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.)

Ellis Island Stories

 On one of my first trips to Ellis Island, with my family, we were part of the annual surge of people into the national parks, on the day after Thanksgiving. (‟Highest attendance, nationwide,” the rangers told us.)

ellis island hallMoving from exhibit to exhibit in that throng, I overheard an older woman telling her companions about her own father’s journey to America, alone, at the age of 12. As she stood above the Great Hall, where people were sorted–allowed in or refused and sent away–stories she had heard all her life took on new shape.

On the ferry back to New Jersey, listening to all the languages around us, I leaned over to my husband and asked, ‟How many?” and he listened for a few minutes and said, ‟Maybe twenty?” We were surrounded by another pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of new immigrants, come to honor that shrine of the old immigration.

None of our own close relatives came through Ellis Island—his mother came after the island was closed; my ancestors, like the rest of his, came centuries ago, when nobody was counting or checking or manning the gate in any way; when people just came.

Still, the story we felt around us is universal—all those people, in all their languages, were saying so—and we were deeply moved.

The parents of my students helped me figure out how to get us there, from our distance in Massachusetts. The first time, Gail Epstein and David Tapscott arranged for us to stay with relatives near New York City, taking over their rooms in a giant sleepover. (Thus the comment–in the recording below, that shows part of our debriefing session once we got back–about not stepping on anyone.)

ellis island debrief higher contrast

Another year, Carol Bedrosian, now the editor of Spirit of Change, arranged a bus for a day trip, and helped the class throw a car-wash to defray some of the costs. It was a very long day. We left from Grafton at 5:30 am, and returned about midnight. Still, it worked, and we used that way of getting to Ellis Island many more times.The trip book–a combined guide and workbook, the sort of thing teachers can create and use in the wonderful age of photocopying–included games to play on the bus. We chose a video to watch on the way home, and the few kids who didn’t pass out cold in extremely odd positions watched along with the adults.

The bus had more room than we needed, and cost a fortune, so we invited parents and grandparents to join us and help cover the cost. Making this a multi-generational field trip had all sorts of benefits. Kids got to know each others’ parents; parents got to know their children’s friends. Especially on the way home, as children slept, parents told each other (and me) their own families’ stories, deeply moving, often full of sorrow and darkness along with hopes fulfilled. With all those generations bearing witness, we settled more deeply into some truths of our history.

When I decided to post here that debrief of the very first class trip, I knew I would have to tell the story of the guy reaching over the railing.

We were exploring in our small groups. My group was in the room with what I called immigration math, huge colorful 3D graphs and interactive maps, showing immigration trends across time. I had designed a day that would echo our day at school: math time in the math room; reading and writing time in the galleries full of photographs; sketching time in a gallery full of the actual objects immigrants had brought with them, candlesticks and prayer books, christening dresses and lockets. Recess time we spent outside, looking for our own relatives on the wall of names, watching the seagulls. All of this was meant to help us feel ourselves mid-harbor, mid-history, mid-melting pot.

Lucy Candib, medical doctor and mother of Addie, was with me there in the math room with our group of four or five kids. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of someone’s head hitting the stone floor in the entrance room behind us. A young man from another school had leaned out over the stair railing too far, reaching to a friend, and had tumbled down to the floor below. Lucy was the first person at his side. I saw him on a stretcher, apparently unconscious, as rangers waited for a helicopter to fly him off the island.

All of us, every single one, including me, had to tell that story first, before anything else, when we got home late that night. I had to get past the ghost of that story in order to go back to Ellis Island with kids again. That incident made me tighten my organization for the trip, and recruit kids to be mindful of everyone’s safety. It forced me to think through (again) all the risks teachers take when we leave the classroom with kids, and all the reasons why we should, anyway—because the story of the young man who reached too far was not the only story we all had to tell when we got home, just the first.

Inspired by that woman on the balcony of the Great Hall, imagining her father, I had designed the immigration unit around true immigration stories of family members and friends, people still alive and people known only by the stories still told about them. Kids called uncles in California who knew that stuff; they interviewed their babysitters; they often found family artifacts and brought them in to share. In our work at school, students gathered these stories, distilled them into file card versions to put on a huge timeline stretching around the room, and chose one to write in full and revise for publication.

Always, in any particular class, a good portion of the kids, as many as half, had family stories that linked to Ellis Island–but the assignment didn’t specify that.

