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.

 

Magical literacy and learning, part 1

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Yesterday my colleague and I presented “Magical Literacy and Learning: The Harry Potter Club” at the North Carolina Reading Association. While we waited for the preceding session to end, I watched other educators gathering in the hallway outside the closed door where our session would be held. I could hear whispers: “Harry Potter . . . Harry Potter . . . .” For a second, it was almost like being in one of the books or movies. Here’s a portion of what we presented, in narrative form. There’s more to come . . . .

For seven semesters now, a colleague and I have hosted the Harry Potter Club for third, fourth, and fifth graders at our school as part of our creative arts and science magnet theme.

When clubs began in 2015, teachers who volunteered to do clubs were told, “Pick something that interests you. Something that you enjoy.”  Here’s a small sampling of club offerings over the years: cooking, gardening, etiquette, beading, creative writing, acts of kindness, paper airplanes, tie-dye, iPad movie-making, weightlifting, astronomy.

My colleague and I wanted to integrate arts and crafts with reading enjoyment, so that’s how our Harry Potter club was born. We figured we’d read some passages from the books and have the kids make something. That’s all the vision we had, in the beginning.

The club became so much more.

Last winter, a former student of ours, in his first year of middle school, was killed in an accident. My colleague and I, mourning, recalled that he’d been in our club more than once. We remembered how much he enjoyed it, how much he smiled, how he asked questions. We went back over our club rosters to see when he’d attended, and that’s when we discovered something that we hadn’t exactly realized before.

Maybe it’s due to our school improvement-trained brains, but, as we looked back at lists of club kids, I said, “Hey . . . there’s something significant going on with subgroups here.”

That, of course, led to further analysis.

Here’s what we learned about our club:

70% of attendees are male.

54% are non-white or minority.

Over half have identified learning or behavioral needs.

Siblings of nine families have attended.

Boys chose Harry Potter over sports camp, Lego mania, football, and tech. Several of them made this choice more than once; they asked to be in our club again and again, even when we said, “But you’ll just be making the same crafts as you did before!” They said: “I know! I just want to be in the club.” Children of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and races identify with the predominately white Potter characters and their struggles, because the underlying themes speak to all children, all people: Friendship, teamwork, love, hope, redemption.

During club sessions, after I’d read a portion of a book and the kids were busy with their craft—painting a wand, tracing wings and attaching them to keys, making pencil brooms or gold-foil Snitches—discussions developed. Unscripted, organic discussions. Many of the children had seen the movies, some had read the books, some had done neither, but everyone talked. Everyone had questions, observations.

Professor Snape in particular fascinates the children (I often have to say, “Snape. His name is Snape. Not Snake”):

“He was so mean to Harry and Harry thought he hated him, but really he was protecting Harry the whole time.”

“Yeah, because he was in love with Harry’s mother.”

“What do we learn from Professor Snape, then?” I interject.

Pause.

“Even when somebody seems bad, they really might be good. You don’t always know what’s in their heart,” pipes a voice.

I see their heads, bent intently over their craft, nodding.

The children speak of how much Harry’s mother loved him, how she died to save him. The mothers in the series are some of the strongest characters: Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy. In the end, Narcissa saves Harry in order to save her own son.

It’s a safe place, the club. A place of belonging. It doesn’t matter if you’re academically gifted or have an IEP, if you’re an extraordinary reader, or if you struggle with reading. Here, with the read-aloud, the crafts, the discussions, the playing field is level. Here, everyone excels at something.

I think of how the magic was probably the pull for many of the kids, at first.

Or maybe the crafts.

But something deeper keeps them coming back for more.

Belonging

Goose in flight

Canada Goose in flight. Richard HurdCC BY

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – 

over and over announcing your place 

in the family of things.

-from “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver

During a summer workshop, I read Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” and was charged with interpreting what it mean to me in a quick write.

I wrote:

No regrets. Life goes on. Heading home again – from wherever you are. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches. We have to keep living, keep trusting life, keep reaching for it, because it reaches for us. Life calls to us as the geese call to one another. Reform – fly in formation. Geese mate for life – they keep going on. They know their places. We must know ours, must find ours, must believe in ours, even if we have never seen it, recognized it, known it existed at all – we have a place of belonging, for all things are connected with meaning, and have meaning. Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. We must keep flying, trusting.  

I put that particular notebook away. I didn’t think about my interpretation again until I prepared to facilitate a recent “writing studio” workshop for teachers, touching on the power of poetry, abiding images, the interconnection of body, mind, heart, and spirit. I got the notebook out and took it with me. Not until I read my words aloud, months after the writing, did this realization come to mind – one so obvious that I can’t believe it didn’t come before.

My father loved Canada geese. I didn’t know this until the last years of his life and even now I do not know why he was so fond of them. On our last Christmas, I gave him two Canada geese lawn ornaments for his front yard (his yard was a great source of pride to him, as I wrote in Fresh-cut grass).  Daddy was delighted; his face lit up at the sight of the goose statues. He set them on the lawn in the shade of the maple tree, where they stood, elegant and life-like, until his sudden, too-soon death.

Many things are a painful blur about those days, but on the re-reading of my interpretation of “Wild Geese,” a stark image returned to me: Walking behind my father’s uniformed, white-gloved pallbearers through the veteran’s cemetery, past a wide field to my right where, standing at attention, was flock of Canada geese, silently watching my father’s casket go by.

Not that they were paying homage, as much as my fanciful imagination would have me believe. The geese were likely keeping wary eyes on this odd processional of invaders so near their space.

Geese, I know, represent fidelity, valor, protection, navigation – returning home – among other things. I treasure their presence and their symbolism at my father’s funeral.

For, with my father gone, there would be no heading to my childhood home again. It marked the end of that family of things.

But I was grown, with children of my own. I had another home, another place of belonging.  Life goes on, I’d written after reading of Oliver’s wild geese. This is a poem of belonging, of recognizing that we all have despairs, losses, soul-aches.

It occurs to me now that Oliver’s poem is about identity.

Whatever our losses, our lot in life, there is a place of belonging. A place of protection, nourishment, growth, and being. However harsh life may be, this place calls to us. It’s up to us to hear and respond.

Home may not be home in the sense we know it. Home may be somewhere else – but we all have the homing device inside us. 

So the question is: What is that home, that place of belonging, where it is safe to be who you truly are? For some, it’s family. Or one’s life’s work. Or a community of faith, believing in an eternal home yet to come.

Others also find it in a group of like-minded people – artists, writers.

I find my place in all of these.

Wife, mother. Teacher, coach. Christian.

Writer.

Each my identity, each my gift.

Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Listen. Know who you are. Where you’ve come from, where you’re going. Come into your place in the family of things.

My father’s house was in the city; my home now is in the country. Early in the morning, as the sun rises over the vast field at the end of my lane, geese fly, calling to one another in their discordant, raspy voices. I can hear them long before I see them. They fade in louder and louder as they come near. If I stand outside as they fly over, I hear the silken sweep of their wings.  I can hear them, calling and calling, even when they’re gone, when I see them no more.

The family of things – it is there, always, even if we cannot see it, even when we see it no more.

So is the belonging. Wherever else I find my place, I’m still a daughter, a granddaughter, the living remnant of a family of things.

From my teacher-place, I reflect on how we must create a sense of belonging for the students, encouraging and guiding them to find their places in the family of things.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever has gone before: Trust. Recognize. Reach. Open your wings, stretch them as far as they’ll go.

Fly on.

Geese in field
Kanadagås / Canada Goose. Stefan BerndtssonCC BY