Archive for December, 2012

HONORING OUR COMMITMENT TO JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN IN 2013

December 30, 2012 Comments Off on HONORING OUR COMMITMENT TO JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN IN 2013 General

HONORING OUR COMMITMENT TO JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN IN 2013

We teachers are so fortunate for the new beginnings we experience in our work. We get to start school again every fall, and we get so many new chances to improve, reflect, and correct former mistakes. There is a constant, refreshing newness in working with young people. I’ve always considered the many opportunities to start over and do it better to be one of the best things about being a teacher.

And, of course, every January first we have the marvelous opportunity to begin a brand new year. In addition to the usual resolutions most of us make at this time, I’d like to offer one for all of us. First, let’s each resolve to put aside cynicism and believe that our words and actions can truly build more justice in the world for children. Then, let’s resolve to have the courage to step out of our professional and social comfort zone to speak up when we believe that more can be done to make our school and community a stronger, better, more equitable place for children.

I am always amazed, when I decide to speak up about a change or improvement that I believe should be made, at how hard it is! After all, I am an experienced advocate and have studied and written about the topic for many years. Why is it still so hard? It is hard because no matter how skilled we are at framing words or how sincere we are in speaking up for the greater good – we are going to make some people uncomfortable or angry. Essentially, as advocates, we are often suggesting that what others are doing is not good enough or not fair enough –or wrong! When we do this, we are definitely stepping out of our comfort zone.

Many years ago, one of my graduate students spoke with me after class. Inspired by our course focus on advocacy, she had decided to address a problem in her school that had bothered her for years – the way the children who received free lunch and special services were discussed in faculty meetings. At the latest meeting, when the children were discussed in a denigrating tone, she spoke up and said, “I think we need to change the way we talk about these children – they are equally important and deserve our respect.” After she spoke, the principal and teachers looked at her in surprised silence. Then, one of her colleagues asked, “Just who do you think you are?” (She had been speechless, and asked what I thought she should have said. I told her I thought the perfect response might have been, “I think I am a teacher!”)

My student cried a bit when she told me this, and I knew how she felt. Speaking up, even a little, is hard work. Someone might challenge us immediately with words that feel unkind or cut into our personal credibility. Someone might seem to be making fun of us. Someone might not like us anymore. An administrator might pull us aside and suggest that we try to be more of a “team player.” We might walk into the faculty room, where the small group of colleagues engaged in conversation falls silent until we leave. A friend who always says good-bye after work might walk past our room without speaking. There are a lot of wonderful people in the world! But things like this can and do happen – especially when we speak with courage about what we think is right and what we think is wrong. Our steps to honor and protect children will inevitably change the way we live and work with others.

Of course, we have the responsibility to reflect carefully as advocates. If we complain or critique, we need to suggest a solution. If we feel that others could be more caring and kind to children, we must seek to be outstanding role models of those very behaviors. The greater good must be a constant goal – we need to say what we believe is right to say because the change will strengthen the enterprise for everyone! And, of course, we need to rise above the petty or personal resentments and tensions that can be present at times in professional relationships. We need to seek higher ground as advocates; we must not allow ourselves to be swayed from our idealistic purpose. It is not easy to advocate well! We do make mistakes, we do sometimes say things the wrong way and need to apologize, and we are fully human in our own ambitions and goals. We have to work hard on ourselves to be advocates for others. But we can get good at being advocates if we persist! Being an advocate who speaks out is like being an athlete—the more you exercise your skills, the better and the more confident you become.

This beautiful holiday season brings many of us, in many different ways, to thoughts of what is divine in human life. Whatever our faith tradition or personal thoughts of divinity might be, I believe that it is in seeking what should be most deeply reverenced in life and in every single person that strengthens us as advocates. If we think for a moment of just one of the children who died in Sandy Hook Elementary School this month, and of the enormous and enduring grief experienced by those who loved them, we can embrace anew our reverence for the irreplaceable value and importance of each and every child. For some years I used a book edited by Sue Books called Invisible Children in the Society and its Schools in my social policy class at Teachers College. In the beautifully written Foreword, author David E. Purpel asks, “Why can’t we see all children as divine sparks?”

