You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

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?

Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

The buzz of Mentor Texts has been around for quite a while now and while I like this idea, what I don’t like is that our young writers are often instructed to use a particular mentor text for a given time as assignments.  Using a particular structure to do this, instead of exposing them to a variety of ideas and texts and then helping and guiding our students to figure out what would work best for them, the writers.

What would happen if we asked our young writers to first think about what it was they wanted to say, to write about, to read about, to discover and then come up with the best way to express this?

When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia I kept a journal and wrote down every single little detail of our experience.  It was exhausting to get onto those pages all that I felt I needed to.  Her every reaction to every drug, the times she received the doses, the different emotions experienced, missing my 8 month old at home.   I quickly fell behind and was angry that I was missing so much of what I thought I needed to get down, in the name of control.

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Book of Poetry by Dan Rothermel

 And then one day someone brought me this small book called, Sweet Dreams, Robyn written by Dan Rothermel.  It is a collection of poems he wrote about his daughter with cancer.  This book transformed my writing life.  Suddenly, I had the permission and allowed myself to write in poetry finding it easier to get down all that I wanted to without getting muddled in all of the pros it took.  In the words of my Dad, “less is more” in writing.

With the death of my father I had this same experience as I was meandering through the blog world I found a blog that just spoke to me.  She writes a fictional piece about the death of her mother and says,

“It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.”

Her mentor  Wallace Stevens gave her what she needed to capture what she wanted to write in fiction and I instantly knew that this too would be the perfect way for me to capture and process my father dying.  Snippets of strong images that I needed to get down on paper and so her blog became my mentor text.  It was more than perfect.

You can find her blog at  http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/

So here is my version, based on the ideas I stole from her that she stole from Wallace Stevens. 

13 Ways of Looking at Death Just Before, During and After

I

I called him on the phone, his voice weak and wavering as his hand fought to keep the phone still.   “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Bad.  This is Bad.  What I have is really bad.”  I cringe, as I know he knows it is bad.  Sepsis.  Blood infection on top of pneumonia not to mention his COPD, heart disease and diabetes…

He has never said it was bad before.  He always said,  “It is getting better.

It is bad.

 

II

His oxygen cord lies on the dirty floor as it takes her a moment to realize there are no lines crossing his face, lines of plastic jewelry tubes that have become as permanent as his glasses.  He is not getting any air.

And she wonders…just how long has he been without oxygen?

She calls the nurse and insists he gets a new one.  Nurse never responds to the absence of his air or how long he has been without it.

Idiots.

 

III 

She is alone with him, Red Sox images flashing in the dark room, sound blaring while she simultaneously plays Candy Crush.    He wakes, peers over and says, ”You are still here?  I really appreciate that.”

I smile. 

And we go on like that for hours.

The Sox won.

Won the AL East Title.  He is not aware.

She hoped it was a good sign.

She is always looking for signs.

 

IV

Today is a good day.  He is out of bed, sitting up in the hospital chair as she enters.  He starts talking, “You know I sat up all night trying to remember the kids names.”

She thinks it must be all of the grandkids that he is forgetting…he continues…

“I know I have 3 kids.  2 daughters and a son.”

“Yes that is right” she replies, as he looks up at her and says, “The first daughter is Lisa.” 

“Yes Dad, Lisa is your first daughter.”

“Then there is another one, you, what is your name?”

Her 10-year-old self emerges and screams inside, YOU named me Dad!! Don’t you remember?  I have the coolest name in the world because YOU made it up. 

That’s enough of this name game.

We gotta get him the hell out of this hospital.

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Me, My Dad and Lisa

 

V

My once virile father sits perched on the kitchen island pursing for air.  How did he get in the house so quickly?  My brother in law carried him in, like a baby in his arms, but he was amazed at just how heavy he really was, all  filled up with 9 days of hospital IV fluids so he had to stop to rest.

We still laugh at the absurdity of my Dad sitting with his feet swinging on the kitchen counter.  Who says you don’t go backwards?

He then carries him the next leg into the bed where he will remain until he dies.

