About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: Composing a Poem in Special Ed

There have been a lot of posts over the last few weeks, and I want to continue the discussion about education policy. I’m writing something now, but need a little more time to track down some facts. So let me offer another portrait from a classroom that displays the kind of teaching and learning that has been the driving force behind our ongoing discussion of education policy.

This scene is from a special education class in a Mississippi high school. For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the portrait of Joann Wynn and her student, LaFonda, which is drawn from Possible Lives.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.

***

LaFonda’s short fingers moved in slow, deliberate motion over the keyboard of the word processor, little finger up as if at tea, the fingers, the thumb moving, finding letters with a soft touch. Touch, then press:

T-h-e  n-i-g-h-t  t-i-m-e…

She was bundled up, the puffy sleeves of her blue ski jacket resting on the arms of the wheelchair, thinking, concentrating, a smile passing as she found the key, completed the line:

i-s  e-x-c-i-t-i-n-g  a-n-d  f-u-n

Ms. Wynn, her teacher, was working with another student close by. That student couldn’t or wouldn’t write, and Ms. Wynn, gentle and persistent, was trying to elicit a few words, coming at it one way, then another, then another – for eventually the student would have to write a short, timed essay to pass the high school equivalency exam, the goal of many in this special education class. That was not LaFonda’s goal, however.

She wanted to go to college and become a social worker. She continued to compose her poem, pausing, reading the lines, nodding, then back to the keyboard, pressing softly. Earlier with the aid of a laptop machine that produces a mechanical voice, she had read to the class a story about oceans and shorelines and freedom. Mrs. Wynn and another teacher have been trying to get her enrolled at the local community college. The word processor and voice generating machine have been of great help. LaFonda used to be in a vocational program, her words and desire muffled. But Joann Wynn knew better; she had been pushing on boundaries of what traditional special education thought was possible. She got up from her reluctant writer, who was composing now, and went over to check on LaFonda.

LaFonda laughed softly at her concluding couplet, enjoying the rhyme, and extended her little finger toward the print key, reaching. And the poem began whirring out of the printer:

The Night Time

The night time is exciting and fun
When everyone can do, 
what they want.

The night time is like a hunter’s home. 
It is spooky, scaring 
And soundless.

You can see it black body. 
And you can see it 
million eyes.

Boo-Boo, goes the night child.
You can see its moving and 
you can hear its talking.

If you want ugly night monsters to go away, 
You better get on your knees and pray. 

15 comments:

Kate Gary said...

Hi Mike Rose! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. I love watching kids be creative, particularly those who must work so hard to express themselves. It's a simple joy, but a profound one.

andy said...

Dear Mike and All,
I very much enjoyed the entry above. Let me tell you how it speaks to me today. I have a friend who is a psychiatrist, and I tutor his 8 year old. Part of my friend’s professional practice is assisting the criminally insane –really hard cases. I have been amazed to hear his stories from working with these clients. He really treats them--but more fundamentally knows them--as whole persons. This basic understanding, that his clients are fully human (just as his good friends or family are fully human) opens him to assist with artistic, personal, spiritual, and soulful explorations that I think put him in the very top class of psychiatrists. He looks beneath the surface and finds great beauty.

Yet, when it comes to his own son, around academics (and I’ve shared this with him) he actually has a diminished viewpoint of the sensitivity, awareness, and the innate, organic growing machine his child, and every child, is. Or rather, he diminishes the innate ability and desire of his child to learn intrinsically, from the inside. That is, to learn without a constant barrage of “school activities and skills improvements” (which he dutifully provides his son in the form of strong public school teacher and lots of extra academic add-ons including my tutoring). His child is one of the most articulate, brightest, most sensitive 8 year olds I have ever met. He is naturally curious, tries to please, and has a growing, at-grade level or above set of basic school skills. Yet from Dad, there is a subtle distrust in the child to absorb what he needs from his world, and a distrust that the child can be guided by all his child-learning qualities I listed above. I think this distrust is pervasive in our schools. Yes, the child will adapt, and please the adults, and learn the skills. But I think something can get lost.

I think the discussion of intelligence should include broadly the innate inner desire to learn and the organizing matrix for learning that allows us to gather millions of bits of input and optimize the “learning” that we all achieve in our environments. As educators, are we fully trained to perceive and care for this “learning sensitivity” in our students?

My question for readers, and this is almost sacrilegious for a teacher to ask: At what point does the busy-ness, the skills building, the constant in-fill of a child’s life with activities directed by (even skillful) adults begin to blunt the innate beauty and intelligence of a child? To what degree does the over-coersion in our schools and the expectations laid on a child begin to diminish this inner organ of learning? To what degree to do we all, as educators, look at a person, and only see the surface? I am trying to ask myself and others a very subtle question, not a sentimental one.

Thanks, Mike, for reminding us of the beauty, the irrepressible beauty of what lies beneath, in the form of our intelligence.

ArtSparker said...

I like the poem, it has a nineteenth-century cort of feel, I think I am thinking of "The goblins'll get you if you don't watch out". In Oakland, we have the Creative Growth Center, which is focused on visual creativity for the disabled.

tft said...

Andy,

I am a public school teacher. I teach 2nd grade. I have a 6th grade son in public school.

And I agree with you. NCLB and its attendant testing regime, and interventions, and assessing, and looking at (weak, weak, weak,) data to inform our instruction has removed curiosity, joy, excitement and learning from school.

Here's a great example of what could be: Our drinking fountain gets wood chips stuck into it by kids because they want to see the water forced out under higher pressure. The problem comes when too many wood chips clog the fountain, and no water can get out.

