Thursday, April 10, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - Dear Mr. Rosenwald

Imagine attending a school where wind sweeps through cracks in the walls, rain drips from the ceiling, and indoor heating and plumbing are noticeably absent. It may seem unbelievable, but for many African American children attending segregated schools, these conditions (and often worse) were the reality in public education.
With her book Dear Mr. Rosenwald, Carol Boston Weatherford uses poetry to tell the story of how one community came together to build a new school--a Rosenwald School. The narrative begins with the poem 1921: One-Room School. Here is an excerpt.
My teacher, Miss Mays, said,
You can't judge a school
by the building. When the roof leaks,
she calls us vessels of learning.
When the floor creaks, she says
knowledge is a solid foundation.
From the very beginning, the heart, the dreams, and yearning of people longing to be educated comes through. As told by Ovella, a young girl in the community, we meet dedicated people who put their blood and sweat into backbreaking work that doesn't earn a decent living, and then see them spend that money for the good of the community. We see families and communities at work, at home and church, coming together for the common good. You see, Rosenwald schools were only partially funded through grants from the rural school building program. The balance came from the community. This meant that hard-working, poor folks needed to raise money, acquire land and build that school. The poem New School Rally ends with these words.
Everyone in church stood, clapping.
How on earth will poor people
find money to give away?
How indeed? In the poem Taking Root, we learn that the church gives an acre of land for the new school. In the poems Box Party and Passing the Plate, we learn about the ways in which people worked and sacrificed to raise money. Finally, the seeds of hope begin to grow, as Blueprints for the school are presented. Soon building materials are acquired, a roof is raised, second-hand materials arrive, a playground is built, and a school is born. Every time I read this book, I'm all choked up by the time I get to 1922: White Oak School. It begins this way.
Uncle Bo cut the ribbon at the doorway
and we marched into the new school,
proud as can be. The place sparkled.
The poem that lends its title to the book is the final piece. Ovella completes her first lesson, writing a letter to the man who helped make this new school a reality.

This is a moving and powerful book. I have highlighted the beauty of the language, but cannot fail to mention that the gouache and colored pencil illustrations by R. Gregory Christie remarkably capture and extend the emotion of the poetry. Overall, this is a gorgeous book that deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

Dear Mr. Rosenwald was published in 2006, long after my full-time work in K-12 classrooms ended. I bought it though, for use with my college students in Foundations of Eduction, a class that looks in part at the history of education in America. When we began to the look at the history of schooling for African Americans, I read this book.

Here in Virginia, fourth grade students are immersed in state history and spend time exploring the social and political events in Virginia linked to desegregation and Massive Resistance. I would love to see this book become a source of discussion in telling the story of this part of our nation's history.

For those of you who wish to use this book or discuss these issues in your classroom, here are some additional resources for instruction.

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