Archive for the ‘Teachers in Their Own Words’ Category

“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” is Teresa, a fourth year math teacher at a New Mexico reservation high school. Teresa has a place of honor in this series since it was an email she sent me about teaching young Native Americans that gave me the idea to ask teachers to write about their experiences as educators. In this thoughtful piece, “A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs,” Teresa raises issues about the constantly changing landscape of schools these days—new programs, new standards, new tests. She doesn’t reject change out of hand because, as she writes, change “is an everyday occurrence” for teachers. But she does question changes that are made with no consideration of student needs or the traditions of the community of which the school is a part. This is particularly important on Native American reservations where tradition is an essential yet endangered part of life. In exploring these ideas Teresa does something that doesn’t occur often enough in schools. She has a conversation with students, asking them for their views and ideas about education and how schools should be structured. It’s refreshing to see that kind of respectful dialog taking place, and it can only enhance her students’ learning.

A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs

Change.  To some, this word is scary.  To others, it is invigorating.  For teachers, it is an everyday occurrence.

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students.  To start, the student asked me “How come we don’t go home at 12:30, like in California?”  Now, I know not every high school in CA has a half-day schedule, but apparently this student attended one in the past.  This question led us into an in-depth discussion of why schools are organized the way they are.  Another student joined in on the conversation, and we discussed other options for high schools: why not offer night classes?  Why not let high school students sleep in, go to work in the morning, then come to school for a few hours in the afternoon (perhaps between lunch and dinner)?  And why on earth do high school students go to school for eight hours a day, only to go home and do two to four more hours of homework?

Let me give you some background information.  I was homeschooled all the way through 12th grade.  By the time I was high school-aged, my mom would get me started on my assignments in the morning, then I’d work independently while she kept my 5 younger siblings busy.  If I had questions about math, I would call my dad.  If I had any other questions, I would grab my mom between Fractions activities and Phonics lessons.  Rarely would my work occupy me past 12:30, at which time I would practice my piano, complete my chores for the day, and help keep my youngest sibling entertained.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I entered college and discovered that high school teachers are truly expected to fill 8 hours every day with lessons only, then give their students work to do at home.  Where has family time gone?  When will my students find time to choose personally enriching activities?  When will they have time to make some extra money?  This last question is especially pertinent with my students, high school teens living on a New Mexico reservation, who often help the family “make ends meet.”

Unfortunately, educators have endured so many changes in the past decade that they respond to new ideas with either “What’s the point?” or “Why change it now?”  Every year, teachers face new expectations, new administrators, and lately, even new standards.  But every time these changes occur, teachers sit back and say, “It’ll change again next year.”  They don’t buy-in anymore because nothing sticks around.  As a result, when truly good changes are suggested they get lost in the shuffle, or are placed on the back burner while mandatory (a.k.a. monetarily-endorsed) changes are implemented.  When are schools going to stop and think that maybe all these changes, “improvements,” aren’t as good as they are presented?  When are schools going to figure out how to weed out the unnecessary, unhelpful changes, in order to make room for reasonable, current ideas?  And when are we going to stop requiring students to spend 16 hours a day on school?

In the community where I work, there is a stronger-than-average resistance to change.  I believe this stems from Native Americans’ deeply rooted ties to history.  In this community, students and adults grasp at their traditions, while trying to sweep themselves into the future.  The Native Americans I work with search daily for the balance between the old and the new.  Even in schools, drastic changes can feel like an abandonment of the past, which is like forgetting “where we come from.”  For most Americans, our histories are so jumbled that we do not consider it in our daily decisions (personally, my family stems from about 5 different countries, and I cling to the traditions of none).  Natives’ history, on the other hand, has been so suppressed that they cling to every thread.

I’ve always felt that my schooling experience has been both an advantage and a disadvantage.  I am advantaged because I did not spend the first 18 years of my life going through “the system”; thus, I am completely open to new ideas.  However, as a teacher I am disadvantaged because I do not realize how many of these ideas have been sifted through the system already.  I may not be jaded, but I still swing a little to the other extreme: naiveté.  We teachers need to work together to find the happy medium.

