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.

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!

Skywatchers and Magicmakers

Sometimes place-based education is about the town or state or watershed where a group of students live. Sometimes it’s about a thing all humans share: our place in the universe, and how it works, and what it’s like to live here.

time Maui people on globe

Finding the book you’ll see below was like stumbling on a time capsule. Suddenly, and so vividly, I had traveled twenty years into the past. People who are now 31 or 32 (some with children of their own) were 11 or 12 then. Shorter, younger kids have grown, some of them, to be the tallest in a new group picture, if we had the chance to take it.

time Maui photos at end 2

We made Slowing Down the Sun as the culmination of work by a school-wide mixed-age group that met for several sessions–three, maybe four. A few members of my regular class stayed with me, but most had gone to other groups, and were replaced by younger kids I knew less well but got to know much better. (I can’t remember the school-wide theme, but maybe a past colleague can help.)

So much of what continued to be important at Touchstone shows here. Storytelling often helped us begin thinking about the questions examined by science. Making models and drawings, and acting out stories together, helped us clarify and express understanding. Working in partners gave students a way to draw on many strengths, especially within a mixed-age group.

In this case, students wrote the sections of the text working in pairs, often older paired with younger. They did the illustrations individually.

Color copying cost a fortune back then, and it would be many years before Touchstone had its own color printer. I’m sure I couldn’t give copies to every participant, and in fact it’s possible that no other copy of this book still exists. But it’s a treasure! So I’ve decided to reproduce almost all of it, thanks to the humble miracles of scanning and internet magic. I’ve hidden full names from the text, but left first names on the drawings.

For me as teacher, holding this book I am carried back into the true miracle of work with students who rise like the sun itself, who are on fire with energy and curiosity, and who take it for granted, day after day, that their student job includes reaching to hold complicated and mysterious things.

Like so many of these posts, this one is an extended thank you note.

 

time Maui cover page

time Maui intro text

 

time Maui beginning drawing

time Maui beginning Liz and Matt 2

 

time Maui had an idea drawing

time Maui had an idea 2

 

time Maui sun-earth-moon
time Maui rope-to-catch Joelle and Jessica

time Maui net-the-sun

time Maui and Hinna

time Hinna and hair

time Maui sun-net-down

time Maui Adin and Patrick

time Maui david-sun

time Maui sun in cave

time Maui slow-sun-hinna-hair Lauren and Heather

time Maui addie-sunset

time Maui photos at end 1

time Maui beginning drawings

 

I’m experimenting with adding a contact form to some posts. The format makes it seem as though a comment is required, which is crazy, of course. If you have a thought that would be good for others to hear, be brave and go public, using the other comment function. But if you want, you can use this to reach just me.

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.

Deadlines and challenges

Jackie Lockney, amazing Touchstone physical education teacher, advocates something she calls “Challenge by Choice.” She helps students identify the skill–or the level of participation in a game, or the form of safe risk-taking–that they can move into when they’re ready, and she gives them whatever support they need–but they get to choose, kid by kid.

Jackie can talk a kid through a climbing element high in a pine tree, in a way that has felt almost supernatural to me when I’ve observed it. Not many people with Jackie’s personal physical skills can enter the mind of a kid who freezes, physically, unconsoled by the safety harness and line, and unable to talk himself or herself through–the kid who can only take that kind of risk with a copilot.

Out of her sight, without her even knowing, I’ve sometimes borrowed Jackie’s coaching-from-the-ground voice, to help myself get back on my bicycle, or tackle a mess.

Of course, we don’t always get to choose our challenges. People close to me are facing hard things right now, things they chose only in the sense that they agreed to love each other.

As teachers, we can’t always offer our students total flexibility or total choice in the timing of challenges. The deadline of an announced performance date always becomes a kind of emergency, no matter how carefully we plan the preparation. Teachers feel terrible, sometimes, putting kids on the spot by saying weeks ahead of time–the way we must–that a class will share some finished product on a given night.

On the other hand, here’s my image of what can result from that leap of faith–a physical expression of this class’s pride and relief at being done with their individual presentations for the Alhambra Banquet. I wish I could share the sound clip of whooping joy.

