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.”

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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Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

The buzz of Mentor Texts has been around for quite a while now and while I like this idea, what I don’t like is that our young writers are often instructed to use a particular mentor text for a given time as assignments.  Using a particular structure to do this, instead of exposing them to a variety of ideas and texts and then helping and guiding our students to figure out what would work best for them, the writers.

What would happen if we asked our young writers to first think about what it was they wanted to say, to write about, to read about, to discover and then come up with the best way to express this?

When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia I kept a journal and wrote down every single little detail of our experience.  It was exhausting to get onto those pages all that I felt I needed to.  Her every reaction to every drug, the times she received the doses, the different emotions experienced, missing my 8 month old at home.   I quickly fell behind and was angry that I was missing so much of what I thought I needed to get down, in the name of control.

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Book of Poetry by Dan Rothermel

 And then one day someone brought me this small book called, Sweet Dreams, Robyn written by Dan Rothermel.  It is a collection of poems he wrote about his daughter with cancer.  This book transformed my writing life.  Suddenly, I had the permission and allowed myself to write in poetry finding it easier to get down all that I wanted to without getting muddled in all of the pros it took.  In the words of my Dad, “less is more” in writing.

With the death of my father I had this same experience as I was meandering through the blog world I found a blog that just spoke to me.  She writes a fictional piece about the death of her mother and says,

“It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.”

Her mentor  Wallace Stevens gave her what she needed to capture what she wanted to write in fiction and I instantly knew that this too would be the perfect way for me to capture and process my father dying.  Snippets of strong images that I needed to get down on paper and so her blog became my mentor text.  It was more than perfect.

You can find her blog at  http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/

So here is my version, based on the ideas I stole from her that she stole from Wallace Stevens. 

13 Ways of Looking at Death Just Before, During and After

I

I called him on the phone, his voice weak and wavering as his hand fought to keep the phone still.   “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Bad.  This is Bad.  What I have is really bad.”  I cringe, as I know he knows it is bad.  Sepsis.  Blood infection on top of pneumonia not to mention his COPD, heart disease and diabetes…

He has never said it was bad before.  He always said,  “It is getting better.

It is bad.

 

II

His oxygen cord lies on the dirty floor as it takes her a moment to realize there are no lines crossing his face, lines of plastic jewelry tubes that have become as permanent as his glasses.  He is not getting any air.

And she wonders…just how long has he been without oxygen?

She calls the nurse and insists he gets a new one.  Nurse never responds to the absence of his air or how long he has been without it.

Idiots.

 

III 

She is alone with him, Red Sox images flashing in the dark room, sound blaring while she simultaneously plays Candy Crush.    He wakes, peers over and says, ”You are still here?  I really appreciate that.”

I smile. 

And we go on like that for hours.

The Sox won.

Won the AL East Title.  He is not aware.

She hoped it was a good sign.

She is always looking for signs.

 

IV

Today is a good day.  He is out of bed, sitting up in the hospital chair as she enters.  He starts talking, “You know I sat up all night trying to remember the kids names.”

She thinks it must be all of the grandkids that he is forgetting…he continues…

“I know I have 3 kids.  2 daughters and a son.”

“Yes that is right” she replies, as he looks up at her and says, “The first daughter is Lisa.” 

“Yes Dad, Lisa is your first daughter.”

“Then there is another one, you, what is your name?”

Her 10-year-old self emerges and screams inside, YOU named me Dad!! Don’t you remember?  I have the coolest name in the world because YOU made it up. 

That’s enough of this name game.

We gotta get him the hell out of this hospital.

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Me, My Dad and Lisa

 

V

My once virile father sits perched on the kitchen island pursing for air.  How did he get in the house so quickly?  My brother in law carried him in, like a baby in his arms, but he was amazed at just how heavy he really was, all  filled up with 9 days of hospital IV fluids so he had to stop to rest.

We still laugh at the absurdity of my Dad sitting with his feet swinging on the kitchen counter.  Who says you don’t go backwards?

He then carries him the next leg into the bed where he will remain until he dies.

