Friday, December 11, 2009

The Hallowed

The blue dress shimmers. The star garland wrapped me up like a gift. The dollar store stars complete my ensemble. I wave the sparkly wand about. “I am a galaxy. I am a galaxy” My diaphragmatic voice reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfires. The students are riveted.
Halloween was their day to dress up, to peek at their fears and fantasy’s. A hallowed day to shut away the cacophony of the real world. I stood all a twinkly in front of my classroom of special need students, flailing about like a meteor whose fire is fanned by the unnamed “baby stars”
In honor of Halloween the costumed students trick or treated through the school. We teachers masqueraded as witches, devils, angels, a sixties flower child. Our attire announcing our intentions for our students. Our garb not a mask but a window to our wishes for them.
I will put a spell on you. I will bedevil you. I will chant at you. I will flash through your universe until you join me. You the student, we the cataclysmic instrument to the excavation of your essence.
Next year I will dress as an archeologist. Let me excavate the gem of you. Come closer, let me spark, engage you, look to the heavens.
I had explained to one of my coworkers that my costume was an effort to enchant the students to my land of learning.
Frustrated with the No Child Left Behind legislation and some imposed curricular changes I’d begun a blog to express my views and vent my frustrations. My proselytizing put me in the mind of my plumber dad. Ever the rebel, he philosophically aligned with Upton Sinclair and Tolstoy. A religious man, he felt he had a greater master than the boss. He told a story of how one day on the assembly line he tossed a smoke bomb under some machinery. The workers had to clear out for an unexpected coffee break while the source of the smoke was located. His antics push the boundaries.
Yet he was a constant, committed laborer. He’d trudge in the door after work his thermos empty of the tepid coffee, he smelled of the refinery. He was not afraid of hard work, dirt or extreme physical labor. He gave his 50 years with gratitude for his skills and opportunity (recessions and unemployment made him aware how blessed work could be.) Critical of “the man” yet he bled and sweated till the age of 75. I put his service pin on my charm bracelet, the one I dangle noisily to get the students attentions.
Since the beginnings of my career I have lit my own smoke bombs. Not for my own entertainment but intending to draw attentions, to make noise about inequities. I’d assume the persona of a McBethian Weird sister, stirring the pot, adding an element, intuiting the future .My energy quixotic, my idealism righteous.
What is my role really? How shall I cast this story? I have been a magic fairy, a mother superior…but at all times I must remain a judge. I need to scrutinize not only the organization but must examine my performance.
At our core teachers are assessors. Teachers are trained to view in the negative. What skills are lacking and how do remediate them? We must find the specific ingredient to engage each learner, to ignite the spark to induce the alchemy of learning.
The critical ingredient, the one I have the most control over is I.
Tis I.I may be a drone worker like the blue collar fellows in Diego Rivera’s mural tribute to workers at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Yet we teachers are not cogs in a wheel. We are charged by design to be the architects’ of learning, the stewards of citizenship, and the custodians of tradition. We navigate ever changing administrations, philosophies, tides and tsunamis.
The “system” is the sea, the students the passengers. We are and must be the captains. We appease, delight and steward the students to their destination. We must keep them on their itinerary, expose them to new horizons. We must chart through torrents of change, and the hurdles of history. We are the captains.
Though a cliché, Captain Stubbing or perhaps Ahab, we are the stewards. Teaching is the most public of isolated professions. In the end regardless of outside influences a teacher’s domain is their own. It is a one women show. The scrutiny I heave on events and systems, I turn this same eye on me. In the end rightfully the mirror is on me.
“Feed the beast” take care of the paper work, documentation; assessments etc. just do it and get on with the business of teaching. A personal performance inventory, rigorous rubric for self assessments are imperative. How could I adapt the lesson or modulate my performance to best reach the goal. The current public discourse ties merit pay to the student’s performance on standardized test. Perhaps I will get the bonus or perhaps my years of vocal scrutiny will jinx my pocket book.
I cannot let dollars decide. I must inventory what message my demeanor and persona imparted on my students. Did I hear them? Did I find their spark and ignite it? Did I create a space for their voice? Did I look them in the eye and modulate my presentation to their nods of understanding? Was I inclusive? Did I individualize? Did I temper my teaching to their skills and capabilities?
We teachers I think have our own unspoken Hippocratic Oath, a code. We must be stellar citizens and kind souls. We must be presents to the essence/spirit of the child. We invite and insist on their attendance in their learning/the classroom. We must push the bar, our expectations of ourselves/myself as a teacher and an employee must be higher than any public standard measure.
“I will quit if you do not learn to read” That is how much should be on the line when it comes to literacy/learning. I must find the route to the child who is lingering behind and is now afraid to join. (It is just easier to quit than be a failure.)
We will be Alice through the looking glass, Mary Poppins or in an emergency the wizard behind the curtain …this is us, and channeling whichever Archetype will gather our learners aboard. I think it not the system or the kids where I may dwell. The essential questions must remain focused on me…the educator. I will quit my job when I cease to ask this much of myself…

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The MEAP 2009

“At any time the state may come out to monitor the MEAP. If there are any transgressions in the protocol and administrations the district could be fined” (punished).These statements were made at our teacher prep meeting prior to the statewide administration of our standardized test. The MEAP.

