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A Passion for Teaching
Remembering Judi Hirsch, Special Educator

Judi Hirsch, special education teacher and leader of numerous initiatives for greater social justice, passed away on Wednesday, May 25th, 2005, in Oakland, California, her home. She had been diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2004.

Friends and colleagues from across the nation remembered Judi in eloquent e-mail messages on the ARN assessment reform listserv, an e-mail exchange among parents, educators, community advocates, and civil rights activists.

"All of us who knew Judi had already missed her presence in so many places where she made a big difference and brought such a loving spirit," wrote one friend on the list.

Another sent a poem, titled "Judi & The Tile Spacers," sharing a story about how Judi Hirsch helped a young student struggling with math to experiment and learn using tile spacers from a local hardware store, during a visit to Birmingham, Alabama, in 2003.

The poet-friend described Judi's personality and approach to teaching and learning. "...You never doubted where you stood with her. Judi told it like it was. She went to the bottom line quickly, laying her perspectives out on the table. She drew lines of demarcation swiftly. She asked lots and lots of piercing and probing questions. She questioned. She questioned. She made people squirm. She cared. She protested. She loved. She demanded. She worked in relentless pursuit of justice and equity for her students..."

George Schmidt, editor of a newspaper about public education issues Substance, remembered the moral support he and his colleagues at Substance received from Judi Hirsch in 1999, when the publication was under siege for its straightforward reporting on problems in Chicago schools. "It soon became clear as Judi explained more about her theories and pedagogy that our small battles here were nothing compared to what her mentor teacher and colleagues in Israel had pioneered with the survivors of the Holocaust during the seminal days of the 1950s, 60s and 70s..."

For a clear presentation of Judi Hirsch's ideas about education and high stakes testing, please see "Standardized Tests Flunk: Thoughts From a High School Teacher," an online article she wrote in the fall of 2000, at

At the first-ever Advocates for Children and Teachers National Organizing Workshop (ACT NOW) in March 2003, Judi Hirsch joined other well-known education advocates like Susan Ohanian to honor a project called "World of Opportunity" (WOO) and plan national strategy for an anti-high stakes testing movement in America. At this meeting of 30 grassroots advocates, Hirsch spoke of the need to ally parents and teachers, as reported in Substance.

In August 2001, Judi Hirsch, then chair of the Oakland Education Association Assessment and Accountability Committee, joined an effort to donate SAT9 test improvement award monies to fight against the use of norm-referenced standardized tests. "Everyone knows that if you want to know how your child is doing, ask the teacher," said Hirsch. "Teachers are assessing and revising instruction every day. They can tell you what parents really want to know: Is my child making satisfactory progress? What do we need to work on? SAT9 rankings don't really inform parents or teachers on what an individual student needs to succeed."

Hirsch was also deeply involved in the popular anti-war movement in the early spring of 2003 when millions of Americans were petitioning the Bush administration not to intervene militarily in Iraq. On November 13, 2002, the school board of Oakland Unified School District had voted unanimously to host a district-wide "teach-in" about the potential war in Iraq. According to a report in the online publication "Rethinking Schools" (, Hirsch (33-year teaching veteran and a member of the Peace and Justice Caucus of the Oakland Education Association) coordinated a line-up of more than 80 presenters for the January 18 teach-in, which was held in neighboring San Francisco.

"We have lots of Vietnam vets and Veterans for Peace," Hirsch is quoted as saying. "We have professors who teach political philosophy, we have people that work on connections with oil, depleted uranium. We have a lot of people who are Muslims; we have people who've been to the Middle East; we've got local elected officials; we've got Not in Our Name people, International ANSWER; we have a woman who has been working on trying to end the sanctions; we have students, teachers, we have a comedian; we've got armament experts; and we have an ROTC guy who thinks war is stupid."

Most revealing of the essentially teaching character at the core of Judi Hirsch's personality, however, are the words she is quoted in that same Rethinking Schools article as using to describe how she prepared speakers to communicate effectively with the thousands of students from Oakland schools who would be attending the event. "I just try to get them to see that it shouldn't be a lecture; it should be a conversation. You know, let them ask you questions. You feel them out. Kids need to come to their own conclusions."

At the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice, on June 13-15, 2003, in San Francisco, Judi Hirsch presented a session titled "Algebra for All? Using Mediated Learning to Help Students Succeed." Here is the abstract of that session:

In this session, we examine the mathematics, pedagogy, and philosophy behind an approach that supports students with special needs and students in alternative schools to succeed in learning Algebra. Theis approach is consistent with NCTM standards and draws on the work of Lev Vygotsky, Reuven Feuerstein, and Paolo Freire, for whom the heart of mediated learning is interaction with students.

For more information on Judi Hirsch's approaches to teaching, please see an article she wrote, "Intervention Strategies for Underprepared Students," published online by the Rouge Forum, in its summer 2001 edition.

This past April 3, at Wheeler Auditorium, University of California-Berkeley, as part of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center's 20th Annual Jewish Music Festival, the Klezmatics and special guest Joshua Nelson presented a show and service, co-sponsored by a "Festival Friend in honor of Judi Hirsch--dedicated teacher, peace activist, artist and indominable spirit."

Perhaps the best homage one could pay to that teacher is to share a list of "100 Things I Will Do in My Life," by a student of hers from a June 2000 ARN-L listserv message. The accompanying note from Judi Hirsch:

It is with great pride and tears in my eyes that I share this with you. The student who wrote this piece as part of his graduation requirements at our school has been with me for six years. We have changed each other's lives. When I met him he was in worse shape than any other student I ever had. His life is very hard and yet he represents all that I ever wanted for any of the young people I work with to know- a very humble and proud Judi

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online