Writing to Learn, Writing to Nourish Community

cheryl reading and grinning lightenedMy friend Cheryl Perrault is a poetry Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds, serving as a powerful mentor for poets lurking in the shadows of their other selves. She encourages us to give more generously whatever we have to give, and wants us to see that we have jobs to do as poets in the world–some in situations in which the word poem is never spoken, in which we are poets operating undercover as teachers or therapists or healers–or carpenters, or chefs, or farmers, or physicists.

When Cheryl entered my writing and teaching life, one of the first things she did was to give some of my students a place to read their poems. This happened as part of her poetry and music series Wake Up and Smell the Poetry, which takes place one Saturday morning each month, in the recording studios of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts Community Access channel, HCAM. (Edited video recordings are used in HCAM’s broadcast programming, and can also be watched online. The ongoing series is available to any community video channel that requests it.)

From this series so full of treasures, I still treasure most the experience of listening as my students read to adult strangers. It’s the kind of memory in which I know exactly where I was sitting, in semi-darkness, stunned by the bravery Cheryl elicited from them, too.

Russian Music elegy edit

My grandmother played these pieces in a 1917 edition, from which this is one page, loved to death. They’re still in print, though, hooray, so I can play from pages easier to handle.

Here’s an example of Cheryl’s impact on me. Because of her, I’ve performed–many times, by now–a poem-and-music version of a poem called “Russian Music for Piano.” As I was preparing a reading for a place with a piano, Cheryl suggested that I could play, between sections of the poem, parts of the simple piano pieces the poem describes and traces through my life. Every time I’ve repeated this performance I’ve come to understand both poem and music in new ways, deeply grateful to my listeners for the glimpses into their own lives they’ve shared with me in response.

Last week, Cheryl asked me to be part of a blog-hop. (I like calling it a blog tree.) I’ve learned that mostly I should do whatever she suggests (even if I rename it.) The assignment involved answering some questions I usually dodge: What am I writing / working on? How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre? Why do I write what I write? How does my writing process work? What are my future plans for my blog? In my answers, I’ve focused on writing about teaching, and also on writing poetry.

You can read Cheryl’s very different and fascinating answers to the same questions, at http://www.blog.cherylperreault.com/  I’ve persuaded a few other writers to do the same on their blogs, and you’ll find their responses to the questions sometime soon, on the blogs I list at the bottom. Meanwhile, I’ve linked to great things they’ve posted recently.

What am I writing/working on?

In my poetry, I seem to be turning a corner, right this very minute. I recently became gloriously overwhelmed by a writing workshop at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, at UMass Boston. I went there wanting to write more bravely and accurately about my father’s war, and its impact in his life and within our family. Sometimes intentions bear fruit directly as well as indirectly, and most of the new poems I’ve been drafting rise out of the experience and encouragement and rich provocation of the Joiner Institute. (You can read some about my teacher-as-student experience at the Joiner here, and some thoughts about writing as peacemaking here.)

I’m still revising my full-length poetry manuscript, What There Is. Do you live next door to a publisher who’s searching for poetry manuscripts? Please let me know. (Okay, joke. If you went excavating, you’d probably find at least one poetry manuscript searching for a publisher in every corner mailbox you pass. Or you can imagine the equivalent in electrons–since poetry submissions increasingly happen online.)

Meanwhile, I continue to write about “the daily texture of progressive education,” trying to do justice to the experience of teaching in a place where I could truly come to know and work for my students. I’m also trying to describe what it was like to learn with my students, and with parents and colleagues.

How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre?

My poems are more structured than some, and less structured than others. They’re simpler than some and more complicated than others. Here’s a tiny sample, if you scroll down. I never intend my poems to be puzzles–I don’t think most poets intend to write puzzles–but I figure it’s legit to expect a second reading.

I love giving live public readings–but I’m also interested in each poem as a visual object on a page, in the effects of line breaks and stanza breaks and margin choices. Emphasis on the word choices.

I’ve been told that my blog entries aren’t actually blog entries; they’re essays. That’s probably a fair critique.

Why do I write what I write?

I write in short forms because it feels right to me.

Grace Paley, when asked why she wrote short stories instead of novels, answered that life is too short for the writing of novels. I’d say the same thing, only more so. Life feels too short even for short stories! I love working on poems short enough so I can carry them around in my head, but still long enough so I can get into trouble, and swim back to shore through the writing and revising of the poem, learning as I go.

Blog entries are the poems of the creative non-fiction world. Snacks. Well, no–tweets are snacks, I guess. Maybe blog entries are light meals to be eaten on the trail? But I’m still working on how to construct the smallest, tightest package of ideas that also feels rich enough.

Here’s another kind of answer: Both my parents wrote poems which weren’t published but had a life in the family and community. (I’m spending some of my time this summer helping my mother work toward a new collection of her poems.)  To me as a kid, writing poetry seemed like a normal thing to do–as if I’d grown up in Russia, say, or some other parts of the world. (Yet another kind of luck.)

I’m not going to say I have to write, but my life is immeasurably more thoughtful and more joyful, both, because I do. That’s what I’ve wanted to give to the hundreds of students I’ve worked with as children or adults. Thoughtful includes responsible, and joyful includes wild and spontaneous. So there you are, dancing in that same duality–or “creative tension”, in the words of Dick Zajchowski, formative Touchstone School Head–that I’ve sought to embrace in all my teaching life. Serious playfulness. Playful seriousness.

And here’s yet another kind of answer: Sometimes I think that I might shamelessly pretend to write, in order to have the pleasure of friendships with other writers. In some overwhelmed or blocked chapters of my life, that’s been approximately the case.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea how my writing process works. I have no method except paying attention, and no philosophy except the learned benefit of giving myself permission to engage in a phenomenally inefficient language activity.

I’m slow, at every kind of writing I do, especially poems–and slow at almost everything else I do, also. Quite a few people live in here, and what I say in ordinary conversation often seems messy or slipshod, and true to only a minority of them. In writing I’ve learned to give all those selves a chance. The process of revision, very important to me, is a kind of coming to consensus. Increasingly, though, I hope for the kind of consensus in which different voices can live side by side, and be a chorus instead of a riot. (Still, somewhere down the road I might want a riot instead of a chorus.)

My future blog plans:

I’m posting this on two blogs, on an old, neglected one called Villages, and also on A Year to Think It Over.

I’ve never had plans for the poetry blog, and it’s not exactly about poetry. Pin me down and I’ll say Villages is about virtual villages created by language. I’ve enjoyed imagining myself as a member of a village that includes Charles Darwin, or the Canadian writer Val Ross, or all the people I love, finally in one place. But I have no idea what will happen next there, and this will be only the fourth post.

What about the blog about teaching and learning? I do expect I’ll come to a time when I’m ready to move on. I hope I’ll be able to keep paying for the domain, so those anonymous wonderful whoever-you-are people in Australia, the country of my most faithful audience, will still be able to find the posts they like.

blog reader countries map editReaders arrive from other countries, too. In the past few days, for example, the blog has been read by people in Vietnam and Kazakhstan and Brazil and Cameroon and Serbia (among others)–and even the United States. Monitoring my blog I refresh my memory of geography. A world map highlights the countries of readers, and if I scroll over the country list I see larger outline maps of each of them. This makes me feel both fascinated and thwarted. I wish I knew more about all those people (and their villages)–but Word Press hasn’t yet developed that kind of oversight.

