Fintervention 

​Last week our black goldfish, Kicker, indicated a desperate need for help.

It was pretty obvious. One day he was floating at the top of the tank, unable to swim. Still very much alive, he seemed trapped at the surface of the water. After a day or two of this, I wondered what, if anything, could be done.

I researched the condition: Swim bladder disorder. Kicker has all the symptoms.

I applied the recommended solution: Feeding him cooked, skinned green peas (I wonder who discovered this and how?).

Problems ensued. Most of the green pea chunks that I tried to feed Kicker either came apart or sank too quickly, before he could get to them; although Kicker can move, it’s limited. He has great trouble maneuvering and navigating. I watched with increasing concern – how long can a tiny, ailing fish last in this suspended state?

I did more research. One site recommended putting the green pea chunks on a toothpick.

Voila!

As you can see in the video clip, it worked.

Each day I am able to make sure Kicker eats his peas. He sees me coming and excitedly tries to meet me, paddling himself backwards, sideways, upside down, whatever way he can, to get his sustenance.

Kicker’s still kicking, but he’s not well yet.

Another layer of intervention is needed, apparently.

I can’t help but think of all the children who struggle with reading.

Very quickly, their needs become obvious – these readers cannot keep pace or go deep like their classmates. The reasons are varied and must be explored; a diagnosis must be made, an approach must be developed. Research-based strategies that worked for others can be employed, but time is of the essence – is it working or isn’t it? Is the child making progress or not? How long can a child float at the surface in such a suspended state before the condition worsens? What are the long-term ramifications? What else can be tried for the sake of the child, whose future is at stake?

To not do anything is to . . . well, in Kicker’s case, it’s to watch him die.

When I first started teaching, a well-respected teacher told me, “You can’t save them all.”

Those remain some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard.

What if that was my child?

Would I not do everything in my power, seeking the advice of others, hunting down books on interventions and overturning every virtual stone in cyberspace, to find answers? Would I not TRY?

As I write, Kicker watches me from his tank. He’s waiting for me, for whatever help I can give him. When I go to him, he will meet me and do the best that he can. I will try another research-based strategy today, as I don’t know when his window of time will close.

We owe the children no less.

 

If you’d like to read Part One of Kicker’s saga: Flipover

slice-of-life_individual

 

Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Come SWiRL with me

SWiRL

Our Literacy Lunch team’s T-shirt design

Q: What’s a fun way to engage families in English Language Arts activities with their children?

A: Have a Literacy Lunch!

Every year, families look forward to Literacy Lunch at our school. It’s one of our best-attended events.

Our theme this year, “Come SWiRL with Me,” centered on the facets or domains of language: Speak, Write, Read, Listen (we added the “i” to the SWRL acronym to make a real word), as speaking, writing, reading, and listening comprise the ELA standards and language skills needed across all disciplines.

So, grade levels came up with activities that encompassed all elements of SWRL. Some included poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month.

 

Spring poems 1st

First graders wrote spring poems with families, to read aloud. Second graders wrote “I wish” poems.

Swirl poem 4th

Fourth graders composed “swirl” poems with families.

Book tasting 5th

Fifth graders treated parents to a “book tasting.”

Wax museum 3rd

Third grade’s wax museum: Meet Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. Visitors pressed a “button” to hear the historical figures speak. This was the culmination of a biography writing unit.

After the in-class activity, families went to the cafeteria:

SWiRL - Cafe

All ready for families to eat together – and to write on the tablecloth.

The children seemed to enjoy writing on the paper tablecloths at lunchtime the most – at the end of each lunch, tablecloths were covered with messages and small sketches. One carefully crayoned note from a first grader: “I love you.” Underneath, the neat printing of a parent: “I love you, too.”

Upon exiting, parents gave feedback: They were in awe of the artwork,  fascinated by the children’s ideas and their creative expression. One parent commented: “Public speaking is VERY IMPORTANT!” Another parent, after attending kindergarten’s renditions of reader’s theater, wrote: “I’ve seen so much improvement in my son’s writing and speaking.”

Perhaps most telling is this comment, one frequently echoed throughout our years of Literacy Lunches: “Thank you for this special time with my child.”

Speak, write, read, and listen well, for words are important.

So is time.

SWiRL table

Reflect: What message do you need to communicate to someone today? Make time.

