Heels-over-teakettle, and Other Festivities

Today I’m thankful for all my fellow word-lovers, past and present.

I’m thankful for my grandmother, who chatted with everyone she met, and picked up other people’s conversational expressions the way a dog picks up burrs. She kept and passed on treats like enough blue sky for a Dutchman’s britches and one pickle short of a quart. Listening to my mother and my grandmother talk together–with a what in thunder is he celebrating? here, and a heels-over-teakettle there–marked me for life, in the best possible way.

Once again, I’m thankful for George Batchelder, brilliant junior high English teacher, the one who gave us whole class periods for the Times crossword puzzle. He also asked us to list, on a page in our notebooks, plausible but nonexistent words: words with English prefixes and suffixes and blends, that were nonetheless fake, of our own manufacture: beautaceous, recrunk, preventicate, loombipuddle.

I’m thankful for a host of word-crazy students, including Andrew Cozzens, who often leaned over at dismissal to confide his word of the day. Even after he had left my school, he wrote emails telling me wonderful words he had recently discovered, such as loquacious.

I’m grateful for the poets of Every Other Thursday, whose recent poems have included the words moonbeamedcantedphlegmatic, and loris, and the phrase crammed and nuzzling.

I’m everlastingly thankful for Alex Brown, and his children (who are also my children), and for our tendency, when together, to lapse into the synonym game without warning. Why stop with playful, when you can keep right on with lively, exuberanthigh-spirited, festive and frolicsome?

That leads me (inexorably, but also gleefully) to word games. Today I offer just a few, in honor of long car trips to and fro, and in tenderness toward family relationships more amenable to word games than to talk about affairs either local or international.

Warning: there may be a sequel, down the road. In my family, word games were not scarce as hen’s teeth; we were two-thirds wealthy with them. (What?) And then I went on to invent some.

First, my grandmother’s (and mother’s) special rules for Scrabble.

  • You may let a word edge over the boundary of the playing grid, by just one letter, any time you need to, in order to play a particularly satisfying word.
  • If you have the right letter to replace a blank, you may do so, and take possession of the blank, at any time; this doesn’t count as a turn. (My cousin’s wife Terry, during one particularly hilarious game, replaced a blank with a blank, but I can’t remember why, only the way we were reduced to mirthful tears.)
  • At the end of the game, everyone collaborates in an effort to place every last orphan letter on the board, in genuine legal words.

My mother, at 86, still won’t play Scrabble scored, because she wins so reliably that her opponents become discouraged (down-at-the-mouth, or even mad as a wet hen.) Once in a while, we’ll calculate the point value of a word just because it’s so delicious.

All my successive families have played the geography game in the car. My class used to play it when lining up for gym or dismissal.

  • The first player names a place: a town, a country, a street, a river, a mountain–anything that could be on an ordinary map. Let’s say Merrimack River.
  • The second player ignores parts of the name like River, focuses on the last letter, and comes up with a place name that begins with that letter. Given a K, the average person will say Kansas, but you can be playful–that’s the point, right?–and say Kalamazoo. I always try to, unless someone else has used it already in that game.
  • Small children may name a place somebody else has already used, if they need to, and anyone may have help with the spelling of tricky place names with ph making the f sound, like Phoenix, or endings that sound like ee but are actually spelled with a y. Etc. Our language, including our geographic language, is full of these opportunities, but adults should go easy on the pedanticism. (No, you won’t find it. It’s in the category of plausible but manufactured.)
  • You’ll want a good supply of place names that start with y, such as Ypsilanti.
  • Do not be alarmed if your game drifts into the dreaded A-swamp: America / Australia / Andalusia / Africa…  My class once made it through the entire line (becoming slightly late for dismissal in the process) using place names that begin and end with A. Like many hardships, the A-swamp arose there in our geography to test your indomitable spirit.
  • In the days of smart phones, it’s easy to resolve arguments about spelling. In my family of origin, I was definitely not the final authority, having the spelling memory of a flea, or maybe a rock.

