Wednesday, March 29, 2006


The Emerald City: What Beginning Teachers Need To Know

Introduction: Here's a piece I wrote in June, 2005 for an Introduction to Teaching course I was co-teaching.

I’m writing this on a beautiful morning in early June, just back from my third graduation ceremony of this long commencement season; I have two more to go: my niece’s junior high school graduation, and a neighbor’s kindergarten commencement.
I love commencements of all kinds—from the musty rituals at high church where celebrants in medieval robes and odd-angled hats march in measured rows, to the propulsive affairs, hot and wild, where Gen-ADD catapults itself to the stage pierced with flash and color. From Pomp and Circumstance to Hip-Hop, I love them all, these warm-weather ceremonies, these spring-time festivities.
What I like best, I think, is that whatever form it takes, commencement is always a little celebration of liberation—everyone aflame and passionate, looking forward to taking the next giant step toward a wider world, more capable now, they hope, and more free. I always get a little contact high from all that communicable, dizzying optimism.
There is a bit of a downside to the ecstasy, I fear, for in one way or another every teacher education student over many years has told me this: “I couldn’t do all the wonderful things I’d planned and wanted to do this year, because I was only a student-teacher, but next year I’ll be free at last!” I hate to be the one to bring them down or to bum them out—to “harsh her mellow” as one student scolded me—but next year, her first year of teaching, is not likely to be an experience of freedom. Quite the contrary, it will probably be one of the most entangled, constrained, and difficult years of her life. This is something she, a beginning teacher, may need to know.
* * *
What follows is a tiny sample of answers to a simple question I regularly ask graduating education students, those who will soon become classroom teachers themselves: “What have you been told you must never do as a teacher?” I’m not making any of this up—I didn’t have to:
You cannot smile for the first several weeks of school, or until Christmas, or for the entire first year. Don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. Don’t let them walk all over you. Don’t let them see you sweat.
You can’t be too friendly—don’t get attached to any of them.
You can’t hit the kids, of course, but don’t touch them either—no pats, pokes, taps, jabs. No hugs. Never be alone with a kid, and don’t give anyone a ride home. No home visits. Don’t lend them any money, either. Oh, yes, and don’t ever turn your back on them.
Don’t tolerate any breach of the rules—they’re testing you, or maybe just trying to get your attention. If they’re trying to get your attention, ignore them completely. If they’re testing you, get right in their faces.
Don’t allow any disorder in the hallways. Don’t let them laugh out loud, or voice a strong opinion in class.
Don’t swear, don’t scream. Don’t make threats you can’t keep, but when you know you can deliver on those threats, write everything down, or tape it, or video it. Cover yourself in case of a lawsuit.
You can’t trust anything a student says, they’re just trying to get over on you. You can never trust their parents—what are you crazy?—they’ll lie to your face to defend the little darlings. Remember: parents are the main reason the kids are the way they are, so of course they’ll lie, too.
Don’t give A’s first grading period—where can they go from there?
Don’t expect too much from them—for example, you won’t get completed homework from most. Never mind. Don’t deviate from the assigned curriculum and textbook—someone much smarter than you worked it all out already. Don’t expect any serious work right before lunch or right after lunch, or first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon.
Don’t tell your students anything about your personal life. Don’t let them know who you hang out with or where. Avoid places you might see them at night or on the weekends. Give them your phone number?... Are you out of your mind?
Don’t be too hard on yourself—these kids come from tough circumstances, and what could you do? Blame someone else: blame their parents, blame the system or the legislature or the union the mayor. Or blame your own parents—why not? After all, they blamed your grandparents.
Don’t be a teacher—don’t you know you’ll be overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated? What are you, nuts?

* * *
Amidst this blaring cacophony of settled opinion and received wisdom—what I’ve come to think of as an informal curriculum for the beginning teacher—teaching is somehow to be accomplished.
