A Farm, The Farm School, a Farming Revolution

I’ve come back to the farm in Maine where I started writing this blog last summer. I’m sitting in the open back doorway of the barn, listening to red-winged blackbirds and the sound of wind whistling around giant ancient posts and beams.

And I’m following a trail.

Farm School horses and kidsReturning to the fields that surround this barn, wide green space and wide blue sky, I think of The Farm School, in Athol, Massachusetts, where I spent so much happy time with Touchstone classes. (At The Farm School, the smells of the dairy barn took me to my other grandparents’ farm, across the river from where I sit now. Smell is like that, and memory is like that, circular.)

Jane Farm School with calfThe Farm School’s programs for children are designed to give an experience of farm work (and wide sky, and kindness, and awareness of competence) to all kinds of kids. City kids, suburban kids, country kids. Kids who think with their hands; kids who make more sense in contact with animals; kids who figure anything connected with food is a good idea. Kids looking for adult role models who work outdoors; kids who just like working together with tangible results. All kinds of kids.

There’s so  much to say about the Farm School, but right now I’m thinking especially of kids who became more vividly themselves in that place. True for almost every one of us; especially true for some.

Farm School Dean with camera croppedThat leads me to think about kids focusing a video camera, or a still camera, on hillsides and haylofts and goats and seedling Swiss chard.

Whenever I asked, “Do you want to make a video to share what’s wonderful about Farm School?” kids hollered YES!  So that happened more than once.

The first video we made about The Farm School has never been put online, because of parental concerns about online exposure. Still, the DVD became a wonderful way to preview The Farm School, for kids new to the opportunity–in effect, a gift from the class who made it, to future classes.

Farm School Moosey basketballThe second Farm School video dodged the issue of online exposure for kids by starring a stuffed animal named Moosey, who worked and learned and played on the kids’ behalf. (He even played basketball, very memorably.)

In Moosey Goes to Farm School, the kids show up as a continually changing Moosey voice, which is all their kid voices, speaking lines they had written, over shots they had planned and staged.

Farm School blue jeans and MooseyMaking each of those videos about The Farm School taught us a lot about the place and our experience there. We paid special attention, and thought really carefully about what we wanted to record and communicate. We all lived through the ridiculously long process of editing, watching shots again and again, deciding exactly what we wanted to say and show, exactly how to use tiny pieces of time, fractions of a second.

Farm School 2012 Jane girl and cowWe were like cows re-digesting our meadow (well, sort of), taking what we’d learned and learning how to give it away. (I recommend that you just accept this metaphor loosely.) When you’re editing, you figure out, again and again, what your reader or watcher needs to know, and what he or she can be given to savor and consider. You do that by paying attention to what you need to know yourself, imagining the needs of someone who knows less to start with, and doing your own savoring and considering.

Gradually, you come to own the experience more and more. And In that mutual, slow process of our own savoring and considering–as in other aspects of the Farm School experience–we learned a lot about ourselves and each other.

That phrase, “ourselves and each other,” brings another thought. At The Farm School, I was a student along with my students–to a surprising degree, considering my background.

My mother’s parents bought this farm from which I’m now writing, as part of a mostly-forgotten back-to-the-land movement in the 1930’s, which was partly a reaction to the suffering, insecurity and instability of the Great Depression and partly anticipating the onset of World War II. Through the last of the depression, and through the war, they raised and harvested and canned enough vegetables for four families, every year.

On the other side, my father’s folks have been farmers, right here in this town, for many generations back–eventually leading to the kind of farmer with a PhD in horticulture, and influence on agricultural practice all over the world.

Farm School 2012 with cowsBut I am the black sheep, the non-green thumb, the least capable gardener or grower in sight. I’m a little alarmed by cows, to tell the truth, and terrified of electric fences. Would I let that show? No way. At least I tried not to let it show. One way or another, my students were teaching me, if only by saying, “Come look at this!”  Nothing could do more good for a student-teacher relationship.

world farmingBut that process of learning together wasn’t just at the Farm School. Each year, the pre-Farm-School warm-up reached out into a new and different way of looking at agriculture. For example, an Usborne book about global agriculture helped us take a world view of ways of getting food. One group used the book to learn about rice cultivation, and made a model of a rice paddy.

In the spring of 2012, when Seth Mansur spent some time as an aide in my classroom, we took advantage of what he knew about new approaches to sustainable agriculture. Members of small groups who worked with Seth became knowledgeable about permaculture, about edible forests, about a method of field cultiFarm School farm standvation called chicken tractors. We became a sort of business incubator for new ideas about agriculture, young-adolescent-style, with the prototypes made in sculpey and found materials, for displays to teach the rest of the class.

