I’ve been teaching 2nd and 3rd grade since 1998. Back then…
Bright eyed and bushy tailed (that’s me in the beginning teaching years, back when I used film and had to develop the selfie), I thought, “I’ll give myself a couple years, and then I’ll have my system down. My file cabinet will be stocked with all the ditto masters I need. I’ll pull out a file and make copies once a month, and I’ll know exactly what I’m doing every day of the year. Teaching will be a breeze.” (Oh boy was I in for a rude awakening. This was a naive fantasy and frankly, not very good teaching practice.)
For 18 years, the only constant has been change. During these years, there have been so many new conflicts to navigate: parent complaints, students unable to read, students whose language isn’t English, poor family support, lack of support from administration, and many high stakes testing scenarios.
However, if I felt like public education in the United States wasn’t looking up, I wouldn’t be writing this post. (I’m generalizing here to the whole of the US because I think Common Core is moving us in the right direction. There I said it. I know people don’t agree. It’s okay, we can agree to disagree. This is my perspective as a teacher.) I can actually say that my district is truly working to bring our students into the 21st century to prepare them to compete and have skills for careers they’ll encounter in their futures. We aren’t looking back. But it hasn’t always been this way.
During the No Child Left Behind years, we reduced children to a number, something that could be evaluated statistically and compared formulaically. In efforts to group and categorize using the latest data, we sucked the joy and creativity out of the learning process over the past decade. I will rant in this post, because I feel it’s necessary to express what it’s been like being in the teaching trenches over the past 18 years. This is my firsthand point of view; that of a dedicated public school teacher who feels it is her mission to stay put. As I’ve said before, ‘staying put’ is sacred to me.
In 2010, I wanted to quit the teaching profession because it had become incongruent with my beliefs. Children grow at different rates and should be molded and encouraged, but the environment of high stakes testing was making it so that all we ‘had time to teach’ was language arts and math because these were the only subjects tested. ‘Drill and kill’ and prepare them for the CST became the overarching drive in our classrooms; primarily because at the beginning of the next school year we would be told how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we were as teachers based on our students’ previous spring test scores. Test prep had become the chokehold on our existence as teachers.
It was almost always bad news. Our school was ranked against other schools based on similar demographics. We were ranked a 1, yes, we were the lowest. In an effort to shine a light on how disheartening it is to hear this, I will say that I stayed in the trenches because I believe that we were more than a 1 out of 10. (I always root for the underdog, every time. Since I’m not a loyal sports fan, I always root for the team that has come through the biggest hardship. I’m a sucker for a come-back kid.) We rolled up our sleeves and decided, hey, we’re going to keep on going. We love our students. We’d been through a lot, and we had a lot of GRIT as a staff, but no one could see that, based on our test scores.
This is the main problem for me. School atmosphere cannot simply be measured in terms of statistics but this was the only way we were measured. The only way. Our love for our students and their struggles cannot simply be measured mathematically. There were and continue to be, so many variables we cannot control. What we can control is fostering an environment that encourages students to learn in spite of the ‘school of hard knocks’ that many of our students’ families deal with on a daily basis.
We are a Title 1 school. Because of our low performance on the high stakes tests, we were labeled a Program Improvement school as determined by No Child Left Behind (more about NCLB and why it didn’t work), all the teachers at our school were given more professional development to increase our expertise as teachers. Read Susan Neuman’s critique of NCLB here. Almost the entire staff has their master’s degrees. The assumption was that we were doing something wrong and were sent to rigorous professional development meetings, including Effective First Instruction lesson design, Thinking Maps, GLAD strategies, Write from the Beginning and Beyond, GATE, & HB somethin’ somethin’ somethin’ -a mandatory state math training and I’m sure I’m missing some…but I’ve selectively forgotten what they were. Some of these trainings were wonderful and some were just, hoop jumping exercises to soothe the powers that be at the state and federal level.
