Power of three

The title of this post might have you wondering if it’s about a mnemonic aid or a literary device (also known as “Rule of Three”). Perhaps you envisioned triangles — the strongest geometrical shape in the context of civil engineering and architecture — or the algebraic exponent, as in “to the third power,” i.e., cubed.  Or maybe even the Trinity.

But today I am pondering the power of three as it relates to the human brain, words, and reading.

As inspired by a little person who’s been staying with me each day for a few weeks this summer.

She is three years old.

Her mom and my son, who’s a newcomer in their lives, read to her each night.

So each day, as she settles for a nap, I read to her from an assortment of books I keep in baskets here at home. Some of these I bought just for her. Most are from my personal collection at school, a few are old favorites of my sons, and a couple I salvaged from stacks discarded by teacher colleagues who considered them too outdated (a worthy topic for a later post . . .).

And each day, of her own volition, my new little girl picks the same three books: Curious George Goes to the Hospital, A Bad Case of Stripes, and Green Eggs and Ham.

That is the exact order in which she insists they be read each day.

I think of myriad things while reading this rather motley selection to my rapt little listener. Two of the books have been in print for over half a century. Their illustrations are simple. The the third has elaborate illustrations and a story that might be deemed too strange or “above” a preschooler’s interest and capability to understand. While she examines various books throughout the day, poring over pictures on many pages, it’s always these three books she clutches in her arms as she climbs into bed for nap. I am reminded, yet again, of the inestimable power of reading aloud, rereading, and familiarity. And of choice. 

I also think about the impact of language on a child’s developing brain. It just so happens that a book in the stack of my own summer reading is Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, in which the author (cochlear implant surgeon Dana Suskind) writes: “By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85 percent of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning. The development of that brain, science shows us, is absolutely related to the language development of the young child. This does not mean that the brain stops developing after three years, but it does emphasize that those years are critical” — because the neural pathways for language are being created  only in that window. As a literacy educator, I mull the importance of early phonemic awareness in conjunction with Suskind’s words: “It takes more than the ability to hear sounds for language to develop; it is learning that the sounds have meaning that is critical. And for that a child must live in a world rich with words and words and words.” (Suskind later emphasizes the quality of language in addition to the number of words spoken, the power of affirmations on a growing child’s development. And her first line of her first chapter is “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.”)

All of this swirls in my own brain as I reread the same three books every day to this three-year-old entrusted to me, as we converse about her observations and questions:

“What is a tube?” she asks, during the fifth (sixth?) reading of Curious George’s hospital visit. “Like a hose in the garden, only a lot smaller so it can go down George’s throat. Very small,” I say. “Tiny,” she declares with authority, and we go on with our sixth (seventh?) reading of this book.

“What is broke?” — when, in A Bad Case of Stripes, Camilla “broke out in stars.” This is a bit harder to define. “Hmmm. Has your skin ever had a rash, or a lot of tiny spots on it?” She nods hesitantly, and I say, “Then your skin broke out, meaning it suddenly got spots or little bumps on it for a while.” I can tell by her solemn expression that this information is being processed. A minute later: “What is sob?” When I say it means to cry a lot, not just a little, the light of understanding flickers instantly in her wide blue eyes.

I continue this umpteenth reading of Stripes to the page where the old woman who will cure Camilla arrives, just after the visit from the Environmental Therapist who told her to “breathe deeply and become one” with her room. Camilla became one with her room, all right; she melted into the walls where two pictures became her eyes, a dresser morphed into her nose, and her bed turned into her mouth. Totally abstract. Transcendental. Out there. I read in my best kind-old-woman voice: “What we have here is a bad case of stripes. One of the worst I’ve ever seen!” 

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My listener giggles. “It’s not a bad case of stripes. It’s a bed case of stripes.”

A pun so profound that I am at a loss for words.

She’s three.

I make a mental note to tell her mom, who’s clearly laid a magnificent foundation long before now.

This perceptive child notices the letters down the side of the Stripes front cover. She attempts to sound them out, and I let her try for a minute before telling her the words are “Scholastic Bookshelf.” She points to the square between the words and asks, “Why is this one blank?” I am excited: Print concepts! Teachable moments! “That’s a space. They come between words. See, this is a word. Then a space; this is another word . . .” She picks it right up: “And this is a word, this is a word . . .”