Finally, in the spring of 2013, we bit off as much as we could possibly chew, possibly more, and we decided to make a video about the whole subject of Humans and Food. As usual, we brainstormed ideas, identified affinities, and separated into small groups to consider different topics:

  •  How did people get food before farming?
  • How did people preserve food before refrigeration?
  • What is intensive agriculture, and what are its consequences?
  • How can small scale farms survive and thrive?
  • How can non-farm families grow some of their own food?

Farm School rooster and duckThe small groups taught each other by way of all the work involved in creating the video. For ground-breaking food philosophy as written by an 11 year old and spoken by a small cloth rooster, this is the video.

Farm School dried tomatoesEach small group chose which of the classroom stuffed animals would be their spokesanimals. We had huge fun doing all this, but we were also pretty serious in our mission. This is all important to think about, we were saying in one way after another.

Sometimes I imagine a Touchstone think tank, where past and present students of every age (including the students who were officially teachers or administrators) get together to solve real problems facing our region, our country and our world. (Pause for a nod to David Sobel, who’s been advocating and encouraging this sort of thing for years, as a part of place-based education.)

We might begin by experimenting with some of the answers to these questions: How can we grow enough food for everyone, without poisoning our land and air and water? How can we reduce agriculture’s share of our fossil fuel gluttony? How can we take back our food supply from the giant corporations that now control it?

Why stop there? How can we all, as citizens, belong to ourselves, in dignity and responsibility and joy, in the way that Touchstone students belong to themselves?

This isn’t entirely imaginary. We aren’t all in the same place, but there’s a sort of virtual think tank gradually forming. I’ve already written about Marian Hazzard, and her efforts on behalf of Touchstone’s gardening program, including the chickens my class cared for. This year, a new batch of chicks matured to chickens at Touchstone, cared for by a new batch of students, with the encouragement of David Canter, the new Environmental Educator.

farming Addie and sheep 2Meanwhile, several past students are enrolled in college level programs focused on sustainable agriculture, and others have gone through the Farm School’s farmer training program for adults. Several others are involved directly, this very moment, in helping small scale farms thrive.  Here’s Addie Candib (whom I taught at Touchstone in about 1994) at Second Spring Farm in Rochester, Washington, where she’s also engaged in networking and advocacy for the farming revolution.

chicken booksOne alum wrote a book about keeping chickens, and at last report runs an organic feed store for people raising chickens in their backyards in Portland, Oregon. An alum parent wrote a widely popular book about keeping chickens in Massachusetts.

An untold number of current families and alums buy from Community Supported Agriculture programs, or from farmers’ markets.

Every one of these actions counts, and involves its own kind of learning.

So here’s the end of my thought trail: This isn’t just about farms or farming, or my own students and colleagues, or The Farm School, or Touchstone Community School. In a world full of ways to be discouraged, I remain hopeful about what can happen when people ask questions together, learn together, and plant seeds–of many kinds, literal and figurative–together.

Even the one with the non-green-thumb can wind up with something good to chew.

Farm School rooster and tool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graduation, from a New Point of View

Some kids I worked with a couple years ago, kids I got to know well and treasure deeply, will graduate this week from the school where I taught for so long. They’ve just come back from the hike in the White Mountains that Katy Aborn Inman introduced as a brilliant, emblematic feature of Touchstone’s Older Student Program. Photos from the hike have been showing up on Facebook: clumps of kids standing on stone ledges grinning, and Katy’s own small daughter who went and grinned with them.

hiking trip y and m cropped

Graduation this year may well be uncomfortable for me, emotionally. When I made the slightly impulsive decision that gave me this amazing year, my time with my students was already over. No goodbyes, no party, no tidying-up closure. It was what I chose, but it still feels strange.

Nonetheless, I’m hoping to be there for another Touchstone graduation, from this new point of view. I want to see again those kids who have already grown away from me–in that way they’re supposed to. I want to hear how they will look back at their school experience, to watch those vividly unique identities, nourished and strengthened by a life in community, continue to unfold. I want to watch their families taking a deep breath and stepping forward with them. I’d go through all kinds of fire and brimstone for that. Have.

Here’s something rare: a photo of myself speaking at a Touchstone graduation a few years ago. (Thanks to Eli Lurie!)

me at graduationBecause I’m thinking about rites of passage, I’m going to call on myself as guest writer. In Touchstone’s 25th year, for a special edition of the Touchstone Magazine, I wrote about the end of school, and what it was like, June by June, for this one teacher. I’m going to offer that here, again:

This is the way it happens: the clock ticks. Days pass, weeks pass, and I’m tired enough to welcome a break. Some parts of the last month of school are a bit like nursing a terminal patient. There’s some relief when we finally get there, to that ending, a flurry of papers and books, flowers they’ve picked out of their gardens at home, mugs with slogans about relaxing, my face smiling, smiling, smiling, poems read in suddenly older voices, final word problems about llamas and bales of hay. Suddenly it’s over and I’m in my classroom alone.