Speaking of spell-checkers, you can play a solitaire word game by typing in the names of your friends and seeing what the spell-checker makes of them. Or follow the eight-year-old Colby Brown’s example: randomly type a paragraph entirely in gibberish; then let the spell-checker do its best; then write an actual paragraph around whatever words the spell-checker has found.

Last, for now, here’s a game that requires either a dictionary or, if there are no dictionaries available, a referee. It’s called the Syllable Game, and this one I invented.

  • We played this game many times beginning with the word Touchstone, the name of our school. Compound words generally work well, but the rules just require words of at least two syllables to start, and for every turn. In fact, you’re better off beginning with a word of three or four syllables. In class, this was often a word central to our current study. So, for example, transportation, or, for the purposes of the game, trans / por / ta / tion.
  • The second player comes up with a word that preserves one of the syllables of the first word. This is where you need the dictionary, to check the official syllabication of the word, which will often contradict your first impression. (On the other hand, there is nothing like a car full of people carefully enunciating the word metamorphosis to judge its syllabication. Just designate a syllabication referee as well as a driver, and you’ll be fine.)
  • In class, students were absolutely required to use a dictionary, which gave them great practice, exposed them to related words, and could lead to all sorts of pleasant detours.
  • The pronunciation doesn’t have to be preserved, but the spelling has to be preserved exactly. So trans / late or por / tion or im / por / tant could all work as second turns, but port / man / teau or tran / scribe could not, because the por has been changed to port, and the trans has been changed to tran.
  • Let’s say that the second player decides on trans / at / lan / tic. In a two-player game, the first player now jumps forward from that word, with all sorts of lovely possibilities: lan / guage or fan / tas / tic or at / ten / tion. Etc.
  • The syllable you’re preserving can show up anywhere in the new word, jumping from second syllable to first, or third to first–so long as it’s the exact same syllable spelled the same way.

Assigning this as homework, I asked students to play with a parent or older sibling, and to record the whole ladder of turns, showing syllable breaks. Parents notoriously resisted using a dictionary, but came up with wonderful words.

syllable gameFinally, for whole class play, to help the game move faster, I invented a variation called The Syllable Web Game, which we played on the spare white board at the front of the room. Any syllable on the board was available to  any player, even if it had already been re-used. (In the illustration, you can see how the ce from cement was reused in celesta, and then in celestial and cerulean and something I can’t read in the photograph.)

Usually we played this game during morning sketching time; sometimes also writing time and silent reading time. Players showed the syllabication and initialed their words, and then explained their meanings in the class debrief.

So now I bow, gratefully, to all the sources and innovators and playful practitioners of the language we share. It’s a very full room, and you’re all in it!

syllable Touchstone

Using Picture Books with Big Kids

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tuthill, reading a picture book in class, or letting any of us read one. Within the school day, I can’t remember being encouraged to read anything but textbooks. (I was lucky, though; I had a much younger sister to read to at home, and my mother was well on her way to becoming a children’s librarian.)

The people who taught my daughter and son in middle school, good and competent teachers, never used picture books, to my knowledge.

Right now, this minute, most teachers face intense pressure to demonstrate rigor and grade-level competence. I would be thrilled to hear about a sixth-grade teacher in my town, using picture books or urging students to include them in their own reading. I know it’s improbable.

On the other hand, the teachers who taught me how to teach, and the colleagues who challenged and nurtured my teaching spirit, all used picture books in inspired ways. I can’t imagine the life of each class community in which I was honored to work and breathe, without picture books.

It’s amazing what is controversial in this world.

Time of Wonder crop aSusan Doty and I were setting up our classrooms, chatting now and then. She said, “I think I’ll start the year with Time of Wonder,” a Robert McCloskey book I didn’t know yet. It seemed like a sweeter book than I would usually choose for my cool and savvy 11 and 12-year-olds.

