Cartwrites: People and Places

Posted Wednesday, January 4, 2012 in Features

Cartwrites: People and Places

Students from Watershed School canoe downriver as part of their outdoor education.

by Steve Cartwright

No less a smarty-pants than Albert Einstein said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” He said a bunch of pithy quotes, but that particular one is a stinging indictment of our public schools, and in some respects it is well deserved.

My parents were both teachers in Maine and elsewhere, working from pre-school to the graduate level, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of discussion about education, what works and what doesn’t. Mom and Dad disagreed on a lot of things, but they harmonized on the need to let children learn and grow at their own pace. Kids are all different; they need time and space and nurturing to develop their own identity and express their creativity. They need quiet time, time alone, time to play, explore, experiment.

I don’t know why we build schools that feel and look like minimum-security prisons. It says something about us that makes me uneasy. Perhaps the whole education system needs some serious tweaking. I’m not even sure that the concept of a school board works. So often these boards play politics in secret, or simply rubber-stamp the acts of a superintendent with delusions of being a dictator.

Mark Twain once commented: “God made the idiot for practice, and then he made the school board.”

My Mom founded a tiny pre-school in Tenants Harbor. Sometimes I run into parents of children who remember going to it, and they credit it with helping them become who they are.

I’ve run into teachers who studied education with my Dad. My Dad liked to say that kids need time to “swing on the gate,” and it’s clear that today they’re too busy texting. I think today kids also need to exercise, to run or bike or hike or swim, without any electronic devices. Perhaps primitive camping trips are in order. No cell phones or iPads or iPods allowed.

Students are far too removed from nature, and in many instances, from reality. Yet, when you take them out for a walk in the woods, they’re excited, curious.

Kids, and I mean from kindergarten through college, need to find their own motivation to learn, to be curious about themselves, their community, the tired and troubled world that we inhabit. You can try to force-feed them facts and endless information. It won’t do a damn bit of good if they’re not interested. That’s why it’s really the teacher, plus a supportive learning environment, that add up to effective education.

Teachers who care deeply, who listen to and understand kids, who challenge them to express themselves in many ways — that makes the difference. I went to a small, private, and progressive school in a crumbling 19th century brick building. We called our teachers by their first names, with real, not forced, respect. As we moved through the years, we operated an in-school post office, a store, and we took care of the youngest kids, spending time with them, helping them cope with the “big school.” The buzzword today is mentoring.

We learned so much. Not facts and figures, dates in history or "Dick and Jane." We learned how to learn, we learned to think about things, to ask questions, and seek answers. There is a school that is doing just that in our midst. It’s the Watershed School in Rockland, nesting in the one-time Rockland High School now known as Lincoln Street Center. Kind of ironic that an exciting high school exists in a building that the muckety mucks considered unworthy. The school seeks to be a “learning community cultivating excellence, creativity, respect and compassion.” Well, there’s nothing mucky about that, and the kids there are highly motivated and excited about learning, and about being alive and working together to make good things happen.

I realize Watershed requires tuition, and that those parents who are able to enroll their kids there are themselves highly motivated. But the small size of the school, the ability of students to study without outside discipline, all this speaks to an example of effective education.

Watershed students study the real thing, paddling the St. George River (the watershed) on field trips, and taking on projects and experiments that expand their minds.

I dropped by a recent Watershed School coffeehouse and was delighted by the exuberance, skill and humor of students, staff and parents who performed. Quality varied, but the commitment didn’t. I saw some of this creative energy at Medomak Valley High School when my kids attended, and I saw teachers working hard to make learning exciting and gratifying. I also saw administrators trying to keep the lid on youthful enthusiasm, trying to maintain regimental order.

For teachers to do good work in public schools is increasingly difficult, as the bureaucrats demand more and more tests, and define everything in terms of success and failure: of the student, of the teacher, of the school itself.

Budget cuts leave art teachers unable to provide paint. Or maybe, as in the case of Medomak, you just cut the art teacher. I am so tired of hearing that art and music are frills. Great societies thrive on art, music, drama, poetry and many other things that are not about the pursuit of money.

Life is more than a contest, more than “them and us,” yet we emphasize competition above cooperation. We make going through school a lonely, do-or-die affair when actually most of your life will be spent outside the classroom (unless you’re brave enough to become a teacher).

That brings up a prejudice that is especially unfortunate. Some people gripe about teachers being paid a lot. This is sheer nonsense. Good teachers, and there are a lot of them out there, work many more hours than those for which they are paid. If we think being a teacher is important, we should pay them well.

I hear lots of complaints about the cost of education, when instead we could be evaluating what we are providing for our kids. Is it enough? Is it motivating them to be good citizens, caring about their families and the larger community? One way to learn about our schools is to volunteer. All schools need volunteers, and I can say from experience, it will open your eyes.

My mom, now 88, has a favorite quote from Einstein: “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” We seem determined to stuff our students full of information, although for what purpose, I’m not sure. Information goes out of date. The desire to learn, to make the world a better place, is never obsolete.

Be curious. And remember what Twain said: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

I hope this column will serve as a way to look in the mirror, to see what we have in our midst. I see it as musing, a word that is defined as thoughtful, meditative, contemplative … all things I’d like to be, although I often fall short of that. I’m apt to make snap judgments, to be outraged or intolerant. I have my prejudices. I’m slowly learning that this does little or nothing to further whatever causes I support. I’m a freelance writer and photographer living in Waldoboro. I can be reached at writer@midcoast.com.

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