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!


“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!

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.]

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: the first 5 million years

The enigma of time

In a new novel by Kirkpatrick Hill, Bo at Ballard Creek, a gold miner who loves rocks, shiny or not, tries to tell Bo how old they are.

“They’ve been here since the beginning. Before plants or animals. Before the oceans. They’re billions of years old.”

Bo…looked hard at Peter’s kind face to see how old that was. Billions must be terribly old, but she couldn’t even imagine being twelve or fifteen, so how could she think of billions?

Bo is just five, but kids twice her age, or more–adults, even–have the same trouble. Trying to grasp the idea of deep time, billions of years of time, is like thinking of the depth of the universe—something always there, but mostly invisible to us, unreal even when we try hard to get our minds around it.

We need to grasp the depth of time in order to understand the role of evolution in biology, the impact of the speed of light in astronomy, any explanation of rock origins in geology, and the long span of cultural evolution in anthropology–just for starters. How can young adolescents begin to grasp this essential ground for so much learning?

Kate Keller, curriculum genius, on the case

Having grown up with multiple brothers and multiple sisters, Kate is interested in everything. (Even football, I think to myself as I write this.) The daughter of two architects, she is always alert to purpose and design wound together. Planning curriculum, reading everything she can find, Kate becomes a sort of settling pan (notice the gold-mining image) for the most powerful, most fertile, heaviest ideas in a thematic study–from some points of view, the most adult understandings. Then she comes up with active, playful, open-ended, deeply kid-centered ways for students to connect with these ideas.

All of us who work with Kate–colleagues, students, parents–feel smarter when we’re working with her. We try harder things, and try harder while we’re doing them. Not all geniuses have that effect.

We called our thematic study The Journey of Man but wanted it to encompass more than Spencer Wells’s book by the same title. We’d begin with a relatively brief overview of the past 5 million years of hominid evolution in Africa. Then we’d look at the past 50,000 years, focusing on the spread of modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, across the continents, using that as a chance to do a lot of geography work. Finally we’d look at the most recent 500 years of immigration into North America.

In other words, to think about all this, Kate and I wanted our students to imagine millions of years, thousands of years, and hundreds of years. How?

Modeling time and space

Harvey Weiss map of Australia croppedIn order to make maps or scaled blueprints, we model large quantities of space by using smaller quantities of space. We let an inch equal a mile, or a centimeter equal a kilometer, or three, or a thousand. Here’s a very basic example from a favorite book about maps, by Harvey Weiss.

When we’re making time lines, we use small amounts of space to model large amounts of time. If a meter is a century, for example, then each centimeter is a year, and 10 meters can be a thousand years, a millennium. Need more than a thousand years? No room for a timeline 10 meters long? Change your scale. Let every millimeter represent a year, say, so that a whole meter stands for 1000 years. On the sample below, students made each 4 inches equal 100,000 years.

hominid time line detail 2

One way or another, a time line lets space stand for time.

Time lines can be very powerful. Here’s a memory I treasure, from another study. We’d been working on a time line of transportation innovations, and it had gotten so long that the students working on it had to lay it out down the school’s longest hallway. As I helped them carrying it back to our classroom at the end of projects time, some younger students walked by. “What’s that?” one asked. Without missing a beat, one of my students answered, “Ten thousand years of human history.”

On beyond time lines: letting time stand for time

Still, time lines aren’t made of time. Kate asked, “What if we let small quantities of time stand for longer quantities of time?”

Science videos sometimes present this in words. For example, at the beginning of the video The Journey of Man, Spencer Wells represents the evolutionary history of apes as one year, with the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, on December 28. This compression, in which we leave Africa on New Year’s Eve, can give kids some sense of the comparative brevity of human experience. But what could help them really feel it?

Suddenly, Kate came up with an idea so brilliant that the students who were involved still say it with an exclamation point: the time claps!

We would all clap hands, as a group, to represent time ticking away. The interval between claps, a few seconds, would stand for a much longer amount of time–a different amount of time in the time clap for each section of our study. Meanwhile, individual students would stand and move around and hold signs or other props, to represent what was happening within that time. We would all be participants, and all be watchers.

