Let us think of education

To the Editor:

Today, I’ll begin with words from John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States — words that have even greater meaning in 2012.

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.

“All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop those talents.”

“A child miseducated is a child lost.”

In previous letters, I have emphasized the need to see each child as an individual learner and to understand that the current emphasis on standardized testing, data-driven decision-making and data-driven curriculum revision diminishes the importance of inspiring students to pursue true learning, as well as the development of individual investment in creativity and talents.

I repeat the fact from one of my previous letters that children go through school only once. Our schools do not exist for themselves, or for administrators, or ratings fawned over by School Committee members and community members. Parents are also, unfortunately often, persuaded by the emphasis placed on ratings, rankings and data. Schools exist for the inspiration, education and personal development of each individual child. Education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Education is not a business, nor should it be. To teach to a test so that a school or school district can collect data and boast of higher scores is neglecting the public school’s mission to educate each child in the one short time he or she is in school. To do less is irresponsible.       Currently, central office administrators and school committees focus on scores and curriculum and require school administrators and teachers to do the same. Parents and community members should be concerned and seek to become informed and not be taken in by the continuous talk of data and raising scores and thus being led to believe that education is improving.

The key to a true quality education for each child is having an outstanding teacher in every classroom.

Students actually crave a challenge. They will rise to meet expectations. To deprive them of the sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction that working at something difficult provide is denying them the boost to self-esteem that encourages further learning and brings the joy that authentic personal investment in education offers students. Students crave inspiration and opportunities for them to awaken their creativity and individual talents.

Creativity and innovation are what will provide the future with educated individuals who will have vision, who will have the ability to solve problems, who will be inspired to believe that individuals are important and that the world can be a better place.

Students will rise to meet challenges when they are encouraged to do so. I will offer two examples today and more in my next letter. An opportunity for challenge and the resulting rewards that stands out for me is the teaching of Shakespeare’s Othello to 12th grade Tech Prep and B level students. The idea of reading Othello in the original Shakespearean language and not a modernized version was daunting to these less-than-confident students. Year after year, however, I promised them that they could do it. We read every word of the play, discussed the complexity of the characters, watched a film version, wrote about the themes and created projects. When we were finished, I applauded them, and they applauded themselves —“We did it!” At the end of the year, when I asked them to name the book that we studied that they liked the best, invariably they said Othello. It was the work they didn’t think they could read but the one that spoke most to their understanding of life and humanity and which gave them the greatest sense of accomplishment. How is that for data that can’t be measured in numbers or percentages?

Another yearly example of students meeting a challenge was my teaching of The Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s Middle English to my Honors and AP juniors and requiring that they learn to pronounce and recite from memory the first 18 lines of the Prologue. Again, this initially presented itself as an impossible task. I even experienced parents questioning whether students could do it. Once, standing in line for tickets at a movie theatre with my husband, a mom and dad approached and commented that learning Middle English was asking too much of high school students. I assured them that I had been doing it for years and that the students did rise to the challenge. Each year the students met the challenge, and each year they celebrated themselves on the accomplishment. Many came back from college to visit and were proud to tell me that they impressed their college professors by being able to recite the opening lines in Middle English — a true sense of accomplishment.

In a previous letter, I wrote of Student A – encouraged to complete NovaNet courses, not required to adjust to the classroom, not challenged to complete assignments, and receiving a diploma without acquiring the skills, both personal and academic, needed to be prepared for further schooling or the workplace, but making administrators happy that AYP, graduation rates, and public perception would all appear positive.

Today I will share the story of Student B, a young woman not too fond of coming to school, seldom making it on time in the morning and falling behind in her courses. Student B was a very capable student. She was in my English class as a senior. She only came to school every other day, because she was supposedly participating in School-to-Career. When she had begun to fall behind in my class, because she was absent and late so often, I would assemble assignments for her, encourage her to do them, and she would do enough to get by. What she was missing, however, were the class discussions, the interaction of class activities, the instruction in writing, the peer editing, the inspiration of watching and listening to fellow students present their creative projects — in other words, everything that makes for skill building in a good English class.

She missed my class 23 times. When we remember that our every-other-day schedule means each class only meets 90 times in a year (actually fewer for seniors), we realize how much she missed. This was a student who could have benefited personally and academically from a fifth year or an incomplete — to grow, to discover her talents and to build skills. With the current philosophy, however, of paring down requirements and excusing work, and excusing excessive absences, that does not happen. The student is part of the data, and the data is what matters to administrators. Had Student B been worried about the excessive absences (she knew they would be excused), and had she been required to come to school everyday, rather than some weeks only two days, and had she had directed studies rather than the days off, I could have worked with her to develop the skills. I never give up on my students. Instead, she left with a diploma but did not leave with the skills, the sense of accomplishment or the enhancing of her talents that could have been.

By contrast, some years ago, before the data-driven decisions and AYP obsession, I had a student who decided three quarters of the way through senior year to stop coming to school and take up exotic dancing at a club for a new career. Sometime close to the end of the year, she came back realizing that what she really wanted was to finish school. Happy to work with her again, I made lists of the work to be made up, encouraged her to stay after school to work with me, and told her that she could still get it all done, and I would hold out an incomplete for third and fourth quarter grades. By the end of the year, she had accomplished a lot, but was still not finished, so she did not graduate — English being a subject needed for graduation. We kept in touch, and she continued to tell me she was working on the assignments. Two years later, she contacted me that the work was done, she brought it in, we talked about it, and I graded it. We arranged for a day for her to come in, and with her guidance counselor and I present, the principal presented her with her long-awaited diploma. What did she learn in addition to furthering her reading, analytical and writing skills? She learned accountability, responsibility and what it feels like to accomplish something important. She was celebrated. With current shortcut practices, this story could not happen.

The answer to what creates a productive and motivating learning environment for students is an easy one, actually — the investment of good teachers and a belief that challenge and individual accountability are good for students. Rather than spending time finding and implementing more jargon-based initiatives, the administrators’ job should be the consistent evaluating of teachers — recognizing and supporting the excellent ones and helping those who are less effective to improve. More on this aspect of education next time.

Again, if you would like further information or would like to comment, my email address is tpdall9@yahoo.com.

Thank you for reading.

Teresa Dall


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