Still, I liked it, and tried it out on them.  As I read aloud, the room grew quieter and quieter. I could gauge the attention of many of my listeners by their faces; could tell others were with me when they grinned at the book’s very subtle humor.

Like all the best picture books, Time of Wonder is powerful and efficient. Reading Time of Wonder together, my class and I shared summer, and summer adventures, and the inevitable ending of summer. We shared what it’s like to listen to adults talking about possible trouble, a hurricane coming. We shared what it’s like to sit with your grown-ups and sing through the storm, and wake up the next day to explore the branches and roots of a fallen tree.

A good picture book, like a poem, and like so much of our everyday storytelling for each other, means more than one thing by everything it means.

We talked about students’ experiences of a recent hurricane. The book had given us permission to admit to having been frightened–if we were–along with a model of opportunities for discovery everywhere–and we had had those, too.

Recently I appealed to past students on Facebook. What picture books stood out for them? Taylor Davis responded almost immediately, “The one about the red canoe… something about a boy and his aunt…I remember falling in love with it!”

Three DaysTwo kids, two women who are sisters, a wonderful adventure with danger and glory, and a cat named Sixtoes waiting back at home for an offering of fish.

Some years I used “the red canoe book” as read-aloud to start the year, especially if we were going to be studying watersheds (or map reading, since they use maps to plan their trip.)

Some years, though, the canoe book waited with others to be chosen by individual students, out of a crate full of books brought from home, from my family’s picture book collection. That crate supplemented the classroom’s shelf of picture books, and another bin of books borrowed from the school library, and another from the public library. All together, kids could choose from an enriched and enlarged collection, in the two or three weeks at the start of the year when everyone read picture books during silent reading time.

That happened by my decree, a rare state of affairs which always met with some initial resistance. At home, for their official homework reading time (and, of course, in any additional time they spent curled in a tree or a favorite chair, or walking around a safe path in an open room) they could read the big thick fantasy novels in which they were immersed. In school, though, for those first few weeks, I needed to watch them choose, begin, read, finish, and pass along book after book after book.

go dog go p d eastmanIt’s true that I felt grave concern about a real and present danger: without my intervention, students might get to adulthood never having read highlights of English literature such as Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman–or never having read them with their new-found, big-kid powers of observation, and sense of irony.

We needed picture books to help us take ourselves less seriously. We also needed picture books to help us take ourselves more seriously, to take us on an express trip into important questions about life and the world.

Jessica Unger, responding to my Facebook invitation, remembered Flight, in which the young Charles Lindbergh struggles to stay awake on his trans-Atlantic voyage. (In other words, in which the perils of lost focus or failing attention could be lethal.)

Flightt Robert BurleighSeveral past students remembered Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which eating and eating, and growing and growing, result in transformation.

Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle cropped

galileo croppedUltimately, picture book season in September worked out well for everyone in the class, partly because many of the books I had gathered were what is known in the trade as “sophisticated picture books”, books definitely intended for somewhat older audiences.

Here’s one of many wonderful picture book biographies. This one, by Peter Sis, doesn’t dodge the horror of Galileo’s being put on trial for his life, for saying what he could see.

Non-fiction picture books could work well later in the year, too. If a group of students were exploring a topic together, reporting to each other on separate individual readings, the right picture book could enable a strong contribution even from a reader still overwhelmed by long blocks of text.

After the first couple weeks, for their individual reading, and for the read-aloud books we shared, the students and I mostly chose novels. I might suggest time with picture books for a student who had left her book at home, or a kid marking time until the next book in his series came out on Wednesday.

Frog Band and Owlnapper Jim SmitSometimes this detour back into picture books would become extended, as a student tracked down all the available picture books by a particular author, or discovered a wacky series that satisfied a taste for British humor, juvenile grade, like this one. (This is a page from The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, by Jim Smith.)