At Ellis Island Lewis Hine - Italian child gets her first penny, 1926Ellis Island, I asked the kids to make up a fictional story, also. In a room full of giant portraits of immigrants, near the entrance to the Peopling of the Americas exhibit, each student chose a person from one of the photos: boys and girls, women and men, from several continents.

ellis island photos writing croppedThen, as students moved from section to section in the exhibit, the trip book led them through the corresponding stages of the immigrant experience: a section about saying goodbye, when they left their old homes; a section about finding work; a section about communities of immigrants giving each other comfort and reassurance. After reading some of the text on the walls, looking at the photographs, and listening to recorded accounts on phones placed around the exhibit, each student wrote a journal entry in the voice of his or her chosen person, bearing them through the experience, stage by stage. To the right, Ian Wills and IanTapscott have found a comfortable piece of floor. Below, Mike Costa reads what he’s already written.

ellis island mike costa croppedSometimes a kid chose a photograph that could be a stand-in for a great-great-grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes they chose photographs that could be stand-ins for themselves. Stefan Cunha chose a newsboy yelling out across a street–and for all these years since I have remembered the clarity and power of his writing in that situation.

By the time we got back onto the ferry to leave Ellis Island, each of us was like a set of Russian dolls, with other lives nested inside us: the boy who discovered that the immigrants had come to earn their way into this country with unbelievably hard work; the girl who was let through Ellis Island but had to say goodbye to her father; the aunt who could never fully emerge from the trauma, the shadow, of the pogroms; the teenager who became the family’s translator exactly at the age when he wanted independence; the mother with her children held close all around her, hollow-eyed, all of them hungry and hoping to be better fed.

Ellis Island was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy; it’s only gradually being reopened, and I’ve worried that exhibits I treasured, as a teacher, may have been lost. Even before that, security arrangements put in place after the World Trade Center bombings had so lengthened the process of getting onto the island that it no longer worked for us as a day trip. Meanwhile, I had been learning about Blackstone Valley immigration stories, and had discovered the Museum of Work and Culture in Pawtucket, Rhode Island–not at all the same, but fascinating in its own way. The focus of our work in the fall gradually shifted.

It’s fair to say, though, that all my curriculum work afterward was affected by the Ellis Island field trip experiences, and by the thematic study that grew around them. Looking back I can see shifts: in my sense of what is at stake in curriculum choices; in my sense of the huge and complicated realities young adolescent students can stretch to embrace; and in my sense of the importance of combining, carefully and respectfully, both research and imagination.

Below, Adam Curley and I are too excited to sit down, while various parents huddle and talk in the October wind across the harbor.

ellis island photos ferry cropped

You’d have a hard time tracking people down with these photographs, from several of the earliest trips–so I decided to just go with them. Thanks so much, to everyone who helped these wonderful field trips happen!


Absence and presence

In the end, it’s not really the topic of grades that’s so huge for me— It’s the topic of no grades: what can happen, what I’ve seen happen, in their absence.

graduation JuliaThis is Julia Miller, who graduated from Touchstone long enough ago that she’s about to graduate again, from high school. Behind her, draped on the greenhouse, you can see the flag her Older Student Program group made the previous fall, just before going on their fall hiking trip. If you look closely, behind Julia’s right elbow, you can see the word CREATIVITY and the beginning of the word RESPONSIBILITYtwo of the values that group chose as their watchwords for the year. She’s about to dance–

graduation julia dance cropped–mostly as a joke, but I love the way this photograph shows her blooming along with the petunias, and reaching for the literal and figurative skies.

As they go through their experience, students in an ungraded situation aren’t thinking, “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections from topic to topic and theme to theme and school to home (and vice versa); they’re trying out different voices and different genres and new strategies for understanding the world; they’re thinking a lot about the community of each other.

Teachers who aren’t giving grades aren’t thinking “no grades no grades no grades.” They’re making connections themselves, learning about their topics, watching and planning for ways to include other adults and experiences outside the classroom; imagining the world of each student from inside that student’s perspective; nourishing the community that can do more for each individual than any teacher’s plans.

As we went along, the missing grades barely figured in what I said about the teaching and learning I shared with each year’s class. At parent meetings, I never said, “First, I want you to know that I’m not giving grades.” It was taken for granted, invisible.

Still, that absence of grades was constantly at work in the presence of other energies and outcomes.

I saw the benefits: for kids whose learning experience had never been assessed with grades; but also for kids who had come to my school after experience with grades elsewhere.

Now and then, a transplant–or his parents–couldn’t make that transition. Most were like people woken from a long and troubled sleep. They stretched; they looked around; slowly, or quickly, they became active, in a new way, in the scene of their lives.

Still, I don’t have available the experimental control, in which the same teachers worked with similar kids and gave grades. I don’t know how that would have worked for any of us.

Close friends have said that I would probably have blown all my fuses and quit; that I would have left teaching very early in the game, if I’d been forced to translate my students’ growth and learning into graded assessments.