Truth is, all moments are teachable moments.

Even though her eyes are growing heavy, she chimes in with the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham.  In fact, she takes over reciting portions without my help now, mimicking my expression and cadence, on all the right pages . . .

I leave her to her nap. I wonder if her dreams will be filled with monkeys, phantasmagorical color patterns, rhythms, rhymes, words, words, words. My husband is compelled to check on her after awhile. He whispers his report: “She’s sound asleep.” Obliviously recharging her power of three for the remainder of the day, and for a future brimming with potential.

To the power of infinity and beyond, one might say.

And I believe it.

On Tolkien

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring . . . .
—J.R.R. Tolkien

I went to see the movie Tolkien this weekend. My thoughts, while sitting in the darkened cinema, watching it play:

Story is magic.

Reading aloud is magic.

Words are magic.

All are part of writing magic. 

Whatever critics may say of the movie, however accurate it may or may not be in depicting the early life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as a writer, I loved it. For me it beautifully captured the way a writer’s mind works.

When young John Ronald sat by the fireplace, utterly captivated by his mother’s reading and enactment of a dragon, I could relate to how the book and her voice spurred images to life in his mind. How flickering shadows on the walls, thrown by a candle carousel, took on the shapes of  mythological beings, how story played in his brain as vividly as this movie played in mine. I understood how these images stayed with him long after his mother died, after he landed as an orphan in a boarding house, even how they grew nearer, larger, clearer on the battlefields of the first World War while he succumbed to trench fever. I admired the artistry of the shadowy images recurring onscreen as part of Tolkien’s memory, recognizing: That is exactly what images DO. Once they spring to mind, they are THERE. They lurk, they submerge, they resurface. They’re never gone; they settle and swirl about again, waiting, waiting, waiting always, for the solidity of a page.

I loved how the movie emphasized the young Tolkien’s passion for words, particularly in a romantically-charged scene with Edith Bratt, who would become his wife. Tolkien speaks of the beauty of the phrase “cellar door.” He is enraptured by the sound of it. Edith tells him that it is not the sound of  a word that gives it beauty, but its meaning—what the word stands for, all that it connotes. This is reiterated in a scene with Tolkien and Joseph Wright, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, on the mightiness of ships, buildings, civilizations, history, all summed up in a three-letter word: oak. Connotations, connections, deep, deep roots, power . . . in language, in phrasing, in a single word . . . is this not an ancient alchemy that writers come to know? 

And, at the same time, how captivating is the story of an orphaned boy making it to Oxford, himself becoming a renowned professor of philology (the study of the structure and historical development of language, if ever you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!). It’s the story of a man overcoming circumstances and being a genius, the roots of which run back to Tolkien’s childhood, to the Latin his mother taught him, to the stories his mother read aloud to him.

—Story.  The apogee of language, of words. The ultimate form for which language and words exist. The creative force, perhaps, that calls them, drives them . . .

In the final scene of the movie, Professor Tolkien sits at a desk before an empty page and begins to write a now-famous line. I’ve read his own account of this: he was grading examinations, mind-numbing, “soul-destroying” work, when he discovered a blank page in an examination booklet. Without knowing why, he wrote on it: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. This instantly reminded me of J.K. Rowling, how the idea of Harry Potter just “fell into her head” as she was riding a train. The genesis, the magical conception, of story;  it does not exist, but then, inexplicably, in the blinking of an eye, it does, and the world is changed by it. The Tolkien Society relates that after the professor wrote that line out of nowhere, he then needed to know: What was a Hobbit? Why did it live in a hole? To find out, Tolkien began to tell the story to his children . . . and thus, eventually, was born the archetype of all modern fantasy.

The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadows shall spring . . . yes. It seems to me that in these words of his lies proof that old stories Tolkien began learning as a child remained strong in him; they didn’t wither. They sparked in him an unquenchable fire. Those roots of his love for language, quests, myth, survived the freeze of profound loss. His memories, experiences, the images from his childhood onward, all are the shadows, the ashes, from which his own stories spring.

