The Daily Texture of Progressive Education

My Year to Think It Over took almost two years, actually. Every week or so I looked through my overflowing boxes of teaching souvenirs, revisited twenty-five years of life in an extraordinary learning community, and returned to these questions:

  • What did I learn, over time, about collaborating with young adolescents?
  • What learning adventures were particularly memorable, and what seems to have helped them work?
  • What am I still learning from the comments of past students, now adults?
  • What can I give back, out of the gift of all that time doing what I loved best?

Alhambra Caroline and IsyWhen I started the blog, I had stopped teaching. Finally I could write more: savor wonderful moments, and reflect on them; give credit to people who deserved it; give voice to ideas and practices that had guided me; honor students whose descriptions of their experience had transformed mine.

I began writing posts one by one without any realistic schedule–I really thought a year would do it!–and without any overall plan. Very soon threads of continuity began to emerge, willy-nilly, and those stretch across the screen up at the top, below the butterfly.

If you click on those headings, you’ll find an introduction to each strand, with links to posts exploring that strand. You can also click on the topic headings below.

reading on floor croppedPower in Literacy   I worked mostly with kids who were 11 or 12 years old. Often, in our mixed-age class, I spent two years with students. Across any time we had, students developed real and flexible fluency as readers and writers. With increasing confidence, they used reading and writing to explore the world and their own emerging identities. This heading title includes the word power, because that’s what I saw: I watched kids–in a world and at an age in which they can so easily feel powerless–taking up the effectively magical powers of literacy with contagious pleasure.

Journey of Man portraits 2 editedBeing Human   Within an interdisciplinary approach, we could draw on both science and social studies–and anything else–to explore our human evolution and the voyage leading to who we are. We could grapple with issues our species still struggles to work out, about how to live together. Eventually, students often dragging me along, we arrived at questions this basic: “Can we come to see each other, all over the world, as cousins? Over time, could that change the way we view the notion of race? Or the costs of war? Or the goals of economies and governments and communities?” If you give them the chance, young adolescents will tackle amazing things.

Our Places Max 2bA Sense of Place  What do we mean by “a sense of place” or “place-based education”? What can kids gain from exploring and coming to know the places they call home, and the places they share with others, including school? How far can a vivid sense of place reach, and what skills support that reaching? How can we respect and honor–and take responsibility for–the places that nourish us? These posts explore the teaching and learning of geography in its largest meanings.

Serious Playfulness  Here I gathered posts about our explorations of mathematics, projects river model0001various branches of science, and some related matters. Obviously “serious playfulness” is my own wacky term, but it means what it says: we were serious in our goals, but the ways we pursued them were playful oftener than not. Playful didn’t mean games based on television quiz shows. It meant true inquiry; open-ended questions; working together, taking risks, and getting dirty; discovery and surprise.

playground sprinkler run croppedTogether  This overview gathers posts that explore social and emotional learning: learning to care for each other, learning skills for working in a group, learning both kindness and resiliency. This strand also includes a series of posts about not using grades, because, in our experience, other kinds of assessment worked better to support authentic collaboration and community.

average 2010 betterWhen I first began this blog, and composed the About page, I wrote out of that clarity that can come from life in the trenches. “The world is full and busy and loud with ideologies about what works in education. I want to revisit some real experiences that worked for real live students, and think about why and how.”

It would be thrilling if my school’s approaches became–soon!–the norm not only in published research results, but also in mainstream practice. None of us should hold our breath. In the uphill battles we still face, I’m going to keep these posts available as long as they seem to be useful. Rereading, I’m deeply grateful for both experiences: to have lived that richly challenging and rewarding teaching life, and to have taken the time to “think it over” afterwards. I’m grateful to everyone who felt that this was an important thing for me to do, and said, “You can do it.” (Alex Brown, you’re at the top of that list.)

hands and imaginetsThrough this writing, things I’d learned from teaching reached forward into my present.  Attending writing workshops at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, I felt again how overwhelming and exhilarating learning can be for the learner. Visiting my dad as he slipped further into dementia and spoke much less, I watched him learn to play a game oriented around spatial relationships. My math teacher self talked to my daughter self, helping her.

Am I done here? I’m not sure. I haven’t explored some topics, or told some stories that feel important. But at this point I am more involved in other adventures.

Meanwhile, however you’ve found this blog, I’m glad. I feel like the host of a fabulous potluck feast. In effect, I’ve spent years working with wonderful cooks. Enjoy! Be emboldened! You can reach me, if you want, at the most obvious email address for someone named Polly Brown. I don’t like to write it out, because robots search for such things–but you’re very unlikely to guess wrong. Or you can share a comment.

From my new adventures, I wish you well in whatever you may be exploring or daring to try, in your own learning life.

Get Out!–and Find Four Things

Someone on the radio said research had shown that the typical American kid spends an average of just 7 minutes each day outside. “Yikes!” I thought later, as I walked under oak woods and tall white pines, past a beach still covered with snow. I couldn’t have heard that right.

What happened to the outdoor recess that should be every schoolchild’s right? Even in winter, it had to be really cold and windy to keep us inside. Kids conducted unscheduled experiments with snow and rocks and mud, learned how to approach a group and join it, invented complicated variations on gym games and argued about the rules; shouted each others’ names under the sky, and learned how to run in a long chain, or backwards–or how to conduct a complicated conversation while walking at full speed.

We could read the importance of this outdoor time, in experiments conducted by nature. Even a few days of pouring rain took their toll on kids’ patience, stamina, confidence and social skills.

get out playground-sprinkler-runMy father died a few weeks ago, a long, slow, mostly peaceful death. I kept seeing him, in my mind, in one of his boats, following the bends of a creek in no hurry to reach open water.

The mortality curriculum, I used to call it–something we would never go hunting for, or plan into the life of a class–something that would find us, one way or another–not an experiment of nature, exactly, but a reality.

Reading and writing can give us ways to think about endings, and the place they have in stories. That’s part of why we send our students there. Taking a break from blog posts, I gave myself the kind of assignment I used to give my students, and wrote a version of my dad’s story, going back to think again about the impact of his war on his life.

Beyond that, spending a lot of time outdoors was always the most important way we held onto huge, hard-to-manage realities–and it remains that for me now. Because my father always spent as much time as possible outside–gardening, shooting baskets, working on boats–it’s a way to think about him even without thinking. I’m walking a lot these days.

Richard working on boatAs I watch the spring melt (finally) pouring over the steps of the channel downhill, I keep worrying about all those kids indoors too much. What about sitting outdoors at dismissal? Walking or bicycling home from school?

garden studying compostFor that matter, what about outdoor learning? At Touchstone, we deliberately encouraged curriculum that could be carried outdoors, or actually required the outdoors– outdoor sketching, perched on stools in the gardens; outdoor biology directly related to the school grounds, for example, studies of the macroinvertebrates to be found in our compost.

What about quick unaccompanied runs around the school, and the invaluable discussions of the ground rules needed to guard against people hitting the ground?

Finally, what about outdoor homework? We asked kids to follow the run-off water from their back yards, or pace off the distance from the front door to the nearest rock bigger than a loaf of bread (rarely a long distance, where I live, in the glacial debris field of New England.)

But maybe the most important thing we did, to preserve kids’ free time outdoors–emphasis on the word free–was our homework policy, limiting homework strictly, faithfully, including a generous amount of reading time within the limit. (Almost every year, at some point, my class had a conversation about kids’ favorite places to read outdoors.)

Minn Holling Clancy HollingHere’s a game, or an assignment, or a meditative practice–take your pick. It’s based on something Holling C. Holling says in the feast of marginal notes in his rich, sprawling, problematic and wonderful classic of American geography, Minn of the Mississippi. 

As he’s following a snapping turtle down the river, Holling says that a miniature natural history museum could consist of just four things–a pebble, a leaf, a feather, and a button. Something mineral, for geology / from a plant, for biology / from an animal, for zoology / made by a human, for anthropology.

