Planting Seeds of Change: Everyone Has a Story to Tell
I'm pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, Susan Monk Kannard.
Susan has extensive experience as a Reading Specialist and has taught college and graduate-level courses throughout her career. She ventured to Alaska to teach multi-grades in Ketchikan. And in Silverton, Colorado, Susan taught grades 2-8 in a one-room schoolhouse.
Susan Monk Kannard
Join Susan as she shares the story of how a community and one special book helped change the life of one of her students:
She is a 16-year-old parent, is way behind in her high school credits and struggles to be a good mother to her little girl.
Josie loves to laugh and have a good time but is now faced with caring for her child when she would rather be out with her friends. She really needs to make up her credits and the alternative setting might be the place she can catch up since she qualifies for the school’s day care center. This allows her to have lunch with her daughter and be nearby if anything goes wrong, but it also means she can’t leave campus with friends to go out for lunch.
Josie finds academics tough and wishes she’d worked harder in school before she got pregnant. Now, it seems that everything takes so much effort and she’s tired. But this place is her one chance to graduate, and she has to do that because she promised her daughter and her Grandma she would.
At a Crossroad
If Josie fails, there is only living at her Mom’s and maybe working in a fast food place in her future. Josie’s story is just one of hundreds that find their way into the alternative high school where I teach a Reading class.
The challenge is ever present in an alternative high school setting:
How do you engage students in reading when that’s the last thing most of them want to do?
How do you present learning objectives to a ‘required elective’ classroom of mixed grades 9-12?
Reading assessments consistently demonstrate the students’ reading abilities as low as Pre-Primer and as high as post high school with the majority falling in the 3rd-6th grade reading range.
Most of the students are disadvantaged economically, socially, academically, and feel disenfranchised – with good reason. Some live in abusive homes; some are homeless; some are teen parents; some are on probation or in mandated Grade Court; and, a small number are simply looking for a smaller, friendlier environment in which to complete high school.
Every Student Has a Story to Tell
A true educator knows that every student has a story to tell; that every student brings skills and talents to the learning environment; and, that every student wants to be respected and ultimately challenged to tap into their own potential. Many students can’t voice those truths and they often rebel against any activities that pursue those very tenets. Therein lies our challenge: how do we unleash the wonderfulness in every student who enters our classroom?
Paul Fleischman, a Newbery Medal winner, provides a fabulous platform for engaging students in SEEDFOLKS, a tale of 13 voices that weaves a story of diversity, tolerance, and the potential for change through an empty lot in the projects of Cleveland that is transformed by neighborhood members into a community garden.
SEEDFOLKS could provide the impetus for a community garden in your own town through a read-along at the local senior center, community center or Boys & Girls Clubs. Also, because the chapters are short and packed with ‘relationship stuff’ and cross generations, parents working with teens could take this gem of a book to the park or to an empty lot and start a garden!
Aware that my students would see themselves, a relative, a neighbor, or a friend in Fleischman’s characters, it was important for them to take note of those connections in hopes that understanding others would promote understanding themselves.
Josie identified strongly with the character of Maricela, who shares her Mexican heritage and is having a baby at the age of sixteen.
Capable of Change
I wanted the students to see others and themselves as being connected and capable of change. It was also important for my students to recognize their own skills set, resources and support systems as tools for change.
Giving students choices on how to demonstrate their learning is imperative in an alternative school setting. Students’ abilities and life stories are as divergent as the characters in SEEDFOLKS and one approach is not going to suit every student. So, students create the vocabulary list as we progress through the story, often bringing samples of terms to share with the class.
We had a collection that included binoculars that connected with the character, Ana, a locket for Virgil, a funnel for Sae Young, a pitcher for Wendell, and a thermos for Kim.
Many students made connections when they could see and touch an item and that is critical for real learning to occur. If you’ve never held a pair of binoculars and looked through them, the vocabulary term has limited meaning.
Our classroom soon resembles the garden in Cleveland. Each student is working on their plot, be it a computer generated research project or building a replica of the garden in a box.
They consult with each other, offer suggestions, and encourage each other, just like the folks in SEEDFOLKS. Everyone has the sense of community.
A Song of Belonging
Their differences become strengths and their voices become a song of belonging. Even though everyone has watched the projects develop over time, the students still listen attentively as each one is formally presented.
Our system of peer evaluation provides feedback, compliments, and ratings that are taken very seriously by every student. A simple, yet thought-provoking text, has encouraged change, respect, and acceptance. The students knew they had started out resistant, reluctant, and unsure of the outcome but so had each character in SEEDFOLKS.
As each character in SEEDFOLKS ventured tentatively into the vacant lot to see what was going on, they each chose to plant something that has a connections for them.
Kim, a 9- year old Vietnamese girl, planted lima beans in hopes of connecting to her deceased father. He had died before she was born and she didn’t have memories like her mother and sister had; she had only a harsh photograph. Because her father had been a farmer, Kim decided to plant lima beans and thought, “He would see my patience and my hard work. I would show him that I could raise plants, as he had. I would show him that I was his daughter.”
Virgil, a young Haitian, planted lettuce with his father for a cash crop to supplement the cab driver wages his father earned that provided a meager income.
Nora, a caregiver for Mr. Miles who’d suffered a stroke, planted flowers that elicited a smile each time she pushed him around the garden. She even planted the flowers in tall garbage cans so Mr. Miles could reach them and smell the smells that held so many memories he was unable to voice following his stroke.
So, each day a new character is introduced, my students find a packet of seeds hanging from the board. They investigate those packets as though secrets of the Universe were locked inside each seed. Few had ever seen or held “real seeds” before.
It only followed that at the culmination of the book, students arrived to find a table covered with produce from the local Farmer’s Market. They eagerly tried matching the seeds with the mature produce. I realize more fully that most of the students had no actual experience with the changes that occur within a seed with a little water and a lot of care.
The “a-ha” expressions on many students’ faces was a by-product of the unit that was unexpected. They got it! You can grow. You can change.
And what became of Josie, you ask? Josie was one of many students who grew, changed, and succeeded. She developed a rhythm of going to class, checking on her daughter, making new friends, and making passing grades in all her core subjects.
Josie did extremely well in my class, passing with a strong A. At the beginning of the class, Josie identified her skills as organizing and doing projects. Well, those skills were turned loose in my class and she proved that giving student’s ownership and a voice in their learning works for even the most reluctant learner.
Students were expected to work very hard during class but I never assigned homework because these students had a hard life to live once the school day ended. They respect that I recognize that and, in turn, find meaning in our pursuits. We don’t simply have a classroom; we have a community of learners, each developing toward maturity just like the plants in the Cleveland project.
My students are change agents; they are my SEEDFOLKS of the future.
Our guest blogger, Susan Monk Kannard, enjoyed 34 years in the educational field in a variety of locations and roles. She is trained as an educator, Reading Specialist, and Educational Administrator. Extensive field experience includes homeschooling and helping to start two private schools.
Susan and a fellow educator implemented a mentoring based intervention program while serving at-risk students and successfully recruited 275 community members who donated time each week to support student success.
Susan’s personal life is filled with the joys of being a mother of 3, a grandmother to 16, and now a great-grandmother. She also tutors and uses her editorial skills to serve others.