I recently visited the Big Apple. Right now, if I close my eyes I can picture a kaleidoscope of images: neon lights, beautiful dresses, horns blaring, buildings towering overhead, a constant sea of people. We “did” New York: the Met, the MoMA, the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the 9/ll Memorial, SoHo, Chelsea, Harlem, Battery Park, a Broadway show. We walked and walked and walked and stopped and stared (being sure to step to the side so we didn't annoy New Yorkers).
I wonder, my husband said, as he gazed up at the Freedom Tower, if my life would have been different if I’d come to New York as a youth.
Who knows? But it seems safe to say that the richer the array of possibilities that are set before us, the greater the probability that our path will diverge from the one mapped out by history, our parents’ lives, and proximity.
Perhaps that’s why I feel frustrated by the calls for “relevance” and “student-driven passion” in education. After all, relevance is defined by our community and our capacity to imagine; our passions – and our imaginations - are fueled by our experiences. How can a logger’s daughter understand the relevance of (never mind grow a passion for) quadratic equations that seems so obvious to the daughter of a nuclear physicist? How many could imagine, fifty years ago, that anything to do with computers would be relevant for everything? They weren't conceived of by people who had been taught about computers, obviously, but people who had imagination, tenacity, and a deep understanding of mathematics. And the future? Who knows? The best we can do is teach the best we know, and that includes “irrelevant” things like Shakespeare and poetry and classical music and quantum theory, and yes, quadratic equations rather than only “financial literacy.” An education is inevitably irrelevant, in part at least, to every individual. Why not fill the day with those “irrelevant” ideas and tools that are the best of human thinking, not only because relevance is subjective, but because they are a means to create a relevant-to-us (that is, to say, passion-driven) path in an unfathomable future.
I was once invited to tell a story for multicultural day at one of our “up-town” elementary schools. I shared pictures from my trip to Uganda. I began by asking how many of the students had travelled to another country. Almost all the students raised their hands. I was shaken. In the neighbourhood where I teach – only 10 kilometers away - almost none would. Many haven’t even been out of town. I knew the up-town students had advantages, but the sight of all the raised hands (50 or 60 students) was a visceral reminder. Each of these students, as they travelled, books and museum guides in hand, planes, trains and subways lifting geography and history off the incomprehensible pages of tatty textbook, stacked up advantages. Their understanding of relevance and the breadth of their “passions” grew exponentially with every mile.
I start a new job in September. I've chosen to teach grade 6 and 7 students in a “down-town” school. How, I wonder, can I bring New York to my students? We now have such vivid technologies, and although I don’t know if a mediated reality can stand in for miles traveled, I do know that reading books makes a difference. Why not virtual travel? It’s easy to go to the Met (they have gorgeous lesson plans complete with images), to the MoMA, to see and hear the crowds and sites of New York in the live cams. Perhaps we can buddy with a New York school and Skype with them regularly. All I need for a start is a computer, a projector and a reasonable Internet connection (not always available in our district where technology hasn't been a priority, but I’ll think if a way).
Will their lives be different if they “go” to New York? I’m not sure. I know supporting children of poverty is complex. But I also know that messages matter. Rich, complex, beyond-literacy-and-numeracy lessons tell students that they will need these tools and this information for their rich, diverse, anything-is-possible future lives.
Anyone interested in donating a half-dozen laptops?