Putting the "F" Word Back in Education

Smokey Daniels, a well-known literacy guru, was talking about schools at a meeting my staff and I were attending.  He stood up and said, “I think we need to put the “F” word back in schools.  I mean we need “F” (pause for effect), “U” (another pause), “N” (relieved laughter and clapping).

He’s right, of course.  Kids and teachers could use a little more of the “F” word.

When second semester began at my school my school this year you couldn’t find a student in math, science, social studies or English classes.

Instead, the kids were concocting “healthy” cookies in the food lab, banging out ironworks with a blacksmith from England or arguing the finer points of law in mock trial teams.

Me? I was teaching the finer points of fly tying and casting.

It was all part of our annual “intersession” program, a time between the first and second semesters where teachers offer courses based on their expertise outside the academic areas they usually teach and where students learn new skills and activities.   

Most of all, it is fun. In this era of high-stakes testing and “accountability,” I have been dismayed by how fun has been taken out of school like air from a balloon.  More and more we’ve heard about kindergarteners losing recess or play time to test preparation or field trips to cultural sites being scrapped in favor of drill-and-kill drudgery. Time-on-task is measured in minutes, and it squeezes out the occasional classroom diversion or story book read out loud.  It’s all in the name of keeping up with some illusive ratings game involving international comparisons of our kids.

Here’s the funny thing: most of those international hot-shot countries aren’t as obsessed with test scores, time-on-task, and all the other stuff we here hold up as the only way to improve schools.  Instead, those countries spend time and money on the front end providing for the health and welfare of kids, preparing a strong teaching force and funding their schools in an adequate and sensible way.  Then, they stand back and watch all the good stuff happen — probably with a few “intersession” programs like our school uses.

Yes, it’s true that test scores are up in China. Yet employers there say they cannot find employees who can solve problems and come up with creative and innovative solutions.  Some of that country’s well-off parents seek to export their children to America for school. Look, China does a great job with cheap, exploited labor producing mass quantities of look-alike goods.  Good for them. But that’s not a future I want for my kids.

Historically, it was not kids who had been in school the longest and taken the most tests that led and changed America. Rather, it was the farm boys and girls who knew how to fix tanks with bailing twine and set bones with torn shirts who won World War II.  And it was backyard tinkerers like Homer Hickam who launched rockets and created computers.  They went to school and took tests, of course. But they also were allowed time to work with their hands and their imaginations.

I am not calling for a return to the “good old days,” a time when some children were consigned to less-demanding classes and other children were not even allowed through the school house door.  But I do think we have lost something in our unending quest of lofty standards, more rigor and higher test scores.

That something is the joyfulness of play, and the creativeness of curiosity.  We have separated our children from the very world that sustains them.  They will be poorer intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for it.

People smarter than me have pointed this out.  Deborah Meier has written how physical and imaginative play is the important work of childhood. Richard Louv has warned us of a "nature deficit disorder." Sustainability educators have pointed out how children have been disconnected from the physical world which makes their lives possible.

All of these folks are on to the same thing—the best way to engage our children in school is to make sure schooling includes the “F” word. 

Our intersession week is one way to do that.  And we hold on to it in spite of pressure to cover more content and take more tests.  (A confession: tenth-graders spend part of intersession learning “test-taking” skills as a way of making sure they can tackle the state exams. After all, we do live in the real world!)

Amidst all the talk about No Child Left Behind reauthorization, national standards, new tests and budget shortfalls, I suggest those of us who are in the front lines of education – those of us who are actually in the schools -- keep asking the same question: Where can we sneak in a little of the “F” word?