Let’s Simplify, Not Justify: In Defense of the ART of Teaching

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. “

                                                                                                 John Steinbeck

What is the art of teaching??

In the children’s book of the Three Questions, a retelling of the original story by Leo Tolstoy, a young boy is on a quest to find the answers to these three questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?

    Image

    Photo Credit: kellykorenek.wordpress.com

  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

As Nikolai goes off to meet with the wise old tortoise to find the answers to his questions he discovers that when he is not searching for the answers, he actually finds them.   He rescues a mother panda bear and her baby from a terrible storm as the tortoise looks on and observes the boys actions.

Nikolai is still disappointed at the end of this ordeal because he is frustrated that he has not been given the answers.  The tortoise wisely tells him that his questions were answered through his actions.  He ends the story reminding the boy.

Image

Photo Credit: bookimagecollective.blogspot.com

 “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now.  The most important one is always the one you are with.  And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.  For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.  This is why we are here.”

 

This is why we are here and this is why I love to teach in a workshop because this kind of teaching and learning requires us all to be present.   These are the essential questions that matter in my teaching in the moment, an essential part of the “art” of teaching.   Keeping true to this art of teaching requires careful listening, intuition and improvisation on the part of every person in the workshop; most importantly, the teacher.  There is no guidebook to where you can check off what you are going to do because the truth is that you don’t know what you are going to teach until you are in that moment with that child.   Terry Moher, in her work on conferring refers to this as “teaching not knowing.”

Image

Photo Credit: wondergressive.com

 One problem is that there is so much noise and distraction in schools right now .  I would love for every person, administrator, parent, citizen and politician to go and just shadow a teacher for a day.  Yes, one whole day so that they can see first hand just what is being asked of teachers.  So much of what is deemed necessary is done so by others, it has become more about justifying every action, each student, their numbers, their percentages, their scores and less about “who” that student is and what is is they might need.

The distractions away from the simplicity of teaching our students are more numerous than you can even imagine.  There is a hurried frenzy that seems to buzz through so many schools.  Lost is the feeling of nurturing, slowness and taking each moment at a time.  Disappearing from early childhood classrooms are blocks, dress-up centers, imaginative play areas, sand tables and any element of play.  Teachers are more frazzled and students, if they buy in to this system, are as well.  The pressure to perform is on and yet…to what end?

Image

Photo Credit: magazine.byu.edu

When I model lessons in classrooms one of the most common responses is, “that was great, BUT, I don’t have that kind of time to allow kids to think things through.”.  I would argue that we don’t have time NOT to let them think!!  And in this I believe that we all must make choices and for me it is as simple as asking myself and grounding my teaching in these 3 questions, When is the most important time?  Now.  Who is the most important one?  The one I am with.  And what is the right thing to do?   It is to do good for the one at my side.  What if we just made it that simple?  What if that was at the very CORE of what we were doing in all of our schools with all of our kids?

More time to simplify.  Less time to justify.

It just simply makes sense to me.

Image

Photo Credit: http://www.etsy.com

Reflections on Drama, Drama Worlds and the Land of Misfit Kids

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in him time plays many parts.”  William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

 I have always been a great fan of using drama and movement in the classroom.  Here I look at the dramas that unfold regardless of what we do or don’t do.

As I enter the room I look around.  Who is here?  Who is not here?  Who is talking to whom and who is not talking to anyone?  What is the “pulse” of the group today?  Is the energy high?  Low?  Medium?  Do I read stress, playfulness, and exhaustion?  What does this group hold today?  What dramas are unfolding before my eyes?  What will happen in this class today? 

Image

Photo Credit: hobbinol.wordpress.com

 By observing drama worlds within our classrooms we then invite our students to “read” the drama actions going on in their worlds with a heightened sense of awareness, reflection and learning.  Each classroom is unique just as each individual within each classroom is unique.  Understanding one’s self, the group and being able to “see” from someone else’s point of view allows us to teach empathy and real life skills that will be forever invaluable for our students.  We can call this “dramatic consciousness” where we ask of our students and ourselves to be aware of what is happening in and around us, within the books we read, the characters we create and the meaning that we ultimately make for ourselves.

