Not A No. 2 Pencil In Sight

This past May, I witnessed two programs sponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown. Both programs invited students from all over to visit the center, some in person, some via distance learning. There was an enormous response for both programs, and those of us on the center’s education committee were very pleased that these programs were a part of each of those participating students’ education. By the questions asked and the essays submitted for the writing contest during the first program, and the comments made by young people who attended both programs, I felt the result was the same … that education took place, all without the use of a number two pencil or a bubble sheet.

The first program, which I was proud to chair, was the continuation of the Jackson Center’s Young Reader Series, which entails the selection of a novel, featuring one topic, of the many, which made Justice Jackson’s legacy remembered and revered almost 60 years after his passing, and the invitation to the author to speak to students about the research and writing of that novel.

This year’s author returned to Jamestown, having visited here in 2007 as well, discussing her research and the writing of her novel, “Hana’s Suitcase,” telling the story of young Hana and George Brady’s experiences during World War II, specifically the Holocaust, and Fumiko Ishioka, a Tokyo Holocaust Resource Center curator searching for the story behind a worn, brown suitcase with the name, Hana Brady, on the outside. Karen Levine, the book’s author, originally produced the story as a radio documentary, and was encouraged to turn it into a book. The book is used in many classrooms here and throughout the world.

During Ms. Levine’s first visit, approximately 1,500 students and teachers made up the audience for two presentations delivered by Ms. Levine. As part of the awards dinner, where the author dines with essay winners and discusses the novel, and essay winners receive their award for excellence in the contest, there was a special guest on the program, a Holocaust survivor, who not only spoke at the awards dinner, but also agreed to speak along with Ms. Levine during her presentations.

This year, there were not the numbers physically in the audiences, though there were still more than 500 who filled the seats of the Jackson Center Theater, but there were also 14 schools throughout New York state who, while in their schools, tuned into the presentation via distance learning. At the awards dinner this year, there was also a Holocaust survivor who spoke there, and though she did not share the stage with Ms. Levine, those who heard her speak learned, first hand, better than any book could teach.

As I sat facing all of these students and was able to see the monitors of those attending through technology, I saw the attentiveness on their faces, and as I heard the questions they asked during the interactive Q&As, using my intuition as a teacher, I knew learning was taking place, and nowhere did I see a number two pencil or a bubble sheet that had to be filled in by anyone.

The second program I attended at the center, this time as just a very interested spectator, occurred nine days after Ms. Levine’s visit. This event was a visit by the Chief Justice of the United States, The Hon. John Roberts, who came to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Jackson Center and spoke of the legacy of Justice Jackson, and of the differences in the Supreme Court today as compared to Justice Jackson’s days on the bench. He encouraged young people to stay informed on the workings of the government and told how people from small towns, rural areas, as well as big cities can be anything they want to be and be a part of their country’s working toward the preservation of the legacies of those who paved the way in the history of this great nation.

Again, as I stood and listened to Justice Robert’s speech, I looked around at the faces of many of the near 2,000 young people in attendance, and on many of those faces I could read that education was happening. In talking with others after the event, I knew that many learned things, just by being a part of the crowd. I scanned the crowd a number of times and, again, I saw no number two pencils, nor a bubble sheet anywhere.

Isn’t it a shame that so many educators and schools are shying away from field trips, and inviting people who have lived history to come and talk to their students, our children, because they are worried about getting all of their number two pencils sharpened and ready for the day they are handed those bubble sheets.

Education isn’t just measured by test scores. Education is measured by students taking what they’ve heard and learned and how they apply it to be the best that they can be. Education happens when students take information, process it, and use it in the real world, and that includes so many life skills, which are never questioned on the standardized tests which come with those bubble sheets.

I share two adages which I’ve found in my travels, one reading, “The job of teachers isn’t to help students do well in school. The job of teachers is to help students do well in life.” The other reads, “Let’s teach kids to think outside the box, not inside the circles.”

Let’s put away the number two pencils. Let’s throw those bubble sheets in the recycle paper bin. Let’s go back to educating students through critical thinking, projects, expanding minds, exposing them to people who have lived history, throwing as much as we can at them, and letting them absorb whatever they can to be as productive persons as possible.