Several people have suggested that my blog entries about teaching and learning may have another future as a book. For  the time being, though, it works well for me to focus on one little knot of energy at a time, without worrying about larger structure. Does that sound suspiciously like the freedom within which I like to approach each new poem? Or the freedom I tried to give my students? Hmmmmm…

And now, here’s your reward if you’ve made it this far through the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. Here are links to blogs by three writers I respect, enjoy, and highly recommend.

Alex Dunn works as an environmental educator with magical power to turn kids on to the night sky (just as an example.) I’ve watched him in action with my own students. He also writes two blogs. The Daily Bird New England tells me when to wake up and view species who’ve just arrived. Tree swallows! Moogle Gaps feeds my map obsession. I’ve used the links to send you to some recent posts I enjoyed.

Polly Ingraham has taught in all kinds of schools, including a charter school where she taught with my friend Kate Keller. She writes about all sorts of things, including overlaps between the secular and the sacred, in a blog called The Panorama of a Pastor’s Life. Here’s a recent post about The Fullness of Time  and an organization called A Better Chance.

Colleen Redman lives and works as a poet, photographer, and journalist in Floyd County, Virginia. In one way her blog is very local, focused on the community of artists and musicians and craftpeople and farmers who call Floyd home. Reading Colleen’s posts about her community I figure they’re lucky to have her, and I start thinking about the individual in community from a new slant–Colleen’s! She also writes funny, observant, and moving poems, and you can find her reading aloud a wonderful poem about her brothers’ deaths, here.

 

A Farm, The Farm School, a Farming Revolution

I’ve come back to the farm in Maine where I started writing this blog last summer. I’m sitting in the open back doorway of the barn, listening to red-winged blackbirds and the sound of wind whistling around giant ancient posts and beams.

And I’m following a trail.

Farm School horses and kidsReturning to the fields that surround this barn, wide green space and wide blue sky, I think of The Farm School, in Athol, Massachusetts, where I spent so much happy time with Touchstone classes. (At The Farm School, the smells of the dairy barn took me to my other grandparents’ farm, across the river from where I sit now. Smell is like that, and memory is like that, circular.)

Jane Farm School with calfThe Farm School’s programs for children are designed to give an experience of farm work (and wide sky, and kindness, and awareness of competence) to all kinds of kids. City kids, suburban kids, country kids. Kids who think with their hands; kids who make more sense in contact with animals; kids who figure anything connected with food is a good idea. Kids looking for adult role models who work outdoors; kids who just like working together with tangible results. All kinds of kids.

There’s so  much to say about the Farm School, but right now I’m thinking especially of kids who became more vividly themselves in that place. True for almost every one of us; especially true for some.

Farm School Dean with camera croppedThat leads me to think about kids focusing a video camera, or a still camera, on hillsides and haylofts and goats and seedling Swiss chard.

Whenever I asked, “Do you want to make a video to share what’s wonderful about Farm School?” kids hollered YES!  So that happened more than once.

The first video we made about The Farm School has never been put online, because of parental concerns about online exposure. Still, the DVD became a wonderful way to preview The Farm School, for kids new to the opportunity–in effect, a gift from the class who made it, to future classes.

Farm School Moosey basketballThe second Farm School video dodged the issue of online exposure for kids by starring a stuffed animal named Moosey, who worked and learned and played on the kids’ behalf. (He even played basketball, very memorably.)

In Moosey Goes to Farm School, the kids show up as a continually changing Moosey voice, which is all their kid voices, speaking lines they had written, over shots they had planned and staged.

Farm School blue jeans and MooseyMaking each of those videos about The Farm School taught us a lot about the place and our experience there. We paid special attention, and thought really carefully about what we wanted to record and communicate. We all lived through the ridiculously long process of editing, watching shots again and again, deciding exactly what we wanted to say and show, exactly how to use tiny pieces of time, fractions of a second.

Farm School 2012 Jane girl and cowWe were like cows re-digesting our meadow (well, sort of), taking what we’d learned and learning how to give it away. (I recommend that you just accept this metaphor loosely.) When you’re editing, you figure out, again and again, what your reader or watcher needs to know, and what he or she can be given to savor and consider. You do that by paying attention to what you need to know yourself, imagining the needs of someone who knows less to start with, and doing your own savoring and considering.

Gradually, you come to own the experience more and more. And In that mutual, slow process of our own savoring and considering–as in other aspects of the Farm School experience–we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.

That phrase, “ourselves and each other,” brings another thought. At The Farm School, I was a student along with my students–to a surprising degree, considering my background.

My mother’s parents bought this farm from which I’m now writing, as part of a mostly-forgotten back-to-the-land movement in the 1930’s, which was partly a reaction to the suffering, insecurity and instability of the Great Depression and partly anticipating the onset of World War II. Through the last of the depression, and through the war, they raised and harvested and canned enough vegetables for four families, every year.

On the other side, my father’s folks have been farmers, right here in this town, for many generations back–eventually leading to the kind of farmer with a PhD in horticulture, and influence on agricultural practice all over the world.

Farm School 2012 with cowsBut I am the black sheep, the non-green thumb, the least capable gardener or grower in sight. I’m a little alarmed by cows, to tell the truth, and terrified of electric fences. Would I let that show? No way. At least I tried not to let it show. One way or another, my students were teaching me, if only by saying, “Come look at this!”  Nothing could do more good for a student-teacher relationship.

world farmingBut that process of learning together wasn’t just at the Farm School. Each year, the pre-Farm-School warm-up reached out into a new and different way of looking at agriculture. For example, an Usborne book about global agriculture helped us take a world view of ways of getting food. One group used the book to learn about rice cultivation, and made a model of a rice paddy.

In the spring of 2012, when Seth Mansur spent some time as an aide in my classroom, we took advantage of what he knew about new approaches to sustainable agriculture. Members of small groups who worked with Seth became knowledgeable about permaculture, about edible forests, about a method of field cultiFarm School farm standvation called chicken tractors. We became a sort of business incubator for new ideas about agriculture, young-adolescent-style, with the prototypes made in sculpey and found materials, for displays to teach the rest of the class.

Finally, in the spring of 2013, we bit off as much as we could possibly chew, possibly more, and we decided to make a video about the whole subject of Humans and Food. As usual, we brainstormed ideas, identified affinities, and separated into small groups to consider different topics:

  •  How did people get food before farming?
  • How did people preserve food before refrigeration?
  • What is intensive agriculture, and what are its consequences?
  • How can small scale farms survive and thrive?
  • How can non-farm families grow some of their own food?

Farm School rooster and duckThe small groups taught each other by way of all the work involved in creating the video. For ground-breaking food philosophy as written by an 11 year old and spoken by a small cloth rooster, this is the video.

