Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Education Guinea Pigs

We who grew up in Seward enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom to explore and to teach ourselves. We initiated and organized many of our own activities for ourselves -- sports games, plays in garages, Monopoly tournaments, toy-truck get-togethers, and so forth.

We also participated in school, community and church activities that are common throughout the USA -- sports, drama, music, festivals, fairs, and so forth. These activities were initiated and organized mostly by experienced adults -- by teachers, coaches, community leaders and so forth.

Since we grew up in a community that included a teachers college, we also participated in a variety of activities that were conducted by young adults who were learning how to become teachers, church leaders and community leaders. In this regard we grew up in a situation where we kids often served as guinea pigs for college students.

For example, during the three years that I lived on Faculty Lane, I probably took an IQ test every year. I think the same was true during that period for the other kids in my family. The reason for this frequency was simply that there was some Concordia College class where measuring a child's IQ was an academic assignment. We kids on Faculty Lane were nearby, and it was relatively easy for a college student to ask the parents living there for permission to do IQ tests on their children.

We students who attended St John Elementary School frequently were taught by student teachers from the College. Every year, every class had at least three student teachers. Each student teacher taught for a few weeks. Of course, we kids tested these student teachers' disciplinary skills. We behaved ourselves as long as our regular teacher stayed in the room, but as soon as the regular teacher left the room and left the student teacher in charge, then the hijinks began.

My father, Robert Sylwester, managed the student-teacher program at St John Elementary School, so he visited the school classrooms frequently to observe. This was a high-risk situation for me. If the student teacher was trying to conduct a class and I happened to stand on my chair and dance a jig in order to make fun of the student teacher, then there was a real possibility that my own father might open the door and walk in unexpectedly at that very embarrassing moment.

There also was a real possibility that a student teacher might snitch on me to my father. There were a couple of occasions where I persisted in asking a student teacher a series of questions in an annoying manner. For example, when a student teacher was teaching our class about erosion -- specifically about how the Mississippi River gathered a lot of soil during its flow and then dropped that soil at the river's mouth to form the Louisiana Delta -- I asked the student teacher about a dozen questions about my idea that if we built concrete walls along the entire Mississippi River, then we could prevent all that erosion and loss of soil for agriculture. A couple of days later I visited my father's office in the basement of Weller Hall, and he scolded me for "beating a dead horse against a wall" (which was the first time I ever heard that expression).

One positive result of experiencing so many student teachers is that many of us decided to become teachers ourselves. Watching our student teachers grapple with the difficulties of trying to teach gave us some extra food for thought -- that teaching is a challenging profession in which you gradually earn respect and obedience.

In addition, we kids were offered a variety of learning programs that helped give practical experience to the college students. In the summer, there were a variety of programs (I think they often were called workshops) for athletics, arts and drama. At the time, we kids perceived that these programs were offered entirely for our benefit, but in retrospect I recognize that they were organized also for the benefit of the college student who helped conduct them.

For example, I remember participating in such summer athletic programs that were conducted by Lou Schwich. For example, we learned basketball skills. There probably were about 30 kids, aged from about 8 to 13. Lou Schwich sat us all in the bleachers and demonstrated some skill, such as how to dribble, pass or shoot, and then we all practiced the skill. As we practiced, some college students helped organize, guide and correct our drills. Now, I realize that Lou Schwich was teaching us little kids and he also was teaching the college student how to teach little kids.

As another example, I remember participating in science programs that were conducted by Herb Meyer. We kids were seated in classroom seats, and he stood at his laboratory counter and demonstrate various chemical effects. He'd pour one liquid into another liquid, and the color would change. He's show smoke coming out of dry ice. He showed how to grow crystals. Then we kids divided into small groups and started growing sugar crystals. We heated water in a beaker, disolved some sugar into the hot water, put in a string, and then watched sugar crystalize onto the string as the water cooled. Likewise, about 30 kids of various ages participated at a time, and some college students helped us kids do these science experiments.

As another example, I remember participating in art-and-music programs conducted by Reinhold Marxhausen and a music professor. We built little musical instruments, such as drums and harps. Then we colored film strips with magic markers. Then we played the film through a movie projector as we played recordings of the music we had performed with our hand-made instruments. Likewise, college students helped us kids in these activities.

I remember some theater programs also. Same idea. We made costumes. We learned some lines. We performed a little play. Likewise, a college professor taught us little kids how to perform a play as he simultaneously taught some college students how to teach little kids how to perform a play.

I have fond memories of those activities, and I think that they influenced us kids positively. We improved our skills, we acquired new knowledge, we completed a project, we achieved some progress.

Furthermore, I think that such experiences -- where we interacted casually with college-age students who were learning to become teachers -- inspired many of us to become teachers, coaches or church or community leaders ourselves. To some extent, it was a self-perpetuating educational system.

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