Play Your Own Drum

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.

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14 thoughts on “Play Your Own Drum”

  1. This is a wonderful piece and very serendipitous that I found your slice to read. I also live on Long Island and am a great fan of Dave Burgess. I also am retired but a consultant now and was a districtwide director for ELA and ESL for 10 years before retiring. While I have never attended a LIWP workshop, I am passionate about writing. Perhaps, we could become connected. You can reach me at @cvarsalona on Twitter or beyondliteracylink.blogspot.com. I have an invitation open for reflective writers. If interested, please see: http://beyondliteracylink.blogspot.com/2015/04/listening-for-springs-symphony.html

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  2. This is an outstanding piece that I think should be shared widely! Would you mind if I tweeted this link? I never thought of an ESL teacher’s job like this and now I see how much advocacy is part of the position for those who view it in that light. I taught self-contained special education for a year and remember having to remind people that we were there- we were part of the 5th and 6th grade even though we were somehow separate too. Kids names inadvertently got left off of t-shirts, etc. Those type of positions can be lonely because you don’t have grade level colleagues to bounce ideas off of, but how important it is that you are the voice for your students. I also really liked that you mentioned diplomacy with other teachers and how that was part of your job. I never thought about that. As usual, you wrote with so much voice and neatly tied in Dave Burgess’ book and his part about playing your own drum. I just reread that section last night and it rang true for me, too. This was beautiful and I’d like to share! 🙂

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  3. Teachers who are not the mainstream are so often pushed aside from events like open house and even conferences. You were a great advocate for your kids. Very thoughtful writing, more need to read this.

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    1. Thanks for your understanding. I thought “it takes a village to raise a child.” A lot of teachers and administrators don’t get that. Everything is so compartmentalized! Glad to hear the baby birds are on schedule and hopefully soon to leave the nest.

      Sent from my iPad

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  4. I love that LI Writing Project. They missed our network meeting on Saturday, now I understand why. I loved the quote you shared, in fact I took time just to capture it. I’m with you. It’s so hard that job of bringing kids into the school community! BRAVO!!!

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  5. Barbara, I’ve come to know that Bonnie is well connected in many ways! 🙂 I keep seeing this book come up, but haven’t read it yet. Maybe I should finally jump in. Years ago I read a book called “Drumming to the beat of different marchers” and that phrase has stuck with me. It’s a spec ed book about how we need to find the beat of our marchers and drum accordingly instead of alway expecting them to hear our beat. Anyway…food for though.

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    1. Really, there’s not much that’s new in this life, and marching to your own drumbeat is certainly not a new concept. But as you said, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then in this era of extreme conformity in education. Thanks for your comment.

      Sent from my iPad

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  6. Excellent and important piece.
    Good “mainstream” teachers should also concentrate on the socialization of children, since that is often one of the most neglected aspects of childhood in this busy day and age. Unfortunately, teaching to tests does the exact opposite. The “Standards” to which students aspire are usually dry facts and figures, decreasing the emphasis on character development and group dynamics.
    Too bad that all good teachers, like you, have to fight through so much muck and trendy counter currents to do the job they love correctly.

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