Farm School dried tomatoesEach small group chose which of the classroom stuffed animals would be their spokesanimals. We had huge fun doing all this, but we were also pretty serious in our mission. This is all important to think about, we were saying in one way after another.

Sometimes I imagine a Touchstone think tank, where past and present students of every age (including the students who were officially teachers or administrators) get together to solve real problems facing our region, our country and our world. (Pause for a nod to David Sobel, who’s been advocating and encouraging this sort of thing for years, as a part of place-based education.)

We might begin by experimenting with some of the answers to these questions: How can we grow enough food for everyone, without poisoning our land and air and water? How can we reduce agriculture’s share of our fossil fuel gluttony? How can we take back our food supply from the giant corporations that now control it?

Why stop there? How can we all, as citizens, belong to ourselves, in dignity and responsibility and joy, in the way that Touchstone students belong to themselves?

This isn’t entirely imaginary. We aren’t all in the same place, but there’s a sort of virtual think tank gradually forming. I’ve already written about Marian Hazzard, and her efforts on behalf of Touchstone’s gardening program, including the chickens my class cared for. This year, a new batch of chicks matured to chickens at Touchstone, cared for by a new batch of students, with the encouragement of David Canter, the new Environmental Educator.

Meanwhile, several past students are enrolled in college level programs focused on sustainable agriculture, and others have gone through the Farm School’s farmer training program for adults. Several others are involved directly, this very moment, in helping small scale farms thrive .

chicken booksOne alum wrote a book about keeping chickens, and at last report runs an organic feed store for people raising chickens in their backyards in Portland, Oregon. An alum parent wrote a widely popular book about keeping chickens in Massachusetts.

An untold number of current families and alums buy from Community Supported Agriculture programs, or from farmers’ markets.

Every one of these actions counts, and involves its own kind of learning.

So here’s the end of my thought trail: This isn’t just about farms or farming, or my own students and colleagues, or The Farm School, or Touchstone Community School. In a world full of ways to be discouraged, I remain hopeful about what can happen when people ask questions together, learn together, and plant seeds–of many kinds, literal and figurative–together.

Even the one with the non-green-thumb can wind up with something good to chew.

Farm School rooster and tool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War and Teaching

Progressive teachers don’t want to tell our students what to think, or to shame either kids or parents who disagree with our personal politics. On the other hand, we’re not willing to teach unchallenged fictions masquerading as history. We’re not willing to say that patriotism requires uncritical acceptance of government policies and actions. In fact, we aim for the reverse, for graduates who can and will think critically, who assume that it’s part of citizenship to seek justice and inclusiveness in our political life. We want everyone touched by our schools to continue to consider the needs of the whole community, when that means the whole world.

All that is easier to say than to live. In my experience, war makes it really hard.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a participant in this year’s writing workshop sponsored by the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences (see my previous post), I listened and responded as both my poet self and my teacher self.

In one session, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges challenged all of the Joiner participants to write the truth of war–including, so importantly, the truth of war for the most vulnerable, for children, the elderly, the disabled, and others who don’t carry weapons, whose experience is one of terror, unmitigated by comradeship or glory.

In session after session, under a dozen different titles, I thought of my childhood with a victim of nameless and untreated PTSD.

On the other hand, in session after session, I thought with enormous gratitude about the literature that’s been available to help me open up at least some of the truth about war’s shadow, the books and poems offering young readers views of war simultaneously honest and accessible.

My Place Bertie croppedI thought of My Place, the extraordinary Australian picture book by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, which   portrays war’s impact on ordinary families–on  parents, and younger brothers or sisters; on wounded veterans; on daughters and sons. (To the left, part of the page for 1918.)

I thought of time travel novels like The Root Cellar, by Janet Lunn, in which a young girl arrives in the time of the American Civil War and sees terrible suffering; or Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, in which a time-switch,  via a boarding school bed, sends a girl into the chaos and disruption of World War I.

I remembered the engagement of kids as they worked on understanding historical novels. For example, Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, makes clear the role of prejudicial conscription of Jewish young men, compounded by assignment to the worst, most dangerous military roles–all of this fueling emigration from Russia, among other places.

When Martha Collins and Fred Marchant asked us to think about war’s impacts far from the battlefield, I remembered kids acting out the events in  picture books such as Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, about the Japanese-Americans dispossessed and rounded up into internment camps during World War II, by the United States Government.

When Paul Atwood spoke about the history of only dimly remembered wars of aggression, I thought of Henry Climbs a Mountain, in which Henry David Thoreau, illustrated as a bear, takes his conscientious objection to the Mexican War right into jail, and gives away his shoes to an escaping slave.

Ramadan coverAt the Joiner Institute I watched veterans young and older reaching out to fellow writers from the countries where they were stationed. I was glad to remember that whenever our country was involved in fighting or funding or promoting a war, wonderful children’s literature helped me humanize the other side. I read books about Islam, including a beautiful picture book, Ramadan, by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi and Omar Rayyan, which describes Islam’s commitment to the community and to the poor, and accurately portrays Islam as a religion followed by people all over the world, not only Arabs.

I read aloud I Remember Palestine, a book about one Palestinian family’s flight and heartbreak. I read poems from Naomi Shihab Nye’s deeply moving anthology, The Flag of Childhood, with points of view from every side of the conflicts in the Middle East. I found books about the geography and people of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and read portions of them.

Flag of Childhood cover cropped

Sometimes, these past weeks at the Joiner,  I’ve forgotten that I’m not currently teaching young adolescents, and I’ve thought about things I’d like to try. I wanted to have my school’s brave, respectful students role-play the story of a young vet from Afghanistan, who bravely and generously shared his story of an incident he regretted. I wanted to try out the Forum Theater techniques described by an Iraqi playwright, Amir Al-Azrakii, as ways of exploring different outcomes, different reactions within moments of oppression or conflict.

At 93, my father is still proud to have fought in World War II. But I was very young, and the totality of his experience was never far from my mind, when I became committed to waging peace, which goes beyond opposition to war, and seeks to do everything possible to resolve a conflict by finding ways to meet the needs of all. Paying attention as an adult, I’ve gone further, and I’ve learned to ask, “Who benefits? Who’s making money off this war? Who has reasons to try to convince us that war is just or inescapable, even if that takes manufactured evidence?”

Sometimes those strongly-held positions have put me in an uncomfortable place with my teaching colleagues. (I’m not good at hiding anything I feel, I’ll admit.) In some of my least-resolved memories of teaching life, I struggle with a sense of alienation and deep discouragement, year by year and war by war.

Inevitably, other unresolved memories involve difficult decisions that I still question. One year a large group of boys spent every sketching time, every single morning, drawing scenes of battle and destruction. In desperation, I finally banned war as a topic for sketching, something I’d never had to do before, and never had to do again. Some of the boys were relieved, in fact, and cheerfully set about making other kinds of cartoons. Still I wonder what was going on, what I failed to explore deeply enough, what they might have needed help with, and why that year, or that group, was unique in that way.

