How do I inspire them?

Inspire

Inspire. chattygdCC BY 

The crowd of educators goes to lunch, posting their “gots” and “wants” on a chart as they exit the morning’s session on growing young writers. My co-facilitators and I look over these sticky notes, preparing to address the “wants” in the afternoon when the participants return.

One note in particular grabs my attention:

I want my students to be excited about writing and to write more. How do I inspire them?

“It’s all yours,” say my colleagues.

I smile.

This is what I love.

Educators talking about inspiration. It’s vital to professional development, to the work that we do

To inspire, one must first be inspired.

Author Avi, in a Skype with students at my elementary school a couple of years ago, defined inspiration as breathing life.

Writers are life-breathers.

So are teachers.

Lucy Calkins, speaking of launching writing workshop, says: “No matter how tentative and insecure you may feel, role-play your way into being confident of yourself and your children because they will hitch a ride on your enthusiasm.”

It’s more than modeling the writing; it’s modeling a passion for writing. It’s digging deep within yourself to find your own stories, your own ideas, your own stances, and giving life to them . . .

The crowd returns. Little knots of teachers, support personnel, and administrators spanning kindergarten through high school, chattering, laughing. They take their seats one by one; an air of expectancy settles over all as my co-facilitators and I respond to their “wants.”

It’s my turn.

I want my students to be excited about writing and to write more. How do I inspire them?

“If we want students to get excited about writing, we must be excited about writing. We must write more ourselves, for ourselves first. Walk the walk; if we’re telling them writing is important, we’d better be writing ourselves. That’s why I started my blog, to keep me writing consistently. Tap into your own memories, the things that matter to you. Write in front of the students; show them every step of the way, how the ideas and images come to you, why you want to say what you’re trying to say, why it’s important.  That’s authentic writing. Tell students writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. Show them the power that’s in it. That what THEY think and feel matters. Good writing is labor-intensive; they have to get a taste of why it’s worth it. Tap into their emotions; there’s always a way . . . help them see that writing isn’t just something to be done for school for a grade, over and done. Writing is about life itself . . . .”

Breathe life. From your writing to theirs, from your soul to theirs.

There’s a whole world within each young writer. There’s a world around them that they’re grappling to understand. A world with a place for each of them. We don’t create these worlds for them. We just open the doors.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

– Arundhati Roy

Your why

Last Friday at school our professional development centered on finding our whys. For we are not made of what we do; we’re made of why we do it.

In a YouTube video, comedian Michael Jr. puts it this way: “When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.” To illustrate the difference between knowing what and knowing why, he calls on a member of the audience (a school music director by the name of E. Daryl Duff) to sing a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Duff’s voice is resonant, beautiful. Michael Jr. then asks Duff to sing as if a couple of specific, tragic things had happened to him; the transformation is stunning. Duff sings in a higher key with a vibrato full of emotion and energy—see the “Know Your Why” video).

It’s a perfect example of how our power, our potential, lies in knowing why we do things.

So, my colleagues and I got to work on finding our whys. 

We were to map at least five peaks and valleys in our lives; if we needed help, we could use a memory prompt based on the work of Simon Sinek:

Our principal modeled the activity first (let us remember that good teaching and good writing have a primary rule in common: Show, don’t tell). The peaks and valleys didn’t necessarily have to be milestones in our lives, but experiences surrounded with much meaning or emotion, maybe turning points, times we gained knowledge that changed us. The more specific we could be in listing several significant life events or people that made an impact on us, the better we’d get to our why. 

Mulling the suggestions and the need for specificity, I chose these events, people, and moments that first came to mind as being beyond the norm:

Thinking of such experiences and writing them can be emotional, but sharing is where the emotion really kicks in.

Laughter. Tears. Reassuring hugs.

In pairs who were moderately comfortable with each other, but who didn’t know each other really well, we shared some of our peaks and valleys. We didn’t have to share everything we wrote, just the items we wanted to share. We told why we chose these points in our lives and what stood out about them. While one partner read, the other listened for connections or patterns in those life events, made notes, and then the roles switched.

We then shared what we discovered about one another.

