Watching, Waiting for Superman, in a Comtrex-laden flu haze was a bad idea. It is a movie that every teacher and parent needs to see. It is raw, uncomfortable, and rife with debilitating statistics about what children (in the United States) know-or better yet, what they don’t know. It seems that some people feel that there are children out there, who cannot learn. One thing that I know for sure (thanks Oprah) is that all children can learn. Ok, so this is pie-in-the-sky idealism. What is so wrong having a Mary Poppins educational philosophy? Without the hope of teaching all children, we are at risk of becoming like the evil principal in Matilda.
I am a realist and I have been faced with extreme challenges in the classroom. The way I saw it, I had two choices, similar to that of Robert Frost and his road dilemma. I could ignore the problem and say I did all I could. Or, I could work with the challenge, ask for help, research, plan, teach, re-teach, go back to square one. When this doesn’t work, I keep going; because something has to work.
Now, I’m not Mary Poppins, and I don’t smile all day while imparting boulders of wisdom. Many days, I get frustrated and feel like a failure. Some days, the paper work, meetings, and assessments can saturate even the sunniest teacher disposition. The thing is, teaching is another member of the family. It follows me around as if it were my shadow. The educational day does not end at the last bell. The faces of my class pop into my mind, one-by one, like the old projector slide shows.
The movie discussed how the lower socio-economic districts continually have lower math and reading scores than the more affluent districts. Some failing high schools are nicknameddrop out factories.
Consider the following statistics cited in the film: the annual cost of prison for an inmate is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. Eight years after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, most states hovered between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders could not read at grade level. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 123 million highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.
The end of the movie left me encouraged more than discouraged. The animated “good teachers” depicted in the movie made me hopeful. If every teacher in the U.S., took one step beyond what he/she is currently doing to affect change-what would happen? Again, Mary Poppins seeps in, but without her the cynic would take over, and the kids deserve more than that. Don’t they?
This week at school, I’m teaching plate tectonics and how mountains are formed. The activity calls for boo-coos of cookies, icing, and graham crackers.
As the mound of sweets slowly rolled by the girl at the check out, she asked me:
“What is all of this for?”
I heard myself explaining how when two plates move together it can result in the formation of a mountain. I told her that I was doing an activity with the cookies to model the various faults in the earth.
The girl bagging the groceries asked, “What grade do you teach.”
“Fifth grade”, I replied.
“I don’t even remember fifth grade”, she mumbled as she stuffed the grocery bags.
The girl ringing my groceries said, “I wish I could have been in your class.”
I believed her.
So, here it to a new school week, and to all the teacher superheros.