Fear invoked…mine matches the students. I have to get this right. That is how it is with fear.

I have filled out the coding of the names incorrectly. Our teacher consultant kindly rectified my mistake. My students have no such recourse with their missteps.

In my Special Ed classroom of Emotionally Impaired children the students were individually tested in the spring and on the average demonstrated skills that were one to two years below grade level. Rather than addressing this deficit two weeks of instructional time are put aside to participate in the MEAP. The test not only evaluates the child but is used as a measure of the schools (AYP) adequate yearly progress.(We will not discuss the cultural bias of these test , even though one year it spoke of the Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The students’ frame of reference locks are the dead bolts on the front door)

So for four days I gather a group of special need sixth graders, corral them into my classroom for this sacrosanct event. The MEAP. The fifty page manual is explicit in the procedures of how to administer the test. Only number two pencils. No one but a certified teacher can give the test. No cell phones. Cover bulletin boards that might give information to the students. The tone in the building is funereal. The students like young souls in an unfamiliar church are restrained and rigid. The event heavy with pomp.

Thus begins the MEAP. Once I have read the children the directions no questions can be answered or assistance given. Sighs ,exasperated breathing, muttering, obsessively filling in the circle with pencil number two till lead is flattened then the inevitable hand “ I cannot read this” ( I had done a reading assessment on this child who was taking a fifth grade MEAP but read on a second grade level )“ Sorry no questions.” To let myself off the hook I hear myself saying “I am sorry but the government won’t let me help you “Here I am their teacher who has spent the first six weeks of the school year quelling their fears about reading. Progress is doomed if we cannot transcend their fear of failure and their print phobia. Now I abandon them at this very terrifying juncture. “I am sorry I cannot help”

No longer do they look fearful, but have this piercing look of betrayal, like if you cannot help me what kind of teacher are you?

So goes the MEAP. I am weary, in the way that one gets when splitting their body in a crisis. The students spent chew on their post MEAP snack muttering. One student says audibly “It was a difficult and hard situation. “ These words haunt the classroom. The classroom tainted. The sacred relationship (think Socrates, Annie Sullivan, Mr. Chips, Frank McCourt,) tarnished. I blame the government. The students blame me.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

At the Rainbows End

A written directive from my principal at the beginning of the 2008/09 school year spurred me to begin this blog. I was further inspired to begin Sunday Salons (basically jaw sessions) at my house (to vent) to reconsider education and learning. My muse was my principal, but not in any gentle creative sense. My momentum was gained with righteous anger and frustration. A myriad of moments like being forced to give the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Profile) to students who had been IEPed out of their regular classroom setting due to a variety of learning issues had left me jaded. Every time I gave the MEAP to these at risk students I could not help but wonder what were the teachers’ of Nazi Germany thinking when a star segregated their students’. Was I not the perpetrator of a madness that did not uphold learning and would ultimately lead to education being privatized?

These assessments told us little about the passions, purpose and skills of students. Could they in fact be used as a tool to label schools failing and provide the data necessary to privatize education?

Blah, Blah you can hear the wheels of angst as they turn in my weary teacher head.

The directive stated “You are utilize only the purchased basals in your curriculum “(After 20 years of teaching Reading/Lang arts no one sought my input on best practice.) We had money for new books. Books were purchased thus that was our “best practice” Truly I wept. Not for me, I was literate. Self taught really by the light of the hallway under the covers trying to catch up with the big kids in the family. I wept for my students who in spite of their diverse skills, the common theme was print phobia. They had experienced so much failure that they balked at most academics, but particularly reading. All sorts of systems had been thrust upon them, but rarely any that accounted for their learning style or the unique wiring

No Caldicott’s, No Newberry’s. Use this cumbersome 813 page text with abridged versions of literature and all sorts of other curricular agendas that tended more to Social Studies and Science that, curriculum.

(Think on it. Who made you fall in love with reading? It was never a teacher. It was not a plot. But some character that leapt out of the pages and drew you into their world).

I a veteran teacher, a published author, a professional so passionate about her subject that I contract with children who view themselves as non-readers. The contract goes like this: “If you do not learn to read I will quit my job”

My special needs students as assessed by the PIAT(Peabody Individual Achievement Test) have skills scattered from first grade up to the twelfth. These students are in a day treatment for Emotionally Impaired individuals. They have already had much exposure and failure in traditional models of learning.

A written directive! I am pedantic and reactive to this event. I can carry on about the publishers being the Halliburton of education etc. I can provide anecdotal stories how I have found the holy grail of getting non-readers past their fear, jumping grade levels. I can tell you how after receiving the “directive” I circumspectly read the Caldecott winning ´The Invention of Hugo Cabret”as the students were so stirred by the introduction that they begged me for more.

This directive caused me to regress to my snarkiest teacher self. When the principal came into my class while my students were” lost in literature”, so absorbed in their self selected ten minute read of their chapter books that they neglected to be their reactive acting out “EI” selves, (tamed by prose). The principal entered my room a secret service energy to her demeanor trying to sniff out any breach of security and says to me, “We cannot have all this reading going on in here” I reply, “ You are so right, why we cannot have all this reading going on in school. “

“Only use the basal. I felt like a kid bouncing about. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! I am cast back to my own powerless childhood. Sr. Marie Irene floating about in a blue habit, her looming voice shaming us into the mastery of diagramming sentences. She swashed through the room, her four-foot teaching aide of a pointer seeming a weapon of sorts while flailing away at her lessons. Though terrorized I covertly hid under my desk Little Women so that I might read the next chapter to see if Jo might ever declare her love to Lurie.