 “Dramatic consciousness means bring aware that there is dramatic action taking place in one’s life, in one’s work, in the lives of the people who make up the school community.  It implies being present to that drama, engaged in its passions, struggles and adventures, rather than being psychologically distant, removed from the action.”

                                             Robert J. Starratt, The Drama of Schooling: The Schooling of Drama

One year, my first year at a new school I had the privilege of getting a class of “misfits”.  I say this with love for each of these children, but the truth of the matter was that I had gotten all of the students whose parents had not made requests for other teachers.  I was new, the unknown and the keeper of all of the students whose parents did not know to make requests or were just not interested in doing so.  This group of kids was one of the most challenging and consequently rewarding groups I have ever worked with.  We spent much of the year working on group dynamics and accepting people for who they were.  When I say misfits I am talking about all of those kids who had something incredibly special about them that had yet to be nurtured.  They were a group for whom school was not a comfortable stage.  They were a group, who by the end of the year became the tightest knit group of students I have ever had.

 “And so faith is closing your eyes and following the breath of your own soul down to the bottom of life, where existence and non-existence have merged into relevance.  All that matters is the little part you play in the vast drama.”             

                                  -Anonymous

 As individuals they were as different as they were talented.  The everyday work of school, sitting at one’s desk and performing a series of tasks was not going to work for not just a couple of them, but literally for none of them.  If they were not coded then they were labeled with some kind of something that supposedly hindered their ability to learn.  They were also the group that took to drama more than any other.  It was a way for them to be and to show their learning through movement.  It was what eventually made this group do things that were beyond comprehension.  Every day was filled with dramatic activities and chances for kids to “become” someone other than themselves.  Puppetry, theater, role-playing, Picture Book Dramas, Joke – Telling, Songs, Poet’s Theater were parts of every day often inspired by the students themselves.

 One beautiful spring day I was called to the principal’s office to discuss an upcoming “fight” that was to take place the very next day.  The rumor was that many of the kids in my class were involved.  Involved?  That was putting it mildly.  They had all gotten together as a class for each recess for weeks and worked on the planning and execution of this upcoming “event”.  It was to be a showdown between two boys in our class who had agreed to “fight”.  There was a marketing committee who went around at each recess talking up the upcoming event.  There was a sales committee that created and sold tickets to the event.  There were judges, participants and even prizes to be donated by various other students in the class.  There were flyers made, and all of the the other third grade classes were buying the tickets and oh yes, did I mention, they were also placing bets on who would be the winner?  In their own time they had created an entire drama world where each of them were the stars.  The organization, thoughtfulness and planning that went into this event was amazing.  But, we were at school and what were we going to do about this?  The fight was cancelled, much to the relief of the contenders and monies were returned to the rightful owners.  Letters of apology were written and yet, through it all there was a part of me that was actually proud of these kids and what they had almost pulled off.

“I love acting.  It is so much more real than life.” 

                                  -Oscar Wilde

Image

Photo Credit: http://www.tumblr.com

So, I took the pulse of the group and ran with it.  We broke down the drama of the event they had planned, unpacked it and gathered on the carpet and discussed all of the skills they used to plan and eventually execute such an event.  After mapping them out I proposed that we use all of these skills in order to plan an event that might actually help someone or a cause.  The thinking began and the ideas started to flow.  What would we do?  At the time we were studying the rainforest and after careful consideration it was decided that we, as a class, would buy a portion of a rainforest.  The efforts to raise money began as the kids headed up different committees and the money was eventually earned and we purchased an acre of a rainforest that would never be destroyed.  We received a picture and a document stating it had been saved and the best part was that out of this planning and execution nobody got hurt and even better part of the world was saved.

“Life is like an overlong drama through which we sit being nagged by the vague memories of having read the reviews.”

