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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play

When my daughter Emma was three, she was playing happily in her corner of the kitchen where I had created her own little “house” complete with a wooden hutch, oven, highchair and cradle for her own dolls.  She spent hours creating her own reality of being a Mom.  One day I was about to wander in when I stopped and peered around the corner (yes mothers do spy!) and as I watched her rock her baby and look into her eyes adoringly, one of those warm washes of love and perfection poured over me.  It was a moment that I wanted to sink into and enjoy.

Emma took her baby, placed her into the high chair and began feeding her and gently said,   “Eat, dammit.  Eat your food, dammit.”

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Emma

I stood there in horror, unable to move and continued to watch.  After the lovely meal, Emma placed her baby into the cradle and in a very nurturing way, covered her up with the blanket and said, “Now time to go to sleep, dammit.”

Again, that word hit me, smacked me right across the face and left a sting.  What had happened to my perfect mother moment?

“Emma”, I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Putting my baby to bed.  She is tired.”

“I see that.  I heard you use a “D” word that I was wondering about.”

“A D word?” she contemplated.  “Oh, Dammit?”

“Yes that is the one.”

“Oh, that is my baby’s name Momma.”

Silenced again.

The power of modeling…

I have been known to tell this story when working with teachers to show how modeling is one of the most powerful tools we have and that we can use it to show our literate lives for our students every day.  It is what we do, not just what we say.  We need to talk about what we read, write and wonder; to show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live  this life.  When students see that we are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.

Bridging the gap between “school” reading and “life” reading is critical.  As an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I have the privilege of going into classrooms and supporting teachers in their coursework.  Every time I enter a classroom I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my Ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When I am modeling a lesson for a teacher or group of teachers, I start by talking to the class about my passion for reading and writing; my excitement over a new author I have found, what I am working on myself in writing or how a word looks or sounds.   And it is authentic.  I love words.  I love to read and write and when kids feel that from me, they too want to be a part of that energy.  It is infectious and it is not hard to get them to buy in as I ask them to repeat a word with me, a nice long juicy word like onomatopoeia, that they can take home with them and share with their families. “There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds.

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Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart under my arm, I entered Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I was greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I received the confection’s love, knowing it would never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

I settled into the comfy rocker and had a brief time to reconnect as they told me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices rang all around me as they shared their latest “sound” words.   Three little girls got closer and asked about the pink necklace I was wearing twirling it in their hands and marveling when I told them it was a crystal.  “ooooh…you must be rich!”.  I explained it was a gift from my sister and that SHE was the rich one because she had ME for a sister.  They giggled.

Taking this time to connect with these kids is a critical part of the modeling process.  It only took a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions showed them I was interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and can then move into our writing time together.  I am reconnecting and we are exchanging trust in these small moments.

I read aloud, knowing that I wanted to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stopped and wrote some examples on the white board:

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

We talked about these words and wondered why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identified that it made it into one word, made the reader say the word more quickly and created rhythm.  For each dance in the book I asked for a volunteer to get up and “perform” each season’s ballet.  They were eager to move and the movement brought this story to life for all.

We then brainstormed a name for these words and the list consisted of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It was democratically decided that DASH-ing words described them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  And while some may be thinking this is not correct it is playful and something the kids will remember.  Let’s just call it poetic license!  Next, I asked them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

And the play began.  Some kids came up with what we called Double DASH-ing words such as tweet-tweet-tweeting. Morgan, who I thought was struggling was left to her own thinking for some time and arrived at my side with this incredible poem:

Swish-swash

Slush-sliding

Icicles-banging

Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all came back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a  model of what is possible.   Trusting our students.  What a concept and something we can all do, Dammit!!

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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All in Favor of Free Range Children, Say Bok!

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

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

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

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Sister Lisa with one of her “Goldies”!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”

~Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

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

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

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

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

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

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

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

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

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

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Stories as Community

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

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A letter from Grandpa

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

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Dad

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

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

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Tomasen and Lisa Hiking

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

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

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Tomasen and Jamie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Fieler states,

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

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

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

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

One story at a time…