Mostly, though, looking back at my teaching while thinking about war, I am grateful for what was possible at my wonderful school. I’m grateful, for example, for the way freedom from standardized testing let me allow a child obsessed with the Holocaust to read novel after novel, sorting out through the novels’ vividness whatever it was she needed to sort out. I’m grateful for the ways I could offer the empowerment in portraits of resistance: in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars; in books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Claudette Colvin. I was glad we could offer our students training for conflict resolution.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we are building peace whenever we encourage students to know the humanity of all their fellow humans. In a different way, we encourage peace when we help our students think about our species as predator primates, who have found and still are finding ways of using culture to become fully human.

I think of all the kinds of teaching described at the Joiner–using the invitation to write as a way to reach out to the homeless, to veterans of war and sex-trafficking, to prisoners. Then I think of my own young students and what writing often meant to them. We are building peace whenever we give students paper and pencils and encourage them to write, or help them build communities in which we encourage them to speak, to give respectful and authentic voice to their own complicated truths–and to listen as others do the same.

As students young or old, we are building peace when we help each other rise to all the many challenges involved in being conscious, and individual, and a part of the group, all at once.

I think of Chris Hedges’ words this past week, and I come finally to this: as teachers, as students, as citizens, we build peace when we choose life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a Student Again Myself, at The Joiner Institute

One night last week, when I wanted to go for a walk, my husband asked, “Have you finished your homework?” I hadn’t. I sat back down at my computer.

For many years I’ve wanted to attend the annual writers’ workshop at UMass Boston, at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences. That title encompasses intense and formative experiences in my life. I’ve wanted to meet the other people gathered there, and wanted to see what I would write within that influence.

Always, though, the first week of the workshop has overlapped with the teachers’ last week at my school–the week we met to debrief the year ended, and cleaned up our classrooms, and began to plan the year ahead.

This year, my year to think it over, is different. And man oh man have I been living up to that title.

A few things I’ve learned so far, in no particular order:

  • How to get to UMass Boston on the Red Line and shuttle bus. I already knew how to take the commuter rail from Southboro to South Station, thanks in part to field trip adventures with students. (I’ve found another reason to be glad about my new senior status: a Senior Charlie Card that gives me a dramatic discount on travel by T and commuter rail.)
  • That the art of collage was born out of fragmented cultural and political experience–and some ways to think about applying a collage process to the writing of poetry.
  • That there are two dozen ways, in Vietnamese, to talk about I and you–and that the speaker’s or writer’s choice conveys information about age and gender which can go otherwise unstated.
Vietnamese writers cropped

The field trip comes to us: Nguyen Ba Chung, second from the left, a research associate at the Joiner Institute, director of the Rockefeller Residency Program, and coordinator of the center’s cultural exchanges with Vietnam, facilitated a panel of visiting Vietnamese writers.

  • That the Vietnam veterans who began the Joiner Center writing workshop 27 years ago have found some peace of their own by reaching out for reconciliation with Vietnamese, leading to the translation of Vietnamese poems and stories into English.
  • That those same Vietnam vets, and others, now feel a special mission to reach out to more recent vets from the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan. The writing and comments and songs of all those vets, all ages, have been my best help for my own mission–partly because I am so moved by their courage in facing their darkest and most perplexing shadows.Richard in his uniform edit

And what’s my mission? I came to the workshop wanting to write about my father’s experiences in World War II, including being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany. I’ve wanted to write also about the impacts of those experiences on both my father’s life and our life as a family.  My childhood began only a few years after my father’s  war ended. He barely talked about it, but it was there in every moment. The phrase “war and social consequences” has very personal meaning for me.

Facing that challenging material, I have to work hard not to close down or slide away–and that turns out to be true even with all the support in the workshop’s environment, from generous peers and amazing teachers.

Still, some seeds have been sown, and in my poetry life I tend to count on a long growing season. I’ve written some drafts of new poems, and worked again on poems still in a years-long process of revision. I have a list of approaches to try, and quick notes on possible personal starting points, from a workshop with the poet Martha Collins. Like every other participant with whom I’ve spoken, I am profoundly grateful for the safety of the writing environment the Joiner Institute provides. I keep taking apart the word encouraged, to be its first meaning. I am given courage by my mentors and fellow students–including those who are roughly a third of my age.

And yes, we have homework. My small group workshop leader, Fred Marchant, whose poetry I’ve been reading for years, and whom I knew already to be extraordinarily kind, proves to be also both mischievous and wise, in ways that sneak up on me again and again. He also states in no uncertain terms his expectation of new work–at least one recent or brand new poem, every class meeting. So I have written drafts of eight new poems and one co-translation in the past week–an unheard-of rate for me.

Some links to my teaching life:

Thanks to Marjorie Weed, I myself have made collage art–not sentimental collections of kitties, but art in which the individual elements are fully repurposed into a new composition with its own meaning. Fred Marchant says, “Consider the liberation you can find in fragments!” and I hear an echo of Mrs. Weed saying to her whole roomful of students, young and older, “Trust in happy accidents!”

(Meanwhile, I remember myself as an earnest and obedient seven year old, who didn’t have Touchstone Community School to help her take herself lightly and fly. I conclude that she is lucky to have grown up, and has followed some fortunate paths.)

Hooray for public transportation! Have I written about our work with that theme? I’m not sure. This is post number 49–and I still haven’t found a good way to index my own output.

I’ve been getting to know a Chinese-American fellow participant. We’ve been sitting near each other, both of us gravitating toward the front of the room in presentations. (In my case that helps me focus on the main show, instead of all that other fascinating stuff going on in the room. After all, I’m used to looking at students, not at a teacher!) In our conversation on Wednesday, Judy told me that her father moved to this country when he was only 12, and that he is one of the speakers in the oral history available at Ellis Island, one of the voices heard by lifting up phones in my favorite exhibit. Actual shivers fizzed down my spine, as I remembered the rapt look on the faces of kids listening to those taped voices.

Circles coming round.

Recently a dear friend asked, “Is it really going to be just a year to think it over?” I know that the post previous to this one may have sounded like I was signing off.  In fact, though, I still have a list of things I want to write about: transportation, projects time, the miracle of parent volunteers, a few more. So no; there’s at least a little more to come. Who makes these rules that say you have to obey your own title?

For right now, though, I’m not thinking about being a teacher. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to be, yet again, at my thrillingly advanced age, with so much to think about, a student.

Here’s one more photo of my dad, 93 this spring, helping to plant jasmine.

Richard planting cropped

 

Graduation, from a New Point of View

Some kids I worked with a couple years ago, kids I got to know well and treasure deeply, will graduate this week from the school where I taught for so long. They’ve just come back from the hike in the White Mountains that Katy Aborn Inman introduced as a brilliant, emblematic feature of Touchstone’s Older Student Program. Photos from the hike have been showing up on Facebook: clumps of kids standing on stone ledges grinning, and Katy’s own small daughter who went and grinned with them.

hiking trip y and m cropped

Graduation this year may well be uncomfortable for me, emotionally. When I made the slightly impulsive decision that gave me this amazing year, my time with my students was already over. No goodbyes, no party, no tidying-up closure. It was what I chose, but it still feels strange.