Often, also, a picture book or two could launch a new thematic study–launch in the sense of full throttle forward.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg D.B. JoFor example, Henry the bear (Henry David Thoreau just barely in disguise) makes a case for his preferred mode of transportation–and a bet with a friend–to prove that hiking to Fitchburg takes no longer than working to pay for train fare.

rows and piles of coins

Henry’s argument with his friend opened a thematic study called Transportation Choices. Other picture books helped us think about people with limited access to choice: people in our own world unable to drive due to disabilities or aging–or youth; people in places where a bicycle can change a family’s possibilities. In My Rows and Piles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, a young boy wants a bicycle not just to ride, but to serve as a mechanical pack animal, getting farm products to market.

The right picture book could widen–powerfully, effectively, almost magically–our sense of “us.”

Miss Bridie straightenedBefore my school opened an older student program, all my 12-year-olds graduated from our school and became immigrants into the cultures of other schools. Immigration made a particularly strong thematic study topic then, and picture books helped focus on the choices made by immigrants, including what they chose to bring–which could mean how they chose to be prepared. Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel follows Miss Bridie across the sea, and then through her life in her new land, where she uses her shovel to plant, to clean up after a fire, to dig a grave. Here she is, walking away without looking back, setting out into her new life with her shovel in hand.

There are so many other wonderful picture books I’m sad to leave out. My Place, an amazing book from Australia, which I read aloud almost every year, I’m saving for its own special post. The picture books we used to explore ideas about evolution, ditto.

sailor dogFor now, just one more. Almost always, on the last day of school, I read aloud this book. If you were ever in my class, you may remember how we created instant background music for certain pages. Singing the final song, to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, was a great antidote for any tendency to get weepy, especially my own.

According to my daughter, I’ve given at least three copies of Sailor Dog to her children, Abe and Julia. “That’s okay,” she says. “It’s good to have one on every floor of the house.”

Some notes:

The round shapes visible on many of the books shown aren’t part of the illustrations. They’re just stickers that marked the books belonging to the classroom collection, or my family collection.

I want to give you publisher information here, in gratitude to the people who keep these books in print. Some are in fact out of print, and harder to find, but I’ve discovered that I can often locate used copies of old favorites through web sellers. So here’s the list:

Time of Wonder, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. Puffin.

Three Days on a River with a Red Canoe,  written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow.

Go, Dog. Go! written and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random House.

Flight, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Puffin.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar, written and illustrated by Eric Carle. Philomel.

Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, created and illustrated by Peter Sis. Square Fish.

The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, written and illustrated by Jim Smith. Little Brown.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, written and illustrated by D. B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

My Rows and PIles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Clarion.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, by Leslie Connor, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sailor Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams. Golden Books.

Seven more thoughts about silent reading

reading on floor cropped#1   I’m beginning this post the way I wanted to end the previous one, with photos of kids reading, in the various positions and conditions my students adopted for silent reading time. (I finally found photographs, and got permissions.)

Some sat on the floor leaning against the wall. Some sat on the big rug in the meeting area, often snuggled up next to each other like puppies.

reading line-up cropped

Some sat at their table places, books on the table, heads benreading at tables croppedt over, sometimes inside a curtain of long hair.

(The girl in the background is going through a book stack, as in A Stack of Five.)

Some liked to hide in what kids called “the cave”, a little passage formed by the non-fiction bookshelves, with a rug on the floor, and with less visual or sound distraction than anywhere else in the room–which made another reason, besides privacy, to choose it.

One year I learned that I had to check that corner carefully if the fire alarm went off during reading time. A particular child remained cave-bound, reading straight through the horrific racket of the alarm. To my other overlapping mental categories of readers, I added, “children who could probably keep reading through an earthquake.”

#2   Intense mental adventures are happening in almost complete silence. I move around the room taking notes, but rarely interrupting. Conferences, one-on-one chats with an assessment often included, I try to do in the cubby area, outside the room.

