We have collected the data. We have analyzed the quantitative results of tests upon tests. It is time to look at some qualitative anecdotes--time to ask the students and teachers who are having to put up with endless testing and unrealistic goals what they want and need. They know. And they can tell us. We just need to listen to them.
I teach at a small, independent, community school in Afton, VA, called North Branch. It's a magical little place. Thursday at recess (that time of day children can run around unfettered by adult intrusion) three boys, let's call them Simon, Joe, and Emmet, made a kite. At the end of school, I was sitting in my room, catching up on some work, and these three boys hustle through, look at me, and Emmet says, "You've got to come see this." Simon stops with the kite and shows me.
"Is this a science project?" I ask.
"No," Simon answers, simply.
"No--we made it at recess," he says.
"Tell me about it."
Simon reflects on the process. The concept is easy: joy in building, using simple materials and classic design. Paper, dowels (where they procured dowels, I have no idea), Scotch tape, duct tape, and twine. I follow the boys out to the field and watch as they run with their kite...Emmet holding the string, Simon holding the kite, and Joe running alongside with a stop watch. It was beautiful.
I invoke the spirit of Ted Sizer, who maintained that relationships between students and teachers are essential for motivation. How can teachers know students if they have anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five students per class? I wonder how he would react to the story of Barb Wagner, an English teacher at Clackamas County High School, in Oregon. She teaches 215 students. If she assigns an essay and spends only ten minutes grading each one, that adds up to 35.8 hours. Untenable.
I wonder how John Dewey would react to a tour of public schools today, where students often are not allowed to go to the bathroom during lunch. I have a new student in my 4th grade class, let's call him Julian, who, for the first month of school, would ask me every time he needed to go to the bathroom. I finally sat him down and said, "Julian, when you gotta go, you gotta go...just leave quietly and be quick about it." His father later told me that the reason he did that was because he was not allowed to go to the bathroom during lunch at his old school and he was worried I wouldn't let him go. I wonder if the teachers at his old school studied Abraham Maslow's hierachy of needs.
I wonder what Horace Mann would say to this, according to one mother of two home-schooling students I know: students having to walk silently in single file, staying on the third line of tiles in the hall, as they walk to their music class, which only occurs once a week for thirty-five minutes in a six week rotation.
And I wonder what they would think of Columbine and Newtown? What is education, and where is it heading?
I teach, yes, but I also learn. Every day, I learn. I am pursuing the M.Ed. at Mary Baldwin College, as well. I love learning about teaching and the process of how children and adults learn--together and separately. Right now, I am focused on the idea of relationship's role in education. And these children teach me endless lessons of patience, respect, goodwill, and the pure awe of wonder. I am privileged and grateful to work in a school that fosters not only the intellectual growth of the child, but also the improbable hopes and dreams of the child.
As a teacher, I am best able to foster those dreams when I can afford individual care and responsiveness to my students, which is directly related to class size. What is education? And where is it heading? I remember the Kite Makers. They give me hope.
Stuart Gunter teaches language arts, math, and music at the North Branch School in Afton, VA. You can also find him playing drums on stages big and small, riding his bike in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or paddling a canoe with his family down the Rockfish River.
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