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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!!

Alternatives and Activism: Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: teacherscount.wordpress.com

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

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

All in Favor of Free Range Children, Say Bok!

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

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

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

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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