Alhambra cheer

Teachers need to take risks outside their teaching, in situations in which they themselves are fully the ones at risk. Especially in the beginning, every time I agreed to read poems publicly I knew the benefit of putting myself in my students’ place. I felt that even more whenever I participated in a class or workshop, and had to follow someone else’s directions, or perform a task with others watching. (In one math workshop in Maine, with the leader standing next to me, I completely lost my memory of how to use a graphing calculator. Gone.)

I took a risk this past month, agreeing to be one of several poets who are writing poems in response to sculptures, for a special online chapbook associated with the exhibit’s website. Here’s the big risk for me: less than two weeks for the writing and revising. What’s so risky? My usual process as a poet involves months, often years, of revision. To produce something on this schedule has been like writing in a completely different genre–as if I’d worked in fabric for decades and suddenly tried to work in clay.

One side-effect: an unusually long gap between blog posts. Nobody is hollering, but I’m worried, for my own sake, that after too long a break I’ll forget how to get back on this horse, too.

On the other hand, I’ve learned some things, launching myself out of my comfort zone this way.

The process of revision that means so much to me, within which I invariably learn and grow, consists of a conversation among various versions of myself, with an odd commitment to democracy and equality among those selves. Facing this deadline, I’ve been figuring out short-cuts for staging that conversation among selves, without waiting for years to go by.

For one thing, I’ve hollered for help, showing drafts of the poem much earlier than I usually would, to family members and to fellow Every Other Thursday poets. They’re not different versions of me, of course, but they trigger different versions, as I respond to their thoughts.

I’ve also pushed hard on something I’ve always known: that I could bring a different mind to a piece of writing, maybe especially a poem, by taking it with me somewhere outside my house. I’ve experienced breakthroughs for these sculpture poems while listening to 50’s and 60’s rock in the vintage McDonald’s on the Massachusetts turnpike; also listening to spring peepers near the Milford bike path; also in a nearby greenhouse tea-shop; also while listening to the sleeping breath of my youngest grandson, staring out at the hemlocks behind his house.

Obviously I’ve had to do some express writing (and express risk-taking) for this blog, too. No, it’s not death-defying, but I know myself better than you do; I’m up a pretty high tree, on this also.

What are these sculptures about which I’m writing? They’re sculptures by Boston area artists, in a show organized by the Energy Necklace Project at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts. They’re stunning. Here’s a detail from one of the pieces about which I’m writing, a fiber piece by Linda Hoffman and Margot Stage, called Forest Fall.

100_0807And here’s another, Reaching Hand, concrete cast from clay by Peter Kronberg:

100_0830If you follow this link, you can see the official photographs for the whole show.  The artists I heard speaking, at the exhibit opening, intrigued me with their descriptions of process, and moved me with their stories.  If we have good weather, the poets will walk from sculpture to sculpture, reading, on June 1st.

And any hour now–really soon–I’ll decide that I’ve done the best I can to live up to the sculptors’ work and courage, and I’ll let go of the poems they inspired. I’m planning to have my surrogate Jackie Lockney voice at hand when I press send.

A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

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

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

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

We’re also all cousins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

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

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

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

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

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

chukchi family edited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ellis Island Stories

 On one of my first trips to Ellis Island, with my family, we were part of the annual surge of people into the national parks, on the day after Thanksgiving. (‟Highest attendance, nationwide,” the rangers told us.)

ellis island hallMoving from exhibit to exhibit in that throng, I overheard an older woman telling her companions about her own father’s journey to America, alone, at the age of 12. As she stood above the Great Hall, where people were sorted–allowed in or refused and sent away–stories she had heard all her life took on new shape.

On the ferry back to New Jersey, listening to all the languages around us, I leaned over to my husband and asked, ‟How many?” and he listened for a few minutes and said, ‟Maybe twenty?” We were surrounded by another pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of new immigrants, come to honor that shrine of the old immigration.

None of our own close relatives came through Ellis Island—his mother came after the island was closed; my ancestors, like the rest of his, came centuries ago, when nobody was counting or checking or manning the gate in any way; when people just came.

Still, the story we felt around us is universal—all those people, in all their languages, were saying so—and we were deeply moved.