One noteworthy aspect of these little injunctions is their form: the operative word here is “don’t”. Whether you agree with the content or not—and I reject most of it—these bits of advice fail the test of positive, actionable propositions for beginning teachers: they enclose, discipline, and enforce, but there’s no space in them for forward motion, imagination, creativity, initiative, courage, discovery, or surprise. There’s no acknowledgement of the values, ethical dispositions, wild heart and curious mind necessary to become a great teacher, nor is there any practical advice whatsoever about getting started, nothing about creating a rich and inviting learning environment, not a word about working through the inevitable obstacles. Instead there’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants resignation, as well as concrete reinforcement of the worst aspects of the experience in all-too-many schools, things like contempt for parents, fear of students, lowering expectations, an unhealthy obsession with control, a culture of conformity and complaint. It’s an anticipatory set for mediocrity and failure.
Nor are teacher education programs exempt—the reign of a dull and unhelpful half-language of slogans is not a K-8 phenomenon, but a preschool through graduate school affair, indeed it infects the wider culture and is easily observable, for example, in popular films about teaching. This points to a real problem for teacher educators: if we want our students to break beyond this kind of cramped thinking, how far away from it are we in our own practice? How, for example, are we organizing our teaching in order for our students to experience something different? Do we (or do the structures of our programs) convey, for example, tacitly or not, a lack of trust? Do we or our programs encourage initiative, criticism, or different thinking? If our students have never experienced the transformative power of a trusting relationship in their own learning, how can we expect them to call up or invent such a disposition when they themselves are the teachers?
In any case these ubiquitous maxims are acceded to willingly at times, and grudgingly at other times—occasionally someone openly resists one or another, but it’s not easy. Each carries, after all, the odor of common sense, and there’s nothing more dogmatic nor insistent, more policing and self-promoting, than that.
* * *
I want beginning teachers to resist, to rebel against all of it, to reject these clichés, to stand on their own feet, and to make their way toward the moral heart of teaching at its best. I want them to do what needs to be done—again and again—in order to achieve teaching as an enterprise whose largest purpose is to help every human being reach the full measure of his or her humanity. Teaching as humanization, teaching as a project whose irreducible goal is both further enlightenment for each and greater freedom for all—this is the priceless ideal I want beginning teachers to focus on. To adequately consider that ideal requires moving beyond the fog of the merely given, clearing a free space for challenging the dogma and the orthodoxy that attaches itself to teaching like barnacles, sharp and ugly. What follows, then, is one part manifesto and one part educational agenda, an appeal to consider the larger goals of education and the ethical and intellectual underpinnings of teaching on the one hand, and a modest offering of practical arts for the beginning teacher on the other.
To begin we have to refocus on teaching as intellectual and ethical work, something beyond the instrumental and the linear. We need to understand that teaching requires thoughtful, caring people to carry it forward successfully, and we need, then, to commit to becoming more caring and more thoughtful as we grow into our work. This refocusing requires a leaning outward, a willingness to look at the world of children—the sufferings, the accomplishments, the perspectives and the concerns—and an awareness, sometimes joyous, but just as often painful, of all that we find. And it requires, as well, a leaning inward—in-breathing, in-dwelling—traveling toward self-knowledge, a sense of being alive and conscious in a going world. In each direction, each gesture, we acknowledge that every person is entangled and propelled and sometimes made mute by a social surround, and that each has, as well, a wild and vast inner life—a spirit, a soul, a mind. Going inward without consciously connecting to a larger world leads to self-referencing and worse, narcissism as truth; traveling outward without noting your own embodied heart and mind can easily lead to ethical astigmatism, moral blindness—to seeing children as a collection of objects for use.
I urge teachers to start in a different place, with a faith that every child comes to you as a whole and multidimensional being, much like yourself. Every human being, no matter who, is a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, eating, sleeping, pissing and shitting, prodded by sexual urges, evolved and evolving, shaped by genetics, twisted and gnarled by the unique experiences of living—just like you. Every human being has as well a complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable; each is unique, each walks a singular path across the earth, each has a mother and a father, each with a distinct mark to be made, each is somehow sacred. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies other human beings. It demands that we embrace the humanity of every student—that we take their side. Easy enough to say, excruciatingly difficult to enact in the daily lives of schools.
* * *
Practical Arts I: Shortly after class begins, gather all the students together on a rug, or the floor in an open space, or simply in a circle of chairs—the semblance of a meeting. This special demarcation—a few minutes set aside—will begin and end each day. It will become a regular, anticipated ritual of welcome and farewell.
