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We are their students

I have been teaching young children my whole life, a little over 4 decades to be exact. I know I am fortunate to have a career that I love. The developmental characteristics of preschool and kindergarten children has always inspired and surprised me. It is a shame that some of these most inherent traits are lost, or "taught" out of them. We as a society want schools to prepare children to be life-long learners and contributing citizens, right? Or are our schools used to create students that understand conforming to the confines of "the box" will make their lives much easier? Do we use schools to further the inaccurate and imbalanced US and World history reported in textbooks? Early education originated to further a particular agenda, "from 1894-1915, the goals of Progressive reformers influenced education in the United States since education was seen as a way to teach children the proper values needed to be a productive American citizen...Public education was also seen as a way to Americanize the vast number of immigrant children flooding into the cities."

Sadly, not much seems to have changed. Why did I just find out about Black Wall Street this year? The fact that our government actually flew planes over Tulsa and dropped bombs on the city is shocking to me. I am 60 years old. As a career educator and a life long self proclaimed activist, I am deeply embarrassed at how much of our real American history I don't know. Now, of course, there is no going back. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer who was sworn to "protect and serve". This murder condoned by his fellow officers inaction, witnessed by throngs of iPhones sharing live footage, made this murder, unlike all the other murders. Finally a murder we could not ignore. We can thank all the brave citizens who took to the streets to make sure we would not ignore this murder. All of this happening during a world wide pandemic being completely mismanaged by the Trump administration...and now I am supposed to teach the alphabet? Teach them to stand up and sit down when it is required, preparing them for the "time clock". School needs to be more than just a test prep center. It needs to be more than a vehicle for propaganda or the washer/dryer of independent thought.

I know I am not alone. Many educators, and unions are trying to transform the way we empower our students. It is not with standardized tests, but with opportunities to develop problem solving strategies. We want our students to be media savvy and learn to shift through all the noise to find the truth. Our young students are up against a country where 2 sets of opposing "facts" are reported. They are witnessing unrest, even our youngest students see this. Dismissing their natural intelligence, curiosity, empathy, and deep devotion to fairness as a developmental stage is not only insulting, but unacceptable. It is not "cute" to see our middle school and high school students leading protests. They are, thankfully, effecting change. They are not only the future, they are OUR future.

As educators, our revised job description includes teaching the truth in a developmental appropriate way without omitting facts, listening to our students' natural passion for justice and equity, and creating learning environments that allow times for their curiosity to flourish. We must understand that the relationship between teacher and student only works if we are open to the lessons our students give to us.

Yesterday I wrote 3 poems about my current school experience under the constraints of COVID-19. I am forever inspired by the resilience of children and the lessons we can learn from them. Be well, enjoy, seize the day, cherish the moments, eat some candy and play with your friends!

American Heroes 

By Kerry Zagarella

All the students line up

Big new school

Proud and scared

Masked allies

Arms outstretched 

Measuring for safety 

The new  friendship distance

Giggling and waving at arm's length

They decorate their clear vinyl shields 

With pipe cleaners and pompoms

Transparent liner

Not  a barrier

Just their job

A pandemic


Yet they believe without doubt

There is no conspiracy

No politics

Just us

Taking care of each other

They wonder if Santa’s mask will be white 

Will it be furry like his beard?

“Did you wonder what I looked like under my mask, before you saw me?”

The earnest citizen asks 

His question, an answer

These are our American Heroes

Like the greatest generation before them 

Their long forgotten ways

These children  act on the greater good

They chant, “Mask break” 

When they are outside and safely apart

This is the B side of Covid

The hidden gem

A sparkling geode

in our darkest times 

effortlessly manifested 

by the  youngest, as it always has been

They sing the alphabet twice while washing their hands

They care for each other, it is their way of life 

Our new citizens

And now, we  must become their  students 


The children see you

By Kerry Zagarella 

They will know your eyes

See the  sparkling dew 

of  an instant

A beloved  memory unfolding

They will see your sorrow

The  ancient pool revealed 

Salty reserve 

cascading down

waterfall cheeks

Our masked children

building a new  intelligence

They will use their eyes and ears

More than their mouths

They will see

Listen and hear

Not dependent on 

pearly whites 

Deliberate smiles

Calculated frowns

They will only see you

And that will be enough 


This land was made for you and me

By Kerry Zagarella

I lead the class in song

repeating the folk words of Woody Guthrie, 

His black and white portrait stapled to the shores of the Pacific ocean below Alaska

watching California

All points marked on the large USA map 

that covers the classroom wall

The Redwood forest

The New York Island

Lady Liberty’s invitation

“Give me your huddled masses” 

Her torch lighting the way for our better selves 

Teaching all the verses

“In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people

By the relief office I seen my people

As they stood there hungry

I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?

Year after year I repeat this lesson

To wide eyed youngins, clapping along

Some sharing hand gestures learned in preschool

Rippling arm gestures riding the waves of the gulf stream waters 

I read The New Colossus in a kid friendly way

Using all my theatre background, 

Even I want to know the answer to the question 

The young Jamaican girl asks, “where is this country?”

When I tell her it is here, that we are living in it

She knows

She adds me to the list of the ignorant

The white liars

And that was 5 years ago

This year my lesson is interrupted by a single hand

A young girl tells me

Our country needs help

Black people are getting killed

The boy next to her reminds her about Black Lives Matter

And the all kids agree

This land must be  made for you and me! 

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