Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why an independent minded teacher wants to be part of a union

So engrossed have I been in
I would never have had any idea about
the best ways to address an administrator who treated me unfairly
how to understand the complications of health care coverage
how to compare what I earned with that of others in similar situations

I would be on my own to
understand how complex issues affect my classroom
my students
explain to legislators the whys and hows
they don't seem to want to consider
when it is one voice speaking

and once
I boarded a yellow school bus
and put on the same yellow tee shirt
as a thousand other teachers
and stood in front of the capital
and knew
really knew
united we stand
is more than
an historic phrase

Friday, March 18, 2011

Crime and Punishment first grade style

I have been corresponding with many teachers and parents as the film makes its way into people’s paths. Yesterday I emailed back and forth with a parent from North Carolina. She has graciously allowed me to print part of her letter:

“I understand, absolutely, that there are many "right" ways as you say for education... but I am currently facing a very uptight system. I am about to embark on a no turning back campaign to end "silent lunch" punishments in my district. Children work quietly and dutifully with little time to explore, discuss, and interact... and are now being threatened with losing their right to talk at lunch. My son has silent lunch in first grade if children talk during instruction time (desks, worksheets, more worksheets if they finish early). Insanity. INSANITY!!!

I do not blame teachers, I understand that most of them feel powerless in this system. I do not blame administrators, they want to support teachers. I am not blaming. But who is thinking about the child? Where is the child's voice? I know it is not about blame, but someone must start these conversations! Especially in my town.

I am not politically savvy, and I've never gone against a big system (David and Goliath), but I am doing my homework and reaching out to other parents right now. Our community is in desperate need of a good conversation in which everyone's voice is heard. I am trying to find ways to make that happen.”

The principal at this school thinks that silent lunch is the best disciplinary alternative open to teachers. It is seen as mild—after all no one is being suspended or hit. A teacher doesn’t have to raise her voice, just write on the board “silent lunch today” and not only will the 6 year old miscreant who was squirmy get the message, but so do all his classmates, so peer pressure will make the “bad behavior” less likely to happen again.

There are two outrages here. There is the act the child is being punished for, and the punishment itself. I understand why my letter writer is focused on the punishment. The cruelty inherent in denying children the ability to enjoy their meal goes beyond the period of time when they are being punished. It extends to their attitude around eating in general, and is a good way to start a child on the road to eating disorders…but "to prove what?" is also essential to look at.

While many may think a quiet classroom with everyone working at their desks is what learning looks like, anyone who has studied child development knows differently. Many adults would have a hard time if their work situations were that rigid, but children absolutely need to move. Movement promotes social/emotional, creative, and cognitive development. Depriving children of the ability to use their energy will inevitably lead to them…doing it anyway and “getting in trouble!!”

On Monday I watched a happy group of first graders, the same age as my correspondent’s son, moving around a classroom purposefully. They were building with blocks, drawing pictures, reading books, and working on their spelling. The room was alive with their voices, their excitement and pleasure at what they were doing was evident. Having been in this classroom many times this year, I could see the progress the little writers had made in motor control and understanding letter/sound relationships.

Their teacher has their respect because she respects them, including their need to move. There are few “discipline problems” in this class because she is working with her students needs, not trying to subvert them. If a child is disruptive the teacher reflects on what she could do to help the child, not how to punish him or her.

Alfie Kohn wrote in a 1996 essay in Education Week titled Beyond Discipline: “To "manage" students' behavior, to make them do what we say, doesn't promote community or compassion, responsibility or reflection. The only way to reach those goals is to give up some control, to facilitate the tricky, noisy, maddening, unpredictable process whereby students work together to decide what respect means or how to be fair."

I applaud this parent for taking a stand, and fervently hope she will find other parents who realize they must protect their children from being seen as objects to be managed!

Monday, March 7, 2011

We weren't really in North Dakota

The North Dakota Study Group is well known by progressive educators from the east coast, and those across the country who have been influenced by the work of Lillian Weber, Deborah Meier, Patricia Carini, Eleanor Duckworth, Joseph Featherstone, and particularly Vito Perrone, who began the gathering when he was teaching in North Dakota. The group has been meeting in the Chicago area in recent years. There were a few west coasters at the meeting I attended, but it is not well known here. I found out about it from Meier and the Featherstones. When Jay asked us to bring AUGUST TO JUNE to this year's annual meeting we were very pleased, but it was not until we started working with the meeting coordinators Esther Ohito, Sid Massey, and Ann Leiberman that we realized what a special event this would be.

This is not a large conference. There were about 125 participants. But unlike the massive trade show/lecture circuit of a large conference, this one had almost no commercialism, and even the keynotes felt intimate. People talked from their own experience. I felt a real attempt to avoid generalizations.

I was one of the "storytellers" in the first morning's panel. The others were Daniel Morales-Doyle and Lutalo McGee from Chicago's 6 year old public Social Justice High School, and Meryl Feigenberg and Jared Roebuck from Lyons Community School, a 4 year old public 6-12th grade school in Brooklyn. We had worked together via internet and phone to hone stories that spoke to the seed of our practice of democracy in the classroom. I had been asked to use footage from our year of videoing my last class. So I talked about empowering children, taking their concerns seriously,and giving them a democratic forum to bring up those concerns. I used the discussion we had around Valentine's day candy at class council. It was not a dramatic story, but the fact that children speak so honestly with each other is the small step that builds bigger ones. The other stories were more personal, and often dealt with real struggles the participants were confronted with right now. As we listened to each other the common themes of community, and the importance of bringing in those who feel themselves to be marginalized became clear, and then was magnified as the whole audience divided into smaller groups and talked about what our stories brought up for them. The conversations were vibrant. As we summarized some of the discussions, Jenerra D. Williams read us a poem she had written on the spot. That bridging of disciplines is typical of what NDSG embodies.

People loved the film, we made wonderful contacts, and even got to act up by driving to Madison to join the public unions protesting there! I hope we can return to NDSG next year, and I wish we had a similar forum for progressive teachers on the west coast.


The edge, the outside lines.
Drawn by those far from us.

Who is in the margin?
What stories are being told?
How does democracy narrow them?

How do our stories connect the lines of marginality?
Does knowing you more deeply
draw you closer to me
or me closer to your margin?

Our stories make us a community but what stories are we telling?
How much is revealed?
What truths surface and what truths sink?
Truth fosters trust fosters growth
But only if they are identified and shared.

Even the definition of margin becomes narrow.
There are as many lines of margin as there are the people who lie within them.
Question: Do I feel marginalized or do I marginalize myself?
Who puts me on the edge?

I feel invisible.
I'm in the margin.
I'm on the edge.
It's easy to disappear from here.
It's easier for me and probably easier for those who don't know what to do with me,
Who's don't understand me,
Who have not shared their truth with me, and I have not with them.

The margin is the edge,
But I have not gone over.

Jenerra D. Williams
NDSG, 2/19/11