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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.

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Jamie Schwantes's picture

Well said Mr. Pappalardo. The beginning of the school seems to always be filled with "fences". I take your words as a reminder that I need to stay the course and keep helping kids open up their fences and find the magic.

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