Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Art of Teaching Art

For the past year I have been homeschooling our six year old son.  As a former teacher I had a good grasp on the basics of teaching a young child to read and write, but what I was not versed in was play. Strange, right? You would think that if a person taught kindergarten they would understand the importance of play, but I'm not talking about play just for kids.  I am speaking about the need for adults to lead by example.
We have now been homeschooling for nine months and it has taken me until this month to figure out the importance of my own playful, creative attitude. Teaching my son isn't just about instructing him on the basics of reading and writing. It is also about sharing with him my passions and interests.  If I'm not doing that, I am probably holding back. 
For example, I have a BA in Studio Art and I have been a passionate writer and reader since I was a very young child. I love to play with words, make rhymes, compose songs, dive into paints. I have been writing stories and poetry since I was seven, but I had not introduced my favorite artists, writers, opera singers and other creatives to my son.  Why not?!

There was a time a long time ago when learning how to draw, learning how to compose music, reading poets and the tales told by fantastic storytellers was considered an important of educating a child.  As we have turned more and more to manufactured education we have lost our grasp on how important these influences are on our children.  Showing children examples of great art work and great writers helps them to dream, open their minds to all they could achieve. It helps them innovate and we need innovators to move us successfully through the 21st century.  Educating our children is not simply about teaching the basics of reading and writing skills. It is also about facilitating the immeasurable skill of imagination and innovation.  Without these traits our children are educated to merely be machines, cogs in a wheel of a larger top down, uninventive society that is ruled by a few at the top who may or may not have the best interests of our society and our children in mind.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who Cares?

We all want teachers to care for our students. I know it is the first thing I look for when I enter a school as a parent or as a fellow teacher.  Perhaps based on the instinct to care for our young we want teachers to bring empathy and compassion to the classroom. However, these traits tend to be lost in today's cluttered educational atmosphere. With testing, budget cuts and union issues making headlines, these more fundamental, but extremely important concerns, don't make it into our conversations. There haven't been any recent news stories about how to attract and train compassionate, empathic teachers.   I suppose the story just isn't as sexy as parents arrested for sending their kids to the "wrong" school or the debate over core standards, but the long term effects of attracting and training  teachers who genuinely care for kids is perhaps much more important. After all, we aren't raising up auto matrons. Our kids need to be taught and shown examples of adults who are inspired, show concern for others and make accommodations for the unique needs of the individual. I know this is a tall order in our current educational environment, but the truth is we can't loose track of the fundamental characteristics that make an excellent teacher.
I am joined today by Dr. Perry Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman is the founder of Wise Foundations, as well as the principal of the middle school he was honored to help found, organize and continues to lead in Southern California.  He is also author of the book Strong Schools, Strong Leaders.  You can read more about his innovative approach to giving a voice to the power of the school community on his website.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Wiseman a few questions concerning the changes we are seeing in education today. Here is one question that is every parent's mind.

1.  In an educational system filled with requirements, test scores, bonuses and lay offs, how can we find educators who feel an urge for care towards our children?

Every organization, whether private or public, has requirements and accountability. Some are stringent and inflexible; others are, on the other hand, more relaxed. Yet no matter where an institution falls on this spectrum, disgruntled, unmotivated employees naturally surface. Perhaps it is the automaton with the desk job clocking in, lackadaisically going through the motions, and then clocking out. Or it is the classroom teacher lacking in enthusiasm, closing his or her classroom door, unwilling to learn new skills—truly modeling the antithesis of the profession. The question becomes: What’s their driving force?

I have always been a member of the “glass is half full” club and firmly believe that people go into a profession wanting to make a difference. Particularly, a classroom teacher demonstrating an uncaring persona isn’t blatantly aiming to harm students’ futures. The problem lies in the fact that they either, one, don’t yet have the skill set (or ability) to work with children; or, two, they are somehow unconnected, operating within their own bubble, isolated from the rest of the community. And a lack of motivation versus a lack of capability clearly requires different approaches.

We’ll start off by tackling the lack of ability issue. This one is pretty cut and dry. Teachers needing assistance must be given intensive site and district support with celebrations at each milestone. And those key players providing support must demonstrate that they care, that their competent, and that they’re consistent.

The second issue, motivation, is a little more intricate and involved. Teachers, more often than not, are discontented and aloof because they feel that they are not being listened to, they feel as though their ideas are not being heard. Obviously, when individuals aren’t appreciated or given opportunities to contribute to change, they begin to steer opposite of the organizations vision and values. It then becomes a tug-o-war with the feeling of: Why should I feed the needs of the organization if the organization is not attending to my fundamental needs? In other words, why should I care about others if they don’t care about me?

So to overcome a lack of dedication to the profession, school and district leaders need to create cultures where it is commonplace for everyone’s ideas to be put on the table—so to speak. No matter the external circumstances that may surface—changes in education code, increased accountability, budgets crises, and so forth—the answers ultimately lie in the room. Unveiling the collective intelligence of any group of teachers will lead to innovation, as well as an unwavering commitment from all.

To end I would like to share a few words from Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, which parallels my outlook. In a recent letter to American teachers he stated, “…how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders dedicated to our highest ideals” (Retrieved on May 8, 2011 from

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Back to School

Please excuse my silence for the past few weeks. I have started  a new journey, a journey back into teaching. Before I had children and became involved in education advocacy I lived and worked on the Navajo reservation in western New Mexico as a kindergarten teacher. It was my first job out of college and was by the far the most difficult thing I had ever attempted.  As any teacher will tell you the first few years of teaching can be mind blowingly difficult and my job was complicated by lack of funds, lack of support, lack of knowledge of what I was doing and a cavernous distance between me and my family back in the midwest.
Despite all odds, though, I succeeded. I thrived and so did my students. I have never lost my love for educating and now after a six year hiatus to raise our kids, I hope to return to the classroom this fall.
Currently I am visiting Santa Fe, New Mexico where I took my re certification test yesterday in order to renew my teaching license.
So here I go. Wish me luck! I plan on writing and detailing the journey and I hope you join me. I know going back to the classroom will color my blog and hopefully bring to this site a palpable experience of our current educational system.  The journey into achievement and what it means to succeed in the twenty first century continues. I know my students will have plenty to teach me.