Remembering Jean Robbins

I read an essay, ham of god, by Anne Lamott to begin class this week.   I used to read aloud all the time, but as with many good practices we just let them slide to the wayside. I read because I was trying to find some humor, solace and some kind of sense of all that is happening in the world. I read because my dear friend and mentor, Jean Robbins always said, read aloud.

Jean passed away on November 8th. Jean was one of those people who comes into your life and never leaves. She was kind, generous and incredibly good at connecting people and to people herself. I am forever grateful to have known her.

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I attended her service yesterday afternoon, only to be greeted by so many faces from the past. It was as if a timeline of my teaching career spread across the room, from my Maplewood School Ed 500 teacher, Karolina Bodner and Internship principal, Dennis Harrington and fellow intern, Judy George to Maryellen Webb one of my first teaching partners at Barrington Elementary School to Nancy Barcelos, one of my teaching colleagues from Pollard School in Plaistow to Rachel Small, a student I have had in class for LTT to David McCormick who teaches at the Writer’s Academy to Ellin Erwin who’s daughter was in my Writer’s Academy class 2 summers ago to Maryellen Giacobbi, whose work with Don Graves changed the way we taught writing forever.

It hit me that so many of the amazing educators in my life were in some way connected to Jean. This was no accident. I was not alone in this as we stood talking “Jean” people began to make more and more connections…”oh you know so and so….” and that is how the legend of Jean will live on as we each continue to make these connections one at a time, for a lifetime.

You see, Jean and I met while she was a supervisor of interns many years ago at Barrington Elementary School. I had a troubled intern who would often show up to work so hung-over that she could not function. Jean and I banded together and recommended that she not move forward with her career in teaching. (This was not something that was done, as by the time one made it to their internship it was pretty much a done deal that they would go on to teach!) I am not sure what happened to that intern, but Jean and I had formed a bond by making a tough decision, but the right decision.

So when my daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with Leukemia at 3 and a half, I walked out of my 4th grade classroom at the Pollard School and never returned to a classroom full time again. When I thought my teaching career was over I called Jean about a year into Emma’s treatment as a stay at home Mom with a sick child and her younger brother who never sat still. I was exhausted, housebound and NEEDED something to get me out and to get my brain working again. Jean promptly set up a meeting and introduced me to Tom Newkirk and Louise Wrobleski, two of the most influential people in my life today.   They offered me a consultant position at the Sandown school. I accepted as it meant I would work one day a week, a day to be out and be something other than mother and caretaker.

I was so excited that I ran out and bought the very first car phone, the size of a small loaf of bread so that I could be contacted if needed as Mom and went back to work in this capacity. As time went on and Emma got healthier my load increased until one day Tom offered me a part –time position as Field Coordinator for Learning Through Teaching and that is where I have been for the past 15 years. Jean changed the course of my life and for that I am forever grateful.

I always said I wanted to be like Jean when I grew up, always traveling, swapping her home before HomeExchange or Airbnb even existed. I learned at her service that she had been abroad 50 times and her son in law, Gary listed them all. I always knew Jean missed LTT meetings as she was often travelling, but 50 times! WOW!! I guess it is time to grow up, to take and create every travel opportunity I can and just do it!

I started when I walked out that door and had a choice to go home or to follow through with my plans to revisit my singing sisters for a sing along in Portsmouth with Voices From the Heart. I was tired, but I knew that Jean would have gone because she said she was going. As I drove along route 4 towards Portsmouth I noticed the sky was turning a slight pink. The further I drove, the more intense the colors became. I reveled in these colors and pulled over in Newick’s parking lot, the smell of fried everything wafting in the air, to capture it. It seemed like the perfect end to a service where one woman impacted so many people’s lives and while what she did seems short of miraculous, I realize what she did was to fight for children, to stand up for what was right for kids and teachers and to connect people near and far.

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Jean’s sunset from Newicks.

I remember Jean telling me a story about being at a train station in Germany and while there was a language barrier, Jean laughed her wonderful laugh and recalled a little boy tugging on his mothers shirtsleeve screaming, “NEIN, NEIN!!” Through her laughter she said, “NO, is one word that is universal and sounds pretty much the same in every language”. And then she listed off all of the translations of no she could remember.

So I salute you, Jean Robbins, Grand Dame of education in New Hampshire, as the sun sets on a beautiful life, a life that touched so many. May we all live with an open heart, listen to each other, reach across our borders and connect with each other and the world.

You are loved. You are missed.

Good Night Jean.

 

 

Firsts, Lasts, Forevers and Newkirk

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.” Mary Oliver

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Throwback, Emma (4th) and Zachary (1st) first day of school.

So its that time of the year again, where my FB and twitter feeds all fill with accolades, videos, quotes, sayings, jokes, and images of going back to school; whether it is  first grade lunchbox photos or first college drop off dorm rooms everyone seems to be “on their way” somewhere new. Conversations are abuzz with who has what teacher and who is going where.

