Beginning with the assumption

When I got to the Dominican Republic, students, teachers, and administrators were all quick to tell me the way school worked.  They told me, “Dominicans don’t read.”  “Students won’t do anything unless it’s for a grade.”  “Teachers need to be told exactly what to do.”  Sometimes, someone would come right out and say it: “They are lazy.”

I don’t like to use the L-word lightly.  I agree with Peter Green that “lazy” is usually a symptom of deeper problems, and it’s more effective to figure out what that problem is.  Without discounting the experience of people who lived and worked in my new community, I decided, I didn’t want to start from that assumption.  If Dominicans as a whole were lazy, I at least wanted to earn the right to hold that opinion based on my own experience and best efforts.  I didn’t believe it was possible for an entire country to be, at its core, entirely unmotivated to get off its duff for anything without bribes or threats.

One year later, I still don’t believe it.

Instead, what I found was a systemic problem with schooling.  All the control in school flows from the top down: the Ministry of Education tells the schools what to do, the administrators hand down the directives to the teachers, and the teachers pass the directives on to the students.  Students and teachers had no voice and no choice in the day-to-day life of their learning communities.

Instead, once the curriculum was selected, teachers were expected to march through the textbooks and worksheets.  Students were expected to keep up.  If a student couldn’t keep up with the curriculum, they were expected to work harder or seek outside tutoring.  And if students weren’t interested?  Well, that’s just how school is, isn’t it?

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Teachers and students march in time during Flag Day celebrations

When I walked into my classes with books, I realized pretty quickly that few of my students had ever read outside of an assigned text.  They swarmed my desk for YA titles I picked up for fifty cents at the library book sale.  They begged for books they had heard about but never seen in English: Looking for Alaska, The Hunger Games, The Lightning Thief.

I also realized that none of their teachers had ever felt free, or maybe had the resources, to give them reading at their level.  Their literature textbooks had them slogging through Classics of the Western Canon(tm) they could not even decode, let alone comprehend, a task they resisted with all their might.  When I asked them to choose their own books, books that interested them, my students gravitated toward their own level of reading- and for many of them, that meant picture books.  They came alive as readers when I blessed the kinds of books they wanted to read and could understand: picture books, graphic novels, books with body humor in the title, books written in the past two decades.  All these things had been off-limits or relegated to second-class status; the Literature Book was the only reading that counted, and they hated it.  This year, they devoured books.

Teachers, too, came to life as we started to talk about ways to improve instruction.  My colleagues knew what was and wasn’t working for their students; they knew which students were ready for more and which students needed to reinforce skills before moving on.  But they felt stuck, chained to the curriculum and charged with completing the book by the end of the year.

As the year went on, we traded ideas, identified challenges, suggested interventions, and helped each other.  I saw teachers gain the confidence to propose trying something new, and I saw them energized as their proposals were heard and encouraged.  I saw teachers reclaim responsibility for their practice and pursue excellence with new enthusiasm.

The atmosphere of my school has changed.  These teachers and students, the ones who called each other “lazy”, are up and moving.  Given the opportunity to make choices, they are full of energy to make good ones.  Knowing that they can speak up and be heard, they are eager to make school better.  Choice and voice has changed everything.

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