Another challenge Shakirah must face is Marlin Nevens. Mr. Nevens was reading out loud to a class of fifth graders when I observed him. He was having a hard time with the fifth grade level reader. He read slowly and with difficulty. He was tripping over words, having to say them twice, sometimes three times. The class was sleepy and unfocused.
On the board behind Mr. Nevens were sentences he’d written. One caught my eye because it was a prompt meant to show students how to respond on a standardized test, which, in turn, becomes synonymous with essay writing. The directions said, “For every open ended response the first sentence should be: To begin with, Johanna Hurwitz, short story, ‘The Hot and Cold Summer,’ there are several values such as…” Several other sentences contained misspelled words and poor syntax. Mr. Nevens had been warned, given an unsatisfactory review and was receiving coaching from Maria Ortiz. But I wondered how he could overcome his own educational deficits. Mr. Nevens came into the Newark educational system through what is called the “alternative method”: he didn’t attend a graduate school of education; rather, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, he agreed to take courses towards his degree, receive coaching and mentoring, and after a trial period become licensed. In the meantime, he could teach.
After his reading lesson (there was no point to the lesson, he just read to the class), Mr. Nevens sat down with Maria Ortiz to discuss it.
“I want to work on skills,” Mr. Nevens said right away. “I need some material to work with.” He was nervous, perhaps because of my presence.
Ms. Ortiz asked, “What do you mean, material? This is your material, the kids. Come up with something.” Ortiz was visibly agitated.
“Oh,” he said leaning back in a chair usually occupied by a much smaller student. All three of us, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Nevens and me, looked out of place, our bodies bulging over a small desk meant for 11 and 12 year olds.
“You’re asking me what am I going to be teaching? Oh.”
“Teach me something now,” said Ms. Ortiz leaning towards Mr. Nevens.
“I don’t know what you’re asking,” he said.
“What’s your forte, your strength – show it to me.”
“I don’t have one.”
Ms. Ortiz changed her tack. “What do you feel the most comfortable teaching?” she asked and paused.
“Anything,” Mr. Nevens said quickly, shrugged his shoulders and darted his eyes towards me, then grinned nervously trying to get the message across.
“Fine. Teach me one of those things. Tell me one lesson you’ve done that you were successful with.”
Mr. Nevens thought for a minute, then said, “I enjoy when we work on projects together.” And he smiled towards me again – he could teach anything.
“Okay. That’s extrapolating material from a text. Dr. Vila is going to show you how this is done,” said Maria looking at me and nodding, granting me access to the classroom. “He’s going to teach a lesson in your classroom tomorrow.” (In public schools and in colleges in NYC and New Jersey where I’ve taught, I’m usually a “doctor”; at Middlebury, where I teach now, I’m simply Professor, but students who know me for a bit simply call me by my first name. Either option is open them.)
That was it, without warning I was going “in,” called off the bench to teach Mr. Nevens’ 5th graders and hopefully instruct him as well.
This was Maria Ortiz’s counterinsurgency plan. Maybe this is an answer: teachers from elite institutions contractually obligated to work in schools such as Miller Street, perhaps bringing along our students, too, committed to a national service for education – a pre-Teach for America program where elite and urban institutions collaborate. It’s never been done.
Maria Ortiz gleaned this from her studies: the progressive and populist counterinsurgency manuals of John Dewey and Paulo Freire’s notion that the oppressed can regain their humanity and overcome their condition as long as they are creative participants in their own growth and development. I went with Maria’s idea.
The next day, I gave students copies of Shel Silverstein’s poem, Where the Sidewalk Ends.
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows back
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
I read the poem slowly, carefully, as I moved about the room, in-between tables, each with four to six children. They followed my voice with intent eyes on the poem. When I was done, I kept walking about for a few seconds and allowed silence to take over. Then I asked the students to circle words in the poem that popped out for them: “Sidewalk” and “ends,” “moon-bird” and “dark” and “winds and bends,” and of course “peppermint.” They also circled “children” and “they know” and “place.” I asked students to define one of these words for themselves, in writing, which they did without a problem. One student wrote that a “moon-bird is a bat,” and everyone laughed – and I let them chatter and joke a bit. Another student said a “moon-bird is a star flickering in the night.” After sharing definitions, I asked for three volunteers, and we re-read the poem, each student taking a stanza. They read fine, not missing a beat. I asked each table of students to talk among themselves and come up with one idea that came from the poem. In no time, five to seven minutes, kids were eager to share: “It’s about us,” said one group. “The streets are bad and your life can end,” said another. “No one listens to us.” “We have to be careful how we walk the streets.” “We know things.” “Things end so we have to do the right thing.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Nevens never got it. He was more interested in the steps I took, rather than how I may have known that the children would understand the poem, quite easily, though I was warned by Ms. Ortiz that it might prove difficult for them. He was insistent that I relate the time I allowed for each piece of the lesson, which took approximately 45 minutes in all, rather than ask me to explain the relationship between reading and writing and learning. Beginning in the fall of 2009, Mr. Nevens was moved down a couple of grades. He began the year in Tier 1. There’s little hope he’ll make it, though he has a big heart, great rapport with the kids, and they like him because he’s warm, and he always has an ear for whatever a student may need. But even with support, he has not been able to progress. The deficits in his education may be too much.
At the end of the class, Ana, the little girl with long black hair that had been smiling at me all week and that had asked whether I was going to be with them, handed me a piece of paper folded in half. She was all smiles looking up at me with big brown eyes as I opened the paper. She had drawn an angel with big wings and written, “Today, an angel came into my life. Thank you.” Tears came to my eyes, and I fought to hold them back. I placed a hand on her head and said, “Gracias, Ana. Muchisimas gracias.” She grinned and said, “You gonna be here all year? Are we going to do this some more?” I couldn’t move, the weight of the separation between our worlds was paralyzing because it seemed to me so simple to overcome.
“No, Ana,” I said softly. “Not all year. But I’ll be back, here and there, I hope.”