It is the time of year that I often lament not having my own classroom, but trust me, it is like wanting another baby, and it is gone as quickly as it comes. And while I think about the birth of a new class and all of the excitement that happens on that first day, raising that class has become increasingly daunting since the late 80’s when I started teaching.

So, I finally let my NH State Certification expire. This was a biggie!! I mean I never left the classroom intentionally. It just happened and I believe there was a time when I thought I would always spend all of my days with other people’s kids until my own got sick, so letting this certificate go was the last step in my own process of letting go of a life that wasn’t.

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Sample Cairn, many more coming in the mail soon…thank you Heinemann!!

And so I begin my 15th year at UNH as a Field Coordinator and Instructor for Learning Through Teaching. 15 years! How did THAT happen? And although I don’t have the physical space of a classroom I begin reading and planning and plotting places and spaces in my mind even though I SWEAR every year that I am going to take August off, there I am on my deck with a cairn of professional books at my side…seeking the perfect “forever” book for each of the graduate courses I will be teaching in this coming year. I gather books like eggs and read with great hope that I will find exactly what I need to hatch meaningful experiences for my teachers and their kids.

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Zach begins is sophomore year in College.

And so at this time of excitement where everyone returns to school with great anticipation, hope and wonder, I have also been at this long enough to know that soon that fervor will calm and that the day to day will begin to wash away the smell of the new clothes, the bulletin boards will begin to fade in the slowing summer light, the shiny new sharp crayons will dull and break and the real school year will begin.

So when I am reading I am asking myself, what professional book can I find that will actually sustain my teachers throughout an entire year? What will help them to think more deeply? How do I find a text that will “speak” to everyone? Can I find a “forever” book for someone?

And so here I have decided to pay homage to those tried and true texts about the teaching of Reading; the ones that have changed me. The ones that are forever on my shelf through yearly discards and endless book drops. I have also decided to limit this list to 5 books and I realize that was much harder than I thought it was going to be!! That is good news.

mosaic-of-thought2Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keen and Susan Zimmerman

In the early 90’s, I was part of a committee in Barrington, NH and Grant Cioffi was on the committee. I had his son in my 3rd grade class and had taken several courses with him at UNH. He was nothing short of brilliant and his death was a loss beyond comprehension.  He is loved and missed by so many.

We were working on reading interventions and I remember saying, “I wish I could just ‘see’ inside the minds of my kids.’” Grant and I spent overtime batting this idea around but always came up short. Enter Mosaic of Thought. Never had I read a book on reading that actually created a way to begin to make thinking visible. And while I fully admit to my “teacher crush” on Ellin, she remains an icon of change in the teaching world. During that time the PEBC out of Denver was a force to be reckoned with and many other great work came out of this collaboration. (Oh I want to include Cris Tovani here too!)   If you have not read this book and the new edition then you are truly missing out! Read it as a reader, just purely READ it and savor it.

download (2)In The Company of Children by Joanne Hindley

For many years this book was a fall back for me!! Whenever I couldn’t find anything I would seek out this purple, pink and blue gem and find what I needed! Joanne brings both the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop to life in between these covers and allowed me to see that this rewarding work was something that anyone could do. If you don’t know Joanne, she was part of  The Manhatten New School in NYC where Shelley Harwayne (Oh man,  how can I not include a Shelley book?)   was principal. Upon visiting this school it was apparent that EVERYONE was a reader, from the security guard sitting at the door, her stack of books beside her, to the bathrooms that were wallpapered in book jackets. Reading was valued, adored and respected and it was something EVERYONE did! Joanne’s book oozes with this collaboration and connection. Thank you Joanne.

41DAM18YC7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You Gotta Be the Book by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

If you know anything about me then you also know that I have this affinity for dressing people up in hats and props and bringing reading and writing to life using drama. Enter Jeff Wilhelm. He wrote the book that affirmed all of the “silliness and fun” in my teaching. He validated and gave language to what I intuitively knew was good teaching.   We brought him to UNH years ago to our annual Learning Through Teaching One Day Workshop and he had teachers eating out of his hand, playing historical rolls, futuristic rolls and all with great depth and meaning.  Thank you Jeff!

9780325030739_p0_v1_s260x420What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse

Reading this book was a breath of fresh air that I didn’t know I had been craving. Vicki and Dorothy combine the language of writing and the ideas of revising to thinking and distill the strategy work started by Keene and Zimmerman into a holistic approach to thinking. The simplicity of noticing and naming are at the foundation of this brilliant book that again, aims at getting at the thinking of our kids! Thank you Vicki and Dorothy for this masterpiece!  I have already used it with several of my graduate students and it is always a hit!

