In all the controversy surrounding the "reform" education policies, both sides are in agreement that good teachers are key. Who is in the best position to judge? No one seems to think of asking children. Reflect for a moment. Go back to your own childhood. When you think about your favorite teacher, what do you remember about him/her? I'll bet you don't remember any particular skill or fact that that you learned from him/her that helped you perform well on a test.
As a children's nonfiction author, I remember my childhood very well. I write for the child I was, not for a focused-tested group of kids for marketing purposes. I was a person who stood by the sidelines, watching other children in some activity, before I felt confident enough to participate. I recall wondering if I would ever learn enough so that I was heard when I spoke. I fully realized my dependence on my parents and the thought of losing one of them terrified me. I was very aware of my limitations and looked for survival cues from the adults in my life. Fortunately, I've had several inspiring teachers over the course of my formal education. But my sixth grade teacher was special. Perhaps it is useful for me as an educator and writer for children to look back and describe his gift to me. Then let's see how the powers-that-be can design a test to measure it.
Louis Sarlin, was a big, gangly man in his late 30s when I was 11 at the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, NYC. He had a gentle manner and a terrific sense of humor. We called him "Louis;" no honorific title for this learning facilitator, who never lost control of his classroom. He was an accomplished artist and would illustrate his chats with us by drawing on the blackboard with colored chalk. Sometimes he would draw something without telling us what it was while we guessed, thoroughly engaged in the process unfolding before us. But I don't think he spent a lot of time talking to us. Mostly he kept us busy working, writing, doing projects with other students, and reading, reading, reading. When I try to remember the curriculum my mind draws a blank. Mostly I remember how Louis made me FEEL.
I couldn't wait to get to school in the morning. But it wasn't because it was fun and games. Many times I sat at my desk and faced a blank piece of paper with the challenge from Louis to write a poem or a story. I remember sitting there, my mind a blank, wondering how I could do something I'd never tried before. But there were no distractions so I was thrown back to struggle with my own resources and ultimately take a crack at the assignment. I kept many of my papers and yes, I made grammatical and spelling errors. My work had lots of comments from Louis but no grades. Louis was always on the lookout for the fresh voice of an intelligent child and when he found it he let us know about it. Louis empowered me and in the process I discovered myself.
At the end of the year Louis signed my autograph book, now long since lost. But the poem he wrote for me is engraved on my heart:
"Whenever work needs to be done
My eye considers everyone
And lights upon this girl.
I know what talents in her lie,
The creative mind, the artist's eye
And satisfied, I heave a sigh
At work superbly done."
Many years later, at a reunion, his wife told me that Louis stayed up late the last weeks of school to write a special poem like this for every student in his class. He ultimately became a professor of education at Baruch College.
The year I was in sixth grade was a sustained peak experience for me, only glimpsed here and there in the subsequent years of my formal education. I wandered through many careers until I started writing for children. It took me a long time to realize that my process of writing nonfiction for children is my way of recreating for myself my year of Louis Sarlin. I came to understand that he not only gave me the best year of my childhood but the key to my place in the world. When I thanked him publicly by dedicating a series of books to him, he called me. An old man's voice said, " Vicki, I am stunned at this dedication. But I'm embarrassed to admit, I can't remember who you are." After I reminded him, using my maiden name, he exclaimed, "Oh, of course!" [Maybe he was just being polite.] He went on, "I always tell my [college] students that teaching is such a blind profession! You never know where or when the seeds you plant will bloom!" He knew that the best teachers operate on faith as they plant those seeds. The greatest gift of a gifted teacher is who s/he is as a human being by fully revealing and expressing talents, passions and humanity. The best teachers are true artists.
The current climate of fear in public schools brought on by a misguided attempt to standardize learning and testing will not empower teachers or students. There is a growing groundswell of discontent at the grassroots that will ultimately be the undoing of this latest attempt to "fix" education from the top down.
I cannot imagine Louis Sarlin wanting to teach in many of today's schools. He could very well be considered a thorn in the side of a conformist administrator.
There are many different kinds of gifted teachers. A school must be a place where they, too, can bloom.