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Deeper than data

Moonrise

Moonrise. magnoidCC BY-SA

Papers are spread across the conference room table. The projector shines a graph – a student’s reading assessment history – on a screen. Discussions center on interpreting the erratic data points on a trend line in relation to the aim line toward a goal, the rate of improvement, and whether or not this student is a retention candidate.

A colleague turns to me: “What do you think? You’re the literacy person.”

I consider the numbers, the color-coded risk categories, where this child falls in all of it.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I haven’t heard this child read.”

Silence. Eyes are on me.

“I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

I leave the meeting to do just that.

The child is eager to read and turns out to be highly accurate, reading slowly and deliberately; the time that it takes this child to finish reading is why a high risk is indicated on some measures. In fact, the child can read and fully comprehend text above grade level expectation. The only enemy is time, and that’s only an issue in assessing. The desire to read, the ability to self-monitor, and an obvious work ethic so early in life will take this child far.

I think of Brené Brown, professor-author, who says: “I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.

It takes another soul to reach it.

I listen to another child reading with great flow and prosody, to discover that this young reader isn’t making meaning beyond the surface of the text – and struggles a bit even to retell what’s explicitly there. This child, whose data looks near-ideal, “in the green,” is of far greater concern. Supports need to be put in place immediately or this child will fall through the cracks.

On paper – on the dust jacket – this child looks just fine.

A few months ago, as I was printing data reports in the computer lab, I saw a young man walking with a class down the hallway. Subs are getting younger and younger, I thought, gathering my papers and returning to my room to begin analyzing them. Two colleagues joined me at my table.

The young man came into my room, smiling. “Mrs. Haley, do you remember me?”

I look at him. A little face, frowning over a book, springs into my mind. “Yes, I do! Goodness, you’ve grown up!” Mentally, I am counting off years – Good grief, how long have I been doing this?

Turns out he’s not a sub, he’s a high school volunteer. I breathe a little easier about the passage of time. He was one of my first intervention students at this school.

“I am planning to go to college to teach,” he says with a grin. I marvel at his poise. He exudes young professionalism.

“Really? What do you want to teach?”

“Reading. In fifth grade. I think I can help the kids love it. I really didn’t love it until I was in high school and suddenly I couldn’t read enough – I read all the time.”

I am awed. “That’s amazing! I am so glad to know. The kids need you. What a great role model you’ll be.”

One of the colleagues at my table asks: “Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?”

His face – once so little and serious, nearly scowling as he sat at this very table – lights up with a beatific smile.

“Yes. Mrs. Haley.”

My colleagues’ eyes tear up. I cannot even blink, cannot quite process this.

“But – you said you really didn’t enjoy reading until high school,” I manage.

“It took a while,” he laughs. “Reading was hard for me when I was little. I didn’t think I’d ever be good at it. You were the one that gave me the confidence, the one who said I could do it. I kept trying.”

Behind the data is a story. Behind the story is a little soul. A precious one.

Sometimes we never know how the story unfolds once the children go on. We only play a part for a little while, but how priceless is that tiny window.

If data were the whole story, I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t be writing this now. My parents didn’t go to college; one didn’t finish high school. The odds were against me. But my parents bought books and magazines, my grandmother read to me long before I went to school, and teachers challenged me all along to strive for more.

Another meeting, another table strewn with papers. I stand up. “I have to go now. It’s time for me to read with a student.”

This student and I read every day, if we can. He struggles with vocabulary but his primary issue is lack of confidence – he doesn’t want his peers to hear him.

I am running late. When I find him, he tries to hide a smile.

“I thought you forgot,” he says, as we settle at the table.

“I was in a meeting,” I explain. “I had to leave it.”

Pure astonishment is on his face. “You left a meeting? To read with me?”

“Well, yes. Your reading is important. Let’s get going.”

He looks at me, wide-eyed. “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

“You’re more important than the meeting,” I say.

He smiles in spite of himself.

And he reads.

I listen.

slice-of-life_individual

Lighting the way

Lumos

Yesterday a fifth-grader caught me in the hallway:

“Mrs. Haley, do you have a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in your room?”

 “I have two copies. Ask your teacher if you can walk with me to get one.”

He did. As we walked, I said, “The Chamber of Secrets is a great book. I enjoyed it more than The Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Yeah, I haven’t read Chamber of Secrets. I saw the movie and my favorite part is when Harry gets the cloak of invisibility and finds that mirror where he sees his family.”

