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?

world globe on a open book

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!

Divergent, College Apps and Mindset all Rolled into One, or Not

We find ourselves in the tortuous waiting period, when college applications are floating amongst the millions, while we sit in waiting for the big envelopes (you hope!) or the small letters to arrive in the mail.  Will he or won’t he.  What else could we have done to increase his chances in the big world?  Will he have the opportunities and choices that he needs to make his life one where he can maintain his passions and earn a living doing what he loves?  What if he doesn’t get in?  What if he does?  What is right for him?  Does he even know?

ImageI am currently submerged in the Divergent series, and already this college process seems so similar to the “Choosing Ceremony” in this book where at 16 one must decide his or her fate forever based on what faction he or she chooses.  If that 16 year old chooses a faction other than where they were raised then they lose their families forever.  It is a life or death kind of decision.  There is no going back.

And if I am feeling this way, I can only imagine what all of these kids are feeling.  One of Zach’s friends even said to me,  “I didn’t realize that my choices as a freshman and sophomore would influence and impact the rest of my life.”  Already he spoke of regret and wishing he could do it over and yet when I really pushed him on the subject and asked him if he really would have done it differently he realizes he could not or would not have done so.

ImageAnd then I realize that I am buying into this whole thing when really I need to change my mindset and believe what I have always believed about kids and education and what matters.  Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset explains,

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?”

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

She goes on to say,

“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .”

But wait, there is another way to see.

“There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.’

I love the idea that one can always grow and change and learn more, that “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development” and that what we do with that hand is what matters.

The rub is that our world and the world of applying to college is grounded in a fixed mindset, a black and white world where a person’s only way to “show” who they really are is through numbers, and stats and one essay.  It is the ultimate in trying to “prove” that you are worthy of a higher education.  It emphasizes what Dweck is arguing against, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

This flies in the face of who Zachary really is, a person of possibility where anything he sets his mind to he will make happen or as Dweck writes, ‘everyone can change and grow through application and experience.’

Those reading my son’s applications cannot see him as he sits and studies how to create the perfect ski ramp considering angles and pitches and speed.  They cannot see the constant tinkering her does around his passions and how all consumed he becomes.  That he believes anything is possible or as Dweck writes, “they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

Nope, the college application is the result of a fixed system where certain numbers are king.

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Zachary, 5 years old.

But if I truly believe in what Dweck is trying to say then no matter what happens in this process Zachary  will have choices, hands will be dealt and regardless of that hand he can and will grow from it all.  And while I believe this does give me some relief, if I am totally honest, I cannot wait for the process to come to an end, to know what is in hand and to move from there.

 “I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”             ~  Divergent

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?

THINKING is Passionate, Purposeful and Playful

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: esioh.com

 

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

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Photo Credit: Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: jackgallery.wordpress.com

 

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

Somebody’s gotta do it!

It’s only fair.

Think about it.

 

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…