Sunday, February 13, 2011
Anyone who has spent more than a year or two in the classroom has probably heard the phrase "teachable moment." Loosely speaking, that's when something unexpected, often even negative, is turned by a teacher into a spontaneous mini-lesson. Teachable moments can be so small that they're hardly noticed, they can be built around bad behaviors or local tragedies, or they can be the product of extemporaneous discussions about national or global events. Their efficacy lies in the teacher's recognition of the opportunity as well as his/her willingness to deviate, at least for the moment, from a structured lesson plan in favor of a broader notion of what teachers do to educate their students (nearly always in areas that are not testable by standardized exam).
A wonderful story in the NY Times City Room blog on Tuesday (2/8) and appearing in the Times print edition today (2/11) presents the case that PEP student representative Lizabeth Cooper made for her fellow students' welfare at the soon-to-be-closed Paul Robeson High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. One of two non-voting student members on the Panel for Educational Policy, Ms. Cooper spoke eloquently about the impact that Robeson's closing will have on the school's remaining students. Clearly she is not speaking for herself, since according to the Times she has been taking AP classes since her freshman year and will be graduating next year before the worst impacts are felt at Robeson.
Ms. Cooper was sanguine about the strength of her voice when she addresses her concerns to PEP members. "'They come here [to the PEP meetings] already knowing how they're going to vote,' she said." As for the ruination that Robeson's closing will visit upon her fellow students, particularly the younger ones, she commented that "No one thinks about that, so I have to....We're kids. We're not just numbers."
Reading this story, I couldn't stop thinking about teachable moments. For as long as she has been a student representative on the PEP, Lizabeth Cooper has been a recipient of teachable moments. She has learned in those moments how money and power coldly levy their control, how a dictatorial mayor instills such fear and lockstep behavior as to take all meaning out of public meetings, how opposing voices are simply ignored when they are not flat-out crushed, how powerful public service positions are awarded based on cronyism with utter disregard for public input or even legitimate credentials, how unrestrained, free-market capitalism yields insider deals and the give-away of public assets, and how the public voice in NYC has been diminished, despised, and disrespected, treated as irrelevant even where it concerns parents and their children's futures.
As we watch what has taken place in Egypt, just as we watched a couple decades ago what happened in South Africa and Tiananmen Square, it is hard not to imagine what Ms. Cooper must be taking away from the teachable moments she has received at PEP. An intelligent young woman, obviously socially conscious and a natural leader, she is the type of young person her generation will look to for solutions in the coming years.
There's a part of me that sincerely hopes Ms. Cooper sees the connection between Cairo and what has been happening here -- not just in NYC but across the country. Perhaps in the end, Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, and Cathie Black will have inadvertently provided far different teachable moments than they have imagined, ones that Ms. Cooper and her generation will use to put things right.
Tens of thousands of young Egyptians, many of them hardly older than Ms. Cooper, just proved how the public's voice can once again be made relevant. If it takes a Tahrir Square here in New York City, so be it.