05/15/2010 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education Reform: Back to the Future?

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
~ William Butler Yeats (Poet, 1865-1939).

This time of year, I think back to the many wonderful teachers I had as a child, back before statewide standardized testing dictated how to teach -- when teachers were still allowed to follow their hearts, igniting a passion for learning by using innovative, personalized teaching methods. Education reformers sometimes point to the "radical" seventies as a time when education seemed aimless (translation: not serving corporate interests). I remember it as a time when teachers were trusted to use their best judgment as to how to make a difference. I had two exceptional social studies teachers and a caring guidance counselor, but one teacher stands out more than most. He opened up my world.

I grew up in a small working-class suburb outside of Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s. The middle of nine children, my parents struggled to feed us, clothe us, and make sure we were all in at night. My parents could not afford tutors, music lessons, organized sports teams, recreation center memberships, or any of the luxuries middle class children take for granted today. Yet, we were rich in other ways. The local public school district was considered excellent by anyone's standards.

My father was a skilled tradesman for an auto company, and my mother was a homemaker. Every November, early in the month, they fought about politics. Mom was Republican and Dad was a Democrat in those days (until the Reagan years when Dad also became a Republican). Since my mother was more politically engaged than my Dad, I joined the Young Republicans, along with a number of my high school friends. We went to meetings, tore down opponent's posters in public places, and blindly followed the information we were given about each candidate. On Saturdays, we passed out fliers for hours in exchange for a couple of pieces of cheese pizza from Sila's pizza and a bottle of Towne Club soda. Political involvement for me was just a social club, a place to be on the weekends, and another item for my future college application. I had no idea what the issues were, nor did I care. My friends were with me and that was all that mattered. I knew Republicans were against abortion, and I decided I must be too. Mom said, "Republicans are for the little guy," and she believed it.

American history teacher, Barry Lepler, was one of those special people who walk into your life (or your classroom) and change it forever. Perhaps it was the "groovy" teaching methods of 1978, or maybe it was the focus on social justice, but Mr. Lepler reached us. Until that year, most of my teachers taught only from books, encouraged memorization, punished us for talking too much, and forced us to take copious amounts of seemingly meaningless notes on little 3"x5" cards. World history, as I remember it P.L. (pre-Lepler), was a mindless regurgitation of war facts and dates coupled with names of white men in powdered wigs who ordered the murder of thousands of people in the name of progress. As a young girl, the subject couldn't have been more irrelevant to my life, and painfully boring.

Mr. Lepler's class was different. We were told the first day he was not interested in having us memorize anything. "What kind of a teacher is this?" we asked each other. Instead, we were told to read the newspaper every morning, and be prepared to come to class and comment on something that interested us. It took a while for me to become comfortable with the newspaper, but I found "killer bees" and the nuclear arms race to be fairly interesting, especially since they were sometimes mentioned on "Saturday Night Live". Eventually, I actually started to enjoy reading the newspaper (mostly so I could understand my favorite television program's references). Mr. Lepler assigned us to read the newspaper for the rest of our lives.

"How can you possibly monitor that?" we asked.

"I can't," he responded contentedly.

"What a moron," someone whispered from the back of the room.

Mr. Lepler used drama to teach. The powdered wigs were no longer confined to our imagination, but were now a part of our wardrobe. Girls and boys chose famous characters to study, and assumed those roles for debate. Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr; Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross and Harriet Tubman. When one of the characters became "real", they all did. To this day, I cannot remember who debated who in these classroom dramas, but every name in the textbook suddenly seemed to have more dimension.

When possible, we met the real "characters" of history. Several times throughout the semester, Mr. Lepler asked speakers to come in to talk to the class. Two speakers were especially riveting. The first was a woman Holocaust survivor. She showed us the numbers tattooed on her arm and shared about the family members she loved who were brutally murdered by the Nazis. While speaking in generalities, she was solemn, matter-of-fact, and maintained eye contact. When she was remembering specific incidents, she seemed far-away, alone and very vulnerable. I asked her how she was personally affected as a result of witnessing such extreme insensitivity and cruelty. "Did your personality change?"

"Before I was in the concentration camp, I felt very sorry for the animals my family killed for supper. Afterward," she said, "it meant nothing. I am able to pick up a chicken, (she demonstrated by raising her arm up high above her head and then slamming it down on the lectern loudly) cut off its head, and think nothing of it. And yet... that saddens me. I lost something there."

We also met Rosa Parks, who was living in the Detroit area at the time. Mrs. Parks was calm and peaceful. She was accompanied by a manager that was anything but those things, constantly checking her watch for the next appointment. I was a sixteen-year-old white girl, and admittedly, not yet sensitive to issues of race and identity. I asked Mrs. Parks why she did it. Her response was as simple and peaceful, "I was tired, dear." No fiery speech, no political rallying, no fist waving in the air -- just a simple, "I worked all day, and I was tired, dear." I am not sure what I expected, but it felt poignant. A woman was tired after working a long day. She wanted to sit down. What else was there to know? She didn't owe me any more explanation than that. Years later, I learned more about her involvement in the NAACP and her role as a community organizer in a larger network of civil rights activists, but it was her one-line story that stays with me more than anything: "I worked all day and I was tired." (Just like everyone else!)

