Hummanacrafts and the spirit of invention

It’s not some fictitious contraption. The drawing below, made by Justin McCarthy sometime in the fall of 1990, advertises something real. It represents a retooling, a chopping and channeling, of a small paperboard tray, the kind in which take-out french fries used to be served. It’s a design for a hummanacraft, a vehicle that could hover gracefully, thrillingly, along the updraft  from our classroom air vent.


That classroom’s air intake occupied a shallow metal box under the windows along the outer wall, like an over-sized radiator. The grated vent on the top, about 6 inches wide and 6 feet long, worked perfectly for hummanacrafts.

What gave the hummanacrafts direction along the vent? What kept them from just getting blown off?

Justin now lives in California and works as an engineer, a developer of ideas. If you knew him in his hummanacraft phase, you are not surprised. Colby Brown, another hummanacrafter, grew up to be a transportation planning technologist—obviously as a result of this early influence. Recently, Colby heard the word “hummanacrafts” and had a lot to say.

We’d cut one of the short flaps of the little tray, and bend it up or remove it. The air flowing out that end, the back, propelled the craft forward. The front end just barely touched the top surface of the vent, and that provided stability.

Colby went on to remind me that this particular class had operated as a design workshop for years. For example, several years before the hummanacraft phase (and before organized paper recycling) members of the class had engineered long cardboard chutes to carry crumpled waste paper to the wastebasket.

That group of students were entrepreneurs, also, with a thriving economy on the playground, buying and selling real estate, using all sorts of natural objects as currency. (Kate and I had to ban the indoor stockpiling of pine cone currency in paper bags under desks, because they got buggy.)


Not everything these kids made involved a cash exchange. Colby made and gave as gifts a whole series of ducks carrying marbles. (Nobody remembers why.)

The hummanacrafts fit into a proud tradition.

I’m pretty sure the kids first invented hummanacrafts with Kate, in the mornings. She would have been the one to ask, ‟What if you make the vent flap smaller?” Or ‟What if you add some weight?”

Justin and Colby were both talkers. Some of their classmates weren’t, at least not in the same way. Watching the evolution of the hummanacrafts in all their hands, listening to their explanations, triggered my first deep awareness that some kids make a lot more sense in motion. I’d read Howard Gardner. I knew, from the experience of my own family, that there are many kinds of intelligence. But hummanacrafts, crazy little paperboard crafts for imaginary drivers the size of mice, convinced me, to the soles of my feet and the outer margins of my plan book, that kids could be smart in ways that had nothing to do with my own.

In fact, some of my students, I saw, would do their best work only if I arranged (or permitted) the sort of learning experience that might have terrified me, or at least intimidated me, when I was a student myself.

And that was the beginning of many stories.

Hooray for hummanacrafts! Hooray for their engineers and operators! Hooray for many things slightly illegal, happening off on the edges of classrooms; things that can teach the teacher, if she’s lucky. (And I was.)

I’m going to try again to get other people to commit themselves in writing. (It’s free, after all, and it can be really short.) (Or long, too.) Did you ever invent or create something on the edges of  classroom culture? What was it? And–I always want to know this: then what happened?

Down the turnpike and around the world

A kid named Ben Redden wrote this almost 20 years ago.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip to Boston University was the part when we could go around the room and collect everyone’s signature. It was hard to remember each person’s name, and what country they came from. The lady from China was sitting in her seat, and I came up and asked her if she could sign her name in Japanese instead of Chinese, by accident. But it was fun and neat to see the way she wrote my name. I’ll try to write it at the bottom of the page. It was neat to meet so many people from different countries.

For many years, my class made annual trips to Boston to visit the classes of Janet Entersz, a Boston University teacher of English as a Second Language.

Each of Janet’s classes included students from all over the world. Mostly in their 20’s, some older, they had traveled far from their homes in Korea or Colombia or Saudi Arabia, and many were lonely for younger brothers and sisters, for their own children, or for nieces and nephews.