The intensity of that quiet, a kind of sacredness, comes back to me as a I watch my grandson sleep, sense when he is dreaming, wonder what is happening in his dream.

#3   Reading is not sleeping, not dreaming, but reading fiction can be like dreaming someone else’s dream, so in a class of 15 there could be 30 minds dreaming, either creating or recreating stories: 15 students and 15 authors.

Often, though, there were local rages for particular authors. Several kids, recommending books for each other, might all be reading various titles by Nancy Farmer or Gary Paulsen, say. That could throw off my math.

Sometimes I imagined thought balloons above kids’ heads, full of the words they were reading, jostling with each other in the air space of the room; words perhaps moving from bubble to bubble, the way people can move from painting to painting in Harry Potter. The way enthusiasms can move through a reading community.

#4   When I first started teaching this age level, watching whole rooms full of kids reading, I was startled by how much I could tell about them as readers, just by watching their reading behavior, without even hearing them read.

Kids with strong reading skills, who nevertheless had to struggle to maintain focus / kids who were thrillingly a little drunk with the glory of new-found reading fluency / kids who were just too tired to read without falling asleep / kids for whom reading offered a sanctuary they might kill to protect / kids who began book after book but could never manage to finish one / kids who strongly preferred certain kinds of books / kids who could not read funny books without at least shaking slightly, or more likely poking a neighbor. All of that showed, with no need for assessments.

#5   I also discovered that assessments could be very useful. I used the Burns & Roe Informal Reading Inventory, a fairly standard assessment tool to which I had been introduced in graduate school. It gave me lists of words to hand a child, in order to check for ability to decode words without context clues. Then the child would read a passage, and answer the comprehension questions provided.

On my own, I requested a free retelling, which teased out slightly different aspects of a student’s comprehension. Finally, if we had time, I often asked for kids’ reactions, things the passage made them think about or wonder.

Depending on the child, I sometimes shared the results, and we talked over whatever they seemed to show. I wanted to get the kids’ own insights into their experience and history as readers.

An assessment of this sort is often used primarily to get a sense of the grade level at which a child is reading. More than that, I valued the way this series of activities gave me a sense of a child’s approach to reading.

Does the reader seem confident and engaged?  Will she stop and deconstruct and parse out unfamiliar multisyllabic words, and use other clues besides the word itself, when those are available? Is he self-monitoring, or is he willing to tolerate and ignore meaningless readings? Is she finding a balance between inferring things the author never intended, and failing to make any inferences at all? Does he start out strong but wear out, or start out faltering and warm up?  Does she read aloud flawlessly but then have no memory of what she read? Is he one of those slow and patient readers with lots of miscues, who nonetheless gives an inspired free retelling, and then answers every comprehension question perfectly?

Above all, is she comfortable enough to laugh out loud at my all-time favorite reading assessment line, about the ratio of sheep to humans in New Zealand? (18 to 1.)

Jokes aside, it’s how a child is reading, the kinds of energy a student brings to reading, that can tell us how to help that child move forward. We need to know what strengths can be the seeds for new growth, and we need that especially if there are also weaknesses. The same assessment tool I was taught to use in graduate school, with its capacity for pigeonholing, nonetheless turned out to be a great way to find out what I wanted to know: how a child’s intelligence was meeting the world of print, and what I could do to cheer and help.

#6   There are some important lessons to learn about reading, it’s true, and some of them can be taught in a whole class setting. For a while we received a classroom set of Boston Globes every Monday. (We were sad when their distribution arrangements no longer worked for us.) One day, we would read the bridge column–easily decoded words, all of them, that conveyed almost exactly nothing to a person without the right background knowledge.

This was a great way to encourage students to think about the difference between decoding and comprehending, and then go beyond that and think about the dimension of remembering. It’s hard to remember something that is gobbledygook in the first place–even if all the words are words you know. Remembering requires understanding, and understanding requires not just decoding–turning symbols into sounds–but thinking.

