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Art Teachers Can Change the World (understanding and fostering creative thinkers)

Drainbowear Hiring Manager,

I am applying for an art teaching position, because like Jean Houston, I believe that art educators can change the world!  My urban public charter school is closed in June 2016 and I have made the decision that I want to get back to I love most! I believe that imagination, play, and creativity are important for human brain development, and the arts are one of the ways students can get that stimulation. Education that is hands-on, sensory-rich, experience-laden, which calls for the whole mind of whole child, can develop our human potential.

I have many academic, work and volunteer experiences and the skill sets that would enhance any team dedicated to creating a school with great learning experiences for ALL children learning well together!

So begins my cover letter as a begin the difficult journey of “career shift” from Public School teacher/administrator to the wide world beyond it.

Here’s the deal … The more I studied “special education” the less I believed in it and instead fully embraced the idea that there is no such thing as a standardized child. Humans are diverse. I like to say that in schools, we grow humans, not corn crops – period. It is dangerous and non-productive to think otherwise. The way we “do school” is changing with each mandated high-stake standard and standardized test created. Textbook companies follow the money leaving thousands of children behind in the wake.

I envision public school as a giant vice grip. As we turn the handle, the sides of the grip narrow and children keep popping out right and left as we scramble to label them with one of the thirteen federal categories that document eligibility for specialized services. These categories for which students can be evaluated and made “eligible for services” drive federal funding (and national budgets), not local school teaching and learning. In reality, teachers need to get to know students’ individual strengths and weaknesses of the students sitting in front of them in order to create the on-ramps (specialized learning and classroom accommodations) to the grade-level-common-core-curriculum. In my experience, in most urban public schools there is just not the capacity to do this job well. Creativity is often left out of the equation. As a special education “resource” and “intervention” teacher, I have had more than one principal direct me to, “pull them out of art or music to teach them reading or math basic skills.” In other words, they can miss those classes without dire consequence!

I am leaving special education as a job inside the school-as-institution box and trying to make the leap outside the box to better align with what lives inside me. I am a constructivist reading teacher by training and an artist and social-reconstructivist by nature.   Using what I know about learning and creativity I want to do my best to develop human potential (especially children with diverse learning, language, and behavioral needs). Numerous studies highlight the loss of creativity that happens to students during their time in schools. We cannot let that continue: we need the arts in schools, on a consistent basis, for all students. If you haven’t watched Sir Ken Robinson make his entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an educational system that undermines (rather than nurtures creativity) watch him @ https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en.

We write common core standards that dictate whether or not a child is making typical growth in reading, writing, and language and then use those scores to subjectively measure the teacher’s teaching skills in order to determine whether or not that teacher should continue teaching. I have grown weary with this system that is not sensitive to measure growth such as a tenth-grade student reading at the third-grade level moving up one grade level in a semester. I have no doubt in my mind that the one level increases that child’s potential.

Emily Wheling argues for the need for creative minds on the blog @https://www.rubicon.com/field-notes-understanding-and-fostering-creative-thinkers/ that creativity is a critical 21st-century skill necessary for successful problem solving within the current economy and workplace. She goes on to say that according to the Harvard Business Review, the creative sector of the U.S. economy currently employs more than 30% of the workforce, or over thirty-eight million architects, artists, designers, educators, engineers, entertainers, scientists, and musicians. Corporate recruiters are visiting art schools around the United States looking for innovative talent, “…because of abundance, businesses are realizing that the only way to differentiate their goods and services in today’s overstocked marketplace is to make their offerings physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.”  Check out what she has to say about more ways to foster creativity. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning  offers an extensive study that includes key actions to help enhance student creativity in educational contexts and beyond:

Perhaps my path to out-of-the-box educator will lead me to a position as an art teacher, or art therapist (with further study), educational consultant or as a member of a team that designs another school. The path is not yet charted (and probably not paved) but I am packing my bags and getting ready for the journey. Wish me Bon Voyage!

