Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

img_2220.jpg

Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.

Inspiration comes on wings and paws

I saw her a couple of times across the convention center lobby. She wasn’t deliberately calling attention to herself. With her flowing blonde hair and elegant bearing, she couldn’t help standing out in a room full of people. 

I smiled at first glimpse of her: A service dog. 

And such a beautiful one.

I suppressed the urge to go over to her, knowing that service dogs are on duty. I briefly wondered if the man she accompanied had impaired vision or special medical needs and whether this throng of humans had the animal on heightened alert.

Instead I focused on my upcoming break-out session. For the second year, my colleague and I were sharing the effects of my school’s Harry Potter club with attendees of the North Carolina Reading Association. It’s a fun and meaningful presentation centering on the sense of identity that develops among diverse learners in third to fifth grades; many students find it such a place of belonging that they ask to be in the club semester after semester, even if we are reading the same stories and making the same crafts.

The best part is how excited teachers are to attend this session at the conference. Never underestimate the power of Potter . . . as my colleague and I set up the slideshow, the room filled quickly with participants and an air of festive expectancy.

Then—in strolled the service dog! Her person took a seat near the front (he wasn’t vision-impaired; he read the welcome slide and made eye contact in conversation with others). The dog immediately lay on the floor alongside his chair, flat on her side, utterly still. Her gleaming dark eyes gazed toward the front of the room.

What a gentle face. I looked back at those sweet eyes for a lingering second, my curiosity thoroughly piqued with regard to her service role, as my own role of presenter began.

—Here’s hoping you like Harry Potter, little canine friend. 

There she lay throughout, even at the conclusion when teachers came to the front of the room to select materials for making a craft like the club kids do: A clear ornament filled with strips cut from pages of an unsalvageable, falling-apart copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a feather pen, a pencil broom, a flying key. 

The dog’s person chose to make a flying key. When I went to check on his progress, he introduced me to his canine companion:

“This is Palmer.”

Her big eyes considered me benignly.

“Hi, Palmer. You’re a beautiful dog!” I desperately wanted to stroke her lustrous yellow-white fur.  

“Want to see what she can do?” asked Palmer’s person.

“Sure!”

She does tricks, then? Do service dogs actually DO tricks?

I had no idea what to expect.

Couldn’t have predicted . . . .

Her person stood. Palmer instantly stood before him.  Her person produced cards with words on them. As he displayed them one by one, Palmer did exactly what the words on the cards said. Sit, lie, stand . . . her trainer—as that’s clearly what he was, now—even shuffled the cards behind his back, held them up again, and Palmer still enacted the word on each card. Accurately.

At this point the entire room was agog: “The dog’s reading the cards!”

Her trainer smiled. “Palmer helps kids at my school learn to read. Especially first graders with sight words.”

I blinked back a sudden welling of tears, envisioning the children with this dog in the classroom, the joy of it. “How wonderful.”

—”Want to take a picture with her?”

I recovered myself: “Oh—absolutely! I’d be honored!”

So Palmer posed beside me at a table, her paws resting on top. Her trainer held out his newly-made winged key: “Hold it, Palmer.” 

And she took it, ever so gently, in her mouth. She held it for all the photos.

Which, to me, holds great significance.

I always think of the winged key as a symbol for unlocking problematic doors in reaching an important goal, as it did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I think of it as a metaphor for inspiration, as in flying above and beyond learning obstacles, especially with regard to challenges that some of our Potter club kids have faced.

And here is Palmer, herself a symbol of meeting social-emotional needs, for I have since learned that she goes above and beyond motivating young children who are learning to read. She also helps children at her school attain their behavioral and academic goals. If they need extra encouragement while working on math, or the comfort of a warm, benevolent, stabilizing presence close by, Palmer is there for them. She is a key to overcoming whatever challenges they face. 

—I can think of few things more magical and inspiring. 

Palmer, Educational Assistance Dog.  April 2, 2019.

 

Dichotomies

Dichotomy
Dichotomy #3 by Abdulaziz al Loghani. Brett JordanCC BY

Our greatest national resource is the minds of our children.

