I have a confession to make.
I have not written fiction in…I cannot remember how long.
There’s just something about writing fiction that stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what it is. Personal narrative? Poetry? Essay? I’m all in. Fiction? Move it along, nothing to see here. I’ve tried countless times, with stops and starts.
To tell you the truth, I had been feeling guilty about it. After all, I’m the queen of getting in there with my kids, rolling up my sleeves and writing along with them. Except with fiction. I always demonstrate my pre-writing, model my storyboards and such, then quietly fade away when it’s time to do the actual composition.
Well, this week I had an assignment for one of my classes. We were supposed to imagine that an educational reformer from history visited our classroom, and to respond creatively.
My original thought (as it so often is) was to use poetry. Little by little, my verse started reading more and more like prose. Until I finally sighed, gave in, erased the line breaks and embraced my writing for what it was. Fiction.
Here goes. It’s a little rough around the edges; I’m not gonna lie. But boy am I proud that I climbed this mountain after who knows how long.
Monday morning, 7:36 a.m. Time to begin my daily ritual. I slung my teacher bag to the floor, threw my coat over my chair and slumped down. I reached into my bag to unpack. My laptop and plan book assumed their rightful positions at the altar, as did the pile of grading I should have done the night before. Pencil in hand, I began to assimilate just exactly how the day would go.
A shadow in a dark suit appeared at the door. Crikey, I thought. Please tell me I haven’t forgotten some sort of meeting. I straightened and turned to the figure, then grew puzzled. It wasn’t someone I knew. “Good morning. Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for a…Mrs. Levin?”
Rising from behind my desk, I reached out to shake hands. “I’m Mrs. Levin, and you are…”
“Dr. John Dewey. They didn’t tell you I was coming? I’m here to observe your class for the day.”
“Wait…John Dewey?” I replied.
“Yes, from the Time-traveling Reformers for Enlightened Education.”
“Ah…TREE. I’ve heard of you. Well…welcome! Have you been to many classrooms before?”
“A few,” Dewey said. “So here I am, ready to learn from you.”
Holy cow! This guy wrote the book – literally! – on progressive education. I better have my A-game ready today. “I don’t know,” I stumbled. “It seems I’m probably the one who has some learning to do from YOU. Well, Dr. Dewey, my mentor teacher always says that you can tell a lot about a teacher based on how the classroom looks.” I gestured towards my clearly lived-in classroom space. “So what do you think?”
John Dewey adjusted his spectacles, cleared his throat, and began his tour. He started by examining the tables for groups of students, the supplies I keep in the room available to the kids, the Wonder-Bot 3000 some of my loveys made for when kids had questions to research for fun. He thumbed through my shelf full of professional books (Reading with Meaning, The One-World School House, Learn Like a Pirate) and gave a satisfied “humph.” Turning to my desk, with the too-large pile of grading on it, Dewey gave me a quizzical look. “Are these…worksheets?”
What? If only he knew how much busywork is my nemesis. “Oh, no,” I quickly say. “My students are exploring the evolution of the English language. These packets help guide them on their research.”
“Ah, I see.” Dewey looked through the pile, pulled out a random paper and began reading. “So, you’re studying Noah Webster and his contribution to American language.”
“Well, he IS kind of a dude.” I feel myself turn red before adding, “At least the kids think so. You know that’s one of the highest compliments they can give a person.” An awkward silence. “Perhaps you’ll understand when you meet them during your observations.”
“I suppose I will. Well, Mrs. Levin, your classroom does seem to be quite student-centered, and their work does seem interesting. When do the children arrive?”
“In a bit. They just need to check in with their home rooms.”
“Yes. The students just come to me for language arts enrichment. These are students who demonstrate a high aptitude for reading, so they come to me for additional challenge.”
John Dewey furrowed his brow and folded his arms. “So…this opportunity isn’t available to all students, then?”
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Dewey. All students need the opportunity to be creative and to explore. You may not entirely agree with the premise of gifted education. I know not everyone does. Heavens, even I didn’t for part of my career, and I was even a product of that system.”
“You’re not making a strong case for yourself.”
“Allow me to continue,” I said. “The thing is, gifted students need each other. This classroom expands their opportunities to be creative and explore the world around them. To make it better, they often go back to their classmates and spread that knowledge and those skills.”
“I see,” Dewey said.
“The thing is, Mr. Dewey,” I went on, “I agree that it might be nice if ALL students had the chance to engage with curriculum to the same degree of depth and complexity as these students do. But…given the time constraints classroom teachers have, plus the expectations to meet our state and national standards for every child, many classroom teachers don’t have the room or the freedom to pursue courses of study like this one. You can thank your friends in the standardization movement for THAT one.”
He replied, “We have some philosophical differences, Mrs. Levin, but you do seem to have your students’ interest at heart.”
“I’M HERE!” interrupted Sandro as he strode through the door. “DID YOU MISS ME?”
“Of course I did, Sandro. It’s been a whole three days! Where are your classmates?”
“They’re coming.” He turned to John Dewey. “Who are you?”
“I’m Dr. John Dewey, young man. I’ve made some important contributions in the past to the way you learn, and I’ve traveled through time to visit you and your teacher.”
“Wait. Dr. DEWEY!? I know that name!” he shouted, as the rest of the class came straggling in. “Hey you guys! This is the Dewey Decimal System guy. Can you believe it? Here’s here from the past – to visit US!” A commotion arose as the other students gathered around, asking all kinds of library questions all at once.
John Dewey’s shoulders sagged, and he gave a heavy sigh. Clearly this was not the first time he had heard this one. He adjusted his spectacles, shook his head (did he just roll his eyes?) and said, “No, no. That’s not me. You’re thinking of MELVIL Dewey. He’s the library man. I’m JOHN Dewey. I made reforms in progressive education throughout the early twentieth century.”
Amelia piped up. She was never shy about asking questions. “What’s progressive education?”
“Simply put, young lady, progressive education means that learning is there for you to explore and learn about your world. Learning is not just to prepare you for some job later in life, but to help you make the most meaning of your life now, as you live it.”
There was a general murmur as the students considered this idea.
“That’s kind of like what Mrs. Levin does!” answered Jenna. “She lets us explore cool stuff all the time! Have you ever heard of Noah Webster? We’re studying him now.”
“I am vaguely familiar,” Dewey said as he shot me a look. He continued, “I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your studies. You must remember how important it is to seek out big ideas and make them a part of your educational experience. It is the best way for you to understand and connect with the world around you.”
“Dr. Dewey,” declared Sandro, “you’re a DUDE.”
From behind his spectacles, John Dewey blushed as the other kids nodded in agreement. Check’s in the mail, kid. Check’s in the mail.