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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