Can’t see the forest

Wow. That's a lotta trees.

Wow. That’s a lotta trees.

I am a teacher. It’s my job to encourage children.  It’s my job to show them how exciting it can be to ask great questions, to formulate solutions, to work with other students in order to find a new way to solve a problem.

I am a teacher.

An aging, out of fashion, “so-how-many-years-do-you-have-left” teacher.

It’s my job to encourage the big ideas.  Its my job, as far as I can tell, to foster creativity in my students.  You know, to help them to look for the big picture, to “think outside of the box”, to come to the meaningful conclusion. To find the creative solution.

To be “Twenty first century thinkers”, in the jargon of the day.

But I am really having trouble doing that.


You see, current practice in teaching has us breaking every skill down into its tiniest, most discrete parts, and assigning a value and a competency score to each.

Reading used to be about enjoying a novel, thinking about the characters, talking about the plot, and then moving on to the next good book.

Now reading is all about breaking every sentence into its component grammatical parts. It is about finding a personal connection to every character, every event, every conclusion.  Reading now requires that the student stop every page or two to write out a sticky note in which he explains how this sentence from this book relates to the conversation that he had with his grandma three weeks ago.  Or how it reminds him of the book that his Uncle Billy read to him last winter.   All tree, no forest.

Writing used to mean taking a pen and a notebook and scribbling a fabulous six chapter mystery story, filled with villains and bad dialogue and misspelled place names.

Now “writing”means filling out a “graphic organizer” that will carefully script each idea so that it fits the definition of writing that has been set out by the test makers. The format is scripted (Topic Sentence, Supporting Details, Conclusion) and the structure is predetermined.  Pity the poor writer who tries to be original, for he shall score poorly on the rubric.  Tree, tree, tree.  No forest in sight.

Math used to be about developing a sense of how numbers work. It used to be about understanding the relationships between numbers.  Math used to ask kids to solve problems.   Now it is about place value and memorizing algorithms and learning multiplication as a completely separate entity from division.  More trees.

Everything in the world of education seems to me to have been broken down into its tiniest component parts.  We are teaching phonemes, not reading.  We are teaching grammar, not writing.  I feel like we are teaching numbers, not math sense.

We measure their spelling level, their reading comprehension level, their math level.  We weigh every word, every syllable, every addend, every product.

We have become a land of trees and trees and trees.  But we seem to have completely lost sight of the forest.

Wow.  So sad.

21 thoughts on “Can’t see the forest

  1. Oh, Moms. I wish I could say that I think you’re wrong. That I think you are just exaggerating. That I think you are full of “IT.” But sadly for both of us, I think you are absolutely spot on.

    What the fuck have we done to ourselves?

    Courage, my friend.


    • I keep waiting for the public outcry. Every time teachers or administrators try to point this out, we are shushed by the powers in charge, and told to stop whining and to start being “accountable”.


      • My husband used to say, during the Bush days, that we are on “Outrage Overload.” I think that’s where the public is with education — outrage overload. So many things to be frustrated about, people end up giving up.


    • And please don’t forget the big companies making millions of dollars selling us the boxed curriculum and the dozens of tests. The same few companies. Who also helped to craft the Common Core. Really, Pearson, Carson Dellosa, Gates Foundation….?


      • Believe me, not for one minute am I not reminded of the greed and corruption that runs the machine of public education in a system that ensures corporate ownership of our public policies and empowers profiteering through our public services.

        Rage on against the machine, Momshieb!


  2. I have seen this happening here too, but some of the teachers are still managing to keep the magic there. The kids feel that. I am sure you are one of those.
    I remember years ago I had an amazing Irish teacher. He hated the curriculum and believed the education system was a “murder machine”. He told us this often. On the course was a short story he himself had written for his daughter when she was four. We were 15 years old studying it for our state exam, and he refused to teach that story. Instead he used to read it to us as a Dad to a four year old. Telling us not to worry about the structure or flow but to listen to the language and the words. I now know he was teaching us, every day, but just not the way the state wanted him to. Do I remember the other stories? No, only this one. When I read your piece I was reminded of his frustrations. Children sense these things and I’m sure you are indeed teaching them more than you know.


    • Thank you! Thank you for your support, and for sharing that lovely tale of your Irish teacher (was he from Ireland, or were you learning about Ireland?) I am trying very very hard to keep my classroom happy and humorous, and to hold onto some things that I am being urged to give up (like reading aloud every day and just loving the story, not stopping to analyze it every two minutes). Sometimes I just drop everything and we all go outside to take a walk. I hope, more than anything, that the kids do sense my desire to make learning fun and interesting, and that they feel how much I enjoy being with them.


  3. I’m so sad to know that this is your experience. You’ve written brilliantly (as usual) about your view of the changing educational landscape. The pendulum swings in education and it sounds like the curriculum in your district has swung too far into the trees. If you can hang in there it will likely swing back!


    • Thanks, Jamie; I would feel less discouraged if we were only talking about my district. Unfortunately, this is the results of the national push for the so called Common Core Standards. Our district has actually held out as long as possible against this idiocy; my school is holding out within my district.
      Many schools around the country are doing things like this (a true story):
      Teaching “writing” by having children spend four full weeks crafting a seven paragraph book report (using a set graphic organizer which is then edited by the teacher). Then they write a draft, which is edited by the teacher. Then they rewrite and revise. Then they conference with the teacher. Then they write a final draft. Can you imagine?? A MONTH on a book report. Finally, they are given an assessment consisting of a separate writing prompt which is then scored on a rubric.
      Horrific! Just beat them with a boredom stick and call it done. Ugh.


  4. I come from the special education realm; don’t even get me started. There is accountability and then there is the madness we have now. Think how stressful this must be for our kids? I, like you, enjoyed the days of picking up a book and having the students predict what it would be about….teaching about foreshadowing and the like. Sigh.


    • I come from that sped world too; 25 years there, in fact, and then I jumped to the general ed world as the craziness of data and accountability made special ed just too much for me.
      The craziness seems to have followed me!


  5. Moms. I’ve told you this before, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without teachers like you. They saved my life. I know it looks hopeless now but there are kids that you are touching and teaching whose lives will be touched beyond test scores. Don’t let go of the vision as you rage against the machine.


  6. Pingback: Two teachers I’ll never forget. | My thoughts on a page.

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