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.

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.

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.

Mimi Reports

Mimi Liz quiltOne of my students from way back, Liz Chesebrough, makes quilts. Recently she posted a photograph on Facebook, showing a possible layout for a striking quilt-in-process. The bright colors and hypnotic geometry (inspired by Aztec designs) worked like the magical object in a time travel novel. They took me back–whoosh!–to one of Liz’s Mimi reports, for which she studied Maya hieroglyphs, and made brilliant drawings of some of the glyphs.

One way or another,  I think regularly about specific reports, and about the ways I saw students grow–by leaps and bounds!–as they explored and wrote and revised and illustrated and summarized.

We called them Mimi reports because they sprouted from the inspiration of The Voyage of the Mimi and The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Mimi was a boat, a two-masted 73 foot sailing vessel. The Wikipedia entry now includes a full history of Mimi herself, full of twists and turns, some lucky breaks, and a sad ending.

Mimi book coverThe video stories–fictional, but realistic–followed the expeditions of scientists who chartered Mimi to conduct research. In the first voyage, an oceanographer and a marine biologist travel on Mimi to follow and study humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine.

Mimi second voyage book cover

 

 

 

 

In the second voyage, Captain Granville has come to the Yucatan Peninsula, where archaeologists charter Mimi in order to conduct underwater research into offshore trading routes of the ancient Maya. 

In both voyages, the captain’s grandson and other young story characters served as our surrogates, and we learned along with them. The young actors also hosted brief documentaries following each story episode, focused on real-life scientists. Learning games for the computer, along with a computer laboratory with probes for charting real-time data, expanded the experience even further.

Make a web. Put one of the Voyage stories in the middle, with all its fields of science and kinds of scientists radiating out from that. In a third ring you could put the topics of the Mimi reports, jumping out to related or tangent topics–from the ecology of a square yard of pond frontage, or the behavior of river otters, to the recent findings of archaeological investigations at Stonehenge, or the history of humans’ use of fire.

You can read about the way we began our report-writing process, using something called a Skimathon, here and here. You can also read about our version of the writing, revising and sharing of long individual reports, and the role of that process in our class life, here.

Recently I found some photographs, lucky souvenirs from just one typical, wonderful year, and that’s what I want to share in this post. Most were taken at Mimi Night, the special evening celebration for which we invited families and close friends.

Mimi display with sculpted figuresFor this round, in the spring of 2010, we had been following the first Voyage, focused on the bodies and behaviors of humpback whales. Following that inspiration, all the students had chosen animals to study, and visited nearby locations where they could observe first-hand the behaviors about which they were reading. Then they’d written about it all in reports organized and bound as books.

Each student’s Mimi Night display consisted of two copies of the bound report, a 3D object made to illustrate some behavior they’d observed, and a poster using material from the report to provide a quick overview.

Mimi display with sculpted figures bFor their posters, students selected illustrations from those they’d created for their reports. All the illustrations and 3D objects were created by the students themselves. Kids could use the illustrations in published books for inspiration. They could use photographs they or their parents had taken–but not photographs from magazines or online sources. Of course, some found this more difficult than others, and received extra support from teachers and classmates.

Mimi illustration stylesStudents explored a variety of illustration techniques including drawing, watercolor, cut-paper collage, and photographs. The classroom collection of previous years’ reports gave kids ideas and helped them set realistic goals. We weren’t looking for what adult artists could do–we were looking for the real and true and informative illustrations they could make, as kid artists who had spent a lot of time observing and studying their subject animals.

Some students made dioramas, small 3D scenes showing animals engaged in typical behaviors, like the one below showing river otters.

Mimi student with full display

Mimi Nate taking notesAlthough Caroline is standing next to her display in the photo above, at Mimi Night the displays were meant to stand on their own, without live explanations–so that  students could move around the room along with our visitors.  Students, friends, and old-enough siblings, all used a class list page to take notes, writing down something learned from each report.

Mimi grandparent reading reportYear after year, parents and grandparents won my everlasting gratitude by responding to the achievements and contributions of the whole class–not just their own kids. This helped students feel that they were the local experts on these animal species, and that their reports had real purpose.

 

Mimi parent reading reportMimi Head and othersOf course, some adult schmoozing happened, too. To the right, that year’s Head of School chats with two parents. In the background, another parent talks with one of her son’s classmates.

 

Mimi senses poster

Some years–including this one–small groups of students thought together about types of behavior  particularly important or interesting for the species they studied, and made group posters. Here, for example, a group focused on behaviors making use of various senses, such as sight or taste.

Another group thought about the tremendous variation in parenting behaviors (or their absence) among the various vertebrate classes.

