The press badges on two junior high reporters caught the president’s eye at the steps of Air Force One. “Oh, I see you’re starting early,” Richard Nixon told the students as he stepped forward to shake their hands. The two student reporters, wearing the same press credentials as the half dozen professional reporters also at the aircraft, were the only ones who got to talk with the president. He was in Rockford, Illinois, to deliver a campaign speech. It was one of countless journalism adventures that tapped the skills and honed the judgments of students from Johnsburg School District 12, which serves a small community in northern Illinois. Two and a half years later, three other reporters for the Johnsburg Journal student newspaper attended a White House press briefing that was dominated by Watergate questions. Afterwards, they saw President Nixon in the Oval Office. In Johnsburg, even junior high students were empowered to practice authentic journalism’without the threat of arbitrary censorship or the practice of prior review by administrators. I taught journalism and advised the newspaper staffs in Johnsburg for 34 years, including my last 25 years advising the Johnsburg Weekly News after we became a high school district. I
I always thought some school rules were arbitrary. I challenged my high school rule prohibiting boys from wearing jewelry (like earrings) by convincing the school senior class to boycott buying the class ring. School officials freaked. They were forced to create a formal student/faculty process to debate the rules. I also had fun with another rule about wearing a “jacket and tie.” The rule never said “where” to wear the tie (like around your head, leg, as a belt). Heh-heh. They had to change that one, too. Learning to turn the rules on the authority making them was powerful.
Can we call this learning how important it is to empower students? My last year at Kettering Middle School, where I first taught, I had only two classes of 8th grade students, each of which I saw for two 73-minute periods a day, teaching them English, Reading, and American History. I wanted them to work on being able to tell personal narratives. I prepared them using several approaches. First, we read a passage from Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert. The passage we read was about going to see the circus, but were evicted by an usher and were told ‘This ain’t the night for niggers/\.’ Given the largely African-American makeup of my classes, I suppose there was some risk, but my students knew of my own work in civil rights, and were willing to trust me. The next day I came dressed as a Roman Catholic Monsignor. I then put up two different versions of a personal narrative of my own life, when I as a student of Jewish background was enrolled in a masters program at a Roman Catholic Seminary. While I was Christian, I was not Catholic. One of my teachers, Monsignor
In 9th grade my English teacher would say to us, “PEOPLE, we are going to begin an essay today.” At first I thought it was a mistake. People? Really? But again and again she referred to us with a word that meant to me respect, acceptance and relevance. We were important to her, we were important in the classroom, we were important period. It completely changed how I viewed myself, what I might be capable of, and gave me confidence to find my voice in a subject that was never going to be my best, I wanted to do my best, to rise to the occasion; it propelled me forward. It was clearly one of the best learning experiences I ever had. Personal note: from a rather rural district high school in Canada, I went on to the University of Toronto, and acquired a Masters of Science degree.
I have considered patenting a T-shirt with a badly beaten bunny saying, ‘Enough stick! How about some carrots!’ I think of this when addressing my students about my schooling in ‘the day’, and their reaction – wishing for a time machine to return to those practices. First, I must offer a bit of biography. I grew up in a small Kansas town, where my mother ran the diner and my grandmother ran the shoe repair shop. Both women were smarter than I will ever be, but had relatively little access to education. (My grandmother had a third grade education, and my mother graduated from high school). They modeled for me that learning was a matter of curiosity not economic gain. Both worked long hours, and spent their free time reading (Grandma ‘ Zane Grey novels, Mom, newspaper (cover to cover) and mysteries (in bed at night). Neither had much money, so the library was central to them. I had similar experience as a child. To me learning was not associated with school (where I did poorly), but with my individual interests. I remember early interests in astronomy and genetics. The latter produced some controversy when after going through family picture
Perhaps the most significant, life-determining learning experience happened in the eleventh grade in Mrs. Eli’s class in my West Texas hometown high school named San Angelo Central High School. I remember the first day of the school year in her class. At first–in the brief moments before class was to start–it seemed like any other eleventh-grade class. That is, pretty normal. Then Mrs. Eli came stomping into the classroom angrily, did a quick visual survey, and commented that we were not the class of students that she had expected. “I always teach honors!” she exclaimed. She then stomped back out of the classroom while mumbling something loudly about having to leave in order to go and talk to the principal about straightening this matter out. Perhaps we were not supposed to take her attitude toward us personally since the “problem” was that there was a bureaucratic mix up. Regardless, the chill in the air that she left behind was palpable. Humiliated, we all gazed at each other through the corners of our eyes and we shrunk in our chairs. I attended a large, comprehensive high school and so I knew only a handful of the students in the class. It