Do the Three R’S – Reading, WRiting and ARithmetic Equal An Education?
n 1968 my husband accepted a faculty position at Washington University School of Medicine. And so, after two glorious years in Cambridge, England, we returned to the United States and settled in St. Louis, MO.
My husband embarked on what would become an academic medical career of great renown. I was at sixes and sevens. Our two children, then seven and five, were in school all day long and I didn’t want to return to tutoring French, which is what I had done before we left for England. Then I got a call from a cousin who suggested that I contact a friend of hers – a suburban matron, as it happened – who had created a program for the inner-city schools in St. Louis called “Springboard to Learning”.
This dynamo of a lady had somehow convinced the powers-that-be in charge of the city school system to let her bring into the urban classrooms people who had talents totally unrelated to the normal school curriculum and to allow them to create curricula of their own choosing and, then, to teach them to the students one hour a week.
Not only that! She convinced the school system to pay them at substitute-teacher rates. The subjects taught included puppetry, creative writing, aspects of science and social studies – just to name a few.
Mind you, none of these people had any education courses under their belts. But they were not responsible for classroom discipline. So not having courses in educational psychology or theories of learning was not considered to be a detriment.
And so I went to work as one of these avant-garde folks teaching alternative curricula to kids in ghetto schools. Having traveled all around Europe during our two years living across the pond, I created an arts and humanities curriculum based on our life in England and our travels on the continent.
From the moment I entered the first of the many classrooms I visited in my three-day-a-week, three-year stint in these urban schools, I was struck by the passivity of the kids. They seemed bored and uninterested in learning. My diagnosis of the problem was that they had never been asked to think or express themselves – either verbally or in writing.
My goal became to make learning seem exciting and necessary. I did this by using the Socratic Method. I read them excerpts from Chaucer and asked them if they could recognize the language, and then I told them that the language was English, but that they had just learned that our language had evolved and that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in Middle English.
I read them Act 1 of “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S Eliot because I knew that violence was an integral part of their lives in their neighborhoods, and it was a way to teach them about Thomas Beckett and that era of English history. I read them excerpts from a slim volume titled “The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices from the Ghetto” and asked them to write about their own lives in the same way.
Unencumbered by grammar or syntax, these kids wrote some of the most incredibly creative and original pieces I had ever read. (At the time my children were the same age as some of the kids I was teaching; so I had a wonderful basis of comparison). I created an entire unit on Holland.
I taught them about Dutch genre painting; read to them from “The Diary of Anne Frank”, which brought up the subject of the Nazis and led to amazing discussions with them on the notion of fighting back and sticking up for oneself, and then, of course, asked them to keep their own personal diaries for three weeks; and finished the unit by showing them a film about a diamond caper and gouda cheese, and then I brought gouda cheese for them to taste and comment upon. As far as curriculum goes, the unit on Holland was my piece de resistance.
But there was one single instance in an eighth-grade class that remains close to my heart until this day. One of the boys in the class had flunked a couple of times and was basically just taking up space until he was too old to remain in any classroom any longer. He sat at his desk like a bump on a log, never responding to anything and seemed like a lost cause.
One day I was reading and discussing modern poetry with the kids, and, as always, I asked them what they thought the poet was saying. And, lo and behold, the “lost” boy raised his hand and gave me a reasoned, intelligent answer. I was thrilled, and my student was clearly pleased with himself. I had hopes that that brief instance would put him on the road to understanding that learning could be rewarding.
A year after my last day in these St. Louis inner-city schools, I was ice-skating on a frozen pond in the park. A young fellow of about thirteen skated up to me and said, “Hi, Mrs. Blaustein. Remember me? My name is Ty Wallace*, and I was in your class at Laclede School. I sure did enjoy learning all the interesting things you taught us. And I loved the way you asked us to think!”
*Note: A fictional name to maintain privacy
Note: Springboard to Learning website at
Ellen Baron is a wife, mother and grandmother who has had three distinctive careers:
1) as an editor at an educational laboratory;
2) as a businesswoman who ran a private-label group at Black & Decker, and then served as Director of Marketing for a consumer electronics start-up company; and
3) as an academic administrator who was director of a post-baccalaureate business program.
Her 'Just Jobs' (as opposed to "Careers") included piano teacher and French tutor (her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis having been in French).
Now retired from both careers and jobs, Ellen serves on the Maryland State Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as the Boards of several non-profits. She has lived in England, Switzerland and Germany, as well as St. Louis, Boston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, now, Baltimore, MD.