From the February 2016 issue

Old-Fashioned Education

Ten reasons why we had it better than our kids in school – including less homework, kick-butt recess and more.

By some appearances, schools haven’t changed all that much over the last 30 years. The elementary school hallways are still covered with handmade tissue paper animals made by third graders. In middle school, kids still do science fair projects – and yes, the baking soda volcano always makes an appearance. In high school, there’s still a whole list of clubs to match seemingly any interest. Spanish-language-glee-club-members-who-garden, you know who you are. And all of the classrooms still carry that overwhelming aroma of crayons, disinfectant spray, week-old ham sandwiches and gym shoes.

Yet look past the finger paintings and the school smell, and it’s clear education has changed dramatically. You’re already coming up with a list in your mind, aren’t you? Maybe even to an old Madonna tune – or perhaps the Rolling Stones or MC Hammer? While you’re mentally filling out your top 10 ways we had it better than our kids, here’s ours. Drumroll please … no cheating, we’re going old school – so use a tabletop, no app or YouTube sounds allowed!

We had less homework – and more free time.

When I was a kid, homework consisted of a few worksheets or a book report, then I was out the door, followed by my mom yelling, “Be home in time for dinner.” I’d meet up with kids from the neighborhood who, like me, had chewed through their half hour of homework and had plenty of time to race our Big Wheels, listen to ghetto blasters or launch each other off the cool kid’s trampoline. We didn’t wear watches. There were no smartphones or texting. We were all summoned to various homes by special calls or shouts or whistles like something from an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Today, homework monopolizes my kids’ afternoons. They sit buried behind stacks of books or glued to a computer doing research up until dinner, then long after dessert.

Gone are the days of homework in under an hour, then an evening of Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons and Family Ties before bed.

Encyclopedias. The paper kind.

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Stay with me for a minute on this one. When my kids go searching for something for a report, they just type it into the search box on whatever Internet browser. Instantly, the results come up for “War of 1812” or “foxes.”

My kids will never have that mind-blowing experience of hefting an eight-pound book off the shelf and cracking the binding of a volume where everything starts with “A.” They’ll never start with the mission to look up “anteaters” only to become absorbed into all things Antarctica, Ansel Adams, aneurysms and maybe even Annie Lennox.

My kids may click on a link and find an online tangent, but it’s not like 100-plus pounds of Encyclopedia Britannica at their fingertips.

Online grade books didn’t exist.

Any time of day or night, I can check my kids’ assignment completions and test grades. They can too. And they do. On their smartphones. If I had mediocre grades, I could expect to sail through until my report card came without my parents being any the wiser. Sure, if I really bombed a test, my teacher might write a note home, but usually the first time my parents had a full picture of my grades was at the end of the semester – not the quarter, and certainly not each day. Thank goodness.

There was no new math, just math.

Solving a math problem didn’t take a whole page. We could stack the numbers one on top of the other and … subtract. My youngest tried to show me how she solves math problems. Take 33-minus-12. My daughter explained how it works and I followed for a few minutes. See you take an easier number to work with, like 30, and then leave out the 3. With the 12 you’d use 10 and save that 2 and then round up to 100, circle around three times, throw salt over your shoulder, crumple the paper up, unravel it and you’d have your answer. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but in the time it took to explain, I’d had time to solve the equation, balance my checkbook and finish off my taxes (oops, did I exaggerate again?).

I know, I know – the idea is that new math teaches kids how to think, but so far the old-fashioned way seems to work just fine for us.

There was no social media. Only good, old-fashioned gossip.

When we did something stupid at school, maybe a handful of our friends knew. Maybe, just maybe, one of your friends might reach out to a few others to spread the embarrassment. But they’d have to wait to use their family’s one phone line to let them know. If there were pictures, which there usually weren’t since no one brought cameras to school, developing them took at least a week (if any turned out at all). By then, any sting from the original silliness had passed.

PE class was like an episode of survivor.

