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.” 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: 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 and appreciating 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.]

Journeys, again

Last month I wrote about the Journey of Man thematic study, looking at the routes used by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they colonized all the world’s land except Antarctica. Recently I was thrilled to find a cache of student work samples from the first year of that study.

It’s timely. Over the next few weeks, some of the kids from that first Journey of Man class will graduate from college. They’re dancing in their last undergraduate dance concerts; giving senior voice recitals; helping younger students prepare to take over the leadership of campus organizations; getting ready to go off and be teachers themselves.

All of you from that class, wherever you are in your journeys, should have that buzzy feeling that says someone is thinking of you, because my mind has been full of the journeys I watched you make, from question to question, draft to draft, project to project.

Although I’m in touch with some of you, I’m not sure how to find others. So I’m going to hide names and identify you, if at all, only by first initial.  I’m assembling these samples out of the impact of the whole stack, in which I read every word. So in some sense all of you are reflected here.

JOM evidence stack

Over the summer before we started this study, I asked students to find and read a book related to the journeys we would be examining: the evolution of hominin species over millions of years; the travels of modern humans colonizing the globe; and the immigrant journeys that populated New England. Students could choose books relating to any of these topics, and I asked them to copy a passage that had been particularly meaningful for them.

Many students read about relatively recent immigration. Here’s one student’s heartbreaking choice of passage, from Ellis Island: Gateway to the New World by Leonard Everett Fisher:

JOM passage from Ellis Island bk editJOM copied passage geneticsI had offered genetics as a possible book topic, knowing that we’d be doing a side-trip into some learning about genes. We needed that to help us understand the role of Y chromosome genetics in the book by Spencer Wells from which we had borrowed our thematic study’s name, The Journey of Man. One student read Why Are People Different? from Usborne Publishing, and copied a fascinating passage.

 

JOM copied passage evolution

One faJOM copied passage evolution p2mily found a beautiful picture book about evolution, Our Family Tree: an Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters. It’s become one of my favorite nonfiction books for people of any age,

I’ve scanned both the copied passage and the student’s explanation for why she chose that book.

 

Other students jumped right into paleoanthropology. The passage below came from The Origins of Man, by John Napier.

JOM copied passage origins editReading through these, child by child, I am so moved by what grabbed them, when they were just sampling our topics to create an overview for each other. All four of those kids, J, J, S, and J, were drawn to story interpreting evidence–historical evidence, evidence from biological research, evidence from paleoanthropology and archaeology–all of it warmed and made coherent by a little bit of storytelling.

The first part of our exploration, about the evolution of species increasingly like us, focused on the first time clap, which I’ve already described. Here’s one student’s species sign, scanned to show the directions on the back.

JOM Homo erectus directions

I love that two word direction at the bottom, probably written by one of the students who carried copies of the sign. Those two short words take sides in a controversy still not fully settled by the interested scientists. Clearly we decided, for the purpose of the time clap, that Homo erectus really was able to control fire and use it at will–and that the dramatic growth of brain volume in Homo erectus fossil skulls indicates something revolutionary: cooked food. (You can watch this video to hear some of the evidence.)

Once we turned to the voyages of early modern humans, we were all grateful for Spencer Wells’s own effort to give his genetic evidence a human face and a story line:

JOM hunting with San

JOM target practice with SanJOM Spencer learning P editLike some of the other pieces I’ll include, these were quick pieces of writing done overnight for homework, in response to an open-ended invitation to write about something that stood out for each student. They had a word limit–probably no more than 60 words, judging from the ones that show a word count. Sometimes pairs or small groups of students shared what they had written; sometimes volunteers read theirs out loud to the full class, as a preparation for watching the next chunk of video.

Much of The Journey of Man is based on genetic evidence involving the Y chromosome. We did some other work to help us understand this, isolating DNA with help from parent volunteers, making models, reading other books. But all the kids were really taken with Spencer’s own treatment, using monkey oranges to lay out a big graphic on the ground near the San Bushmen camp.

JOM monkey oranges R editThe crosses indicate a second mutation; so R’s diagram would have been even better if he’d shown that second mutation happening in an individual who had already inherited a first one. Overall, though, he showed real understanding, and like so many Touchstone students, he didn’t hesitate to critique and appreciate Spencer’s teaching technique!

How did I handle informational errors in this kind of writing? Case by case. Sometimes I talked with the individual kid, or wrote a comment (which I’m cropping out here, mostly.) Often, I let signs of widespread confusion guide what steps the whole group would take next.

I found one page I’d written when I was disappointed with an activity,  brainstorming and evaluating ways we could approach the material differently. After all, I wasn’t doing this to grade students on their various levels of understanding; I was aiming for the greatest possible understanding by everyone–and all of us were being pioneers, including me.

