The better angels
of our nature
cry out for
hear them calling
for the prevailing
of a collaborative spirit
over the combative one
I will call it
as I see it
from the ever-shifting sands
at the shoreline
over the vast and raging sea
so much debris
in those rolling waves
flotsam and jetsam
a wreckage of data
certainly broken systems
and even “learning decay”
it is not
that I don’t have faith
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
I could build a sturdy ship
I’d name it
if I could just get everyone
what we can even
it’s just that
can’t build a ship
takes all hands
that’s how I call it
that’s how I see it
from the ever-shifting sands
at the shoreline
over the vast and raging sea
Today, a “sick-out”:
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
always win the day
and thanks always to
Two Writing Teachers for space
and place to express
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.
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.
—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.
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.
in rapport, mirrored
toward one another
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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
What is metaphor for?
Well, meta means beyond.
Metaphor is understanding
in a deeper way.
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.
poetry would shrivel
and maybe die.
Metaphor waters the poet-tree
and keeps it alive.
That’s what it’s for.
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.
Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess
They all went together to seek a bird’s nest.
They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in,
They all took one and left four in.
It’s the summer of birds.
They became a recurring motif in my summer writing workshop. 2018 is actually The Year of the Bird, marking the 100th anniversary of major bird protection laws. I’ve discovered that I’ve written enough bird stories to give them their own category for this blog. I am reading a stunning, lyrical book recently recommended to me, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. I recalled the friendly little parrot I saw at a store a while back, and thought—for maybe seven seconds—about how nice it would be to have another pet bird.
And so they came. As if summoned.
House finches, they are. A pair built a nest in my lantern porch light fixture. I would not let my family turn on that light at night for fear of burning the birds. A brood hatched, grew quickly, and was gone; here’s a fledgling tarrying behind on the last day:
Once the nest was empty, our younger son, Cadillac Man, removed it and my husband had the house power washed (a thing well past due).
A day later, I heard a commotion on the front porch.
Birds. Very loud ones.
The front window blinds were up; I could see a male finch, a soft dusting of red on his breast, hopping to and fro along the white railing like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam (forgive the mixing of genders here but that is what he looked like). He paused to stare right back at me. A speckled brown female flew to him, then instantly away again. Two or three more finches skittered nearby. The collective chatter seemed highly agitated—consternation is the word that came to mind.
It’s the nest, I thought. They’ve come back and it’s gone.
They had to be the same mother and father. I wondered if the others were part of their newly-grown brood. Or a support group. Some sort of council? They seemed to be consulting over the vanished nest. Maybe problem-solving? Collaborating? Making decisions?
For two days, the lively bird debate continued.
Then it died down.
And a piece of pine straw appeared in the bottom of the lantern.
From the window I saw both male and female bringing more pieces, saw the male drop his on the porch floor, fly down to retrieve it, and hover like a hummingbird to work it into place.
My older son, The Historian, passing through the hallway, stopped beside me to watch: “It’s amazing how they know to do this.”
“What’s going on?” his father called from the living room.
“The birds are building another nest in the porch light,” I told him.
“Oh, no they’re not,” he said. “We just had the house washed. The porch was disgusting.”
He went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. He went to the porch, pulled out the three pieces of pine straw.
And put aluminum foil in the lantern:
It sent the finches into a frenzy. For another day, the loud bird-chatter resumed. I found a bit of foil on the porch floor; had one of them tried to tug the stuff loose?
And I worried about the birds cutting themselves on the aluminum, about time elapsing when they clearly needed their nest. The female must be getting ready to lay more eggs, or why all this fuss?
What would they do?
The next day when I opened the front door to go get the mail, I heard a rush of wings and I knew.
The wreath on the door.
Sure enough, on the top of the wreath lay a few long grasses.
I chose to keep this a secret for several days, until:
“All right, you guys,” I announced to my menfolk, “we now have a nest on our wreath with an egg in it. No opening the front door until these birds are gone.”
I may have also mentioned, nonchalantly, that it is illegal in the United States to remove a nest containing eggs.
And then I worried even more: Is the wreath secure enough? How many more eggs will there be? Will they—will the babies—be safe?
The nest made me want to cry. At the perfection of it, at the dried dandelions laced through it like deliberate decoration, an artist’s touch. I wanted to cry at the determination of these birds to live on my porch, how they persevered in rebuilding their home from scratch. They do not know that they built on the door of my home as well as on my heart, where there’s an especially tender spot these days for little creatures and their well-being. I still mourn a small dog, grown old and frail, that I could not save. A rawness in my soul that has yet to grow new skin.
While these birds do not really need me, they spark a sense of ownership and protection. They’re in my realm now, in my sphere of influence.
All I can give them is sanctuary.
I remember how, when I was a child riding in the backseat of a car watching the cityscape give way to fields and forests, a little green sign appeared:
I puzzled over this: Where’s the bird church?
It took some time to understand that birds can’t be hunted here, that sanctuary means safe place.
A place to be, grow, flourish, and fly. Something every living thing needs.
Sanctuary was the word I chose to describe the writing workshop just a month ago. The workshop that had the bird motif running through it. A safe place to think, explore, write, share.
So now, every morning, when the sun is new, when shadows are sharp on the ground, while the dew is still sparkling on the grass, I walk from the garage door to visit the sanctuary. Mama Finch sees me coming as soon as I round the corner; she flies out of the nest, bobbing through the air without a sound. There’s a reverent silence, a holy hush, in sanctuaries, you know. She waits on the rooftop while I quickly admire her handiwork. I go before she’s troubled. I’ve learned from these visits that she lays her eggs between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.
As soon as my husband and I returned from a trip to the beach, he asked: “Have you checked on your eggs?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling at his words. My eggs.
I have four.
Stay tuned for the hatching announcement.
While writing this post I could not help thinking how “sanctuary” applies to teaching and instructional coaching. As with the house finches—which are symbolic of joy, happiness, optimism, variety, diversity, high energy, creativity, celebration, honoring resources, and enjoying the journey—a safe place to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort. Right now my finches are singing. A song, perhaps, that all of humanity still needs to hear.
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.
See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.