 

VI

Each breath is a struggle and you can tell it actually hurts.  Never mind when he coughs.  He just wants to feel better, but he doesn’t really as he tries to negotiate in his head that he is now home and how he thought being home would make him feel better…but he doesn’t.  Now what?  You can see it coursing across his forehead like the GMA banner in Times Square.  Now what?  Now what?  Now what?

 

VII

Doctor came to the house.  Yes, in 2013 a Doctor actually came to meet the needs of his patient.   There is a God.  (See previous post on Systems)

Dad chose hospice.  Visions of nurses, social workers and support at our side danced her head as she wondered…does he really know what he is choosing?

She is sent up to the Local Colonial Pharmacy to get the “hospice kit”.  A box filled with drugs and lots of other things medical that you don’t want to know about never mind even think about using.

She is the chosen one to give her father his first dose of comfort packaged in a needless syringe to be administered orally.  Flashbacks of shoving chemo filled syringes disguised in chocolate pudding to her 3 and a half-year-old smack her in the face. 

Click…she re-enters that mode and just does what she has to do.  She has been here before and she just does it.  Nurse Ratched is back in the house. 

VIII

My brother arrives a few minutes after giving my Dad the morphine. 

The pill that he was begging for. 

The morphine that I was afraid of. 

The morphine that came without the nurses and the social workers and the volunteers to help us through this process.  

Where in the hell were those hospice people she had heard so many wonderful stories about? 

All they got was hospice in a box that had to be refrigerated.

 It was just My Mom and I with my Dad yelling at us, “Will you just give it to me for God’s sake, I don’t  care if it is the wrong dose.”

 He begged for relief as we became more and more agitated and unsteady in the moment, dropping syringes, reading and rereading the prescription and even calling the pharmacist. 

And finally I  just gave it to him as he gasped for air and I suddenly realized we too had been as negligent as the hospital.

His oxygen tank had run out.  No wonder he was desperate for something.  How many ways are there to torture a man?

And they left the room when her brother arrived. 

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Jamie and Dad

IX

Morphine overdose.  Her brother horrified that we left him alone with a his father who was fine and talking with him one minute and then was suddenly hallucinating and trying to get out of bed.  His strength mammoth as my mother got in bed behind him to restrain him.  He could not walk on those big boats of feet filled with fluid. 

I call the VNA.  I reach out for those hospice people who were supposed to be there and tell him we need help ASAP!!!!! 

He responds that giving morphine is an “art” and not that you gave him too much but that if he had been there he would have started with a lower dose.  After telling her this for the 4th time she wants to reach out and punch him through the phone…then why the HELL would you hand it over to an amateur?

He arrives at the house and starts talking about the “art” of dosing morphine again!!!  She sees red and runs from him to avoid physically clobbering him.

Next Time…I give him ¼ of the recommended dose. 

Thank you, Honorary Dr. Brother James. It says you can give it every 30 minutes.  One quarter of a dose lasted him 12 hours. 

Insanity.

 

X

He lays in bed and sleeps, or so it seems, soundly for days on end.

The question dancing through the house…”when will it happen?”

The family has their own form of hospice in a “Come to Jesus” kind of scene from a bad Lifetime Movie.  We all give him permission to go, hands on, tears flying.  Sister Lisa actually seems to be cheering him up to the pearly gates.  Everybody says their peace and then we all continue to sit with big red puffy eyes, exhausted and we wait.

He doesn’t go.

When will he go?

He doesn’t go.

From the background Cousin Anne tells us, “He isn’t going to go right now, it doesn’t happen like that.” And snaps us out of our delusions that we can will him to go in that moment.

XI

The sleepless nights wear on as brother and sister get up at different times to peek in to see my mother sleeping next to my yes, still breathing, father.

Exhaustion settles into the house and takes a seat on the couch alongside us.

Maybe he is not going anywhere.  Maybe he will live forever.

Meals are delivered.  They are all amazed at how they just show up and are so thankful because eating and food have not been on their radar.

Dad has not really eaten or had anything to drink for over 12 days.

Unless you count 4 little bird bites here and there.  I fed him his last scrambled egg from Lisa’s chickens a couple days ago.  No solid food since eating 5 bites of that egg.  No water.  Nothing.

