Wondering About School Reform: Can good books and bathroom breaks fix our schools?

Wondering About School Reform: Can good books and bathroom breaks fix our schools? October 4, 2013

There’s a lot of talk about bullying these days.  A lot people trying to figure out who to blame that this group or that is not performing well on standardized tests.  A lot of expensive programs to teach kids how to play on the playground (yes, you read that right) and how to be kind to the kid with a lisp and headgear.  I’ve been thinking about how crazy it all is – both that we need it and that it consumes so much of our money and energy with so few results.

I’ve been wondering what would happen if we got rid of almost everything we currently do in school.  What if we let kids play outside, make art, read great books, and muck around in the natural world?  What if let them tinker, and play music, and produce plays and go to the bathroom whenever they need to?  What if  let them grow things and had them clean the school toilets themselves?   What if kids made their own lunch and learned math because it helped them manage their classroom’s budget?  What if no one had to walk in lines any more often than adults do? What if every kid who needed help to be a part of this community got that help?

I know, I know. It wouldn’t work for every kid.  How would you evaluate it?  How would you credential people to be a part of this community?  What if the kids didn’t do a good enough job cleaning the toilets and someone stepped in urine?  Then what? There are just so many reasons that school has to look completely different from anything we would consider a healthy, productive, enjoyable life.  Still, I’m starting to think that those crazy people, the ones who are always ranting that reform efforts that don’t fundamentally shake things up will never work, well, maybe I need to start listening to them.

New research, reported on in the New York Times by Pam Bellick says that reading a good book might help people become more empathic:

That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.

Obviously reading Dostoyevsky is not going to cure all that ails us, but where in the day of most school-age children is there time to spend an hour or two reading good fiction?

So far, this post is rather depressing, so I’ll end on a more chipper note.  My family has loved two books this last year.  I don’t know if they qualify as literary fiction, but we loved them.  Wonderby R.J. Palacio, is about Auggie, a ten-year-old boy with a facial deformity, who decides to go to school for the first time.  The One and Only Ivanby Katherine Applegate, is about an art-making gorilla living at the mall.  The book, based very loosely on a real gorilla, is a powerful story of art and friendship.  Their primary audience is not adults, but I  dare you to read them and not be a better person when you are done.

So put away the blogs for awhile, including this one, and go read a good book.  And while you are reading, use the bathroom whenever you’d like, and make yourself a snack without asking for permission, and go outside to ride your bike when you start feeling tired, and then come back and share your good reads with the rest of us.

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