Thursday, April 30, 2015

Everything is a Ball. Or Not.

Benjamin is now 16 months old, and everything is a ball to him. Balls are balls, of course. Basketballs, soccer balls, kick balls, bouncy balls, footballs. But then there are other things about which his pure relish and love of balls makes his little mind transform into balls.

Things like: the round tops of chair backs, the round handle of a toy fishing net, any building with a curved roof, the front of a car.

While Jen and I repeatedly say back the right word, "ROOF ... ROOF" or "CHAIR ... CHAIR" this doesn't seem to matter much. Instead, his bright eyes and gleeful face grow ever wider and he replies to us and to his big brother Tyler (who also helps in the ball dissuasion mission) "BALL! BALL! BALL!"

And then, usually we all laugh because, hey, it's kind of fun to see almost everything as a ball.


But then I read the news. I open my front door and proceed to go teach my 7th graders. And everywhere I look I see the brokenness in our world. Baltimore. Nepal. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. And I wonder about that question Langston Hughes asked so powerfully and which Lorraine Hansberry brought to life so vividly: "What happens to a dream deferred?"

What happens when we want--desperately--to see the world be peaceful, equal, kind, and instead we see racism, hatred, fear, war, natural disasters, confusion?

What happens to a dream when it is deferred, or worse: impossible?

There is a great scene in Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun when Beneath says to her Ma about her older brother, Walter, "There ain't nothing left to love!"

Walter has acquiesced to the racism of the whites in his neighborhood, who have offered to buy out the black family so that they move out of the neighborhood. Walter is broken, defeated man.

But Ma says to Beneatha a line that makes me tremble: "There's always something left to love." Her subsequent speech to her daughter beautiful articulates that when we are most broken, that is when we most need love.

Years ago, I would have my 7th graders in Hudson focus on that speech, and rewrote it about someone in their own life. We would read Hansberry's play and act it out in class, and every time one of my students read that line from Ma out loud, I would tremble. I would cry.

One year, we brought out students to a live performance of Hansberry's play. And when that scene occurred, I vividly remember sitting among my 7th grade students and just weeping. I mean, weeping so hard many of them around me looked at me and wondered how anyone could ever let an emotional wreck of a guy like this teach them!

And my heart sometimes feels so weak. I can't read about the brokenness in our world without crying. And when I cry, I can't help wondering what I can do. What any of us can do against injustices that seem so formidable.

How can we change a deeply entrenched system of racism?

How can we find hope for deeply broken forms of education?

How can we transform lives--our own and others--fraught with despair or fear or hurt?

And I come back to Hughes. And I come back to Hansberry. And I come back to my sons.

Again and again and again I come back to trying to see the world not just through my own crying and weeping and wonder, but through the lens of hope which others show me.

I try to see that anything good--a poem, a play, a word on the blank page, an interaction with a student, a protest, a smile, a plea--is never wasted.

I know that, soon, Benjamin will learn the reality that not everything is a ball. Some things are most definitely not, and are in fact the complete opposite. Life is hard. Life is unjust. Life is fearful and confusing and painful.Life has jagged edges that don't even  approach roundness, smoothness, and a curve towards good.

But there are still balls in the world. And there is still some hope that we might transform things that had no earthy business being balls into balls.

We might use the tools at our disposal to change, re-envision, rethink, and redeem. We might find ways to help create curves of growth and curves of possibility where none seem possible. And though I can't always find the strength to wipe away my tears and work, I find it most often when I realize the truth of Ma's statement.

In all our brokenness, there is still something left to love. There is still something worth fighting for. There are poems, plays, protests, pleas, and purposes which need hands and feet to energize them.

There is always something left to love.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Waiting for Knowledge...or Pursuing It?

There’s a great scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says to Vladimir, “Let’s go.” And Vladimir replies to his buddy, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett then gives us the final stage direction: “They do not move.”

Usually, talking to my 7th graders about the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is a bit like that scene. There is not a whole lot of movement when it comes to deep learning, knowledge, and reflection.

So this year—my sixth as a public school teacher—I decided to not really talk about the test very much.

I figured that if my students were learning to become more effective writers, stronger readers, and deeper thinkers, that would show up on any kind of assessment they were forced to take.

But with three days to go until the test, I noticed something: a bunch of my students began to freak out.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you going to prepare us for the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, WHEN IS the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, what are we going to have to do this year on the MCAS?”

And that’s about when I realized that I was either doing one of two things: 1) being a terribly inept teacher in not photocopying a slew of models and worksheets and test preparation activities for my students; or 2) practicing what I had been preaching all year long: that education is about more than a test grade, and that authentic learning is more about going deep than it is about going fast or far.

However, I relented a bit and explained what the MCAS was about, and what it would ask them to do. I even photocopied a few examples of what the MCAS people said were strong writing samples.

This seemed to quell the anxiety of some of my students. Yet the day before the test, I asked all of my students in each of my five 7th grade classes to close their eyes. Then I asked them to hold up a hand with fingers from 1 – 5. 1 meant I am really freaked out and nervous and anxious about this test tomorrow! 5 meant I am not worried at all; everything will be fine.

While some students held up 5’s, I felt a pang inside myself to see that some students felt a 1 or a 2. Many held up a 3. In years past, I had done more test prep activities, and I had detested every minute of it. It felt so awkward to stop what we were doing as a class to hand out practice bubble-tests, practice test-writing prompts, and practice readings.

I love writing and reading. They are my lifeblood, and I believe that words have the power to dramatically transform lives. But I struggle with the intention behind the words we ask students to read and write. If the intention is words for the sake of accountability, my heart wants to distance itself from activities in this camp.

Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe I need to learn how to help my students pause the normal classroom activities and prepare with conscientiousness and a good work ethic for the test that they are required to take.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I need to learn to think about my students more—asking, if they are forced to take this test, then isn’t it my responsibility to ensure they are impeccably well-prepared for it? In this vein, my actions this year indict me as self-focused and unkind.

But some part of me wants to hold on to the hope that as we talked (briefly) about the MCAS this year, and as I used the refrain, “You are more than a test score” over and over and over and…Perhaps something of that reality set in.

Perhaps my students were able to reflect on the fact that we can focus on writing and reading for the sake of writing and reading, rather than bubbling, and they felt the continuity of our class and curriculum moving deeper and deeper.  

Maybe, come next Fall, their scores will provide the verdict.

Or maybe, we won’t be just sitting around waiting to hear their scores. Maybe our stage direction will look a little different than Vladimir’s and Estragon’s. Maybe we won’t be waiting, at all, for the knowledge of if we are strong writers and readers, so much as we’ll be pursuing it.