Creating home

“Sometimes it is hard to believe we raised two kids in this space,” my husband has said more than once.

He’s right.  By modern Westchester standards, our house is tiny. Before we carved out a bedroom in downstairs space that was once a garage, our kids shared one of the two main floor bedrooms and one bathroom, share being the operative word.  The “yard” is a mini lawn, too small for real sports, but big enough for a sprinkler and a sandbox, though not at the same time.  With some sidewalk chalk, however, the driveway–the steepest bane of our winter existence–became a pastel canvas, a new gallery with every rainfall.  We nurtured a family botanical garden that, over the years,  yielded roses, tomatoes, sunflowers,  marigolds and spices.

What our house lacked in square footage, we more than made up for in warmth.  Our kids agree that as children, they never felt deprived. Our house was truly a home where family and friends–theirs and ours– felt welcomed.  The dining room table was the hub of activity: dinners, homework, snacks, holidays meals, games. Yes, everyone adapted to share the space–a lesson not always easily learned–but generally, we were–and still are– happy.

OK, fine.  But what does this have to do with teaching?

Only everything.

Like a house, a classroom doesn’t have to be decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets to be a home for kids. The best educational toys–at home or at school– mean nothing if all we do is throw them at kids, expecting results.  An effective classroom, like a comfortable home, does have to be a safe environment where it is OK to make a few mistakes and take some risks.  There should be structure and routine and there should be humor and kindness, none of which are available in stores or on line.

Learning communities are built around the human elements in the room, not the space, not the accessories.  Instructional bells and whistles are like 4th of July fireworks: loud but ephemeral. Smartboard  lessons and technology can be engaging, but it will always be  teachers who nurture curiosity and confidence–with or without iPads — who create classrooms where kids will see learning as a life long adventure.  Scholarship is embedded in the culture of these classrooms.  So are self-esteem and pride and dignity.

Families–in homes, in classrooms–evolve out of people.  When kids feel loved and safe, the sky’s the limit.

Old School 2

It’s an unscientific sampling, agreed.  But reader responses to Old School confirms it.  Our earliest school experiences do stay with us.

As we boomers age, nostalgia is in.  Everything old is new again, from the Converse sneakers we wore for gym class to 70s comfort foods like meatloaf and mac and cheese now on the menu in upscale eateries.

It’s no surprise, then, that readers responded to Old School with memories of their own. Whether it is a convent school in Maryland or a red brick building gone coporate, there is nothing more nostalgic than a visit to your elementary school.

Our second grade teacher was Mrs. Carlson.   She taught us to work independently and to add columns of numbers by carrying tens and ones.  She helped us get library cards and when one of the boys showed up with a couple of tadpoles in an empty milk carton, she did her best to create an environment where they could–and did–grow into tiny tree frogs.

So, uber- props to colleagues who work with our youngest students. Their days are devoted to helping kids construct essential foundations for future academic and social success. They teach sight words and sharing, numbers and patience, phonics and fair play.

But wait, there’s more. Forty years from now, those kids will remember story hour and that time they got to be first in line, holding the teacher’s hand on the way to the art room.  They will remember who they sat next to and where the pencil sharpener was located.

No pressure there, right?

Talk to kindergarten teachers. Ask them about their work.  I did.  It’s not all fun and games in those primary classrooms. Though one of my NYS certifications that says I could do what they do, I could never do what they do. Never.  In addition to the academic demands these teachers and their kids face,  there are the intangibles, the emotional attachments that evoked the instant nostalgia among Old School readers.

That’s why we remember singing with Mrs. Beatty. That’s why we remember jumping jacks with Mr. Danzig or spelling with Mrs. Lutri. That’s why we remember Mr. Kanze walking to school every day right along with the kids.

Those of us teaching secondary students manage unique challenges to be sure, but we also depend on our colleagues’ hard work, setting the groundwork for all future learning.  Middle schoolers may be in hormonal turmoil and may sometimes assert their independence in ways we would rather they didn’t, but they come to us with the academic and social skills essential for success.

