Mapping the Balance between Imagination and Precision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

mapping Louisiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obligations, Opportunities and Beavers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beaver edits tree damage

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

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

beaver edits dam site

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

beaver edits in water b

 

beaver rich burton

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Praise of Spare Grown-ups

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

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

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

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

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

volunteers visiting gram 2

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

volunteers transportation field trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

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.

Heart-in-throat Syndrome: Keeping Kids Safe

A young couple I know have been excited to watch their son begin to walk, and then run, in quick succession. A recent video shows him opening a door for the dog.

In approximately five minutes, he will ask for the keys to the car, and then life will get really interesting.

I remember a group of parents discussing the rapidly increasing maturity of their young adolescent children. One mother, whose medical practice had given her a long and broad view, said, “I don’t really worry about sex or drugs. I worry about cars.” The room filled with nervous, not-yet-believing laughter.

I have to agree with her, though. Four of my past students have already died much too young–one from a drug overdose, but three, including Dana, about whom I’ve written, in accidents involving cars.

Meanwhile, a Touchstone alum just posted on Facebook. One of his college friends was in the group of climbers who died this past week on Mt. Ranier.

So I’m thinking about physical risk-taking, and how we negotiate that between the generations, and within ourselves.

playground reaching with net When I first started teaching, it drove me crazy to supervise kids on the playground at school, or in the active outdoor parts of field trips.

Over time I came to enjoy many aspects of this part of teaching–the chance to watch the bees in the morning glories, the chance to savor the liveliness of the kids in their own buzz of physical and social activity, and the chance to admire physical learning as practiced by many kinds of kids. I learned to stand and watch and name for myself everything good and growing that I saw happening–and that always helped me enjoy it more.

Still, the real job was making sure that everyone operated within carefully rationed acceptable levels of risk–and that became only slightly less challenging in all those years.

I’m a cautious person, physically, and always have been, even as a very small child. Watching other people dashing to and fro, I often have to swallow a certain amount of instinctual alarm, no matter how charming the dashing.

playground sprinkler run croppedMy intuitive response is too protective, and I have to correct for that, consciously, by thinking.

Still, again and again, when we talked about playground risk in staff meeting, we all wound up agreeing that we had to follow our intuitions. I can hear a more experienced and very wise colleague saying, “If something feels wrong, stop it first, and then think it through. Every time we ignore our intuition, something bad happens.”

Can you feel the enhanced conflict there, for me or anyone like me? If your intuition is overprotective, you learn to disregard it, to some extent–and that leaves you vulnerable.

I keep remembering Mikey coming down the snow-slicked slide, about to fracture his wrist as he broke his fall when he reached the ground. It happened so fast. If both time travel and stop motion had been available to me, I’d have been able to go back into that moment: to factor in the extra slipperiness provided by snow, along with the thinness of the snow cover, providing no real protection against the frozen bark chips at the bottom of the slide, nearly as hard as concrete. I might, no matter what, have trusted Mikey’s own astonishing physical intelligence. But Mikey was young, still learning what he needed to know to be safely someone so fast, someone for whom motion was so fluid and so full of joy.

His wrist healed. He was also one of the ones killed in a car accident, years later, on his way to a ski team event, so all my stories about him have a special poignancy. Nobody had done anything reckless; it was just the wrong intersection on the wrong slippery day.

It’s hard for anyone to judge the costs and benefits of physical risk for young children, for young adults like the ski team or the lost climbers, for one’s self. Nobody, no parent, no teacher, no coach, can do that right every time.

Meanwhile, our goal must always be to empower kids, and teach them, to judge risk for themselves. If we decide to close the slide preemptively, whenever it’s fast with snow and there’s no bump-buffer at the bottom, we need to explain why, in a way that shares with kids what we know about practical motion physics.

