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Students Organizing Themselves??

Posted: 2008-04-09

Here is a Q & A from my website.

I receive a lot of questions, and I answer them. I thought others might enjoy/appreciate this modest exchange.

Question I found you while searching for Jim Herndon, whom I loved when I was thinking

about becoming a teacher. Thirty years later and full of experience, I want to ask you what you and Herndon mean by students "organizing themselves."

Answner: When students are left to figure out how to do things, there's an initial mess, but ultimately things work out better than if the teacher had insisted on neat and tidy rows, or neat and tidy projects with outlines and schedules (and, god forbid, objectives). Remember how he fought to get the 8th grade girls down to business? Then, when he let THEM take charge, they brought about order within a couple of minutes. I had a very tough 7th grade student named Sylvia who organized my remedial reading class. There would be initial chaos. Then Sylvia would announce, "It's time to READ!"

And that was that. I consulted with her on what books to choose for group reading, etc. And I comforted her when she would sneak into my room to curl up, sucking her thumb, with her favorite book, John Ciardi reading poems with his son. Sylvia was a huge discipline problem in the school--except in remedial reading. At one point, I thought it would be good for her to tutor a 4th grader. She chose a classic teacher model to emulate, insisting that she needed the teacher's guide to the 4th grade basal, etc. It was pretty funny, an absolute rejection of the model I provided to her every day, and further evidence that none of my students regarded me as a "real teacher." But Sylvia took her tutoring role very seriously and did a good job.

I don't know if Jim's kind of teaching is possible these days. I encountered him early in my career, and was astounded. No one described 7th/8th graders so well. (Ha. though I later tried in my own book Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum.)

Years later, when I was working for a teacher magazine, they asked me to write an article on books every teacher should read. So I wrote my favorite writers and asked them (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Robert Coles, and so on). I think Jim was the only person "directly" in education I asked. He liked the question and while on sabbatical, he sent me postcards as he stopped here and there and asked famous people he met what teachers should read. It was the last time I heard from him, but I treasure it.

I can't fathom current Standardistos offering Jim Herndon as a model to emulate, but I know in my bones that teachers could do no better than to read The Way It Spozed to Be and How To Survive In Your Native Land. Used copies are available really really cheaply on Amazon.com. They will enrich your life. And besides that, they will make your laugh. No one is funnier at describing 7th graders. No one.

And when we've lost the will to laugh, then we know we have to pack it in and do something else.

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