So it is with writers.

Even if all who write are not Tolkien.

It’s still magic.

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:

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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.

 

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

Today

 

Bubble in reeds

Today … a bubble in the reeds. Claudia DeaCC BY

Today held some rare things.

A teacher said, “Come sit with me while I do my reading groups. I don’t learn by watching but by doing.  Just be there with me and jump in when you see a way I can make them better.”

A third-grader read me his rough draft about experiencing an eclipse, relating his understanding of the science behind it, yet conveying real fear at watching the sun go dark. I sat, listening, in awe of his inspiration, his words.

Another third-grader read her narrative draft to me. How she helps her grandmother to dress and brush her teeth, but not wanting to, wanting instead to go outside and play or watch TV . . . . I sat blinking back tears as she spoke her truths recorded there on the page. She has no idea how powerful this is. How powerful she is. And she’s eight.

I walked down an empty hallway and suddenly heard song—a student coming up the stairs, walking back to class, singing to herself in a vibrato that almost sounded trained. I turned around to see her moving her arms and hands in time with the words. Sign language. I didn’t know she could sing. Or sign.

Had I somehow fallen into a parallel universe, a facet of paradise, maybe, where beauty is multiplied exponentially? Somewhere over the rainbow?

But no, these were only moments in a regular day. Wondrous bubbles against the usual backdrop. Shining, ethereal, iridescent.

And all I really did was show up and listen.

Incapacitated

The initial predictions were utter destruction by an epic monster.

Having suffered extensive damage from hurricanes in years past, central North Carolina fortified itself against Florence. I collected a small mountain of dry goods and canned vegetables—”hurricane stash”—that probably could have fed my family of four for two weeks without electricity. Since we’re on a well, we don’t have water when the power goes out; I  even purchased powdered milk to mix with bottled water, for our cereal. Bottled water . . . that took several trips across three days. By 6:30 in the mornings, restocked grocery shelves were again picked clean. I finally scored a 36-count pack of Aquafina and turned to maneuver away from the throng in that aisle when a man, loading his own cart, said, “Here, you better take another.” He hefted a pack of water off the shelf and stacked it on top of the one in my cart. This gesture by a stranger stirred my heart.

At home, the dogs had plenty of food, we had batteries, all the laundry was done, one of the bathtubs was filled with water, the cars with gas. Our porch rocking chairs and the grill were secured in the shed. The television news ran nonstop. My family watched the slow, drawn-out approach of the monster, and although the sun was still shining, school was canceled in anticipation of the onslaught. My mind continually scrolled for every possible preparation. I even boiled the remainder of our eggs so they’d be usable if the power went out for days, as happened in the past.

I planned for everything.

Except my back going out.

It started on the day before Florence was to make landfall and grew steadily worse. I attributed it, at first, to the barometric pressure; I’d heard several people mention headaches and backaches. By the time the wind and rain arrived, however, the grip of pain was too intense for me to sit or walk anymore. Dosed with ibuprofen, I spent the duration of the storm — five days, all told— lying in bed with pillows under my knees.

Unable to do anything.

Except re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

Escapism at its best.

Different things strike me on each reading. This time, as the wind raged on the other side of the walls, as sideways rain whipped in voluminous sheets, slapping the windows with fury, as the encroaching darkness forced me to switch on my phone flashlight in order to see the words on the pages—Lumos!— I lay there contemplating the nobility of the characters, the way they banded together, helped one another, in the face of their own destructive, epic monster. How they found unrealized courage despite ever-increasing darkness. As I lay reading, immersed in Harry’s world,  I caught distant snatches of the news from my own: on the TV in the living room, where my husband and sons tracked Florence’s path, meteorologists warned people that if their houses flooded to not seek refuge in their attics, because there’s no exit. Rescue personnel are not equipped to cut through houses to save people. Meaning that it’s safer to climb on the roof of one’s house than to be trapped.

For a second, everything went still: How could I do that? If it flooded here—never say never—how could I possibly climb to the roof? I can’t even move!

And then I read the words of Mad-Eye Moody to Harry as Harry was about to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament: Play to your strengths. 