—Walt Disney

When they are hungry

who would give them rocks

When they cry for a spark

who would spew water

When they strive to see

who would deploy smoke and mirrors

When they would fly

who would clip their wings

When they desire to go further up, further in

who would confine, constrain

When they crave autonomy

who would demand automatons

When their differences resemble a separate peace

who would distill a disparate piece

When the lengths they must travel are not equidistant

who would mistake equality for equity 

When they carry fragile fragments of hope within

who would build a diehard dystopia without

When they begin to perceive diversity as a gift

who would wrap it in sameness

When they aren’t the same

who would construct uniform boxes

When they would breathe

who would affix a lid

When the scraping of the adze and the hammering cease

who will hear the sound of fingernails

from inside

the casket of our dichotomies? 

 

Note: If you read “they” as children, try reading with “they” as teachers.

*******

Literary allusions: Matthew 7:9-10 and Luke 11:11-12; The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis; A Separate Peace, John Knowles; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell; The Giver, Lois Lowry; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?

A boy and his secret

boy & puppy

Boy and Dog, Adigrat, Ethiopia (cropped). Rod WaddingtonCC BY-SA

One day when I was off campus, the school psychologist sent me a text about a student:

He’s looking for you. He has a secret he wants to tell you.

—Gracious.

I texted back: Tell him I’ll see him first thing tomorrow morning.

The student is my tiny friend who came to our school from another country several years ago. He landed in first grade with no English and a lot of frustration. When I met him that year, he was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I pointed to it and said, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

He smiled.

That’s how our friendship began.

I’ve written before about his perceptiveness, such as how he explained, after his bleak performance on a mandatory reading assessment, that he had Big Spanish while I have Big English. His English continues growing “bigger,” just as he’s growing in stature with each passing year. Although he remains physically small for his age, it’s hard to encapsulate or convey the power of his personality. He has enormous presence. He’s a dynamo. Strong-willed, yet a charmer. Witty.  His thoughts are like quicksilver—always moving, fascinating, alive. He’s a keen observer; when he didn’t understand directions in class, he’d watch what other students did and quickly followed suit.

He tells his teachers: “Mrs. Haley is my friend.” He usually greets me by flying faster than a speeding bullet to throw his arms around me with a joyous cry: “Mrs. Haley!”

Then he asks if we can read or write.

That’s alchemy. When the gold finally appears.

So, as to this big secret he had for me . . .

I’m waiting for him when he gets off the bus. He barrels right to me, face beaming:

“I been looking for you! I have a secret!”

Extricating my midsection from his hug, I bend down. “That’s what I hear! So tell, me, what IS this big secret?”

“Shhh!” he says, in overly dramatic fashion, looking around. What a wonderful stage actor he’d be. He’s larger than life. He beckons me to lean in closer. He whispers: “I got a dog!”

I can’t imagine why this needs to be secretive, but, okay, I’ll honor it. “You did? That’s great! I LOVE dogs. What’s his name?”

He looks me dead in the eye. “Her,” he says. “It’s a girl.”

He has no idea what he’s just done. It’s profound. A sign of how well he’s mastering the language, for pronouns are often terribly challenging for English learners. I want to bask in it indefinitely, but I can’t stall now, I have to respond. Blinking, I stammer: “Oh, um—sorry! What’s her name?”

He looks around to be sure no one can hear, and whispers into my ear:

“Mrs. Haley.”

And then he skips away, grinning from ear to ear, this bit of quicksilver, bright as the blinding winter-white sun above us.

I can barely see for the tears welling in my eyes as he blends into the throng of students going to breakfast. I cannot verify that the story is true—that there’s really a dog, that he really named it after me—but this doesn’t matter. The story is his, either way. Born from his heart.

And he shared it.

A gift of pure gold.

That I’ll carry with me, always.

*******

Previous posts about my inspiring young friend:

Big English

Like Superman

Atmosphere

By the worktables in the art room at my school is a window, and above that window is a message from the art teacher to her students:

You are my why!

The words draw your eyes as soon as you walk into the room. They convey more than a greeting; they impart a sense of importance, of being wanted, of being cared about. They are a word-hug of welcome, of belonging, of mattering.

I think about how little is in teachers’ control these days, how the art of teaching is increasingly straightjacketed, hijacked. Expectations on top of expectations, a precariously unwieldy, wobbling mountain, stones heaped one by one, Greek thlipsis until a person’s spirit is crushed rather than one’s actual body. I see, hear, and feel this incremental adding of weight in every day interactions with colleagues. Opening lines from the old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind, when the angels, appearing as stars in the cosmos, are talking:

FRANKLIN: A man down on Earth needs our help.

CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?

FRANKLIN: No, worse. He’s discouraged.

—Truth.

A gallery of teacher faces appears in my mind.

Then I see these words on the wall and I think, that’s the breathing room. 

The beginning of atmosphere.

Before learning, before discovering, before creating, before engagement, empowerment, objectives or standards, before all the materials and tools are ever distributed, there’s atmosphere. 

It’s both bigger and smaller than the what of climate and the how of culture. Atmosphere in a classroom still lies wholly within the power of the teacher. It starts as small as the heartbeat of the teacher that keeps showing up to say You are my why.

The heartbeat, the breath, that keeps the entire organism alive.

Craftsmanship

When I was growing up, the dessert everyone wanted at holiday gatherings was my mother’s carrot cake.

I used to sit at the table watching her make it, hoping for scrapings of the batter bowl or to sneak a fingerful of icing. The process took forever. Finally the two layer pans went into the oven, and as the cake baked, the fragrance of cinnamon filled the house—an indescribably delicious smell.

Now I make the cake. Over time I’ve come to think mine is almost—almost—as good as hers.

But as much as I love the cake and want to make it, and as much as it stirs the ghost of my childhood self on holidays past, I find myself sighing and almost reluctant as I prepare for it.

Making this cake is a lot of work.

I make it the way my mother did. Peeling the carrots, grating them on the finest side of the grater so that they become a smooth orange pulp, for no carrot bits should be discernible in the cake batter. I know people who use processors or even baby food carrots, and that may work for them . . . but this is where I appreciate the craftsmanship of my mother’s cake.

That word has been in my mind since a recent meeting when facilitators asked fellow educators a guiding question: “What makes high-quality work?” The answers were plentiful: originality or authenticity, clarity of expression or thought, meeting or exceeding a standard or learning goal . . . and craftsmanship.

It takes time to produce something high-quality. There aren’t shortcuts. I think about writing (because I always think about writing). As with making mother’s carrot cake, writing well is a lot of work, hard work. Refining, refining, grating those danged carrots to a pulp so that they’re not even evident in the outcome, yet they’re the foundation of it. Words worked and reworked and restrung until they finally blend into a seamless, cohesive whole. Without hunks of stuff that trips up readers. To become skilled at anything is to work and work and keep working, all the while knowing how these parts and pieces should come together and that in the end, the effort pays off. Craftsmanship means a serious investment of time, effort, and patience.

There’s an aesthetic feature to craftsmanship. The artist labors long for the effect and beauty of the work. The aesthetics of my mother’s carrot cake are its exceptional flavors and textures, the sensory experience of eating it, for on the surface it looks pretty humble. In middle school I had a French teacher native to Greece (another story for another day, trust me) who told the class that Greek desserts look very plain but are incredibly rich and sweet; when she first came to America and saw our wedding cakes, she couldn’t even imagine what such gorgeous things would taste like. “Then I tried one,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Bah! Like cardboard!” Aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, then, allowing for personal preference, but I can say this after having read hundreds of student papers across grade levels: When I find one of high quality, from the first sentence all the way through, it “sings.” It stands out. Not perfect, but flowing, clear, and beautiful. I know time and effort have gone into it, and that the author cared about the work.

And this, I believe, lies at the heart of craftsmanship. Caring. With every carrot I grate, I think about how my family will enjoy this cake, the same way I always have. Their enjoyment, more than my own, keeps me at the task. I even make the frosting like my mother did, blending cream cheese, Blue Bonnet margarine, and powdered sugar. That’s tedious, too. Like with writing, I get tired of it all long before I’m through. But I keep at it, not just to be done, but to do as well as I can, because it’s not only for me. It’s something deeply meaningful to me that I am sharing; I need for it to be as good as I can make it. The only concession I allow myself with the cake is buying chopped pecans for the frosting. When I was a child, I helped my mother crack, shell, and chop the pecans. They came from Granddaddy’s pecan tree.

But that tree is gone, as are so many people I loved long ago. The holidays come round and round again with their particular darkness—less and less daylight, the shadows of memory—but there’s a strength gained in expending strength on behalf of others. Caring means giving. Love means sacrifice. There’s a holiness in such work, a healing . . .

My son walks through the kitchen, puts his empty plate in the sink. He sighs. “That is the best cake.”

—Every carrot worth it.

 

Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.