Wildflowers: Aesthetics in the Classroom in
The Age of No Child Left Behind
During the course of forty years of work
among schoolchildren, I have developed a very close attachment
to hundreds of our classroom teachers—especially, I will
confess, to those who work with little children in the elementary
years. I think that teaching is a beautiful profession and that
teachers do one of the best things that there is to do in life:
bring joy and beauty, mystery, and mischievous delight into the
hearts of young people in their years of greatest curiosity and
In the past five years, however, much of education policy has
been taken over, to a troubling degree, by people who have little
knowledge of the classroom, and no knowledge of the hearts of
children, but are the technicians of a dry and mechanistic, often
business-driven version of “proficiency and productivity.”
State accountability requirements, correlated closely with the
needs and wishes of the corporate community, increasingly control
the aims of education that are being thrust upon the principals
and teachers in our public schools.
But teachers are not servants of the global corporations or drill
sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view
themselves that way. I think they have a higher destiny than that.
The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency;
they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender
expectations. They stubbornly refuse to see their pupils as so
many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized
deficits or assets for the U.S. economy, into whom they are expected
to pump “added value,” as the pundits of the education
policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every
child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom
with inherent value to begin with.
Many of the productivity and numbers specialists who have rigidified
and codified school policy in recent years do not seem to recognize
much preexisting value in the young mentalities of children—in
particular, in children of the poor. A bullying tone often creeps
into their way of speaking. A cocksure overconfidence, what Erik
Erikson described as “a destructive conscientiousness,”
is not unfamiliar, too. The longer they remain within their institutes
of policy or their positions in the government, the less they
seem to have a vivid memory of children’s minuscule realities
and their vulnerable temperaments, their broken pencil points,
their upturned faces when the teacher comes and leans down by
their desk to see why they are crying.
This, then, is the challenge and dilemma for young teachers and
for those who educate our teachers. As the highly controversial
law No Child Left Behind intensifies in its effects, an unhealthy
emphasis upon the “measurement of productivity” by
the instrument of high-stakes standardized examinations as the
sole determinant of success or failure in a given school is threatening
the educational and psychological development of children and
compromising the integrity of teachers and their principals. Principals
in many schools are living in a state of permanent anxiety and,
because of fear of sanctions if they cannot pump the scores enough
to satisfy the state or federal government, are doing things they
tell me privately that they abhor.
In many schools, at least one quarter of the year—and, in
the poorest inner-city schools, as much as three quarters of the
year—is stolen from instruction to drill children for exams.
Recess is increasingly abolished. In Atlanta, they have purposely
constructed schools that have no playgrounds so that no time can
be “wasted” on activities that have no payoff on exams.
Chicago has largely abolished recess, too; the only exceptions
that I know are a few high-scoring schools, mostly in affluent
communities. More troubling, perhaps, the teaching of the liberal
arts has been truncated in these kinds of schools as well. Subjects
that will not be measured by high-stakes examinations—history,
geography, science, art, and music—are either abandoned
altogether or presented to the children only on a token basis
that denies them any opportunity to gain the cultural capaciousness
that is enjoyed and valued by the children of the privileged.
Worst, perhaps, is the distortion of the language arts in increasing
numbers of these schools. In many districts, teachers are being
handed scripts to read, “aligned,” as it is said,
with items to be tested on exams. The questions teachers ask are
dictated by the script, and the answers children must provide
are in the script as well. Teachers are also sometimes told they
must hold timers in their hands. Not one minute can be wasted
on a moment of frivolity, an episode of whim, a bit of interesting
repartee, that might slow the rapid pacing of the drill demanded
by the script.
What happens to a lively and excited teacher in one of these heavily
test-driven schools? One of the things she quickly learns is that
she cannot just go up to a chalkboard on a cheerful Monday morning
and write, in big bold letters, “Outcome of the Lesson:
I read my kids a poem of Langston Hughes—or Gwendolyn Brooks
or, for that matter, a lyrical verse of William Butler Yeats—and
discovered that they loved it!” As a bright, young teacher
in one inner-city school observed to me irreverently, “What’s
love got to do with it?” It was a good question. The word
“love” does not appear in no Child Left Behind. Nor
do the words “exhilaration,” or “compassion,”
“kindness,” “joyful curiosity,” or “delight
in what is unexpected”—all of which would probably
come first for almost any teacher working with young children.
Saddest of all, because of the tight timing—everything within
this kind of classroom has to be “on task,” a dreary
term imported from the business world—a child who wants
to tell us something that is not on task be¬comes a threat
to the curriculum.
Six-year-olds, as every first-grade teacher knows, are experts
at subverting lesson plans. One of the likable tendencies of children
of that age is to meander off into the blissful kingdom of irrelevance
as frequently as possible. “Teacher?” the child says.
“Guess what?” “What?” the teacher says.
“I went to the zoo on Sunday with my Uncle Pookey—and
guess what?” “What?” the teacher says again.
“I saw a baby bear!” And then the child starts to
pile on the “ands” and “buts” for one
of those seemingly eternal run-on sentences that cheerfully forgets
where it began.
But sometimes at the end of all those “ands” and “buts”
there’s a piece of hidden treasure where the child tells
us something that we never knew about him up to now. And good
teachers use that piece of hidden treasure to unlock motivation
and to bring that child back into the classroom work that must
be done, but with a sense of purpose now that would have been
absent, and remained invisible to her, if she had been forced
to cut him off.
“Okay, sweetie, that’s a beautiful story that you
told us. Now let’s see if, when we go back to our desks,
you can write it down for me with all those interesting details
you included. . . .”
