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Building a Library with Joan and Friends at BridgePointe

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium. ~Norbet Platt

If we are to develop lifetime readers and writers we must connect what we do in classroom with real life outside the classroom!

The act of reading and writing can’t be viewed as something separate and outside of what is important and vital to everyday living, just as good nutrition and final presentation is not outside of the act of cooking. I enjoy the process of cooking when I have chosen the recipe based on what I know about good taste and good nutrition and have the freedom to create something special for someone else and the pleasure of eating and talking and enjoying the meal together.

So often the assignments we give children with the objectives of learning to read or write in the early grades or reading and writing to learn in the older grades are so dry and colorless, there is no connection or with our students as unique and developing individuals and life its self and no lasting value in an of its self. Rather than being reading and writing experiences, which help us gain our equilibrium – they are so compartmentalized activities that they go nowhere beyond the “learning” objective of the assignment it’s self. How many pages of the basal workbook are worthy of bulletin boards and scrapbooks and other places of lasting enjoyment in our classrooms and homes? In this day and age of HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING, we must think about the nutritional value (versus empty calories) that we bring to the students seated at our table everyday.

One of the first things I noticed when I came to our school six years ago, what that there was no school lending library. There was a room filled shelves stuffed with 30 year old books and dittos and papers and miscellaneous things that upon being expelled from teacher classrooms found its home on the shelves in this room.

The room its self was being used as a content area classroom. Children were not allowed to browse or borrow the books and teachers rarely bothered with them as well. I knew in those first moments that one of my personal and professional accomplishments must be to help the school build a school library. For five years, my men’s shower-room turned resource room classroom had become the underground library. Children came before school and during lunch and on their way to and from the bathroom to borrow the books I had collected from garage sales, friend’s children’s discarded libraries, and the bargain rack at the bookstores.

Two summers ago, a volunteer from BridgePointe, named Joan, who loved books and reading as much as I did came to my co-taught dual-language inclusive education classroom. It was a room full of soon-to-be third graders (some with IEPs and some without) that were such reluctant readers and writers they hadn’t even yet decided to embark on the journey. We read TO them and WITH them, we co-created poems and email letters to my 80-years old mother and wrote stories and book reviews and thank you notes and letters to the principal and each other and even postcards home. We make charts and graphs about the wide genre we read, we created an author corner, class books, and PowerPoint presentations and for a few minutes each day we relaxed in the patch of green grass in front of the school and we read to each other. One time, we walked 1.6 miles to the local public library and signed up for library cards. We had no workbooks or textbooks just plastic milk crates stacked like makeshift shelves in one corner of the room filled with stories and articles that entertained and informed us and a make-shift writing center filled with sundry items you might need to write. The children were welcome and encouraged to borrow and take home and share with their families. And they did.

By the end of the summer children were signing out armfuls of books for themselves, their little brother or sister and their cousin who lives with them. That summer we learned many things together and independently and those children – right before our eyes – became readers and writers.

Joan and I decided that summer we needed a school lending library. She sent out an email to her friends at BridgePoint who sent emails out to her friends that a sleepy little elementary school in in the city needed a library. And two months later – we had one. Thousands of books and cast off shelves from a public library in a northern suburb came to our school in boxes, in bags, in the arms of boy scouts and girl scouts and mom’s and their children, and young adult youth church groups. Two professional painters volunteered time to paint, people cleaned and organized and labeled books and one month after the first day of school  … my used-to-be second grade bibliophilics were the first in line to sign out books to take home and share with their families.

Joan is now living in Ireland with her husband because he recently was hired to a new job there. But we think about her everyday as we read-read-read with great pleasure in our beautiful school library.

The Politics of Language and White Privilege

It is easy to underestimate the importance and power of sociopolitical aspects of language… Interaction, negotiation, interpretation, intended meanings, misunderstandings, and pragmatics all underscore those roles.  When such considerations are extended into communities, regions, nations, and continents, the political side of language becomes evident (Brown, D. 2001 Teaching by Principles P. 115).

As a white speaker of standard English, who grew up in a white suburban neighborhood, and not ever having much contact with any people of color or English Language Learners, my white privilege was invisible and unknown to me.  I was not conscious of it until I moved away from home, and consciously made friends and business associations with people of diverse race and cultures.  At first, I was shocked and unbelieving that the incredible injustices that happened to my friends on a regular basis, could be happening.  I didn’t understand how anyone could treat another badly – based on a difference in race, language, sexual orientation, or age.  The only comparison I had – was the gender bias I had experienced growing up in the early sixties.

