Writers Take Flight: My Forever Books On Writing

When I work with a group of teachers I often find myself asking the question, “Raise your hand if you are a reader.” And the room soars with eager waiving hands as I look out and see the sheer pride that comes with this identity as  reader. If I wait a bit they turn to each other and automatically start talking about the books they have read, are reading or want to read. As teachers we are, for the most part, comfortable in our identities as readers.

images (1)Then comes the second question, “Raise your hand if you are a writer.” Immediately the tenor of the room changes and small hands start to make their way up and then just as quickly glide  back into their wing holds. Very few, if any, hold their hands as highly or as proudly as before. Even those who DO write are reticent to give themselves up as “writers”. Even when I soften the question and ask, “how many of you write?” there is great reluctance and the murmurs sounds something like, “Well…I keep a journal” “Ummmm, I do like to write poetry.” And slowly I begin to see people coming out of their self-imposed closets of shame and trying on this new identity as “writer”.

Perhaps this is because writing is like nothing else  we teach. Writing is generative in that EVERY thing about it comes from the writer, whether it is the answer to a prompt or a fantastical story from beyond, it is the writer’s words on the page there for anyone to come and poke, prod and make fun of;  where as anything else we teach we are interacting directly with something, be it a novel, the scientific process or numbers. Writing does not provide this safety net. It is the writer, the blank page and the words of the writer. That is IT!! Donald Graves always used to say that sharing your writing is akin to getting naked in front of everyone. It is THAT personal.   (But I don’t mind saying that I will choose words over nudity at this soaring age of 50!)

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Photo Credit to: .flickr.com

So here are my “forever” books on teaching writing that I will always hold near and dear to my heart but more than that they are books that really changed my thinking or gave flight to my beliefs.  It was hard to narrow it down to five because we almost NEED these books more than we need any other books because the teaching of writing is always the first of the three r’s to be let go. It is the adopted step child that never seems to get its’ due and I believe a big part of this is because we have teachers who do not identify themselves as writers…yet!   I would argue that we need writing in our schools more than ever. Information is cheap. Everyone can find anything at the touch of a keystroke, but communicating that knowledge in a clear, concise and interesting way is something else completely.   I just have to start with the great “Don’s” of UNH in the names of Murray and Graves.

86709243I first met Don Murray at Young’s restaurant in Durham, NH. He met me there after reading some of my work. He showed up with a bound collection of quotes, writing ideas and the famous laminated latin phrase, “Nulla dies Sine Linea” (Never a day without a line) of which I still have as a keepsake forever. Murray in his suspenders sat across from me and talked about what I had written and then asked, “What is this really about?”. He was the most down to earth person I had ever talked with about my writing. He was encouraging and questioning and an amazing listener. The day he came to my house and asked me to “name that poem” was a story I still hold dear and tell to this day. (See earlier post Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John ). From his Boston Globe columns (some of my all- time favorite works of his) to his writing handbooks I would have to say that Expecting the Unexpected is top on my Murray list!

“We must allow-no, encourage-our students to make use of language to explore the inner and outer worlds each is driven to explore. And when students have found their territory, they must search it with the language-and the language skills- they have, not what we wish they had. Once they start grappling-on the page- with the meanings they need to discover, we can help them see how the traditions of form and language help clarify thinking.” Because, “Writing is not thinking reported, it IS thinking.” (Pp.102 – 110 in Expecting the Unexpected)

5157S3BDGBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then there is Donald Graves, a former minister who when he would speak in his gentle voice, the room would instantly get quiet.   I would have to say the book that I grew up with and stuck with me the most is the brown Bible, WRITING: Teachers and Children At Work.  It that maps out the original work done in Atkinson, NH where Graves brought to Elementary school, The Writer’s Workshop from a college model. The major shift was removing the teacher from the front of the room and putting the students in charge of their own processes.

“The directive, pushing teacher began to move back from her position of control so that she could return control and responsibility for the writing to the child.” 

This was revolutionary and changed the way everyone taught forever. In the words of a dear friend and colleague, Karen Atherton, “Why do what they (your students) can do better?” It is tried and true still to this day. It is a book that should be on every Writing teachers shelves.

