This past Saturday I attended a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project, a group of educators based at Nassau Community College on LI, dedicated to promoting and supporting the practice of writing in both students and teachers’ lives. The focus of the gathering was a recently written book for educators called Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.
There was a lot of free-ranging discussion about what each of us thought about the book, which ideas we planned to add to our own bag of tricks, and so on. Eventually we strayed from the topic and began talking, as we often do, about our own “take” on what is happening in education today and how we are responding as teachers and advocates for our students. We were then asked to write for about 10 minutes in response to an excerpt that was read to us from Teach Like a Pirate entitled: The Mighty Purpose.
Here is an excerpt from my written response:
How do you take the least politically important group of learners in a school community (based on my personal experience) and turn them into people who feel positive about themselves and the society they have been thrust into? How do you accomplish this when their dislocation is usually not by their own choice, but instead a result of circumstances over which they have no control such as poverty, war, economic disadvantage and lack of education in their parents’ native countries leading them to emigrate to the United States to seek a better life for their children. This was my challenge for over twenty years as a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs). My passion has always been to help them become part of The Big Picture. To do this meant I had to do a lot of work to have them and myself taken more seriously in the school community.
Now a recent retiree, I realize that I spent my first several difficult years just learning my trade; like most teachers I improved with time and practice. Then I entered an even more challenging stage of my job. I had to figure out how to make myself and my students become more a part of the fabric of the school by pushing myself and them into situations where we weren’t usually included. I had my work cut out from me on many fronts. I had to advocate for translators to be included in parent-teacher conferences and to ask individual teachers to include me in their parent meetings so we could “share” vital information about the student with their parents. It meant seeking out parents on Back to School Night who traditionally skipped visiting my classroom because they felt it was more important to meet the mainstream teacher. It meant convincing parents of ELLs that being in my program was not meant to divert the student’s attention from what was going on the in the mainstream classroom but rather to provide the ELL with more support and language instruction that would result in an overall better learning experience. I could go on and on…. Last but not least, I had to learn to diplomatically work with every staff member in the school many of whom were not happy to have these students in their classes because teaching native speakers is hard enough nowadays without the complications of having a non-English speaker in your classroom.
For my students it meant pushing them harder and harder to become a more proudly visible part of the school community. It meant, for example, prepping them to read the poems they had written on the PA system so others could hear their voices for the first time. It meant making sure that every year at The Annual Literacy Cafe, a showcase event for students’ language arts accomplishments, my students’ books and art work would be showcased as well. It mean occasional trips to the Principal’s office to show off a new project or to enable a new arrival to read in English for the first time. It meant explaining to the students that I wanted them to strive to become better students because I knew all too well the strains and pressures they would face in middle school and high school if they began to fail academically.
Did I teach like a pirate? The answer is yes, but I did it my way. Burgess says it best in this excerpt, also from his book:
“Isn’t that what life is really all about? We all have to find our own personal “drum” and then play it the best we can. For me, I never feel more truly alive than when I’m standing in front of a class of students or a seminar room full of teachers….Forget about all of the things you can’t control and play your drum to the best of your abilities. Play with all the passion, enthusiasm, and heart you can muster. Nothing else really matters. You can offer no finer gift or higher honor to the world than to find out what your “drum” is and then play it for all it’s worth.” (P. 152)
I have retired, but I haven’t given up playing my drum. The LIWP is a safe place that allows me to continue playing it and, in fact, encourages me to do so, for which I am ever grateful.