Of course I followed the curricular directive but not without researching the prescribed system so that I might conceptually defend my every deed. My goal remained constant, to led them to the love of words, literature. (If they could trust their own voice they may come to esteem others)

My angst stirred a dormant volcano awakening the frustration I had experienced as a just out of college teacher. At the age of 22-pre tenure I was “officially verbally reprimanded.” Nothing in my file just a chastisement from my administrator for having defaced state property.

I was not a willful anarchist but a naïve idealistic new teacher.

The classroom for my 24 institutionalized “educable/trainable” students was in a 100year old building that was referred to as the chapel. This was the very same location where the Native Americans had been convened each week on the reservation for their Christianization. Prior to becoming the regional center for the “mentally impaired” the center had been a reservation for the indigenous people of the area.

I had coursed down a rabbit hole. A coat of paint on the faded peeling walls? From the school district then from the state I got robust chorus of “No’s”. I offered to paint it myself but there was a problem with the paint that the state mandated and its cost.

So after dutching up my courage and anger at a local watering hole my coworker and I let ourselves into the chapel with the state issued key. She was Sancho to my Don Quixote. We took the crayola paints and made a mural of rainbows and beanstalks reaching to some forever place. We were proactive. We created beauty. The next day Lonnie a student with severe cerebral palsy was so excited when he saw the mural that he managed to lift his atrophied neck muscles and head and in his very slurry speech exclaimed, “Wow!” He was awake to the classroom, so perhaps he would awaken to his own abilities and talents. Wow.

“You have defaced state property, please remove the paint at once.” We scrubbed away while awash with our own sorrow. It gave us hope though that in spite of much soap and elbow grease the colors glimmered in a dreamy way on the rough surface.

Wash the wall. Use the basals.Who says that that child needs OT services? So goes the cacophony of how my hopes for my students are restrained and contained by this power greater than myself. The man behind the curtain, in this surreal Land of Oz. My idealism stirs like the oceans tide, it reverberates and resonates. It is in the glimmer of all those eyes peering at me asking me to illumine the dark.

So when asked to participate in a retrogressive groove much like my grade school curriculum at the hands of Sr. Marie Irene decades ago, I recoiled. You must know Jo and Joey Pigza and you have to meet Hugo Cabret. So I took to the page and seized a pen and invited folks to gather, to live the truth of what I had been trying to instill in my students for years. “Trust you voice.” Speak. And this is how my nemesis became my muse and how the tsunami aftershocks of No Child Left Behind stirred me to take to my own beanstalk and to reach higher and to reiterate what it is that is my vision. No more the quiet…

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Lost Student

Published: September 25, 2009

Patrick was the sort of student who made a teacher curious. There was something capacious inside him. He preferred listening to speaking. Others rushed, jostled, to get to the front of the lunch line. Patrick hung back. Patrick’s grin was a half-grin — as if he’d once trained himself not to smile but had since abandoned the project.

I met him the year before I left the Mississippi Delta — my second year as a Teach for America member in Phillips County, Ark., one of the poorest counties in the country. Patrick had flunked eighth grade twice; that year was his third try. He simply wouldn’t show up. He had no reason to; nobody made him. After he disappeared for two weeks, I asked a friend of his how to get to his house. When Patrick saw me at his door, he said, very fast, “The bus didn’t come.” He looked away. “I missed the bus.” Then: “I’m sorry, Ms. Kuo.”

We sat on the porch, across from a burned-down house. I handed him a postcard I’d been saving. It showed a statue, Rodin’s “Thinker.” The statue reminded me of him. I’d written a note on the back. He looked at it carefully, holding the corner with his fingertips. “Thank you, Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Thank you.”

I told him I knew he could make it through eighth grade. I told him that I would work hard for him, but that he would need to work hard, too. It would take a lot of small steps. I told him I would be at the ceremony when he graduated from high school. At that, he grinned. He had a gap between his front teeth.

When I stood up, so did he. “It ain’t safe here,” he said. I realized he was escorting me to my car.

Patrick began coming to class. Like a matchmaker, I helped him find books he might like. When he read, he laughed out loud. And reading made him want to write. It was painful, at times, to watch Patrick write, because half of what he wrote he erased. Every word that let him down he viewed as a personal failure — he wrote like a writer. I took away his pencil and gave him a pen.

His progress made me happy. By the spring, Patrick’s reading had jumped two levels. At a school ceremony, he won the award for “Most Improved.” He looked surprised. Sheepishly, he walked up to the stage. He turned to the students, who were still clapping, and then, suddenly, he raised both arms up in the air: a victory pose. Everybody laughed.

It was some two and a half years later, when I was at law school in the Northeast, that I learned Patrick was arrested for stabbing and killing someone.

I flew back to Arkansas and made it to the county jail on a Saturday. As I neared the glass window, I almost expected that gap-toothed half-grin, a mixture of wry and pensive. But Patrick’s face had thinned, and his mouth turned downward. His prison garb was two sizes too big. He looked older — he was older. Just the day before, two days after being arrested, he turned 19.

