Needed in School: 140 Characters

03/03/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

"Wealth stays with us a little moment if at all: only our characters are steadfast, not our gold."
-- Euripides

Many of our schools have become dry, lifeless places. Joy and spirited emotions have been replaced by fear, generated by masters from afar. These remote overseers -- politicians, policy makers, test prep executives -- have decided that tests and numbers and drills and worksheets and threats and ultimatums will somehow improve the learning process. The engine that fuels this nefarious agenda is the imposition of mandatory testing, an initiative that insults teachers and students, and sucks the life out of our schools.

What's more, this system of tests is invalid on its face.

When a student does well on a reading test, the results tell us nothing about how well she will use reading as a tool to learn larger topics, nor does it tell us that she will be interested in reading at all. What it tells us is that she is good at taking a reading test. Nevertheless, the insistence that students take these tests has become the sine qua non of a movement started with No Child Left Behind, and taken up a notch by its cousin, Race to the Top. With the battle cry "College and Career Ready," the champions of standardization are determined to drum out every last bit of creativity, unpredictability, humor, improvisation and genuine emotion from the education process in the name of useful "outcomes."

No more coloring in school -- time only for black and white answers to life's complex questions.

The self-righteous, powerful and moneyed, if they have their way, will eliminate from schools kids who have character -- or kids who are characters, for that matter. But who are we to challenge the likes of governors and commissioners, and heads of global conglomerates who remind us regularly that the gold ring of success will be awarded to those who follow rules, no matter the cost to verve and spontaneity?

Euripides was a lightweight compared to the genius of the political/business corpus.

But there is another way. If we believe that children are imaginative creatures by nature with vast amounts of talent waiting to be mined, and if we believe that opening children's minds and hearts to the thrill of learning -- without competition and ranking -- is a healthy approach to child development, then we are off to a good start.

Skeptical? Let's ask the experts.

William Glasser, M.D., studied schools for over 30 years and in his seminal work, The Quality School, he outlines five basic needs that all human beings are born with: survival, love, power, fun and freedom. How many policymakers today would subscribe to having fun or experiencing freedom as a goal of our educational system? Just think of the possibilities if they did. Kids actually laughing in school and not being punished for it. Students feeling strong enough to talk truth to power and not being silenced. Youngsters feeling free to write with creativity and originality without being ridiculed for deviating from state test guidelines.

And that's before we even get to love.

Think of the characters that would emerge from such an environment. Comedians, orators, raconteurs, revolutionaries, magicians, clowns, young people with agency and drive, having fun, not afraid to take risks or make mistakes. Not afraid to be children. As Walt Whitman instructs "... re-examine all you have been told at school or in church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul."

Take that multiple choice tests.

And then there is the story told by Ken Robinson, arguably the world's leading expert on creativity.

As a youngster, Jillian Lind could not pay attention in school; she was always fidgeting. Her mother took her to a doctor. The doctor observed her "fidgeting," and he interpreted what he saw quite differently than others. He told the mother that Jillian was a dancer. She should take her to dance school. Later in life, Jillian remembered that time as life-changing. She said she had never felt so comfortable. She looked around and everybody was moving. Jillian Lind went on to become a prima ballerina, the head of her own dance company and choreographed some of the most famous musical productions in history.

Anyone who has witnessed a singing, skipping, scribbling, laughing, posing, dancing young person feels the life force of an unselfconscious being. Sadly, today, that joy is extinguished by third grade when the "serious" work of high stakes testing begins. Even before that fateful year, many schools have instituted a get-ready-for the-tests curriculum -- as early as kindergarten in some schools. And -- this is hard to believe -- some schools are teaching five year olds how to bubble in an answer sheet. No characters allowed on your bubble sheet please.

There are triumphs in the midst of the standardization clamor, oases of relief and joy that anyone with a pulse recognizes as nurturing the human spirit. For example, recently a university dance troupe presented a concert, choreographed by the college students themselves, to children in an inner-city middle school. Through a collaboration between the faculties of both the university and the public school, themes of the dances reflected the writings of the middle school students who were in the midst of a project called "stories of hurt and hope."

The dancing was elegant and original. The auditorium pulsed with youthful energy, especially when the college dancers asked for student volunteers to join them on stage. These early adolescent youngsters could not have been more uninhibited, willing to take a risk, encouraged by their older counterparts. Students in the auditorium were whooping and hollering, practicing freedom and having fun. The principal joined in and did some singing and dancing himself. What a character.

We who believe that a crusade is needed to turnaround our schools, have a message for those who have forgotten what childhood is like. We have seen what happens when you are in charge. Your leadership is bankrupt. We are now leading. Follow or get out of the way.

We are ready for the challenge of confronting the powerful. There are signs of resistance from teachers, parents and school leaders. We hear from a wide swath of reasonable parents and educators that enough is enough. We are exhilarated by the prospect of turning our schools into the high energy, youth-oriented, fun loving places that they are meant to be. We need characters now, characters always.

We are excited. In fact, we are all a-twitter.


1. Glasser, W. (1992). The Quality School. New York: Harper Collins
2. Robinson, K. (2006). Do Schools Kill Creativity? TED talk