                              John Updike

 It seems to me that too often in our school worlds we see things in black and white.  Sure, what they planned was inappropriate for school, but as a group it was an amazing feat.  Here was a group of kids who lingered on the outskirts of the popular kids, who became, as a group, the focus of the third grade recess.  They had planned an event that every other third grader wanted to be a part of.  As a group these students created and made a drama world where they were center stage and not behind the scenes where most of them had been most of their school careers.  And even as I write this I realize that this is not completely true because many of those kids were front and center, but not in a place that was helping them.  Many were in trouble with the “law” for numerous accounts and even in this we need to ask, what is the drama action that is happening and what need is it fulfilling?  Attention.  Working together they were able to get this attention in a positive way.

 We spend a great deal of time focusing on everything that is wrong.  What is right?    These kids were brilliant….but school was never a place where their genius was discovered.  I just think we can do better.  And part of better is helping kids to see their roles in life, in school and as individuals.  Lights, Camera…ACTION!

Image

Photo Credit: shakespeareinaction.wordpress.com

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in him time plays many parts.”  William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

 

 

 

 

 

Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John

One sticky New Hampshire July summer evening while hosting the annual lobster and clamfest for our UNH Summer Literacy Institute, Donald Murray was in the house.  Now you must know that to have Don in my house was an honor.  He was a man I had admired since I was an undergraduate and then here he was all hot and buttered fingers and faces on the back deck with the rest of us.

Image

Donald Murray

And then it happened.  He walked right up to me and asked, “Who wrote the poem, ‘Over the John’?”  I froze.  What?  The ultimate test had come my way and as my face heated up and I began to sweat, I flipped through the suddenly empty files in my brain, wracking it for any poet I could think of.  The words, who wrote Over the John? Over the John?, Over the John?, reverberated in my head.  As I agonized I realized he was staring at me…waiting for an answer and so finally, in the ultimate defeat I simply admitted, “I don’t think I know that poem.”  At which point Donald Murray let out a larger than life guffaw of a laugh and re-stated, “No, the poem over the john in the bathroom, who wrote that?”

And in my state of stunned stupidity it still took me a moment to actually realize that he was not testing me at all but simply asking me a question to which I knew the answer.  “Oh!  My daughter wrote that in 3rd grade.”  To which he responded that she was quite a little writer.  And then he left me there in all of my shame to melt in my sense of stupidity.  I hate tests.  I have always hated tests and this was a self-imposed one.  The pressure makes me stupid.

Image

The “actual” poem over the john!

So what if we are all made stupider by tests?  And if that is not the case then what about the some of us that are?  I will admit it; I am one of the worlds worst test takers.  When I see a question and then the 4 possible answers I try to think about the “right” one and while one might seem “more” or “less” right, I get stuck on imagining the possibilities of what “could” or “could not” be right.  I see grey in a world of black and white.  I stammer in the ideas that the test is probably trying to trick me and so I get obsessed with thinking about outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting the test.  Yes, I want to be the sole Survivor, but I get too caught up in the game and then I simply freeze and ultimately I am blindsided and voted off the island.  I lose.

This past weekend in NYC at Barnard (see previous post as well as here:  Totalwebcasting.com/live/columbiatc/20130504/ for live on streaming) was eye opening on so many levels.  It made me wonder about so many things…many of which have to do with testing and beyond.  I heard stories, saw grown men weep, and felt passion so great it was palpable.  I met people that I have only “known” on-line for the first time in person.

I was welcomed into Renee Dinnerstein’s (See her blog here:  http://investigatingchoicetime.com/)   home in Brooklyn…our first face to face meeting ever and she hosted me for 2 nights.   We talked for all the time I was there.  She introduced me to her husband, Simon and his incredible works of art that line their Brooklyn Brownstone and beyond.   She took me to the public schools of NYC, gave me history of the area, of her life, the schools, the system.  We visited an exhibit at the Brooklyn art museum by Anatsui, amazing!!  Thank you Renee for your kind hospitality and for bringing together great minds for brunch where I also met Vicki Vinton, (See Vicki’s blog here: http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/)  on-line colleague, for the first time.   But most of all I learned that I am not alone in this endeavor.  There are so many of us out there who are so discouraged, outraged and ready to take action.

