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Sarah's Notes


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    Focusing on Walls

    December 10, 2006

    Usually with every educational "improvement" notion that comes along in schools there is some feature, or some expression, some external piece, that can be grabbed on to hold a finger pointing to the major problematic issue this program had in addressing the things children needed to learn. As a "universal" answer this is the place it kind of fell apart for whatever reasons. It might point generally to the problem of trying to find universal "answers" or it might be about how it threatened stability and comfort. Look at how many new ways to say NCLB's real-word meanings: My favorite a play on the "behind." But it usually hits a core issue. It's easy enough to find universal, one-size thoughts of "answers" in school design laughable.

    So "invented spelling" got splayed all over as the Ebonics of Whole Language, distracting us away from the method's strengths and its insights into the power held in the approach by a motivated learner directing and initiating in writing to read, the going from meaning construction as a central child-held construct and from this place teaching was responding in ways to get what you need done for and with the reader. This was a method based in trust-in- learner over proof-of-instructor-power that humans seek what they need and will work towards literacy as it fulfils core drives. Then we used thematic literacy experiences to contextualize and motivate children. Story answers and tells the human condition, filters and addresses universal needs; it's the reason to write, it created literacy. But it's so much easier to talk about letting a child spell "git" without a big red circle from a teacher, until it stays forever in the critics voice as what was "really going on." And there was some smaller point to be made about a child wishing to exert her power and spell it her way rather long past a stage of making a good guess. I know I'd rather "do it my way." But that essentially trivial point was selectively chosen to be passively aimed at the empowerment issue. Who held power, the reasons and the whys of what was happening was shifting and this was a very key feature of the method and one which current reforms aim directly to destroy. So critics laugh about teachers allowing "was" for "saw." Or the gril wus my frend.

    I recall peers laughing at a program we did on the local level called PASSport to Reading, a precursor to where we are now, for some fun is to be to be gained in the name. And the very likely real truth that saying "passport" while working with at risk immigrant Hispanic children in a reading program seems at least on the surface somewhat xenophobic.

    So certainly by our own choices in "fixes" and our fixation on their truths as infallible we will be known. And so this said by way of introduction. . . .

    I will always think of NCLB Reformation as the great move to FOCUS ON THE WALLS. For that's the first place my District grabbed us by the hand and lead us. It's all the rage in "best praxis" I'm told. Here in some Districts (schools) in CA and "mandated" in mine, for every required literature theme (ten in first grade or roughly one per month) I am required to splay the entire teacher manual on the wall in a FOCUS presentation that takes hours, hours I once used for preparing materials, working directly with children, time stolen from here and there.

    One presenter actually showed where she had Kinko's enlarge her teacher manual pages to then post all over the walls. Wow a first grade excitement. It chills.

    I found that the most unbelievable thing I've sat through yet. Time being something I want to talk about, as well as focus, can you imagine the time? I asked why not order kid's Teacher Manuals? And what about vision issues? But on both points I was seen as superfluous, I'm there to follow the order not ask about it.

    And it isn't a request, this wall designing, it's a mandate. It's inspected and is endlessly dialoged, made fun of, slanged into other kinds of teacher commentary when no one is listening but sympathetic wall paper-ers R US…. And I'd like to look at it for what these walls are saying about the changes being made educationally for our kids here in NCLB "Underperforming " schools in the hood.

    I do really think these walls are speaking to us. If we can hear them.

    Though this isn't a chronological telling, I have an image in my head burning to the surface that my daughter Sophia, our family wisdom, gave me related to the walls in my classroom and I can't shake it. So I need to start talking with Sophia's take on 1st grade FOCUS walls in my little Room 10. She was listening to my noting I was facing a "writing up" if I didn't get my fourth focus wall up. . .NOW, already. That might not be true but I felt it was possible; they might instead just come in and put it there for you as they did for my best friend. She listened with some very astute Sophia suggestions on "new ways" to interpret these edicts.