Minn was published in 1951. We might organize those sciences differently, now–and I was always tickled by the kids who said, “But humans are animals, too. Why are they made separate here?” Still, I come back again and again to the task of finding Holling’s four things, when I’m walking,

Here’s a collection from a recent walk at  Hopkinton State Park.

find four things with feather and shard croppedEarly on, in my career of using this exercise, I swore that I wouldn’t pick up cigarette butts, although they are almost always the easiest human artifact to find. That day, I found two human-made things that intrigued me: a piece of crockery, and a tiny woven cord. For my final collection, I chose the crockery.

That day, as almost always, the hardest thing to find was the animal thing. The melting snowbanks were strewn with dog poop, but I wasn’t going to pick that up and carry it away.

mole wine cellar croppedRodent tunnels disappeared into the remaining snow, and I thought of the mole’s wine cellar I found at the family farm in Maine, crabapples crammed and fermenting in a tunnel beneath the snow, revealed when the snow melted away. I’m just guessing that the critter was a mole. In any case, that too defied being carried anywhere.

Unless you’re at the beach, it takes very careful observation to find a feather, or a shell, or a bone, or a bit of hair or fur snagged on a thorn. Mostly, animal remains get hauled off to be eaten, or processed by beetles and bacteria pretty quickly. They disappear. But this day, I found that tiny feather where the snow had just melted.

get out four things collectionsFind Four Things made a wonderful assignment for homework outdoors. (Here, to the left, are most of the collections of a recent class.) We said that kids could do this in their backyards, or in other outdoor places, but should skip things found indoors–so, for example, no shells from Florida, sent north by cousins.

We took plenty of time sharing these collections, hearing about where they came from. Then we left them set up on the table–a museum of miniature museums.

What’s learning without arguments? If you can’t find any animal remains at all, can you count a souvenir of animal activity, for example an acorn bearing obvious toothmarks, or those channels of tiny micro-arthropod travel inscribed on the inner surface of tree bark? Is it a human artifact, or a plant thing, if it’s something humans made out of wood? But isn’t everything mineral in origin?

I’ll let you imagine all the productive channels those discussions could follow.

Sometimes I bring home the set of four things I settle on. But I’m here mostly to practice gathering and letting go. I stand outside, under an enormous sky, and hold enormous things in my small and always aging heart. All the living beings of the natural world–not just we humans–dwell in the compost pile of what has been, and in the seeds and (often invisible) eggs of what will be.

As I lay down my collection, gathered from that dear rubble the melting snow reveals, I think of all those children trapped indoors. I really don’t believe that thing about seven minutes. Still, just in case, I mutter to the air at large: Let my people go.

The Great Train-to-Boston Public Transportation Adventure

For two weeks I’ve been trying to write about field trips to Boston during our transportation thematic studies. (This continues a recent post about Projects Time activities connected to transportation.) I keep coming back to two cautionary tales.

#1  I once heard of a class of eleven-year-olds studying metric units of measurement without any access to meter sticks. For that matter, no actual measurement going on, in a unit about measurement systems. Meters and centimeters had become mere abstract notions.

transportation field trip train entering stationAt my school, we were all about real. If we were going to study physics, engineering, history, economics, and public policy, all through the lens of transportation, we would have the visceral, hands-on experience of transportation in all sorts of ways, from silly to sublime.

We would design and draw towns and streets on a white-board-covered table, and then play on them with little cars and trucks, gleefully adding back-up beeping noises.

On individual field trips in our own neighborhoods, we would carry clipboards, stand on busy corners, and tally the passing cars–on the basis of how many people were traveling in each car. All those engines–almost all of them burning fossil fuels–how well or efficiently were they being used?

transportation field trip on subwayChildren who can’t legally drive are denied access to transportation in many rural and suburban areas–along with the elderly, the physically disabled, the poor. So we would spend a day using all the forms of public transportation we could get our feet on: commuter rail, and several different subway lines, and buses–reveling in the power we gained through these forms of access. transportation field trip hubway lineup

We would ride on elevators and escalators, and moving walkways if we could find them–and be thrilled by a line-up of Hubway bicycles.

transportation field trip inner harbor ferryWe would cross Boston Harbor with our faces into the wind, on one of the ferries that is a part of the MBTA. Our happy hearts would agree with Robert Louis Stevenson: For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

.transportation field trip medium rare on escalatorWhat did all this require? The head teacher (me) had to get control of her exaggerated but unfortunately earned fear of accidental injuries. I had to trust that my students would follow instructions, think carefully in these unfamiliar environments, watch out for each other, and have a blast wisely. (Only a small stuffed animal, known as Medium Rare, would tumble down the escalator for the sake of our video script.)

It helped that the conductors and drivers and transportation planners with whom we traveled or met were absolute saints. For example, below, Stephanie Pollack, associate director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston, talks with us about the role of public transportation in reducing transportation’s heavy impact on global climate change. transportation field trip orange line map with stephanie pollack croppedBefore our first trip, Maureen Trainor at the MBTA spent a long time with me on the phone, giving me ideas, helping me figure out the best way to buy tickets, and suggesting T-shirts that would carry our message. When we arrived on her sidewalk, she took us in to tour the MBTA dispatching facilities, then whirled us through a Silver Line bus (so we could say we’d been on a bus), and personally conducted us back into the subway, to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. That year we traveled during National Public Transportation Week, and there could not have been more earnest public transportation enthusiasts, or kinder guides, anywhere.

It helped most of all, though, that teams of wonderful parents joined us. Some had extensive experience with Boston’s public transportation system. One was a confirmed Hubway bicycle user, and could tell us about that. Another had a special connection to the person in Mayor Menino’s office in charge of promoting bicycling. Every parent contributed what he or she could, including reassurance at moments of uncertainty. (See below.)

Cautionary Tale #2   From a colleague: Two children are on a field trip. One says, “Ooooh! This is so cool!” The other says, “Don’t act too excited! They’ll make us write about it!”

transportation field trip girls on train-001 Almost all my students liked writing, in fact, but I always hoped that what we did would be textured and various enough to work for everyone. We would all have great fun traveling to and around Boston–I knew that–but rich learning experiences would be less rich if I didn’t ask them to capture their observations in language, one way or another.

So, sometimes the pre-writing, before the trip, took the form of posters, in which a little language goes a long way.

transportation poster transportation projects poster bThe trip book, a booklet I had created and copied for every child and adult, included invitations to sketch rather than write, along with opportunities to write lists rather than paragraphs, and also ways of recording observations by circling things on a pre-made list. (That’s a good solution for kids who get carsick if they try to write in a moving vehicle.)

transportation train tunnel sketch transportation field trip list cropped more

transportation things to seeThe last trip, much of our pre-writing (and research) went into the script for a video to be made with still photographs. You can see the finished product here.

transportation field trip Medium Rare and Hubway mapOn the day itself, we accidentally left our main character, Moosey, in South Station. Oh, no! On the spot, walking down the street, we revised our script to allow for a new main character, Medium Rare (posed to the right.)

transportation field trip moosey lost and foundAt the end of the day, we revised our story yet again, to include an ecstatic reunion with Moosey at the station’s Lost and Found. (Both group bonding and creativity thrive on the unexpected.) Certain student voices, muttering in my ear, remind me that we missed our train back to Grafton that year. But we had a lot of South Station fun while we waited for the next train.

transportation technology systems worksheetWhat did we carry away from all this? No matter how much fun there is in hands-on projects in general, and field trips in particular, it’s important to ask what gets learned, what gets known and understood and used. Facts, yes, many; but also a sense of the interconnected dynamics of large systems, expressed here in an NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) worksheet.

That first year, Stephanie Pollack, working at that time with the Conservation Law Foundation–and never a very tall person, no matter how distinguished–stood on a table in order to be heard over the lunchtime bustle at South Station. With fire and passion, grounded in research, she told us about the damage wreaked on the environment by a car-centered transportation system.

As we walked away from South Station in little clusters, all still talking about it, I asked Troy what he thought. “Oh,” he said, holding his head in a familiar gesture, “I don’t ever want to get in a car again.”

Kate and I looked at each other. We knew the field trip had worked, to get us thinking about connections and impacts and large systems. We also knew that our debrief would have to include some discussion of moments when we felt uncomfortable–because none of us could instantly make the changes in our lives to follow what we’d just heard.

transportation field trip uncomfortableBack at school the next day, a student note-taker captured, a little chaotically, a discussion that wound up imagining reasons why a person might have to make change slowly. We were in this together: absorbing new understanding, so important it would change our lives.