Nonetheless, I’m hoping to be there for another Touchstone graduation, from this new point of view. I want to see again those kids who have already grown away from me–in that way they’re supposed to. I want to hear how they will look back at their school experience, to watch those vividly unique identities, nourished and strengthened by a life in community, continue to unfold. I want to watch their families taking a deep breath and stepping forward with them. I’d go through all kinds of fire and brimstone for that. Have.

Here’s something rare: a photo of myself speaking at a Touchstone graduation a few years ago. (Thanks to Eli Lurie!)

me at graduationBecause I’m thinking about rites of passage, I’m going to call on myself as guest writer. In Touchstone’s 25th year, for a special edition of the Touchstone Magazine, I wrote about the end of school, and what it was like, June by June, for this one teacher. I’m going to offer that here, again:

This is the way it happens: the clock ticks. Days pass, weeks pass, and I’m tired enough to welcome a break. Some parts of the last month of school are a bit like nursing a terminal patient. There’s some relief when we finally get there, to that ending, a flurry of papers and books, flowers they’ve picked out of their gardens at home, mugs with slogans about relaxing, my face smiling, smiling, smiling, poems read in suddenly older voices, final word problems about llamas and bales of hay. Suddenly it’s over and I’m in my classroom alone.

There is no “if only” in this story. This moment is not tragic. I arrive here by having everything go well. I care about them; pay attention; laugh at their mess-ups only if they are already laughing and only to say that it’s okay, since we’re all bozos on this bus. I tell them again and again that the point of the exercise is not their own success or failure; it’s the world they are here to understand and enjoy and help keep ticking. I listen as they argue with each other, comfort each other. I would be crazy to stop the clock ticking, want any of us to stop growing forward. There’s no “if only” to avoid this loss, no “what if.” Only “what now…” for me, and for them.

They leave themselves everywhere. Ghosts of heads bent over sketchbooks, bodies contorted into chairs, sprawling puppy heaps of readers. Flight paths for glances between them, all over the room. Laughter.

I reach back to a certain kind of moment: when I’ve been reading aloud and they’re outraged that I’ve stopped to ask a question, that shift in the air when the question actually grabs them. In any class, immediately, at least one student has his hand nearly six feet into the air. He might sprain something reaching that hard.

Often enough, I hope, I wait to call on the one who is busy thinking her thought, not yet ready to say it. If a bird comes suddenly to the window, some crazy bluebird out of season, if a sudden snow squall pulls them out of their seats, I hope for the moment when we all settle back and that girl who never speaks finally raises her hand, and gives away the way she knows the hero, or is the heroine.

Year by year, willy nilly, I’ve learned to outlast this hollowness, wait and welcome the new batch. Wait and welcome the old batch back, astonishingly grown into themselves, that thing Susan Kluver said all those years ago to my daughter’s class: we hope you will return as yourselves, grown older.

They do–you do!–and I am shy and thrilled and grateful. To each of you. To this school we have woven together, that bears the imprint of us all.

At last the year came when I didn’t welcome a new batch.

Instead, I’ve made deeper and stronger connections with some of the students from the past, partly by writing this blog. I’ve sorted my boxes of stuff (some of them, anyway) and sorted out in my own mind the meaning of the work I was so lucky to do.

Also, instead, I’ve watched a very young learner, with all I’ve come to know about learning resonating in my delight.

me playing pool, croppedAnd still more: instead, I became more available to the needs of my aging family of origin. There’s challenge in that, too, and also joy. (Here I am playing pool at my mother’s senior living center. She’s really pretty good.)

With my whole heart, I aim to do what all of us can do, no matter what our place in the world or in the generations–to honor the miraculous in each of us, at every age.

And from watching the way we each graduate, every moment–out of one version of ourselves and into the next–wild horses could not keep me away.

Heart-in-throat Syndrome: Keeping Kids Safe

A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.

In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.

I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” At the time, the room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter. I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.

Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.

So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations and within ourselves.

playground reaching with net When I first started teaching, it drove me crazy to supervise kids on the playground at school, or in the active outdoor parts of field trips.

Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.

Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.

I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.

playground sprinkler run croppedMy intuitive response is too protective, and I have to correct for that, consciously, by thinking.

Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”

Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.

I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment and think: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.

His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.

It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.

Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics. My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. (It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)

playground kids climbing cropped

A kid at Farm School, learning to climb down. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.

playground motion at farm school cropped

In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to  look at experience and learn from it and then remember.

Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing  the Jackie Lockney voice to playground Jackie Lockney croppedhelp them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.

At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.

With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.

And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.

Who Sits Where, or Ahhhhhhhhh-yippeeeeeeeee!

Image

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “If I don’t know the person I’m sitting near–especially if it’s a guy–I keep having the impulse to punch him. It’s hard to pay attention to anything else.”

There it is, laid out as clearly as possible, as only a kid could. He might have felt this unusually vividly, and expressed it to me, one-on-one, unusually straightforwardly. Still, there was some element of his feeling in many of his classmates. Students prefer to be seated near other students they know. Left to their own devices, most kids aren’t particularly eager to reach out to unfamiliar people.

Hooray for the minority who do reach out in friendship, and the huge gift they give to the group! Still, most kids need help with that.

Class life should give them that help. Here’s a corollary of my student’s statement. Students need to get to know the other members of a new class fairly quickly, so they’re not each sitting in the wanting-to-punch-someone condition (or some individual variation of that.) The teacher’s structuring of the situation needs to support kids in creating social inclusiveness, mutual knowledge, and safety, so that other good things can happen, things like learning how to divide fractions, or when to use there, they’re, and their–or the history of immigration policy, which is all about exclusion and inclusion.

Ideally, a teacher works gently and carefully with whatever social chemistry she or he finds, to create a productive balance of secure familiarity and growth-nurturing newness, for every student.

Among the faculty of my small school, all of whom I respected, there were real differences of opinion about how to work this out. Different routines are appropriate at different ages; different strategies work for different teachers’ styles.

Beginning the year

My young adolescent students (aged ten to twelve) spent a lot of their day moving around. Still, their table places were very important to them.

reading at tables

Before the first day of school, I made a temporary seating chart, and signs to put at students’ places. Kids would be seated at tables that held four students, and this usually worked out to be three or four at each table. (Longer ago, these were desk clusters with about the same number of desks in each cluster.)

Before I made this temporary arrangement, I talked with the teachers who were sending kids on to me. I always felt grateful for the help this gave me. I didn’t want the job of inclusion to fall to just a few generous kids. I tried to avoid giving hard jobs to kids with challenged attention, or to kids with sensory integration issues who might be thrown off by classmates brushing against their chairs. I thought carefully about how to handle kids with desperate crushes. (“Please,” a girl said to me when she ran into me over the summer, “don’t put me where I’m looking directly at _____, ” She knew herself, and knew what I needed to do for her.)

