|—||A student quoted in “The Reading Zone” by Nancy Atwell|
This week I would like to share a story from “Walking with the Wind” by civil rights activist John Lewis, with all my love to our high school team. Thank you for your dedication.
About fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over; the wind started picking up, lightening flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly… I was terrified. I’d already seen what lightening could do. I’d seen fields catch on fire, trees actually explode. Lightening terrified me.
My aunt herded us all inside. The wind was howling now and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.
And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. this storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.
That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Hold hands, she said. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen of us walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.
It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams — so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.
And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.
And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.
But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.
And we did.
And we still do, all of us. You and I.
Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me — not just the movement for civil rights but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us.
John Lewis leading the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965
BOOKS I LOVE
While browsing in a small Brooklyn book store, I picked up a used copy of Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning. Written by Henry A. Giroux, with an introduction by Paulo Freire, it is a powerful manifesto on critical pedagogy.
There is a need to defend schools as institutions essential to maintaining and developing a critical democracy and also to defending teachers as transformative intellectuals who combine scholarly reflection and practice in the service of educating students to be thoughtful, active citizens.
I couldn’t agree more. Giroux then goes on to summarize Dewey and to lament the fact that the mainstream approach to teacher development is based on an underlying assumption that “the behavior of teachers needs to be controlled” thus prospective teachers are “taught methodologies that appear to deny the very need for critical thinking.”
As we continue our journey toward a vision of every school as a vibrant intellectual community that deeply honors teachers, I invite you to share your thoughts and feedback, your dreams, frustrations, challenges, and ideas.
BOOKS I LOVE
Written by Deborah Meier, one of the most brilliant and eloquent educators of our time, The Power of Their Ideas is as thoughtful as it is inspiring.
This book explores many education reform topics including school choice, the importance of small schools, and the art of teaching. The following excerpt is from chapter 8: Reinventing Teaching.
Teaching more than virtually any activity (aside from parenting, perhaps) depends on quick instinctive habits and behavior, and on deeply held ways of seeing and valuing….
For the kinds of changes necessary to transform American education, the work force of teachers must do three tough things more or less at once: change how they view learning itself, develop new habits of mind to go with their new cognitive understanding, and simultaneously develop new habits of work - habits that are collegial and public in nature…
And our schools must be the labs for learning about learning. Only if schools are run as places of reflective experimentation can we teach both children and their teachers simultaneously. (It’s why John Dewey’s famous University of Chicago elementary and secondary school was named the Lab School.) Schools must create a passion for learning not only among children but also among their teachers.
This is what we aspire to build at HVA: a rich intellectual environment for teachers as well as students.
Two months ago today, on August 27, we all sat together at our closing ceremony in our brand new elementary school building. It was the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we experienced something incredible together. Remember the beautiful words of the song that our high school choir sang at the closing ceremony: “we are bound together, by the task that stands before us.” So today I was reminiscing about that night and about the summer. How is it almost November already? Time goes by so fast …
In late July, I was walking down Prince Street in the Village, a few blocks from Bleecker Street. In the window of a gallery I noticed a photo of the March on Washington. I had been thinking about the March because the 50th anniversary was coming up on August 28, so the photo caught my eye. I wandered in and started chatting with the proprietor, Aaron Zych, about the photo in the window. He told me about the photographer, Rowland Scherman. I told him about our schools in Harlem.
The next day, Aaron sent me a link to a documentary called “Eye on the Sixties: the Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman.” The documentary told the story of his photography for LIFE magazine from the March on Washington to the Kennedy family to Bob Dylan. As Rowland drove up to return to the site of Woodstock some 50 years later, the film’s narrator was reflecting on how fast life goes by. When they got to Woodstock, he said:
We felt like we were at Gettysburg, like it was some kind of hallowed ground. The staff was very nice to us and they left us alone enough to absorb the landscape. That evening the moon was up and I kept thinking of those vibrant young people in the 1960’s. There’s this sense of void inherent in the passage of time. It all goes so fast, almost unimaginable until the day when you realize that you’re there. One of the comforting elements for me was interviewing Rowland’s good friend Tom Clark who was a counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a great guy and very keen. And his soft words of advice were, “Live for today, because that’s all we really have.”
