Picture this, a darkened auditorium with 9500 folding chairs facing a stage eerily lit in yellow and green. The auditorium is quiet but on the other side of the auditorium doors there is an audible hum, excitement. Suddenly twelve doors open and hundreds of teachers, administrators, press, etc. head towards the front like running the bulls during the festival of Sanfermines in honor of Saint Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. We are not running from. We’re running to get seats as close to the stage as possible in spite of the admonition by “responsible” adult McCormick Place attendants that we walk, we are loping, jogging and some of us are still running (not all teachers have class). I am shamelessly sprinting while chanting to myself, “feet don’t fail me now”. I sense the magic that will take place when Maya Angelou takes to the podium.
Thanks to ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) we are spending a “Morning with Maya Angelou”. As the lines of hundreds behind the first wave start to pour in I grab my camera. Some faces are searching for friends and colleagues who promised to save seats closer to the front. Some faces are content to make it into the auditorium. There is NO standing for this session.
Dr. Angelou arrives in a wheelchair but it might as well have been a chariot or a throne. Her voice singing an old Negro spiritual breaks through the applause and cheers. We are immediately in our seats. For the next hour we learn what being rainbows in the clouds means to Dr. Maya Angelou.
She speaks about her childhood years in Arkansas after her parents separate and she and her brother cling together under the tutelage of their grandmother and Uncle Willie. Uncle Willie taught them times tables. “Sistah”, the sobriquet for Dr. Angelou during those days, learned quickly she explains because Uncle Willie taught those times tables while holding her near the potbelly stove. On reflection she of course knows he had no intent of adding her to the fire. It is evident from the air of reverence with which she related the story to us that Uncle Willie was a rainbow in her cloud. That is what she asked us all to be, those persons who make a difference to a child; change the course for the better. That was her charge to us. Just as her grandmother inspired a traumatized Maya retreating into silence after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, to speak and teach. Her grandmother was another rainbow in the clouds.
I sat there during that hour or more and thought about all the teachers and administrators I had been talking to that morning and the day before. There was a definite note of dismay about how our most precious asset, our children, were being taught or not taught. In fact I didn’t meet a single classroom teacher who was happy with the systems in place.
There are over 140,000 members in the ASCD globally. My charge to them and to those of us who are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, all of us must fight for our children.
Van Jones, author, activist and gladiator for sustainability spoke on the next day of the conference. There wasn’t a stampede to attend but there was healthy attendance. His message was very similar to that of Dr. Angelou’s. Don’t give up on our children. He didn’t just say this in a tone of suggestion. It was a plea.
The millennials, young people under thirty compose one-third of the population. A large percentage of them are sitting in classrooms all over the world. If educators are so distressed about what is going on in those classrooms, why are we not doing something about it?
Well, I talked to a few teachers. Some suggested that with the current pressure to teach for testing, educators are afraid to rock the boat. Poor student performance may equal loss of job. Other people I spoke to suggested no one really had a handle on what changes needed to take place. Others just nodded sadly and said it is complicated.
I don’t want to think that all our rainbows have lost color, brightness and the ability to light a path for our children. I spoke to some learning scientist, teachers (most no longer in the classroom) for their take on the situation. What we found was remarkable but that’s for the next blog.
To all the rainbows out there, thank you for what you do!