from 'Teaching As A Subversive Activity' by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner
5:35 PM

The following article, 'Education and reality', is by Frank Miceli, formerly Consultant for the Department of Education, Virgin Islands of the United States. His description of a 'reality curriculum' presents in concrete terms some of the processes and concepts we have been talking about, and provides one illustration of the new education in action.

Frank Miceli

Teachers don't work with materials. They work with what they have in their heads and with what their students have in their heads. When the schooling process breaks down - that is, when students drop out - we can almost be sure that the origin of the failure is in the fact that the stuff in the teacher's head bore an inadequate relationship to the stuff in the learner's head. The student who believes that schooling offers him an opportunity to achieve material success will become a psychic dropout when their is a lack of congruence between his stuff and the teacher's stuff. The others just leave. Or make trouble.

When I worked in the Virgin Islands I observed a program an St Croix, at the College of the Virgin Islands. The program was designed to assist highschool students in studying aspects of life they wished to know more about. The program had been in existence for two years when I first learned of it. I spent five months studying how it worked, and I am convinced that it offers those of us in education a workable model for developing viable curricula (read: relevant stuff to do) for the future for all kids.

First, the students: all the participants were volunteers. This was an 'extracurricular' program - an important point, because it was relatively free of the usual administrative requirements that so often corrupt the learning process. Almost all the students had deficiencies in reading and writing (at least as judged by their local high-school teachers). All levels of academic achievement were represented in the total group of eighty, from some college-bound students to many potential high-school dropouts.

The staff based its activities on two curious assumptions. The first was a belief that the classroom was a stage on which students, not teachers, should perform. The second was the belief that the students should feel that they were learning something. The latter assumption had more immediate practical significance than the former because, if the students did not see the value of the sessions, they would not attend. And that would be the end of the program. And the teachers.

The description that follows represents my close observations of the communication section of the program.

The instructor spent the first few sessions (three hours per session) eliciting from the students questions they were concerned to know more about. In other words, they were asked to think about questions that they though were worth answering. Now, whenever students are asked to think about questions (as against answers), the response is the same. They do not regard the activity as serious. (This fact, by itself, constitutes a devastating indictment against our conventional schooling process.) Nonetheless, the instructor accommodated the rather lighthearted attitude of his students by introducing what he called 'the black attaché-case game'. It went like this: the instructor brought to class a black attaché case. He told the students that inside the case there was a small computer which was capable of producing the answer to any question anyone asked.' What questions,' he asked,' do you want it to answer? Dozens of questions came:

When was I born?

What is my mother's maiden name?

What should we do about Vietnam?

Why are grown-ups always angry with teenagers?

Why can't we grade ourselves in school?

If everyone makes H-bombs, won't someone drop one some day?

If love is dead, why do I feel so great with my boyfriend?

How many miles is it from St Croix to San Francisco?

And so on.

The instructor then informed the class that the computer was expensive to operate and that it would be wasteful to use it on questions to which the answers were already known. The students examined their list and eliminated from it those questions whose answers could easily be given (e.g. 'When was I born?' 'What is my mother's maiden name?) Next, the instructor told the students that the computer had trouble with questions that were vaguely phrased. Unless the computer knew exactly what was meant by the words in the question, its answers would be confusing. For example, in the question 'What should we do about Vietnam?' what is meant by 'we'? What is meant by 'should'? Is it a 'moral should'? Is it a 'political should''? In the question 'How many miles is it from St Croix to San Francisco?' what is meant by 'miles'? Air miles? Ship miles? And so on.

Here is what happened during a three-week period of the black attaché-case game. Of course, the students quickly realized that there was no miraculous computer in the case. They were only slightly disappointed. (They did insist, for some reason, that the black case be physically present at every session.) They came to class every meeting and expressed repeatedly the opinion that what was going on was worthwhile. They evolved a list of questions to ask about questions. They came to believe that their question list was a powerful instrument in helping someone to know (a) what he is talking about, (b) what sort of information he wants, (c) whether or not a question can be answered, and (d) what he must do to find an answer if one can be found. As might have been predicted, the students felt that what they had been doing was not 'school stuff. They were asked, 'What is it about?'

A student replied, 'Thinking'.

After these sessions, the instructor began a 'writing' phase of the program by asking the students to write him a letter dealing with any questions or problems or things they felt strongly about. He told them he would write a letter back to them. The students did not know how to react to the teacher. One girl raised her hand and asked if the teacher would read the letters aloud in class. He said he would not, that the letters would be personal communications between them, and that he would respond not with short notes, but with detailed replies. 'Would you tell us in your letter about things that bother you?' asked one student. The teacher said he would: 'However, I'll only write what bothers me if you promise not to correct my spelling.' The students laughed. 'Besides, if I write and ask you something, if I have a question for you, will you respond with a letter to me?' The class laughed again, even louder. They thought he was kidding. Students always think 'real stuff' is not serious.

During the next month or so, letters were exchanged frequently. That is, ideas and feelings were exchanged, and never once was the word 'composition' mentioned. Teachers should give that some thought. When was the last rime you wrote a 'composition'? Outside of the separate life of a school, when does anyone put pen to paper to write a composition? And if compositions bear no relationship to reality, why continue to assign them? Why not letters as a way of getting students to talk? Of course, we would have to answer the letters, to talk back, to respond not only to the mechanical quality of the student's writing, but also to what he has to say to us.

The grammar and spelling of the students improved in the process of communicating with the instructor, as a function of what the students had to say, and not in the vacuum of a workbook. The situation was congruent with reality. The curriculum became the stud of curiosity, the threads of a fabric two people weave when they talk to each other. Not all the students wrote about themselves. Some didn't need to. But all began to see some special quality in writing, some magic in words that they had never seen before. And the teacher became aware of a special dimension in education that, on a large scale, has never been explored or studied: what the teacher has to say of a personal and compelling nature to students.

If you are a teacher, when was the last time you wrote some thing to a pupil so that he could comment on your ideas? Don't you think a school year ought to be a continuing exchange of ideas, rather than sales of staccato 'lessons' and 'units'? But perhaps teachers have nothing to communicate to students. Perhaps they are afraid to talk with them. Maybe that's what lesson plans an all about - a tactical diversion so that no one need say anything to anyone.

The instructor in the communication section kept careful records of what happened during all the three-hour sessions. The descriptions of what actually occurred were matched against the plans for what was supposed to happen. The plans for each session grew out of an analysis of the kinds of questions the students were concerned about in class and in their letters. An overwhelming proportion of questions dealt with the students' fear of social rejection, the tenuousness of friendship, sexual exploration, breaking away from parental control and success in college or in a job. Many feared immaturity; some feared our involvement in Vietnam. The teacher needed to be very wise and to know a great deal. If his letters were fatuous, the students told him so.

On one occasion, the students were asked by the instructor to respond in writing to the questions and statements below. The only instruction given to the students was that they were not to write in complete sentences, but to respond in three, four, or five-word phrases. If a particular question did not interest them, or if nothing occurred to them, they were to omit the question:

1. What do you hear if you are in a car and it is raining outside? What do you feel if you are standing outside?

2. Describe the odor of gasoline.

3. What sounds do you hear if you are walking with heavy boots in deep snow? (Don't use the word 'crunch'.)

4. What does hair feel like? Anybody's hair.

5. Describe the texture of skin. Feel it.

6. How would you describe fear? If you've never been afraid, don't answer. If you have, you don't have to answer either, unless you want to.

7. Describe the odor of freshly cut grass.

8. Describe the sensation of placing an ice cube against your lips.

9. Is there a particular odor in the air before a rainfall? Describe it.

10. Is there a particular odor in the air after a rainfall? Describe.

11. If your hand slides across a piece of silk, what sensation do you feel?

12. If you were to walk barefoot along a beach of pebbles, what would you feel?

13. What does your hand feel like?

14. What does someone else's hand feel like?

15. Describe the taste of salt.

16. Describe the flight of a seagull.

When the answers had been written, the instructor asked for volunteers to share them, and selected one girl. She went to the board and wrote her responses. She was asked to write them without identifying numbers, so that it would look as if they were all of a piece, not sixteen different reactions. What she wrote is reproduced, unedited, below.

Soft rhythms on tin
Torrents of mini wetness
Odor spray
Spreading, pushing, never toe touching ground
Twisting strands - sometimes silky flowing, oil
Smooth body surface
Filled with dread anticipation
Moist flower fragrance
A burning cold
Wet heat, when first to breathe is dying
In fresh clearance objects sparkle and air is pure
A finely never broken woven texture
Sharp, bumpy pains against the pad of feet
Dry dampness underneath
Bare-top dry
Blue crystals on tongue
All perfection, soaring through air with wings
Outstretched, silhouetted against the cloud.

As the student wrote her reactions on the board, the instructor asked several students in their seats to read aloud their responses, as if they were part of a whole, and not fragments. After several were read aloud, the instructor turned the attention of the class to the responses on the board. He read the responses aloud.

