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.)

In Praise of Colleagues

When I reread my last post, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had left out something important. It’s easy to overlook something so pervasive that you come to take it for granted. My mother goes to a new doctor, and forgets to mention the mobility and visual impairments that define so much of her present life (along with her continuing eagerness and whimsy.) I write about resources for understanding student writers, and don’t actually mention the sturdiest resource of all–my peers.

After school, teachers gather in each others’ rooms and talk shop. Not every day—there are a few other things to get done: meetings and parent conferences to attend, notes to write on the whiteboards, math manipulatives to locate, photocopies to make, plain old ordinary messes to clean. Still, at the end of the afternoon, for many grateful years I could go stand in Susan Doty’s doorway. ‟Help!” I could yelp. ‟What’s going on with this kid? Why is he so afraid of writing?” I knew she would stop and think carefully about her answer, giving me the same kindness she gave children.

farmer in Crete croppedWhen Marian Hazard taught her own class, before she became the school’s garden wizard, she would wander down to my room and share insights provoked by the most recent book she was reading, about how to help children move forward as thinkers and writers. She often had more patience than me, for reading about education, and, later, for the work of cultivating both plants and gardeners. I gained, always, from sharing what she discovered.

For a while, Kate Keller taught in a room very near my room. When she was trying to describe a breakthrough in the writing of one of her students, she could easily invite me across the hall and produce evidence. ‟Look!” she would say, pulling a file from a pile of folders. ‟Can you believe this?”

four potsOur endeavor, in teaching writing, and in all things: to meet kids where they were, to travel with them as far as they could travel, to help them recognize and celebrate triumphs, and then move forward again—all that was collaborative, in a way not necessarily visible to students or parents.

A thriving faculty conversation is a living thing, like yeast in good bread dough. Over the years I came to see how hard it must be, how delicate, for a principal or head of school to trust and support and strengthen that conversation–and how essential.

three gourdsI also learned that I had to nourish myself, because any individual teacher has to punt, again and again. On the September day when I guided a new class through their first writing fluency exercise, and one child sat in her place at one of the tables and wept for the entire five minutes, and beyond, while everyone else counted the words they’d just written—on that day, like most teachers most of the time, I was the only adult in the room. The student had only recently entered my school; nobody knew her well. So she and I shared something: both of us were stumped. I wasn’t just stumped; I felt awful.

I didn’t scold, since I knew that she was doing the best she could. We talked briefly in the privacy of the hallway. I told her that I wasn’t worried. (I lied.) I told her what was true: that I would ask her to do the same thing again the next day—to brainstorm ideas, to choose one, to write for that little chunk of time that I knew could feel like forever. She would have another chance to try.

redblue turtleI also told her that she could do what I’d done in college: write about why she couldn’t write. If she had to—and she wouldn’t be the first to resort to this at least once—she could write one word again and again, until the second word came to her, and the third.

The next day she did brainstorm and choose; she did write. Not a lot, but some, and that was all the exercise asked for. She went on, that year, to write some pieces that took my breath away. ‟Look!” I said, to whatever colleague I shanghaied that afternoon. ‟Can you believe this?”

I’m telling this story, before I really describe that exercise (next time, probably), because I don’t think there’s any guaranteed approach, exercise, bypass strategy, or technological support for writing difficulties–and because, in my experience, the best source of wisdom, the best source of quality control, came from my fellow teachers. Also the best source of energy to keep going.

Knowing the results of testing or external observation can help, but parents and teachers both can easily make too much of such things. We need to know, by asking the child and by intuiting with all our senses, what challenges a child faces; we also need to offer the bypass strategies that can help. Ultimately, though, we have to do the same basic thing again and again: ask a child to keep trying, and give her credit for everything it takes to try.

I loved my school and my colleagues because our support for each other, so consistently, was support for our highest mission. We supported each other not by blaming the child—even though that’s sadly common in situations in which teachers are hard-pressed (and teachers tend to be hard-pressed.)

pinecone with mushrooms croppedWhen Julie Olsen, having seen me in the hall with a student, asked what was going on, she wasn’t looking for a chance to commiserate about those awful kids we were stuck with. If she knew the child, she always helped me see the world of the classroom from that child’s point of view. If she didn’t know the child, she asked questions that would help organize whatever I’d been able to observe. She laughed her wonderful raucous laugh with a particular twist that acknowledged the profound challenge of teaching—but it was never a laugh at a kid’s expense.

The colleagues I’ve named taught near me, literally or in the sequence of the school’s groupings, for many years. Others, not named here, taught older or younger children in other corners of the school, and helped me understand where my students were coming from, and where they were headed.

We supported each other by honoring each others’ efforts to know each child; by holding firm, together, on the issue of class size, so that knowing the individual child was possible; and by understanding, always, for each other, that all our hearts were doing hard work.

Last but never least, in moments grabbed from the ongoing intensity of our lives, we cheered each other on by sharing our euphoria about progress. I could not have asked for more.

wire sculptures narrowerThe sketches are in thanks and praise for another teacher, Marjorie Weed, who came to volunteer at Touchstone after a long career as a public high school art teacher. She helped me encourage my students as creators and composers, by working with them herself, while I watched and learned along. Mrs. Weed inspired me to give kids time for sketching during our settling time, almost every morning. I was her “oldest and most improved student,” one of many who still value her influence.