When opportunities present themselves, we must be prepared to engage. Sounds like something George Patton might say, but, quite to the contrary, the context is poetry. This spring, Olney Friends School in Barnesville hosted Marc Harshman, poet laureate of the state of West Virginia. Harshman conducted poetry writing workshops and held a public reading at the school in the evening. Teachers from several local schools were invited to attend with a few of their students, but only Wheeling Country Day School, another independent school, chose to send a group. Why did others not come? "Preparation for state-mandated tests" is what we heard.
Did you know that state mandates in Ohio are reported by the Ohio Association of Independent Schools to be greater than in any other American state? I presume that public schools are under the same burden. The bureaucratic obsession with measuring is misguided inasmuch as the holy grail of education is largely unmeasurable. The standards that are being written today are more holistic (and that is good) but less easily measured.
As a lifelong educator in his 43rd year of service to young people, I have always been protective of the precious minutes and hours that I have had with students. In school, while our youngsters are essentially a captive audience, they benefit most when actively engaged and in the moment of inspiration, discovery and/or connection. To be sure, we teachers labor at times to ensure that the quality of the experience is as high as we can make it. In that light, I believe that kids need more peak experiences under the guidance of talented and creative teachers or other adults, instead of more test preparation.
I am not a lover of poetry; I find much of it mysterious, elusive and even self-indulgent. However, I do love well-crafted language in any form. When I have a chance to listen to an articulate, clever and accomplished individual, I leap. It matters little whether that speaker is politically right or left, open-minded or set in her way, famous or unknown. The power of the message and the eloquence of the delivery are what I seek, even if after the event I disagree. The experience is more than a lesson and more than a snapshot of knowing captured in a test. I'm sorry that our invitees were unable to join us - a missed opportunity for them for certain.
Olney Friends School is a 177-year-old, independent, co-educational, boarding and day high school steeped in the tradition of Quaker education in Barnesville, Ohio. Other featured guests such as singer/song-writer Carrie Newcomer, Finnish filmmaker Kirsi Jansa and acclaimed novelist Mary Doria Russell also visited the campus in recent weeks.
Charles F. Szumilas
Head of Olney Friends School