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The World Has a Lot of Children

The world has a lot of children--rich and poor-- every one of them wants to learn unless they are discouraged from learning. Joyce, a friend of mine, works with little ones in the Bronx as an ESL teacher. The school is "failing," and the powers that be are desperate to save it. Their solution is more jargon, more restraint on experienced teachers, more testing of the kids, more evaluation of the teachers, more day-to-day interruptions with memos and meetings.

Dear Reader, this is a polemical post today, please forgive me, but I am appalled by what Joyce has been telling me. She has asked for an alias, so she is Joyce for now. "Anyone will know it is me," she told me. She wants to keep working in the school. On top of all her other obligations, she doesn't need an encounter with the powers that be.

Joyce is devoted, well-trained and experienced. She uses her background as an actor and pastry chef in the classroom. She has an after-school cooking program and takes the kids on trips. She is bi-lingual and communicates easily with parents. She takes photographs, records stories, makes individualized books. When she runs into her students on the streets they are excited to see her and she is excited to see them. Why, then, hasn't she been able to teach in her classroom since April? Because of constant testing and evaluation.

The education and protection of children is a universal human right as codified in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26 and elsewhere). Never before in my career as an educator have I questioned whether the United States is fulfilling this mandate. But I do now. Every term more and more students enter my workshops disabled by our failing educational system. Some can barely speak or write; they have no confidence and inadequate knowledge. When I begin to talk about reading to raise their knowledge base, they seem dumbfounded. Eventually they get it: they have been attending public, tax-funded schools but not getting an education. The Chinese and European students in my classes often know more, write better English and are more disciplined. This is more than embarrassing; it is shameful. All these skills can and should be taught in our schools.

When there is a war or a disaster, Unicef quickly sets up a full range of services for children in "child-friendly spaces," designed by a relief-worker friend, MacKay Wolff, and his team during his stint in Albania during the war in Kosovo. The brochure generated for this project reads, in part: "Children want and need to learn. Education of good quality is the most effective and efficient means societies have for organising learning opportunities which will assure that their children have the knowledge and skills they need to survive, develop and participate. Good education is, therefore, good for children."

Volunteers descend on the disaster zone for as long as the donations keep coming in and the schools flourish. There’s determination, a battlefield mentality. Perhaps that’s what we need in our collapsing urban school systems. That said, teachers like Joyce are already there on the front line doing their best with limited resources. Confused bureaucrats now monitor their every attempt at helping the children in their care.

Last Saturday, after a pleasant afternoon with my family at The New York Botanical Garden, and a leisurely meal at an upscale restaurant in the garden, we headed back to Manhattan from the Bronx. The GPS went haywire and we ended up driving down Webster Avenue, under the railroad tracks past Jerome Avenue. This is not a privileged neighborhood; it's the Third World. Joyce's school is not far from here, I thought. This is how the children she teaches have to live. They are as much at risk as the children in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Congo or Nepal.  Read More 
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The Evolving Classroom

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two
evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
5. After 10 hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every teacher should lay aside from each day’s pay a goodly sum of his earning for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Taken from One-Room Schools of Knox County, by the Knox County Retired Teachers Association

I started my teaching career in an Oakland, Ca high school, far from 19th Century Knox County, KY in time and place, far from the contemporary one-room or open-air schoolhouses in Afghanistan or Central Africa, their orthodoxy, their restraints, their children studying earnestly by rote and recitation. Most of my registered students were either football players, cheerleaders, truants, or members of gangs. They were privileged, if only they had known it. Far from war zones. Far, still, from economic hard times. Yet they were accustomed to boredom at school, and rage at their teachers, expressed as belligerence, or indifference. They cheated, threatened, fled. The words effort and self-respect were lost to them.

According to my California State Teaching License (Secondary) I was qualified to teach English and American History. There were required text books, a state curriculum, and too many desks crammed into a box-shaped room, albeit a clean one. It was before the days of high security, but there were incidences--kids packing, kids threatening, kids expelled. I took a look at my contract, consulted with the beleagured principal, the brain-dead, burned out heads of my departments and my union, and decided I could risk doing what I wanted. The kids—and I was still nearly a kid—were restive. I was over-confident, politicized. I knew I’d only be at the school for a year; my husband and I were headed to Europe, graduate school, travel, writing. So I tore the envelope, I made my own plans. The challenge was to make theater out of the classroom, to bring it alive, to make it real.

All that year, I went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke at 3 a.m. to read what my students had written; they submitted 500 words a day. Needless to say, I had more than one class and each class had more than 25 students. Because I was so young, I dressed in suits and pulled my hair up into a sophisticated “do.” I carried a bag lunch and never left the classroom; my door was always open for conversation and consultation—with other skeptical teachers, with students. In my English class I broke the desks out of rows into a seminar style and placed a Socratic stool at the center. I read up on Socratic dialogue and danced patterns onto the chalk board. I invested in an anthology of short stories and began the term with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I insisted that my students write all day long, that they take notes on what they were thinking as they worked and talked, what occurred to them. And not just in my classroom, in every classroom. In my American History class, we made costumes and conducted a Constitutional Convention. The ancestors of my students would have been slaves. So how to deal with that? More conversation. Word got out and some of the truants returned. Here was a teacher—little ole me—who understood something the “ school system” didn’t. No test at the end of the year could measure this. Most of all I was touched by the effort the students made, how much they wanted to learn. I had heard they were lazy—far from it. They worked to exhaustion, and so did I.

And it is with the memory of this wonderful early teaching experience—and many others since—that I enter my classroom at NYU every term. I am always so happy to be there, to meet my new students: who will they be? What will they be interested in? Will they commit, make effort, respond well to the constantly evolving, dynamic classroom? Will they continue writing when the workshop is over?
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