How does the human body beat on?  Especially one we all thought was so fragile?

His Hands don’t even look like his anymore they are so filled up with fluid,  boxers hands.

Every moment stretches on as you wonder…when will his last breath be?  Who will be with him?  She wonders all of these things as she crawls into bed with him and rubs his back and quietly cries for her Daddy while the Red Sox blare on the radio from the bedside table next to us.  

“How can something so natural be so unnatural?”  son James wonders.

XII

She wakes at 8.  Walks downstairs past her sleeping brother and sees her mother making the bed around her father’s still body.   His breathing has changed.  It is short.  Very short.  She says, get the morphine.

I know I must give him him the rest of the syringe…the same dose I administered 5 days earlier…it was what he needed.  He was hardly breathing.

Mom is on his right.  She is on his left. 

He opens his eyes for the first time since the morphine began.  The biggest widest eyes you have ever seen and he looked over at my Mom and she said, “Look at those big beautiful brown eyes.  I love those eyes.  They have not been that open in years.  I wonder why none of you got those eyes?  I am the dominant one.”

“I always wished I had gotten those brown eyes I respond as his eyes then slowly trail to find me on the left.  He stares right at me for a moment and then it is as if he is looking to something beyond me.  He holds that gaze for what seems like forever before he moves his sights straight ahead and opens them even wider.  He was seeing the light.  He liked it.  He felt peaceful as he took one long deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Is that it?”  Mom and I looked at each other.  It seemed to be.  No pulse. 

And then out of nowhere one last little breath just to mess with us as we laughed. 

Dad died.

8:15 am on Sunday, September 29th, 2013.

It was beautiful.

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Dad and Mom taking flight on Chappy

 

XIII

She misses him.  They all miss him.  She is not sure what to do so she talks about him.  She remembers him.  She reads.  She writes about him.  She laughs at his Donald Duck impression stored away on her computer.  She shuffles through years of pictures and marvels at how great he looked for so long regardless of his health issues.  She thanks her Mom for keeping him so healthy for so long.  She misses him.  Every day.

He was a great man.

He had 9 lives. 

He lived every one of them fully.

He was her Dad.

 

 

I love this piece because for me it captures all that I want to remember and all that was there during this incredibly intense, scary, weird time.  I feel better after reading about others experiences and then writing my own.  

What would have happened had I been in a student in class and I was asked to write a recipe or a persuasive essay from one character in my assigned book to another when all I could think about was my Dad?  Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?

I would argue that right now we teach the writing and not the writers.  We teach the reading and not the readers.  We think about checking things off. Persuasive Essay, check, Informational Reading, check, Memoir, check, Close Reading, Check.

What would happen if we trusted and guided readers and writers to know, to figure out what it was they wanted to know more about, what they wanted to say and then focused on helping them discover the best way or ways to read about it and say it?  If we gave them the time to read others and think to themselves, “Hey, I could write something like that!”

Reading and Writing are my “go to’s” when I am trying to figure something out, process emotions, inform, wonder, preach, question, express, persuade, create, think, communicate, get lost and so many other things.  What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?

And while this all may seem incredibly personal for a blog on education, I believe I am finally finding my stride in that a real and true education is deeply personal. 

And I wonder…are we  afraid of this authenticity?  These truths? 

And even as I consider posting this, putting it out into the world, I question myself.  Do we want to hear or read these truths?  Why do I put it out there?  And while I know none of these answers I only know that I will…

 

Follow the link below to read my Dad’s obituary beautifully written by my sister, Lisa.

http://www.chadwickfuneralservice.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2263261&fh_id=12966 

 

 

 

 

 

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!!

Nothing In Common: Boutiques and Big Boxes

I just spent four days working in a school district out in Plainfield, Illinois and after getting sideswiped by the blizzard Nemo on my way there and delayed on the way home by President Obama’s departure from Chicago at  the same time as mine, it was a successful trip.  Of course my travel woes are another blog and story all together!!  And yet, are they?

