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Learning at its Best

What is Underground Education? The How’s, Why’s, and What-Nots

Originally posted at @educatedtodeath

Underground Education is revolutionary, but does not aim to teach or incite external revolution; rather, it aims to nudge minds awake. Underground education begins the moment you see something that needs to be taught, and you teach it regardless of time allotted. Teachers engage in this daily. It is not a specific plan or curriculum. It is simply teaching, an art that has been and is being rendered obsolete through excessive and oppressive testing procedures. Underground Education begins with you, the teacher, examining the current curriculum as is, and critically supplementing it with what you know to be educational best practice.

Early elementary teachers often don’t have time to help their learners master the skills necessary for reading. Take the time. Make sure they really learn to read. You know how to assess their literacy. Help them develop every single tool they need to engage in ‘reading’— their worlds and the word. Talk to them, let them talk. Spend time questioning and exploring. Build motor skills and number sense. If a concept is tough to grasp and you must move forward, don’t neglect to go back even if is just for that one child.

Teach. You know how to do it. No evaluation, third party, or administrative office can tell you to neglect a child in the name of an assessment. Underground teaching is about providing learners with what they need. It’s about exploring curiosity. It involves teaching and stimulating every child and mind as though they belong in gifted classes. Early elementary teachers build a firm foundation. The slogans say this is so, teachers make it so.

Upper elementary teachers face the fourth grade slump. The transition from learning to read to reading to learn, and beyond that, an even greater emphasis on testing. Learners arrive lacking basic skills for numerous reasons, teachers don’t have time to go back and teach K-4. You don’t, but you must. This is a tough critical slump. The focus, as you know, must center around enabling the learners to glean information from texts— math, reading, social studies, science, the physical world, cultural contexts, etc.

This period is quite critical. Learners decide at this point if they can “learn” or not. So often kids never learn to glean any valuable or interesting information independently from the texts lain before them. This is the point where a decisions made about whether “learning” is cold and pointless or meaningful and enriching. Behavior problems blossom out of thin air for those who are behind and lost. Every child should be able to pick up a book or look at a problem, on paper or in world, and glean information and generate critical questions. They should have vocabulary and the ability to acquire vocabulary to talk about what they experience. The vocabulary and language must belong to them, it must be internalized.

Of course, there is no time for this in a class full of 30+ struggling fourth graders. You’re frustrated, exhausted, beat down. It will take you chasing rabbits in class, letting them explore seemingly random trains of thought, hallway, lunchroom, and playground conversations. It will require think-alouds and scaffolding of cognitive processes galore. It requires teaching and nurturing critical thinking and problem solving skills constantly and weaving instructional strands together. It requires teaching social skills and building language to express complex emotions. It involves dialogue. Much of this sounds like teaching according to “best practice”; it is teaching the child, the human, not the test. To recap and summarize, upper elementary must aim to enable a child to learn and know s/he can learn. The tools must have a chance to be used. Learners must develop a stake in their own learning. Their curiosity must be explored. They must find what motivates them. They must be successful more than enough to have the desire and payback to continue learning.

From here forth, education involves mass testing. Everything is for the test. Students are known as proficient, basic, and minimal. Names are lost. Discipline, emotional, academic, you name it, problems multiply at this point.

Anything missed in elementary, say fractions, is multiplied from here forward. A kid without a solid understanding of multiplication can derail a pre-Algebra class in a second. The trend is triage. Help who you can. This does not suffice, of course, but what can you do? Parallel curriculum to supplement, reinforce, develop, skills to scaffold this learner to be as close to where they need to as possible. There is not time for this, I know, but it must be taken. The second half of education— middle school, junior high, and high school function academically as a place to deepen skills and augment learning. Pacing guides and high stakes testing obfuscates this though. Secondary teachers beat their heads against their cages trying to figure out how to help their learning learn independently. Kids arrive with so many pieces missing. By this time the cumulative affects of missing pieces here and there make the puzzle seem impossible. Teachers are forced to make tough decisions. The outliers are often thrown out with the bath water. Educational triage- teach to the middle. Learners and teachers are beyond frustrated at this point. It’s survival.

What can be done? Help them, the learners start connecting information, give them problems to solve. Perhaps its a problem in their own world. Something they can arrive at in dialogue. Help them, or watch them work it out through dialogue. Note their cognitive processes, go back and help them notice those processes. Help them learn to understand how they are thinking, how they are solving the problem. Let them see that they are critically working through cognitively complex stuff. Help them write it. Help them teach it. Slowly draw these skills into academic sundries. Help them note their own problem solving/learning ability. Turn them loose on a skill within their ZPD (remember that?), encourage them to teach that skill, to a neighbor, to you, to the world. Help them become powerful learners and collaborators. Everyone has mad skills that can contribute to the group. Perhaps Johnny isn’t the best reader, but his reasoning skills are out this world, his contribution to the collective intelligence of the class, this world is invaluable.

The world functions as a huge cooperative learning project. Schools do not, but they don’t then victims are left behind without a clue they ever had anything to offer— learners and educators. Education leaves people disillusioned and lost, Underground Education seeks to empower and awaken. Underground Education will not allow a learner to pass through a system without finding their value. Underground Education is not dictated by the test or the State agenda of intellectual suppression; rather, it is dictated by the needs of the learners in your care. Here, the educator is the professional. Reform is in your hands, not the hands of the distant, gravy-train riding, ed policy pricks. A top down model cannot work in the underground. Education is for the People. It is by the People. It does not celebrate labels, failures, or separation by assessment measures. It seeks to teach and help learn.

Most important teachers who bother to teach in the Underground must be connected. We must band together in this struggle. We must collaborate and innovate. We must share our methods and our aims. We, together, can revolutionize education. We are not reformers or policy makers; we are teachers, we make decisions, we implement them. We stand together.

Share your experience.

——————————————————————————————————————————————– Twitter: @educatedtodeath

Let’s talk.


3 thoughts on “What is Underground Education? The How’s, Why’s, and What-Nots

  1. You’ve hit the Coöp nail on the head.

    Everything is so Pink-Floyd-Wish-You-Were-Here-grim right now. I think this is an important post to connect with our work on play and this – from Ira Socol – on middle school.

    Only connect,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 12, 2012, 8:02 pm
  2. love reading with free time even at work. Your site has keep me on. Great content

    Posted by study in ghana | October 23, 2013, 9:41 pm


  1. Pingback: What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four | Teachers Outside the Box - March 18, 2012

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