Harry doesn’t think he has any strengths—this is Book Four, he’s just fourteen —and he has no idea that the Tournament was designed solely to destroy him. Moody growls: Think now. What are you best at?

Lying flat on my back, at the mercy of my own body, helpless against the forces of nature, imagining a flood . . . what strength would I have, just now?

I thought of elderly people in this storm. Then of my Grannie, years ago, when her house caught fire in the dead of night on New Year’s Eve; how, after just having heart bypass surgery in the days when it was a new thing, she climbed out of her upstairs bedroom window onto the porch roof and survived.

Play to your strengths.

In Grannie’s case it was pure grit. As for me . . . well, a streak of that same determination and strong will (Grannie-grit) runs in my own veins, but I think my strength is rooted in something greater. If had to choose what’s deepest within me to tap, it’s hope.

I recently heard hope defined as not wishing, but knowing, trusting. No matter how severe the pain, I know I’d be able to climb to safety. Somehow. I trust my family would help me. Even in my weakened state, I’d find and give the last of my strength to help them, too. A strength that would come exactly when it was needed, not before.

On and on I read. Of Harry’s overcoming, of his concern for others, his willingness to give his own life in order to save them, even those he didn’t know personally . . . .

The darkness, the storms bring out the best in humanity, reminding us that we are, above all, here to help each other. Not to destroy.

—I will write about Severus Snape another day.

And storms, ever how violent, do not last forever.

It didn’t flood here, although our yard remained a bog for a while.

Now we have a plague of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to battle.

And my back pain has diminished, bit by bit, day by day. It remains a twinge, still causing me to be mindful. Strange thing, that. Being rendered powerless during the storm, unable to do anything but read. And endure.

But, in the end, powerless all depends on one’s own perspective. Reading is another great strength of mine, is it not? Didn’t it get me through the storm and the pain? That’s hardly powerless. Not to mention that in my tiny neighborhood, in the heart of a rural area where we frequently lose the power for no apparent reason at all . . . the lights blinked but never went out.

Just like hope.

 

Stone speaks

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Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.

Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.

Here are my favorite words of Stone:

“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”

“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . .  finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”

“Write for yourself first.”

“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”

“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”

“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”

“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”

“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”

“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”

“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn  . . . they need a soft place to land.”

“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”

“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”

“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”

“Emphasize the fun in research.”

“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”

“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”

“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”

“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”

“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”

“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.

“Always be working on something else. Always.”

“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”

“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”

Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . . 

My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.

For all of these connect.

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Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.

*******

See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.

That kid

Legos

Legos. qrevolutionCC BY

I woke up thinking of him today.

Don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because another school year just ended and memories are flowing thick and deep, like they always do.

Maybe something subconsciously reminded me of the collective sigh of relief when he finished elementary school and moved on a few years ago.

I am not sure.

But here he is again, so clear in my mind.

He arrived every morning long before the school doors were open, jumping, running on the sidewalks, talking to himself, singing. Staff spent the first few hours of each day trying to calm him down.

My first real encounter with him came in third grade when I, as the literacy coach, worked out of the room across from his classroom. In better moments, he’d appear without warning in my room: “What do you do in here?”

“I plan reading and writing lessons. Sometimes I have reading groups in here. Want to read with me?”

“Naw,” he said, wide-eyed, shaking his head emphatically, bouncing back to his room just as the teacher realized he’d left.

In the worst moments, the teacher came to enlist my help.

“I need a breather,” she said once, gray-faced. “I can’t do anything with him today. Can you please just stay in the room for a few minutes?”

So I stepped in. Everyone was seated, working on something, except . . . that kid. He was standing by a classmate’s desk. Taking things off of it.

“Stop it!” she kept saying.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“He’s taking all my supplies that I’m trying to use for this project,” said the exasperated girl.

Leaning down to his eye level, I addressed that kid: “Did you ask her permission to borrow her supplies?”

He snorted and flounced away from me. He kept grabbing pens and markers.

Firmly accentuating every word, I said: “Leave her things alone. If they aren’t yours, do not touch them without permission.”

At this moment, I realized the whole class had stopped working to watch.