Some overall nuts and bolts

We did three separate time claps, each with a different scale and its own companion paper timeline, for the three parts of our study.

We worked in many ways to prepare for each of the time clap “performances.” We created paper continents and paper timelines and other props. At one point we arranged our desk groups into a very rough representation of the continents and their relation to each other, to help with that part. We made plays about the indigenous people of some of the continents, and investigated some of the requisite technologies for leaving the tropics. (In another post I need to write about the incredible contributions of parent volunteers, in all this hands-on work.)

Although we gave students the responsibility, as usual, for figuring out workable scales for the paper time lines, Kate and I figured out the scales for the time claps behind the scenes.

Here’s a chart I made as we were talking and considering:

time clap notes 4The first time we tried it, we realized that counting 5 seconds again and again was much too awkward. (Try it–you’ll see.) The rhythm of “clap, two, three, four” worked much better, so we refigured:

time clap notesFive million years

For the first time clap, we looked at the past 5 million years of evolution of various hominin species. With everyone clapping together, we clapped and counted four seconds–clap, two, three, four, and repeat. Every eight seconds, or every two claps, counted as one tenth of a million years, 100,000 years. So we represented 5,000,000 years in 8 X 50 or 400 seconds, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Meanwhile, different kids represented different hominin species. When the fossil record indicates the beginning of a species’ time, a student would stand up, holding a sign with that species’ name. He or she would stay standing for as long as that species is thought to have been around, and act out some of the behavior scientists agree we had evolved at that point: creation of stone tools, use of fire, ritual burial of the dead.

So, for example, the student representing Homo erectus stood up around 1.8 million years ago (represented on the time line as 1.8 MYA, and in the clapping as 65 claps in, since we began with a clap.) Then he or she sat back down at roughly 27,000 years ago, two seconds before the end.

On the time line, the kids put the label for Homo erectus about halfway through that species’ time, and used a yellow line to represent the whole Homo genus.

JOM timeclap 1 timeline detail edit

In that first time clap, long stretches went by, during the first few million years,  between the emergence of known hominin species. A lot happened pretty quickly in the last 200,000 years, represented by the last 16 seconds.

Kate wanted students to feel the way a simple list of events doesn’t give a true sense of their relation in time. It takes some way of making the intervals proportional to the actual intervals, to get a real sense of the depth of time we’re talking about when we look back that far.

It takes the passage of time to help us imagine the passage of time.

Speaking of which…

Writing a blog resembles teaching in some ways: everything takes so much longer than you think it will, and personal excitement can make it take even longer. We all loved this work; we felt proud to be doing something we’d never heard of students this age doing. I saved lots of notes and lots of artifacts. I want to share some of them, but I also want room for some thoughts Kate and I had when we talked about all this recently. In other words, this post has become, itself, a time line for which I have no adequate hallway.

So, I’m throwing my hands in the air, and stopping here. Next post: 50,000 years, and 500 years, and what we think, looking back.

I also want to mention that when I searched through those artifacts I found a copy of our picture book about the Chukchi, and added some wonderful samples of that to the previous post. The benefits of boxpile archaeology.



A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

We came to New England from many places, by many routes, for many reasons.

No humans lived in this part of North America until after the late glacial maximum, what we call the Ice Age. Anthropologists think that as soon as tundra developed in isolated spots, replacing ice and bare rock, small bands of humans moved in, roughly 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

That’s an eyeblink in geological time. No matter what famous names we might cite as forefathers or foremothers, we’re all newcomers.

We’re also all cousins.

The first hunters who entered New England’s gradually recovering ecosystem descended from Native American Indian tribes to the south and west. They walked here, spreading into newly available territories. Compressing the story of thousands of years before that, we can say that their ancestors had come from Africa, by way of Asia.

The Pilgrims and Puritans of early colonial Massachusetts, and all the other groups who came from various parts of Europe, are also not-so-distant descendants of people–in fact, one specific man about 60,000 years ago–in Africa. They arrived in Europe by way of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, or more often by way of Asia. They came to North America much later, by boat, and later by airplane.