If we can visualize children as divine sparks, we can constantly reflect on our highest goals and purposes as educators. And, when we make ourselves less comfortable to try to move the world ahead for children, we can think of these famous words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others, and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.”

Those words challenge us to seek the greater good, seek the higher ground, and seek social justice for the children who depend on us and trust us. We teachers serve the highest of social purposes, and we have the right to speak out and be heard!

I extend my warmest good wishes to one and all for 2013! Peace and love! My blog will return in mid January.

PLEASE NOTE: The words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton are taken from the book Americans Who Tell the Truth by Robert Shetterly. If you would like more inspiration to be an advocate, I suggest you take a look at this wonderful book!

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children

HONORING THE CHILDREN (PART II)

December 21, 2012 Comments Off on HONORING THE CHILDREN (PART II) General

HONORING THE CHILDREN PART II

When I was a young girl, my grandmother gave me the reader she had used as a child in school. I enjoyed looking through it and especially liked the long excerpt from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Marley’s ghost, with grim despair over his dismal failure to reduce human suffering while on earth, planted some important messages in my mind. Many years later, as a young mother, I decided to read the book annually during the holidays. Since the only reading time available to me was usually when I was riding the subway back and forth to my doctoral classes at Teachers College, I would often come upon the section that affected me most deeply when there was a crowd of people surrounding me. It was the death of Tiny Tim, of course, that annually moved me to tears. When Bob Cratchit cried, “My little, little child”, I cried with him. One holiday season on the subway, reading that section of the story, I cried so hard when Bob tried to gather and compose himself sitting next to the body of his dead child that people around me grew very concerned. I looked up from my seat to see about 10 people wondering how they might be of help. When I explained that I was just very affected by any death of a child in a book, they looked at each other, shook their heads, and moved away a little. I decided that I should probably, in the future, skip that section until I could read it in a quiet place.

But the death of any child is terrible –the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School that hold our nation in justified horror and outrage, the deaths of children in many other high profile tragedies in our nation and around the globe, and the quiet unknown deaths of children that happen every day. Look at the end of Jonathan Kozol’s book Amazing Grace to see the astounding number of children in the South Bronx who died in fires and other kinds of accidents, many resulting from the failure of those who owned buildings to follow safety codes, while he was writing it. Many child deaths occur for reasons beyond anyone’s control. But it is high time for this nation to take a very careful look at the deaths that might well have been avoided if our society had a more reverent view of children and of our social responsibility to protect and care for them.

As I have often said in my Young Children and Social Policy class at Teachers College, just beneath the surface of every child need is an adult political controversy. Advocates for attainable, just, and reasonable social changes that would help many children can easily find themselves in a rough and uncivil adult political environment. I tell my students that we should view our advocacy as a form of bending down to lift some heavy burdens from child shoulders. When we force those burdens up to the spotlight, we might just find ourselves treated the way those children are treated every day – demeaned, discredited, and disrespected. Having experienced this kind of treatment from time to time as an advocate myself, I always cheered on the Spirit in A Christmas Carol who forced Scrooge to look at the two pathetic children underneath his robe – he identified them as ignorance and want. He warned doom unless the experiences of such children, especially those who were kept ignorant, were erased. “Deny it…slander those who tell it to ye…admit it for your factious purposes and make it worse…and bide the end!”

One of the most difficult aspects of child advocacy, for me, is witnessing the ways in which troubling neglect of the basic needs of children in society can be rationalized by the privileged. “Their own parents don’t care about them, they don’t want to learn, even if we gave them more in school they’d still be getting nothing from their homes, I work hard and pay taxes so my kids get a good education, nothing will help kids like that” – it goes on and on. Ultimately, it can sound like willingness to just let the kids go because social resources are wasted on them and their parents. That’s why I always want to also cheer for the Spirit in A Christmas Carol who says, “Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Teachers, we are and can further be the voices of compassion and love for children. The terrible deaths of the children and their courageous teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School do make the usual messages of holiday cheer hard to exchange. As I see it, though, the message of holiday peace should never be silenced. This is our call to a vision and possible action. We cannot change the past. The present instantly becomes the past. It is our intentionality and our passionate commitments that can lead us into a future of which America can be proud –a future in which all of our children are safe.

