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George Dennison - The Lives of Children

George Dennison - The Lives of Children

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Published by Emily Shinn

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Published by: Emily Shinn on Jan 14, 2012
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 Lives of Children
is the deeply inspiring story of the First Street School, where twenty-threechildren, black, white and Puerto Rican, all from poor families, and many with severe learningproblems, came together with five teachers who believed that “the business of a school is not, orshould not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.” George Dennison tells how he and hisfellow teachers taught and learned from these children by truly entering their lives.THE LIVES OF CHILDRENThe Story of the First Street SchoolBy George DennisonIntroduction(by John Holt)For some months, when speaking to teachers or to anyone else concerned with education, I havesaid that while there were many recently published books on education (my own among them)that I thought they should read, if they felt they had time for only one it should be
The Lives of Children
. It is by far the most perceptive, moving, and important book on education that I haveever read, or indeed ever expect to. For while I hope that in years to come we may learn muchabout human growth and development that we do not now know, I doubt that any one book willadvance our understanding as much as this one.It describes the lives of twenty-three children in the small private school in New York in whichDennison taught, and which has since been disbanded. They were black, white, and Puerto Ricanin equal proportions. All were poor; half were on welfare, and about half "had come to us fromthe public schools with severe learning and behavior problems." They were, in short, children of the kind that our giant educational system conspicuously, totally, and hopelessly fails to reach orto help. This school, spending no more money per pupil than the city's public schools, did notfail. The children got well, grew, learned.This book must be seen also as a destroyer of alibis and excuses. We cannot say any longer thatwe do not know why we are failing, or that we do not know what has to be done instead, or thatwe cannot afford to do it. If we go on failing much longer, stunting and wrecking as we have thelives and spirits of millions of children, it can only be because for peculiar and dreadful reasonsof our own that is what we really want to do.What the book is about may be summed up in Dennison's statement, that might well be on everywall of every school of education in America, that the business of a school is not, or should notbe, mere instruction, but the life of the child.' He continues:The really crucial things at First Street (School) were these: that we eliminated--to the best of ourability--the obstacles which impede the natural growth of mind; that we based everything onreality of encounter between teacher and child; and that we did what we could (not enough, byfar) to restore something of the continuum of experience within which every child must achievehis growth. It is not remarkable that under these circumstances the children came to life. Theyhad been terribly bored, after all, by the experience of failure. For books are interesting, numbersare, and painting, and facts about the world.
The key ideas are reality of encounter and the continuum of experience. There is no reality of encounter between adults and children in most schoolrooms (or homes, for that matter), becausemost teachers do not feel free, do not dare, either to let the children say or to say themselveswhat they really feel and think. Their concern is that nothing shall be said or done in theclassroom that might get them into trouble--and the trouble they can get into is real enough, as isclearly shown every year by the experience of brave and honest teachers. But what is worse isthat they are neither brave nor honest enough to admit that their primary concern, the overridingreason for everything they make or let happen in class, is staying out of trouble.It is bad enough that thousands of teachers all over the country who in their hearts would like toassign, for example, The
Catcher in the Rye
are afraid to do so. But children might learn a greatdeal about education and society--much more than is in their civics books - if their teacher saidto them, "I know a book that I think you would enjoy and from which you would get a great deal,but I don't dare assign it to you, I don't even dare tell you its name, for fear that some of yourparents, or some people in the community, will kick up such a fuss that I will lose my job--and Ican't afford to lose my job." Here might be the foundation for a real curriculum and a great dealof honest talk and true learning. Our schools pretend, not altogether hypocritically or dishonestly,to be much concerned with morality, but as Dennison says, "an active moral life cannot beevolved except where people are free to express their feelings and
act upon the insights of conscience