African slaves came from Africa more directly, and earlier than most European Americans, transported by boats and brutal force.

Still more recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America and Asia and Africa came to North America and New England by choice, although often out of desperation, as political or economic refugees.

All of us, reunited cousins from all over the world, belong to a very young species that emerged only 200,000 years or so ago. Furthermore, those of us who call ourselves European Americans, Asian Americans, Native American Indians, or Latin Americans all descend from a tiny handful of people who left the African continent about 50,000 years ago, whose descendants spread across the world.

Most modern Africans are descended from the ones who stayed in Africa. They show much greater genetic diversity, not having passed through that tiny genetic gauntlet of the small group who left Africa and survived. But all of us, everywhere in the world, descend from that one man long ago. We’re cousins.

How do scientists know all this? How did I learn it, and how did my classes come to learn it?

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and interested in our species and how it came to be. Like toddlers who’ve just learned to walk (or talk), full of the enthusiasm of new powers of inquiry, scientists are busily synthesizing the discoveries of multiple fields, including physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. In the process they’re coming up with new answers to the questions, ‟How did we get here?” and ‟Who are we?”

Journey of Man videoSpencer Wells, an American geneticist, helped some of this knowledge reach ordinary people like me, by writing a book meant for us, and at the same time working with a British filmmaker to create a video. There’s some pretty complex science in the video, particularly the sections about genetics. I read and reread the book, and some other books, in order to understand it more fully. Still, when I watched the video (and rewatched, and rewatched again) I thought, ‟What else could matter more than this, for 11 and 12 year old students who are trying to understand themselves and the world?”

Knowing the ambition and eagerness of my students, I predicted accurately that they would become deeply engaged in the video, and be able to understand large parts of it–so long as I prepared adequately. I got to know the video very well myself, and thought carefully about how to divide it into digestible portions of no more than 20 minutes or so.

Some bits we watched more than once. We talked about it all a lot, asking questions and helping each other understand, never rushing. The book’s photographic portraits of people from all over the world helped us have a sense of real people behind the science.

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

From the portraits section of The Journey of Man, these are people from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, north central Mexico, Poland, New Mexico, Tanzania, Kenya, and Japan

We also did a lot in class, hands-on, to make it as real as possible for all of us.

For example, one year we made big brown paper continents to spread out on the Common Room floor. With the help of maps in the book, we modeled the migrations of modern humans, complete with colorful party streamers labeled with the designations for the Y chromosome mutations that let geneticists do all this tracking. I will never forget hearing 12-year-olds talk knowledgeably and confidently about those mutation numbers, having mastered them more thoroughly than I had myself.

across the continents time clapWhen Spencer Wells visited rock paintings in Australia, we turned one of our whiteboards into the wall of a cave, covered with symbols of our own identities.

class photos archaeology0001Another year, the class was particularly interested in a section of the video based on Spencer Wells’s visit with the reindeer-herding Chukchi, a people in far northeastern Asia. In the video, Wells sits by a fire, chews on reindeer meat, sleeps in a yaranga through a night when the temperature dips far below zero—all in an effort to help us imagine what it took, or still takes, to live in the tundra.

chukchi family edited

Here, as throughout the video, Wells expresses his respect for the resourcefulness, resilience, and skill humans have shown in the course of settling the globe. We decided to enter that more deeply by doing additional research about the Chukchi, and writing and illustrating our own picture book about them.

VOM chukchi cover crop  VOM chukchi picture book yaranga without textVOM chukchi picture book yaranga text onlyVOM chukchi shamanism

Incredible Human JourneyIn more recent years, we’ve used a BBC video series, The Incredible Human Journey, which follows Alice Roberts, a British medical doctor, anatomist, and anthropologist, as she travels from continent to continent searching for evidence and meeting with scientists from many disciplines, to understand the history of our own species, modern humans.

human journey trackersShe goes stalking with highly skilled San trackers in Namibia, and measures their body temperature as they run for hours in pursuit. She watches Lapp women use sinew to sew clothing from furs, an ancient skill essential for life outside the tropics. She works with Chinese experimental archaeoligists trying out possible early methods for making clay pots.

human journey bamboo raftShe crosses from one Indonesian island to another on a bamboo raft built entirely with technology that would have been available to ancient people.  She considers the evidence of ancient human occupation on an island off California that could only have been reached by boat, providing support for the theory that many of the earliest North Americans paddled here, around the coastline.

