Joe Bob's America:Why Lonnie cant do squat

By JOE BOB BRIGGS   |   Oct. 21, 2002 at 8:00 AM

NEW YORK, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Every time one of those new studies comes out about "Why Johnny Can't Read" -- we'll get to that in a minute -- I wanna whack these people upside the head and ask them why they never do a study on "Why Lonnie Can't Pay Attention."

In other words, the studies are always about outside influences -- class size, educational level of the teacher, zero-tolerance policies, "friendly" curriculum -- and they never once consider that some of the students might be similar to my nephew Lonnie, who's a SCREWUP.

What we need is a study of Lonnie's brain. Because it doesn't matter how big the class is, or whether he's under constant threat of a zero-tolerance policy, he's still gonna sit there calculating the completion percentage of Vinny Testaverde and drawing diagrams of a '72 Hemi Cuda with a chopped block until somebody goes Joe Pesci on him and gets his attention.

Now. I realize that not everybody is like Lonnie. You've also got Penelope the ghost child, whose only goal in life is to never be noticed by the teacher, and so she'll go to any lengths to cower, hunch down, shrivel up, and otherwise disappear into her desk until she's asked a direct question -- and then burst into tears.

So we can't go Joe Pesci on Penelope. We have to treat Penelope like a purebred Persian cat -- any sudden movie and you'll spook her. But my point is, there's not any overall school policy or change of class size or manipulation of the funding that's gonna take care of the Lonnie OR the Penelope problem. The only way you can deal with it is this: Let the goldurn teacher figure it out.

Without restrictions.

Without any big three-punch binders full of policies and theories that have to be applied to every single student, Lonnie and Penelope alike, so that we can be sure everyone gets the exact same dadblamed education.

Everybody doesn't NEED the same education. I'm surprised I have to point this out, but from a teacher's point of view, every single one of those kids that walks into class on the first day of school is the ENEMY. You've got to sneak behind enemy lines, figure out how the fortress is set up, and then blow away all the stuff that gets in the way of learning.

Being a teacher is like being the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There you sit, in Vienna, staring out at all these little fiefdoms and duchies and principalities, and each one is ruled by a different despot with a different agenda and a different line of fortifications. This is why we have teachers -- to FRUSTRATE the defenses, and then UNIFY THE EMPIRE! Are you following this?

OK, here's the latest big education mega-study. It's called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a federally funded survey of 72,000 junior high and high school students. And the results, to sum it up, are that all schools should be smaller than 1,200 students, because if you get bigger than that, the students feel isolated and they're more prone to anti-social and self-destructive behavior. They need to feel "connected." In fact, "connectedness" is the new buzz word in education.

Well, OK, yes, sort of. But I would say that the reason schools should be as small as possible doesn't have as much to do with the kids feeling isolated as with the TEACHERS feeling isolated. The bigger the bureaucracy, the more you have to go along with the prevailing "one size fits all" theory du jour. The principal makes sure you don't spend any extra time with Penelope, because Lonnie's parents might come in one day and kick his butt.

We've actually done the same thing to teachers that we long ago did to judges -- we took all discretion and creativity out of the process. A judge is no longer allowed to say, "All things considered, we're gonna let this one slide," because he's not expected to JUDGE anymore. He just slaps down mandatory sentences that are set by a legislature that doesn't trust him.

In a similar way, teachers are assaulted daily with policies on diversity, multiculturalism, discipline, structure of teaching time, proper forms of address, all to make the classroom ever more formal and yet ever more "sensitive" at the same time. Somebody told me that high school band directors are no longer allowed to fling their batons at the trombone player when he lets out a big blat in the middle of a rest. Now THAT'S an educational loss that will damage our musical heritage for years to come.

My sainted mother, who taught fourth graders for most of her career, was once given an extensive mandatory lesson plan in "Me-ology." (Yes, that's the word they used.) The district school superintendent, in his wisdom, had determined that all classes in the system should devote a part of each week to teaching self-esteem.

My mother's response: "I've never met a fourth-grader who didn't have all the self-esteem I can handle. Can we teach how to have LESS self-esteem?"

Of course, she taught the course, as ordered.

One thing you learn growing up in a family of school teachers -- if they're any good -- is that the answer to any educational question is either "Maybe" or "That depends."

I've asked all the questions. Do uniforms help maintain discipline in the classroom?

"For some students, yes. For other students, no, it's a detriment."

Is there any validity to the theory that same-sex classrooms enhance performance?

"Sometimes. It depends on the age group and the social background of the neighborhood."

Does corporal punishment ever work?

"It can help, and it can hurt. In rural West Texas, when I taught there, it was common and accepted by teachers and parents alike, and it worked. In urban schools it doesn't work."

Is bilingual education a good or a bad idea?

"For first and second graders, it's a good idea. Possibly for third graders. After that it's self-defeating."

Are you starting to get the idea here? A good teacher is like a car mechanic, or a sculptor, or a reality TV producer.

"Whoops, that didn't work. OK, let's try THIS." They regard every student as unique and spend most of their time trying to crack the code. Their answer is that they don't have any answers.

Anything imposed from above on the teacher is a distortion. It distorts the teacher, it distorts the classroom, and of course it distorts Lonnie and Penelope even more than they're already distorted.

You wanna get "connectedness"? Leave the teachers alone.

They'll connect. And it will be some way you or I never could have thought of.


Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.

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