We only bought the special t-shirts the first year, but every time we were following their slogan: learning to make good transportation decisions, and learning that together. I wear mine to bed whenever I want to have brave dreams.

transportation tommy and dad on train

Transportation Projects

transportation projects comparing human-powered wheeled edit2When I think about transportation projects, I remember Kate Keller rounding up approximately a million human-powered wheeled vehicles, so we could try them and compare them and consider the relationship between function and design.

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled wagon and office chair

Transportation involves the movement of people or goods, so these small human-powered examples count, even when powered by very small humans. (See below.)

transportation projects design and function notes cropped

Why do wheels help so much, when we need to move things (or ourselves)? What design modifications help a wheel work well? What about handles? What about the way the weight of the goods is balanced?

transportation projects humanpowered wheeled chartmaking cropped

Kids had time to think about all these questions as they were actively trying out several vehicles at each station, comparing wheelbarrows and garden carts, or several kinds of strollers, dollies for working under cars, wheeled suitcases, even wheeled desk chairs. Then they had time to think about what they were noticing, and add to their notes or charts, before rotating to their next station.

In this activity, unlike some projects time set-ups, everybody tried everything. We would not have been forgiven by the people who didn’t get to try the scooter. Also, we wanted to avoid any suggestion of girl stuff and boy stuff.

transportation projects human-powered wheeled b edt

When I think of transportation projects, I’m bound to think of this photograph of Troy, experiencing the enhanced mobility provided by his very first car, in the form of a paper plate.transportation projects village simulation hWe added cars in the third round of a simulation of the relationship between transportation and trade, usually referred to as “the villages.” A Touchstone alum turned transportation planner (my son, Colby Brown) heard that we’d gotten a grant to develop curriculum about transportation. He said, “You have to do this Touchstone style. You have to model the interactions with a simulation on the playground.”

transportation projects village simulation a editSo Kate Keller, resident genius at translating complex concepts into compelling experience, designed a simulation in which students pretended to live and survive the seasons in three villages, widely spaced on our school grounds–under the gazebo out front, at the back of the rear playing field, and at the bottom of the slide. transportation projects village simulation b edit2

Kate put special care into making sure that none of the villages could be seen from the others, so transportation was also the only route for communication, true to most of human history. In order to conduct a trade, the traders had to travel. transportation projects village simulation c edit

We imagined each village having its own geography–mountains, woods, or a lake in the form of the playing field, which students pretended to cross by pulling saucer-sled boats.

Each geography had its own resources to offer in trade, for example cattails from the lakeside, wood from the forests, or cloth woven from the wool of mountain-tolerant sheep. At first, the villagerstransportation projects village simulation d edit had nothing but their own bodies to carry their goods, but in the second round each group had some additional transportation, such as a wheelbarrow.

Here’s one student’s writing, evaluating how that day’s experience had worked:

transportation projects village simulation eI kept the little note at the side, saying that trading was interesting, because that was such an understatement. The students were wildly excited about trading. In one debriefing conversation, a student said, “It’s hard to take part in the simulation and learn as an observer at the same time, because I get so excited about the trading.”

Looking back, I appreciate more than ever the engagement and thoughtfulness, the serious playfulness at its best, that gave rise to such astute observations about what we were asking students to do. I appreciate also the ways students supported each other in being both participants and researchers, reminding each other of our questions: What impact did the transportation have on the trading? What impact did the need for trade have on the need for transportation?

Village culture evolved very quickly, so magic stones and medicinal pieces of bark were also traded, and one student, writing up the day’s events, wrote as the History Keeper

transportation projects village simulation history keeper edit In the third round, after class discussion about where to take our simulation next, we introduced transportation that involved motors–individual private cars, a toll bridge, and a train route in the tunnel through the mountain of the school. As it played out, students were surprised at the expense of private transportation, at least in this simulation. In one of the replays of the curriculum in later years, a student yelled in exasperation, “This car is making me go broke!”

It’s torture to leave out everything I’m having to leave out. I want to describe just one more of our transportation projects. Later in the unit, we split into groups working parallel and reporting to each other–about transportation access issues, or about what it’s like to make a transportation plan. For example, one group designed a bike path from West Upton village to our school.

transportation projects 140 plan editAnother planned several bus routes. No bus could pick up all our students, from the many towns in which they lived. But when we had mapped all our own class member locations, at the beginning of the year, Kate and I had noticed how many families lived near the state highway very close to the school. The bus route planning group spent a lot of time with maps on which they located all the school families involved in the clustering we had noticed. They made two lists, the one I’ve shown, and another of families who lived south and east of the school, in Milford and Hopkinton. Then they designed routes.

transportation projects 140 plan b editOne of the students pointed out that parents might or might not be willing to let their children ride a bus, even a school-sponsored bus. She might have heard about the parent-organized bus to Worcester that ran for a few years, with continual difficulties around poor communication. So she designed the questionnaire to the right.

transportation projects 140 plan cThe bus route planning group had several final products to share, including maps made on Topo software, annotated with the proposed routes, and an article which ran in the school newsletter.

transportation projects 140 plan d

Although the bus routes never did materialize, those Very Young Transportation Demand Forecasters had learned lessons almost impossible with anything less connected to their own experience.

That was true, of course, of the whole deal. In the next post I want to write about the transportation field trips, giant projects time sessions on many kinds of wheels.

Two extra notes:

#1  This post is the third in a series. The first post in this series about Projects Time describes some logistics, considers the social benefits of this format for hands-on inquiry, and takes a flyover of a typical afternoon of outdoor projects. The second compares accountability and responsibility in the context of Projects Time.

#2 Our hands-on explorations of the physics, history, public policy issues and fun of getting from here to there were the Projects Time side of a curriculum called Transportation Choices, which Kate Keller and I developed with the help of funds from the U.S. Dept of Transportation, administered by the University Transportation Center at Assumption College in Worcester.

One of several university transportation centers throughout the country, the Assumption center focused specifically on K-12 learning about transportation and the environment. When the center closed, its website documentation of the various curricula developed by grantees disappeared from public view–but I’ve saved most of what Kate and I produced to record and evaluate our own work, including curriculum plans and maps and a bibliography. I was able to return to that material and use it in subsequent explorations of the transportation theme.

I’ve written elsewhere about Kate Keller’s gift for developing hands-on developmentally-appropriate activities about complicated ideas. You can find more here.

Projects Time

As an incubator for serious playfulness, nothing worked better than Projects Time.

vortex gazersTeaching “big kids”–young adolescents waking up to the world in new ways–I wanted to give them the choices, hands-on experiences, and purposeful collaboration in small groups that would keep them engaged and alert and cooking. Projects Time evolved as a way to frame all that.

It also grew out of adult behavior that can’t ever be taken for granted:

  • Adults made choices about the guidance they offered based on what worked for each particular group of kids, in their individual and group uniqueness–by listening carefully, with a sense of learning targets in our minds, but with the reality of the present always uppermost.
  • projects compost dirt grandmotherAdults dove into hands-on, messy, authentic experience (almost always potentially risky to our dignity.)
  • Adults worked together, as teachers and assistants and committed volunteers, and got a visible kick out of our own collaboration.

Put all together, Projects Time was a bit of a miracle–a twice-weekly, home-grown miracle.

graphing voicesAs we got better and better at running this, we could see the effectiveness of having different small groups working simultaneously on different projects, and then sharing with each other. For example, in the photograph above, a group who’d been investigating sound set up instructions for other students in an end-of-sequence “energy fair”, and two students are trying out the set-up.

Below, in a sharing session at the end of one day’s Projects Time, a group uses their own bodies to demonstrate the arrangement of the states in New England.

bodies as New England states editA little more about logistics

Students and adults came together for Projects Time in two fairly long time blocks—a total of almost three hours every week. Tamara, the teacher who moonlighted as the school’s scheduling wizard, knew that I would accept any other strangeness in my class schedule, in order to preserve those long Tuesday and Thursday afternoon time blocks.

