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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