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Travels in Education

Dear Diane,

When you read this, I'll be in South Africa; maybe already at the university in Bloemfontein. That wonderful evening in your honor will be over. Did you enjoy it?

I have done very little research about education in South Africa. Mostly I prepare for trips by reading novels and recalling stories from history—including myths—that I read over the years. Naturally, that led me to traveling mostly in England and Western Europe. Then South America. But in the last decade I've been catching up with the "rest" (!) of the world and have visited China, Russia, Japan, and now South Africa. That leaves two continents to go. I may not make Antarctica, but Australia. Maybe.

Does it matter to travel? My grandmother, who came to the United States from the Ukraine in the 1880s (at age 17) had one big regret in life, she explained to my cousin in an interview before she died in 1968. She said she was still mad that she never had the opportunities her children did to get educated. My cousin Jeremy asked her what she imagines she'd have done if she had had more schooling. She said: "I'd have traveled." (I still have the tape.)

She doesn't explore what that meant to her, and I'm truly not sure. But it's worth exploring. Education, perhaps, meant traveling to places one has never been, perhaps only imagined. In some ways, I think of travel as akin to my love of novels—especially long ones in which I can immerse myself. Of course, as with travel, one is always "reading into" the characters and situations. When I traveled to Greece I found ways to go to the ancient sites when "no one" (tourists) was around so that I could recreate the world the sites represented. I love doing that wherever I am, I realize. I look up at lighted windows at night and imagine myself living there. When I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—it's been left more or less intact since Mrs. Gardner died with a proviso in her will that no objects be replaced or moved—I drifted up to the top floor and imagined living there, looking out the window into the garden, and calling down for someone (imaginary) to bring me up the newspaper.

In my first year of teaching I was told that the subject for the fall in Chicago's kindergartens was supposed to be Los Angeles and Tokyo. I didn't take it too seriously, but since our temporary principal was Japanese-American, we both thought it would be fun. I decided to start where we were—Chicago, then to skip over Los Angeles and "do" Tokyo. It was a wonderful three months. However, somewhere in the midst of it a lady arrived from "downtown" and gasped as she entered my room. "You have it all wrong," she said.

I explained that I thought that discovering Chicago would be both easier and more interesting than Los Angeles. She made clear that it wasn't for me to think. But even more serious, I had missed the whole point: Hadn't I read the curriculum guide? I was supposed to have charts that showed that Tokyo and Los Angeles were much the same. Children in Tokyo go to sleep at night; children in L.A. do, too. (Actually, the two nights take place at different times.) Whereas I had focused on all the things we do differently—taking off our shoes, bowing, easting with chopsticks, etc. We sang songs in Japanese and even produced a popular Japanese fairy tale for all the school to see. No, no, no, she said. We were getting louder and moved to the hallway. We are promoting tolerance—focusing on how we are all the same, she announced. I said that my idea instead was focusing on how interesting it might be to be in, or to travel to, Japan where all these amazing things took place. If it were all the same, why would we bother to travel?

She left very dissatisfied. My colleagues came out of hiding at this point to reassure me that she'd never be back. They apologized for not having explained ahead of time what one does in such circumstances. Which is, essentially, to lie and apologize.

I spent many years following that advice—and truly no one ever "came back." And I passed on this advice to student-teachers I taught at City College and to new teachers, like the music teacher who was worried because she just found out there was a song curriculum and she wasn't teaching the right ones to the right grades.

I saw it as a central part of my job as principal: to be the buffer who handled such disobedience to authority. We created schools, instead, where there was a lot of back and forth between teachers, parents, and external experts—and above all our students. Sometimes ideas we thought were exciting bombed. Sometimes we had to scrap our winter curriculum because the fall one led to something else, something quite different and very promising. (But, I sigh, it was easier in the old days to respond to children creatively. No kindergarten promotion "standards"!)

It's the same with traveling. I liked it best when I was young enough to "wing it." Have a place to stay on night No. 1 and the night before going home. Besides that, I had ideas, memories (of my favorite novels and historic stories, and even movies) and some contact—and not a lot of money to spend and a small carry-on bag. Maybe also a bike. I see how much this way of traveling has influenced the way I taught. Some brilliant management guru once explained to me that his studies suggested that the companies that didn't plan ahead too much were the most successful, as were those that didn't insist on close alignment across company sites.

I like that advice, although I see the risks and would love to work those out—one by one—so we could create schools that open the imagination wider rather than insisting on closing in on the "one right answer."

Maybe we need a list of schools (our contacts) so that friends and foes alike could travel and see what education looks and feels like in action.

Deb

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