There is no “if only” in this story. This moment is not tragic. I arrive here by having everything go well. I care about them; pay attention; laugh at their mess-ups only if they are already laughing and only to say that it’s okay, since we’re all bozos on this bus. I tell them again and again that the point of the exercise is not their own success or failure; it’s the world they are here to understand and enjoy and help keep ticking. I listen as they argue with each other, comfort each other. I would be crazy to stop the clock ticking, want any of us to stop growing forward. There’s no “if only” to avoid this loss, no “what if.” Only “what now…” for me, and for them.

They leave themselves everywhere. Ghosts of heads bent over sketchbooks, bodies contorted into chairs, sprawling puppy heaps of readers. Flight paths for glances between them, all over the room. Laughter.

I reach back to a certain kind of moment: when I’ve been reading aloud and they’re outraged that I’ve stopped to ask a question, that shift in the air when the question actually grabs them. In any class, immediately, at least one student has his hand nearly six feet into the air. He might sprain something reaching that hard.

Often enough, I hope, I wait to call on the one who is busy thinking her thought, not yet ready to say it. If a bird comes suddenly to the window, some crazy bluebird out of season, if a sudden snow squall pulls them out of their seats, I hope for the moment when we all settle back and that girl who never speaks finally raises her hand, and gives away the way she knows the hero, or is the heroine.

Year by year, willy nilly, I’ve learned to outlast this hollowness, wait and welcome the new batch. Wait and welcome the old batch back, astonishingly grown into themselves, that thing Susan Kluver said all those years ago to my daughter’s class: we hope you will return as yourselves, grown older.

They do–you do!–and I am shy and thrilled and grateful. To each of you. To this school we have woven together, that bears the imprint of us all.

At last the year came when I didn’t welcome a new batch.

Instead, I’ve made deeper and stronger connections with some of the students from the past, partly by writing this blog. I’ve sorted my boxes of stuff (some of them, anyway) and sorted out in my own mind the meaning of the work I was so lucky to do.

Also, instead, I’ve watched a very young learner, with all I’ve come to know about learning resonating in my delight.

me playing pool, croppedAnd still more: instead, I became more available to the needs of my aging family of origin. There’s challenge in that, too, and also joy. (Here I am playing pool at my mother’s senior living center. She’s really pretty good.)

With my whole heart, I aim to do what all of us can do, no matter what our place in the world or in the generations–to honor the miraculous in each of us, at every age.

And from watching the way we each graduate, every moment–out of one version of ourselves and into the next–wild horses could not keep me away.

A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

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

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

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

We’re also all cousins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

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

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

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

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

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

chukchi family edited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Black Studies

Whenever I imagined no longer teaching at Touchstone, I knew that I would leave some thematic explorations without ever having arrived at the level of understanding I wanted, for the kids, or for me. Here’s one topic like that–really a set of topics: the economic expediency and cruelty of the slave trade; the Civil War and its complicated relationship with the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States; the Civil Rights Movement and the long, unfinished struggle to translate that legal abolition into true equality of rights and opportunities, a truly inclusive democracy.

I do feel good about some of what we did, and particularly about my students’ wholehearted openness to every attempt. Beginnings can be seeds for growth–so in the next post, I’ll describe some of what we tried, for whatever help it can provide to learners and teachers continuing to think about these things.

In this post, I’ll share a few of the sources for our initiatives.

First, though, why did this matter so much to me? Why was it hard to feel satisfied? In trying to figure out engaging and faithful ways to teach about these aspects of United States history and our present, I wasn’t just being conscientious. The drive to do justice to these topics has deep emotional roots in my own childhood experience, which included, among other things, some integrated schools at a time when they were unusual.

Not that everything was working well there. For part of elementary school I attended a tiny two-room rural school along with the children of black farm workers, many of whom had only recently stopped being migrant laborers, and had settled in our potato country year-round. I could tell much more than a post’s worth of stories about how my parents’ relatively liberal attitudes framed my child’s-eye-view, and left me perplexed. When I was still very young I learned, from an unofficial part of the curriculum, that the world was not fair, and was less fair for some people than for me. I also got to know those kids, at least a little.

My high school was integrated in the way many high schools are now: everybody going through the same big doors, but minimal mixing in most classes. Only some of the white kids took the college prep classes, and a few black kids did, too—so the segregation I observed was not absolute, but complicated, with white privilege everywhere visible and nowhere acknowledged.