I picked up the receiver from the wall.

“Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” he blurted out. Again the words of a child who has done something wrong.

I asked him what happened. He’d gotten into a fight outside his house. It was with an older guy who was with his little sister. They looked high, he said. Patrick ended up taking a knife from the kitchen and stabbing him. Patrick shook his head: “Ms. Kuo, I don’t even know.”

We talked. He said he hadn’t been able to keep up at school. Just stopped going. He tried, he really did. He’d wanted to get a job in Little Rock. Or his G.E.D.

The officer came to get me. Time was up.

I haven’t been able to resist guilty feelings over Patrick. What if I’d stayed? And I’ve wondered if my sense of Patrick was faulty; whether I saw only the parts I wanted to see. But isn’t any teacher who tries to bring out the best in her students inclined to see them in the warmest light?

In my letters to Patrick, who is still awaiting trial, I tend to dwell on the past. His victory pose when he won the award; the way his classmates quieted when he read his writing. I want to remember those moments — those matters of the soul unrevealed by the public record.

One week in April when he was in my class, it rained every day. Water soaked through the roof, drenching my bookshelf. Christina fingered the swollen pages of “The Skin I’m In,” ready to cry. Cedric said, “We don’t got nothin’ down here, can’t even get a roof without a hole.” Patrick, from his desk, didn’t look up. “Stop cryin’, y’all,” he said. Then he stood up and walked out. A few minutes later, he returned with a bucket and a mop.

Michelle Kuo received a 2009 Skadden fellowship, given to law-school graduates. She is setting up a legal-aid clinic at a high school in Oakland, Calif.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do You Think We’ll Ever Know…?

It was like any and all parties. Food scents wafting. People congregating and velcroing themselves to the people they know. Shop talk taking precedence over world events. I was cozying in to the corner trying to meld in with a group of mostly strangers. Upon hearing this snippet of conversation my I was intrigued.
“Do you think we’ll ever know if what we did made a difference?" She was intense in her delivery. Her wiry frame spastic with the subject of conversation. She became edgier, more furtive when I a stranger who had overheard this question interrupted her to ask “What did you do? “
Her eyes dart about. She scrutinizes me. Am I a friend or foe? Am I with the state?
She ignores my question, slip sliding away in another direction. But I am Agatha Christie now.
“Do you think they’ll ever know” is my body on the floor, inviting an investigation.
I thrust into the conversation, repeating the question. (“I need the facts, just the facts ma’am”) She looks about to see if there are any informants at this garden party.
She is almost inaudible in her reply, “We loved them.”
“We loved them to the best of our ability and I just wish I knew if this made any difference in their lives.”
We loved them! That is the big secret. This woman had been a Para professional at a suburban elementary school. The party was a retirement celebration for a highly regarded music teacher. Most all the guests were educators. This all furtive, almost paranoid teacher has said aloud to a stranger what all good teachers know. The secret ingredient to the curriculum is “love. “
We do not talk about it. There is no public discourse. No benchmarks in the GLECS (grade level educational curriculum standards). No section in the best practice guide. It just floats about like the colonels’ “secret ingredient” for KFC.
Love…so simple, yet so circumspect.
I looked at this woman, her brown eyes afire. “You loved them?”
She a child caught in a deceit gave up the whole story. She and her lead teacher frustrated with their “at risk” students failure to achieve and perform on standardized expectations or even to conform to classroom normative behavior began an experiment. They decide to shower and envelope their students with positive words and energy. They attended proactively to their relationships with these students making time to attend to their inner lives and world. Mirroring only what was best , great in them. (No child left to fail.)
“We loved them and I always wondered if this had any long term effect?” (Those Texas bookmakers cannot package this, test this and resells it back to us.)
She drifts back to her table….wondering if her holy grail of learning is indeed what makes a difference.
The highly esteemed Nobel laureate, Mother Theresa of India was celebrated for her efforts on behalf of the starving children of India. The poverty abysmal. She the boy with his finger in the dyke to hold back the sea. When asked about the futileness of her endeavors to stave off the hungers of these impoverished children. She retorted “Oh it is not my mission to feed them it is my intention to love them”
So it is. The essential ingredient to learning is regard and reverence towards these souls in our charge. Which I believe translates into love.

It is time for the public discourse to acknowledge that these students come to school with an interior self
That the child has a sense of purpose, of self that longs to connect to their own soul and hungers to be “seen and tended to” by those who steward them to adulthood and citizenship.

And given this definition of Love as defined by A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness.