After making it through the tunnel of high stakes testing, I can see the light at the end. My outlook is ‘hopefully optimistic’ (to throw in an overly used phrase). Education from my perspective is moving in the right direction in my neck of the woods on Cypress in Covina. We are beginning to NAME children again and value their natural strengths and abilities. We are encouraging creativity in the teachers and as a result, creativity in our students.
I’ve been reading the book, Running with the Horses, by Eugene Peterson, and he has similar ideas about the idea of Naming:
Every time that we go along with this movement from the personal to the impersonal, from the immediate to the remote, from the concrete to the abstract, we are diminished, we are less. Resistance is required if we will retain our humanity (27).
…if I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way. I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number (28).
Naming is a way of hoping (29).
I am putting hope in my students daily by naming them. I refuse to simplify them down to whether or not they are far below basic or proficient on a circle graph.
The movement forward to name our students again has begun by valuing creativity and looking students in the eye and believing in them. It’s not complicated when you think of teaching this way. Teaching is a natural connection.
This is why I continue to push back from the status quo and push my students to think outside the box. This is why I try to keep things simple in many ways in my classroom, they’re 8 years old for God’s sakes! My primary focus is to create an environment where they want to be at school and naturally, learning will follow.
Don’t we all want our children to have sense of belonging and develop a love of learning? We want them to explore the world around them by tapping into their natural curiosity. This got lost over the past 10 years in many classrooms, but the joy of learning has been found again. The Joy of Teaching is back. This is good news. I am a Teacher Artist, one who has focused on her individual craft. Teaching is Art.
This blog post feels almost completely plagiarized but there were so many wonderful quotes from these books, I had to share them.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water, expresses so much of what I often think about art, faith, and creativity. This is infused into my philosophy of teaching. I read this book 20 years ago, and I still return to it. As I was reading Running with the Horses, I remembered L’Engle’s reference to Naming. There are so many timeless truthful nuggets in it. Here are some of my favorites:
The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver (18).
Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been still-born (34). Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos (45).
Remembering the lovely things that we have forgotten is one of the reasons for all art (107).
To write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more named. And we live in a world which would reduce us to our social security numbers (110).
But we, the creatures, are named, and our names are part of our wholeness (111).
It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name, and so open the wide gates of creativity (112).
If we are pigeon holed and labeled we are un-named (113).
She speaks so much of the importance of stories shaping and forming us. “Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named.” I love to read excitedly to my children and my students. We learn through story. We grow. We connect. We create community. In an interview, Jean Rhys said, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Isn’t that good? When I started blogging, I didn’t think I had ANYTHING significant to say. But, I am feeding the lake at a trickle’s pace each Friday, and hopefully, in turn, someone is connecting and becoming more whole. I have no idea how it’s all going to come together from week to week, and I often fear that it won’t be worth reading. But somehow cosmos comes out of the chaos. I’m gradually beginning to figure out what it means to be Named and in this process, and I am becoming more whole.
Teaching in Room 29 is a wonderful place that I show love to my students. If we truly love, truly, the world will change. We can often focus on all the terrible things in the world that we can’t really control. So, how about we all just focus on making our corners of the world better and be a servant to the work of living creatively and joyfully? This may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s working for me. I am more fulfilled. 18 years in, and I’m still excited when I see that spark of learning in my students’ eyes. The Art of Teaching is a wonderful gift to me.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life…
Here’s one more memorable quote referred to in L’Engle’s book, “We must dare to love in a world that does not know how to love (112).” -French priest
An unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates (As they say in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, So-CRATES. That’s what I hear when I say his name.)
Love and examine your lives friends and if you can add a trickle to the lake, do it.
Until next Friday…Love you loves.
Gastric bypass update:
I didn’t lose this week & I’m trying not to freak about it. I did more exercise this week. (Oh, the irony). So maybe I should just not exercise, and then I’ll lose weight? Weird, right?
This week, I had THE WORST protein shake ever, don’t buy this brand, Designer Whey Double Chocolate, you’ll hate it….bleh..yuck, yuck, yuck.
So far my favorite has been the Low Carb Isopure Dutch Chocolate, so take that Designer Whey and move on your way (most likely into the trash bin).