On this first day introduce yourself, say a few brief words about your shared space and your hopes and expectations for them, and then announce that the class can only function well if everyone is aware of and follows the classroom rules. They were expecting this—eyes are already glazing over.
Pull out a stack of three or four posters, and begin by turning over rule number one. The first few rules are designed to surprise: You can eat in class if you’re hungry (please clean up after yourself); You can chew gum; You can wear your hats; Your desk (or cubby) is your own personal space—keep it as messy or tidy as you please, design or decorate it as you like. That kind of thing.
The final rule is this: We are a learning community—we need to respect one another and one another’s work. We will spend this whole year learning to live together.
All the rules can be posted, but it’s this last rule that will become the focus of conversation, not only on this first day, but day after day from September to June. It creates a standard to stretch toward, and it helps to build a culture of productive engagement. Of course it’s a rule in need of constant attention and clarification, but that’s the point. Instead of delineating every possible misdemeanor, it assumes that mistakes will be made, and we can correct them as we learn together how to get closer to the ideal. It reminds you that “classroom management” and “discipline” are never achieved once and for all, running along happily on automatic pilot. It creates the conditions for the teachable moment.
* * *
In the worlds of schools making students invisible is a sinularly unhealthy accomplishment, aided by tests and grades that function more as autopsies than diagnostics. We have become accustomed to the toxic habit of labeling, focusing relentlessly on presumed and prescribed deficits, failures, and shortcomings. B.D., L.D., A.D.D., T.A.G., D.A.P.—whatever this alphabet soup of signifiers points to, one seemingly unintended consequence is the shrinking of our capacity to see the three-dimensional, contradictory, complex, dynamic, on-a-voyage human beings before us. After all, to his community Harold may be a generous helper, but to his school he is a “reluctant reader”; among her friends Luz is known as an artist and a creative spirit, at school she is reduced to behavior disordered; all around the city Harp is an admired poet, at school he is ADHD. The fact is that each could be both, and a lot else. The labels aggregate when we ought to individualize, pathologize when we might search more vigorously the side of possibility. They are reductive rather than generous—after all people can be both needy and capable, and indeed all of us are. At the very least we might insist that these kinds of representations be written in disappearing ink.
* * *
Practical Arts II: Prepare for the first parent conference by collecting lots and lots and lots of examples of student work. Each student should have an ample folder of material to examine, analyze, and wonder over—and you should look through it with the kids first.
When the parent sits down, pull out the folder and say: I want to look at Zed’s work with you, and tell you a little more about what we’re doing here in class. But you know more about Zed than I will ever know, and so I’d like to start by asking you what you can tell me that will help me become a better teacher to Zed.
By honoring parents as more engaged and more expert about their own kids you can move some distance beyond defensiveness and competition, unlocking a source of valuable, special knowledge about your students. Try it: listen so they will speak, speak so they will listen.
* * *
Every human being is, after all, unfinished, every one of us is in process, in motion, in medias res—moving from place to place, from here to there, migrating, sometimes in patterns and sometimes not, growing, sent into exile on a certain day and on another day returning, learning, changing, seeing old things in surprising new ways, entering strange rooms, coming out, taking right and wrong turns, lost and then found and then lost again, meeting new people, passing through, riding on a bus or a train or a truck or a plane or a bicycle, drawing right and wrong conclusions, finding something, losing something else, practicing, reaching, missing, stretching, going, going, going. This is how we are: incomplete and aware of our incompleteness, on a voyage and on the move.
All of us, then, are actors and subjects, stars of our own lives; each of us is our very own author and inventor, agent and manager, director, curator, coordinator, chief of operations. Each human being is a project, and the human project is a project of inquiry conducted in the world and with one another, a project of restlessness and relentlessness, a ceaseless struggle to know and to be—the primal struggle that begins at birth and only ends with death. We seek the truth; we want to be free. How can we tap into that in our classrooms.