In my case, my father’s sudden death (my lowest valley), reading “The Murder of Robbie Wayne, Age 6” in The Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen, my birthday party when my mother invited a boy who had bullied me, and a boy who did one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen back when we were in 5th grade (I wrote about it: The Valentine) all connect to my present notions of fairness, doing what’s right, and being an advocate.  My having asthma as a child, my husband’s loss of an eye to disease two years ago, and my return to college to finish after a span of many years have a common theme of overcoming. The others—my husband’s ministry, my grandmother’s belief in me, my volunteering to do a play with elementary students when I was still in high school, my blog, the professional development I’ve led in writing, my boys’ individual accomplishments in music and leadership, and the high school teacher who saved the lead role in The Matchmaker for me to read in class—are tied to inspiration.

Synthesizing all of this leads to drafting a why statement comprised of our contribution and our impact:

To _____________________ [contribution] so that ___________________________ [impact].

Mine, at the moment, is this (still working to tighten it further):

To inspire others so that they know they can overcome obstacles and setbacks.

This is why I do what I do; some of the whats are literacy coaching, encouraging others to write, and writing this blog.

I wonder, now, how many colleagues—how many people in the world, actually—have their whys and whats aligned. Seems to me there’d be incredible frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, imbalance, and utter lack of fulfillment when whys and whats aren’t aligned, when people don’t recognize their contribution or see the impact they can make. I think of people in jobs that don’t match their whys and how such dissonance makes for misery.

In The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar writes of a teacher struggling with classroom management. The man couldn’t bring order because, when he was in school, he suffered being stereotyped and devalued by a teacher. Being the authority figure for his students felt like he was doing the same to them. He went into teaching because he had a genuine love for the kids, but his core beliefs, his why, the very essence of who he was, wouldn’t allow him to establish the needed structure.

He couldn’t change his why; he could only change his what. He ended up leaving the teaching profession.

“When you know your why, you have options on what your what can be.”

We are not what we do.

We are why we do it.

Knowing that, as Robert Frost might say, makes all the difference.

Get words

Imagine what is over there

Imagine what is over there. Kenneth BarkerCC BY

Last night I met with a small group of teacher-writer-colleagues from my district.

We started our discussion by writing words that resonate with us.

-Quickly.

Mine are:

fierce    happenstance   reverence   awe   perceive  magic  hope   uplift   inspire               contemplate   possibility   believe

I don’t know why this was hard or why some of these words came to me (happenstance? Go figure. Must just be the sound of it. What other reason could there be?).

Then we had to pick the word that was most significant to us.

Mine is

      hope

for in every aspect of my life, I am hopeful. If I could impart one thing to others, it would be hope.

Hope is vital to the human spirit.

My colleagues and I talked about our work with students, other teachers, and our own writing. Where we’ve been, where we are now, where we want to go.

       uplift

               inspire

Going home, the lively discussion and energy circles round my mind. Something in there is trying to find a landing place.

                         contemplate

The “something” is tied somehow to student reactions . . . the ooooohhhh moment that’s such music to a teacher’s ears . . . like when a student connects a thing he/she loves to a book, or to writing . . . this week in fourth grade, it was me asking Why is opinion writing important? with a student responding You write about what you feel deep in your heart and another student saying Like music. I can write about why I love music. I want to write songs and me saying, Well, maybe you need to write your opinion piece AS a song.

—beat—

OOOOHHHH

       reverence

                             awe

And then I think, fierce is an odd word for me to pick yet it was the first one that came to mind. Why is that?

Fierce love like mother for child, fierce dedication to excellence, fierce desire for learning.  Maybe that’s why.

The something circling in my mind is materializing. I think it’s another word . . .

                                                    perceive

Not that word.

The word is—well, awfully simple:

Get.

Get?

Yes, get.

Get what?

Get them reading

Get them writing

Get them talking

Then get out of the way.

Oh, I get it.

My colleagues and I talked about that.

And

Get out of the box.

Because that’s where all the

          magic

happens.

We don’t make it happen.

They do

but only after we tear down the walls

of windowless boxes

so that they can see the glimmering horizon beckoning

and be free to

imagine

what is over there.

                       possibility

And that they can

get excited

get through

get there

if they only

      believe

And that comes only from the stirring the ocean within

Not by sea-spray on the wind without

never never by

                           happenstance

To dream, to write, perchance to connect

Connection

“Connection” by Dylan O’Donnell

Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.

He is my family’s  endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.