Sometimes I asked kids to write about what they thought, before we watched the video or explored the evidence:

JOM ice bridge A editClearly this student had heard about ice bridges as a part of human migration from one continent to another. But as a way to get from Africa to Australia, an ice bridge couldn’t really work, and he realized that as we moved forward. Later he wrote again:

JOM to Australia new idea Here, K argues for her version using a terrific sketch map:

JOM Africa to Australia with map

JOM time clap 2  plan sheetI’ve already shared some artifacts from the second time clap, in which we worked intensively with material in the book version of The Journey of Man,  to recreate early modern humans’ routes from continent to continent. For all of us, I think, when we say “time claps” we’re remembering that one, because it was so intense. Finding additional materials from that second time clap, I was thrilled by evidence for what I had remembered, that kids themselves did most of the organizing and preparation. So, to the left here’s a planning sheet that is pretty difficult to decipher if you’re not one of the kids at work on the plan. (I know that the numbers refer to Y-chromosome mutations, and that the colors refer to colors of streamers carried on the routes.)

Here’s one student’s individual sheet, to help her know what to do when:

JOM time clap 2 indiv sheet editThe learning spiraled; it was cumulative. We reviewed in a variety of ways, acted things out in a variety of ways, made obnoxious comments about guest scientists having bad hair days, and reached a point of intimacy with the material that was extraordinary, given its challenges.

No Unit Test. Instead, kids wrote final pieces that we revised to a pretty good polish. Here’s part of one:JOM final essay E first paragraphs

Later, we carried these ideas into the work we did in the spring, thinking about the history of human technology and the evidence of archaeology, in connection with The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Nothing I’ve ever learned about has fascinated me more than this big picture view of human history, and I couldn’t have had better learning companions. Writing about it, organizing my own artifacts, I’ve started rewatching videos, reading books and blogs. I’m excited by new evidence, and also by new attempts to convey the story as a story.

I’ve also been struggling to understand online blogs and comments written by people who dismiss the Out of Africa evidence, for reasons that often seem transparently racist.

At any moment, on my bicycle, folding laundry, driving to the other end of the state, I’m liable to be thinking:

  • How did we get from Africa to Australia as lickety-split as the genetic and archaeological evidence indicates–not just traveling but colonizing? Just what role did bamboo rafts play? Is there any way I could wrangle myself an opportunity to make a bamboo raft?
  • And what about the evidence that even Homo erectus, much longer ago, used some kind of transport across water?
  • But also: what can be done to heal the increasing polarization between people who are excited by scientific evidence–even when it’s confusing or contradictory–and people who are threatened by it? How will my past students navigate that crossfire?

Ultimately, for me, this is the question: How can we build and share a new evidence-based story of our origins? Part of the answer, of course, as always: together.

Deadlines and challenges

Jackie Lockney, amazing Touchstone physical education teacher, advocates something she calls “Challenge by Choice.” She helps students identify the skill–or the level of participation in a game, or the form of safe risk-taking–that they can move into when they’re ready, and she gives them whatever support they need–but they get to choose, kid by kid.

Jackie can talk a kid through a climbing element high in a pine tree, in a way that has felt almost supernatural to me when I’ve observed it. Not many people with Jackie’s personal physical skills can enter the mind of a kid who freezes, physically, unconsoled by the safety harness and line, and unable to talk himself or herself through–the kid who can only take that kind of risk with a copilot.

Out of her sight, without her even knowing, I’ve sometimes borrowed Jackie’s coaching-from-the-ground voice, to help myself get back on my bicycle, or tackle a mess.

Of course, we don’t always get to choose our challenges. People close to me are facing hard things right now, things they chose only in the sense that they agreed to love each other.

As teachers, we can’t always offer our students total flexibility or total choice in the timing of challenges. The deadline of an announced performance date always becomes a kind of emergency, no matter how carefully we plan the preparation. Teachers feel terrible, sometimes, putting kids on the spot by saying weeks ahead of time–the way we must–that a class will share some finished product on a given night.

On the other hand, here’s my image of what can result from that leap of faith–a physical expression of this class’s pride and relief at being done with their individual presentations for the Alhambra Banquet. I wish I could share the sound clip of whooping joy.

Alhambra cheer

Teachers need to take risks outside their teaching, in situations in which they themselves are fully the ones at risk. Especially in the beginning, every time I agreed to read poems publicly I knew the benefit of putting myself in my students’ place. I felt that even more whenever I participated in a class or workshop, and had to follow someone else’s directions, or perform a task with others watching. (In one math workshop in Maine, with the leader standing next to me, I completely lost my memory of how to use a graphing calculator. Gone.)

