Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing

11 06 2009

Sun Belt has begun, and, as in years past, it has been all-consuming, exhausting, and exhilarating. We have a nice mix of folks in the room this year from all parts of the education spectrum: elementary teachers, secondary teachers, English teachers, Social Studies/History teachers, media specialists, a principal. Every year, the first week surprises me. There is so much getting-ready and cutting-through-red-tape that by the time the first day rolls along, I am pretty well spent. But by the second day, I am looking forward to the third and the fourth days. Teaching is a lonely profession–– you spend all day in a room with students, which leaves very little time for collaboration and conversation with adults. I never realize how isolating it can be until the first day of Institute. That first day is like a slingshot into teacher heaven, where there is thinking that you can see, where there are conversations that are full of the kind of energy that comes from being understood, where there is tangible evidence of the integrity of our profession. I spent an hour after everyone left on Monday crouched over a green piece of butcher paper, armed with tempera paint, and in that hour, I got that tingly feeling that you get when you’re where you know you’re supposed to be. I really believe that the Writing Project is magic, and I’m happy to be a part of that magic these next three weeks.

So, if you’re wondering what exactly we do for three weeks, check out our blog: Sun Belt 2009.





Sprung

25 03 2009

Springtime is a teacher’s nightmare. The kids and I are currently engaged in a riveting unit that involves standardized testing and the systematic banging of our heads against the cement block walls that keep us from fresh cool spring air and delicious temps that, in Alabama, are fleeting. My solution to the bitterness that testing hath wrought? Practice testing with Blow Pops. Class time currently consists of bleary-eyed students (who, in recent weeks, have taken on a scary resemblance of actual sloths) taking practice tests for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, we stand up to stretch and then review the answers. Students are rewarded with Blow Pops, which I deliver using an underhanded pitch. As a fifth-year veteran teacher, I have come up with no greater reward for my students than time outside and/or candy. Despite the fact that public education deems sugar unsuitable for its students, I believe that sugar goes hand-in-hand with learning. Personally, I cannot endure any amount of studying without a bag of sweet tarts and Hershey Kisses.

Me, on a Sunday afternoon, tending to the garden in my best frock.

A first-class gardening gentlewoman bearing the fruits of her labor with a waist that would surely snap were she to exist in real life.

Along with standardized testing, spring also marks my annual yard analysis. Prognosis: not good. Both yards will not grow grass, and I, lacking even a green fingernail, can barely remember to water the pitiful fern that lives above the kitchen sink. This year, I am determined to make something of my nothing of a yard. I look across the street with longing each day. There, the grass grows thick and the young man who inhabit the right side of the brown stone duplex planted (successfully) tulips that have turned up beautifully. Meanwhile, I have three arbitrarily placed rose bushes that spike from the ground with their stubborn, stark thorns.

I’m writing this in hopes that someone, some gentle green reader, will be able to offer advice. I would like to put a flower box in Ruthie’s window where the yard gets sun from about 11:00 on. I’d also like to plant some kind of bush-ish thing beneath the window to cover the immense space between the dirt and the window (we have a crawl-space). Then, I want to plant GRASS. The problem with grass? Half the yard gets sun, half does not (I’ve got a magnolia tree). Lastly, there’s a little bitty square garden where my driveway intersects with the sidewalk and it gets nearly-full sun. I want to plant some cute flowers there as well. So, friends, please, please, PLEASE! tell me what to plant. What kind of grass? What kind of flowers? I prefer flowers and grass that will not die, but I know this might be over-reaching. Any suggestions would be welcome.





Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900





in just–

24 03 2008

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When I was in high school, we didn’t read any of the kinds of poems that I use in my own classroom. Now that I’m working with the amazing and talented Emma Bolden in the Art of Writing Club, I’m learning that my secondary English education was sub-par at best with regard to poetry. The only poem that I can really remember from high school is “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood” by Robert Frost. I’m pretty sure that we had to memorize it. I learned more poems in French than English. So now that Emma and I are collaborating on this project, I have been drinking poems each week, amazed and appalled by my lacking knowledge of this world of words painting other worlds with their sounds, their shapes, and their strange new meanings.

When I started teaching high school English, e.e. cummings soon became my favorite poet. His beautiful invention never ceases to fill me with a sense of awe. I simply relish the following poem, which captures the day that I spent with Ruthie collecting all of the flowers that have bloomed within a 2-mile radius of our house. By the time we were finished, she was covered in fresh cut blooms. Her favorite was the big pink one with pollen in the middle. She kept pointing at it with a serious countenance, warning me: “Make you sneeze, Mommy.”

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything

e.e. cummings