Sunday, September 23, 2012

Community Read as School Improvement?

Winter 2009, my (former) students participate in a group discussion of The Call of the Wild
facilitated by a local retired librarian as part of the Big Read program.
As a teacher, I am subject to all brands of professional development and suggested readings prepared meticulously by the most commonly dropped names in "good" education. While I am admittedly absentminded when it comes to my own dropping of these proper names in conversation, I can generally find some valuable information in the articles and books shared. I would, however, struggle to say they were "entertaining" or even, in some case, particularly original.

Each time I read reflections and reviews of the most recent teaching bible du jour, I wonder why it is some folks in positions of authority suggest through their choices of receommended reading, that a book must be written by an author who's last name in an alphabet soup of degrees in order for it to hold some insight into teaching or, more importantly, building a learning community? Maybe it has something to do with the temptation to share certain "hot" edu-books so as to be "cutting edge." Or maybe, those in charge are also subject to meeting their own masters and demonstrating a working knowledge (if not application) of hip pedagogy.

I often wonder what goes through the mind of someone recommending a book to help "teachers teach better." A serious question to ask oneself in this situation is: "To a building full of professionals of varying degrees of education, experience, and (let's face it) interest, how accessible to the these masses are books with phrases like 'research-based,' 'differentiation,' and 'common core'?"

Without a doubt, an understanding of these topics is a necessity (and helpful to keep abreast of the ever changing terminology by which educators are now held accountable), and can hold valuable insight for the reflective educator. But, when one is looking to have staff read "research" why must the suggested selection always be cold, non-fiction, written in the diction that is sleep inducing? Is all "research" dependent on numbers (especially when any tenth grader who disagrees with your interpretation of a survey will tell you--correctly--numbers can say what you want them to)?

Here's an idea I've floated in the past: how about trying to invite students, staff and building faculty to read a work of fiction that has some thought provoking ideas that, though not explicitly about education, standards, and rubrics, gets at the heart of what makes a learning community: developing an understanding of one another. Despite the best intentions of adults professionally developed in bullying and team building, I have yet to see a program get at these issues the way a good story can.

This is at the heart, I believe of the many Big Read initiatives nationwide, which promotes the reading and discussion of a single literary work by a group (town, city, county). A few years ago my classes and I, in cooperation with the school's media specialist, participated in our municipal county's Big read of The Call of the Wild by Jack London, and the results were impressive. As the teacher, I did not facilitate the reading or discussion, a retired librarian came to the school to lead the discussion after the students had voluntarily read the book on their own time in addition to class work. The librarian and I took a value in it, and the students in turn did as well.

Can valuable lessons about community be gleaned from a children's book? Of course, especially when the children's book in question subtly deals with BIG ideas.

"The object in America is to avoid contact, to treat all as foes unless they're known to be friends. Here you have a million crabs living in a million crevices... But the garden's greatest benefit, I feel, is not relief to the eyes, but to make the eyes sees our neighbors".~excerpted from Seedfolks by Newbery Medal Winner Paul Fleischman (with illustrations by Judy Pederson) is a book that I have previously taught with while teaching eighth grade English five years ago. It's message and voices have stayed with me.

The synopsis from describes Seedfolks very concisely:
"A vacant lot, rat-infested and filled with garbage, looked like no place for a garden. Especially to a neighborhood of strangers where no one seems to care. Until one day, a young girl clears a small space and digs into the hard-packed soil to plant her precious bean seeds. Suddenly, the soil holds promise: To Curtis, who believes he can win back Lateesha's heart with a harvest of tomatoes; to Virgil's dad, who sees a fortune to be made from growing lettuce; and even to Maricela, sixteen and pregnant, wishing she were dead."
Seedfolks seems to me an ideal book for a learning community read and discussion. It is a simply written, delicate look at a number of issues of importance to each of us: diversity, difference, acceptance and community, as they are played out through the individual voices of thirteen very different characters--old, young, Haitian, Hispanic, tough, haunted, and hopeful. These voices, together, tell one amazing story about a garden that transforms a neighborhood.

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