Letting Go: On Permission, Patience, Persistence and Possibilities…

Zachary is a senior this year and while I have tried to keep from writing about him, I find myself in the beginning phases of grieving his impending move from home to college.  When I asked him if he was ready he simply said, “No, not really, but it will be great.”  Zachary is my possibility person.  He sees the world as something that is here for him to embrace and engage in every moment he is alive.  He truly does live in the moment.   My Dad always referred to him as the one who is always “tinkering” with something.  In many ways I think he is a lot like my Dad in that his while his grades in school are not stellar, his ideas and his passion for possibility lies deep.  It is rare he says he “can’t” do something.

His latest passion is this song, Let Her Go by Passenger (that I now know by heart as I have heard it a million times a day for about 4 weeks now) and so he has decided to learn this song on the piano.  He does not, or should I say he has not ever really played the piano.  That is Emma’s instrument.  But he you tubed it (yes, I do think that is a verb!) and from watching has begun the process of two handing the keys to this tune.  I marvel at his persistence, or in this day in educational jargon, his stamina to keep on keeping up with this endeavor.  He has the first part down pretty well, and he won’t quit until he reaches the end.  I know this because this is how Zachary learns. There is always some kind of creative process that invites him in and then he is all in.

What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in?  What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?

So this year I decided to try out some of what I was preaching on my group of teachers in Dover Middle School.  I have been working with this group for years and they have one of the best collective senses of humor I have ever known.   The group has come together, I believe, even more so because of the writing we have been doing together every time we meet.  I am always surprised at what I learn about one of these dedicated teachers through their writing and I love hearing their voices develop and change with each piece they try.  They are always willing to read their writing and give feedback to each other.  In our conversations about the Common Core State Standards we also question and wonder about where the idea of freedom comes into play in public education.

And so I walked into the first class and said, “I have no class text, I have no syllabus, all I have is a workshop model and ways to guide and facilitate us through the processes of learning of your choosing.  What is it that you want to learn about?  What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have the time to discover?    There were wide eyes of excitement looking back at me as the possibilities ran across the faces of some and panic across the others.  I quickly realized that one of the first beliefs we needed to look at was that  of the “right answer” as some asked me,  “What is it that you want?”  “What exactly are you looking for and what does it look like?”  Immediately I saw that although we talked the good talk of freedom, that we as adults are as entrenched in this kind of thinking as our students, seeking that “right” answer. In the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  And so we have spent a great deal of time examining our attitudes, beliefs and biases.  Some of the work we have done together I took on the road as I have told this group that they are my research project as I work beside them and experience the same processes they are experiencing.

I recently presented some of this research at NCTE in Boston with colleagues and friends, Louise Wrobleski and Terry Moher.  We engaged in a playful study of “Reading the Visuals and Visualizing the Reading” and along the way we rediscovered the power of the visual everywhere we went.  Every day we sent each other new ideas, articles, links and images to spark our thinking. It was exhilarating because we were all engaged in thinking about, reading and researching the same thing at the same time and yet we each came at it from completely different angles.  It was these differences that gave form and texture to our presentation as we each defended and wrote up just what it was we intended to do with our 20 minutes of fame while at the same time weaving a common thread among us.  It was challenging and exciting.

Ultimately my part in the presentation came from the deep seeded belief that if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves.  Classic Don Graves.  When our participants sat down there were pictures of faces staring at them from the middle of the table.  They were asked to take one that spoke to them and then to add something to the face.  Instantly I could feel a shift of energy in the room and so I asked, “How many of you think  you can’t draw?” and almost all of the hands went up.  And while I told them not to worry, it was evident that it was a challenge for many as everyone tried to add some kind of body to their chosen face.  Here are some images I shared with them from my work with my Dover teachers and many mimicked this same behavior by adding what they “thought” was expected of them, a body.

By Melissa
by Tina

Then I showed them some images from this wonderful blog, busymockingbird.com where a mother collaborates with her four year old daughter and allows her to put “bodies” onto her faces.  Here are some of those images.


