Month: November 2017

Hope

 

My class has been doing a lot of reading about Native Americans over the past few weeks.  It’s a challenging topic to explore with fifth graders.  Some of the kids came to fifth grade aware of the “trail of tears” experience.   They learned about it as part of their Westward Expansion unit in fourth grade.  For me, it’s hard to read some of the “All About the Cherokee” books without thinking that we’re teaching a cleaned-up version of our history.  At the same time, I struggle with when to bring up the fact that it was our government that legislated (perpetrated) this injustice.  Fifth graders are very young in one sense.  Many still see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys.  How then, do I expose them to this harsh reality, that we (our countrymen) were more “bad guy”  than “good guy” in this story?  It’s like being that guy who pulls the curtain back on the wizard or the tooth fairy or Santa.  At the same time, I really don’t want to be the person who spreads a myth, especially when it’s a harmful myth (as opposed to the ones mentioned above).   I’ve decided we can read the sanitized books for a while, learn about the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the songs they sang, and the way they prayed.  At a certain point, though, we have to learn where they went, why they went, and what happened to their culture.

 

So yesterday in class we read an essay by a Navajo poet.  In it she describes how her relatives, so devoted to their families and the ground where they were rooted, were ripped from their families, sent to government or missionary boarding schools, and forbidden to speak their native language, wear their traditional clothing, or learn their own history.  It was an ugly story.

 

The author, though, found glimmers of hope.  She read books, in English, yes, but stories that gave her strength.  She spoke of how, in her lifetime, lights shined on dark injustices, minds opened to new perspective, and lawmakers changed some of the rules.  It couldn’t undo all of the damage, but at least it showed that spirit that I like to think our country aspired to, the one in America the Beautiful, where it says, “God mend thy every flaw.”  To me that’s the sentiment of hope for an imperfect nation:  we may have flaws, but we are determined to work toward a mending.

 

The writer is now a professor of English.  She writes poetry that she conceives first in her native language, then translates to English.  She ends her essay on this note:

My daughter, an educator herself, not long ago moved into my parents’ old house, in Shiprock, New Mexico, when she got a job at nearby Diné College. Our children, once taken from Dinétah, have returned home.

My classroom story, has a hopeful ending, as well.  Sober, but hopeful.  As we finish reading the essay, I ask my class to write.  The room goes silent, and I wonder what effect this story will have.  After a few minutes I ask if anyone would like to share a thought.  Ryan raises his hand and reads:

 

I want to remember how horrible they were to  [the] Navajo, and how when it got exposed it changed, for example they wouldn’t let kids speak Navajo, and they were forced to learn Christianity, but then they made rules in 1997 that they were allowed to speak their language and believe in their religious beliefs…but I also have a question.  Are there other horrible things like this that we do not know about?

 

There was silence in the room.  Then Ryan added, “I mean, cause I want us to do something about it.”  I had noted, when he first read, that Ryan had said “they” when he referred to the U.S. government.  In his final comment, he said “us.”  To me, that pronoun matters.

 

If the result of learning these stories is that we understand our imperfections and we’re determined to try to “mend [our] every flaw,” then I think we’re at least on the right track.  That gives me hope.

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Freedom on Tuesdays

My class had some freedom this morning when I found out at 8:20 that there wouldn’t be a gym class at 8:30.  

Oops, Time for the teacher to make some last-minute plans.  “Study your vocabulary words for a few minutes,” I suggest.  I start scurrying to adjust the schedule, trying to remember the things I had said I needed to do while the class was at gym. It’s actually a good thing in some ways.  We normally have a very chopped-up and hectic Tuesday morning.  Now we might actually have time to do things at a normal pace…as long as I can pull some things together.   Meanwhile, a few would-be studiers in the corner are setting up a sort of game show.  I see them writing “buzzer” on two pieces of paper.  “That’s a tame way of chiming in,” I think.  I look back at my computer screen.  “Oh, right, I was going to fix that lame image from the book, the one I took with my phone last night.”  Well, that’s not happening.   

