Monday, April 14, 2014

Tremendous Power

"As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized." {Haim Ginott}

Today I cleaned out my art room. I had plans to dump a whole bunch of things, but as I sifted through materials, I realized I needed only to let go of the dried markers and a few other miscellaneous items that had been around too long.  Mostly, I took the time to examine much of what I had saved over time. (I was even happy to find a couple of items I thought I had tossed.)

Amongst the items I examined were a half dozen laminated quotes I had hung in my classroom when I was a teacher. I was struck by the acumen of Haim Ginott's words. the quote is so on-target and I have such awareness of this, even now, when I visit classrooms. I shuddered a little to think of the tremendous power teachers hold when I reread those words.

I went about my cleaning, organizing deliberately-torn paper for collages, sorting through broken pieces of pottery, lining up odd-sized and rough-cut boards that may one day become the backdrop for an art piece. Then I came across a journal of my son's I had saved. He was about six when he started it. It included several stories about how he had spent his days. Some fiction, others nonfiction, invented spellings. He had a journal entry or two. And I recalled, in detail, the time he was in first grade and  his new reading teacher had called me. He had just moved to a higher reading level; he was motivated and doing well. The call caught me completely off-guard. The teacher was actually offended that my son had "scared the class," as she put it. How so? She explained that he felt like he needed to throw up during a spelling test and asked to go to the nurse. The teacher felt he should finish his spelling test first. He scared the class when he asked the teacher if he was going to die. It sounded like he actually had a panic attack about the possibility of vomiting in the classroom.  She admitted to feeling annoyed by his reaction. Remember, he was six. The struggle went on long enough that his old reading teacher next door came in and took over. I don't remember if he got to see the nurse. The teacher was shocked when I told her he had vomited the night before. She told me it would have been helpful for her to know, but I hadn't given it a second thought when it happened. He had been having fun rolling down a hill in our backyard, and went to school feeling fine. I also vividly remember telling the teacher that my son and I read every night since he had been born, and he loved to write and kept his own journals. I told her that day I was afraid his motivation would not last in that climate. I have revisited this conversation in my head countless times in the nine years since it took place. It had been so jarring. But I had not visited the journals very often at all. I had begun to think I had made them up, especially since my son has no interest in writing now.

I then came across another journal, a "manual" my son had written. It was a verbatim script for teachers to read when administering a standardized test as he remembered it. It was two, full, college-ruled pages with correct spellings. It was almost identical to what they actually say; I have administered these tests many times. I was blown away by the attention to detail and by the fact that he had retained it all and managed to write it so succinctly. It was his manual for playing school, he had labeled the cover. He was probably no older than eight or nine when he wrote it and in second or third grade. By fourth grade he stopped playing school and stopped writing for fun.

I reflected on words of this smart, creative child, the academic world was his oyster when he wrote in those journals. And then I reflected on the self-made manual he used to emulate his teachers. It was very telling of what his education would become, a world of tests. School has been a antipathetic road for him. Most of the time he has been unhappy  there, though each day he puts his best foot forward and tries his hardest. He is taking two advanced placement and three honors classes right now, his own doing, goals he has sets for himself. He struggles to keep up with the work load and to learn in the lecture and notes format that is so counterintuitive to him, and always has been. He has largely had his individuality and creativity cast aside in favor of conformity and standardization. A line from his own manual grabs me: "We will now move on but together. The first one is hard so listen close and do what I say."

This RSA animation on a Ted talk by Sir Ken Robinson about changing the paradigms of education shows and explains what happens to children in our public education system better than I ever could. I mostly become paralyzed when I try to convey what I have witnessed, still witness. SO WORTH A WATCH:

Here is Sir Ken Robinson's full TED Talk:

It is painful to reflect back on what has happened in the name of education for my son. All I can do is trust that his he is smart, guided, protected and will turn out all right in spite of it all. All I can do is work with the children who  I receive for tutoring "as a last resort" and do my best to make sure they are humanized in this very mechanized educational system they are subjected to. Just today, as I was writing this, I received an email from the director of tutoring asking me to work with a child who is experiencing mental illness. Attuned educators, parents, and even a few lawmakers, are speaking out about the state of education in America today. We all have to keep speaking up about what we know to be right in our hearts and hope that the voice of reason will reach the right ears with the momentum that is needed to make a change.