12099809The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk

I remember sitting at a Learning Through Teaching meeting and Tom laughing at himself saying, “Who am I to write a book on reading?” And yes, in perfect Tom style then went on to rehearse this book with our group. He “outed” himself on the first page as a slow reader and invited the rest of us who are slow readers into the conversation. When I read this manuscript I sat down with Tom at The Bagelry (and yes it WAS still the Bagelry then!) I told him that what I read felt like his love story with books, it is passionate, heartfelt and brutally honest.   Per usual, Newkirk did not disappoint with this book and his uncanny ability to put into words what so many are thinking, but are afraid to say. In this age where speed is king, Newkirk demands that you stop and think…

newkirk-1And it is no mistake that I end with Tom. You see, Newkirk just retired. Tom has been my mentor, my boss, my friend, and best of all a man who always laughs at my jokes. (Something you don’t want to live without!) I cannot imagine what our Learning Through Teaching group will be without him. (This too is a biggie!)  So I write this out of the deep respect and gratitude as I reflect on my professional life and how forever blessed I have been! You see, I have met many of these authors in some capacity and that is because of Tom. CGbb6piW0AAl2Wx Who knew when I left that classroom so many years ago that I would find myself where I am today.  So Tom Newkirk, I dedicate this blog to you as a Thank You for allowing me the autonomy to teach, the respect to grow and the humor to bookend it all.  My professional life would never have been as rich  had I never met you. (And of course a shout out to the Grand Dame of Education herself, Jean Robbins who started Learning Through Teaching and introduced me to Tom!!)  It is because of you that I have been able to live  “married to amazement” and there is really, no greater gift.  Enjoy your time….  You have not seen the last of me!

Gathering the Light

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle”. Walt Whitman

I love dressing up my house for Christmas. In fact, it may just be my most favorite part of this crazy season. Sure I love seeing people, and finding the perfect gifts and the season of giving and all of that, but there is nothing more creatively satisfying then just being alone in my home and making it merry and bright.

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This year I am obsessed with little lights. I have spent more money on lights than anything else…yet. (I haven’t actually even started my shopping yet!) There is something about lighting up every room with twinkling lights that make it feel…dare I say, like sacred space. Lighting up each room combats the shortness of light we get this time of year.

If you have never lived in New England then it is hard to imagine these days, as they grow shorter and shorter. Your every fiber craves sunshine and warmth.  Your hibernation switch turns on and you have to make yourself leave your warm cave.

But this year I seem to be better at embracing these dark days and seeing them as an opportunity to create. I find great comfort on my couch next to the sparkling Christmas tree. There is peace here. There is nothing I “have” to do, other than work.  The spirit of the empty nest has taken over and I find myself incredibly peaceful in that I don’t have to think about anyone or anything else other than myself. I don’t know if I have ever experienced this before and while I am sure that I must have in my youth, this feels very different. It is liberating and while I love and miss my kids, I am also settling into a space of my own where I am not constantly worrying and trying to fix things as much as I trust them to make their ways in the world. How cool is that?

Trust is something I have been thinking a lot about. There is so little trust in this crazy world it seems. We have to “prove” everything beyond the shadow of a doubt with numbers and statistics. My yoga helps remind me every day of how incredibly simple life could be if only we trusted that things will be the way they are to be. They just are and it is not up to us to try to “fix” everything.

This incessant “fixing” has taken over our schools and in that need to always fix, fix, fix we miss what is working. We miss those faces staring up at us from their desks, little sponges ready and waiting and all we are doing is running around trying to identify their deficits and thus putting out the little lights that are within each of them. It is a dark time in education. I really believe this to be true. It is dark because it is rampant with fear, high stakes and lack of humanity, but perhaps it will be in this time of darkness that greatness will emerge. “Out of darkness comes light…”

Recently I have even heard myself saying that I am not long for this work. This work that I love because of the heavy shadows that seems to hide in every corner, and then I have a class with a group of bright people who give me hope and help me to hang on…

I pulled out of the parking lot and into a glow of gorgeous pinks, oranges and hues of blues. The kind of sky you only wish you could capture in some way, but words and watercolors fall short of the miracle of what it is. And so I savor it as I drive home, breathing in every changing landscape bathed in such a beautiful sunset, trumpeting out this day in a glorious celebration of light dancing with light.

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I smile at the sky and at the conversation left behind minutes earlier and wonder how did I get so lucky to do this “work”? Work isn’t even a good word for it because I love it so much. Work implies that it is grueling and hard, but for me it is just a natural flow of who I am, a better extension of myself than I am or ever could be in my ordinary life.

And in this darkness I find light. In my teachers, in their students, in the fact that they want to be there to discuss, to explore, to learn, to converse, to connect, to find support, to be together on a dark afternoon in December to look beyond the darkness and into the light in each other’s eyes. They light up my life.

Light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Opposites that are always living side by side. Without one we would not have the other and so in the spirit of the season I choose to see the light, the good and the right knowing their counterparts are right there alongside them allowing us the gift of seeing the grey in between because in the end it is both. It is always both and everything in between.   Who or what is the light in your life?

