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Robin Atwood's Weblog

Ohanian lament: How many hundreds of thousands of teachers does Robin Atwood speak for? Twenty years of experience lost to our youth because the U. S. Department of Education and the Mississippi Department of Education and local Standardistos who don't have the spine to stand up for teacher professionalism think DIBELS reveals more information than teacher savvy.

Robin is leaving her classroom because she can no longer reconcile moral and ethical dilemma: Will I be a good employee or a good teacher? As she observes, these two occupations should not be in conflict. But any teacher in a school serving children of poverty can provide plenty of evidence that they are.

Remember the great slogans of our history:

  • Don't drink the tea.

  • Don't ride the bus.

  • When will our unions and our professional organizations lead teachers to a professional emancipation? They could start by shouting, "Don't do the DIBELS!"

    Our profession is dying. To save it, we must follow Robin in recognizing that "An hour of freedom is worth more than a barrel of slops. So I run free."

    I̢۪d rather learn from one bird how to sing
    than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."

    e.. e. cummings

    by Robin Atwood

    This morning I opened my eyes at 4:00 a.m. and realized with deep despair that I am no longer a teacher of young children. Last week, after twenty years of introducing first graders to the power of words, I wrote words I never thought I̢۪d write: Please accept this letter as formal notification that I am leaving my position. . . .I had put off writing the words simply because I couldn̢۪t think of what to write. Suggestions from friends included such eloquent missives as "I quit" and "Take this job and shove it". But did I quit the system, or did the system quit me? And no, I do not want them to take the job and shove it. I want them to take the job and restore some dignity to it. Better yet, I want them not to take the job at all but to get their hands off it and let someone do it well and with passion.

    While my co-workers spent the past four days attending meetings about next year, I worked in my classroom, packing away materials I hope to use again some day. While they looked over the schedule for testing every child in early August in order to get baseline data outlining the "basic skills" the children cannot perform, I packed away juggling scarves and pondered: What is basic? It seems to me that the term "basic" encompasses all those things human beings would do if there were no outside interference. "Basic" is organic. I imagine a conversation between Abraham and Sarah sitting under the stars in Mesopotamia. Isaac is sleeping in the tent behind them. Sarah says, "Is there anything you̢۪d like to do before I douse the cookfire?" Abraham scratches his beard, thinks a moment, says "I know! Let̢۪s segment some phonemes!" Sarah says, "Nah. We did that last night. Why don̢۪t we do phoneme deletion tonight?" Basic. If left completely alone, people would work to find effective ways to communicate, discover artistic ways to explore beauty and truth, invent tools and machines to make their work easier. Basic. And, yes, woven into and throughout the basic there would be wordplay: bibbity bobbity boo, john jacob jingleheimer schmidt, flip flap flee I̢۪ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree. I can̢۪t imagine that there would be such inorganic permutations of letters as voj or fek.

    I pack away the multi-cultural paint and remember the day we made an amazing discovery: Ain̢۪t none of us black and ain̢۪t none of us white. I think back to the day last November when the world began to crumble under my feet, the day I sat in a meeting and was told we would be administering DIBELS next year. "DIBELS?", I asked in disbelief. "Wait a minute. Back up, please. This district has purchased DIBELS? Without asking the teachers?" Oh, yes, I was told. The state is really cracking down on progress monitoring. We must have something in place to test the children three times a year for comparative data, and every two weeks for those who do not measure up. DIBELS is quick and easy. "But it only gives information that is not useful ," I said, still struggling to make sense of the news. "The tasks it tests are not things I want my children to be able to do anyway." We have to have something. It̢۪s quick and easy. Quick and easy. Quick and easy. Quick and easy.

