17 December 2012

when voices are lost...

"It's a problem that can be solved with more caring. I don't think it's a problem that can be solved with more security." - Bill Bond - school safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals
What links the events Friday in Newtown, Connecticut to my opposition to the "Common Core"?

It is that question of Democracy of Voice.

Democracy of Voice means giving every kid a chance to be heard, not heard as "you" or "we" or "society" or those who write expectations about fifth grade essays want them to be heard, but heard as themselves, for who they are, for what they need to say.

It is that right to an authentic voice, in whatever form that voice must take shape, which makes children safe. Honestly, that is the keystone of anyone being safe, for if you cannot be heard and understood, you cannot be safe.

Sadly, not every child has a voice in their school.
This is our first task, caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations?
Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?
Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?
Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change. - Barack Obama
Amidst all the talk of a "perfect town" and a "close-knit community" - as if those phrases have much meaning wherever we might live - we certainly know of at least young person who was not comfortable, not happy, not OK, not part of an idyllic family, and who, quite obviously, did not receive the kinds of help he needed.

This is not excuse making. Excuses are worthless, but explanations can help us understand even the un-understandable. There are people who have psychotic breaks from reality, there are people who develop amoral personalities, there are people so paranoid as to be dangerous, there are people without the capacity for human reason - I have met them all - and these are explanations, not excuses, but in every case it is ours to wonder, "what did we not see?" "why could we not have intervened?"

I struggled Sunday night as I listened to the victim count. One minister talked only of "twenty new angels," I'm not sure what happened to the teachers who died. The President, and the votive candles on display, spoke of "twenty-six" lost. Governor Malloy of Connecticut of "twenty-seven." But twenty-eight people died in Newtown on Friday, twenty-one of them deemed, by American law, not old enough to have the mental capacity which would allow them to buy alcohol.

from The Guardian
Whatever the causes, and damn the excuses, that is twenty-eight moments of incredible failure for us as a society.
"They talk of a boy who dressed smartly and worked hard, but who barely said a word during his time at school and made few friends. Intelligent but shy and nervous, most said. A former classmate,  told the New York Times: "I never saw him with anyone. I can't even think of one person that was associated with him."

"He had no Facebook page and his electronic footprint was minimal although yesterday the police chief seemed to suggest he may have left behind emails which could help explain his state of mind."

"a skinny, shaggy-haired boy "who never really talked at all" and who stayed tight to the corridor walls when he walked, often clutching his laptop."
I am not diagnosing here, I have no depth of information which would allow me to do that, and I am not blaming anyone, but I am discussing "us" in the biggest possible sense of that word. I am not describing anything new either, the heart of the book To Kill a Mockingbirdlies in the questions I am asking.
"The Lanzas' neighbors on Yogananda Street say it's puzzling that on such a close-knit block where residents throw barbecues for newcomers, so few of them knew [him] or had ever seen him.
"It's a mystery. Nobody knows them, which is odd for this neighborhood," Len Strocchia said. "Everyone knows each other through the children, the school bus. The community here is kids."'
But what I am saying is that at least one child in Newtown, Connecticut seemed to lack his own opportunity for voice. At least one child was not heard.

Interestingly, it is children who seem to understand this first. After a horrible event around schools in Virginia this fall it was high school students, the friends of two of the victims, who expressed anguish over what had happened with that "shooter." And in USA Today a classmate of the Newtown shooter said, "Maybe if someone had tried to reach out  — maybe he needed a friend. Maybe this wouldn't have happened," [the classmate] said. "He's just one kid who slipped through the cracks."

Kids slip through the cracks when their voices are not heard, that is the truth, and it is the truth even though hearing their authentic voices will never be any guarantee against mental illness or violence. But simply, allowing each child, helping each child achieve authentic voice is all that we, as humans - not deities - can do.

This is true whether the result is the horror we saw on Friday, or the brilliance we also witnessed on Friday when Connecticut's Governor chose to make every death notification himself, knowing the importance of that symbolism to the families involved:
"Malloy spoke candidly to the students [in 2011] about his struggles growing up in Stamford in the 1960s, recalling when teachers would post his failing scores on the classroom board, or how he stayed away from collecting baseball cards like many other boys because deciphering the words and statistics was so torturous.

'"Honestly, it was just terrible. I was embarrassed most of the time," he said"
Voice matters, and voice is not common, and voice cannot be "grade-levelled," and voice must not be guided into specific kinds of questions, answers, reviews, and essays.
"Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts, including using frequently occurring conjunctions to signal simple relationships (e.g., because)." - page 27
Voice cannot flourish when it is battened down with "standards" and forced to march in a progressive sequence.
"Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text." - page 36
Voice cannot flourish when it is forced into over analysis, when stories are not allowed to be stories, or when our stories are forced into the temporal world of another.
"Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
"a. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically." - page 43
And voice cannot flourish when it must be measured against culturally-ignorant linear models. For voice needs to soar, to experiment, to push against every boundary and break through whenever possible.

Video streaming by Ustream
Authentic voice heard globally - Middle School students Ustream autobiographies to the world.

And voice cannot flourish unless children can express themselves as they need to, in the safety of a community which accepts that voice and encourages it and hears it carefully, and all of that exists in a place where children do not crawl down the sides of corridors in fear, or fear punishments because they behave as children, or where they are measured according to nonsensical adult measuring sticks.

The President on Sunday Night

In the end, we don't need "more security" and we don't need "higher standards." Yes, we need to remove killing machines from our nation, but really, we need to care a whole lot more. We need to rearrange our priorities in such a way that our children come first, that our children and our learning spaces and our educators have the resources - all the resources - which they need and all the safety which allows them to be children and adolescents - to learn, to f--- up, to learn more, to grow, to be who they are.

- Ira Socol
"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."

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