Teaching the Immeasurable

Ann - Bainbridge Island, Washington
Entered on May 11, 2008

This I Believe

I believe we need to teach the immeasurable in the public schools.

Each year on my island west of Seattle, I teach a hundred 7th grade students how to take the state exams. We revert back to writing a formulaic five-paragraph essay, and we pull facts and make inferences from the unsophisticated reading selections to show that my students can jump a fairly low bar. With close to 90% of our students passing, our methods are quite successful.

Our students DO need to learn to write clearly, and to read with comprehension; but we do them a disservice, unless we also teach them how to hear the beauty of the words in poetry and prose, to see the exquisite connections in math, and to see the mystery in the scientific universe. This kind of learning is difficult to measure and gets buried in legislated curriculum, but I believe it is upon these aesthetics that all great lives are based.

As more information is shoveled onto the Internet, it becomes easier for students to pilfer someone else’s ideas, however erroneous or variant they may be. I believe if we teach kids how to hear their own voice and to value the development of their own ideas, they stand a better chance of using those ideas when they write a paper.

If teachers spend our time with measurable statistics, we lose opportunities that let students noodle around in their minds, play with words, and temper their opinions. We need time in classrooms where the only learning target is learning to think and discuss questions that count. Middle school teens are not too young to begin struggling with questions like “Why do people misbehave?”or “What is community?”or “Does justice bring forgiveness?” The meatier or riskier the question, the better the discussion. Even at 13, a student can learn to disagree, to learn to clarify his or her beliefs and values. As a student gathers more information and develops further reasoning skills, she tends to self-correct and test her beliefs against her experiences. At the moment, though, I just want these young teens to dare to speak and explore an interest that may become a passion, or harden into a value, even if they are, like a cookie coming out of the oven too early, a little mushy in the middle.

None of this kind of learning leads to something that can be cut up and measured, nor does it meet expectations set down by politicians hoping to leave no child behind. I believe that if we can give our children the silence to hear themselves think, and a safe forum where they can to speak their minds, perhaps solutions will arise that no one has dared whispered before. It is the immeasurable that Thoreau, Dickinson and Whitman sought to transcend, and it is what creates the whole citizen we want each of our students to become.