So it's been a tough month with the Criminals. After last week’s series of lessons on a book called Follow the Drinking Gourd to introduce the concept of slavery to the first grade, I was faced this week with attempting to figure out if the group could see where I was going when I started off the week with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s small poetic masterpiece called “Sympathy.” I know that at the end of this unit on African American poets, I want the children to understand the progression of the black experience in America. What I didn’t know, however, could fill several pages. I didn’t know if I had the talent to teach it well enough for the class to understand. I didn’t know if the children were even able to understand at this age. And I certainly didn’t know how to tell if they understood.
So we sat on the rug on Monday morning and reviewed some vocabulary words they might not know. I didn’t say a word about last week’s book. I didn’t tell them anything about Dunbar other than his name. I explained that I didn’t have a book with pictures today, said that we might think about doing our own illustrations and making a book, pointed out those key unknown words, and launched into a reading of the last stanza of the poem.
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore--
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a plea he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a prayer that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!
I finished reading, and Diana’s hand shot up. I called on her, sighing inwardly as I waited for her inevitable request to go to the bathroom.
“Miss Victoria, that’s like Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
Teacher sat, nodding dumbly for a few moments in stunned silence, then said shakily, “Yes….yes Diana…I think you’re right, I think it is like Follow the Drinking Gourd.” I watched almost the entire rest of the class nod in agreement with Diana. If I had had my wits about me, I would have immediately assessed further by simply asking, “Why?” I didn’t think of that until a few hours later. The next day, we headed back to the rug for a second look at the poem. I reviewed vocabulary and re-read the text, the class starting to chime in on the more familiar lines. I got to ask what I had slipped up on the day before. “Diana said something very interesting yesterday, she said this poem reminded her of Follow the Drinking Gourd, and some of you said you thought so too. Why do you think that?”
Hands waved in the air. “The slaves wanted to be free just like the bird wants to be free.”
“They didn’t want to die in a cage neither.”
“Their hearts was hurting like the bird’s heart was broken.”
I picked up a piece of paper I had been holding in my plan book and read aloud to them. “Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872. His parents were Matilda and Joshua Dunbar, escaped slaves.”
“Ooooooooh!” said the class as I turned the page around and showed them his picture.“Why did he feel sympathy for the bird?”“He knew, Miss Victoria, he knew how the bird felt in that cage!” Beyond my wildest dreams, they understood. We brainstormed a list of the different illustrations we could make for our book, and the class clamored to have the first turn at the painting table during our center time. One student wanted to paint the bird in the cage, another a man in a cage. One wanted to paint praying hands and a cross, one a solitary wing with a bruised side.
The government (what did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine) wants me to prove that I'm a good teacher via portfolios of student work. Produce, produce, produce. I don’t know if it’s possible to prove with a piece of paper what happened in my room this week. How do you get down on paper, as a teacher, “This week the first grade explored the existence of symbolic meaning in literature and tackled the concept of the pain and suffering of one as an example for the ages?” Assess THAT, President Bush.