It’s a five hour series. Each time I used it with a class I could only show parts. Mostly I used it to support our work on the history of technology–and if you read back through that list I think you’ll see why. Once I’d shown one section, the kids would watch me setting up to show a video and ask hopefully, ‟Is it Alice?”

Alice Roberts now holds a very special appointment at the University of Birmingham, in England, as a professor of Public Engagement in Science. In a recent video interview, she talked about the importance of science to our modern survival as a species, and the importance of scientists reaching out to the general public—as she herself has done. She also writes unusually readable pieces about human evolution for the Guardian, including a fascinating piece about recent evidence that modern Europeans carry traces of Neanderthal DNA.

In The Incredible Human Journey, Alice Roberts talks about ‟bones, stones, and genes”—her way of summarizing the diverse sources of evidence on which she most focuses. Throughout the video, she shares her own point of view as an anatomist and physical anthropologist, speculating, reflecting, celebrating.

At the end of the series, though, Roberts speaks as an ordinary human heart, sharing the sorrow I feel myself, about the terrible calamity of what happened when European Americans traveled to Africa and North and South America. ‟We didn’t recognize each other,” she says, in poignant understatement.

Europeans saw dark skin as a sign of savagery, not as a functional natural sunscreen that pale Europeans suffer without. (But the ancestors of northern Europeans had to lose that melanin protection in order to get enough sunlight for the manufacture of vitamin D, in places where it’s rarely okay to be mostly bare.)

All unaware, we were cousins, which makes the devastating cruelty and loss of life that attended our reunion even more heartbreaking.

Like Alice Roberts, Spencer Wells also hoped that his video would change us, modern humans, by showing us how closely we are all connected. He hoped that it would be illuminating for us to know that we are all Africans, and to know how close we may have come, as a species, to dying out, as other hominid species did.

For both Wells and Roberts, our species’ past is sobering but also inspiring. Exploring their story with kids, I’ve known both emotions.

So I’d like to know: For past students who explored the history of our species with me and with other teachers, how has that touched you? Were we right in thinking that few ways of looking at the world could be more important to share?

And for other adults who’ve been like me, spellbound amateur riders on this pretty amazing scientific train, how has it changed you?


New England Change-Makers

So many teachers wind up disillusioned and discouraged by their students. I’ve said before that I was lucky, and this is one way. The longer I taught, the more I was impressed and moved by my students’ willingness to tackle big pictures and complicated topics. They weren’t just willing; they were eager, sometimes hauling their teacher along for the ride.

In particular, I found that wonderful things could happen when I asked students to communicate the significance of lives distant from their own, particularly lives that are over.

Stepping back: so far, this is the third in a series of posts. Two posts ago, I shared some resources for studying African-American history and the challenge of race in American culture. Last time, I focused on learning by writing, role-playing, or acting, particularly about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In this post, I want to focus on student presentations about individual change-makers, within a thematic study of New England.

New England is edited

The overall study was almost ridiculously big picture. After an introduction to the geography of New England, we considered plate tectonics and continental drift, along with other geological forces and climatological events that have shaped the New England landscape: mountains raised and ground to their roots, the whole region carved by ice and by abundant rainfall, a process we can watch in the present. In fact, we’re surrounded by souvenirs: unlike people living in Kansas, we can’t walk very far without tripping over rocks (a fact abundantly evident on Touchstone’s own property.)

Then we looked at the routes and ways by which humans have arrived in this landscape, populating and changing it. Eventually, that led us to look at a New England tradition as powerful as the Red Sox: big new ideas about public life.

When I designed this thematic unit, I felt that it made sense to look at the struggle to abolish slavery in the context of other efforts toward the inclusion of groups held apart, out on the periphery of decision making: women, people who don’t own property, Native American Indians, immigrants from beyond northern Europe.