Image

Tomasen and Renee at Anatsui exhibit

And while I was hoping to have a great post synthesizing the weekend, I realize I still have a great deal of processing to do.

And so as my 16-year-old Zachary heads out the door for his annual NECAP testing this morning he seems to be fine with it.  Both of my kids are better test takers than I am.   In fact, he enjoys the testing perks…early senior privileges and the fact that teachers are not allowed to give homework during testing because they want students performance to be stellar.  (Is it just me or can you see how ironic this is?)  Our schools are ready and willing to help students get more sleep FOR the tests, but not for everyday schooling.  Sometimes I think I am crazy, or just looking for answers in my brain that are just not there.  Am I asking the right questions?  That is the real question, or am I just searching for something over the john?

You tell me.

sols_6 (2)

Alternatives and Activism: Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

This weekend I will join educational colleagues, professionals, parents, students and friends at Barnard College in New York City to “take back” the Conversation on Education.  Does it strike me that this is close to the name of my blog?  Why yes, and while it initially inspired me to make this trip, it was more about the idea that “we” can actually DO something about what is happening in the corporate takeover of our public school systems.  This is the blurb that made me sign-up.

“If you want to move beyond the focus on test scores, performance outcomes, standardization, and data aggregation, if you are tired of seeing your students deprived of real educational opportunities, if you worry teaching is being reduced to test prep and educators are losing their autonomy and academic freedom, and if you believe all our children should have access to a curriculum and extra-curriculum that are far more engaging that stripped down cram courses or subsistence level job training, then this is the conference for you.”

Image

And if that didn’t convince me then this panel of experts certainly did!!

“Hear speakers such as Susan Ohanian, Barbara Bowen, Carol Burris, Zakiyah Ansari, Juan Gonzalez, Barbara Madeloni, Ceresta Smith, Brian Jones, Nikhil Goyal, Ann Cook, and Shino Tanikawa and join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”

But of course the real kicker is that last line, “join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”  What a great line!  At first I recall being in college and while taking one of my initial  courses in education we were assigned the task of doing something we had never done before.  The goal was to get out of our comfort zones and to reflect on that experience.  I chose to go to a local anti-nuclear demonstration.   I did not have to do much to dress the part as anyone who knew me in High School or college knows that I came by the “crunchy” quite naturally.  What I remember the most about this rally was the collective energy and power that I felt there.  It was exhilarating, amazing and empowering.  It was a place where I began to develop and strengthen my voice.

Flash forward, too many years to count, and I find myself at dinner in Ohio with my daughter and 6 of her college friends at a round table where the discussion centered on the increase in tuition for students going abroad, a policy that was delivered to students at an informational meeting.  They were outraged at the way it was handled and so I asked them, “What can you do about this?”   Their collective reply was “nothing”.

They felt they did not have a voice in the policy at Kenyon College even though they entered 2 years prior with a very real sense of what the cost would be for the 4 years.  I talked to them about a Grandfather Clause and what they might be able to do.  This tuition increase was a major hit to most of these kids and yet the overwhelming consensus what that they did not feel empowered, they did not believe they had any voice; they did not believe that anything they might do would matter.

And so, in my not so subtle manner I started asking questions and suggesting ways to let their voices be heard.  By the end of the meal they were fired up and had grand plans to set up a table during parents weekend to bring attention to this issue, as parents were never formally informed and would not even know until the tuition bill arrived in the mail.  And while they had visions of posters and signs and standing up for their rights…none of this actually ever happened.  Why?  Because ultimately they did not believe it would matter.

Isn’t college the perfect place to get  involved in make change?  Have we lost this generation to the cow towing and conformity that they have had a steady diet of?   Or have they just not yet discovered the power of their voices?  Or, are they right?

Looking again at that last line…I get a different feel.  We will gather to “mobilize resistance” and it hits me, these are wartime words.  These are the words of troops and lieutenants.  And I wonder…have we really come that far?  Is this an all out war?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I do know that I have such passionate discourse about what is happening and that while blogging about it has helped me to research further and write down my thoughts I realize it is not enough.