Definitely there’s a place for teaching reading skills. But…

It’s even more important to talk about the meanings in a piece of reading, and what the author has done to let them bloom. It’s important to write about reading, to use the discovery process of writing as a way of opening out the experience of reading, and sharing it with others. But…

None of those other peripheral activities should ever be allowed to displace actual time for reading, because actual time for reading is what most builds readers.

All that other stuff is what you do whenever you have enough time in the schedule. Reading itself has to happen no matter what.

Lecteur_-_statuette_pierre#7    It’s part of your religion,” a kid once said. She felt the same way, and probably had some truth on her side.

I imagine the same feeling in whoever made this little statuette, which I found on wikimedia commons, with no other attribution besides the name Pierre. Thank you, whoever offered this for us to find and remember!

A Stack of Five

Last year, one of my students told me about ‟open reading” at her previous school. ‟It’s called that,” she said, ‟but there isn’t really any open.” The students all read different books, but the teacher chose the book for each child.

I didn’t know whether to cry or throw things. On the whole, people who love reading have had a chance to choose what they read.

On the other hand, it can be difficult for kids to choose books for themselves.

  • Some kids don’t yet know what it feels like to read comfortably at their actual reading level. For these kids, reading is laborious—possibly a labor of love, but inherently so challenging that they choose books for content alone, and often wind up reading, very slowly, books that are too hard. Reading that slowly, a student has trouble carrying the plot, or feeling any momentum in the story–or looking forward to reading.
  • Sometimes kids have been caught in a strange trap in which their reading choices have to prove things to adults, or to other kids, or even to themselves: how brilliant they are; how sophisticated they are; how cute or tough they are.
  • Sometimes kids become genre addicts, overly dependent on what works for them about a particular genre or author: low memory demand, or a relatively predictable plot pattern, or constant nail-biting suspense.

How could I give kids the opportunity and responsibility to choose, and at the same time help them choose from what was likely to work? How could I help them expand the world of what could work for them? Enter the book stack.

The procedure was very simple. If a student asked me for it, I would choose not one book, but a stack of five books. (Yes, this is another routine involving choosing from five possibilities. I wrote about one for writing in the post Think of Five.)

I liked to have the student stand with me in front of the shelves of the type of book we were after, most typically novelssometimes picture books or non-fiction. Especially at the beginning of the year, as I was getting to know a student, I’d ask, ‟What have you been reading lately?” Or, ‟Can you point to some books that have worked for you?” Or just ‟Have you already read this?” as I began to pull books from the shelf and hand them to the student.

Affirming the value of a range of reading levels, I tended to include one or two lower-level classics that the student had not yet read and was in danger of never reading. ‟Ah,” I would say, as I handed over Dear Mr. Henshaw or Number the Stars. “One of those books that nobody should grow up without reading.” (‟Oh,” the student might say, if he or she knew me well enough, ‟you say that about everything.”)


Usually, the stack included at least one book that might have special meaning for that student. In the stack above, I’m offering some books in which characters discover new possibilities of self-reliance and courage. For an Asian-American student, for example, I might include at least one book with Asian or Asian-American characters. For a student struggling through a parent divorce or a friend’s parents’ divorce, I might include a book or two in which the hero or heroine faces a similar challenge. So long as the stack included other books, I could be led by my own agenda for the child, usually unspoken, gently offered–but often pursued. Most kids do tend to reach for the books that can help them grow, if the reach is voluntary.

Sometimes a student would ask for a particular category. ‟I want books about World War II and the Holocaust.” ‟I want books about time travel.” Or a student might ask for an exclusion: no talking animals; no books told in the first person; no books with anyone dying.