    Becoming literate is not quick and easy, I’ll have them know. It happens over a lifetime. It’s not something you do; it’s something you are. It’s the velveteen rabbit you love the fur off of until it becomes real. I cannot spend the first week of August asking children "What do you get if you take the /ch/ off chair?" Nothing you can sit on, that’s for sure. NCLB is taking more than the /ch/. They’re taking the rest of it, too. The very air is being sucked right out of our classrooms. If I don’t spend the first week of August, all of August, all of the entire year, asking "What do you love? What are you afraid of? What do you think? What do you feel? What do you dream?", then I can’t teach the children. If I don’t observe them while they’re building their Play-doh sculptures, performing their puppet plays, playing with the parachute in the yard, then I can’t know as much as I need to know about their oral language patterns, their work habits, their thought processes. I don’t want to give them busywork to do while I test children individually. I want to sit on the rug with them and read aloud Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and laugh and giggle at her reverse psychology methods. I can’t teach them if I don’t do these things and they can’t learn from me if I don’t tell them all about my fear of dogs when I was in first grade, the morning I went to get in the car for Daddy to take us to school and saw the neighbor’s house was on fire, the time I spent with my aunt while Mama and Daddy were on a business trip and the only thing I would eat was grits three times a day, and that I cried every single day of first grade–every single day–because I wanted to stay home and play on my swing set and read Nancy Drew instead of Dick and Jane. The reason I became a first grade teacher is that I hated first grade so very much because the teacher put us all through the same program of "basic skills" even though some of the children didn’t know the alphabet and I could already read the newspaper. I was determined never to do that to children. Never to standardize; always to individualize. That was 36 years ago, and we know too much to do that to children now, don’t we? Apparently not.

    I roll up the rug, and I am overcome with remembering all the time I spent on rugs with children over the last 20 years. I remember the day we were sharing our fears and Maddie spoke very slowly, cautiously choosing the words through which she would bare her soul: "I still watch Barney. I̢۪ve been scared to tell anybody that. That̢۪s what I̢۪ve been scared of. That somebody would find out." A tense moment followed the cathartic confession she̢۪d made on the safe territory of the rug. Then, gradually, one by one, others began confessing that they, too, watched Barney or Teletubbies. Connections were made, bonds were forged, sighs of release and relief issued forth. After that, when we used Maddie̢۪s "Barney" word card for word sorts, it was so much more than an r-controlled vowel and a proper noun and a capitalization rule, though it was all of that. It had feelings and emotions and new concepts attached to it.
    I have wondered often since November if I am doing the right thing by leaving. Shouldn̢۪t I stand in the gap? Shouldn̢۪t I try to be an Esther in the palace saving her people? I don̢۪t truly know. I think maybe the only life I can save is my own. As I packed the jump ropes and the handbells and Mac Davis̢۪s "I Believe in Music" CD, I wondered if they̢۪d ever be used again. At least I could̢۪ve tried to work in some good things around all the testing, right? I really don̢۪t think so. The struggle of going to work every day and having to choose between being a good employee or a good teacher, a choice none of us should have to make, became too much for me. The changing of definitions became too much. A good assessment is quick and easy? Being "professional" is implementing the plan handed down without asking any questions? I had reached the point where I could hardly look the children in the eye; I knew I̢۪d let them down, but I didn̢۪t know how to get around all the paperwork and testing. How could I teach them when I was so busy doing paperwork and testing them so I could prove I̢۪d taught them?

    People need to realize this is far more than that swinging pendulum you hear so much about in education. Good teachers never swung with that thing anyway. Good teachers don̢۪t go back and forth, only forward. When good teachers can̢۪t go forward because someone has thrown such a heavy weight on them that they can̢۪t even pick up their feet, where can they go but home, I ask you? I ask you, because I truly do not know. . I cannot stand in the gap anymore. I tried to, and they knocked me down and walked right over me. I think of Mac Davis̢۪s song, and I want to be "young and rich and free". I think of my favorite line in Charlotte̢۪s Web: An hour of freedom is worth more than a barrel of slops. So I run free.

    "Nor all your tears wash out a word of it. . ."

    — Robin Atwood





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