Back in oh the eighties or so, maybe it was the nineties, we found out that chicken was really healthy. Not dark chicken but chicken breasts. So people started buying chicken breasts. Lots of chicken breast recipes came out. More people bought chicken breasts. The poultry industry sat up and took notice and started churning out chickens. The trucks passed me on the highway- and it was gross. The chickens were in little cages all smushed up and headed to the killing place to go on my plate. They looked nasty. I separated the idea that those things were what I was eating and continued to buy chicken breasts.
They were expensive at first so I had to buy dark meat sometimes. Until, overnight it seemed, there were these great big bags of chicken breasts, only breasts and they were cheap. Just $7 for around 5 pounds of meat- awesome! I bought those for years and was happy to get them. I never thought about what kind of chicken might have a huge breast like that or how no real chicken I ever saw walking around on a farm had boobies that big. I just bought them, ate them and fed them to my family. I’m kinda slow on the uptake a lot of times and this was one of them. I didn’t begin to consider the whole organic eating idea until this last year. Now I won’t buy those big ‘ol cheap breasts. Just seems like common sense. I wondered what kind of chemicals or hormones they might be given to create that result and I decided, I didn’t want to eat that on a weekly basis anymore. I pay more now for less meat.
I’m now gonna relate this to our education system. M‘kay? Here goes: The students are the chickens. The teachers are the poultry workers. The industry leaders are the feds. They want results. They want to see growth and see it big. They want to be able to test it. They want to turn the whole thing into a chicken factory. Just put this in and take that out and they tell us how to grow our students. They want to test them and reward us if we do it their way. Waddyathink? Does the extended metaphor work for you?
To take it even further, I think that this emphasis on testing and growth is bad for our kids. Shoot me, I do. I think we should be able to chase a rabbit in class and learn from our discussions of said rabbit. I think we should have time to think and time to write. I think you can’t measure all kinds of progress that takes place in a student. I know you can’t.
Now, now, now- don’t get all het up on me. I agree students should have basic skills in writing, reading and math. They should. But I don’t agree with the direction we are going. I don’t agree that testing is what it’s all about. I don’t agree that America is stupid. We are still innovating, yes so are others. Great! Competition is good.
Let me teach. Let me change my lesson plan at the last minute depending on what I saw on the newspaper sometimes. Let me extend a lesson when they aren’t getting it. Let me grow some smart chickens who have big brains.
The hardest thing about teaching is, for me, a constant sense of failure. Yeah, so I’m reaching them in that they are listening to me. Yeah, they love me for the most part and it goes both way; I love them too. But my heart breaks for many of them. The ones I can’t seem to help. They have issues. What can I do for them? I feel my hands are tied.
Yeah, most do the assignments I ask of them. But are the assignments hard enough? I want to do more but if I speed up I lose so many. If I ask them to do homework, I lose so many. I don’t want to lose any.
The failure beats me about the head: I’m not teaching enough, I want to help them be better writers, readers, communicators, researchers, citizens, friends. I want them to make better decisions for their lives, learn how to be curious and ask questions, learn that there are some books out there that they will enjoy reading. I want them to want more, more than what our little hometown offers, more than what they think they can do, more than a minimum wage job, more than getting married right out of high school and poppin’ out babies.
I want to them to think about beauty and truth and philosophy and think for themselves. I want them to read the newspaper and know there is another side to every story. I want them to think of others before themselves.
I want them to wonder:
About the stars when they look up
And the plates shifting when they look down.
About how human words cause joy
About why it’s important to struggle sometimes
And why coasting down the hill goes so much faster than climbing it.
I want them to wander:
To the cities where the museums, diversity, and money live
To the mountains where the air is thin, the beauty is free, and simplicity reigns
To the oceans where the sand squishes beneath your feet and the waves echo
To the universities where learning and struggling take place
To the foreign countries where the food, culture, religion, language is strange and uncomfortable
Through the journeys, epiphanies and stories of others through books.
See why I feel like a failure?
There is this constant pressure. Keep ‘em busy, I think. Keep ‘em thinking. Yes, keep ‘em quiet because all heck breaks loose when they all try to talk and nothing gets done. Keep those scores up on the Test. Keep ‘em in the room in their seats.
The status quo is to be easy, to give extra credit so they can pass, to turn your back during the test so that some can cheat, to go light on athletes and on game days, to let some problems lie because mommy and daddy are boosters.
Things I hate:
-the mean students who have everything but want to be “funny” too
-the teachers who say “Are you like your sister/brother? I hope so/not.”
-easy extra credit such as word finds
-wallowing in ignorance, knowing it and being proud of it
-never caring enough about the others around you enough to shut your mouth.
Thanks for listening.
I was a good teacher before the National Writing Project. I am still a good teacher. I care about the kids, always have. I try to have a sense of humor and connect, still do. I try to get the students engaged and working on project that stimulate their brains, so what changed?
I had taught for seven years when I attended the Summer Institute of the Ozarks Writing Project. I knew I was a good teacher but not an effective writing teacher. I wanted to be but had no idea how. Through the four-week intense seven-ten hours days of work in the Institute I found out. I became a writing student myself. I freewrote, I researched. I wrote as a student does in class by being a participant in my fellow teacher's demos. I wrote and wrote and wrote and found out what writers need. Writers need to talk sometimes, especially in a small writing group dedicated to helping them find the "holes" in their writing. Writers need choice. Writers need an authentic audience. Writers need time. Writers don't go through six steps in a row of the writing process; they cycle back and forth constantly. Writers revise, and revise and revise before they ever worry about a misplaced comma.
I also became a teacher-consultant through the Ozarks Writing Project. I have presented twice at Write to Learn, our statewide language arts conference. I have written a youth novel by participating in National Write a Novel month. I have started two websites and am beginning another book called "The Organic Teacher."
I have acquired a network of caring, dedicated, insanely intelligent educators to bounce ideas off of, learn from and emulate through NWP. I have found my voice, my passion, and feel like I'm almost an effective writing teacher. There's always room to grow and I'm ever-learning.
NWP needs funding. It's important today and tomorrow, for our students and our nation.
Kim Blevins is a teacher-consultant with the Greater Kansas City Writing Project.
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