Archive for the ‘Teachers and teaching’ Category

If I were to design a test for the effectiveness of schools (and I won’t), one of the questions that everyone (teachers, students, administrators, staff) would have to answer would be, “How many people can you name?”. The more people everyone can name, the better the school.

Faceless and nameless doesn’t work in a learning environment, and when you read about the consolidation of schools to save money, you know it’s going the wrong way. The more people, the fewer of them you really know. When you know the people around you, and you feel part of a community, you care more about what happens.

There’s an editorial in the New York Times yesterday talking about the success of small schools in NYC. When large high schools were broken up to smaller theme-based schools, student performance went up (and not by some shaky test measurement, but by attendance and graduation rates).

Of course, this makes me think, “Well, duh”. It’s so obvious we shouldn’t have to say it. But it needs to be said. You can put all of this under the heading of “Things we know, but don’t pay attention to”.

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I know, I know, I know. It’s dark out there. The BP oil spread (not spill) is like an incubus sitting on our souls, reminding us of how dark things are and what we have wrought. Afghanistan. Iraq. Global warming. Corporate greed. And the clock is ticking. What chance do we have to turn this thing around?

And yet….and yet.

Like Dickens wrote “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…a time of great hope, a time of great despair.” When I pay attention, I’m constantly being reminded of the things that are happening that have never happened before. Good things, that show something might change in a way we can barely dream of. Here are three:

Zack Lieberman (son of my friend and fellow storyteller Syd Lieberman) has found a way to use computers to enable disabled folks and others to do things that seem impossible. Zack says he wants to replace DIY (do it yourself) with DIWO (do it with others). Here’s a video of him talking about his work:

My lifelong pal Dave Kidney told me about a young guy from Vermont (now in Troy, NY), Eben Bayer, who has figured out how to create insulation from leftover plant material (soybeanhusks, peanut shells, whatever) and mushrooms – no Styrofoam, just organic substance created on the site. He’s talking to Ford and other corporations about how to use it in their products. Talk about low impact – here he is talking about that.

Finally , in the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Stern reviews Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet and says that despite the dire situation, significant movement is being made towards humanity’s addressing global warming. The governments are moving, albeit slowly, and innovation, like that I mention above, will make a difference. We are being asked to do something together in a way humanity never has before. And people are trying – finding new ways to collaborate and develop.

So, today, I’m not wallowing in despair. Oh sure, tomorrow I’ll walk around with a cloud over my head. But hope is just as reasonable as despair.

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I’m working on the list of songs for a family folk song album I’ll be recording this summer and am thinking back to the songs I liked to sing when I was in elementary school. One that I loved was a version of “The Titanic” I learned from other kids on the school bus. They learned it at camp.

“Oh they built the ship Titanic
And when they were all through
They thought they had a ship
That the water wouldn’t go through
But the Lord’s almighty hand
Said the ship would never stand
It was sad when the great ship went down

It was sad (so sad)
It was sad (so sad)
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the…)
Husbands and wives
Little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down

And that’s just the start. It’s all downhill from there. There’s drinking (“the captain said, bring the whiskey from the hold!”) and class strife: “the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put ‘em down below, where they were sure to go”.

I loved this song – very singable (great descant on “husbands and wives” when it goes to the dominant chord). And the story was so compelling – completely fascinating for an eight or nine year old. The lesson of hubris taught in four or five verses – the horror of the headlines put to melody. When I read “A Night to Remember” a year or two later, I already knew the broad outlines of the story and got more out of the book.

But – does it go on the recording? I’d like to put it there – I know many kids would love it – and grown-ups too, for that matter. But is this family fare? It would be (and was) for my family. But lot of families probably don’t want death and destruction on a family album, and I understand that. The three year old is listening with the nine year old.

“Who died?” comes the little voice from the car seat in the back.

“No one you know,” says the dad. “It’s just a song.” Hoping that is enough.

“Why did the ship sink?” the voice continues.

“It hit an iceberg.”

“Are there icebergs here? How many people died? Did we know them?”

An insistent voice, because, well, death is compelling. Who wants to explain it all to a four year old? Especially when you’re tired at bedtime.

But I also know that putting these things in the context of a song presents them in a way that people can look at them. Children deal with mortality and hubris, loss and injustice all the time, and songs like “Titanic” give them a framework to begin to think those things through.

And who’s going to sing those songs if we don’t? Is it all rainbows and ponies?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I have to answer it in the next couple of weeks. At least for this recording.

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I got an e-mail from a friend that she is losing her position as school librarian – as a matter of fact, all the elementary school librarians in her district are losing their jobs. While the idiocy of this move astounds me, it really made me think of something else that happened to me a couple of months ago. What happened goes part of the way towards explaining why schools don’t have librarians.

