But what about the rest of the kids?

October 1st, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Since I moved to the Netherlands in July, I’ve not kept up with much of the American news cycle for the mere fact that I can’t. We have CNN International over here and BBC in terms of televised, English-language coverage, and they both do a great job of making you realize America isn’t the center of the universe. But there’s something I haven’t been able to avoid and nor do I think I should even if I’ve moved to another country and that’s the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” While I should be thankful I’m not teaching in America at this vitriolic moment, I’m actually sad that I can’t stand strong alongside so many of the public school teachers I know who are standing up for students facing incredible odds.

I debated with myself whether I should even join the fray with a post about the documentary, which to be honest I’ve yet to see, though I plan on catching a screening while on a trip to America next month assuming I’m up for handling some teacher-bashing on the big screen. I read post after post by teachers and educators I follow on Twitter – nearly 30 heart-felt essays in less than a week on what it means to be a teacher and why Oprah, NBC, and others have got it all wrong. Some were angry in their tones and carried battle cries. Others threw their hands up in cynicism and recommended just closing the door and teaching. And some were defeated, wondering why, with everything they’re up against each day they walk into school, they have to defend their very existence to corporate America and celebrities. People have said so much already – why should I bother? But as Chris Lehman put it, I had to find the strength to write about this one. It’s important.

I’m a new teacher and my experience is limited, but if you spend just a week in the shoes of a teacher you will quickly realize they are not in it for the money or the summers off as some like to shamefully accuse. I’ll save a rehash of the plot of “Superman” since you can easily find reviews and summaries online, but while the director David Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame says he didn’t try to be pro- or anti-anything in the film, most analysis concludes that the film makes teachers and particularly teacher unions out to be a selfish iron wall in the path toward educational reform. Guggenheim is a great director and in filming the cruel lottery system of some charter schools, he succeeds in riling up his audience. You can’t help but be pissed off after watching even the trailer for the documentary.

Now, while not everyone has a memory of a teacher that changed their lives or truly inspired them, everyone seems to have a memory of a “terrible” teacher, one that was far past her prime and “should never have been teaching.” Maybe you’ve even worked with one of these teachers. The sort of teacher that is clearly burned out from working and grading and calling parents and confiscating cell phones and addressing dress code violations and seeing her students’ mug shots in the papers for hours on end only to be required to attend a “professional development” session on how to teach to a test, the scores for which will determine her employment. I don’t want to make excuses for mean or inappropriate teachers, but I feel that deep down most of those cynical, veteran teachers that have lost the spark are a result of the culture of our educational system that seems to snuff out creativity with every chance it gets.

I worked with a funny teacher last year who was on her way to retirement. It was her last year and she was quite vocal about how sick of the whole system she’d become (a luxury of being on your way out the door). She had wonderful lesson plans and ideas that she happily shared with the new teachers in the department and she told me once that “This is what I love to do and if they actually let me teach I’d do more of it.” At a going away party during the last week of school, this teacher, whom I considered one of the most cynical in the office, cried as she gave a short goodbye to our department. I can’t imagine the emotions she must have felt, the many students she taught over the years running through her mind, but I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “Damn, that was an easy gig and I got summers off!” There are people who really do enter teaching just as any old job after college, but most of them have run from the building screaming within the first few years. Teaching is a test of emotional and physical fortitude each and every day. Ask any new teacher like myself how many times they cried their first year and you’ll see what I mean. So to be accused of not caring enough about the future of our students to actually prepare them for the world ahead, of treating it like just another paycheck, is an incredible slap in the face. Oprah, you’re breakin’ our spirits over here.

Everyone is blogging and tweeting about this documentary and one of the few upsides to it all is that we have a chance to speak out and reach a larger audience. Of course if major news outlets chose to interview teachers alongside the wealthy business elite and celebrities that they seem to treat as experts on education our voice might be heard, but that’s yet to happen. The battle cries are good and well, but when debate reaches a fever pitch like this the details are often left on the floor like sad, post-parade confetti. And never have the details been more important. The problem with documentaries like Guggenheim’s is that they try to tackle an incredibly large and complex issue through a medium that can’t even begin to shoulder it properly. The last thing we need to simplify is the debate over educational reform as if one solution is the answer. There’s not one answer and even if there were it isn’t privatizing the public school system and handing it over to Silicon Valley.

Teachers aren’t napping during their planning periods (if they have them) and dreaming about summer vacation. They’re calling parents and counselors and planning lessons and giving thoughtful feedback to students – and they’re doing it all knowing they may never see the fruits of their labors. My mother told me once when I came home crying last year from a tough day of teaching that as a teacher I may never see the life I’ve changed or the spark of inspiration I planted in a student – that my impact might not bubble to the surface for years after that student leaves my class. So you see, teachers do all of this for a future they may never know. This isn’t our future we’re talking about, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, but the future of our children. We won’t be there to see what they build upon the foundation we lay, but they will and it’s important that we try to get it right.

