A recent article detailing how a California school banned the dictionary because a student looked up the term oral sex, reminds me of a similarly anti-educational incident from my teaching days.
I was running poetry workshops at Booker T Washington middle school through CCNY’s Poetry Outreach Center which paired graduate students with a classes in the New York City public school system. I worked with Ms Wertheimer’s 8th grade class for four years.
Once a month, I came in with poetry and literature, everything ranging from Shakespeare and Kafka to Outkast’s Ms Jackson -- oooh, I am for real -- and we read, discussed and wrote our own poetry.
The students in these classes were in what was called The Olympia program. Which meant, not quite special education behavioral problems, but not quite expected to truly succeed either. Among quotes I heard directly from teachers and administrators mouths.
“Don’t teach these kids Shakespeare. They won’t understand.” I did anyway.
"Some of these kids have real potential, it’s a shame most of them will end up working at McDonalds.”
And my personal favorite,
"Why do you want to work extra hours with him? He doesn’t know how to read.”
Few things, though, left me more in slack-jawed-awe than one dictionary related incident and a school program director who, I swear, was the drop dead doppelganger of South Park's guidance counselor, Mr. Mackie. You know, the one with the too tight bow-tie?
I prepared a magnetic poetry-like exercise for the class
by printing hundreds of sentences from all different novels and poems onto paper, cut them out into individual
words then asked each student to choose ten words to be used in a poem or set
The only rule: Use every word.
Some were easy words and connection words. Cat. And. The. Hat.
Others I didn’t expect students to know. Ambidextrous. Chthonic. Ineluctable modality of being.
We didn’t have enough dictionaries in the classroom. Those we had were tattered, pages missing and were for far younger students than populated the class. We weren’t able to find the more difficult words I chose.
When I asked the program director for more, particularly more advanced ones, ones better suited to the age group in the classroom, he said the following to me with no irony in all seriousness.
Really? I mean. Really?
Usually, I kept a professional distance and attitude from the administrators I met in the New York City school system. This time, I admit, I was not so polite in response.
What's the problem here?
My students at Booker T Washington showed a level of creativity I didn't see in the students I taught at a nearby private university, a place where students had far more privilege and freedom than those at Booker T. I suspect living beyond any expectation also frees you of the constraints to produce what society expects.
Standing on the other side of the row of desks has its on frustrations. The nature of dealing with administration stifles any creativity on the part of the teachers. You teach to the No Child Left Behind tests. You struggle with principals who care more about walls decorated with pretty things to impress bosses than whether or not 8th grade students can read.
I also quickly realized after teaching in other middle and high schools in NYC that Booker T Washington isn't the worst. They have more resources, dedicated teachers. They are in an area of town that is relatively safe. In four years, I never once lost a student to a beating or to child welfare. Yes, I saw students carrying sandwich bags with crack vials. Yes, I had students with family in prison. One thirteen year old disappeared from class after a couple days when his girlfriend had a baby. Another tore the classroom apart whenever his mother had a new boyfriend.
It is not the worst.
How does one learn in that environment? What does one learn?Photos by jasonwhite and dcJohn