Then is not our work to love them?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Out the Schoolroom Window

Mom was dying. You could feel it the way one feels incense. It was unknowable but so present. It was understood but we never gave it a name. Perhaps as there is a word for death but no word for the in between. She had to live to the dying place. Mom had to traverse that path.
I was a frenzied dog whose work is to protect its master. But really my pack animal instinct had kicked in. The fearful beast intuiting that it would soon be alone .
I was spending nights on mothers fold out couch, to help spell the anxiety that the dark and her emphysemic breathing caused her. Our nights were spent watching Jeopardy and me learning how to make egg custard. Or relearning as I did not make it to mom’s specifications. “Do not let the milk boil it will scald.” (So many unearthed wisdom's go to the grave.)
In the mornings, I rose early to ready for my day at school. My routines were off and my commute longer from my night at mom’s.
As I rose she would be up, her cap of brown curls crowning her face. She would sit at the table with her cup of coffee saying her prayers.
The morning prior to Parent Teacher Conference at my school ( a day treatment for emotionally Impaired students) I had a restless night at her home. I would be working an 11 hour day. As usual she was at her morning ritual and I asked her to send some prayer off my way.
(It was always a comfort to me that when a student had a uniquely horrific event I could call on mom to be a prayer warrior in their behalf)
I arrived at work a bit off sorts, bumpy bed, bumpy night, unprepared for a long and intense day. The paper work all in order for conferences I escorted my students from their morning prep to the classroom. At our special ed facility each day began with a group therapy session. This event sacrosanct in efforts to steward these students through the inferno of their world and behaviors. The students were edgy as they had a half day of school. I sat upright, the queen mother hoping to calm her subjects during the air strikes.
The courtyard out my classroom windows November’s beauty was a balm to my own anxiety. The branches of the sugar maple waved a last golden leaf as if promising to return in the spring. I looked to my student’s eyes to measure whether the agitated flicker had abated, when a bird full force slammed its body into the window.
The students startled. “What’s that?” Their anxiety more provoked by flashbacks. I the queen mother calmly state “oh nothing, just a bird bumping into the windows glare.”
But now I am the quivering child. At that instant I knew the bird was dead and very soon my mom would be as well. The most fearsome thing for all young children is the death of a parent…a world without mom or dad. Terror? There is no word, it supersedes a horror show. As sat there in that class room, perseverating on what I was sure was a dead bird out my window; I was sitting on my hands trying to stifle myself from reacting.
Group ended with a traditional group chant of “I am having a good day” and the students blessedly went off to a special.
I pressed my nose to the window and there in patchy browned grass rested the corpse of a Robin Red Breast.
After dad had died Mary my sister declared, “Dad is a blue jay, whenever we see one its dad connecting to us from the other side”.
Mother then was a robin. She had perfected its warble and enchanted us with it. And she seemed to run her own rescue mission for bruised, battered or denested bids, having once nursed a bird with a broken wing back to health.
The dormant grass enshrouded the bird foreshadowing my mother’s death.
I sleepwalked through conference, dazed as if it was I who had hit the glass. When I had a break in the deluge of families looking for assurance that their special needs child would read and eventually soar… I tuned out the lights and sat in the dark looking at the illumined windows on the other side of the courtyard. I wept for the bird and I wept for the orphan I would soon be. Then I wept a bit for my students whose lives were frequently Dikensonian in their sorrows.
Mom died. Out here window during the in-between nether world of her transition we placed a potted evergreen decked out with twinkling Christmas lights., We sang soft carols of “ sleeping in heavenly peace.”
Her breathing laborious until it was no more. That spring in the little evergreen a mother robin birthed her brood of eight babies (mom had birthed eight little babies) .So my mother was a robin.
Broken birds. Broken boys. Broken hearts. Recently by chance I came upon a coworker at the roadside on my way home from work. She had her young daughters’ in the car. She stood in front of the school trying to decide what to do about a shrieking banshee of bird. It was wailing, hurt. The daughters wide eyed watched their mother. She had recently lost a sister when the car wrapped itself around a tree. She was on crusade against death. There had between much illness in her family and spent her workdays in soul defying efforts with her classroom of five and six year old emotionally impaired students. She, trying like a crusader to bring light to those who loomed yet in the dark.
I watched this mother teacher, her dark tangle of hair billowing about in the breeze giving her an other worldly look. Her features furrowed in concern…
What to do for the bird and what mind movie shall she make for her own children about life and endings of life? Like Francis of Assisi she scooped the trembling creature into her hand. Cupped him calmly and cooed softly to the creature. The bird silenced and settled. They drove off to nurse and care for the bird.
Good endings? There is much dissonance and cacophony. Soon I will leave this school where I taught for 17 years. The courtyard out my classroom window has been my worldview. I have watched the sugar maple grow to new heights. I have seen a families of ducks get born, raised and fly away. I have stared out the window and traveled to that dream place that only lovely visions can take us. The cloud formations seemed to energize me to persevere with the student. I will miss my window to the courtyard and the glimpses of beauty. I miss my mother. I will miss how the walls of this old place seem echo of the children with the broken wings who came about to mend so that they might fly.

With regard to flying…It is significant to me that on those last days at this school my last week of school my friend finds this beat up bird… So as we move to a new chapter the ending of this is contained in our email correspondence, subject: About the Bird

Ok, so the bird survived about 3 hours before she expired in our back yard. There were tears. After all, we had given her a lovely little chicken wire hutch to live in, a Frisbee birdbath, birdseed, eyedroppers of water, etc. We had named her Chickadee, because a few cool chicks decided to rescue her. Hmm... the circle of life and all that. We're burying her and planting something lovely in her name. See you tomorrow.

Dear Sherilee,
My mother saved birds all the time...I could not tell you how she loved me... I got the impression that she did not. Yet she taught me so much about the sanctity of life with one little robin she rescued that I now through my moment of viewing you with the bird know she gave a masters course in love. Collette

And so this window to the courtyard has perhaps been “my prayer alter” where I witnessed the circle of life. And in this witnessing, we are stirred to carry on, to go forth.