Initial this…

First it was NCLB.  Now in New York, we face APPR, RTTT, AYP, CCCS, SLO, RTI….should I keep going? Because there are more.  Lots more.  The feds and Albany have us treading water in instructional alphabet soup.

I hate acronyms.    Not just because I teach English and the point of reading and writing is clear communication.   I hate acronyms because I hate  pretentious malarkey and scams.

At content area conferences and at faculty meetings, presenters are all about the initials. Makes you wish you had a secret decoder ring to keep up as the people in the know dole out new clues leading to the next pit stop on the amazing race to instant instructional success.

Using acronyms sounds impressive, though.  It puts pedagogy right up there with NYSE or NASCAR, two big institutions of American muscle and know-how.  Politicians can roll out a statewide APPR with SLOs and CCCS, assuring the public it will pin point failing schools and weed out ineffective teachers.  All those initials sound pretty official, right? Besides that, it’s fast and translates for instant tweeting and texting, a quick fix to a very challenging problem.  But what does it mean?  Nevermind.  Boom. Problem solved.  Now vote for me.

Acronyms are a distraction

But obsession with initials reduces complex issues to a bureaucratic sleight of hand and that’s really what I hate about acronyms. While people on all sides of education–parents, teachers, administrators– try desperately to decipher the scrabble tiles on the table,  who is scrutinizing the substance or even the feasibility of these proposed panaceas?   It’s a new take on an old con and Americans–educators and parents alike– concerned about the country’s future, are the suckers, students the shills.

What acronyms don’t address

One thing is for sure: improving public education in America should be a national priority. History tells us that only an educated populace can sustain a functioning democracy.  The problems plaguing our schools are multi-layered, though, involving economic and social issues that none of these acronyms seem to acknowledge.  As long as there are families putting hungry kids to bed at night, we will have students who will struggle. As long as we have families living in cars or in daily fear of foreclosure, we will have kids for whom the immediate need of shelter trumps homework and state tests.  As long as we have kids who emulate role models who “win” by circumventing the rules or through violence, we will have pupils who don’t respect the hard work needed for academic success.

No matter how badly we would like to believe in what the initials stand for, acronyms aren’t the answer.  America needs someone to speak plainly, to tell the truth: teaching and learning are hard work.  Boom. It takes more than initials to raise a child.

Old School

I recently was in the old neighborhood (people who know me will find this mildly amusing) and stopped to admire my old school.  This is what I found:

The red brick building still stands and from the outside, it looks at least a little like an old-school school. The Amoco station next door where we pooled lunch money to buy candy and gum (and later tried, unsuccessfully, to buy cigarettes) is now a full service BP station with a mini mart in place of the automotive bays.  The municipal bus still stops in front and the hot dog/ice cream shack is still across the street serving up fries and cones.

But the school property was sold soon after I was promoted to junior high and has since been reinvented as a commercial building.  The classrooms are now offices, some further divided into cubicles. The asphalt playground where we skinned our knees and picked teams for kickball is a parking lot.

None the less, this is what school looks like to me.  It’s where I first let go of my mother’s hand and joined a community larger than I was.  Even though I am a teacher now and have learned and taught in a number of other buildings, this is still school.

And school is so much more than reading and writing and arithmetic, isn’t it?   It’s learning to play the flute (How do those instrumental music teachers get kids to make music?).   It’s the annual gym show, performing calisthenics to music.  It’s the unmistakeable aroma of pencil shavings and poster paint and eating lunches at long tables with attached benches.  It’s flipping baseball cards by the monkey bars and holding back tears while handing over an Oakland A’s Catfish Hunter card. For me, it is–and always will be–that red brick building on Broadway.

If you ask a dozen people about school,  I think they will go back to their primary experiences–huge kudos to colleagues who make these memories for kids every day.  A child’s first years in school form the foundation for everything yet to come.   School is where the heart was when we were very young.

What does school look like or mean to you?