As I was driving from Chicago to the Joliet, Plainfield area in search of my first school to visit I realized as I looked out the car window that although I was in Illinois I really could have been just about anywhere in America.  On my left, I see a Target, and on my right a Home Depot.  Lines and lines of chains from Dunkin Donuts to Burger King stood proudly next to their big box neighbors.  And it got me thinking about the goal of so many schools and districts; heck the ENTIRE nation right now is fixated and obsessed with having everything in “common”.  Common language, common expectations, common outcomes, a Common Core and the list goes on. And so I ask myself, what is so great about everything being the same?

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When I travel I seek out what is different.   Where can I find some little restaurant, café or shop that I have never been to before?  Where is there something new I can try in terms of experience, food, or even atmosphere that will provide me with some insight as to what makes this town or city or place tick?  How do people make their livings?  What kinds of homes do they live in?  Where are the tracks and what is on each side of those tracks?  I enter these new places in the same way that I enter each classroom that I visit.  What is different here?  What do these students have to offer and what will I learn about them and how they work in the small amount of time I have to work with them?

My contacts and colleagues in Plainfield are two young dynamic women who brought me back to their district after a one -day workshop on writing in October to do some follow-up demonstration lessons in classrooms k-8.  Before I arrived they asked me to send them some lesson plans for each day.  And so I sat with the list of classrooms and the schedule before me and realized that I probably had not actually written a “real” lesson plan since I was an intern over 25 years ago.  There was a bit of me that actually panicked and began making things up, but I knew in my heart that even if I took the time to write these plans that they would change.  They would change based on the “read” of the students, where they were, what they knew and where we could go.  And so I had to figure out how to send them something open and flexible but concrete as well.

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And so I determined a list of my favorite mentor texts that I would be using and then a bullet list of possible teaching points for each text.  I explained that I walked into classrooms with these possibilities in my head, but that I never really knew what I would be teaching before I actually started teaching.  I realize how uncomfortable this makes so many people, but for me there really is no other way.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a plan in my head, but before I begin to implement that plan I am responding to those students I am working with.  My plan is a back up because ultimately I am there to teach the students, not the material.  In fact when I focus solely on content I am removed from those I am teaching: lost in what it is I think I am “supposed” to be teaching…when in reality I am ALWAYS teaching the students.   And so “what” I will be teaching  depends on those I am teaching.  In this way I almost teach in a “choose your own adventure” kind of method.  If this, then that, but again I never know until I am there.

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And so I enter with a bag full of books that I know and love, stapled paper (books), markers and an open mind.  That is it?  Yes.  That is it.  I quickly try to connect with the students, perhaps telling them something personal about me and then hear bits and pieces about them.  As I am listening to them I get a sense of where they are and which book might work with them.  Then I reach into my bag and the decision is made.

When I am in this mode of listening I realize that the possibilities are endless and so my role is to focus in on one or two or maybe even three different noticings that the students are making and ask them to talk about what they noticed and why they think the author has made such a move.  If they do not notice then I begin by noticing something and ask that they then look for this same thing as I read on.  I love these kinds of encounters with students.  I am looking and listening intently for what is different in their thinking and what they notice.

After reading the book, A Stranger in the Woods by Sams and Stoick, one student notices that the animals are talking.  Together we name this craft,  personification as well as a couple of other crafts used by this author. I set the students free with a “book” made out of 4 sheets of paper stapled together and markers and to begin writing this book on anything of their choosing.  I ask that before they leave the carpet that they first tell me what it is they plan on writing about and one kind of craft that they were planning on trying.  As students revealed their plans, new plans formed in the minds of others.  Taking this time allows for each student to leave the group with purpose and to get right to work.

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One student in a second grade classroom decided to write a book about snakes and  he was going to attempt to use strong verbs.  As I approached his table I could see his book filled with colorful illustrations and great details as he worked with purpose.  When I kneeled beside him I asked if he would talk about and read what he had written.  He read with great inflection and voice and then came this incredible verb, “lurking”.  I asked him how he came up with that word and he began to tell me that he loved snakes, that he was in fact, obsessed with snakes and that because he read so much about snakes he knows that lurking is what snakes do!  He then ran off to his book box to find many different books on snakes.  He poured through them showing me his favorite parts.  This was unique and different than what anyone else was doing in the class and celebrating this writer’s moves is what I am all about.  I asked that he read it to the class after telling everyone where he got his ideas and what kind of book he was writing about snakes.  He talked about how he used the word lurking because another author had used it.  I confirmed his smart writerly move talking about how all writers borrow from other authors.   I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important.  This is teaching in my highest self.  This is where I find energy.  This is where I long to always be.  In the moment with a child as he or she identifies what it is they are working on and just what he or she is doing as a learner and how it is or is not working.  I am always moving towards, “Getting kids to “reveal” what they know in order to discover where they might go.”  Johnston, Choice Words.

