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.

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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Reflections on Drama, Drama Worlds and the Land of Misfit Kids

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in him time plays many parts.”  William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

 I have always been a great fan of using drama and movement in the classroom.  Here I look at the dramas that unfold regardless of what we do or don’t do.

As I enter the room I look around.  Who is here?  Who is not here?  Who is talking to whom and who is not talking to anyone?  What is the “pulse” of the group today?  Is the energy high?  Low?  Medium?  Do I read stress, playfulness, and exhaustion?  What does this group hold today?  What dramas are unfolding before my eyes?  What will happen in this class today? 

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Photo Credit: hobbinol.wordpress.com

 By observing drama worlds within our classrooms we then invite our students to “read” the drama actions going on in their worlds with a heightened sense of awareness, reflection and learning.  Each classroom is unique just as each individual within each classroom is unique.  Understanding one’s self, the group and being able to “see” from someone else’s point of view allows us to teach empathy and real life skills that will be forever invaluable for our students.  We can call this “dramatic consciousness” where we ask of our students and ourselves to be aware of what is happening in and around us, within the books we read, the characters we create and the meaning that we ultimately make for ourselves.

 “Dramatic consciousness means bring aware that there is dramatic action taking place in one’s life, in one’s work, in the lives of the people who make up the school community.  It implies being present to that drama, engaged in its passions, struggles and adventures, rather than being psychologically distant, removed from the action.”

                                             Robert J. Starratt, The Drama of Schooling: The Schooling of Drama

One year, my first year at a new school I had the privilege of getting a class of “misfits”.  I say this with love for each of these children, but the truth of the matter was that I had gotten all of the students whose parents had not made requests for other teachers.  I was new, the unknown and the keeper of all of the students whose parents did not know to make requests or were just not interested in doing so.  This group of kids was one of the most challenging and consequently rewarding groups I have ever worked with.  We spent much of the year working on group dynamics and accepting people for who they were.  When I say misfits I am talking about all of those kids who had something incredibly special about them that had yet to be nurtured.  They were a group for whom school was not a comfortable stage.  They were a group, who by the end of the year became the tightest knit group of students I have ever had.

 “And so faith is closing your eyes and following the breath of your own soul down to the bottom of life, where existence and non-existence have merged into relevance.  All that matters is the little part you play in the vast drama.”             

                                  -Anonymous

 As individuals they were as different as they were talented.  The everyday work of school, sitting at one’s desk and performing a series of tasks was not going to work for not just a couple of them, but literally for none of them.  If they were not coded then they were labeled with some kind of something that supposedly hindered their ability to learn.  They were also the group that took to drama more than any other.  It was a way for them to be and to show their learning through movement.  It was what eventually made this group do things that were beyond comprehension.  Every day was filled with dramatic activities and chances for kids to “become” someone other than themselves.  Puppetry, theater, role-playing, Picture Book Dramas, Joke – Telling, Songs, Poet’s Theater were parts of every day often inspired by the students themselves.

 One beautiful spring day I was called to the principal’s office to discuss an upcoming “fight” that was to take place the very next day.  The rumor was that many of the kids in my class were involved.  Involved?  That was putting it mildly.  They had all gotten together as a class for each recess for weeks and worked on the planning and execution of this upcoming “event”.  It was to be a showdown between two boys in our class who had agreed to “fight”.  There was a marketing committee who went around at each recess talking up the upcoming event.  There was a sales committee that created and sold tickets to the event.  There were judges, participants and even prizes to be donated by various other students in the class.  There were flyers made, and all of the the other third grade classes were buying the tickets and oh yes, did I mention, they were also placing bets on who would be the winner?  In their own time they had created an entire drama world where each of them were the stars.  The organization, thoughtfulness and planning that went into this event was amazing.  But, we were at school and what were we going to do about this?  The fight was cancelled, much to the relief of the contenders and monies were returned to the rightful owners.  Letters of apology were written and yet, through it all there was a part of me that was actually proud of these kids and what they had almost pulled off.

“I love acting.  It is so much more real than life.” 

                                  -Oscar Wilde

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Photo Credit: http://www.tumblr.com

So, I took the pulse of the group and ran with it.  We broke down the drama of the event they had planned, unpacked it and gathered on the carpet and discussed all of the skills they used to plan and eventually execute such an event.  After mapping them out I proposed that we use all of these skills in order to plan an event that might actually help someone or a cause.  The thinking began and the ideas started to flow.  What would we do?  At the time we were studying the rainforest and after careful consideration it was decided that we, as a class, would buy a portion of a rainforest.  The efforts to raise money began as the kids headed up different committees and the money was eventually earned and we purchased an acre of a rainforest that would never be destroyed.  We received a picture and a document stating it had been saved and the best part was that out of this planning and execution nobody got hurt and even better part of the world was saved.

