What I witnessed over the course of last year for National History Day is a testimony to how we can revolutionize education in the United States.
During Back to School Night at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, 8th grade social studies teacher Mrs. Marella cheer-leaded student participation in National History Day - an organization where half a million children compete “to tell the human story.” Pom poms and somersaults were the only missing feature. A combination of Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Rosie the Riveter, Ms. Marrella soon became known as merely “Crazy Marrella,” the mad scientist of history.
And the only thing she seemed to love more than history, was her love of student engagement - a key ingredient missing in many classrooms. Our daughter Nancy was already on board, along with seventy other students from Rosa. This, of course, made my history-buff self jump over the volumes of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Susan B. Anthony.
Nancy worked with two other girls, Melanie and Alyssa, and they logged over 1,000 hours on a documentary of John Brown. They researched, interviewed, wrote, edited, and filmed a documentary on the controversial abolitionist. I came home one day, and I heard my daughter interview Anne Kretsinger-Harries, a Penn State professor, over Skype. At dinner, she asked if she could borrow my biography on Ralph Waldo Emerson to read the connection between Brown and the Transcendentalists. For Christmas, she wanted a book on John Brown, Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton - and then interviewed the author. Within a month, the book was a porcupine of Post-It notes. Another day she was interviewing a descendent of John Brown. Another day, she was recording an interview with a Park Ranger from Harper’s Ferry. (This was in addition to her regular school work).
Guess what my wife and I did not need to ask: is she bored in school? Will she be prepared for college? For the workplace? Is she being challenged?
By the time NHD regional competition started at Princeton, the John Brown Trio of Young Scholars compiled an annotated bibliography that included nearly 100 entries. The Beast was Master’s level dissertation.
And then I cried when I heard my 8th grader defend her thesis in a Princeton classroom before a panel of three professors. The Q&A session floored me - literally. The room was crowded so I had to sit on the wood floor. She was professionally dressed, poised, calm, and confident.
And all because she was lucky enough to get Ms. Marrella - a master teacher regardless of her simple trio of Marzano scores from an administrator.
Without a doubt, Ms. Marrella is the most dedicated teacher I have ever witnessed. My wife and I, both teachers, cried again when we heard her address her students in a huddle - a motivational speaker akin to General Patton, just with more hugs and less cursing. She inspired us to be like her! The John Brown Trio won, moved onto States at William Paterson University. They won there, and went to Nationals at Washington, DC, along with two other groups from Rosa.
The teams stayed at The University of Maryland and met with scholars from all fifty states and other countries, such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. Every Common Core objective was achieved in that ten minute, award winning documentary, tenfold.
We did not need a test to tell us that our daughter far exceeded the standards.
In the regional Q&A session in Princeton, most of the comments from the various students from around the state mentioned the PARCC testing as their greatest obstacle to learning. Libraries closed. Computers unavailable. Technicians needed for PARCC prep. The entire classroom of attendees laughed, mothers and fathers and proud grandparents, but then they knew it wasn’t funny. Wasted resources are never funny.
At National History Day at William Paterson University, my wife and I sat behind a great team of middle schoolers from Lawrence Township. Before the opening ceremony, they were still researching and tailoring and editing. They were dressed in ties and skirts and slacks. I’m not sure who worked with those kids at Lawrence, but she was another Marrella. The auditorium was full of successful teachers and students with one motive: having fun while learning at the most challenging level.
Heart and souls and minds were in those presentations. No one’s heart and soul and mind are in standardized tests. There is no soul in standardized tests. It takes a human heart and a desire, a goal, to attain great heights in education.
My daughter was vested in her learning. She learned to cooperate and negotiate with different learning styles. A computer and a textbook and a test will never replace the motivation and the love and the energy of a human being. The emphasis needs to be there: hands-on, guided, student-centered, interactive, and goal-oriented. Let’s try to help more teachers teach like Ms. Marrella - and reward them with more than our applause and our tears of joy.