Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Message For Teachers and Students In Connecticut: I'm Giving You A Standing Ovation To Kick Your Year Off

Aerial of Fairfield University
For the last week I've been squirming.

Yes, I'm organized for the semester and I'm proud of the work 120+ youth and an entourage of teachers did at Fairfield University this summer over seven weeks. I'm also rejuvenated by the enthusiasm, willingness to learn, and desire to write that each of them brought. Everyday of our summer 'vacation' lifted my spirit and refueled me with hope.

I've squirmed, however, because I want the zest to continue, but have come to realize that institutional barriers will most likely get in the way.

Reports from everyone this summer were on how difficult it's been to implement best practice in Connecticut since the economic downturn of 2008, the lack of funding, and the influx of Common Core State Standards with the testing that has come with it. Everyone knows they're supposed to do more and more with less and less. Last night while hiking, I listened to Michael Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeffrey Wilhelm on NPR Radio (Uncommon Core). I felt a sense of relief that my intellectual idols feel similar about the state of affairs with reading and writing instruction across the nation. In short, it is what Gallagher called out in Readicide. In agreement with others, I feel the Common Core State Standards are actually a positive list of skills and actions that WE should be encouraging in our schools. They're actually quite good. Still, conflicted feelings arrive when I learn how they are being interpreted. They feel that teachers would be better off to do what they know works and to question what the core didn't take up: pleasure and wisdom.

The photo above is of Fairfield University, approximately four miles from the Long Island Sound and six miles from the City of Bridgeport. I love living by the water, especially when I find the time to look into its wide and blue expansion. It reminds me that the Great Whatever is larger than all of us and the frustration I feel with what's being done to schools, students, and teachers is only temporary. I must rise above the circumstance from time to time to get a bigger picture.

It still infuriates me. We do such damage to ourselves.

On earth, institutions are suffocating, especially when led with hubris, hierarchy, and authority. Righteousness gets in the way of what is most important in our schools - BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS and developing democracy. When I reflect on first days of schools, the 180 days that follow, and the numerous students taught each year, I realize it is the closeness - knowing students for the individuals that they are - that matters most. Real learning is brought forth through community and trust. It is a teacher's job to fight for the rights of their students to become the best human being possible. At times, this means biting the cheek, going through the bureaucracy, encouraging them to do the same, and finding relief when allowed to get back to real teaching.

Pleasure and Wisdom. Neither is measured by the tests we give students. Yet they are most important.  I'm grateful to the National Writing Project for having Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm as guests. They restored sanity to my thinking about the insane times students and teachers are currently experiencing.

We know the last few years have been detrimental to kids. We need to fight harder to counter the negative energy that has been placed upon schools across the United States. We need to focus on what is important. That is why I agree with Nicole Mirra, Draw On Student Interests To Make the Common Core Work For You. If this is the political empire of 2014, and top down management is making classrooms miserable, then focus on the beauty of the growing, curious, and hopeful minds in your room. Let their uniqueness and individuality work for you.

Here's to students and teachers finding a voice this year. Go forth fearlessly, as Alfred Tatum would say, and make their worlds a better place.

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