* * *
Practical Arts III: In the first weeks of school find a way to interview each student individually—for example, while folks are involved in some work, sit with one and then another and then another until you’ve covered the whole. Ask them three questions: What do you want to learn in first grade (or this science class)? What do you expect of me as your teacher? (What makes a good teacher?) What do you expect from the other kids? Write down their responses, and work with them in the larger group—you’ve now got the basis of a classroom constitution.
Think of these questions for yourself:
Who am I?
Where am I from?
How did I get here?
What can I do now?
Think of how these four questions could power work in your classroom. They require strategies for reflection, for discovery, for action, for overcoming. They ask you to assume that there is much wisdom in the room, and to co-create some part of the curriculum drawing on personal and community knowledge already there.
Take the first:
Who am I? Whatever and wherever you teach, think of 25 activities (small or sustained) that begin here and would engage kids in learning.
* * *
A commitment to seeing the person requires a radical reversal: teachers whatever else they do, must become students of their students, fully human subjects who become a source of knowledge and information and energy, actors, speakers, creators, constructors, thinkers, doers—a teacher as well as a learner. Together students and teachers explore, inquire, investigate, search, ask questions, criticize, make connections, draw tentative conclusions, pose problems, act, seek the truth, name this and that phenomenon, circle back, plunge forward, reconsider, gather steam, pause, reflect, reimagine, wonder, build, assert themselves, listen carefully, and speak. It doesn’t end.
Becoming a student of her students, the teacher opposes the manipulative reduction of their lives into neatly labeled packages. She resists both the easy embrace of oversimplified identities—a reliance on a single aspect of a life to say it all—and the corrosive gesture of fragmenting lives into conceptually crude categories. Her stance is identification with, not identification of, her students. Her approach is solidarity, not service.
Think of a new mother and infant beginning to nurse. Who is the teacher, who the learner? Look closely. You’ll notice that each is unsure, each committed to figuring it out. The improvisational dance is one of attention, experimentation, adjustment, learning and teaching. The relationship is the thing.
Take a step out from behind the desk, away from the lectern, off the pedestal, and perhaps off the cliff. There is a feeling of vertigo as one looks with new eyes, as the familiar is made strange. There is risk and there is fear—hard work, this never ending attentiveness, this improvisation—but there is satisfaction as well. One frees oneself from the terror of teaching, the dizzying pose of authority. She no longer has to pretend to be a god, all knowing, all powerful, beneficent one minute, punishing the next. She can shed the hypocrisy and phoniness of the authoritative teacher pose and begin to face herself as she really is. She can discover others as they really are, too, and recognize that there is always more to know in all directions—each is after all an unruly spark of meaning making energy. Who in the world are they?
* * *
Human beings—and particularly teachers—are driven by a long, continuous: I don’t know. It’s a tiny phrase that soars on huge and propulsive wings, for it awakens the imagination. It is, after all, not the known that powers us forward; it is, rather peering into the unknown. We must be serious about preparation, hard work, discipline and labor. But we must also cultivate habits of vigilance and awareness, a radical openness, as we continually remind ourselves that in an infinite and expanding universe our ignorance is vast, our finiteness itself all the challenge we ought to need to go further. In this light we nourish an imagination which is defiant and limitless, and like the color blue or love or friendship, ineffable, impossible to define without a maiming reductiveness. It is our gusto, our immersion, our urgency, enthusiasm, and raw nerve that will take us hurling toward the next horizon. We remind ourselves that the greatest work awaits us, and that we are never higher than when we’re not certain exactly where we’re going.
Teachers work toward greater enlightenment; they see knowledge as a form of power, a particular kind of power that can be employed against the naked power of brute force. Knowledge has the power to undermine and, perhaps, to overthrow force. But to do so, knowledge must be freely sought, explicitly linked to moral purposes, and tied to conduct. It must stand for something.
“Objectivity” in teaching, then, is not a self-evident good, not in the twisty, distorted contexts in which we find ourselves. Of course, getting all the evidence one can, and making judgments in light of that evidence, is an important goal. But while a metalurgist would be a fool to tinker or deceive in regard to accurate and reliable measurements, if she determined in advance that she prefers making a plow to a sword, that determination in no way asks for distorted measurements. Just so a teacher: that she prefers peace to war, national rights to occupation, women’s equal rights to patriarchy requires no distortion.