Meeting these women happened in the late 1970's, just thirty years after the end of the Holocaust, and twenty years after the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. To a 16-year-old high school student, twenty years seemed like forever, and thirty years -- another lifetime. It's been three decades since I met those women, and in a way, it seems like just yesterday. I now appreciate how close we were to history while sitting in that classroom.

Our class also spent hours arguing over whether or not "civil disobedience" was a moral necessity, the difference between "amalgamation" and "assimilation", and the lasting effects of the western policy of "manifest destiny". We rarely read silently, studied lists of data, or memorized anything. Instead, there were ample amounts of lively debate. I could not believe I was actually being encouraged to argue with an adult!

Current events became a competition in Mr. Lepler's class. We were each given a Time magazine subscription, and asked to renew it after the year was over if we enjoyed it (I did.) We studied the various, "Time's Man of the Year" picks and were asked to write about the one we thought would be chosen next for 1978. It was our job to convince our classmates that our man or woman was most deserving of the title. Jimmy Carter was a popular choice after he halted production of the neutron bomb. Also that year, the LDS (Mormon) church extended the Priesthood to non-white males, Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were shot and killed in San Francisco, Indira Ghandi was elected to Parliament, Jim Jones led a mass suicide of nearly one thousand people at his commune in Guyana, and the Camp David accords were signed between Israel and Egypt. The world had two Popes that year, Vietnam attacked the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, millions of people demonstrated against the Shah of Iran, and Spain finally had a constitution after forty years of military dictatorship. Not a shabby year to be paying attention! I don't remember who won our current events competition, but I realize three decades later, we all won.

Perhaps the most powerful portion of our education in American history was the history we were challenged to create. Mr. Lepler gave us extra credit for engaging in local politics. As a young Republican, that was easy for me. Our neighborhood was largely Republican, and I knew a local candidate -- the father of one of my girlfriends. We passed out the Republican candidate's fliers, he gave us pizza, then he won. "Politics is easy!" I thought.

Mr. Lepler gave us the extra credit we deserved, praised us enormously, patted us on the back for getting involved, and never mentioned he was a Democrat actively working to defeat my candidate outside of school. I only learned that later. With Mr. Lepler cheering me on the whole way, I continued to volunteer for Republican candidates, and was interested in some guy I had heard about that was being groomed for the Presidency in California -- Ronald Reagan. (Or was it Donald Riegle? The names were so close I had trouble keeping track.)

Ironically, Mr. Lepler's encouragement of my political growth as a Young Republican eventually resulted in me becoming a lifelong Democrat as an adult. The year after I graduated from high school, I attended a MI Republican convention where my uncle was running for State Rep ("Honk for Cronk!"). I took my time and read all the literature, then decided, "I don't believe in any of this stuff!" I was in college at that time, and changed my registration from Republican to Independent, and volunteered for independent Presidential candidate, John Anderson. The same year, John Lennon died, and I knew I had to get involved in being a voice for peace.

Later that decade, I volunteered for a Democratic woman candidate running for Congress named Lana Pollack. I was pleased to read that her campaign manager was none other than my high school teacher, Mr. Lepler. It wasn't the only campaign he managed, I learned -- he was consistently involved in Democratic politics in Michigan at the highest levels, attending national Democratic conventions numerous times. I look back and remember with respect how much Mr. Lepler encouraged me to get involved with the party of my choice -- whatever it was -- even when it meant my involvement worked against his own political interests.

Thirty years later, I am connected on facebook with many of my classmates from 1978, and am amazed how many of them are involved in their communities all over the United States and even in other countries. A large number of them are attorneys, work for non-profits, write professionally, or work in education. One of my classmates became Mayor of our little suburb in his thirties. I can't help but wonder how much of our lives were influenced by one short, balding, excitable and innovative high school Social Studies teacher who smiled frequently and pointed his finger when he talked.

It takes a courageous and principled teacher to teach history the way Mr. Lepler did -- knowing that personal, emotional involvement with the subject matter would lead to a lifetime of learning -- and participating in the beautiful unfolding of the Democratic process. While my adopted state of Colorado has recently been embroiled in a heated debate over an education bill -- one I am afraid will weaken the teacher's unions and result in more standardized testing for students -- I am glad I grew up in the 1970's. I was fortunate to have been in high school before well-meaning but conflicted legislators passed laws resulting in "teaching to the tests". I grew up at a time when students were taught how to think, not what to think -- when schools were charged with the responsibility of growing well-rounded, open-minded citizens instead of simply producers and consumers.

Students of the seventies may not remember exactly which year the "Battle of the Bulge" happened (was it '44 or '45?), but we can tell you first-hand what it feels like to make posters, engage in civil disobedience, rally for equal pay, write letters to the editor, protest for worker's rights, watch Senate proceedings at the state capitol, hold a minor political office, serve on a local board, register new voters, knock on neighbor's doors, file petitions, train poll-watchers and organize our communities. I know, because my friends and I have done them. We have done them because teachers like Barry Lepler taught us to care about our country, and our world.

Here's to America's teachers who get up early, who correct papers until midnight, who spend all summer planning the next school year, who worry about kids society has long since thrown away, who watch as their college friends make much more money in just about every field, and who still show up to their incredibly exhausting and important work five days a week -- and to the teachers who volunteer on political campaigns for future legislators who will hopefully give them the respect they deserve.

Teachers, you know how to do your jobs. We need to step out of your way and let you do them.

And to Mr. Lepler, "You will always be my pick for 'Time's Man of the Year' ".