Mar 19th 2014

The Highest Standard

by Kurt Wootton

Kurt Wootton is one of the founding directors of the ArtsLiteracy Project in the Education Department at Brown University. ArtsLiteracy’s work in urban schools with diverse populations led him to work increasingly in different countries in Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico. He is the co-director of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture in Mérida, Mexico, a combination of language school, education center, and community-based arts organization. With a specialty in creative literacy pedagogies, teacher professional development, and organizational change, he works internationally with teachers and administrators helping to design schools and organizations that are creative, meaningful, and welcoming places.Previously he worked as an urban school reform consultant for the Providence School District and has led literacy initiatives for the Boston Public Schools, the St. Paul Public Schools, the Central Falls School District, and Plan Estratégico de Mérida, Mexico. Kurt has given keynote speeches and workshops in a variety of settings including Harvard University, Middlebury College, SmART Schools, Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, The University of Northern Colorado, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Maryland, Senac University in Sao Paulo, the Arts Education Partnership, and numerous conferences. He writes about education here as well as for the Huffington Post.His book A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts co-written with Eileen Landay is available at here at Harvard Education Press.He divides his time between Mexico and the United States and can be reached at kurt (at)

When I was sixteen my father handed me a journal my mother had kept during the nine months she was dying of cancer.  She passed away when I was two years old and the memories I had of her were only images: lying next to her in bed listening to her read a story; putting a Speed Buggy puzzle together while my grandparents visited us bringing fresh vegetables from a local farmer’s garden. I hoped these images were based on real experiences but feared they were only memories from photographs or perhaps dreams.  Fourteen years later, my father put my mother’s words in my hands in the form of an extended letter I had not previously known existed.

I stood up from my desk where I was doing homework for school the next day, walked over to my bed, turned on the lamp, crawled under the covers, and began reading. I spent the rest of the night getting to know my mother for the first time, learning about my father as a young man, and strangely, meeting myself as a two-year-old.

Recently, reading through my mother’s journal again, I came across the following passages:

Tuesday, October 30

I have a terrific pain in my shoulder that goes down my right arm and down to my abdomen. I had to go back on my stronger pills, as the pain is too much to bear. This morning I was in so much pain that I don’t think I cared for Kurt properly, and Kurt and I both ended up unhappy and crying. Therefore I came to the realization that I’m no longer able to care for Kurt alone, and it’s not fair for either Kurt or me. I didn’t feel like dressing Kurt this morning and left him in his pajamas. He sat on my lap and asked me to read to him. I tried my best, but I was in too much pain to sit there and read. The morning just tore me up. I knew the day would come when I’d no longer be able to care for Kurt alone, and I knew when it happened it would kill me. I was right. I feel so dead inside having to give up my little boy. I so much for the sake of my family and myself want my life to terminate quickly.

Wednesday, October 31

Today we enrolled Kurt in nursery school. He will begin Monday. The whole time my husband Jim was talking to the women in charge I was crying. It’s a hard step for me to give up my baby, but I know it will be the best for him. I’m no longer able to care for him alone, and it’s very difficult to hire quality care. I would much prefer him to be stimulated in a good nursery school. I also know it will be good for him to get adjusted to nursery school before my death. I’d hate for me to die and then cart him off to school. That’s too much for a child to bear, and I’m determined that my death will not have a traumatic effect on Kurt. It’s also best for Jim to get the routine worked out before I die. Therefore, my death won’t change their lives dramatically all of a sudden.”

Looking at my mother’s journal again, now as an educator, I find myself thinking from the perspective of the teacher at this school, sitting in an office decades ago, meeting with my parents. I imagine if I were this teacher, listening to Jim and Sandra, the responsibility I would feel to create a home away from home for Kurt.

When I was about to graduate from college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. When I first enrolled I thought I would be a genetic scientist, but that first-year when I looked at the list of prerequisite courses that included organic chemistry and calculus, I decided it wasn’t for me, mainly I realize now, not because I was afraid of these courses, but rather because I wasn’t interested in a college experience that would involve a series of multiple-choice tests. I wasn’t interested in finding the right answer. Instead,  the literature courses caught my attention and I found how much I loved Walt Whitman calling out with his “barbaric yawp” to a nation, Ovid’s poetry of mythic transformation, and Shakespeare’s characters letting us know “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  I didn’t realize why I was attracted to the stories and words of these authors until years later: they were a way of reading my mother’s journal again and again by providing an opportunity to know other human beings who lived in different places and times and whose perspective would help me to better know myself.

Following in the footsteps of my father, mother, and step-mother, I became a teacher of literature. I realized that I would not have know my mother if she and I did not have the ability to read and write, to put our ideas and feeling into words on a page. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, particularly with young students who might not see the point of reading all these old writers that have nothing to do with them.

With these ideas in mind I recently worked with Brazilian educator Daniel Soares to build a school in the middle of Brazil in a small city called Inhumas. Our goal was to create a school that would offer students the chance to learn English as well as develop their literacy in their first language, Portuguese. We placed literature and the arts at the center of the school because we wanted the students to love the feeling of language and what it could accomplish in telling stories and communicating emotions.

One morning a colleague of mine, Angela Richardson, and I were talking on the street outside the walls of the school in Brazil. A boy, eight years old, pulled up to us on his bicycle and began to listen to our conversation. He asked what was going on in there, pointing behind the wall. We told him about the school. The next morning I was walking outside the classrooms when I saw this same boy, inside the walls of the school, up on his toes, peering into a classroom. The students in the class were writing poems in English and preparing performances of their poems in groups. “What is your name?” I asked.

“Thiago,” he replied.

“Would you like to join the class?”

“Yes, please.”

I took him into the class and asked a group of students if he could join them. Two weeks later in the Inhumas City Hall, Thiago performed his own poem, in English, for his family and the larger community. I looked at Thiago who practically snuck into our school, and I thought about my mother’s words in her journal:

Monday, November 5

Kurt went to his first day at school with no problems. When Jim and Kurt first walked into the room the teacher took his lunch box, suitcase of extra clothing, sheet, blanket, bear and put them all into a locker. Kurt puckered up and held tightly to Jim, but didn’t cry. The teacher asked him if he wanted to do various things and he said no. Then the teacher gave him some farm animals, and he started playing with them and wouldn’t even say goodbye to Jim.

Tuesday, November 6

Kurt loves school.

I think about how important it is for students of every age to love school. Once I was talking to a colleague of mine, Dan Bisaccio, who teaches biology. He said to me, “I only have one standard: for students to love nature.” It is such a simple concept, for students to love school, yet it seems to be so hard to achieve. What if we made this the standard of all our work as parents, as policy makers, and as educators? So many of our students these days are leaving school, yet instead of talking about what will make school a more joyful and caring place, we respond with more tests, more mandated curriculums, and more policies that tell teachers what they “ought” to be doing.

We know we need to create cohesive curriculum across schools, and we need systematic approaches across states and cities to help teachers and students succeed, but at the same time, so many of these conversations seem to take all of the creativity and compassion out of education.  I believe that public education plays a critical role in helping all of our young people become thoughtful, creative, and kind human beings. Mothers and fathers place their children in our care for seven or more hours a day. Are we, as educators, prepared to fully live up to this responsibility and view our students as we would our own children?

Now I live in Mérida, México, on the Yucatán Peninsula where two years ago my wife and I opened a school and community center. When I see the students running out of the classrooms with their little backpacks and lunchboxes into their waiting parents’ arms, I hope the first thing they say is,  “I loved school today.”

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EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
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Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
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Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
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Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."