A series of inspired part-time assistants joined us for Projects Time, even when we had no other aide time assigned for the class.  Each year’s volunteer parent coordinator helped me recruit and schedule parents, often well in advance.

Within the nourishing nest of those pre-arranged rich conditions, the students and I could choose our challenges. To begin each sequence, we brainstormed a list of ideas for projects which would make use of various materials and opportunities in and outside of the classroom–and would meet various learning goals.

Some activities, typically, related to our current whole class theme. In the fall and spring, we planned for as many activities as possible to happen outdoors. (For example, in the photograph below, a group discusses a redesign of a water feature in the garden below our deck, taking into account the way water travels downhill.)

projects side gardenA particular week’s list often repeated some of the topics or activities from the previous sequence, because kids wanted to try things they’d seen other students do. “That thing building electric circuits looked like fun–can that be on the list again?”

After we had settled on a menu of possible projects for the next round, each student wrote three or four choices on a sticky note, ranked them, and gave the note to me. (Thinking all this over, it always seems important to me that students were choosing activities, not work partners.) Choosing is hard for some kids, and I let them write down “anything” if they really meant it, but encouraged them to think it through, and predict how different activities would work for them.

Later, I arranged and rearranged the sticky notes to form groups. Usually I started by seeing what would happen if I gave all the students their first choices–and sometimes the groups made themselves immediately, just as easy as that. More often, I needed to give some students their second choices, in order to provide for variety in work-partners and types of activity, both of which felt important to all of us, kids included.

Students’ choices committed them to at least the two blocks of a single week, and sometimes a third block, or even a fourth, in response to popular demand. Longer sequences allowed more time for exploration and follow-through, and students found that rewarding.

projects temperature investigations grinWith very few exceptions, everyone who took part in Projects Time for any length of time felt that it worked, in a unique and exhilarating way.

river group recording some editsStudents experimented and observed and simulated and dramatized, and also had a great time. They took concepts they’d learned from reading and applied them. In the follow-up writing, they speculated about what had happened and why, and what else they might want to try.

There were social benefits, also. Working together in small groups, students got to know each other better. They became deeply involved in inspired arguments. For example, in the photograph below, students conducting a simulation of the effects of transportation argue about a proposed trade.

transportation argument editI’m going to use the next few posts to explore some particularly memorable Projects Time sequences, including the activities Kate Keller designed for our Transportation Choices unit, and some work on A Field Guide to Touchstone.

I also want to share some questions I’m still mulling over. One involves the perennial conflict between coverage of material and effectiveness of student learning experience. Obviously, the Projects Time model isn’t necessarily the best model for covering every detail of content on a long list of state or federal or Common Core standards.

Another persistent and possibly related question involves accountability, a big buzzword in American educational policy right now. Again, it’s obvious that Projects Time wasn’t designed to maximize accountability.

I’ll come back to all that. For now, having given you some snapshots of individual projects, I want to take you on a fantasy helicopter ride, to get a sense of how everything was happening at once.

From our point of view, hovering above the school grounds, we can see a group with a dissecting microscope, at a picnic table behind the main building. (Hooray for extension cords.) The students not currently using the microscope are looking for things in a nearby garden, including creepy crawlers from the compost, to examine when they get a turn. One student sits at the picnic table making a detailed sketch of a flower she found, using a jeweler’s loupe to get a good view of the structure.

Out in front of the school, some kids are measuring the temperatures on top of stones in the wall along the road, comparing with the temperatures they found in the wall spaces underneath those same stones, thinking about the idea of very micro microclimates.

Seth and Ben marble chutes editAnother group, working under the portico to take advantage of a long bench, uses a stopwatch to time their latest marble chute run. They’re trying to maximize the length of the run by maximizing friction, without letting the marble come to a full stop.

Meanwhile, another group is up on the deck outside our classroom, working on a puppet show about water power, in which a dragonfly puppet has become an authority on the differences between overshot and undershot water wheels, and models have been made to demonstrate them.

Somewhere down there, a lucky teacher moves from group to group, carrying her clipboard, with its note-taking sheets about individual students, and its list of stuff to track down for next time. She also carries the camera she wishes she’d used even more.

Although, really, what it needed was video, to capture kids saying, “What if…?” and “Let’s try it again…” and “That is wicked cool…”

Overviews: The World In a Grain of Sand

Think, for a minute, about ways of getting or creating an overview of a bunch of experience or information.

sketching time sample map cropped to squareMaps can do that–geographical maps, but also the very local maps-of things-to-be-built-in-the-future called blueprints, or the webs that some writers like to call concept maps.

Planning curriculum, mulling a big unwieldy thing, I found that it helped me to use charts made on pages with boxes. overviews first weeks edit“Those box things” students called them–and blank versions freely available worked really well as a note-taking strategy for kids who needed to see an overall structure as they took their notes, rather than waiting for that to emerge.

overviews sample outline editI sweated and swore over the classic outline, whenever I had to produce one as a student, especially in the days before computer word processing’s friendliness to second thoughts. Still, the classic outline, with its indented Roman numerals and subcategories, works well as an overview for some minds. (To the left, the sample in the report-writing guidebook for the Voyage of the Mimi animal behavior reports.) I never required a full formal outline, but some students found them helpful and made them voluntarily.

Linnaeus’s biological classification scheme–groups nested inside groups, as in the classic outline–provided an overview of all life that helped biologists begin to grasp the whole of it. Library classification schemes like the Dewey Decimal System reach out to hold a giant organization of the universe, living and non-living: turtles / planets / novels / kinds of dump trucks / religions.

Overviews can constrain or even warp how we see what’s inside them, but they can also help us consider more than we could possibly consider without them.

Now think of synecdoche, the Greek word used to refer to one of the literary devices we use frequently in everyday conversation. An example: Let me give you a hand with that. We never mean, when we say this, just the hand. The hand in that expression stands for so much, including the ways we can stand beside someone, and reach into his or her project, helpfully.

In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. It’s the story told at a memorial service, or the story told in a progress report, that captures a person’s character better than any list of characteristics abstracted. It’s the photograph that can take the place of a thousand words, or images and poems that hold emblematic moments.

tracing watershed pathway croppedRecently Terry Lunt teased me about how many times I’ve used a particular photograph, of some kids working together with her at projects time. “Well,” I said, “it’s a great photograph!” What do I mean? I meant that much of what I want to celebrate–and propagate–shines in that photo. (Not naming those things; just giving you the photograph again.)

Here’s William Blake, on what the human imagination can do with tiny details, giving them the meaning of the whole:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Like Blake, like so many others of my species, I want to hold the world in “a grain of sand.” Still, I also want the classification scheme, the map that can convey directions to some specific neighborhood within a big picture.

When I first began writing this blog, I gave myself huge freedom, both challenging and delicious. I knew I wanted stories, not abstractions; the power of experience, not the power of arguments. I rarely planned ahead what I would write next. I let things sneak up on me, and addressed them helter-skelter, in no rational order, inspired by students’ work as I uncovered it in my sorting, or by the comments of past students, or by curriculum materials. Although I sometimes made rough outlines for individual posts, I absolutely did not have or follow any outline for the blog as a whole.

But then, a month or so ago, I realized that I had come to a lucky difficulty: I had written so much that I couldn’t remember all of what I had written about, or figure out easily what was still waiting for me. I couldn’t see the whole of my year to think it over, in either way, either overview or emblematic glimpse.

sal blue heronA side detour back to the Linnaean classification scheme, the one with families and classes and orders, groups nesting inside groups. It’s still useful much of the time. But sidle up to Steve Gatesy, Touchstone parent and paleontologist, and say, “I just found out that birds are actually reptiles!” and he will answer, “Well, actually those categories aren’t considered very useful any more.” Grin bravely as swaths of patiently constructed curriculum wash into the gutter. (At the left, an amazing photograph my sister took of a blue heron. In certain views, a heron really does look like a snake gifted with flight.)

In any case, my reading supports Steve: most biologists now prefer to think about clades, groups of related species each consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants, a single “branch” on the “tree of life”. (The Wikipedia entry is helpful.) The category of reptiles is not a clade.