He didn’t return the items. Instead, he marched to his desk, took out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper, wrote a word on it, and waved it around in the air:

Bitch

I took odd satisfaction in his spelling the word correctly.

Just then his teacher returned from her “breather.” In fractions of a second, she absorbed the scene. She was livid. The rest is a blur, her ushering that kid out of the room while the others bent quietly back to their work.

He wrote me a note of apology while doing his time in the assistant principal’s office. Delivered it to me himself, later that day.

He’d drawn flowers all over it.

That was the beginning of my being his “safe place.” When he couldn’t function in the classroom setting, his teacher sent him over to me for a few minutes, until he was able to return. One day was especially bad; I cannot remember the details of his actions. His teacher, red-faced and teary-eyed, escorted him over and immediately returned to the rest of her class.

Pacing back and forth like a caged animal, his eyes suddenly landed on the Legos on a table in the wet area of the room. Without a word, he sat at the table, and, block after block, immersed himself in building.

Presently his teacher came back, and on seeing this, turned to me. Turned on me, actually:

“Why are you rewarding his behavior like this? Why should he disrupt the class completely and get to come over here and play?” This teacher, usually so mild-mannered and nurturing, was angry to the point of visibly shaking.

Caught off guard, I took a step back. “I didn’t think of it as a reward, or even playing. He’s decompressing—this seems to be exactly what he needs.”

She stared at me for a long minute. Then she turned to that kid and said, “Are you ready to come back to class?”

He got up without a word and followed her.

Many more times that year he came, played with the Legos for a little while, and went calmly back to class.

I learned, talking to him, listening to him, that his mind functioned in overdrive. Warp speed. Hyper-curious. He asked questions other students didn’t think to, without reservation. He noticed minute details that others, adults included, frequently did not.

Such as, seeing me walking toward him in the hallway: “Hey, Mrs. Haley! Where are you going? What’s wrong with your hip?”

“What?”

“Your hip. One’s higher than the other.”

I looked at his earnest face, stunned. He was right; a touch of scoliosis left one hip slightly higher than the other, which plagues me every time I have to buy pants or jeans, making sure the one side is long enough.

He was also a math whiz. Scored high on his tests. Reading, not so much. He did decide to read with me a time or two. I later watched him work hard on his reading test, but there were too many things vying for his fractured attention; too many choices, too many strategies to remember.

But he tried.

And then he went on to middle school.

One day, at the end of another school year, I was walking through the parking lot with boxes to place in my car when I heard, “HEY, MRS. HALEY!”

—That voice!

A human projectile came from nowhere and threw its arms around me, tight.

That kid.

“Hey!” I said. “It’s you! How are you?”

“Good!” he said. “How’s that hip?”

That kid.

That rare kid, with rare insight and gifts that many may never see.

Woke up thinking of him today.

God, please let him make it.

Magical literacy and learning, part 2

As my colleague and I present at a reading conference for educators this week, I watch the participants’ faces. Eager. Expectant. Reflective. Smiling and visibly misting over in turn, as my colleague and I talk about the diversity of the third, fourth, and fifth grade students who sign up, some of them multiple times, to be in our Harry Potter club. How they develop a sense of identity, of belonging, how the club became a “thing” at our school . . . 

On the first day of our club each semester, we “co-headmistresses” give the kids a quiz adapted from one we found online. We plug answers into the website so that every child is sorted into his or her own Hogwarts house. Students familiar with the books or movies are triumphant to know they’ve landed in their favorite house (usually Slytherin; we seem to have an abundance of those), and even students who are just encountering the world of Harry Potter for the first time have an unmistakable look of pride on their faces. They all write their names on the Hogwarts crest in the areas designating their houses. I read Harry’s sorting experience to them, and then we talk about how members of each of the four houses have specific traits or characteristics, and how we’re sorted according to these attributes:

We read each column of traits. It’s a lofty word bank. I ask, “Who knows what these words mean?” The students who know, share; the words that no one knows, I define.

Then I ask: “So, do you see yourself in these words? Do any of these words describe you?”

A vigorous nodding of heads. One sweet-faced little girl says, emphatically: “Yes! I’m ruthless!”