INSTRUCTOR: What does that sound like?

FIRST STUDENT: Some kind of poetry.


INSTRUCTOR: How Can that be? (No response.) Why should a group of reactions sound like poetry?

THIRD STUDENT: Because the same person wrote them.

INSTRUCTOR: But what makes it hang together? (No response) It does hang together, doesn't it?

The students were soon saying that people write out of a well-integrated web of experiences and, no matter what they write, regardless of the descriptions, their phrases would seem to go together because a person is 'together'. They went on to formulate tentative hypotheses about personality integration, prose, poetry, how one writes, how one reads, and the difficulty a person who is 'not together' would have with reading and writing. When asked if they had liked what they had written, the students answered with a unanimous Yes'. When asked if they would like to write a poem, they answered with a unanimous 'No'.

INSTRUCTOR: But you enjoyed the writing in class.

FIRST STUDENT: You didn't say it was a poem.

SECOND STUDENT: You tricked us.

INSTRUCTOR: May I trick you some more? (Laughter.)

It is important to say here that the curriculum that emerged in these classes had a curious but compelling unity. The students did a great deal of writing and talking. They asked lots of questions about language, some of which were strikingly original. They also asked many questions of an intensely personal nature. And they came every day. Not because they were required to come, but because they felt that what was happening had something to do with them. When they were asked, 'What subject are we studying?' they thought the question odd. One student said, 'Well, it's not a subject, exactly. It's more like group therapy. Another said, 'The subject is me.' Still another, 'Subjects are what you study in school. This is something else.' The 'subject', of course, was them: that is, it concerned their perceptions of the world and their attempts to communicate with that world. For this reason, each session was not only intensely interesting, in a way that school seldom is, but each session was also connected with the previous one by virtue of its psychological continuity. The curriculum was not a logical sequence of predetermined pieces of something. It was a flow of ideas, one idea leading to the next because that was the order in which the students thought them. The instructor never had occasion to say, 'Today we will discuss ... .' The students always knew what they were to discuss because, in a sense, the discussion of the previous lesson had not ended.

I want to raise a few questions here about the word 'subject'. What is a subject? Are subjects 'things'? ('Have you taken economics? ' 'Why, no.' 'You should study it.') Do subjects grow? If they do, how? Where do subjects reside? In books? In people's heads? Why are students required to study subjects? Do young children think in terms of subjects? If not, why are they such curious, persistent learners?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I have the impression that we need to ask ourselves about these matters if we want to break new ground in education. In any case, the program I am describing did not look like any 'subject' I had seen before in school. And that fact made a big, positive difference to the students. For example, some of the questions raised by the instructor during the course of the term were these:

1. Is there any moral or legal relationship between fooling around with marijuana, fooling around with someone else's wife or husband, and fooling around with an income-tax return?

2. Why do people like to buy items made of plastic? What does it say about them? What does it say about plastic?

3. What does it mean to you that vast families have a bathroom cabinet filled with small bottles of drugs?

4. If you want to say something about using words, how would you go about it? Is there a silent language?

5. Why are people who love each other sometimes cruel to each other?

Some of the questions the students raised were:

1. Why do we have such a thing as a 'dirty word'?

2. Why do I fear certain words?

3. Do people kill each other over words?

4. Should people kill each other over words?

5. Who knows most about how words work? Teachers? Advertisers? Politicians?

6. Why do people pray?

7. Why do people yell at each other?

Not every one of these questions was discussed, but most were. And in discussing them, the students brought to bear what they had read, what they had seen, and what they had felt. In short, they were educating themselves in an environment that allowed the world to enter.

If more and more students become less and less interested in what we have to offer them, we will, I believe, begin to discover by default what our profession is all about, and what it should have been from the beginning: the study of how students learn by asking and being asked relevant questions. The student must be central in any curriculum development. Not central to the limit that we bear him in mind as we construct our intellectual houses, but central in that our curricula begin with what he feels, cares about, fears and yearns for. Most curricula are concerned with the structure of the comfortable past. We had here a curriculum concerned with the here and now, the difficult present, and more teachers should prepare themselves for confrontations with students who, rightfully, want a program that is part of our new world and has a vital place in it for them. If we can say that all human discovery, regardless of discipline, starts with an answerable question, then we ought to look at the curriculum as a series of questions from students that the school helps them to explore - regardless of how indelicate those questions might be. Any curriculum, after all, ought to recognize the existence of the real world.


tea with sugar gives me the cramps