Fixing Education: Passion Before Math and Science

by francine Hardaway on September 27, 2010

I am listening to Matt Lauer and the president talk about money in public education. But I don’t think it’s about money; I think it’s about passion. I was educated not by the rich, but by the passionate. They communicated their passions to me. My teachers weren’t unionized, they were inspired. And my parents were only marginally involved, although they supported the education system 100 per cent.
During World War II, when I was a kid, the immigrants came from middle Europe. Their parents didn’t speak English. There were no English Language Learning classes. It was sink or swim, and the kids all swam while the parents often sank. The teachers did it often without the parents. I remember every teacher and what we learned every year. And some of it will surprise you. Math and reading were only the givens, like lunch and recess. School imprinted me because of everything else. What I remember most about elementary school to this day were the enrichment activities, the music, art, and science, the trips to the museums and historical sites. Every year, school seemed to get more exciting.
In kindergarten, I was disappointed that I didn’t have Miss O’Meara, who had white hair and taught the morning kindergarten, but I was in the afternoon. In Mrs. Fuhrman’s class we drew and wrote and marched around the room to the piano. Miss O’Meara played the piano for both classes, although she only taught in the morning. I loved her BECAUSE she played the piano, and we actually had an upright piano in our classroom.

Mrs. Nachman had salt and pepper hair, and was gentle. In her class we read, and we had  units on food, clothing and shelter, which we were told were the essentials in life. I still think so. In those days, right after World War II, we also started to have shelter drills, in which we had to go under our desks and put our hands over our heads. Later, it got worse; we went into the windowless halls. But that didn’t come until the 50s, when I was in junior high. In first grade, it was almost a game, and we thought a lot about the starving children in Europe.

Mrs. Helfand was my first brush with the system and my own inabilities to cope with it. She was strict, and I had to figure out how to work her, because I had a big mouth and she didn’t tolerate that well.  She gave conduct marks. But by Mrs.Helfand’s class, we were reading aloud to each other every day in class, and that forced everyone to concentrate: you had to know all the words in advance, so when it came to you, you didn’t stumble over a word. And the math: same thing. You never knew when you would be called on. It was embarrassing not to know, because so many others seemed as if they did. We were gently made to compete.

In third grade, we had Miss Sternberg. who during that year became Mrs. Rothenberg. She had black hair, up in a bun, and I thought she was beautiful. Somehow the highlight of third grade was rummaging in Mrs. Rothenberg’s purse while she was out of the room and finding a receipt for a bra. She wore a bra!  A Maidenform! We felt like we had committed a sex crime. I learned because I loved and admired her.

Third grade was another big academic year, in which we not only read to each other and competed to demonstrate our math skills, but had to learn how to raise our hands in class and keep our mouths shut when we weren’t called on. By third grade, they had already separated us out, and I was a proud member of the IG class: the intellectually gifted. Oh trust me, I knew what that meant.  It meant I was smart. I took that as a huge reponsibility. What if I ever fell short of being as smart as the IQ test said I should be?

We made puppets in third grade, and learned how to work with clay. We went as a class to the Museum of Natural History and the Planetarium, and to the Cloisters. We didn’t have a bus; we took the subway and we walked. Our school district was not rich, but every child found the milk money and the lunch money and the subway money somewhere; I can’t remember anyone being unable to go.

In fourth grade, Mrs. Robbins stressed math. I think we were already proficient readers. She had tightly coiffed black hair, and although she was nice, I wasn’t in love with her, and don’t remember as much about her. She didn’t ignite my enthusiasm the way many of the other teachers did, and to this day I remember her “failure.” I expected more from my teachers.

In fifth, we learned music. Mrs. Lang loved it, and we sang James Weldon Johnson’s magnificent poem “The Creation” with a black school from Harlem at a city-wide chorale. This, by the way, was in the late forties, when the south was still segregated. New York was (technically) not, although everyone in our class was white except Leigh Edwards and Camillo Marquez, who even as little kids took the subway to our school because we had classes for the intellectually gifted. By fifth grade, we were practicing for the citywide spelling bee, and I was becoming a spelling champion for my school. I would go on later to lose big in Washington.

Mrs. Karasik, my sixth grade teacher, was the highlight of elementary school. She loved art, and she not only taught us to paint, how to use actual oil paints and mix them, but how to model for each other, and how to compose still lives. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and hung out with the mummies. We went to the Museum of Natural History again, and then…in the second half of the year…we learned about the stars. For many of the kids, astronomy was the highlight of elementary school, although for me it was the art.

I’ve  conducted you through my elemenary school years to make a point: these teachers were competent. They were more than competent.  They were inspiring.  They taught their passions. “Good conduct” was a given, and when I fell short on “Works and plays well with others,” which I often did, we had big discussions about it at home.

Yes, we need fundamentals. But without enrichment activities, school can’t be life-changing. And for kids living in poverty, it MUST be.

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