Has public education become too confining?

***image2***Jonathan Kozol, the education activist who's hunger striking to protest the state of public education in America, spoke at the Lensic earlier this fall. I'd heard him speak before, when I was in college. At that lecture, some 12 years ago, he painted tragic pictures of children destroyed by a system obsessed with classroom-based, testable skills. I left the room on fire, tore through his books, ranted progressive-ed theory in the dorms and then-anxious to begin fixing the problem-signed up for an undergrad exchange program that placed me as a student teacher in a factory-like public elementary school at 100th and First, on the edge of New York's Spanish Harlem.

Here, live and in person, were Kozol's kids: underprivileged but bright-eyed children herded daily through a watery, workbook curriculum. The special education class to which I was assigned felt like a pedagogical tomb. Every morning, eight beaten-down kids slouched into the room, ready for another day of nothing. One hadn't spoken a word in school for three years. Another, it seemed, hadn't stopped talking. Their teacher, a matronly Puerto Rican woman who showered them with love and scoldings, set the kids to work building cardboard dinosaurs, measuring the school dimensions with string, and copying spelling words from the board. Ms. Burgos had long ago given up any notion of building skills. Her goal was to keep these kids occupied, to socialize them and, if nothing else, to lighten up their childhoods before they were spun into adult lives of poverty and menial labor.

I searched for ways to break the monotony by applying my progressive-ed theories. I tried field trips, authentic writing assignments, personal history investigations. Prodded by Ms. Burgos, the children humored my efforts, and I thought I was making progress until the morning 12-year-old Carlos called me over to his desk to show me his careful tracing of a superhero.

"It's for my uncle," he said. "He's over there in Queensboro."


"Prison." He looked at me. "You ever been to prison, Mr. B?"

I shook my head.

"I went over there, to see my uncle. He said there's always people watching you, even when you're in the shower. And they got these long, long hallways with closed doors and little windows, like-" He surveyed the room. "Kind of like here."

Bingo. School as prison. Carlos' analogy captured the uneasiness I'd felt since I'd walked into the place. I gave up trying to break the system, and spent the rest of my semester observing the kids move mechanically between classrooms, tussle in the chain-link yard at recess and transact furtive candy sales in the hallway lines. It would be five years before I'd build up the nerve to enter the public schools as a teacher again-this time on more familiar turf, here in Santa Fe. I took a job at a new charter school with an open-minded faculty and had a marvelous first year. I encouraged my students to roam the school for writing spots, took them on scavenger hunt field trips on the Plaza and sent them off in groups to feed the hungry or visit the elderly.

But over the following years, my teaching grew tamer. At some point-hard to say when-it dawned on me that taxpayers were shelling out hard-earned money for me to instill marketable skills in these kids, and that parents were expecting their children to leave my room "college-ready." I grew tired of planning 'til 2 am, of hassling with permission slips, transportation requests and apologies to disgruntled bus drivers. My lessons somehow adjusted, became more and more geared to the classroom setting. After all, there are undeniable advantages to teaching kids in a quiet, temperature-controlled room, with dictionaries and desks at the ready.

But for seven hours a day? In other cultures, and in other times in history, young people did most of their learning out in the world, apprenticing under craftspeople, helping around the house, participating in cultural events. It's only the last 100 years or so that we've grown attached to locking the youth away and preparing them for the "real world" through artificial exercises and constructed consequences. The No Child Left Behind Act has pushed this approach to a new level, effectively blocking any attempts to take kids-especially kids who attend poor, federally funded schools-out into the community at the expense of testable skills. And as the nation goes, so goes the teacher: I haven't taken my class on a field trip all year.

Which is why    you might not be surprised to learn that this time around, I skipped the Kozol lecture. It's been more than a decade since Kozol's words set me on fire, and yet schools-even my little charter school-have grown more prison-like than ever. Had I gone to hear the man speak, I only would've been reminded how terribly flawed the system is, how our best efforts are like drops in the ocean. I'm not sure I would've had the gumption to pull myself from bed the morning after and flick on the fluorescent lights of my classroom.

That's not to say I've lost hope. I've begun working with our school's mentorship program, which links kids to community experts-doctors, chefs, DJs and filmmakers-and challenges them to learn unstandardized knowledge from uncertified teachers, outside of school. Inside of school, I'm always inspired by my fellow teachers, who continue to conjure up brilliant lessons capable of penetrating the sixth-hour classroom coma. Though it's hard to see the day when our public schools will be redesigned to open minds, and not contain bodies, we can take solace in the knowledge that here and there, in spite of the system, education does really happen-little windows and all.