And after showing these images suddenly the world of possibilities opens up as each person is granted permission to be playful, to think beyond what they “thought” the expectation was in terms of a “right” answer, even though I said there was no right or wrong way to add to their faces.  After sharing these as well as images from Terry Moher’s students work I then asked them to turn over their faces and give it another go.  And again the energy shifted and people began to envision, talk and even giggle at what might be, based on what they felt confident about drawing and the images took on completely different shapes and forms. After sketching I asked participants to write either about their process or to bring words and life to the images they had created. Or as one Dover teacher Lisa stated on her second go, I looked at this face and as I was trying to think outside of the box, I thought, boxes, yes, I can draw boxes!  And this is what she came up with.

by Mark
by Melissa
by Denise
by Ben
by Pam
by Ben

These two images above are of particular interest to me. The first  was drawn by an elementary teacher, Pam.   The second by Ben a middle school teacher.  What I found fascinating was that these were their first drawings.  What was it about Pam and Ben’s thinking that they got to where others often only got to on the second go?  They both talked about how they couldn’t draw bodies, so they looked at the faces and tried to come up with something that fit the face that they could draw,  but that was not a body. Essentially Pam and Ben gave themselves permission to add to the faces in any way they felt would work.   They allowed themselves to just let go and were not confined by the idea of what was “right”.

Well you only need the light when it’s burning low

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow

Only know you love her when you let her go

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go

And you let her go.

                             ~ Let Her Go by Passenger

And while these lyrics ring in my head I think about how we all need to let go, if even just a little bit.  All of us.  I need to let go as a mother and allow my son to make his way in the world, and as teachers we need to let go.  Let go of the “one answer society rules” demands of the testing world and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that lie within.

24 thoughts on “Letting Go: On Permission, Patience, Persistence and Possibilities…

  1. So I’m a day behind you this time, Tomasen, but somehow our minds are on similar tracks. I loved every part of this—from your son’s obsession to the pictures teachers drew. And you’ll see how all this visual stuff inspired me, this week on the blog, as I gave myself a challenge to bring art making back into my life. And coincidentally enough, my daughter gave me a helping hand last night by suggesting that I make the bottom half of the image messier, which led me to overlap more pictures, let them go from the frame and not represent a particular chronology, none of which I’d done at first. And I think that messiness made the piece stronger & more fun to do!

  2. Hello Tomasen! I’m so excited by this blog entry and my mind is all over the place, so please excuse the, perhaps, sloppiness of my response! First of all, I love Zachary. I want to meet him. I love his sense of wonder. I’ve been thinking about your use of the word “stamina” to describe his ability to stay with the challenge of learning to play the piano piece. I would choose another word. I would chuck the word stamina and substitute the word “engagement.” That’s what we want for our students, isn’t it? Wonder and engagement.
    I’m also thinking about the challenge that you gave to your adult students, “What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have time to explore?” It’s a perfect question to rephrase and ask of children, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s a bit of a frightening question for teachers to ask because they themselves might not have any idea of the answer. It’s teaching without a net but it’s also what makes teaching so exciting.
    You really have my mind jumping around. It goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoyed your NCTE workshop as did Simon (who snuck in with me!).

    • Renee,
      I love reading your responses! Yes, yes and yes! Engagement should be the end game in education, but right now it is at the bottom of the barrel living below data and scores and everything that has nothing to do with the child!
      I loved your NCTE presentation as well.
      Thinking a trip to NYC is in order at some point!
      Stay warm!

