August To June; Bringing Life to Palm Beach Schools

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copyright © 2011 Betsy L. Angert. Empathy And Education; BeThink or BeThink.org

As any Mom or Dad might do on Parent Teacher Conference Day, Amy Valens, the Educator featured in the documentary film August To June, traveled from “classroom to classroom.” This journey was not a conventional one. Indeed, Amy did not attend a series of Parent Teacher Conferences. What she did was appear at Palm Beach screenings of her documentary. The film follows twenty-six [26] third and fourth graders who studied with Amy in her last year of teaching. The open classroom, within a public school, “Brings Life” to education.

After the movie was viewed, Ms Valens and the audiences engaged in conversations. They discussed what they saw and how it might relate to a broader dialogue. The subjects of Education Reform, Classroom Standards, Teacher Quality, Merit Pay, Student-Rewards for Success, Parent Involvement, and Testing are but a few topics prominent in our national debate. While the assemblies of viewers varied widely, the results were the same. Every child, every class, all Teachers, and each parent, tells a unique tale. Regardless of the individual or group, we see the world, or in this case the film, through our own lens.

Having traveled the country with the movie, in the last ten months, meeting with audiences from every walk of life, Amy had already come to understand that each person has their own perspective. Each place visited offers unexpected opportunities. The size of the crowd does not give a hint of what will be within. Nor does the theme of a Conference, such as Save Our Schools or Coalition for Essential Schools, provide insight into what will occur. The makeup of a community affords no clues. As any Mother, [Teacher, Filmmaker] Valens experiences as we all do. When we enter a room, or a situation, when we encounter a child or a school full of students we cannot predict what will come.

Will the experience be pretty? Will it be rich? I share what it appeared to be, at least what appeared to be true for me.

Having attended the one abridged showing, the two full screenings, each of which was followed by a discussion, and having the heard the radio interview, I recognized the theme; behind every door adventure awaits. There are lessons to be learned. Let us take a look.

Amy’s recent tour began, not in a school, but remotely. From a National Public Radio studio in Miami the Host of Topical Currents. Joseph Cooper introduced his guests, Amy and Tom Valens. The Broadcaster, heard on WLRN, might have been as an Instructor, one who is only remotely familiar with a family. A physical distance might have been part of the dynamic. Amy was a County away, in Palm Beach, Florida. Only a telephone line connected the two. Filmmaker Tom Valens sat in his modest bungalow workplace, in the hills of Forest Knolls, California. Throughout this meeting Mister Cooper asked Amy and Tom Valens questions. He listened for answers. Then, the Broadcaster extrapolated. He pronounced what he believed might be true for the Marin County residents. Silicon Valley and George Lucas Studios were close neighbors. Nothing could be farther from the reality within Amy Valens’ valley.

As is stated in the film, in this open classroom, children come from homes of median and meager means. Many if not most have experienced divorce. Several have been separated from their parents. The world of drugs, and other abuses, is not unknown to these young ones. The wealth and wonder that might be seen in the more opulent sphere of the technologically elite, is not real to those who reside in Amy’s classroom. Nonetheless, for Joseph Cooper, as is true for countless who cannot imagine the educational process that unfolds before their eyes, “Yes, but . . .” lives large. Thankfully, “Yes; Exactly” and “Yes, well maybe” also thrive.

“Our graduates have gone on to become artists, scientists, house painters, computer programmers helicopter pilots, chefs, ceramists, carpenters, tile setters, lawyers, teachers, politicians, ecologists, gardeners, musicians, security guards, engineers, viticulturists, film makers photographers, actors, dancers, salespeople, drivers, paraprofessionals, airplane attendants, animators, body workers, park rangers, camp counselors, waiters, sculptors, writers, journalists, linguists, small business people, singers, social workers, government workers, brokers, students, furniture makers, set designers, jewelers, composers, paramedics, firefighters, jugglers, loving parents, active community members and so much more.” They are you and me.

Skepticism was voiced several more times throughout the weekend. People wanted to believe that Amy Valens was the Miracle Worker, or that the dynamics within her small District was the reason an impossible dream came true. Several stated, only in a rural region or in an open classroom, such as exists in San Geronimo might parents be involved. The thought was, to opt-out of high-stakes tests is a fantasy not permitted in most States. A few mused Amy could only practice as she does with elementary school age children. Fortunately, the same sort of contradictory reasoning was heard but once in the next get-together.