(My husband routinely threatens to stop traffic and hold a quick class for all the nearby grown-ups, on how the force of a collision increases much faster than an increase in the speed. It varies, in fact, as the square of the speed. I’ve heard the lecture.)

playground kids climbing cropped

A kid at Farm School, learning to climb down. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

On the playground and at the park and in the backyard, just as in the classroom or at the dinner table, we need to teach skills, and give kids time to practice skills: not just the jumping or throwing or climbing skills for a particular game, but also the subtler skill, gained only through practice, involved in thinking while moving. Thinking about what’s slippery and the ways slipperiness can change kinetic action; thinking about where your body will be in another few seconds; thinking about other bodies in motion besides your own.

playground motion at farm school cropped

In the playground of life, as I stand and watch and savor the wonderful blur around me, I wind up seeing and appreciating what I saw in school: we each bring many kinds of mental energy to whatever we do, including paying attention. We bring intuitive energy, that lets us notice things and understand them without even trying, the way Bill Bradley knew where the basketball was in relation to his own position, every moment he spent on the court. We bring analytical energy that lets us think through the math problem of the action at hand in a more systematic way. We are so lucky, as a species, to be able to use reflective energy, to  look at experience and learn from it and then remember.

Meanwhile, each of us is different, with a different way of weaving those energies (and others) together. I’ve known kids–and adults–who could judge and ration physical risk with exquisite accuracy, until the game involved social interaction and negotiation also. I’ve known other adults like me, climbing up a tree in a burst of enthusiasm and then freezing, needing the Jackie Lockney voice to playground Jackie Lockney croppedhelp them solve the step-by-step and hand-hold by hand-hold problems involved in getting back down–and needing to do that both in slow motion and with the help of a pal.

At this point, I believe truly that there’s no shame in living any of those variations, only in not growing within whatever combination of energies you have. I need to listen to people who don’t see physical risk my way, because I have things to learn from them–but the reverse is true also. Every year I last, I can say with more certainty that there’s nobody here but us goofers, and with the best intentions in the world we will all make mistakes, and need the mercy of others’ forgiveness, and our own.

With any luck, parents’ wisdom about all these things grows and deepens, as we help each child become her own person-in-motion-with-an-active-brain. We watch with both sober concern and wild grateful joy.

And when the time comes, sooner than anyone can believe, we take a deep breath, and hand over the car keys.

Who Sits Where, or Ahhhhhhhhh-yippeeeeeeeee!

Image

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “If I don’t know the person I’m sitting near–especially if it’s a guy–I keep having the impulse to punch him. It’s hard to pay attention to anything else.”

There it is, laid out as clearly as possible, as only a kid could. He might have felt this unusually vividly, and expressed it to me, one-on-one, unusually straightforwardly. Still, there was some element of his feeling in many of his classmates. Students prefer to be seated near other students they know. Left to their own devices, most kids aren’t particularly eager to reach out to unfamiliar people.

Hooray for the minority who do reach out in friendship, and the huge gift they give to the group! Still, most kids need help with that.

Class life should give them that help. Here’s a corollary of my student’s statement. Students need to get to know the other members of a new class fairly quickly, so they’re not each sitting in the wanting-to-punch-someone condition (or some individual variation of that.) The teacher’s structuring of the situation needs to support kids in creating social inclusiveness, mutual knowledge, and safety, so that other good things can happen, things like learning how to divide fractions, or when to use there, they’re, and their–or the history of immigration policy, which is all about exclusion and inclusion.

Ideally, a teacher works gently and carefully with whatever social chemistry she or he finds, to create a productive balance of secure familiarity and growth-nurturing newness, for every student.

Among the faculty of my small school, all of whom I respected, there were real differences of opinion about how to work this out. Different routines are appropriate at different ages; different strategies work for different teachers’ styles.

Beginning the year

My young adolescent students (aged ten to twelve) spent a lot of their day moving around. Still, their table places were very important to them.

reading at tables

Before the first day of school, I made a temporary seating chart, and signs to put at students’ places. Kids would be seated at tables that held four students, and this usually worked out to be three or four at each table. (Longer ago, these were desk clusters with about the same number of desks in each cluster.)