I want to join the collective voice of others at the rally.  I want to begin the process of change with like-minded people who are not going to just sit at the table and watch this happen.  I want to join with the forces that believe we CAN and WILL do something.   I want to show this younger generation that there is power in numbers and activism and alternatives to just accepting whatever comes down the proverbial pipeline.  I want to model that they too can have their voices be heard.

cartoon6399 (1)

Photo Credit: teacherscount.wordpress.com

So…here I go…off to the Big Apple.  Perhaps I will dig out one of my old Indian skirts, find a complimentary embroidered shirt and sandals for the occasion….and had I thought of it earlier I could have even gotten a perm, “Wonder Tomasen…activate!”

For more information on this conference check out the blog http://reclaimingconversation.blogspot.com  It will also be live streamed.

All in Favor of Free Range Children, Say Bok!

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. ~ Dalai Lama

Last year my sister ordered 16 baby chicks in the mail so that she could have her own eggs and know exactly where they came from.  Her goal: to raise happy, healthy free range chickens fed the top of the line organic food.  No antibiotics or cheap genetically modified corn products for these chickens au natural!

She loves her chickens.  When they first graduated from the warmly lit crate in the house to the coop she would go daily for “play time”, sit with them and hold them and even talk to them.  Her thinking… happy, loved chickens will eventually produce happy healthy eggs.  Can you say “crazy chicken lady?”  But truly what she was doing really made so much sense!!  Crazy or not!

Image

Sister Lisa with one of her “Goldies”!

There are more and more people ordering baby chicks to free range them.  There are many movements to eat locally and small farms seem to be sprouting up everywhere you look.  We are urged to get back to our roots and consider where our food comes from.  We know that GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) are taking over all of our food sources.  These modifications involve the mutation, insertion or deletion of genes to produce something more quickly, more efficiently and to be adverse to pests or to improve the shelf life of a particular food.  What is happening is we are creating foods that our bodies do not recognize and that we cannot process.  The results are out there.  Just look around and see more obesity than ever in history.  We are farming with our heads and forgetting our hearts and we are hurting our food sources and ultimately ourselves.  So the movement is to move closer to home, closer to the heart.

Free ranging is defined where animals are ”permitted to graze or forage rather than being confined to a feedlot.”  And if you have not seen those feedlots then it is well worth your while to check them out.  There are various documentaries that show how these poor chickens are raised to mass-produce and it is completely inhumane.  (See King Corn, Farmageddon or Food Fight)

Image

And I would argue here that what we are doing to our kids in schools is equally inhumane.  The idea of kids mass-producing great numbers on sterile tests is so far away from why we are here on this earth and what really matters.  It is education without heart.  It is education without soul.  It is education without wonder, curiosity and surprise.  It is all about the brain.  We are intellectualizing ourselves right out of ourselves. We need heart AND mind!!

While I am a proponent of competition in some areas of life, this notion of competing has become the GMO’s of education. Performance is all that is looked at and yet what do we need for our kids to perform?  They need just what the chickens do!  They need opportunities to be free and think and make decisions and to fail and ultimately they need their own version of “the crazy chicken lady”.  Someone who is so dedicated to their needs and the raise them as well-rounded and happy chickens!!  There are so many crazy chicken ladies (and men) out there dying to do their jobs but are less and less able to do so.  We are hurting our kids and our teachers and everyone else involved with the sole purpose of production.  It is a business model that is being taken to the extreme.

Image

If all we ask of our students is to perform then we are going to crack and break them one precious egg at a time.  And dare I even say, what happens when they don’t perform?  Will we then consider genetically modifying them to fit in?  Call me crazy, but I think this has already begun with the increase of kids who are medicated in our schools for ADD and the likes.  Why?  So that they will conform to the feedlot of corporate education.