I took a risk this past month, agreeing to be one of several poets who are writing poems in response to sculptures, for a special online chapbook associated with the exhibit’s website. Here’s the big risk for me: less than two weeks for the writing and revising. What’s so risky? My usual process as a poet involves months, often years, of revision. To produce something on this schedule has been like writing in a completely different genre–as if I’d worked in fabric for decades and suddenly tried to work in clay.

One side-effect: an unusually long gap between blog posts. Nobody is hollering, but I’m worried, for my own sake, that after too long a break I’ll forget how to get back on this horse, too.

On the other hand, I’ve learned some things, launching myself out of my comfort zone this way.

The process of revision that means so much to me, within which I invariably learn and grow, consists of a conversation among various versions of myself, with an odd commitment to democracy and equality among those selves. Facing this deadline, I’ve been figuring out short-cuts for staging that conversation among selves, without waiting for years to go by.

For one thing, I’ve hollered for help, showing drafts of the poem much earlier than I usually would, to family members and to fellow Every Other Thursday poets. They’re not different versions of me, of course, but they trigger different versions, as I respond to their thoughts.

I’ve also pushed hard on something I’ve always known: that I could bring a different mind to a piece of writing, maybe especially a poem, by taking it with me somewhere outside my house. I’ve experienced breakthroughs for these sculpture poems while listening to 50’s and 60’s rock in the vintage McDonald’s on the Massachusetts turnpike; also listening to spring peepers near the Milford bike path; also in a nearby greenhouse tea-shop; also while listening to the sleeping breath of my youngest grandson, staring out at the hemlocks behind his house.

Obviously I’ve had to do some express writing (and express risk-taking) for this blog, too. No, it’s not death-defying, but I know myself better than you do; I’m up a pretty high tree, on this also.

What are these sculptures about which I’m writing? They’re sculptures by Boston area artists, in a show organized by the Energy Necklace Project at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts. They’re stunning. Here’s a detail from one of the pieces about which I’m writing, a fiber piece by Linda Hoffman and Margot Stage, called Forest Fall.

100_0807And here’s another, Reaching Hand, concrete cast from clay by Peter Kronberg:

100_0830If you follow this link, you can see the official photographs for the whole show.  The artists I heard speaking, at the exhibit opening, intrigued me with their descriptions of process, and moved me with their stories.  If we have good weather, the poets will walk from sculpture to sculpture, reading, on June 1st.

And any hour now–really soon–I’ll decide that I’ve done the best I can to live up to the sculptors’ work and courage, and I’ll let go of the poems they inspired. I’m planning to have my surrogate Jackie Lockney voice at hand when I press send.

Time Claps, Part II

The paragraphs go by much faster than the learning did. If you let each paragraph equal a day, or a week, or maybe even five years of our own process, alternately scrambling like mad and sitting back soaking it all in–then you might have just about the right scale.

Kate Keller’s genius invention of the time claps was partly about time, but also about scale: using the small as a window on the huge. Of course, sometimes we make scale models in which something made large is used as a window on the small–much larger models of the DNA helix, for example. But here, we were definitely trying to grasp huge, and the time clap model was a way to compress very long periods of time into periods of time we could experience.

The time claps were also about changing the scale. The 5,000,000 years of hominid evolution we considered for the first time clap (and the previous post) are a drop in the bucket compared to the history of life, or an infinitesimal speck compared to the history of our universe, which we only waved at. Hello, history of universe, we are breaking off a tiny chunk of you, which seems enormous to us.

Five million years is one hundred times as long as the 50,000 years of our own species’ wanderings across the continents. When our class went from the first time clap to the second, we were thinking about one-hundredth as long a stretch of time all together, and each clap was worth one-hundredth as much time as before.

Our species had been around for a while before some of us took the chance of leaving Africa, almost certainly unaware that we were switching continents, but meeting considerable challenges to expand our territory. Following Spencer Wells’s account, based on research with Y chromosome mutations, we tracked our way from continent to continent.

At each stage, through weeks of learning, we investigated some of the remaining indigenous peoples, again following Wells’s lead and using his video, The Journey of Man, in which he visits Aboriginal Australians, people from remote villages on the Indian subcontinent, central Asians, Chukchi people from eastern Siberia, and Navajo in North America.

The time clap itself was a way to summarize what we’d learned: about genetics, about the challenges of human expansion into new environments, about ways the human body had evolved to handle those new places.

Clapping and counting together–clap, two, three, four–we let each four-second interval, each clap, be worth 500 years. Each student, or a pair, was responsible for moving onto the map at the right time, and placing one of our crepe paper streamer lengths. He or she placed one end in the area where that y-chromosome mutation is thought to have arisen, then carried the streamer following a simplified, summarized version of that mutation’s spread.

across the continents time clap croppedWe worked hard to figure out all the logistical problems in showing these things. Here’s a detail from the photo I used in an earlier post, so you can see that Russell is poised to do his job as the time line person, responsible for showing at each clap where we were on the time line. The pieces of brown paper on the floor are continents.

