Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Off and Running Again!

A quick note before I hit the road for Poughkeepsie to meet up with my colleagues Maria Marewski and Tim Sutton of the Children's Media Project and Sue Lesser from the Arlington School District. We are co-presenting a workshop on media arts in the classroom at the NECAP Conference for teaching artists in Providence, RI, tomorrow. I was up until 1:30 working on a PowerPoint loop of images from our projects together and I woke up every 45 minutes to check that I did not oversleep. Yawn! 

It is raining buckets but I have great tunes for the car (Leela James, James Hunter, remastered Bob Marley, Robin Thicke) and there is nothing a thermos of coffee cannot accommodate. More about the conference over the weekend when I am back at home. Next week, I tackle the front garden and continue the archeological dig in my office. But first, a moment of thanks to the electrician who found the burnt wire that was also burning through the cellulose insulation. No house fire! Plugs working again so bedroom lights, office outlet, and alarm clock all working once more. Thanks be to the universe and the angels for ever protecting me!

Monday, June 15, 2009

What Is Hidden in Language?

I just finished watching "Freedom Writers" for the first time. Admittedly, I should have run right out to the theaters for the first screening but I did not want to: 1) be disappointed, 2) see the same old superhero teacher flick, 3) rehash "Dangerous MInds," 4) be drop kicked into the work I do as a teaching artist for entertainment, and/or 5) all of the above. So this morning, with a huge mug of tea, I popped the DVD into the trusty machine, got out the knitting/crocheting project I am desperately trying to finish, and I finally watched the movie.

Decidedly, it is a Hollywood rendition of a process that was likely much more scary, touching, frustrating, and ultimately successful than 2 hours can accommodate. But it had a lot of poignant moments and spoke to me directly in my work, particularly one project this year.

One of the students asks Erin Gruwell (in Hilary Swank form), "Why should I trust you? Because you are a teacher? How do I know you aren't lying?" This had a deep resonation for me. I addressed this factor briefly in another recent post and these are questions I keep asking myself. I know that I have a certain intention in the classroom, in fact, with all teaching I do, even adults. But why should a student trust me, just because I ask them to or, more likely expect and demand that trust and respect? As a young person, I had not yet drawn the conclusion that not all adults could be trusted. It took me a long time to build that defense, in fact, in spite of a great deal of personal trauma, a significant death in the family, even a date rape at 16. I still worked from a belief system that people could be trusted. Sometimes I regret that now but I don't think I would change it if I had the power. I still trust and respect people until they prove to me that I cannot. But not all of our youth are given that chance, even luxury.

This is how I start with all students: I respect them. I trust them. I expect reciprocity in that respect. I maintain that respect to the best of my ability and most of the time I am given the opportunity to continue. Even students who violate my respect for them have the chance to regain it through their actions. Each day is a clean slate to me and I hope that the students in front of whom I stand see me for my intention. I am never sure and I try to be unattached to the outcome. I simply enter with a lesson plan and a hope that it serves the class in a positive way.

I recently had a very challenging experience in a school; in fact, I nearly walked away in defeat, something I have never done. In the 10 years of my practice, this was the most difficult assignment I have faced. The concerns and issues were multifaceted and very deep rooted. Something in the dialogue of the film kept echoing this teaching experience, the terminology of "these kids."

What is hidden in that label? I was told by one educator at the end of my residency in this recent challenge that I needed to "change my approach to teaching 'these kids.' " I was also told at one point that I needed to learn a different way to teach in inner city schools. This certainly surprised me since I teach at least half of my time in urban settings as well as youth community programs, afterschool programs, and juvenile detention. What was I being asked to understand here? The veil was fairly thin to me, given that this school is probably 98% African American. I was informed that "these kids have no vocabulary," so I was advised to prepare worksheets and then model creative processes through graphic organizers. I know how to do that. I incorporate elements of these things into my instruction. But I also engage students in dialogue. That was a challenge with this group for many reasons, some of which were the inherent group dynamics, but I think that since there was a lack of experience in effective, respectful dialogue that this process can be modeled as well. I am a perfect foil for that as the visiting artist. I expect that schools will anticipate that I go beyond the usual fare when I am in residence; otherwise, why hire me in the first place.

