In Her Own Words: Some Thoughts from Elizabeth Ely on Teaching and Learning
By Melisa Robinson
Editor’s Note:This article, based on interviews conducted by a journalist before Elizabeth’s death, is designed to help visitors to our foundation’s web site learn more about Elizabeth’s education philosophy and how it developed. We hope you will find it interesting and informative. To support the foundation’s work of publicizing Elizabeth’s teaching practices, and helping other educators put into use, please contact the foundation’s executive director, David Kushner.
Elizabeth Ely’s work as an inspirational Washington, DC, educator was rooted in a personal history that took her from her upbringing in the rural Appalachian hills of southwestern Virginia, to her years as a teacher and tutor, to her founding of The Field School in Washington, DC, where she served as director for over three decades, to the launching of a foundation through which she hoped to help other educators succeed by sharing her own insights and methods.
When I began interviewing Elizabeth in 2008, it became clear that everything she believed about teaching and engaging children grew out of what she had experienced, personally, as a student and teacher over many years. At first, Elizabeth was drawn to teaching simply because it was one of the few respectable and accessible professions for women of that era. When she embarked on her career, then, she didn’t think much of developing any particular set of teaching methods or style. She simply had to be resourceful when confronted with significant challenges such as teaching science to a class of over 50 middle school students, as she had to do in one of her first jobs. In that instance she had to come up with ways to make science interesting while keeping order among so many students. Later, as a tutor, she had to figure out how to teach algebra to a student who would barely look at her and never talk. And so it went. Throughout her career, Elizabeth would come up with ways to meet the teaching challenge was before her. Likewise, she remembered as a student what worked for her, and what didn’t. In this way, the core principles she came to define as her own were borne out of practical necessity and distilled into specific practices when she founded of Field in 1972 over a dry cleaning shop in Dupont Circle with 44 students she personally signed up.
To understand and explain Elizabeth’s development as an educator, I had to get her to retrace her steps as a student and teacher. This was challenging. Elizabeth didn’t much enjoy talking about herself; the vibrant intellectual curiosity that was among her defining characteristics, and which helped her connect to generations of much–younger students, made her much more interested in ideas and goals for the future. Indeed, there were days when we would be talking about some part of her life or other, and she would abruptly interrupt me because something interesting about literature, philosophy, art or travel had suddenly occurred to her. I recall one afternoon, in particular, when she forced me to stop our interview so I could look up an Italian poem on the computer because she could recall only a snippet and wanted to remember it in its entirety. Another day, at her beloved country house in Round Hill, Virginia, we were spending a few quiet hours in her living room when she began discussing her lifelong affinity for numbers and mathematics, which became apparent when, as a very young girl, she could skillfully man the cash register in her father’s dry goods store in Norton, VA. Though ill with cancer, Elizabeth spoke of wanting to regain enough strength to take a few advanced, on–line math courses.
This kind of discussion was, of course, fascinating. But I had to get Elizabeth to talk about herself in order to figure out how the threads of her experiences merged into the innovative educational approach that ultimately influenced thousands of students, parents and teachers. And so we proceeded, spending hours going over her life until three core principles emerged that served as her foundation:
Children shouldn’t be tagged as unable to learn, or lacking in intelligence, because of how they appear. Growing up, Elizabeth saw how poor children from coal mining camps, or children of immigrants, were automatically placed in classes for slower learners without regard for their abilities. It was assumed that they couldn’t keep up with their peers because they were from a different socio–economic class or ethnicity. On her own first day of school, Elizabeth remembered how an influential teacher only grudgingly allowed her, a child of Syrian–American immigrants, into the regular kindergarten class after her older sister accompanied her to school and strenuously argued on her behalf. For the rest of the year, Elizabeth worried that she’d be demoted if she made so much as one error in her work. From that point on, Elizabeth never wavered in her view that all children should be treated fairly, be given a chance to succeed in school, and not fear making mistakes.
Learning could be inspirational. Growing up, Elizabeth felt enormous pressure to get good grades so she would please her parents and find a good job. But she rarely felt engaged by her formal studies; in fact, she found large college lectures so uninspiring that she was fond of saying that everything she’d learned, she’d learned by high school, and everything she learned after that, she learned on her own. But Elizabeth knew she loved reading, and was so interested in so many topics that she grew to believe that there was no reason for lessons at any level to be boring. Later, as a teacher at the Hawthorne School in Washington, DC, the captivating intellectual content of the curriculum impressed her. From these experiences, Elizabeth came to believe that teachers should be able to come up with ways to engage students even when teaching objective concepts, such as mathematical formulas or the periodic table of elements. Primary sources should be utilized where possible. Classes shouldn’t consist of endless lectures where students didn’t participate in their own learning. Homework should not consist of mundane work sheets and rote memorization; it should be thought provoking and should not take up too much time because students needed time to rest and absorb what they’d learned as much as they needed time to work.
Teachers could see students as individuals and be invested in their learning. Elizabeth was stunned the first time she saw the seminal Washington, DC, educator Marion Kingsbury become choked up when speaking about one of her students. It was the first time she realized that teachers could care about their students’ progress and have a deeply held professional stake in whether those students were succeeding in school. She came to believe that the very best teachers would feel responsible for getting their students to learn, and would work on new ways to reach students who had difficulty with certain subjects or who might not respond well to traditional settings or approaches.
Schools could be structured as communities where subjects were taught in inter–related ways. Students would have intellectual exchanges. Everyone would play on sports teams to strengthen their bodies and learn to work together. They would find creative expression through an extensive arts curriculum that included photography, drawing and ceramics. Students would take part in experiential learning where possible, taking advantage of resources in their respective communities such as museums, planetariums, parks, battlefields or other landmarks.