    I, she knows too well, suddenly after years of faithful public school service as a person loving teaching and children, I resent the walls as dictated within this Program Improvement driven by NCLB. Imagine resenting your walls? But now, having always, always, loved to be decorative in my career find myself putting a peace sign on my car bumper in answer and looking up Gandhi text to write into the margin of my lesson plan book. Yes I do have their FOCUS WALL. I'm fully FOCUS wall trained and it's been dictated to us a place to have some "fun." And I just can't on this command get happy. I am completely in an unfun place.

    I used to go in my room every other weekend and completely paint, design and alter my walls and windows to make it exciting for the kids, huge Madeline murals, a wall covered with the Wild Things, putting into it so much love and energy. It lived. Well parts still do as my windows now are a giant garden painted by children in floral beauty. I saw my walls as a way to generate excitement. . . as a way to inspire the week's work. A canvas, a magic carpet…a theater backdrop. . . a forest. . . place of love. Now I can't quite get to it as I should. So I had up no third FOCUS wall (week of pneumonia the real reason I suppose) and the second looming out of time and place looking like Christmas decorations do in January. Must put up "the right wall," I kept thinking, but after school issues in conferencing, with kids, with things I now "must do" in my job kept me from getting it up. This was then showing a too long running tribute to Zig Bug who we all know as a world famous 1st grade character in literature right next to the "pig in a wig."

    On a side note, after writing repeatedly about the "pig in a wig" I stated overenthusiastically to my class I was tired of "pigs in wigs" and quitting the job if we kept reading of them. So there is NO BETTER WAY to get them to read a new story than to say, "You better scan it first and see if it says "Pig in a Wig" because we all know what that means." They run to read any story now under those conditions. I feel a little bad over this. It'll work prompting me to better self-monitor in the future. Keep these thoughts to myself. Kids don't need this. So I happily reference our FOCUS wall as my new best friend.

    Anyway. On the wall we place story names, which is hard for me as these phonics stories are not "stories" and I struggle sometimes to identify story elements in them, then we also put the all the "required" FOCUS WALL elements. It's all in the binder we got from the training we went to last year. Try on a good day to find the plot or motivation in Mr. C's Dinner. Coyote gets a dumb group of animals who don't know him to show up for food and doesn't eat them. Over. We managed in this literary triumph to teach going rapidly and without question to a stranger's house and eating stranger's food (not fearing someone known to be a potential enemy as it is a predator to your kind). Kind of a fascinating 360 degrees from German Fairy tales where the FOCUS WALL tells me I'm placing the story in the same genre as, say, Little Red. Except in Red we all understood that the plot was dependent on naïveté, not listening, on making a few BIG MISTAKES. So "Fairy Tale" it is, in no known culture. I suppose the tale of phonics land or NCLB reformationville tales counts as worthy of the genre to the Focus Wallers.

    So the wall sorts the "literature" genres of the phonics story. Then you have the strategy focus written as no child might learn, the spelling, phonics skills, of course, the "vocabulary" (which oddly are usually just the high frequency words or more of the phonics skills) and things like comprehension skill, literary analysis component. You have various pieces of very poorly woven unit pieces and they are, in theory, tissue paper supporting themes like "Let's Look Around".

    That was perhaps the hardest "theme" for me so far, but I'm just on the 4th. Six to go. Six more walls…

    Let's look at what if we apply theme two. On "The Focus Wall" we can look there at where the words "Let's Look Around" are written really big. That's required too. Put the theme, really big. Maybe use text art. This way if you actually do want to look around you can be focused on the only game in town, the content not of your character but your workbook. Look Around at something that tells you to Look Around and FOCUS simultaneously. I had to love it. Irony in the first trimester of 1st grade. And I had to wait til junior high for my exposure as a young reader.