Before I made this temporary arrangement, I talked with the teachers who were sending kids on to me. I always felt grateful for the help this gave me. I didn’t want the job of inclusion to fall to just a few generous kids. I tried to avoid giving hard jobs to kids with challenged attention, or to kids with sensory integration issues who might be thrown off by classmates brushing against their chairs. I thought carefully about how to handle kids with desperate crushes. (“Please,” a girl said to me when she ran into me over the summer, “don’t put me where I’m looking directly at _____, ” She knew herself, and knew what I needed to do for her.)

I tried to build in unfamiliarity along with familiarity. For example, I wouldn’t put three close friends at the same table–not good for them, not good for the group. I wanted everyone to have some safety, and some reaching to do.

projects time group with plantsAs the year moved forward, the groupings for academic work often built social connections. For example, projects time groupings were generated by kids’ choices of the various activities, expressed in rankings on sticky notes (which I could easily move around to arrange the groups.) It’s a tribute to the social education of my students before they reached me, that they could almost always handle this. For two afternoons a week, they could work in a small group with anyone, and make it productive. It was enough to have shared interest in a topic and a hands-on activity, with a little support from me or from a parent volunteer.

Very often, new friendships came out of these projects time pairings or groupings–if not close over-each-other’s-houses-frequently friendships, at least I’ll-put-this-person-on-my-list friendships.

The list

About a month into the year, sometimes less and sometimes more, I followed the seat assignment ritual I had learned from Kate Keller.

First we talked about the guidelines:

  • List at least two people of each gender. It’s fine to list more than two.
  • It’s okay to say “any boy” or “any girl” but you have to mean it, and that will count as meeting your conditions.
  • You can’t say “any girl (or boy) except _______.”
  • It’s fine to say “anybody.”

Kids wrote their preferences on 3 by 5 cards, with their names at the top. I learned that I needed to talk about anyone who was absent, so the card-writing kids wouldn’t forget about that person. It was helpful, especially early in the year, to have all the class names visible. Students folded the file cards and brought them to me, and I treated them as if they were top secret files from the CIA.

On the same cards, kids could also write requests involving placement in the room. I tried to honor those requests, if I could, since I wanted to encourage the self-knowledge that often went into them.  I explained ahead of time, though, that I couldn’t make promises, because good social mixing had to stay my main priority.

I promised just this: to give each student one person from his or her list, seated nearby. One safe presence.

That was hard enough to do, sometimes–to make all those interlocking choices work out. Usually, I started making the arrangement by placing kids who were least chosen by the others, or those who weren’t chosen by people they’d chosen themselves. They needed support, and this was one way I could give it.

One year, by the end of the year, every single file card said “anybody.” Thrilled and impressed, I threw them an ice cream party over the summer to express my high regard.

A sociologist could write a book about how these table-mate choices evolved through the year, with a chapter about how friendly, undemanding students tended to be chosen by almost everyone, time after time, and another chapter about how a child working hard to enter what he perceived as a popular group would fail to list any of the ordinary kids who had listed him and might treat him better. We don’t come automatically equipped with social skills for classroom life; we have to learn them, together, with some detours and lots of support. The information on the cards helped me know where support was needed.

Occasionally, a student thought she was designing the table group of her dreams, and reacted with shock when she didn’t get all of the people she had listed.

How to avoid any open expression of shock or dismay:

This sounds goofy, but it helped. Before I announced the seat assignments, or projects time groups, or any situation in which kids were placed in groups (almost always with their input) we went through the Ah Yippee ritual. This is very hard to describe in words. If you’re lucky enough to know a student from the past ten years, he or she may be willing to demonstrate, but it’s pretty silly.

Following a hand signal, we all said Ahhhhhhhhhhhh Yippppppppeeeeee! (Do you know what I’d give for a tiny video of this?) The collective tone swooped around, down and then back up. In the process, each child expressed his or her disappointment and excitement about the grouping–before knowing it.

Why in advance, before they knew? So the actual groupmates, or others not in a welcomed group, wouldn’t feel dissed.

