I had the privilege of meeting Patricia Polacco this week. My friend Dayna arranged for her to come out and speak at our schools, and it was a wonderful afternoon. In spite of a jam-packed auditorium with inconsistent air conditioning, and children who know how to be read to but not how to listen to a speaker without talking, hooting, whistling, thumping, kicking the seat in front of you… (that’s another post perhaps), we were treated to an hour of her storytelling-peptalk-wisdom sharing. My favorite: “We all open our gifts at different times.”
Patricia has made no secret of her struggles in school and her dyslexia. She shared her story with our students, and begged them to not ever give up hope, to believe in their own gifts, and to see their own genius. This was very touching to hear, but also to see. Some of my colleagues and I were sharing afterward that our students hear this from us all the time. We are always encouraging them. We are kid-whisperers! But, coming from someone else, and particularly from someone who has written and published stories that they love, well, that was an eye-opener for some of them. I could see a few kids look up and squint, turn their head sideways a bit… as if to say, “I’ve heard this before, but not from someone outside of the cheerleading section.”
For isn’t that what we are? Cheerleaders. Just off to the side. Always cheering! Aware of the game and our surroundings. But not in the game. Not the player. We often use the metaphor of coach to describe a teacher. That makes a lot of sense; we guide, set things up, design plays and moves for optimum learning. But last week when I went to my niece’s school to watch her cheerlead her way through a football game, I also watched a coach verbally rip into a player for not doing something he was supposed to do. It was clear that he was disappointed and angry. The blunder created a play for the other team. Winning was at stake. And the player’s mistake had put the winning in jeopardy. Anger was an appropriate response. I guess.
I proudly and passionately work in a public school. High-stakes testing took ahold about fifteen years ago, and has maintained its death-grip on our schools and our mission to facilitate an educated public. I believe it is responsible for a similar, side-line mentality today. I have found myself angry when a lesson fails. When a student doesn’t try. When they play, fool around, day-dream. And I check this anger. I know it doesn’t belong in my classroom. I believe in childhood and daydreaming, nine-year old boys who sit in their chairs on their haunches, unafraid of falling over backwards. I believe in chatting and passing notes. I believe in taking time to discover a good book. I believe in learning at your own pace and in your own time. I believe in mistakes. And attempts.
But that doesn’t win games. And it doesn’t satisfy the establishment’s request for everyone to be college ready and on track to be so by second grade. Jesus Arne, really. What a ridiculous thing to say.
Near the end of Patricia’s visit, she shared the story of the meteorite that landed in her mother’s childhood front yard. Her family believes that it has some power, and they often make a wish when they touch it. She had a chunk of it and showed the kids. She encouraged them to make a wish, something important, and we all closed our eyes as she held the rock.
I know that we can make giant strides in our classrooms, with even our most reluctant learners, if we get to know our students and carefully plan our lessons. If we follow up and reteach with intent and variety. If we show up with passion and curiousity. And if we cheer. Loudly. And believe with every fiber of our being that each gift in our classroom will be opened in its time. It may or may not show up on a test score. It may or may not show up in our time with our students. But it will show up in a smile when it finally clicks. In a courageous attempt to try something that is really hard. And in tightly closed eyes, and a fist balled up around an imaginary piece of rock, wishing fervently for something their heart whispers.
I’m proud to be a member of the cheering section for 28 years. And counting.