Expectations

As a literacy coach and intervention team facilitator, I am tasked with communicating expectations of my administration and the district to my colleagues. It’s a tricky position (correction: these are tricky positions. Plural. Sometimes I feel like Bartholomew Cubbins, wearing 500 hats). At present, my fellow educators are, in the wake of COVID, undergoing state-mandated Science of Reading training while adjusting to new curriculum and new leadership. It all comes with new expectations.

Truth be told, however, many of these expectations aren’t new: Problem-solving as a professional community, finding what we need as educators to give the students what they need. Bridging gaps. Collaborative planning. Collective responsibility. None of these are new; they just feel new if they’ve not been done effectively before…the bottom line being the determination of this is what the kids really need; how do we make it happen?

It’s formidable challenge, in a time where there are many needs, and when educational philosophies, beliefs, and mindsets clash. I recently wrote about endurance (from a spiritual point of view). This new school year follows one of extreme exhaustion. We will not endure without leaning on one another. We will not build our strength in isolation. We will not succeed without stamina. Or vision. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). Grappling with expectations is, well, expected. Everything, everything, everything rests on one of two beliefs: it can be done or it can’t.

I believe it can.

Yesterday my granddaughter visited. The hummingbird feeder rings I ordered for us had just arrived. Perfect timing. We took them out of the package, washed them, made a tiny batch of sugar water, and filled them. Off to the yard we trotted to stand with our arms resting on the fence near one of my two feeders where a handful of hummingbirds compete for their nectar throughout the day.

You can see for yourself, in the photo, my granddaughter thinking I don’t know about this…yet there’s a layer of hope and fear in her expression: Will the hummingbirds actually come drink from my ring? Will I be scared?

After a while: How long is this going to take?

The secret, my love, is patience and persistence. If it doesn’t work the first time, we will try again, and again. Hummingbirds have come to drink from the rings of other people in other places; they will eventually do so with us. Keep trying. Believe. I will stand with you until it does.

Oh, right.

I started off talking about teaching, didn’t I.

Expression of uncertain expectation. After she left, I went out again when the hummers were more active. A couple of them hovered nearby, considering me and my outstretched, ringed hand (hummingbirds are highly intelligent and curious). If they come to me…they will come to my granddaughter. I will see if can make it happen for her.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Charged

The first gathering
before regular workdays
even begin
is a Leadership meeting
called by new admin
to set the vision
for the year ahead
where lingering clouds
so widespread
start dissipating.
The atmosphere is changed
from June, when we left
depleted and drained:
All my colleagues’ faces,
all their voices and words,
shaking off residual traces
of drenching despair
in this positive charge
electrifying the air.

It can be done.
We have begun.

Explosion of positive energy. Łukasz StrachanowskiCC BY-NC 2.0.

Collaborative Spirit

I will call it
as I see it
from the ever-shifting sands
at the shoreline
looking out
over the vast and raging sea
called School
nowadays

so much debris
in those rolling waves
flotsam and jetsam
of curriculum
of standards
a wreckage of data
certainly broken systems
and even “learning decay”
-phew-
how’s that
for positivity

it is not
that I don’t have faith

I do

I believe in kids

I believe in teachers

I believe in overcoming

I also believe
everyone doesn’t believe

and I know
as I hear the crashing waves
and the gnashing teeth
that the current
will drown us all
if we pull
apart

if only
if only
I could build a sturdy ship
I’d name it
Collaborative Spirit

and
if I could just get everyone
on board

we’d sail
over
and through
and beyond
what we can even
imagine

together

it’s just that
one person
can’t build a ship
(or relation-ship)
alone

no

building the
Collaborative Spirit
takes all hands
on deck

that’s how I call it
that’s how I see it
from the ever-shifting sands
at the shoreline
looking out
over the vast and raging sea
called School
nowadays

Wooden ship on the Rupsa River (Bangladesh). joiseyshowaa. CC BY-SA 2.0

Against the zeitgeist: lines of gratiku

Today, a “sick-out”:
cafeteria workers
protest for more pay

District wrote parents:
“Staff shortages mean no meals”
-but not at my school

Today I thank you,
beautiful food providers,
for still being there

greeting the long lines
of children coming to eat,
for your loving words

Today I thank you,
bus drivers, who kept rolling
despite a protest

that kept many kids
from getting to school, again
-except for my school

Today I thank you,
my superhero colleagues,
for coming to work

for you are the glue
keeping pieces together
for kids, for us all

again reminding
collaborative spirits
always win the day

*******

and thanks always to
Two Writing Teachers for space
and place to express









What’s best for children

Just a little note this evening, as the sun begins its descent, glowing its most golden as it prepares to depart … really I must remind myself that it is the Earth turning away, not the sun itself. Which of us would reach longingly toward the last of that light, trying to hold what remains of the day, until encroaching shadows break our grasp … then, the dark. How many of us welcome it, so tired, so needing the sleep, so wrapping night like a thick velvet blanket around us, letting it shelter us, entomb us, savoring the peace and stillness in it … until we turn to first light and morning once more…

I am tired.

