, Derry, New Hampshire


November 15, 2012

Column: We still teach like we’re in the ‘good old days’

My mother put Mrs. Crane on a pedestal. In fact, my enduring image of my fourth- and sixth-grade teacher is exactly that — a blonde and erect middle-aged woman, shoulders back with chin raised, horn-rimmed reading glasses secured with a chain around her neck, holding the teachers’ edition of a language arts or science book, barking out questions I pray I can answer.

It was the mid-1960s, and Mrs. Crane would give Don Draper, and the rest of the “Mad Men,” all they could handle. My mother loved her because she was a no-nonsense lady who kept her not-so-studious son in line, the kind of teacher who conjured up memories of her own education in rural Georgia.

I thought of Mrs. Crane last week as I listened to Rick Wormeli, a nationally known educator who talks a lot about what was not so good about education in the “good old days,” and how those practices can still be found in schools today.

Mrs. Crane fed me a steady diet of worksheets, true-or-false, and multiple-guess tests. And writing? Sure — lots of practice with cursive letters and the occasional social studies “report,” copied almost word for word from an encyclopedia. In a pinch, I could always count on my mother’s fertile imagination to ace any generic “theme.”

There were no re-dos. Forgot to do your homework? Tough luck, buddy — zero in the grade book. Mrs. Crane told me what to learn. It was my responsibility to memorize the facts and regurgitate them later. If I failed, I deserved the shame that coursed through my veins.

Rick Wormeli reminds us that in reality, failure is life’s best teacher. My favorite example comes from Ernest Hemingway, who wrote 38 different conclusions to “A Farewell to Arms,” until number 39 finally worked. When asked what the problem was, Hemingway answered, “getting the words right.”

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