We switched table places four or five times through the course of the year. Meanwhile, there were more frequent switches of math partners and projects time partners. All this in addition to various group-building activities I’ll describe another time. They helped, too–but my best chances at constructive social engineering were mostly under the students’ radar, in careful decisions about who sat where, and who partnered whom.

One way and another, there were lots of opportunities to decide that the unknown person you thought you wanted to punch might actually be someone you could trust and enjoy.

Hooray for the everyday bravery of kids in classroom life! Hooray for all the rewards it brings them!

Journeys, again

Last month I wrote about the Journey of Man thematic study, looking at the routes used by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they colonized all the world’s land except Antarctica. Recently I was thrilled to find a cache of student work samples from the first year of that study.

It’s timely. Over the next few weeks, some of the kids from that first Journey of Man class will graduate from college. They’re dancing in their last undergraduate dance concerts; giving senior voice recitals; helping younger students prepare to take over the leadership of campus organizations; getting ready to go off and be teachers themselves.

All of you from that class, wherever you are in your journeys, should have that buzzy feeling that says someone is thinking of you, because my mind has been full of the journeys I watched you make, from question to question, draft to draft, project to project.

Although I’m in touch with some of you, I’m not sure how to find others. So I’m going to hide names and identify you, if at all, only by first initial.  I’m assembling these samples out of the impact of the whole stack, in which I read every word. So in some sense all of you are reflected here.

JOM evidence stack

Over the summer before we started this study, I asked students to find and read a book related to the journeys we would be examining: the evolution of hominin species over millions of years; the travels of modern humans colonizing the globe; and the immigrant journeys that populated New England. Students could choose books relating to any of these topics, and I asked them to copy a passage that had been particularly meaningful for them.

Many students read about relatively recent immigration. Here’s one student’s heartbreaking choice of passage, from Ellis Island: Gateway to the New World by Leonard Everett Fisher:

JOM passage from Ellis Island bk editJOM copied passage geneticsI had offered genetics as a possible book topic, knowing that we’d be doing a side-trip into some learning about genes. We needed that to help us understand the role of Y chromosome genetics in the book by Spencer Wells from which we had borrowed our thematic study’s name, The Journey of Man. One student read Why Are People Different? from Usborne Publishing, and copied a fascinating passage.

 

JOM copied passage evolution

One faJOM copied passage evolution p2mily found a beautiful picture book about evolution, Our Family Tree: an Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters. It’s become one of my favorite nonfiction books for people of any age,

I’ve scanned both the copied passage and the student’s explanation for why she chose that book.

 

Other students jumped right into paleoanthropology. The passage below came from The Origins of Man, by John Napier.

JOM copied passage origins editReading through these, child by child, I am so moved by what grabbed them, when they were just sampling our topics to create an overview for each other. All four of those kids, J, J, S, and J, were drawn to story interpreting evidence–historical evidence, evidence from biological research, evidence from paleoanthropology and archaeology–all of it warmed and made coherent by a little bit of storytelling.

The first part of our exploration, about the evolution of species increasingly like us, focused on the first time clap, which I’ve already described. Here’s one student’s species sign, scanned to show the directions on the back.

JOM Homo erectus directions

I love that two word direction at the bottom, probably written by one of the students who carried copies of the sign. Those two short words take sides in a controversy still not fully settled by the interested scientists. Clearly we decided, for the purpose of the time clap, that Homo erectus really was able to control fire and use it at will–and that the dramatic growth of brain volume in Homo erectus fossil skulls indicates something revolutionary: cooked food. (You can watch this video to hear some of the evidence.)

Once we turned to the voyages of early modern humans, we were all grateful for Spencer Wells’s own effort to give his genetic evidence a human face and a story line:

JOM hunting with San

JOM target practice with SanJOM Spencer learning P editLike some of the other pieces I’ll include, these were quick pieces of writing done overnight for homework, in response to an open-ended invitation to write about something that stood out for each student. They had a word limit–probably no more than 60 words, judging from the ones that show a word count. Sometimes pairs or small groups of students shared what they had written; sometimes volunteers read theirs out loud to the full class, as a preparation for watching the next chunk of video.