Standing for ALL our Children

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I came across this article that I wrote in 1996 … these are the roots of my work as I finish the hard work of of designing and growing a new public charter school in Midtown Detroit (which is the reason for my silence in this past year). In three weeks, we will have successfully completed one year (and celebrated with our 346 students and their families) at Experiencia Preparatory Academy. Cheers to beginning year two! 

Standing for All Our Children

— Sasha Roberts

On June 1, 1996, the largest demonstration for children in U.S. history took place in Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the first ever Stand for Children Day. The words of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock flashed through my head:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones to build an arch, singly none, singly none.
Any by union what we will, can be accomplished even still.
Drops of water turn a wheel, singly none, singly none.

As I rounded the corner from the elevator to the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I encountered a sea of color: Hundreds of thousands of people from every nationality, state, race, religion, age, sexual and political persuasion and social class were gathered.

It stretched from the very steps where I stood with my two sons, Alexander six years old and Ramon four years old, all the way to the Jefferson Memorial on the horizon. It wasn’t until this moment, from this perspective at Lincoln’s feet looking out onto rather than on the ground level looking into the multitudes of people who had traveled from as far as California, that I felt the reason we were all here.

Ramon woke suddenly from napping in the stroller (the reason we’d taken the elevator and not the steps) with the exclamation “MAMA! look at all these people.” I replied, “And you know why they are all here? Because each and every one of them cares about children.”

He then asked, “All of them?” An African-American grandmother who has custody of her six grandchildren smiled and replied, “Yes baby, all of us here.”

Silently taking in this visual, powerful promise of hope, I made a mental note that I would never have to feel alone in this struggle.

Yes, we heard Marian Wright Edelman tell us that each person can and must help–and not hinder–our children growing up safe, healthy, educated, productive and moral, and that each citizen must ask whether our personal, community, business, and public actions make it easier or harder for children to grow up safe and well.

But the challenge Edelman put before us was “the most important way citizens can stand for children is to struggle (and it is a challenging task) to live in-deed what we teach in words. We must also work together to weave a web of family, community and government support at all levels that leaves no child behind. No one raises a child alone.”

June 1, 1996, was a seed in my garden of hope. And those of us who rode through the night on the eight buses from Detroit to the National Stand (thanks to generous support from UAW Locals 22 and 600), who worked to organize, publicize, raise funds for scholarships enabling mothers and children and homeless teenagers to attend, who talked to youth groups, elder groups, religious and civic groups, and who held rallies, meetings and walkathons in conjunction with the Stand for Children (more than 250 across the country on June 1) have begun to build a “Community of Hope.”

Love and concern for children, hard work, and unity of purpose made June 1 an inspirational and historic day and will make our movement to “leave no child behind” a success. In Detroit, we are already moving forward. Some are focused on volunteering, others on lobbying or writing letters; some who have never been involved in a child-related cause before will “walk our talk.”

Across the country, there are many examples of groups coming back from the National Stand and getting to work. In Detroit, many of us who attended the National Stand continue to meet at the First Unitarian Universalist Church to plan future actions. On September 5 Erma Henderson, lifelong political activist, and community leader organized a coalition to support her annual Conference of Concerns at Cobo Hall focusing on our tasks of Standing for Children. And on October 5, 3500 of us stood on the State Capitol steps in Lansing renewing our commitment to the work of standing for children, every day.

This campaign has instigated a new level of consciousness on the plight of our children and our determination for change. We will change this country person by person, group by group, community by community, state by state until no child is left behind.

To quote Marian Wright Edelman, “If each one of us every day lights our small candle, it just might be the one that sparks the movement to save our children.”

(For more information contact Stand for Children, 1832 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C.; fax (202)234-0217, email TellStand@aol.com; or call 1-800-663-4032.)

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

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“…when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.”

Geez … and what’s wrong with that picture? Isn’t that what we learned in our teacher training?