The parents of my students helped me figure out how to get us there, from our distance in Massachusetts. The first time, Gail Epstein and David Tapscott arranged for us to stay with relatives near New York City, taking over their rooms in a giant sleepover. (Thus the comment–in the recording below, that shows part of our debriefing session once we got back–about not stepping on anyone.)

ellis island debrief higher contrast

Another year, Carol Bedrosian, now the editor of Spirit of Change, arranged a bus for a day trip, and helped the class throw a car-wash to defray some of the costs. It was a very long day. We left from Grafton at 5:30 am, and returned about midnight. Still, it worked, and we used that way of getting to Ellis Island many more times.The trip book–a combined guide and workbook, the sort of thing teachers can create and use in the wonderful age of photocopying–included games to play on the bus. We chose a video to watch on the way home, and the few kids who didn’t pass out cold in extremely odd positions watched along with the adults.

The bus had more room than we needed, and cost a fortune, so we invited parents and grandparents to join us and help cover the cost. Making this a multi-generational field trip had all sorts of benefits. Kids got to know each others’ parents; parents got to know their children’s friends. Especially on the way home, as children slept, parents told each other (and me) their own families’ stories, deeply moving, often full of sorrow and darkness along with hopes fulfilled. With all those generations bearing witness, we settled more deeply into some truths of our history.

When I decided to post here that debrief of the very first class trip, I knew I would have to tell the story of the guy reaching over the railing.

We were exploring in our small groups. My group was in the room with what I called immigration math, huge colorful 3D graphs and interactive maps, showing immigration trends across time. I had designed a day that would echo our day at school: math time in the math room; reading and writing time in the galleries full of photographs; sketching time in a gallery full of the actual objects immigrants had brought with them, candlesticks and prayer books, christening dresses and lockets. Recess time we spent outside, looking for our own relatives on the wall of names, watching the seagulls. All of this was meant to help us feel ourselves mid-harbor, mid-history, mid-melting pot.

Lucy Candib, medical doctor and mother of Addie, was with me there in the math room with our group of four or five kids. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of someone’s head hitting the stone floor in the entrance room behind us. A young man from another school had leaned out over the stair railing too far, reaching to a friend, and had tumbled down to the floor below. Lucy was the first person at his side. I saw him on a stretcher, apparently unconscious, as rangers waited for a helicopter to fly him off the island.

All of us, every single one, including me, had to tell that story first, before anything else, when we got home late that night. I had to get past the ghost of that story in order to go back to Ellis Island with kids again. That incident made me tighten my organization for the trip, and recruit kids to be mindful of everyone’s safety. It forced me to think through (again) all the risks teachers take when we leave the classroom with kids, and all the reasons why we should, anyway—because the story of the young man who reached too far was not the only story we all had to tell when we got home, just the first.

Inspired by that woman on the balcony of the Great Hall, imagining her father, I had designed the immigration unit around true immigration stories of family members and friends, people still alive and people known only by the stories still told about them. Kids called uncles in California who knew that stuff; they interviewed their babysitters; they often found family artifacts and brought them in to share. In our work at school, students gathered these stories, distilled them into file card versions to put on a huge timeline stretching around the room, and chose one to write in full and revise for publication.

Always, in any particular class, a good portion of the kids, as many as half, had family stories that linked to Ellis Island–but the assignment didn’t specify that.

At Ellis Island Lewis Hine - Italian child gets her first penny, 1926Ellis Island, I asked the kids to make up a fictional story, also. In a room full of giant portraits of immigrants, near the entrance to the Peopling of the Americas exhibit, each student chose a person from one of the photos: boys and girls, women and men, from several continents.

ellis island photos writing croppedThen, as students moved from section to section in the exhibit, the trip book led them through the corresponding stages of the immigrant experience: a section about saying goodbye, when they left their old homes; a section about finding work; a section about communities of immigrants giving each other comfort and reassurance. After reading some of the text on the walls, looking at the photographs, and listening to recorded accounts on phones placed around the exhibit, each student wrote a journal entry in the voice of his or her chosen person, bearing them through the experience, stage by stage. To the right, Ian Wills and IanTapscott have found a comfortable piece of floor. Below, Mike Costa reads what he’s already written.

ellis island mike costa croppedSometimes a kid chose a photograph that could be a stand-in for a great-great-grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes they chose photographs that could be stand-ins for themselves. Stefan Cunha chose a newsboy yelling out across a street–and for all these years since I have remembered the clarity and power of his writing in that situation.

