Amplify Love with Open Hearts and Minds

She came running across the room and was in my face before I knew it.  Big bright eyes, and a knob of hair twisted up on each side of her head and a smile that forged through her too big Cindy Lou Who teeth  and blurted out,  “Who are you?” “You look like you are nice” she added. I replied, “so do you!” as  she grabbed my hand and led me over to the table where she was working with her 5th grade friends.

Photo from womansday.com

Kids.  Oh how I have missed kids.  Wednesday of this week, March 30, 2022 was the first day I have been allowed back in schools since the world shut down Friday, March 13th 2020.  Two full years without access to classrooms.  Two freakin’ years without access to the heart and soul of what I do, the bread and butter, the reason for doing it all…these kids.  Soul singing, I sat  and languished in it all.  Kids with noses in books, kids in loud sobbing tears, kids playing games, kids writing, kids in small group instruction, kids working independently, kids working with partners, kids roaming the halls, kids, kids, kids everywhere.  Oh how I have missed those faces, the indescribable thrumb of a classroom in process, the amazing patience of teachers and how intently they listen to their students, face to face listening, deeply listening and responding to every move, disruption and celebration all in one breath. 

I forget just how exhaustingly beautiful this profession is.

And for all of my intentions to remain somewhat invisible as I observed, just wanting to get a sense of where these teachers and their students lived and how they spent their days, I went hardly unnoticed.  In fact, my presence seemed to cause a disruption in just about every room I went into.  I wondered, had I lost my touch of effortlessly slipping into a classroom, sitting myself down in a tiny chair alongside readers and writers or was it something else?

“Is she someone’s mom?”

“No, she is just here to observe for a little bit, I mean she might be someone’s Mom, but not of anyone in this class.”

“What is she doing here?  Can my Mom come in?”

And he wouldn’t quit.  The interrogation into who I was completely disrupted this teacher and her small group work.    I skulked down lower in my blue plastic molded seat and gave the teacher an apologetic look for such a disruption.  And then I realized, this was a novelty not only for me, but for everyone.  They had not HAD visitors in two years either.  I take a breath and acknowledge once again how the pandemic effect reaches out, creating moments that you are just not prepared for. 

Photo Credit: from ZME Science

And this is just on the surface, as I look around at seas of faces and wonder, how has the pandemic effect affected you and you and you and you and you screaming and crying shamelessly out loud for being offended?  What social graces have been lost?  What emotional barriers have been built?  What fears linger for those who still choose to come to school amongst newly naked faces, with your mask still tightly wound around your face?  

And then there are those teachers’ faces.  More weary than I recall as they have to teach as well as manage all of the outside noise, disruption, distrust, disillusion, and downright attacks on their profession, their lives, their livelihood, their very souls from an arena outside that has very little, if anything to do with what these people do and how they perform and keep moving forward each and every day, every hour, every moment.

I can’t help but think how lucky these kids are to have such talented, expert, devoted and dedicated teachers show up each and every day for them. 

Photo Credit: Great Big Canvas

Lift them up.  Ask what they need.  Offer your time or your hands or your resources.  Engage in the community  of real live people with an open heart and open mind.   Take all that time you devote to ripping people apart on social media and get involved with living, breathing people in real spaces, face to face.  We can do that now! Leave the screens, the echo chambers, the talking heads  and your tag lines at the door. Re-engage and reconnect to beating hearts with love.  Someone may just say, “hey, you look like a nice person.”  and you may reply, “so do you”.

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!”.

 

The HOPE Line is Open and Ready for Business, Honoring One Person’s Experience at a Time

I always tell people I have the best job in the world.   I have autonomy.  I am respected to make sound decisions based on the needs of my students.  I have choice and a voice that I am encouraged to use.   I have time to create lessons, facilitate discussions, envision graduate courses and then execute them with amazing professionals.  I am trusted.  This gives me hope.

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I wish every teaching professional could say the same thing.  My work is centered in the idea that we learn by doing and so whatever I am teaching or doing I engage in myself first be that a reading assignment, a writing assignment or something that I will be teaching to students.

Ultimately it all comes down to purpose: the why and the how of the whole thing.  And yet I find myself fighting for sites in which to work.  Moving upstream against a current that has such great momentum that is would seem there is no hope.  Imagine that not many years ago our Learning Through Teaching graduate level course were in over 30 schools in the area from New Hampshire, Massachusetts  and up into Maine.  We had a great many talented  consultants and our outreach was far and wide.

Our model was “in vogue” as it empowered teachers and brought them together within their own schools for professional reading, writing and dialogue.  Slowly over the years, the demand has not lessened but the funding has dried up.  The professional development of our teachers is one of the last things on a long list of budget demands.

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But there is always hope.  In fact I saw it in my class just last week.  This group is a unique group of educators who meet monthly to discuss a common professional reading in my home.  They receive graduate credit for their work, but more than that they receive support in a way that they cannot find elsewhere.

One teacher actually commented that she found herself wanting to be careful in talking with other teachers at her school about our course because they did not have the same network of support.  So on the one hand she wants to rave about what is a critical part of her ongoing professional development, but on the other hand she feels she cannot.

Another teacher was literally brought to tears as she expressed how lonely and isolated she was feeling in her own classroom and frustrated with the lack of thinking and keeping students in mind.

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A MUST read for all.

But, these teachers, after reading Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, immediately shifted their focus on reading to include the love of reading and celebrating that with students.   And you might think, really?  Isn’t that just a given?  And the answer is not anymore!!  This shift brought them back to themselves and who they know they are as educators.  And their students responded in kind coming into school proclaiming,

“I finished my book last night and it was amazing!!  What should I read next?”  And we, together as a group, celebrated these moments.

And in that one line there is hope!  Can you see it?  Just a glimmer?  Honoring One Person’s Experience. Let’s follow that light.  We are strong.  We know what is best for our students and if we can ignite a sense of readership, writership and thinkership among them then we are slowly creating a new genre of students in the name of those who care, those who want to think, those who want to read, those who want to write and will…

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And just like those Bostonians who ran towards the disaster and renewed our faith in human kind, let’s do the same for education kind.  So in this spirit please share your “one liners” of HOPE from your students, administrators, parents whatever.  What is being said to keep the hope alive?   The HOPE Line is open and ready for business, Honoring One Person’s Experience at a time.  What is yours?

Photo Credits: www.hopeinspiredministries.org,mylifelonglearningcorner.blogspot.com,info.live58.org –