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The Other Madison Classroom

March 6, 2019

Over the past couple of weeks there has been much discussion and media attention regarding the altercation between an eleven-year-old girl at Whitehorse Middle School and a staffer.  There was even a grainy video to further the headlines.   It was a story that deserved coverage as it underscores the struggle that our schools face in both providing education to our youth, and also dealing with complicated inter-related components.

The Whitehorse story along with the spring elections for the Madison School Board, at times, tend to further a narrative that much is wrong with what takes place in the classrooms.  But if we only pay attention to that narrative we would miss the good work that is happening in our schools.   A teacher and her nineteen fifth-graders, while not making top of the fold coverage, is the flip side to the news we all have come to know.

Two weeks ago my partner, James, and I sat for an hour in a very busy and creative classroom at Falk Elementary School.  Over the school year a number of adults sponsored a student so that each month a new book landed in their hands.  The effort was made possible in tandem with Scholastic Books and related services.  The school reached out to say thanks with Read Your Heart Out Day.  What I witnessed made an impression that lifted my spirit about teachers, students, and our schools.

As adults rotated among the kids seated at tables we talked with the sponsored child along with their classmates.  It was clear, at once, that books were important parts of not only their classroom work but also their home life.  In easy conversation I causally asked students who had read to them when they were young.  All spoke of an adult who had made for a fond memory.  What cheered me deeply was hearing from students that they now read to their younger siblings.

Boys and girls were tossing out book titles and authors as if the question were what toppings made for a perfect pizza.  There was no missing the fact a teacher had not only made books available but also inculcated the love of reading.  No matter what else happens in the classroom that seed once planted and fostered will serve them for a lifetime.

For the school event James had culled his paperbacks, and spread nineteen of them out on a table.  From Robert Louis Stevenson to Jules Verne there was something for every interest.  One kid when bringing his choice back to the table said he would be reading it right after finishing his current book.  When asked he said it was a self-help book, adding, “You can learn so much from other people’s lives”.   He was reading how to be a successful teenager.  When reminded he was eleven the response came fast.  “I am not going to be caught behind in what I need to know”.

One boy had an interest in being an astronaut, another wished to be a professional basketball player.  A charming girl talked about seeing a bear while on vacation.   What struck me continually was how conversational these youngsters were, and how they were able to link their interests to books for either being entertained or more informed.  They talked with enthusiasm about topics which I could tell from their eyes and words was genuine.

I left the school with a very upbeat sense about what is right about Madison Schools and our youth.  The students did not just find themselves engaged with books as they had nothing better to do.  Granted, there are good forces in many homes which propel kids towards books.   But it is also most obvious the importance of having a guiding hand and nurturing spirit day-to-day from a teacher.  I also am confident being able to walk into a number of similar classrooms in Madison and having a comparable enriching experience.

I have gladly talked about these students and that classroom teacher to several people over the past weeks.  Just yesterday I was telling this story to an aunt and uncle some eighty miles away!   With the recent headlines it is important to know there are many classrooms making us proud as parents, citizens, and taxpayers.  It is important that all the stories get told about Madison Schools, and not only ones that make for alarm.   I sincerely thank those fifth graders for reminding me again that all good things start with education.

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