# of pages revised: 39
# of literary mags submitted to: 3 (spent $22 entering the Narrative Magazine contest. Ugh!)
# of days left to complete 2nd draft: 60
Last night I was sitting on the toilet, watching this little bug make a long and exhausting journey across the bath mat. He toiled up and down the mountainous knobs, totally oblivious to the fact that something was watching him. And I wasn’t even hidden. I was in plain view, but the bug didn’t notice because he could only see what was directly in front of him – the never-ending expanse of bath mat.
But even if he had stopped to look at his surroundings, his puny bug brain could have never comprehended the reality of the bathroom: the immense structures of white porcelain and the strange, pink creature looming on a throne above him. Even if he had seen me, he wouldn’t have known what I was.
* * *
Recently I started a job writing middle school math curriculum, and that, coupled with this episode of This American Life has gotten me pondering school. In this episode, the host, Ira Glass, says that there is this question that is so basic, and yet so big, that is is almost embarrassing to ask out loud: what should kids be learning at school?
It’s a really good question, and one that is almost impossible to answer.
I first taught in a low-income public school, and then later in two different schools for kids with learning disabilities, and the answer to that question was always the same: kids need to learn basic academic skills. In other words, we need to be teaching them all of these hundreds of thousands of mandated curriculum objectives, like how to graph a line using slope-intercept form, and how to identify adjectives in a sentence. And in the schools where I was working, where the kids had fallen behind and had huge gaps in their academic skills, we were encouraged to push even harder to get the kids up to speed.
The past few days, I’ve been writing lesson plans and student worksheets to teach “skills 119 and 174,” which align to Common Core Standards 6RP1, 7SP5, and 7SP7. In aligning my curriculum to the Common Core Standards, I’m making it easier for schools to test students and measure their progress, which then affects their teachers’ salaries (and job status), as well as school funding. But are these skills really what students should be learning?
I asked Sergey, my Ukranian tutee, what he hoped his daughters would learn at school. He did not say Common Core Standards 6RP1, 7SP5, and 7SP7. He said:
So I want the school to study my daughters how to love studying, how to search and find new knowledge, new experiences, new opportunities to fill them happy and have interesting life.
Isn’t that what any parent wants for their children? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves: happy and interesting lives? That’s the big picture.
I realize that my bug metaphor could be seen as a case for the existence of God. (In this example, I suppose, I would be God, sitting on the toilet, and the bug would be a puny human struggling through existence.) But that’s not really how I meant it.
What I meant was that when we have a narrow focus – when we concentrate solely on teaching Common Core Standards, for example – we miss the bigger picture of what’s around us and what’s truly important.
And the thing is, what’s around us might be so big and incomprehensible, that even if we do stop to look around, we don’t really understand what it is we’re seeing. And maybe it won’t help us get across the bath mat any quicker. In fact, it will probably slow us down. We might wonder why we are so eager to get across the bath mat in the first place.
What we really want our kids to learn is how to lead a happy, interesting life. That is a task so basic, and yet so big, that it’s embarrassing to admit: we don’t know how to teach it. We don’t even really know what it means.
Let’s go back to the bug for a minute. I want to amend something I said. I said that his puny bug brain could never comprehended the reality of the shower and sink and toilet (and me sitting on it.) But that’s my reality of the bathroom. The bug’s reality of the bathroom is something else entirely. And then there might be something sitting on an even more gigantic toilet watching me, and that thing has a different reality, too. It boggles the mind to think of it.
Sometimes it’s too much to comprehend the bigger picture, and if we want to feel like we’re making progress, we have to focus on what’s directly ahead. That’s the only thing that we can see clearly and understand how to tackle.
I suppose our lives should be a balance between the near-sighted and far-sighted. Climb the mountain smack in front of your face. But don’t forget to stop sometimes and look around and contemplate the bathroom you’re in, or even what it might be like beyond these four walls, in the rest of the cosmic house.