Image

Hmmmm…and so I imagine a world of free -range children…where schools are a place where hearts and minds  are permitted to graze and explore instead of being confined to the feedlot of corporate America.  What a beautiful fantasy this is.  Can you even imagine?

It makes me think of my dear friend and colleague, Louise, who tells a great story about teaching preschool in the 70’s in northern New Hampshire.  On any given day she and her co- teachers might decide it was a nice day for a field trip.  So they would load up all the kids in the VW bus, leave a note on the door for parents as to their whereabouts and head off to the local mountain or lakeside or whatever their fancy.  For me this is the epitome of free range education and something that would never happen today.

The corporate takeover in education is daunting.  The more people and parents and friends and anyone  I talk to outside of education don’t even know what is going on.  Even those of us in education are often left helpless with the enormity of the situation and just how enmeshed it all is. I just want to say BOK in favor of free range children and baulk at these takeovers and say enough is enough.   Will you Bok with me?  Just say Bok!!

I love eating the eggs from my sister’s chickens.  There is something so perfect about it…I mean even my son when he had his first taste of these eggs exclaimed, “these are the best eggs in the world!!”  And they are.  They are not like supermarket eggs.  They are all different shapes and sizes and the color of them is glorious.  A deep orange that screams with great energy, love and hope!

I know, I know…all that in just one egg!  But you know…it is all in that one egg.  The love, nurturing, heart, soul and respect for the production of that egg that goes on to nurture those who eat it and so on.  The same can be said of taking care of and nurturing our kids in schools…one egg at a time. Bok Bok!!

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt  “~ Dalai Lama

Photo Credits: www.slow-life.co.uk , www.mamamia.com.austrategicoutcomesgroup.com

The Joys of Teaching: Bringing Back the Poetry, the Puppetry and the People

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”

~Einstein

Sometimes life it just too much.  Things come flying at you faster than you can handle and the goal becomes to just get through each and every day and to do the best that you can.  In the midst of great busyness you check things of the list and move on.  But at some point you stop and realize that you are not living as much as creating a record of living.  I may be “doing”all of the mechanical movements to get through a day, but the mundane checks on the list mean very little in my life.

ImageI believe that we get what we give, you know, karma and all of that great stuff.  And as I read through my blog posts I realize how much power and energy I myself have given to the Common Core State Standards.  So I decided to devote one entire class with my graduate students of teachers and devote it to the joys of teaching.  I asked each teacher in my group to think about and come to class with a unit, an idea, collaboration, a lesson that they loved.

And I wish you could have felt the energy, the laughter, and yes even the tears that came out of this discussion.  One teacher talked about how she had her students make toothpaste. Students would bring in ingredients that they then combined with baking soda and water. One teacher chimed in talking about how her daughter was in that class and how they brought in chocolate extract and how disgusting chocolate toothpaste was.  She laughed at the great messiness and engagement and sheer joy in this experiment.Image

Others talked about great units they had planned with colleagues and how those units moved children.  Another spoke of her grand puppet making and how those puppets were then used to create and show meaning within a social studies unit.  I wish I could have bottled that energy…but there is no way to measure that energy so it is deemed useless.  But at the same time it was the excitement behind the thinking that went into the planning and execution of these lessons, units and projects.  And if these teachers were this excited just talking about them they you know the execution of them was the same…and that energy then becomes the energy of the classroom!

I talked about one of my all time favorite units when I was a third grade teacher in Barrington, NH.  Our team created the most incredible unit on the history of Barrington.  It included storytelling as we brought in the Calef’s and their descendents and neighbors who told great tales of the grist mills and the endless springs walking to school in feet of mud. And what incredible storytellers these elders were!   Students would hear these stories and then research and read stories of their own to tell at a celebratory tea where parents and townspeople were invited to hear their stories.  They were also asked to interview someone in the community and we compiled these interviews into books to be shared with the town.  Every day was filled with Barrington history as I read through the town history book and uncovered more great tales to tell.  The month long unit ended with the great town tour.  This was more of a scavenger hunt really where we handed out riddle books with clues and questions.  This book was their guide and they had to think to figure out where they were going.  Small groups would pile into parents cars and off they would go to the Isinglass Riverbanks to the old schoolhouses, where they would be invited in and given a brief history.  I can’t even tell you how much the townspeople welcomed our kids into their homes; some even made snacks and drinks in preparation for their day of visitors.