I wonder: how many teachers have been driven out of teaching by the necessity of an activity ultimately so alien to their original hopes and intentions? How many others, not questioning grades, have nonetheless abandoned teaching out of disappointment with the state of mind grading has induced in their students? What have we lost with this attrition, these departures?

My own history meant that I didn’t take the absence of grades for granted. I first started questioning the effectiveness of grading long before I was a teacher, long before my husband and I went looking for schools for our children. I became skeptical of grades at a time when I was being graded myself, and getting good grades. Not always, but sometimes, I could feel how addictive that was; I could glimpse how few risks I was taking; I felt, often, the price of that labeling.

Beyond that, I remember watching the effects of grades on some of my friends. I knew their talents and strengths, and wondered why their grades didn’t represent them more accurately. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any way for some of my friends to live in their strengths, in the classrooms we were encountering. Looking back I can see how the learning was often shaped to be easily measurable, easily graded.

If you’ve read previous posts, you know that I had some wonderful teachers. I don’t blame them individually. I was in the first wave of the post-war baby boom, and our classes were large. To some degree, increased testing and grading pressure attempted to manage that suddenly increased demand.

Like them, still, many teachers don’t have a choice of not assigning grades. Some give the grades they have to give, but play down the importance of those grades in any way they can, putting their energy into those other products and outcomes I tried to describe in the previous post:

  • Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments
  • Learners who know and understand and respect themselves as learners
  • Authentic and rewarding group learning
  • Deep meanings held in community
  • Powerful connections with significant content

One of those “teachers without a choice” lives under the same roof with me, and his frustrations were part of what finally goaded me into writing about not giving grades. So I want to end this series of posts, at least for the time being, with a nod to him and to all those teachers past and present, saddled with the obstacle of grades and making the best of it, for their students’ sake.

I think I’ve said this before, and I never forget it for a minute: I was lucky.

But that’s enough (finally, or at least for now) about no grades. Next time, I want to start thinking about structures to help teachers and students meet each other halfway, beginning, I think, with the seasonal feast of the Skimathon!

My Place and Our Places

Last week, I focused on the book My Place, by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, in which a series of child narrators describe the place where they live–always the same place, on the same hillside, changing as the book moves backward through Australian history. Each of the child narrators has his or her own sense of that same place.

What builds a sense of place, for any of us? What do we even mean by that? What can adults do to give kids a sense of place–or to stay out of the way of their process of developing one?

The book My Place inspired Our Places, a book created by one of my classes in the spring of 2010, when the kids with whom I had worked that year decided that they wanted to make their own maps of their own places, and put them together into a book.

We had discussed other final group projects, but this was the one they chose. “Only it can’t be different years, like My Place, because we’re all living in this year.”

“Just our different places.”

“And we’ll tell about the same kinds of things.”

Here’s a detail from Anwyn’s pages: Our Places Anwyn 1 detail

Pets

By “the same things”, the kids meant the motifs we had noticed in My Place, and then listed, common threads from child narrator to child narrator. For example, in both books, My Place and Our Places, almost every child’s place includes a pet.

Jose wrote about his dog, Clayton. Our Places Jose 1b detail

Other kids wrote about cats named Oliver, or Shelly, or Scout. One described a parakeet named Tweety. Our Place Isy 1b detail with Penny

Another wrote about her hen, Penny, who is “smarter than the other chickens and always bosses the other chickens around, even though she is the smallest.”

Parties

In both books, there’s always some kind of party. Luke lives in two separate houses with the two sides of his family. He decided to write about the place where he lives part of the week with his dad, in a section of Boston. Our Places Luke 1 block party

The detail below is from Caroline, who had already explained that her next-door neighbors were “almost like grandparents.” Our Places Caroline 2b party detail We didn’t coordinate which kinds of parties which kids would write about, but we wound up with an interesting variety: birthday parties, generic summer parties, a Halloween party, a Super-Bowl-watching party, a Fourth of July party with lots of fireworks, a Christmas party, and the gathering to send a big sister off to her prom.

“Some of the parties in My Place are for sad occasions, not happy ones.”

“Like Michaelis going away to Vietnam.”

“Or Thommo’s family getting thrown out of their apartment.” 

“Or there’s the time when the war is over, and some people cry because they’re glad the war is over, but sad that their boys aren’t coming home.”

“But that year’s kid walks on stilts and gets everyone to stop crying.”

Connections to the past

We talked about what the students could include that would be like the giant fig tree at the top of the hill in My Place, a landmark experienced and valued by every child narrator across a 200 year span.
Should the students each focus on some natural feature? They settled on just something old: an old tavern, the stone walls along which chipmunks and squirrels run, an old car, cemeteries, a big rock.
Our Places Dean 1 rock detail

 Freedom

Growing up in a time when some kids are asked to check in with their parents by cell phone as often as every half hour, my students had been interested in the way the My Place kids roamed all over their neighborhood or hillside, with and without permission. Although we hadn’t chosen it as a common thread, several students wrote about their range of freedom, and how that had changed as they’d gotten older.

