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."