“Ah, the Mirror of Erised … I just read that aloud to two classes at another school last week while they were studying fantasy.”

In that chapter, Harry receives the cloak of invisibility at Christmas with an anonymous note explaining that it had belonged to his father; he is admonished to “use it well.” He sneaks around Hogwarts, hidden by the cloak, and ends up in a remote, off-limits part of the building in what appears to be a storage room. He finds a large, ornate mirror. Erised backwards is desire – looking in the Mirror of Erised shows a person the deepest desires of his or her heart. Harry’s family is dead; he desperately wishes he could have known them. He is transfixed by their images in the mirror – they wave at him, and his mother wipes away her tears as she smiles at Harry.

I think, as I rummage through my basket of Potter books, Fascinating how it’s the humanity that draws us, more than the magic. 

“Here you, go,” I say to the student. “The Chamber of Secrets.”

His face lights up when I place it in his hands. “Thanks, Mrs. Haley!”

“Read it well,” I call after him, as he walks away, flipping pages.

I look around my room, my own chamber decorated with Potter memorabilia that draws children from across grade levels. They love to drop by to show me their owl collections, to ask if I’ve read The Cursed Child, to share anything Harry Potter that they’ve recently acquired. The Harry Potter club meets here twice a month, students from third through fifth grades, and we talk so much more about what motivates the characters than the magic they employ.

My Lumos glass box gleams in the corner by the doorway. I think of all the times that teachers might wish we had magic wands to show us everything the kids need, to fix all that needs fixing. I recall J.K. Rowling’s quote from her 2008 Harvard speech, now connected to her Lumos charity on behalf of children:

“We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

It’s apparent whenever I read with the kids, whenever the Potter club meets and someone has an epiphany about a character, whenever I walk into a classroom to write with students and teachers. The essence of teaching, of reading, of writing more than anything else, is the connection of human minds and hearts. It’s all part of same story, the triumph of the human spirit. Teach it, read it, write it well – tap into all you’ve known, all you’ve loved, all you’re wrestling with, and watch their faces.

It’s all inside you. Light the way.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

 

 

 

Open a book and dance

dance-metaphor

During a recent study of Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More (Burkins and Yaris, 2016), the facilitator encouraged participants to jot notes or sketch on blank bookmarks as reflections of our learning.

Throughout the book, the authors use dance lessons as a metaphor for how learning to read works. As aspiring dancers watch proficient ones with a desire to emulate them, to navigating increasingly challenging choreography, so young readers develop skills along with a desire to read for the sake of it. My chapter was “Independent Reading: Learning to Love to Read,” in which independent reading is compared to a dance recital. Students have practiced and the teacher watches from the wings, not interfering when there are missteps, but “noting ways to fine-tune the their next performance.” The line that struck me most: “Most important, teachers let students read, allowing them the glorious luxury of falling in love with books.”

That got me thinking about my early reading life and the hand that teachers played in it.

In fourth grade, my teacher began the year by reading Charlotte’s Web to the class. Naturally we wept at the death of Charlotte (don’t we all, still?). I was so captivated by the story that I bought a copy at the book fair, to reread it to my heart’s content. This teacher knew what she was doing: she ended the year by reading Old Yeller aloud to outright sobbing from the class. I had to read the book again on my own, to grapple further with Travis’s extraordinary courage and the horror of the decision he had to make after that old yellow dog had saved his life. Old Yeller was outdone only by my own discovery of Where the Red Fern Grows in the school library – I cried every day for weeks after that one. I remain eternally grateful to Mrs. Cooley for hooking me with the power of story.

My fifth-grade teacher suggested that I read the Little House series. I loved Laura so much that I sometimes wore my long brown hair in braids and had my mother make sunbonnets for me (to wear at home, not to school). Laura was real. She wasn’t perfect and she knew it; I admired her backbone and the way she faced challenges. I also loved going back in time, reveling in Laura’s descriptions of the natural world and everyday life long ago. There’s such poignancy in the line “Now is now. It can never be a long time ago” (Little House in the Big Woods). As a child I pondered that line, knowing the story took place over a hundred years in the past – then realized that, in the pages of a book, time is preserved, all that happened is still unfolding, those who are gone still live. In the pages of an engrossing book, at least, now is now. How wise my teacher was, guiding me to books that would make reading part of my everyday life.

