Last week I presented at the International Reading Association’s Annual Conference. My session focused on ways that elementary school teachers can, without really trying, integrate spontaneous, fun creative writing exercises and art projects into their daily curriculum and, in the process, tick off more of those dreaded standards that have become the end-all, be-all of our education system. I’ve actually boiled these creative, little projects down to a mere fifteen minutes per week which, I believe, can change a day, a week, even an entire school year. If you read this blog, then you know I’m also a huge proponent of FUN and think that it’s becoming an endangered species in our nation’s schools, so that’s a big part of what I’m trying to pass on… fun. I’m even cooking up a big, fun, two-day fun and learning extravaganza this summer just for teachers called Teaching Out Of The Box. Did I mention it’s going to be fun? Check it out.
I live a hybrid professional life and I don’t expect anyone to take my advice with the sense that I could possibly know what’s best for them. And, I realize that there are those who hear me and think, what does she know, she’s not in a classroom every day. That’s true, I’m not in a classroom every day. But, I am in a lot of classrooms, a lot of different classrooms, each and every year. I meet hundreds of teachers and thousands of children and I get to experience a really wide variety of learning environments, which has been so valuable to developing my school programs and an amazing influence on my philosophy. If I had to name what I think is most important about the parts of my life that matter most– being a parent, being an educator, being an author– the answer would be simple: it’s all about the kids. Unfortunately, I find that what’s really best for kids is too often missing from our conversations about education.
At the IRA, I was pleased to attend a session given by the folks at Read Write Think. They had a dynamic session where they presented ways to include poetry writing in with one of the newest acronyms in education, STEM. The STEM Initiative is one that aims for excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I am not at all opposed to achievement in any of these areas but I can’t help but notice the arts are conspicuously missing from the lineup. Just sayin. If you go to the Read Write Think website, you will find many interesting ideas to liven up your lessons and after just spending an hour with the four enthusiastic presenters they had, I felt really excited to try some of their ideas out before the end of the school year and I don’t even teach math!
I also heard David Booth speak for the New Jersey based, RETA (Reading Excellence Through the Arts). David Booth is Professor Emeritus in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto and one of the leading experts on literacy in Canada, specifically, engaging the reluctant reader. You can find an interview with him at Just One More Book. He did one of my favorite things that any presenter of educational topics could do, which is to bring student samples to show us. He made us laugh and I could have listened to his classroom stories for hours. He understands kids on their level which is wonderful to see, and he made us all feel empowered about going back to the classrooms we work in.
But, somewhere in the middle of the day, I went to see one of my all time favorite children’s book author and illustrators. The IRA brings in lots of different authors to do one hour presentations and this particular one has a special place in my heart for two reasons. The first is that both of my children loved, loved, loved her books. I’m not sure if there was any other author we read more or quoted more in our day to day lives. We even named our dog after one of her main characters. The other reason is that I admire her as a book creator and have always looked to her as one who has consistently attained the magical mix of ingredients that make for a sensational, thirty-two page masterpiece. She writes sparsely but still fully characterizes her characters and she so skillfully conveys a feeling rather than a “lesson” with her texts. Her illustrations are a delight for children and adults, and are full of that second layer of storytelling that the best books always have.
I would have liked to hear this author talk more about her characters or her own childhood. I would have liked to look at more slides of book ideas or even pictures of her own family. I would have even liked to hear her tell stories of what’s wrong with the book business or where she thinks publishing is headed. What I wish I didn’t hear, however, was her version of what’s wrong with today’s classroom because, as I interpreted it, her opinion was that it was really mostly the parents fault. Parents who don’t come to conferences, parents who don’t enforce homework, parents who don’t spend time with their kids, parents who let their kids watch TV (except for her show, which is OK because it’s “wholesome” television, she actually said that), parents who make little monsters out of their kids and then expect the schools to fix them (“monster” is my word, not hers, but the parent in me was feeling pretty defeatist by the end).
I’m a teacher and a parent and I really struggled with hearing all of this rather angry talk. Because I’ve been in so many schools, I know that this kind of shop-talk is what makes a group of professionals cohesive and is often what lends a common “go team” attitude to what can often be a thankless job. But, I couldn’t help but feel that we are at a point right now where this kind of rhetoric has consistently dimishing returns, especially at a place where people have come to glean new ideas. I was disappointed that with everyone we have in the mix–the government, state officials, testing boards, textbook companies–she chose to use her time to assist in making friction between the two factions who are “down on the ground,” so to speak, and who have the most contact and emotional investment with the actual children.
What I saw was a very aggravated and agitated person at a podium with a microphone stir up a big room full of teachers, and not in a good way. What I heard were strong, negative, emotional messages that pitted teacher against parent. What I felt when I left was blech. Blech because, frankly, I think there is more than enough blame to go around when it comes to what’s wrong with education, and blech because I’m so sick of the finger pointing that truly leaves the kids standing there like the children of parents who bicker and fight all the time. Anger can be motivating, yes, but I kept wondering if we shouldn’t be trying to attract more bees with honey, you know? Or, maybe I just didn’t want to be scolded by someone who made my life with my young children so silly and full of fun. And, yes, I even have a TV…
I really have worked with hundreds of teachers and, trust me, I’ve taken the best bits from the best ones in an effort to make my own teaching more effective. What I can say with complete truth is that the ones who seem to have the most engaged students and parents are the ones who bring less of the fighting, blaming spirit to the game and more of the team player attitude. The best teachers are working really, really hard against difficult regulations from our government, difficult orders from administrators, difficult demands from parents and difficult situations with kids in classrooms. But the best teachers, and the best parents, at least as far as I can tell, do the least amount of blaming and are still in the game with their hearts in the right place because they know the most important truth: it’s all about the kids.
TRY THIS WEEK: Got kids? Teach kids? Let’s don’t point the finger, let’s just do what’s best for the kids.