But so, probably, are you.

Today I walked through the empty halls of school. I could hear teachers’ voices in rooms as they met with kids online or recorded lessons. I could not hear the children. Through a hallway window, I caught a glimpse of many young faces on a large screen, interacting with the teacher—a virtual music lesson.

There’s something so eerie about it all. Haunting. The hollowness of the place, the distant, disembodied voices. Dystopian is the word that comes to mind. It’s like living in some novel we’d have been assigned to read in high school. But it’s real. It’s writing itself, bringing itself to life…

In snatches of conversation my colleagues discussed the reinvention of assessment for online administration, to determine what kids need, and what makes sense, and what is best for kids…

That line will not leave me. What is best for kids.

It’s a phrase we tossed around so loosely, before. “Let’s make decisions based on what’s best for kids…” but did we always?

I fired up my laptop, went to my little corner of a Google Classroom, and waited, thinking about those words: What is best for kids. Remembered playing games with a blindfold when I was a child. And waking in the night when the power’s gone out, having to feel my way through the dark…

Within moments, however, a cheery little face appeared. Beaming at me. A little voice asking if, before we read together, I could see something made for classwork today. This child—this very young child—splits his screen and presents to me. Then he asks if we will have time, when we are done reading together, for him to show me his dog.

I am sure, just then, that I feel the Earth turning. Steadily onward. Light mixing with shadows.

What is best for children is what it always was. That they feel safe. And loved. And valued. That they get to share things that matter to them. That there’s joy in learning. That they learn to do new things, some they might have thought they couldn’t. That their teachers do the same. That their teachers work together, help each other, and honor each other for the professionals they are. We may all be apart, but we must all pull together… reaching toward each other as we reach out to the kids.

The time goes so fast. My screen goes empty, the child disappears… and comes back with his dog.

It occurs to me that all three of us are smiling…the dog with his whole wiggly body.

Today will be tomorrow soon enough.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the opportunity to share on Slice of Life Tuesday.

Mindful

Shattered

This is my phone.

Was my phone.

During a drive to school, where a thousand things awaited me, I realized I didn’t have it. Pulled over. Searched my bags.

No phone.

—Where had I last seen it?

Charging. That’s right, I remembered plugging it back up for a full charge to get through the day.

Turned around, went back home.

Nope. Not there.

I finally used the Find My Phone app on my iPad and within seconds, my phone was revealed to be about a quarter mile away, in the middle of the road.

Because — I have no recollection of this, it’s just obvious — as I loaded bags, notebooks, stacks of paper into my car that morning, my mind off and running miles ahead in a dozen directions, I made the unconscious, fateful decision to put the phone on the trunk.

I drove to said location and there it was, facedown on the pavement, shattered, tiny shards of glass pricking my fingers on retrieval.

At the moment, the greater marvel to me wasn’t the modern magic of pinpointing the exact location of my lost phone (while trying to imagine the extreme unsettledness of never finding it), or that I was so thoughtless (more than a little alarming). I marveled instead that the phone held onto the car that long before sliding off. Astonishing.

It was inoperable. Dark screen with an occasional flickering of gridded lights that grew weaker and weaker, like a monitor for a little dying creature.

So I set about the repair process — in this case, replacement — which is costly both in dollars and in time, meaning that my one second of not being mindful diverted valuable time and energy from the day and the important things I needed to do. The phone tethers me to my sons, wherever they are. To my husband, still recovering from heart surgery, in case he should need me. To my colleagues, who will text with questions or to ask me to come to their classrooms. The phone is an effective lifeline to the people who matter most to me.

It dawned on me somewhere during this ordeal that I held a metaphor in my hands: Relationships.

I thought about the cost of not being mindful in relationships. How they can get so far off track if we aren’t paying attention. How hard it is to get back to a good place when this happens, if we are not ever-mindful of words, actions, signals, choices. I thought about all the emphasis on relationships in education, usually in the context of teachers building relationships with students to help them thrive as learners. But even more important are the relationships between the adults in the building; if there isn’t collegiality, professional trust, and a true spirit of collaboration, all relationships suffer and the children pay the price.

Mindful. Such a proactive word. A few seconds of investment to avoid the time, energy, and costliness of repair, before things get off track and slide away.

Before relationships shatter.

Coaching metaphor

During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.

We were to take a photo. We would write to it.

There were no other parameters.

Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.

When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.

The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.

There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.

For now.

Coaches, teachers

gathered

in rapport, mirrored

growing together

toward one another

is strength

and refuge.

For all.

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.