Changes in education, No Child Left Behind, Teaching Tolerance, bubble tests, Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark Expedition

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March 25, 2006

The only thing constant in education is change

Sandra Nichols
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  "It has not been educators who have led this country into a bubble test - computer scored - obsession. It has been politicians."

One constant feature of schools is change. Education seems to be heading in one direction and then — abracadabra — something new everyone must do.

High stakes testing is still fairly new but the shine is beginning to wear off. The testing craze has reached its apex during the Bush years. This too will pass.

It has not been educators who have led this country into a bubble test - computer scored - obsession. It has been politicians. While politicos are dreaming up ways to make all children arrive at the same point at the same time, teachers have been dreaming up ways to make education the vital, life-long, loved experience that you want for your children. Consider the following kind of lesson not conducive to assessment through those bubble tests.

The latest edition of the magazine "Teaching Tolerance" has a picture on the cover of Sacajawea crying a river of tears as the famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, look on. Sacajawea was the Native American woman who served as interpreter for the expedition, which was commissioned by President Jefferson to explore the Northwest. The image is hard to shake. The magazine advocates new techniques to explore that event.

Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, having wintered in Fort Clatsop on the Pacific coast, were heading back to what they considered civilization — that is, the land east of the Mississippi River. Placing oneself in a different perspective, one might consider that the Lewis and Clark expedition never really left civilization. Rather, they encountered one civilization after another as they journeyed and explored — not undiscovered territory, but the territory of Native Americans. The indigenous people had varied perspectives about the expedition.

As pointed out in the magazine, Sacajawea herself was claimed by at least two tribes as a member. Apparently, she was stolen as a child from the Shoshoni by the Hidatsa tribe or vice-versa depending on who is telling the story.

I have to admit to being fascinated by the story of Lewis and Clark. I dragged my family to Fort Clatsop, their West Coast headquarters. I read "Sacajawea, Sign Talker" and several other versions of the journey.

The point made in "Teaching Tolerance" is that the expedition can be viewed from different angles, and that the teaching of these perspectives in our schools leads to improved critical thinking and a more tolerant attitude. I would add that it fosters a deep interest in history, geography, sociology, anthropology, language, nature, and even survival skills.

Today's teachers are stimulating thought by having students write journals from different perspectives. Imagine the point-of-view of Clark's slave, York, who accompanied the expedition and that of 16-year-old Sacajawea herself, who had been purchased by her 47-year-old husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, the official guide of the expedition. That explains why there was a woman along, carrying her baby for that 7,400-mile journey. Now that should stimulate some thought and creative writing based on American history.

Education and what is taught in schools changes as learning continues to build upon itself. Modern day educators develop new ways of reflecting on society. Teachers used to present the Lewis and Clark expedition from the single perspective of manifest destiny — how great it was that two white men explored uncharted territory and made expansion possible. Now teachers are sensitive to the fact that other real people were impacted in ways that must be considered. Some indigenous people living along the expedition route helped the group stay alive and find their way. Proving the rule that "no good deed goes unpunished," they were subsequently relocated to reservations.

Today learning doesn't stop with such events as the Trail of Tears, in which the Cherokee people were forcefully relocated from their homes in a different part of the same history. Resentment about this continues to this day. It is so easy to see how hate develops and so difficult to deal with the repercussions. It can not be ignored nor denied in classrooms.

In No Child Left Behind schools, how do we test whether tolerance has been successfully taught? This is not subject matter conducive to assessment on bubble tests. Feelings and attitudes are more appropriately assessed by listening and watching what students say and do, and by reading students' reflective written work. Signs of failure are the perpetuation of such stereotypes as those of Lewis and Clark in calling Native Americans "savages" in their journals.

If values are important educational goals in the public schools, and I believe they are, then portfolios and student projects must be considered when measuring success.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Vice-President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County. Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2006


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