I like learning about history. I think it’s just fascinating. I also like to imagine. And these days my imagination keeps taking me to two different eras in history: one, quite some time ago, and the other, to the era of my grandparents.
The first period in history that my mind keeps pondering begins in 1066, in England. Yes, to the Battle of Hastings. It was this battle in which the French Normans defeated the English, and the Normans began to rule England. The Norman aristocracy replaced the English aristocracy and French became the language of the elite. For 300 years, English, as a language, completely disappeared from the written record. All business and legal contracts were in Latin or French. The royalty, nobility, lawyers, professors, merchants, and students spoke French and read and wrote Latin. Anyone who had any sort of power knew these two languages. But guess what? We are still speaking English today! (Obviously). And in fact, English is now Globish, a language spoken by more than a billion people throughout the world, either as a native language, a second language, a language used for their profession, or as some form of pidgin spoken in order to conduct trade and other affairs with neighboring tribes.
English is what it is today not because of the rich and powerful of the Middle Ages, because they were all speaking French, but because the nobody peasants spoke English to their children.
The second place and time that I ponder is Nazi-occupied Poland in the 1940’s. Although Poland, as a country, disappeared from the maps and the Nazis embarked on a radical campaign to eradicate the Polish culture, the Polish culture did, in fact, survive. Why? Because simple Polish housewives spoke Polish to their children, sang them Polish lullabies, and told them Polish stories. They simply lived the Polish culture in their homes. And others, with great danger to themselves, defied the Nazi laws and met in homes to play Chopin and read Polish literature.
What do these historical events have to do with our present time, and what do they have to do with education? I will make that connection in a moment. To fast forward to the present, those who make their professions in the educational field often deal with the frustration of having to implement techniques and protocols that have been enacted in a top-down fashion by school boards, state governments, and even the federal government, sometimes by people who have not set foot in a classroom in decades.
One glaring example of this is the standardized testing movement. Though school funding, teacher jobs, and even student advancement rides on these tests, research has failed to show that these tests are a good measure of what students actually know, or that they accurately predict future success. Many decry the deep roots the testing industry has in its profitability for the test makers. John Taylor Gatto, author and former New York state Teacher of the Year, writes:
The frequent ceremonies of useless testing–preparation, administration, recovery–convert forced schooling into a travesty of what education should be; they drain hundreds of millions of days yearly from what might otherwise be productive pursuits; they divert tens of billions of cash resources into private pockets. The next effect of standardized testing is to reduce our national wealth in future generations, by suffocating imagination and intellect, while enhancing wealth for a few in the present. This as a byproduct of “scientifically” ranking the tested so they can be, supposedly, classified efficiently as human resources.
Because Gatto feels that standardized tests pervert education he started the Bartleby Project that encourages students to peacefully refuse to take part in preparing for or taking the tests. You can read his full statement on the Bartelby Project here.
Given the high place of standardized tests in the education today, what can one classroom teacher do to preserve the integrity of education for her students? Or what can a simple parent do to improve education for children across the country, or even in his own city for that matter?
To answer such questions we must recount the examples from history I shared at the beginning of this post. Firstly, I think these examples tell us that, when necessary, be a little subversive (or sometimes a lot subversive). John Taylor Gatto has often written about breaking the rules, bending the rules, and finding ways around the rules in order to foster authentic learning in his students.
The second thing we learn from these examples, is that while it is great to work for change on a grand scale, it’s important to remember that when it comes to the future, those of us who spend our days with children have a greater influence over that future than the superintendents, the rich and powerful test-makers, the politicians, and the policy-makers. So have some hope. And try to remember the potential of each simple, every-day interaction with a child.
About me: I subversively spend my days as a stay-at-home mom. I bake bread, clean our abode, play with the English language, follow my passions, and help my children discover and follow theirs.–Oh yeah! And I am also the administrator of the Bartleby Project Facebook page, and I manage the @ProjectBartleby Twitter account. I also maintain my personal blog at myfemininemind.com