At the end of my conversation with my students, we agreed that the “solution” is to phase out teachers who are stuck in the old ways, and fill schools with teachers open to change.  Unfortunately, this boils down to only hiring teachers who have been teaching 5 years or less.  Never would I suggest this actually take place because then schools would lose the wisdom and experience of our veteran teachers.  But the two generations of educators need to work together to keep schools current.  We don’t need fancy equipment and artistically-designed school buildings.  We just need to be open to reasonable, practical changes.  We need to adjust to meet our students’ needs…  Isn’t that the whole point?

 

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

One of the goals of “Teachers in Their Own Words” has been to give teachers a voice in the “education reform” debate. It has been a place where teachers can talk about what’s important to them as professionals. For some that has meant the larger issues of curriculum, evaluation and training; for others, the day to day challenges and delights of the classroom. Whatever the topic, each contributor has spoken as a practitioner, as someone “on the front-lines.” They are the ones who spend their days with students and so know what real, hands-on education looks like, feels like; what works and doesn’t.  Along with that variety of viewpoints and concerns the educational settings have been diverse and wide-ranging—reservation high school, release program for young offenders, community college, kindergarten, juvenile detention, independent learning, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), middle school.

Now Hillary Greene, who has written for the series in the past, has opened the 2014 conversation even further in her guest piece, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room”. The piece serves as a great introduction to a shared blog, “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers,” that she and two other teachers from other countries have begun as a way to explore the big question, “What does it mean to be a teacher?” As in everything Hillary writes, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room” isn’t afraid to challenge not just the ideas of reformers but her colleagues as well. But she does it with a gentle and practiced hand, just what you’d expect from a middle school teacher (she has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) who recently wrote in an email to me that “it’s never the kids that are the tough part of this job…” I’m looking forward to reading “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers” as it evolves and invite you to stop into their International Teacher’s Room to hear the latest in this global conversation.

Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room

Last summer, I was sitting in an art-filled café in Exeter, New Hampshire reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education. Page after page, I dutifully read and made my margin notes about the successful performance of students in places like Finland and Singapore when a simple question dawned on me, “I wonder what it’s like to teach in other places?” I wanted to find out.

Since becoming a teacher three school years ago, I have reflected daily on the challenges of this profession. I know that my job is much different than the one I envisioned my teachers doing back when I was a K-12 student; like anything, it’s hard to imagine until actually living through it.

Then last year, I started to write about teaching. It was a way to think aloud about my experience in a way I couldn’t do at school. I wrote about the need to nurture teachers and create environments for collaboration rather than isolation (The Coffee Crisis), and another piece about how teachers’ ignorance of big-picture policy changes in education causes our autonomy in the classroom to suffer (Not Enough to “Just” Teach).

Despite the challenges of being a teacher, one aspect consistently sustains me: my relationships with students. I teach middle school, a fragile age where, above all, kids want to feel like someone “gets” them. They’re looking for unconditional acceptance as they try out versions of themselves, some combination of which will one day stick. They possess a refreshing ability to be vulnerable and open in ways that adults have often left behind.

Even in my relatively short amount of time as a teacher, I see that although this openness and availability flourishes in middle school relationships, it remains in short supply among the adults in a school. I’m not without blame; sometimes it’s easier to shut my door, work through lunch, and breathe a bit rather than seek out colleagues, collaborate, or, basically, be available. But there’s certainly something about this profession that makes us close ourselves off, both regretful of the isolation but reluctant to open up.

So this brings me back to that café in New Hampshire. I wondered if teachers in such paragons of educational achievement as Finland and Singapore have the same challenges I have experienced. I wondered if their professional relationships are different from mine. I wondered what their lives are like outside of school compared to teachers’ lives here. I wondered how others in their culture perceive their choice to join the teaching profession.

With the help of my brother who has lived abroad, I reached out to public school teachers that he knew around the world, and I found two willing (and available!) volunteers: Thom in France and Emily in Australia who like me teach 5th through 7th graders. We launched our comparative teaching blog in August, and we write every few weeks about our lives as teachers. We have written several diary entries of a “typical” day in our schools, and we’ve written on other topics including our teacher preparation programs, our choices to become teachers, assessment in schools, and more. We will write until May and continue to discover what it means to teach, whether in the US, France, or Australia.

Ironically, we’ve never met each other. Yet, through this shared experience of written reflection, I am able to visit them in their classrooms and host them in mine. Just like our students, we want someone to “get” us, and now we have each other.