I tried to build in unfamiliarity along with familiarity. For example, I wouldn’t put three close friends at the same table–not good for them, not good for the group. I wanted everyone to have some safety, and some reaching to do.

projects time group with plantsAs the year moved forward, the groupings for academic work often built social connections. For example, projects time groupings were generated by kids’ choices of the various activities, expressed in rankings on sticky notes (which I could easily move around to arrange the groups.) It’s a tribute to the social education of my students before they reached me, that they could almost always handle this. For two afternoons a week, they could work in a small group with anyone, and make it productive. It was enough to have shared interest in a topic and a hands-on activity, with a little support from me or from a parent volunteer.

Very often, new friendships came out of these projects time pairings or groupings–if not close over-each-other’s-houses-frequently friendships, at least I’ll-put-this-person-on-my-list friendships.

The list

About a month into the year, sometimes less and sometimes more, I followed the seat assignment ritual I had learned from Kate Keller.

First we talked about the guidelines:

  • List at least two people of each gender. It’s fine to list more than two.
  • It’s okay to say “any boy” or “any girl” but you have to mean it, and that will count as meeting your conditions.
  • You can’t say “any girl (or boy) except _______.”
  • It’s fine to say “anybody.”

Kids wrote their preferences on 3 by 5 cards, with their names at the top. I learned that I needed to talk about anyone who was absent, so the card-writing kids wouldn’t forget about that person. It was helpful, especially early in the year, to have all the class names visible. Students folded the file cards and brought them to me, and I treated them as if they were top secret files from the CIA.

On the same cards, kids could also write requests involving placement in the room. I tried to honor those requests, if I could, since I wanted to encourage the self-knowledge that often went into them.  I explained ahead of time, though, that I couldn’t make promises, because good social mixing had to stay my main priority.

I promised just this: to give each student one person from his or her list, seated nearby. One safe presence.

That was hard enough to do, sometimes–to make all those interlocking choices work out. Usually, I started making the arrangement by placing kids who were least chosen by the others, or those who weren’t chosen by people they’d chosen themselves. They needed support, and this was one way I could give it.

One year, by the end of the year, every single file card said “anybody.” Thrilled and impressed, I threw them an ice cream party over the summer to express my high regard.

A sociologist could write a book about how these table-mate choices evolved through the year, with a chapter about how friendly, undemanding students tended to be chosen by almost everyone, time after time, and another chapter about how a child working hard to enter what he perceived as a popular group would fail to list any of the ordinary kids who had listed him and might treat him better. We don’t come automatically equipped with social skills for classroom life; we have to learn them, together, with some detours and lots of support. The information on the cards helped me know where support was needed.

Occasionally, a student thought she was designing the table group of her dreams, and reacted with shock when she didn’t get all of the people she had listed.

How to avoid any open expression of shock or dismay:

This sounds goofy, but it helped. Before I announced the seat assignments, or projects time groups, or any situation in which kids were placed in groups (almost always with their input) we went through the Ah Yippee ritual. This is very hard to describe in words. If you’re lucky enough to know a student from the past ten years, he or she may be willing to demonstrate, but it’s pretty silly.

Following a hand signal, we all said Ahhhhhhhhhhhh Yippppppppeeeeee! (Do you know what I’d give for a tiny video of this?) The collective tone swooped around, down and then back up. In the process, each child expressed his or her disappointment and excitement about the grouping–before knowing it.

Why in advance, before they knew? So the actual groupmates, or others not in a welcomed group, wouldn’t feel dissed.

We switched table places four or five times through the course of the year. Meanwhile, there were more frequent switches of math partners and projects time partners. All this in addition to various group-building activities I’ll describe another time. They helped, too–but my best chances at constructive social engineering were mostly under the students’ radar, in careful decisions about who sat where, and who partnered whom.

One way and another, there were lots of opportunities to decide that the unknown person you thought you wanted to punch might actually be someone you could trust and enjoy.

Hooray for the everyday bravery of kids in classroom life! Hooray for all the rewards it brings them!

Skywatchers and Magicmakers

Sometimes place-based education is about the town or state or watershed where a group of students live. Sometimes it’s about a thing all humans share: our place in the universe, and how it works, and what it’s like to live here.

time Maui people on globe

Finding the book you’ll see below was like stumbling on a time capsule. Suddenly, and so vividly, I had traveled twenty years into the past. People who are now 31 or 32 (some with children of their own) were 11 or 12 then. Shorter, younger kids have grown, some of them, to be the tallest in a new group picture, if we had the chance to take it.

time Maui photos at end 2

We made Slowing Down the Sun as the culmination of work by a school-wide mixed-age group that met for several sessions–three, maybe four. A few members of my regular class stayed with me, but most had gone to other groups, and were replaced by younger kids I knew less well but got to know much better. (I can’t remember the school-wide theme, but maybe a past colleague can help.)

So much of what continued to be important at Touchstone shows here. Storytelling often helped us begin thinking about the questions examined by science. Making models and drawings, and acting out stories together, helped us clarify and express understanding. Working in partners gave students a way to draw on many strengths, especially within a mixed-age group.

In this case, students wrote the sections of the text working in pairs, often older paired with younger. They did the illustrations individually.

Color copying cost a fortune back then, and it would be many years before Touchstone had its own color printer. I’m sure I couldn’t give copies to every participant, and in fact it’s possible that no other copy of this book still exists. But it’s a treasure! So I’ve decided to reproduce almost all of it, thanks to the humble miracles of scanning and internet magic. I’ve hidden full names from the text, but left first names on the drawings.

For me as teacher, holding this book I am carried back into the true miracle of work with students who rise like the sun itself, who are on fire with energy and curiosity, and who take it for granted, day after day, that their student job includes reaching to hold complicated and mysterious things.

Like so many of these posts, this one is an extended thank you note.

 

time Maui cover page

time Maui intro text

 

time Maui beginning drawing

time Maui beginning Liz and Matt 2

 

time Maui had an idea drawing

time Maui had an idea 2

 

time Maui sun-earth-moon
time Maui rope-to-catch Joelle and Jessica

time Maui net-the-sun

time Maui and Hinna

time Hinna and hair

time Maui sun-net-down

time Maui Adin and Patrick

time Maui david-sun

time Maui sun in cave

time Maui slow-sun-hinna-hair Lauren and Heather

time Maui addie-sunset

time Maui photos at end 1

time Maui beginning drawings

 

I’m experimenting with adding a contact form to some posts. The format makes it seem as though a comment is required, which is crazy, of course. If you have a thought that would be good for others to hear, be brave and go public, using the other comment function. But if you want, you can use this to reach just me.