“All is calm, all is bright.”

What We Do In New England: Talk about The Fickle Nature of Winter

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The Day in January that Snow Patties fell from the sky!
by Tomasen

Life in New Hampshire is such that when the end of January comes along, many of us look pale, tired and have large dark circles under our eyes. Others are sick, have been sick or are getting sick. Many are irritable, between vacations and stuck inside without recesses because somewhere along the line we stopped letting our kids out to recess if it goes below 32 degrees.  We LIVE here!  Let the kids out, if even for 10 minutes to get blasted and blessed with some fresh air, be it arctic air to bring them back to life disperse some of those germs into the great outdoors.

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Even the trees feel Januaryied!

So this year it occurred to me that everyone looks and is “Januaryied”.  Yes, Januaryied.  It is my new verb and the funniest part is that when I ask the simple question, “Are you Januaryied?” most just respond with a look of “why yes, I am totally Januaryied.”  No explanation needed.

It is at this time that most of us dream of white sandy beaches, palm trees and yes those lovely drinks with umbrellas in them.  And in this age of Face book we can see others who ARE on sandy beaches, wearing bathing suits, and nursing sunburns…oh the sting of envy is a painful one indeed.

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A Walk in the Woods by Tomasen

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Winter Sky reveals a glimpse of light.
by Tomasen

We can’t help ourselves.  We are stuck in the tundra with no escape from the frigid temperatures we have lived in and through, with smatterings of 45 degree days that melt away the snow leaving the next frigid 10 below day with ice everywhere and very little white snow to adorn much of anything, leaving bare, grey tree branches poking the underbelly of the sky.  It is dreary.  It is forever grey.  It is January.

But alas, we made it through January and now find ourselves in February.  And this February has been a doozy.  Another day, another snowstorm and what used to feel magical now just seems like another chore that has to be dealt with.  Snow shoveling, roof raking to avoid those incessant ice dams, and clearing off the car just one more time before leaving.   February, where one would think we are that much closer to the end of the long winter.  The days begin to lengthen and one can actually see outside at 5 o’clock.

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Miss Ruby Frolicking in the snow.
by Tomasen

This winter I have attempted to walk my dog, Ruby where I end up in the field in time to watch the sun set.  I can’t see sunset from my house, and this new routine has allowed me to see that additional minute or so that we begin to gather each day.  What I have noticed most is the light, the evening light that inspired this poem:

In The Blue Hour of Evening Light

evening light

comes too soon

against the blue hued

mounds of snow

the light no longer lingers

but quickly dips and dives

into the warmth of the horizon

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Evening Light by Tomasen

evening light

a glowing luminous light

proclaiming the passing of yet

another day

evening light

hangs in the distance

momentarily suspended

as my cold feet stand rooted

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Evening Light
by Tomasen

in the deep snow holding me tight

from diving down to catch the light

and hold onto it desperate to

keep the dark away

evening light

casts short shadows that

play with the snowlight

broadcasting indescribable pinks, purples

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More Evening Light by Tomasen

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Hues of Blues
by Tomasen

and so many hues of blues

for all to watch

if they are looking

evening light  is the light I choose

to walk the pup

to pay homage to the end

of yet another day

to rejoice in day’s visit

that lingered a little bit longer today

evening light

I dream of your summer stays

when I come to life

and I can dillydally with you

into the night.

evening light…

There is hope in February and that hope is even better when coupled with a bonus snow day like today.  Kids are giddy with the prospect of no school as they wait in anticipation of that final phone call, or these days, tweets!  Teachers can take a breath and slow down and let their defenses down for a day of home in an effort to ward off all of those nasty bugs, and flu’s spread so easily within the brick and mortar of schools where kids are constantly coughing, sneezing and wiping their noses on their sleeves.  Man, those noses just never seem to stop running. Blech!

I still get that excitement about a snow day because a snow day is a lazy day:  it gives me permission to read and write and build a fire and just “be” all day long.  Like a kid I can’t wait to go out into the newly fallen whiteness and feel the wonderful moisture in the air.  Snow is magical again. And as much as I have been dreaming of those warmer climates, I don’t know if I could ever imagine living in a place where there was never snow!  But if you ask me this when I am Januaryied, you can be sure my answer will be that I can’t wait for the day when I move to a warmer year-round climate, where I don’t have to endure the harsh, frigid everydayness of winter.

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Zach and Ruby on one of MANY snowdays.
by Tomasen

And so in honor of this snow day I leave you with Billy Collins and his poem, Snow Day.  Enjoy.

Snow Day

BY BILLY COLLINS

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,

and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost

under the noiseless drift,

the paths of trains softly blocked,

the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots

and step out like someone walking in water,

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,

and I will shake a laden branch

sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.

I will make a pot of tea

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,

as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,

the Ding-Dong School, closed.