“Life is like an overlong drama through which we sit being nagged by the vague memories of having read the reviews.”

                              John Updike

 It seems to me that too often in our school worlds we see things in black and white.  Sure, what they planned was inappropriate for school, but as a group it was an amazing feat.  Here was a group of kids who lingered on the outskirts of the popular kids, who became, as a group, the focus of the third grade recess.  They had planned an event that every other third grader wanted to be a part of.  As a group these students created and made a drama world where they were center stage and not behind the scenes where most of them had been most of their school careers.  And even as I write this I realize that this is not completely true because many of those kids were front and center, but not in a place that was helping them.  Many were in trouble with the “law” for numerous accounts and even in this we need to ask, what is the drama action that is happening and what need is it fulfilling?  Attention.  Working together they were able to get this attention in a positive way.

 We spend a great deal of time focusing on everything that is wrong.  What is right?    These kids were brilliant….but school was never a place where their genius was discovered.  I just think we can do better.  And part of better is helping kids to see their roles in life, in school and as individuals.  Lights, Camera…ACTION!

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Photo Credit: shakespeareinaction.wordpress.com

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in him time plays many parts.”  William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

 

 

 

 

 

The Joke is on You

“Humor, like hope, permits one to focus upon and to bear what is too terrible to bear,” Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, writes in “The Wisdom of the Ego.”

“Why did the cookie go to the doctor’s office?”

“Because she was feeling crummy!”

“Do you get it?”

My 4 year old daughter, Emma loved to tell this joke when she found herself in new strange hospital situations.  Humor is one of those incredible gifts that we all have for making human connections.  This was her way of taking some kind of control over her illness and she loved to tell this joke over and over.  The delight in her eyes in seeing who “got it” was sheer heaven, thinking she was so clever and loving the joke over and over herself.  There was something in this joke  she could see that made her enjoy it every time she told it.  She “got” it and was always sure to ask, “Do you get it?”

The getting it is like the ultimate secret that she is privy to; the delight is making sure that everyone is able to enjoy the magic of the punch line in the same way as the teller.  And there is an art to telling a good joke and the feedback is instant…did you get a laugh or not?  You can always tell those who get it as an expression of knowing crosses their faces, and then there are those that laugh to be polite and those who are laughing as they are still trying to figure it out.  We have all been there, at one end or the other and of course the worst place to be is to be the jokester that gets no laughs at all.  It is a tough lesson, but one that you can do something about right away.

In the classroom one part of our morning meeting was joke telling. There were some rules surrounding the telling.  First the joke had to be appropriate for school.  Yes, of course there were those who pushed the limit, but for the most part kids were able to discriminate between those that would be acceptable and those that would not.  Just trusting them allowed them the freedom and the responsibility to make good choices. 

The second rule was that you had to practice the joke at least three times and that you had to get a laugh at least one or two of those times before volunteering for morning meeting.  This was for two reasons; one was to work on the delivery and to work on making it funny.  We would talk about what made a good joke and what didn’t.  We talked about the emphasis being on the punch line and how to deliver an effective punch line.  These could be classified in our  under reading with expression, the importance of audience and comprehension studies.  (How is that for meeting standards?)  It was a clear test of whether the child understood the joke or not based on the reaction of the audience.  If it was not funny we worked together as a group to think about what could be done with the joke to make it funnier.  This is revision in real life.  Then the child would take his or her newly revised joke out into the world and wait until it was funny enough to bring it back to the class. 

Everyone had ownership of the joke by then and often there would be many versions of the same joke told over and over again.  This gave us time to talk about the fact that authors do this all the time.  Once someone has a great idea then other authors try to take the basic idea and make it their own.  We talked about how this often happened with jokes and that jokes changed regularly in their details because joke-telling is typically an oral form of literacy that is passed on from person to person.  The game of telephone is a great way to show how things change based on the oral telling and that people all hear things differently.  