By the time we got back onto the ferry to leave Ellis Island, each of us was like a set of Russian dolls, with other lives nested inside us: the boy who discovered that the immigrants had come to earn their way into this country with unbelievably hard work; the girl who was let through Ellis Island but had to say goodbye to her father; the aunt who could never fully emerge from the trauma, the shadow, of the pogroms; the teenager who became the family’s translator exactly at the age when he wanted independence; the mother with her children held close all around her, hollow-eyed, all of them hungry and hoping to be better fed.

Ellis Island was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy; it’s only gradually being reopened, and I’ve worried that exhibits I treasured, as a teacher, may have been lost. Even before that, security arrangements put in place after the World Trade Center bombings had so lengthened the process of getting onto the island that it no longer worked for us as a day trip. Meanwhile, I had been learning about Blackstone Valley immigration stories, and had discovered the Museum of Work and Culture in Pawtucket, Rhode Island–not at all the same, but fascinating in its own way. The focus of our work in the fall gradually shifted.

It’s fair to say, though, that all my curriculum work afterward was affected by the Ellis Island field trip experiences, and by the thematic study that grew around them. Looking back I can see shifts: in my sense of what is at stake in curriculum choices; in my sense of the huge and complicated realities young adolescent students can stretch to embrace; and in my sense of the importance of combining, carefully and respectfully, both research and imagination.

Below, Adam Curley and I are too excited to sit down, while various parents huddle and talk in the October wind across the harbor.

ellis island photos ferry cropped

You’d have a hard time tracking people down with these photographs, from several of the earliest trips–so I decided to just go with them. Thanks so much, to everyone who helped these wonderful field trips happen!


Never, Nada, Zip, Zilch: No Grades

In the teaching and learning I’ve written about for this blog, some things never happened–things taken for granted in most schools. I was lucky.

For starters: because my school didn’t require me to, I never summarized my assessments of students’ work using grades. No number grades; no letter grades; none of the judgments about mastery (not as clear a concept as you might think) summed up in terms that are just grades thinly disguised. None, never, nada.

Alhambra Caroline and Isy croppedLike all my colleagues, I gave plenty of careful attention to student work. The students received many kinds of feedback, and even more kinds of support. Above all, in ways small and large, we celebrated the culmination of authentic learning.  But not with grades.

I was still a kid myself (and getting A’s) when I decided that grades were meaningless and dangerous. As an adult, I’ve been known to refer to grading as institutionalized child abuse.

Still, I’m used to the fact that people I respect may disagree. Occasionally, Touchstone families have decided they wanted grades, going somewhere else to get them. Other families have wished for the crispness of grades, but stayed for the quality of their children’s learning. Almost all our graduates have gone on to schools that use grades, and almost all of them have continued to belong to themselves and care most about meaning.

If you want to read essays about the uselessness (or outright harmfulness) of grades, track down the writings of Alfie Kohn. I think often of a less famous heroine, Meghan Southworth, a working math teacher and trainer for the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. She wasn’t able to eliminate all grades, because her school required them at the end of every quarter. In order to have some basis for those grades, she had to administer tests and other graded assessments, and record the results.

Here’s the kicker: she had stopped showing her students the grades they received through the term.

Instead, she continued to give her students written comments. I didn’t see hers, but I’m guessing they were a lot like mine: suggestions for ways to rethink problems, ways to improve quality control, ways to balance carefulness and momentum–along with acknowledgement of the kinds of engagement and effort, no matter how tentative, that can help a student move forward. Here’s a small sample of comments on a test:

math quiz comments croppedThis student was working to overcome test-taking anxiety,  and needed to focus on how close she was to the full answer. Thus “almost” instead of an X.

Like most teachers everywhere, Southworth wanted her students to improve, not just stay at the level of achievement they arrived with. She had noticed that they wouldn’t really absorb or use the support embedded in her comments, as long as the shortcut of a grade was available. She quoted a student who caught on to her new system very quickly: “Oh, you want us to read the comments instead of just looking at the grades!”

Southworth also cited research describing most students’ response to grades: “Is this what I’m used to getting?” If the student is used to getting A’s, and this is an A, no need to stretch. If the student is used to getting C’s, and this is a C, no need to worry.