  3. Several classroom memories came to mind as I was reading this. I thought about several different times where my students tried to do what they thought was “right” instead of just doing what they wanted to do and seeing what happened. Looking back, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised how gung-ho my young freshmen have been to do the “right” thing. They want to form a “successful” relationship with me as their teacher; they want to impress me by doing exactly what they think I’m expecting of them. They want to prove to themselves early on that they can succeed in high school. And yes, of course, in their competitive schooling environment, they want to earn good grades. For these reasons, they pester me with questions at the beginning of graded Socratic discussions. “What counts as a response? Do we have to answer 3 questions and pose 3 questions? How long do our contributions have to be?” To which I say: guys, be in the moment. Listen. Respond. Think. Don’t worry about the grade, worry about being a genuine part of the conversation at all (to which THEY say, but how do we get an A? I could write a poem about this song and dance, I swear). Also for these reasons, in writing conferences, they spend a lot of time asking “is this right? Should I say it like that?” (to which I respond: what do you think?). My responses often frustrate them, and my concern that they think more about perfection, meeting expectations, and As, more than they think about following their instincts and creating, is what frustrates me. No, of course I don’t blame them; as you note in this piece, teachers and students alike have the ingrained notion of always thinking about what is “right” or what is expected. But how do I make them feel free enough to let their creativity guide them? I’ve always prided myself on allowing room for silliness and humanness, even as a young teacher that’s always thinking about how to prove to my superiors on any given day that I can effectively deliver curriculum.

    I think the answer might honestly be giving my students activities like this one, early on in the year and frequently, especially as larger writing assignments lurk in the back of their minds. After all, we as English Language Arts instructors can’t really rest comfortably at night if students are only writing about literary points that they’ve heard directly from us. Our job is to teach students HOW to think, isn’t it? So maybe, if we willingly, regularly, and freely, show them that our “expectations” are not: a) the end-all-be-all of what can accomplished and b) the only holy grail of truth to set their goals towards, students will think outside the “box,” as they say, and, I don’t know, draw caterpillar bodies instead of human ones. 😉 I know I’ll be thinking about this activity this fall, whatever this crazy world brings to the educational sphere!

    • Andrea,
      I hope you write a poem about that constant interaction with how to do things “right” in your Freshman English class!!

  4. Tomasen, I love this blog post. Writers notice the hidden connections between things. Who knew your son’s favorite song and an impending trip to college would connect so beautifully with a professional workshop for teachers? And these stories, in turn, would serve to illustrate to your readers – the importance of letting go of our “right and wrong” mindsets. I have found that my personal stories from the “real world” connect in deep ways to the best kind of teaching and learning. There’s a “real world” metaphor for almost everything important that I teach, and kids love to hear stories. Together, stories and instruction are magical. Our students have break-throughs, demonstrate growth, and develop reading and writing confidence in our classrooms and it feels like a miracle. Stories may seem cute on the surface, but they are a sneaky, efficient way to move instruction forward- the kind of instruction that gets kids to think, to notice, to “open our hearts and minds to the possibilities that lie within.” In other words, stories illustrate and complement teaching that is transferable and meaningful in the real world- not in the pages of a textbook or for the purposes of answering a question on a test. (Do you tell a single story that really brings home the purpose test-taking that isn’t about the triumphs and challenges of test-taking?)

    What’s the point of teaching and learning if in the end, it doesn’t make us better humans, more connected to our true selves, more confident in who we actually are, more trusting in our ability to find the problems that matter so we can solve them? Creating classrooms that avoid the confines of our “right and wrong” culture forwards greater social justice by honoring all, exploring and cultivating all kinds of thoughts and questions, knowing that one’s thoughts are improved by our differences that add “form and texture” to the world. Grow ideas with love and care, nurture curiosity. We need to let go to let the magic happen.

  5. I’ve just explored some of these picture/drawings in the text Journal Sparks that we’re working with in class, and I can’t wait to give these a go in my own notebook! My middle schoolers will love getting creative with these, but I’m sure there will be that hesitance at first, as you mentioned the teachers at Dover Middle School had. What is “right”? I think in the world of education, that is unfortunately how so many students (and adults) make their moves. (Well… what is going to get me a good grade? What should I do? What were some examples that YOU liked?)

    I’m loving this question you pose: What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in?