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. She often talks  about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. In this current piece she writes about saying good-bye to a group of young guys (many of whom have spent their lives in and out of institutions)  when  her Life Skills class is closed due to loss of funding.  Gayle communicates so well the deep and powerful relationships that can develop between students and teachers, relationships that stay in both their hearts for a long time. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” where she writes about variety of topics with her usual honesty and humor.

When Young Offenders–and Their Teacher–Say Good-bye

Last month, due to a lack of funding, the juvenile lock-up where I taught a weekly “life skills” workshop was shuttered.  According to my very rough calculation, in the year that I worked there I had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week, and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.

The kids I worked with in lock-up have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to become pilots and work with horses.  They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words, say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards their own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system and that soon enough, when they are old enough to be tried as adults, they will just continue on to become “career criminals.”

The bottom line is that I will most likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.

I will miss Emmanuel who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  His pudgy face with his dimples and mile-wide smile is wallpapered on the inside of my brain.  At 16, he was the youngest student I taught and without question, the most articulate.  Before the program closed a staff member told me that he was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back.  Not one.

I will miss the most hardened young man, Josh, the one who looked at me suspiciously when he first met me but was the first to thank me for everything I had done for him when I saw him for the last time.  During our first group together he told me that he smashed his phone on the ground when it froze in the middle of a game he was playing.  By the end of that first hour together, I made him laugh at the absurdity of the act.  I never knew, until the program had closed, that he is a heroin addict that drives him to have a needle in each arm at the same time.

I will miss the young man with the first name of a classic literary character, a boarding school student from a very affluent neighborhood.  We talked about books and movies.  His alcoholism has destroyed his life.

I will miss seeing Ricardo, a light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, sprawled on a chair all smiles and light.  I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and his gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges.  I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed.  I know that he is terrified of going back there.  He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away. When an informal conversation occurred in class about superheroes and that inevitable question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” He said, “I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud.  I want to bring happiness to the streets.  I want to protect my little sister.  I’d want to be a superhero.   I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”

At the end of my last group I gave each boy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which is a lot less hokey than it sounds.  We had ended each group up until then with each kid reading five sound bytes of advice.  They understood what that final gesture meant, that I’d be with them wherever they landed, that I was dedicated to their success.  I wasn’t allowed to hug them when I said goodbye, but my handshakes were long and warm, and my tears told them that I would never, ever forget them.

“Good night you princes of Maine,
you kings of New England.”

John Irving, Cider House Rules

I’m happy to re-post Catherine Gobron’s piece from Huffington Post, “Chickens and Roads: Why Compulsory Education Isn’t Necessary.” Catherine has written for “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. As the director of North Star, a program of self-directed learning for teens, she always has a very different–and for some people, challenging–take on learning, schools and our education system. But as always, she raises issues in a way that makes you want to think about them, not run away from them.

Chickens and Roads: Why Compulsory Schooling Isn’t Necessary

I work at a teen educational program where students have full control over their own schedules and have no academic requirements. We get a lot of questions about how this could possibly work. A frequent one is, “How will kids learn to do things they don’t like if they are not made to do them?”

You would think that formal education would aim a little higher than teaching children how to endure. But the question comes up all the time.

Here’s my response:

Unpleasant tasks abound. Life is absolutely overflowing with things one might prefer not to do. The laundry, the dishes, walking the dog, vacuuming the car, mowing the lawn, writing thank you notes to your grandmother, getting your car’s oil changed, negotiating with the insurance company… There is an endless list of things we do even though we might rather not. Occasionally we put off one or another of these necessities, and suffer the consequences, whether that’s temporarily living with dirty dishes or having the car impounded over unpaid tickets. We don’t need practice doing things we don’t like, and we don’t need practice suffering consequences. Life is full of both. They can hardly be avoided.

Furthermore, in my experience I don’t see any difference between those who have gone to school and those who have not when it comes to the ability to get unpleasant tasks done. Years of monotonous lessons and uninspired assignments do not seem to increase the likelihood that someone will get their teeth cleaned regularly, for example. Years of enforced, rote tasks may increase a person’s compliance with an uninspired adult work life, but is that a worthy goal for education?

