THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Carlo Rotella

Mr. Sugarman’s class

The crucial ground of learning is in elementary school

(Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe)
By Carlo Rotella
February 16, 2011

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RECENTLY I visited Mr. Sugarman’s fourth grade class at the Runkle School in Brookline to talk about writing. They’re doing a unit on researching and organizing information into essays. I do that for a living, and one of my kids is a fourth-grader, but that doesn’t mean I was prepared for the experience. The students were eager and engaged, and their teacher expertly cultivated a tone of purposeful curiosity that balanced classroom order and open inquiry . . . but there were a lot of them and they were all 10 years old. The potent chaos of their collective thought process would produce a naively incisive question — “If a story is too long, how do you make it shorter without stopping in the middle of a sentence?’’ — and then one so tenuously connected to our conversation that it caused my mind to lurch wildly as I tried to retrace the logic that had led to it. I think I know how we got from a discussion of working with an editor to “How come my brother is always bothering me?,’’ but it still threw me.

The kids kept good decorum, but rogue flows of energy twisted their seated bodies into crazy shapes, and a bewildering variety of expressions raced across their faces. One fellow who frequently raised his hand had a habit of shifting his hoodie around his torso so that the hood hung down under his chin, and then all the way around to its normal position. Every time I looked at him, his parts appeared to have rotated another turn or two. He also seemed to grow visibly taller.

As we talked about the fundamental tool kit of nonfiction writing at any level — planning a project, doing the legwork, crafting narrative and analysis, revising drafts — it was driven home to me, as it always is when I visit my kids’ classrooms, that this is where the educational action is. Elementary school is school in its purest and most important form.

By the time students get to my own classroom, as undergrads or grad students, it feels as if we’re playing out the sequel of this main drama. Students who developed basic skills and work habits in the early grades and refined them in middle and high school can handle anything I throw at them. Students who don’t have that foundation will almost certainly be unequipped to do well, no matter how smart they may be. Even an educational late bloomer who hits his stride in his twenties (as I did) can bloom only if the foundation’s already there.

It seems odd, then, that the strength of the American educational system is backloaded in its colleges and universities. There are so many places to get a good postsecondary education in this country — public and private, fancy and no-frills — that almost any student with basic skills and gumption can find a way. Young people still come from all over the world to take advantage of this glut of postsecondary opportunities, even if they increasingly turn around and go home when it’s time to convert that schooling into a career.

We know that we need to improve and even out the quality of elementary and secondary education in this country. We will continue to fight about the controversial reforms currently being championed by President Obama’s Department of Education, in part because the jury’s out on most of these policies’ ultimate effect on learning. As usual, when it comes to debates about education, we know that school is vitally important, but after that fine start the clarity begins to fade.

Still, as I stood there, sweating, in front of Mr. Sugarman’s class, the questions flying in at me from all angles, one thing was achingly clear: I was temporarily standing on the crucial ground on which the battle is won or lost. Later that day I taught a graduate seminar on American literature, and I think we accomplished something meaningful in those three hours that contributed to the education of all present. But I can’t escape the feeling that the hour that counted most was the one I spent talking with 10-year-olds about how to plan in advance, take notes, and write drafts.

Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.