These were our essential questions for this part of the New England study: Who gets to make decisions? Who do we mean by “us”? How does that political reality impact our social and economic lives? How has all this changed over time, and how is it still changing?

Teaching this unit in the fall of 2008, and then 2010 and 2012, I found–as I have so often–that time lines and maps are great tools for big picture thinking. But I also found that looking at individual stories could help kids travel through time and revise their understanding more successfully than anything else.

We focused mostly on biographies of people never famous–or no longer famous. I wanted each student to be the authority in the room when he or she presented to the assembled class community, including parents and grandparents. I wanted them to sense the contributions of people we don’t often thank by name.

New England biographies 2From my work with the Alhambra Banquet curriculum, I had learned the value of asking students to choose from a menu of ideas or occupations, not a list of individual people. (They just didn’t know enough yet about the people.) I asked them to choose several categories, so I would have some flexibility in achieving a good match for every student.

Once the match-ups were made, I had learned (again, from the Alhambra Banquet work) to provide a short, basic biography of just a few paragraphs. In 2008, our first year with this thematic study, Mary Brochu was working with me, and wrote many of the biographies in the initial set. Obviously, these short introductory biographies were particularly important for people about whom no biography had yet been written with a view to young readers.

New England biographies 1For most historical figures, a student who went looking could find more. We provided links to online sources, and talked in class about things to watch out for when using websites.  I was thrilled to discover a gradual expansion of picture book and other accessible biographical resources, as Mary Brochu worked her usual wizardry turning up books I’d thought unlikely to exist.

In any case, we encouraged all the students to research–and then share–not just the person but also the key concepts crucial to understanding the person’s story. What shape did slavery take in New England? How did abolitionists communicate with their allies and adversaries? How did the various movements for greater democracy intersect, in the life of a figure such as Abby Kelley Foster? When Frederick Law Olmsted advocated public parks, who needed them most?

To help students identify with their assigned historical figures, our amazing integrated arts teacher, Emily Miller Mlcak, guided them through the process of painting portraits, using as their sources photographs, drawings or paintings from the time, or portrayals of similar people if we had nothing else. In the photograph below, of students relaxing and eating with their families after the presentations, you can see some of that year’s portraits on the closet doors at the left.

New England potluck edited

One year, I followed a sudden inspiration and asked kids to think and write about their historical figures as animals. One girl, who had struggled with Mum Bett’s conventional unattractiveness in the only available source portrait, wrote a breathtaking piece about Mum Bett as an owl–for wisdom, but also for flying to freedom.

mum bettIn all the ways we supported kids for the challenge of even very brief public speaking, nothing was more important than the support they gave each other. Student partners helped each other write functional note cards that could be glanced at quickly; they rehearsed together; on the night of the potluck, they stood up together, silently reinforcing each other.

The audience of parents also played tremendously important roles, making it a point to chat, after the presentations, with all the children, focusing on the content they had learned, not just the performance. It helped that those parents, and the rest of the class, would typically have only a slight acquaintance with the information being presented. That boosted kids’ confidence, and also gave them a real sense of responsibility and mission.

Some kids wanted to speak as their people, in the first person. Others wanted to speak about their people, in the third person. I couldn’t see any reason not to just give them the choice. Either way, the past of that person became a part of their present, and their audience’s.

My memories of how all this worked are very vivid and personal. I think of one of my youngest students, pretty much terrified to stand up, looking at his partner and moving forward. I think of girls absorbing, for the first time, the idea that their grandmothers or great-grandmothers were blocked from getting the kinds of education they wanted. I think of Josh, explaining to me the reasoning Thaddeus Stephens used to convince fellow congressional representatives, and Lincoln, that continued slavery would cause the north to lose the war.

I think of these people called into the present to be a part of our community in some way.

Ifeanyi Menkiti, Nigerian Ibo poet and Wellesley College philosophy professor, once explained to me how, among some African tribal cultures, the circle of minds invited to the deliberations of the community includes past and departed members of the community, as long as people still sense their presence–a concept of immortality astonishingly pragmatic, true to our almost universal human experience of felt presence.