We don’t tell him otherwise.

Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.

“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.

That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).

Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?

He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).

Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?

Do dogs really dream like humans do?

The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”

I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article,  I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.

Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .

You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:

The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between  things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.

Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science

Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.

My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming. 

But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.

As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of  their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.

But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:

When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens. 

-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers

To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .

To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .

Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.

But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope.  Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without  . . . to connect.

I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.

“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”

At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.

He sighs.

The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.

Calling The Roll

Old telephone

Vintage rotary dial desk telephone. Joe HauptCC BY-SA

Kindergarten is fun.

Most of the time.

We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.

One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.

The other turtle stays in one spot.

We try tapping his behind.

He won’t move.

“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.

I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar. 

I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.

But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.

And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.

My favorite part is the rocking boat.

It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.

“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “

Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.

It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.

In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes. 

I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.

I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.” 

Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.

I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.

The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.” 

Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.

But then is the worst part of kindergarten.

“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”

Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . .  unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.

We all go to our seats without a sound.

What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.

She’s going to call The Roll.

Is The Roll like The Police?  What will The Roll do to us? 

Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?

Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.

I am scared.

I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.

*******

It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.

Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.

What a relief.

It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).

My takeaways from this trip back in time:

-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever?  She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”

-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy.  Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.

-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?

-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness.  While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.

I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.

Maybe. Maybe not.

What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.

Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?

It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.

And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.

Snow day GIF documentary

If you work in education—in central North Carolina, anyway— you know that the merest rumor of snowflakes sends people into a frenzy. Mostly because 1) We must go buy bread and water in vast quantities, or at least the necessary ingredients to make big pots of chili; and 2) We want to be home quickly, because we really don’t know how to drive in this stuff.

Just to be safe, systems dismiss early, sometimes before any flakes fall.

Such was the case yesterday. The masses went home to stay glued to weather reports and social media, all the while asking: When will the snow start? How much will we get?

And the question of all questions: WILL SCHOOL BE CANCELED TOMORROW?

So, as a few flakes dropped in various areas, but not in others, as the evening wore on, the waiting intensified.

I amused myself by reading tweets to the school district about when a decision would be made about school closings. Many had GIFS such as these:

Dumbledore.gif

tenor.gif

Those, by the way, were sent by staff. Not students!

Then the announcement came: There were, in fact, enough snowflakes to cancel school today!

Someone tweeted this as the parent reaction across the district:

John Ritter.gif

Poor parents! And poor John Ritter, for that matter . . . is anyone else out there astonished that this will make fifteen years since he died?

By and large, however, there were hundreds of celebratory tweets from students with variations of GIFs such as this:

Peanuts

Many of those tweets said something like: “THANK YOU! You saved me and my grades!”

Okay . . . that really begs more investigation as to exactly how one snow day can save a GPA . . . and why grades are the whole emphasis of education . . .

Then there was this cheery admonishment from the school system: “Everyone stay safe! Kids, don’t forget to read!”

Truly warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Except for a long thread of student responses like this:

“Don’t expect us to read, though.”

Reading that sentiment was, to me, like being impaled by a jagged icicle. My reaction:

Why.gif

Why do the kids hate reading so much? When they say “reading,” what do they actually mean? After all, they text constantly, they’re a huge presence in social media, and their choices of graphics to communicate feelings are both entertaining and dead-on. Today’s average student is quite literate, digitally.

I think—I shiver as I say this—that the aversion is to reading books. Whether it’s actual books or those on a screen is a moot point. My question is: How have we, educators, failed on such an epic scale to promote a love of reading, to the point that our students, especially those who NEED to read more, view it as such a hateful chore? As long as they feel this way, when will our students ever, hopefully, pick up a book that they simply want to read?

The year is young; there’s no time like the present. Snow days are ideal for thinking of ways to revamp instruction to help the kids get excited about books and develop a love—or at least a very strong like—of reading. Will they all? Truthfully, probably not. But that’s no excuse for not striving for something far better on their behalf:

Books are great.gif

New

New

The new year sparks contemplation of the word new.  

So the year is new, but what else? Monday still follows Sunday, January still follows December. The days roll into each other without any notable variance. Today looks almost exactly like yesterday; it’s still winter, still below freezing, and my dogs still do not want to stay outside more than the necessary few minutes. The holidays are ending and work is resuming, as they always do. None of this is new.

