Reformation

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Martin-Luther. Awaya LegendsCC BY-SA

On this day, 500 years ago, Martin Luther hung his list of protests against corrupt practices on the door of the Wittenburg Castle church, igniting the Reformation that would change the course of human history.

Reform. The idea is like a diamond glittering in the dirt. Not change for the sake of change, but for the sake of those who are suffering, oppressed, under excessive pressure.

I can’t help but think of public education today – the pressure on teachers, on students. The need for large-scale reform is too widely known to be a point of dispute. The trouble with attacking any huge, knotty problem is figuring out where to begin, then where to go next, without re-tangling what’s just been untangled.

What are the oppressive practices that need to go for true education reformation? It varies, depending on who’s asked and what personal or professional interests are at stake. Luther wrote ninety-five theses; I’ll spare readers and list my top five, although they’re not anything new:

  1. Standardized testing. Everyone knows – don’t they? – that scores do not accurately reflect a person or that person’s potential. It’s a data point at a fixed moment in time, not for all time. How many students come through the system believing they are failures because they didn’t measure up? How many teachers and schools work hard, only to be considered the same? In a country historically admired the world over for creativity and innovation, giving and living the test is the best we can do?
  2. Teaching reading and writing as separate entities – often sacrificing writing for the sake of reading. It’s a dichotomy that sends the subliminal, counterproductive message that understanding others is more important than understanding self, which is what authentic writing does for people. If we want the world to be a better place, it begins with understanding why we think and feel the way we do. Empathy and compassion are born from this. Write.
  3. Cutting the arts. The test alone proves that people are diverse learners, and the great emphasis on improving reading scores already limits student self-expression. Students who have trouble focusing are often extraordinary actors and dancers; they bring powerful interpretations to scenes, can read and create brilliant choreography. Some students, considered struggling learners, are constantly composing songs in their heads and can sing with startling expression, emphasizing all the right phrases. My son, who showed an affinity for music early in life, asks: “Why aren’t kids given a chance to experiment and explore in ways they really enjoy? Why aren’t their talents or their strengths maximized?” He endured his education. Today he has a job in the music field.
  4. Teacher education and professional development as we know it. Sigh. That’s what we typically do, isn’t it? Better, deeper preparation for the diverse learners and the demands of the field is critical. Ongoing professional learning needs to be practical, designed specifically for the needs of the children AND the teachers. If we speak of deficits and gaps – how about creativity deficits and vision gaps? If the hallmark of a great teacher is getting students to love learning, shouldn’t we first love ours? How about some inspiration? It’s a pretty big motivator (wouldn’t you say, Martin Luther?).
  5. Whatever the expectations, the requirements, the new layers of things that come along as purported magic bullets that will save everything, hold these two things utterly sacred every single day: The read-aloud and time for students to generate writing that means something to them. These are proven to lift the level of thinking – authentically, organically – which will never come through compliance alone.

What are your theses for true education reform? Today, in the spirit of Martin Luther, be bold. Speak your mind through the power of the written word.

And if you teach, teach on.

 

 

Of candy, ice, & equity

Candy throwing

The throwing candy tradition. Lars PloughmannCC BY-SA

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Reading these lines for the first time as a college student, I smiled in recognition of Shakespeare’s schoolboy. In less than twenty words, The Bard encapsulated the drudgery of the school experience and the subsequent aversion of countless children since the dawn of education itself. I thought of my young self’s occasional feigned stomachaches and the heaviness of my own feet on the pavement en route to school. I doubt I had a “shining morning face” – especially since my mother sometimes grabbed a used dishcloth to wipe it while I recoiled from the sourness.

As an educator living over four centuries after Shakespeare nailed this image, I sigh. Two thoughts weigh in my mind: Why school is still drudgery for so many, and how the rich get richer.

In Shakespeare’s time, of course, only the boys of wealthy families went to school; girls in these families were tutored at home. If parents had money, their kids got the education, the wealth of knowledge, to be the next leaders and shapers of society. While all children in America today have access to education, they aren’t all at the same place when they begin school. We know this. I heard it said best at at a district Title I meeting years ago by the keynote speaker, an esteemed professor from a nearby university: “The problem is systemic. Systems are designed as if all children are standing on the same starting line” – he showed a slide bearing a line with little dots along it, even a few ahead of it – “when the truth is that many are starting from far behind.” He clicked, and little dots appeared at varying distances below the “starting line.” Many alarmingly below.

I looked at those dots below that line. I knew some of those children, how terribly much ground they had to cover just to be at the beginning place, while their classmates surged onward, clearing bars being raised ever higher. I knew the truth of the professor’s words. I nodded as he went on to challenge curriculum and practices, admiring his boldness. Although he didn’t name it, he was essentially pointing out the Matthew Effect in reading – those who had already acquired foundational literacy skills versus those who hadn’t, that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” Thereby hangs the achievement gap, that bane of many a teacher’s, school’s, and district’s existence.

It’s like a homecoming parade. Everyone turns out to cheer for the football team as the marching band sets the pace, followed by fire trucks blaring loud enough to wake the dead (side note – recall that chilling scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus?).  At my sons’ high school parades, I stood, hands shielding my ears, as people on the floats tossed handfuls of candy to the children lining the roadside. I watched the children who were closest, the ones who were strongest or most agile, scramble out to grab the candy as it fell. The ones farther back couldn’t get there in time. Over and over the scene repeated, unless a parent or a larger sibling got out there with the kids who couldn’t reach the candy. 