For example, Abby described being allowed to bicycle further: Our Places Abby bicycling detail

Another girl marked in green the streets on her map where she was allowed to walk by herself.

Maps

These were sketch maps, like the ones in My Place, made to scale as well as kids could manage, but not based on detailed measurements. (That would be another project.) Here’s Abby’s map of her newly enlarged territory: Our Places Abby 2 map Some kids made their maps more accurate with the help of published maps, by tracing or just looking at an existing map or aerial photo to get a sense of relationships. Our Places Nate 2 map detail Like the maps in My Place, the student maps told parts of each child’s story. Our Places Max 2b

So what builds a sense of place?

A sense of place can’t require staying put. In My Place, the final narrator, an aboriginal child, says, “I belong to this place,” instead of “This is my place.” But the place shown is just one of several places where that extended family stays for different parts of the year.

What would it be like to stay in one place? Barangaroo’s grandmother says nobody would do that; it would be boring. For sure, though, Barangaroo has detailed knowledge and a strong emotional connection with that place.

When I moved to the house and neighborhood I think of as “where I grew up”, I had already lived in seven previous places.

Our Places Polly map detailMany of my students spoke in discussion about special summer places, or even, for one, a place she’d been only once, but memorably. I too had been strongly influenced by places where I’d never actually lived, including my Maine grandparents’ dairy farm, and my other grandmother’s urban lot in Brockton, Massachusetts, where I met the kids who lived on the street, and established hide-outs in the bushes.

Who knows? The sense of contrast between a variety of places may focus a child’s attention on the uniqueness of each place. Our Places Matt treehouse detailIn any case, here’s what seems to be more important than duration: a child’s active experience of the place. To bond with a place, a child needs experience of that place within some kind of freedom to explore, to take risks, to know a range of emotions, to act on a sense of possession. To grow her own garden and decide what to plant in it; to build a treehouse with his uncle, or a dam across the creek, or to follow the path across the brook; to create a little secret get-away under a wisteria bush.

Each experience becomes a tag, a label on the mental map the child is constantly creating, partly unconsciously. Each tag gets reviewed with revisits either physical or mental. Few kinds of learning more clearly deserve characterization as constructive learning, learning fitted together and made coherent by the learner; learning that constructs meaning instead of receiving it–in this case, meaning that is especially deep and nourishing.

I’m struck by the importance of peers in this process of place-bonding: siblings, or neighborhood pals, or cousins, or even rambunctious dogs–fellow explorers, with their own impulses and their own hesitations, often useful.

Time on one’s own matters also, and this is demonstrated in all my students’ equivalents of the hide-out in the My Place giant fig tree: their solitary bike rides, walks over to Dean Park, and charitable activities for ants.

On the other hand, for anyone who thinks that young adolescents don’t care about grownups: notice the importance of both parents and other adults, the next door sort-of-grandparents, the almost adult who babysits, the neighbor who takes all the kids for a ride in his old car, while everyone squeals going around the corners.

I loved how much I learned about each of these students, in the process of learning about their connections with their places. Teachers have to live with various kinds of grief, and one of them is this: it’s not possible to do every wonderful thing with every class. But I can’t help wishing I could have, and sometimes, in a group of adults, I have an almost irrepressible impulse to give them this assignment.

(Maybe some readers will comment with labels you would write on your own map, if you made one.) (Or with your own map.)

When we agreed to make the book, I said I would figure out how to send a copy to Nadia Wheatley. It took several steps of contact, and involved some suspense. Eventually, that summer, a package came back from Wheatley with thanks warmly expressed, and with a wonderful surprise: a DVD of episodes from the video series made for Australian television in the year of the book’s twentieth anniversary, with extra episodes to carry the story to 2008, exploring new dimensions of belonging or not belonging.

The video is wonderful, and does special justice to the book’s theme of transcending differences. Still, I feel as I often do about film adaptations of books I love: the book means more to me. It’s less about excitement, television style, and more purely about the role of place in our lives, the responsibilities a place can grow in us, and the ways sharing a place can connect us.

Using Picture Books with Big Kids

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

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

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

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

It’s amazing what is controversial in this world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rows and piles of coins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian and the Gardens

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

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

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

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

A garden gives so much to a school.

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

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

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

garden seedling sale

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

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

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

garden Ben and Emma planting cropped

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

garden studying compost greenhouse

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

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

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

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

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

garden sketch morning glory

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

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

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

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

garden wisteria