The following comments are shared by Tom Poetter as he reflects on the AED:
First of all, I want to thank Dick Clark personally, through this short introductory note, for the tremendous impact he has had on me as a person and on the field of education as a professional educator. He has facilitated so much growth in me, by giving so many opportunities and by opening so many doors. His ways welcomed me and pushed me. I am deeply indebted to him for all that he has done, as we are all. I intend on continuing to work with the AED Scholars for as long as the work continues. I was and still am so very honored to have been selected to participate with the group and have very much enjoyed the experiences along the way.
To the question, then: Well, I think back to several things that have happened to me at least tangentially through my involvement with IEI, the AED, and the NNER over the past decade or more. I remember a poignant moment at an AERA meeting in the late 1990s in which Dr. Goodlad, Eliot Eisner, Maxine Greene, and Madeline Grumet were struggling out loud in a large, well-attended session with the question, “What would John Dewey have to say about the rise of high stakes testing and the standardization of the curriculum?” Among many other things, Dr. Goodlad said (I am paraphrasing) that Dewey “would be so disappointed that so many of us have done so little to stem the tide.” That phrasing stuck with me, and inspired me to take steps that were more directly related to this monstrous problem that challenges us now, among so many others.
I began to write a futuristic novel about the impact of high stakes testing in late 2000. I published it with Hamilton Books (Rowman & Littlefield) under the title The Education of Sam Sanders in 2006. It was my first attempt at fiction writing. I never thought the book would catch on, but I wanted at least to be able to say that along with my teaching and local education work that I was using whatever talents I had to “stem the tide.” In a nutshell, the novel, set in the future, chronicles the acts of Sam Sanders, a 14 year old boy who opts out of the test, and leads a progressive revolution that transforms future schooling to become more interactive, more humane, more driven by students’ interests and concerns, and more relevant. He starts the revolution with a simple act, by walking away from the test, refusing to take it, that is, by “opting out.”
It wasn’t until this past winter of 2012 that the book began to buzz a bit. The book had already been out six years, so it surprised me that renewed interest in it had been kindled by a group of “opt out” activists who had discovered it and were sharing it with friends on the internet. This led ultimately to an invitation to do a “teach-in” on LBJ Plaza at a protest organized by Opt Out National’s Occupy the Department of Education event in late March 2012. I joined other activists, teachers, professors, citizens, parents, and students fed up by the corporatization of the curriculum and schools, and the nearly complete annihilation of schooling as we know it or as it could be by the test, by privatization, and by anti-democratic interests (billionaire boys’ club, ALEC, etc.) as a protestor on the plaza. The National Opt Out Organization’s strategy is to help people opt out of the test, and to push/lobby the powerful to create laws protecting people who do opt out, so that their civil acts of disobedience are non-punitive.
I support their work completely, and have learned a great deal by supporting their activism and by being active myself. The main thing I have learned is that professors and educationists of all sorts are passionate about these issues that threaten American schooling and democracy so acutely, but that the real energy and power lies in the hands and lives of students and parents, citizens themselves. It’s true, the revolution will be led by a “Sam Sanders.” The questions are, How can we support him/her? Nurture him/her? Prepare the way?
From early on I pushed the AED Scholars Group to think of itself as politically active. One of our study groups attempted to take steps in this direction through the creation of a blog several years ago. But, in general, I think the group has been mostly focused on professional development of the members as opposed to focused on how to use our talents/abilities/experiences to “stem the tide.” I understand that this is a fundamental philosophical issue, who will we be, what will we do? And believe me, I understand that the issues are vast, that they go far beyond high stakes testing, privatization, corporatization, standardization, etc. It is easy to get caught in the trap of wondering, “What can I do?” while we try to teach our classes and navigate the politics of our own institutions and communities. But I think this is precisely the reason why we remain on the sidelines while so many others steer the tide away from us. And instead of suggesting that we fight back, all I’m suggesting is that we use our time and talents more actively, at least exploring how it is that we could develop alternative perspectives, share them more widely, impact the public. I think this is a function that the AED Scholars could explore together, instead of acting only on our own. This is something I would like to explore more deeply with the group.
Several years ago, Dr. Goodlad asked me why I gave up on this “politically active” tack so easily with the AED Scholars after pushing it early on, he wondered why I didn’t fight for it harder. He said that the culture of the organizations that he and Dick founded and nurtured and worked in had an enormous amount of “give and take” and “sound argument” built into the thriving vitality of the work, the groups, and the group’s members. I suppose I just figured that if no one wanted to play, that I’d find another place to play. As I get older and treasure home more, I feel like the AED Scholars Group is home. I’d like to push this a bit further, now that I have the footing and the confidence to move. But I certainly can’t do it alone. I’m trying my best, but am having little impact. What could we do together?
Thomas S. Poetter, AED Scholar, Ph.D., Professor, Miami Unversity, Oxford, Ohio