Calls for “balance” in teaching and scholarship, which draw force from a tie to “objectivity”, are similarly peculiar and precarious. If the purpose of education is to seek the truth through evidence and argument, “balance” could only sensibly mean: “Find and present all the evidence you can.” If by “balance” people mean the equal presentation of contradictory perspectives, the classroom becomes little more than a site of incessant bickering. The classroom task is to achieve judgment based on the widest and deepest available evidence. This means open debate, continuous inquiry, dialogue, and, yes, taking a stand.
* * *
Practical Arts IV: Commit some time and some space in your classroom for learning from rather than learning about—learning from nature rather than about nature; from history, from literature, from community; learning from democracy, not about democracy.
A teacher I know in Chicago worked with his fifth graders to identify an issue of concern that they could work to understand and perhaps impact. After much discussion they chose to look at the dilapidated condition of their school: What was the condition of the building? How did it compare to other schools? How did it get this way? How could they document what they were learning? How could they bring about change? The students learned about photography, video, creating a web site, writing, advocacy, public speaking, book-making, graphing, measurement and a lot else. Mostly they learned the power of asking questions of the world and pursuing answers to the outer limits.
* * *
I want beginning teachers to be aware of the stakes, and aware as well that there is no simple technique or linear path that will take them to where they need to go, and then allow them to live out settled teacherly lives, untroubled and finished. There is in fact no promised land in teaching; there is instead that aching, persistent tension between reality and possibility, between vulnerability and culpability.
I want beginning teachers to figure out what they are working for, and what they are working against. I want to work against oppression and subjugation, for example, and against exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness, and I want others to join me in that commitment. I want to work toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my work to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students, my friends, my collaborators, and in the larger worlds that they will inhabit and create.
I want new teachers to commit to a path with a certain direction and rhythm: become a student of your students first, and then create a lively community through dialogue; love your neighbors; question everything; defend the downtrodden; challenge and nourish yourself and others; seek balance.
* * *
Practical Arts V: End each day by asking yourself how you could have done better with this kid or that situation. What alternatives exist? What can I learn from my mistakes? How can I make a better move tomorrow? In the infinitely complex world of teaching there is always something more to know, something more to do. Without self-criticism we risk self-righteousness. Don’t turn into one of those familiar characters in every school who’s seen it all and knows everything: Growth requires doubt.
Begin each day forgiving yourself for your failures and your short-comings. Start over in this corner of this room. Without self-forgiveness we risk burning out.
The best staff development is horizontal not vertical. It, too, unlocks the wisdom in the room, the tacit knowledge of teachers talking about teaching with other teachers. Develop a small group of teachers willing to talk together about the content and the conduct of your work. Meet once a week or once every other week for at least an hour. Each meeting should focus on one teacher. For ten minutes she describes her learning environment and the rhythm of her day. For ten minutes the group offers feedback and reactions. For the next fifteen minutes she describes a student through that student’s work, and again there is an opportunity to reflect and talk back. That’s it—no whining, no focus on the bureaucratic—attention to students, to the environment, to pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment; a relentless focus on those things we can control.
* * *
“If I only had a home…a heart…a brain…the nerve.” The four hopeful seekers skipping together down the yellow brick road toward Oz sing their desires to one another and to the heavens. Each has diagnosed for him or herself a deficiency, identified a lack, recognized a need. Each has become painfully conscious of something missing, a hole in need of repair. Each is stirred to action against an obstacle to his or her fullness, and each gathers momentum and power from the others, from intimate relationship forged through collective struggle.
This is not a bad start for beginning teachers seeking a vocabulary of basics in their quest for wholeness and for goodness in teaching—a home, a heart, a brain, the nerve. There is more, to be sure, but these can send you skipping down your own yellow brick roads into the beyond.
