The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

[IMAGE] by John D. Hubbard

Steven Levy '71, a fourth grade teacher, is looking for the genius in his students. It is his job, but recognizing "that quality or collection of qualities that makes them who they are, that distinguishes them from everyone else" is also his mission, his quest, his passion.

It is a rainy early autumn day, but Room 13 of the Bowman School in Lexington, Mass., is warm and bright. The children are gathered in a circle with Levy and they are making a case for the number one as the most important numeral. Levy begins each year with a different theme, a context for his interdisciplinary approach to language skills, math, history, art and science.

This year the framework begins with a story about discovering the numbers one through 12 in the woods, which leads to attempts to find out which is the greatest. Not long ago the theme for another group of students was to design the ideal classroom.

Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum (published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, N.H.) is the story of that exercise as well as a compilation of Levy's educational philosophy and his approach to teaching.

The book was published in May, continuing a remarkable run of mid-career recognition for Levy, who was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 1993 and a 1994 recipient of the Outstanding General Elementary Teacher Award presented by the Walt Disney Company.

Levy, who has taught at every level from kindergarten through college, now splits his time in the classroom with lectures, workshops and "conversations" with ATLAS (Authentic Teaching and Learning for All Students), a consortium of educators from Harvard, Yale, Brown and the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.

"There came a point when the classroom wasn't the only vehicle. I wanted to share what I was doing with other teachers," says Levy. The awards were a first step in that direction. "It's just fabulous to have what you pour out day after day recognized. It's also very humbling because you know there are all kinds of great teachers. It's a divine accident, a great honor you want to spread around," says Levy, who asked himself how he could use the recognition to encourage others in the profession.

"It forced me to articulate a lot of things I did more by instinct and nature. I developed a vocabulary in order to share and take part in a dialogue." The awards also opened up connections as Levy met other teachers whose thinking about education helped keep him growing as a professional.

In the midst of this Levy wrote a summer letter to the students who would become his fourth grade class. He told them to think about how they would create their ideal classroom, and when they arrived in September they found an empty room.

A parent videotaped the process and in the end had more than 37 hours of tape. The students edited the footage, wrote a script and produced a one-hour program on how they built their own curriculum. Levy approached publishers about marketing the tape and was urged to write a book.

Starting from Scratch is an amplification of Levy's phi-losophy behind the project -- to get the students excited and steer them toward content and skills.

Steven Levy has been exciting and steering kids for years, really from his college days when, to escape another summer of warehouse work on the banks of the Mississippi, he started a day camp. A philosophy and religion major, Levy began his teaching career following graduation as a substitute at a school in an impoverished Missouri community.

"I went in naively thinking I'll be kind and generous and thoughtful and it will release these kids from their bondage. I got clobbered. It made me think I'd better go study education."

When children feel like part of the
class - when their gift is recognized and honored
by the class - there is confidence to extend

Levy leaned toward the freewheeling Antioch approach, but a campus visit left him feeling "hollow." He decided to investigate Adelpha University and its Waldorf School, where he stayed to earn his masters. Levy then helped build a school in Cambridge, MA, seeing it through its pioneer stage into its settling stage. "I'm a pioneer at heart," says Levy by way of offering a partial explanation of why he left after 13 years.

The teacher had also become a Christian and had strong religious and philosophic differences with the program. "I didn't know what to do but I thought it would be interesting to see what was going on in public schools," says Levy.

It has been interesting. "I'll tell you my ultimate goal," says Levy. "I want to get my kids to develop the habit of careful observation and asking questions about their experiences." It's a six-step program.

  • "What's the number or count? Numbers reveal a certain part of understanding. It's the beginning of mathematics."

  • "What are the variables? What differs about what I'm seeing? That's where science comes in."

  • "Has anyone else made these observations or had this experience and if so, what do they have to say about it? This seems to me to be the origins of reading."

  • "What have I learned and what do I want to share? It seems to be what the communicative arts are about."

  • "How does this experience relate to others I've had? This leads to making interesting connections and crosses all the disciplines."

  • "The last question is: So what have I learned about myself and my place in the world? It is at the heart of social studies."

Whether it is designing a classroom, searching for the greatest of all numbers or exploring the properties of a circle, these are the questions Levy encourages his students to ask. "And make sure to have fun along the way," he adds.

A father and teacher
Levy and his wife Joanna, who is also a teacher, have four children; Noah (19) Mariam (16) Suzannah (15) and Naomi (10). "The most important thing parenthood does for a teacher is that it makes in you such a tremendous compassion for each child. It makes you want to do right for each one."

The fourth grade is the perfect setting. "There's enough of them there by that age to engage students in some exciting projects. They have the depth of thinking but aren't yet into the rough waters of adolescence. It's kind of a golden age, the pinnacle of childhood before they become beasts. They are still open enough so those who come in in some stage of beasthood can be turned around. I prolong their childhoods."

While the notion of extending a student's "golden age" remains constant, other aspects of his job and Levy's views of teaching have changed.

"We now have kids who can read Shakespeare and kids who can't read, kids able to do algebra and kids who can't add. We have kids with physical, mental and emotional difficulties and we teach them all together."

As a young teacher Levy was thrilled by the spontaneous moment and the boundless possibility of the imagination. As he has grown he has found a way to provide a form and structure for extemporaneousness. He has tried to move from being the center of attention and playing the role of judge and arbiter of what is good and right and now strives to equip his students to do that for themselves and each other.

One way Levy arms his fourth graders is by "creating an environment in which the particular genius of each child can find a place to be expressed and developed." It might be a musical component, or art, a craft, an academic problem, a game or even growing wheat, but whatever the avenue, Levy is looking, listening, feeling for that genius.

[IMAGE] "When children feel like a worthwhile part of the class -- when their gift is recognized and honored by the class -- there is confidence to extend themselves in areas of weakness."

In looking for the genius in his students, Levy has also been able to communicate with his peers. His book is a summation of all he has learned throughout his career. "I'd have to teach another 20 years to write a second book," he says. There are students and parents aplenty applauding the idea.

Still nervous before every day of teaching, Levy continues to learn, and it is with a new sense of wonder the teacher leads his students in reciting a verse: "We come together from many different places/To learn, to work and to play/We pause to give thanks to all those seen and unseen/Who make it possible for us to be here."

"I haven't felt any compromise in my faith or my teaching," says Levy. "I pray about my lessons. I pray about my kids. I sometimes tell stories from Scripture that illustrate important principles and I sing songs that praise God but in different languages. More than anything I try to demonstrate a kind of selfless love -- the highest expression of my religion."

The rain hasn't let up but the day is done. The fourth graders in Room 13 make their goodbyes, shake hands with Steven Levy and pass under a sign that shouts "Rejoice."