Why does the chicken cross the road? (To get to the other side, of course.) Why do we do anything? Simply to do it, or because there is something on the other side that we deem worth having or knowing or experiencing. No one has to make people (or chickens) cross roads. You can help someone achieve the goal by looking at a map with them or helping them think through their plans. There’s no need to make them cross any particular road, metaphorical or otherwise. In fact, attempting to make them is a good way to prevent them from wanting to go or from getting anything out of the journey.

Making people do things they don’t like encourages people to dislike the thing you are making them do, even when that thing is fun or valuable. If a person finds a road worth crossing, they’ll cross it. The helpers in their life can be useful by believing that they can do it and that they will do it, and saying so. Other useful support will become evident through interaction and discussion.

How are young people going to learn to do things they don’t like? By creating their own goals and having the confidence to work for them. No need to look for or create unpleasant challenges or obstacles. Those will find you. The person who is motivated by their own desires and vision will work through and around the obstacles. The practice is in the doing.

Every day at my workplace I see teens walk by games and fun on their way to class. Why would teens go to class when they could play outside or do some other enjoyable thing? Because they want to. There’s no need to make them. The kids who are not in class are doing other important things, which could be anything from making friends to developing courage to suffering consequences.

Non-compulsory learning benefits from reflection, access, support, and discussion. Force is unnecessary for learning and actually counter-productive.

When we examine our own adult lives, these points are obvious. We do the things we are motivated to do and excel at the things we enjoy. Kids, too.

This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class, or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.

It’s a different kind of fear. I only began to understand this fear after I started the series “Teachers in Their Own Words” that I’ve been running here on “Kids in The System.”

I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).

So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.

Over the nine months that the series ran, I learned a lot. About what it was like teaching high school on a New Mexico reservation. About the challenges of teaching young offenders either still in prison or in a release program.  The Monday after the Sandy Hook shootings, a kindergarten teacher shared the joy she felt talking and singing and having an ordinary day with her very much alive little people.  Another teacher wrote about the difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the burden that Common Core put on her and her students. I heard about the importance of community college as a stepping stone to success for new citizens, older learners and younger students making their way. One teacher told readers why she planned on spending a weekend in Washington DC for an “Occupy Education” event, while another explored the weaknesses of the Common Core curriculum and its far-reaching impact. There was the poignant “resignation letter” from a young teacher who had “had enough,” deciding to leave public education for a private school because she felt disloyal to all she believed teaching should be. And then there was the teacher who felt that the only way she could stay in education was to leave it, immersing herself in a student self-directed learning program.

In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students.  Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.

And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices.  In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.

According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

More and more I worry about young teachers new to the classroom. Will they simply be data-gatherers and test-givers? Is that how they will define their role as teacher since that seems to be the prevalent, official take on the profession these days? More importantly, will they settle for that definition? Many veteran teachers are giving up, but what about new teachers? “Why One Public School Teacher Has Had Enough” is the last article for the season in the series, “Teachers in Their Own Words.” In it Natalie, a prekindergarten teacher in a New England public school, shares her struggles to hold on to her ideals and her love for her students while trying to be a team player on a team that she’s not sure can work for the best interests of kids.” She writes, “We see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.” It’s clear that Natalie feels conflicted and somewhat inadequate to the task, but even more powerfully she feels disloyal to her basic philosophy of education, to her students and to the profession she clearly loves. It’s a clear-eyed, courageous, and poignant piece, leaving you no choice but to cheer her on and wish her well.

Why One Young Public School Teacher Has Had Enough

This season, I’ve read a number of resignation letters from teachers. There was the career teacher whose letter titled “My profession no longer exists” went viral. There was the school principal lamenting that it is “so much harder to be kind to children” these days. Or the the award-winning teacher resigning just four years before full retirement because he “can no longer cooperate with the high stakes testing regime.”  In each of these, we see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.   While reading these letters, I’ve written my own resignation letter.  It is a short and sweet note written with some embarrassment after just two years of teaching in an urban public school.  I did not participate in Teach for America and considered myself kind of a conscientious objector to that deployment, but there you have it.  Two years.

We’re dropping like flies, it seems.  Some of my friends, also young teachers in public schools, are courageously soldiering on.   In the process of applying for jobs at progressive private schools, I kept using their example to motivate me to instead stay one more year in an urban public school.  That’s what they’ve promised themselves.  They tell me they’re giving it one more year, or trying to squeeze out two more years before deciding what to do next.   I admire them tremendously, but while I have regret and disappointment that public school teaching did not work out for me at this time, I’ve accepted that it’s time to say goodbye for now.

