Monday, January 31, 2011

Fast Food, Dolores Umbridge, and Education

Bear with me. This is going to have a lot of seemingly random references. I hope, however, that it will be worth it!

We live in a fast food society. I admit that I sometimes fall prey to the ease of swinging through the drive-thru to pick up some processed dinner delights for my family on hectic nights (read: nights I have class, nights we have Cub Scouts, nights when there’s nothing left in the fridge or the cabinets, nights I have a headache, etc.).

In my frequenting, albeit ashamedly, these fast food joints, I have noticed a thing or two that reflects both our American culture and education. Today, for the purpose of posting on this particular blog, I’m going to equate fast food restaurants and American public education.

A few years ago, fast food restaurants started building new structures that featured two drive-thru windows. The logic behind this would be that it would speed the customer through the line, allowing the customer to pay at one window, drive up a little further, and receive the food from the other window.

I’m no genius, but it seems to me that this is just an illusion. You just FEEL like you’re going faster, which lessens the number of complaints from the customer. Well, I’ve noticed that several of those restaurants in our area have boarded up the once-popular additional window. Perhaps the public has figured out that it was indeed an illusion. Perhaps the fast food industry realized that the plan wasn’t as good in reality as it seemed in theory or on paper. Perhaps due to the economy, restaurants couldn’t afford to staff the additional window. Whatever the reason, this fad seems to have fallen by the wayside (at least in my tiny part of this fine country).

OK, before we get to the meat (haha, get it?) of this story, let me bring in a seemingly unrelated reference from Harry Potter, specifically, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. When Dolores Umbridge is introduced to the Hogwarts students at the start of term feast, she says in her rather lengthy (read: boring) speech, “…progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged.”

And here it is… How can I combine fast food restaurants, Dolores Umbridge, and American education? Well, it all comes down to progress.

I hate to agree with that nasty old witch Umbridge; it kind of hurts my inner Gryffindor to do so. Alas, in this instance, I’m going to embrace the quote only and not the other sentiments she expresses.

Progress, for the sake of progress, must be discouraged. Fast food restaurants are falling back to the old tried-and-true one window scenario. It makes better sense. They are comfortable going back to what worked after trying something that they thought would work, but didn’t. I believe it’s time for us as educators to consider the same.

How does this relate to No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? I love what I read in an article tonight that described NCLB as “impossibly sunny.” It is my personal opinion that NCLB sounds great in theory and probably looked fabulous on paper, but it’s not working out so well in practice. I feel that we are sacrificing authentic teaching and learning for the sake of AYP.

There have been quite a few times in my career when I have realized that something isn’t working in my classroom. I’m more than happy to talk about it with the kids. It’s actually happened recently. I sit down with them and say, “Hey, kiddos, this doesn’t seem like it’s really working. What do you think? Do you think we could do something better? What could I do to help you learn more?” And you know what? I always learn something. We work together, teacher plus students, to create a more efficient and effective learning environment. I’m happy to abandon ship IF I know what I was doing is not what’s best for my students. More often than not, it requires me to do things more simply instead of trying to incorporate all of education’s newest buzz words in the classroom.

In schools, I feel that we are always looking at the newest, biggest, baddest (ok, best) thing in education. We try it because everyone else does. We try it because it’s new. We try it because experts (aka “salespeople”) say it will make our test scores go up.

Is this wise? Is this jumping too quickly on the two-window bandwagon? Are we making progress simply for the sake of progress?

It’s time to join forces with Fast Food and Dolores Umbridge. I’m issuing a call for “Back to Basics.”

Hold on now. This doesn’t mean we go back to teaching today’s students in the same way we were taught when we were younger. I don’t believe that’s the best way to teach. In fact, I’m a big believer in the thought that an 18th century education doesn’t adequately prepare a 21st century student. So what do I mean by back to basics?

Basic, to me, is this: We do what’s best for all students. We need to have the guts to stop and say, “Maybe what I’m doing (or what we’re doing) isn’t working. What can I do to best serve ALL of my students?”

This, my friends, requires bravery. This requires that we admit that sometimes, we are wrong. Sometimes we get caught up in the hype. This is tough. It requires us to reevaluate everything we are doing.

I don’t want to teach to raise test scores. I want to teach to raise lifelong readers and learners. I want to teach to inspire. I want to teach to challenge. I want the teaching and learning that occurs in my classroom to be authentic. Meaningful. Lasting.

This, to me, is back to basics.

What does “Back to Basics” mean to you?


  1. I so agree with you! I struggle all the time with the constant barage of new programs that are thrown in our classrooms to try to get those test scores up. What happened to creating well-rounded students who love learning? Down with "progress for the sake of progress" and cheers for learning for the sake of learning!

    1. Learning for the sake of knowledge and truth :) A means should not be confused with its goal. But your sentiment is in the right place, and I agree wholeheartedly.


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