Many years before becoming a teacher, I met Louie, a full blood Lakota, the same age as me, living in between Ann Arbor and South Dakota, a foot in each culture, simultaneously.  Though our friendship, I embarked on a personal journey of understanding the language and cultural barriers of being Native American.

Louie was raised in a mission school.  The children were taken away from their families to be schooled by nuns who hit them with rulers when they spoke in their native language.  Louie told me that on the weekends the children were let loose into the canyon, and as their families had no means of transportation, they were cut off from their families, culture, and language. They were not embraced or welcomed into the white mainstream culture. They were made to feel powerless. There has been little written on this subject of Indian Mission Schools, in spite of the fact that so many individuals were deeply scarred by their experiences. This is a subject worthy of another post, but for those readers who are interested there is a powerful movie called Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School (2008) – that is worth watching! Producer Gayle Ross gently but purposefully exposes the practice of assimilating indigenous children into a foreign white culture, and the devastating effects on these young people as well as on generations of Native Americans to follow.

On the reservation, Louie was a spiritual leader, a singer for a medicine man and an artist – a maker of wooden flutes and prayer pipes. There were few to no paying jobs on the reservation so he left for Ann Arbor, where he worked for minimum wage, buffing floors on the midnight shift at K Mart.  He felt foreign and uncomfortable in both worlds and belonged fully to neither.  He never graduated from high school, and viewed himself as not being able to read or write well and I inferred that he doubted whether he could do any better.  He knew that his lack of a high school diploma is what kept him from getting a higher paying job, and felt that his job working the midnight shift at K Mart was better than having no job at all.  He could find no real home in either place, culturally or economically.  He was caught between two different worlds, which affected him socially, economically and politically. I listened painfully to stories Louie told me of moving back and forth between “the Res” and Ann Arbor. I don’t know where Louie is now. It seems he has vanished. I have a sketchbook that he gave me for safe keeping, that I’d like to return it to him. I am grateful for the lessons he taught me, which opened my eyes in a very personal way and have shaped the kind of teacher I have become and I’d like to tell him.

This relates to something I read recently, suggesting the very democratic idea – that in a limited sense, all human languages can be said to be both equal and perfect.  It is a principle I agree, but it is an idea, which is not extended into communities, regions, nations and continents. It is perhaps, what I am striving for and the very reason why as an urban social-reconstructivist teacher I find myself teaching reading in a school with diverse culture and languages.  The personal experiences of many of my friends have taught me that if in our hearts we believe this “equal and perfect principal” to be a universal truth, it fails to hold water in the real world of white privilege.

Teaching reading and writing is a political act.  As teachers of conscience, we can’t ignore the sociopolitical aspects of language – we must always consider them. This is the hard work and hidden curriculum of being an urban teacher. We must roll up our sleeves – there is so much to be done!

The Star Fish Thower

When my friend, Sara told me about her work with InsideOut Literary Arts Project, I was really interested. I am always interested in the work that she does with her high school aged students. It is work that I can’t do. I have been heard to say, on many occasions, that I prefer to teach students that are shorter than me  and her students are are way taller than me (and taller than Sara, for that matter). But she has way of connecting and affirming and positively directing their energy without flinching. It’s a blend of innate talent, professional experience and a cup-over-floweth with passion. She honors the inherent worth of every individual. She sees past the cultural vibrato and adolescent attitude and multiple layers of armadillo-like protective coatings. She sees a diamond in the rough in every student. She is an everyday-shero (although she would never admit it).

In case you don’t know, InsideOut engages children in the pleasure and power of reading and writing. They explain on their website (http://www.insideoutdetroit.org) that they place professional writers in schools to help students develop their self-expression and give them opportunities to publish and perform their work.

The other day, Sara gave me a copy of her students’ work – 80 pages of writing and a few drawings bound in a thin shinny brown book entitled Dream Keepers Volume 12, Spring 2011. On the cover is a student pastel drawing of a youth – mouth wide open – screaming – which actually accurately sums up the contents of the book. These students (who have perhaps for the first time found voice AND a listening audience) are screaming-out feelings about the world that they have inherited. I was deeply touched by their words. I want to share one poem in particular.