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,

along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,

Little Sparrows Nursery School,

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,

and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,

These are the nests where they letter and draw,

where they put on their bright miniature jackets,

all darting and climbing and sliding,

all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.

Bad Raps: In Poetry, Social Media and Of Course, The Common Core

Poetry and Social Media have both had their share of bad raps.

The poetry of our (collective) past was often presented as something that was only available to those chosen few who may or may not find the many levels of hidden meanings tucked in between the lines.  Every time I bring poetry to my teachers, there is a group squirm in the room as everyone shifts in their seats and falls back into their past experiences with poetry.

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You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.
– Joseph Joubert

Poetry was not available and many hold fast to the belief that it still isn’t.  But thanks to modern day poets such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and even those of old such as e.e. cummings, poetry can be accessible to all.  With a little patience and practice some even come to enjoy poetry.

We just need to shift out of our old habit of thinking we “won’t get it” and realize that what we take from the poem is enough.  It may just be the sound of the words or how they are arranged; it may be a line that strikes the soul, or an adverse reaction to an image.  Whatever it is, it is for us.  Poetry can move people to their own “edges” if you will, asking them to work and think a little bit more and little bit harder, what does that mean?

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”  Khalil Gibran

Social Media has also gotten a bad rap, especially when we are having conversations about our youth.  And while we might be concerned about the growing evolutionary thumbs of this next generation and their inability to communicate face to face without a device are worthy concerns, there is the upside to this wonderful world of technology.

One is the meeting of poetry and social media I encountered these past couple of weeks as poetry swept it’s way onto Facebook and flooded my feed with fabulous poets and poetry.  The way it worked was simple.  Read a poem posted by a friend and if you liked that poem they would send you a poet and you in turn posted a poem by that assigned poet.

I can only wonder how many hits poetry.org and other such sites got this poetry month.  It was a treat to go onto Facebook wondering what poem or poet you would see next.  It was also interesting to see what new poets might come up.  And even if the poem was one I knew, it was nice to be revisited by old favorites.  Some even went so far as to research their assigned poet, posting photos and biographical information as well as a poem.    There were side conversations about how many poets some knew and how thrilled others were to be introduced to new poets.  Others felt “out of their league” but quickly immersed themselves in  finding the perfect poem.  Some began the process of identification as one who likes and dare I even say might consider writing poetry.

I can’t tell you how many poems I added to my poetry folder for future teaching!  There was  a crazy wonderful poetry community created through social media with people across the country that never would have been possible without social media.  It was, if I may say so myself, pretty damn cool!

And then we come to the Common Core where poetry is not mentioned, named or listed in any categories in the entire document.  And while the intent was not to eliminate poetry, that is the interpretation of many.  Schools are reading this document as a curriculum even when it clearly states that it is NOT!  But the subtle, or not so subtle message underlying the omission of poetry is that what is not listed will not be tested; therefore precious time will not be wasted teaching it.  Schools without Shel Silvserstien, Prelutsky, Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne, and Sharon Creech will be very sad places.

While I realize you have all heard me rant and rave on about the CCSS nation wide hold on education, I do not believe I have given it’s history justice and so I direct you here to a link where Diane Ravitch lays out the history of the Common Core and it’s daunting predecessors.

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Diane Ravitch

I believe this history gives context to why we are where we are and how incredibly insipid it is.  I believe anyone who has any stock in the public educational system needs to read this.  I would like to see this article go viral.  The more we know the more we can begin to understand what is at stake.

And so I leave you with my assigned poet (by the fabulous Children’s poet, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, who you must check out at this link) and the words of ee cummings:  enjoy, savor and just take it in for what it is, let it linger on your tongue for the sweetness that it is and nothing more or less.

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e.e. cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

I Will Wade Out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

And as the world goes, I read this post to my daughter, Emma and she reminded me that her choir in High School sang this poem as composed by Eric Whitacre.  Love the connections!  And while we don’t have a recording of her choir, here is a youtube link to another choir singing it.  Glorious!

I Will Wade Out

Stories and More: A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

There are so many ways to tell a story.  We just had an intimate celebration of my Dad’s life for those who knew him.  It started with cocktail hour and then it was story time.   I heard so many stories about my Dad that I had never heard. I loved hearing about his life as a boss, a friend, brother-in-law, Bumpa and of course as a father.  In the words of Eben Alexander in his book, Proof of Heaven he writes, “A story–a true story–can heal as much as medicine can.”

So how was I going to talk about Dad in 10 minutes or less and really give a sense of who he was to me?  I was thinking about the text, “Days With My Father” which started on line and is now a book, but that did not exactly capture what I was hoping to do as it only reflected the end of his father’s life.  I wanted more than that.  And then I thought back to the last time I wrote about my Dad, using Wallace Steven’s, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.   I wrote up 13 Moments with Dad and took it to the service.

