Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Momma (revised)

Everything was covered in white.

The fields that provided food for us to eat and vegetables for us to trade, the trees that provided shade for us to rest under and lumber for us to sell, and even Poppa's hunched shoulders as he trudged his way to the barn to milk the cows were blanketed in snow. 1948 would be a year of surprises for us in Clarendon County, South Carolina, surprises that started on the first day of January when we had the coldest stretch of days and the heaviest and deepest of snows that the midlands had seen in a hundred years.

Momma put her arm around me and we snuggled close together as we watched Poppa disappear into the blinding whiteness of the pouring snow.

"My, my...look at all that snow, Carter...look at all that snow."

"It's turnin' ever'thin' white. It's beautiful."

"Yes, sweetie, it is beautiful."

"It makes ever'thin' look so bright and clean and new."

"Yes, it sure does. But, you know what? I like to think about what's underneath the snow."

"But there's nothin' but frozen ground and bare limbs underneath the snow."

"And don't forget there's a Poppa under it, too!"

"Why do you like to think 'bout things like that, things that're frozen and bare?"

"Well, it's 'cause of som'thin' that happened to me when I was a little girl about your age. Ev'ry Sat'dy afternoon, my Daddy and Momma would take me and your Aunts and Uncles into town. We didn't own our own farm like your Poppa and I do now, so we lived in what was called a 'sharecroppers shack' on Mr. Wilson's farm.

That shack was a dark, bare place that was too small for a family of nine. We all worked so hard on that farm, but on Sat'dy afternoons Mr. Wilson let us outta work to go to town. In town, ev'rythin' looked like it does now under this blanket of snow - white, clean, and new.

We were walkin' down the sidewalk, Daddy in front, Momma behind him, and the seven of us chil'ren all in a row from the tallest to the shortest. My goodness, we did look like ducks in a row, we chil'ren did. A young man and a young woman, a white young man and woman, came a'walkin' toward us arm in arm. As was the custom, we stepped off the sidewalk to let the white folks pass. I looked down at the ground, as I was supposed to do when a white man passed me, and it was then that I saw a sup'risin' thing.

The cement sidewalk had a small crack in it, and out of that broken place grew a flower, a tiny flower. Even though I was a'wearin' my Sat'dy dress, I knelt down on the ground close to the flower so I could cup my hands around it and really see it. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen in my life and it is still the most beautiful flower I ever saw. It's petals were red and yellow, its stem was green, and the center a'holdin' it's seeds was black. The yellow was the color of the sun in the early mornin', the red was the color of the sun in the late ev'nin', the green was the color of the april fields at dawn and dusk, and the black was 'zactly the color of black folks like us's skin. And there was that flower, a'growin' through the hard, white concrete that covered the earth!
That's why I like to think 'bout things that are covered up, Carter, 'bout things that're underneath. Oft'times, you cain't see them but they're there and they're beautiful and they're a'waitin' for a crack so they can grow and be seen and make the world a more beautiful place."
Now, I loved to spend time with my Momma and if I had to choose the best times I spent with her then I'd choose times like those, times when she held me close and told me stories. I felt her protective arms around me, felt my future brother or sister move and move in her belly to the rhythm of her words, breathed in the smells of buttermilk and flour from the morning's biscuits, and saw her story as if I were there with her.
Everything' was covered in white. The ground around me was frozen. But everything inside of me was full of color and warm.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reminding Students of America's Diverse Beauty

This week as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I plan to gather my third-, fourth- and fifth-graders around me. I will tell them, "Our country is a beautiful place."

I’ll keep this in mind as I think of the moments when we were clearly afraid.

My focus will be the beauty of the United States. Like the 24-color box of crayons students see and use every day in their school projects, there are people of many hues with many beliefs who come together to live and work. Its residents are what makes the country beautiful and can be a model for the whole world.

I will show students the Great Seal of the United States and point out the words our country’s founders deemed important, “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one). I will pass out a new penny to each one of them and show them that “E Pluribus Unum” is stamped in larger letters on the new design.

I’ll ask, “What do you think this phrase means?" Then we’ll see where their thoughts and feelings take us.

Some of them may want to draw a picture of this guiding Latin motto. Others may want to write a poem. Some may want to write a story or play. And still others may just want to talk about it. That will all be fine with me. I want students to create something beautiful to show the beauty of the ideals of the United States.

Next I will bring them around my rocking chair and read the picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. I will read it with a soft voice and tell them that when the tightrope artist Philippe Petit looked up at the Twin Towers in 1974 he saw the space between the buildings instead of the buildings themselves. And when Gerstein wrote the story he thought about the buildings but saw the lives of the people who were memorialized there on Sept. 11, 2011.

It is here that we’ll talk about fear. When we think about 9/11, we are afraid. It was a moment America was violently attacked by a small group of people. Those kinds of attacks caused the deaths of innocent people and buildings to crash to the ground in debris and dust. That is scary.

