Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Place in the World

I wanted to kick off the new year by sending out some love to a group of educators, students, and storytellers I truly admire. The year ended with stories of teachers who gave the their lives for their students. I love my students, and I can only hope I would be brave enough to protect them when faced with the same circumstances. In the wake of Newtown, my brain has ventured to all the spaces and crevices in my middle school building, places I could stash my students should the threat of physical harm enter my classroom. However, the psychic threat that the students and teachers of Newtown face is much more insidious, and no special hiding place can offer adequate refuge.

I don't know how I would be able to recover from that threat; the post-traumatic fear of violence. As the news reports begin to fade into other events of the day, I find myself drawn back to a documentary about of the students and teachers of the International Community School.

A year or so ago, I heard about a film called A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington. The students and teachers profiled by these filmmakers beg the question of what it means to be a great teacher in the face of great challenges, and the value that these great teachers impart to students, their community, and the country. I teach relatively unharmed, in tact children, but these teachers take on the most challenging students. Students such as those of Newtown, children who have been scarred by trauma and fear. Children born to war and conflict who have seen things they never should have witnessed during their young lives. 

The documentary chronicles two years at 
The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County. The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”

Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.

Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”

Logically, I know that the threat of violence at school is low. I know that my students are much more likely to come to harm in the car on the way to school or swimming in the local pond. However, I have seen things in the news I wish I had not seen, and my students are afraid of a boogeyman that should not exist in their young minds. 
As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, we need leaders such as Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew. We need teachers unafraid to get down on their hands and knees, venture into their students' hiding places, and guide them back out into the light of a safe refuge. 


  1. I grew up in Rome, an hour north of Atlanta. I'm so happy there is a school blending the cultures. I feel for this 4th grade math teacher but I admire him too. He has to climb Mt. Everest on every concept. His dedication is a powerful example.

  2. hi, ms. jessica --
    i tried to post a comment this morning but it didn't come through. i'll give it one more try...
    i found this post today through a motherlode RT and am so happy to be here. my family lives in new mexico and our three children are enrolled in public school here. in recent weeks our governor has begun to push for a third-grade cutoff for literacy which would automatically keep children behind if they're reading doesn't meet state standards. many of these children are ESL learners. your piece is a reminder of why arbitrary standards (NCLB) just don't work in the real world.

  3. This documentary is truly incredible. I truly believe all forms of educators will be better off after watching A Place in the World.


  4. Woohoo!!! ICS! I was a grad here :) In 9th grade now and I think ICS such a great school, close-knit community, it prepped me well. IT NEEDS FUNDING!!! Go to to donate!!!

  5. "It is important to remember that not all value is quantifiable." There it is. As I posted in a comment in your FB the other day, we have got to shake ourselves out of the brainwashed adoration at the altar of scientism that we have fallen into. I talked with a colleague today about three different classes I teach in which the students engage in brilliant conversation with deep, penetrating questions. I am not sure what test I could devise that would show in numbers what these students are doing. Much that is valuable cannot be quantified. Education is far more of an art than a science, far closer to the practice of sculpture than work of astrophysics.

  6. Ohhhh...I love my colleagues. Thank you, teachers, for your thoughtful and supportive comments.

  7. I'm sitting here on my prep period during my full, six-period day of teaching English and history, and I must say this: I loved your post. Teaching matters.

    And not all that is tested is gold.

  8. Johanna, your Friday is my Thursday. Those days are grueling. I am glad you had a quiet moment to come on over and read. Thanks for the comment!

  9. My children are students at ICS after a nurturing private school environment and its dramatic closure, we were hesitant and concerned about the change. And although the transition was not without hiccups for my oldest, it has been the best move for all concerned. We are fortunate that both boys have for 2 years in a row had amazing teachers, who have worked hard with us to help our kids transition. It is an incredibly nurturing environment, with lots of options for extracurricular enrichment. It is a shame that their biggest fight consistently remains securing enough funding to support this amazing oasis. What has it done well my 9 year old transitioned from a gotta have this, and gotta have that to a 10 year old who wanted for his birthday donations to so that he could people become self-sustaining. We'd like to think he's the only one but that is pretty much a norm at the school. They are taught to look at history, to look at each other and to determine what matters most, the transformation has been incredible. Those who may not be native English speakers at first have other incredible talents to share soccer, drawing and art, music, food and stories that our kids would have not been exposed to at any other school to this degree. Thank you for this post - ICS teachers are working with their resource hands tied behind their backs, but their creative and educational resources fully unleashed. We have moved from focused on academics and testing (which is still important but not the pinnacle) to parents who are grateful, for the global teaching, the appreciation for self and your own gifts, and respect for others which to me will take them as far as their academic success. Thank you ICS teachers.