I wasn’t thinking about biological classification, but somehow I decided to assemble groups of posts that had something like a common ancestor. Now, over the past few weeks, I’ve created five overview pages to hold together those clumps.

page names under the butterflyIn the world of my WordPress template, the names of pages, acting as links, always show, in a row up toward the top of the blog–in my case, just underneath the butterfly. This stands in contrast to posts, which push each other down a long scroll, so that only one shows on the screen at any given time. (You’ll only see the pages listed below the butterfly if you read the blog on the website, however. They don’t show if you’re reading a post in an email.)

In order to think over what I’d thought over (!) I took the huge unwieldy blob of everything I’d written so far, and I read and reread, and watched myself return again and again to certain themes,

Then I tried to figure out something short and snappy to call each of those recurrent themes. That was its own kind of torture, necessary if all of them were going to fit across the page menu. Like any eleven-year-old, beginning to watch myself learn, I observed the way arbitrary structure had imposed a useful, meaningful limit.

On each of the overviews, I wrote a summary or teaser or even slightly philosophical introduction, and I constructed links to the posts that seemed to me to clump together under a particular theme. I had fun choosing photographs or illustrations–emblematic glimpses for each post.

So now, here are the names and sequence of the five clumps so far:

Even if you’re reading this in an email, it should work to click on the link I’ve just constructed for each clump’s short and snappy formulation. (Short and snappy for me, at least.)

I hope all this will prove useful. Already, for what my high school guy friends called “me, myself, and I,” this process has helped me notice gaps I want to fill.

It has also helped me re-envision my purposes. I do want to be useful to others, to keep serving the educational vision that has motivated me for more than a quarter of a century. So I’m glad to see, from my backstage statistics, that some readers have already used the overview pages to explore the strands / clumps / clades of the life depicted here.

green turtlesFor the time being, though, I’ve had enough of metablogistry. I’m ready to write about turtles, I think.

Or maybe dump trucks.

 

 

 

Mapping the Balance between Imagination and Precision

My teaching colleagues and I–and here I’m counting parents among my colleagues–wanted students to grow into a sense of place that would begin local, and widen to the universe. We wanted that sense of place to be both intimate and informed: to have the tugging anchor of subjective personal experience; to have also the power and legs for traveling, the reliability, the sense of responsibility, of objective information and understanding.

For me, these different flavors in my sense of place come together in maps. That may be partly because of the ways I’ve experienced their use. In an early memory, my mother introduces me to our new house, not yet built, by telling a story using the blueprint: “Here you’ll come in the door, and here you’ll put down your lunchbox…” In a slightly later memory, we use a map of the world, posted on the kitchen wall, to trace our father’s travels.

map array with pinsWanting to give my students what had meant so much to me–especially at the beginning of every year, when they particularly needed sense of place–I filled my classroom with maps at every scale. Needing more wall space, I put maps out in the hallway, like a party spilling over. Showing someone a map, for me, is as happy as giving someone a book.

Maps choose what to show, and fall short of the truth by leaving things out, sometimes with intent to deceive, but often because there’s no escaping it. Realtors’ maps aren’t likely to show the things nobody wants to live near, the incinerators and Superfund sites–but every map on a local scale has to choose which tiny streams to signify with a blue line, and which to leave unknown, secret to everyone except the kids who play in those woods or that back lot.

mapping black and white aerialAn aerial photograph lies, too. For one thing, it flattens. In my classroom an aerial photograph of the landscape around our school helped us locate ourselves in this place we shared, but gave no real sense of the sizable hills many of my students crossed to get to school. (The map above isn’t the one from my classroom. On that one the school wasn’t labeled, and people had to work a bit, using whatever clues they knew, to find it. If you’re at all familiar with that area, though, you know about the hills that have vanished in the aerial photograph’s view.)

mapping topo UptonTopographic maps show contour much better. Once students knew how to interpret all those swooping lines, they could observe how the rivers wound their way between the hills, along the low points; how the river stretched out and wagged around in flatter places, like the route of the West River just a mile or so from school, where it moves slowly through swamp.

We talked about latitude and longitude and the trickiness of showing a spherical earth on flat paper or a flat screen. All that map literacy helps kids make sense of maps, and appreciate their precision. Beyond that, though, we gave kids lots of opportunities to explore the correspondence between a map and the world it shows–lots of chances to line up the street view and the overhead view; the labeled and boundaried with the geographic and unbounded; the subjective and the objective.

For starters, we posted combinations of maps and aerial photos on many scales. Here are a few:

  • a blueprint of the school, or the plan of the school on its property, compared with the Google image from overhead
  • the aerial view and topo view sampled above
  • a satellite photo of eastern Massachusetts posted near a highway map
  • the blow-up beach ball earth, that swirled blue-green-white marble the astronauts see, compared with the traditional globe in its wobbly frame (which always reminded me that the political earth is fragile and precarious.)

mapping beach ball globemapping river recording 2bIn projects time, we mapped the small watersheds our models created, in the sandbox or in a shallow tub of diatomaceous earth.

mapping Andrea and stone wall bWith Andrea Kendall, we clambered around on the hillside near school, finding the southwest end of a stone wall that could be seen on the aerial photo extending hundreds of feet back up into the woods.

 

Our Places Max 2bWe read Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe, and thought about the role of maps in that adventure. We made maps of our own places, emulating the kids’ maps in My Place, the remarkable Australian book about sense of place, created by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins. 

We put maps into field trip packets, so the kids, often riding with drivers other than their parents–and some of them a little nervous about that–could take control, in a way, and follow our route from highway to highway, from Grafton to Sturbridge or Lowell or Pawtucket or Cape Cod.

On the giant topographic map array with which we started each year, kids narrated their routes from home to school, or from home to a friend’s house. Kids who lived in two houses for parts of every week marked them both and looked at the route between them. Samantha Cook, now a grown-up, once said: “No matter what I want, it’s in the other house.” Don’t all of us have something like that in our lives? The distances and relationships maps show us can be deeply personal, an objective correlative for a felt experience.

In general, whenever we compared a map and a place, using the one to help us understand the other, and vice versa, we were balancing, weaving together, precision and imagination, as all authentic human learning must.

Precision does matter. A map fails us if it isn’t as faithful as possible, and a gratuitously misleading map leaves us not just lost, potentially, but also with less power as citizens trying to take responsibility for our places. I’ve written elsewhere about a wonderful book by the Canadian writer Val Ross, in which she describes the lengths people have gone to in order to get increasingly accurate maps of the places that matter to them.

I thought of Val Ross last week, and wished again that she were still within the reach of earthly communication, so that I could send her an article one of my past students posted on Facebook–about the iconic outline map of Louisiana, black on white, shaped like a boot, found on signs everywhere throughout Louisiana.

mapping Louisiana

Throughout Louisiana, and beyond, that image of the state can be found–but not in the parts of the map that aren’t land any more. There, anything that could hold a sign–a post, a tree, the side of a building–is gone, underwater.

The altered map shows what Brett Anderson figures actually remains of Louisiana. He and his colleague Jeff Duncan want a truer public map, a truer icon, in order to focus public attention on land loss. The disappearance of Louisiana’s land results partly from natural changes, but it’s also an outfall of corporate actions, poor planning, political corruption–things that can be changed by active citizen involvement.

Active citizen involvement on behalf of place needs the nourishment of sense of place. It needs not just one good map or aerial view, but many, showing the present, showing the past, showing the hills and rivers, showing the town lines down the middles of the rivers, showing the connections.

I think of teachers in Louisiana, trying, as middle school teachers everywhere do, to use the increasing perspective and cognitive reach of that age, and help students see the relationship between the map and the world. I feel for all of them; we have a harder job when that relationship is broken.

mapping bike trail map editSo here’s a cheer for classroom maps, maps in books, maps posted out in the world, accurate and ready and waiting to be shared. The other day, my husband and I grinned at each other when we came to the end of our bike ride and saw two women standing at the large posted map of the trail. They were telling the story of the ride they’d just taken. “We parked here, and this is where we saw the swan, and this is where we stopped to talk with Joe–”

The map was helping them know their own lives more vividly and clearly. We all need that.

