A Caged Bird No Longer

July 4, 2013

Posted by Ashleigh Cowan on July 24th, 2013

At home in my classroom, I refer to my students as “little birds”. A project deadline approaches and I’ll remind them on the forums that I cannot wait to see them fly. It feels appropriate, then, to be so homesick and to feel so much like a caged bird myself. I have been struggling, in some ways – feeling lost and disoriented, trying to making meaning of my time here and relying on others to do it for me, not trusting that I have just as much of a right or a reason to be here as everyone else. I wander around the labyrinthine halls of the Hyatt like the bird I saw that had trapped itself in the airport, beating its wings against the glass windows in a fit of frantic flapping.

In my roaming yesterday, I came across Sam Chaltain facilitating an “Un-Conference”. I sat in, and stuck around afterwards to talk literature-shop with a few other English teachers. We quoted Shakespeare, shared literacy strategies, and eventually the conversation turned towards the educational environment. I brought up having wanted to teach at a school in New York where my educational idol had come into his own as first an English teacher, and later as a writer about his experiences teaching struggling students. I talked about having taken a trip to New York to visit family and going on a “pilgrimage” to visit the campus because, for some reason, the building had taken on so much meaning for me. Chaltain challenged me to think about what was significant about the school outside of its historical importance as a landmark in my own development as a teacher, and I realized that there was none. It was just a place, a symbol for some greater desire to do right by my students. What I’m doing in my tiny college-town middle school in California, I could do in a towering school in NYC, or in no school room at all. I think about my own classroom – the broken air conditioner, the hole in the wall that a student years past punched through, the wobbly tables – and felt a burst of fierce longing for home knowing that the physical parameters of my teaching space have no bearing whatsoever on what my students are capable of accomplishing.

I struggled in my first 2 days at NTAC to make meaning in formal lectures held in cool, crowded conference rooms and the conversation that ended up having the most impact came sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor of the hotel lobby with a national educational advocate, two English teachers from the Midwest, and me. The power of New Tech, the meaning of this experience, lives in the first hand deeper understanding that learning truly happens anywhere. I am as much of a little bird as my students, and I leave NTAC tomorrow knowing that I’m not returning to a cage, but to a big wide sky that is mine and my students to fill.