Thursday, August 1, 2013


I have always loved the first day of school.

It used to coincide with a change in the weather-- an increased nip in the air, a morning chill forcing us to wear jackets or sweaters, and a slight tinge of red or orange on  the leaves.

Now we return to school with the sun blazing high in the sky and schools considering just how little clothing is too little, and little league teams still going-- as summer has eased into an earlier opening of school.

What will we find as we return?

What new responsibilities will be introduced?

What new materials, what new schedules and procedures--- and more importantly, what shifts in thinking are expected and what new reform efforts are being implemented?

See related  post, The Joy (and Burden) of Teaching, which includes more on our increased responsibilities and features several picture books related to school reform approaches.

As we return to school, what is important for us to know?
What do we want folks to know about our roles as educators?

What would people learn about us if they spent the year in our classrooms?
Everyday, all day long. Every child, every lesson.  Every worry, every joy.

Tracy Kidder spent an entire year in Christine Zagac's fifth grade classroom.  The result of that memorable experience was his poignant book, Among Schoolchildren. We watch through Kidder's eyes and listen through his telling prose, as Mrs. Zagac moves through her daily routines, celebrates her victories, worries over her students, supports their growth, and bemoans her own frailties.

What would an observer write if they spent a year in our classrooms?

I am a product of public schools (Columbus City and Westerville City in Ohio) and I am a staunch public school proponent.

I am for having excellent public schools to support our children within strong, supportive communities.

Yet, having said that, I also recognize gross inequalities between and within school systems. I acknowledge that there are some issues that must be addressed to create excellent schools for every child..

Jonathan Kozol was one of the first to bring to public attention the disparities that existed in the past, and still in our public school systems.  In Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, he opened windows and doors on school situations that were beyond belief.   He laid bare the horrors (and desperate souls) trapped in inadequate schools --school that were failing our children miserably.

Kozol has written almost a dozen other books about the lives of children in poverty, their teachers, and their schools in our nation. Click here to read more about him and his books.

As Kozol points out the differences and deficiencies in many of our schools and school systems, we must also think about how we teach children who are not like us.  This is the subject of Lisa Delpit's landmark book, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom.   Children of color, children in poverty, and children from other lands-- other people's children-- are often the victims of cultural miscommunication, lowered expectations, and a disproportionate probability of being labeled for academic and/or behavioral issues.

Chris Lehman in his response to CNN's Inside Man fosters more reflection and adds information on this issue in his blog post, Should We Teach "Other People's Children" Differently?

How do we teach other people's children?
What do you, as a parent, want your child's teacher to know?

And finally, in this nation, we tend to continuously  compare ourselves to other countries and their respective school systems. It used to be Japan.   Today it is Finland.

Bonnie Kaplan guest blogs on the Two Writing Teachers blog about her travels to Finland with Christine McCartney. She details her observations about the schools and includes an excellent video by McCartney which clearly outlines the complex and different paths that the United States and Finland have taken since the 1950's in efforts to improve their respective school systems.

Finland is widely reported to treat teachers in an exemplary manner. Perhaps this is the biggest  lesson for us.

One thing that struck me in Kaplan's blog is the notion that elementary teachers are the most  revered and early education  training highly sought  in Finland.  As a former elementary teacher this warms my heart.

Students choose their paths  after ninth grade- moving toward college or vocational school--both free. Perhaps this is another lesson.

Pasi Sahlberg, Finland's leading expert on school reform and author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, questions  whether the current U.S. focus on teacher effectiveness is really the best reform strategy for American schools, What if Finland's great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

What is the best way to reform our schools?
What do we need to know and do?

Where do we turn for information and inspiration as school opens again?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on what the first day of school means to you. Do you remember a particular first day or a particularly memorable year? 
Write a narrative about that memorable first day or year.

What reforms do you feel  need to be implemented in your school or school system?
Write an essay detailing  your ideas.

Write a poem or song capturing first day emotions, anticipations and anxieties.


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