Dear Goshen Friends Families:
A few weeks ago, I read an article in the local section of The Philadelphia Inquirer about the decision by several Philadelphia public school parents to exempt their children from taking the PSSA tests, assessments required by the state of Pennsylvania to test the skills of individual students before they graduate to the next grade. These parents cited the bias of the tests, the large amount of time taken away from class time to prepare for and complete these tests and the undue stress children feel around the experience. Conversely, there is immense pressure on schools today for their students to do well on these tests so that they remain solvent, viable and operational in their respective communities. As I read this piece and other articles for and against the tests, I thought about the privilege, freedom and autonomy we have, as parents and teachers, to teach the whole child. Unfettered by bureaucratic demands and expectations, we are able to help our children challenge themselves in a safe and inclusive environment, to problem solve with peers, to take academic risks without judgment, to learn to express themselves with clarity and confidence and to support one another in their sometimes difficult school journey. While testing is critical in determining a student's academic level, taking a full month to prepare for and take tests, as happened in a charter school where my son taught, does little for a child's intellectual, social, spiritual, physical and emotional growth. In my view, a teacher is teaching how to take a test instead of teaching the skills necessary to become a capable and confident student AND person. While instructing how to take a test is a skill, I think the entire exercise misses the point.
Today there is much talk about teaching to the whole child. Almost every school maintains that its teachers instruct and nurture the entire child, but what does that actually mean? No school is ever going to tell you that its teachers teach to only 55% or 82% of the child – how ludicrous! The word "whole" is ambiguous here because there is not real measure to quantify every nook and cranny of every child, to actually evaluate the measure of compassion or dignity or integrity a child possesses.
Our assessments of these qualities come from observations, interactions and anecdotal evidence which lead us to statements like "she is a good child" or "he really cares about others" or "she is a difficult child" or "I don't want my child to be around him." In my career, I have experienced adults who make early and unfair judgments about children, labeling them prematurely as ones they need to be careful about, boys and girls who make life uncomfortable for others. Somehow, even if they say they believe in the goodness and light of every child, they send the message that his light is a bit dimmer than the light of others. The message is sent to a child loudly and clearly, either deliberately or subconsciously, that she is inferior, difficult and unappreciated. Such adults "write her off", telling themselves that there is nothing they can do to educate that part of her soul which they feel is corrupted or unteachable. They discard the whole child and instead focus only on segments and parts of a child's educational foray. Such judgments and actions would never occur in a school or home where there is unconditional support and love. Such judgments and actions are the antithesis of a true education.
During my years in this business, I have met and spoken with many parents of prospective and current students who have told me, "I know you guys do this Quaker thing, lots of love and peace and stuff. That's great, but we take care of our own values at home. My son just needs to become a better reader. And, on another note, why don't you test in each grade?" I cringe when I hear these words, not because being an able reader is not essential, not because I do not respect a family's choice of how to raise a child and not because academics are unimportant. What I do see here is a missed opportunity, the opportunity to work together as parents and educators, to teach, inspire and celebrate all the skills of every child who attends Goshen.For a child to truly grow into a confident, talented and giving adult, no talent, no challenge, no passion, no learning difference, no emotional need can be left untouched. If one part of a machine doesn't work, it will never operate at its fullest potential. Our children are exposed to so much today which both nurtures and inhibits the growth of our students, as evidenced by the unlimited potential of technology which offers our children easy access to volumes of knowledge. But what kind of knowledge are they gaining, knowledge which empowers and emboldens or knowledge which hinders and harms? That is why it is imperative that all of us, you and I, understand what teaching to the whole child means. Here is my synopsis of what I think is necessary to teach when we speak about the whole child.• Empathy. It is important that we differentiate between empathy and sympathy here. Our children can feel sorry for others, but do they actually feel for others? Do they take on the worries, uncertainties and pain of friends and strangers or do they fast forward with only taking a slight pause to acknowledge another's tribulations? Too often today, because of 24/7 news and gratuitous and overly visible violence, our children are becoming numb to the demise of others, and they feel very little, if nothing at all. We all must teach empathy to our students, with the fervent hope that such empathy grows into compassionate social action, eventually. Not just talking, but doing. It starts at an early age.