Chorus, open to everyone, I loved. But the select group that sang at Rotary was almost entirely white. Most of the people who post on the ‟Remembering…” page on Facebook are white. A little informal reunion a few years back was entirely white. Something that almost didn’t happen–but did happen, also–feels lost.

I haven’t lived in that place since I was twenty, and I’ve been storing up questions ever since–including questions about the things I worried about but never challenged–or took part in and never challenged. And of course I’m leaving out the hardest things to tell.

That kind of unresolved partial knowledge can be a good place to start a careful poem—or a really careful curriculum exploration.

I hope it’s obvious what I mean by careful. I never told my students about the details of my experiences at any of those ages, because I knew how much emotional whammy they packed for me. I sought out sources for us to share that would be as inclusive as possible in their views. I treated myself as another learner who had been at it a little longer—with no other authority than that.

I did have some great help, starting with wonderful literature for children and young adults written by African American authors–with the beginnings of a good collection of these left in my classroom library by the previous teacher at my level, Christine Lindeman. There are so many places online and elsewhere to get help finding these books, if you need it; I’m not going to try to duplicate that, beyond sharing a link or two. (Here’s another link, to an online bookstore specializing in books that show people of color from the whole world, but especially African Americans.)

Freedom-s-Children-Levine-Ellen-9780380721146I made frequent use of a collection of oral histories called Freedom’s Children, in which African-American adults looked back on their involvement, as young black Southerners, in the desegregation struggles of the late 50’s and 60’s. Kids the ages of my students (average age, 11) or only slightly older–or in some cases even younger–played important roles in history, sometimes choosing that, sometimes thrown into it. My students were fascinated.

Many people who live in Massachusetts don’t seem to know about the Mass Moments published by MassHumanities, but they are a gold mine for teachers, and for anyone who wants to know more about the political, social, and cultural history of the state and our country. You can get the eMoment links delivered in your email, daily, and I know several people who live outside Massachusetts who nonetheless read them all.

Here’s a link to a recent eMoment about the first arrival of slaves in Massachusetts. Here’s another about Malcolm X’s years in Massachusetts. Almost all the eMoments have further links to online sources, and/or information about other published sources. Some, including the eMoments about African-American history, are supported with special materials for teachers.

Beginning with the Mass Moments and working out into materials linked to or cited by them, I learned more than I’d ever been taught, or even read on my own, about slavery in the north. I learned about Mum Bett, who got help from a white lawyer to sue for her own freedom, and won, in one of several cases that led to the abolition of slavery within Massachusetts. I learned about the ways the northern colonies (and then states) continued to profit (hugely) from slavery, even after we had outlawed it within our own borders.

I learned more about the high-profile abolitionists whose names I already knew, but also about other people prominent at the time and completely unknown to me, such as David Walker, an important black abolitionist and writer. I learned about slaves who fled to the part of North Carolina liberated by northern troops, including troops from Worcester. Some of those emancipated slaves came north to join Worcester’s small black community, with support from the parishioners of several abolitionist Worcester churches.

The history I learned in school was dominated by big names and dates and too much to memorize; as a result I took a pass on history in college, and may never stop regretting that. But the history I have explored on my own–with the help of resources like MassHumanities–has led me more and more into imagining the lives of ordinary people, and I have found that deeply rewarding.

First FruitsBecause all this matters to me in a way beyond teaching, I’m now reading First Fruits of Freedom, by Janette Thomas Greenwood, a Clark University professor whose research helped open up that Worcester abolitionist history. That led me to a great blog, rich with primary sources, called After Slavery.

Turning in a different direction, I decided to reread Virginia Hamilton’s YA novels about the Underground Railroad in Ohio, beginning with The House of Dies Drear.

Last year I heard the poet Martha Collins read from her book White Papers, an exploration of white privilege triggered in part by her father’s memory of a lynching in the town in which she grew up. Meanwhile, a Touchstone colleague got me started reading a blog by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a young black sociologist, and I’m linking here her recent post about historically black colleges and universities.

I’m not planning curriculum for young adolescents right now, and not sure that I will again. So where am I heading with all this? It’s possible that I am just trying to grow into the kind of better-informed citizen we need, in order to build that truly inclusive democracy I dream of. I’m not done with my own education.

Teaching—including the teaching of oneself—is a relay race. Except it’s not a race. Just a relay. Anyway: here, pass it on.

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.)

Ancestor Pies

A few weeks ago, Chrissy Danko and I met for lunch. Every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve started grinning. She is the oldest of four siblings, and I taught them all, sad to say goodbye to the last of them and to their parents. (‟Wouldn’t you like to have more?” I asked Joe and Joan, impertinent as ever.) It was a huge treat to sit and talk with Chrissy, and hear about them all, and hear about who she’s becoming as an adult.