I just re-read a very interesting blog entry written by Principal Lori Cullen called http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com/2012/02/13/are-those-kids-off-task-again-one-trick-to-change-off-task-behaviour/ and I can’t agree more with her words of wisdom. In these next months, as I plan August professional development for the teachers at my new school, I will be pondering this basic idea – that, when children are engaged they are learning and when they are “off task” they aren’t. This foundational fact, is not rocket science but it is one of most important and misconstrued tenets in teaching. As we continue to talk, as a nation, about teacher evaluations and standardized test scores and “failing schools” and unacceptable high rates of illiteracy and numbers of students who are not graduating from high school … it becomes more and more clearer how evaluating what is effective teaching becomes a game of high-stakes  educational roulette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Teachers need tools and sometimes teachers need training. We didn’t learn everything we needed to know in teacher training – the world has changed.

Principal Lori asks, … should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement? Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  And she provides two visuals to explain the answer with a resounding, “YES, teachers are responsible!” And teachers need support in figuring out how be effective in designing lessons that engage students. But it can be done – to the benefit of all.

Principal Cullens gives a list of  the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement and tells us, task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.

In my own teaching career, I have observed many students who have been caught in this trap of shame and blame (for not engaging in their lessons) and who ultimately slid through the cracks of the educational system – with reprehensible negative life-changing consequence. In many cases, I believe, it didn’t have to end that way. And I believe we can learn from those mistakes.

Teachers can design lessons that engage children in behaviors that result in meaningful learning. Students can sit in the driver seat (rather than the passenger seat) of their own learning. This summer, I will be reading and thinking and rethinking about this basic foundational tenet as I work with my colleagues to figure out what tools the teachers and students need in their tool box to accomplish this important task of creating a school where all children can learn the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in school and in adult-life. My mantra is now, yes, we can! Together we can do it. And I am looking forward, with pleasure, to the new school year at Experiencia Preparatory Academy.

Reading is NOT optional

I just read a short blog post by Bill Feterriter entitled “A message from Myers: Reading is not optional.” Funny how this blog thing works … he said, he read, he wrote, I write, you read. So here it is, Myer‘s said.

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war.

We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life.

If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Myers is so right! And I agree with Feterriter, that Myers passion is making sure that EVERY kid — especially those living in the kinds of tough circumstances that he (Myers) grew up in — embraces reading.

That is my passion, too and I believe THIS is the failing of our school systems. We focus more and more on standardized testing … and collecting data … until there is LITERALLY no time left in the day, in the week, or  in the two week block – for teaching.

TRUE STORY: That’s what happened recently in our school district. Recently we were thrown (for a second time this school year) into TWO WEEKS OF TESTING. ALL TEACHING GOT SET ASIDE during these periods. We were mandated to administer the ELPA (State test for English Language Learners), The MAP (district test), The Middle of the Year DIBLES (district test which identifies who needs weekly or biweekly progress monitoring testing), The Middle of the Year Accelerated Reading and Math Test, and a paper and pencil district pre-test for Science and Social Studies! Our beautiful library (that I write about in another post called Building a Library with Joan) became the testing center for all the online assessments. Yes, you counted that right! There were eight different assessments being administered!

TRUE STORY: Just after this testing period, I arrived at the door of a first grade room, to pick up a student on my resource program caseload and another student who had been identified as needing intensive intervention.  I was taking them to do some multi-sensory small group reading instruction. I called the students names and they said, “Oh are you here to test us?” How sad is that … I don’t think anyone remembers that I am a teacher.

Something has got to change! The children are counting on us! Our priorities must shift … so I second the words of Feterriter,

Listen to those words, y’all.  Let them roll around in your mind for a few minutes.  Stew in them.  We ARE condemning kids to a lesser life when we turn the urgency of reading into an option. “

And to that I add my own post script … We are condemning our urban learners with diverse learning, language and behavioral needs to a lesser life when we use all their precious teaching time TESTING for skills and concepts that we don’t have the time (and sometimes the resources) to teach them. Research shows that most children don’t learn by osmosis! 

We must take back the teaching profession … and center it around teaching and learning to read, and reading to learn, and learning to read for pleasure! Reading is NOT an option!

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,