Editor's Note

By Sydney Trent
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Mrs. Cummings -- she was divorced, but Ms. was not yet in our vocabulary -- wore her hair in a long, frizzy cloud dyed Halloween witch black. She favored heavy blue shadow to match her pale blue eyes and faded bell-bottom jeans. She was a member of that distant species known as adult, but she was so much cooler, so much more electric than our parents, and we adored her. Mrs. Cummings made learning come alive.

I remember tromping down one of Reston's wooded pathways with my classmates, besmocked and on our way to brighten a pedestrian tunnel with our free-form art. And I can still hear our bursting, off-key voices as Mrs. Cummings led us in rounds of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," with a few backup singers rhythmically belching "a-wemoweh."

It was in Mrs. Cummings's class that I learned not only to spell correctly, and to use proper grammar, but to write. In one exercise, she had us all close our eyes and pretend that we were blind. What did our surroundings feel like? What could we compare that to? We made our first fumbling forays into metaphor. Sometimes, we'd write poetry and read it aloud: Spring is full of fragrant smells/Of sandy beaches, cockleshells. (I had no idea what a cockleshell was.)

This was all in the early 1970s, when Reston was still in its idealistic, planned-community infancy. In keeping with the town's hippie-dippy aura, my public elementary school was using the "open classroom" approach, which emphasized learning by doing over lecturing. I'm not sure school was so thrilling for kids in Boise, Idaho, or even in nearby Sterling.

Looking back, my fifth-grade experience strikes me as the epitome of what learning should feel like for all children. I don't recall ever stressing about too much homework -- there was hardly any! Standardized tests did not loom large, or sap the fun. Maybe we weren't absorbing knowledge like the little sponges we now know young minds to be, but learning was an adventure.

How can we preserve that sense of enthusiastic discovery among today's students, with the threat of government intervention if standardized test scores fall too low, and the crushing pressure students feel about getting into college? Washington Post staff writer Fredrick Kunkle found private school did a better job than public school of making learning joyful for his daughters, although freelancer Pamela Toutant believes public school has more to offer. They play out that debate beginning on Page 14. And our story starting on Page 24, about a new program at Stanford University to help teens cope with academic stress, suggests that parents and students can help themselves by refusing to let fear be their guide.

I find myself wondering: What would Mrs. Cummings have to say?

Sydney Trent is deputy editor of the Magazine. She can be reached at trents@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company