Cause and Effect
By Que Macklin
 
‘Cause I have a learning disability
They thought I was dumb
 
‘Cause they thought I was dumb
They always call me names
 
‘Cause they called me names
I’d get really upset and angry
 
‘Cause I got upset and angry
I started fighting
 
‘Cause I started fighting
I got kicked out of school
 
‘Cause I got kicked out of school
I couldn’t learn
 
‘Cause I couldn’t learn
My skills weren’t up to date
 
‘Cause my skills weren’t up to date
I didn’t graduate
 
‘Cause I didn’t graduate
I couldn’t get a job
 
And I was broke and poor
 
‘Cause I didn’t graduate
‘Cause my skills weren’t up to date
‘Cause I couldn’t learn
‘Cause I got kicked out of school
‘Cause I started fighting
‘Cause I was upset and angry
‘Cause they called me names
‘Cause they thought I was dumb
‘Cause I have a learning disability
 
As a teacher of students with learning disabilities, these words hit home. The issue? Amid new school accountability policies and stiffer promotion and graduation requirements … students with learning disabilities have an unacceptably high dropout rate.
 
Sara said this student wrote this poem and never came back to school … She told me that she was going to follow-up on what happened to him. Sara is a star fish thrower. Do you know the story … the Starfish Story adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)? It’s worth repeating here!

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.” “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man. To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

Thanks, Sara – keep on throwing,

 

In My Book, Writing a School Improvement Plan IS NOT Busy Work

After a full-week of coming home and staying up past midnight (including two weekends) working on the state mandated School Improvement Plan, we submitted a hard copy to our school district where it will undergo an approval process before it is electronically submitted to the state – 82 days from today.

I have been a member of the School Improvement Plan committee for three years now. At my school, (up until this year) completing it has always been a collaborative labor of love (because at my school, teachers LOVE teaching and WANT to improve their teaching practice and UNDERSTAND the way we are doing school is NOT working). But this year, writing the school improvement plan was more like busy work due to the highly pre-scripted format we followed and the directives we were given.

The plan’s mandated components: our school vision and mission statement, statement of our educational gaps in each academic area, reasons for the educational gap, four goals (reading and writing as one goal, plus math, science and social studies), one objective each goal, four strategies with four activities, the research that supports it, the resources needed to complete the activities, the cost and the staff who are responsible for completing the activities.

We were told that we needed to reduce our 160 page document to 25 pages (or less) as there are only four readers to read 120 plans.

It sounds like a story problem I might give my students: District A has four workers that have 82 days to read 120 plans that total no more than 25 pages. How many pages will each worker read per day? The answer … each worker will read 9.14 pages per day. In the book Around the World in Eighty Days, they travel (at the turn of the century) around the world, by various methods of transportation – including elephants. In 2011, public school readers should be able to read more than 9.14 pages a day, shouldn’t they?

There are loud policy voices calling for international academic standards and assessments bench-marked against other countries’ educational systems with a constant outcry of how far behind US students perform against their global peers. Most current and planned state/federal education initiatives promote academic choice options such as charter schools, international baccalaureate programs, and increased testing/assessment. These efforts, the public is told, will put American students in high paying/high performing professional occupations.

OK, we WANT to improve our teaching practice to address exactly that … and according to the district mandate OUR school’s unique improvement plan NEEDS to be written in 25 words or less … how does that make any real sense?

The good news, we were able to edit our plan from the 160 pages to 82 pages. The bad news is that we were not able to reduce our plan to 25 pages or less (and I am told that some schools have been able to do it, although I can’t comprehend how that is possible).

I am sorry that some reader is now at risk of staying up until midnight to read eighty-two pages that are the fruits of our labor of love – but we are teachers desiring meaningful change and we believe that a school improvement plan should be comprehensible and comprehensive and should include everything our school feels we need to do to ensure that we are leaving no child behind. After all, aren’t we really writing it for the intended audience – ourselves – with the intention of  improving our instruction and assessment practices to better serve our neighborhood children ?

Next year, perhaps “they” will contract someone to write everyone’s plan, you know in the one-plan, one-nation standardization way of “doing school” … then everyone can be on the same page at the same time!  But, to me, standardized school improvement plans just seem to be an oxymoron.

We are raising neighborhood children not corn crops in the Mansanto style of standardizing each kernel! And in my corner of the world, writing about we need to do our job well, can’t be said in 25 pages (or less) or even written in one stone-document because teaching is a blend of art and science and is absolutely a work-in-progress. There is nothing standardized or abbreviated about growing children.

Tomorrow is a new day that brings new problems that will require new solutions and resources that I didn’t imagine (or write down) today. And that is the both the blessing and the curse.

Hello world!

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Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope blogging will be not only my new “hobby” and creative outlet – but a place where ideas about excellent teaching for all students will take seed and grow. For THAT, I need YOU! Please feel free to comment, share your ideas and responses or ask questions and come back and visit! With children in mind, Maestra Sasha