    It has me thinking back to the article I just read: Revising Teaching: Drawing, Writing, and Learning With My Students by Elizabeh Olbrych. Giving students the TIME to explore what kind of art and writing speaks to them results in thoughtful reflection and more detailed work. Don’t we want to see what our students are capable of? If we limit them, we’re only getting the tip of the iceberg from them. I won’t lie… it’s so hard to let go as a teacher sometimes, but to watch students work through their challenges and find ways to problem solve that works for THEM are invaluable skills they will bring with them through the rest of their lives.

    Choice really DOES matter.

    • You say, “Giving students the TIME to explore what kind of art and writing speaks to them results in thoughtful reflection and more detailed work. Don’t we want to see what our students are capable of? ” Of course I could not agree more! Add this thinking to your intentions page and begin thinking of specific ways to make this happen! Thanks for your thoughtful response!

  6. Tomasen,
    Love your thoughts on this. I am in total agreement, but thinking about how do we, as educators, let go of the idea of only one right answer? Some of us are teaching the future generation based on the fact that we were taught that there is only one right answer. Yes, we want to teach differently than we were taught, and to engage students. In order to do that, I feel we need to be able to look beyond our own biases and be willing to change what we were taught (our thought process) and be able to put ourselves in the students shoes and be open to making our own mistakes and learning from them. I think that Donald Graves offers a lot of insight. Like you said, in that “if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves.” We, as teachers, need to let go of the notion of only one right answer and let the students engage in creating and investigating their own ways to come up with their own choice or doorway to finding a problem. By allowing students this freedom, who knows where it will lead and how it will allow them to engage in a process that best fits their own needs.

    Looking forward to incorporating this idea into the classroom this fall and seeing where it leads.

    • You say, “we need to be able to look beyond our own biases and be willing to change what we were taught (our thought process) and be able to put ourselves in the students shoes and be open to making our own mistakes and learning from them” yes yes and yes!! You refer also to the process of “un”learning what it was we were taught. this is also an important part of the process as we have been conditioned for years and years in our own educations!

  7. I may or may not be stealing this activity to use with my students! I find that I can tell them hundreds of times that there is no “right way” to do something, but I don’t think they ever believe me. And I think a lot of the reason behind that has to do with assessment and grades. In their minds, there must be a “right way” if some people earn As and others do not. I love that this activity “shows” instead of “tells”–another thing that I am constantly telling my students. When we show them that their interpretations are valid and that their processes are all unique, the end product matters less. I think the process of letting go is something we as teachers can model for our students. While the current state of our world requires us to practice flexibility and letting go, it is still important to model what that looks like so that students can do the same. One of the teachings in yoga has to do with practicing non-attachment, and I like to think of this idea of letting go as just that. Not being attached to whatever the outcome may be. I’ve read somewhere that the source of all unhappiness is unmet expectations. When we remove expectations, what are the impacts on not only our creative minds, but our emotional wellbeing as well? I think an activity like this as well as the upside down drawing activity are both excellent tools to demonstrate what letting go of expectations looks like. Showing students that there is no right and wrong truly is a life lesson. While we may be presenting that notion with regards to reading and writing, it runs much deeper than that.

    • Yes, Yes and Yes!! As a fellow yogi, that meditation of non-attachment is a powerful one because we also let go of expectations! I have often thought of writing about yoga and teaching as there is so much to offer and more and more that seems to intertwine with my personal teaching beliefs. Yoga is a beautiful way into the creative process as well. I actually did some meditation with last years Notebooking class and while it was good, there were many who were just uncomfortable…it is a very distinct practice and mindset. What kind do you practice?
      You say, “While the current state of our world requires us to practice flexibility and letting go, it is still important to model what that looks like so that students can do the same.” I could not agree more, just as the yoga teacher models a pose we must help our students see and embrace imperfection along the way. How will you add these thoughts to your intentions?