Teaching is intellectual and ethical work; it takes a thoughtful, reflective, and caring person to do it well. It takes a brain and a heart. The first and fundamental challenge for teachers is to embrace students as three-dimensional creatures, as distinct human beings with hearts and minds and skills and dreams and capacities of their own, as people much like ourselves. This embrace is initially an act of faith—we must assume capacity even when it is not immediately available or visible—because we work most often in schools where aggregating and grouping kids on the flimsiest evidence is considered common sense, where the toxic habit of labeling youngsters on the basis of their deficits is a commonplace. A teacher needs a brain to break through the cotton wool smothering the mind, to see beyond the blizzard of labels to this specific child, trembling and whole and real, and to this one, and to this. And a teacher needs a heart to fully grasp the importance of that gesture, to recognize in the deepest core of your being that every child is precious, each induplicable, the one and only who will ever walk the earth, deserving of the best a teacher can give—respect, awe, reverence, commitment.
A teacher who takes up this fundamental challenge is a teacher working against the grain—you have got to have the nerve. All the pressures of schooling push teachers to act as clerks and functionaries—interchangeable parts in a vast and gleaming and highly rationalized production line. To teach with a heart and a brain—to see education as a deeply humanizing enterprise opening infinite possibilities for your students—requires courage. Courage is a quality nurtured in solidarity with others—it is an achievement of colleagues and allies. In order to teach with thought and care and courage, you really need a home.
The four seekers lurching toward Oz provide one other lesson for us. We can all constantly work to identify obstacles to our freedom, to our fullness. The obstacles will change as we develop and grow, but there is always more to know, always more to become, more to do. In our quest we can all reach out for allies and friends to give us the strength and power to move on. And we can now know in advance that there is no wizard at the end of the road, no higher power with a magic wand to solve our all-too-human problems. Recognizing that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions, and that waiting for the lawmakers, the system, or the union—or any other fraudulent great power hidden behind a heavy curtain—to save us or to get it right before we ourselves get it right is to wait a lifetime. We can look inside ourselves, summon strengths we never knew we had, connect up with other teachers and parents and kids to create the schools and classrooms we deserve—thoughtful places of decency, sties of peace and freedom and justice. We are on the way, then, to our real Emerald Cities.
In your classroom as in your life, the relationships you build are most important. Make them mutual. Listen with the possibility of being changed; speak with the possibility of being heard.
Practical Arts VI: Pay attention to the environment for learning. The environment, after all, trumps the lesson plan in almost every instance. Create a literate environment—a space of language and words, of speaking, of writing and reading—and you are more likely to help students be more literate.
In a lovely French documentary film called To Be and to Have, a middle-aged, one-room-schoolhouse teacher in rural France cares for a dozen or so youngsters who appear to range in age from five or six to about twelve. The film opens with a long, still shot of the empty classroom—chairs on desks, brightly painted pictures everywhere, plants, photographs, pencils and markers. It is the classroom at rest, and one anticipates a sudden explosion of youthful energy as the day begins. But the camera lingers. And then, without fanfare, a turtle steps out from beneath a bookshelf, and then another. We watch the two plod slowly across the floor in a ponderous point, counterpoint.
The dance of the turtles is a metaphor for George Lopez’s teaching: things are slow, nothing is hurried. In a world of instant everything, of moving sidewalks and staircases, of fast food and processed words, Lopez acknowledges that the growth of a human being takes times. There is time to become deeply involved, time to pursue objects, time to make and correct mistakes, and time to resolve the little conflicts that will always erupt in a group. There is little evidence of the characteristic superficial encounter and the hurried plan—minutes here, minutes there—the curriculum of “I know; you don’t know.” All five senses are engaged, big kids helping younger students, everyone with responsibilities, expectations, jobs, goals, and limits. There’s a palpable feel of growth and change, an exhilaration that our classroom now is not as it was yesterday, nor as it will be tomorrow, and neither are the students or the teacher. They are on a voyage with no clear beginning and no end in sight.
