Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Walmart Moment

There are these small moments in our lives that seem like nothing when they happen, but upon reflection, you realize....epiphany! I had such a moment this afternoon, in the most unlikely place to have an epiphany, Walmart. Although my friend Ben Rosenfield likes to quip that "God lives at Walmart," my feelings diverge from that viewpoint. Walmart, to me, is a place to be avoided. In fairness to the Walton family, it isn't just Walmart; I avoid any big box place that looks the same whether it's in Wisconsin, Iowa or Australia. Give me a small local business anytime, though it is hard to find them anymore.

Today, I had little choice, however. The secretary called down to my classroom to let me know the custodian thought it was my car with the flat, flat tire with a nail in it. Fair guess. Mine is the only car in the school parking lot with a storytelling bumper sticker. Sure enough, it was flatter than flat, and though the custodian filled the tire, it was hissing faster than the compressor could fill it. My best option at that point was to fill it, put the pedal to the metal and get to the nearest express auto center...which in this case was Super Walmart.

Off I went, and it being the lunch hour, the place was busy. An interesting group of us lined up at the counter: a young black man decked out in Bears outerwear; a well dressed office worker lady; a gothic looking young couple with all visible body parts pierced multiple times; and myself, local educator dressed for Friday casual, since this is the last school day before break. We all stood there, wordless, which it seems is often the case while waiting in line, especially with such a diverse looking group. Finally, the office worker lady said to the Bears fan, "Sorry about last week!"

This is Packer country, folks. Yes, the Green Bay Packers have a following, even when they play as they did last night, which was embarrassing. That opened the door. We were all sharing our personal football raves and faves, offering false condolences to the Bears fan, who simply tossed it back after last night's game.

Football talk. Not exactly the "high art" of storytelling, but as I was driving home from work on my newly patched tire, it struck me; would we even have said a word to one another if the door hadn't been opened to share our football stories? This was the kind of group sociologists would love to analyze, each of us so different from the next as to be part of our own little subculture.

Stories unite us, open doors of commonality and allow us to connect with one another, pierced or perfectly coiffed, black or pale white. And to think...this epiphany brought to you by Walmart, always the low price!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Joy during state standardized testing?

As an educator in the public schools, it's my duty to help administer the mandated high stakes standardized tests, known in Wisconsin as the WKCE (Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination). As a special education teacher, my duty involves giving the test to a small group of special ed students with testing modifications written into their Individual Education Plans. We won't even go into opinions on the value of these tests here. Let's just leave it that it's not anyone's favorite time of year, teachers or kids.

So why is the title of this blog post asking about joy during the testing period? I have three fifth grade boys who are taking the test with me, starting before our long weekend break and finishing up this coming week. It's long and grueling. They are in special education for a reason, and that makes such tasks even more grueling for them. Plus, they tend to finish up quickly, in spite of all those teacherly admonitions to "take your time and check over your answers." What to do when they're all done and can't go back to the classroom to join their classmates who actually [b]are[/b] taking their time? The answer to me was obvious....a story!

I started their testing sessions with a short tale to relax them and allow for some tension relief. If it had been up to them, we'd have skipped the paper and pencil stuff and just told stories. Since it was right before Halloween, we did the scary stuff. "Jack and the Haunted House" was a great hit. Images of the headless body breaking off a finger, lighting it and handing it to Jack to use as a torch are just the antidote to test anxiety, especially for 11 year old boys!

Of course, they still finished early. Time for the old campfire tale about the boy taking the short cut past the creepy old house, following the voice that called "Turn me over..." to discover a burnt burger on a grill. These boys can't [b]wait[/b] for their next testing session now! Oh, they could easily skip the test administration, as could I, but they know they'll have a personal storytelling session each session, and seem to think they're hot stuff to have been placed in my group.

I do think that given all the anecdotal reports, as well as some of the current brain research, on storytelling and its positive impact on learning, it would be interesting to do controlled studies to see if perhaps, a little bit of Jack before the WKCE has a positive effect on the all-powerful test scores. It certainly brings a little joy into an otherwise loathsome task.