Thinking this through over the past week, I’ve thought how, at the other end of our timeline, some Native American Indian cultures have committed themselves to considering the needs of generations to come, not just the grandchildren they might hold and know as inspiration, but many generations beyond, unknowable. Again pragmatic; again, a function of the imagination in public life.

One way or another, we live in our highest purposes, and serve them most truly, whenever we reach to broaden what we mean when we say “us.” And that seems to be true at any age.

Learning by Shape-shifting

It’s not just children who organize their lives and experiences, and transcend them, through storytelling. It’s definitely not just for fun. The ability to feel empathy, informed empathy–an understanding of another that begins in earned, respectful knowledge of the other–lies at the heart of our moral understanding. We practice that, in so many ways, through storytelling.

We use storytelling to hold onto memories of people we are heartbroken to have lost, and begin to heal our hearts in the process. We work to cross barriers of time and distance and race and class and gender. We hold our own selves coherent in our minds—all with the help of storytelling.

Storytelling can also go wrong. We can tell a child a story about how he is wrong and bound to be wrong, and that story gathers power with every retelling. We can do that same thing, each of us, to ourselves. We can construct stories that hold an entire group accountable for the acts of a few, or revisions of history that scapegoat the blameless. We can cling tenaciously to old stories about the world around us, rather than let new evidence start us spinning new versions.

Storytelling is like fire. We have to carry it and keep it alive, or we lose something essential–but we also have to carry it, and use it, very carefully.

arthur and C.T. editedStorytelling gave power to our classroom learning at Touchstone in so many ways. For example, after my class had watched each video episode of The Voyage of the Mimi, kids wrote journal entries in the voices of the characters. At first, I asked all the students to write as C.T., the young character who is our surrogate within the video story. The second year, when I broadened the choices, I saw how much it could mean to a kid to write as the chief scientist on the expedition, responsible for both thorough data and respectful treatment of the whales they were tracking and observing. Some chose to write as the captain of Mimi, responsible for everyone’s safety and for the boat itself, but also committed to the success of the scientists who had chartered Mimi for their work. Many chose to write as the young black student intern from New York City, initially clueless about everything nautical, but an expedition-saving whiz at electronics–above all, willing to step out of his city-smarts for a new experience.

Taking on these roles and perspectives gave students broader understanding of the trade-offs and decisions in real work. At the same time, creating that shape-shifting experience for themselves, they could feel their own imaginative power.

Our first storytelling connected directly to black studies built on one of the accounts in Freedom’s Children, one of the resources I mentioned in the preceding post. In 1955, Claudette Colvin was just 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on an internally segregated Montgomery city bus, nine months before a similar action by Rosa Parks drew national attention. Claudette’s learning, as a high school student in a segregated high school, contributed to her bravery. Years later, when she was interviewed by Newsweek, Colvin said, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,”

Using her account in Freedom’s Children, my students improvised and discussed and revised dramatizations of Claudette’s story. Several different classes did this over the years, often sharing that year’s version of the skit as our contribution to the annual community meeting honoring the concerns of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, I have vivid memories of various completely plausible Claudettes hollering out, “But it’s my right! It’s my constitutional right!”

colvincoverThe day I saw, in a Cambridge bookstore, a whole book devoted to Claudette, I hollered out myself, just thrilled. Seriously, find the book or at least read the Wikipedia entry linked above: you’ll be fascinated by all the reasons she wound up a mostly unsung heroine, and I hope you’ll feel as grateful as I do for the example of her Mighty Girl spirit.

One year we had a little more time for this kind of work. I copied several accounts from Freedom’s Children, which described a variety of situations including a lunch counter confrontation. Then small groups of kids worked with the different stories.

Before we shared with the class as a whole, we took time to have the participants in each group switch roles, and then run through the skit again. How did it feel different to be the white store manager? How did it feel to be the kid who took part but never spoke? How did it feel to be the one who stood up–or sat down and stayed sitting?