Sometimes I was very open about a theme for a stack. ‟This stack is all realistic fiction, because we’re doing research to figure out what sorts of realistic fiction will appeal to you as much as fantasy.” ‟These are books that I’m pretty sure you can read easily and quickly, any of them, to help you build fluency.” ‟This is a whole stack of funny books, because we both agree that you’ve been reading really serious stuff lately, and could use a change.”

When we had five (or sometimes six—enough and not too much), the student would go back to his or her table place and examine the books.

selecting books bIn a mini-lesson early in the year we would have helped each other list ways to select a book.

Of course, kids went beyond these strategies, finding their own. In fact, as I watched out of the corner of my eye from across the room, I saw and savored tremendous variation, child to child, that reminded me of watching adult friends play poker.

spread out bStudent A spread the books out on the table, face down, and then turned them over one by one as she spent time with each book. Student B used a numerical rating system. Student C would start with a pile on the left, and sort into three piles on the right: yes, no, and maybe–and then go back and reconsider. (Frequently, Student C hadn’t made a choice by the end of reading time, and kept the whole stack in his crate overnight.)

Student D knew all along which one he really wanted, and came back 20 seconds after I sent him away. For him, I’d say, ‟Please spend a little more time and really look at all of them, for the sake of next time.”

Student E, after agonizing cheerfully, would copy all the unchosen titles and authors into her reading journal for future reference.

The only way to do it wrong was not to do it at all.

Now and then, a student who hated choosing would propose a variation: the student would make the book stack, and I would choose. That was hard for me.

Some kids asked for book stacks every time they finished books, collaborating with me on almost every choice. Others asked for a book stack less often. Once in a while, if a student seemed stuck in a rut, I’d be the one to initiate the process, saying, ‟When you’ve finished this book, ask me to help you make a stack.”

Once in a very great while, the chosen book turned out not to work, after a fair trial, and I encouraged the student to figure out why, but then start over with another book. There’s no better way to dull the love of reading than to finish books dutifully, no matter who chose them.

All this took time, of course. It helped that I knew the very substantial collection in the room fairly well; that as the year went by I knew students increasingly well; that in my mixed-age classroom I was almost always working with some students for a second year. (To watch and nurture two years of reading growth! Incredibly delicious.) Often I recruited more experienced or faster readers to suggest new titles, or help me assess books I had ordered but not yet read.

In any case, this was time I enjoyed spending, for so many reasons. It satisfied my inner librarian. More importantly, though, it gave me a way to facilitate rather than dictate. I didn’t want, ever, to say, “Here–read this.” No matter how long it took, I’d rather hand over five books, and let the reader take it from there.

Marian and the Gardens

garden marian and cecily plantingMarian Hazzard thinks that every school should fit a garden into its landscape somehow, even if it’s just in a couple of buckets. Every child should have the enlightening and empowering experience of producing food.

As one of Touchstone’s founding parents, teachers, and guardian angels, Marian always put her heart and soul into nurturing the school. She taught reading and writing and math, along with interdisciplinary approaches to science and social studies, in classes of her own. She gave special effort to helping groups of students become communities of learners.

Then, after many years, she decided to focus on a part of children’s learning that mattered especially for her, and she put the same energy and spirit–the same combination of fierceness and tenderness–into helping kids learn to garden. She did that on a wider scale than most folks in the community realized, through organizations devoted to helping young people understand the production of food. (She’s been most active in Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom, serving on the board, chairing a Mini-Grant Committee, mentoring novice gardners, and presenting  workshops at conferences.)

Meanwhile, Marian also spent many hours of every week back at Touchstone, and could be seen at any hour of the day, often grubby and muddy and wearing a trademark straw hat, gardening herself, working with groups of students, and helping other adults learn how to work with gardens and kids, in the fullest and richest ways possible.

A garden gives so much to a school.

violet and anjali planting Growing beings, every one of us, we nonetheless don’t necessarily expect to be interested in the growth of plants from stage to stage—but almost every student is captured by the actual phenomena.

