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Ohanian: Where was the governor? Where was Bernie? Where was the press?

Susan Notes:

I post this in Good News because I'm very happy that a teacher in alternative ed was named Vermont Teacher of the year. But the absence of the governor, our senator who sits on the Education Committee, and press was both typical and disgusting.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. Her website is at www.susanohanian.org.

November 3, 2013

by Susan Ohanian

On Oct. 21 Gov. Peter Shumlin Tweeted: "Congratulations to Luke Foley for winning the #VT Teacher of the Year Award!" Better late than never. Luke Foley was named Vermont Teacher of the Year nearly a week earlier, on Oct. 15. I was disappointed that Gov. Shumlin couldn't make it nearly next door to Northfield Middle High School to congratulate Luke Foley in person -- and demonstrate to the students filling the auditorium what an important event this was.

Shumlin's schedule listed no commitments the day Foley received his award. Maybe Shumlin was resting up for his next day 7:30 a.m. appearance at the ribbon cutting for the new Walmart in St. Albans. A week or so later, he was available to travel to Dartmouth to introduce Diane Ravitch.

As a longtime public school teacher I'm bothered that in July, Shumlin, absent from Northfield, found time to speak at the Wolcott School in Chicago where the tuition is $37,500, not to mention his earlier commencement speech at Eagle Hill in Massachusetts, where tuition is $62,532. There, he told students to embrace non-traditional learning. This would have been a great message to affirm with students at Northfield Middle High School, where their teacher was honored for his non-traditional program that offers students an individualized alternative to the standardized curriculum getting so much attention these days.

Bernie Sanders, who sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), didn't make it to Northfield Middle High School either. He was probably busy waiting for the budget vote, though he had a meeting scheduled the next day in Jackson, Miss. His review of that week, featured on his website, included news about the budget, his interview in Playboy, and an entreaty that we should watch him on "The Ed Show." No mention of the Vermont Teacher of the Year. In a November 2013 interview in The Progressive, Sanders laments that "We are losing the progressive vision of what life can be like." It's a pity that he didn't seize the opportunity to trumpet the Vermont School Board's celebration of that progressive vision in education — and bring that message to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Across the country, millions of parents and teachers would applaud -- and support for his future political goals would cross every political line.

Most Vermont newspapers that acknowledged the Teacher of the Year award settled for printing abridged versions of the press release issued from the Vermont Education Agency -- with no further questions for Foley or his students. Kudos to WCAX. Melissa Howell actually went to Northfield and talked with Foley and his students about the alternative program. On Oct. 17, on VPR's "Vermont Edition," Jane Lindhold conducted a phone interview with Farley, giving over seven minutes to the topic.

Northfield High reporter Adam Steward's account of the award was featured on the front page of The Northfield News. Steward is the one reporter who asked detailed questions about the program and about Luke Foley, asking him about his own role model (Thor Heyerdahl). Providing more detail about the program than any of the other accounts, Steward ends with this Foley observation: "People need to evaluate their lives to determine if they are doing what they love. If you're miserable, it doesn't matter what size your house is."

Luke Foley teaches in the STAR (Students Taking Alternative Routes) program at Northfield Middle High School. He describes the three Rs of this program as Rigor, Relationships and Relevance. In talking with students, I was impressed by their enthusiasm -- and by how articulate they are about what they're doing. They talk about the connections between what they're studying and the community where they live. They talk about what they can do with what they know -- such as building bridges for the school’s nature trails.

This is in sharp contrast to the 600 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders I once polled, asking them a number of questions about what Language Arts is and why they are required to study it. The student response to "How can language arts help you when you get out of school?" was depressingly utilitarian. The majority of students felt that Language Arts was the ticket to getting a job -- in the narrowest sense: "L.A. trains you to fill out job applications and to write business letters." One hundred and thirty-eight students mentioned everyday survival skills such as understanding prescriptions and recipes. A sizable number thought Language Arts would be useful only if a person wanted to be a teacher of Language Arts, a secretary or a newscaster. Thirty-four students answered this question with a flat, "It can't." Forty-five students didn't reply.

Challenge to parents and teachers everywhere: Try asking the children in your care why they're studying what they're studying -- and what good it will do them.

I'm distressed that our politicos and much of our press didn’t grab the chance to look at this alternative, place-based program. But the good news is that Vermont Secretary of Education-Designee Rebecca Holcombe was there, and later at the board meeting she praised the program. The fact that the State Board of Education and the education commissioners -- both current and incoming -- have confirmed a commitment to alternative, place-based education by honoring Luke Foley is very good news for all public education in our state.

— Susan Ohanian
VT Digger



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