Archive for March, 2013

SAY THAT THE RIVER TURNS! (PART ONE)

March 31, 2013 Comments Off on SAY THAT THE RIVER TURNS! (PART ONE) General

SAY THAT THE RIVER TURNS (Part One)

River Itchen watermeadows, Winchester, Hampshire, England

It was so long ago that I really cannot recall the time or place that I began to realize that language has the power to create reality. Of course, this was not an original idea.   Many philosophers and educators throughout history have constructed brilliant theories of language as an action and a behavior that creates significant outcomes. Once I started to think seriously about the impact of language on human outcomes, the thoughts and writings of many others on this topic had significant meaning for me.  Ultimately, over several years, I developed a full range of ideas about the importance of “teacher talk” – the language that educators use to discuss and describe children in schools.  Ultimately, this led to the publication of my book in 2000 called Talk Matters: Refocusing the Language of Public Schooling.

I constructed my ideas on the power of language to create reality through my experiences and interactions with teachers and children in urban public schools.  Over the years I became more and more conscious of the ways in which children who were poor, or disadvantaged, or placed at risk by discriminatory attitudes toward race were discussed. I would hear “…They are already behind when they come to school, and they never catch up…” or “…Kids like this are never going to make it…”, or “The kind of students we have here come from homes with no educational values…”, or “…Kids come to kindergarten not even knowing how to turn the page of  a book.”  It began to dawn on me that it might be these words, rather than the actual reality of challenges in the lives of the children, that had the power to create an ultimate reality of hopelessness.  I wondered what it would be like to enter a public school that served a less advantaged child population and hear words of possibility and promise  such as “…Whatever the children may bring to school in terms of challenges, we are very eager here to develop their full range of potential….” I thought then and think now that it would be wonderful!

I am writing the chapter on language now in my forthcoming book Standing Up for Something Every Day: Ethics and Justice in Early Childhood Classrooms. It is so interesting to me that, in spite of the fact that I have been studying and writing in the area of the impact of teacher talk on child outcomes for at least 15 years, I am once again recreating my entire range of thought for this new chapter. So, now that I am at the beginning again, I think perhaps I know how my belief in the power of language was first inspired.

It must have been about 30 years ago that I picked up an issue of the New York Times Magazine with a front page picture of a somewhat mature mother with two sons.  The mother was standing between two good sized trees, and each of her two school-aged sons was at her side having climbed into one of the trees.  As it turned out, this mother was one of several cancer survivors on which an article in the magazine focused.  In the article, her husband spoke about the day she was diagnosed with cancer. A resident in the hospital told him, “You must face the fact that your wife is going to die.” Devastated, he sat in the hallway waiting for a consultation with the prestigious doctor who had made the initial diagnosis.  As he waited sadly, he thought about his two very young sons and the two young trees he had just purchased to plant in the yard of their newly purchased home.  After some thought he decided not to plant the trees after all because it was likely he would need to sell the house and move near his parents so they could help him raise the children without his wife. Soon after he made that decision, the doctor came to speak with him.

During the consultation, the husband was surprised by the doctor’s optimistic enthusiasm for a treatment plan that could save his wife’s life. He said, “I don’t understand what you are talking about doctor; the resident told me my wife was going to die.” The doctor angrily rose to his feet and said, “No one has the right to say that to you! No one! No one knows if your wife will live or die! It is our job as doctors to do everything in our power to seek the return of her health and well-being.”  The husband was so encouraged that when he returned home that day, he planted the two trees. And yes, his wife survived and those were the very trees into which his now older sons had climbed for the photograph.

Language is not magic; saying something will happen does not necessarily mean that it will. But language bears our intentions; when our intention is to hope and to care and do everything possible for someone our language can lead to very powerful outcomes.  So what does it mean, in terms of the school settings I discussed above, when we discuss children as though we have already given up on them?  It means, of course, that we must reflect on potentially harmful (thus unethical) outcomes of our words in the lives of children.  But I think it also means that if we purposefully change the words we can ultimately construct new attitudes, new values, and renewed hope even in the most difficult situations.

Why is my blog today titled SAY THAT THE RIVER TURNS?  Please come back next week as I relate these thoughts on language to a very inspiring poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.  Spring is a season of hope – love and peace as we stride into this beautiful season.

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

 

SPRING BREAK!

March 24, 2013 Comments Off on SPRING BREAK! General

SPRING BREAK!

Hi readers! I am traveling out and about on spring break and will return next Sunday! While traveling I passed a sign that said: “Optimists embody the spirit of spring in daily life.” I think it is a great goal to be a true optimist – someone who can see the signs of spring in all people and every situation. We still have cold and snow where I live, but the signs of spring are everywhere. It’s not the people who complain about the weather who help us move through a tough season – rather, it is the people who can shine a light on the good of what we are experiencing now and the hope for change and all good things to come. Happy spring!