My students, averaging eleven years old, lived in rural or suburban towns well to the west of Boston, where they were exposed to plenty of ethnic variation, but few speakers of other languages.

Janet’s students and my students, and the parents who came along to drive us and join in the fun, all were equally exotic to each other, and in some way equally thirsty for each other.

To help us feel less ignorant, Janet sent me her current group’s country list, a couple weeks ahead. The kids and I ran a country treasure hunt, seeking and sharing information. We practiced skimming by searching the Boston Globe for references—a crash course in world geography.

During the visit itself, our conversations evolved into another kind of crash course, in comparative linguistics. A typical group of Janet’s students spoke ten to fifteen different languages, just counting their first languages. They wrote in four or five (once seven!) different alphabets or writing systems. Seeing samples of all these languages was a treat for the international students, too, since their ordinary class sessions focused on the language they were working hard to share—English.

janetatboard cropped

Many of Janet’s students could write English beautifully, but resisted speaking in class. Others spoke easily in class, unafraid of making mistakes and eager to make contact—but they dreaded writing.

In any case, almost all the international students relaxed, faced with the eagerness and innocence of my students, who soaked up a sense of shared language as a source of power, and of unshared language as a source of possible confusion—but also a source of fun. The richness of difference; the value of work to bridge difference.

One year, Janet suggested that the international students tell the Massachusetts students what various animals said in their languages. We all laughed and laughed, hearing what cows say in Japanese or Ibo; what roosters say in Italian or Arabic.

Janet Entersz, wonderful teacher, dear friend, brave soul, developed cancer when she was still in her 40’s; continued teaching with a scarf on her head through rounds of chemo and remission and return; and left us in 1999. Moments before she died, I sat at her bedside, reading aloud her favorite Antoine de Saint-Exupéry story about air flight over northern Africa.

And Ben Redden, the student I quoted at the beginning of this post? He eventually learned Chinese, and now lives and works in Beijing. No kidding. Here’s a link to his blog full of wonderful photos and wild tales from his travels in China and nearby:

And here’s his rendition, from long ago, of how the Chinese lady wrote his name: Whatever it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in spirit!


Losing and Keeping Dana

On a mid-November night in 1992, I received a phone call from Dick Zajchowski, the Head of my school. One of my students, Dana, ten years old, had been hit by a van while crossing a busy road through that wet and foggy night. She was badly hurt; she had been taken by helicopter to the teaching hospital nearby; nobody knew whether she could recover.

Dana lasted about ten days, in a coma from which she never emerged, although there were times when she seemed to lift, and our hopes lifted. When I visited and sat with her, reading aloud to her some of the book we were sharing in class, I watched the traces on the machines attached to her body. The electronic lines jumped up and down whenever she heard my voice. Was that good? Was that bad?

I had taught Dana for only a few months, but I had known her in the school community since she was very small. Her older sister, Megan, was also in my class.  Dana, so vivid, so full of life, full of opinions, full of energy—how could she not survive?

treasures for DanaWhen I cleaned out my desk this spring, I found the small box made of popsicle sticks, full of tiny things kids wanted me to take to Dana in the hospital when—we held on, so hard, to the idea of ‟when”—she woke up: braided wristbands, a tiny troll with long magenta hair, small folded notes.

IMG_20130815_100624 - Copy-001But the injury to her brain was too severe. Here’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher: calling the families of my students, family by family, to tell them that all of us working and wishing, all of us folding small paper origami cranes, hoping to save Dana–all of us had to let all that go. She had gone from us.

Dana and Megan’s parents knew immediately that they would need to find counseling to help Megan. Some of her healing happened out of our sight, though with all of our thoughts and prayers.

Meanwhile, a wonderful grief counselor visited the school to help the faculty help the other kids. Wisely, Dick Zajchowski arranged for Maria, the grief counselor, to come into my own class to work with us directly. She talked us through the stages of grief as she had come to understand them.