To put this as harshly as I’ve sometimes felt it: If it’s a teacher’s job to sort kids into levels, grades make sense. If a teacher is meant to be a gatekeeper restricting access to future opportunities, ensuring a scarcity of qualified applicants for those opportunities, then grades make sense.

But if a teacher’s job involves paying attention to learners, understanding them, and working with them to help them grow, then grades aren’t worth much, and can actually get in the way.

Think about what freedom from grading meant for me and my students, as we worked together:

  • math work and progress croppedFreed from grading, I could put much of my energy into assessing what each child needed in order to make the best possible progress. I took lots of notes, and reviewed them less often than I thought I should, but often enough to keep my concerns and hopes for each student fresh.
  • We could make frequent and thoughtful use of student self-assessment. That’s awkward to incorporate into a grading system, but really important in helping students move forward.

math self-assess and my response croppedWritten quickly on the back of a math quiz, this is part of a student’s routine reflection on test-taking strategies and skills, with reading self-assessment croppedmy response.

Here are some of the sentence starters for a reading journal self-assessment, leading up to a portfolio conference.

  • My students and I weren’t in the more-or-less adversarial relationship that grading so easily encourages. Kids treading line-up cropped with Colin and Samended to be fully invested in the goals we had set together. So I got to hear them say things like this: “Something in me just rushes right through instructions, because I want to get started on the answers. So I’m trying to build the habit of stopping myself and reading the instructions again.” Or: “Now I can really understand what I’m reading, I get involved in what’s happening, and hate it when you say that reading time is over.” These are kids realizing what they need–habits of rechecking, reachable books–and figuring out that they can provide that for themselves.
  • Freed from grading that would imply class standing, we didn’t have to worry about an “even playing field.” I could help kids make individual choices of topics and materials comfortable enough to encourage confidence, interesting enough to inspire excitement, and challenging enough to nurture flexibility and pride. Like our physical education teacher, I aimed for “challenge by choice”–and I found that well-supported students motivated by genuine interest almost always aimed high.

nate with tube and vortex croppedThere had been a rage for home-made marble chutes, in a run of rainy-day recesses. This student worked on his own to explore a new idea, incorporating a toy vortex.

At a professional conference, another teacher asked me, “But why do kids work, if there’s no grade as a reward?” I didn’t actually burst into tears, but I felt some despair. We are in real trouble when teachers themselves have been conditioned to forget the intrinsic rewards of learning, the joy of feeling powerful as a learner, the genuine appetite kids bring to talhambra mattheir mutual effort to understand the world.

What about my own reward? Immeasurable. My students grew like weeds, not just physically but intellectually. They bloomed! That was the real delight, for me, in teaching at a school that disavowed grades: I got to watch kids learning like mad, bright-eyed and working tirelessly, full of the meanings in their learning and full of themselves, taking off and flying for their own reasons.

I wouldn’t trade that for nothin’. (Nada. Zip.)

I could not fit this topic into anything resembling my 1000 word target. So I’ve saved some aspects for another post: the relationship between grading (or not) and group work; ditto the development of class community. Also: in the absence of grading, kinds of feedback students could come to expect–and my continuing fascination with learning that happened in odd little corners (like rainy-day recess) where feedback wasn’t a factor.

A Stack of Five

Last year, one of my students told me about ‟open reading” at her previous school. ‟It’s called that,” she said, ‟but there isn’t really any open.” The students all read different books, but the teacher chose the book for each child.

I didn’t know whether to cry or throw things. On the whole, people who love reading have had a chance to choose what they read.

On the other hand, it can be difficult for kids to choose books for themselves.

  • Some kids don’t yet know what it feels like to read comfortably at their actual reading level. For these kids, reading is laborious—possibly a labor of love, but inherently so challenging that they choose books for content alone, and often wind up reading, very slowly, books that are too hard. Reading that slowly, a student has trouble carrying the plot, or feeling any momentum in the story–or looking forward to reading.
  • Sometimes kids have been caught in a strange trap in which their reading choices have to prove things to adults, or to other kids, or even to themselves: how brilliant they are; how sophisticated they are; how cute or tough they are.
  • Sometimes kids become genre addicts, overly dependent on what works for them about a particular genre or author: low memory demand, or a relatively predictable plot pattern, or constant nail-biting suspense.