A memory of a pivotal point in my own learning: a child started playing an elderly character in a stereotypical old guy way, shaky hand on cane, croaky voice–playing it for laughs. I can’t remember whether I just intervened briefly, and reminded kids of our purposes, or whether I conducted the kind of group discussion that often serves those purposes best. Sometimes quick and light is good; sometimes taking time to go deeper is good.

Either way, over time, I realized that I wanted kids to carry themselves, collectively and consciously, the responsibility for real empathy in our role-playing. Informed empathy, considered empathy. Such a challenging thing, for them and for me: to enlist the playfulness and inventiveness of the imagination, and give it a sense of responsibility, all at the same time.

To carry and use the fire of storytelling carefully.

We do that best when we’re open with kids about the power we’re giving them, and its risks. Can people who’ve grown up in the invisible insulation of white privilege really understand what it’s like to be looked at askance every time you walk into a store, or to be pulled over every time you drive through a white neighborhood? I don’t think so, actually–not fully, although each of us has experiences on which we can draw, to move towards partial understanding of someone else’s story, and we have the power of transmitted language, stories others have told, to guide us.

Still, I’ll stake my soul on the conviction that it’s worth trying; that what we gain from role-playing or from writing in persona is worth the risk–no, in fact the guarantee–that we won’t get it all right.

Welty, Sunday School, Holiness Church, Jackson, 1935-1936Working with high school students as creative writers, I’ve use photographs (like the one to the right by Eudora Welty), other people’s poems, artist’s manikins, all sorts of prompts to encourage writing in persona, writing out of what we’ve learned but not consciously owned about what it’s like to be someone else. Again and again, I’ve been floored by the results–just as with my younger students. It’s never felt anything but risky, or anything but essential.

Ultimately, because it’s right at the heart of human experience, we want students to understand both the power of storytelling and the risks. We want it to be not just the teacher who asks, “Wait, should we be playing this for laughs?” We want a kid voice to be ready to challenge a quick and stereotyped version: “Wait, what evidence do we have for the way we’re representing this?” We want them to grow up to say, “Wait, it just doesn’t make sense to say that all Arabs are terrorists.”

The questions are part of the learning, and the caution is part of the imagination’s voyage–for all of us.

What Students Need

I’ve written before about Marjorie Weed, at the end of the post “In Praise of Colleagues.” But now I’ve got a photograph.

When Mrs. Weed retired from teaching art to high school students, one of her alums–having become a Touchstone parent–recruited her to come to Touchstone as a volunteer. Marjorie agreed to try teaching younger kids, on the condition that the classroom teachers would stay with their classes during their art sessions. She didn’t want to have to fuss over behavior.

Oh happy condition! My students didn’t need much fuss at all, so I almost always did the project of the day along with them.

I learned a lot about art and the making of art, much more than I can summarize here.

I also learned about my students, watching them explore Mrs. Weed’s suggestions. Here’s a favorite memory: Harry, painting, saying things like, “Oh! I didn’t know that would happen! That’s so cool! What if I try… This is terrific…” With a burbling stream of running commentary, he cheered himself on. In years to come, faced with one of those kids who kept running down his own efforts, I would attempt little imitations of Harry, making it clear that Harry was way cool, a model anyone could be proud to imitate. (You can definitely try this at home.)

Meanwhile, I also learned about myself. Visually I’m too conscious; the best assignments for me thwarted that, pulled the rug out from under me, made accurate representations impossible. When Mrs. Weed said, “Watch for happy accidents!” she was talking to me along with the kids.

I can also get carried away with the fun of making something, and not know when to stop. In a terrible memory from second grade, we were finger painting, and I just kept adding color, more and more glorious color. It all turned to mud, of course, and the teacher threw out my paper. By contrast, Mrs. Weed would sidle up to me and say, “Don’t do another thing! You’re done!”

I thought she was a genius, and tended to obey. This was interesting for my students to observe.

So I’m thrilled to have unearthed a photo of Mrs. Weed. In this view, we’ve been wrapping plaster-soaked mesh around each others’ hands, and Mrs. Weed is getting ready to help remove one of the finished casts. (Maybe somebody else can remember what we did next, inspired by the photo.)

