Liz Armstrong, a veteran teacher, was recently fired from her position in Henrico County Schools. Armstrong allowed her students, in her science class, to discuss an issue not covered by the textbook, not mapped out in the curriculum guide, and not detailed in her daily lesson plan. Armstrong's students, concerned about a recent random drug search in their school to which many of them were subject, were angry, excited and wanting to talk. The students wished to take class time to discuss, to explore whatever rights they might or might not have as citizens, whatever justice there might or might not be in such a random search.
Rashly, Armstrong thought that if her students were concerned enough to want to talk about these issues, issues essentially of culture and democracy, and citizens' rights and even general ethics, it might be worth yielding some of the time she would customarily use to teach them science. And she committed another sin: She called the ACLU to inquire whether or not the search was legal.
What a foolish decision on the part of Liz Armstrong.
The folks who run the schools in Henrico County are probably no better and no worse than other educators in the nation, but they know the current drill. The reality of today's schools is clear: If it's not in the curriculum, if it's not on the mandated assessment tests, if you can't find it in the textbook or covered in the curriculum guide, it's off-limits to students and teachers. If the students want to raise an issue not anticipated by official documents and planning, if they want to take class time to explore something beyond what is required, mapped out, expected, and measured in an end-of-the-course exam, they need to take it somewhere else. School today is not for any kind of off-topic discussion, argument, or intellectual exploration. The classroom is not a place to raise subjects not covered on the test. Today, education is defined by assessment scores, the coverage of the curriculum guide, and the completion of the textbook material. Doesn't everyone know this?
Armstrong somehow didn't get that message. She made a place in her science classroom for her students to talk about a civics issue. She allowed her students time to talk and freedom to explore. She decided that during her period of the class day it should not just be science facts, science textbook, and science curriculum requirements but, in response to her students' concerns, it should be something more.
What could have been in Armstrong's mind? Possibly she recalled the professional literature on the classroom efficacy of capturing the "teachable moment"; perhaps she remembered the writings of John Dewey and Maria Montessori and even Jean Jacques Rousseau who believed that a child's interest is the basis for all learning. Armstrong might have been educated broadly enough to care about the principles not just of science teaching but of democratic education. It is even possible that she had read the Supreme Court's ruling on Tinker vs. Des Moines, the landmark 1969 decision that maintained neither "students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Regardless, it seems apparent that Armstrong thought she was something more than a science teacher; maybe she thought she was an educator.
But whatever was in Armstrong's mind, she is now fired and removed from the classroom. Will the parents and students of Henrico County sleep safer tonight knowing that their leaders have exiled such a radical, a teacher who is no longer loose in their schools making, as the School Board calls it, "ineffective use of instructional time" and practicing educational "chicanery." Gone is a teacher who let students bring into her classroom issues they deemed important, issues which are not covered by the test or detailed in the curriculum guide.
Goodbye, Liz Armstrong. I've never met you, but the schools are obviously poorer without you. You thought education was a wide concept and the intellect something that needed to be nurtured in odd and unexpected ways. How much we need you now in 2000, in the high schools, in a classroom in Henrico County. What a sad lesson we can all draw about the current state of education in America.
Leila Christenbury is professor of English Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and the former editor of English Journal.
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