I have heard that parts of that unit actually still exist in Barrington Elementary, but that the big parts, like the town tour are no longer allowed because of liability.  How sad that litigation gets in the way of good learning?  Once again it is the checks that matter…no more unsafe driving conditions for kids.  (Ironic if you have ever ridden on a school bus with no seatbelts really!)   Never mind how beneficial that town tour was and how it connected the taxpayers to the students and was a starting point in bringing the town together, creating connections and community between the young and the old.   What matters are the details (the devil lives there doesn’t he?) and all of the other minutiae that clog up each and every day.

And so after each teacher had a chance to talk about their joyful teaching we gathered into small groups and I asked these teachers to go through the Common Core State Standards and begin to plug in the standards that were actually covered in those units.  In no time at all they were listing standard after standard.  There is very little that is new in these standards but we are coming at it from the wrong direction.  Why?  Because there is money to be made by large corporations (Pearson) and why consult the experts in the field when you can have people who have nothing to do with education create what you need?

And so I ask, why don’t we spend more time in these joyful spaces talking about what we DO DO instead of always what we don’t do?  Why can’t we bring back poetry, and puppetry and create spaces where people want to be?  Why can’t we create thematic units where students look forward to 3rd grade and the town tour almost as a right of passage?  What is missing in the efforts to implement these standards is the whole.  We are so concerned with each little increment and how to “cover” that small piece that we are not doing anything that is connected to anything else…the whole is gone…and without the whole there are just a bunch of pieces floating about randomly in space never to be connected.

Image

And so I am going to attempt to remain in a place of joy through National Poetry Month. My goal is to read and write poetry each and every day of April.  I will start today and each day I am with students, children and teachers I will have a poem in my pocket to share.  Not so that I can check something off the list, but just for the sheer enJOYment of it.

I will leave you with one of my all time favorites:

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Stories as Community

I come from a long line of great storytellers. It started with my grandfather. Some of the best stories he actually wrote to me in letters while I was at camp.  Stories about the snake that had invaded our play schoolhouse in his yard and how he had tricked it with magic snake dust and was laughing hysterically as he watched that snake cough it’s way down the street never to return.  I still smile at this image.

Image

A letter from Grandpa

Then there is my father.  I remember it was as if everything in the room would just stop should he begin to tell a story.  You see he doled these stories out like little crumbs.  They were told so infrequently that when they did come you knew it was time to stop and listen.  He tells stories with the greatest sense of anticipation.  It is like he takes you on this wonderful ride and you go through every up and down and turn with him word by word.   It’s funny, but now that he has gotten older, he falls into his storytelling mode daily.  He loves telling them and although you may have just heard it the day before, you still want to listen as it is in the telling that you find great joy.  And he knows this and so he prefaces each story with, “I may have already told you this but…” and he tells it again.

Image

Dad

Then there is my sister.  She can take any mundane daily activity, like feeding her chickens and turn it into a tale.  Honestly, I am always amazed at how she can take anything and make it fascinating.  I always think she is truly living life like nobody else I know for in the retelling of her days there are countless short stories and anecdotes.  And I wonder, is she crafting these stories as she is living them or does that come after the fact?  Imagine living as if each move that you make is one to be retold in a story later.  Everybody loves to be with Lisa because of her great energy and ability to find the humor is EVERYthing!

There are days she and I will be out in the woods hiking or on the ski lift and her narratives unwind one after the other.  Even better is after she has a couple glasses of wine and the stories flow right along with it.  Together we often rebound off of each other with our stories and we entertain ourselves endlessly.  My Dad always says we sound like a bunch of old hens cackling away.  We tickle ourselves with our tales and then go on to the next one.  We amuse each other.

