A Vision Dimmed

Published on: Author: bette 5 Comments

As I write, I am listening to a teacher’s voice, on-line, conducting a live lesson intended to prepare a group of homeschooled fourth graders for their state testing.  These children have been pulled out of the public school system for many reasons.  Some are the children of free-spirited parents who are raising their children on their own terms;  some are the children of parents who don’t want their children exposed to what they see as the evils in society; and some have parents who honestly believe that they can do a better job than can professional educators.  But the child I tutor is unique.


But wait a minute!  All children are unique!   Christopher, however, has had experiences that have made it impossible for him to survive in a traditional classroom.  When it comes right down to it, my take on the situation is that he’s simply brighter than the adults who have authority over him.  Not “smarter” . . . not better informed . . . simply brighter.  His mind works faster.  He processes information in ways that his teachers cannot understand.  His talents are not only not supported in the system, they are seen as downright disruptive.  He is an individual.  And as a particularly strong individual – at 10 years old – he won’t let the system force him into a mold that does not fit.


So here I sit.  Listening to a recording in which a well-meaning teacher, a disembodied voice, is trying to calm the fears of a group of silent children, spread all over the state, so they will perform on the state test in a manner that will reflect well on the on-line school.



When I left classroom teaching in 1998, I did not see this coming.  There were those, however, who did – and warned the rest of us that we in the public schools would need to improve our “customer service” in order to remain competitive.  Parents were beginning to see that curriculum was becoming more and more standardized, the levels of stress and anxiety felt by adults in the system was causing stress and anxiety in their children, and ideas like “school choice,” “innovative and flexible charter schools,” and “home schooling” were making them question whether or not the public schools were best serving the needs of their children.


Even though I knew it was time for me to leave the classroom, I was fully aware that I was not ready to leave education.  I had the opportunity to help write a National Blue Ribbon Award application for the  school where I had been teaching, and I was excited about the possibilities for education in the coming years.  I wanted to consult and write  . . .  and I believed that my voice could make a difference.


So, for the first time in my 30-year career as an educator I began attending state and national educational conferences. I soon became aware of what President G.W. Bush had called the “Decade of the Brain.”  It seemed to me that we were on the brink of a transformation that would positively impact education, society, and all future generations of learners.  It was an exciting time for me.  I had wonderful memories of my years of teaching, a beautiful vision for the future – and lots of time on my hands.


Over the next few years I attended conferences and workshops, bought books, and  became familiar with the ideas of educators like Phil Schlechty, Eric Jensen, Bill Spady, Geoffrey and Renate Caine, Bob Sylwester, Robin Fogarty, Alphie Kohn, Marion Diamond, Spencer Kagan, Carla Hannaford, and many, many more.  Their ideas inspired me to work with others who believed as I did that we were on the brink of true educational reform.


In 2001  I had the opportunity to work with some truly enlightened people on an educational model that was not only learner centered – but at its core held a deep respect for the child at the spiritual and emotional levels.  That model was designed to encourage creativity, collaboration, and compassion in learners while developing competence in the concepts and skills they would need as productive members of society.  In addition – and most important – was our focus on helping children become truly conscious of who they really are and the people they are becoming.  For almost three years we were well funded by a visionary entrepreneur and our excitement ran high.  Three schools on two continents were established and we all truly believed that the HeartLight model would transform education.


Unfortunately, our schools in this country had to close after the first year because they were not fully self-supporting.  But did we fail? Or were we simply premature?  I believe that in time, others will wake up to the reality that our children are more than what a test can measure.  Models like ours will then begin to attract enough families (and entrepreneurs) to make them “cost effective.”  (Which, we must admit, is the bottom line for any venture like this.)


After the HeartLight Learning Communities were closed, another opportunity came my way.  This time I worked with a forward-thinking superintendent who helped me apply for a grant to start a charter school in our small community.  Believing that any rational human being would realize that the best way to educate children is to honor the way they naturally learn, I set off to write the HeartLight model in language that would be accepted by traditional educators. At that time (2003) the criteria for such schools in our state were that they be innovative and flexible, community driven, and provide opportunities not available in the local public school system. Our grant was funded and  Upper Chetco Charter School opened in September 2005 with 25 students, two teachers, and a great many excited community volunteers.  But once again, the model was premature, our timing wrong – and within six months of opening, the newly hired staff fell back into a traditional, standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum.  Our dream of bringing an enlightened model of education to our little town was gone.


Disappointment ran high for those of us who were so committed to both of those projects.   During the years that have followed public education has moved in an entirely different direction – even farther away from our dream.  But I still don’t believe that either of these ventures failed.    It sometimes feels to me like our vision has dimmed – but then I realize that the people who worked with us, the minds we opened, and the children we inspired will take what they learned, make it their own, and continue the journey toward a better future for themselves – and perhaps even for the world.



5 Responses to A Vision Dimmed Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. RE: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/apr/05/tp-cheating-is-inexcusable-but-testing-system/

    Hola, Bette!