It’s all I can do to not collapse with laughter.

For part of developing a sense of belonging is first developing a sense of self-awareness. Why I think and feel the way I do—because these drive my actions. If I understand myself, then maybe I can begin to understand others. In books, in real life.

Not to mention that character traits and character motivation are woven throughout the reading and writing standards.

The newly-sorted club members move onto talking about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and their stories. Why they make the choices they make.

For everyone has a story, and as the club rolls on, the students begin sharing bits and pieces of their own lives in conjunction with the characters’ experiences:

One time I . . .

I had something like that happen . . .

In my family . . .  

And somehow this “thing” spreads from the confines of our club into the school at large.

In my daily work as a coach, I am in and out of classrooms across grade levels. In third, fourth, and fifth grades, the club members greet me excitedly, with an air of ownership. Their non-club classmates say: Mrs. Haley, I am reading the books for the first time! I just saw one of the movies again! Hey, Mrs. Haley, they have new Harry Potter shirts at Walmart—my mom’s gonna get me one. Come check out my Harry Potter socks! 

When I walk through lower grade hallways, a second-grader will occasionally pop out of line just long enough to say, “Next year I’ll be in third grade and I can be in the Harry Potter club!”

Once a teacher brought a kindergartner to see me—a boy, the spitting image of Harry himself in miniature, black hair, glasses and all. He was even wearing a gray shirt adorned with tiny lightning bolts.

He looked me dead in the eye and said: “I love Harry Potter more than you do.”

I dared not argue.

I’ve dubbed this “thing” permeating the ranks of children across the school “the Hogwarts phenomenon.” Again, Harry breaks barriers, open doors that might not have opened otherwise. Children seek me out to borrow my books, to see my ever-growing collection of Potter memorabilia, just to have conversations.

I think of one of our rare Ravenclaws, a shy girl who came out of her shell in the club, who later realized how much creativity was bottled inside of her, and that it could, and did, pour forth in writing (she’ll be published one day. Trust me).

My colleague recalls four siblings, three brothers and a sister, who were all members at various times, how the club became their family legacy.

I remember how, when we first created a page of spells that Rowling made up for the books and put them into visual representations to see if the kids knew or could figure out their meaning, that one boy said: “Hey—Aguamenti—that sounds like my word for water. Agua.” Indeed, that’s what it meant. This sparked a deep discussion of word origins and vocabulary, such as incendiary meaning “to cause a fire” and luminous meaning “giving off light or glowing.”

My favorite story of all (I’ve told it many times) is about the boy who stayed with us for four semesters, because he despised school and was frequently absent, but never on club days. His mother said: “The only thing he ever talks about is the Harry Potter club.” In his final semester, we made him Head Boy; he co-facilitated with us, reading to the new members and helping them make their crafts. We gave him a Hogwarts shirt on the day of fifth-grade graduation. He ran immediately to the bathroom to put it on.

He walked across the stage at the ceremony wearing that shirt.

We had no idea, really, where we were going with this club in the beginning; when our school started clubs as part of our magnet theme, my colleague and I just thought it would be great fun to read bits of Harry Potter books to kids, make some crafts, and simply enjoy the experience.

Then all the magic just . . . happened.

Teachers, remember:

What inspires you will inspire the kids. Passion is contagious. Tap into it.

Find a way to make it happen for them.

As we end the presentation, we give our participants—educators from across the state of North Carolina—the choice of going to the official Pottermore site to find their own Hogwarts house or Patronus, or making some of the crafts we make with our students. The glee in the room is palpable; how many presentations have you been to where you can make a pencil broom, a golden Snitch, a feather pen, a wand, a winged key, an ornament with your house colors, or eat a homemade chocolate frog? 

The teachers bubble over with ideas to take back to their schools. A couple of them are actually from a women’s prison; they think now they will start a Harry Potter club for inmates.

Again I think of major themes in the books.

Hope. Redemption. Overcoming. 

Love.

“Thank you,” the participants say, over and over, on their way out, carrying their new Potter loot. 

One teacher says, “This was just so inspiring.”

I say, “That is THE word that matters most to me . . . so thank you.”

“It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are, far more than our abilities.”

Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling