For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

14 thoughts on “For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

  1. Vicki,
    I could not agree more!! (How shocking, right?) I have not been able to craft a worthy blog post and so to procrastinate I have been majorly binging on Blogs, many that I found through the Sunshine Award and I am telling you it is a tasty adventure. There are so many wise and talented educators who are working and keep on keeping on regardless of the current climate and culture around them.
    Hate when I hit this writing wall…but getting back into schools this week already has my mind going, in too many directions unfortunately.
    Stay warm with those toe socks!
    Tomasen

    • What, you and me on the same page? So here’s my secret to blogging: Try writing a book. A book seems so much harder, you’ll want to escape to blogging all the time. That seems to be working for me—though it’s not so good for the book! And did you stumble on the One Little Word posts? They’ve apparently gone on for a while but were new to me—and wonderful!

  2. Such a wonderful, hopeful post. “Bringing joy back into the classroom” sort of goes quite nicely with my idea of wanting kids “to be happy”. And the research on reading literature/fiction is heartening, too. Here are two personal connections to two other things you mentioned. One, I adore Kate DiCamillo and read “Winn Dixie” aloud to my 3rd graders (in the spring after we had bonded and grown together as a community) for years, but not as early as you and your daughters read it. I love that their letter was her first fan mail. I got to meet her at UCLA’s BookFest a while back and she is amazing. Having her as a reading ambassador is a gift to all of us. 16 years ago when I spoke to my first group of third grade parents (after I moved from teaching gr. 5 for 24 years) I told them I wanted to teach everything in the curriculum, but more importantly I wanted to create “habits of mind” in their children and that while I might use some methods they might not recognize, everything I did had a purpose/reason and if they were not sure, they should ask me so I could explain. I don’t know where I came up with that phrase. Must have read it somewhere. But my point is that if we think of education (or is it schooling?) as absorption of discrete bits be they information or skills and not see the whole picture, we are doing our kids a huge disservice. I told my kids I was not teaching them just for third grade, but for a lifetime. Building in knowledge and skills and ideas that should be tucked away and re-examined as they grew. How does one quantify “habits of mind”? I have stories about former students who, when they are older, talk to me about their memories of my classroom that can speak to that issue. I began with reverence for words and reading and community and purpose. Of course we did math and science and social studies, too. This is also part of the reason I do not like departmentalization for young kids. We take away the “whole”. And in third grade and elementary schools I think we can’t divorce the child’s biology and needs with some external force for high level testing performance. I have known kids who were not setting the world on fire as a young kid, even in fifth grade, but more so in third who have grown, developed and thrived. Our classrooms need to be places of joy that meet kids where they are and carefully nudge them on to bigger ideas while honoring the preciousness of their youth, idealism, enthusiasm and trust. I nominate you, Vicki, to apply for the role of assistant to the new Chancellor! Beautiful post with inspiring thoughts. PS what is this thing with drawing. What are you up to? Have you read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain? And how can you forget the India Opal Buloni and Gloria Dump and the librarian, Miss Franny Block, Otis or Sweetie Pie Thomas and the Dewberry brothers or the Preacher or poor pinch-faced Amanda or Opal’s mother who could run fast and loved the sky and drank too much? AND I NEVER WATCHED THE MOVIE. I should some day, but the book means to much to me. It is kind of like my feeling about Matlida (hate the movie, love the book). Happy New Year and I hope that what we are hoping for for kids and teachers, for teaching and learning will begin to come true sooner rather than later.

    • Love that your classroom was built on reverence for words and reading and community and purpose—and the on valuing the preciousness of youth, which too often seems in short supply as we rush them to be mini-college students. And no, I refused to see the Winn-Dixie movie, too, because the commercials alone made me convinced that the director hadn’t captured that amazing way DiCamillo is able to combine whimsy and deep feeling in each and every small moment she describes. But let’s hope this is the year of more joy! At least it seems possible!

  3. Vicki, I too am feeling rejuvinated by the hopeful expectations of joy in the schools. Yesterday I was in a public school on the lower east side of Manhattan. The last few times that I was there, the tension could literally be felt in the air. Yesterday I saw smiles on the faces of teachers for the first time this school year. Really! In our grade meetings, this expectation for change consistently came up.

    I really and truly hope that there isn’t disappontment ahead because we are all hoping for a positive change in New York City’s education policies.

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

    • I do think that neither de Blasio or Carmen Farina will be able to repair all the damage Bloomberg caused with one fell swipe—especially with John King at the helm of the state. But it feels better already to know that we’ve got a chancellor who really knows kids and classrooms, and from her own experience as a child knows what it means not to be seen for who you really are by a teacher. Good will come of this, I’m sure. We just don’t know how soon or how fast.

  4. As usual, your post and the responses it generates fills me with hope. I’m hoping Ms. Farina’s appointment will not only impact NYC schools, but set a national tone with her clear understanding of what is needed in our schools – balance, sanity and a generous dose of joy. A place where teachers are bursting with ideas (just like the glorious flowers on this post) and students flock to them wanting more. And — Kate DiCamillo (deep sigh) — what a lovely New Year’s gift she is! I think everyone, kids and adults, feel that personal connection you speak of. Year after year my 5th graders come in with a special reverence for anything Kate DiCamillo. It starts in 3rd grade when Winn Dixie is read aloud. From that point, they are hooked. Anything she has written is scooped up and treated like gold. She is a literary rock star for our elementary students (and teachers). And finally — the educators I have “met” in the tweeting and blogging world have changed me and my teaching, and I do believe as their connections deepen, those mindful practices will have far reaching effects on our schools and most importantly our students.

    • I agree completely, Julieanne, that something powerful is happening online as teachers connect and share thinking that impacts what happens in the classroom. I confess I only because aware of the One Little Word challenge recently, but just those one words, like that word joy, hold so much promise for teachers and kids. (And, of course, I love your word, wonder.) Now . . .how to help the the students in the high school I’m working in this month reconnect with what I imagine they might have felt, too, as they first listened to Winn Dixie, in a system that’s sucked too much joy out. Maybe this year I’ll get closer to the answer.

      • There is so much potential with our high schoolers. Huge challenge, but so necessary. My high school daughter has just started to read for herself and she is doing well in English. Up until recently, she felt she wasn’t good at reading (everybody else was a level T- her words). I think many get reading later. It’s never too late. I’m excited to see what you come up with.

    • Nice to know that this news was appreciated beyond the five boroughs! It just feels better to have someone at the helm who’s spent so much time with children in classrooms!

  5. I have read this post over a few times during my first week back to work. So refreshing to read something so uplifting and full of positive news and outlooks. Thank you Vicky. And I so agree – I come to so many blogs each week for inspiration, sustenance and joy. My “people” are these educators and thinkers I know only through twitter and blogs but they impact me, my teaching and my thinking in the hugest of ways.

  6. Thank you for the mention. That NEAG report was frustrating, especially when so little progress was reported when the answer seemed so obvious…and the data proved the obvious. In order to develop better readers…have the students read. Sadly, that’s not even a paradox.

    • I, for one, was glad that you put that report on my radar as it makes some people who might otherwise abandon independent reading listen. And thank you as well for reminding me of the marvelous Elizabeth Bishop sestina with the Marvel Stove. It was so nice to come across it again and find it as wonderful as ever.

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