I am a teacher. I taught in a private school. I taught in a Charter school. Now, I have entered the NYC DOE to teach second grade in a public elementary school. I want to teach in a public school because I want to teach kids who need it; who are climbing over a mountain of obstacles to grasp on to an elusive education; a promise of success, fulfillment and happiness, to grow and thrive. But, throughout, and now more than ever, I feel mired in a daily battle for what I believe. Each day I go to school and interact with my students, I am fighting against far reaching, indiscriminately implemented and applied federal, state and city policies. Decisions made by people who are politicians, consultants, leaders in business but not educators, by people who send their own children to elite progressive private schools. I still hope that a good school led by passionate and knowledgeable educators could serve as a buffer against the onslaught of education reform policies, but the truth is, these policies impact me, my students and all teachers and learners in public education on a daily, even hourly basis. And of all students, it is of course, low-income, minority students who are unfairly bearing the brunt of these botched politics because the playing field is anything but even. Education needs change. But the reform movement is regressive and reactionary, it looks to the past rather than the future. What we need is transformation and empowerment, not reform.
I am writing and will continue to write not because I am tied to one party line: I think there are pros and cons to the teacher’s union and to charter schools, even to tests. I am writing because of children whom I love and don’t yet know, who I desperately want to empower and inspire, and who instead are being dehumanized, ignored and almost forgotten in the grand debates and financial exchanges that have become the world of education. Education has been hijacked by politicians, corporations, testing companies, and even well meaning reformers who are creating a system that serves adults with power rather than the children. It is time for teachers, children and parents to fight back.
For my first post, I wanted to paint a real life picture of what learning is and can be in schools. Start with the dream and build from there. I am lucky to have had moments of educational bliss already- those moments when everyone is engaged and excited, when students and teachers are collaborating and you see the fruits of your labors suddenly manifest in another corner.
Before the picture, the ideas. When I teach and think about what I want to give my students, I think big: I want to help them to be good people- to be compassionate, altruistic and productive, to be able to sustain themselves and participate in communities. I want them to be open-minded and curious, ever critical and thoughtful, responsible and honest, reflective about themselves and their place in the world, creative and empowered. I want them to love the learning process, the questioning and expansion of self. I want to give them tools to handle anger, frustration and stress, to express their ideas, needs, and emotions, to solve problems of all kinds, to be flexible and innovative. In short, I am thinking of qualities, intellectual and emotional, academic and social. We don’t know what the future will hold, but I want them to be able to dive in, while caring for others and themselves. This big picture informs how I teach every day- to acquire these qualities, to become these people, students need to be active, engaged, agents of their own learning, and they need to learn a multitude of cognitive and social-emotional skills. A gaping hole in our education system is the absence of emphasis on social-emotional skills. Research has shown that it is these skills: problem solving, being able to handle frustration, resiliency and self control ( much harder to acquire for students who experience stress in early childhood due to let’s say, poverty) that actually determine success. (Check out Paul Tough) And kids don’t learn these skills from filling in multiple choice worksheets. But let me return to the dream.
Some dreamy moments from teaching my wonderful first graders last year at a title-1 charter with an amazing vision of environmental learning in Brooklyn: We used Responsive Classroom, which I am sure I will write more about in future posts. One tactic I learned from our school’s coach was called conflict corner. It is a method in which children( and adults why not) can resolve conflicts by taking turns sharing and listening in a very structured way. And boy did my kids need it. My students’ social emotional needs were through the roof, with aggression and fear escalating the smallest of conflicts into full blown fights. Only 5 or 6 years old, many had already experienced so much stress, trauma, sadness and instability that at the slightest frustration they would run away, shut down or explode. So we taught them conflict corner. We modeled it, and discussed it and the kids practiced it, giggling away. And for many kids, it worked. We had of course done lots of other work to build their social-emotional skills, with morning meeting, community building games and songs, collective problem solving, positive reinforcement and so much more. But conflict corner they could do all by themselves. The aggrieved child would tap a friend on the shoulder, they’d find a good spot and go from there. During choice time one day, ( expect future posts about the desperate need for more choice and play in schools) a few girls at the science station were looking at the snails. As I walked closer, I could hear them acting out the phrases for conflict corner. The snails were resolving an argument apparently. Aside from being adorable, this was also an affirmation of how kids learn: with each other, through play, over time, and in an integrated and interdisciplinary context.
2nd dreamy moment and then I’m done for the day. At the same school, we were fortunate to go on trips almost every week. As a result, we did a lot of teaching into trips and springing from what we discovered. On one of our last trips to Prospect park, we had been thinking about birds in spring. After observing some lakeside bird life, we ( ideally it would be they, still working on that!) decided to look for a place where we could pretend to be birds and build birds nests. The class settled on a grove on pine trees with lots of building materials: pine needles, sticks, leaves, wet soil. And they started building all kinds of amazing nests, each with it’s own manner of bird inhabitants, food sources and family history, acting out concepts they had learned in science and social studies, making connections to our studies of bugs and plants, and fluidly collaborating to figure out how to make their structures hold and stand. And they were SO engaged. It had taken a whole year for them to be able to do this, to be productive and collaborative spontaneously, to be able to work with every kid in the class, to draw on so many things they had learned about, and then take it back to school and build on the experience even more. People think progressive education is loose and easy, but for kids to get to the point where they can make choices, be independent and create things and ideas for themselves requires a tremendous amount of structure, thought, practice and explicit teaching of many non-academic skills, all of which I hope to hone in my own teaching. I want moments like this every day.
Next up: Teacher evaluation; Empowerment vs. Standards and Assessment