I found myself sitting at a gate at Midway Airport in Chicago, waiting for the plane to board to Providence. Next to me was an older couple – I’m guessing late sixties. I struck up a conversation and asked if they were headed home.

No, said the man, they were just going to visit relatives. They used to live in the Rhode Island area.

“Where do you live now?” I asked

“South Dakota”, he answered.

“Wow,” I said. “South Dakota. How long have you lived there?”

“Three years,” he answered.

“You must have moved for family,” I guessed.

“No,” he harrumphed. “No family there.”

“Oh, “ I said, a little perplexed. “Why’d you move there? Work?”

“No, we retired there,” he said.

“Retired to South Dakota. Why?” I asked. No slam on South Dakota. I’ve been there a number of times and liked it, but it’s not your typical retirement spot.

“No taxes,” he said.

“You moved so you wouldn’t have to pay taxes?”

“Nothing compared to what we had to pay where we were. We were sick of paying taxes.”

His wife nodded. “We did the research and found the place where we would have to pay the least taxes. We live in the cheapest place in the country.”

“Do you still have family in Rhode Island?” I asked. I was trying to reorient to the whole notion of moving away from your home and community because you didn’t like the tax structure.

“We go to see her family,” the man nodded at his wife. “I don’t care if I go back.”

“You must live in a nice town, and made some friends,” I said.

“No,” the man said, “It’s a real small town – only a thousand. And we live outside of town and don’t really know anybody.”

“Do you see anybody?” I asked. This was all sounding kind of desperate. If they were in the federal witness protection program, I could understand it, but…

“Well,” the man said, “we brought her mother out with us. She’s ninety and lives in a nursing home about ten miles away.”

I was really trying to find something encouraging to say but it sounded like a nightmare to me. I was wondering how excited his mother-in-law was about leaving her family and home behind to move to South Dakota and live by herself in a nursing home. “That’s quite a change,” I said.

“We got a good sized house and we don’t have to pay property taxes. We don’t pay any taxes,” he said. She nodded.

“Oh,” I said.

“No taxes,” he said definitively. She nodded. They were both quite proud of the fact they had pulled this off.

I thanked them for their conversation, then got up and moved.

I suppose it is fine to try to pay less taxes, or at least not pay more than you have to. And I don’t want government to be wasteful (in my case, a few less bombers would be fine, thank you). And there may be more to their story than I was told – I know that people are strapped by the economy. But with that said, this attitude mystifies me. It seems that the refusal to pay taxes, and the decision to abandon a lifetime of community to avoid paying taxes, is put forth as a virtue. I didn’t get the impression that these folks absolutely couldn’t, but that they felt they shouldn’t have to pay taxes and they didn’t want to. The decision to balance government budgets by cutting programs because we won’t pay taxes is laid out in terms of acting responsibly. In my own town meeting I’ve heard it couched in terms of not passing a debt onto our children.

From another perspective though (and that would be mine), it just seems selfish. There is another debt we’re passing on when we don’t want to pay taxes anymore. As a result of our refusal to pay our share, and to show concern for others in our community, we cut the librarians, and let go of teachers. We do this under the guise of responsibility, but that’s not what it looks like to me. Libraries don’t really work without librarians. Schools don’t really work without libraries. Kids don’t learn well with thirty students in a class. And civilizations don’t really work without educated people.

Even in South Dakota.

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This week in my day at Paul Cuffee School, I wrote and recorded a song with each second grade class. This may sound fairly impressive, but it’s really a pretty straightforward process if you remember to keep it simple. The songs will not make the hit parade, and in fact, unless they’re sung at an all school meeting, probably won’t be heard outside the classroom where they were created. But they have a real value within that classroom.

I told the kids that I wanted them to write a song about their class and the things they did in it. The first thing we did was brainstorm as many different things about their class as they could think of. They started with general things you could say about almost any class – we like our teacher (always a good thing to say!), we study math, we have recess. But I pushed them to come up with things that made their class different. Someone said, “We study the arctic!” Someone said, “The other classes study the arctic too!” Everyone nodded in agreement. Now they were thinking.

In Rob Pike’s class someone said, “We have worms and flies!” Then they explained that they were growing worms and turning garbage into soil by having the worms pooping. Interestingly enough, the word “pooping” didn’t send anyone into paroxysms of laughter – Mr Pike had discussed the virtues of worm poop enough that it seemed like an everyday thing. Which it is.

There was a discussion about popcorn parties. Mr. Pike uses some simple behavior mod in the class, adding shells to a jar when a good thing happens in the class. When the jar is full, there’s a popcorn party. That was different from other classes.