 

VI

Each breath is a struggle and you can tell it actually hurts.  Never mind when he coughs.  He just wants to feel better, but he doesn’t really as he tries to negotiate in his head that he is now home and how he thought being home would make him feel better…but he doesn’t.  Now what?  You can see it coursing across his forehead like the GMA banner in Times Square.  Now what?  Now what?  Now what?

 

VII

Doctor came to the house.  Yes, in 2013 a Doctor actually came to meet the needs of his patient.   There is a God.  (See previous post on Systems)

Dad chose hospice.  Visions of nurses, social workers and support at our side danced her head as she wondered…does he really know what he is choosing?

She is sent up to the Local Colonial Pharmacy to get the “hospice kit”.  A box filled with drugs and lots of other things medical that you don’t want to know about never mind even think about using.

She is the chosen one to give her father his first dose of comfort packaged in a needless syringe to be administered orally.  Flashbacks of shoving chemo filled syringes disguised in chocolate pudding to her 3 and a half-year-old smack her in the face. 

Click…she re-enters that mode and just does what she has to do.  She has been here before and she just does it.  Nurse Ratched is back in the house. 

VIII

My brother arrives a few minutes after giving my Dad the morphine. 

The pill that he was begging for. 

The morphine that I was afraid of. 

The morphine that came without the nurses and the social workers and the volunteers to help us through this process.  

Where in the hell were those hospice people she had heard so many wonderful stories about? 

All they got was hospice in a box that had to be refrigerated.

 It was just My Mom and I with my Dad yelling at us, “Will you just give it to me for God’s sake, I don’t  care if it is the wrong dose.”

 He begged for relief as we became more and more agitated and unsteady in the moment, dropping syringes, reading and rereading the prescription and even calling the pharmacist. 

And finally I  just gave it to him as he gasped for air and I suddenly realized we too had been as negligent as the hospital.

His oxygen tank had run out.  No wonder he was desperate for something.  How many ways are there to torture a man?

And they left the room when her brother arrived. 

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Jamie and Dad

IX

Morphine overdose.  Her brother horrified that we left him alone with a his father who was fine and talking with him one minute and then was suddenly hallucinating and trying to get out of bed.  His strength mammoth as my mother got in bed behind him to restrain him.  He could not walk on those big boats of feet filled with fluid. 

I call the VNA.  I reach out for those hospice people who were supposed to be there and tell him we need help ASAP!!!!! 

He responds that giving morphine is an “art” and not that you gave him too much but that if he had been there he would have started with a lower dose.  After telling her this for the 4th time she wants to reach out and punch him through the phone…then why the HELL would you hand it over to an amateur?

He arrives at the house and starts talking about the “art” of dosing morphine again!!!  She sees red and runs from him to avoid physically clobbering him.

Next Time…I give him ¼ of the recommended dose. 

Thank you, Honorary Dr. Brother James. It says you can give it every 30 minutes.  One quarter of a dose lasted him 12 hours. 

Insanity.

 

X

He lays in bed and sleeps, or so it seems, soundly for days on end.

The question dancing through the house…”when will it happen?”

The family has their own form of hospice in a “Come to Jesus” kind of scene from a bad Lifetime Movie.  We all give him permission to go, hands on, tears flying.  Sister Lisa actually seems to be cheering him up to the pearly gates.  Everybody says their peace and then we all continue to sit with big red puffy eyes, exhausted and we wait.

He doesn’t go.

When will he go?

He doesn’t go.

From the background Cousin Anne tells us, “He isn’t going to go right now, it doesn’t happen like that.” And snaps us out of our delusions that we can will him to go in that moment.

XI

The sleepless nights wear on as brother and sister get up at different times to peek in to see my mother sleeping next to my yes, still breathing, father.

Exhaustion settles into the house and takes a seat on the couch alongside us.

Maybe he is not going anywhere.  Maybe he will live forever.

Meals are delivered.  They are all amazed at how they just show up and are so thankful because eating and food have not been on their radar.

Dad has not really eaten or had anything to drink for over 12 days.

Unless you count 4 little bird bites here and there.  I fed him his last scrambled egg from Lisa’s chickens a couple days ago.  No solid food since eating 5 bites of that egg.  No water.  Nothing.

