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On the skills we learn in school

by / 0 Comments / 46 View / August 17, 2016

It’s almost back-to-school time for my grandchildren and, to beat the crowds, we’ve been shopping for supplies, clothes, and that special lunchbox. I look for small joys wherever they can be found. To me, none are better than helping our kids get ready for the next grade. They are excited and it’s contagious. The time of year brings back many great memories of my teaching days.
Contrary to the myth that teachers have three months off each year, most already have spent money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies and have put in countless hours preparing curriculum for 2016-17. Maybe there’s a new textbook to incorporate, or possibly revised standards to achieve. For sure, there are always new and revised mandates coming from the state and district.
On occasion, teachers have to plan to teach something entirely new at their particular grade level. As a math teacher, I remember making big shifts in the curriculum as a result of developing technology. For example, students used to spend a couple of days each of the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade years reviewing the procedure for long division, which they first learned in fourth grade. I went to the state math teachers’ conference in 1986, where one of the presenters declared long division dead. I immediately agreed, since about the only division I did for myself, then and now, involve estimating a quotient in my head. If I need an exact answer, I simply use a calculator. So, I worked with my fellow math teachers and my administration to shift more of our teaching to emphasize mental math skills.
In the past year, I’ve seen several comments on social media bemoaning the apparent demise of cursive writing. I was intrigued the first time I saw that. Here in Texas, teachers are required to develop their curriculum according to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which is the state-mandated set of standards for all public and private schools. In grades 3 and 4, students must “write legibly in cursive script with spacing between words in a sentence.” When I checked into the social-media post, it seems a certain second-grade student in another state had learned to write her name in cursive but was asked by her teacher not to, since cursive writing was not taught until third grade. The controversy stirred up by this one social-media post, like many other posts people “like” and promote, seems to have had little factual basis – yet the negativity continues by those who constantly claim our public schools are a failure.
In any event, it’s important to know that sets of concepts teachers impart to students in each grade are constantly changing and moving about between grade levels. As far as cursive writing goes, I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I would like my granddaughter to at least learn how to hold a pencil properly, rather than in the manner of a hammer. I learned to print in block letters when I took drafting in high school. I’d have to say that skill has been much more useful to me than writing in cursive. I only wish I’d learned to type. I peck this column out one letter at a time with the middle finger of my left hand and the index finger of my right. I have to look at the keyboard, but, after years of typing in this way, my fingers seem to instinctively know where the letters are. Anyway, if there are other, more important skills for my grandchildren to learn besides cursive writing, I say let’s leave that up to the professionals and our school boards to decide.
The older I become, the more grateful I am for the guidance provided over the years by my teachers. They weren’t perfect, but I certainly was not a perfect student either. I believe kids today are much the same as they were when I was young – enthused about learning new things. Let’s work together to help them and their teachers have a great school year.
Michael Brown is an education consultant and a former teacher. He can be contacted at michael.brown@utexas.edu.