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!

Let Them Write!

Good Morning. It’s me again, re-establishing my ritual of waking and writing which went to the wayside in a year of grief.   The get up and go to research and write just came and went and thusly my writing has gotten downright rusty. (Please pass the oil!)

Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger Film Set Wizard Of Oz, The (1939) 0032138

I mean it. I have attempted to put together a cohesive blog many times since my last one and what I have put out is not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in churning out crap or what Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, refers to as “shitty first drafts”.  It is also what Peter Elbow refers to as low stakes writing in this article.  (Thank you Vicki Vinton for this gem!)

http://www.edinaschools.org/cms/lib07/MN01909547/Centricity/Domain/484/Elbow%20High%20Stakes%20and%20Low%20Stakes.pdf

It is just writing for the sake of writing, thinking and learning. I have lived with this knowing I will  get through it and start to find my way back into my writer’s space. It is, after all, part of the process and I honor that over product.  Right?

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I preach the holy heck out of getting kids to write everyday, but now I have seen the frazzled fruits of my lazy labor as I struggle to find words and ideas that will come together into a piece that interests me. And yet we have no problem asking kids to write on demand without daily practice. We want them to perform and score perfectly on high stakes test, but we don’t take the time to let them practice.  We don’t allow them the time to write without that pressure and those high stakes.

And it is in the time I take to practice that time becomes timeless.  When caught in the zone of imagining what might be next, in putting words to paper time just simply disappears as we are in the “zone” and don’t bother us when we are there!!.

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Ding!  A text from my son, Zachary, “ I may have just written the best two paragraphs of my life.” What? (Is this REALLY from Zachary? Texting home from college about writing?)

Second text  “We were told that we could write a short story about anything.” End text.

Ding, Third Text, “I am having so much fun with it.”

Let me see this fun!  Yes, in these texts are expressions of sheer joy.  (Who has been trampled by the big bad scary lion named rigor in education)  So I asked him to send it to me and it was honestly one of the darkest things I have ever read of his. In it I could sense the intense sadness he experienced with his recent break up with his first  girlfriend. It was riddled with long, drawn out sentences that were so effective in creating the suspense he was after. And after only 2 paragraphs I wanted to read more. Check it out!

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Now mind you this is one of those RARE moments as parents and I was just so happy and excited for him. Even in High School, when given the reigns of choice this kid can just write. And he writes well. (In my humble opinion of course) And he does so without being an avid reader.

Zachary blows that myth of “writers have to be readers” right out of the water. Sometimes we make those sweeping general assumptions  that just don’t hold true for every kid. Zach is one of those kids. I was one of those kids. I was not a reader when I was younger. You could find me out in the woods somewhere creating imaginary houses of sticks and stones or frolicking among the beaver dams or even in my room playing school.  It was my sister  who always had a book with her, preferably a Nancy Drew. In fact my only form of “reading” was my cherished collection of Ranger Ricks, a nature magazine with brilliant photographs that I could fawn over for hours and stop in between to play a hide and seek game. I read short paragraphs, but did not have what we refer to as “reading stamina” today.

I believe there are other kids of “reading”.  Perhaps we are readers of the world.  Could it be that my time spent in my imaginary worlds, pretending to be someone else and creating characters that I would “act out” in my homes made of stick and stone were fodder for future writing?  Or are those acts of imagination a form of writing in their own right?  If writing is about playing with words in worlds then perhaps it can also be done outside the pages of books.  But do we even stop to consider or ask how our kids are thinking anymore?

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Fast-forward to now and I am always reading several books at a time; one or two for work, a novel and even a dose of daily poetry.   You see we hold all of these beliefs to be true, but never stop to honor what each person IS doing!! And in the midst of all of this it takes so much NOT to get caught up in it.   Walk away from the madness. Walk away!

Photo Credit:pelicanbookstore.com

And of course there is response. Zachary texted because he wanted some kind of feedback. I blog to ignite feedback and start conversations. We write with purpose if we know there is an audience or even a potential audience.

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Photo Credit: www.cindyhayen.com

And in all of this there is a sense of honoring the individual; honoring the process or even more deeply, trusting and enjoying the process.  Believing that it will take us where we want or need to go. One word at a time we discover things we never knew we were thinking or feelings who show up in disguise. Writing, for me, is a joyful and heady experience that is somewhat different every time.. On my shelves are  books “on writing” and while I love reading those, ultimately I enjoy being an observer of my own process and seeing how totally me it really is. There is no one way to BE a writer. It just is. It just means you write. If you write therefore you are a writer.  High Stakes, myths and expectations be damned!  Let them write!