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

SPRING AHEAD!

March 10, 2013 Comments Off on SPRING AHEAD! General

SPRING AHEAD!

Racewalking early in the morning last week, I had a sense of spring struggling to enter as winter tried to stay with us. The increased daylight early in the morning was wonderful (alas we will now lose it for a while) but it was still quite cold. I had to watch my step because patches of ice posed continuing hazard.  The wind was still steady, and every now and then it brought small, sudden bursts of snow.  However, we enjoyed a delightfully sunny and warmer day yesterday.  While this gives us hope that spring is truly near, we know in Western Pennsylvania that March can continue to bring cold and snow.  Spring will make its usual subtle but steady arrival.

Today, in the midst of these shifting patterns of weather, we “spring forward” for daylight savings time. This can add a layer of temporary tiredness as we make the transition from winter to spring.  We know that the relief of warmth and green leaves and flowers is within our grasp, but we can feel weary in the continuing days of cold and grey skies.  The nearness of spring can be hidden by the snows we still see on the foothills of the mountains.

Change is always like this. It is slow and steady – change has a powerful pattern of its own. Change can only move forward; never back. Yet, the forward movement can be so uneven and subtle that we can doubt its continued progress.  This is something to keep in mind when we seek as teachers to change things for the better. Every effort we make for our students, our schools, and our society does make a difference. However, the change from winter to spring should help us think about social progress over time.  We need patience, we need to be persistent, and we need to know that good can come from our efforts long before we see the ultimate change that we envision.

We are often much too busy to notice the many signs of spring  — the tiny green tips now showing on brown buds or the leaves of daffodils pushing steadily out of the cold grounds.  But those signs are there, and we should be encouraged and hopeful!

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

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

March 3, 2013 Comments Off on CONTINUITY AND CHANGE General

 

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

Click to show "Poinsettias" result 16

Right before the holidays last year, I spotted a dry, neglected white poinsettia on sale at a supermarket. It was very pretty though probably in peril of soon being discarded. I put it in my shopping basket and later placed it on the fireplace mantel for the whole holiday season. Once all the seasonal decorations were packed up and put away, I put it near a kitchen window to quietly soak up the light of winter. While watering it this weekend, I noticed that it was growing new leaves. I was happy to see this, and thought about how I would re-pot it and place it outdoors to continue growing and thriving this summer.

I am teaching social studies for young children this semester, and the new growth of my plant helped me to think about some key concepts of history we’ve been discussing in class – past, present, change, and continuity over time. The holidays are long past, but also very present in the ways in which they brought us closer to one another. By the time they come around again next year, we will all be different and many changes will be present in our lives. Children will be taller and interested in completely different things, the responsibilities and joys of adults will be changed as new challenges and opportunities appear. Possibly, we will be learning to live without a loved one or welcoming a new baby who has joined our families. Nothing ever stays the same! Yet there is continuity across the ages in all of life.

The book I am writing, Standing Up for Something Every Day: Ethics and Justice in the Early Childhood Classroom, very much reflects these social studies concepts in my own life. It was over 25 years ago now that I sat eating lunch in the Teachers College cafeteria with my dissertation chair and generous mentor Dr. Leslie R. Williams. She asked me if I wanted to write a book on child advocacy for the Early Childhood Series of Teachers College Press! I was astounded and tempted to say no, not only because I was exhausted by my dissertation but because I was absolutely sure that it was not possible for me to write a book. Saying yes led me to my first book, Child Advocacy for Early Childhood Educators, published by Teachers College Press in 1989. Over the years, I have always wanted to revisit the fundamental concepts in that book and recreate them with insights into advocacy and justice that have grown over time and with experience. I am so delighted to be doing that now with my new book!

There is continuity in my fundamental thoughts and beliefs about advocacy and justice, but they have also changed from past to present. Much in my life has changed since I wrote my first book! Dr. Williams passed away in 2007 after a strong and dignified battle with cancer, and my dearly loved children have grown up and married. I have been teaching for a long time now, and I have developed a much greater understanding of how challenging it is to stay focused on justice and ethics while building a career in education. I am struck by the persistence of the very social problems that inspired me to become an advocate in the first place – child poverty, terrible violence, inequality of opportunity for children in public schools, discrimination, racism, and the struggle faced by families as they try to cope with a society that does not protect and honor children. The details of these problems have changed over time, but the problems themselves continue to create challenge, frustration, and suffering for those who are affected most greatly.

Yet, I am not at all discouraged. I have a much better understanding now of what Arthur Schlesinger meant when he said:

“Problems will always torment us because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

Like my little poinsettia, we need to stay strong and grow new leaves!

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