And this, of course, is not limited to young children; students
at the secondary level also like to venture off on interesting
tangents, albeit to reveal deeper and perhaps more important insights
into their personal lives, accomplishments, and challenges.
But in too many inner-city schools, where teachers work beneath
the sword of stipulated time-constraints dictated by the testing
pressures that they face, the teacher has to cut that child off
before he tells his story and never gets to find that treasure
in his heart and never gets to turn that key that might reveal
to her the deepest sources of his motivation and potential.
What, then, should good teachers do? How can a grown-up who knows
very well, because of her own first-rate education, that practices
like these would never be permitted in the schools that serve
the children of the white and middle class, navigate the challenge
of surviving in one of these schools? How can she practice her
profession in a school devoted to the drill-and-kill regime that
one of my teacher friends refers to as “the Pure Unhappiness
Agenda” and is driven by the methodologies of stimulus-response
that are prescribed almost exclusively for children of the poor?
In college, in her early education courses, the teacher has been
thoroughly immersed in the enlightened world of Erikson, Jean
Piaget, Vigotsky, Robert Coles, as well as in the limitless delights
of opening our children’s minds to literary works such as
the beautiful and tender books of Eric Carle. If she’s like
most teachers that I know, she also holds close to her heart the
legacy of my beloved friend and my best mentor, the irreplaceable
Fred Rogers, who cautioned us repeatedly to give young children
time to ask their questions and to listen to them carefully.
Suddenly, she walks into the icy universe of B. F. Skinner. She
did not become a teacher out of a desire to train children in
subordination of their spirits or to subdivide the continuity
of learning into mini-chunks of balkanized cognition, as required
by those endless lists of “requisite proficiencies”
that must be posted on her classroom walls.
On the other hand, the lists are there, and so, too, are the tests.
And teachers who dislike these regimens, no matter how intense
their feelings, do not have the right to simply shut the whole
thing from their minds, because their students, like it or not,
are going to be judged and sorted by the scores that they receive.
So here, as in so many other situations teachers face, they have
to balance some of their most deeply held convictions against
the practical necessity of defending students from the punishments
and sanctions they will otherwise incur.
How does a teacher handle this? How does she soften the effects
of this regime, and how does she express her reservations about
other aspects of instruction taking place within her school, without
ending up as an outsider in the school and ultimately undergoing
what is now politely known as “termination”?
I try, as gently as I can, to offer those who ask these questions
answers that some of the best and most successful younger teachers
have passed on to me. First, I urge beginning teachers to treat
with great respect the best among the veteran teachers in their
buildings who are seasoned in the complicated politics of public
schools. If novice teachers turn to them, these teachers will
not only share with new arrivals teaching strategies they have
acquired from their own years of experience, but will also feel
protective towards them and try to defend them, if this is needed,
in encounters with administrative figures.
Second, I urge young teachers, if they sense that they may find
themselves dissenting from some of the pedagogic practices enforced
within their schools, to be sure that they are very, very good
in other areas that are held in high importance at most public
schools. The maintenance of sensible and firm control over a class
of energetic little kids is, properly, a matter of concern to
almost any principal. Especially with a group of children who
have suffered from high turnover of teachers in preceding years,
with the often riotous results this has in fostering an insurrectionary
atmosphere within a class, a teacher who is able to restore an
element of serenity becomes a precious asset to the school. No
matter how distressing to a principal her deviations from a scripted
regimen may be, that teacher becomes nearly indispensable.
Third, I’d recommend a good, big dose of sly irreverence
and the saving grace of what I’d call a subtle and ironical
detachment in the face of certain policies and practices a teacher
bitterly dislikes but must observe in order to protect her children
and her job. Many teachers, for example, even without ever speaking
these explicit words, have figured out a way to make it clear
to children that they consider high-stakes testing, at the very
best, to be a miserable game they and the students are obliged
to play, but that their judgment of the children’s intellect
and character and ultimate potential will have no connection with
the numbers tabulated by a person who is not an educator, and
has never met them, working in a test-score factory three thousand
miles away. Some gutsy teachers also say this openly to children,
especially because increasing numbers of their principals now
feel exactly the same way.
Finally, even in the most adverse conditions, the most inspired
and most energized and incandescent younger teachers I have known
bring into their classes a contagious sense of merriment from
the very happiness they feel in being in the company of children.
No matter what the obstacles they and their children face, they
believe the work of a good teacher ought to be an act of stalwart
celebration. It is in that sense of celebration that good people
who have chosen out of love to work with children find their ultimate
salvation from the cold winds blowing down from Washington and
from the technocrats of uniformity who are for now, but will not
be forever, in positions of great power.
To these glowing spirits—and there are more of them than
ever coming to our urban schools from colleges and universities
today—I always say: Resist the deadwood of predictability.
Embrace the unexpected. Gather the children around you on the
reading rug and shower their years of innocence with all the soft
epiphanies and eccentricities and unpredictables of wonderful
imaginative literary work. Immerse them in the satisfaction of
aesthetics for its own sake, not for any god-forsaken “economic”
purpose. Listen to their stories, too. Revel in their run-on sentences.
Dig deep into the world of whim. Sprinkle your children’s
lives, no matter how difficult many of those lives may be, with
hundreds of brightly colored seeds of jubilation. Enjoy the wild
Jonathan Kozol is a renowned educator, activist,
and National Book Award-winning writer. In his new book, Letters
to a Young Teacher, he gently guides a first-year teacher
into "the joys and challenges and passionate rewards of a