When she came to me, Chrissy was so shy she barely spoke in front of the class. My fierce protection of turn-taking, especially for the turns of the quiet, didn’t work for everyone, but it helped Chrissy. She opened up; she began to appreciate herself more. Now she is writing her dissertation, for a PhD in philosophy, about Hume and Kierkegaard–and about what it means to be an individual, to have a self.

Here’s a photograph of Chrissy, when she was in my class:

Chrissy projects timeChrissy with two heads

Here’s another, at Halloween. I have no idea who’s the alien, and who’s the pumpkinhead, and would love to know. (At a place that really values creativity, Halloween can be pretty amazing.)

I don’t know how it is in your life, oh patient reader, but in mine, right now, there are many mysteries, treasures that lie somewhere unknown in still-pretty-tall stacks of boxes. Some absences I can live with cheerfully for a while more, but some feel like serious deprivations. For example, although I saw it some time in the last year, I can’t find Chrissy’s ancestor pie. Hers was one of the most unique of the circle graphs of background and heritage that I assigned in the early years of the immigration theme.

Here’s Aaron Goodman’s ancestor pie, made that same year, also quite wonderful:

immigration ancestor pie Aaron

Pretty soon in the evolution of the immigration theme, I stopped assigning ancestor pies, realizing that they could be problematic for some kids. While it was an assignment, thoughand later, when it was a choicewe considered fractions as small as sixteenths, one sixteenth for each of a child’s sixteen great-great-grandparents. Two parents; four grandparents; eight great-grandparents; sixteen great-great-grandparents.

(When I heard that a cousin in my father’s Maine hometown had said that his great-grandmother had been two-thirds Indian, I knew that couldn’t be quite the case. Ancestry denominators come in powers of two.)

Aaron didn’t need sixteenths; fourths did it for him. Ben Redden needed eighths, and managed to line up the eighths from two different grandparents, to show that he added up to a fourth English.immigration ancestor pie Ben

For Chrissy’s ancestor pie, unique and memorable, she made one big pink circle, on which she wrote, ‟I’m all Polish.”

On one of those trips back from Ellis Island described in the previous post, Chrissy’s dad’s stories intrigued me. More accurately, I was struck by his lack of stories. ‟They won’t talk about it,” he said. ‟None of them will, or ever would.” The memories of life in Poland too dark? Or still too much sense of rupture from that other life? Maybe both—since those feelings seem able to coexist, in all of us.

Another parent had spent years coming to understand that her mother’s grimness could be traced to her own mother’s very difficult immigration experience. She’d been left behind as a baby, then finally came over to join her family, and was ridiculed for being slow to catch on to America; her bitterness affected her daughter. ‟I’m where it stops,” my student’s mother said. ‟I’m not going to keep living out that hurt, and I won’t pass it on to my daughter.” (I may not have the family history details quite right, but I will never forget the mother’s resolve.)

Even the stories we would definitely call successes seemed often to have a shadow.

Beyond those individual stories, looking at the community story, I began to see the melting pot project as very much unfinished, at least in our area. A friend of mine in Marlborough went to have her children baptized. ‟Wrong church,” they told her. ‟You’re Irish. This is the Italian church.” Several Worcester parents in my class described lingering enmity between Irish Catholic and French-Canadian Catholic colleges.

These and other stories convinced me that we can all be tribal, insular, distrustful. We seem to be nowhere near being able to handle racial differences; we can’t even handle ethnic ones.

(All of these, of course, being cultural constructs, not biological. Inside that designation of Polish there could be many variations, given Poland’s history. And we are all Africans, in very recent time. But that’s for another post, somewhere down the road.)

The ancestor pies told yet another story. Sarah Tonry’s, one of those mysteries hidden in the boxes, had nine colors, as I remember, for nine different flavors of European heritage. Most of the kids in our central Massachusetts population colored in at least three or four different cultural origins, and when we located all our collective countries of origin on maps, the class list ran to nearly twenty, easily.

Willy nilly, we were the melting pot, and the ancestor pies showed us that.

I myself have to go to fractions smaller than sixteenths to show anything other than one big circle. Growing up, surrounded by people with ‟interesting fractions,” I felt the lack severely. At some point, our mother helped my sister and me calculate that we were 1/2048th French. An exhilarating notion. We spent a whole crossing of Long Island Sound gloating.

Family legend in my father’s family said that we were 1/16th Native American, and recent research by family genealogists indicates that my generation probably really is 1/32nd Abenaki. I’ve learned since that brutal treatment of Native American Indians in southern New England led survivors to flee north. So Judith, my great-great-grandmother, could have been any combination of tribes, along with whatever portion she had of what we call white.