And dare I even say that in these moments I feel a sense of synergy that I also find in my yoga practices.  It is that moment of being in the “zone” where I can see things clearly and instinctively know where to go with each child that I work with.  This does not happen all of the time, but when it does it is beautiful.  It feels incredibly whole and complete and it has absolutely nothing in common with any other interactions I have with any other student.  It is DIFFERENT.  It is not the same and so I have to wonder in our quest for sameness, in our desire for consistency are we not losing the individual processes, identities and the creative thinking of each individual?

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In my debriefs with the teachers after the demonstration lessons I am always surprised by what it is they ask and comment about.  And after a recent rereading of Peter Johnston’s, Choice Words, I realize that so much of my teaching is defined in this book.  The language we use and the responsive teaching is what I am always aiming for.  And if you have not read this book then I encourage you to add it to your list of must-reads.  It is essential for teaching our kids how to be independent agents in their own learning.

And so I left the same way I came in passing Best Buy and Lowe’s, asking myself, are we forgetting what makes life interesting?  Are we aware that in our efforts to be the next Wal-mart that we are losing our downtowns and our small businesses?  I am fortunate to live in a town that still has a downtown and I love walking through the shops and knowing and talking with those working in the shops.  There is something wonderful about knowing people and seeing what is new and different that you would not find in a Target.  And yet, it is a fight to keep our downtowns open because the big box stores are more affordable.  But in the end, can we afford to lose what has yet to be discovered in each child in the name of what is simply common, consistent and so very much the same?  Or am I just a boutique kind of teacher trying to survive in a big box world?

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The Things We Carry

Zachary,  came home from high school one day with three poems chosen by his English teacher to “figure out”.  The assignment was to decide what “kinds” of poems they were and to look further to figure out what “literary devices” were used.

He came to me.  “Mom what kinds of poems are these?”

And the teacher in me responds to his question with a question.

“Well, what kinds of poems are you learning about?”

“None.”

“Well, haven’t you been looking at different kinds of poems in class and identifying them and what makes that what they are?”

“No.  MOM, we were just given these poems and told to find the literary devices.  This is what I have to do.  Can you just tell me?”

And so I look at the poems and instantly realize that even for me, these poems could fall into several categories.  So I tell him I am not sure.  Again I ask to see the poetry and begin to slowly look at them with him one at a time while asking him questions about what he notices in terms of how the poem is written, thus a way to discover “literary devices”.  In my head I am wondering, as well, just what this teacher is asking for and in this process I am removed from the poetry myself in an effort to “please” the teacher.  I too have fallen into school mode right alongside Zachary.

“That is NOT what the teacher wants Mom.  She just wants me to know what kinds of poems these are and what devices are used.  Mom, she doesn’t teach.  She just gives us assignments.”

“Well, what kinds of “literary devices” have you  looked at in other poetry or forms of writing?”

“None Mom, can you just help me get this done?”

“Well, how are you supposed to know if nobody every showed you.  Let me help you with this…”

If you are a parent then you know that teaching your own children is akin to trying to grocery shop with a group of young goats in tow.  Oil and water I say.

He stomps off  to spark notes and google to try to figure out what I cannot tell him and what he does not know because there has been no “model” in terms of what to look for.  These beautiful poems are reduced down to a hunt and peck on the internet in an attempt to figure out and “do” whatever it is the teacher has asked him to do.  There is no meaning.  There is no connection.  There is only the sense that he wants to get this done and done quickly and hopefully, somehow in the process he has figured out whatever it is the teacher is asking for at the same time.