ImageI only got through maybe half of them, but then as I went back to the piece I didn’t like it.  I envisioned something different and then I remembered the book, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  If you have not read this book then it must go on your list to be read.  I scoured my shelves and re-worked the piece again.  I am thrilled with the possibilities and so I will share a few of them and they are rough. There are so many that have yet to be written, but this is where I am now and I am still struggling with each subtitle as well as how many to write.   Yet another piece of writing that is never done, but is just done enough for now to make my point here on this blog, that writing and thinking takes time and that honoring where our students are in that moment is priceless.

And again, while I realize this is a very personal piece on an educational blog and even somewhat self-indulgent, I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.

So here we go…

A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

A for Always

“You need to leave the hospital right now, ”Dad’s voice echoed, quiet yet firm.   After 13 days of never leaving my leukemia-ridden 3 and a half year old Emma’s side, she was overdosed in one of her surgeries. My Dad was the first to arrive and he was the only one who told me to leave.  And so for the first time I left.  Dad drove me home to see Zachary and spend one night out of the hospital.

What I have come to realize after his death is that no matter what Dad had my back.  I just knew that if I ever needed anything he would have been there and just knowing that keeps you from ever really needing anything at all…

“This too shall pass”, my Dad’s words of wisdom he shared with me when in the throes of Emma’s illness.   And eventually it did.

B for Best Friend

My best friend, Krissy stopped by to say goodbye on her way to her new prep school hours away, Northfield, Mount Hermon.  As we stood in the driveway sobbing together and lamenting our impending separation she said, “Why don’t you come too?”

And so I went and checked out the school, knowing that we did not have the money for me to go to private school, but interested to see where Dad had also gone when he was younger.  (That was a story we all knew too well.  How he hitchhiked there 3 times and begged them to accept him and yes, they finally did.  “It changed my life,” he would say. )  Did I need my life to be changed?

He walked into my bedroom, pitch black and through the darkness he just said,  “If you really want to go to Northfield, we will figure out a way to make it to happen.”  And then he left the room.

I did not go.  I didn’t need to go.  I think I just needed to know I could go.

C for Call

I picked up the phone to hear Dad’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”  And I would tell Dad what I had been up to and he would listen and respond.  One day I was telling him the latest woes of parenting and he stopped me and said, “You have raised great kids.”  Again I was left silent.  The man of few words was speaking… and he was saying something from the heart.  “No, I mean it.  They are great kids.  You have done a really good job with them.”

What he could not see were the tears running down my cheeks as I flipped the bacon and then Mom got on the phone.  Per usual at that point he would make his exit and say with sarcastic contempt, “Well I will let you two talk for the next few hours” and he hung up.

And what he needs to know is that he too has raised 3 really great kids.

D for Dancing

I made my Dad do a Father Daughter dance at my wedding.  My mother had often lamented at the lack of dancing and nights out on the town with my father.  He resisted the idea of that dance, but just like one day when I came home from college and hugged my parents and forced my Dad to hug me back, I forced him to do that dance with me.  Not only did he dance, but he even did it with a smile.

But you must know that dancing with my Dad was more like standing in the middle of a floor where there was music playing and making slight shuffles to the right and to the left.  Rhythm was not really involved, but even standing there as he held me in dance position, right arm up left on my waist was enough.  And Mom, I don’t think you missed much not making those nights out dancing with Dad!

E for Employee

As a new summer employee at my Dad’s newspaper, The New Hampshire Business Review, I was excited to finally be a bigger part of the family business.  I envisioned learning the ropes of journalism and seeing what made a company tick.  I was assigned to work for my sister under the term “data entry”.  Day after day of entering information and categorizing it.  God forbid I actually ask a question of my beloved “boss” as she would look at me in disgust and say, “I already told you how to do that!!”  Never before had I felt like such a peon in a job.  Even waitressing was easier than trying to fit into this very tight system that had been established so many years ago where I quickly realized that being a family member only meant there were higher expectations of you and no family bennies whatsoever.  In fact, it began to seem like being family was more of a curse than a blessing…at least at the office!

One day while I was sitting in my Dad’s big black chair and spinning around like I used to when I was little I opened his top drawer to find a pen and instead I found a one and a half inch stack of checks.  My gut sank as I looked to see that the check on top was made out to Don Madden.  As I flipped through them all the same name appeared over and over and over again.  A flipbook of Don Madden checks and the implications that he was paying everyone else made me gasp.  His investment in this business ran deeper than I had ever realized.

I finished that summer and never complained again.  It was my last time working at the paper.

F for Faces

Hey, do you see the face?”  Dad would ask as he pointed at a picture, a painting or even out the window at a tree.  Whereupon we would all look and sometimes we might see it and others we would have no idea what he was seeing.  He “saw” things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.

Since my Dad’s death I have started to “see” faces everywhere!!  I am taking an intense course to become a yoga teacher and in that course we are studying anatomy and all through the lessons I see faces.  Faces on ovaries, kidneys with eyes staring at me and then the profile of a young man peering out of the liver.  Every time I see one I say hello to my Dad and am forever reminded that we must look, look and then look again with an open mind and you never know just what you might “see”.