Now the game show crowd has swelled to seven or eight.  This could become an issue.  I finish tweaking a file and submit the attendance. I shuffle through a file folder looking for an article I wanted to share with the class.  I guess I can show it under the document camera.   I glance toward the corner. The quaint paper buzzers lie discarded on the floor.  They’ve given way to shouts of “Buzz!” and “Hey, I was first.” I reach for the book I was going to share, wondering if I have time to do a quick scan.  It’s starting to get pretty rowdy in the corner.   At this point one of my more earnest students strolls by my desk.  “Wow, they’re actually learning in Mrs. Price’s class,” he says.  

“Davi, what’s that supposed to mean?  Are you saying we don’t learn in here?”  I always feel a little defensive when someone compares my class to the neighbor’s, but I’m especially self-conscious when I’ve been sitting at my desk making last-minute plans, while Mortal Kombat Vocab Wars has broken out in the back corner.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way,” Davi protests.  “I just meant I was over in that corner, and I could hear through the doorway that Mrs. Price was trying to teach her class something.”

Ah, now I understand.  He is concerned that their right to learn is being usurped by our right to shriek.  Point taken, Davi.  I hear my Call of Duty. I stand, signal the class to order, and commence a lecture about freedom and consideration.  

“This is not exactly a free country, you know.”  My attention-grabbing lead.  “The problem is that whatever we want with our freedom might be something that’s not good for someone else.  I believe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said something like, “My freedom to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”  (Note: I’ve since discovered that the source of the quote is under debate, though not the concept). “He meant that we don’t really live in a completely free country.  There are limits to our liberty.  We don’t have the freedom to take away someone else’s rights or to do things that hurt other people.” The class listens earnestly, though undoubtedly puzzled by references to fists and some guy named Holmes.   I realize I’m not really talking to them. I’m reminding myself of an issue I’m struggling with.  

  What I’m wondering these days is how to manage having and giving freedom without letting it morph into chaos.  Or worse, inactivity.  The thing about freedom is that it gives people a sense of wildness. In some ways that’s great.  Wildness leads to big discoveries and leaps of imagination.  But sometimes wildness leads us to focus on ourselves and neglect the needs of others.  We think there aren’t any rules, and that allows us to do whatever we want.    

    Today I gave some freedom in writers’ workshop.  I wanted to unleash the wild writing that writers do when they are on their own, not completing someone else’s assignment, but working on what excites them.  We’ve been calling them “Free Write Tuesdays,” since the start of the year. The problem is that if you just fling open the cage door, the wild creature bolts free, but doesn’t necessarily know where to go or how to act.  That can happen in a classroom.  Instead of seeing the time as an opportunity to write something that didn’t fit a school assignment, some writers could take the opportunity to do nothing or to do something that prevents other people from doing what they want to do.  It doesn’t seem smart for me to carve out time for that result.  Other wiser teachers in my school have taken this on more gradually.  They’ve maintained some structure.  Me, not so much.  Now I’m wondering how I can cultivate that ideal workshop atmosphere on our “Free Writing Tuesdays,” the atmosphere that leads people to do things that allow them to grow and thrive without infringing on other people’s rights in that process.

Because it’s a free country…sort of, I’ll choose to highlight two images from today’s workshop.  Maybe they’ll lead us in a positive direction.

I spied on Ryan, perched alone on the window sill writing his story.  After a few moments I decided to interrupt.  He told me he was working on a story about three kids who discover a data stick with information about an alien crime.  “They weren’t setting out to be heroes,” Ryan said, “but when they found this information, they knew they had to do something.”  Ryan seemed to know, without being taught, that the main characters in fantasy stories are often ordinary people, reluctant heroes, free to ignore the information perhaps, but somehow compelled to act.

