Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saying 'Thank You' to All the Ms. Sandras

Saying 'Thank You' to All the Ms. Sandras

Every school day just after 2 p.m., Sandra pushes her cart into my classroom to clean the bathroom and empty the trash cans. She is the school custodian and my students love her. When students hear her squeaky wheels in the hallway outside our door, they listen for her kind giggle as she enters the room. "Ms. Sandra! Ms. Sandra! Can I help you empty the trash? Can I help you?" they yell out with their hands waving in the air.
She responds, "Jennifer, you look so cute today! How you doin' VicTOR? Francisco, baby, you look like you're doing a good job for Mr. Barton. You come on over and help me today. Anna, honey, that's okay, you can help me tomorrow." She knows all of my students by name.
So I asked Sandra what I had been wondering for a while. “What do you like best about working at our school?" She put her hands on her hips and said, "It's the kids! I only take home about $20,000 a year, so it's not the money. I have to work second shift, so I don't like the hours. And people see me as just a janitor, so I don't like the way I'm treated sometimes. But I love the kids."
She does love our students. Last Friday, one of our second-graders was having a tough day. He hated teachers, he said.  At lunch when a teacher asked him to pick up trash he’d left at the table, he threw his tray onto the floor, stomped over to the corner and refused to budge. It was Sandra who helped put him back together again. "Now, you know you can't act that way. I know your momma,” she said in her precise, slow, southern drawl. “I'm gonna put her number in my cell phone and call her and tell her you're not actin' right." Soon, she had him cleaning up his tray and washing the table where his class had been sitting.
One day, I saw her give an extra milk to a student. "Sometimes, I buy my lunch and sit beside a child I know is hungry," she told me. "Then I can say, 'You can have some of this if you want it, or, ‘You can have some of that.' Children can't learn if they're hungry."
When she leaves my classroom, she walks across the hall. "Hello A," I hear her say. "Look at those new glasses on you. They make you look so handsome." She knows all of the names and stories of the students in that class, too.
"Mr. Barton," she said to me during a quiet moment after school, "I know 'bout these children because I come from where they come… Are you feelin' me? Sometimes, they need somebody to talk to them who understands them."
I see the way Sandra loves our students, the way she knows their names. How she talks to them and helps them.  I just want Sandra to know that someone noticed. I told her, “I'm glad you're at our school and I'm thankful for you."
Here’s to all the Sandras in our schools!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Listening for the Civil War's True Legacy

Listening for the Civil War's True Legacy

I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet and listened to his stories and words of advice. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. “Hey,” he’d often start, “here's something my daddy told me when I was little. ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

The memory of walking with my grandpa in his garden came back to me after I read Maureen Costello's Teaching Tolerance blog post, “What To Do About the Civil War?” I especially remember grandpa’s stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

Remember, my grandpa was a son of the South Carolina soil, a soil that had produced slavery and Jim Crow. And his stories reflected his philosophical shift from the idea of white supremacy to the idea of equality. He described the black folks he’d grown up with in words both simple and stark.

“I guess I looked around our farm and saw them as tools,” he told me once. But “there was a teenager, about my age, who worked on our place. His name was Billy, and he helped me with my work. One day we were in the barn together, cleaning up the milking area, when he cut his hand on a piece of metal. Daddy wrapped it up in a rag soaked in kerosene, as was the remedy for most farm accidents at that time, and asked me to drive him home. As we headed toward the black folks part of our town, I thought to myself, ‘Billy must get up very early in the morning, earlier than me, to make it to our house on time.’ As we drove up to his house, which was what we called a shack, I thought, ‘I wonder if Billy can stay warm in there.’ As I saw him holding his injured hand and watched his momma hold him up and lead him up the creaking steps and through the rickety door, well, it seemed to be one of the first times I knew that black folks had hands and feet and needs just like me. They weren't tools. They were people.”

My grandpa didn't fill my mind with the idea of white supremacy. He filled my heart with the stories of humanity. For that, I am thankful.

So now we are walking down the row of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Unlike in my grandpa's garden, this row is not newly plowed. It has been gone over year after year, decade after decade, with the same rhetoric. A group just met here in South Carolina to remember the 1860 convention where the first Secession Ordinance was signed, creating the Confederate States of America. A group will meet next week in Charleston for a Secession Ball to remember, as the organizer of the event said, that "the secession movement in South Carolina was a demonstration of freedom."

I think about my students—who are 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds—listening to the stories around them. What will they hear? Will they hear hard work in the voices and see struggle in the faces of the storytellers as they explain what happened 150 years ago? Will they hear that white supremacy was a blight on everyone it touched and undermined the notion that all people are created equal?

I hope they will. I'm listening. So are the children.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Teaching As Human Rights Work

Teaching As Human Rights Work

Abel Barrera Hernández has worked tirelessly to bring justice to some of Mexico’s most marginalized communities. For his work as founder and director of the Tlachinollan Center in southern Mexico, Hernández received an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights last month.

