Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I've been sitting here reading the responses to last Friday's blog, wishing I had the e-mail addresses of each poster so that I could respond to them personally. After I posted it Friday, I packed for a weekend trip and forgot about it--not about the pain, but about the actual blog entry. I was pretty surprised to return home and find that there were so many responses, not just from people I know --Jen and Kim--but from others, too. I was pleased, and more than a little humbled, to know that my words have found their way to a listserve and a home school support board, in addition to Susan Ohanian's site. What probably was the biggest surprise was seeing Elizabeth Jaeger's name. Elizabeth and her four friends, the "Downer Five", have been in my thoughts and prayers for several months now. I also received several beautiful e-mail messages from close friends such as Dick Graves, Mary Kay Deen, Sherry Swain and others.

Throughout these past few years, I have tried to keep reminding myself that there are still countless (?) good people in education who, in spite of the fact that the light seems to be going out rapidly, are still working to keep the sparks of sanity alive. However, there are far fewer who are strong and courageous enough to speak up–just a few here and there, it seems. I would tell myself, "They’re not bad people, they’re just weak or scared." I have come to realize and accept that we may never get people to speak out in droves in any given school district or area of the country, but far from being discouraged by this, it should serve to strengthen our resolve to be those lone voices here and there and to know that there are always those others who, whether or not they publicly acknowledge it, are saying the inner and victorious "yes!" to our words. I say that "yes!" when I read about the Downer Five and Doug Christensen and Stephen Krashen and Susan Ohanian and Ken Goodman. Those lone voices crying in the wilderness give hope to all, courage to some and, perhaps, repentance to many.

Most of the teachers and administrators with whom I work can discern the wrongness of NCLB, but they lack either the courage or the know-how to right those wrongs. Of far greater concern to me are those who seem oblivious to the immorality of it all and appear to be genuinely baffled and even irritated when I try to "inform their discretion", to quote Thomas Jefferson. I was accused of being unprofessional and of having a personal agenda to keep the system from working. I was determined not to be sidetracked by those personal attacks and to keep working to keep DIBELS out of my school. To that end, I printed everything I could find about it and distributed it to several of my co-workers. I bought Ken Goodman’s book and gave it to my principal. I knew DIBELS had already been purchased for all three schools in our district, but I still held out hope that somehow none of our children would have to be subjected to it. My blog might have been misleading in that it may have caused readers to infer that my school will be using DIBELS next year in Response to Intervention; it will not. My principal purchased a different tool for progress monitoring. Still, the first weeks of school will be spent administering it to every student in grades K-3 rather than on crucial community-building and gathering information on the whole child. I cannot for the life of me understand why people will not acknowledge that children need to be made to feel safe before they can learn or that learning is not divorced from feeling. Why are these truths viewed as fluffy feel-good extras when they are indisputably the bedrock of learning?

I think we absolutely cannot rest until sanity is restored to the system, beginning with a solid definition of what is basic and the conditions in which children, and indeed all humans, learn. It is imperative that the concept of the Big 5 is re-examined and re-defined to acknowledge the fact that the language arts are about communication: listening, speaking, writing, reading, viewing, thinking. Why in the world must people continue to attempt to quantify what cannot be quantified and plotted on a graph? Why must everything be reduced to numbers?

We must not let ourselves fall into that same numbers mentality; if we do, we run the risk of becoming discouraged when we can't drum up the support of large numbers of people. Whether it’s five as at Downer, or twenty, or one, speaking out is always risky because we do not know if others will join us or if our voices will be heard. However, one thing is certain: if we remain silent, it is guaranteed that they will not.

Friday, May 25, 2007

"I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."
e.. e. cummings

This morning I opened my eyes at 4:00 a.m. and realized with deep despair that I am no longer a teacher of young children. Last week, after twenty years of introducing first graders to the power of words, I wrote words I never thought I’d write: Please accept this letter as formal notification that I am leaving my position. . . .I had put off writing the words simply because I couldn’t think of what to write. Suggestions from friends included such eloquent missives as "I quit" and "Take this job and shove it". But did I quit the system, or did the system quit me? And no, I do not want them to take the job and shove it. I want them to take the job and restore some dignity to it. Better yet, I want them not to take the job at all but to get their hands off it and let someone do it well and with passion.

While my co-workers spent the past four days attending meetings about next year, I worked in my classroom, packing away materials I hope to use again some day. While they looked over the schedule for testing every child in early August in order to get baseline data outlining the "basic skills" the children cannot perform, I packed away juggling scarves and pondered: What is basic? It seems to me that the term "basic" encompasses all those things human beings would do if there were no outside interference. "Basic" is organic. I imagine a conversation between Abraham and Sarah sitting under the stars in Mesopotamia. Isaac is sleeping in the tent behind them. Sarah says, "Is there anything you’d like to do before I douse the cookfire?" Abraham scratches his beard, thinks a moment, says "I know! Let’s segment some phonemes!" Sarah says, "Nah. We did that last night. Why don’t we do phoneme deletion tonight?" Basic. If left completely alone, people would work to find effective ways to communicate, discover artistic ways to explore beauty and truth, invent tools and machines to make their work easier. Basic. And, yes, woven into and throughout the basic there would be wordplay: bibbity bobbity boo, john jacob jingleheimer schmidt, flip flap flee I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree. I can’t imagine that there would be such inorganic permutations of letters as voj or fek.

