Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another kind of homework

Last week, in my capacity as a Religious School teacher, I went to a conference on teaching children with learning disabilities. The keynote speaker was Jonathan Mooney, and each attendee was given a copy of his latest book, The Short Bus. Mooney was such a compelling speaker that I decided his book would be my next read.

The Short Bus is a memoir about a trip Mooney took around the country, driving a "short bus" emblematic of the buses that drive Special Ed students to school, and visiting children and adults who are labeled with various learning disabilities. Interspersed with that story are Mooney's reflections on his own childhood and school experiences.

The central question of Mooney's discourse is whether labeling children helps or hurts them, whether school is adequately preparing kids for life, and whether the benefits these kids get from school is worth the price they pay for dealing with the labels. It struck me that this is at heart a Humanist question.

What do we owe our children?

Humanism would dictate that we owe them all an equal opportunity at life. I suppose that is the heart of the education debate in this country. What gives a child that opportunity? For now, I will put aside issues like poverty (which is the most important educational issue of our time) because I want to react to Mooney's book. The question then is, do we need to develop each child's strengths, whatever they may be, or do we need to teach them all the same thing?

I have difficulty answering this question. On the one hand, it seems ideal to give each child confidence and expertise in his or her greatest strengths. But I am parenting an 8-year-old. I know some of her strengths: swimming, art, music, geography and communication. But what strengths does she have that haven't yet been discovered because she hasn't yet been exposed to them? And what strengths are yet to develop? And are they really strengths, or is she just developing in these areas ahead of her peers? Are her weaknesses (math, self-monitoring, gym) developmental, essential, or because she hasn't yet found the best way to learn those things? It's very hard to tell.

So I have to advocate for a generalist approach to elementary education. However, I am very glad that The Little Jewess is in a Montessori school. Montessori teaches each child individually, which means TLJ can be ahead of her peers in reading while receiving remedial help in math. She's also learning to monitor her own time and take a strategic approach to resolving differences with other children.

It's clear to me that nobody should be dehumanized in the way that the people in Mooney's book describe. But I'm not sure what the solution might be.

I look forward to reading the rest of The Short Bus to find out what ideas Mooney has.

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