I took some measure of comfort in those words. And I recommitted to live each day with compassion for others in my heart.
Today I was thinking about those words again. We are two months into the school year, and this is the time of year when the dreams of summer start to fade as our work is difficult and can feel overwhelming. Especially for folks new to HVA (God bless each of you!) as well as for all of us striving to take our work to the next level, sometimes the challenges can be a bit much. So I’d like to take a moment to thank each and every one of you.
One of the things that has made me so happy has been to see and feel the deep commitment to our values, even when the work gets hard: to assume the best of one another; stay positive in the face of frustration; be part of the solution; remember there is no “them” - there is only us; put the needs of our children first; and spread compassion with our words, thoughts and actions. You all make me proud.
In the last two months, I have had the pleasure of seeing so many teachers working to actualize our progressive educational vision. Teaching is hard. Teaching well is very hard.
Breathe. Smile. Be kind to yourself and to one another. Life goes by so fast.
Tonight I attended a poetry reading by Billy Collins, whose new book, Aimless Love, comes out tomorrow. Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-03. He is warm and witty and wonderful!
Collins developed Poetry 180, a poetry program for schools that features one poem for each day of the school year.
Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools, is designed to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year. The poems found here were selected by Billy Collins, with high school students in mind. They are intended to be listened to and all members of the school community be included as readers. A great time for the readings would be following the end of daily announcements at morning meeting, advisory or homeroom.
Socratic Seminar at HVA High
Last week our students experienced Socratic Seminar during a history class at HVA High. The students had read six different texts (primary as well as secondary source materials) on Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” including a speech by M.A. Jinnah and a letter by M.N. Roy. The assignment involved interesting questions such as, ”What were the strengths and limitations of Gandhi’s approach?” and ”Was the partition of India inevitable?”
The students spoke respectfully and listened intently to one another while paying careful attention to the texts.
As a public intellectual forum, Seminar motivates students to care about the quality of their work. And, when implemented effectively, it engenders the self-directed, independent, courteous culture we all want in our classrooms.
I asked Jason and Cari about the key features of Seminar. They wrote:
Seminar creates an intellectual culture and teaches students to think and speak persuasively. Seminar asks students to closely read great works of literature and important documents, analyze their significance, and create a sophisticated argument by answering a larger, open-ended question about a topic that students are studying. It emphasizes a level of questioning and thinking where there is usually no single right answer.
Socratic Seminar is a cornerstone of HVA’s pedagogical vision. It simultaneously fosters and requires deep reading, disciplined thinking, and meaningful academic discourse.
When I hear an idea or advice from a highly regarded educator, it piques my curiosity. When I hear the same idea over and over from several experienced educators, then I really pay attention!
So it was last week when I had the pleasure of participating in an informal discussion with several HVA academic leaders including our graduate school faculty. Some of these educators are focused on elementary school students, others on middle or high school. Some are focused on reading and writing, others on math. Yet they all seemed to be interested in one thing: how do we assess student understanding “in real time” during class? What does conferencing look like at HVA?
Interestingly, I learned, the word “assessment" derives from the Latin "assidere" meaning "to sit beside." The origin of the word seems to reflect the meaning of sophisticated assessment. Imagine a teacher sitting beside a student and asking him purposeful, focused questions to determine the degree and depth of the student’s understanding.
It would be interesting to reflect on the quality and depth of assessment in our lessons. Are students understanding what I intended to teach, and how do I know? How is the information gathered in individual conferences with students different from information gathered from other forms of assessment? How should assessment be woven into the fabric of a lesson?