Taking School Seriously
President Obama outlined his view of K-12 public education yesterday, www.latimes.com/classified/jobs/news/la-me-obama-education-2009mar11,0,817684.story Most of the news coverage focused on the politics of the speech — the indication that he disagreed with some standard Democratic Party positions on charter schools and merit pay. And since NCLB is up for reconsideration, everyone wanted to know how Obama plans to deal with it. But I see something else in his speech — a real opening, and a real challenge, for those of us who create trade nonfiction. Obama expects more from students and teachers, from schools. He expects students to stay in school, school days and school years to run longer, teachers to make a measurable difference in their students’s lives (though he is aware that those measures are not simply "off the shelf" test scores), and American education as a whole to matter more to the American people. At the same time, the President seems to like, to respond to, creative initiatives taken by students and schools, especially when they involve technology — at the end of the LA Times article above they mention a video made by high school students that Obama praised.
I’ve talked about that 50% African American high school graduation rate here — and he is pointing out that other groups are also faring quite poorly. Clearly one charge to all of us involved with education is to treat those figures as completely unacceptable. But I think the real points of entry for us are in that elementary/upper elementary content gap, and in the idea of student creativity enhanced by technology. Even if kids have good preschool education and are ready to read, if their teachers cannot guide them from story and fable to history and science, they are sure to fall behind again in middle school. This is where our nonfiction picture books, chapter books, biographies, early science, photo-illustrated larger books can play a big role. We can lead both teachers and students across the divide into content as adventure-of-learning, instead of textbook-chore. But we need to be speaking with teachers, parents, librarians, administrators — finding out what they need from our books, and showing them what we have already created.
On the tech front we need to get comfortable with Skype, wikis, class-blogs — the suite of digital tools teens and tweens have available. Or, at least, we need some webinars, some orientation, so we can find the partners who can make the bridge between our books, our research, or writing skills, and the technologies kids are mastering. I feel both daunted and thrilled by this prospect. If we need contact and advocacy on the younger level, we need exploration and fresh thinking for older kids.
Obama, it seems to me, is opening a door for exactly the kinds of books we create. But we need to walk through it ourselves. The keynote of this education plan is responsibility. We are needed, if we take up the challenge to prove it.