H for  Hugging

Hugging.  From that day forward every time I saw my Dad I hugged him.  Over time he came to expect it and dare I even say that he might have even leaned in first once or twice himself!  He was an interesting hugger, more of a leaner really, but still I didn’t care.  Some say huggers are buggers, but eventually they give in and realize that hugging isn’t so bad after all.

I for Indulgence

“Daddy, will you PLEASE do your Donald Duck voice?” we would plead for hours on end and usually the answer was no.  To this day is amazes me how few times we actually heard it and it was something that tickled us pinker than pink as we would laugh and laugh.  What was it that kept him from wanting to do it more?  To indulge his kids just a few more times and yet if you think back, it made it all that much more incredible when he did it.  “Less is more,” he would say if he was helping me with my writing.  “Less is more”

L for  Late

Driving home after curfew one night in the yellow bumblebee I devised a plan to pick up some speed down Page Road and then cut the engine and drift into the driveway with the lights off in hopes that I could “sneak” in and not be discovered.  As I turned in, the car slowly moved towards the barn, activating the sensor bathing  me in bright light.  Damn, I thought as I began to open the car door and realized there was movement all around.  As I looked closer I realized I had coasted into a sea of raccoons.  Big raccoons, little raccoons, raccoons swarming the car and coming towards me.  I slammed the door and began to scream, “Dad!!”  “Dad!!”  Of course he couldn’t hear me and so I layed on the horn.  Eventually Dad appeared in his boxers and shooshed all the raccoons away, saying, “Get outta here ya saps!”  As he was getting rid of them I made a dash for the house.  He followed me in and said, “You’re late.”

M for Moving

“I am calling to check in with you because we looked at a house in New London and well, I just wanted to be sure that you were okay with that.”  I paused in disbelief.  Was my Dad actually calling to ask me about their life decision?  The silence lingered and he said, “Are you there?”  “Yes Dad, I am here.”  “Well, you and your mother spend so much time together and well, I just wanted to know what you thought about us making this move.”

“Do what you need to do Dad, and I will be fine.”  And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me that our relationship had shifted so dramatically over the years but that I hadn’t even realized it.  The older he got the more he said and the more he said the more I listened.  I am so glad they lived nearby for 10 years.

S for Swearing

Dad announced as we sat on the lime green carpet during a major heat wave in 1975 that we were going on a family vacation.  Lisa, Jamie and I screamed and shouted with joy as visions of Disney rides and beaches and pools danced through our heads he said we needed to pack as we would be leaving at 4 in the morning just to get a good head start.

We woke at 4 filled with Christmas morning anticipation and settled ourselves into the blue paneled station wagon.  Lisa and I settled into our makeshift bed in the very back complete with blankets and pillows and Jamie in his own bed in the middle seat with the cooler.  Little did we know that we would never get out of the car except for the occasional bathroom break and over 14 days and 4,000 miles later having seen all of Newfoundland and even Labrador.  Oh the stories from that trip!

It was the first time I ever heard Dad swear as he got back into the car at a random gas station as Mom was handing us snowballs and candy bars to keep us quiet and we were fighting over them and anything else from being in such a confined space for too long when Dad snapped and yelled, “All you kids do is fight, fart and swear!”  I remember thinking…did Dad just say fart?

T for Tomasen

My name.  Thank you Dad for making up the most incredible, bestest, most awesome name in the world just for me.  Something about having my name always made me feel like I was different.  (It also helped that Lisa was actually a tiny bit jealous of it too as I was jealous of most everything she had, especially that incredible cassette recorder she had in Weare, but I digress!)  What I love most about my name are all of the stories it has generated.  As a man of stories, and as a great storyteller I would imagine you might have thought, what kind of name would bring great stories?

 W for Wondering

“I would like to come over, there seems to be something wrong with my computer.”  He would arrive, laptop under his arm, and I would pour the coffee as he would begin to describe in detail just what was or was not happening with his laptop.  We would sit together and I would map out the steps, write them down and he would thank me profusely for being so patient with him.  “We always knew you would be a teacher,” he said.  “The hours you would spend in your room with all of those imaginary students, we just knew you would be a teacher.

During one of those visits he told me that he was ok with dying.  He talked and talked and told me that I was  the “listener”.  I didn’t know what to do with that information today as I wonder…years later…if he would have said the same thing on the day he died.

So, as you can see there are many pieces missing, many in process, and just a sampling of an attempt to remember the stories of my Dad.

ImageJeff Wilhelm in his book on narratives tells a story about a decision-making process one of his kids was making and asked this question, “Which decision will make the best stories?”

My Dad’s life in stories was what he would have hoped for.  Of that I am sure.  What I am not sure about is how many stories are still out there, untold, about my Dad and about all of those students we work with.