I would always begin the year telling a joke to model how to tell a joke.  I would overemphasize the telling in order to be able to point out to the class just what it was I was doing and that there are things that you can do to tell a good joke.  The joke I told was about a chicken that goes into the library to get a book.  He goes up to the librarian and says, “Book, book book”.  This is said like a chicken saying bok, bok, bok with a high voice.  (This is hard to put into writing!)  The chicken takes the book and returns within 10 minutes shouting the same thing to the librarian, “Book, book, book”.  The librarian thinks this is strange but gives the chicken another book.  Sure enough if you have heard enough jokes you know that this chicken is going to be back in no time.  This structure allows us to look at it closely and see there is predictability in jokes and that if you wanted to make up your own joke then like fairy tales, the magic number of 3 often appears.  Well, the chicken magically does show up again but this time the librarian wants to know what is going on, knowing the chicken could not have read either of those books so quickly.   She gets on her coat and decides, after giving the chicken yet another book, to find out what is going on by following the chicken.  The chicken leaves the library, heads up a big hill, out into a field and through the forest to a clearing.  (Again here is a way a leading the audience into what we know is going to be the punch line.  I talk about slowing down here and that when I do the audience almost leans in waiting, waiting, waiting and thinking get to the punch line already!)  At the edge of the clearing is a pond.  The chicken walks over to the edge of the pond where a frog is sitting.  The chicken pulls out the book and shows it to the frog.  The frog looks at it and promptly replies, “READ IT. READ IT”.  Of course this is said like a frog instead of ribbit it is read it.  These slight changes in voice are very important because without them the joke is just not funny!  So, okay you are thinking this is a dumb joke, and it is.  It is also, however an excellent model for kids because it is clean and it contains so many elements of a good joke.  This gets kids thinking about their own jokes and jokes they have heard in the past.  Often one of the hardest things to do is to just remember the joke.  I tell the kids that having one or two good jokes in your pocket is a great way to be in a new crowd.  Everyone loves a good joke.  But is has to be a GOOD joke.  A bad joke won’t get you very far.  This also encourages kids to think about themselves in social settings and to think about when it is appropriate to tell a joke and when it is not.

“Jokes compact the elements of storytelling into bite-sized mini-narratives. They are not just funny. For writers and editors, they are models that can help teach storytelling” Chip Scanlon, the Poynter Institute.

 Joke telling is a form of storytelling; something that we can use to help our young  readers and writer’s to see the elements of a story in a very compact version.  To tell a good joke the teller must prepare the reader by setting the stage introducing main characters and setting, the chicken, the librarian and the library.

Next is to provide some kind of background for the reader, in knowing the structure of many jokes, one is sure that the chicken will be coming back at least a couple more times.  Also using the voices allows for the characters to know more about them.  She is a female chicken with a high voice; the librarian is suspicious about a reading chicken from the beginning.

The joke relies heavily on creating scenes that the reader can follow.  The chicken comes and goes, comes and goes and does these actions very quickly, leading the librarian to become even more suspicious.

A good joke creates suspense, engaging the reader as they sit and listen, leaning in to find out what in the world is going to happen next and often this is done through conflict.  The conflict here is for the librarian who is miffed that this chicken keeps on coming back without having read a book!

Next it builds to a climax and a clear resolution.  We know that when the chicken leaves and the librarian follows that we are going with her and that we will find out instantly just what the chicken is up to.

Finally, is that wonderful element of surprise, the “aha” moment where we wonder how we didn’t get it all along.  It is funny that the chicken is trying to get the frog a new book and so we laugh with this quick resolution and twist that we can visualize as being very funny.

Derek was a small fourth grader who had a hard time fitting in.  Not only was he smaller than all of his classmates, but also he was somewhat goofy looking and gangly.  He had a hard time finding his place in the world and was often seen getting into it with kids.  If there was trouble, then Derek was in the middle of it.   In the classroom he struggled.  As a reader he struggled the most.  For Derek, this opportunity to tell jokes, this place where being the class clown was encouraged was his place to shine.  By the end of the year he had found every joke book in his local area.  I will never forget the day he showed up with a book the size of Webster’s heaved up under his arm.  It was titles “A Million and One Jokes.”  Derek would sit for hours pouring over this book in search of the perfect joke.   It was a ridiculous book for him as it was laden with jokes that were so out there that I didn’t get a lot of them.  Many of them politically motivated from cultures all over the world.  The schema one would have to have for many of these jokes would put Google to shame!  The print was as small as anyone could imagine, but he continued to read over it, searching for that one joke that he did get!  And he would know when he would get it.  You want to talk about serious close reading.  He was getting to know himself as a reader through this insurmountable task he had set for himself.  He would carry that book everywhere…and did I mention it must have weighed 25 pounds??

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Photo Credit: blogs.women24.com

 At first he would tell jokes that none of us got.  Eventually, though he was able to work on finding a good one, practice it and in no time Derek became one of the classes favorite joke tellers.  This was his forte’.  This was his place to find comfort and acceptance for who he was.  This also gave him a very real reason to read and to read for meaning and with purpose.  It also gave him a real reason to write as he then went on to write his own jokes.  At morning meeting it would be Derek that everyone wanted to tell a joke.  Each day we had time for three jokes.  On days when nobody else would volunteer, they would all chant Derek’s name and he would get up and do his own version of a Leno monologue telling joke after joke.  He was good.  I don’t know where Derek is today, but I have a hunch that someday I may see him on stage at the Laugh Factory!

