Dear Mr. Teacher Man

When I emailed you last week about the art project/book report, it was hard not to put my teacher hat on. I know I am not your regular parent, so I feel I owe you a better explanation.

There’s not much I know about teaching fourth graders. I have one, but he’s my first so I’m a rookie. When I called into question the project that seemed heavy on artsy and light on standard mastery, I wasn’t questioning the teaching.

I know you do what they tell you, mostly. So did I, mostly.

I’m not even questioning the status quo in education. I was there when it broke. I understand what went wrong.

Except for this one part.

What the heck happened to the boys?

Go look at a first grade classroom and you’ll see them. They’re bright eyed and excited. They can’t sit still because everything around them is SO. AMAZING. They leap out of their socks to answer questions, shouting over the quieter kids. At recess they explode out the door and barely make the grass before falling into a laughing, pushing, wrestling mass. They kick balls over the fence. They can’t wait for math after lunch. Adults say things about them like “He is so smart. If only we could bottle that energy.”

Ten years later, when they spilled through the doorway of my high school classroom like a pack of puppies headed for the food bowl, they were still bright-eyed. They still shouted over the quieter kids. They still kicked balls…over the fence. They wore uniforms on Friday nights in the Fall and letterman’s jackets through the Winter.

And learning was dead to them.

I always assumed that it was the black hole of middle school that did it.

But these last six months of fourth grade have made me wonder. It’s all become very feminine.

Cooperative learning, heavy in social interaction and emotional language skills. Gabriel told me how he had a right answer very quickly one day, but you made him conference two more times before you would accept it. I’m sure that you have a good reason, but here’s what he said: “I kept thinking I was wrong mom, every time he sent me back.”

(By the way, there was a time we used cooperative learning in high school. I stopped doing it in honors classes though, because a right answer is a right answer is a right answer and honors students will tell you to take your extra conference and stuff it. Just in case you ever think high school might be for you.)

Then there was Shelter Day. A fourth grade rite of passage: researching and building a replica shelter of a Native American tribe. But you made them do it for six hours. Six hours of popsicle sticks, glue guns and construction paper. Gabe was done by 10 am, and no wonder. When was the last time you crafted for six straight hours?

His grade reflected the fact that he “didn’t use his time wisely”.

At our parent conference you compared one of his lit circle posters to another student’s to show that his wasn’t as well-planned as hers. While you stayed on that point for more two minutes, I took a closer look at the content of the posters. Gabe’s demonstrated mastery of what he had been reading, a deep and rich understanding. Hers had half the words, half the depth and twice the pronouns.

But it sure was pretty to look at.

Which brings us to this particular project. The book report with the one pager and the list of very feminine art project choices to choose from. A poem. A collage. A mural. A video. A map.

He read the book in three days. He passed the test with 100%. The one pager took two days, with multiple drafts. You better believe Mama runs a Writer’s Workshop at home.

Everything that had to do with the book and the report, he nailed. But the map was a wall he crashed into at 75 miles per hour.

So I asked about a rubric. Maybe it was a unit on cartography masquerading as a book report. Or an art lesson on perspective and spacing and not a language arts assignment.

But there was no rubric. And all he kept saying was “it has to be neat, it has to be perfect”.

When he looked at me and said “I’m going to fail”, I sent you the email. Because it hit me like a punch to the gut: This is it. This is where we start to lose him.

From a collaborative point of view, I’m here to help. It’s as hard to come up with ideas to fit every child’s learning modality as it is to admit a long-time traditional assignment needs an overhaul.

From my mama’s heart though, I’m telling the collective educational environment this right now: You are not turning my joyful, self-motivated, sponge of a learner boy into those teenagers who used to explode through my door and settle for Cs. Upper elementary school will not teach him that just because he is coming into his physical maturity and is the very blessed opposite of quiet and patient, he isn’t “right” for school.

I know you work your butt off for these kids and that you believe in what you do and are called to it. Your work is sacred.

But I also know that sometimes, we stop seeing the edges.

So I’m shining a light there and showing you there’s something to look at, something to consider.

Thank you for all that you do. But maybe it’s time to do it differently.

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