Obligations, Opportunities and Beavers

Speaking of volunteers, I’ve thought a lot, this summer, about Donna Williams.

beaver blackstone watershed relayIn the early years of Touchstone’s program for 13 and 14 year olds, Donna helped us make several sections of a huge sprawling video about the Blackstone River Valley. (“Us” meant Katy Aborn and me, and a bunch of talented, energetic kids, and a smaller bunch of equally talented and energetic parent volunteers.)

There were both story parts and documentary parts of the video as a whole, which we called Voyage to the Sea. In the story sequence, several Touchstone teams took part in a fictional environmental education program called the Blackstone Watershed Relay. Donna agreed to play herself, water quality advocate for the Massachusetts Audubon sanctuary at Broad Meadow Brook, and she helped advise two of the investigating teams, both on camera and off.

Not in the comfort of the sanctuary headquarters, but standing next to streams and sitting in fields, in conditions always unpredictable and sometimes swelteringly hot, in scenes that were all inherently unpredictable conversations with kids, Donna repeated lines about toads or pesticides or dissolved oxygen, as many times as it took to get the scene straight.

At some point in our saga, Donna’s opportunity to send out her message via our video may have turned into something she experienced as an obligation, a burdensome but necessary faithfulness. If so, we never knew. Sure of her own purposes, delighted to support ours, she carried on with extraordinary patience and a wonderful laugh.

Here’s one of the morals of all these stories: If you jump in and do something real in your teaching and learning, the world will come to meet you. The state may give you a grant to hire someone like Veda Reilly, brilliant video producer with an astonishing knack for working with kids. Amazing parents like Mary Cornacchia and Ann Swinton may adopt your project as their own, and spend untold hours helping it come to completion. People unconnected to the school, from all over the valley and beyond–park rangers, business owners, historians, environmentalists–may give you both their time and their best wisdom.

One day we stood with Donna by a section of Miscoe Brook that had been flooded by beavers. One of the kids expressed sorrow about the dying trees. Well, yes, Donna said, the trees would die. But then those bare dead trees would make new homes for herons. She’d seen one, just that morning.

Natural environments change. (And, she implied, they exist primarily for themselves.) But you can look for what will give you joy in the changed place.

The kids who made that video learned so much, and only some of it was about how to set up a tripod.

We videotaped the beaver dam and the lodge at our site, and a stuffed beaver from the Massachusetts Audubon teaching collection. I saw some live beavers in zoos. After that, though, for years, I wanted to see beavers alive and free and at work.

And then, after 60 years of frogs and herons and muskrats, we developed a case of beavers in the pond at my family’s farm, the pond my grandmother built in memory of my grandfather.

Beavers alive and free and at work. The fascinating opportunity for which I had waited. Life rarely misses a chance for irony. Close up, in what is now my   mother’s pond, life with beavers turned into a tortuously complicated competition between obligations.

beaver edits frog grinWe wanted to honor and cherish these wild mammals–and at the same time honor the trees my mother loves. We wanted to welcome a larger pond with more room for frogs, hooray, and herons, further hooray–but still keep the pond from flooding the road.

Struggling with all this, I made a video full of mixed feelings, slapping tails, and giant circles of ripple.

The beavers  were definitely fun to watch, even from afar.

beaver wakeWe admired their lodge, at the far end of the pond, viewed best from a canoe. In this photo you can see the first summer’s construction, now grassed over, and a front section the beavers added after we got the water level down a little. The white X must stand for something, but we don’t speak beaver.

beaver lodgeIn spite of our admiration, the changes the beavers brought did not feel like a good thing. Dammed, the stream backed up into the woods, and killed dozens of trees there. Other trees were felled by the beavers, who don’t always get it right.

beaver edits felled treesIn the three years we’ve tried and failed to say goodbye to the beavers, trees along the edge of the pond have died, choked by actually standing in water, or by having their roots in saturated soil. The large birch in this photo, gamely fighting a disease that strikes birch trees, gave up the struggle and stood bare all this summer, along with other smaller birches, and a special maple tree with an unusual branching pattern.

beaver edits pond late augustOther trees, a little back from the water’s edge, have been girdled and are dying slowly.

beaver edits tree damage

By the end of the second summer, beavers had filled the original pond drainage system with mud and sticks, silting in the outflow end of the pond. This summer, our third beaver summer, a new young furry engineer built small dams across a spillway designed to drain the pond only in case of extraordinary circumstances. These were.

beaver edits damIn the state of Maine, dismantling a beaver lodge is illegal. Dismantling a dam is not. Every morning, all this summer, I marched out with my clam rake and tore the new dam apart, revising that little piece of landscape back to what I thought it should look like in the new normal:

beaver edits dam site

And every night the beaver built the dam back. One late afternoon I watched the beaver (this summer we had only one) gathering up mud in the shallows, and then swimming with the mud in its forepaws, over to the dam site, to plaster onto saplings and water plants piled there.

Every morning I had a new opportunity to examine beaver paw prints.

I told my old friend and teaching colleague Kate Keller, “I feel like I’m teaching the beaver how to build, by making it revise its building plan again and again.” It felt like projects time at school. Gradually the beaver showed evidence of better and better dam-building skills. That had not been my goal.

beaver mudmoundOn the other hand, I did come to enjoy my part of this odd conversation. As the piles of hauled-out mud and sticks mounded higher and higher, I became aware of growing arm strength (along with sore shoulders.) I felt proud of my dam-destroying prowess. I liked listening to the birds, watching the bugs, and cheering the water as it rushed downhill, once I liberated it again.

Like walking a dog, the obligation could be an opportunity, at least sometimes.

 

beaver edits snared from bridgeFinally, for the second summer in a row–and as a step toward the solution I’ll explain below–we called Rich Burton, at Maine Animal Damage Control, who is licensed to trap beavers live and relocate them. A week ago, his snare caught the current beaver.

I stood vigil while I waited for Rich to arrive, watching as the beaver rested in the water and then struggled again to escape.

beaver edits in water b

 

beaver rich burton

 

Then, from a safe distance, I watched as Rich transferred the beaver from the pond snare to a pole snare, then to a cage for transport. Although this was only a young beaver, maybe in its second summer, it could have taken a chunk out of its human trapper at any moment. But he said, “I love doing this. I like seeing them up close, and giving them another chance.” He also likes the excitement. But he’s been offered his own reality show, and turned it down. “This is an honest way to make a living,” he says. “That’s not.”

The kids who took part in the making of Voyage to the Sea, our Blackstone Valley video, got a true picture of the work video requires (honest or not.) Through rain and fog and hot sun, through hours and hours of editing, they sometimes experienced that work as an obligation, a thing done without much joy, out of faithfulness to a promise. Much more of the time, though, they knew and felt that they were in the middle of an amazing opportunity.

They were spending a lot of time outdoors. Even when they were indoors, they were working to improve public understanding of environmental issues that really mattered to them. All of us, young and older, were living fully in our purposes.

On camera one day, Alex Cornacchia used a drawing to explain the working of a beaver deceiver. (Donna had told us about this, of course, and given us a booklet to read, which got digested into the script.) Beavers have a strong instinct to squelch any sound of running water. The beaver deceiver, often just a flexible pipe threaded through the beaver dam, thwarts that instinct–but it also says, “Sure, stick around, we like watching you. We just don’t want you to flood our land.”

At my mother’s farm, we are hoping, with all our fingers crossed, that any week now we will become the proud owners of a new beaver deceiver, and that it will let us enjoy the guest engineers who seem bound to show up next summer–and also keep the road from flooding, all at once.

Meanwhile, I find myself thinking again and again about the ways experience shifts from opportunity to obligation and back again, and the times–not always, but sometimes–when we can choose our point of view one way or the other.

Given respect and some control of our learning voyages, we can be students who do more than we have to, owning our learning opportunities with joy. Given respect and some control of our teaching environments, and remembering to take care of ourselves, we can keep the rare privilege of the work alive in our hearts.

Whatever we do in life, we can be purposeful people who let strange accidents and natural changes happen to us–and keep receiving whatever they have to give. Beavers and all.

