“‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them … Stick to Facts, sir!’ The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.”
Charles Dickens began his novel “Hard Times” with these words more than 150 years ago. In this scene, a school headmaster named Thomas Gradgrind shares his educational philosophy with Mr. M’Choakumchild, a teacher. This “plain, bare monotonous vault of a schoolroom” sits on the edge of Coketown, a fictional industrial town of the mid-19th century. A few paragraphs later, the narrator describes the children sitting in the classroom as little vessels “ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”
A few months ago I sat in my high school classroom reviewing the first chapter of “Hard Times” in preparation to introduce the novel to my Advanced Placement Literature students. I had taught the book the previous four years, but that afternoon Dickens’ words troubled me in ways they had not before. I pondered why.
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My classroom, thank heavens, is not the bare vault Dickens describes. Dozens of colorful homemade kites depicting topics and issues raised by Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” hang from the ceiling. Student-created posters, collages, story maps and cartoons exploring the plots and themes of various literary works — “Jane Eyre,” “Gilgamesh,” “The Book Thief,” “Oedipus the King” to name just a few — adorn bulletin boards and walls.
My high school students who studied these literary works and created this artwork are not little vessels waiting to be filled. They are too smart, too independent, too passionate — too human — to be that passive.
We began our literary journey in early September watching a clip from “Dead Poets Society,” a 1989 film in which Professor Keating (Robin Williams) defends the study of poetry to his affluent prep school students bound for lucrative careers in medicine, law and business. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion,” he says to the boys huddled around him in the middle of the classroom, reflecting his own passion for teaching and learning.
I started teaching in the fall of 1978 at Silverton High School, the day after I turned 22. I had graduated that spring from Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) with wide-eyed optimism and large doses of the passion displayed by Professor Keating. This fall, early in my fourth decade as an educator, I once again returned to school ready to immerse myself in the delightful, challenging, intellectually engaging and passionate world of teenagers.
But I felt less enthused than in past years. The wide-eyed optimism, which over the years has taken a few hits but has never disappeared, waned a bit. Was it because I had experienced an energizing summer of tandem bike rides, river floats, road trips, backyard campfires and sipping wine on my front porch and just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to summer? Was it because my husband — also a 30-plus-year veteran of the high school classroom — and I have more frequent conversations about what we will do when we retire?
I was pretty sure it was more than that. Then I opened up my worn copy of “Hard Times,” the one bearing a cover depicting a dark image of a strait-laced Victorian schoolmaster filling a student with facts, and reread Chapter 1, interestingly titled “The One Thing Needful.” Dickens spoke to me like he hadn’t before.
Professional Learning Communities. Common Formative Assessments. No Child Left Behind. Adequate Yearly Progress (PLCs, CFAs, NCLB and AYP in educator talk). Data-driven instruction. Research-based instructional strategies. Standardized tests and more standardized tests to assess our little vessels’ retention of facts, facts and more facts. Fill them to the brim.
Has old Thomas Gradgrind stepped from the pages of this Industrial Revolution-era novel and entered the conversations about school reform in the 21st century? I shuddered at the thought.
Yes, our schools need to change to meet the needs of this new century. Yes, we need to collaborate with our fellow teachers across the hall and around the country. Yes, we need to accurately and intelligently assess student learning. Yes, we need to pay attention to the data and to the research. And, yes, Mr. Gradgrind, we need to teach facts — but not at the expense of our students’ hearts and souls. Not at the expense of their passion for learning.
Much of the educational debate today espouses the need to “focus on student learning,” as if teaching has somehow been about something else all these years. Most teachers I know care passionately about student learning. We devote much of our waking moments thinking about student learning. We spend our own money on courses, books and classroom materials, and devote hours of unpaid time reading student papers and researching topics for lessons. (I’m revising this article over my winter holiday after a few hours of grading essays on “A Doll’s House.”) We give up our lunch breaks explaining math formulas, Spanish grammar, the Electoral College or persuasive essay techniques. We have always focused on student learning. In fact, teachers are the greatest investment any district makes in student learning.
I see evidence of student learning in my literature classroom every day. Some of it can — and should be — measured and compiled and recorded. Some of it cannot be measured just yet or maybe ever. But it’s happening. I know it is because I’m a teacher, and my students are not vessels overflowing with gallons of facts. They are amazing, thinking, feeling humans who daily ask questions about literature — which translate into questions about life — that I can’t, or won’t, give answers to, factual or otherwise.
In recent months, I’ve become a fan of Facebook, but not for the same reasons my 17-year-old daughter and her friends love it. I’ve reconnected with former students from five, 10, 20 and 30 years ago. In our “chats” we have updated each other on our lives, families and careers. That’s been delightful, but my love of Facebook grows from something more. In these chats, many of my “kids” (some now in their 40s) have affirmed what I believed could happen when I walked into my first classroom decades ago. Teachers make a difference. Teachers impact lives. And the lessons we have to teach cannot always be measured by a test.
The fact-obsessed Mr. Gradgrind tells his own children to “never wonder” after catching them sneaking peeks at a circus. Spoiler Alert for those thinking about reading this Dickens classic: Gradgrind’s system fails him, fails his children and all the students ensnared in that monotonous vault of a schoolroom Dickens described. The only one who survives unscathed is Sissy Jupe, a child of the circus.
Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for reminding us to preserve the wonder in learning and keep it at the heart of teaching.
Dena Minato teaches language arts at Corvallis High School in Corvallis, Oregon.