  • First, we each needed just to tell our individual versions of how it had happened, or how the news had happened to each of us.
  • Then we needed to confess and work through the universal inclination to blame ourselves, irrationally.
  • We needed to share memories and images of Dana, as she lived.
  • Finally we needed to share our ideas about ways we would carry her forward.

It was true: every single child needed to tell both how he or she imagined the event of the accident, and how his or her parent had relayed the news. One child wished he’d told Dana that the movie she was going to see was a waste of time; if he had, she wouldn’t have been crossing that street. I myself had thought, ‟If only I’d assigned more homework that night…” But when I said that out loud, one of the students said, ‟No, that wouldn’t have stopped her…” All of us worked together to face the truth: this was something we couldn’t have controlled, and didn’t.

One child felt Dana’s death as a blow to his own body. He became physically ill whenever we talked about her in any way, and several times had to go home. Still, it was important for us to talk about Dana, not too much, but enough. We couldn’t just dodge what had happened. I struggled to find the right balance.

One girl, Kerry, seemed to have no defense, no delaying numbness, no way to hide from the events or her feelings about them. Again and again, even when we were doing something with no direct relation to Dana’s death, Kerry broke down and cried. But she was touchingly brave in facing and experiencing those feelings and letting them be, crying and then recovering, moving forward. Each time, I felt her carry the rest of us with her.

Whatever we felt, and however we felt it or expressed it, each of us was a resource to the others.

Months went by. I had known enough of other griefs to recognize, in myself, the feeling of trying to walk underwater; a deep weariness. Maria, the grief counselor, had told me to expect some regression from the kids: neediness, crabbiness, helplessness. All that happened. No way out but through.

At home, I worked on a poem based on Maria’s four stages of grief. That helped me move forward, in the way Kerry’s tears had helped her. In school, off and on, I worked with individual kids to write their own letters to Dana, or short accounts of what had happened.

When our class picture was taken, one of the girls held a photo of Dana.

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Late that spring, Dick asked me to lead the rest of the faculty in writing through that same sequence of parts, the stages of grief, which Maria had explained to us and which I had used in my own poem. Like so much about that whole chapter in my teaching, the memory of my colleagues, crying as they wrote, will never leave me–and I will always be grateful to Dick for discerning, step by step, how our mutual caring could help each of us.

Over the next year, in Dana’s memory, her parents and many of their friends donated the seed money for a new wing to our school. On the wall in that hallway, a painting shows her grinning her inimitable grin, holding one of the cranes we had folded in hope for her. IMG_20130815_100624

Maria, the grief counselor, said that the children who’d been close to Dana could not truly process their shock and loss right away. At ten, or even at twelve, they were too young. ‟Every transition they make,” she said, ‟they will come back to process it again. With any luck they’ll stay in touch with each other, and do some of that together.”

In fact, many of those students have stayed in touch. Many of them, including both Megan and Kerry, are my own Facebook friends. In a way especially needed, somehow, I treasure every smiling photograph they post.

Love and fluency

By the time José came to me, his reading challenges had been identified long since, and he’d had years of tutoring, and could decode word by word with some skill. He could translate letters into sounds, following the rules he’d learned, and then translate those sounds into ideas in his head—very slowly, with deserved pride in persistence.

Nobody could mistake that for love of reading.

José did love listening to stories read aloud. If he didn’t have to decode, if he only needed to make sense of the story he heard, his face was like a field full of the weather of the meanings, as they shifted. Every feeling in a story, he felt in his own body. If I asked the group, in discussion, to connect the events in the story to events in their own lives, what he said enlarged the story for us all.

MooseyMeanwhile, he adopted one of the stuffed animals in the room, and dressed it in his sash from a presentation costume. He gave Moosey a back story, and kept adding pieces of story as we moved through the year. He knew how to do this with big kid cool, from a place of high status in the group. He excelled at the collaborative, mutual storytelling we call friendship.