With those discussions things got more specific, and we had material to work with.

I saved a lot of time in the songwriting process by using the melody of a song everyone already knew. In Rob Pike’s class, I used “This Little Light of Mine”. In Donna Raymond’s, we used “Aiken Drum,” and in Sarah Rich’s, we used “This Land is Your Land.” Having a melody and song structure already set up made it a lot easier to get the kids thinking like songwriters. When they would come up with a line they wanted to use, we had to find a way to fit in the correct number of beats. This can be pretty challenging (even for people who call themselves songwriters), and the kids need some help on this – they began to learn if the rhythm was right or wrong and could identify the difference, but needed help in finding the right phrasing.

Everytime we found a phrase that worked we wrote it down on the flip chart and sang it – the kids got more excited as they saw the song take shape.

I should add here that songs like “Aiken Drum” or “This Little Light” are great ones for beginning songwriting, since all the kids need is one good line, which gets repeated three times, and a finishing line that is the name of the song. There’s not a need to worry about rhyming in this structure – the kids an focus on content and rhythm

We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
Playing and learning every day

After that general line, we moved on to truly unique ones like:

“We have slimy worms, pooping in our class”
“We have popcorn parties when the shell jar’s full”
and my favorite
“We’re all different colors, we don’t really care”

Like I said, not rocket science, but the kids began to understand how the process worked. I’m not completely happy with the last line (“Playing and learning every day”)– they were having trouble saying everything they wanted to say, and I suggested it in the interests of time– it’s pretty trite and it’s my fault. I really try to have the kids not settle for a line that is untrue or doesn’t quite fit in the rhythm of the line.

“This Land is Your Land” is more challenging, because rhyming is necessary, and to be strict with the rhyme, you have to find three words that rhyme, and that can leave you with some lines not quite perfect
In our class, we have a sail (on the wall as a backdrop)
We study fish, we study whales
We work so hard, we never fail
This class was made for you and me

Here, I wasn’t so happy with the “never fail” line, but a kid suggested it and everyone liked it – of course they fail sometimes, we all fail, but… And it was pretty interesting brainstorm words that rhyme with “class”. I stopped that discussion.

So, in twenty minutes we had come up with a bunch of lines that scanned. We sang it through a couple of times. And then, the beauty of software. I set my laptop up on the chair I’d been sitting on, turned on Garage Band, sat on the floor with the kids and we all sang the song together. The microphone built into my computer was completely adequate for what we were doing. My voice is too present, but with such a short period of time, I figured the kids needed my voice as a guide and prompt. A couple more run throughs and they could have sung it on their own. And probably are. We recorded a couple of takes, I listened back at lunchtime, chose one, and burned it to a cd. The kids were excited and wanted to sing it for the whole school.

The benefits of this kind of thing include the sense of accomplishment the class feels in doing something together, the growing awareness of who they are as a group of people, and a tool for them to use in the weeks and months ahead – a song they can sing.

And, like I said, this is not rocket science – it’s something a teacher could do, even without a guitar. if you’re worried about your voice, listen to mine on the recording. Muffin Man, Skip to My Lou, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – any familiar melody with a simple lyric structure works. With more time, classes are capable of more complex subjects, structures, and language. But this is a good place to start. Here’s the song I wrote with Mr. Pike’s class:

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I did a school show the other day at 2 pm. There were about two hundred kids sitting in the school auditorium No one died, but it was a dead crowd. Teachers and kids came up afterward and told me that they liked it, but you woudn’t have known it during the show. Most of them sat there, semi-comatose. Great periods of silence. Quite the contrast to the show I had done in the morning. That morning, it seemed I could do no wrong. What was wrong with my show in the afternoon?

I don’t think it was me.

If you’ve been performing for a while, you know a dead room almost immediately – three minutes into the performance, you’re pulling out all your tricks, every thing you’ve learned to get some kind of reaction, but they sit there, deep in their seats, and they ain’t moving for you. It’s just something to get through, and you accept it. It’s not always about me – it’s just where they are.

That show was a dead room. And the truth is, most school shows in the afternoon are much more difficult than the ones in the morning. The teachers don’t react. It’s harder to get the kids to participate. Their attention wanders. Everyone is tired. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they sit.

Generally, I try to avoid doing afternoon shows.

All this has me thinking about the move towards having longer school days. I would like to know whose bright idea this is. Who thinks that kids can learn more than a certain amount in any given day? Who thinks that extending the day will raise the almighty test scores?

