A Visit to Champaign-Urbana

October 29, 2006

To Daniel and the Energetic, Wondrous, and Hopeful Early Childhood Education Students:

That was fast! Zoom! Zoom! I was back in Chicago at 4:30, but sorry to leave so abruptly. Next time I’ll stay.
I think I answered a few of your question—3? 4?—but didn’t get to most. So here goes:
1) On discipline and classroom management: Try hard to create a classroom culture that is purposeful, varied, engaging, fair. Try to have a range of relevant activities available. Try to have materials that people can use without much external direction and assistance. Every day ask: Is the classroom engaging? For everyone? Is the pace and sequence and rhythm of the day appropriate?
Get this right (and it’s never perfect, but rather always a work-in-progress) and lots of behavioral stuff will take care of itself. But ok, people mess up. When someone does, that’s not an occasion for anger or shock, but rather, it’s the occasion for a “teachable moment”—a time to talk about why we use words and not fists, or why that hurt her feelings, or why…
The repertoire in too many schools is narrow, and runs from humiliation to exclusion. Promise yourself that you’ll never humiliate a student, and that you seriously, truly do not want to exclude anyone. We strive for the dignity of each in an inclusive community. Try to live up to that promise.
2) Alternative assessment: All this means is that teachers make judgments and assessments all the time, and you should search for ways to understand your students that go deeper than a score on a test. You should build a system to collect, save, and display student work—massive amounts of it. You should interview each kid regularly—at least once a month and often informally—to get a feel for how each is experiencing class. You should help each articulate goals and agendas. And you should keep observational notes (observe kids at work at least 15 minutes morning, and 15 minutes afternoon) on the class, review them regularly, and see who you’re missing. You can ask focusing questions to help you observe: Why have I not seen Maria in my notes for several weeks? When is Hector more engaged?
3) Starting with strengths: This is the challenge—to see human capacity in an environment that surfaces weaknesses. In a prison, toughness is visible; in too many classrooms there bad behavior is visible. Build a space with multiple entry-points and several pathways to success. I know an extraordinary prison (it’s true!) where writers’ workshops reveal the poet inside the thugish exterior, the gardener inside the felon. If they can do it, you—with a class of six-year-olds—can do it too.
4) Avoid burnout: Create provisions for Teacher Talk, a professional conversation where you can get support and ideas (see To Teach). Do things at your own adult level that you advocate and want your kids to do: read good books, eat well, sleep at night, be an involved citizen in some civic organization, make art, exercise. Being able to notice that the world is crazy doesn’t make you sane; resisting the madness actively, opposing things that offend your humanity is the path to balance.
5) Favorite teachers: I’ve loved so many—Miss Erickson in kindergarten because she was “nice” and she told marvelous stories and she loved me; Mr. Ainsworth, my gay high school math teacher, because he had two little dogs named “Trig” and “Geo” who came to class with him, and because he liked us; Professor Mayer because he challenged me to think deeply about the world and he liked us; Maxine Greene because she blew my mind, and she liked us.
Here’s the pattern: memorable teachers come to teach, and they embrace their students’ humanity—they like us.
6) I included “Everything I Needed to Know…” because it was just new when I published my first book—it wasn’t yet a cliché—and because it contains an essential truth: the deep and mysterious lessons are available to human beings from the start. Everything else is just elaboration.
7) As you teach, you learn. I’ve learned so much, mostly specific and local—Darryl loves to sing left to himself, Hannah gets disruptive when she’s hungry, Angel can work hard early but tires easily. Sometimes I’ve learned about myself—I need to read more in this or that area; I need to be more directive and less laid-back; I have trouble being patient with whiny people. Sometimes I’ve learned from students about huge (but invisible to me) parts of the world—illegal immigrants, alcoholism and anorexia, homelessness, gambling, workers at the race track. One thing I know: follow any human being two steps into her or his lived life and world, and all the received wisdom, easy assumptions, clichés, and stereotypes fall away. Each of us is an entire universe, the one and only who will ever trod this earth, a work-in-progress and an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage toward infinity. How great is that?
8) There’s more, of course. See http://www.billayers.org if you like. Peace!

In Defense of Poetry….A Letter to the NYT, October, 2002

October 2, 2006

To The Editors:

The logic and structure of good journalism are poorly fitted for poetry. Spreading myths and printing falsehoods may violate the standards of a decent newspaper but they are the very stuff of poetry, and that’s why no one with an ounce of sense goes to Homer or Neruda or Schymborska or Bob Dylan for the facts. When you instruct your readers that the “proper response” to reading Amiri Baraka is “discussion and condemnation” you both confuse the register of poetry, and you beg the question. The great Chicago poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, once asked, “Does man love Art?” Her response: “Man visits art but squirms. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”

William Ayers

October 2, 2002