Here, older and younger kids work together to plant seeds that will germinate and sprout under grow lights in the classrooms. Translate that into: right under the kids’ noses; cheered on by kids’ voices; handy to be measured or sketched.

garden sam plantingHere, a student transplants a seedling into  a larger container, to sell at the school’s very own Farmer’s Market, which did a land-office business on a table off to the side at dismissal.

garden seedling sale

Below, another student writes a careful label for her tray of plants. The labels were cut-up strips of plastic yogurt containers. Marian encouraged not just a school garden, but a sustainable, green school.

garden mia planting croppedIt’s interesting and fun to help a garden grow. This class took part in several giant transplant-athons, joking as they went. (Many thanks to Whit Andrews for contributing his photographs of the fun.)

Of course, group work on garden tasks builds more than the garden. It nurtures social and emotional connection, building community.

garden Ben and Emma planting cropped

Engaging science investigations can be centered on the garden. In one project, students examined compost samples at different stages of decomposition, to see what small invertebrates they would find there. (The school greenhouse can be seen in the distance, and a helpful book, Compost Critters, can be glimpsed in the foreground.)

garden studying compost greenhouse

garden change leavesA garden teaches kids about life cycles, and that counts, always, as both science and emotional education. In this photo, taken in the greenhouse by students combing the campus for evidence of change, some plants are flowering while others are dying. Many years, some of the garden’s plants were grown from seeds produced by plants allowed to go to seed the previous year.

garden strawberriesThrough all this, kids and adults both, we observe food webs and nutrient cycles, both like and unlike the ones the adults memorized in high school biology. Sunshine helps strawberries ripen. Teachers and older kids help younger kids figure out how to share the strawberries. Strawberries too squoogey for human eating become wonderful treats for the chickens, who produce fresh eggs, which are a revelation for anyone who’s only known store-bought eggs.

chicken eating plant scrapIn another example, it’s easy to observe how much living things need water, a lesson likely to have life-and-death importance in the times in which these students will live. Here, you can see a watering can for the strawberries in the background, and a water dispenser for the chickens. This chicken feasts on plant scraps pushed through the chicken wire by kids at recess.

garden slugThe garden is a great place to sit and sketch, and sketching can be a wonderful way to notice what’s happening. Here, a small slug explores the squash leaves in a garden planted near the school’s parking lot–well-placed for sun, and thus good for squashes. But the leaves in shadow, or early in the morning, are also good places to find slugs. (One year, we had a bumper crop of butternut squash, and Tamara’s class did an official census.)

I loved also the plants nobody would ever eat, and spent many recesses standing by the morning glories along the fence, sneaking peeks into the universe of each flower.

garden sketch morning glory

I wish I had more photographs of what we harvested, which often disappeared quickly: salads, potatoes, cherry tomatoes. Real food. I hope that someone who reads this will have (and post, in a comment) a photograph of Marian’s amazing car, embellished by colorful graphics of carrots and beets and garden invertebrates, a rolling advertisement for vegetable glory.

Marian has a wonderful laugh and smiles often, but she is deeply serious when she says, “The world is changing, and these kids may well need to know how to grow their own food.” We all need to know how to take care in these ways; how to harness various kinds of natural magic in real and practical strategies that could mean survival.

For everything she gave to the garden, Marian had a small supply budget, some years, and several gifts from particular grateful parents, to do things like build new beds and erect a greenhouse. Her own work she donated, as a volunteer. I’m putting that in the past tense, because Marian has stepped back, after recruiting a garden teacher–and raising the money to pay his stipend.

I know you’re still there, Marian, in the background, offering advice and support. Here, in November, as the days suddenly shorten, I want to send you my thanks in the form of flowers, wisteria climbing on the school gazebo. May the Touchstone garden, and you, Marian, and everyone whose sense of the world you’ve greened, continue to thrive and grow.

garden wisteria