Despite that memory of fear, I will look at my students and remind them that America is a nation of people of different beliefs, colors and cultures. And our classroom reflects the diversity of the United States. In class, we do not attack or destroy each other. No, we are going to build classrooms and schools and communities where we respect each others’ beliefs, ethnicities and cultures. We will continue to build something beautiful; a place where we respect, accept and appreciate each other and all people around us.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tubman's Story Still a Reality for Today's Immigrants

Tubman's Story Still a Reality for Today's Immigrants

We made a circle for our guided reading time. I sat down in my trusty old Hinkle rocking chair. My students sat down crisscross applesauce on their red carpet squares. My second-graders' stomachs were full and their energy level was low. They were ready to hear a story.

I held up our book, "Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom," by Carole Boston Weatherford, and they looked with wonder at Kadir Nelson's cover illustration.

I use reciprocal teaching in my guided reading lessons, so I move from powerful predicting to careful clarifying to quizzical questioning to super summarizing to help my struggling readers develop the skills they need to become great readers.

I began the powerful predicting part of the lesson by saying, "Let's take a picture walk through this book and predict what we think is going to happen in the story."

When we turned to the fifth picture in the book, we looked at Harriet Tubman sleeping under a full moon among foxes, raccoons and possums in the underbrush of some woods.

One of my students raised her hand and said, "It looks like she's hiding from somebody." Another said, "She looks worried so somebody must be chasing her."

I was guiding my students to know the life and work of Harriet Tubman and to understand the contributions she made to the South and to the North before the Civil War.

I was trying to help them understand how to make, revise and confirm predictions in a story. These understandings are parts of the state academic standards for social studies and reading.

As we took our picture walk, though, something happened that reminded me that I'm not only a teacher in my classroom. I'm a learner, too.

J, a serious and soft-spoken Latino child, raised his hand and said: "That picture reminds me of my dad. He tried to come here from Mexico. The police chased him and made him go away. He was scared like Harriet Tubman."

Wow. I will always remember the sincerity in his eyes as he connected his life to this great children's book.

He helped me understand that the story of Harriet Tubman is still being lived out today in the lives of Latino families in my school and across the country.

The political climate in my state, South Carolina, increases the chances that our state legislature will follow Arizona's lead and pass a strict new illegal immigration law in 2011.

We already have a law that Republican Gov. Mark Sanford touted as one of the strictest in the nation.

People who scapegoat Latinos for our nation's problems foment resentment and hate against them.

My school is susceptible to this disease of resentment because we are surrounded by it on television, radio, the Internet and in the words of some of our neighbors.

Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds authored the report Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

They explain that "Latinos in the South – many of whom came here to escape crushing poverty in their home countries – are encountering widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation."

This report helps us understand the struggle for life that many of our Latino students take on, a clandestine struggle like the one Harriet Tubman made all those years ago.

Learning from my children is a vital part of what I do as a teacher, too. The last picture in the book is of Harriet Tubman sitting with a staff in her hand.

She is looking straight ahead with calm, courageous eyes and a weathered, compassionate face. Below her are the words, "Well Done, Moses, Well Done."

On that day in a guided reading class in a small inner-city elementary school in Greenville, S.C., J was our Moses.

"Well Done, J, Well Done."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Examining Immigration - One Family at a Time

Examining Immigration - One Family at a Time

Teaching can be humanizing work.

This is how it happens.

The Rodriguez family walks down the hall and turns the corner to my room.

"Buenos Dias, Mrs. Rodriguez. Buenos Dias, niƱos! ¿Como esta ustedes? Welcome to my classroom," I greet them.

We sit down in a circle of chairs and smile at each other. I begin by looking at the oldest child, a high school student, who looks timidly back at me. "Will you translate for us?" I ask.

In the beginning, I do most of the talking. I describe her child's progress in math and ask, "Do you have any questions or comments?" She looks at me with a silent, shy smile. I move on to reading and writing, asking again for questions and receiving the same smile.

At the end, she does most of the talking. "Our life is hard. My husband works out of town, wherever he can find work,” she said. “I clean houses. I work many hours. Our house is small and we are many. I want my children to learn so they can have a better life. Please tell me how to help my children learn."

This is how my heart grows.

It grows larger because Mrs. Rodriguez and I sit down with each other. We talk and we listen.

However, I know a heart can shrink, too.

Nikki Haley, the governor of my state, recently signed The South Carolina Illegal Immigration and Reform Act. The law, which is part of a recent wave of state immigration legislation, goes into effect in January[j2] . As she signed the bill she stated:

“What I’m concerned about is the money we’re losing because of illegal immigration in this state. The money that’s lost in education and medical services and workers and employment and all of those things is well beyond millions of dollars …”

It is dehumanizing when you refer to people only in terms of money. Further, the research does not support the governor’s statement.

According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented workers paid $43.6 million in state and local taxes in 2010. Another study outlined the losses to the state if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from South Carolina. The state would lose $1.8 billion in economic activity, $782.9 million in gross state product and approximately 12,059 jobs.

Did I see Mrs. Rodriguez as an undocumented immigrant who is causing our state to lose money for education, healthcare and jobs?

No. Despite the political climate in my state, I resisted seeing her with a small heart.

