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Why the Virgin Mary Left NOLA and Other Lessons From a Turnaround School

I spent much of the past week in Louisiana, working with the teachers at a turnaround school there. I've written about this school before--their struggle to build genuine trust and teamwork when a brand new staff is constructed of enthusiastic beginners, battle-weary returnees who know the community well and skilled veterans looking for a challenge who volunteered to transfer in. When I was there last summer, the school was uninviting (to say the least) and the staff was sticking a tentative toe into honest collaboration.

What a difference five months makes. The most obvious evidence is shiny floors, new window blinds, student work on the walls, and people who call each other by name. In fact, the teachers use an automatic honorific in addressing each other--Ms. Thompson calls her colleague Ms. Adams, even in a two-day, adults-only professional development workshop where everyone's lounging around in jeans and Who Dat? sweatshirts. This is rigid federal turnaround policy wrapped in King cake and LSU purple and gold.

The thrust of our work was on creating learning experiences that touched every child. How do we build lessons that go deep, into the place where school learning shapes motivation? A special education teacher shared a story about being selected to play the Holy Virgin in her school Christmas play--and how that experience literally changed her life, making her feel exceptional and sending her on a path toward a preferable future.

She described her mother making a costume pattern from paper bags and sewing the blue satin robe with "jewels" at the neckline, the Lower Ninth Ward version of Mary. There was a lot of joking (How can we fail with the Virgin Mary on staff!?)--but it was a powerful story of, well, turnaround and choice. Special is good.

I hope you have pictures of that, people exclaimed. "I did," she said. "I still had the costume, too. But I lost them. In Katrina."

The story was a good framework for discussing ways to enrich the learning and lives of all the children entrusted to these teachers. The school, like all turnarounds, will be repeatedly monitored for three years. The monitors came for the first time in December, and their initial report arrived right before the two-day workshop: a few plaudits (for engaging parents) and a number of frustrating critiques and markdowns (for not putting up mandated writing curriculum posters).

From a cynical conversation with the fourth grade teachers, who spent a half-day generating productive, cool ideas for teaching writing to the kids whose strengths and deficiencies in language arts they now know intimately: Yeah. That poster is really going to fix their writing, all right.

Cynical comment from three different work groups: It's like the monitors are desperately searching for reasons to show how we're failing!

The report chastises school leaders for not putting up the required Data Wall near the entryway to the school. Actually, there is a rather comprehensive Data Wall, in the teachers' lounge, but monitors must elevate precise obedience to regulation over what matters. The principal says clearly: I want the entrance to this school to generate feelings of welcome, pride and progress. The data isn't particularly useful to the parents and grandparents who come to school--but it does have value and meaning to the teachers.

What issues are worth digging in your heels? Are there times when it's OK to concede to "reform" even when you know it's counterproductive? How many times do we tell children they're failures before they agree, and check out of the system entirely?

Conversations--even some gentle arguments--bubble up on the last afternoon. Teachers tip their hands about core beliefs and their aggravations about the year so far-- and they're not always coming from the same perspective. But they do have a common mission, a combination of a big vision for learning and achievement, as well as attending to details of running a good school. Mundane things like bathroom policies and bulletin boards.

In the upper-elementary hallway, there's still a 10-foot long poster where the fourth graders wrote their ideas on what they're thankful for. Even though it's six weeks old and needs replacing, I'm glad it's still up. It tells me that 10-year olds at this school are thankful for Gramma. They're glad they have shoes. And they love coming to school to have breakfast. Tyrone says: I am thankful for learning good.

After the meeting, a fifth grade teacher quietly notes that the school--prior to this year--did not celebrate Black History Month schoolwide, which seems incredible in a building where the population is 100% African-American and many children have never left their neighborhood. What a rich opportunity to share genuine narratives of turnaround and choice, to make children feel exceptional.

Special is good. There's work to do.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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