First Person

Pairing serious inquiry with play, my students find a balance education policy lacks

At a Washington Heights bookstore in May, senior Sofia Arnold asked, “Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” She then took a rose and polled five audience members—first calling the object a garbage compactor, then a rose.

Sofia’s presentation, which also included lines from Macbeth and King Lear, was one of three “empirical Shakespearean experiments” that played a part in the launch of our school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

She and other students at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering created the journal over the course of the academic year. For them, the event was an exciting chance to celebrate their accomplishment and experience their ideas in action; for me, a teacher who has seen pedagogical reforms swing between what I’ve come to think of as piety and play, with little in between, it was refreshing to see students so naturally balancing the two.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter posits that the intellectual life has “a peculiar poise of its own … a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.”

For this context, “piety” consists of the pursuit of specific goals; “play,” in the unraveling and teasing out of possibilities. The primarily “pious” educator structures a lesson to meet clear objectives; the primarily “playful” educator welcomes the unexpected question or tangent, and follows it where it leads.

Hofstadter’s larger argument is that intellectual life requires a combination of piety and play. One must have goals and structure, but one must also have room for questions and surprises.

Unfortunately, education policy rarely gets the combination right.

Today the dominant emphasis is on piety, with little room for play. Teachers are encouraged—even mandated—to establish and meet clear objectives in every lesson. NPR recently featured a model Common Core lesson in which the students began by reading and discussing the Common Core standards that the lesson would address. Many would consider this good practice, but others would have the students set their own goals or even let the goals develop gradually.

Sofia Arnold conducting an  "empirical Shakespearean experiment."
Sofia Arnold conducting an “empirical Shakespearean experiment.”

In contrast, certain strands of progressive education (from the early twentieth century to the present) have emphasized creativity, spontaneity, and discovery—often at the cost of the structure and content I believe students need.  For example, proponents of “discovery learning”–many of whom teach at education schools or serve as consultants–maintain that students should discover subject matter on their own, with minimal direction from the teacher.

Given this landscape, what can policymakers do to foster intellectual life in schools? Attempting to prescribe a mixture of piety and play could harden quickly into dogma. But one step policymakers can take is avoiding dictating exactly how to teach. The “how” is the teacher’s vitality; remove it, and you drain the profession. On a school level, teachers can encourage intellectual life by thinking about the subject matter, mulling over questions, and listening closely to their students.

I support a structured curriculum with room for the unexpected—where the point is to open up the subject and the mind.

Granted, my experience is atypical. I teach at a selective school in Harlem, where certain basic skills are assumed. But I have also taught at struggling schools and seen students respond to a mixture of concrete learning and playful questioning.

Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from a student-written philosophy journal.
Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from CONTRARIWISE, a student-written philosophy journal.

During the journal celebration at the bookstore, my current students embodied the balance my colleagues and I have tried to create.

Take the introduction, for example. Rather than simply describing the journal, editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, both juniors, staged a playful interruption that also demonstrated their engagement with a core philosophical question.

Ron mentioned that the audience would have an opportunity to ask philosophical questions at the end, if there was time. A sixth-grader, Theo Frye Yanos, shot his hand in the air.

“Excuse me, I have a question,” he said with spontaneous flair, though the interruption had been planned.“What is time?”

Nicholas responded that they would answer the question after “an interval in the non-spatial continuum of the succession of events.” After conferring with Nicholas, Ron awarded the “H. G. Wells Award” to Theo for being the first to ask a question about time.

After Theo received his award, the event continued with readings, philosophical improv, more humorous awards, a song, a cake, and more.

Students read pieces from the journal— ranging from Faith Flowers’s “Roundtable on the Distribution of Health Care Resources” to Anthony Lewis’s “Letter on the Ethics of Lying,” in which Jiminy Cricket lectures Pinocchio sanctimoniously on Kant but then finds a contradiction in his own argument.

The delight of the event lay in its intellectual liberty; these students saw no contradiction between serious study and fun.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.