I spoke to it then and again in other meetings. Personally, I know what cynics wish to believe is not so. As someone whose teaching style differs greatly from that of Amy Valens, and as a person who taught solely in urban and suburban standardized systems, I know much can be done within the common constraints. My pedagogy mirrors much of what is seen in August To June. For Teacher Valens, for me, and for most in the many Palm Beach audiences, the Whole Child concept speaks to our every sensibility. What parent, Teacher, or community does not believe schools should focus on developing students who are academically proficient, physically and emotionally healthy, respectful, responsible, and caring? Since ancient Greek and Roman times, nearly everyone, if not all do.

Surely, the people assembled at the first screening of the weekend, at the Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth did. This gathering may best represent what occurred, endlessly, during Amy’s late October, early November, Palm Beach travels. From the discussion, it quickly became apparent, attendees embraced the philosophy and principles presented in the documentary without exception. While rationalizations were rare, the human tendency to relate through our own life experiences was wonderfully evident.

A College Professor saw many correlations to his daily reality. He discovered big public policy issues in regards to testing, privatization, Teacher merit pay, an Instructors’ qualifications, performance, and due process, are discussed in August To June. The subject of school quality is also explored in the film, just as it is in Faculty meetings and on the floor of Congress.

Another individual, a former Nurse, related to the relevant questions the film raises. This person understood the significance of working with the Whole Child, the whole person, be he or she a pupil or a patient. The Health Care practitioner mentioned her distress for loss of logic in today’s society. Humans, in every profession, have been reduced to numbers.

Tests in medicine, just as in our schools, are no longer diagnostic tools. Today, examination scores define a supposed permanent condition rather than identify a situation [or a student] in transition. Assessments are given as a matter of course. Indeed, these are mandated in traditional medical facilities and in our schools. Privatization is prominent. Doctors do not make house calls and Teachers, too often, never meet the families . . . that is, in schools not like Amy’s.

With privatization comes reward and punishment. The last person to speak that evening, addressed this. A Scholar who sat among us, mentioned his love of teaching and how, as a Social Science Educator, he was told not to engage his students. History, Administrators said, is not an essential part of the curriculum. After all, it does not appear on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test [FCAT.] [The inference being, nothing else matters.] Nonetheless, the Teacher thought it was important to teach.

Having done his job well, Mister M’s students excelled on the high-stakes State exam. The mentor was rewarded with a pink slip and praise for a job well done. He was told his work was excellent. However, with the term at an end, the school no longer needed to fill a history position. Months later, an unexpected check arrived in the mailbox at Mister M’s home. It seems that schools are financially rewarded, as are teachers within the school if the students successfully “achieve.”

Might Mister M’s instruction spurred greater interest in other areas. Did the methods he employed inspire students to study well. Could his class or the energy that was born be transferred into an overall interest in academics? The Palm Beach County Teacher did not know.

Regardless, August To June Educator Amy Valens saw and felt the palpable sense of surprise from others in the room. She was astounded but not amazed. Amy knew. She heard many a story this year. All were identical, and at the same time unique. Consistently, as Ms Valens treks around the country she discovers that people turn to her for guidance and acumen, and Amy turns to them. “Yes, but” and “Yes! Exactly,” as well as the reflective “Yes, maybe” are instructive and illustrate what occurs in Parent Teacher Conferences.

I, Author Educator, Betsy L. Angert of Empathy And Education, am grateful. A mission I began and embraced in October 2010, came true. The film August To June and featured Teacher, Amy Valens has expanded the education conversation in South Florida. My hope is that soon, we will further the discussion. Forums are in our future. We will “Bring Life to School” every August To June in Palm Beach County.

With Special Thanks to others who helped make this tour truly meaningful. Guest Speaker, Author, Educator, esteemed Marion Brady,, the Founder-Director of Sunflower Creative Arts, Susan Caruso, Co-Founder of Parents Across America, Rita Solnet.

References and Resources . . .

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