“This place is bursting with creativity.”
I often write about the problems we can find in contemporary education policy and practice, but I originally started writing about education because I wanted to share some of the good things I was seeing around me, too. I would like to share some of those things today, in honor of my mother, who was a teacher once, before having to quit because she was pregnant—that was the law in the late 1960’s.
She came with me recently to my children’s school, in order to witness “Portfolio Sharing Day” in my 3rd grade son’s classroom. As she was sitting in the room, she looked around in wonder and made the observation posted above: “This place is bursting with creativity.” Her response caused me to look more closely at the busy classroom and school building we were in. When I did, I saw many wonderful things going on:
- The presence of art breathes life and joy into a school setting. I can say, with deep gratitude, that the halls, classrooms, and even ceilings at the K-8 Open school my children attend are, as my mother noted, bursting with creativity. In an era of standardization, testing, and hurried and misguided attitudes to child development, it is truly redeeming to see the artful expressions of children bringing life, color, and texture to a school.
- Portfolio sharing, as a form of assessing a child’s progress in school, is also a beautiful thing. It happens twice a year at the school two of my children currently attend, and it involves a child sitting down with a parent or other interested adult, and showing off his or her work. To see boys and girls of different colors, shapes, and sizes hunched over a folder of their own artwork, math sheets, and creative responses to literature provides an amazing contrast to the far less humane and far more simplistic evaluations brought to us through standardized test scores, often months after the children have moved on to something entirely different. By putting together a portfolio of their own work, and then sharing it with others, children have a voice in their own education.
- Not all children at the school have parents who can come in on Portfolio Sharing Day, and therefore I witnessed the school’s principal, another teacher, and at least one parent coming in to the classroom and sitting with a child so that he or she did not feel alone on this important day. Every child deserves to be honored and recognized for the effort they have put in to their work, and the individual progress they have made. Building a community of love, and caring for all children, must surely be an essential aspect of any successful school.
- My son’s “real” teacher found out she had cancer last August, just before the school year started. In order to cover for her and ease her mind, two veteran teachers came out of retirement to lead her class while she healed. My son’s teacher was back at school for the first time on Portfolio Sharing Day, looking just like herself—calm, cool, and relaxed. The two teachers who had filled in for her were there, too, to hand over the reins. One of them described how hard it would be to let go of the class, because she was always finding more things to share with the children. Teaching is an act of love!
- My child’s classroom is full of parents and students of many different backgrounds. Some speak a different language, or two, and are trying to learn English. Some have deep roots in another country and share this knowledge with the class. Some, like my son, live just a few blocks away from the school, but revel in the different lives, different languages, and interesting stories to be found among his peers. He takes such delight in telling us about the classmate who went to India to visit family, or to share the new Somali words he’s learned from a friend. Diversity—of backgrounds, ideas, languages, and skill sets—is something to treasure.
There are problems to be discussed, of course. But when I hear policy makers, pundits, or other experts, real or not, repeat the mantra that our public schools are failing, I must disagree. When we are told, as we often are, that our schools are mediocre, abysmal, or far behind those in other countries, I must disagree.
I know that not all of our children are succeeding, and we must never gloss over that fact. However, I wonder whether or not we have really, truly tried to provide an excellent education—full of art, an appreciation for the diversity of our society, and hands-on learning, for example—to all of our children.
Or, do we cling to what has been shown not to work, such as an over-reliance on testing rather than teaching, and wonder why we are not making progress fast enough?
Update: my son’s teacher called me, just as I was writing this. She wanted to make a “good” call, by telling me had had a rough morning but was now doing better, and making better choices. Learning to do well, it seems, is not a linear endeavor.