Ask any teacher when they teach math and reading. Not at 2:30 in the afternoon, that’s for sure. It’s too late, at that point. As my memory serves me, that was when the health teacher taught us how to brush our teeth – a lesson I was taught every year, and a lesson I still haven’t learned, according to Peggy, my dental hygienist.

More instruction is not the answer to greater learning. It’s a simple answer, and easily instituted (ah, then, perhaps the politicians…), but not an intelligent one. The proof to this is the kids I meet who are taught well at home in a home schooling situation (and not all home schooling situations fit this description). Academics can be handled in a couple of hours, when the kids is alert and attentive. Another class at 2:45 is not going to solve the problems faced by the American educational system.

This observation is so transparent it boggles my mind that there’s any discussion about it. Who does anything well at 2 pm in the afternoon? A good time for a kickball game, I think. Or for doing something with your hands.

There are two arguments for a longer school day – one sad, and one logical, but not really about education. The first is that instituting a longer school day frees adults from having to deal with children for another hour or so. This is the argument for school as warehouses or holding bins – not a particularly positive aspect of education. The other, with more merit, is that for many kids, especially in urban areas, the late afternoon hours are fraught with danger – it’s when kids are most at risk for bad things happening. But this is not really an argument for more instruction, but instead an argument for a safe place for them to be.

Other than that, I don’t know why anyone thinks more hours of school is a good idea.

I sure don’t.

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Last week the NY Times had a great op-ed piece about what schools need to teach. It’s so commonsensical it’s stunning, and  echoes what many of us feel about the current direction of education. Here’s the link – Playing to Learn. The discussion page of the article is good, too.

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Murder, sex and racism - too much for a nine year old?

Last weekend I saw a great production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Second Story Theater in Warren, Rhode Island. In spite of myself, having read the book numerous times, I found myself hoping, even believing, that Tom Robinson would be acquitted. No such luck.

I think the power of “Mockingbird” lies in its point of view – momentous events are seen through the eyes of a child. As such, they have much more power and effect than if they were presented from the point of view of some jaded adult.
But is this a story a kid can understand? Are their really kids like Scout – with so much fortitude and perception? What are they capable of processing?

After the play, I had a discussion with Janice Okoomian, a friend whose son was in the play (the kids were great – kudos to director Mark Peckham) and we talked about what elementary school-aged kids understood about the play. Initially, she watched her son Arek carefully as the play was in rehearsal, wondering how he would process and interpret the events portrayed– events which include murder, rape and the outward expression of a violent racism. She was unsure how much he would understand, and how much she would have to explain. How much should a kid know? Mark, the director, assured her after a couple of weeks of rehearsal that Arek “understood absolutely everything”. But even that presents a question – what does it mean to say he understood everything? Who does?

It left me thinking about what children can handle, and when they can handle it.

Arek is a bright kid, raised by very intelligent parents who treat him with respect. Thre’s a large amount of trust involved in letting a kid be in a play like “Mockingbird”. Still, it’s a lot for a nine or ten year old to handle. In that respect, Arek is a kid like Scout, growing up in the same environment as Scout – Atticus treats the children in his life with respect, dignity, and high expectations. In both cases, the children rise to the occasion, and are better for it.

But I’m thinking that a lot of this has to do with context – you don’t subject kids unnecessarily to gratuitous violence or cruelty, but when it happens, you make sure you’re there for them, helping to place those events and experiences in a broader setting. In the case of theater and story, the moral aspect of the work is incredibly important for a children’s understanding and ability to cope– one reason “Mockingbird” has such resonance with us is its incredible moral dimension. There is no outright victory for justice (a hard lesson for all of us), but there’s never a question of who the heroes are. This is not a cut and dried morality, either, but instead the difficult task of developing a sense of what’s important in life and standing up for it. In the case of “Mockingbird”, it’s Atticus’s explanation that “he couldn’t live with himself” if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson. Kids understand that much, and love Atticus for it – and they see what comes from acting on that belief. Being true to one’s self is no easy road, but Atticus Finch gives us a road map. I know more than one lawyer doing public service work who’s a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.

I also think that Arek and other kids like him (Scout included) will come to understand as much as they need to, and not more. When the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together, they’ll make a new puzzle. Hopefully, with our help.

Exposing kids to this kind of experience and engaging in the following conversation is challenging and time-consuming. And it’s a totally different approach from that of a mother a librarian friend told me about – the mom was upset that her children were reading Captain Underpants, but willingly took her first grade daughter to see Twilight.
What’s wrong with that picture?
She was no Atticus Finch.

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For want of a light bulb, the lesson was lost.....

I’ve been thinking about janitors.

