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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Don't Let Big Reform Crush the Small Victories

Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON'TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me--
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

~~Shel Silverstein

When he entered my room all he saw were fences, barriers: academic, cultural, and economic. He pretended he didn't care. "You can't do this. You can't do that," was certainly ingrained into his psyche. So, I made sure my first words to him were, "You can." Day after day he wrote, quite horribly, about his favorite football team. I said, "You can." And each day a splinter of light squeezed through the fence.

Days passed, then weeks. He tested me. I said, "You can." He improved. He worked hard. He could see through the fence now, just a bit. We started creating music in the classroom. I said to bring in your instruments. Nobody did, but him. I sat at my desk waiting for the class to arrive and to my surprise I heard the faint flutter of a harmonica from the hallway. I hurried to the door and opened it. "Who was that?" I asked. A little girl pointed at him. He smiled. I picked up my guitar and said, "Let's jam." He shook his head no. I asked why. He looked at the class and said, "They'll laugh at me." I said, "I can fix that." I turned to the class, smiled, and threatened, "Anyone laughs while we play and you're in for recess." I winked. The class knew. I said, "You can." We played. The gap in the fence widened. He had something they didn't. And it felt good.

The American Dream: Big

Your students will encounter (and create) all kinds of fences in their life. I helped my student find a gap in the fence by giving him choice and encouraging his musical talent. Obama touched upon this idea of finding special talents during his back to school speech. "And it is true that we each have our own gifts, we each have our own talents that we have to discover and nurture." I'm sure the President means well and believes every bit of it. He said, "Dream big." But how can we, students and teachers alike, dream big, discover our hidden talents, be creative, and learn to learn when all we're doing is preparing for a test? It's no secret that in the name of accountability creative thinking has been bashed to kibbles-n-bits. And if our students fail to reach the level of political proficiency needed to be a "productive citizen," who takes the blame? Not the system, or the parents, or the peers; not culture or economic downfall. All fingers will point at the teachers. Then what? Will we all be Waiting for Superman to swoop down and guide our hands to drastic educational reform? Sounds dramatic, doesn't it? Well, it is Hollywood.

Less Drama, More Impact

I'm not sure that merit pay and charter schools qualify as reform (as Waiting for Superman suggests). Author and professor, Thomas Newkirk, argues against large, sweeping reform in his book, Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For.

"In this age of big reform, this focus on the small and immediate may seem timid. Yet it always seemed to me that great teachers are great not because they are constantly engineering revolutions in their classroom--but because they are alert to the small changes, the small victories."

Shifting Perspectives

"Timid" classroom success stories like mine happen every day of every moment around the world--the student who solves a tough math problem, the kid who finally finished a whole book, the shy soul who speaks up for the first time. Are teachers really failing America's kids or are the little victories in the classroom going unnoticed? It's a hard question. You can't test that question, put it under a microscope, and enter the data into a computer. You can't make a Hollywood movie about it because there's no way to focus on all of those little victories happening every day that keep us trucking along and our students coming back for more. One might say it's boring. But it just might be everlasting. "Our pleasure in teaching should come from something smaller," Newkirk states. "...And I would argue more permanent."

So help your students find gaps in the fence and put on your own climbing gear. Get ready to scale the political barriers greased with Hollywood reform and big industry money. No worries, though. Listen close to me. Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be. I know, fellow teacher, that in your heart you hold all of those tiny victories that stiffen your upper lip and push your legs forward through fatigue and exhaustion. And if our boring victories aren't rebellious enough to be noticed, so be it. Your efforts will be remembered, my friend, because your students will hold on tight to those moments when it wasn't just a teacher and a student. It was quite more than that.

Sorry Mr. Superman, job's filled.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

researchpaper's picture

Thank you for the essay, an inspiring piece indeed! I am certain we need to bring up dreamers, as dreams source ideas and lead to innovation. Especially when working with the youngest students, a teacher needs to be a little of magician - start each day with a little surprise and show how miracles can be everywhere around if you open your eyes wide and dreams come true when they are worked on.

