Thursday, January 20, 2011

Questions the teacher can't answer

Do you ever start out planning an activity in order for your children or students to learn or experience something and what they walk away with is something that you never expected?  It happened to me just yesterday.  Let me tell you what my class took away from the activity and then I will tell you how we got there.  My class has come to the conclusion that all our toys are made in china. 
The activity was simple.  I wanted to create a literacy game, so I asked the children to look around the room for toys that had words on them- a scavenger hunt.  They would find the words on the toys and I would race around the room on their heels writing down every word they could find. (Books were not to be included in this scavenger hunt lest they demand that I transcribe every story in our room). Now, what I was expecting was to find were words like "zoo" that is on a duplex man's shirt, or the words "wrong way" on one of our miniature road signs, the word "crayola," and "brown" on one of our markers, "Nemo" on a puzzle, "Little Tikes" on our tool set, etc.  We did find all of these word and more (we literally found hundreds of words).  We also found things like "patent pending," "ages 3+," "not for individual sale" and codes like "0XXI25LP," and signs of the person who donated them like "B.M.C.," and "this belongs to Ryan." The thing that I did not expect, (though perhaps I should have), was that the most common group of words on our toys was "made in China."  Nearly EVERYTHING that had a "made in" label said China.  Once, I was excited because I saw "Ohio" on a plastic clamp, but underneath OHIO, it said "Made in China."  We found two things that said "made in the USA"- one was part of a castle set, and the other was a puzzle.  
After we had found many of these "made in China" words, one of the children asked me, in a somewhat exasperated tone, "Why are all our toys made in China?"  Half the class looked at me waiting for an answer when she said this, and I had to say "I don't know."  
The truth is, I might have a vague idea about why, but I didn't think I should tell them that to my understanding, one of the biggest reasons was that toy companies that started here went to China where they could pay people very little, expect them to work long hours, and long work weeks, with little if any vacation time so that these companies could make more money from the toys that they sold.  I grant you that this is a complicated issue, that few people, (including myself), entirely understand.  Still, I have to wonder, what this says to young minds that grow up being read and reading "made in China" on some of the things they love the most? 
This made me question further; We are being told that our schools have to become factories because Chinese test scores are better than ours, but why does this matter and what are we trading for this choice?  Will having higher test scores make us more competitive in the job market?  I suppose it depends on what jobs you are referring to- but I wouldn't want the job of a Chinese toy manufacturer- many of them face inhumane work conditions.  In the mean time, we are sacrificing the quality of education to get these mystical "jobs" that I suppose will come from having higher test scores than a child in China who is forced to specialize in his/ her education at a young age and made to study like an adult working on a master's thesis. 
In the end, I don't know; I don't know the answers to my own questions, and I don't know the answer to the national question of "why is everything here made in China?" and "how do we fix it?"  However, I do know that I am not willing, personally, to sacrifice the development of the WHOLE child in the interest of manufacturing test takers like the Chinese manufacture "all of our toys." 

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