Image

Tomasen and Lisa Hiking

Then there are the family legends.  You know, those stories that start out simply and then grow and grow with each telling.  One of the classics is from the summer of 1978, a brutally hot summer when my parents decided we would take one of our only family vacations.  Visions of amusement parks, Disney and swimming pools danced in our heads as we all went running to our rooms to get ready  for the 3 am departure to none other than, Newfoundland.  Yes, 3 kids under the age of 15 all crammed into the green, side paneled Pontiac station wagon for a two week, 4,000-mile road trip to Newfoundland and yes, even a lovely Atlantic crossing over to Labrador.  There are so many stories from this one vacation from it being the first time I ever hearing my Dad “swear” telling us kids in the back that all we did was eat, fight and fart, to the hotel room with the one bare light bulb, bed bugs, drunkards wandering around and the beach front where we played amongst the jellyfish and broken glass for hours.

Then there is my brother who is also a master of words.  He can spin a yarn and sell anyone just about anything.  He is masterful with his superlatives and relentless in his enthusiasm.  His stories are often filled with small bits of information that nobody knows.  As my Dad says, he knows more about everything than I know about even one thing.  He too can keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat for hours.

Image

Tomasen and Jamie

Stories provide us with a sense of belonging to something that is bigger than ourselves and each time one of these comes up there is an energy that surrounds them.  We all laugh as the telling begins and those who have married into the family often find the need to leave as once we get going there is no stopping us.  They exit the room saying, “Here we go again, the one bare light bulb and the drunks in Labrador stories…”

Then there are the stories that were told at Jimmy’s celebration of life last weekend.  Jimmy, 23 years old passed away from Ewing’s Sarcoma on March 16th.  (See previous post)  In lieu of a funeral his family organized a service of stories.  One after the other were people who took the stage and told of a boy, a man, a son, a brother with the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known.  It was not just a rambling of how wonderful Jimmy was…you know the words that anyone could say about anyone, but detailed stories that I find I play over and over in my mind.  Stories that punctuated who he was and what he believed in.

And then I meet with a group of teachers and they tell me that they do not have room in their schedules for read aloud anymore.  And my heart sinks and aches for all of those stories that will not be told, read, discussed and written.  For some kids these will be the only stories they will hear. There is scientific research in the area of stories and how those enrich and actually activate our brains in ways that we don’t even know.”

See here for Your Brain on Fiction, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share&_r=0It states, “By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains”

See Vicki Vinton’s latest post here to see what is happening and the kinds of texts 3rd graders are being asked to navigate independently, and all this without daily practice with stories. http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/.  This post speaks about what so many of us are so heartbroken over.

And in the end, I ask, what stories will be told after we are gone?  They will not be stories of the scores we got on what tests, or the achievements we made or the trophies we accumulated.   They will be the stories of connection and what made us unique and individual, the stories that demonstrate how we were part of something larger in this world, how we touched others, the humorous stories, and how we integrated ourselves independently into a larger sense of the world.  Those are the stories that will live on.

So how do we change the narratives that are being played out in our schools?  In another article, The Stories That Bind Us, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0,

Bruce Fieler states,

“The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.”  He goes on to say, “ The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

And this idea of narrative is taken even further as corporations work to develop community.  Developing community is one of the hallmarks  of a great teacher.  Time in the beginning of each year used to be devoted to creating these communities and creating the narratives where each student became a part of a larger story.  These days, there is no time to create community because there is testing in October so often Community building is replaced with test prep.

We are only as good as our stories and I am finding myself feeling almost embarrassed on some level to claim that I am in education, that I believe in the right to a fair and equal public educational system for all when this system has taken on a life of its own and missing is any sense of story that I would ever want to be a part of.  It is the story of money and corporate power.  And so we must work together to re-write this narrative into one where each character matters and has a part in the larger story, because the alternative is a sterile ground with words on a page that nobody wants to read.

And it begins like this…Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to go to school everyday to see classmates, to discover new ideas, to create, to sing, to play, to explore, to inquire, to wonder, to read and write and be a part of her larger school community…

One story at a time…