Five months of teaching. Holy smokes.
Let's consider for a short moment what those five months have taught me about all the picturesque, beautiful ideas of educational bliss I'd imagined teaching to be. In short: HA.
This community in which I'm working is quite the head-scratcher- desolate in the strangest of ways. Cotton and rice fields, gun violence and remarkably apparent racial tension. The newspaper detailing the benefits of moisturizing daily, while the majority of the community is hungry and little boys are either being recruited into gangs or shot in the streets. Drug busts by the federal government blocks away from the elementary school and children being swept out of classrooms by CPS. Substance abuse babies in the first grade not receiving the services they need, inconsistent parent communication due to disconnected phone numbers, and violent students embodying the injustice that flows through their veins as enraged as it flows through this corner of the country. Welcome to the Arkansas Delta, Ms. Deckard.
A question I've been chewing on these past twenty weeks- do I have to change my teaching philosophy in the face of these gritty classroom realities? Who has time to foster artistically charged opportunities for discovery when the six and seven-year olds in my classroom are hurling profanity at me, coming to school hungry, and hitting each other?
An answer that's been revealing itself these past few weeks- Who has time not to foster artistically charged opportunities for discovery when the six and sever-year olds in my classroom are hurling profanity at me, coming to school hungry, and hitting each other?
Can we talk about classroom management for a second? Oof. We don't talk about it enough as a profession. I recognize it's not like this everywhere, with first graders twerking and touching each other inappropriately and having major shut-down-the-classroom tantrums, but I am certain my undergraduate training did not prepare me for even the slightest classroom disturbances, much less the daily chaos I've come to know. Perhaps on-the-job training is the only way to develop those muscles. They're pretty toned now; I say that with confidence.
It took me a couple months of braving the daily storm of my classroom to gain the confidence to test out drama-based instruction with my kiddos. I was too scared to try it, but now I wished I'd tried it sooner. My classroom is in good shape now, and I can proudly say that my kiddos are becoming more and more familiar with the kind of artistic shenanigans I always aspired to in a teaching career. 'Special guests' (aka, me disguised in goofy glasses or a scarf) are not uncommon in our classroom, and movement exercises jumpstart our mornings and math lessons. Operating in a school married to scripted curricula has added a frustrating layer of difficulty to my effort of imbedding the arts into lesson plans, but I do my best to infiltrate the first grade day with meaningful play. I've earned priceless buy-in with my class as a result.
This week, however, reopened my eyes to the necessity of arts-based learning and exploration. Each morning my students gather in a circle on the carpet to greet one another and share about a topic. I've generally used this as a space from which to springboard directly into our academic objectives for the day, but on Thursday I decided to share something I found interesting with my students. We began with a discussion of bridges- what is a bridge for? where might you find a bridge? Most kids had an understanding of bridges, due to our close proximity to the Mississippi River. Then I introduced my kiddos to the Netherlands. We looked at the Netherlands on Google Maps and glanced at the pictures that popped up- castles and the like (perfect). After a discussion about castles, and how they would protect themselves from attack in the past, I showed my class a sunken pedestrian bridge that is quite the architectural marvel to any individual. My first graders, however, lost their minds. They didn't stop talking about the sunken bridge all day! "I want to walk on that bridge." "If I went there, I would jump into the water and swim in it." "Do you think their are snakes in the water??" "What happens when it rains??" We spent every free moment of our day exploring their questions about the bridge. I was just as engaged in the research as they were- if not more so.
What a fun exploration with these kids, some of whom have never even crossed the bridge two miles from our school more that once or twice in their lives because their parents don't have a car. This is the realization I've finally stumbled upon, five months in the making- exposure is the make or break for these kids, and for all kids. In a community steeped in poverty and violence and despair, the golden ticket to something more is the understanding that something more exists.
But for these first graders to understand that something more exists, they have to experience it.
(DBI, enter stage right.)