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    A Whole Lot Going On
    October 20, 2006

    Today brought an interesting language experience into my room.

    I teach 1st graders in a program dubbed "Sheltered Immersion". Within this program students who are placed in English from primary language Spanish speaking homes are supposed to be assisted into English with support programs (SIOP, "Focus Approach" what we used to call Sheltered English) among other strategies using the same grade level standards (and oddly also sameness in pacing--despite the clear contradictions within their own materials and written strategies for these students based in Language Acquisition knowledge) and criteria from English Only (EO) students with the addition of more supports for vocabulary and experiential type connection.

    In reality my 1st graders are segregated from EO peers academically into my room with only themselves as models, thus placed in rooms without more fluent children or real English speakers. It's a dubious (if not more ominous) thing to do given what we know of the role of models in this age child. But nonetheless I volunteered for the position so with that in mind I'm trying to deal with the segregation… and the need to develop English language in students who are both poor, non English speaking and not fully assimilated into America. A task making me at present The least Respected Teacher in our country carrying the greatest burden. It is mine to carry. And mine to try to speak to. . . .

    Today I had our phonics driven story out; it is called Wigs in a Box. It is the third story to use "wig" as a part of the text in two weeks. Now I would argue with no amount of sincerity that nowhere on earth have I used the term wig this much except in thinking about the Dolly Parton bonanza week aspect of my life a story for another time. . . but these 1st graders at least reminded me today that Halloween is coming and a good wig will do for that. In this story the Pig throws a ball at a carnival and gets a box. In the box are five wigs that are different colors and shared with a fox (of course) and a cat, dog. Basically the story taught the words five, four, three and a few other sight words like "red" that I'd taught them weeks ago myself doing off task things and filling in the holes in the program with teaching I justify as meeting their language needs.

    Second language learners need lots of "contexts" to learn. This story had no real plot, not uncommon in these phonics-driven works. It would appear they consider that unnecessary for a young child. The "golden delight of decoding" wasn't holding up today during the story--ten children on and off asked to go to the restroom or to get a drink. Later when I read with them, "The Story of a Sunflower," a much more complex text so we could plant our seeds and draw our pictures NO students asked for anything. I wonder. . . .

    After this Pig Wig Box story we read The Box. Now this is a really difficult one for me. In this story a box owned by Pat gets filled with a tan fox, a hat and. . .I forget. . . and then it is remarked, "A lot can fit in a box." I love this because the comprehension question that is asked is, "How many things can fit in the box?" And the students answered gleefully four. A hat, fox, thing I forget, and "a lot."

    If I were to give you a basic understanding of what happens when one-size-fits-all programs are shoved down child throats, this would be a perfect example. A "lot" is a concept that for my students was just like the other excessively meaningless three letter words. It's a thing to count for them. After ten minutes of explanation, most still voted for four things in that box. And so it goes. What we are applying in our phonics-driven Directed Instruction political minefield of present day programming is "a Lot"--both a lot of nonsense and in the way of a big giant "parking lot," it's a place we are sort of stuck in. We are working with children in poverty and with issues of needing contexts for understanding. And I suspect all children probably prefer contexts too, and I also suspect that many are bored to death by these stories. My own children would not have fit these materials, I'm lucky, they grew up before all of this came along. "The lot"…that's an image I'll be thinking of as we go along this month in my world of language confusion.

    Language is power. That's the thing I always recall from classes I took in learning to teach art, then in learning to teach reading. It's power and in the classroom "scene" children who can unlock it well, and get it done early usually dominate in the social structure with peers. They have advantages, praise, information, practice it as they use it. They frame meanings and understandings for others, they can decide things, they can use their language as a help or hindrance, they can build esteem and resiliency, they can access more information and in the old saying "get richer." Even in my classroom the children who have "the reading" as Gabriela so hilariously always puts it "gots the chosing" and they "gots the friends who will not listen to me teacher and bees my friend anymore forever cause I no got the English they gots when we were trying to tell the duty the way we were finding the sweater and got to the trouble and now we have no more recess. And they are mad, teacher. So we no have the recess, and I no more have the friends forever.. "

    And they also don't have the power to solve the problem with the dubiously intelligent duty aide to explain to her about why they tried to leave the lunch play yard to get a sweater a child forgot in a lunchroom. So it was stolen before they could get to it the next day costing the child an incredible punishment from a very unsophisticated parent who doesn't have the resources to get another one. A day in the life of a child without good language power is a day of frustration and topsy turvy misunderstanding and misinterpretation and lots and lots of emotion and tension. And exhaustion. So my class is very sincere and whiny and quick to push and as one very lovely helpful EO teaching peer stated so eloquently to them yesterday, "A pack of animals." Yes a lot are, I suppose, on first look, especially if you are segregated away from ever getting to know them, or their issues or have understanding of why they are being made to look more animal like by the way we are developing their interface with school. But that takes "a lot" of sophistication. . . a lot.