I pack away the multi-cultural paint and remember the day we made an amazing discovery: Ain’t none of us black and ain’t none of us white. I think back to the day last November when the world began to crumble under my feet, the day I sat in a meeting and was told we would be administering DIBELS next year. "DIBELS?", I asked in disbelief. "Wait a minute. Back up, please. This district has purchased DIBELS? Without asking the teachers?" Oh, yes, I was told. The state is really cracking down on progress monitoring. We must have something in place to test the children three times a year for comparative data, and every two weeks for those who do not measure up. DIBELS is quick and easy. "But it only gives information that is not useful ," I said, still struggling to make sense of the news. "The tasks it tests are not things I want my children to be able to do anyway." We have to have something. It’s quick and easy. Quick and easy. Quick and easy. Quick and easy.

Becoming literate is not quick and easy, I’ll have them know. It happens over a lifetime. It’s not something you do; it’s something you are. It’s the velveteen rabbit you love the fur off of until it becomes real. I cannot spend the first week of August asking children "What do you get if you take the /ch/ off chair?" Nothing you can sit on, that’s for sure. NCLB is taking more than the /ch/. They’re taking the rest of it, too. The very air is being sucked right out of our classrooms. If I don’t spend the first week of August, all of August, all of the entire year, asking "What do you love? What are you afraid of? What do you think? What do you feel? What do you dream?", then I can’t teach the children. If I don’t observe them while they’re building their Play-doh sculptures, performing their puppet plays, playing with the parachute in the yard, then I can’t know as much as I need to know about their oral language patterns, their work habits, their thought processes. I don’t want to give them busywork to do while I test children individually. I want to sit on the rug with them and read aloud Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and laugh and giggle at her reverse psychology methods. I can’t teach them if I don’t do these things and they can’t learn from me if I don’t tell them all about my fear of dogs when I was in first grade, the morning I went to get in the car for Daddy to take us to school and saw the neighbor’s house was on fire, the time I spent with my aunt while Mama and Daddy were on a business trip and the only thing I would eat was grits three times a day, and that I cried every single day of first grade–every single day–because I wanted to stay home and play on my swing set and read Nancy Drew instead of Dick and Jane. The reason I became a first grade teacher is that I hated first grade so very much because the teacher put us all through the same program of "basic skills" even though some of the children didn’t know the alphabet and I could already read the newspaper. I was determined never to do that to children. Never to standardize; always to individualize. That was 36 years ago, and we know too much to do that to children now, don’t we? Apparently not.

I roll up the rug, and I am overcome with remembering all the time I spent on rugs with children over the last 20 years. I remember the day we were sharing our fears and Maddie spoke very slowly, cautiously choosing the words through which she would bare her soul: "I still watch Barney. I’ve been scared to tell anybody that. That’s what I’ve been scared of. That somebody would find out." A tense moment followed the cathartic confession she’d made on the safe territory of the rug. Then, gradually, one by one, others began confessing that they, too, watched Barney or Teletubbies. Connections were made, bonds were forged, sighs of release and relief issued forth. After that, when we used Maddie’s "Barney" word card for word sorts, it was so much more than an r-controlled vowel and a proper noun and a capitalization rule, though it was all of that. It had feelings and emotions and new concepts attached to it.
I have wondered often since November if I am doing the right thing by leaving. Shouldn’t I stand in the gap? Shouldn’t I try to be an Esther in the palace saving her people? I don’t truly know. I think maybe the only life I can save is my own. As I packed the jump ropes and the handbells and Mac Davis’s "I Believe in Music" CD, I wondered if they’d ever be used again. At least I could’ve tried to work in some good things around all the testing, right? I really don’t think so. The struggle of going to work every day and having to choose between being a good employee or a good teacher, a choice none of us should have to make, became too much for me. The changing of definitions became too much. A good assessment is quick and easy? Being "professional" is implementing the plan handed down without asking any questions? I had reached the point where I could hardly look the children in the eye; I knew I’d let them down, but I didn’t know how to get around all the paperwork and testing. How could I teach them when I was so busy doing paperwork and testing them so I could prove I’d taught them?

People need to realize this is far more than that swinging pendulum you hear so much about in education. Good teachers never swung with that thing anyway. Good teachers don’t go back and forth, only forward. When good teachers can’t go forward because someone has thrown such a heavy weight on them that they can’t even pick up their feet, where can they go but home, I ask you? I ask you, because I truly do not know. . I cannot stand in the gap anymore. I tried to, and they knocked me down and walked right over me. I think of Mac Davis’s song, and I want to be "young and rich and free". I think of my favorite line in Charlotte’s Web: An hour of freedom is worth more than a barrel of slops. So I run free.

"Nor all your tears wash out a word of it. . ."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Proverbs 24:17 , 18
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

I have made myself wait two weeks to post these links. I really, truly did remain calm when I read transcripts of the hearings. I did not dance or shout or think cruel thoughts about these wicked men. I just took a deep breath, smiled a little, and went back to doing homework. But now that the semester is over (I turned in my huge final project last night and feel fifty pounds lighter) I think I am ready to think all of this over a little. I had really, really begun to think that Mr. Bush's Reading First friends were going to get away with the evil deeds they did to America's school children. Obviously, they thought they were going to get away with it, but I truly thought they were, too. I was weighted down with thinking it; sick with thinking it; bitter with thinking it. Yes, I know there are no indictments yet, and yes, I know it hasn't hit the mainstream media yet. I even doubt that it ever will. Those evil friends of Mr. Bush's squirmed that day. The rock was overturned and the maggots crawled out into the open. The turning on one another has already begun. The denials. The finger pointing.

Still, I do not rejoice at their stumbling. My heart is not glad. A million children stumbled with them. A million trusting children were swindled and cheated while these men grew rich with the blessings of the president and his education secretary who has not one minute of classroom experience. Those of us who knew watched, waited, hoped, lost hope, prepared to write Ichabod over the door and leave. Vengeance is the Lord's and He can deal with them as He will, and He will not see gladness or rejoicing in my heart.