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I also loved the image of Emerson, her back to the classroom, standing at the blue counter, paintbrush in hand, copying a Georgia O’Keeffe desert painting.  She told me she planned to keep the red-orange desert background (“It’s pretty.”), but she had her own ideas about the foreground.  “I want it to be a cactus instead.”  Right, Emerson, instead of that ugly old tree that O’Keeffe had painted.  I loved the youthful audacity.  So American.  She could, if she wanted, tweak an O’Keeffe and maybe make it a little better.  

Well, it’s a free country…at least on Tuesdays.

We Need to Argue

I was presenting at a staff development meeting today, when a fellow teacher recommended an article from the New York Times.  We had been working on essay writing, and with it, we’d been doing some debating.  We were talking about how debates are really oral essays, with claims, reasons and evidence, but we were also talking about how we need to frame our arguments, not so much as contests, where the only goal is winning, but as exchanges of ideas (or sparring matches, if you’re more competitive), where the goal is to develop stronger arguments or new understandings.  

 

The article, by Adam Grant, uses the example of Orville and Wilbur Wright to make the case for constructive arguing.  The famous brothers sparred frequently, but those debates often led to big breakthroughs.  Among the many good points Grant made in the piece, this one hit home for me:  

Children need to learn the value of thoughtful disagreement. Sadly, many parents teach kids that if they disagree with someone, it’s polite to hold their tongues. Rubbish. We can also help by having disagreements openly in front of our kids.

The article reminded me of my family’s mealtimes when I was a kid. Visitors often found us a bit odd.  Breakfasts during my childhood were nearly always silent, even on weekends.  We ate together, we just didn’t usually speak.  Each of us, my parents, my sister, and I grabbed our  preferred section of the Washington Post, opened the paper, and dove in.  At breakfast we read, pausing occasionally to nibble.  It was the time for gathering information.  

We were a family of introverts, but that didn’t mean that all meals were silent.  As a matter of fact, dinner was far from quiet.  Many a meal began with “How was your day?” or “What did you learn today?” but those questions generally served as pregame warm-ups or the under card.  The main event generally grew out of some issue at one of my parents’ jobs or something from the morning newspaper.  My parents liked to spar.  Once in awhile, like the Wright Brothers’ discussions, the conversations got “kind of hot,” but they rarely devolved to a fight.  I found the discussions fascinating, even though I didn’t always understand the subtleties of the disagreements.  I think my older sister found them pretty entertaining, too.  Sometimes, just for fun, she’d inject a question about affirmative action (one of our parents’ favorite bones of contention), just to watch the sparks fly.

“Mary, it’s demeaning.  Isn’t it like a charity?”

“Nonsense, Leo, it’s recognition of a debt.  It’s righting a wrong.”

“But isn’t it replacing one wrong with another?”

My mom was often the more passionate debater.  She responded to issues with both emotion and reason.  My father, on the other hand, enjoyed playing devil’s advocate or challenging a generalization. He maintained a dispassionate stance throughout. Never did these disagreements make me worry about the stability of our family or question the love between my parents.  In fact, my parents’ ability to argue without storming out of the room or throwing tantrums probably made me more sure of their bond.  

When my cousin brought her new husband to visit our house one December in the late 70’s, he told her we were perhaps the oddest of families.  The silence at breakfast unnerved him, and the contentious dinners unsettled him.  He had been brought up in a family that kept politics  (and anything that resembled discord) out of meal conversations.   He found us inharmonious.  

I’m with Adam Grant, though.  I think the “wobbly” nature of our family, the frequent debates and unsettled arguments were  signs of respect for each other’s ideas and individuality. I wish our country could engage in some of those conversations now.  Grant concludes his piece with some great guidelines for civil disagreement:

Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.

We can start with four rules:

  • Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
  • Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

Good arguments are wobbly: a team or family might rock back and forth but it never tips over. If kids don’t learn to wobble, they never learn to walk; they end up standing still.

I’m bringing those words to my classroom tomorrow.

Here’s a link to the full article:  https://nyti.ms/2hGS46x