I’ve thought about Judith a lot, remembering this again and again: inside our historical selves, the selves we bear through the changes and patterns and stories of history, there are wars. There are hurts unassuaged, that convey hurt forward without ever being named. For all of us, one way or another, things got thrown overboard; loved people were left behind.

Publicly, we may celebrate our emigree identities, whatever they may be, and the melting pot project, the meetings of differences. Privately we still seem to carry a lot of grief, more than we usually let ourselves know.

That’s one of the things the community of a class can do together: we can honor each others’ historical selves, whatever we know and share of them. Honor them with knowledge and wide understanding of the historical context; celebrate them with respect and joy. We can be gentle with the unnamed mysteries inside the tall stacks of unsorted boxes that are each of our identities.

One year, Kate Keller (wearing her aide hat) suggested that all of us take our just-finished immigrant mini-posters outside. (Each mini-poster gave the basic information about one immigrant, relative or friend, for each member of the class; Kate and I each made one, too.) Outside, we all stood together on the wide steps below the classroom windows, holding our posters and making a human timeline, century by century. A fairly boisterous crew, we stood there quietly for a minute or so, honoring all those reasons to have left and reasons to have arrived, all those ways of persisting afterwards. We called all those people, a few still living, most gone, to be present. Neither of the adults had dry eyes.

Living with each other, hearing each other’s stories, we might have looked pretty homogeneous to an outsider, but we were honoring difference, discovering commonality, keeping an old project alive. Nothing else we did mattered more.

Afterthoughts, Afterlinks, Resolutions, and Thanks

My most recent post, about math mentors and math fun, was the 25th on this blog. The calendar year is about to turn; I’m a little less than halfway through my year to think it over. Time for a mixed salad of quick thoughts, including some resolutions.

More math fun

First, it turns out that 2013 is not prime. All year I’ve wondered. Finally, this morning, I started scratching calculations on the back of an envelope. Then I went to the web to double-check, and found a prime factor calculator. That confirmed it, just in time:

goofygraphics2013I also checked 2014. That, too, is a product of three primes, but I’m not telling. (You know right off the bat what one of those primes has to be.)

After reading the previous post, Kate Keller said some really nice things, including, “Wait! You left out the birthday ritual!”

Kate’s remembering something we did whenever a birthday happened in my class. I started by writing the child’s new age on the big whiteboard: 11, or 12, or occasionally 13. Then I’d ask, “What can we say about the number —?”

Students responded in a variety of ways:

  • with cultural uses of the number. (“It’s a dozen!”) (“Some people think it’s unlucky, but they’re crazy…”)
  • with expressions that equaled the number: 3 x 4 = 12, or 14 plus -3 = 11, or much more complicated expressions coming out of our experience with Lloyd’s Game (described in the previous post.)
  • with a magic number sequence that started with the number and returned to the number.
  • with words that describe other properties of the number: it’s odd (or even); it’s prime (or composite); it’s a palindrome; it’s deficient or abundant or perfect.

These various statements, written on the whiteboard, both documented learning and provoked it. Although we focused on the same numbers again and again, the activity was repetitive only in the way ritual has to be repetitive: a pattern similar in every iteration, but never actually identical; a shared dance in which roles can change and change again; a bowl or basket or web for both familiarity and innovation.

If I forgot to include the number ritual in our celebration of someone’s birthday, or if we ran out of time before dismissal, the kids insisted that it be carried over to the next day. Remembering my students’ affection for the ritual, and remembering the way every student participated, I feel like I’m holding some important key to who they were, and are; something hard to put into words; a treasure.

For still more math fun, check out the YouTube channel of Vi Hart. Here’s a link to one of my favorites, the first in a sequence of three about plants and the Fibonacci sequence. “Ow!” one of my younger students said. “My head hurts! Play it again!”

vihartfib

More My Place

I’ve been tickled to have the posts about My Place get a steady trickle of hits from Australia, so I did some behind-the-scenes backtracking. In the process, I found a wonderful collection of material relating to Nadia Wheatley, with an author interview, curriculum plans, and reviews of some of her other books–and a link to my own post about My Place, down towards the bottom. Great stuff!

If I were teaching right now…

I would read aloud The Higher Power of Lucky, the first in a series of three novels about a girl named Lucky in a town named Hard Pan, in the Mojave Desert.

higherpowerofluckyb

Living in a very small town, Lucky has memorable friendships with both kids and grown-ups. She eavesdrops on twelve-step anonymous meetings, hoping to hear the advice she needs. She hopes seriously for an afterlife, because there are some questions she would like to ask Charles Darwin. (She has a dog named HMS Beagle.) She’s cranky and impulsive and imperfect and worth a million dollars, and she’s part of a new sub-sub-genre of realistic contemporary fiction for young adults, in which characters think about biological evolution and what it means, and interact sympathetically with adults who can’t or won’t.

