill A Mockingbird three years in a row.

* Education isn't quite in the dire straights we all imagine it to be. It's good to think of ways to make it better. That's our job.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Dear Lovey Heart said...

this is why i am determined to be the best high school english teacher i can possibly be

4:31 AM  

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