The following is an open letter to the education reform community by educator Barbara C. Goodman.
Dear Education Reformist,
We have been battling each other for a long time. You present clear ideas and data to support your reform agenda. I am not moved. It’s not because I am old, recalcitrant and averse to change. I balk because I know you are wrong. My heart tells me so.
In my family, being learned was second only to being healthy. My grandfather’s life mission was to make sure that his children and grandchildren got a good education. As a Russian immigrant he understood that schooling was the key to prosperity in the new world. He also believed that education was so much more than that.
I remember the summer of 1967, the year of the Montreal World’s Fair, the time my grandfather disappeared. As was his usual routine, he left the house early for work, but never arrived at the small family grocery store he owned with my two uncles. By noon we had contacted the police, by afternoon the hospitals, and then we waited. He arrived home just after dusk. He had spent the day at EXPO 67. He saw giant-sized models of microscopic molecules, a movie on how iron ore is turned into steel, and a demonstration of how the phones of the future could be used to play games and take pictures. He was tired but unremorseful. In response to “where the hell have you been?” he said, “I ate, I drank, and I learned.”
My grandfather taught me that learning in itself was a joy and urged me to enter the noblest of all professions – teaching.
So I became an educator not just to teach math, English or any other subject; not just to get students ready for the work force, for the 21st century, or for global citizenship.
My mission is to make sure that my students graduate from high school with a passion for learning so that they can pursue their own dreams and find joy and delight in their life’s work.
I want my students to grow up to be like my friend Scott, a nature biologist who lives in Jackman, Maine, a small town just 18 miles south of the Canadian border. When the temperature is minus 30 or 40 degrees F., he rides his snowmobile deep into the north woods so that he can track and chart the mating and migration patterns of the northern lynx. He has just built a special child seat on the back of his snowmobile, and he is eagerly waiting for winter, when he plans to take his 3-year-old son to work with him. Scott can hardly wait to share his passion of the outdoors and teach his son about the animals that live in the cold wilderness of northern Maine.
Scott has a very high level of academic competence. But his knowledge and skills are merely the tools that he uses to do the work that he loves. Education is about inspiring students to find their own passion, to follow their own dreams so that learning is not just a challenge but also a joy.
Yet, each day I am faced with the dilemma: Do I teach our children the skills someone else has determined that they need, or do I acknowledge and respect their passions and use these to guide their learning?
The stakes are high. In order to graduate, Silas must pass the 10th grade math MCAS. He has no interest in geometry and doesn’t care about congruent triangles. He loves skateboarding. So I have him designing a skateboard park. He has determined the area and perimeter of the field in order to find the cost of fencing and ground cover. To design the slides he will need to figure the areas of triangles. He is completely involved in this project. I know because Silas has ADHD and has never before focused on a task for over four and a half minutes. Right now he has worked for almost 10 minutes. I know I can use this project to teach him about congruence. But not yet; and I don’t know when. So, E.R., the stakes are high. Do I teach Silas the three criteria for congruence and perhaps lose his interest. or keep him fully involved and enjoying learning? Do I focus on what Silas needs or what you – the reformist – wants?
Ed Reformist, the problem with your reform agenda is that you have set the bar too low. I want my students not only to be academically proficient, but also to love learning; not only to be prepared for the work force, but also eager to pursue their own dreams, not to just get a good job, but to also love their life’s work.
Barbara C. Goodman