WHAT A DELICIOUS bit of irony it was that prompted the gods of pedagogy to have me no sooner finish reading Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book "Teacher," a seminal work on early-childhood education in New Zealand, than turn my attentions to The Sun's article on Fullerton Elementary's formula for success on tests in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). A jarring contrast, indeed.
Ms. Ashton-Warner's students were brown-skinned Maori children unresponsive to the "John and Janet" (New Zealand's Dick and Jane) vocabulary thrust upon them when they entered their English-speaking schools. The author helped them build a bridge between their culture and that of the New Zealand whites.
Words were the material of this strategic bridge -- organic words that sprang from within the Maori themselves, not ones superimposed upon them by their teacher.
Her method employed self-effacing silence, patience and trust. The most withdrawn of Maori children would finally yield one of their deeply embedded words which so aptly defined their environment. Their unique autobiographies emerged word by word: "mommy," "daddy," "kiss," "ghost," "frightened," "police," "goal," "kill," "butcher knife," "me-and-you," "cry," "school."
She wrote their words on cards; and if the words were truly organic and held instinctual significance for the child, the child would remember them.
Any word the child could not remember was discarded. The children wrote their words; they read their words; they spelled their words. They used them in sentences and shared them with each other. These words were a part of their identity. How could they ever forget their very own organic words?
Ms. Ashton-Warner considered her kindergarten-age children live volcanoes with two vents -- one for creativity and one for destruction.
She regarded the identities of over-disciplined European children crushed beyond recognition. She quoted from Freud, Jung, Fromm, Erickson, Goethe and Tolstoy, who all agreed that the unexpressed life would result in stultifying sameness or uncontrollable violence if not given proper nurturing and ventilation.
One day Ms. Ashton-Warner asked a visiting friend, a university professor, what kind of students he encountered. "They're all exactly the same," he answered. "No one can think for himself." This alarming assessment kept her valiantly calling on the children's inner resources, the resources which preserved and protected their true identity.
The Maori were an explosive charge to handle. A noisy peace was the best Ms. Ashton-Warner could negotiate in her classroom; but she knew she was defusing future wars by treating a child as a creative agent and not as an empty vessel to fill.
The author's life-long effort to engage the potential of children met both criticism and apathy. But her supporters included the British philosopher and critic Sir Herbert Read, who wrote the preface to her book. His passionate belief was that education should help an individual to live a natural, inner-directed life.
That is why I say that this book, however unprofessional or unacademic it may seem, contains fundamental significance.
Without exaggeration it may be said that Sylvia Ashton-Warner has discovered a way of saving humanity from self-destruction. We should not ignore her method because it is so unassuming, so unpretentious. Great changes in the destiny of mankind can be effected only in the minds of little children.
Education reform in Maryland, however, places a test, not children, at the center. Kindergarten children at Fullerton Elementary School, according to the news report, were learning a special language to outsmart the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
The test-outsmarting words these 5-year-olds were absorbing into their fresh, little minds were "rubric," "glyph," "pictograph," "overlapping," "diagram."
If these children are stuffed with this lifeless MSPAP jargon, what will become of their precious personal organic words? Ms. Ashton-Warner would not be pleased.
State school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was quoted as saying that Fullerton should serve as a model school and that state officials should examine its formula. That word "formula" has a one-size-fits-all ring to it.
Earning the points
In older grades, the article reported that teachers drum the term "rubric" into children's heads. Rubric, we are informed, means instruction. Rubric is an important word in this elementary school, for as one of the teachers announced, when you find the rubric, you know what you have to do. The rubric signals "the importance of deciphering what the tester wants them to do and what will earn the most points."
Earn the most points! These teachers are working so diligently, and for what purpose? To get the children to pass a test. So many fertile teaching ideas are being offered here only to be neutralized by the demands of bureaucratic concepts that violate the innate creativity of human beings.
How can we save humanity from self-destruction if our children are being fed a formula in order to learn how to earn the most points on a senseless standardized test?
Agnes Merrick is a graduate student in education at Loyola College.
Pub Date: 1/03/97