I was given lots of opportunity to explore books in the sixth grade. That year I was scouring the school library shelves for titles I hadn’t already read when I encountered an especially intriguing one: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  “Sounds interesting,” I thought, taking it from the shelf, never suspecting what a defining life moment this would be. When I opened the cover, the magic poured out and pulled me in; I devoured every one of the Narnia Chronicles with an insatiable hunger. I loved them for the beauty of the setting, for their Britishness, for the author’s gift of turning a phrase and his humor, and most of all, for the hope they contain. I was encouraged to reenact scenes from the book for my classmates: I roped a friend into portraying Jadis while I dressed up as Aslan, complete with mane and tail. It’s the old good vs. evil theme, resurfacing many times throughout one’s academic and life experiences.

The influence and insight of my  of my teachers, along with the freedoms they gave me, had much to do with the reader I am, with person I am, today. They provided me the “glorious luxury of falling in love with books” – as you can see in the bookmark above, my tribute to them. I was never much of a real dancer, but metaphorically speaking – as a reader – I dance each day with wild abandon and absolute joy.

Reflect: Who helped you fall in love with reading? Write about this experience – and if these people are still living, write to thank them for their great gift to you. If you teach: How can you better provide “the glorious luxury of falling in love with books” for your students?

Haunting forevermore

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in … June, 2013.

My older son and I, teachers inspired by a love of The Great Gatsby,  celebrated the arrival of summer vacation by driving from North Carolina to Rockville, Maryland, where we visited the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having accomplished this mission before nine o’clock in the morning, my son asked: “What do you want to do now?”

“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes away. Poe is buried there.”

Thus was our Dead Writers Tour born. Off to Baltimore we went.

In contrast to a midnight dreary, the morning sun was blinding at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. The old Gothic-Revival church, the gate, the trees, the headstones, all cast the blackest, sharp-edged shadows, as if intentionally evoking the last lines of  “The Raven”:

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!

And there, to the immediate right of the entrance, was the author’s grave under a large, shadowy monument bearing a plaque with his likeness. One wilting yellow rose and a couple of little rocks rested on the base.

Poe is buried with his wife, who was also his cousin, aged thirteen when he married her and twenty-four when she died, and her mother, his aunt.

“This isn’t the original grave,” my son pointed out. “Poe was first buried somewhere behind the church. He was moved here to to the front later.”

“That figures,” I said. “The man was unsettled for most of his life. He couldn’t even be settled in death.”

Just then a black bird flew by to land on another headstone, where it sat watching us from the stark shadows.

“Is that a raven?” I whispered.

Quoth my son, wide-eyed: “Geez, Mom!”

“No, it can’t be,” I assured him. “Ravens are bigger than that … I think. Let’s go find the first grave.”

This cemetery is old, dating from the late 1700s. The pathway from the entrance to the back is narrow,  leading past massive domed slabs somewhat reminiscent of Quonset huts. Years and weather have left black streaks running down the sides of these burial slabs to form odd swirls and patterns. Ghostly patterns, painted by nature’s fingers.

“Check out this stain,” I said, pausing. “Does it look like a skull to you?”

“Oh, wow – it does!”

Rounding the corner of the church, we came upon a marble table with thick legs and a top so sunken in the middle that it seemed impossible for such a heavy substance. A plaque informed us that this “gravity-defying” monument was mentioned in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! article. A Revolutionary War veteran is buried beneath this oddity.

From there, my son and I could see Poe’s original grave, as the crowned headstone is embossed with a raven. On nearing the cenotaph – the empty tomb – the words arching above the bird become visible: “Quoth the Raven – Nevermore.” The stone informs visitors that Poe rested in this spot from 1849 to 1875.

“Do you remember reading about the mysterious person who showed up every year on Poe’s birthday, wearing a cloak or something, to leave roses at the grave?” I asked my son, a trivia expert extraordinaire.

“Oh, right – the Poe Toaster. He wore a hat and white scarf. He left cognac, too.”

“At this marker or the other?” I wondered.

“This one, I think. He came for decades, until just a couple of years ago. No one ever figured out who the Toaster was.”

“That’s hard to believe, in this day and age.”

“What’s really strange is that just before Poe died, he was found in the streets of Baltimore, out of his mind, wearing someone else’s clothes, and no one ever knew why.”

“It’s haunting, but mostly sad,” I pondered aloud. “Something straight out of his own work.”

