Judy, my cooperating teacher when I student taught, is still one of my best friends and mentors. Long retired, enjoying her time between Oregon and Colorado, she and I still talk about children and learning whenever we get the chance. Judy's mentorship and teaching spirit still ring clearly in my mind in almost every teaching decision I make. She was that good! She was a teacher's teacher... an advocate for children and their many gifts. She taught be to believe in children.
Laura, my first principal and now my friend. She trusted me enough to hire me for my first teaching job after student teaching in her building. Later, she trusted me to teach her daughter for two years (who has become a lovely young woman). I remember right before my first interview she said, "I'd like you to read Frank Smith's book Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read before your interview..." So, I found a used copy at CU in Boulder and read it from cover to cover, pulling out bits of pieces of what would eventually become a stronghold in my understanding of readers and reading (it's not a light read and I've read it several times since). I worked with Laura for many years after that... she was always innovative and believed in teachers like no administrator I've worked for since. She trusted her teachers. She taught me to believe in possibility.
Norma, dear sweet Norma. She was Laura's secretary and she, too, was a dear friend. There were times that Norma would slip a twenty in a card and put it in my mailbox with a little note, "I know you can use this right now... Love, Norma." Norma gave my wife and me a cross stitch that reads, "Friends are the family you choose." And, it was true. Normal died of cancer not long after she retired and the day she died, my wife and I went to her house (as did several others) and sat by her bedside, just Norma and the two of us, as she gave us one last smile and hug. I miss her. She taught me to believe in faith.
Randi, my dear friend and colleague. We have been together through thick and thin... she's my daughter's godmother and she taught me more about writing than almost anyone I've ever met. I still work with her. Of course, she is retiring this year and my heart is sad. She's been a part of my teaching life for 25 years and will be part of my family forever. She's damn funny too! We've laughed and cried together... a lot. Last year, she split her vast collection of children's books between her friends... Troy, Janice, and me. I will cherish them forever. Randi taught me that "my writing for today is someone's reading for tomorrow." She taught me to believe in writers.
And, there's Lois. Lois died in 2008 after a long battle with breast cancer (I wrote about her in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop). While she was alive, she was alive with gusto. She was a gentle and quiet teacher; passionate in her beliefs and confident in the strongholds of her philosophy. She loved to stretch the brilliance of her students with laughter, thoughtfulness, and her love of learning. But... when there was something she didn't agree with... well, that's when she got out her pen and wrote, brilliantly. She taught me to believe in the power of words.
Which brings me to the point of this long-winded blog entry. I was sorting through my files recently and I came across the following poem that Lois wrote in 1997 after yet another mandate was being thrust upon us (in this case, the beginning of state testing). As I reread the poem, I was awestruck. It's so poignant and so apropos to the types of "programs" and "quick fixes" we're being asked to use in our classrooms today. It seems like we turn a corner and there's a new "child fixative" at the ready.
Lois knew that programs could not supersede people. Lois knew that learning didn't come in a pretty package, complete with rubrics and data collection devices created by someone who doesn't even know our students. Lois knew that programs didn't teach children, but that teachers taught children. Lois knew that every child has a special gift that might not be able to be measured on a test.
Her poem "Accountability" was written in response to yet another mandate. I hope you'll get the jest of her words (she, of course, changed the names and some of the poem is written with our situation at the time in mind). Enjoy the power of her words...
In the Province of Doug was the Village of Cher
Where people were happy, they all liked it there.
In the midst of this village on a street they called Will,
Lived a young boy named Andrew who's story I'll tell.
Now, some would call Andrew a typical boy,
He liked to go fishing and play with his toys.
With frogs in his pocket, and mud on his face,
The neighbors would see him all over the place.
But, those who knew Andrew, knew he had a need,
A passion for knowledge and loving to read.
From animals and dragons, to books for the cooks,
This young boy named Andrew devoured the books.
He read in the morning, he read in the night,
He read in the darkness, and when light was bright.
While sitting, or walking or on a steep climb,
In chaos and quiet, ten books at one time.
He told of his stories, to people in Cher,
The listened and loved them and wanted to share,
This passion for reading, this love for the books,
Soon Cherites were reading, that's all that it took.
Now up in his office without much to do,
Sat the prince of the kingdom with a feeling quite blue.
"They all say that Andrew knows much about reading,
But I am not sure, it's proof I am needing."
He gave him a notebook called "Accountability Plus,"
"Tell Andrew to read it--answer questions for us."
And so our friend Andrew put down all his books,
Instead of his novels, assessments he took.
He read about earthquakes and soccer and trash,
He read about beavers, explorers, and hash.
He read till he'd finished the hardest of tests,
He proved he could read so the prince then could rest.
But high in the castle on top of the hill
On a throne sat King Richard, surveying things still.
"I know the assessments say Andrew can read,
But I am not sure yet, more proof do I need."
He hired some fine experts at greatest expense,
To work and develop, "Assessments Immense."
They gave them to Andrew, who read them quite well,
"Andrew is a good reader, we really can tell."
Up above Richard's castle on a hill that was higher,
Sat king of king, Roy, who sent out a flyer.
"Assessment Immense" might be a good measure,
But we must test our standards to really be sure.
So he hired more experts to work on the work,
They wrote a new notebook called "Tests Quite Berserk."
They gave him a file box to collect all his proof,
Of meeting their standards--his scores hit the roof.
But poor little Andrew, hadn't put out the fire,
King Roy was not last, King Bill lived up higher.
His experts hired experts, who wrote way more tests,
Comparing young Andrew to all of the rest.
Andrew sat at his desk in a room that was quiet,
He monitored his sleep and his rest and his diet.
Notebooks full of tests took the place on the shelf,
Of once much loved books that had given him wealth.
The once bright-eyed Andrew now is a new boy,
He has studied his notebooks, but lost all his joy.
For reading and learning and telling them all
Of stories of dragons and Star Wars and fall.
In the Province of Doug, was the Village of Cher,
Once the people were happy and liked to be there.
(C) Lois Gustafson, November 1997
I can't get permission to publish Lois' poem, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind my sharing it (I did look up and ask right before I blogged about it).
We've all been there, in that Village of Cher... and there always seems to be someone who sits up there, higher.
I needed to read this poem at this point in my career, because for some reason, the pendulum is swinging again...
And, perhaps using Lois's words, I can, in some small way, push the pendulum back in the right direction!