reviewed by Lou LaBrant - 1971
Homework by Gloria Channon is a little book relating the author's attempts to introduce freedom and to develop some sense of responsibility for learning to a fifth-grade class in a poor area of New York City. The book is advertised on its jacket as being "required reading for teachers and parents." The record deals with the teacher's frustrations, her gradually developed insights, and her partial successes; but it certainly does not offer either a guide to or any clear realization of the freedom which is the aim. While freedom is always limited by the needs of other people and the physical environment, Mrs. Channon found that even in a so-called experimental school the system itself set up such boundaries as to negate much of what she tried to do. The book is therefore of most importance to supervisors and administrators, although one wonders how many of them will understand the freedom that is being sought.
Mrs. Channon's class was, theoretically, experimental. Children were not tracked, and consequently, she found achievements ranging from kindergarten to superior fifth grade in reading and mathematics. Previously she had read something of Dewey and Piaget, and had become fascinated by the new freedom of the English classroom. Apparently, she had not discovered the abundant literature dealing with free classrooms developed in this country during the thirties. Although these were later distorted and misinterpreted, resulting in public disapproval of anything labeled progressive, a sound literature written by such expert teachers as Laura Zirbes, and found in the files of the now long-defunct Progressive Education Magazine, still exists and would have helped Mrs. Channon with detailed examples.
The picture we are given of the factors in the school setting are thoroughly discouraging and must be considered in any evaluation. It provides a sharp criticism of an unwieldy system.
First, the children themselves had been conditioned by a good-bad characterization of behavior, a description which Mrs. Channon herself is not always able to discard. They see silence, conformity, neat writing, and a generally inert attitude as "good," mainly because such behavior does not disturb the teacher. Apparently, teachers have promoted this idea. Freedom to these children means electing either this conformity or playing; they do not see freedom as an opportunity to initiate new undertakings, to choose methods, or to experiment. Instead, their world is sharply divided between work (teacher-directed) and play (usually random). In large part these attitudes stem from the school; in part, of course, they come from the home. But since the pupils seem to see home and school as almost separate worlds, a new pattern might have been developed if the school system were so directed.
The fifth graders had received other false ideas from previous school experiences. Mrs. Channon explains: "They have learned in school that if you can't read you must be stupid. Intelligence = reading. A prerequisite for being a genius, maybe the only one, is education."
While Mrs. Channon's class was not tracked, she comments that in most schools children are tracked so vigorously that there is relatively little change in class composition. "Even," she says, "getting a child out of the so-called Opportunity Class, a catchall for slow children and behavior problems and educationally retarded children with language or perception or speech problems, is a battle."
Although one activity many of the children enjoyed was drawing, Mrs. Channon comments: "The children think they like to draw, but when they are given the chance to do so the experience is often unpleasant.... [They] draw a series of interesting curves and then proceed methodically and patiently to fill in each space with a different color. Damn the first-grade teacher who taught them to do that." Apparently, there has been no chance for splashing paint on the large sheets which enable youngsters to work out aggression or to feel free.
Relations with supervisors and other teachers were also restricting. Whether or not the author was as circumscribed as she believes, certainly no supervisor or principal gave her the support she needed. The picture she gives would probably be accepted by many teachers in the system. This reviewer does know of both principals and teachers who have broken the pattern and experimented happily; but they were probably more daring than the average. It should not happen that a teacher has to risk or believe he risks demotion or discharge or negative criticism if he tries out a new approach. It is, of course, easy to overestimate pressures.
Even fellow teachers were critical, apparently glad, to find fault or to note failure. Repeatedly Mrs. Channon mentions that other teachers complain if children have not met fixed standards, blaming the one who previously worked with the youngsters. Of course, this is a long-time custom and persists through most systems, even into the college levels. ("If only someone else had taught properly, I wouldn't have this to do.") Although she does not complain, it is evident that special teachers set up goals or instituted units which were Mrs. Channon's responsibility to continue.
School rules were a further impediment. They emphasized total silence in the classroom except when the teacher asked for responses. Teachers were supposed to assign homework every day. (This seems absurd for children coming from crowded homes where decent work space is impossible.) Pupil Routines and Requirements is quoted, covering indoor lineup; going to the classroom; leaving the room; "bathroom" hours; eating candy, cookies, etc; and gum chewing (strictly forbidden). "Bathroom," as used by the system and by Mrs. Channon, refers to toilets; rather obviously the brief time allotted to a visit does not permit a bath. The rules state that "unless an emergency, bathrooms may not be used before 10:00 a.m." Whoever made that rule would profit from elementary education in both physiology and semantics.
Mrs. Channon reports the lack of materials in "our desert classroom, full of textbooks and little else." She comments also on the fact that, although she had a wide range of reading abilities (and disabilities) in her class, she was supplied with fifth-grade readers only, a handicap to both the retarded and the superior.
Other limitations appeared. Supervisors, Mrs. Channon reports, were convinced that the "experimental school" they were running, if given enough time, would prove successful; but she was still under obligation to meet standardized test scores by the end of the year. Apparently, Mrs. Channon herself does not question this emphasis on reading and math. She says: "Superimposed on these two basic skills are a load of subject matter—science, art, social studies, and so on—and some all-purpose civic and psychological goals: Mental health, good citizenship, etc." She seems not to believe that reading can be a means in social studies and science, nor that mental health and good citizenship develop through group undertakings and working together. The ability to plan, to help and be helped, to accept error and begin again—all of these must be subordinated to reading and math skills.