The parade rolls on, the beat keeps going, there are smiles and celebrations all around, but all things are not really equitable.

The chidren creep unwillingly to school often because access to the learning is not designed for them, in the ways that they learn, but for their stronger, more agile classmates. Or because it’s boring. Or because the teacher, with a sense of desperation borne of increasing expectations and evaluations, is tossing the lessons, the standards, in a catch-as-catch-can attempt. Some kids get it, some don’t. What about the child who’s already had plenty of this “candy” and is ready for something more? 

Drudgery, indeed – for everyone. To the point that teachers might creep unwillingly to school. Or leave the profession.

In recalling the professor’s words about “systemic issues”: Systemic change is slow. Glacial, I once heard it described, implying millimeters at a time. Agonizingly slow. But the truth is that glaciers actually flow – they mold themselves to the land and even shape the land, reforming it, as they go. 

Where does the momentum begin?

On the first day of my college math education course, the instructor eyed me carefully.

“You look scared to be here,” she observed.

“Math’s never been my thing,” I replied, with an attempted smile. Deep in my memory lay the words of my geometry teacher, who had attended the high school play in which I performed a lively comic relief role: I didn’t think you had it in you. My performance in her class had been poor; I couldn’t “catch the candy” and eventually transferred out before I flunked it.

My instructor pursed her lips. I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye.

She ended up pulling me into a group to present on the course and the college at a local event – we had shirts made with the words “Cutie Pi.”

The teacher – to this day, one of my favorites – turned my dread of the content into an experience, into something unexpectedly fun. She acknowledged and eliminated my barriers. Met me where I was and propelled me forward. 

One of her greatest statements: “The parents of the kids you’ll teach are not hiding their best kids at home. They’re sending you the best that they have.”

They don’t all start at the same place, nor will they all achieve at the same rate, but they can and will achieve. Systems compare students to one another; teachers must see each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Systems do not move children; teachers do.  Teachers, not the curriculum, are the architects and engineers of student learning, creatively building bridges between the child and the standards, finding the entry points and scaffolding.  Bit by precious bit, the ponderous glacier keeps moving because teachers are the gravity, the one absolute, magnetic force, whenever they make the sweet stuff – the love of learning, the desire for it – the real goal, with every child getting a true taste of it. 

 

Flipover

 

This is Kicker, a goldfish given to my soccer coach son by one of his teams.

Kicker is not well, as you can see. In fact, we thought Kicker had kicked the bucket, but then we noticed a little fin and mouth movement.

After watching the tiny creature floating helplessly on its side for a morning, I wondered: Can this be fixed? Can poor Kicker be helped?

An Internet search on “floating goldfish” reveals that goldfish are susceptible to a disease called swim bladder disorder or flipover, frequently caused by overeating. The swim bladder is what gives the fish its buoyancy; it cannot function properly if other organs are swollen and pressing on it. This essentially paralyzes the fish.

Kicker has been flipped like this for three days. My thought now: How much longer can this little fish last?

And, being an educator and a writer, I cannot keep from seeing deeper meanings, metaphors, analogies.

I’ve often said that teachers are becoming paralyzed with regulations – too much, too many, suppressing the natural artistry and creativity that comprise great teaching. Expectations are needed, certainly, but when so many are placed on schools, on teachers – on students – what happens to freedom of movement and growth? How many teachers feel like Kicker, floating helplessly near the surface, unable to do anything about it?

In turn, how many students feel that way?

Is there a remedy?

For Kicker, there may be.

Green peas.

Yes, really. My search tells me that feeding cooked, skinned green peas to a fish affected with swim bladder disorder often alleviates the condition. The experts say not to feed the fish for three days after the onset and then to try the peas.

I gave it a shot. It’s very hard, by the way, to get food in the mouth of a fish that can’t swim. But Kicker fluttered his fins and opened his mouth, clearly trying his best.

Kicker seems to be a little livelier this morning – he’s always greeted us, wagging his whole body just like a dog, whenever we approach the tank. Today he’s twisting a bit more, fluttering his fins and tail excitedly. He even gyrated himself all the way over, a complete 360. He’s still not very mobile or upright yet – but I see better movement, and I am hopeful.

Back to teachers, to students: What’s the remedy to glutted systems?

Certainly not adding more. Green peas won’t cut it here – if only they could! – but perhaps they hold a metaphorical answer. Perhaps the answer lies in boiling away, skinning back, getting to the inside part, the valuable part, the part that matters most. Education is not something to be done to children any more than professional development should be done to teachers; growth and learning come from a place of inspiration, desiring to know more and having authentic opportunities to explore, to ask “How can we make this happen?” or the greatest learning question of all time: “What if …?” It all comes from tapping what’s within, not from exterior layers upon layers, causing figurative flipover.

Goals and standards are necessary. They can be met, exceeded, in fact, with inspiration, creativity, and freedom – these lie at the heart of educational wellness.

Our survival depends on it.

 

If you’d like to read Part Two of Kicker’s saga: Fintervention

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