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Empowerment through Language...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Open Letter to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Dear Secretary Duncan:

First, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment. I trust the intention and knowledge of President Obama enough to believe that your selection for this post is the best option in his opinion; therefore, I look forward to change that you will institute to support our students and teachers, our communities, and bring them out of the current doldrums. The frustration is high among our teachers and school administrators at all levels. This frustration is also evident in many students as a result.

I am a professional teaching artist specializing in the art of poetry. I visit schools as poet in residence, generally for 3 - 5 days of contact with students in any given classroom. I have built my practice on the premise that the elements of poetry support literacy and reading comprehension in a complementary approach to the learning, with hands-on activities to reflect not just reading and writing skills but retention of material from other core content areas.

I am in contact with a great diversity of schools. Just this year, I visited 10 schools among five districts throughout New York State. I worked with approximately 70 educators in classrooms that spanned grade levels 2 through 12.  I have instructed and created poetry with nearly 2,000 students in this academic year. 

There are commonalities I have noticed among these schools, although they range from middle class suburban to very small rural, to deep inner city. Many of the schools, despite location, are Title I schools with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch (and breakfast) recipients. There are issues that affect learning in a multitude of ways. The burden to deal with them all falls on the teacher. The teacher is not just the educator imparting curriculum on their brains, they are parent, social worker, therapist, disciplinarian, nurse, entertainer.

If the child is struggling, even failing, the fault will most frequently fall on the teacher, no matter what the teacher has done in the classroom to teach the youth sitting in the desks before her/him. Many of our children have been failed by society in general and parents in particular.  There is a literacy crisis in America. The teachers are up against the wall with it and being held responsible for it. And from my perspective, No Child Left Behind has exacerbated the problem tenfold rather than solved it.

We are losing veteran educators. We are not attracting enough new talent. We do not have an educational environment that encourages creative, engaging, effective educational practices. We do have a lot of stress and resentment within the walls of America's schools.

We also have a huge budget crisis that causes teachers to pay for many supplies from their own pocket in order to best serve their students and, I might note, none of them earns anything in the order of the lowest paid NBA athlete.

I have known teachers who work in districts that cannot afford classroom sets of textbooks so they have to photocopy lessons for the classes; at the same time, there are limits to the number of copies each teacher can make each school year so they have to carefully choose which lesson plans to teach. Most teachers are regular shoppers at the Dollar Store, Office Max, Staples, Walmart, Target, KMart, buying construction paper, pens, pencils, notebook paper, erasers, scissors, chart paper, sometimes their own markers and chalk for instruction. They provide tissues, hand sanitizer, lotion, bandages for small cuts, art supplies, and books to augment the school's resources.  They also purchase many snacks because students are hungry, often very hungry. It is the teacher who pays for the granola bars, the pretzels, the cheese cracker/peanut butter packs. They may even buy water or fruit. These are generally not reimbursable expenses.

As a visiting artist, I always travel with a box of pens and pencils and extra paper to share with students. I collect every hotel pen or freebie at conferences to replenish my supply and I also raid the Dollar Store regularly. I keep erasers handy, along with tissues.

I hear a great deal in the media about how the Stimulus Package is going to be divvied up. I suggest that one of the first efforts that would move the economy forward would be to mail a check to every teacher working in public schools ($500 for middle class schools, $1000 for Title I schools and other struggling districts) as reimbursement for what they are spending from their own pockets. Teachers love their students and strive to support them fully. If you gave each of them a Stimulus check, I guarantee you that most of it would go right back into the economy (and support sales taxes) as they shop in the office supply and general stores of our nation to restock for the 2009-10 school year. 

Please consider this option seriously. I know that the teachers of this great country would not only appreciate the rebate but it might help them feel that there is hope in the future that an environment will exist that values education, our youth, and the talents of those who commit their lives and hearts to teaching.

Thank you for the courtesy of considering my thoughts. I wish you well with all your endeavors on behalf of American citizens and our schools.

Georgia A. Popoff
Community Poet/Teaching Artist
Syracuse, New York

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