    I read the article from the above website and wanted to share it with you. The columnist (Logan Jenkins) reports on a discussion he had with a life-long educator (Henry Weinberg). This article references the recent cheating scandal in Atlanta, GA. In addressing this issue, Dr. Weinberg points out some inherent flaws in our current education system; specifically, the role of standardized testing, a subject I’ve had an issue with for many years.

    I hope you can access the website. If not, let me know and I will send you a copy of the article. I’d like to hear what you think.

    • Thanks, Clint . . .

      Jenkins is so right about standardized testing being the “lowest common denominator” of learning. Years ago I learned that “Assessment Drives Instruction” – so that means that teaching must also be reduced to the “lowest common denominator.” Now we have “scripted curriculum” that does just that. (I’ve even heard these programs called “teacher-proof” 🙁 !)

      Jenkins is also right that the testing system is broken – but I’m not sure that the solution given is realistic. I know because I’ve tried. He quotes a retired teacher, Harry Weinberg whose suggests a “virtually cheat-proof” test. His test question is wonderful, but he overlooks a basic problem: Who is going to read and assess the answers?

      This is the question he gave to a class of fifth graders on an open-book test:

      “You’re on a ship to the 13 colonies. Please select which of three groups of colonies you would want settle in. (New England, Middle or Southern). Defend your choice and write why you rejected the other two.”

      It’s a great question . . . but as a retired fifth grade teacher who tried to do just that, I keep remembering the subjects other than Social Studies I had to teach – and evaluate. With 32 fifth grade papers – written by kids reading at anywhere between the 2nd and 8th grade levels . . . there were just not enough hours in the day. Seems to me that it’s not just the testing system that is broken – it’s the entire system. Dr. William Spady has said that we’re trying to “rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship.” Perhaps it’s time to let the ship sink and think about building a new one. Of course that’s easy to say from my perspective as another retired teacher . . . but I’d rather hear from people who are looking toward the future – not the past.

      I just received this TED Talk. I’d love your thoughts on it when you get a chance.


  2. I think, when we all look back in hindsight, we will see that progress was made. This wonderful era of neuroscience and other blossoming new disciplines have affected education in very positive, though maybe confusing/bumbling, ways. I am a home school parent. I thought I could provide a better environment and more meaningful engagement with learning. But as wonderful as homeschooling is, it is not (in my opinion) ideal. Learning with a COMMUNITY of learners would have been closer to the mark. Still, I do have the CHOICE to home school, create what community I can, and glean the wisdom that has slowly trickled down to parents and educators over the last few decades.

  3. I remember being part of this group and experiencing the excitement; but still being part of the public education system, I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to bring such vision into the public schools. It goes beyond anything anyone is comfortable with. I work in a wonderful high school that does have vision, but it also has vocabulary such as standards, common core, and data driven instruction. What I’ve learned is to keep half an ear to what is being claimed as “better education” and the other ear open to my heart. There is never going to be any improvement in any education if we don’t truly listen to the children. Make the plans for learning, then when the students are bored, ask them what they want to do instead. If they want to watch TV, watch with them and ask them questions about the content. Make observations and find a way to connect with them. If they want to play video games, have them teach you the game. If you are against the video game, pull up research on the computer to express your point of view and help them find research to support their point of view. Then challenge the student to write argumentative essay.

    This is the only way I’ve figured out how to engage students and take control of their learning. I keep the assessments and reports as positive as I can and explain to the kids that its only part of my job to show how they are growing.
    Keep it light and positive. It all begins one relationship at a time.

  4. This article inspired me to start THINKING! What helped build resiliency in my own life? Who were the forward thinking educators that really made a difference in who I’ve become? The answer to that second question is simple: they are the teachers whose names I remember!

    I also think about the alternative school I went to when I was politely taken out of the regular public high school due to behavioral issues. It was a stepping stone intended to keep me from completely dropping out of school. Although I had failed science from the eighth grade on, when I was in the 11th grade I was presented with articles from the New York Times on the progress of the Human Genome Project. Not only did I come to class, I ENGAGED in the classroom experience. I actually understood the basics of genetics because the teacher (Scott McCarthy) would ask us what WE were thinking about this amazing shift in our understanding of biological and evolutionary processes. This new understanding, again, was coming from a young person on whom traditional science teachers, with their beloved vinegar and baking soda pizazz, had all but given up!

    What I really get from this article is that progress is being made. Maybe it has been slow, but it is happening. Perhaps in the future, children will still have to take standardized tests, but they’ll have a choice of which ones to take based on the direction in which they want to go. Don’t college level exams cater to specific majors and foci of study? Why not start early with this thinking? Every college student still has to be able to write a coherent paragraph, but art majors aren’t asked to explain at length the idea of statical variances upon graduation. (And yet, people who major in art continue to find their place in our society!)

    Thanks for the insight. It makes me want to write a thank you note to a few teachers who held out hope for me when I had almost given up.

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