Gabby Giffords

August 20, 2011.  Gabby Giffords, by Margie Cooper

Earlier this month, a most remarkable human triumph was made visible. Although history might record it as the night the belabored Congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling was finally taken, the moment that moved every single person who saw it was the spectacular reappearance of Gabby Giffords to her rightful place as the representative of the Eighth District in Arizona. Waving, smiling, and greeting colleagues, Gabby showed us all a glimpse of what is possible against all odds. A victim of incomprehensible violence, Gabby absorbed a gunshot to the head at point blank range less than one year ago while holding a meet and greet for her constituents. It would be hard to argue that Gabby Giffords is not an inspiration—not only because she survived the unsurvivable, but because she is a person who has consistently developed and fought forward with her life.

This story makes me wonder if there is more we can do in education to contribute to the development of steely humans—ones able to live a rich and contributing life while positively overcoming life’s obstacles. Is it enough any longer to participate in the smoke and mirrors game of test scores, cheating on test scores, and pretending that a standardized curriculum will pave the way to the diverse life pathways in front of our children?

I read a short article in the newspaper on August 2 about the quick passage of a new charter school somewhere in metro Atlanta. In it, state school board members were quoted congratulating themselves on how quickly they were able to pass through the approval process, suggesting they weren’t weighted down bureaucrats. The name of the new school will be “Ivy Preparatory Academy.” Will any of us have the attention span to follow what percentage of students graduating from Ivy Prep will actually be accepted by one of the Ivy League universities? I’ll go out on a limb here, but I doubt it will be all that many. And, here is where I feel the most shame as an educator. Instead of letting go of that misplaced moniker of supposed success—acceptance into the Ivy Leagues—we, as a field, continue to cower instead of educating.  One thing is certain about the students who will graduate from Ivy Prep. All will go on with their lives in ways and styles that none of us can foresee today. Wouldn’t we all want them to have the courage and perseverance of Gabby Giffords in whatever life they make for themselves?

So, I will simply argue that we aren’t doing any student any good with our current perverse rejection of learning experiences in favor of testing experiences. Life is long. Children have a right to experiences that build and embed concepts in their being—not just in their head. Some argue that the basis of everything in the universe can be understood mathematically. However, to understand mathematically, one has to directly experience the concepts that mathematics describe. A legion of research in education is clear and precise on this point. Knowledge is constructed. Concepts are re-built by every human.  Knowledge isn’t ether that one simply breathes. Childhood is the prequel to the longer story of adulthood, and the life lived in childhood matters indescribably.

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