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Pushing my extreme frustration aside, I reflect on this conversation and realize his teacher is not modeling for him.  That the missing piece is and may always be that we are not “showing” our students what it is we are looking for.    In my work with teachers I often hear about how students are just not “getting it” and in this statement is a sense of blame.  They are frustrated with the students because they don’t know what they already know and the blame game begins. And yet, if nobody has ever taught or shown then how is the student supposed to know?  As an educator of students of all ages from kindergarten to adults, if a student is not understanding I have to ask myself what is my responsibility in all of this?

When a student is not understanding I have to stop and ask myself,

  1. What is it that they do not understand and why?
  2. What is it that I have not “shown”?
  3. Is there another way that I could model this for them?

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And although it sounds simple, it can transform your teaching.  This “in the moment” reflection allows us to connect with our students and to consider what they are learning from their point of view.  In doing this we begin to form a connection with our students and view them not as the object of blame, but as a human being to connect with, to teach, to show, to model for.  And once this connection has been made it lays the groundwork for further teaching.  These connections can also reach across the classroom as we identify models in others that are in the classroom as well.  Modeling is about “noticing” and naming what it is that we notice.  In this our students can then see that they too can notice and name.

Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart, under my arm, I enter Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I am 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 receive the confection’s love, knowing it will never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

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I settle into the comfy rocker and take a brief time to reconnect as they tell me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices ring all around me as they share their latest “sound” words, onomatopoeia  the craft we worked on last time I was in.    Three little girls get closer, asking about the pink necklace I am wearing, twirling it in their hands and marveling at its sparkle.

Taking this time to reconnect with these kids is a critical part of the teaching process.  It only takes a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions show them I am interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and ideally trust and can then move into our writing time together.

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

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

We talk about these words and wonder why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identify that it makes it into one word, makes the reader say the word more quickly and creates rhythm.

We then brainstorm a name for these words and the list consists of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It is democratically decided that DASH-ing words describe them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  Next, I ask them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

I first check in with Morgan, who seems to be struggling because she is not writing.  Her hands are poised under her chin and her page remains blank.  I sit to talk with her.  I am wondering what is keeping her from writing.  I ask her questions, but she just sits and looks up.  Finally I ask if she just needs some time to which she responds, “Yea.”  I leave and tell her I will check back with her.  In my mind I am wondering if I am copping out because it was a flat and uninteresting conversation.  I secretly hope that my decision to leave her and trust her is one that will work, but I never really know.  What I do know is that was I was doing was not moving her along and so I make the choice to let her work on her own.

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I move over to Nick, who also seems to be staring off into space.  I ask him how he is doing.  He responds, “I don’t know what to write.”   In my head I am asking, what does he not understand?  After a brief conversation I realize he does not understand what I had just modeled and that he needs further modeling.  I am not upset that he is not working, I am curious about why he is not.  I ask myself what is missing for him and what can I do to help this young writer to move forward?  What else can I model for him?  Is there another way in?   I lead him back over to the white board and we leaf through the book again looking at the DASH-ing words.  We finally realize together that he does not know how to start making his own word because it is not clear that the first word is often an object, a noun.  And so I model another example asking him to name an object.  He says pencil and I ask what a pencil might do.  He responds that it writes.  We work together and make it into pencil-scribbling because he liked that better than pencil-writing.

For others the playful word combinations take on a life of their own.  Some kids come up with what we call Double DASH-ing Words” such as tweet-tweet-tweeting.  Others begin lists and when I check back in with Morgan I realize that what was missing for her in that moment was think time.  (phew!) She shares this poem with the class, telling us that she chose to write a poem because the book was like a 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 reconvened 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 strong model of what is expected of them and in many instances, more modeling to help them move along in their writing.

In my work with these first graders and all of the students and teachers I work with as an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I ooze passion for words and I do this on purpose.  I talk about what I read, write and wonder.  I show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life. 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 students see that we, as their teachers 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.  We model every day with our words, out behaviors and even what we carry.

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“There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to open up those worlds, modeling at every step, whether that shows in what I carry with me, the conversations I have, I am the walking, talking lover of words and my students know this.

What do your students know about you and what do you model every day ?