The other day, and completely apropos of nothing, I saw this image on my facebook feed:
If you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s a tomato that somehow managed to grow inside the decorative swirl of this wrought iron fence post. Fascinating, right? Did it happen by accident or did someone tuck the budding fruit in there to see what would happen as it grew? No one knows, but the image has been nagging me ever since I first saw it.
This feels a lot like what we do in education, and not just to the students, either. I’m not sure how eloquent I can be about the thinking that I’ve been doing for the last week or so about this – there’s an awful lot swirling around my head right now – but I feel as though this picture is the perfect metaphor for what our current system does to people.
Think about it. In the beginning, before the tomato grew too big for its confines, the swirl in the fence was a good deal for the plant. It protected the fruit (and, by bearing the weight of the tomato, it also protected the vine to which it is attached), held it up to the light, and kept birds or other animals from getting to it. It helped to create some pretty optimal growing conditions. As a result, the tomato grew.
That is, ideally, what we want education to be, right? We want to provide a safe, nourishing place for our kids to grow. We want to manipulate the conditions so that every kid – from preschool to graduate school – gets what he or she needs to thrive.
Look at what happened next, though; the tomato, safe and secure and well-nourished, is growing out of its confines. The flesh of the thing is pressing against the bars of the swirl in a way that looks almost painful, as if to grow any further would cause the fruit to split. It’s reached – and exceeded – the limits of its space; it can literally grow no more without destroying itself.
Think, as well, about the options for extricating the tomato from the fence post. Something’s going to have to be taken apart; there’s no way to remove the tomato without either shredding the fruit or sawing through the fence (and even if someone would do that, the tomato is going to be forever deformed; once it’s freed from its cage, it wouldn’t be able to heal those grooves).
I’m not sure that the metaphor runs all the way through to a tidy conclusion, but I keep coming back to the idea that our intentions and expectations do not meet up with our policies and practices, especially in education. I understand that there have to be limits – sometimes, iron-fast limits – and that some people really do thrive when they know for sure where the edges are. My older daughter is an example of this; she actually feels freed by clear and study edges. Knowing that she’s safe within a particular set of conditions or expectations means that she can stop worrying about falling off the proverbial cliff. Instead, she can focus on being creative and getting the job done. Everyone, to one degree or another, needs to know where the edges are; it’s the fact that we set the SAME edges for EVERYONE that is a real problem.
I don’t mean to say that schools in general or teachers specifically are the fence, either. I keep coming back to the idea that we’re putting too much responsibility on too few people in our school systems. Teachers are typically in front of upwards of 25-30 students for an hour or so at a time. They’re tasked with teaching their discipline to a particular standard – and let’s not forget that ALL students need to meet that standard and to demonstrate their mastery in the SAME way; don’t even get me started – while at the same time managing the class for the kinds of issues that arise when students may not be prepared or equipped to learn.
Poverty, hunger, an unstable home life, work, sports, and other stress factors seriously affect the ways in which people learn. Take two kids with equal potential – one comes from a home where she’s been read to every night, where her parents talk about current events or ideas at the dinner table, and where she is safe and nurtured; the other comes from a home where the parents (if there are still two in the house) fight (or don’t speak to each other at all), where she’s responsible for getting her own meals (no family dinners around the table for this kid), where there literally are no books, and where her primary concern is flying under the proverbial radar so she doesn’t get hit or berated.
How do you think those kids are going to fare in the classroom? What responsibility does the teacher have to account for those differences? What happens when a teacher dares to care about a kid in class, but those second parents don’t appreciate the attention? Our system is not set up to catch kids before they fall; it’s designed to clean up the spatter after they hit the ground. A teacher can’t report a concern with a child unless there’s some kind of hard and fast evidence that there’s a clear and present danger. That has to change, but it’s not going to; not without a shift in how we think about our collective responsibility to our kids.
There are a lot of factors that make up the bars of our cages. Expectations – often horrifyingly unreasonable ones – of students, teachers, and school districts. A failure of communication between parents and the schools (and between teachers and administrators). A failure of our society – both local and big-picture – to address the underlying conditions that set kids up to fail (or, at the very least, make it harder for them to succeed); specifically poverty, mental health, family services, and nutrition. Unrealistic (sometimes to the patently ridiculous) requirements for students to meet. Standardized tests. Tradition and a lack of willingness on the part of communities to make some of the gigantic, monumental changes we need to make to the way we educate our young people.
We’re doing this wrong, and it feels like it’s too big to fix. If we can figure out how to get together the people who are motivated, inspired, and energized to do something about it, though – and then explain to those who want to keep things the way they are WHY we need these changes – we might, slowly but surely, figure out a way to break out of the iron cage.
I have to hope.