Literacy Daily Tune-ups: a welcome to a feast

The kids sit at their table places (which let all of them face the front of the room without having to twist around too much.) I’m standing near my little desk, where my literacy tune-up binder is open. I ask a question, or give a prompt:

  • Write three compound words and show where the syllables divide. We don’t give prizes, but everyone knows that it’s pretty cool to have four or even five consonants in a row, as in worthwhile.
  • Write words in which o says its own name. That lets us compare ways: with the help of silent e after a consonant, or with the help of an in a vowel blend, or before certain consonant blends, as in cold, or in peculiar short words like O!
  • Write a sentence that uses their, there, and they’re. (“All in the same sentence?” they ask, and I say, “Yes,” knowing they will come up, collectively, with a range of sentences, many funny, a few poignant, and at least one involving pink cake, since that seems to be important lately.
  • Write an interrogative sentence.

literacy tuneups

The students write their responses on individual whiteboards about the size of printer paper, using erasable markers for which I will still be apologizing to the environment long after I’ve stopped teaching. Unfortunately, no other material works as well. Kids can’t resist writing on whiteboards with those vivid and deliciously slippery erasable markers. Of course, the plastic barrels of the markers will last two-thirds of forever in landfills. Please, one of my past students, or a reader of this blog, invent a biodegradable erasable marker, and then the karma will balance out.

When everyone seems ready, I ask students to raise their whiteboards, using “the international raise your whiteboard hand signal,” a swooping wave. Of course I made up the idea that it’s an international signal. It does work, though–it means that everyone sees everyone’s contributions at once. There’s no prize for being first, no incentive to rush.

If I see lots of kids done and waiting, I’ll say, “Write another sentence,” or “Write as many words as you can think of, that fit the prompt.”

If someone is clearly baffled, I say, “Don’t worry–you’ll get it on the next round.” As much as possible, I try to run enough rounds of the same type of prompt to give everyone a chance to catch on; few enough so we have time for other important things; and playful enough so it’s not boring for any kids who already have that skill down pat.

Once all the white boards are raised, we look around the room–not to see who got it right and who got it wrong, but to notice variation and creativity within the direction. I read aloud some of the responses, and try to make sure that every student’s response is read aloud at some point in each lesson. Sometimes, I ask kids to read their own responses. Whenever possible, I ask them to notice and describe the patterns they see.

We’re not about single correct or incorrect answers. We’re language scientists collecting evidence. We’re language artists or gymnasts, sharing our moves.

We’re also language connoisseurs having fun. It really is fun, not just for me, but for the kids, who clamor for a tune-up if I try to leave it out on an unusually compressed day.

Meanwhile, every time we do this–daily is the target–I learn an enormous amount about every kid in the class, and where they are on their learning journeys.

A way to think about language skills lessons

Several thousand years ago, at a workshop about whole language learning, a participant asked, “I can see how good it is to give kids lots of time to read and write in class, but when will I have time to teach grammar and spelling?” Like me, she taught young adolescents, ten to twelve-year-olds. Like me, and every teacher I’ve ever known, she felt tremendous pressure on every minute in her schedule.

Some whole language advocates, back then, said, “Don’t worry; students will just absorb the language skills they need from all that active and pervasive language experience they get in good classrooms.”

That does seem to be partially true–true sometimes and in some ways.

For example, some of the kids I taught had such strong auditory perception, and so much auditory experience, both in school and in well-educated, talkative, mainstream-culture families, that they could just test word order, phrasing and usage against their auditory memories, as they spoke or wrote or took the grammar sections of the standardized tests we administered for practice. For some kids, whatever sounded right was likely to be right.

Other students could remember the spellings of all those words they’d seen, as enthusiastic readers given steady time in which to read in school, and also taking lots of time to read at home, much more than the homework guideline. Some could observe typical spelling patterns on their own, and apply them to new words they’d heard but not seen. If this is a science word, the f sound might be made by ph. Etc.

Regardless of learning styles and preferences, more time to read always did help challenged spellers.

But… Gradually I came to realize that highly motivated, fast and fluent readers might not be really looking at the insides of the words they read. They didn’t necessarily transfer their reading vocabulary into an accurately spelled writing vocabulary.

Similarly, some very expressive speakers weren’t using conventional grammatical patterns in their speech, for a variety of reasons, including being surrounded by the fast and loose speech patterns of popular culture. So they couldn’t rely on what sounded right to tell them what was correct.

Recently I’ve been reading paleoanthropology again, thinking about human evolution, and watching a very young learner as he figures out the connections between language and behavior. All that’s in my mind as I rethink language skills, and consider the idea that nearly all of us are well equipped to analyze patterns in the speech we hear, almost automatically, and then apply them in the speech we utter. We’ve evolved for that, over a very long stretch of time.

But we haven’t been using written language for very long, as a species, and there seems to be huge variation in how well we’re equipped to transfer our speech metacognition to written language.

Individual differences and anthropological observations aside, all the kids I taught were natural, intuitive language scientists, natural linguists of their home language, noticing and formulating and applying patterns, in some of their language experience, but not necessarily in all.

Not as a function of ideology, or adherence to tradition, but as a result of pragmatic observation, I could see that most kids need some explicit teaching to supplement their own language science capabilities. In my experience, though, the best explicit teaching of language skills does exactly that: it supplements, encouraging, empowering and cheering on students’ own capabilities as language scientists–their ability to make systematic sense of the language they use.

So the best language skills teaching will build on kids’ own observations about the spoken and written language of their experience.

Furthermore, speaking to that long-ago question at the workshop: If we’re committed to giving kids plenty of time, every day, for actual reading and writing, then the language skills work has to be quick and efficient.

Finally, everything we now know about learning says that language skills work, conceived of as language scientist training, will “take” best if it’s playful, the way so much real-world science is playful.

How I started using literacy tune-ups

I spent some time one summer mulling over my observations that far, and rereading Ethel Buchanan’s brilliant book Spelling for Whole Language Classrooms, in which she focuses on students’ own theories about spelling, at various stages, and describes helpful ways for teachers to work with kids’ ideas and move them forward.

sample literacy prompt pageI wrote up some organizing ideas, and put a lot of samples into a binder for myself. It was just for me, so I didn’t need to spend much time explaining. Here’s a sample page:

 

I was working off the model of math tune-ups in a favorite math curriculum, MathLand, tragically no longer in print. MathLand tune-ups often used individual write-on-wipe-off white-boards, mostly as a way for the teacher to see responses from the whole class, but sometimes for the class to see each others’ responses and problem-solving methods. I planned to have students use whiteboards for literacy tune-ups, too.

The MathLand tune-ups rotated among a number of skills, for example work with place value, strategies for estimation, and skills for working with time and money. Similarly, I planned to rotate among a number of language skills, including spelling patterns, punctuation, subject and verb agreement, prefixes and suffixes, some basic sentence diagramming, and more.

literacy tune up record sheetPages like this kept on a clipboard, a sheet for each student, helped me keep track of student responses. I didn’t try to write down every student’s response to every lesson, just things that would help me support individual kids or the class as a whole.

As we went along, I learned to make my questions or prompts increasingly open-ended, because that was more fun, and also more productive. Sharing data is really different from getting the one right answer (or not.) The kids’ responses were often hilarious, and I learned to go with that, to let it happen, to let kids have obsessions with fictional characters–or pink cake, or bacon.

One last thought

So often, teaching young adolescents, I felt regret about aspects of the world they were entering, and the history they explored with me. The history of slavery, or the continuing reality of slavery in the world; the consequences of heedless fossil fuel use. I felt sad to have to open up these facts.