That, coupled with the fact that Friday is Human Rights Day, got me thinking how I, as a teacher, must also fight for human rights.

Human Rights Day is a good time for educators and students to commit to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 62 years ago. It is also a good time to think creatively about ways we can build a better world for all people.

Article 26 of the declaration states, “Everyone has the right to education" and goes on to define education in a human rights context. One of our responsibilities as teachers is to turn the words of this declaration into deeds, to help our students embrace and embody its ideals.

I have a third-grader named T in my reading group who struggles to read. He is an African-American male, so he is one of the most vulnerable people in America’s public school system. T is small in stature but big in heart. So far this year, his greatest accomplishment (according to him) is the moment in P.E. when he became the first third-grader to climb to the top of the conditioning rope.

T can be silly and easily gets off task, two things that make him a tough student for any teacher. However, he is also highly motivated to learn. One day he asked, "Mr. Barton, can you give me some homework tonight?" How many times is a teacher asked that question? Just months before, I found that he could only read four words per minute from a story written for second graders.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that nearly a  million students leave our schools for the streets each year. He reminds us that teachers are nation builders, and that the future of our country and the world will be built up or torn down by the students making their way through our classrooms. But for students like T, there is a still a great deal of work to be done before he can think critically, problem-solve, collaborate and communicate well.

On a personal level, I understand that my work is similar to the work of Abel Barerra Hernández. I borrow from his courage and commitment and dedicate myself to protect the human right to education for all of my students. This is vital for my school, where more than 90 percent of our students rely on free and reduced lunch and Medicaid.

On an academic level, I have to have high standards—especially for my tough students who get distracted. As Thomas Friedman said, we teachers are builders. The building is under construction. We all have a big stake in its completion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

One of my favorite places in the world is the classroom across the hall from me. This room full of wonderful children and teachers is affectionately known throughout our school as 'Mr. David's class.' Each morning, as I pass by their door on my way to pick up my second grade reading group, I hear music.

Today, I heard the sound of that music and stopped to listen. I looked through the window in the door and saw the students and teachers sitting in their chairs in a circle. They saw my bespectacled face smiling at them. Mr. David called out, "Come on in, Mr. Barton! We like to have visitors!" I'm shy by nature but their music and their hospitality drew me out of my proverbial shell and into their circle.

They were singing The World Is A Rainbow by Greg and Steve. Mr. David and Mrs. Fuller were signing the signs that go along with the song and the kids were singing and signing along. The classroom is a mixture of students who have Down's Syndrome and Autism and they were out of key, off rhythm, and loud. But the finest of choirs and the masters of art couldn't have created a more beautiful sound or a more splendiferous picture than they did together.

My favorite moment was when L, a little boy with autism who has never spoken to me, looked over from Mrs. Fuller's lap and stirred his arm around and around to the words, "Now you be you, And I'll be me. That's the way we were meant to be. But the world is a mixing cup. Just look what happens when you stir it up!"

Paul Farmer is one of my heroes. He is a medical doctor and an anthropologist who has spent most of his life and work between Harvard University and Haiti. He has written an insightful book titled Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. In Chapter 5, "Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology," he works out the idea that doctors are called upon to make 'a preferential option for the poor,' to take best practices in medicine to the smallest and most forgotten people in our world. He inspires me to work out the similar idea that teachers are called upon to make this same preferential option for the poor, so I ask myself each day, "Where are the smallest and most forgotten children and teachers in my school?” I find them tucked away on our 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grade hallways, working in their special education worlds.

Even though I am a regular education teacher, I try to meet every special education student in my school and become friends with their teachers. We eat breakfast and lunch together and try to do special projects together during the school year. One of the greatest compliments I have received as a teacher was when one of our TMD teachers told me, "Mr. Barton, the Mom of one of my students asked, 'Who is that nice teacher who speaks to us every morning and who knows our kids by name?' and I told her it was you!" Knowing the names of all of our special education students and hearing them call, "Hey Mr. Barton!" is my badge of honor as a teacher.

In the preface to the original edition of Awakenings, the great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks wrote, "My aim is not to make a system, or to see patients as systems, but to picture a world, a variety of worlds - the landscapes of being in which these patients reside." I believe our special education children aren't nameless asteres planetai (wandering stars), moving in seemingly aimless ways, with no gravity to keep them in orbit. They are worlds in our system waiting to be explored, wanting to be known by name, hoping to be friends with other people who will visit the landscapes of their being and say ‘hello.’ As Greg and Steve say in their song, “the world is a rainbow with many kinds of people and a place that takes all kinds of people to make it go around.” I’m thankful for the special education students and teachers at my inner-city elementary school and the colors they add to my world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rosa Parks

55 years ago today, Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The next day, there was a small headline on page 9 of the Montgomery Advertiser that read, "Negro jailed here for overlooking bus segregation." I hope there will always be committed, courageous, creative people who overlook unjust laws. Here's to the overlookers!

Rosa Parks