Draw from the experiences of your students, Dewey had counseled. But with one statement, this New York City high school student had shown me why Dewey’s writings had left my fellow graduate students incredulous.
I was contemplating a career change and had no teaching experience, but many of my university classmates were already facing students in the schools. John Dewey, they were sure, could not have imagined today’s urban children: the ones from broken homes, the ones who had seen shootings in their neighborhoods, the ones who watched their older brothers and sisters going through life without hope.
The boy whose brother had been killed was trying to be heard over his classmates; he wasn’t the only one in the room with something important to say. Students offered theories on how to tell if someone is carrying a gun (based mostly on his attitude and the way he carries himself) and on how to proceed if he is. A few of the girls, but none of the boys, seemed to think they could handle themselves in their neighborhoods without weapons.
None of them had anything to say about the Brady bill, and I wondered if the teacher would be able to use their comments to draw them back to the day’s topic. Could she find something to say to the boy who’d lost his brother about the Constitution, or gun control, or some endless Congressional debate? It was hard to imagine.
But as I listened, I began to see that Dewey was onto something after all.
That day’s lesson didn’t have to be about the pros and cons of a bill wending its way through Congress. It could go in another direction: It could be about the pros and cons of a gun in every pocket on the streets of New York City. The class might discuss how people treat each other and why, and what carrying guns on the streets says about how we see ourselves and the world. You have to have a gun because the other guy’s going to have one.
I was learning another lesson, à la Dewey, about really knowing and understanding one’s students. The teacher leading the discussion knew her students and, therefore, wasn’t reeling, as I was, from the impact of what they were saying. Her job was to guide and retain control of the discussion and maybe even get her students to think of gun control and the Brady bill in a new way.
But it would be a difficult task for her to get that first boy to make the link between his own personal experience and what lawmakers were trying to accomplish in the nation’s capital. I couldn’t help thinking of him a few weeks later as I researched the debate around the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Could national policymakers, in an attempt to codify what students should learn, take a lesson from Dewey and consider what students like this boy bring into the classroom?
That afternoon’s lesson about gun control had seemed important--crucial even. But where would national or local education standards-setters have fit it into a curriculum? That boy’s tale made any lesson plan seem insignificant, and it didn’t seem plausible that policymakers could set as a national goal what emerged from that freewheeling classroom discussion. It seemed equally unlikely that any nationally approved standardized test could have measured the rewards of what took place in class that day.
I began to fantasize about what might happen if national policymakers really tried to understand that student and his classmates. Maybe, as the panels created by Goals 2000 try to figure out exactly what our children should know and be able to do, a panel of students from that New York City high school could give those standards-setters a little real-life perspective.
The boy who struggled to be heard in class could list what his representatives should know about growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods of the city. Perhaps he also would impose a few deadlines for implementing solutions.
If he could do that, he could be sure that the Goals 2000 standards hadn’t been set only with other students in mind--students who lived beyond the tough streets that had claimed his brother’s life. He could know that he and his classmates had been factored into the latest school reform wave. He’d know, when he took the new test to measure his progress, that the testmakers had taken the time to understand him, his school, and his neighborhood.
I think Dewey would have liked that.
The author is enrolled in an education program for career-changers at Queens College, City University of New York, in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as What Would Dewey Do?