Drawing on these themes, Elizabeth and I honed in on specifics such as how schools should work with parents, how teachers should approach their work, and how she came up with what was then an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum. Here are some snippets of my interviews with Elizabeth on these specific topics:
ON SCHOOLS WORKING COOPERATIVELY WITH PARENTS:
Elizabeth:If kids would engage me in provocative behavior, I didn’t want to get adversarial with parents. I didn’t believe in that. If you had to get adversarial with anyone, keep it with the student. You are the arm of the parent, whether you like it or not.
Melissa:So how did that work?
Elizabeth:I would do somersaults in order to avoid confrontations with the parents. I would persuade, cajole, talk but I would not, I didn’t ever –– rarely –– meet them head–on. Because I felt that they were the bosses, so to speak, and I was their servant. And I used to tell that to the student–teachers all the time: "Remember, you’re servants here." Because that concept was lost.
Melissa:What do you mean?
Elizabeth:They (teachers) thought they should tell the parents, educate the parents, as to how to live and what to think about their students. Well, maybe it is, to a degree, but you have to be subtle about it, never undermining their authority, because they become weakened parents, especially if they are vulnerable. Which they are, because their kids are out there in the world, and you are trying to keep them safe... I knew how complex life could be. I never thought it was my place to further complicate parents’ lives.
Melissa:You never wanted to undermine them?
Elizabeth:You subtly undermine their authority and kids pick it up. They turn to the teachers and they don’t look to you (the parent) anymore. They need to work it out, if they have a different idea than their parents, work it out with them so they can grow too.
Melissa:Did that approach work well?
Elizabeth:It worked well … I worked with them (parents). You don’t just get the child, you get the child, all his background, and the parents, and the parents’ parents.
Melissa:Because people don’t come in vacuums, they are accumulations of experiences?
Elizabeth: They’re not in a vacuum. Some forces in their lives weigh more than others. If she (a student) comes in for a conference, just talk to her.
ON THE INFLUENCE OF TEACHERS:
Elizabeth:A lot of teachers –– most teachers –– realize the power they have if they are charismatic and the students care what they think. The children will follow them.
Elizabeth:Children respond to pied pipers. The problem is that teachers (may) define their worth by how influential they are over the students, getting students to follow their ideas.
Melissa:And that’s not what a good teacher should do?
Elizabeth:You should be trying to get the students to tap into themselves, not get them to follow you. You try to get the student’s intuition working for him or her. That’s how I learned to listen when I was tutoring those kids.
Melissa: How did that happen?
Elizabeth:I learned how to listen to them because there was no one else in the room. Sometimes they would talk, too, for long periods of time on topics of mutual interest. But still, I was very careful not to impose my ideas.
Melissa:But teachers’ views are going to come across in some way, isn’t that true?
Elizabeth: They will listen to your ideas, whether you like it or not.
ON HOW TO STRUCTURE SCHOOLS SO THAT SUBJECTS ARE TAUGHT IN CONNECTED WAYS AND MAKE MORE SENSE:
Elizabeth:When you skip from this to that, there’s no unifying thread. So I worked out my own beliefs over a period of time.
Melissa:And it starts with teaching children about their own origins?
Elizabeth:I believed that until you can define yourself, you couldn’t really communicate with someone else because you don’t know how to communicate yourself to somebody else, or you don’t have a context in which to see the difference between you and, say, someone from India who never visited this continent. You wouldn’t have any idea what their thinking habits were, or how they thought or looked at life, what their roles were as they conceived them. And so, I was quite sure that each child should have some idea of its own personal history
Melissa:So how did you get them to reflect on their lives and backgrounds?
Elizabeth:We did a lot of journal writing.
Melissa:And then on top of that they explored literature and history, so they could compare themselves to other people from other eras and places?
Elizabeth:I felt like you must know your own civilization. If you’re an American you need to know something about American history but you need to go back further to study the Judeo–Christian tradition and the roots of the country.
Melissa: How did all this manifest itself during the early days of Field?
Elizabeth:Beginning in the seventh grade, we studied creation myths. Gilgamesh (the ancient poem from Mesopotamia) Hindu and African creation myths, Native American creation myths, to show that these were things that everyone was interested in. Everybody wants to know where he or she comes from. Everyone wants to know that.
Melissa:But you focused on American or western European culture?
Elizabeth:The myth that permeated our culture was Genesis. So we spent more time on that. And from there went back into ancient history. And we integrated that, as much as we could do it. It’s very hard to do.
Melissa:So how did you integrate it?
Elizabeth:In art, they would draw Noah’s Ark, even if they were in seventh grade! They did it with much more knowledge of what they were doing, and much more abstraction was required of them so it would not be as simplistic as with a younger child. In ceramics, they would make figures, say, of those going on Noah’s Ark, or whatever it was that they were studying.
Melissa:How else did you put it into practice?
Elizabeth:In English, you would have to write as if you were back there in ancient civilizations. The creative writing assignment might be to imagine you were a girl back there in 2500 BC and how would you, what would be your role at suppertime? Something down to earth. They had to examine, in a way, what they were doing now and link it up with the past. Some kids would say they would have to go out and kill animals for dinner. We’d say, "Well, do you have to do it now?" And they’d say, "Well no, now we have butchers do it for us." They begin to place themselves in time.
Melissa:And all this resonated with the kids?
Elizabeth:They become very interested in things, fascinated. If you can do it well, they become fascinated. Because they begin to see, "Oh yes... " And they take this home, and the parents would read everything, and discuss it all with their children. Then they (parents) would come back to school and say, "We wish we had an education like this."