An upsetting result of the Oprah effect on the education debate is that people questioning the main points of “Superman” are seen as the “old guard,” or worse, as people threatening the future of our children to prop up teacher unions. Some say we should speak out and fight for a seat at the table, others speculate that joining a fracas that will no doubt be old news in a few weeks just distracts us from the truly important job of educating our students. Somehow we have to be heard while not losing focus. Good thing teachers are skilled masters at multitasking.

My biggest question right now: What about the rest of the kids?

What about the rest of the kids that don’t find a spot in a fancy charter school, as “Waiting for Superman” documents? What about the kids that don’t have parent activists at home to speak on their behalf? What about the kids who don’t have parents at home at all? What about the kids that have never used a computer? What about the kids that don’t know how to read? What about the self-contained kids in special education departments? Who will advocate for them?

I know we mythologize and romanticize teachers as heroes for our children and that sometimes there are just plain bad teachers with poor, ineffective methods out there that need to be reckoned with. But for the most part teachers are there for a reason other than the paycheck and the well-deserved perk of having part of the summer off. They’re there because they know that there are children out there for whom no one will advocate. They’re there because they see their communities faltering and children joining gangs in an attempt to be a part of something resembling a family.

I worked with a teacher who had a great rapport with my students, especially the many boys I taught. He would often joke with them “You guys are never absent ’cause your parents don’t want ya’ll at home!” And we would all laugh and the students would trade jabs with him, but the truth of the matter is this: school was the only place they had to go. Sure, a few of them had a home life we would consider normal and well-adjusted, but for the most part there was something other than education driving them to that school building every day. The comfort of a friend group that is like a family and the strange comfort of a teacher who disciplines them, believes in them, and pushes them because she knows – absolutely knows – that they can do better. That’s what public education affords those children – the ones left behind after charter school lotteries and private school enrollments.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet or the superman we need. Neither is merit pay. Teachers need more support and relevant professional development than ever before – they need room to grow and learn with their students. Teachers need administrations that will support those efforts and work as allies and not as adversaries carrying test scores and breathing down their necks.

I’m just one voice among many trying to be heard in this debate. I encourage you to read some of the pieces that inspired me this week. You can do so by checking out my RSS feed of Superman-related links.

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Reading Rainbow and Student Choice

August 30th, 2009 | Filed under: Opinion, personal, teaching


I’d heard rumors that the show was having trouble keeping its funding, but this week PBS finally announced that Reading Rainbow is ending after a 26-year run. Having just turned 25, I spent a lot of time as a kid watching the show’s host Levar Burton on his book-themed adventures, listening to reviews of books from kids my age, and then heading to the library to check out a few. I always thought my kids would have a chance to experience the same excitement about books that I did at a young age through this show.

As this article explains, there’s a lot of debate about whether kids need to be taught how to read first, with phonics and other comprehension strategies, or whether getting them interested in reading should be the first plan of attack.

I believe that generating interest and excitement should be first and foremost our goal as educators. If we get them interest and excited about reading, they are interested in learning, right?

My Facebook feed was a flutter this week with old college friends lamenting the death of Reading Rainbow and they all said the same thing “I like to read because I watched this show.” Sure, they may have seen parents modeling reading in the home, or teachers that encouraged independent reading, but they all felt that this show had a big impact on their reading habits today.

The lyrics of Reading Rainbow come to mind…”I can go anywhere / Take a look / It’s in a book.”

My philosophy of education is ever-changing, but one of the things I always maintain is that I want to cultivate curiosity in my students – a desire to find the answers on their own. I’ve met so many adults that ask questions of friends and coworkers that could (very, very) easily be answered with a quick Google spin. I want my students to know that they can find the answers on their own – that I, as the teacher, am not the font of knowledge in the classroom.

Reading Rainbow did more than just create excitement around reading for children – it taught them that reading is a normal thing, that you can have your own opinions about something no matter your age, and that the more you read the more opportunities you have – that you can “be anything” and “go anywhere.”

The story about the end of the Rainbow hit around the same time as a much-discussed and Tweeted-about New York Times article about giving kids choice in what they read as opposed to assigning class sets of the same novel. The story is part of a great series in the paper on the future of reading.

A reporter follows Ms. McNeill, a teacher in Georgia, as she shifts her classroom from the traditional reading methods of class sets and textbooks to giving students freedom of choice in what they read. McNeill implemented the method after a workshop she attended with Nancie Atwell, author of “In the Middle” and “The Reading Zone.”

What got to me about this article was not the success Ms. McNeill had with the method, which was impressive, but the constant speculation about whether this is the way to go. The reasons behind the speculation? That it may not prepare students adequately for standardized testing and that teachers may have trouble keeping up with all the different books. For me these problems don’t outweigh the potential payoff.

One quote left me hopeful, though, from Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education:

“But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

I’m always frustrated at policies and methods that seem to move kids away from personal freedom, because shouldn’t that be one of our ultimate goals? To give them the skills they need to make big and little decisions on their own?

Hopefully pilot programs like the ones detailed in the Times article will spread with success, because we’ll need something to pick up the slack if the canceling of Reading Rainbow is any true sign of the times.

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