Reflection 2011 

by Loretta Solomon

If I Were in Charge of the World

If I were in charge of the world
I’d cancel family drama,
street drama and

If I were in charge of the world
there’d be toy guns
not the real kind,
all plastic knives and
there’d be no bombs.

If I were in charge of the world
you wouldn’t have harmed animals,
abused dogs, hurt cats and
no one would kill

If I were in charge of the world
a teacher would be the student and
a kind person
would be in charge
of the world.

By S. H., grade 5 (written in the style of Judith Viorst) 

“A teacher would be the student” said S., who is typical of the writers I worked with this year and in past years in my role as reading teacher in an empowerment school in West Philadelphia. She struggles with what she calls “family drama” and comes to school infrequently, so that she is considered to be one of those who have difficulty with literacy. Yet, her poem written in May has helped me to reflect positively on all the literacy work that I do in grades 4 through 8.

Just when I was about to despair, worrying about the frequency of the high stakes tests and their impact on learning. (I am also test coordinator and CSAP case manager.) Just when I was about to give up hope and start joining the crowd of whiners and complainers about the scripted programs and the lack of social services for my students, I read the words of a young person who cares, who has a social conscience.

“A teacher would be the student.” Isn’t this what any true teacher really wants? I need to learn from my students. I came from a different city in a different country (Montreal,) spoke a different language and am from a different race and religion. I had and still have a great deal to learn. I need to learn about all these cultural and racial differences and even about class differences. Though I came from a working class background, I am now middle class and have had the benefit of my skin color.

I need to learn every day about who my students are. I must find out what their likes and dislikes are and what their strengths might be. I must figure out how each one of them learns best and what motivates each one. To do this, I must be able to put myself “ in the shoes” of each one.

I need to learn every day
about who my students are. 

If I am hampered in this by an “impersonal”, scripted, literacy program, which I must implement in a fast paced, “stand and deliver” manner, I need to collaborate with other teachers to find a way around this barrier. One way would be to use the expanded literacy block with its “Differentiation Workshop” to get to know the students by dividing them into small groups and having them read and talk about the issues discussed in the program. Another way would be to learn enough about your students to personalize the subject. A teacher complained to me that there was a unit on Money in the anthology. What could be more important to learn about? In hard times such as these everyone can relate to this topic. That unit is a perfect place to explore “haves and have-nots.”

How do we add reading good children’s literature to this flawed curriculum? We get together with other teachers and librarians to insist upon all school independent reading times. We continue to read aloud to children throughout the grades in our K-8 schools. We say “Differentiation Workshop” and mean that but also mean Writing Workshop or Reading Workshop. We celebrate readers and writers with publishing work and throwing parties for them and their parents. We invite poets and writers from the community to speak in our schools and to work with our children. We take older students to poetry slams. We plaster the school with book reviews written by ourselves and by our students.

If you begin to despair about making a difference in our city schools, try re-reading the work of your students. Their voices are clear. They can articulate what is wrong in the world. As a group, they have strong, good values and are learning to communicate them.

You are helping.

Loretta Solomon is reading specialist at H.C. Lea School. Loretta joined the Philadelphia Writing Project as a teacher consultant in 2006.