In a second-grade classroom I visited in Chicago I saw a job chart, a cleanup chart, a free-time chart, and a chart of favorite books; a street map, a transit map, and several distinctly different world maps sharing space with student-made maps of the classroom, the neighborhood, and their own homes; a cooking area with a “juice bar” and colorful posters depicting “Noodles,” “Chile,” “Mushrooms,” “Cheeses of the World,” and “Natural Dyes”; each child’s specific self-authored and handmade stamp, diary dictionary, thesaurus, “tiny books,” icon, math books, puzzles, and board games; puppets; blocks; a bowl of leaves; a sofa and a rug; two large tree stumps; and a bin of scrap wood. Like Lopez’s classroom the environment felt rich and deep, inviting and potentially engaging. I was dazzled by all the little things I had never seen or thought of before—the idea of a self-selected icon for each child, a symbol such as a sun or a toothbrush, which appeared next to the child’s name on the board, the cubby, and books and papers, struck me as a smart addition to early reading; all the personalized handmade books extending even these very young students’ sense of themselves as creators and authors. But what impressed me most with this collection of artifacts wasn’t this or that piece in particular. Rather there was a strong sense that this learning space was the intentional design of a particular intelligence, that the architect of the environment had a purpose and a vision for her students and herself, and that her hopes, priorities, and commitments—moral, intellectual, social, individual—were evident in dazzling detail in her classroom.
* * *
In your classroom as in your life, you will encounter obstacles and opposition that you must find a way to resist. Don’t be a Cassandra—whiny, unpleasant, and unheard. But, yes, do speak the truth as you see and understand it to power, find allies, and act on what the known demands.
In your classroom as in your life, what you do out of generosity and mutual love will be mostly the right thing to do.

2006 Carolina SHOUT: Act III

Introduction: The most innovative and propulsive celebration of teaching that I know is the brainchild of Craig Kridel, the brilliant Renaissance man and professor at the University of South Carolina, and it's called CAROLINA SHOUT! Here's a write up from Spring, 2006.

The drama of education is always a narrative of change. Act I is life as we find it—the given, the known or the received, the already settled and assumed, the status quo. But there’s always something more to do, something more to learn and to know, something more to experience and accomplish. Act II is the fireworks, the wild upheaval and the crazy dissonance, the vast experience of discovery and surprise, the intense energy of remodeling and refashioning. Act III is the achievement of an altered angle of regard, new ways of knowing and behaving, a different way of seeing and being. Transformation. Act III, of course, will one day be recast as a new Act I, and the never-ending journey toward the new will begin again. Teaching changes lives.
This sense of growth and change, learning and transformation, fireworks and upheaval, was on full display at the 2006 CAROLINA SHOUT! This was Act III, and it channeled all the love and hope, all the hugs and tears from Acts I and II, with some spice and flavor—like any home-cooked meal—all its own.
Kenny Carr and the Tigers, founding partners, co-authors and co-conspirators with Craig Kridel in this most unique and uplifting testimonial to teachers, have become pit orchestra and indispensable cultural marker for the SHOUT. When Kenny hit it, the line of horns came blasting to life, and everyone leapt up, our spirits rising in righteous appreciation. It was a joy to behold.
Ten-year-old Aileene Roberts shouted out with remarkable poise and grace for her teacher Ms. Tiffany Smith, whose tiny baby son Jeremiah stole the show as well as the hearts of those of us who took turns holding him during the proceedings. Traci Young Cooper, national Teacher of the Year in 2001, honored her Columbia High School French teacher, Madame Lilease Hall, this diminutive yet regal presence who “opened worlds to us,” and believed that her students could overcome any barriers to their dreams. And Craig Melvin, WIS news anchor, thanked Doug Brandon and Michael Fanning for never giving up on kids, and for creating idiosyncratic environments that were filled with interesting, provocative, and nourishing opportunities to learn, and kept him engaged in spite of his predilections to do otherwise.
A sense of opportunity and renewal—for individuals, for whole communities and societies—was at the heart of it all, the ineffable magic drawing our spirits back to the classroom and the school again and again. Like these students and their teachers, we felt ourselves becoming more powerfully and self-consciously alive, challenged toward further knowledge, enlightenment, and human community, toward liberation.
Here was a faith that every child and every student and every teacher as well comes as a whole and multidimensional being—a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, evolved and evolving, shaped by genetics, twisted and gnarled by the unique experiences of living. Each has as well a complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. Each is unique, each walks a singular path across the earth, each has a mother and a father, each with a distinct mark to be made, and each is somehow sacred. That insight, that understanding is something worth shouting about. SHOUT!