Mimi parenting posterEach group’s individual displays were clustered together, and the group poster was hung above them.

Mimi sharing with other classes fMimi sound graphingIn the other end of the gym, we set up some samples of our computer data-gathering activities

 

 

Mimi skeleton puzzleA few years before, a parent had given us a set of bones found on the school property, which she had boiled and scrubbed to make them safe as a sort of skeleton puzzle. That led to animated arguments about form, function, and just what critter the bones had once supported.

The day after Mimi Night we opened up the Mimi Museum. Other classes came to visit, and parents from other classes were welcome to stroll through.

Mimi sharing with other classesAbove, Anwyn serves as her group’s tour guide for visitors from the Older Student Program. She’s describing Caroline’s report, pointing to the illustration on the cover of the report itself.

Below, Nate has worked his way across his group’s cluster, and he’s about to tell about his own display.

Mimi sharing with other classes d

Mimi student holding up bookI love this photograph of Max holding up one of the copies of his report, with one of his illustrations of snake locomotion also visible, on the poster.

 

 

Here’s a paragraph grabbed from something I wrote a while ago:

The magic consists of kids paying attention to both the content–the wonder of the world–and to each other. In portfolio conferences, when a student and her parents and I are all looking at a year’s work together, students often hold up their Mimi reports. Their parents have seen the reports already, of course; kids know that. Still they want to focus our attention on that work again. I’m always delighted as kids point to things they’ve gotten help with from others: “Emily (the arts teacher) helped me make the drum again a different way,” or “When we made the timeline with Kate, I realized how long ago this was,” or “Joe (a partner) helped me figure out a way to draw a harbor seal.” The physical copy of the report has become, itself, an artifact: a vessel that holds the memory of many shared meanings.

Aside from the memories of specific kids and their work, the photos trigger several things for me.

For one thing, I’m grateful for all the ways my own intellectual life has been nourished by the learning I did in order to keep up with my students, and the things they themselves taught me.

Meanwhile, though, they were all giving me an immersion learning experience about what can happen in a classroom when the learning is purposeful and real and unbound from testing or grading. In fact, my convictions about what can happen in a classroom were largely shaped by what happened when we were voyaging on the Mimi, and then taking our own individual voyages into the world and each others’ learning, through the Mimi reports.

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.

 

War and Teaching

Progressive teachers don’t want to tell our students what to think, or to shame either kids or parents who disagree with our personal politics. On the other hand, we’re not willing to teach unchallenged fictions masquerading as history. We’re not willing to say that patriotism requires uncritical acceptance of government policies and actions. In fact, we aim for the reverse, for graduates who can and will think critically, who assume that it’s part of citizenship to seek justice and inclusiveness in our political life. We want everyone touched by our schools to continue to consider the needs of the whole community, when that means the whole world.

All that is easier to say than to live. In my experience, war makes it really hard.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a participant in this year’s writing workshop sponsored by the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences (see my previous post), I listened and responded as both my poet self and my teacher self.

In one session, former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges challenged all of the Joiner participants to write the truth of war–including, so importantly, the truth of war for the most vulnerable, for children, the elderly, the disabled, and others who don’t carry weapons, whose experience is one of terror, unmitigated by comradeship or glory.

In session after session, under a dozen different titles, I thought of my childhood with a victim of nameless and untreated Post Traumatic Stress.

On the other hand, in session after session, I thought with enormous gratitude about the literature that’s been available to help me open up at least some of the truth about war’s shadow, the books and poems offering young readers views of war simultaneously honest and accessible.

My Place Bertie croppedI thought of My Place, the extraordinary Australian picture book by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, which portrays war’s impact on ordinary families–on  parents, and younger brothers or sisters; on wounded veterans; on daughters and sons. (To the left, part of the page for 1918.)

I thought of time travel novels like The Root Cellar, by Janet Lunn, in which a young girl arrives in the time of the American Civil War and sees terrible suffering; or Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, in which a time-switch,  via a boarding school bed, sends a girl into the chaos and disruption of World War I.

I remembered the engagement of kids as they worked on understanding historical novels. For example, Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse, makes clear the role of prejudicial conscription of Jewish young men, compounded by assignment to the worst, most dangerous military roles–all of this fueling emigration from Russia, among other places.

When Martha Collins and Fred Marchant asked us to think about war’s impacts far from the battlefield, I remembered kids acting out the events in  picture books such as Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, about the Japanese-Americans dispossessed and rounded up into internment camps during World War II, by the United States Government.

