In a recent quixotic attempt to broaden our kids’ horizons beyond Hogwarts during evening story hour, we turned to E.B. White, whose crystal-clear style, arrow-straight moral compass and trenchant sense of the ironic, coupled with great storytelling gifts, make him a superb choice for both children and adults.
New Yorkers in particular have found again and again that his writings have anticipated the talk of the day, so we should have predicted that his perspective would illuminate current debates over the importance of quantifying student progress and teacher performance. White’s wonderful book about a mute swan given voice by a trumpet stolen for him by his father, “The Trumpet of the Swan,” contains the following passage that in a few paragraphs beautifully evokes the elementary-school classroom of yesteryear – and, we should all hope, of tomorrow. (The episode is at the close of the chapter entitled “School Days.”)
The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question.
“Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?”
“It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,” replied Sam.
The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.
“Sam is quite right,” she said. “I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel quite so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.”
In light of current controversies around testing and teacher evaluation, let’s do a little thought experiment. How would Miss Snug have handled this lesson if it were occurring just before a round of standardized testing? Would she not have had to interrupt the children’s speculations and instructed them that actual circumstances in word problems must be completely disregarded, because the point is to arrive at the answer the test designers have in mind? After all, how could test designers anticipate the lines of thought that spontaneously erupted in her classroom? Real life, and real thought, are too complicated to be foreseen – and so need to be put aside at testing time.