At some point in their careers, all teachers undoubtedly ask themselves what imprint, if any, they’re leaving on their students. Since I retired, I periodically hear from former students who read this column or my op-eds and letters to the editor published elsewhere. Invariably, they tell me that the most memorable parts of my English classes were those where I threw away the book.
Their comments underscored how much things have changed over the past two decades. In my era, teachers were urged to be innovative. The standards movement had not yet gained traction. Teachers were given a handbook listing goals stated in the broadest possible terms. They were then left to devise instruction in any way they saw fit and to assess the results on their own.
Accordingly, a colleague who was teaching Contemporary American Problems in the social studies department asked me if I would be willing to combine my American Literature class with hers. One of the objectives was to provide students with an appreciation of how literature and history intertwine. For example, a unit on poverty involved my students reading “The Grapes of Wrath” while her students were reading essays on the subject. We scheduled a field trip to a local orchard, where students picked grapes in the broiling sun and then brought them to a weighing scale. I still have photos.
For other units, we took field trips to Camp Pendleton and to Chino State Prison after assigning literature containing themes about the military and crime, respectively. Apparently, we were successful in achieving our goal because so many years later students bring up the experiences on their own.
In their obsession with measurement, reformers are destroying innovation and creativity. If attitudes and values are not tested, then teachers will quite naturally focus all their attention only on what is. Field trips are unlikely to pass muster because they are not seen as directly contributing to higher test scores. However, there is a faint glimmer of hope in this regard. Under a new system of evaluation, teachers in New York City will be given a chance to weigh in with administrators about how they are rated (“New York to Evaluate Teachers With New System,” The New York Times, Jun. 1). It’s too soon to know how the practice will work, but I hope other districts follow suit.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.