When Teachers Were Allowed to Use Their Own Professional Judgment
Ray Bradbury died earlier this month, and as I read the numerous articles about him, I was surprised by how many of his books I had taught during my teaching career: The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, “The Ilustrated Man,” and my all-time favorite, Dandelion Wine. Not so many books when you consider his lifetime output, but for one secondary teacher, more than average.
Fahrenheit 451 was a student favorite, and when we finished the book I always had students first write about and then talk about which book they would memorize if all books were burned. I always showed the movie afterwards, and students found the last scene haunting – the hidden colony where people wore rags and cooked over open fires, all the while reciting to their children the books they had memorized so that the children would memorize them too and pass them on. Of course, I taught that book pre-technology, so I’m not sure if the concept would resonate with students today. Why not just download the book on your e-reader, or at the very least, put it on a flash drive? Could students today even comprehend not having immediate access to books or information? I wonder.
The book I loved most to teach was Dandelion Wine. I admit that I probably enjoyed this coming of age book more than my students did, but they did relate to some of the stories. Perhaps young people who are coming of age themselves cannot recognize the phenomenon on the pages of books; perhaps you have to have come of age first and then recall what it was like. At any rate, my favorite story was “The Swan,” in which a young man sees the picture of a beautiful woman in a newspaper and falls in love with her. Later he discovers that the picture is very old and that the woman is now 92. Nonetheless he meets her and they have daily conversations for a couple of weeks. At times, he thinks, he can see a glimpse of the feathers of the beautiful swan the elderly woman has devoured. Before she dies, she writes him a letter saying that perhaps they will meet again in reincarnated forms, age appropriate for one another. OK, I can see why my high school students weren’t as taken with this idea as I was.
Remembering Bradbury, I thought about how much fun it was to teach in an era before high stakes testing, before mandated curriculum, and before publication of teachers’ test scores. I used my own professional judgment when it came to reading choices, and I could change the book list every year if I wanted to. I could assign different books to different students depending on their ability and interest. My students read a lot and they wrote a lot and they did just fine on the state exams. My real hope today is that when they read about Bradbury’s death, at least some of my former students said, “Oh, I remember we read Fahrenheit 451 in high school. I said I’d memorize Moby Dick” (or the Bible or the latest edition of Sports Illustrated or A Tale of Two Cities or ten Archie comic books).
Change isn’t always progress.