BARRY LANE's picture

Brilliant. You are talking about a cultural shift on how we see teaching . Teachers know this already. Everyday miracles is what teaching is truly about. Bravo!

Sarah K.'s picture

Why is it every time I enter an elementary school I hear a teacher speaking negatively about the Standards of Learning? I am always tempted to get into a debate about why the SOL's were put into effect in the first place and how they should be seen as a guideline and not an end-all, but then I think to myself the one main reason this teacher and every other teacher complains-fear. Teachers are fearful that they will no longer be able to teach the way they always have. Teachers are fearful their students will not pass the state tests and their jobs will be in jeopardy. If a teacher is doing his or her job to the best of their ability there is no reason to fear. School administrators are aware that SOL's do not give the entire picture of a student's academic abilities and that a large number of various types of assessments are needed to gauge a student's understanding of individual concepts. If a teacher is fearful that they are held accountable for their students' education than maybe they are in the wrong business. Teachers have always been accountable for their student's education no matter if they are being evaluated or not.
Teachers cannot blame SOL'S for squashing creativity in the classroom.

Quality teachers realize that state standards do not affect the amount of creativity that can be incorporated in the curriculum. SOL's simply stated: ensure that all the forms of assessment being used in the classroom are purposeful, since there is such a limited amount of instruction time offered in any given school day. Standards of Learning cannot kill creativity in a classroom, only a teacher can. One of my favorite college professors told me that if there is a lapse of creativity in the classroom, it is because the teacher has panicked and they are now teaching to the test.
I plan on continuing to tear down the fences (barriers) my students face and letting their talents shine through. I believe the modern day classroom still allows for every student's dreams to come true and that the time I have with my students will not be overshadowed by the thought of test failure. I measure my students' success from what I know they have learned, not what a score says on a piece of paper. I celebrate my students' victories every day, not just on test day. Good luck teachers. Remember to always follow your heart and treat every child as if they were your own.

Dawn Corino's picture

Hey G,

You put it words so well. I collect keys because they symbloize the opening of doors for me; but I really like your fence metaphor too! I am proud to be able to say that you are one of my collegues!

Kelly McConaghy's picture

Thanks Mr. P for putting all the other stuff and focusing on what is really important. We do warm fuzzies in my classroom when someone makes you feel good, and I think you just clearly gave all of us some of those warm fuzzies with those words!

Dorena Smith's picture

Sarah,
Thank you for reminding us that SOL's don't kill creativity. As educators, we must be willing to grow in our teaching just as we expect our students to grow in their learning. Becoming stagnant or only teaching to the test will never encourage growth in our classrooms. I would rather have a class full of excited, creative problem solvers, than straight A's on report cards. Many kids are not good test takers, but are excellent readers, writers, and have an abundance of common sense.

Susy Cronick's picture

Thank you for focusing on the positive side of education. We are constantly berated and put down for our "lack of effort" because people do not see, what seems to be, "small victories." Those small victories build self-esteem in students that have none, they will not get far or pass many tests if their view of life is that they are unimportant and have nothing to contribute. Without teachers many of our youth would be lost in a sea of impossiblilty, stuck with where they are at. When a teacher makes an impact such as you have made we give kids the opportunity to see themselves in a new way, a positive way that will allow them to grow into successful, contributing human beings. We do not just teach reading, writing and math, we are in the business of teaching life. Choose to be positive and stay that way, never forget why you are teaching and do not let the nay-sayers get you down!! Go Teachers!!!

Rebecca Leonardo's picture

I really enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of all the children that have challnged me to find their individual successes through choice. The internal rewards far outweigh everything else. Finding out what your student is interested in and good at and building on that is a mark of a great teacher.

Shawn Pashby's picture

I always say my reason for being a teacher is those 'lightbulb moments', when a concept/idea clicks for the first time for a student. I took great pride and excitement in seeing those little victories in my classroom. And if those 'lightbulbs' are on, but no one else sees them, so what. I did, and that's what mattered to my students, day in and day out. Thanks for a great post. I'll definitely be back for more.

Samantha's picture

Your essay is a reminder of why I chose this profession. Kudos to you. You are an inspiration!

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