  8. First of all, I LOVE the face activity! I think this would be perfect to do with students at the beginning of the school year. While reading this piece, I thought about how school this year is probably going to look different than it has in the past. As a teacher, I need to think outside the box. I have always been the type of student who struggles with open choice. I want someone to give me a set of guidelines, a set of expectations. I was the kid who probably asked, “How long should this be?” when I was asked to write an essay. Right now, I feel like I have no set of guidelines for the upcoming school year. I think about many activities I’ve done in the past that may not work this year. I have to rethink much of what has worked well in my classroom in the past. This scares me.

    But then, I think about the possibilities. When you asked, “What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in? What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?” I thought about how I can teach students to make choices. I can show them the value in showing what they know in a way that is meaningful to them. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • ” I thought about how I can teach students to make choices. I can show them the value in showing what they know in a way that is meaningful to them”. Would love to think more on this with others in class and add it to Intention page. Choices article may also offer further insights.
      I appreciate you being so open about what is to come and understanding how scary the “not knowing” is for us all…our kids included.

  9. Letting go is so hard! Unfortunately, there is just no way around it. Life is all about letting go. In some ways this can be freeing, like when you let go of a bad boyfriend, ten pounds, or the need to hit the snooze button ten times. In other ways, letting go can be heart wrenching. In my lifetime I’ve let go of hopes, dreams, and the belief that good prevails over evil. And that was just today! Like adults, some children have an easier time letting go than others. I’ll never forget my son’s first day of kindergarten. He got up that morning and came downstairs with his prized stuffed animal, Tigger. He was worried about me and wanted me to have it for the day while he was at school. I was a wreck!
    In the classroom, I see students get stuck in their drawing/writing when they cannot let go of an idea or vision they started out with. They don’t know quite what to do if it’s not working. Many have not learned how to problem solve. In my first adult writing class the professor said that one of the biggest challenges we face as writers is being too attached to something when we really need to let it go.
    In this post you ask the reader to contemplate what might happen if, “We slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in and the content is filled in by each individual in the group?” I think that it allows our students time to work on something, take a step back, think about what they are doing, and make changes. It allows them to problem solve. It allows them the time to let go of one idea and replace it with another. It allows them to have a finished project that may be very different from their original vision. It allows us to, “experience the process.”

    • I love this line, “this can be freeing, like when you let go of a bad boyfriend, ten pounds, or the need to hit the snooze button ten times” as I laugh to myself! Yes, those are things that are a relief to let go of! While I know first hand how hard letting go is and can be, I still work at every day myself because I can clearly see they are not serving me or anyone else, but still I hold on steadfast…but when I finally do let go…I get it. Sometimes it feels like forgiveness. We forgive for ourselves, not for others….

  10. I see so many connections between this blog post and Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how schools kill creativity. The type of thinking that is valued in school is very likely the reason many of the adults struggled with their first attempt at this activity. It’s amazing how quickly adults forget what it feels like to be a student once they become the teacher. Graves’ and your belief that “if we want our teachers to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves”. When I was teaching fourth grade two years ago, I decided to try to do what I was expecting of the children I was teaching. One Saturday I planned, wrote, and illustrated a picture book. I worked on it for seven hours straight and was still nowhere close to finished. It surprised me that I was expecting the children to do that in less time and with so many interruptions to their “flow”. It taught me a lot about teacher expectations and about myself as a learner. This blog post and today’s article remind me that I need to make time for my own writing daily. I owe it to the children to model what I am expecting of them, and how my creativity is still very much alive.

    • It is amazing how much time this “work” takes and I so appreciate your acknowledgment of that in this response. Engaging in the process is the best way to truly gain insight to what we expect of students. Thank you!

  11. WOW! The faces idea is absolutely brilliant. As I was reading this piece I was thinking about what I want my classroom to look like and the workshop model is so freeing, don’t you think? It gives students the opportunity to tune into their interests and things that pique their interest as well. Going back to the faces, I think this a fantastic way to get students to start to think outside the box. We are so conditioned to just produce work that our teachers will be happy with or something that is “right” but who says putting a caterpillar body on a person is wrong? I love the freedom that comes from this entry!