As I sought to apply new to something today—since the usual and very regular passing of time really should not count—I got the mental image of the word new on a dictionary page. This led me to do something paradoxical: I moved a chair over to one of my bookcases, pulled down a heavy volume, blew off the dust (alas!), and snapped the above photo of the definition in The New Century Dictionary. 

I say paradoxical because that dictionary, despite its title, is hardly new. It was published in 1952. The original copyright is 1927.

The dictionary and the definition are old indeed. I know there are better, far more concise definitions of new in online dictionaries now.

Why, then, turn to something so old to examine the meaning of new?

Well, first of all, I needed an image for this post and that’s the one that came to mind.

And I love old books, old things in general. Any vintage artifact holds great appeal to me, mostly because of the invisible layers of story wrapped around it. I never tire of stories of long ago. I am endlessly fascinated by how people survived and how resourceful they were, often with so little.

In fact, resourceful was nearly my chosen word for 2018, because of this definition on Dictionary.com:

able to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations, difficulties, etc.

And this one, at LearnersDictionary.com:

able to deal well with new or difficult situations and to find solutions to problems.

Resourceful seemed well-suited to my role as educator, instructional coach, and for life as a whole, really.

Then I realized that the thing that stood out to me in both of these definitions of the worthy word resourceful, aside from its emphasis on excellent problem-solving, is that one word, new. Coping with new and difficult situations.

Suddenly resourceful, for all its allure, was overshadowed. Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy explained the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West? “Please sir, we’ve done what you told us. We brought you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. We melted her!” To which the Wizard replies (one of my favorite lines): “Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful!” But remember Dorothy’s intent: When she threw that bucket of water on the Witch she was saving the Scarecrow, who was on fire. She didn’t mean to melt the Witch, or even think Hmmm, what would happen if I doused the Witch with water?

Resourceful, yes—in saving the Scarecrow. Dorothy’s use of the water was intentional. It implies thinking and quick action to solve a problem. Resourceful in her mission of getting rid of the Witch? No. That was a stroke of amazing luck.

I really wanted to write this post about being resourceful for my fellow educators who often work with so little, in adverse situations, to encourage all of us to be more mindful, intentional, and creative with what we have to reach intended outcomes, when it occurred to me that something else is needed before any of this can happen.

Something different from anything preceding, something only lately or now seen,  encountered, experienced, or used for the first time . . .

Something new, in the face of the same old same old.

If you look back at the photo for this post, you’ll see the morning light spilling across the old dictionary page, illuminating the word new.

And that’s exactly what is needed. Not new things or resources themselves, but light. Seeing things, situations, people in a new light.

My wish for students is that they see their learning in a new light, with excitement, with inspiration. For that to occur, their teachers, my colleagues and I, must see our work with new excitement and inspiration, pushing past layers of compliance, of going through the motions, of saying We can’t, because . . . .

Think of variations of new: renew, anew. Newness is generated. It is created. It starts with really seeing, then taking a step, even just one, out of the comfort zone, to see what will happen, what might actually change. For the better.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, new starts within you and moves outward. One ray of light, one spark at a time . . . keep it up, and there’s no telling how far the light will travel, and how much more will become new. We can’t change people (ever tried?). We can’t always change situations. Some old things will remain, and sometimes that’s good, for every new thing that comes along isn’t. But we can have new perspective, new vision, new vigor, new approaches. All of these are within our own power. A true and valuable new is both possible and attainable, if we aspire to it. If we dare.

That is my prayer for this new year, that we make it truly new.

What child is this

African Angel Boy. bixentroCC BY 

What child is this, who, laid to rest . . . .

Snow is falling. Huge flakes like white feathers shaken from the sky, a rare thing in the North Carolina Piedmont at the beginning of December.

Another rare thing: Today a former student is buried.

He was eleven years old.

I stand at the kitchen window, watching the snowflakes fall. Eleven years. That is all he had.

An only child. A latched seat belt—I can envision his mother reminding him—wasn’t enough.

I begin wondering about enough.

Did we do enough?

Nearly the whole of his short life was spent at elementary school. How much of our focus was data and test scores? Did he feel successful?

College and career ready doesn’t matter at all when you die at eleven.

Should it matter so much when you don’t die at eleven?