Here’s the puzzle.  I’m a few years out of college, and my professional commitment is to democratic and progressive education.  I want to treat children with kindness and respect each day, I want to know their hopes and their families’ hopes, and I want most of my interactions with them to focus on learning—“Hmm…pet store.  How can we sound out that word?” or “Which container do you think will fit more? How do you know?” or “Why is your friend feeling sad? What could you do to help him?”  While I am able to have those kinds of interactions in the public prekindergarten where I teach, it’s usually also while holding a tissue tight around someone’s bloody nose, or wiping a table while simultaneously carrying a cot.  It’s a circus, with so many children and not enough hands, not enough space.  I’ve tried every possible daily schedule and every possible furniture arrangement and consulted any colleague who made the mistake of looking like they had a free moment, all in order to try to make it work.

Yet, even in this high-functioning public school with fantastic leadership, I’ve found it enormously difficult to provide my students with their basic entitlements.  I want to give them the sense that I like them and have time to listen to them, that their ideas matter and will work their way into what we explore as a group, and that they are known well.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this, I am expected to collect and analyze rigorous fine-grained data about student progress in all domains.  Even though we know that children develop at an uneven rate, I am expected to lead all students through linear progress. For example, a child who uses scissors to cut lines must be able to cut curves 12 weeks later.  We are told there is some wiggle room, but nonetheless these benchmarks feel like marching orders.  So we march.  I believe that my first principle must be to do no harm, and yet I feel complicit in a system that asks young children to do too much too fast.   And I’ve had to figure out how to manage all of these priorities largely on my own.

I know that it takes many years to develop one’s teaching practice, but in talking to colleagues at my school, not a single person has told me “give it time.”  I kept waiting for those words.  If the problem was me, that I was too much a novice, then the solution would be simple.  Stick it out, give it more time.  Instead the feedback from administrators has been enormously positive, and I’ve been encouraged not be so hard on myself and to just accept their assurance that I am a great teacher and there isn’t a big problem.  This administrative response came at a time when I felt myself beginning to punish students when I meant to support them, and beginning to forgo vigorous lesson planning in favor of accepting that maybe the day would just be one rush of meals, toileting, and behavior management because our large group size, staffing arrangement and cramped room made each of those things so difficult.

So next year, I’ll work at a small, progressive, private school, where I will have a full-time co-teacher, paid planning time, and weekly professional development.   There teachers get time and support to pursue collaborative projects to improve their own practice. “Basically, what we provide our students, we want to provide our faculty as well,” I was told again and again when I visited.

It is not lost on me that this wonderful place where progressive education thrives is a boutique. But I have come to a point where I refuse to feel guilty about wanting to use in my teaching what we know about child development and how kids learn best.  I refuse to feel guilty about wanting a window, a lunch break, and to know my colleagues’ names.  Teaching, wherever one does it, is enormously challenging work, and I will be much better at it there.

My friends have been tremendously supportive.  The ones who have stood with me in learning about and pursuing public education, sharing articles, debates, and reflections, have said “I have no talk back” when I told them my career move.   Some people, who are not teachers, have said things like “It’s a shame, because it’s in those schools that we need the best teachers.”  However, I’ve learned that the best teachers do not exist in isolation.  The best teachers, like the best students, are wherever there are people encouraging them to be just that.

 

 

Although teachers spend their days surrounded by people— albeit little, and younger people—it’s still an isolating job. For many of us in the classroom, the vitality and the support to do our jobs comes from colleagues. Ideas exchanged, “problem students” talked over, “try this” suggestions for lessons are what keep teachers professional, motivated and, frankly, human. In the latest contribution to the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, “The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?” which originally appeared in Education Week, Hillary Greene writes in what at first appears to be a lighthearted way about the isolation and lack of collegiality that is taking over our schools.  What is missing, she writes, is not just free, decent coffee in the staff room but the space, time and freedom to share with each other. The current standardized curriculum leaves little room for children to be creative and to learn the art of community. This limited, locked-step model holds true for teachers as well, leading people like Hillary to worry, “that I’m losing my voice.” Hillary, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, need not worry. As you’ll see, her voice is strong, courageous, and wise.

