I am very fortunate to be a part of several list servs with people participating from all walks of life, with different viewpoints and much to offer.
This week someone posted to the Parents Across America statewide list serv that we all appreciated. I asked John if I could share what he wrote on this blog and he gave his consent.
John Cummings is a parent, a teacher and a member of Parents Across America, Seattle.
I might be in the minority but I feel that conversations such as the conversation on this thread, are really important for our group. The reason why I think this way is because (to allude to a very tired and old cliché) it helps us shape our ‘forest’. Right now, we are fighting for the very survival of our Public Education System. I truly believe that and the thought of losing this fight scares the hell out of me. Because of this, some might feel that we need to focus on what is most pressing today (the tree that is about to be cut down or topped), and not be distracted by debating the ideas or ideals that we have about what our Public Education System would look like if we were in charge and could direct policy (the forest). I mean there are only 36 hours in a day, right?
But that’s a trap, because the forces aligned against us have their idea of what the forest should look like and every move they make is calculated to achieve that end. Which is why they sometimes surprise us by supporting something that is laudable. For instance LEV is pushing for universal pre-k and full funding of education. Who could be against that? I mean besides Libertarians.
Governments, political parties, corporations, activist groups, labor unions, religious institutions and individuals who understand this and act accordingly are the ones that, more often than not, have a lasting impact. They shape the forest.
In my perfect world (where chocolate was handed out free of charge and nobody was lactose intolerant), the Public School System would be set up in such a way that every single child reaches their potential. It would be a place where we recognize that none of us are ‘typical’ and our uniqueness is celebrated. There would be no reason to make the hard decisions about what should be funded or not because the importance of the Public School System to our collective well-being would be understood by everyone, even Darth Gates. Schools would be human-sized with well-trained and well-respected educators teaching small classes of kids. There would be some classes that are mixed skill-wise and some that are homogenous. We would celebrate the academically skilled along with the artistically skilled, athletically skilled, mechanically skilled and socially skilled. We would work hard to reduce the negative impacts of poverty and chaos. Programs like APP, Spectrum, and NOVA (among others) would simply be called ‘school’ because the amazing things they do would be what is done for every child.
In a perfect world right? Why dream about a perfect world when we won’t ever get there? Because, as Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
I used to not believe in giftedness. I worked with too many kids whose gifts went undiscovered because they came from the wrong socio-economic group, or ethnic group, or because they couldn’t sit at a desk for 45 minutes, or because they had trouble memorizing facts, learning how to read or do the math that was pushed on them. They were victims of a society’s ruling elite that doesn’t give a shit about them because they were someone else’s child.
I was wrong in my thinking, because like most everyone, I believed in the finiteness that is implied in the word ‘giftedness’. If some are gifted than some are not. But my experience showed me something else.
A few years ago I worked with a student who drew as well or better than our most ‘gifted’ artists. I mean she was amazing and prolific. Every surface was a canvas for her. Desks, notebooks, textbooks, all were covered with her art. If I had thought to do so I could have taken her math notebook and submitted it to the Art Institute as her portfolio. and she would have been accepted.
But she was a poor, African-American girl. Her family was homeless for half of the year I worked with her because their house burned down, they had no money and so she stayed with this relative or that relative or at a friend’s house or on the street. She couldn’t test past Level 1 on the WASL, MSP, or MAP. She was functionally illiterate. But she certainly wasn’t stupid. She knew she didn’t stand a chance in hell. And she was so angry. Wouldn’t you be? She acted out her anger one day at school, was suspended long-term, and we lost her.
She is now 17. I found out that after she dropped out (in 8th grade!), she started hanging out with gang bangers, was partying a lot and had just given birth to a baby girl. How different would her life be if her gift had been noticed and encouraged?
There are too many kids like her.
Albert Einstein is the poster child for ‘genius’. He was the Michael Jordan, or Jimi Hendrix, of math and Physics. Anyone who believes that some of us are just plain smarter than most others has him to hold up to prove their point. I mean he was a Super Genius (sorry Wiley Coyote). So, what did Albert the brainiac have to say about ‘genius’? He said,
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
As parents, our children are more important to us than anything and I don’t begrudge any parent who fights tooth and nail to do right by their kids whether that means getting them into APP or forcing the district to honor the child’s IEP, or even getting rid of a teacher (or superintendent) who sucks. No, that’s our job, right? But I contend that when we look at every child as our own and fight tooth and nail for all of them, then all children benefit.
So, that’s my forest. Now I gotta go feed my saplings lunch.