Were we enough? Did he enjoy coming to school, or did he endure it? 

I can hardly endure the heaviness of that thought.

The bleakness of the gray December day, but for the snow, matches the bleakness in my soul. On the television in the living room, Christmas music softly plays:

What child is this . . . .

He is Everychild now. Mine, yours, ours, all children, coming to school, day after day.

Do they have the chance to get out of the box, before they’re put in a box?

Do they have the opportunity to develop a hunger for knowledge? Do their teachers create dynamic experiences that empower the children to own their own learning? Or are the children starved for authenticity, their minds and days numbed by worksheets, by sameness, by constant assessment, by irrelevance, by teachers in survival mode, by hierarchical machinery?

Underneath all those wheels in motion lies the child. Motionless. Powerless.

Haunting that such a beautiful snow should pour on such an ugly day, for snow can mean many things beyond ice crystals. It represents death, yes, but also wisdom, purity, innocence, blessing.

Wisdom, blessing, and strength to you, Everyteacher, for Everychild in your hands. Strive for more than enough. For joy, for awe, for love-of-learning-for-life ready. There’s no way of knowing whether this child will live a hundred years, or just eleven.

What child is this, who, laid to rest . . . whom angels greet, with anthems sweet . . . .

Every minute matters.

Imagine

Central Park

On a Central Park pathway, near the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

A group of fifth-graders sits in the hallway, making a poster about the human nervous system. I stop to admire their work:

“Wow, that’s a really vivid brain you have there.” It is, in fact, neatly colored with the brightest neon pink.

“Thanks,” grins one of the girls.

“We forgot the cerebellum, though,” says another.

“Yikes! That creates a problem for your diagram-person, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, with his balance and movement and stuff.”

One of the boys turns away from his work drawing . . . something. “Do you know who Albert Einstein is?”

Struggling to keep my face composed, I reply, “Yes, he’s my favorite scientist.”

“I was thinking how we only use about ten percent of our brains and as smart as Albert Einstein was, just imagine what he would have done if he could’ve used the other ninety percent.”

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” I muse. “For all of us. If we could use our whole brains, we might be something like superheroes.”

The kids nod sagely.

“So, here’s my favorite Einstein quote,” I tell the kids, who pause in their illustrating. Expectation is clearly written on each face. They truly want to know what this brilliant man had to say. “When a parent asked Einstein how to raise a child to be a great scientist, Einstein replied: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As their brains process this thought, the young faces look ethereal. Unblinking, gazing somewhere beyond the immediate surroundings, bathed in a light from an unseen source.

Especially the boy who mentioned Einstein.

“Whoaaaaa,” he finally says.

“Think on that a while. Later you can tell me what you believe it means.” With that, I leave the children to their work.

Imagine.

As I walk down the hallway,  my own brain is ajumble: Cerebellum. Balance. Einstein. Intelligence. Fairy tales . . . fiction. A conversation with an esteemed colleague at a recent meeting returns to mind.

I am glad to see greater focus on nonfiction writing, she’d said. After all, these children won’t be writing fiction in college.

It took my breath away.

Perhaps none of the kids we teach will grow up to get MFAs in creative writing— in other words, possibly earning a degree in composing fiction.

But some might. And are there really no more creative writing electives in college these days?

I understand the rationale behind the words, that in college students will primarily be writing research papers and essays. It’s important to put the foundation in place now, at the elementary level, for their future success.

But are all students going to college? Aren’t the standards college and career ready? In a day and age when innovation and creativity in the workplace are highly valued, think about the impact of understanding plot, subplots, character motivation, personality traits, overcoming obstacles to reach goals, ingenuity—all of which can be developed by reading fiction, surely, but writing fiction takes complex problem-solving and creativity to incomparable heights. So many seemingly random pieces must connect pretty perfectly to make a finished, meaningful, compelling whole—much like the beautiful leaf-and-gumball mandala I discovered on a pathway while walking through Central Park.

And what about sheer enjoyment? And poetry, and songs, and plays?

Or being LIFE ready?

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all wrote them. Make-believe stories, making mandalas with words. Maybe we’d tap into some of that unused part of our brains.

Because, heaven knows, we need balance to move forward effectively.

Take the pencil, find the neon pink.

If the cerebellum is missing, draw it in.

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.