 We need to value children, for who they are, not who we want them to be.  We need to look at each child and find the strength inside of him.  Derek could also easily have dropped out of school.  It was not a place that he “typically” succeeded and joke telling allowed him to have a place in our classroom community for who he was.   Don’t get me wrong.  This was not that all magical cure and Derek continued to struggle each and every day in the classroom and on the playground, but offering this as an option allowed for Derek and other kids to use their humor in an effective and constructive way.  It also allowed Derek to take some of the painful anger in his life and poke fun at that as well.  Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in Team of Rivals, a study of Abraham Lincoln where she focused on “the vital role humor and storytelling played in Lincoln’s melancholy personality.”  , “He laughed, so he did not weep.  He saw laughter as the ‘joyous, universal evergreen of life.’  His stories were intended ‘to whistle off sadness.’” 

 We should each laugh as many times in the day as we can.  I remember reading somewhere that we use so many more facial muscles to frown than to laugh…therefore frowning causes more lines in the wrinkles of life.  So heck, let’s laugh or in the end…the joke is on you!!

 

 

The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play

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

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

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Emma

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes that is the one.”

“Oh, that is my baby’s name Momma.”

Silenced again.

The power of modeling…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

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

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

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

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

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

Swish-swash

Slush-sliding

Icicles-banging

Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

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

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

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

The Goody Bag Generation: Conformity, Performance and Privileges in State Testing

These past 7 months have been some of the craziest of my life in a long time.  This past fall my daughter became depressed while away at school in Ohio.   Helping her through her difficult time from 800 miles away via the telephone was challenging…to say the least.  Then my father, now 84 became very ill and almost passed away at Christmas in the midst of their trying to sell their condo and buy a new house.  Then February 1st, I get a frantic phone call from my Dad telling me they are across the river watching their condo burn up in flames.  That night they moved in and stayed for 6 weeks.  The day after my parents moved out my son crashed my new car and it has been in the shop ever since.   And then my dear friend Karen lost her son, Jimmy to cancer.

And yet here I am 7 months later and my daughter has made some very difficult and adult decisions to improve her life and is doing fabulously.  My Dad recovered miraculously and is doing better than ever.  My parents have moved to their little house up north and although my car is in the shop, it is all good.  What is not so good is my friend Karen.  How does one even begin to live after losing a child?  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

 It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.   

~Epictetus

And so here I find myself evaluating what really matters in life when I receive a letter from my son’s High School punctuating, yet again what really matters in our public school systems.

The first paragraph states that several years ago our 11th grade students were not performing well on the State Test, NECAP.  It goes on to say that the “Data Strategies Team” (don’t even get me started here!!)  investigated and interviewed students to understand their lack of motivation.  This study revealed that our students got smart and stopped performing on state tests because they realized these tests had nothing to do with their futures because they did not have anything to do with their class ranks or GPA’s.   (I was on the school board at this point in time and remember celebrating these students and how smart and courageous they were!)

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The second paragraph goes on to say that after these findings they decided to create a big fat carrot in the name of senior privileges for those juniors who achieved a score of “proficient”  or above in all three areas of reading, math and writing on these state tests.

The third paragraph tells me “You are receiving this letter because your son or daughter will be allowed Junior Privileges beginning April 29th”.  This means that my son can leave campus during unassigned periods and it allows him the freedom to “go to various destinations within in the building.”  It is his get out of jail card and all because he was able to perform FOR them.

I am outraged by this…what are we doing hanging out carrots for a one time test?  What about those kids who may not test well?  What if those same kids who bombed the test are stellar students working hard each and every day?  What about students with Special Needs?  WHAT are we rewarding here?   And why?

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Why?  I will tell you why…because these tests have nothing to do with our kids, how they learn or  their futures…it is all about feeding the big number crunching machine to demonstrate that our schools are not failing.

Well…I would argue the opposite.  School is failing my son miserably and yet he gets these privileges because he conformed and performed and did what was expected of him…NOT because he was learning, thinking, creating, wondering, exploring and discovering the joy of learning.  What is the greater message we are sending here?

Is it just me?  I am sure that some parents might be celebrating his or her child’s ability to test well and “earn” these special privileges.  The letter is written on beautiful school stationary to be framed and hung on the wall.  Another badge of honor to be worn by parents to show their child measures up.  But not me.

It is just another reminder that it is not about our kids and their learning.  What matters is that our students consistently conform, perform and then get a goody bag for doing so.

Photo Credits: www.visual-learners.comdouglasemerson.blogs.com,