Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life in a Fourth-Grade American Classroom: The Friendship Worksheet

By Barry Rubin

When I went to school, we studied various academic subjects and even read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. At the time, I hated these works as boring and irrelevant. But how grateful I am today for this grounding in good literature.

(Is one still allowed to say such a thing or would the response be: How can we say something is “good” and how can we define “literature”? And which literature, since Native American literature is no doubt as good as English literature.)

But as an artifact of the increasingly unacademic nature of public schooling, I give you “Friendship Worksheet” from my ten-year-old son Daniel’s fourth-grade class in the Montgomery County, Maryland, public school. This was handed out in a half-hour guidance counseling session with the entire class.

The guidance counselor said: “The point of this is when you are sad then you look at the page and you feel better because this person thinks those nice things about you.”

My son, bless him, replied, “Of course the person is going to say nice things because it’s a project.”

Responds the teacher, no doubt in a slightly huffy tone, “You’ll learn that in Somerset (school) that the class is your family and you respect each other.”

One can’t help but read into that a bit of an implied threat, perhaps of being sent to a “reeducation camp” for being an undesirable element. Only kidding. Well, I do recall that some years ago he was sent to study hall as punishment for saying that some Indians were "ferocious" during a discussion on Native Americans at another American school. I guess that's how they teach pupils about free speech in the contemporary United States.

In the current case, it seems at least in part that “respect” here seems to be implicitly defined as “never criticize” and perhaps also as “don’t compete with.” And, of course, I remember enough about being 10 years old to conclude that students are also receiving the very strong message: Shut up and parrot the official line whether you believe it or not.

The teacher then chose for each student at random who they should write about and paired them off. In other words, it didn’t matter if they didn’t like this person or knew nothing about them they still had to praise them. As the teacher explained encouragingly, “The nice kids are popular.”

Funny, but when I was in school one of the most popular kids was Frank Rich, the future New York Times columnists, who was—and remains—one of the nastiest and most snobbish bullies I’ve ever encountered.

Even aside from this, as I remember it the “popular” kids were either sport’s stars; precocious enough to know how to maneuver socially; the best-looking; or, in those circles, derided as nerds the smartest. I seem to recall the saying that “nice guys finish last.”

But back to Daniel. The Friendship Worksheet begins with Adjectives in which the student gets to choose from 28 nice things ranging from kind and dependable through funny and nice.

In part two, a noun is chosen: friend, boy, girl, or person. Under predicates you get to pick five from among 14 items including “is nice,” “cares about others,” “has good ideas,” and “is a good sport.”

There is a choice at the end to write in something but the direction is foreclosed because one alternative begins with “is good at ___” and the other “is great at ____.”

While there is a choice for “learns quickly,” and “does well at school,” there is not one for being one of the top students or best athletes.

Finally, comes a “friendship sentence” to be written using the words chosen above. In my son’s case, he received the following: "You are a good and nice friend who is kind and learns quickly."
This took thirty minutes of class time.

Am I being unfair in ridiculing this exercise? This kind of thing might make sense in first grade but in fourth? As I recall, though, students are a pretty cynical bunch and take the attitude: We’ll give them what they want whatever that might be.

Should I speculate on the roots of the doctrine, so dear to President Barack Obama, that there is no such thing as an enemy and that individual or national interests—if properly defined—never conflict? I can’t help but imagine Obama filling out a Friendship Worksheet on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he can only circle nice things about him.

PS: Daniel has informed me that he is willing to answer your questions about the state of the American educational system.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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