We turned to leave, walking past a line of eroding tombs and vaults on the far side of the little cemetery. Some stone vaults had iron closures that appeared damaged. My fanciful imagination took flight: Had someone tampered with the doors, trying to get in – or out?

I shuddered despite the brightness of the day, recalling something my grandmother told me when I was a child afraid of the tiny graveyard across from her house in the country: Never fear the dead. Fear the living.

“I don’t think I’d want to be here at night,” I said to my son.

We simultaneously picked up our pace toward the exit.

“Nor would I.”

Back at Poe’s final resting place by the gate, my thoughts turned to his poetry, the glorious rhythm of “The Raven,” which drew me as a child the first time I heard Vincent Price reading it on TV. The poem wields mesmerizing, unique power. It is meant to be read aloud. Once when I was working to help third graders comprehend a text they were reading, we encountered the word raven.

“What’s a raven?” they wanted to know.

“It’s a bird – a black bird,” I told them. “There’s a famous poem about a raven.”

“Read it to us!” demanded the kids.

After a quick Internet search, I read the opening stanzas.

The children listened, spellbound. When I stopped, one of them sighed:

“Oh, Mrs. Haley – that sounds just like music.”

It does, indeed.

Ever after, the kids greeted me with “Hi, Mrs. Haley! Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary!”

Having paid my respects at last to Edgar Allan Poe, I walked back through the gate, just as the church’s bells began striking eleven – as if the word master himself was sending a message:

Keeping time, time, time,

As he knells, knells, knells,

In a happy Runic rhyme,

To the rolling of the the bells —

Of the bells, bells, bells —

To the tolling of the bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells–

To the moaning and groaning of the bells.

It couldn’t be coincidence – could it?

Today is the 167th anniversary of Poe’s death.

Reflect: What written works sing in your head, call to you, haunt you? Why?

 

Lit legacy

 

 

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I love words because of my grandmother.

It’s a simple thing, really, to gather a child on your lap with a book open for the little eyes to see,  and read aloud as if time and duties and all the other business of life do not matter. In truth, none of those things matter more than creating a literate legacy for a child.

Did Grandma know the far-reaching effects these moments would have? She wasn’t a teacher. She just loved to read, and I caught it from her long before I ever started school. Over and over she read The Squirrel Twins to me, the adventures of Chitter and Chatter, immortalized in rhyme:

There were two little squirrels, who lived in a tree

As happy as two little squirrels could be…

She chuckled at the illustrations every time. Cozy there in her arms, enveloped in the light fragrance of her Avon sachet, the cadence of her voice seeped deep into my brain. One day I surprised her by taking the book from her hands and reciting every word on every page:

And this is the song they sang on the way,

“What a hippity-happity-hoppity day!”

“My goodness!”

“What, Grandmama?”

“You memorized all the words!”

I knew what was coming because of the repeated readings, connecting the visual story with the simple pattern of the rhyme before I could actually read the print. It’s such a simple thing: What was poured in came pouring back out.

She poured in so much more than words – the love of words, the love of story, eventually the love of writing. My grandfather retired when I was five years old. He and Grandma moved “back home” to eastern North Carolina, leaving me behind on the Virginia peninsula. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she said years later. Determined to stay connected, she began writing letters to me. I was soon old enough to write back, and when I told her that my dad (her son) complained about my using up his postage stamps, Grandma promptly sent a letter containing a book of stamps so that “you can write to me whenever you want.” I could almost see the defiant twist of her mouth when I read that line. Every summer when I came to stay for a few weeks with my grandparents, the first item on Grandma’s agenda was taking me to the tiny, musty town library where I checked out more books than I could carry. Nothing was ever deemed off-limits or inappropriate. I was completely free to read what I wanted, as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

When Grandma died, I inherited her piano, which now belongs to my musician son, and twenty-five years worth of diaries in which she recorded the minutiae of her days. In those pages, all those we loved and lost are still alive, the grievances of the time are now hysterically funny, almost sitcom-worthy, and her prayers for my teenage self are yet another heart-wrenching reminder of the lasting power of words.

She was a gift, my grandmother. A priceless jewel. Her name, in fact, was Ruby. Of all the things in life for which I am thankful, one of the greatest is that Ruby read.

Reflect: How are you helping light the literate way for the children in your life? Who lit the way for you? How might you return thanks?