Mrs. Channon's own conflict between her desire to have a free classroom and her half-admitted support of the prevailing standards affects her method of teaching reading. Discussing the All-Day Neighborhood Schools' program, she comments that it "attempted to bring the schools closer to the community, was humane in intent and practice, but it made little difference in the children's learning to read," Obviously, she does not see reading as requiring a sense of being a part of some life beyond one's immediate surroundings.
Discussing her aims as she "was confronted by twenty-two children, all but three of them black or Puerto Rican," she remarks that her supervisors "were under pressure to produce such results as were measurable on reading tests." Even within such limitations she tried to work. The reader wants to shout that a free classroom calls for new aims, new materials, new relations.
In another section, Mrs. Channon reports that when her pupils became interested in plants and animals they searched eagerly for books. Again, she does not seem to capitalize on this interest by leading them to stories about animals and growing things. Perhaps her school had no library, for she does comment on a dearth of materials. However, she complains specifically about a lack of textbooks below the fifth-grade level.
Reading, apparently, was taught piecemeal, according to formal steps: "Karen ... was a textbook case in nonstandard dialect, her soft voice slurring gently the word lists I asked her to read" (italics added). Or perhaps the system has not learned that words are pronounced in phrases, and not in independence.
In another place we find a comment which implies that reading should improve by standard steps: "The arts and crafts crew. I saw them happy and learning. But they were not learning to read much better. I did not want to have to face my failure with them."
Delores, a rather poor reader, resented "the actual required methodical tasks needed," but read with amusement a simplified version of Alice in Wonderland. Mrs. Channon, however, "was uneasy because she had chosen the most inefficient and long-drawn out way to learn to read." Someone failed to tell Mrs. Channon of the work that Doris Coburn did in New York City classes and later with beginning teachers, demonstrating the value of the very approach little Delores was taking-reading a variety of materials for pure pleasure. Involved here are two conflicts—one between work as a satisfaction and work as "hard," and the other between freedom of choice and a specified approach.
The stultifying effects of rote learning become apparent when Mrs. Channon discovers her fifth graders (at least eleven years old) have learned that twelve inches make a foot, but do not know that an inch has a fixed length. Small wonder that math means little to them and they "fail." One boy offers to read with or without the book. Children write lists and headings over and over, draw curves only to fill them in, listen again and again to the same tapes. No picture of brainwashing could be more frightening. How can such children understand any kind of freedom?
Teachers who read Homework will surely be impressed by the author's study of the children in her room. She makes no mention of IQ scores, nor of information derived from school records; but she studies each child's classroom behavior wisely. Thus we come to see each child as an individual—the clown, the fearful-of-failure, the determined nonconformist, the ambitious, the child seeking attention, love, or approval, and so on. Why each has developed as he has is never, apparently, discovered. Perhaps information is impossible to find, but certainly more should be made available than the book implies.
Perhaps one of the most important accounts is the author's admission of her own attitude. She forces herself to admit hating some children, wishing to avoid certain difficult cases, and tending to see the troublesome child as "bad." Her guilt feelings when a child fails to meet test standards are frankly owned; and yet it is difficult to see how some of these children, already experienced with four years of resisting the school program, coming from unstimulating homes, and faced (despite the teacher) with pass-fail, could succeed.
Another important emphasis is Mrs. Channon's insistence that the "good" pupil, quiet, neat, and often busy with insignificant work, may be a problem child. All too often, because he does not disturb the teacher, this child is under-stimulated and given little attention. Often too, Mrs. Channon implies, such a pupil is overrated, rewarded for, and pleased by his own inertia.
A constant, honest self-examination is a motif running throughout the book and is a major value. Repeatedly Mrs. Channon recognizes her own attitudes as directly affecting the child. Often she sees the classroom as a struggle between teacher and class.
Many understandings and many good, new relations took weeks and months to develop, a delay to be expected when such an abrupt change is attempted. Yet just when there seemed hope of new student effort and cooperation, the year ended and the passed group moved to a new teacher and a new set of adjustments. Those left behind may also have a new teacher, new demands. Such change is expensive in time, effort, and human relations.
Perhaps Homework should be classified as a report of an attempt to discover what freedom in the classroom means. A school is, by its nature, a restriction. Each child must work with a group not of his choosing, in a building he did not plan, with adults he may never have seen before and may or may not like. If he is to learn more about his world, he must gain certain skills. Often the ones offered do not seem important to him.
Mrs. Channon began by offering what she felt was total freedom: to do or not to do. But choices in doing were few: a variety of texts, meager art materials, math rods. Those who saw freedom as limited and uninteresting may have been justified. In consequence, they preferred teacher dominance and meaningless routine.
Americans who profess to value freedom should look closely at our classrooms, and look at once. What ideas about behavior, responsibility, and creativity are we giving a generation to whom we offer a lockstep, learning for the sake of test scores, dull rooms, obvious and arbitrary control? Mrs. Channon did not find a solution to her quest. She achieved some temporary liberty, yes. But, in general, her account is one of bafflement, partial success, frequent failures. The reader may think at times that a better program might have been devised; but the anomaly remains—a struggle to introduce freedom into a classroom in the land of the free.