The Question Mark
|Vol 1|No 1|May|2004|
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The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson was first published by Harper & Row in 1965. A wonderful new edition (Harper-Collins, ISBN 0-06-757520-X)) with fresh photographs by Nick Kelsh was published in 1998. It offers a vivid collection of words and images illustrating the allure of wonder.
Carson describes the experiences she shares with a young grandson appreciating the sounds and smells of the forest after a storm, the roar of Maine surf smashing ashore and the shadows of migrant birds crossing the moon late at night. She is careful not to explain these things. She turns off the adult narrative voice and provides space for the young boy to notice and wonder.
Another Brick in the Wall
In some schools, student questions and wondering have not been high priorities. Regimentation and transmission of culture from teacher to student has been the norm for decades in such schools - a condition well documented by Goodlad, Sizer and others.
Even rock musicians have lamented the indoctrination and heavy structure of such schools.
Pink Floyd's memorable song, "Another Brick in the Wall," made the point dramatically:
Killing Us Gently?
Sadly, at least in the United States, the current focus on reading routines, test scores and basic skills is likely to accelerate the stifling of inquiry and curiosity as schools eliminate the arts and many of the more "wonderful" aspects of the curriculum in order to survive NCLB's harsh punishments. This trend will have the greatest impact on the least advantaged schools and students.
Reporter Mike Winerip notes that the superior efforts made by one Florida school and one principal to turn around student performance came to naught because just one sub group failed to make AYP and brought down the entire school. The same school would have passed in Texas where standards were less stringent.
Wonder Boxes and Wonder Books
Instead of driving wonder from the classroom and replacing it with ho-hum-drum routines and heavily scripted learning exercises, we should make wonder central to schooling and learning, lighting fires in each child so she or he will be eager to come to school, primed to learn and hungry for words, meaning and knowledge.
Miller encourages students to collect the questions that are most important to them in a plastic container and then she helps them seek for answers. She shows them how to map out their questions and build meaning. She demonstrates how books and reading are central to the search for understanding. She balances her emphasis upon wonder and meaning with solid instruction in reading strategies and phonics.
In a similar fashion, Stephanie Harvey describes how older children might keep wonder books to help them initiate and track their inquiries. She credits Mary Urtz, a fourth grade teacher, and her students with the term wonder books.
In December of 2003, I had the pleasure of watching the impact of this approach on young children in Grand Prairie, Texas. An article and dozens of photographs illustrating the visit can be found at http://www.fno.org/jan04/hitbooks.html.
Window Boxes and Window Shades
Stroll through a small town or an urban neighborhood and it is not unusual to spot houses or apartment buildings that sport window boxes full of cascading flowers - Rave petunias hanging over the sides, Betsy Ross geraniums standing tall and proud.
Other houses seem shuttered, their blinds pulled and darkened against the day. Passing these dwellings, we wonder what nature of shut-in is concealed behind the window shades.
Education can offer children windows to the world and boxes of flowers overflowing with rich color and vitality, or it can pull down the window shades and offer a thin diet of gruel - a shadowy, sorry enterprise at best.
We read Dickens and thank our lucky stars that Oliver Twist's penury and grim existence is a thing of the past, but if we drive through the more impoverished American cities, it quickly becomes clear that Oliver is alive and unwell.
Other lands have their own urgent challenges as some groups thrive and flourish while others stumble along and fall behind.
Conservative zealots are now hoping to convert schools (especially for poor children) into something like the factories of the late 1800s - narrowly focused and heavily structured. They are bringing back the child labor so many fought to eradicate, but the new versions are concealed under slick marketing language. While they will skip the dangerous physical conditions of factories, they advocate "research-based" methods of instruction that reward docility, encourage passivity and prepare young ones for a life of low wage living.
Slavery slides and morphs through variations. The original American system on plantations was grotesque and alarming in its claim of Biblical justification. While the American South took pride in its overt system of slavery, factory owners in the North created a more subtle form of servitude for workers. Variations on a theme. Life was extremely hard for many workers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nominally "free," the Northern worker often owed her/his soul to the company store.
When the Civil War ended the formal system of slavery in the States, the South invented share-cropping to carry through the rest of the century and managed to create a new version of servitude for both the poor white and the African-American. During the late 1800s, conditions in mines and factories remained harsh as "freedom" was still a concept in waiting.
Despite recent advertising efforts to portray employment in low wage retail companies as a heavenly experience, life in the minimum wage economy usually falls far short of Heaven. Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickled and Dimed, shows how un-wonderful this minimum wage existence can be. (Metropolitan Books; 2001, ISBN: 0805063889)
The American Dream is about mobility. Supposedly, one can rise above difficult conditions and shrug off the burdens of one's parents. Other countries offer similar dreams. Basic rules of fairness argue for a "level playing field" and the expectation that each generation might, by virtue of hard work and dedication, be able to "better themselves."
A democratic society needs to raise young ones with a highly tuned sense of wonder in order to maintain the health, wealth and vitality of the nation.
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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .
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