“If” thought # 2: I would figure out how a class could use the latest book by Alice Roberts, the charismatic anthropologist and medical doctor who narrates a BBC video series (which we did use in class) called The Incredible Human Journey.

alicerobertsevolutionbAlice’s new book (we pretend to be on a first-name basis with her, in my household), published by Dorling Kindersley, is called Evolution: The Human Story.  It uses narrative, model reconstructions, photographs, illustrations and charts, to take the print medium’s slower-paced (but thrilling) look at the history of our species, starting with the Big Bang. Such a rich resource for a class to use!

A third “if” thought: I would explore the idea of privacy, which matters a lot to 11- and 12-year-old people, and keeps coming up in the news.

Resolutions

One of my most faithful readers wants to know why I haven’t yet written about some teaching and learning that was central to my teaching life:

  • about the evolution of life in general, and about human evolution more particularly;
  • about animal behavior and archaeology and the history of technology;
  • about immigration, both chosen and involuntary, in the history of our country and our communities and families;
  • about Islam and the Arab world and the history of Arab Spain;
  • about The Voyage of the Mimi, both the first and the second;
  • and about the making of Voyage to the Sea.

Instead of writing about evolution, I guess, I’ve been evolving. (I know; I’m using the word in two of its different senses.) Somehow I’ve had to work up to those topics, and also work down with them. They’re all so huge for me, giant human artifacts around which I’ve spent all these years crawling, like an ant in the jungle, climbing up and looking around whenever I felt brave, or whenever a student was nudging me onward.

However, I’ve just made that list. I’ve included some of it sideways, in this mixed salad post. I’m pledging myself to figure out ways of exploring those giant thoughts in 1000 word packets, before my year to think it over is over.

I welcome, and probably need, suggestions from readers who shared those themes with me as student or parent or colleague or cheerleader. If you were writing this blog, how would you tackle all that big stuff? Just askin’.

In an activity so solitary (except for the joyful throng of co-conspirators in my memory), tiny encouragements from the rest of the world mean so much! A quick note in an email, a side comment in the aisles at Colella’s, a post on a website generated on the other side of the planet, devoted to a much-admired author–each of these remind me that I’m really doing this, and parts of it matter to other people. Some of you have recommended the blog, or a particular post, to friends and relatives and colleagues, or on Facebook; some of you have written comments on the blog itself, invariably thought-provoking, nudging me and lifting me forward. For all that…

goofygraphicsthanksRecently, my daughter has been sharing a website or movement called Lean In, which encourages women to lean into their ambitions, to overcome fears and take risks, with each others’ support. I take a big breath and “lean in” every time I publish one of these posts, and I’m inviting you to lean in with me, women and men (and girls and boys)–whatever that may mean for you.

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.

My Place

We’re sitting in the meeting area–not in the circle we use for meetings in which we all talk with each other, but in the arc facing my corner, that works better for read-aloud books with illustrations. For a larger class I would need to make a Power Point. The intimacy of leaning forward, leaning together into the world of the book, can work here.

In this memory, I’My Place Nadia Wheatleym reading My Place, a book created by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, originally published in Australia in time for the bicentennial of their European settlement. One of my early class parents discovered the first U.S. edition, and donated a copy. (Most of the copies I’ve bought over the years have been from the later U.S. edition, from Kane Miller, who bring books from other countries to the States.)

After that first reading, one crop of kids have linked to the next, and students spending a second year in my mixed-age class have said almost every year, “You should read My Place again.”

As I begin to read aloud, puzzled faces remind me that the book can be confusing. Each year, reading My Place refreshes my appreciation for the full, rich range of interests and attention styles represented among my students. I’ve learned to trust them: they’ll get it, together.

My Place 1968 editThere’s the kid who always notices numbers of any kind, including dates. She figures out, already on the second two-page spread, that we’re going backwards in time. “Before it was 1988, now 1978. The next one will be 1968.” It is, and that year’s child narrator, Sofia, has posters of the Beatles on her bedroom wall. She writes about an older brother who’s a soldier in Vietnam.

That step to the side–to a history both different from our own country’s, and similar to it–lets us notice things we may have been programmed not to notice. Kids say, “So they were involved in the Vietnam War, too?” “Both countries were settled by waves of immigrants?” Eventually, “This stuff about how the Aborigines were treated–it makes me think about our own Indians.”