  10. Anonymous, thank you so much for commenting! I can't tell you how nice it is to hear from a parent about a school I have only seen through the lens of the documentary. Thanks for the perspective.

  11. I'm another American parent, a "savy" one with smart children. My son was in Drew's 5th grade class the year this was filmed(a year in which the school did not make AYP). My son has since graduated and earned a coveted spot in the district magnet arts school (as did his sister before him). This is a school that you must audition in two arts areas, get written recommendations and have top grades to get into. And they bounce back to the "home school" anyone that can't maintain a "B" average or is a behavior problem.

    This year for the first time he is experiencing school bells, lockers, pull-out gifted classes, and a teacher that gave out over 200 worksheets in just the first semester. And he is struggling to keep a "good grade" in her class because he's a 12 year old boy who has never had to keep track of that much paper before.

    He told me last month (and I believe him) that he has been taught NOTHING yet at his present school that had not already been covered by his teachers at ICS. He is the only student in his class who will argue with his math teacher about alternate ways of getting the correct answer on a problem, be correct, but then lose points for not doing it by her method. But that same teacher requested that he join the Beta club so that he could represent the school by taking the math test at the state contest.

    My son learned things beyond academics at ICS. But I want you to know that he still has tested 99th percentile composite on the ITBS test all four times he took it over the years. And since his present school made a big deal of him being eligible for the DUKE tip program, he just took the SAT at age 12, and scored 1550.

    Even my 12 year old can discern that his old "failing AYP" school gave him better academics that this new one that only the district's "smart and talented" can attend. There was more art, creativity, and the learning that happens naturally as one must cope with a sometimes chaotic environment.

    Please give ICS money if you can. They need it badly and are an important example in so many ways.

    1. Terrifying. Does she understand his methods? I've heard the same thing from other people over the years, and I've never understood some teacher's obsessions with the "one correct method" in their mathematics classes.

  12. As a teacher who had her very first teaching job at the Duke TIP program, I can attest to the talent there. The students I taught there are some of the smartest, most independent, most driven kids I have ever met. Congratulations to your son, and again, you are preaching to the choir where ICS is concerned. Thank you for your comment.

  13. What a wonderful post! I had never heard of the documentary before so thank you for sharing :)

  14. Both of my daughters have been happy, balanced, stimulated and appreciative student members of the ICS community for seven years now. There will both be attending other schools this coming year and we will miss ICS terribly. My eldest daughter moved to middle school last year and, let me tell you, academically, ICS did not fail her in ANY respect.

    I encourage all readers of your blog to visit to learn more about this fascinating, loving, financially troubled, yet incredible school.

    And one more word about Mr Drew. He is a friend of mine (and fellow Englishman) and has, for four years now, almost single-handedly run the school soccer program with support from the local YMCA. He can be seen every Saturday and Sunday in the Spring and Fall supporting, coaching, coralling and mentoring children on the soccer field, and when he's not coaching, he pulls on a referee jersey. The thing is, this is normal behavior for an ICS teacher. Drew, and the other teachers at ICS deserve all the credit for the achievements of the school.

    If this is a school that is not making adequate yearly progress, show me one that is.

  15. After living overseas for years and seeing the living conditions of many in rural China, India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, I am constantly struck by the unfairness of it all. Although the poor in those places do not experience the violence of those in areas like Sudan and Ethiopia, I often think about how different life is based on the area you are born.

    So refugees come to America (and Australia, my current home) as a place of refuge. Yet our schools are not equipped to handle older non-English speakers (and some who come from an area where their language is not a written language). The immigration process is invasive and complicated even for me - an American married to an Australian who wants to live in Australia. I can't imagine going through the process without an understanding of the process or the language.

    I'll definitely watch this movie - thanks for bringing it to my attention. I hope that both adults and children who seek refuge in America will have a person who is willing to take them under their proverbial wing and help them through the processes of adjusting to a place where they are physically safe, but vulnerable in many ways until they understand the language and procedures we take for granted.