"These kids cannot..." is the overarching theme of "Freedom Writers." I was faced with a dilemma in which all 100 students during the day were being labeled similarly and had been since perhaps 4th grade. I saw at least half of the students as being willing to learn with me or able to be "won over," given the time and space. I advocated for those students instead of bailing entirely. I got a pull-out group for the second half of my residency. Even then we had challenges but far fewer and the student involvement was much greater. In spite of the evidence of involvement, the seasoned educator determined that I did not really know how to teach "these kids" and I believe she could not see the triumphs because it did not fit her scope for success. My scope is different. I saw adolescents pouring through thesauruses for dollar words to replace the penny words. They stayed focused and productive at the computers. They all wrote, they gave peer review that strengthened both themselves and their fellow students, and they produced work they were proud of in the end. Some came to spend lunch with me to not just chat but work on their poems. I earned their trust. They gave me their effort. The other half of the students had their regular lessons with their classroom teacher. I hope that it was easier for her to accomplish what she needed to do with a class half the size she usually has to work with any given period of the school day.

I feel that we were ultimately successful, the students and me. I am proud of what they created. I don't know if I will be invited back to that school but I hope so, for the students' sake. Not because I am so great but in hopes that they see that I come back for them and that the school will invest in them in this way. We shall see. Until then, I will keep growing and checking myself for my intention and my practices. I also refuse to give into the belief that I can't teach "these kids." In my own way, as I slipped through the cracks in high school and college, I see now that I was one of them. I won't let anyone impress in me a lack of belief in myself anymore. It took too long to get beyond those messages and I will work to show every child, every human I teach that they are of tremendous capacity and I believe in them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Follow-Up to the Art of Penmanship

Friday was the beginning of the summer "no more putting off the details" mood, no more jerry-rigged anything in the house, time to get the damned plants in the ground or planters, but FIRST, the wireless router has been inconsistent for weeks and I still did not have a backup drive to support my life as it is contained in my MacBook Pro. Dangerous position in more ways than one.  

First was to start moving and archiving the 8500 photos on my hard drive. That is a slow process and somehow I have hundreds of photos in my I Photo trash can that I am not sure are garbage yet and I can't get them back into the library. hmmmmmmmm. Somehow, I suspect, miles to go before I sleep.

I also started weeding the email repository and dropped 1500 useless emails. There is a start to that effort and all the while I am thinking of all the weeds in the front and back gardens that are having their way with me in the face of my neglect. But it is just mid-June so I am actually ahead of my usual pace.

But back to the issue at hand, my control center that is my computer needed attention and I needed reliable wireless connection, as well as a new battery for the little bugger since I now get less than 10 minutes of free wheeling. So it was time to visit "The Man," Dave at Day Tech Services in Fayetteville, NY. My first source for advice, Greg Yates, directed me to him and since I struggle with the geeks at the Apple Store, I was in the mood for a real technician who could give me authentic support without a logo.

This was great! I love Dave. He totally hooked me up and his mom, who works with him (and makes sure he doesn't give everything away for free), is a writer so when I got out my trusty new pen case, she noticed immediately. I noticed the basket of hand-turned wine bottle stoppers. Nestled into the wood-topped corks were a couple of lovely wooden ballpoint pens. It turns out that Dave makes both. I know the treat I want next from Dave...a unique wooden writing instrument that will take roller ball refills. That would be the best. Dave says he can make fountain pens but that getting the parts that are reliable is a challenge. I would take a roller ball pen for blue ink in a heartbeat. Maybe a birthday present to myself.

But for now, I have a climbing rose bush, a new clematis, and a bunch of dahlias and daisy varietals to distribute around the yard. Photos later. Happy Flag Day, all, and to fathers out there, here's to you!

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

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Another Post Script

Friday was my last day at the elementary school where I have taught a total of 2 weeks in the past month. I mentioned the student who wanted to give me her own nickname when we met the first day of that residency. While I waited in the wing's common area for a class of 3rd graders to get back from their special instruction for the day (probably art), three of the students from that first self-contained class, a boy and two girls, hurried across to do an errand from their classroom.  When they saw me, they had much to share about what was going on in school but it quickly became time that they needed to get back and I needed to head to my next class.  As the three left, the girls scurried off down the hall, the boy looked at me with a big smile and said, "Goodbye Muffin."