My son, Beau, is two weeks away from turning one. He never took to a pacifier or his thumb, but the bottle is a different story. At my lowest moments I envision his tears on the first day of Kindergarten aren’t about separating from me, but rather his bottle. We have been playing the sippy cup game for months and I’ve purchased no less than 23 in an attempt to find one that will appease him. But apparently I have birthed a master nipple detector, and if it’s not a Stage 3 Dr. Browns he wants nothing to do with it. For months I would relent to his back-arching screaming protests to the sippy cup by just giving him his bottle. After all, he’s our last and they’re only a baby once, right? Right. But still. When does the enabling stop? When is time to do the hard thing more? I got my answer in the most unexpected of places.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a coaching institute at Teachers’ College at Columbia University in New York. In my time there I attended several sessions by the brilliant Mary Ehrenworth, author of The Power of Grammar, Looking to Write and many more, who has a level of brilliance and insight into the student mind and their needs that is unparalleled. In one particular session, Mary spoke to the daunting task that writing can be for many of our students. And when that writing mountain seems particularly high for a student, more often than not we step back, not up. We modify the assignments in ways that lower expectations and require students to do less. And then she asked us this, “How can we ever expect our reluctant or low writers to get better when we ask them to do the hard thing less, not more?” I didn’t have an answer. I had just left my site school in Brooklyn, PS 176 Ovington. A school of 1,400 K-5 students where 86% are on free and reduced lunch and 50% do not speak English as their first language. No matter which student I approached to ask to see their notebook, I was met with the same question, “Would you like to see my first or second one?” Students who likely come from homes that are not enriched by literature and for many they are not proficient in English. Yet they still have two notebooks full of writing-thoughts and voice and opinions and ideas to develop and share. They know writing is the foundation to a literate life, so they do the hard thing more.
As public school educators we are entering uncertain times. The nomination and appointment of Betsy Devos has left many of us scratching our heads and questioning what the vision of public education is with her at the helm. We do not know these answers. But we must know this-now is not the time to be complacent, to enable, to allow those with more power to dictate ideals that do not align with an equitable education for all. The fact that Pence had to be the deciding vote shows us that our voices mattered. That was a historical move, and our voices have to continue to be heard.
I recently read aloud the book, The Terrible Things to several classrooms. My message was this: it can often seem like Terrible Things are happening all around us. How do we stand up to the Terrible Things? When the Terrible Things feel so big, what does meaningful action look like? Not surprisingly, the students had brilliant answers. Sentiments of solidarity and uniting as one and taking pride in your environment. As one student said, “Each of these make the Terrible Things not seem so big.” Yes.
Solidarity. Uniting. Pride. Let’s make these words define public education. Whether it’s Devos, or writing, or sippy cups, let’s vow to one another to do the hard thing more and do it together.
With that, my son is calling, the sippy cup is full, and we are doing this!