    So Sophia, hearing me moan and groan as an "announced" inspection was drawing closer(…and my daughter Sylvia caved in under my moaning I might add and Wednesday came over and built the wall to specs out of pity for me I think), Sophia suggested three really great FOCUS ideas. And from this I conceived of my own idea: An NCLB tribute needs to be made as an installation in our school and in the Department of Ed.

    Sophia wants me to get one of those big sport game foam fingers and write the word FOCUS on it. Then put it on the end of a dowel rod so that whenever I'm up in my Directed Instruction 1st grade lesson I can get the dowel, point the finger of focus at the wall. . .and send them right to the material. I'm pretty sure some people I work with will love this idea. So I imagine a five days a week color finger set sold at DI conferences to teachers as a kit. Oh maybe I CAN MAKE MONEY FROM THIS AND SELL IT, maybe to John Hollingsworth to complement his new book on the genius of Directed Instruction or some other guru making money off selling their solutions. We call them FINGERS OF FOCUS. Focus fingers. Kind of like French fries or Lay's chips. You can't have enough. No one can assail the logic of pointing their own Focus fingers, can they?

    Then she said she felt we could probably just go ahead and remove the content on the wall too. "It's not really like it matters so much." So her next suggestion is that I have all the children on the first day of school write and decorate a big word "Focus" and put it on the wall so now they are directed towards the "skill" that is being singled out as the key element of learning. Focus. And they can in her words, "FOCUS on their own focus." I thought that was really funny. I can hear myself saying, "Find your FOCUS, now Focus please." A kind of looping Focus. Who can assail the logic of finding your own focus?

    Her third suggestion is even cuter; she would like to see some lights up over there on my Focus Wall. It is the holiday season. Lights. I liked that last thought and it generated for me a memory and a connection.

    I trained first in art school and I recall going to several installations in museums or galleries where monitors were stacked, a la TV store style, and something played in a loop on all of them. Sitting once in Paris at the Pompidou and watching one of these exhibits for 30 minutes was one of the most disorienting experiences of my life, I suppose because of the way the brain does work. I suddenly thought if we pulled our computer monitors together, those that are now only allowing us access to one canned workbook program for extra practice on skills, we might build a giant TV style Focus wall that could scream out FOCUS with the light/teleprompter component in place. In my mind this brings together the classroom with my art 70's training in the times that produced these Warholish installations and what these art pieces were there to say about mass culture and education.

    Sophia has cracked the code for me.

    What happened in my District is happening all over the country. It's why nearly 20,000 "concerned" citizens so far have signed a Petition to address the effects of NCLB, it's the FOCUS wall a kind of mandated Trivial Pursuit designed to put the teacher through a loop, take time and energy, redirect one away from designing units and curriculum for our specific kids, even with advanced degrees allowing one to do so we are presently disallowed thinking, it's worrying that the walls need to SCREAM out we are all about literacy rather than allowing our students to actually demonstrate it by offering to read a book to a visitor, it's about removing teacher control and placing a manufactured, business style , depersonal and programmed into place. It's why my Principal removed her desk and personal effects from her office now having a waiting room with two round tables as we become "just the same" as every other site, centralized, corporate, looking like a laboratory. Because if we FOCUS on it this way learning will become the ultimate laboratory, run by our dayta, assuring us of our success in turning things around and addressing our issues while we make one right answer and one right methodology. (we called this by a name at one time in history)

    I have to FOCUS but when I do I kind of see it, like the Magic Eye posters up on my walls. And as a teacher friend told me, "It's so much easier" now, easier than when we had to "create it ourselves."

    And that was exactly one of the points made long ago by the monitors in an age artists were declaring, "Art is dead."

    I've been FOCUSING. And I can see that I'm being asked to sell my soul to the devil, but I've got up my foam finger and it's pointing at something….it's pointing at the kids. And they are my focus. And they really need something more than canned workbooks pasted on their walls.

    2006-12-24 09:16:30


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