510ZF8P39CL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray HAS to be at the very top of my list. Sure I had implemented the Writer’s Workshop for years, but it was really Katie’s ideas about “reading like a writer” that changed the way I taught writing forever in that it helped me find authors to ground me when I was “winging it” with kids.  And while this idea has been adopted, stolen and borrowed by so many, I really believe it was Katie who brought it to the forefront and mapped out how she used this lens to make the teaching of writing more concrete and accessible to all. This is ABSOLUTELY a life changer, forever book on my shelf! And while I want desperately to add a Katie quote here I realize that once again, this book has flown away and been temporarily (I hope!) adopted by someone else!! I invariably lent it to someone and it never found its way back to the nest. (If  you are who I lent it to please return as soon as possible!!) I love this look, the smooth feel of it, the color, the content and absolutely everything about this book and see that my shelves are bare without it!

In The Middle by Nancie Atwell is one of those books that I have seen sustain the test of time. There are very few from my “generation” of teachers who have not leafed through, dog-eared and tried on Nancie’s teaching in some way, shape or form.

“As a writer I tell stories so I may understand, teaching myself and trying to teach others through the actions and reactions of those “people” on the page.”

516kWKLsADL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_In the Middle reads like a  collection of stories, of teaching stories, that invite you into Nancie’s classroom, to sit down beside her and her students and see what it “feels” like to teach responsively. One of the greatest days in education was the day she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize (http://www.globalteacherprize.org/winner) as it gave credit to all of those out there fighting the fight to teach children and not curriculum. Thank you Nancie for all you have done!! It gives us all hope.

Finally I include, Minds Made for Stories by Thomas Newkirk and while you may think I am brown nosing here to include Newkirk and only Newkirk on both my reading and writing lists, be assured that they made their way onto both lists because they deserve to be here.

9780325046952Tom writes books that make me think and if I am totally honest here I find these books are becoming more rare as time goes on. Not to say there are not some great professional books out there, but so many of them are not new! They are simply re-hatched from old ideas, but are often missing the meat, or the theory behind them. Perhaps I have just been in this for too long, but I always know Newkirk will prod my thinking and in this book he does just that.

At a time where we have narrowed writing down into 3 major categories of narrative, persuasive and informational, Newkirk argues that narrative; stories are at the heart of all writing because it is through story that we are able to make sense and comprehend what we are reading. This is a MUST read for anyone stuck on the Common Core flight to writing hell!

“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide. Only in a phone book or the equivalent do we get information “raw”. But in sustained writing, any information is mediated by a teller, and that teller is part of the reading experience, just as a tour guide is part of the experience of visiting Monticello. When that teller is hidden (often the case with textbooks) or undetectable we have trouble sustaining a reading. The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” Pp 38

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Photo Credit: thewritelife.com

What all of these books have in common as I look back at them is that they invite teachers to write and to “see” themselves as writers. While this may sound strikingly obvious, it is one of those simple things that makes the biggest impact and so with these books under your wing, hopefully you too will find the courage to let go, raise your hand high and proclaim your identity, “I am a writer!”.

 

Gathering the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All is calm, all is bright.”

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Diane Ravitch

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

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

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e.e. cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

I Will Wade Out

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

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

I Will Wade Out

Letting Go: On Permission, Patience, Persistence and Possibilities…

Zachary is a senior this year and while I have tried to keep from writing about him, I find myself in the beginning phases of grieving his impending move from home to college.  When I asked him if he was ready he simply said, “No, not really, but it will be great.”  Zachary is my possibility person.  He sees the world as something that is here for him to embrace and engage in every moment he is alive.  He truly does live in the moment.   My Dad always referred to him as the one who is always “tinkering” with something.  In many ways I think he is a lot like my Dad in that his while his grades in school are not stellar, his ideas and his passion for possibility lies deep.  It is rare he says he “can’t” do something.

His latest passion is this song, Let Her Go by Passenger (that I now know by heart as I have heard it a million times a day for about 4 weeks now) and so he has decided to learn this song on the piano.  He does not, or should I say he has not ever really played the piano.  That is Emma’s instrument.  But he you tubed it (yes, I do think that is a verb!) and from watching has begun the process of two handing the keys to this tune.  I marvel at his persistence, or in this day in educational jargon, his stamina to keep on keeping up with this endeavor.  He has the first part down pretty well, and he won’t quit until he reaches the end.  I know this because this is how Zachary learns. There is always some kind of creative process that invites him in and then he is all in.

What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in?  What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?

So this year I decided to try out some of what I was preaching on my group of teachers in Dover Middle School.  I have been working with this group for years and they have one of the best collective senses of humor I have ever known.   The group has come together, I believe, even more so because of the writing we have been doing together every time we meet.  I am always surprised at what I learn about one of these dedicated teachers through their writing and I love hearing their voices develop and change with each piece they try.  They are always willing to read their writing and give feedback to each other.  In our conversations about the Common Core State Standards we also question and wonder about where the idea of freedom comes into play in public education.