I folded the first section of this time line, so I could show two labels almost in focus.

folded timeclap section

Here’s a detail from a map in The Journey of Man. which we used as our way of timing the spread of groups of Homo sapiens across our own paper continents. Each arrow is a schematic representation of the spread of the  y-chromosome mutations that have let scientists reconstruct this sequence of expansions.

JOM map detail

Here’s the map key that helped us connect mutation numbers with times in our time clap and on our time line:

JOM map key cropped

Because I’m a nearly total failure at throwing things away, I still have some of the crepe paper streamer lengths we cut and used to represent the paths. The photo below shows two rolled-up streamer lengths for M130. These were placed beginning at the northern end of the short length for M168 (the Y chromosome shared by all men not indigenous to Africa.)

One student carried one of the M130 streamers by the coastal route around the Indian subcontinent, and then through southeast Asia to Australia. There was much less water to cross, in the time this happened, because the sea level was so much lower, with lots of water locked up in ice. Much more of southeast Asia and the nearby islands stretched in one long continuous land mass. But still, there were many miles of open ocean to cross, to get to Australia. Somehow people did it, spreading around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean astonishingly quickly.

Another student carried the second M130 streamer northeast to Siberia and then to North America–a very long expansion into harsh conditions, that took a much longer time.

JOM M130 croppedThis whole field of human population genetics is moving fast. M130 is now designated as C-M130, and on Wikipedia you can find an excellent, very technical article about the C-M130 lineage, or haplogroup. I love the labels on these streamers, made by students, full of pride in their own technical knowledge at that point.

JOM multicolored mutation streamerI’m not sure about this streamer with its many colors, mutation group leading to subgroup, leading to further subgroup, but I think it has the earliest journey on the outside: out of Africa leading to the Middle East, to south central Asia, to central Asia, to Siberia.

If you want to start a fight at a meeting of the folks who pay attention to such things, just ask about how we arrived in the Americas. Increasing numbers of  scientists now say that boats must have been involved, small boats made probably out of walrus or other large marine mammal skins stretched over frames, like the ones coastal Chukchi people still make and use. Spreading across the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean west to east, we probably kept fairly close to the coastline or ice pack, and in each new venture moved only far enough to come to an ice-free coastal area that had what we needed. Alice Roberts describes her own take on this in her video called The Incredible Human Journey.

Because of lower sea levels at the time, that ancient coastline is far out to sea now. Boats wouldn’t last to be found, and coastal settlements would currently be under many feet of water–so there’s not much archaeological trail of any kind, so far. The evidence is all circumstantial: somehow we arrived in places that involved crossing wide stretches of water, no matter how low the sea level had dropped.

However they did it, some very small percentage of my own ancestors made that ancient journey into North America. Still, that’s not why I say “we.” I’ve come to feel that all of this story belongs to all of us.

The rest of the ancestors of our class (including most of mine, and Kate’s) came to North America more recently. We wanted to end this thematic study of who we are and how we got here by learning about our recent immigrant ancestors, and the patterns of goodbye and hello that shaped their lives.

So we changed the scale again. In our preparations for the third time clap, we looked at just the last 500 years of immigration to North America, and focused on stories we had gathered, about people related to us and about family friends. Those included Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower, representatives of the huge influx from eastern and southern Europe in the early 20th century, and more recent immigrants from Latin America, some with mixed African heritage.

For this time clap we made a very simplified geographical representation that could fit in our classroom. Simpler props–but we were moved and focused by representing individual real people whose stories we knew. Clapping and counting, holding signs, we showed their individual arrivals decade by decade.

What do Kate and I think about, looking back at all this?

I often recall a memory that is uneasy. A girl who had been adopted from China represented herself in our third time clap, and “traveled” east to North America. She joined us from another class, and we were proud and excited to have her take part. Only afterwards, and with regret, I realized that she was embarrassed, unhappy to have been identified as a recent immigrant.

Kate remembers worrying that we were all focused so intensely on our parts in each time clap’s execution, struggling to move and do the right things at the right moment, that it was hard to pay attention to the whole as it happened around us. At least for us, for Kate and me and the invaluable parent volunteers who helped us pull it off, each of those not-quite-seven-minute stretches went by in a blur. So we might be tempted, doing it again, to change the scale and make each time clap last longer, not in what it represents but in how long it takes in the present. Of course, then we might lose people in the long stretches with not much happening. Trade-offs. Probably we’d let the kids decide.

For sure, the value was not so much in the observed performance, but in the experience from the inside–all the preparation, and that immediate sense of taking part in something huge.

Lucky-and-a-half, both grown-ups and students, we felt like explorers ourselves, opening up new knowledge, sharing that with our families and with each other, imagining eyes focused on new horizons.