As a matter of fact, as we were meeting together, I never wondered if she was documented or undocumented.

I simply saw her as a mom who cares deeply for her children, just as I am a dad who cares deeply for mine. I simply saw her as a parent who trusts me to be a teacher for her child and for her.

I simply saw her. I am here for her and for her children.

(This article first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance website of the Southern Poverty Law Center and at the Ethics Daily website)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the art in life

the art in life

We were walking up the beach, on the sand as the tide moved out toward the ocean. I was holding Zeke's hand, talking with him about sea things - "I didn't know jelly fish swam this close to the shore during the spring...I bet that drift wood is as old as 'The Old Man and the Sea'...I think a horseshoe crab's blood can be used to treat cancer."

"Look," I said.

"What is it, Dad?" he asked.

I picked up a shell out of the deep, hot sand and held it in my open hand.

It was unlike any shell we had ever seen. There were two shells, one on the top and it's twin on the bottom, connected at the back, and clammed up tightly in the front.

"It's a clam!" I said.

"Is it alive?" he asked.

"I don't know," I answered. "Let's take it and find out."

We returned to our chairs, took our shovel, and made our way to the shore line where the waves come to an end in the sand and run back into the sea. I dug a small hole, Zeke scratched out a little trench, and we placed the clam back into a sandy water habitat.

We sat and watched. Children played around us. Families swam in the surf. People relaxed in the sun.

The clam opened and closed itself, almost imperceptibly, leaving only a small bubble to show us it was still alive.

"Did you see that? It's still living!" I exclaimed.

"We did something nice for that clam," said Zeke. "I wonder what nice thing it's going to do for us? Maybe it'll make a pearl for us!"

In a way, the little clam did give us a pearl. It reminded me of something I learned from the great writer George Bernard Shaw. In a world where the law of evolution is in effect, where there is survival of the fittest, where only the strong survive, there is an art in life where the smallest and most forgotten paint a picture of struggle and survival. Life is in that art.

We saw that art and life today. We were colors in it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Brilliant Corners

Brilliant Corners

B loves bugs. I met him during the first week of school as I assessed how many words he could read per minute from a second grade story. After the assessment, I gave him a caterpillar sticker to put on his shirt to show everyone that he was going to emerge as a great reader during his second grade year. You'd have thought that I'd had given him a piece of gold. "Oooh, I love bugs," he marveled as I handed him the sticker. "I have seen caterpillars around the trees at my apartment. They spin a chrysalis and turn into butterflies. Do you love bugs? Have you ever seen a roly poly bug?" And so a friendship began around the pyrrharctia isabella, the armadillidum vulgar, and other bugs that make up the most diverse group of animals on the planet.

B is a first generation immigrant student from Mexico, a student like the ones Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova have so authoritatively and eloquently written about in their book "Learning A New Land: Immigrant students in American Society," a book that won the 2007 Virginia and Warren Stone Prize that is awarded annually by Harvard University Press for an outstanding book on education and society. According to two academic assessments, his reading is deficient and he needs help. On his Measure of Academic Progress test for reading that he took in the fall, he scored almost 30 points below our school district's average of 175 for second graders. On his AIMSweb assessment of words read correctly per minute from a second grade story, he read 4 words. The target for second graders in the fall is 49. So he became one of the students in my reading intervention program and is a daily participant in the excellent English as a second language class at our school.

One day during class, our school social worker walked into my room with B's Mom. B had been hiding his homeroom teacher's assignments and telling his parents that he didn't have any homework. I shared this small moment with one of his ESL teachers and she explained that if his Mom says, "Do your homework so you'll become a better student," he answers, "No," and does what he wants to do.

The state motto of North Carolina is engraved on the side of my college ring. "Esse Quam Viderii," it says, "To be is more important than to appear." It appears that B is on a path to become what the demagogues in my state predict he will become - another Mexican immigrant who is a drain on the tax payers of South Carolina. But I am thankful to have the heart, mind, and hands of a teacher who is trained to see beyond appearances to the essence of my students. And I see the essence of B, of all things, in his love for bugs.

Paul Wellstone wrote an insightful section about high stakes standardized testing in his book "The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda." He reminds us that we cannot blame students and parents on low test scores if the student hasn't had the chance to master the information on the tests. If we blame the student, then we fail to live up to our responsibility to help every child become all that he or she can become. My school social worker and my ESL teacher friend remind us that a student is a part of a family - a family that needs nurturing so the child can grow to feel, think, and find meaningful work. As I look at B through my teacher eyes, I see the brilliant corners in B's mind, the corner that holds an amazing amount of knowledge about caterpillars and roly poly bugs.

At the end of class one day, I walked beside B on the way back to his homeroom. "B," I said, "Have you ever heard of an entomologist?" He shook his head no. "Well, an entomologist is a scientist who studies bugs. I think you could become a great bug scientist." The expression on his face reminded me of the expression he showed on that first day we met when I gave him the caterpillar sticker. You'd have thought I'd given him a piece of gold. And, you know, I think I did. B, I see your brilliant corner and I promise to do everything in my power to help you become a great reader and the Albert Einstein of bugs.