I’m about to begin my fourteenth year of teaching college Italian, so why is this year different from any other? It’s election time and for me it means that anything is possible. As I plan for the first few weeks of school, it occurs to me that my students, all Freshmen, are the products of No Child Left Behind, a policy that has dominated political thought on education for most of their schooling. Over the last few years I watched as student interests in the classroom shifted from a desire to understand the subtleties of a culture to a more practical need to understand what would be on the test. Frustrated, I did the only thing I could think of, shifted my focus to examine the system that had inspired them.
When I decided last year to compare Italian and American education in my classes, never did I imagine that I would be driving a van filled with students to actual schools. We began by visiting a Reggio Emilia school in Atlanta. What could we accomplish from adopting the Reggio view that children have everything they need inside of them and we as teachers are not here to fill their empty vessels, but instead harvest their ideas as we would fertile fields? We visited Montessori schools, schools that originated in Italy when one of their first female doctors pulled whole communities out of poverty by creating schools that taught practical life skills in clean, size-appropriate environments. What could we gain from children being allowed to explore materials and environments at their own pace without anybody pushing them to achieve high test scores? We visited public schools and talked about our own experiences. After one student described all of the initiatives that had been put in place at his high school, we drew a picture version of his school’s growth on the blackboard. “It’s cancerous,” we concluded.
We spoke about education and majorities, minorities, standardized testing, affirmative action, white privilege, teaching to the test, and the consequences of not doing so. I had conversations with these students that I would never have dared have. Why?
As I listened to my students’ stories, a new picture of American education emerged in my mind. I began to ask the people in my communities difficult questions, questions that I thought might make me look uninformed, prejudiced, stuck, naïve, confrontational, and I took my students to the trenches, to the real schools and we asked why. Why are there so many students left behind? Why are we teaching our students to memorize rather than learn? How do we learn anyway? As the semester unfolded, my view of education would be forever changed. What did it mean to explore our world? I would stop teaching from my textbook and really find out. That we will only be satisfied with our education, with our lives, when we ask difficult questions, and learn to explore them at levels that promote us to challenge our world view, this is what I believe. That the next generation is ready and waiting courageously for us to ask these questions, this I believe with all my heart.