Maybe because I’m waiting to hear from a publisher about a book of mine. It’s a picture book a kid and his interaction with the school janitor (er, custodian – more on that in a second). The kid is afraid of Mr. Rumkowsky, but he has to find his hat, and Mr. Rumkowsky (the janitor – custodian) might have it.

Remember your janitor?

It’s a tongue in cheek joke, but it’s often said that the two people who run any school are the secretary and the janitor. They may not teach, but, in addition, hopefully, to the principal, they are the ones who have an overall view of what is going on in the school.

I know from my work as a visiting artist that if the janitor doesn’t feel like helping, I’m going to have a tough job. Where are the chairs? Can you sweep the floor? – someone spilled their cheese curls. The door is sticking. The radiator in Room 17 isn’t working. The food delivery truck can’t get to the loading dock because someone parked there. Any one of those things will mess up a school schedule, and thereby the learning process in a place that has to manipulate four hundred souls for eight hours.

Janitors are key. Actually – custodians. The folks who do all that necessary, often invisible, work would rather we call them custodians. One of them pointed out to me, “Janitors just clean, I take care of things. Don’t call me a janitor. I’m a custodian.”

And custodian is a nice thought – some one who has custody of a place. Someone who cares for it. Every school needs that.

Which is why I scratched my head when a friend of mine, a school librarian in a local elementary school, told me that they have no custodian. In a penny-wise, pound-foolish move, the system decided to out-source the “custodial services”. Now the hired service comes early in the morning, at lunch time, and late in the afternoon and does their work (exactly as contracted) and has no interaction with the rest of the school staff.

There is, I guess, still a little room where the supplies are kept. Children throw up during the school day, and waiting until 5 pm might be a little much. Remember? The smell makes everyone else throw up. There must be a place to get wood chips.

But if one little thing goes wrong, uh oh.

Life is about things going wrong. Like they say, “Man plans, the universe laughs”.

Like my friend’s overhead projector. The light bulb burnt out. It didn’t work and she needed it. There was no custodian to ask. She looked around the school. No one knew where the replacement bulbs were or how to fix it. Someone in the office told her if she needed a new overhead projector, she could send in a purchase order. Easier to get a new projector than a new bulb?

Her husband came to rescue. He looked at the make of the projector, Googled the company, got the diagram of the projector and ordered the $2 bulb, then replaced it himself.

I guess the spouses of school staff count as community. But it would be nice if the school system paid for that kind of thing.


I’ve talked in earlier posts about schools being gift-giving communities, not businesses. It seems to me that a custodian, or caretaker, is an important part of that. At the school I work at regularly, the Paul Cuffee School, the custodian Henry greets all the kids in the morning. I’m pretty sure it’s not in his job description.

I’m also thinking that the contract custodial service companies have no interest in their employees talking to six year olds.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

Stories about custodians? I’d love to hear them. You can call them janitors, but don’t forget how important they are.

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In storytelling workshops with teachers, I regularly ask them to tell a story about a teacher that had an influence on them. This leads to a discussion about what makes a good teacher, and opens up the door for them to talk about their work in a narrative way. It also emphasizes a notion I mentioned in an earlier blog – the “structure” of teaching is not a political one, but rather an unbroken line through centuries of teachers who influenced people who then became teachers themselves.

What comes out of those teacher stories in the exercise is always interesting. It is usually a story about some kindness offered, or some revealing act on the part of the teacher – something that shows them as a person.

I was doing this exercise last month for a school district in California. When we got back together I asked, “How many of your memories with those teachers had to do with the curriculum?” I looked around. No one spoke, no one raised their hand.

Finally, one of the older teachers said, “It never has anything to do with the curriculum.”

Everyone in the room nodded.

I’ve heard this response before and it makes my point in the workshop that it’s the culture of a classroom or a school that really encourages learning to take place. A kindness given to a student, or a story told, gives them courage to take a chance on learning something, knowing they’ll be supported. It may even encourage them to become a teacher. (Aaagh! Not that!) Without that culture, the best curriculum in the world is going to have problems. Some kids will learn under almost any conditions, but many others, especially ones at risk, are never going to get anywhere without those moments of kindness.

I have in my mind a thought about this. “Love is in between.” It’s not the part you notice, or the time curriculum developers think about. But kindness or openness really acts like mortar in a brick building. You have all these bricks you’re using to construct the building, but something needs to hold them together. We don’t notice the mortar, we notice the bricks. But it’s the mortar, the binding agent, in between the bricks that helps the bricks do their job.

Okay enough metaphor. You get my point, I hope. The kindness, the stories, and the building of community seem like small things, and they certainly are in a formal evaluation of what was learned.

But no mortar, no building.

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