How could I give kids the opportunity and responsibility to choose, and at the same time help them choose from what was likely to work? How could I help them expand the world of what could work for them? Enter the book stack.

The procedure was very simple. If a student asked me for it, I would choose not one book, but a stack of five books. (Yes, this is another routine involving choosing from five possibilities. I wrote about one for writing in the post Think of Five.)

I liked to have the student stand with me in front of the shelves of the type of book we were after, most typically novelssometimes picture books or non-fiction. Especially at the beginning of the year, as I was getting to know a student, I’d ask, ‟What have you been reading lately?” Or, ‟Can you point to some books that have worked for you?” Or just ‟Have you already read this?” as I began to pull books from the shelf and hand them to the student.

Affirming the value of a range of reading levels, I tended to include one or two lower-level classics that the student had not yet read and was in danger of never reading. ‟Ah,” I would say, as I handed over Dear Mr. Henshaw or Number the Stars. “One of those books that nobody should grow up without reading.” (‟Oh,” the student might say, if he or she knew me well enough, ‟you say that about everything.”)

stack

Usually, the stack included at least one book that might have special meaning for that student. In the stack above, I’m offering some books in which characters discover new possibilities of self-reliance and courage. For an Asian-American student, for example, I might include at least one book with Asian or Asian-American characters. For a student struggling through a parent divorce or a friend’s parents’ divorce, I might include a book or two in which the hero or heroine faces a similar challenge. So long as the stack included other books, I could be led by my own agenda for the child, usually unspoken, gently offered–but often pursued. Most kids do tend to reach for the books that can help them grow, if the reach is voluntary.

Sometimes a student would ask for a particular category. ‟I want books about World War II and the Holocaust.” ‟I want books about time travel.” Or a student might ask for an exclusion: no talking animals; no books told in the first person; no books with anyone dying.

Sometimes I was very open about a theme for a stack. ‟This stack is all realistic fiction, because we’re doing research to figure out what sorts of realistic fiction will appeal to you as much as fantasy.” ‟These are books that I’m pretty sure you can read easily and quickly, any of them, to help you build fluency.” ‟This is a whole stack of funny books, because we both agree that you’ve been reading really serious stuff lately, and could use a change.”

When we had five (or sometimes six—enough and not too much), the student would go back to his or her table place and examine the books.

selecting books bIn a mini-lesson early in the year we would have helped each other list ways to select a book.

Of course, kids went beyond these strategies, finding their own. In fact, as I watched out of the corner of my eye from across the room, I saw and savored tremendous variation, child to child, that reminded me of watching adult friends play poker.

spread out bStudent A spread the books out on the table, face down, and then turned them over one by one as she spent time with each book. Student B used a numerical rating system. Student C would start with a pile on the left, and sort into three piles on the right: yes, no, and maybe–and then go back and reconsider. (Frequently, Student C hadn’t made a choice by the end of reading time, and kept the whole stack in his crate overnight.)

Student D knew all along which one he really wanted, and came back 20 seconds after I sent him away. For him, I’d say, ‟Please spend a little more time and really look at all of them, for the sake of next time.”

Student E, after agonizing cheerfully, would copy all the unchosen titles and authors into her reading journal for future reference.

The only way to do it wrong was not to do it at all.

Now and then, a student who hated choosing would propose a variation: the student would make the book stack, and I would choose. That was hard for me.

Some kids asked for book stacks every time they finished books, collaborating with me on almost every choice. Others asked for a book stack less often. Once in a while, if a student seemed stuck in a rut, I’d be the one to initiate the process, saying, ‟When you’ve finished this book, ask me to help you make a stack.”

Once in a very great while, the chosen book turned out not to work, after a fair trial, and I encouraged the student to figure out why, but then start over with another book. There’s no better way to dull the love of reading than to finish books dutifully, no matter who chose them.

All this took time, of course. It helped that I knew the very substantial collection in the room fairly well; that as the year went by I knew students increasingly well; that in my mixed-age classroom I was almost always working with some students for a second year. (To watch and nurture two years of reading growth! Incredibly delicious.) Often I recruited more experienced or faster readers to suggest new titles, or help me assess books I had ordered but not yet read.

In any case, this was time I enjoyed spending, for so many reasons. It satisfied my inner librarian. More importantly, though, it gave me a way to facilitate rather than dictate. I didn’t want, ever, to say, “Here–read this.” No matter how long it took, I’d rather hand over five books, and let the reader take it from there.

