The following is an unedited copy of a letter I wrote to the Principal of the Gorman School in Gorman, California around 4/28/00. A shorter version was printed in the Mountain Enterprise, the local Frazier Park newspaper.

The Nicoll family visited Gorman school during the open house on April 27th to help us decide whether we would like our son to attend. We have decided that we do not want Oliver to attend this school. I am writing to tell you why we came to this decision.

The physical plant seemed adequate and attractive. I visited the Kindergarten-1st Grade classroom and spoke with the teacher there. I examined samples of student work on the tables, the displays on the walls, a math workbook, and the computers. Much of what I saw left me feeling uneasy.

One example of student work was a worksheet with a number of line segments of varying lengths. The student was to measure the length of the line and write that number on the paper. I am certainly in favor of children learning how to measure with rulers, but it seems to me that this is a particularly sterile form of practice. I've no doubt that the worksheet was given to the children as an assignment and did not grow out of any expressed interest of their own. Children, given rulers and tape measures, will want to measure things in their environment--- each other, the classroom, desks, books, and so on, but probably not line segments prepared for them. This sort of worksheet would be boring to almost anyone. Also, it seems likely to encourage the unnecessary and inappropriate marking of right and wrong answers. It is discouraging to see this kind of closed-ended, sterile, boring work in a kindergarten.

Most of the art work was coloring of printed pages, even to the same color scheme, exactly alike from paper to paper. I believe the journal pages were original and there was a display of drawings of birds that had been created by children from scratch rather than to someone's design. But almost all the other artwork was simple coloring. There seemed to be little scope for creativity or initiative by the children.

I was pleased to see the two computers in the classroom, but then learned that the kindergartners probably wouldn't be allowed to use them. I was informed that the children tend to pound on the keyboards. This sounds to me like a bored or frustrated, and certainly unsupervised, child. Oliver has been using our computer since about age three and has never pounded on the keyboard. Now we even allow him to use the computer without adult supervision.

I examined the software on the computer and was disappointed that Logo was not present. The software I did see consisted primarily of cartoon-world games such as Arthur's Adventures, where clicking on each object produces some effect, often a silly or illogical effect. I know that such games are fun, but again this is a closed system with little scope for creativity, problem-solving, or imagination, unlike Logo.

Most of what the teacher told me was more or less disturbing. I asked her how she teaches. Virtually the first word out of her mouth was "phonics." She said they spend three months on the alphabet. As presented, it looked like drill, completely dissociated from any interest of the children. It looked like anxious cramming so that pupil "accomplishments" could be demonstrated to a doubting world. The word cards of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and hand-lettered signs on objects apparently have no place in this classroom. Oliver already knows the alphabet. How will three months of drilling on the alphabet affect him? In this class he's going to be bored.

The teacher said that the children learn first to sit in their seats, be quiet, and pay attention. This puts the focus on the teacher as lecturer, the child as passive recipient. Children of this age need to be active, doing things, taking initiative in exploring an interesting and rich environment, not sitting at a desk waiting to be told what to do and how to do it.

Obviously, talking is discouraged, and any talking that occurs apparently is intended to be between teacher and child, and not between child and child. Children need opportunities to talk freely to each other, to children of different ages, and to adults. Such conversation facilitates the learning of reading and writing.

I was told that the children write in journals every day. I asked whether the children were encouraged to share their writing with each other. The teacher seemed somewhat taken aback by this question and responded that the children were allowed to share their writing. She said nothing about their being encouraged to do so, despite a second, more pointed question from me. The best way to get children interested in writing is to give them an audience. The children should be encouraged to share their writing and not just allowed to do so---and if talking is discouraged, I wonder how much sharing can even occur.

The class receives a weekly published newsletter. A newsletter created by the children would be more exciting. Both this and journal sharing would generate an enthusiasm for writing that can hardly be obtained any other way.

I didn't see any musical instruments even of the simplest kind, there seemed to be little provision for art except coloring, there was no cozy corner where a few children could read or talk together in comfort, there were no learning centers per se. There was a table with audio materials and books, but no provision for a child to sit there. Math manipulatives were not in evidence. There were some books, but not an abundance. I saw no aquarium, no hamsters, no rocks, sea shells, pine cones, hand tools, nuts and bolts, wood, magnifying glasses, magnets, tape recorders, typewriters, clay, sand and water tables---almost nothing of the real world. I did see plastic dishes and plastic fruit. Even Legos would be better. In other words, provisions for independent learning and exploration were minimal to non-existent.

The 2nd-3rd grade classroom was even more depressing and sterile. Here the tables and chairs were arranged in traditional fashion, all facing the blackboard where the teacher will dispense knowledge. There was no individualized artwork---all that was hanging on the walls was simple coloring again, produced to a rigid pattern. There was a large, prominently displayed list of rules of behavior. There were sets of identical books, multiple copies of the same novel, and little other reading material. I don't recall seeing any computers, though I might have missed them. I didn't spend much time in this classroom because it was easy to see that this was an environment that would be repressive, sterile, and boring.

In this classroom there was a large poster of Albert Einstein looking rather bored. It brought to mind the following quote: "One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year. . . . It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry---especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly."

I came to Gorman school fairly certain that I would not see models of open-classroom-style teaching. However, I was not prepared to see factory-model teaching straight out of the 1950s. I was frankly shocked, because I believed that the factory model had been discredited by forty years of scathing criticism. The requirement to wear uniforms is merely icing on the cake. This kind of regimentation isn't good for children, or anyone. Schools like Gorman can turn out docile workers, soldiers, and consumers, but individuality, creativity, and love of learning will survive only by accident. It's inconceivable to me that you could be unaware of the alternatives to factory-model schooling, so it's apparent that you have a school like this by choice. If you wanted to produce a repressive little prison for the children, I think you've succeeded. You are doing them a disservice. You need to change how these classrooms are operated. That is my opinion.

I have forwarded a copy of this letter to the Mountain Enterprise with the request that it be published as an open letter.


Alan Nicoll

The quote is from Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1964, p. 6; attributed to Albert Einstein, Examining in Harvard College.