 

In Praise of Spare Grown-ups

Decades ago, I was the one and only parent driver for a field trip from central Massachusetts to the Museum of Fine Arts in New York City. The class consisted of four girls–Touchstone Community School’s first graduating class. My daughter Sarah was one of those pioneers. We rode the subway, explored the Temple of Dendur, ate Korean food, and had a blast.

A few years later, inspired by that experience and others, I began work toward a masters in Middle School Education–and almost immediately found myself teaching at Touchstone. Full of wild ideas, brave intentions, and ardent admiration for the teachers I’d been observing and helping, I entered my mid-adulthood virgin experience as a classroom teacher, feeling exhilarated, terrified–and immensely grateful to have Kate Keller as co-conspirator in those first years.

Not all our ideas and intentions could bear fruit. But here’s one that stuck: we knew from the beginning that we wanted to welcome parent volunteers and other visitors into our classroom, as often and as thoroughly as possible.

Good things happen when kids get to know their classmates’ parents and grandparents as fellow learners. I figured that the adults should know their children’s classvolunteers helping Sam sewmates that same way. But I knew how tricky this could be in a school drawing its population from a whole region, not just a neighborhood. We needed to build the neighborhood feeling at school, every chance we could get. To the left, Amy Bouman works with one of her daughter’s classmates, Sam Winalski, to create special clothing for that year’s Alhambra Banquet.

Below, a visiting grandmother helps students observe and classify macroinvertebrates in compost from the school’s compost bins.

volunteers visiting gram 2

Here, kids clown around with some of the parents who joined a day-long adventure learning about transportation. We aimed to use as many types of public transportation as possible–commuter rail, subway, harbor ferry, and bus–and got to observe others, such as taxis. We talked with people who challenged us to think about transportation’s effect on the environment. Our T-shirts helped spread our message (“learning to make good transportation choices”), and made it easier to keep track of each other in the unfamiliar density of Boston.

volunteers transportation field trip

volunteers canal family field tripIn another fall when we used transportation as a way to focus on economics, the environment, and individual choices, Beckley Gaudette volunteered to set up a Sunday afternoon family bike ride, on a section of the Blackstone River Bikeway. Here, a mother, her student in the class, and a younger sister look at the remnants of the Blackstone Canal. This is a great example of the way parents can help to deepen and enrich place-based education, by contributing their knowledge of local resources, and by contributing their own zest for knowing more about the place where they live.

On field trips, but also in the ordinary work of the classroom, parents and grandparents and other community adults shared the students’ learning, modeling enthusiasm and curiosity and flexible ways to organize information and approach problems. Beyond that, visiting and volunteer adults often took on significant teaching roles that were especially valuable in a self-contained class.

volunteers Phil with Kaitlin In self-contained classrooms, one or two teachers share all the core curriculum: reading, writing, math, history, geography, science–everything but arts and physical education and foreign languages. This has many benefits. Teachers serve individuals and the whole group more effectively when they know students in all their strengths and challenges, subject to subject. Rich interdisciplinary experiences are easier to schedule and develop, and ring truer to life itself, which doesn’t have subject boundaries.

volunteers phil visiting Still, young adolescents need meaningful contact with lots of other adults besides those one or two steady teachers. They need lots of chances to be seen and known by different kinds of people, and lots of ways to imagine themselves as grown-ups. In the photographs above and to the left, Phil Iantosca, the father of a student in another class, explains scuba gear and the nitty gritty of underwater engineering, to students who’ve been learning about the role of scuba in underwater archaeology.

Across cultures and across the centuries, people have known that young adolescents are most engaged when working with their hands, or even better their whole bodies. If there’s a small group pursuing a real challenge, so much the better. For the kinds of learning-through-engagement that evolved in my classroom, parent volunteers were worth their weight in gold. Below, Rick Mlcak, Violet’s dad, guides kids in acting out the different states of matter, by way of thinking about water as a liquid, solid, or gas.volunteers Rich MlcakReaders who are teachers themselves, and friends who know that I have to work extra hard to manage and organize inspiration, will suspect that I could never organize all these spare grown-up contributions on my own. It’s true! Every year I recruited a parent volunteer coordinator, beginning with Cathy Rao, very long ago, who helped me figure out the coordinator role. Some parents, like Cathy, were able to serve as coordinator and also come into the classroom as steady volunteers themselves. Some served as coordinators through multiple years with the same child in the class, and some kept going, or came back, with younger children. (If I ever get to award sainthood, there are several candidates, including Terry Lunt, who probably logged more hours in my room than any other parent over the years.)

Below, Lisa Hennin, coordinator and volunteer, works with her own son, Seth, and his small group, to create food for the Alhambra Banquet. volunteers Lisa helping Seth cookI’ve lost count of how many parent volunteers, over the years, followed my own path and wound up becoming teachers themselves.

Jacqui Goodman–teacher-in-charge riding shotgun with me on the way to New York City–gave me a priceless gift when she invited me into the class to teach, not just watch or drive. Grateful to her, and to others of my own kids’ teachers, when I became a teacher I wanted to share the wealth. I wanted as many adults as possible to be exposed to this other version of school, and help to build it.

In fact, of course, I wanted the revolution, one classroom at a time. Still do.

I have to say we’re not quite there. Every time we empower the defensiveness of legislators and administrators over the direct experience and earned wisdom of teachers–every time we do anything that creates us-them tension between parents and teachers–every time we make the stakes of one-shot tests more lethal to kids’ long-term thriving–we make it more dangerous, and less likely, for teachers to give parents significant roles in the classroom.

That’s assuming any parents are available.  The increasingly crazy demands on workers everywhere, and at every level, leave fewer and fewer parents time to be a part of their child’s school experience. Even several decades ago, I knew that some parents could only show up once for a special visit and demonstration, and that I should welcome and honor them. Some needed to give their support behind the scenes, making phone calls or cooking fabulous food. I was grateful, beyond words, to all of them.

A few words of advice to teachers: Make it real. Get to know what you can expect from individual parents or grandparents. Trust them, as soon and as often as you can, with real responsibility for sharing meaningful content. Find ways to help volunteer adults celebrate and support variation among students’ learning styles and approaches. Welcome the stories volunteers can tell you about learning moments or interactions you missed. Empower parents to say, “Please stop elbowing [or whatever] until I can check with the teacher what’s okay.” (Or, even better, to ask a group, “What are your rules about that?”) Thank and praise parents, grandparents, and any other helpful people who wander in. Help students understand how unfair it is to take advantage of a grown-up who has come out of the goodness of his or her heart, in order to offer more freedom, more choice, more interesting possibilities to the whole class. It really helps for students to grasp what’s happening.

volunteers Mrs WeedSpeaking of other adults wandering in: here’s another photo of Marjorie Weed, retired high school art teacher and astonishingly persistent and brilliant volunteer arts teacher at Touchstone, after a session making gelatin prints with my class.

Some advice to parents: know that you’re in a privileged position. Be cautious about judging unfamiliar children or a teacher having a rough day. Ask questions when you’re confused. Expect to do a lot of learning, no matter how much you may have available to teach. Bottom line: the world is a fascinating place, and nothing is more fun than sharing that with kids. If you have the opportunity, rejoice and enjoy!

Circles come round. Years later, my daughter, pioneer Touchstone graduate, gladdens my heart when she makes a special effort to get into her children’s classrooms, or gives huge priority to conversations with their teachers. Cheering her on, I feel hope that our education systems, no matter what philosophy they follow, will find more and more ways to share the joy of children’s learning with other adults in their lives–and reap the benefits.

 

 

Writing to Learn, Writing to Nourish Community

cheryl reading and grinning lightenedMy friend Cheryl Perrault is a poetry Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds, serving as a powerful mentor for poets lurking in the shadows of their other selves. She encourages us to give more generously whatever we have to give, and wants us to see that we have jobs to do as poets in the world–some in situations in which the word poem is never spoken, in which we are poets operating undercover as teachers or therapists or healers–or carpenters, or chefs, or farmers, or physicists.

When Cheryl entered my writing and teaching life, one of the first things she did was to give some of my students a place to read their poems. This happened as part of her poetry and music series Wake Up and Smell the Poetry, which takes place one Saturday morning each month, in the recording studios of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts Community Access channel, HCAM. (Edited video recordings are used in HCAM’s broadcast programming, and can also be watched online. The ongoing series is available to any community video channel that requests it.)