• Honesty. Too many times today, especially in the media, we hear politicians, celebrities, athletes and others deny guilt. It is only when they are caught that they come forward with a mea culpa. If our children do something wrong, do we try to rationalize and excuse away what they did or do we help them understand that taking ownership of all that we do is the only way to maintain and preserve their integrity? As a parent, is it not my duty, even if there is pain, embarrassment and regret, to help my child learn from his mistakes? How can that happen if our children do not assume responsibility in the first place? Can we truly expect our students to grow and mature if they are not honest with themselves?
• Listening. This is a lost art today, the ability to truly listen to the stories of others. Although young children are normally and naturally egocentric, as parents and educators, we must help our students understand that their stories are secondary to the stories of those around them? Is the question, "How are you?" meant to discover and understand the lives of friends and strangers or is it a precursor to a lengthy summary of our own existence? Are we models for them in this regard or do they see us chatting about ourselves instead of listening?
• Passion. This can be tricky. We want our children to be balanced and diverse in all parts of their lives, making certain that they are exposed to every part of the school experience. But it is also equally important that they find something they truly love and that we celebrate that joy with them. My wife and I always discuss this issue in light of our youngest son's love of lacrosse – is it healthy? Is it unbalanced? Is he being exposed to all aspects of his high school experience? Yet, we must reward, celebrate and honor the work and effort he has put forth for lacrosse, acknowledging his relentless drive to be a capable and talented player. He cares deeply, and we support him. Passion is a good thing when mixed with a strong sense of reality.
• Reflection. It is difficult in these busy times to find the space to help our children reflect, yet it is essential that we do so. Being in the silence, resting in the quiet or even sharing the day's experiences at a family meal (families seldom eat together these days) or in the moment, without distractions, aid our children in honoring and understanding their days and ours. No video games, no television, no phones, no social media, nothing but those whom we love as one... in peace. Can we find that peace? We must make it a priority to do so.
• Acceptance. Quakers teach there is a light in all of us, a light that burns brightly in different forms and it is our charge to celebrate and embrace that light. Every student has multiple and diverse talents, and thus we must never stigmatize or categorize, judge or diminish. As my mom always told me when I was sick, sad, depressed or lonely, "You are a child of God, we all are." Children deserve to believe in themselves, and we are obligated to make that happen.
Maybe we need to change the wording from teaching to the whole child to teaching the child wholly. We instruct our students completely and fully, not only mindful of the treasures of each child but also fostering and celebrating those treasures with all of our being. That is who we are as a Quaker school. That is who we are as Goshen Friends School.
Please take note of the following events.• Friday, April 11 - School dance from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Goshen Firehouse.• Wednesday, April 16 – Kids Care from 3 to 4:15 p.m.• Friday, April 18 – No school• Week of April 28 – International Week• Thursday, May 1 – One World Café – 5:30 p.m.• Monday and Tuesday, May 12 and May 13 – Celebration of Friends Days• Tuesday, May 13 – Clothesline Arts Festival, 2:30-5:30 p.m.
Spring is slowly getting here. I wish you a warm and happy season.
Read Tom's Bio
Graduates of Quaker elementary schools know themselves and are able to recognize the strengths of peers. Because they are effective communicators and creative problem solvers at an early age, the fifth graders approach transitions with self-assurance. They are not only prepared for a middle school setting; they are “ready” in every sense.
Support Head of School Tom Richards as he paddles his way to an all-purpose room. Tom's Kayaking Quest (pdf)Click here to follow Tr. Tom's Quest and to make a donation!Watch Tr. Tom kayak!If you would like to support Tr. Tom but would prefer not to use the on-line donation process, click here to access a form. Keep in mind, it does not contain the most recent totals. Please fill in all relevant information and return the form with your payment (cash or check) to Goshen Friends School.