Much of The Journey of Man is based on genetic evidence involving the Y chromosome. We did some other work to help us understand this, isolating DNA with help from parent volunteers, making models, reading other books. But all the kids were really taken with Spencer’s own treatment, using monkey oranges to lay out a big graphic on the ground near the San Bushmen camp.

JOM monkey oranges R editThe crosses indicate a second mutation; so R’s diagram would have been even better if he’d shown that second mutation happening in an individual who had already inherited a first one. Overall, though, he showed real understanding, and like so many Touchstone students, he didn’t hesitate to critique and appreciate Spencer’s teaching technique!

How did I handle informational errors in this kind of writing? Case by case. Sometimes I talked with the individual kid, or wrote a comment (which I’m cropping out here, mostly.) Often, I let signs of widespread confusion guide what steps the whole group would take next.

I found one page I’d written when I was disappointed with an activity,  brainstorming and evaluating ways we could approach the material differently. After all, I wasn’t doing this to grade students on their various levels of understanding; I was aiming for the greatest possible understanding by everyone–and all of us were being pioneers, including me.

Sometimes I asked kids to write about what they thought, before we watched the video or explored the evidence:

JOM ice bridge A editClearly this student had heard about ice bridges as a part of human migration from one continent to another. But as a way to get from Africa to Australia, an ice bridge couldn’t really work, and he realized that as we moved forward. Later he wrote again:

JOM to Australia new idea Here, K argues for her version using a terrific sketch map:

JOM Africa to Australia with map

JOM time clap 2  plan sheetI’ve already shared some artifacts from the second time clap, in which we worked intensively with material in the book version of The Journey of Man,  to recreate early modern humans’ routes from continent to continent. For all of us, I think, when we say “time claps” we’re remembering that one, because it was so intense. Finding additional materials from that second time clap, I was thrilled by evidence for what I had remembered, that kids themselves did most of the organizing and preparation. So, to the left here’s a planning sheet that is pretty difficult to decipher if you’re not one of the kids at work on the plan. (I know that the numbers refer to Y-chromosome mutations, and that the colors refer to colors of streamers carried on the routes.)

Here’s one student’s individual sheet, to help her know what to do when:

JOM time clap 2 indiv sheet editThe learning spiraled; it was cumulative. We reviewed in a variety of ways, acted things out in a variety of ways, made obnoxious comments about guest scientists having bad hair days, and reached a point of intimacy with the material that was extraordinary, given its challenges.

No Unit Test. Instead, kids wrote final pieces that we revised to a pretty good polish. Here’s part of one:JOM final essay E first paragraphs

Later, we carried these ideas into the work we did in the spring, thinking about the history of human technology and the evidence of archaeology, in connection with The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Nothing I’ve ever learned about has fascinated me more than this big picture view of human history, and I couldn’t have had better learning companions. Writing about it, organizing my own artifacts, I’ve started rewatching videos, reading books and blogs. I’m excited by new evidence, and also by new attempts to convey the story as a story.

I’ve also been struggling to understand online blogs and comments written by people who dismiss the Out of Africa evidence, for reasons that often seem transparently racist.

At any moment, on my bicycle, folding laundry, driving to the other end of the state, I’m liable to be thinking:

  • How did we get from Africa to Australia as lickety-split as the genetic and archaeological evidence indicates–not just traveling but colonizing? Just what role did bamboo rafts play? Is there any way I could wrangle myself an opportunity to make a bamboo raft?
  • And what about the evidence that even Homo erectus, much longer ago, used some kind of transport across water?
  • But also: what can be done to heal the increasing polarization between people who are excited by scientific evidence–even when it’s confusing or contradictory–and people who are threatened by it? How will my past students navigate that crossfire?

Ultimately, for me, this is the question: How can we build and share a new evidence-based story of our origins? Part of the answer, of course, as always: together.