The outside of my children's Brooklyn elementary school is anything but welcoming. Surrounded by scaffolding, it looks much as it did the day my daughter entered its doors for the first time four years ago. I could go on about the tens of millions of dollars the city has spent repairing and now re-repairing the building's facade to prevent leakage, but that's the subject of another post. Despite its off-putting exterior, inside the halls and classrooms of this New York City public school beauty abounds. Not in the décor, which is standard Department of Ed and showing its age, but in the remarkably diverse student work that lines its walls and, more importantly, in the equally diverse and amazing faces of the students themselves.
From neighborhoods all over South Brooklyn -- Park Slope to Red Hook, Cobble Hill to Clinton Hill, Gowanus to Fort Greene -- these faces converge in Carroll Gardens each morning to spend the day inquiring, exploring, discussing, collaborating, pondering and creating -- in other words, truly and deeply learning. Walk down the third floor hallway, and you will be immediately transported to another place and time. Handmade paper lanterns, life-sized models of Terra Cotta Warriors, miniature scholars' gardens and Great Walls and scrolls of delicate calligraphy are evidence of the months the third graders spend immersed in their study of Ancient China -- a study that seamlessly integrates literacy, math, science, social studies, music and art. Down the hall, elaborate models of the Brooklyn Bridge and diagrams of the path NYC tap water takes from reservoir to faucet showcase the second grade's New York City curriculum. Out in the schoolyard, the fourth graders tend to their Three Sisters garden, one of many elements that make up their Lenni Lenape exploration.
Guiding them through these wondrous curricula is a faculty comprised of teachers who care about educating these kids as much as we parents care about keeping them clothed and fed. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, I remember well Temple University's ad campaign of the moment: "They could have gone anywhere, but they chose Temple." Well, the teachers at this public school could have done anything, but they chose teaching. And at a time when respect and esteem for the vital and incredibly challenging work teachers do seems to be at an all time low, these teachers keep on teaching.
Contrary to what critics of education will tell you, a teacher's day never ends at 3:00 p.m. with her students. Teachers spend hours after the final bell rings creating lesson plans, adapting curriculum and assessing student work. On any given evening, my daughter's third grade teacher -- a veteran educator of 20 years who could choose to get by on previous semesters' work -- can be found in planning meetings with his colleagues or at his computer, tweaking the next day's lessons to the needs of his class, differentiating the learning for students of various strengths and weaknesses. Each week, he sends home a letter to parents, describing our children's latest educational adventures and the new knowledge they've gained. Sometimes these letters fill an entire page, front and back. And every one begins with a poem.
My son's kindergarten teacher is equally devoted. Each morning I marvel at the way she welcomes every child into the room individually and attentively, her slender arms wrapping around each one separately and then as many together as can possibly fit. Every Morning Meeting I've observed has been a model of integrated learning, as she delicately weaves literacy, math, social studies, music and -- I have to include it -- love, into the first ten minutes of the day. A scholar of the Reggio-Emilia teaching philosophy, this enlightened teacher encourages self expression in everything her students do, and allows their ideas to inform her curriculum. After a pigeon study that inspired the kids (and their parents) to view the ubiquitous birds as local wildlife rather than an urban nuisance, the class's interest in their skeletons evolved into a unit on the link between dinosaurs and birds, which led to a study of the seashore, which became an exploration of wind.
My children's teachers are exceptional, but at our school they're not the exception. In fact, as a student pursuing a degree in childhood education myself, I've discovered that there are extraordinary teachers in public schools throughout the city. As it happens, extraordinary teachers are far more ordinary than some politicians would have us believe. Some of these teachers have been on the job for decades, others for only a year or two. What unites them is their belief in the importance of an education that inspires students to find the joy of and value in learning and to understand that the more knowledge they gain, the more expansive their world will become.
Recently, these teachers have also become united by fear. Not fear of losing their jobs (though this may be a reality for some), but a fear that the very values that drew them to the teaching profession may have eroded beyond repair. In an educational system committed to standardized testing, teacher report cards and data-driven learning and in a city that annually threatens budget cuts and teacher layoffs, where is there room for the inquiry, the hands-on-learning, the collaboration and exploration these teachers know to be education's most powerful tools?
This Friday, my family and I will join parents, students and teachers from public schools across South Brooklyn to protest Mayor Bloomberg's proposed budget cuts to public education and the layoffs of thousands of teachers these cuts would mean. If your children's teachers are as remarkable as mine, and if you value the kind of education they're dedicated to giving your kids, I hope you'll join me. Here in Brooklyn we'll be meeting at Prospect Park's Grand Army Plaza at 4:00 p.m. Where will you be gathering in your city or town?