Teacher in the Trenches

A classroom veteran says fostering curiosity is the key to education.

September/October 1997

Reading time min

Teacher in the Trenches

Courtesy Meridel Rubenstein

At a time when entertainers barely out of their 20s are peddling their life stories, Frances Hawkins's new book, Journey With Children: The Autobiography of a Teacher (University Press of Colorado, 1997; $34.95) is a reminder of the genre's more edifying possibilities. For more than 60 years, this educator has been figuring out what makes children tick, engaging their minds and teaching their teachers.

Hawkins's life and work have taken many turns in 84 years. She taught in the public system, set up independent preschools and a training center for teachers, and rarely refused calls for on-site advice--whether from a South Dakota Sioux reservation or a Head Start program in Mississippi.

She finally managed to distill her long journey into 350 pages. "I've been working on it for about 30 years," Hawkins, '35, sighs over the phone from her Boulder, Colo., home. She kept notes, but accepts her daughter's observation that she has a fantastic memory.

Hawkins's early teaching days were a baptism by fire, but she forged strategies that worked well ever since. Fresh from Stanford, she was assigned to a class of the lowest-scoring second-graders in a San Francisco public school. Hardly any of them could read, and they seemed to fear change.

Hawkins saw that school meant daily reinforcement of their failures. She concluded that the school was the real failure. This called for drastic measures. She shelved all the reading books and set to work getting to know each child, trying to detect their strengths and interests and then building on those.

Dramatic results could be achieved, Hawkins discovered, by bringing the outside world into the curriculum. The once-sterile classroom soon became a treasure trove of prized possessions, neighborhood scavengings, and flora and fauna.

Hawkins found that her students readily grasped reading, writing and arithmetic when they saw how to apply these skills to classroom projects. But she soon ran up against administrators: The principal derided her offbeat ways, saying she'd better teach her students to march properly and that her group wasn't capable of "really" reading.

Hawkins was upset but undaunted. By term's end, her "failures" achieved reading test scores equal to those of the top scorers. She--and they--had beaten the system at its own game.

"There's a truth," Hawkins says earnestly, "that if you are running a good classroom, your kids will test well." She believes the key is the teacher's intellectual curiosity about each child and about the world at large. Her memoirs suggest her own thirst for knowledge was insatiable. A Hawkins classroom might feature anything from bubble-blowing to weaving on homemade looms.

Hawkins left San Francisco schools in 1939. Wartime brought her to Los Alamos, N.M. There her husband, David, '34, MA '36, whose field is the philosophy of science, wrote the official chronicle of the bomb's development while she organized a nursery school.

But their Los Alamos experience, juxtaposed with earlier involvement in leftist and pacifist causes, came back to haunt them. Hawkins writes that the 1947 to 1953 period combined motherhood (her daughter, Julie, was born in 1941) with appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The Hawkinses survived McCarthyism, despite their refusal to name names. For the next 15-odd years, Hawkins either taught or studied children wherever her husband's academic career took them, across the country or to England and Africa. In 1955 she ran Field School, outside of Boulder, for a dozen children.

Hawkins never turned her back on public education, particularly for inner-city children. "I believe in it," she says simply. She spearheaded a 1963 Boston kindergarten project that inspired the Head Start program, and she helped with other Head Start groups. In 1970, she and her husband started the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education in Boulder.

But it saddens and angers her that attitudes of 60 years ago persist. "Do you know Boulder just appointed a military man as superintendent?" she asks, describing the move as a reaction to the school system's high failure rate.

Hawkins insists that more regimentation isn't the answer. "Education of teachers is the problem. They simply aren't interested themselves," she says. Bored teachers breed bored students. But few, it seems, were ever bored in Hawkins's classroom.

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