Being a public school, nobody will fix it. So, I brought my channel locks and took the thing apart at recess. I had an audience of many, and all were curious and wanted to lay down under the fountain with me to see what I was doing. It was very cool for all of us, and so far, the fountain is chip-free.

The point, of course, is that there are virtually NO opportunities for this kind of spontaneity, or even this kind of activity. We must produce narratives, and expository text, and know how to and -ing to a silent-e word, and on and on.

Brains are amazing things, if you let them be!

Thanks to Mike Rose and andy!

Kitty said...

I find LaFonda a real inspiration, as she strives to go to college and become a social worker when she faces so many learning challenges. As a college student, I realize that I sometimes take my education for granted, especially when there are people who have physical disabilities that might prevent them from achieving their dreams. It's wonderful that she has access to technology that aides in her education. Her teacher, Joann Wynn is also inspirational because she wanted more for her students and pushed them to do better-- she didn't see LaFonda for her limitations, she saw her full potential, which is what I strive to do with my own students someday.

lakeviewer said...

The inner will and determination are powerful stimuli. They have been the protagonists of stories about success in all kinds of circumstances. We know that as teachers; but how do we instill, encourage and more importantly harness those powers?

Jenna said...

The beauty of such few words is always so surprising and exciting to me. I wouldn't have had any suspicion that the author of this pretty piece was someone from a special education class. That she wrote with such clarity and purpose really does say something about how much more children in Special Ed classes can do than people typically give them credit for. It was a joy to read LaFonda's poetry, and it is inspiring to see all that is possible.

Tricia said...

LaFonda's determination is inspiring. It is wonderful to see that a student, while facing different challenges, can compose a powerful poem--using several literary devices.
Mrs. Wynn must have been so proud of LaFonda. Her determination and high goal setting are qualities that every teacher would like to see in their students. I can picture LaFonda laughing while writing her poem- I would imagine that brought a smile to Mrs. Wynn's face. I hope that like Mrs. Wynn, I will be just as invested in my students' futures,helping them prepare for their future endeavors. Also, I hope to experience those short, but exciting moments when students are visibly enjoying their learning.

Paul said...

This is a great story that reminds me of my aunt who has autism. She loves the computer and has learned to send e-mails in the last couple years. She will send me short one or two sentence e-mail and expect me to write her back a paragraph :). I agree with you when you say "we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school." People such as my aunt and LaFonda can learn in school and do things just like everyone else.
LaFonda's poem has a lot of literary devices in it as well which brings a smile to my face!.

Maureen said...

Thank you for posting this story. I enjoyed it so much. This story seems to define how there is so much more to intelligence than what our education policy allows. LaFonda's poem is artistic, thoughtful, and witty. It demonstrates her intelligence, an intelligence that could be easily overlooked by many. She is lucky to have a teacher who values her thoughts and wants her to go farther in life. This poem and other assignments that LaFonda has created could have easily been overlooked. The intelligence demonstrated could have been ignored. Unfortunately, with our current educational policy the students in the special education class are the people who are getting forgotten and left behind. Their intelligence is not something that can always be demonstrated through a multiple choice test.

Brenda said...

It is truly a pleasure to see that students with special needs, such as LaFonda are able to articulate their thoughts and create great work such as the poem “The Night Time”. I believe that many times students with special needs fall through the cracks and are not acknowledged for their wonderful work and intelligence. LaFonda is a terrific example of the great work that special education teachers are doing with these kids and how their intelligence can rise from the cracks and shine through their work. It is exciting to see that such a wonderful poem was written by a student with special needs. This is a great story that deserves to be told, many individuals would benefit from such an inspirational story.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing story. I am really touched by the story of LaFonda and amazed at how far Special Education has come. I agree with what others have said about people defining intelligence too narrowly. I mean who are we to judge who is smart and who isn't for all we know the person who is categorized as not smart may have a brilliant mind, but their brilliance inhibits them from showing it.

mack and carolyn said...

'I'm surprised to say that I wouldn't want to trade my career in special ed for anything. I've learned over the years that most of those kids have ways in which they are really smart. I've had kids who couldn't function at all academically act like mature and competent adults when given a manual task. I once had a sixth grade boy supervise the move of my classroom down the hall. It is humbling to have oneself competently bossed about by a 13 year old ADHD kid. One are where schools have fallen down on the job miserably is in the failure to acknowledge and celebrate the people who work with their hands.

mack and carolyn said...

Schools are difficult environments but there are always little opportunities to engage kids in really positive ways. I wrote yesterday about one of my special ed kids who supervised my move down the hall way. It got me thinking of an event last year when our school got a big shipment of office chairs. My special ed kids, 5th and 6th grade students, asked if they could try to put them together. I had my doubts but gave my OK. Before I knew it, they had about 20 of them expertly put together and the janitorial staff thanking us profusely. It was a little thing in a long hard year, but the kids get a lot out of that stuff. It doesn't help us to fight the system. It is as it is.

mack and carolyn said...

Schools are difficult environments but there are always little opportunities to engage kids in really positive ways. I wrote yesterday about one of my special ed kids who supervised my move down the hall way. It got me thinking of an event last year when our school got a big shipment of office chairs. My special ed kids, 5th and 6th grade students, asked if they could try to put them together. I had my doubts but gave my OK. Before I knew it, they had about 20 of them expertly put together and the janitorial staff thanking us profusely. It was a little thing in a long hard year, but the kids get a lot out of that stuff. It doesn't help us to fight the system. It is as it is.