June 12,2009

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Whose teaching who?

I spent the evening with two students from USC. Think Rose Bowl champs, think Lucas/Spielberg as alumni. Think of the arduous admission criteria these young men had to meet to be accepted into this hollowed hall of higher education. By any measure they are very intelligent if not brilliant.
One will receive masters in technology (and is planning on seeking a PhD); the other is one of the 1 in 100 that manages to get admitted to the prestigious film school.
Each came to be at USC by a different course. One was schooled internationally going to private English schools in India. The other had a pastiche of Catholic and city/suburban public. I think he went to school where he could play the most hockey or play with video.
I had cause to stay in their home for several days. What is common ground when we are separated by decades and the entire generation x. What is there that binds the millennial’s and I?
We end up talking about their experiences at USC. One of the big ten, blazes red and gold. They spoke, both sets of brown eyes animated by a flint of frustration.
I hear a disconnect. They attend to the process. Go to class, fill curricular expectations, jumping through each professors hoop’ An Olympic event knowing they must satisfy some obtuse yet clear criteria to receive their degree.
They attend to their classes and criteria but they are engaged elsewhere, these attentions are just a smoke screen
The paradox is anachronistic. brilliant professor disseminate info but their eye is on their own hoop. Tenure, publishing collegial camaraderie and status haunt the professors. They must adopt this ruse “the roll of professor”
These young students are slick, savy at information, click, click information at their finger tips, wisdom in short supply.
Oh the bells ring hollow in the hallowed halls.

They young are hungry soul sat an all you can eat establishment in a historic setting. They have partaken of the sumptuous courses but feel a craving. They fell under nourished and ill prepared..
But then there are the rocks...oh those rocks that the geology professor had them visit. The earths warmth and the sense of connection from the Saturday excursion has the young student
animated. His eyes get a spark. It is organic and alive, not a goggled images or a Wikipedia blurb or regurgitation of info. It is tangible. This professor has sparked a fire. The rocks themselves seem to speak inviting the young USC learner to his own core.
Once the world was flat. Once Galileo was persecuted. Once the visionary were burned at the stake. We want to stay awake. Connect us

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On NPR this week one of the big stories was that “Every 26 minutes in the U.S. a student drops out of school.” The suggested solution…” raise academic standards and more teacher training.”
This proposed remedy brought to mind my favorite definition of insanity. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”

Monday, April 20, 2009

the next salon\ed is delayed.

Due to a number of people's scheduling conficts, the next salon is moved from the previously posted date to May 24th.

There will be more blog posts before then, and be sure to keep the conversation going here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

the next salon\ed

The next salon is planned for April 26th, from 2 to 5. It will likely be at Rouge High School, as I've grown to appreciate having a consistent physical environment when trying to get in a particular state of mind. Collette has asked me (Jarred) to lead this time, and hopefully we'll pick somebody else for the May salon.

I would like your help in determining the particular subjects that will be covered at this gathering. A few things have come to mind, but I would like to hear what topics you would like to cover.

Last session we touched on art in public spaces, namely graffiti and what distinguishes it from other mediums. I felt one of the defining factors was that people are exposed to it whether they wanted to be or not. There are many forms of communication a person has to choose to partake in, like going to the cinema or museum, while others are seen if that person wants to go about everyday life, like advertising and public art (both legitimate and illegal). How does one react differently to these? I want to explore if there are any parallels in education: do people learn differently when they feel it is their choice? On a related note, are their benefits of everyone learning the same material rather than students having an individualized course of study? This has likely all been asked and answered through more rigorous academic study then we will be able to achieve, but our discussions will be more relevant to the here and now.

Another subject that I'd like to explore is educating students for the future rather than the past. The nature of bureaucracy makes the system as a whole slow to change, but could individual school systems reevaluate their curriculum yearly to keep pace with the exponentially accelerating pace of society? My first thought is that certain basics, particularly inspiring a passion for independent learning, will allow students to direct their studies in a way a centralized education can never do. This has been a principle of unschooling since that movement started, but I think that is more relevant then ever. In the words of John Holt, one of the philosophy's founders:

Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.

This video, recently posted on the excellent new website Soul Pancake, clues us into what I feel is one of the greatest challenges facing an educator in this modern era:

Did You Know? from Amybeth on Vimeo.

Exhausting, eh? Imagine how much faster things will change as more and more people gain the freedom and tools to create culture and advance society. There are billions of people that will be making the world a more complex place at the same time as the youth learns to engage them in away the educators never thought possible. This doesn't downplay the importance of the classic pillars of education; no, it makes them more relevant then ever. But students will be able to learn better and faster if they are effective communicators and have a passion for knowledge.

Please respond in the comments and I look forward to hearing your potential salon_ed topics.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Who is Schooled in What?

