Heroes of Education

When teachers gather together

giantsI’ve learned that when attending an education conference, it’s a success if I come away with two, maybe three great new ideas to try in my classroom. The conference experience is so overwhelming, both inspirational and exhausting, that it’s easy to get lost in the flood of creativity, innovation and enthusiasm from all those amazing presenters.

I’m not sure how that sage advice applies to a weeklong innovation immersion experience at the heart of America’s own history of innovation: The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan. I am one of ten educators enjoying a week of tours, workshops and innovation challenges, and I’m afraid I’ll be so overwhelmed that I won’t remember any of it when it’s over.

But after just 24 hours with the other nine teachers, I can tell you this: put the ten of us in a room together for a week, and the innovation and creativity will fly so fast and furious that we’ll all be renewed and inspired no matter what was outside that room. These are some amazing educators! Like Saba Ghole and her innovative NuVu Studio School in Cambridge, MA. Or Texas teachers Lyle Crossley and Joe Morris, whose high school students have designed, built and raced solar cars in competitions across the country. Or Mark Suter, who has turned his students’ budding interests in technology into an entrepreneurial club that creates film promotions for local businesses in Ohio, generating donations that are reinvested back into their work.

Just give me a couple hours with Hawaii educator Wrayna Fairchild, so I can hear all about her fellowship in New Zealand and her work aboard a research ship. Or an afternoon with Donna Gradel, whose environmental science students from Oklahoma designed, built and delivered aquaponics units — sustainable food production systems used to raise fish and cultivate plants — to a remote district in Kenya.

Elementary school teachers Jamie Ewing (Seattle, WA) and Melissa Collins (Memphis, TN) have earned so many awards and recognitions that I feel like I’ve been dropped into the who’s who of Olympic educators. While early elementary teachers are told to focus on raising their students’ reading and math scores, Melissa’s students wear lab coats, answer to the title “junior scientists,” and engage in experiments that turn them into critical thinkers and problem solvers. Jamie has turned the traditional science fair on its ear, moving his students’ projects to a digital science fair space where they can share and view projects from other students around the country.

We even have a preschool teacher among us, and she is leading the pack in pushing back against the academic pressures that have trickled all the way down to our precious toddlers. Linda Reimond’s students thrive in an environment that encourages art, play and exploration, and we know those students move into the K-12 system well prepared for an authentic, productive education.

Yes, the immersion in history and innovation at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is going to be an incredibly powerful experience, both professionally and personally, but the nine extraordinary teachers I’m hanging out with will surely give ol’ Henry a run for his innovative money.

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Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.