Mrs. Weed with kids

Marjorie Weed no longer teaches nine or ten classes a week, but she still shows up at school for guest appearances. Watching her in the last few years, I’ve tried to put into words, just for myself, her sense of what students need–but it isn’t about words. Her teaching behavior appears to be shaped by her sense that students need, more than anything verbal–and as quickly as possible–direct physical interaction with the materials of art: the heat of curing plaster, the textures of paper and paint and clay, the various ways of hitching two objects together.

In the private videos of my memory, instead of telling kids how to create a targeted product, Marjorie tended to set them loose in the exploration of a process. “Get messy!” she’d say. “Pay attention!”

But she didn’t mean “Pay attention to me!” She meant, “Pay attention to the stuff in your hands, and what it’s doing.”

Thinking about Marjorie Weed’s sense of what kids need, I went back into my notebooks, to find something I wrote before the start of school, in one of my earliest years of teaching. I wrote the original by hand, in a hotel room in Montreal, on a late summer trip with my family. Later, I kept photocopying the handwritten version to put it into each new year’s notebook. Here I’ve chosen to type it in italics, to show that I’m quoting that long ago person who was me.

Like any student work sample, this is a moment in time, in which I tried to distill what I was learning–from incredible colleagues, and from the incredible luck of working in a place where teachers could really learn from observing the kids themselves. Just a moment–but one of those moments to which I found it useful to return, again and again.

Thinking about the first weeks: What do the kids need–and what do I need–from those first days?

1.  They need a sense of WHO the class is, and who in the class will be friends for them, and how urgently they’ll need particular friends–whether the class as a whole will feel friendly, whether they’ll feel marginal or included, what patterns and formats there will be for interaction with each other and me. They need a sense, each one, that I’m going to like and appreciate and notice and understand them.

2.  They need a sense of WHERE–a sense of the room and what’s in it and what’s possible there, given the room as a micro-version of the world. How does the room interpret the world for them? They need to begin to know where to find things, begin to make their desks their own. [Later that became crates, when desks were replaced with tables.] They need to figure out traffic patterns, to carry an image of the room in their minds, if that matters to them.

3.  They need a sense of WHEN things will happen, especially because the schedule is different this year. [One way or another, it was different almost every year.] In the situations in which the sequence of their activities isn’t under their control, they need some sense of my reasoning and my own constraints. Where they do have control, they need to know the parameters and alternatives, and begin to sense their own priorities. They need to begin to feel the rhythm of the day so they can be in synch with it, and many of them need this in a visceral, unconscious, nonverbal way.

4.  At some point in each day, each of them needs:

  • the experience of contributing to the group, helping the group happen and being recognized for that;
  • an “aha!” experience, an experience of discovery, an encounter with something new;
  • an experience of personal “academic” competence and control.

They need a sense of WHAT we’re going to do together and HOW they’re going to grow, a sense of our collective purposes. 

Rereading that from my current distance, I’m struck by the intensity of the responsibility I perceived and accepted–and by the ways I already understood that the classroom community would share that responsibility, and grow in the process.

I’m also struck by the ways I had come to trust the nonverbal arrangements of the room and the schedule, the where and when, to support us.

From De Feustal I had learned to support kids through structure in space, the arrangement of the room. I tried to provide areas with more and less freedom of movement, more and less visibility to the rest of the room.

From Ginny Scherer I had learned to support kids through structure in time, to plan the schedule as a rhythm, with changes that would support kids’ energy–times to take the world in, times to be expressive; times to move, times to be still.

I had watched De and Ginny use these nonverbal cues brilliantly, minimizing the need to intervene verbally in working with their five to seven-year-olds. Day by day and year by year, I was figuring out how to apply that with my ten and eleven and twelve-year-olds.

So, this post could also be titled In Praise of Colleagues: the Sequel. It could have a very long title: what a verbal person, a talker and writer, learned about how to use nonverbal cues more effectively while teaching, and how grateful she was for her teachers. (And how she could teach for another 25 years and still be learning those lessons.)