What did José need most from his year with me? He needed fluency with print, with these tiny symbols, hard to distinguish visually, with which stories get told in the academic world for which he was headed. A child with extraordinary fluency as a social being, he needed fluency as a reader and as a writer. Various kinds of group instruction could be helpful, but more than anything, José needed time to practice those things he could do by rule; time to let these awkward constructions of skill become something more intuitive.

He also needed help finding the books that would claim him and keep him reading. Because he was so sociable, I thought José would want books full of characters interacting. The book that clicked for him, though, was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.

I just started to type a sentence about the loneliness of the challenged learner, then thought better of it. One way or another, we’re all challenged. Each of us has some way in which we are alone in the Canadian wilderness, when the pilot has had a heart attack and we’ve somehow survived the crash. Each of us knows some aspect of life in which we feel our way forward awkwardly, and only very gradually make sense.

In the late spring of José’s year with me, when he’d read all four Hatchet series books in our own classroom library, we discovered that the school library had a fifth. José received it with his trademark enormous grin. He didn’t stay long to chat; he was off into a corner.

When I come to José’s folder in one of my boxes, and find his list of books for the year, I grin pretty widely myself. There’s no guarantee that love of reading, once found, will last; but if it goes into eclipse, somewhere on a hard road to the end of school life, it can still bloom again. Skill is very good, but for the distance, if you have to last through the winter, love matters more.

I want you to know that José and his mom gave me permission to use his name. (Moosey, too.) Today’s question, for anyone, but especially for you if you’ve faced reading challenges: is there a book, or series, that you fell in love with? How? When? Why? And then what happened?

a year to think it over

About ten years ago, my teaching partner and I were forced to look back at a big joint project. (Our grant required a lot of summary writing, to be posted on the organization’s website.) Six months after our giant thematic exploration ended, we went back to reconsider students’ writing and models and illustrations, and our own plans.

Looking out my kitchen window during a break in our work, Kate Keller said, ‟What if we always taught for one year, and then had a year to think it over?”

We did, of course, think as we went along. If we hadn’t engaged in ongoing reflection—grabbed chances for that out of the hurly-burly of teacher life—our teaching would have withered, our students suffered.

Still, what extra dimensions did it give Kate and me, to look back after a good-sized chunk of teaching was actually over? So many things:

  •  When we no longer needed to evaluate each child individually, we got a really clear picture of their work together, as collaborators—especially the ways they had taught each other. And us—the ways they had taught us.
  •  We got a clearer picture of some ways our students had struggled with the theme. Parts of our thematic study of transportation had asked students to consider their own transportation choices, and the impact of different choices on the environment and on other people. One student said, ‟I’m never getting into a car again,” as we walked down a Boston street after hearing a presentation by Stephanie Pollack, from the Conservation Law Foundation. At the time, we weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Later, looking back, we remembered a follow-up discussion about all the reasons why a person might not be able to make the ideal environmental choice, and valued, even more than at the time, what kids said to each other in that conversation.

We were critical; but we were also proud. We looked at the study whole, and saw that it was good.

Now, by Kate’s plan, I’m due about 25 years ‟to think it over.”

I’ve left my full time teaching gig. I’ve walked away with binders full of lesson plans and observation notes, boxes full of copies of kids’ work, folders full of communication to kids and parents, and from them.

I’ve brought it all to a barn in Maine, a place where I can open the back doors and look out at a wide meadow and a long pond. It’s a barn very full, already, with family treasures, so I have to compress this new pile radically.

barn back view try 4

As I stare at the meadow, listen to the crows, and sort (radically),  I’ll see what there is to think about. Already, for the posts I have in process, I’ve called people, written emails, asked questions.  Others’ responses have reminded me of additional topics I want to explore and reconsider–and of everything I’ve loved about teaching! What will find its way into actual posts? Time will tell.

Somehow, though, I am sure that looking back–carefully, thoughtfully, mercifully– will be a good way to start looking forward.

I’m so curious to know, if you’ve gotten this far, read this much: how do you reflect on your own learning and practice and profession, whatever they may be? What does it give you to do so?