Adventures In Subbing: The Achievement Gap

I sat on a tiny chair while the 22 Kindergarteners I was assisting this day sat cross-legged on the large, plush map-of-the-world rug in the corner of their room. Their teacher sat before them in her rocking chair going over the sounds each letter of the alphabet makes.

It was cute to watch, albeit quite normal.

Then the teacher put down her letters and asked the wide-eyed, bouncy children, “Who can tell me all the countries of Africa?”

Wh-what! I scowl-smiled in that taken-aback, humored way, scrunching my eyes in skeptical wonder and then lightening up to a disbelieving grin. “No way”, I thought. “Africa has more countries than any other continent.  There’s like 50 of them.” It was the hardest test in high school geography. And these children are going to list them off by heart? (The accompanying question to this was: This school has their Kindergarteners learn what I did when I was 17?)

But immediately after the teacher asked this, three little arms shot up. “Okay, Cynthia, come give it a try.” Up walked wee Cynthia to the head of the rug and started listing them off to a melody. “Angola, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Niger, Chad, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau…. umm… uh.”

Uh oh, she got stuck at Guinea-Bissau. Gets ’em every time.

Actually, it didn’t. The next student got about two-thirds the way through the list of countries, and the final student got through them all.

I remember being a kid and having adults laugh when I did something to impress them. They’d react like, “Boy, kids these days sure make me feel dumb.” In this Kindergarten class, I understood how these adults felt.

At lunch I brought the discovery of my genius Kindergarten class up to other teachers in the school. I felt like I had to tell somebody. But, of course, they weren’t too surprised. “Yeah, we encourage them to work on their memory skills,” was the reply. Then I remembered myself memorizing the books of the Bible. But still. I was probably ten. These children were five!–learning all the countries in Africa. 

This all took place at a special school in St. Paul, a particular type known as a classical academy.  This means they teach their students the lessons and methods and virtues as taught by the fathers of Western civilization of ancient Greece.

As such, the curriculum revolves around the acquisition of the key language skills as students first learn grammar, then logic, and then rhetoric. Also something they learn right away: how to learn, thus the list of African countries. Kindergarteners have this song that they’re asked to listen to at home. I’m impressed they do it. In many other settings I’ve been in, students’ desire to learn is quite dormant.

At this school, though, children will go on to read Aristotle and Homer. (Again, we head Homer, too, but did so in high school–as an elective. These children all do so in elementary.) At another classical academy I worked at in Eden Prairie, I heard a 4th grade teacher talk to his class about the Socratic method. All students take Latin and dress in uniform.

There are two such academies in the Twin Cities that I’m aware of. They aren’t private, but charter public schools that any student can go to as long as they can get on the list–and any city in Minnesota could start if they had the market for one. They are smaller, so don’t offer the athletic or other amenities and opportunities of your typical public school. And I, personally, would never have been too crazy about having to wear a uniform. Regardless, it’s been refreshing (and darned impressive at times) to witness the behavior and demeanor and willingness to learn from the student body, K-12, at these schools.

Two weeks later, I was in a low income area of North Minneapolis. That’s for next time…



1 Response

  1. Justin

    I liked this article, Brandon! I actually work at Nova, though not with kindergarteners, so was unaware that they were learning the names of all the African countries. Nova Classical Academy is a great school, full of great staff dedicated to teaching students. The thing I like most about Brandon’s blog entry is how it highlights my chief criticism of Nova and a classical education: their approach to learning and education.

    Rote memorization is a major aspect of a classical education, and it is no different at Nova. Initially, a kindergartener able to name all the countries in Africa sounds fantastic. However, I am not a fan of this rote memorization. Knowing all the countries in Africa is only useful if you also know something about that country’s history, culture, people, etc. What can you teach to a five year old about Africa’s history, culture or people that they would understand, appreciate and retain in their long term memory? I was not present for the lesson, and maybe the teacher is backing up this rote memorization with a lesson that delves deeper into Africa and its many countries, past just learning the name. Maybe there’s some cognitive benefit to rote memorization? I skeptical.

    From the start of the school year, I’ve sat in on a ninth grade rhetoric class. They have read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and are currently studying Socrates’ Apology. I think studying the classics is great. However, from my perspective, the teacher has struggled to meaningfully engage students in discussion about Socrates’ life and ideas, the reason for this being classical education’s preference for direct instruction. Simply put, the focus is on TELLING students what they need to know instead of having them DISCOVER it for themselves. Lots of powerpoint notes were utilized, lectures delivered, question and answer sessions performed, yet the students were never fully engaged in a back and forth dialogue about the ideas where the teacher was not waiting for a specific answer, but allowing students to hash through the material on their own. Role playing, what if scenarios, discussion through relating it to current events, and other methods could have been used as a way to get students talking about Socrates. But that is not classical education.

    I hope those kindergarteners get the opportunity to learn more about Africa besides the names of its countries. Otherwise, that knowledge will be as useless as having a huge mural of Socrates and his followers in the “great room” (Nova has such a mural) but not having students actively interested in learning about the man and his ideas.

    Brandon, I’m looking forward to your blog entry about subbing in north Minneapolis and how it compares (or more likely contrasts!) with Nova 🙂

What say you?