The best news I’ve read in a while was the great good news that the city has replaced the dark, dead windows in some of New Bedford’s old school buildings with windows that let in the light of the sun and allow students and teachers to catch glimpses of Earth’s precious trees, grass and sky. Concord philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that every “natural fact” is a “symbol of some spiritual fact” — something very young children know intuitively.
To those who object that clear windows tempt children to daydream (which I did quite a bit when I was in school), I would argue that a little day-dreaming is not a bad thing. It is one of the wellsprings of creativity. As English poet Robert Browning wrote, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” which Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan paraphrased with pun: “Man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?”
Knowledge of the vital connections between humans and the natural world that spark and nurture wonder, imagination, intelligence and empathy cannot be created or measured by standardized testing. When I was mentoring, observing and evaluating student teachers for the Education Department at UMD, the grimy, opaque windows at Gomes and other schools struck me as apt symbols of how completely America’s educational bureaucracy has lost its vision of what teaching and learning should be by emphasizing standardized testing over exploratory learning.
The best teachers I met in schools all over the SouthCoast told me how much they hated being robbed of “time on learning” to focus on preparing young people — each a unique individual — to take standardized tests that have proven to be poorly designed, anxiety-producing, misleading and biased.
I will never forget my final meeting with the two excellent second-grade teachers at Gomes School who had mentored my UMD students all semester. The day I brought them forms to sign so the students would get credit for their work, both teachers seemed so upset I feared a child had died. When I asked what was wrong, one teacher said, “We’ve just been told that next year we will have to start preparing our students for the tests they will have to take when they reach third grade.” Half angrily, half mournfully, her colleague added: “That will be the end of second grade.”
Ideally, school (i.e., learning) should be inspiring, intellectually stimulating, exciting and fun. Narrow definitions of education, blind windows and electronic screens are no substitute for language that conveys the direct sensual experience of water, birdsong, sunshine, grass and trees, or the breath of wind and the touch of human skin. Just saying those words aloud a few times conjures up the realities they represent and creates a natural rhythm that awakens music and poetry in human hearts and brain.
Oops, there I go daydreaming again!
Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Ph.D. lives in Dartmouth.