Building Bridges at Lucy Laney School

December 7, 2016

On a recent weekday morning,  the air inside the third grade science classroom at Lucy Laney School was electric. We’re building bridges today! Twenty-two pairs of eyes watched with intrigue as their teacher, Mr. Teigland, demonstrated the day’s goal: construct a bridge out of plastic connecting pieces and then pile textbooks on top of it to see how strong it is.

With a mixture of delight, devotion and distraction, the kids clustered together at small tables in groups of two, three and four. They waited–some more calmly than others–for Mr. Teigland to plop a box of red, blue, yellow and white bridge-building pieces in front of them. Then, the design work began.

Some savvy students found the sample bridge Mr. Teigland had put together, and set about building their own version of it. Others dug in to the plastic pieces without a plan, stitching together impossibly long or lopsided constructions sure to collapse with the slightest nudge from an unwitting classmate.

Soon, the bridges were being positioned across a gap between two tables, to see if they were strong enough to pass the strength test. Could the bridges hold at least three textbooks?

Not many could, at least initially. Trial and error–an essential life skill–was put to use, with endless reconfiguring of height, length and weight distribution. Some kids rose to the challenge with dedication; others collapsed more readily, like the bendy bridges they were building.

Success came from teamwork and tenacity–skills that not every third grader in Mr. Teigland’s morning class is in possession of (yet). Maturity varies as much as their height, weight and dispositions. Some kids couldn’t resist chatting, bragging and poking their neighbor’s emerging creations, while others quietly dug into the day’s work, understanding what was being asked of them and how to make it happen (within the forty-five minutes or so allotted to the project). Some people are fond of calling young children scholars, but, in my view, that’s too stuffy a term. They are messy creators, eager explorers, and babbling brooks flowing off course, into fields not yet conquered.

These kids need room to move, real work to do, and the patient guidance of adults and peers. That last one can be hard to stick to. When everyone is present, there are twenty-five kids in Mr. Teigland’s room, which he manages with his right-hand man, an associate educator named Mr. Johnson. Two adults, twenty-five kids. This ratio would be a dream scenario for many teachers I know, but it is still an unfortunate overload, for adults and kids alike. (The challenge involved in coaxing, corralling, convincing and creatively inspiring a group of young children to move in one direction is awe-inspiring.) 

Twins! Teigland and Johnson

There is no bridge connecting these kids to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. If DeVos’ nomination wins approval–and no one should assume that it won’t–then the market-based education reform movement will be unmasked and unleashed. Kids who attend high poverty, “failing” schools like Lucy Laney will suffer the most, as they have in Detroit. There, armed with millions of dollars, DeVos has applied guerilla-like pressure to the city’s school system, hammering it into a million shattered pieces.

Here is a recent overview from the Detroit Free Press:

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

DeVos promises a frightening plunge towards a moneyed, fundamentalist takeover of our public schools, but will it be worse than the kinder, gentler face of the market-based reform movement that so many Democrats and self-proclaimed progressives have clung to for years? For evidence, take a look at Democrat Cory Booker, a highly touted senator from New Jersey. Booker, who was on Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist, sat on the board of DeVos’ Alliance for School Choice and frequently, enthusiastically appeared at the DeVos-run (and Walton/WalMart funded) American Federation for Children policy events.

In other words…

This is true in Minneapolis, too, where politicians and civic figures with long-standing progressive reputations have lined up behind ed reform, shilling for such “transformational” things as charter schools, choice and Teach for America

Meanwhile, in a brightly lit classroom, on a gray Minneapolis morning, there are bridges to be built.

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