We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period.  I mean, in the end, what else is there really?

Stupid is as Stupid Does: More on The Common Core

The other night we stumbled upon the movie Forrest Gump.  Man, I forget what a great movie it is on SO many levels.  The scene that really made me pause was when Forrest’s mother, played brilliantly by Sally Fields, is at the local public school and the principal holds up a life –sized graph with 3 sections.  He points out the top section and says this is Above Average, then to the middle section indicating Average (duh!) and then to a point in the Below Average section stating, this is where Forrest lies.  Her response is what I wish all of our responses are to the numbers we use to sum up our youth, our schools, our teachers and beyond.  She looks at the Principal like he has lost his mind when he says Forrest will need to attend a special school where she retorts in her perfect southern accent, “Oh for God’s Sake, It is only 5 silly little points, the boy will be going to school here.”  And that is the end of the scene.  Soon after you see Forrest getting on the big yellow school bus.

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Of course as you watch the embedded history lessons and how Forrest had a hand in so much that we never knew the one line that really sticks out is “Stupid is as stupid does.”

And that is where we are in education right now.  Stupid is as stupid does.  We are so caught up in those graphs and charts and data that we cant even see what is right in front of us.  The more I hear the more stupid it all becomes and I think we need to be more like Mrs. Gump and stop giving these tests and everything that surrounds them so much energy and weight.  Part of the problem is that there are so many stories, myths and misconceptions around the Common Core that nobody even knows what is going on.

See here to read “Ten Colossal Errors of the Common Core Standards:   http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/11/common_core_standards_ten_colo.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

Did you know there are some schools here in New Hampshire who are saying “NO” to the Common Core?  And while they ARE being penalized in terms of funding, losing about $100,000.00 they are looking forward realizing that to implement the tests surrounding the Common Core is going to cost their district over $200,000.00.  Why are we so incredibly short sighted when it comes to these top down mandates.  What are we so afraid of?

I have said it before and I will say it again, if my kids were starting in public school right now I would get them out!  Or in the words of Jenny, “Run Forrest Run!”  Run from the shackles of numbers and testing!  Our kids are being used as lab rats and caught up in a sea of bureaucratic and political snares that have nothing to do with a better education for each.  Our educational system is being bullied into the dregs of privatization where companies can and will dictate what happens in our schools.

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Pearson already is!  Pearson is an enormous conglomeration that has tentacles that reach into more areas of education than you cannot even imagine.  This octopus of a machine has created the tests that children will take that are too hard on many levels. The other day I was sent a link to the Smarter Balance site where I could go in and “take” the test at many different levels.  I chose 3rd grade and went to the LA section.  Immediately, I thought of all of the hundreds of 3rd graders I have worked with and my anxiety level started to rise.  The first question is about a Chinese child, Little Lang, who is learning his or her characters.  I think of those who don’t have the background knowledge that Chinese characters are letters.  This character goes off with his brush…how many 3rd graders “write” with a brush?  And it just goes from there.  At the end there were multiple questions to answer and of course lots of places for written responses.

As a highly analytical person I can often see at least 2 very distinct answers that “could” be true or right.   And after that question I went on to the second one and then realized this was only 2 out of 50!  And that is JUST the Language Arts section.

Here is a link to the test.  See for yourself!!

https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/

And once the numbers come out we will see exactly what these tests are designed to do, to create a new narrative of the epic failure of our public school system.  But as with every magical story there will be the night in shining armor who will show up in shiny new textbooks wrapped in bubble wrap, a colorful collage of books and workbooks to fix all of your districts woes in one fell swoop.  And the publisher will be….yes, you guessed it, Pearson.  The one who set up the tests in the first place.

And even more disturbing is that if you are really worried about test performance Pearson has test prep materials ready for sale to get all of your little lemmings in line.  In fact one teacher in New York City found one of the exact prep test questions on the “actual” test!   The message again?  If you want to do well on these tests then you must have Pearson test prep.  Do you see the irony here?   Do you taste the incredible conflict of interest?

There are many things that have started to rumble around the country that give me hope!  One group of parents in New York State sent all of their kids test scores back to the school and the company.  Great!  But the kids still had to suffer through the tests!  Other groups are opting out of these tests and the more we get on board with this the more likely is that we can take back our educational system and begin from the ground up to rebuild it.  Top down…stupid is as stupid does.

A link to Fair Test listing the many ways to Opt Out locally and Nationally:  http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out

And although this video is showing up all over my Facebook feed I am going to link to it here as well because this kid has guts and makes some great points!!  Again, he gives me hope.  Imagine if more of our students stood up for what they think is right and just and fair.

http://youngcons.com/legit-tennessee-high-school-senior-decimates-common-core/

He is something huh?  And as Forrest says “Momma always says life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”  In this case, if you dig to the bottom of the box you can see quite clearly what we are gonna get, and it tastes nothing like chocolates!!

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