And so I walked into the first class and said, “I have no class text, I have no syllabus, all I have is a workshop model and ways to guide and facilitate us through the processes of learning of your choosing.  What is it that you want to learn about?  What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have the time to discover?    There were wide eyes of excitement looking back at me as the possibilities ran across the faces of some and panic across the others.  I quickly realized that one of the first beliefs we needed to look at was that  of the “right answer” as some asked me,  “What is it that you want?”  “What exactly are you looking for and what does it look like?”  Immediately I saw that although we talked the good talk of freedom, that we as adults are as entrenched in this kind of thinking as our students, seeking that “right” answer. In the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  And so we have spent a great deal of time examining our attitudes, beliefs and biases.  Some of the work we have done together I took on the road as I have told this group that they are my research project as I work beside them and experience the same processes they are experiencing.

I recently presented some of this research at NCTE in Boston with colleagues and friends, Louise Wrobleski and Terry Moher.  We engaged in a playful study of “Reading the Visuals and Visualizing the Reading” and along the way we rediscovered the power of the visual everywhere we went.  Every day we sent each other new ideas, articles, links and images to spark our thinking. It was exhilarating because we were all engaged in thinking about, reading and researching the same thing at the same time and yet we each came at it from completely different angles.  It was these differences that gave form and texture to our presentation as we each defended and wrote up just what it was we intended to do with our 20 minutes of fame while at the same time weaving a common thread among us.  It was challenging and exciting.

Ultimately my part in the presentation came from the deep seeded belief that if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves.  Classic Don Graves.  When our participants sat down there were pictures of faces staring at them from the middle of the table.  They were asked to take one that spoke to them and then to add something to the face.  Instantly I could feel a shift of energy in the room and so I asked, “How many of you think  you can’t draw?” and almost all of the hands went up.  And while I told them not to worry, it was evident that it was a challenge for many as everyone tried to add some kind of body to their chosen face.  Here are some images I shared with them from my work with my Dover teachers and many mimicked this same behavior by adding what they “thought” was expected of them, a body.

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By Melissa

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by Tina

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Then I showed them some images from this wonderful blog, busymockingbird.com where a mother collaborates with her four year old daughter and allows her to put “bodies” onto her faces.  Here are some of those images.

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And after showing these images suddenly the world of possibilities opens up as each person is granted permission to be playful, to think beyond what they “thought” the expectation was in terms of a “right” answer, even though I said there was no right or wrong way to add to their faces.  After sharing these as well as images from Terry Moher’s students work I then asked them to turn over their faces and give it another go.  And again the energy shifted and people began to envision, talk and even giggle at what might be, based on what they felt confident about drawing and the images took on completely different shapes and forms. After sketching I asked participants to write either about their process or to bring words and life to the images they had created. Or as one Dover teacher Lisa stated on her second go, I looked at this face and as I was trying to think outside of the box, I thought, boxes, yes, I can draw boxes!  And this is what she came up with.

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by Mark

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by Melissa

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by Denise

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by Ben

The following images are of particular interest to me. The first  was drawn by an elementary teacher, Pam.   The second by Ben a middle school teacher.  What I found fascinating was that these were their first drawings.  What was it about Pam and Ben’s thinking that they got to where others often only got to on the second go?  They both talked about how they couldn’t draw bodies, so they looked at the faces and tried to come up with something that fit the face that they could draw,  but that was not a body. Essentially Pam and Ben gave themselves permission to add to the faces in any way they felt would work.   They allowed themselves to just let go and were not confined by the idea of what was “right”.

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by Ben

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by Pam

Well you only need the light when it’s burning low

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow

Only know you love her when you let her go

 

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go

And you let her go.

                             ~ Let Her Go by Passenger

And while these lyrics ring in my head I think about how we all need to let go, if even just a little bit.  All of us.  I need to let go as a mother and allow my son to make his way in the world, and as teachers we need to let go.  Let go of the “one answer society rules” demands of the testing world and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that lie within.

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

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

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

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

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

So here we go…

A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad

A for Always

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

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

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

B for Best Friend

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

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

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

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

C for Call

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

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

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

D for Dancing

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

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

E for Employee

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

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

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

F for Faces

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

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

H for  Hugging

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

I for Indulgence

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

L for  Late

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

M for Moving

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

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

S for Swearing

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

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

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

T for Tomasen

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

 W for Wondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid is as Stupid Does: More on The Common Core

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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