The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle school humanities in an alternative-licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

 

Anyone who spends time in a classroom knows that a school is much more than a school. Just drive around your own town past a local school and read the marquee with its announcements of meetings, activities, its words of wisdom and encouragement. Schools are more than academics and tests. Perhaps this diversity of purpose is most apparent in community colleges. Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” demonstrates what schools can, and do do, for their students, our communities, and ultimately, our country. Elisabeth has been teaching Sociology at the community college level in Western Massachusetts for over a decade, drawing on her academic credentials as well as her social work experience. Many of her students are older, many are struggling to define a new and better life, many are from different cultural backgrounds. Sounds perfect for a Sociology class!! Although Elisabeth, with a touch of academic alchemy, puts that diversity to good use it is the students, she writes, “with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.” “Community College—When a School is More Than a School” will give you some much needed hope at a time like ours when hope and tolerance are in such short supply.

Community College–When a School is More Than a School

On the first day of a new semester when I enter my Sociology classroom in the community college where I teach, voices quiet and faces turn, reflecting emotions that range from excitement to boredom, caution to enthusiasm, by turns welcoming and wary. We momentarily assess each other, wondering silently, “What will I learn this semester?” I usually push through this initial silence by offering a joke about the registrar’s list.

With that list in hand, I am faced with my own Anglicization of names, revealing a cultural bias and a real failure in language pronunciation. Within our classroom are names reflecting our country’s richness—Russian, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Irish, African (Burundi), Ukrainian, Mexican, Indian, Jordanian, West Indian, Jewish and Greek ancestry. We discuss how a last name only provides a glimpse into a journey and may not accurately reflect one’s cultural heritage. As I slowly call out their names—Egor, Idaliz, Hafiz, Huyen, Jose, Jamari, Chris, Britney, Thandi—they acknowledge that they are “present”, even as I, for lack of a better word, “mangle” their names. Some students will gently redirect me to the correct pronunciation.

Slowly the “us/them” paradigm is replaced by “me/we”, and it serves as the foundation on which we build our collective experience as it unfurls over 16 weeks. While I take personal responsibility for cultivating a climate of open communication and inquiry within the classroom, it is these students, with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.

Together we explore what Sociology is. “Look around,” I encourage them. “All of you are Sociology.” What do we have in common? How are we different? And how do these differences influence not only our educational experiences but the road we walk on?

Sociology is the story of a 53 year old construction worker, weathered from decades of outdoor work, returning to college to study nursing. It is the 20 year old hearing-impaired woman who aims for a sense of normalcy and inclusion. It is reflected in the eyes of an African refugee who speaks three languages and whose goal is to become a medical doctor. Sociology is in the shuffling feet of a sweet-faced teenager who opted to finish high school by taking community college classes rather than struggle through an uninspired rural high school milieu. It is the story of a 38 year old father of three who requires further training to avoid discharge from the job he’s held for nearly 20 years. Sociology is also reflected in the eyes of a 26 year old former felon, in recovery from substance abuse, sitting close to the door, unsmiling, unsure of his place. It is found in the story of a high school drop-out, struggling through the blight of urban decay and poverty, looking to escape the family “business” of drug-dealing and larceny by matriculating into community college. She will be the first in her family to not only graduate from high school but the first to attend college.

Through our discussions, students are able to hear different perspectives on human society. And as the weeks progress, many of their initial stereotypes and prejudices dissolve, and they are able to realize that xenophobia is a choice, a learned response.

And this leads to asking some profound questions of ourselves and others: What do we share? How are we the same? How do we differ? How do we, as individuals, cope with all of these cultural differences? How do we understand, respect and celebrate the differences between others? If “celebrate” is too lofty a goal, or an unwanted one, can we as a class aim to develop tolerance? We start to move closer to this goal by bridging the differences within our classroom, which is a microcosm of the larger society. This bridge is built through the development of shared classroom norms, through the curriculum, by cultivating a “first- name” basis within the classroom and by recognizing that learning is done in multiple ways.

Students do not typically start off embracing the value of tolerance, but it is rare that they, as a collective, do not end up working together to create a climate of cooperation versus divisiveness, of inclusion versus separation, of looking for the familiar in the perceived strange, which of course lies at the heart of Sociology. And, to a certain extent, this is the very mission of community college: that all individuals, regardless of their aptitudes, demographics and personal histories, have the capacity to learn, to grow and to contribute positively to their communities.