Much has been written (some of it by me, see Boxes) about the devastating impact of America’s current obsession with standardized testing on our education system (see a description of testing costs here). We have also heard countless debates about the focus of our education system? Should it be STEM or STEAM? (I really like this argument for SEA because it focuses on what I think we are missing in schools today) But I don’t want to make this post about the failures of our education system, because yesterday I was given one shining day filled with hope. Hope for education in America, education here in Eastern Kentucky, and, most of all, hope for my son’s education here in Montgomery County, Kentucky.
Yesterday, the Morehead Writing Project hosted our Fall Teen Writers Day Out as the culminating event of our five-day celebration of National Day On Writing. It was truly an amazing day that moved me to tears of joy as I clapped and whooped to celebrate the power and magic. We brought together 130 teen from three Eastern Kentucky counties and over the course of their time together they wrote, they shared, and they bonded. I was amazed by the potent emotions that these teens tapped into for their writing. Their work was spontaneous and raw, but it moved us as a group over and over again. Days like this are the reason I teach writing because I know how words can change us and change our world.
I am saddened by the groups who could not join us for the day because of administrative challenges but my heart was gladdened by the teachers who negotiated the maze of difficulties in order to bring their students and the students who have not let their voices by stifled by the focus on teaching on-demand writing over all other written forms. The writing was amazing enough, but for me the most awe-inspiring part of the day was the willingness, eagerness, of these students to share their writing and to support the other members of their community – a community that did not exist when we opened the doors that morning. One girl stepped up to the microphone and expressed her trepidation because she had never shared her writing like this before and before she could share one line the room erupted into cheers of encouragement. And there were so many other spontaneous eruptions of joy and love and support that many writers felt compelled to tell the group how much they loved us all. These moments were pure magic transcended only when a writer’s intense message touched a chord that thrummed through the group like electricity. (Learn more about Teen Writers Day Out here)
Physically and emotionally wrung out from the day, I left campus and attended my son’s District-wide Orchestra Concert and I was blown away by the talent of these young musicians and their inspirational conductors. In an era when there is so much time and focus on test preparation, it is comforting to see a district support “luxuries” such as an orchestra program. When students choose music over sports, video games, and friends to practice their art, I am inspired. Yes, these students are tested and challenged every day, both individually and as a group, but for many students (like my son) their orchestra (or band or choir) time is a daily oasis. For that alone I am grateful to the program. My son is challenged and inspired in orchestra more than any other time during the day and that is a gift I do not take for granted. Their performance was a visible and audible demonstration of challenges overcome and lessons learned that transcend anything that a standardized test can measure and that is truly priceless.
I know so many teachers are beaten down by a system focused on measuring and quantifying learning that can only be captured on a bubble sheet and I know so many students (including my own son) who are bored and disengaged with preparing for yet another multiple-choice and on-demand writing test. But yesterday I witnessed teachers and students embrace the joy of creation and celebrate the magic of revelation and that gives me hope. Someone asked me yesterday, caught up in the moment, “Why can’t school always be like this?” It should be. Learning and teaching are alchemy but too often the magic is missing from our assembly-line education system. But as long as we can leaven the boredom and drudgery with stolen days like yesterday I have hope that one day the magic will return.