How does the human body beat on?  Especially one we all thought was so fragile?

His Hands don’t even look like his anymore they are so filled up with fluid,  boxers hands.

Every moment stretches on as you wonder…when will his last breath be?  Who will be with him?  She wonders all of these things as she crawls into bed with him and rubs his back and quietly cries for her Daddy while the Red Sox blare on the radio from the bedside table next to us.  

“How can something so natural be so unnatural?”  son James wonders.

XII

She wakes at 8.  Walks downstairs past her sleeping brother and sees her mother making the bed around her father’s still body.   His breathing has changed.  It is short.  Very short.  She says, get the morphine.

I know I must give him him the rest of the syringe…the same dose I administered 5 days earlier…it was what he needed.  He was hardly breathing.

Mom is on his right.  She is on his left. 

He opens his eyes for the first time since the morphine began.  The biggest widest eyes you have ever seen and he looked over at my Mom and she said, “Look at those big beautiful brown eyes.  I love those eyes.  They have not been that open in years.  I wonder why none of you got those eyes?  I am the dominant one.”

“I always wished I had gotten those brown eyes I respond as his eyes then slowly trail to find me on the left.  He stares right at me for a moment and then it is as if he is looking to something beyond me.  He holds that gaze for what seems like forever before he moves his sights straight ahead and opens them even wider.  He was seeing the light.  He liked it.  He felt peaceful as he took one long deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Is that it?”  Mom and I looked at each other.  It seemed to be.  No pulse. 

And then out of nowhere one last little breath just to mess with us as we laughed. 

Dad died.

8:15 am on Sunday, September 29th, 2013.

It was beautiful.

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Dad and Mom taking flight on Chappy

 

XIII

She misses him.  They all miss him.  She is not sure what to do so she talks about him.  She remembers him.  She reads.  She writes about him.  She laughs at his Donald Duck impression stored away on her computer.  She shuffles through years of pictures and marvels at how great he looked for so long regardless of his health issues.  She thanks her Mom for keeping him so healthy for so long.  She misses him.  Every day.

He was a great man.

He had 9 lives. 

He lived every one of them fully.

He was her Dad.

 

 

I love this piece because for me it captures all that I want to remember and all that was there during this incredibly intense, scary, weird time.  I feel better after reading about others experiences and then writing my own.  

What would have happened had I been in a student in class and I was asked to write a recipe or a persuasive essay from one character in my assigned book to another when all I could think about was my Dad?  Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?

I would argue that right now we teach the writing and not the writers.  We teach the reading and not the readers.  We think about checking things off. Persuasive Essay, check, Informational Reading, check, Memoir, check, Close Reading, Check.

What would happen if we trusted and guided readers and writers to know, to figure out what it was they wanted to know more about, what they wanted to say and then focused on helping them discover the best way or ways to read about it and say it?  If we gave them the time to read others and think to themselves, “Hey, I could write something like that!”

Reading and Writing are my “go to’s” when I am trying to figure something out, process emotions, inform, wonder, preach, question, express, persuade, create, think, communicate, get lost and so many other things.  What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?

And while this all may seem incredibly personal for a blog on education, I believe I am finally finding my stride in that a real and true education is deeply personal. 

And I wonder…are we  afraid of this authenticity?  These truths? 

And even as I consider posting this, putting it out into the world, I question myself.  Do we want to hear or read these truths?  Why do I put it out there?  And while I know none of these answers I only know that I will…

 

Follow the link below to read my Dad’s obituary beautifully written by my sister, Lisa.

http://www.chadwickfuneralservice.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2263261&fh_id=12966 

 

 

 

 

 

THINKING is Passionate, Purposeful and Playful

 Lately I have been thinking about what creates real readers and writers.  Much of this thinking comes out of the work I am doing in creating and planning a graduate course I am teaching this summer called:  Passion, Purpose and Play: Creating Real Readers and Writers. 

