The education reform movement is failing. As a follower of Diane Ravitch's blog (she posts five - six times a day, most of them reposts from others) I cannot help but notice the overwhelming amount of grassroots resistance and increasing activism from parents and teachers to high-stakes testing that is robbing the school year of instructional time and putting undue stress on everyone, including the youngest children who fear that if they don't do well on the tests, their teacher will be fired. Most people feel that they know something about education because they went to school themselves. That's true for me as well, but my experience is somewhat unusual. From the time I was five years old until I was 11 I couldn't wait to get to school every day. I loved it.
I went to a school where there were no report cards. My parents received written and oral evaluations of my progress from my teachers twice a year. The emphasis was on experiential learning. When we studied colonial America, we made soap and candles in the classroom, we hunted for real Indian arrowheads in a city park, we read books, we sang songs from that time. I went to my first Mexican restaurant when we studied Mexico. I wrote stories and poems. One student, in sixth grade, started a class newspaper and I wrote and illustrated for it. We made puppets and put on shows. When we studied Native Americans we ground corn between rocks and built a teepee in the classroom (where every day two lucky kids got to stay during nap time out of sight from the teacher). My school, The Little Red School House, was a private progressive school in Greenwich Village, NYC still very much alive today. Their stated mission is to produce life-long learners.
We moved to Tarrytown, NY, when I was entering seventh grade and I attended the local public school. It was the typical "factory model" school of the 1950s with classes changing every 52 minutes -- eight periods a day. Some teachers were excellent, some mediocre. I received grades for the first time in my life, which I loved because they were high. But my father was unimpressed. He didn't see me doing any work at home. When I was in 10th grade, the guidance counselor suggested to my parents that I take a test for an experimental program that would take high-achieving 11th and 12th grade students out of high school and plunk them into college. He thought that the experience of taking the test would be good for me and if I did well, we could then decide if I should go. So I took the test with absolutely no pressure and no preparation. I remember that I had to read some difficult material that I didn't truly understand and answer questions about it. Much to everyone's surprise, I did do well and after much consulting and thinking decided to forgo my last two years of high school and travel a thousand miles west to start as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin about two weeks after my 16th birthday. I did ok in college (not meteoric, that's for sure), transferred in my junior year, got a graduate degree and became a teacher. My take-away from all my schooling was that after Little Red, most classrooms were disappointing.
I have been writing children's nonfiction, mostly science books, for the past 45 years. I have come to understand that it is my way of recreating my elementary school for myself. When I write science activity books, I do every activity. You can see videos of some of the fun on my website. When I write about other parts of the world, I travel there. I want my readers to discover the intense experience of struggling to learn something, to be engaged, to be passionate about something for which academic skill is required and that practicing academics also develops this skill.
Many years ago I wrote an article for Parents magazine called "A,B,C or F: Test Your Child's School." Except for the paragraph on standardized testing, which seems antiquated given the climate of today's obsession with it; it's amazing how little has changed. A good school is good because of its educational philosophy, the quality of its staff and sufficient funding to implement programs effectively. We know what quality education looks like. Hey, Socrates knew more than 2,000 years ago.
When there is joy in a well-ordered classroom, learning happens (for the teachers and the students). My mission these days is to keep reminding folks that this is possible.