02/21/2013 09:54 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Revolutionary Days

"We the People" create the institutions that serve us. It's easy to forget that we -- individual citizens -- are the ones responsible for our children's education. In this republic we are, however, easily diverted and distressed by the issues that revolve around our education institutions: policy battles in the legislative halls, shifting curricular mandates, new standards, standardized testing, teacher evaluation, school safety. It seems like an endless litany of contentious problems, but in the midst of all these competing issues it is well to stop, look carefully and understand that the power of education rests in the experiences we create.

I was privileged to attend some remarkable experiences in the past weeks and they reminded me that we -- teachers, parents, grandparents, community leaders, businesses and not-for-profit institutions -- play critically important roles. And when we exercise our voices together, we have a tremendous impact.

I went to Oklahoma (first Tulsa, then Oklahoma City) where hundreds of fifth-graders gathered to learn about the American Revolution and founding of the nation. Even more impressive, the opportunity was not mandated by government or education policy or institution. It was created by teachers for their students and supported by individuals and organizations within their communities and from across the nation.

In Tulsa, fifth-grade teachers Dessa Weber and Beth Howard orchestrated a daylong experience called "Revolutionary Days" for 650 fifth-grade students. Students learned about eighteenth-century medicine, storytelling and entertainments, Revolutionary War soldiers, our African-American heritage, Paul Revere, Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin.

"Colonial Day" in Oklahoma City takes place each year in the state capitol building and is coordinated by teachers Teresa Potter and Jan Morris, along with Brenda Wheelock of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. Students took over the Oklahoma House chamber and debated whether to remain loyal to Great Britain or vote for independence. They learned about eighteenth-century trades, education, and entertainments and medicine at the time of the Revolution. They heard from Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry and an African American storyteller.

These events included students from public schools and private academies. They represented all the diversity of our modern American communities. Students dressed to portray our nation's eighteenth-century ancestors. And they were all excited to learn about our nation's heritage. Does this kind of active learning make a difference? It made an impression on two Oklahoma City young ladies, now high school seniors. Brooke Potter and Robyn Wheelock first attended Colonial Days as fifth-graders. For the last four years, they have returned to help teach younger students about the past. There were a lot of great teachers attending these events, as well. Each summer for the past 20 years, Oklahoma teachers have attended Colonial Williamsburg's Teacher Institute program. Many of the teachers sponsoring Revolutionary Days and Colonial Days are graduates of that program.

I participated as part of a team from Colonial Williamsburg along with director of teacher development Tab Broyles, African American storyteller Art Johnson, and Richard Schumann, who portrays Patrick Henry. Colleagues from George Washington's Mount Vernon were there too: director of education outreach programs Nancy Hayward and Tom Plott, who portrays Washington's personal physician Dr. James Craik. Other teachers, performers and coordinators from these communities gathered to support students in this great learning adventure.

A week later at North Stafford High School in Stafford, Virginia, I was a proud grandparent attending a district middle-school band concert. David McKee, director of the Marching Virginians at Virginia Tech, and David Plack, Florida State University director of athletic bands, were the guest conductors. As Professor McKee closed the first portion of the concert, he turned to the audience and reminded us all how lucky we are to have this music program for our children. He congratulated the students, their teachers, parents, grandparents, friends and community organizations that had given of themselves and their resources to make the all-district band program possible. He reminded each of us in that auditorium that our children's education was grounded there in the community partnerships created to support our student's education. It was an eloquent statement of our community -- and individual -- responsibility for the education of this nation's next generation of citizens. The students who participated in the all-district band program were part of a learning experience they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

It is important that in the contentious cacophony of education policy today we, in communities across the nation, do not lose track of what is actually important in our education system: the learning experiences that teach much more than how to fill in a bubble on a test. The future of this nation requires a balanced education that includes STEM but also humanities and the arts -- an education that develops engaged and dedicated citizens for our republic. We cannot accomplish this by abdicating our responsibilities, or leaving them to government. We cannot accomplish this by relying solely upon education professionals. We accomplish this only if we, the citizens, dedicate ourselves to the community collaboration -- government, teachers, parents, grandparents, community organizations, businesses and others -- and the common mission of educating the next generation of American citizens.