From this series so full of treasures, I still treasure most the experience of listening as my students read to adult strangers. It’s the kind of memory in which I know exactly where I was sitting, in semi-darkness, stunned by the bravery Cheryl elicited from them, too.

Russian Music elegy edit

My grandmother played these pieces in a 1917 edition, from which this is one page, loved to death. They’re still in print, though, hooray, so I can play from pages easier to handle.

Here’s an example of Cheryl’s impact on me. Because of her, I’ve performed–many times, by now–a poem-and-music version of a poem called “Russian Music for Piano.” As I was preparing a reading for a place with a piano, Cheryl suggested that I could play, between sections of the poem, parts of the simple piano pieces the poem describes and traces through my life. Every time I’ve repeated this performance I’ve come to understand both poem and music in new ways, deeply grateful to my listeners for the glimpses into their own lives they’ve shared with me in response.

Last week, Cheryl asked me to be part of a blog-hop. (I like calling it a blog tree.) I’ve learned that mostly I should do whatever she suggests (even if I rename it.) The assignment involved answering some questions I usually dodge: What am I writing / working on? How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre? Why do I write what I write? How does my writing process work? What are my future plans for my blog? In my answers, I’ve focused on writing about teaching, and also on writing poetry.

You can read Cheryl’s very different and fascinating answers to the same questions, at http://www.blog.cherylperreault.com/  I’ve persuaded a few other writers to do the same on their blogs, and you’ll find their responses to the questions sometime soon, on the blogs I list at the bottom. Meanwhile, I’ve linked to great things they’ve posted recently.

What am I writing/working on?

In my poetry, I seem to be turning a corner, right this very minute. I recently became gloriously overwhelmed by a writing workshop at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, at UMass Boston. I went there wanting to write more bravely and accurately about my father’s war, and its impact in his life and within our family. Sometimes intentions bear fruit directly as well as indirectly, and most of the new poems I’ve been drafting rise out of the experience and encouragement and rich provocation of the Joiner Institute. (You can read some about my teacher-as-student experience at the Joiner here, and some thoughts about writing as peacemaking here.)

I’m still revising my full-length poetry manuscript, What There Is. Do you live next door to a publisher who’s searching for poetry manuscripts? Please let me know. (Okay, joke. If you went excavating, you’d probably find at least one poetry manuscript searching for a publisher in every corner mailbox you pass. Or you can imagine the equivalent in electrons–since poetry submissions increasingly happen online.)

Meanwhile, I continue to write about “the daily texture of progressive education,” trying to do justice to the experience of teaching in a place where I could truly come to know and work for my students. I’m also trying to describe what it was like to learn with my students, and with parents and colleagues.

How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre?

My poems are more structured than some, and less structured than others. They’re simpler than some and more complicated than others. Here’s a tiny sample, if you scroll down. I never intend my poems to be puzzles–I don’t think most poets intend to write puzzles–but I figure it’s legit to expect a second reading.

I love giving live public readings–but I’m also interested in each poem as a visual object on a page, in the effects of line breaks and stanza breaks and margin choices. Emphasis on the word choices.

I’ve been told that my blog entries aren’t actually blog entries; they’re essays. That’s probably a fair critique.

Why do I write what I write?

I write in short forms because it feels right to me.

Grace Paley, when asked why she wrote short stories instead of novels, answered that life is too short for the writing of novels. I’d say the same thing, only more so. Life feels too short even for short stories! I love working on poems short enough so I can carry them around in my head, but still long enough so I can get into trouble, and swim back to shore through the writing and revising of the poem, learning as I go.

Blog entries are the poems of the creative non-fiction world. Snacks. Well, no–tweets are snacks, I guess. Maybe blog entries are light meals to be eaten on the trail? But I’m still working on how to construct the smallest, tightest package of ideas that also feels rich enough.

Here’s another kind of answer: Both my parents wrote poems which weren’t published but had a life in the family and community. (I’m spending some of my time this summer helping my mother work toward a new collection of her poems.)  To me as a kid, writing poetry seemed like a normal thing to do–as if I’d grown up in Russia, say, or some other parts of the world. (Yet another kind of luck.)

I’m not going to say I have to write, but my life is immeasurably more thoughtful and more joyful, both, because I do. That’s what I’ve wanted to give to the hundreds of students I’ve worked with as children or adults. Thoughtful includes responsible, and joyful includes wild and spontaneous. So there you are, dancing in that same duality–or “creative tension”, in the words of Dick Zajchowski, formative Touchstone School Head–that I’ve sought to embrace in all my teaching life. Serious playfulness. Playful seriousness.

And here’s yet another kind of answer: Sometimes I think that I might shamelessly pretend to write, in order to have the pleasure of friendships with other writers. In some overwhelmed or blocked chapters of my life, that’s been approximately the case.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea how my writing process works. I have no method except paying attention, and no philosophy except the learned benefit of giving myself permission to engage in a phenomenally inefficient language activity.

I’m slow, at every kind of writing I do, especially poems–and slow at almost everything else I do, also. Quite a few people live in here, and what I say in ordinary conversation often seems messy or slipshod, and true to only a minority of them. In writing I’ve learned to give all those selves a chance. The process of revision, very important to me, is a kind of coming to consensus. Increasingly, though, I hope for the kind of consensus in which different voices can live side by side, and be a chorus instead of a riot. (Still, somewhere down the road I might want a riot instead of a chorus.)

My future blog plans:

I’m posting this on two blogs, on an old, neglected one called Villages, and also on A Year to Think It Over.

I’ve never had plans for the poetry blog, and it’s not exactly about poetry. Pin me down and I’ll say Villages is about virtual villages created by language. I’ve enjoyed imagining myself as a member of a village that includes Charles Darwin, or the Canadian writer Val Ross, or all the people I love, finally in one place. But I have no idea what will happen next there, and this will be only the fourth post.

What about the blog about teaching and learning? I do expect I’ll come to a time when I’m ready to move on. I hope I’ll be able to keep paying for the domain, so those anonymous wonderful whoever-you-are people in Australia, the country of my most faithful audience, will still be able to find the posts they like.

blog reader countries map editReaders arrive from other countries, too. In the past few days, for example, the blog has been read by people in Vietnam and Kazakhstan and Brazil and Cameroon and Serbia (among others)–and even the United States. Monitoring my blog I refresh my memory of geography. A world map highlights the countries of readers, and if I scroll over the country list I see larger outline maps of each of them. This makes me feel both fascinated and thwarted. I wish I knew more about all those people (and their villages)–but Word Press hasn’t yet developed that kind of oversight.

Several people have suggested that my blog entries about teaching and learning may have another future as a book. For  the time being, though, it works well for me to focus on one little knot of energy at a time, without worrying about larger structure. Does that sound suspiciously like the freedom within which I like to approach each new poem? Or the freedom I tried to give my students? Hmmmmm…

And now, here’s your reward if you’ve made it this far through the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. Here are links to blogs by three writers I respect, enjoy, and highly recommend.

Alex Dunn works as an environmental educator with magical power to turn kids on to the night sky (just as an example.) I’ve watched him in action with my own students. He also writes two blogs. The Daily Bird New England tells me when to wake up and view species who’ve just arrived. Tree swallows! Moogle Gaps feeds my map obsession. I’ve used the links to send you to some recent posts I enjoyed.

Polly Ingraham has taught in all kinds of schools, including a charter school where she taught with my friend Kate Keller. She writes about all sorts of things, including overlaps between the secular and the sacred, in a blog called The Panorama of a Pastor’s Life. Here’s a recent post about The Fullness of Time  and an organization called A Better Chance.

Colleen Redman lives and works as a poet, photographer, and journalist in Floyd County, Virginia. In one way her blog is very local, focused on the community of artists and musicians and craftpeople and farmers who call Floyd home. Reading Colleen’s posts about her community I figure they’re lucky to have her, and I start thinking about the individual in community from a new slant–Colleen’s! She also writes funny, observant, and moving poems, and you can find her reading aloud a wonderful poem about her brothers’ deaths, here.