I dreaded the day we went through the Presidential Fitness Test. Part of the requirements involved scaling a thick, scratchy 30-foot rope to the top of the gym – luckily there was a 1-inch mat at the bottom to cushion us if we fell (somehow no one ever did). I’d choke about one-third of the way up only to have my Schwarzenegger-like teacher yell out, “You’ve got to finish in under a minute. Hurry up.” I’d bite my lip and keep climbing. Touching the metal link gave me a unique sense of satisfaction and the rope burn was a reminder that I could do things I didn’t think possible at first – and sometimes it was OK to be scared.

The culmination of the PE experience was field day. It was an Olympic-like contest, a survival of the fittest. There were no participation trophies. If you were the fastest kid in third grade, you got the blue ribbon and if you came in sixth or beyond, well, there wasn’t a ribbon for you … kind of like life.

Presentations were for high school.

My now-12-year-old started doing PowerPoint presentations in first grade. And videos? She’s been doing those as group projects since about third grade. They use music and editing programs, special effects and animation.

We had poster board, markers and a few pictures cut out of magazines our parents weren’t done reading yet. We made dioramas. They have 3-D printers. We had slideshows and overhead projectors. They have HD flat screens and videos projected over Apple TV. Our science projects consisted of sprouting potatoes. I’ve seen laser construction at a fifth grade science fair – lasers!

We had fewer tests.

Yeah, we had our share of Scantron tests and filling out little ovals with our freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils. Occasionally.

On back-to-school nights – or rather, “curriculum nights” these days – my kids’ teachers focus largely on getting kids ready for test days. They’ll detail when tests are, study helps – they’ll even get into what foods kids should be eating for breakfast to have enough energy to make it through the day. And the WEEK.

If and when we did have tests, they might take up one period or, for statewide tests, maybe an afternoon – not the weeklong drillings my kids now go through.

Lunchtime was a calorie nirvana.

Do you remember what you had in your school lunch? My mom packed mine in my plastic Smurfs lunch pail. Tucked inside I had a peanut butter sandwich on airy white bread, plus a bag of potato chips and a Chocodile as dessert – for the uninformed, that was a Twinkie coated in “chocolate,” and it was my favorite goody. I usually bought chocolate milk to wash down my meal. I’d often swap my Chocodile for other treats like a friend’s full-size Snickers or a Whatchamacallit candy bar.

The cafeteria had rival munchies sure to appeal to carb-hungry kids. My fourth-grade friend Amy would pile her tray with tater tots or crinkle French fries and dip them into ranch dressing she swirled with ketchup. That was after she polished off her slice of pepperoni sheet pizza and bowl of chocolate pudding. Meanwhile, her canned corn remained untouched. And don’t even get me started on softball-sized chewy chocolate chip cookies.

Today, my kids check the caloric intake of the pita sandwich and want to know the fat content of the dressing at the school salad bar. Where’s the fun in that?

No-holds-barred recess.

So maybe I did get a concussion in preschool after a bad fall off the monkey bars, but after a couple days of indoor recess, I was hanging upside down on those rust metal bars again. Recess used to be an unstructured way to embrace the inner wild child. Running, screaming, chasing, jumping, rolling, swinging – it all gave you a break from the drudgery of sitting in the classroom and was meant to tire you out for the next three hours in a desk.

It was also full of exciting challenges. Who could do the highest flip off the swings? Who could get the most air turning the seesaw into a catapult? Foursquare, tag and dodgeball were ever-present. Monitors weren’t.

We had equipment that’s long-since been declared too dangerous – all offered on top of a bed of jagged gravel that embedded in your knees when you had a bad landing dismounting the metal merry-go-round. Or remember slide burn – that familiar singe of going down the towering metal slide sizzling in the sun?

Yeah, today’s education may have it perks and advantages. And it may be safer for body and mind. But there’s something to be said for the old-school way. Wow, I suddenly sound like my parents. When did that happen?

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