The Schoolhouse: Where Dreams Go to Die?

"The person with big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts." --Albert Einstein

As an educator for nearly 45 years, I can't remember the highlights of my career in terms of academic accomplishments nearly as clearly as I can remember the emotional highs I got when kids would take off on flights of fancy, when they took risks because they felt safe, when they were hopeful and excited about their future. In short, when they were not afraid to dream.

The imaginings that my students conjured up and the leaps of faith that they took were the engine that drove my classroom, a classroom where I felt empowered as a decision-maker, supported by administration and free to be creative and unpredictable. Sounds like a dream to today's teachers who are hounded by test score results, scripted curriculum and the ever-present evaluation system.

My English classroom students were especially smitten with great literature. They pleaded with me to read parts aloud from Romeo and Juliet. We stumbled through Shakespearean language with relish and whimsy and abandon. (I remember one boy who insisted on reading a part nearly every day. He had a profound stutter. He didn't care and neither did the class. We just loved the language and the story and the community we created around the work.)

Students dove into the fictional world of Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, as he tried to convince an all-white jury to set free a black man falsely accused of rape. We talked about race and poverty and prejudice with courage and directness, and insisted that the world would be healed some day of these scourges.

And then there was Walter Lee Younger, another sought after part to be read aloud, in Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun. We discussed the poem by Langston Hughes, which served as an epigram for the play. We wrestled with Hughes' concerns for unrealized dreams:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

I never felt like an overseer was watching my every move. I never felt oppressed by data collection. I never felt second-guessed. So, free of these constraints, I felt empowered to think large and dream big on behalf of my students.

Dreaming is for lovers, those passionate about ideas for building community and improving the human condition. But dreamers need to feel safe and supported to do their best work. Do teachers today encourage risk-taking, moving out of comfort zones, taking chances? Are students still willing to take chances, to risk putting themselves out there? To throw caution to the wind?

Unfortunately, for most in schools today the answer is that the classroom is a no-dreaming zone. How odd -- and troubling -- it is now to see fear envelope our schools.

What with Common Core standards, high-stakes testing, teacher and principal evaluations and other parts of the accountability tsunami, there is no time for dreaming or play-acting or vision-setting. Only time to make the numbers. The instrumental and technical demands of the federal Race to the Top initiative leave no room for the slower, thoughtful, reflective, and sometimes impractical goal of teasing out a new future from a shared dream, one that is based on student voices.

The children who may not be ready for fourth grade math may be ready next year, if we help them with a vision of themselves which includes an aspiration based on hope and not a hurdle designed for failure.

The youngsters who have trouble speaking English because that is not their native language yearn to be a part of the community and gain facility with their new language. We can help encourage them to try out their new communication skills in a supportive classroom with appropriate goals, or we can threaten them with censure and embarrassment for not passing tests written in a language they are just beginning to understand.

The special education children who struggle with even simple tasks know that in a trusting environment which accounts for individual differences, they can dream big, despite learning challenges. Instead, because of the looming testing accountability, we threaten them with a thousand micro-aggressions about their deficits and rob them of their inclusion into the community.

We live in difficult times. The world is not at peace, the economies are not stable and the politics are feverishly divisive. If there is one place that should offer safe harbor for dreaming of a better world, it is the schoolhouse. Instead, certain adults, mostly those who know nothing about child development, e.g., politicians and business people, somehow have decided that the toxicity that exists outside the walls of the schoolhouse must appear in large dosages inside the schoolhouse as well.

We slice and dice and categorize and rank and parse and chart and look at the bottom line in our schools. Our educational centers have been turned into businesses because businesses can be held accountable through numbers. (I keep looking for the drop-down menu on my Excel program for measuring dreams. I haven't found one yet.)

A lecturer/artist tells this story: When he has a group of approximately 100 adults in a room, he asks: How many of you can draw? A few hands go up. When he goes into a high school and asks the same question to a similar-sized crowd, a dozen or so hands go up. With older elementary kids half the hands go up. And when he asks kindergarten kids: How many of you can draw? All the hands go up.

What happens between childhood and adulthood? Who are the messengers of "can't" along the way? Buckminster Fuller said, "Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them." We have the potential to create a process in schools that defies this maxim. We are squandering this opportunity every day with the stranglehold that state and federal policies have on us.

"I have a dream." Sorry, Martin, time to study for your test.