“Things mean more. Time matters more” John Cullen

Brother John home schools his four children. This is a man whose vocation is to create beauty. He designs gardens as sacred space. He is “all that “. He has won best in show at the Philadelphia Garden Show and has represented the US in Singapore at the International Garden Show.
John is the youngest of eight children. He is the son of a plumber and a church going homemaker momma. As a kid John was irascible. When he was a sophomore in high school he was ejected from his role as one of the Knights of the Round Table in the schools annual musical, Camelot. The reason was his math grade did not meet the required “B”.
Perhaps he was never knight material. Perhaps he was not landed gentry with the required silver spoon. Perhaps he was a serf, or the last born of a blue-collar factory rat.
Our father quit school at 16. Quit is a euphemism. No one quits school. Schools quit kids. While his dad was succumbing to the ravages of Lou Gherig’s disease, World War II was brewing on the horizon.
Dad was needed, to be the man. First to carry his dad up and down the maple stairs. He was never good at school but he excelled at being a good son. In the war he was the ever-obedient soldier as he carried the body bags of deceased soldiers in the intense heat of India to be flown home to the grieving families.
An orphan boy, dad thrived and cherished belonging. So when he was working at the Ford Motor Company or fueling the furnaces at Zug Island in Rouge, he belonged. He was in the company of men, in the community of workers.
Dad was grimy. He was a plumber. He smelled of soot and sewage.
But our dad, like brother John with his brood of four, our dad home schooled us. (Oh we left out to regular class every day for five hours but the crical curriculum took place under dad’s tutelage.) Dad played Enrico Caruso and Ella Fitzgerald. He played some obscure Russian bass and had us listening to the lowest note ever recorded. He read Crime and Punishment. He wrote letters to the editors and poems for president’s wives. We did family reading of Edgar Allen Poe poems.
He took us to the circus three times in one weekend splurging on county candy and waning poetically about the aerial artist. He showed us the Belle Isle Bridge that Houdini had leapt from on the occasion where he got trapped below the icy waters of the frozen Detroit River.
Dad would just drop us curbside at the Detroit Institute of the Arts and leave us city urchins on our own to discover art. Looking at masterpieces the way a child looks for pennies on the sidewalk. For spending money we were dads crew on an blacktopping company he called “ Cullen and Son’s” Dad our teacher drove us around the city looking for cracked asphalt telling us stories of Paradise Alley and Mystical saints who had been martyred for some great cause.
Once I dated a handsome engineer. “ I work for the Ford Motor Company, drive a Ford and live on Ford Lake” This college educated Ford fellow though lost points with me when he spoke of the rank and file with disdain. He was the white-collar sort; he gave his soul to the “man”
Dad got that one could work with heart, yet save your soul for higher purpose.
Dad loved workers. He could have been a Marxist or a social justice Catholic. He could have been anyone of the faceless drones in the Diego Rivera court at the art institute.
Dad schooled me in an intensive curriculum. He is my muse in my own work.
One night as he was fetching me from his mothers where I lived while attending Wayne State we were traveling over the I75/Rouge river overpass. As he watched the smoky industrial smog embrace the city in a pink glaze, the incense like cloud smudging the city he spoke. He was an apostle with an epistle. He spoke of what looked to me an industrial wasteland” “Look he says, as if he is the scarecrow leading Dorothy to the Emerald City…Look at all that out there.” He spoke of the men whose sweat sustained the dreams and hopes of their sons and daughters. He looked out at the twinkle of the grimy industrial beast and understood and taught me how a man will bleed for the future. How a man may cash in their violin for a pair of work boots, callous up their fingers not by the guitars frets but on the rough shovels of while filling the bowels of the coal furnace. They fed their child, paid their house note and worked side by side with men whom they might not sit together with on the trolley home. They belly upped to the bar in camaraderie on payday Friday. Not serving the muse but having sated the beast, in communion with their fellow workers.
So who is schooled in what? I am a teacher taught by a man whose benchmarks were: 1. All men matter. 2. Our souls are our own. 3. It is our purpose that really matters in the end.
So as a mom of a son and a teacher of students who I suspect may one day work at the quick lube or perhaps with the shitty life deck they were dealt may even end up
“With the state”(incarcerated) likes so many of our mentally stressed citizens. Well I just pray and hope I have shown them a peek at beauty. Every now and then I let dad teach the class. I read them lyrics from a Joyce Kilmer poem or play calliope music. Or we just stop and gaze at the cloud formations.
I want to infuse my students with the “teachings” of my blue-collar dad. I want them to know what it was that helped him to navigate through the real world of “Everyman’s” life. If you can keep your soul and take it on this journey of life with you… well that is the great mystery that may infuse us all with that great ideal of “purpose”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Revisit... the dream machine

Salon_Ed. Agenda
March 29, 2009
2-4 p.m.
River Rouge High School
1460 Coolidge Hwy
River Rouge, MI 48218
(313) 297-9615
Collette’s cell: 313-522-5726

1. Review goals and purpose of Salon_Ed.
2. Overview of ReelWC ( Wayne County’s chapter of Michigan Film Initiative)
3. CISV (Children’s International Summer Village) proposal for IPP summer program in 2010
4. Michigan 826 (Michigan’s version of Dave Eggers writing program Valencia 826)
5. Red River Project Rick Manor’s proposal/vision for bringing the arts to River Rouge
6. Plan date for business meeting. Set agenda for a May Salon_Ed.
7. Dinner to follow

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jamar is Dead

Thank you for being here. I don't know where else to go with this.