Peace and love! My blog will return on December 30.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore, a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

HONORING THE CHILDREN (PART I)

December 9, 2012 Comments Off on HONORING THE CHILDREN (PART I) General

HONORING THE CHILDREN (PART I)

The three stamps on my website represent the foundations of my passionate interest in children, their lives, and their education. I believe that, if we really want to move forward in American education, we must work hard on honoring teachers, honoring the spirit and law of the Brown decision, and honoring the right and responsibility of teachers to focus on social justice and to be advocates for children.

As a teacher educator I am privileged to enter many different schools and classrooms to supervise the field experiences of my university students. What I see and hear in schools shapes my passion for education. What all legislators and policy makers must be made to understand is that a great number of us who work with or observe children in schools have first-hand knowledge of the suffering that many of them experience. Poverty is a major culprit in child suffering. While poverty may only be a statistic to those whose privilege, power, and comfort is secure, many teachers are daily witnesses to its painful reality in the lives of children. Poverty in the classroom is present when a treatable illness persists for months because of the lack of health insurance, or when a toothache agonizing enough to cause a child to weep will not end until the one itinerant dentist who provides care to Medicaid patients returns to the rural community. It is present when children arrive at school hungry, their gloveless hands blue with cold. It is the daily presence of exhausted children whose struggle with unmet needs leads all too easily to difficult behaviors and ultimate school failure.

It is high time for an era of national compassion for children. We need to not only imagine and act for the eradication of child poverty; we also need to consider our national responsibility for equitable schools. School is the greatest hope of many children who are poor. So let’s take an honest look as they walk daily into schools that lack basic resources and reasonable class size. We need to be shocked by the unacceptable educational circumstances we would never allow our own children to experience unless we had no choice. Then we need to be outraged at this fundamental betrayal of equal opportunity, and to act. We must begin to honor all the brave teachers struggling to meet the needs of these children, honor the right of all American children to an equal educational opportunity, and be fierce advocates for the end of the injustice of ignoring the fundamental rights and needs of children in America.

During the 18 years that my own children attended urban public schools, I often encountered children whose lives were very sad. Compassion and outrage became my constant companions. There are many stories that I could tell, but in this blog entry I will share just one. On a cold winter evening in the early 1980s, I entered my children’s public school in New York City for a PTA meeting. I passed a small brokenhearted child crying in the hallway. She was very thin and her clothing was skimpy considering the cold weather. As an active school parent, I already knew this little girl’s circumstances. Her mother, exhausted from struggling with poverty and addiction, was said to have deserted the family. Her father was trying to maintain the home but was spoken of as an alcoholic. Earlier that day, an announcement had been made over the loud speaker of the school. The children were reminded that a special art workshop would be available to them that evening. This little girl was excited by the idea and decided to come by herself, not realizing she needed five dollars to attend. A note had been sent home but she had not read it. When she entered the room eager to participate, she was told by the person offering the workshop that she was not allowed to attend unless she paid the five dollars. Confused and disappointed, she had been standing crying outside the classroom until I came along.

Compassion must be our response not only to small events like this but the realization that these experiences play out in countless ways in the lives of millions of children who are poor. Luckily, that night, I had five dollars in my pocket and I was able to help the little girl enter the room and participate in the event. But I know that there is much more suffering that I never see –suffering that it would take a powerful national resolve to eradicate.

Teachers need to trouble the waters of those who lifestyles allow them to keep the faces of child poverty invisible. We need to bring our stories to the public; we need to combine excellence in practice with outrage for the childhood circumstances we see in our classrooms. And, if we are in the classrooms of the more privileged, we need to be outraged that our students have so much more than others in a nation with a stated commitment to equal educational opportunity.

In my remaining blogs this December, I will continue to focus on the topic of honoring children. This is a good month to do so! It might be argued that much more money is spent advertising to children as the holidays approach then is spent on meeting the basic survival needs of the most desperately poor children of this nation.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children

HONORING TEACHERS AS ADVOCATES (PART II)

December 2, 2012 Comments Off on HONORING TEACHERS AS ADVOCATES (PART II) General

HONORING TEACHERS AS ADVOCATES FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE (PART II)

In my last blog entry, I recounted the very exciting session I attended at the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies in Seattle. After witnessing an authentic and moving naturalization ceremony and a stirring distinguished panel discussion with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, I was filled with a renewed reverence for the importance of advocacy for social justice on the part of educators. There are countless ways in which teachers can be advocates! We often correctly think of advocacy as action for change in the arenas of policy and legislation. However there are many other pathways to advocacy for children and social justice. Too often, we might totally dismiss the possibility of becoming advocates because we feel that we lack both the skills and the time to take action for others. Possibly we immediately think of protest marches or major social movements – things which seem impossible to us in our current professional and personal stages of life.

So, it is important to start with the famed quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

How do all of us, in the small places close to home, become advocates? For a start, we should acknowledge the reality that the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and opportunity are eternal goals that must be sought anew by each generation of citizens. All citizens must then accept the responsibility for acknowledging injustice and inequality and participating in addressing them to further the common good. It is acknowledgement of what is wrong and the determination to seek the good for all that becomes intentionality – the desire to address the need for equality and fairness as it arises in any daily situation. One’s intentions must be sewn into the very fabric of our consciousness as citizens and professionals.

People sometimes call me or write to ask how they can become advocates for children. The answer is very complicated! The easiest response is to seek out organizations that exist to advocate for children for employment. But for almost of the people with whom I speak, that answer can not suffice. Some are teachers or administrators who already have school-based careers. Others are parents who are very concerned about the experiences of their children or other children within schools but whose employment is not in schools or institutions concerned with children. Every individual with whom I speak must ultimately approach her or his interest in advocacy in a different way. The first thing I tell them is that advocacy is a state of mind – recognition of injustice and a determination to make a difference.

Advocacy often begins when we have life experiences that, as I like to put it, “pull back the veil” of our blind trust in people or social institutions. We might attend a school board meeting in which we are shocked by the level of disrespect with which teachers in the district are discussed. Or we might serve on a committee through which we become aware of very serious fiscal or educational problems within a school or program. We might be elected to the board of an educational program or agency, and discover that a large percentage of children and families in our community are experiencing dire poverty after a disaster. We might try to talk about a situation that concerns us with a school administrator and be told to return to our classroom and “mind our own business.” There are endless and countless situations that can inspire our courage and commitment to be advocates. Whenever and wherever these situations arise, our intentionality can be fully in place to address them.

Some of our finest hours in life begin on a road that we never anticipated, and emerge after a winding and turning pathway on which we can never be sure of a successful outcome. Consider, for example, the brave African American teenagers who became the Little Rock Nine in the 1950s. As teenagers, they registered to transfer from their segregated high school to Central High School, never dreaming that the school would soon be ringed with soldiers with bayonets drawn. But when it happened, their own courage and the courage and guidance of many others secured their powerful intentionality to see their commitments through to the end. They could not be completely sure at the time that their experience would be a great part of United States history, or even that those who were supporting them would be protected or seen as doing the right thing. It is only in what Winston Churchill once called “the long afterthought” that we can all see their glorious accomplishments.

Our advocacy need not be that dramatic, but it will need courage and commitment nonetheless. Rising from a comfort level into controversy changes our lives. When we stand up and speak out, even in small groups over relatively simple matters, controversy can ensue. Once we start any initiative as an advocate, we need to be determined to see it through. This usually means staying strong, clearing up misunderstandings, and seeking absolute clarity about our intentions and the outcome we seek. We will make mistakes, and can learn a great deal from them. Once we can let go of the comfort zone of neutrality and become accustomed to the tension of position-taking, we find new freedom and new spaces in our lives for seeking what is right and just.

Written by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.