Progress Report

My most recent post was the fifteenth on this blog. That felt to me like time to think over my “time to think it over,” and as usual I did that by watching mental videos: my newest grandson, the river of students I’ve taught, and myself, as blogger.

 Zen Meditation

During the months in which I’ve been writing these posts, and figuring out what comes next in my life, I’ve also spent a happy amount of time with Zen, who is about to be four months old.

Lately, I’ve been inspired by watching him discover his hands, which are very small.

hands lightened upAt first, when Zen was set down on one of those mats with soft bright toys suspended on long crossing wands, he waved his arms and legs with huge pleasure, but not much control. When one of his wild waves connected, his eyes opened wide, and he made a reflective comment in Zen language. Increasingly, he tried to bat those toys around his small heaven.

hands and crittersOnce he developed a little more control, he would hold his right fist at the length of his outstretched arm, intently focusing. He seemed to be figuring out that since he could use that hand, it must belong to him. I thought—and said, since he’s incredibly easy to talk to, and doesn’t yet roll his eyes when I come out with teacher talk: Yes, it’s amazing! We have these perfect tools built in!

I watched Zen work consciously, painstakingly, to practice opening his hand, before closing it on something he wanted to grasp. He got hold of my sleeve as I was changing his diaper, and I laughed. His look was a combination of who, me? and yes, I’m cool.

Now, sitting in his swing, Zen can grasp his favorite model of the cosmos in both hands.

hands and cosmos 2When he’s lying on the play mat, he has all sorts of ambidextrous fun. His left hand plays the crackly wings of the parrot; his right hand tickles a couple of giraffe feet. One evening his parents watched him manage to include the monkey, a three-ring circus. Yesterday, he pulled so hard on all these fabric friends, trying to get them into his mouth, that the entire superstructure seemed to be undergoing an earthquake, with crackly-parrot-wing sound effects. Total mayhem! Produced by a four-month-old! Whoever designs these baby toys is doing a great job.

A river of students

So that’s Zen, learning up a storm. Meanwhile, back in my own part of the state, I’m still sorting through the evidence of my past students.

binders in bagI’ve reduced a large number of boxes full of records and work samples–I won’t tell how many–to four binders, with one clear plastic sleeve for each student, all in alphabetical order: three Aarons, so far; five Bens. Etc. I’m maybe half done with that part of the overall job I’ve set myself.

Meanwhile, in my mind, for those past students who are grown to adulthood, I’m holding those layers of evidence next to who they’ve turned out to be. They travel through Nepal; they figure out the evolutionary history of squirrels; they teach kindergarten, or help middle-school city kids make videos, or become involved in their kids’ preschools; they solve problems for internet start-ups; they help cities plan evacuation routes or plant trees; they run campus businesses and theater productions; they move expensive paintings–Picasso!–from one city to another; they tackle contact improvisation classes in Italy. I love it all, and keep finding out more.

What about my more recent students? I’ve just been to the Halloween parade and community meeting, with its traditional skits. Those kids, too, when I look back and forth, now / then, have simultaneously changed and stayed the same–the same unique and vivid selves, learning learning learning.

So I’ve stepped back from the day-to-day teaching of one group of students, who tended to absorb almost all my waking energy, to look at the flow of students through all these years, like a river. Thanks to my inability to throw things away, it’s a river that shimmers with detail.

Watching myself as blogger

Writing this blog, focusing on one small chosen view after another in the landscape of school life as I have been lucky to know it, I’ve been moved again and again by the sheer power of human learning—not just at the early adolescent ages I taught, but in the strength and stretch and increasing individualization of every year that comes after.

In addition, writing this blog is a lot like watching an infant. In fact, I am the four-month-old, and way slower than Zen. But persistent.

I started working on the blog just about when he was born, at the beginning of July. I had five posts at least partly written before I took any of them public. (There are familiar patterns here. I learned to walk by holding onto the furniture for quite a while.)

codgers smilingFiguring out how to add photographs as illustrations took me days. No–I’m still getting the hang of it, so call that months. Figuring out how to scan Justin McCarthy’s hummanacraft design took over a week, even with the help of my perennial backstage helper and cheerleader, the wonderful wizard with the mustache, Alex Brown.

