I was educated in England and best remember my High School English teacher, a woman who inspired through enthusiasm. She was in love with language and literature, and her unfailing, bouncing enthusiasm and permanent grin enthused us all. There were no non-participants in that class – the boys at the back of the class sat up, listened, read the texts, and contributed their ideas. Every class was a lively discussion. No ideas were ‘wrong’, but we were challenged (by both our peers and our teacher), and we did need to be able to explain and justify them. We could challenge our teacher too; we could question what she was saying, and decide for ourselves what we believed.

One idea sparked more, and more… everything was interesting…we wanted to learn, we wanted to discuss, we wanted to write papers! Our exam results were outstanding, but what really mattered was that we had learned to think, analyse, and discuss, and we had developed a love of learning that would last a lifetime.

The key to learning therefore is enthusiasm combined with high expectations. I firmly believe that when high expectations are placed upon children, they rise to meet them.

Years later I moved to North Carolina, had children of my own in public schools, and to my shock found neither teachers, students, nor parents seemed to know that love of learning; that enthusiasm, or that pleasure. Expectations of all 3 groups seemed at rock bottom. Children were not required to discuss, analyse, criticize, or justify, merely to memorize material, fill in blanks or color in ‘bubble’ answers. Children received an ‘A’ just for turning work in – it could be incorerect, they could have completely failed to grasp the concept, but so long as they turned in something, they got an ‘A’.

What does a child learn from this? Certainly not that an A marks an achievement and is worth working for. Isn’t an ‘A’ supposed to mean ‘excellent’? In my HS English class, if we earned an ‘A’ we knew that we had worked hard, had thought hard, had explained and justified ourselves; that we had learned something, and that we could take pride in that. In the NC State Schools my children were being robbed of that pride because an “A’ meant nothing – it had been devalued, and so had education and learning. From Easter onward they did nothing but ‘practice tests’ so that they might pass the EOG Test and become another statistic. They were bored; they didn’t see the ‘point’ – and no wonder! I thus came to realize what a truly great gift that English teacher had given me. How I wish I could see even one tenth of her enthusiasm, and one tenth of our class’s ebullience in my local public schools today.

It is not only our children who are being robbed. Teachers have the ‘ease’ of checking ‘fill in the blank’ papers rather than the more time-consuming task of reading individual essays – but what richness they are missing without the joy of reading a student’s perceptive essay and having the satisfaction of knowing that a valuable lesson has been learned, and a love of learning passed on. It horrifies me that learning – true learning- seems to have been lost in a morass of ‘bubble sheets’ and bureaucracy. Children in our state schools are not taught to write, nor expected to write. A request for a 1 or 2 page essay is met with squeals of dismay about excessively ‘long’ assignments. And then, having had no practice in writing or expressing ideas, they are suddenly expected to pass a State writing test- a test which again focuses to much on grammar, and not enough on understanding, expression, communication, and the higher order thinking skills.

Above all, I want our children to be taught how to think! This is the greatest gift of education, the gift that my education gave me; a gift, sadly, that is being denied our children today. A generation of children who can color in bubbles but can neither think for themselves, nor express their ideas in writing is truly a national tragedy.