Always, at least one kid is especially interested in maps–visual records of things that stay in one place. He looks at the progression of child narrators’ maps, a new (older) one for each jump back in time, and he begins to imagine a similar map of his own neighborhood: how far from his house he would include in each direction; what scale he would use; what he would put in and what he’d leave out; what he would label, and what colors he would use for different kinds of buildings–all the decisions we’re meant to imagine the book’s child narrators making. (The map below is from 1938, which was a hard time in Australia, too.)

My Place map 1938 edit

Other kids make sure I read all the labeling on each map–partly because they’ve figured out that important clues are often embedded there.

Another kid is crazy about geography as lists and facts. She quickly picks up on the clues that we’re in Australia, something I try not to give away. Some years, we take this further: we use the detailed clues to convince ourselves that we’ve found the bay and canal near Sidney. (The map below is from 1838.)

My Place map 1838 edited

My Place 1898 railings and Miss Miller detail

Some kids are particularly able to pick up on detail in illustrations, and they’re the ones who say, “Wait! This is all the same house! Look at those railings!” Then we go back and compare, page by page: yes, yes, yes, yes.

My Place 1988 railings detail

My Place 1828 hillside cropped And for much of the book it is the same house–each child narrator is the right-aged child living in that place–until the house hasn’t been built yet, and we’re with the sheep and pigs, on that hillside, below the big tree, above the bay and creek.

In every class, some kids will have unerring radar for family relationships, They’re the ones who first point out that Sofia in 1968 is the unwelcome baby sister in 1958; or that the Miss Miller who is almost 90 in 1948 is the zippy aunt with the bicycle in 1898, and also the nine-year-old Minna who makes friends with a Chinese immigrant vegetable farmer in 1868.

My Place Minna and Leck recroppedBy 1798, almost the end of the book, everyone has learned to follow these connections through the book’s strangely inverted time. When 11-year-old Sam, indentured convict laborer, climbs up into the big tree and pretends that he can see all the way to Shoreditch and his mother and sisters and brother, the class grows even quieter. They know that he will become the Sam remembered in 1838 by one of his children, the father who has fallen off the rich landowner’s roof, and died.My Place last map detail

I don’t want to tell about the actual ending of the book; I want you to go find it and read it, and join all of us in the complicated feelings it generates.

My Place and Place Based Education

There’s a new name for something I’ve always tried to do as a teacher: place based education, arising out of the resources of a place, helping students develop a sense of place, helping students feel responsibility to their place and empowered to make a difference there. (If this sounds good to you, you should go find the wonderful books David Sobel has written to explore place based education and document its effectiveness.)

Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins were also doing place-based education before it was named that. Clearly, they created My Place to help Australian kids know more about their country, and to encourage those kids to know their own local and particular places, their personal equivalents of the big tree that is a landmark for every one of the child narrators, or the canal that was once a creek, or the ridge where the main street was once a footpath. Because there are so many narrators, the place itself assumes unusual importance.

I’ve always been fascinated that their book’s strategy works for American kids, too. Immersion in this other place encourages kids to notice their own places, and I’ll write more about that in a future post.

It seems to me that Wheatley and Rawlins must have wanted something else, too: they wanted to show their narrators experiencing the local versions of big picture history: the pros and cons of the immigration experience; the hurt of economic injustice and waves of joblessness; the recurrent mercilessness of war, and the injuries and losses and dislocations left in wars’ wake; the environmental impacts of economic development, as we travel back to a time when it was actually safe to swim in the creek. But also kids’ perennial delight at new technologies: streetlights! personal automobiles! television!

Within all that big picture stuff glimpsed small and made real, Wheatley and Rawlins have shown us each child narrator’s way of assembling and creating his or her own experience out of what is available. We see all the different reasons for perching or hiding in the big tree. We see the comfort children find in animals, and the things that can be learned about each child’s adults from the parties they throw.

Always, in each new older time opened out for us, something has been lost; always, something has been gained. Each child narrator exists within the river of time, which gives and takes away. The book itself, its spirit, becomes that river, revealed to us in a special way by the authors’ device of making it flow backwards.

For just a minute, I want to address directly all those years’ worth of kids sitting in a series of meeting areas together, taking up the book’s back-cover challenge: THIS BOOK IS A TIME MACHINE! Again and again, you showed me details and connections I would have missed by myself. But also, in the deep and brave way you experienced the book and its place and world, you helped me feel what it all meant, and for that especially I thank you.

My Place Sam in the tree detailThere’s more to this story: the book’s wonderful success in Australia, and its transformation into a video series, brilliantly updated to the present; one class’s decision to make a spin-off book called Our Places. For various reasons, I’m saving those things for another time.

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