When Paul Atwood spoke about the history of only dimly remembered wars of aggression, I thought of Henry Climbs a Mountain, in which Henry David Thoreau, illustrated as a bear, takes his conscientious objection to the Mexican War right into jail, and gives away his shoes to an escaping slave.

Ramadan coverAt the Joiner Institute I watched veterans young and older reaching out to fellow writers from the countries where they were stationed. I was glad to remember that whenever our country was involved in fighting or funding or promoting a war, wonderful children’s literature helped me humanize the other side. I read books about Islam, including a beautiful picture book, Ramadan, by Suhaib Hamid Ghazi and Omar Rayyan, which describes Islam’s commitment to the community and to the poor, and accurately portrays Islam as a religion followed by people all over the world, not only Arabs.

I read aloud I Remember Palestine, a book about one Palestinian family’s flight and heartbreak. I read poems from Naomi Shihab Nye’s deeply moving anthology, The Flag of Childhood, with points of view from every side of the conflicts in the Middle East. I found books about the geography and people of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and read portions of them.

Flag of Childhood cover cropped

Sometimes, these past weeks at the Joiner,  I’ve forgotten that I’m not currently teaching young adolescents, and I’ve thought about things I’d like to try. I wanted to have my school’s brave, respectful students role-play the story of a young vet from Afghanistan, who bravely and generously shared his story of an incident he regretted. I wanted to try out the Forum Theater techniques described by an Iraqi playwright, Amir Al-Azrakii, as ways of exploring different outcomes, different reactions within moments of oppression or conflict.

At 93, my father is still proud to have fought in World War II. But I was very young, and the totality of his experience was never far from my mind, when I became committed to waging peace, which goes beyond opposition to war, and seeks to do everything possible to resolve a conflict by finding ways to meet the needs of all. Paying attention as an adult, I’ve gone further, and I’ve learned to ask, “Who benefits? Who’s making money off this war? Who has reasons to try to convince us that war is just or inescapable, even if that takes manufactured evidence?”

Sometimes those strongly-held positions have put me in an uncomfortable place with my teaching colleagues. (I’m not good at hiding anything I feel, I’ll admit.) In some of my least-resolved memories of teaching life, I struggle with a sense of alienation and deep discouragement, year by year and war by war.

Inevitably, other unresolved memories involve difficult decisions that I still question. One year a large group of boys spent every sketching time, every single morning, drawing scenes of battle and destruction. In desperation, I finally banned war as a topic for sketching, something I’d never had to do before, and never had to do again. Some of the boys were relieved, in fact, and cheerfully set about making other kinds of cartoons. Still I wonder what was going on, what I failed to explore deeply enough, what they might have needed help with, and why that year, or that group, was unique in that way.

Mostly, though, looking back at my teaching while thinking about war, I am grateful for what was possible at my wonderful school. I’m grateful, for example, for the way freedom from standardized testing let me allow a child obsessed with the Holocaust to read novel after novel, sorting out through the novels’ vividness whatever it was she needed to sort out. I’m grateful for the ways I could offer the empowerment in portraits of resistance: in Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars; in books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Claudette Colvin. I was glad we could offer our students training for conflict resolution.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we are building peace whenever we encourage students to know the humanity of all their fellow humans. In a different way, we encourage peace when we help our students think about our species as predator primates, who have found and still are finding ways of using culture to become fully human.

I think of all the kinds of teaching described at the Joiner–using the invitation to write as a way to reach out to the homeless, to veterans of war and sex-trafficking, to prisoners. Then I think of my own young students and what writing often meant to them. We are building peace whenever we give students paper and pencils and encourage them to write, or help them build communities in which we encourage them to speak, to give respectful and authentic voice to their own complicated truths–and to listen as others do the same.

As students young or old, we are building peace when we help each other rise to all the many challenges involved in being conscious, and individual, and a part of the group, all at once.

I think of Chris Hedges’ words this past week, and I come finally to this: as teachers, as students, as citizens, we build peace when we choose life.

Being a Student Again Myself, at The Joiner Institute

One night last week, when I wanted to go for a walk, my husband asked, “Have you finished your homework?” I hadn’t. I sat back down at my computer.

For many years I’ve wanted to attend the annual writers’ workshop at UMass Boston, at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences. That title encompasses intense and formative experiences in my life. I’ve wanted to meet the other people gathered there, and wanted to see what I would write within that influence.

Always, though, the first week of the workshop has overlapped with the teachers’ last week at my school–the week we met to debrief the year ended, and cleaned up our classrooms, and began to plan the year ahead.

This year, my year to think it over, is different. And man oh man have I been living up to that title.

