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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Brookline's Katrina School Year

Dennis Fox

September 22 , 2005

My daughter's excitement at starting seventh grade is a pleasant reminder that life begins anew every September. The summer heat having melted the previous year's inevitable imperfections into an unformed mixture of possibility, this change of seasons has always meant to me not the approach of harsh winter but the emergence of energy and even, sometimes, of optimism.

This new school year's promise, though, was accompanied by Hurricane Katrina. My daughter and a friend in a different Brookline school tell me that both schools have emphasized the importance of helping survivors, but their teachers haven't led substantive classroom discussions about the hurricane or about the continuing mess in and around New Orleans. If their reports are accurate, I'm disappointed. I had expected Brookline schools to focus heavily on Katrina, making use of its drama to raise a wide range of educational topics in classes ranging from science to social studies to math to English.

My generation grew up amid constant talk of expected war with the Soviets, of the need for backyard fallout shelters, of milk contaminated by radiation from atom bomb testing. When I was the age my daughter is now, I watched President Kennedy announce on television the Cuban missile blockade. For days afterward, I walked to school wondering which jet flying overhead would drop The Bomb. In later years, scholars examined how these experiences affected our later lives.

Today, images of destruction bombard a new generation. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she too looked up nervously at jets overhead, asking which one might crash into Brookline. This year she watches Katrina's devastation, asking, as she did four years ago, "How could this happen?" The tragedies of Manhattan and New Orleans -- more visually and emotionally powerful than the mere threat of disaster that assaulted my generation -- and the endless War on Terrorism's escalation of fear of The Other will form the backdrop of her generation's memories of childhood and adolescence. The inevitable anxieties are certain to play themselves out in decades to come.

In response to this changed world confronting our children, our schools should be expanding coverage of intense events. This is no time to stick to a pre-packaged curriculum.

I've written before about the importance of putting aside scheduled lesson plans and seizing instead the teachable moment. That's not easy, since there's always pressure to focus on the nitty gritty. Even teachers who want to address issues they know are on their students' minds can't always do so when they know how much of the curriculum remains to be covered. Too often, thus, spontaneity loses out.

That's perhaps especially true in our era of state-mandated tests designed to narrow the range of topics our students are supposed to learn. Here in Massachusetts, what's most important in school is whatever the state MCAS exam tests. That's the case even in Brookline, despite protestations to the contrary by school principals and School Committee members who criticize MCAS mandates while insisting that teach-to-the-test pressures don't contaminate our high-quality schools. MCAS, of course, is fully in keeping with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don't keep their attention on the federally approved bottom line.

The inability of schools across the country to meet politically motivated demands now has a striking parallel: the plight of Hurricane Katrina survivors unable to live up to the apparent federal assumption that survival is a personal, rather than a communal, responsibility. Our schools should address that philosophy of rugged individualism, along with the many other political and economic forces that escalated the predicable Katrina disaster and are likely to escalate disasters yet to come.

The interplay between profit and power, of race and poverty, of science and politics -- these are what our kids should come home talking about. These topics may not be on the MCAS test, but our schools should address them nonetheless. The time to do that is right now, when the news is filled with the raw material of discussion and debate. By the time Katrina makes its way into some future watered-down government-approved textbook, the immediacy and relevance will be long gone.


More on MCAS and high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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