(See here if you are interested in one of our UNH Summer Literacy Institute courses as we still have some openings.) http://www.unh.edu/english/media/pdfs/Archive%20NHLiteracy/2013SummerInstbrochure.pdf

 I think back…what made me a reader?  A writer?  And there are sharp moments in time  that changed my thinking and the way that I saw myself forever.  One of those moments was when I was a sophomore in High School and my teacher was Mr. Dave Krauss.  We were reading Lord of the Flies.  Nothing revolutionary as many high schools today are still doing the same thing and reading many of these same classics some 30 years later.  But something in this experience for me was different.

I recall heated class discussions and at one point I even remember my face flushing to a bright crimson red as I stood up and shouted out,   “That is NOT fair!”  The entire class stopped and looked back at me and Mr. Krauss said, “Tomasen, I need to see you after class.”  I was mortified.  As a resident “good girl”, always sitting in the back of the class, don’t make any trouble kind of student, I felt as if my face might pop as it got even redder and my eyes begin to sting with tears.

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Photo Credit: esioh.com

 

After class I walked up to Mr. Krauss’s desk full of shame and defeat he asked me to sit down and asked me what was so upsetting.  Our discussion started with the idea of fairness and he assured me that “nothing in life was fair”.  I argued that life should be.  He did not disagree but talked about how there would be merit to thinking about things not in terms of fairness, but in terms of how each individual person is in this world.  He didn’t yell at me.  I didn’t get in trouble.  In fact, it was the opposite.  He encouraged me to speak my mind more frequently and the he welcomed my thoughts and ideas just like everyone else’s.  For the first time in my life I realized that perhaps I had something to say “in class”.  This was huge for me.  My thinking mattered for the first time in my entire school career.

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Photo Credit: Facebook

Fast forward 30 plus years to where I am planning for this course and out of nowhere jumps into my hands the original copy of Lord of the Flies that I read in High School.  For the life of me I didn’t remember ever even having it, and yet here it was.  The cover looked outdated and as I opened the book the spine cracked with a pop as the old book cardboard smell wafted into my head.  What was revealed inside was sheer magic. 

 Marked in red pen and some pencil and then some blue pen was MY thinking as a sophomore in High School.  Words and phrases were underlined and in the margins were the words, authority, changes in attitude, role of society rules?  It had never dawned on me that perhaps the reason this book stuck with me, that this experience was one of great magnitude might also have been because I was able to actually WRITE in this book and keep track of my thinking.

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I wish I could remember the circumstances around this annotating.  Was the school getting a new set because these were worn out?  Was this common practice?  Not that I remembered.  What did Krauss know that nobody else did?  And as I looked at the red ink I was instantly transferred back to remembering the actual red pen, the one that I used to use in my practice teaching in my bedroom.  “The” red pen of authority.  It was old and clear and the ink was clotty.  As I looked at my own handwriting I could recall moments of writing in this book and feeling so “grown up”.  Grown up in a way that made me feel smart.  I recall writing things just because I could even if they were not great thinking.  I loved the act of writing in this book!!  I don’t remember doing this again until college and again the nostalgia of marking and writing in between and around the lines makes me feel giddy! 

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So could it be that something as simple as annotating a text is playful and inspires passion and great purpose?  These words, in our schools, are not in vogue.  It is rare we talk about the passions, the purposes or the play anymore.  And while I have always hated the red pen as a student and teacher of writing, it was this old crimson  that recorded my thinking and allowed me to participate in discussions that made me a real reader with authority.

 It was during this course that I decided I would be an English major.  I wonder if Mr. Krauss understood the power of what he was creating for me as a student in the name of passion, purpose and play?  And underlying all of these “p” is thinking.  Thinking is fun!  It promotes passion, creates purpose and is playful and discovering one’s own thinking is priceless.

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Photo Credit: jackgallery.wordpress.com

 

I would love to find Mr. Krauss.  The last I heard of him he was working at the Admissions office at UNH and when I was a student I visited him.  He has long been gone and I have no idea where he ended up.  As a fellow educator I wish he could read this and understand just what he did for me and how it created the path that I am still on…one that is still seeking equality.  One who still stands up, turns bright red and shouts, “That’s NOT fair” regardless of the lessons learned years ago that we live in an unfair world.

Somebody’s gotta do it!

It’s only fair.

Think about it.

 

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?

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    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.

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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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? 

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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