Dignifying school life

Here’s the story my colleague told me the other day when I asked her how things were going. “I have 34 kids in my sculpture class. One student is in a wheelchair, and since my classroom is 5 steps down, he can’t get in to the class. The administration’s response is, ‘he can stay in the hallway and you’ll bring him work.‘ You can’t have a sculpture class by yourself in the hallway!” I asked why they can’t build a ramp, she said maybe they will — in 6 months? 9 months? As usual when my colleague tells me about the craziness she contends with in trying to do her job as a teacher, I just listened, uncomfortably aware that I can’t console or reassure her or do anything to remedy the situation.

I was at an event that night and happened across a disability rights lawyer. I asked her about my colleague’s scenario. She gave me her cell phone # and told me to have the teacher give it to the student’s family — the student has a chance at legal rights if his family will pursue it. She said “…I spend a lot of my time getting mad.”

I asked the advocate, “what got you mad today?” She said “this girl who had a traumatic brain injury, is cognitively impaired and blind, and her IEP goals are all visual: ‘she will be able to identify the color red.’”

Where does this disregard come from? Surely administrators KNOW better than to stick a kid in a wheelchair out in the hall for class and to sign off on a plan for a blind student to learn colors. Either they don’t care — these details are too small for their notice — or they don’t know what to do — helpless, overwhelmed, whatever. What does it take to infuse dignity into school life?

Turning the classroom inside out

Where is the teacher’s workplace? What space have we assigned to those eager learners who wanted to immerse themselves in a life of inquiry and exploration?  How well does the shut-up space of the classroom fit the actual work of teachers, guiding students to enter into the world as the people who focus on the questions, problems, and possibilities of today?

I caught a glimpse of the limiting school walls coming down when I saw the children pouring out of the schools in the documentary The Children’s March.  When children decided to fight for educational justice in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, the radio DJ provided the guidance the teachers could not within the segregated institutions of the schools.  As the children jumped out the windows of the schools, heading for the waterhoses and police dogs and jails that awaited them in downtown Birmingham, the teachers turned the educational space inside out by turning their backs, stepping back and shutting up and letting the kids take the lead.

Turning the classroom inside out takes many forms.  In building community within and beyond the classroom.  In honoring the myriad relationships that shape and support students, and connecting those relationships to students’ learning.  In expanding the room for students’ voices and parents’ voices and teachers’ voices.

It’s becoming an increasingly common thing to see teachers in public spaces, standing up as teachers, “using their teacher voice”  ( see http://www.youtube.com/user/UseYourTeacherVoice). The protests in Madison and supporting protests around the country made it clear that the work of teachers is not only in the classroom.  Learning happens in the connections between the focused intellectual space of the classroom and the push and pull of public life.  Correspondingly, public commitment to education needs to be enacted and promoted in ways that facilitate the flow of education between home and school and neighborhood and capitol building.

Outmoded are the city planning maps that plot out learning spaces on isolated grids, without sure and obvious conduits to home through easy and safe transportation.  Outmoded are the schooling structures that separate students from public life — educationally allocated time and support for regular and sustained involvement in civic affairs.  It’s time to update those maps in our cities and in our heads.  Young people need to be seen and named as the asset they are in this society.  All young people.  Immeasurable power for change rests in the alliance between students and teachers, and by stepping over the boundaries of the classroom, making connections and questioning assumed authority, teachers empower students as vital contributors to public life.