    My son came to language very late. His sisters talked by nine months knowing hundreds of nursery rhymes and generally more English than my 6 year olds this year. At nine months they were in rapid brain growth periods when acquisition of vocabulary was an expansive impressive journey. It took place for them in a fashion that was full of play and experimentation, fun, free of frustration and negative emoting. It was a way to dance a dance with me. Rhymes and singing song filled our spaces.

    Not so with my son Luca. He had lost a great deal of hearing to infections that kept him on antibiotics until age three with continual issues of pain. He could say no and initial letter sounds of words. His sisters interpreted for him. He acted on the world climbing on things. At nine months he scaled the fridge and pulled out the mixer, beaters and cord and plugged it in. He was able to open a door, run down the street. He threw a ball against the wall thousands of times in a couple hours every day, which I thought was unusual in a one year old. Playing catch with himself into a glove came by fifteen months. He was very emotional, often had a fit when not understood. Luca was usually not able to explain unfairness, depended on me or the girls to both be fair, understand, and to help him navigate the world. What I recall best was how badly he wanted to sing and how he could not do it. Now he is a singer. When he did start speaking at age three he rarely dominated a conversation; he deferred to others and was clearly a ball player. In 7th grade he has acting talents, he can play a guitar like a second skin but he has internalized beliefs and fears I know come from what his particular relationship to language and power taught him early on. He is what happened to him--both the good of that and the bad. And what I notice in school is his vulnerability when a teacher or student is unfair or puts him in a difficult spot. He is extremely hard pressed to use his verbal skills to navigate and help himself. He is almost dumb.

    I once long ago walked in those same shoes as a child as my son. I know to some degree what he faces. It is difficult for me now as an adult to navigate with someone who twists meanings to suit their goals, I depend on others to help me seek fairness, I get used. I cry out in my frustration for a just God. I need a universe with a force for good. I find I'm inarticulate when I most need it. I failed to develop critical personal language skills others seem to have so readily at hand. I can't be brief and to a point. I am circular.

    Language is power. And as a teacher I have been examining how I can offset and assist students from poverty and second languages into some level of equity. I've had to give up notions of "silence." I've had to articulate "big picture" understandings, I've had to frame things for them, provide additional literature and real life connections. I've had to find ways to give students opportunities to practice language in more carefully designed ways and more natural ways to allow a broader sharing of language power; I've had to empower students with language. I can and I will take some time at a later date to look at some of those ways of designing experience. But in the main, I've grasped that my classes will be better off if I use language very well, am well-read, if I am chatty, filtering experiences, modeling, singing (a great deal of singing) if I'm maximizing our time as my nine month olds did long ago in play feeling experiences like my Nursery Rhyme Theater. . . so that the vocabulary and the language feel, tone are all back-dropped into the environment. It's richness over a poverty.

    Into this comes a layer called Underperformance, NCLB, Explicit Directed Instruction, Standards based Instruction, workbooks and same days and same pages and focus walls and good intentions which intend horrible political realities and the rain of a loss of teacher autonomy and judgment and tension of the site, increase in student performance demands, increased neglect of arts, music, PE, factors of restriction of time on things like being a friend, or helping, sharing, caring and being about a "you" and into this the language power gets consolidate to fewer and fewer until eventually even the school becomes a microcosm of the bigger society. . . some with their pictures up for months on the Principal wall of FAME for passing with Advanced or Proficient scores and then… everybody else with no photo for effort or good try. . . with a head down, upset, more aware than ever of what they can't say, doing the wrong thing, getting more inclined to do more of the wrong thing, teacher not as friend or ally but as jailer or at best resistance to teacher, and it goes on and on until power clearly goes to those who either speak very well to manipulate and consolidate for themselves (teacher pet types) or those willing to do anything. And thus I see our school putting into place the ultimate "lot" of all time. A "lot" of nonsense…a dead end "lot,"

    It's really a "lot" where no one knows what anything really means or how to speak to anything, because someone is speaking for you or you are lying to get something you don't deserve because you developed your capacities AT THE EXPENSE of another.

    And this, RIGHT NOW, is LANGUAGE TO ME.

    2006-11-02 12:12:17


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