Framing language skills work as a feast of variation and nuance, a celebration of our rich and multifaceted, multi-sourced English (American flavor), I felt thrilled to welcome my students into something complex but unquestionably wonderful, a treasure / parade / three-ring circus that’s free.

To think of it that way changed the whole game, for all of us.

 

 

Kidnapped schoolgirls held in the light

I keep thinking about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. I find it increasingly difficult to trust international news, but last month roughly 200 girls were taken, one way or another, as pawns in some complicated political drama, and as I write they have not been returned. From far away, I try not to worry, which is useless; I try to hold them in the light.hope--candle another edit

Right now, I am following the Quaker practice called “holding in the light” for a number of people. My interpretation of holding in the light may well vary from that of Quakers you know (or from your own practice.) As it works out for me, the practice involves holding hope, but keeping that hope faithful to the situation, open to what I don’t know yet, and wise about the ways all of us must accept natural change.

With no belief in magical dimensions, I still send my spirit, send whatever strength I know. Ultimately, to hold someone in the light involves staying attentive to challenging realities–not shrinking away from people just because what they’re experiencing is hard and I don’t know their answers.

The Nigerian girls are in life-threatening trouble, and they are strangers to me, strangers in layer after layer of life’s realities. But for various reasons, like so many others around the world, I feel called to their trouble.

Most of the people I’m holding in the light these days are people I know.

hope--swimmer editedI’m thinking of past students who are making big transitions, graduating from Touchstone, high school, or college. Some are in the process of moving from schools supportive of special needs into other schools that can’t afford to be, within their current structuring. I hold all these journeying students in the light and wish for them awareness of promise, no matter what. I wish them both courage and the joy of discovery; both thoughtful care and exhilarating flight.

Oddly enough, that’s what I wished for them every day, when I spent every day with them.

hope--boatSome of the people I’m thinking of have recently experienced a loss, and now face a huge absence in their lives. Some are struggling with long-term illness, and some are just surprised, again and again, to have become old, surprised that their reward involves working so hard–physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually–to navigate all the changes that come with having survived (and thrived!) so long. I hold all these travelers in the light, and wish them both self-possession and continued openness to whatever communities support them and need them. I wish them the energy to make their journeys with dignity and grace.

I’m also holding in the light some people I know who are learning to navigate new relationships and responsibilities, parenting for the first time, or parenting two kids for the first time, living in a committed couple and feeling all those mixed blessings, or moving into a new community. I watch them practice new skills of listening, of risking, of embracing, and I wish them energy for all that.

hope--tiny swimmerThere, too, it’s much like what I was doing when I went through the alphabet of my class. That was my first task when I was given a finally-for-sure new class list. I memorized it–using first names, after the year I first taught twins. I asked myself many questions, child by child, in that recurring ritual of going through the list in my mind, while driving, while doing dishes, while standing on the playground for recess duty. Two of the most important questions always seemed to be: how can I help this child belong to herself? How can I help each child belong to the group and collaborate to create and nurture the group? Name by name, I held them in the light, as travelers moving forward together.

For some people, what I’m describing would be a prayer list. In fact, it is what I do when I find myself in a church (as a singer, generally, or as a mourner.) Maybe it’s some form of shamanism I practice, some very decentralized life of the spirit. For example, crossing the Connecticut River several times each week, I reach out to its power, and send some to the people I know who need energy to let go and swim in the rivers and brooks of their lives.

Or energy to hold onto whatever sapling they are holding in a flood.

Always, some are strangers, these people to whom I send whatever I am sending. Right now, some are in terrible peril, in places I cannot visualize, across an ocean, on a continent and in a country that has always fascinated me, but where I have never set foot. Those Nigerian schoolgirls have been rendered powerless to a degree I’ve never known. Their identities appear to have been reduced to their physical, sexual bodies, by people for whom they are something colder than strangers; they are tools.

In the face of all my ignorance about them, in the face of my own wave of fear and rage when I think of them, I hold them in the light.

The girls’ kidnappers say that they kidnapped them from their school because education for girls is wrong. (The same group appears to be resisting one of Nigeria’s biggest oil companies, and that’s part of what makes me a little wary of taking the story at face value.)

It’s true that education for girls threatens traditional roles for women, because those roles have so often required unthinking submission to rules that did them harm. I get into a snarl every time I start to ponder this, because I value many things about traditional cultures, and mistrust many of the forces that seek to undermine them. Reading Kirkpatrick Hill’s novels about girls in Alaskan tribal groups, thinking about their struggles with the rules for their behavior–and especially with the ways they were defined as danger to the hunt or to the harvest–I also respect Hill’s portrayal of the ways those rules were softened and mediated by relationships, by mutual knowledge, by family and community.

I wind up wondering whether traditional ideologies aren’t most dangerous when the family and community relationships that mediated them have been disrupted. I don’t expect all my readers to agree with me, but I see traditional culture, as well as family and community coherence, under siege by mindless giant corporate profit motive, by blind greed that gives itself no way to see or listen, everywhere in the world. I wonder: could it be easy to think that fighting against the corporate monoliths requires a return to the worst aspects of tradition, the most brutal patriarchy? Or maybe thugs are just thugs, wherever and however.

Here’s what I know for sure. Supporting education for girls–supporting authentic education for anyone–requires the courage to let go of traditional arrangements, and a commitment to a change process that listens to everyone’s needs, values everyone’s possibilities, and moves forward by mutual consent. But that takes skills, practical skills, that many people have had little chance to practice. And there are always interests which don’t value teaching people to think independently, and to act together.

At this point, most of the ways I support education for girls, and authentic education for all, do feel like prayer–simultaneously remote and heartfelt. For one thing, week after week I write this blog with no idea where it will travel. I continue to support Planned Parenthood, working for full, rich, empowered lives for both women and men all over the world. I support and applaud A Mighty Girl, helping my granddaughter see herself as Super Julia.

I don’t have much money with which to support these organizations; I support them chiefly by passing on their perspective in whatever ways I can.

Planned Parenthood recently posted on Facebook their hopes for the “world we want”, in which all those girls are restored to their families. In my own hope, I wish those girls courage to take action for themselves, to grab the chance to flee however they can. I wish their captors courage to see the evil of what they are doing, to release those girls to their families and their teachers.

I add a hope that if and when they are returned, the girls do not become victims who are blamed for their own suffering, as victims are so often blamed out of the shame and cynicism of those who’ve harmed them.

I hold those far away girls in the light, and wish them some way to sing with gladness, soon.

hope--Grammy school[For illustrations in this post, I rummaged in my boxes and binders to find some talismans I kept near my desk in my classroom: a paper candle saved from those we put up around the room when Dana was in her coma--since real candles would have set off the smoke alarms; an anonymous watercolor I fished out of the trash, of a girl swimming with a red kick-board; another watercolor, similarly rescued, of a boat near an evergreen-lined shore; a baby learning to swim, with a hopeful face and carrot red hair; and finally, here, since turned into a house, the tiny one room school in which my grandmother taught, on the shoulder of Mt. Blue in Maine.]