  12. I agree, the faces idea truly is brilliant! It opened up the writer/artist to whatever was there—in there—even though they didn’t know it. In thinking on the song by Passenger, I well up with tears….special song…connected to a heart-wrenching-yet-possibility-for-hope time in my life. As I drove away from a therapeutic school seven hours away…..these lyrics weighted down my shoulders, ironically….as this happened, hair stood on end. In order to help my son be well, I had to let go….and make the long drive from upper state NY to NH. Now, as I sit almost 10 years later, the song connects to me through my own grief and hope in such a different manner. Everything has changed, and my world…..my SELF has changed. The pandemic has made us grow in gnarls or off-shoots of our former selves….and, yes, we are still in here….just a bit twisted or changed, and that is ok.

    In looking at the Faces work, I am reminded to be inspired when I sink into the journeys which lie within my own students’ notebooks. When I delve in and sit with them, I can see into their hearts…and they are a bit gnarled as well from this past two years….but, they are hopeful, and we let that waft through the room at times….despite the weird pushes from admin for competencies and the quiet elephants in the room we must not discuss. The kids are there—-they are the off-shoots. Faces….I am going to try a version of this creative endeavor this week with my students. For old time sake, I may just share the idea with my son as well…..as he continue on his road to wellness all these years later.

    I am grateful to be a learner and a survivor and a teacher. It isn’t always pretty, but it is pretty special.

  13. This line really sums up my passion for teaching: “What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in? What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?”

    I use a similar quote in my signature: “If a child can’t learn by the way we teach, maybe we should teach by the way they learn”- Michael J. Fox

    As a Special Educator I am a HUGE proponent of Project Based Learning. My previous District was a tier 1 P.A.C.E school. We had a great deal of PD surrounding how students learn and express their knowledge through engagement. I even spent a week observing High Tech High in San Diego.

    I find PBL levels the playing field and allows students with disabilities to gain that sense of accomplishment. Buy-in is a huge part of learning. We all know those students who can talk your ear off about a topic they are passionate about! Why not use that momentum in the classroom?

    A perfect example is a student on my caseload who is in Kim’s LA class. This student is very reluctant and often refuses to come to school. The standard Kim was focussing on is theme and figurative language. It’s a little advanced for this student and we feared they might not even attempt it. However, Kim handle it like the pro she is. She had the student pick something they enjoys (they picked a video game). Using pictures of the game, Kim was able to have them describe the theme (e.g. the game’s background story). Next the student had to use descriptive language to talk about where the game takes place. Then the student had to continue using descriptive language to argue which character/ player is the best one to use on certain levels.

    This tiny little tweak worked wonders for this student. They were engaged and laughing. They felt a sense of accomplishment and belonging. All because a teacher allowed them to have permission to utilize something meaningful to them.

  14. I love the reflection of your graduating son. The ways you described him as being like your father and how he takes advantage of what life has to offer really makes me think he is pretty cool. My oldest daughter is a sophomore, so I can just imagine how it is to be at the point to see your child graduate high school.
    I did the face activity at our class. I chose the baby face. I was more realistic than imaginative in my first attempt. The imaginative pieces of art are interesting to look at. I liked looking at all of the drawings.
    I enjoy taking part in experiments where people are instructed to do something without a lot of rules. I once went to a speech by Carol Kranowitz who is an OT and the author of the Out-of-Sync child. She instructed everyone to take a few minutes to draw a childhood moment when they were playing. I chose to draw a scene outdoors. Unbeknownst to me about 80% of the participants also drew outdoors. Her point was that children’s play is how they learn and they do like to play and learn outside just like most of the participants have their memories of playing and learning outdoors.
    I do like to do introspective activities to shed light on my own understanding. Any time I can do an activity like this to show my perspective and unconscious thoughts so to speak is really interesting. It gives me insight into the world.

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