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Anna Jacopetti recently retired after a career in education of 50 years. She taught every grade from 1-14, she was an administrator, and she taught teachers. In this article, she shows the contrast between today’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and deep learning.
She reflects on a different approach to education, one that is definitely discouraged now by federal policy. What is in favor now is data-driven decision-making, scripted lessons, and Common Core-aligned readings.
I found a job teaching reading in a school that still encouraged teacher initiative. I chose to use the Junior Great Books, a series that employs rich and varied language to tell age appropriate stories. Second Grade children are word sponges, full of curiosity and pleasure as they gain understanding of the world around them through expanding vocabularies This is not a rote learning process. These children enjoyed the fairy tales and legends that they could vividly imagine through the rich language, but they were most excited about learning new words that they could use in their own stories and in their conversations. We wrote their favorite new words on the board . Soon the children were bringing in other words that they had heard (but not understood) from their reading or from conversations overheard at home. We added these to our Words of Power and the list grew, with words like soporific, synchronicity, catastrophe, and surreptitious to remember only a few. The whole class was now engaged and there were no discipline problems. Reading fluency improved by leaps and bounds.
After Easter break, we had exhausted our Jr. Great Books and I turned to an Open Court textbook series that the school had purchased. I was pleased that it presented classic stories and myths, but after a few days the children balked. They told me that they didn’t like the new book. When I asked them why, they quickly consensed that all the Words of Power had been taken out of the stories. Open Court had carefully limited the language to words that were prescribed for Second Graders and these words were declared “boring” by the class. So I asked them to tell me what made a word “powerful” and they were quiet for a few minutes. Then Esme raised her hand and said ,“When you look up a word of power in the dictionary and you read all the definitions, you still don’t know everything it means.” I have never forgotten this moment. Moments such as these kept me going through decades of teaching. In such moments learning is palpable and children’s eyes light up with understanding and pride. These moments can’t be scripted or measured, but they are exemplary of an emergent, radiant process of learning that education should nurture, respect and protect at all costs.
I am highlighting here what it means to nurture capacities rather than “teach to standards”. Had I introduced vocabulary lists, assigned all the children to look up words in the dictionary as homework and then tested them to see if they had “learned” the words, I would have had a very different result. Children have a capacity for language acquisition in early childhood that is quite remarkable. They master complex syntax and the basic grammatical constructions of English before they go to school. They have learned subject verb agreement, verb tenses and proper use of adjectives and adverbs by kindergarten. They learn through conversation and by listening. The richer and more omnipresent language is in their surroundings, the more stories they hear, the stronger their language skills and their imaginative faculties become. Many first and second graders will know the lines to a play or a story “by heart” after hearing them only a few times – faster than older children and much faster than adults. Nurturing and building on this innate capacity is a key for language instruction in the early grades. Reciting and retelling come before writing. Dictating and then finally writing their own stories is a very engaging and empowering process for children that ideally precedes reading.
As we move deeper into the era of test-based accountability, teachers like Ms. Jacopetti will retire, and what she knows will disappear. Will teachers still know how to think for themselves? Will it be permitted by the state or the federal government? Will they still exercise their judgment? Or will they act as robots, programmed for compliance?