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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

We Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

We Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Erica Buchanan-Rivera
Director of Curriculum and Instruction &
Elementary Principal
Traders Point Christian Academy
Ph.D. Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Do children, at times, assume roles as caged birds within our educational settings?
In so far that schools operate as political systems under principles of conformity and assimilation, this can certainly be argued.  Consider how social contexts and living experiences of children can collide with the norms of school – compounded as well by the diversification of norms and folkways within any given facility, including those pertaining to classroom, cafeteria, recess, and hallway procedures.
Cultural values, language, and opportunities for connectivity (a.k.a. foundational aspects of learning) can be, without consideration of the whole child, disregarded for test preparation, rote memorization, and expectations of compliance. Our caged birds are forced to play a game called school, despite the perplexity of its rules and the untended cracks within its foundation.
Educators possess the abilities to repair the foundation, and certainly, the keys to unlock our caged birds.
Do we use them?
We hold the power to transfer children from a realm of despair, or even a malaise of ambivalence, to a world of possibilities. This transference involves first listening carefully for the unheard tunes of children and then amplifying them under sound leadership and management at the district, building, and classroom levels.  It could be said that the pensive trills of the endangered Piping Plover can transcend into a voice heard in a world of better listeners.  Imagine if it were able, through an insatiable passion, to unravel its future. Although educators hold the power to dismantle the cage, we must understand the conditions of our birds while encouraging them to freedom.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

The caged bird, our student, sings for identity. Students desire to see their strengths mirrored within the classroom.  They desire to be noticed by a teacher-as-talent-scout.  Children want to be recognized for their contributions, thoughts, feelings, and the aspects that make them unique. They want educators to see and affirm their beautiful intersections of cultural autobiography that incorporate race, ethnicity, language, and familial traditions – their stories, as each story shapes the way they respond and interact socially. If we understand student identity, we can dismantle the bars that sustain the cage. 
We can encourage ascension.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

The student sings for authenticity. As educational leaders, we must create a space within learning environments where students can construct personally meaningful knowledge that generates representations of their learning. Building upon our last point, the environment should be characterized as identity safe.  Our children are capable of devising questions that drive instruction rather than submitting to mundane prescription.  Have the dittos and worksheets of the past been replaced only with a pacing guide?  Or are we allowing that which makes students unique to chart a course? Students yearn to learn through meaningful experiences and discussions that elicit multiple perspectives. Environments supporting inquiry-based learning can honor children’s rights to imagine and investigate. And it is important to note that students are capable learning from their mistakes. Authenticity requires productive struggle, and a child’s failing forward should be celebrated.  The caged bird wants its individualized flight plan honored, with our acceptance of the wind, leaves, gravel, and dirt stirred up along the way.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

Students sing, hopeful that in school, they can develop images of self-worth. They want unconditional positive regard, for who they are.  Children intuitively know when educators demonstrate care, or conversely, dismissiveness.  They intrinsically protect their well being, either by allowing others in, or shutting others out.  It sounds odd, but in the worst of circumstances, their cages – as stifling as they are – protect them from harm.  Harm comes in all shapes and sizes, as does a child’s self-worth.  Educators are in an instrumental position to affirm a child’s positive self-worth, and through such, foster student potential. Self-worth is a foundational component of self-efficacy, and with this efficacy, children are capable of embracing new challenges.  As classrooms serve a window through which our beliefs become overt, the educators within who harmonize their beliefs with the songs of children transcend barriers that hinder learning.

What is your song of advocacy for the caged bird?

We believe that children are spiritual, worthwhile, reflective, exploratory, intellectual, creative, needy-yet-powerful beings who consistently try to make sense of their worlds.  They portray and have an inherent aura of innocence, which unconsciously enables them to embrace the values of acceptance, trust, and diversity. They are in a place where if allowed to interact authentically, they will develop the desired sense of identity.  Children investigate their curiosities and dare to take risks before pondering the consequences. Some might call this learning.  Through interactions, children simultaneously learn about their values and boundaries, which enable them to see themselves as unique individuals, and others as well. 
Although our children often sing cries for identity, authenticity, and an affirmation of their own belief systems (or those shaped by their caregivers at home, healthy or not), as educators, we must admit that our abilities to fly in formation with them are, under current professional circumstance, hindered by the reality that often we get our own wings clipped.  
We want to engage our children in authentic work, yet spend more time analyzing the semantics of assessments. We allow data to drive us, rather than to inform.  Curricular programs lock us into teaching styles that may not reflect our philosophies. It used to be that one of our professional shortcomings was that we teach the way we were taught.  Nowadays, it seems that we don’t even have this luxury.
With staunch accountability, we teach the way we are told will produce the best test results.  In such, we tend to lose patience with the birds that are free, expressive, and audacious … eventually finding ways to inadvertently cage them through regimentation if they are good, and disciplinary procedures if they are different.  It is difficult to see beyond the bars of our own cages, that without the best leadership and management at the local level, are constructed upon the blueprints of today’s educational politics.

What is your song? To whom is your song dedicated?

We know why children sing.  As well, we know the songs of educators.  Our songs cannot be sung in isolation. Their synchronization must take place to blend a harmonic movement – a movement that perpetuates educational autonomy that embraces student voice, and student flight.

It is our time to be heard.

It is our time to be free.

Works Consulted

Greenman, J. (1998). Caring places, learning spaces. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Trumbull, E. (2008). Managing diverse classrooms: How to build on students’ cultural strengths. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Erica Buchanan Rivera and Ryan Donlan wish to champion a system of schools that allows for educators to lead and manage in a way that embraces individuality, connectedness, creativity, and diversity.  If you wish to join their conversation, please be encouraged to contact them at or at

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