So far, writing has been easier than I feared it might be, because I already knew, most days, how to take risks and have fun in a first draft, how to let it lead me, and then how to throw out whatever didn’t work for me or couldn’t fit. I already knew how to revise and revise and revise. (My record, so far, is 23 separately saved drafts.) I love all the second and sixth and nineteenth chances of revision. I’d rather exercise that particular freedom than eat, or get up to put on another layer of fleece when the house cools down.

On the other hand, I still go into a steep decline immediately after hitting the publish button. Every time. Obviously, somehow I’ve felt like I had honed each paragraph as long and as well as I could in a mortal world, when I get to that point. But I hit that publish button and suddenly I’m convinced it’s all hogwash.

This isn’t just about the blog, and isn’t new. John Hodgen once described Polly Brown, poet, being extracted from a street mailbox by public safety officials using the jaws of life.

I am really good at second thoughts. On the other hand, I keep risking it all again.

This past week, I wrote to Alex Dunn. His blogs, at thedailybirdnewengland.blogspot.com and at mooglegaps.blogspot.com, have given me important inspiration. In each of his blogs, Alex is building up a body of perspective on some aspect of the world, piece by piece. He believes in the details, the tiny things that make each type of bird distinctive, and in the overall perspective. Like me, he’s obsessed with maps, which offer ways to view both.

In his return email, Alex thanked me for letting him know he’d had an impact. He said, ‟It is a strange thing sending writing out into the void and never really knowing what comes of it.” Yes. Like sending out poems, and feeling like they might as well have gone to Mars. It’s never been likely that someone would stop me in the drugstore and say, “Here’s what your poem (or your post) made me think about…”

But that’s what I want to know about each of these posts: Not is it good or bad? But what did it make you think about? So I’ve loved the comments some of you have written—adding your own memories of Dana’s death, or your own experience of a watershed far away from me, or your experience with teaching.

On the other hand, some of the blog’s regular readers (I’m pretty sure I can count at least five) say that you’re not sure how to comment. I can’t figure out how to control whether there’s a comment box showing, where I want it, at the bottom of every post. Sometimes, it seems, you have to click on the little blue dialog icon up near the title.

Should I say that at the end of every post? Should I keep giving people prompts for ways they might jump in? Should I just tell you, here and now, that I am most interested in what resonates, in your own story, whatever my story made you think of? Just a few of my current questions.

Although some of my nearest and dearest supporters think it’s a mistake, I do check the stats and maps available behind the scenes. I had a private cheering moment when I passed the landmark of 1000 views.

blog hits mapDiscovering I’d had a hit from someone going online in Nepal—and guessing who it was!—absolutely made my day. My week!

I try to ignore the intimidating statistics on other blogs, in the thousands every day. Is that what I want?

Right now, the most personal success–again, so much like writing poems–comes with this: putting life in words helps me cherish it. I am cherishing that life I led as a teacher, and everyone who led it with me. I’m glad that many of my readers are people who shared that with me, directly or indirectly, near or far. I feel, often, like I’m writing, and celebrating, on behalf of us all.

I do have wider, more public intentions, also, and hope to have a gradually increasing public audience. Mostly, I want to encourage people to think about authentic learning, because it’s endangered in the world around us. In some small way, I want to contribute to collective, sensible, committed mindfulness about what learning really looks like and means and needs and produces, so different from the loudest mainstream trends. I want to do that without arguing, actually, just by showing what can work, because I know it has.

So—in sum, as my attorney daughter would say—I am very glad, these days, to have the freedom to drive out the turnpike, across all those rivers, and spend some hours with Zen. Grateful that my older grandchildren are only a day’s train ride away. Grateful for more phone and email contact with the rest of my far-flung family. All of us are learning, moving from one version of ourselves to another, and I’m paying better attention now.

I’m also more aware than ever before that I was lucky-and-a-half to stumble into teaching, to teach for so long in a rare and wonderful place, and to have known so many young learners one by one by one, within the communities we built together.

Finally, I am grateful—in every word I type and then change and then change back again—for every bit of encouragement you’ve given me, one way or another, to try this and keep trying.

I hold you in the light, whether I know you or not, as I send you off to watch and cheer and cherish whatever learning is happening in your own life’s neighborhood.