Nineteen year old Jamar Taylor is dead. He died last night of a single gunshot to his head. Don't bother looking for it in the paper, it isn't there. Today, I was called to the Livonia Skills Center (job training center for handicapped students), where he attended, to assist in the crisis intervention. Almost immediately, I found that I was the one who wound up working with a group of 8 young adults who were his closest friends. These were students from Inkster, Westland, Livonia, and other northwest suburbs, all with some form of handicapping condition, and the finest human beings I have met in a long time. I have never felt more effective as a psychologist than I did today, as we explored the aspects of grief, self-soothing, finding support and comfort, remebering Jamar, and addressing the issues of regrieving their many life losses (of which there were very very many). I discovered that these were people who had lives I could never imagine, and I thought I had seen it all. Only half of them were living with their families of origin and had someone they lived with from whom they could seek comfort. But, and this was a huge but, they were there for each other. Their support and love was absent of sophistication and self-interest. It was open and honest and concrete, and the insight about the realities of life was astounding. They found this support in the context of school. That is something very right about schools.

I spent the day listening to these children, the victims of poverty and racism, and heard first hand what it feels like. They told me that because it happened in Inkster, the shooter will never be arrested because the police will give up within a week. The police don't care, and can't protect anyone. The students also know that they, themselves can find out who did it, and they want to get revenge. They explained that in their community, taking the law into your own hands is much more effective than waiting for police to prevail. The police will never find out who did it, even though everyone in the community knows. The code of silence is too strong. It is because of fear. If someone tells, then they, too will be shot. No one will protect the person who tells. "It is OK to go to jail if you get revenge because your future isn't worth shit anyway".

On my way home, I realized that I am probably naively fearless, because I have never known fear in my home or community. I have never been an innocent victim. Today, I crashed into a world I intellectually knew about, but never fully appreciated. I'm struggling tonight. I know I am richer for this experience, but needing a lot more.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

So Who is the Smartest in the Room?

Everyone knows the setting and how my/our students get to us at the day treatment facility, IEPT etc. Most young folks who end up with us have some kind of back story and it is often horrific. A Dickens story of neglect, abuse coupled with some learning issues and typically some really negative school experiences. No magic fairy tales here.
I must be the sorceress turn the key, welcome the student back into the fold of learners. I need to conjure some born again event to seduce them away from their anxiety and fears.
I have a bag of tricks that I use in efforts to access the “shut down” student. If they have “quit” the system I must first figure how to get them back on board.
Recently I got a new student. She at 10 is so much herself. She wears animal prints and wears her hair like a curtain that she peeks from behind. She is lovely, but ever more so as she is the only girl in a testosterone filled habitat.
Oppositional or defiant are words that have been used to describe her school behavior. When she first showed up in my class she refused to write even a sentence or glance at a book. Of course if she wins she loses. So I must win. “Pick any book you want for your chapter book.” I said. She found nothing to her liking. In frustration (yes mine) I tossed her some fairy tale about a princess who was cursed with obedience. At first she balked but came to love the book. Feat accomplished! Until of course I asked her to move on to our next activity. Tears and temper followed. So we struck a deal, 20 minutes of class work and she earns 8 minutes of her book. And through some enchantment is eased into learning. Or perhaps the obeying character if her book inspires her to obey.
I call her to my desk for a side bar, so I can check more books out from the library. “What do you like?” I inquire. In a whispery, embarrassed voice she tells me “I am a computer geek” She is already in a dynamic vibrant learning environment where she has been working on learning Japanese. She can say, “Mustache” She has somehow gleaned information about the catacombs of Paris. She is the new self made man, learning what stirs her, traveling to what beckons her. This is what she hides behind the silken sheen of her hair.
Today I asked each child to write on their purpose. At first she refused then pleaded with me not to have her read it aloud or tell anyone what her purpose is. I acquiesced. She trusted me with her aspirations of purpose. I looked at her heavy penciled script. ” My purpose is to let people know that everyone is different” That is her purpose.
Me, what can I ever do for this dearest of souls if I ask her to check herself and her skills and her story at the school door.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Margaret Among Us

I have never, in all my many years in my career, ever felt so alive, so energized, or so creative. I can't sleep because I am thinking and dreaming. I gulp my food at the pace of my thoughts (not good for digestion).

Remember when we were in college? Is there any one of us who didn't dream of starting our own schools, or changing the ways of reaching kids? We entered the job market, and most of us hit the brick wall at full tilt. As burned out and ineffective as many of us have felt, that dream inside of us never died. And now, at the seemingly end of my career, it is coming to life. I could lament about the timing, but there is no time for that. Better late than never.

I am already feeling the impact of this group in my job. I am consulting with teachers differently, working with kids differently, seeing new projects, and loving it more than ever. Thank you all for your energy. I can't wait for the next meeting.

I have always loved the Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." How true.

If you like Margaret Mead, here are some more pertinent quotes. I think she is with us in spirit:

"Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."

"Thanks to television, for the very first time, the young are seeing history being made before it is censored by their elders."

"I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings."

"I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had."

"If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place."

"Instead of being presented with stereotypes of age, sex, color, class, or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that within each range, some people are loathsome, and some are delightful."

"Instead of needing lots of children, we need high-quality children."

"It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age."

"It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good."

"Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we've put it in an impossible situation."

"One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night."

"We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet."

"The city is a place where there is no need to wait for next week to get the answer to a question, to taste the food of any country, to find new voices to listen to and familiar ones to listen to again."