In 2001, the pendulum swung to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. We moved away from integration to a focus on individual academic standards. The arts were removed and testing became the focal point. I remember resisting this at first, but instinctively knew that something would be learned from this shift. Accepting this reality helped me to model optimism as my students and I found ways to weave creativity into mundane tasks and make a game out of standardized testing. We were making the system work for us as we rode this educational pendulum swing of change together.
2007 brought an opportunity to bring our educational pendulum back to some balance when the educators of Salvador Elementary School began collaborating with artists. At that time I was a classroom teacher and wrote this reflection, which was inspired by Louis Armstrong's song, "What a Wonderful World."
When describing what it is like to be a teacher in my class, I believe Louis Armstrong said it best: “The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people walking by.” Wonderfully diverse, Salvador offers a slice of the world in one small amazing school. My students are a reflection of my teaching and me. If they do not understand, it is my job to find a way to help them understand. We all learn in different ways. We are all unique and amazing individuals. A day is ideal when we all come together excited about what we are learning. A less than ideal day is when we are tired, hot and distracted. It is messy at times and flows smoothly at others, but it is that which makes us grow and move forward. If we did not have obstacles, we would become complacent and growth would be hindered. The power comes in finding a path to solve the problem and trust that there is never a task too great that can’t be solved if we work together.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a perfect example of a path created in order to solve a problem. Its purpose was to ensure that we build the mind and character of every child by providing a rigorous curriculum to prepare them for the future. While the sentiment was sincere, I question the path it has taken. The arts have been pushed aside in order to fit in more standards. Teachers have learned the standards and children have learned great test-taking skills, but there is so much more to building a child’s mind and character. Has the pendulum swung too far? Where is the balance? Armed with our knowledge of the standards and content, we are now able to take the next step. How powerful “No Child Left Behind” would be, if we truly were able to access the multiple intelligences of our students. Exposing children to all modes of learning may help them find their own path and encourage them to forge ahead even when the curriculum seems daunting. The question is will it help or hinder our test scores? At Salvador we are piloting an art integration program. We are linking art to our standards; only time will tell how it affects our test scores. Above all, it has been amazing collaborating with artists and finding new avenues to reach the hearts and minds of our students.
One new avenue that came to Salvador through our collaboration with artists was the opportunity to develop an after-school program. I jumped at the chance to work towards creating a balance to the regular school day by offering students access to art classes that many families are unable to afford. Coordinating the after-school program has allowed me to teach all levels K-5. As I was leading the 3rd-5th grade homework, class, I realized that I was looking at my previous 1st and 2nd graders who I had introduced to their literacy journey. I remembered the days we spent learning letters and the sounds that they make. We would break everything down to the roots in order to extract the meaning. As I refocused my attention back to those 3rd-5th graders, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the novels they were reading. Yes, novels! Just then Emily raised her hand and said, “What does this word mean?” She pointed to the word GLEEFULLY. I thought back to our days together in first grade when she didn’t know how to decode the word, let alone ask the question what does it mean? I again thought about Louis Armstrong’s words, “I hear babies cry. I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than I‘ll ever know.” What an amazing privilege to be the facilitator of a child’s educational journey. The roots had been planted and it was an honor to see the wings she had grown. Teaching, it certainly is amazing. “Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Now it's 2018 and I love looking back at the educational pendulum and seeing how we both have evolved since 1994. Each child is a neurodiverse gift to the world with his/her own unique profile of strengths and challenges. It is now clear that education is more than academics. Thankfully children no longer have to wait for art after-school. Families have more educational options than they did in the past. A conversation has been started about how we can meet the needs of ALL learners, whether they appear striving or advanced in the classroom. Innovative programs within and beyond our public education system are being developed and implemented to respond to both the academic and social-emotional needs of our children. Technology advancements provide easier ways to differentiate instruction for our students and technology tools allow students with learning differences to thrive.
Being on this pendulum helped me to understand and have empathy for the historical swing that my fellow educators were on in the years before I entered teaching and when I was a student in the classroom. This information was vital as I transitioned from a classroom teacher to district level positions supporting teachers, parents and administrators and now supports me in my work as an educational consultant. Understanding this pendulum has given me the confidence to follow my intuition in the ways I need to support students, families, and school teams. It has also taught me the importance of optimism and focusing on the "bright spots" that need to be noticed, savored, expanded upon, and multiplied as we continue this sacred work of supporting our youth, our future together in this wonderful world!