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…

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