" (italics mine) and this freedom hardly exists anywhere in our schools.Of an incident in which a teacher took time, to a degree unthinkable in most schools, to help twochildren settle a bitter quarrel (but they settled it, not she), Dennison writes: ...[The children's] self interest will lead them into positive relations with the natural authority of adults, and this is much to be desired, for natural authority is a far cry From authority that ismerely arbitrary. Its attributes are obvious: adults are larger, are experienced, possess morewords,
have entered into prior agreements among themselves
. [Italics mine]This last is of critical importance. I do not know of a more compact or complete definition or atleast description of what we mean by the elusive word "culture." The children, living in thisculture, sense it all around them, sense that in spite of its bewildering variety it must make somesense, and want more than anything else to End out how it works. What nonsense it is to speak of children living in "unstructured" situations-no one does, every human situation has a structure -or to assume that children are indifferent to the real nature of the world and society around them,and will learn nothing about it unless it is crammed down their throats.Dennison continues:…When all this takes on a positive instead of a merely negative character, the children see theadults as protectors and as sources of certitude, approval, novelty, skills. In the fact that adultshave entered into prior agreements, children intuit seriousness and a web of relations in the lifethat surrounds them. ... These two things, taken together--the natural authority of adults and theneeds of children--are the great reservoir of the organic structuring that comes into being whenarbitrary rules of order are dispensed with.
Organic structuring; the natural authority of adults
: these are two more of the key ideas that arecentral to this book. In a hundred places Dennison describes how children playing, working, oreven fighting--some of the best descriptions in the book, and the most significant, are of fights-will out of their needs and desires End a way to create a natural order, an order that works, andout of which further activity, growth, and order may develop. Dennison points out, "the way theyfind is neither haphazard nor irrational, but is a matter of observation, discernment, generosity,intelligence, patience." Remember again that the children of whom he is speaking were labeledby their public schools as unteachable and incorrigible.Elsewhere he speaks of "the barrier of compulsion," by which he means simply that in proportionas we demand or hold over children the power to compel we give up and lose the power toinfluence and help. One particularly moving passage--and there are many others--makes thispoint well:So many adults these days live in a world of words-the half- real tale of the newspapers, the half-real images of television- that they do not realize, it does not sink in, that compulsory attendanceis not merely a law which somehow enforces itself but is ultimately an act of force: a grownman, earning his living as a cop of some kind, puts his left hand and his right on the arm of somekid (usually a disturbed one) and takes him away to a prison for the young - Youth House. I amdescribing the fate of hundreds of confirmed truants. The existence of Youth House, and of thetruant officer, was of hot concern of two of our boys. They understood very well the meaning of compulsory attendance, and understanding it, they had not attended. We abolished that act of fierce, and these chronic truants could hardly be driven from the school.Like Dennison, I have for some time now urged that we abolish or at least greatly relax the lawsrequiring compulsory attendance. No other change 1 advocate, however radical, provokes such aterrified and hysterical response. Proposals to wipe out half the human race with hydrogenbombs do not generate one-tenth as much anger. People say shrilly, "If we didn't make childrengo to school, they would never go, they would run wild, etc.!" No one seems to consider thatchildren do not run wild on the 180 or so days a year they do not go to school, or that, as PaulGoodman once pointed out, in at least one instance statistics showed there was more juvenilecrime when school was in than when it was out. In any case, these fears about what childrenwould do if not locked up in school are groundless for many reasons, but this above al others--they need us! At least, they need whatever in us is real and helpful and interesting, and in any of us there is far more of this than we are ever allowed to make available to them in school.The heart of the book--if one can speak of such a thing in a book virtually every page of whichcontains more truth than can be found in most writings on educational psychology--is the thirdchapter, only eleven pages long. It deals largely with the learning problems of twelve-year-oldJose. Dennison begins:Here we come to one of the really damaging myths of education, namely, that learning is theresult of teaching, that the process Of the child bears a direct relation to methods of instructionand the internal relationships of curriculum ... To cite these as the effective causes of earning iswrong. The causes are in the child. When we consider the powers of mind of a healthy eight-year-old the avidity of the senses, the finesse and energy of observation, the effortless

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