A few things I’ve learned so far, in no particular order:

  • How to get to UMass Boston on the Red Line and shuttle bus. I already knew how to take the commuter rail from Southboro to South Station, thanks in part to field trip adventures with students. (I’ve found another reason to be glad about my new senior status: a Senior Charlie Card that gives me a dramatic discount on travel by T and commuter rail.)
  • That the art of collage was born out of fragmented cultural and political experience–and some ways to think about applying a collage process to the writing of poetry.
  • That there are two dozen ways, in Vietnamese, to talk about I and you–and that the speaker’s or writer’s choice conveys information about age and gender which can go otherwise unstated.
Vietnamese writers cropped

The field trip comes to us: Nguyen Ba Chung, second from the left, a research associate at the Joiner Institute, director of the Rockefeller Residency Program, and coordinator of the center’s cultural exchanges with Vietnam, facilitated a panel of visiting Vietnamese writers.

  • That the Vietnam veterans who began the Joiner Center writing workshop 27 years ago have found some peace of their own by reaching out for reconciliation with Vietnamese, leading to the translation of Vietnamese poems and stories into English.
  • That those same Vietnam vets, and others, now feel a special mission to reach out to more recent vets from the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan. The writing and comments and songs of all those vets, all ages, have been my best help for my own mission–partly because I am so moved by their courage in facing their darkest and most perplexing shadows.Richard in his uniform edit

And what’s my mission? I came to the workshop wanting to write about my father’s experiences in World War II, including being captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany. I’ve wanted to write also about the impacts of those experiences on both my father’s life and our life as a family.  My childhood began only a few years after my father’s  war ended. He barely talked about it, but it was there in every moment. The phrase “war and social consequences” has very personal meaning for me.

Facing that challenging material, I have to work hard not to close down or slide away–and that turns out to be true even with all the support in the workshop’s environment, from generous peers and amazing teachers.

Still, some seeds have been sown, and in my poetry life I tend to count on a long growing season. I’ve written some drafts of new poems, and worked again on poems still in a years-long process of revision. I have a list of approaches to try, and quick notes on possible personal starting points, from a workshop with the poet Martha Collins. Like every other participant with whom I’ve spoken, I am profoundly grateful for the safety of the writing environment the Joiner Institute provides. I keep taking apart the word encouraged, to be its first meaning. I am given courage by my mentors and fellow students–including those who are roughly a third of my age.

And yes, we have homework. My small group workshop leader, Fred Marchant, whose poetry I’ve been reading for years, and whom I knew already to be extraordinarily kind, proves to be also both mischievous and wise, in ways that sneak up on me again and again. He also states in no uncertain terms his expectation of new work–at least one recent or brand new poem, every class meeting. So I have written drafts of eight new poems and one co-translation in the past week–an unheard-of rate for me.

Some links to my teaching life:

Thanks to Marjorie Weed, I myself have made collage art–not sentimental collections of kitties, but art in which the individual elements are fully repurposed into a new composition with its own meaning. Fred Marchant says, “Consider the liberation you can find in fragments!” and I hear an echo of Mrs. Weed saying to her whole roomful of students, young and older, “Trust in happy accidents!”

(Meanwhile, I remember myself as an earnest and obedient seven year old, who didn’t have Touchstone Community School to help her take herself lightly and fly. I conclude that she is lucky to have grown up, and has followed some fortunate paths.)

Hooray for public transportation! Have I written about our work with that theme? I’m not sure. This is post number 49–and I still haven’t found a good way to index my own output.

I’ve been getting to know a Chinese-American fellow participant. We’ve been sitting near each other, both of us gravitating toward the front of the room in presentations. (In my case that helps me focus on the main show, instead of all that other fascinating stuff going on in the room. After all, I’m used to looking at students, not at a teacher!) In our conversation on Wednesday, Judy told me that her father moved to this country when he was only 12, and that he is one of the speakers in the oral history available at Ellis Island, one of the voices heard by lifting up phones in my favorite exhibit. Actual shivers fizzed down my spine, as I remembered the rapt look on the faces of kids listening to those taped voices.

Circles coming round.

Recently a dear friend asked, “Is it really going to be just a year to think it over?” I know that the post previous to this one may have sounded like I was signing off.  In fact, though, I still have a list of things I want to write about: transportation, projects time, the miracle of parent volunteers, a few more. So no; there’s at least a little more to come. Who makes these rules that say you have to obey your own title?

For right now, though, I’m not thinking about being a teacher. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to be, yet again, at my thrillingly advanced age, with so much to think about, a student.

Here’s one more photo of my dad, 93 this spring, helping to plant jasmine.

Richard planting cropped

 

Graduation, from a New Point of View

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

hiking trip y and m cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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