Trebek tribute

I love writing to photos. I often do so here on Lit Bits and Pieces (some of my recent favorites: Old Red Barn, Dancing Ghosts, and from earlier this week, High In the Sunlit Silence). Today’s prompt on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog is writing to a photo, taking special note of the background.

Ordinarily I’d comb through my nature photos for a chance to let the background reveal its secrets, capturing impressions in light of what they seem to be saying to me… but this week a person looms large in the foreground of my mind and so I write to these images instead, out of gratitude, remembrance, and mourning…

-Alex Trebek from the retro run of Jeopardy! when taping ceased this summer due to COVID-19. Alex became the new host the year before my husband and I were married. As young newlyweds, my husband and I competed against each other, keeping tally mark scores (which were occasionally disputed…). Our children, from babyhood onward, knew Alex Trebek. As a toddler, our oldest pronounced the surname “Tra-jeck.” He’d announce along with Johnny Gilbert: “And here’s the star of our show, Aaaa-lex Tra-jeck!” Alex eventually asked to be introduced as the host; he said the show belonged to the contestants, for they are the stars.

As time passed, our oldest accrued his own set of tally marks and eventually wiped the floor with his dad and me. We were hardly competition for him. He took the Jeopardy! test a few years ago and didn’t become a contestant; we urged him to keep trying… these days, his brother, eight years younger, who looked at the rest of us with a sort of reticent fascination and maybe concern over our addiction to Jeopardy! through the years, regularly whips his parents.

And so, across four decades, Jeopardy! marked family time. It marked learning. With it we watched our children come into their own. It marked our personal friendly, sometimes fierce, but always fun, competition, all presided over by Alex like a modern-day oracle, a witty human version of Apollo or Odin, the holder of knowledge, wisdom, mysteries, trivia…

We grieved when Alex shared the news of his pancreatic cancer last year. We marveled at his spirit, his courage.

I’ve watched several interviews since his death last Sunday. These lines stay with me:

How do I want to be remembered? As a nice guy… I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

While looking at this photo of young Alex I can’t help noting the red and blue background in the context of 2020, hearing his voice echo: I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

We still have so much to learn.

Speaking of voting…

Silver fox: Another shot from the retro summer run. In 2018, Alex let viewers vote on social media for him to keep or not to keep his beard. Results were never exactly determined, as apparently Alex’s wife said let it go. That was enough for him.

In September our youngest gave his dad Alex’s autobiography as a birthday gift. At the outset, Alex says he’s not a writer, that he isn’t comfortable writing about himself.

But he did it, for us to know “Alex Trebek, human being” a little better.

This self-avowed “non-writer” writes:

I’ll be perfectly content if that’s how my story ends: sitting on the swing with the woman I love, my soul mate, and our two wonderful children nearby. I’ll sit there for a while and then maybe the four of us will go for a walk, each day trying to walk a little farther than the last. We’ll take things a step at a time, one day at a time. In fact, I think I’ll go sit in the swing for a bit right now.

The weather is beautiful—the sun is shining into a mild, mild looking sky, and there’s not a cloud in sight.

His family was with him when he passed.

Mine mourns. On receiving the news, our four-year-old granddaughter wept. “Who will be the host now?”

Just one more answer
Elucidating, eloquent, as an era ends.
Our minds can hardly contain the vast
Potpourri of knowledge showcased.
Alex, your legacy to generations
Remains like the ultimate
Daily Double—
You enriched our lives, exponentially.

He is a permanent figure, there in the background of the story of our lives.

Final words—the back dust jacket of Alex’s book.

If you want to write in community, SOS: Magic in a Blog invites you to share your heart.

Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

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Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.

Culture clash, of sorts

My new “place” in the school is a loft  above the media center that used to be the computer lab. Whenever I am at my desk checking email or jotting notes, I can hear the media specialist working with classes downstairs.

Last week, while typing away on my laptop, I was dimly aware of a lesson on Cinderella Around the World with second grade, until . . .

“Any questions?—Yes?” asks the media specialist. I can tell by the tone that a hand is in the air.

“Are you a Hufflepuff?”

—Giggles. My own. There’s a whole subculture of Harry Potter mania at our school in which I may have played a small, a very, very small, part . . . .

“Ugghhh, no!” retorts Ms. S., the media specialist. “Ahem, I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with Hufflepuffs . . . .”

—This dialogue!

Another small voice: “What are you, then?”

Clearly the question of Hogwarts house identity is of vital importance. Cinderella must wait until it’s answered.

Which it is, magnanimously.

“I’m a Ravenclaw,” announces Ms. S. “And so is . . . . ” She proceeds to name several of our teaching colleagues. I get a fleeting sense of actually being at Hogwarts, where everyone belongs to a house.  “But Mrs. K. is a Hufflepuff.”

And Mrs. Haley is a Gryffindor, I mentally add, still typing up in my loft, surrounded by Potter memorabilia that kids across grade levels love to peruse.

“What’s Mrs. L.?” one of the kids asks.

“A Slytherin,” says Ms. S.

A collective GASP! from the class.

“Well, there are lots of good Slytherins, you know,” says Ms. S.

I stop typing.

Social psychology with Harry Potter. Breaking stereotypes. That could be a whole unit in itself . . . imagine . . . .

Poor Cinderella. No one seems to mind that her world tour is utterly derailed, at least for the moment.

—I am just waiting for the kids to ask what house SHE’D be in.

Beautiful child

At a recent meeting of educators, I heard a woman speak of her child’s transition to a new school. The child came home bubbling with excitement on Day One:

“Mom, my teacher looks like me!”

This is the first time her child ever had a teacher of the same race, the woman said. In fact, she went on to say, with quick finger quotes for emphasis, her child was “the only ‘beautiful’ child in the class last year.”

I understood what she meant: Her child was the only one of their race in that classroom.

I’m a mom. I know the protective, fiery love for one’s own, above all else. A proverb comes to mind: “There’s only one beautiful child in the world and every mother has it.” This mom didn’t say there’d been a problem at the previous school but as an educator I know that a sense of belonging and identity are vital to learning. I know that every school and classroom should strive to value, support, empower, and celebrate each child (as well as the adults). For that is how children learn to value, support, empower, and celebrate each other. That’s humanity at its best.

Which is why, as a human being hearing these words from another, a mother and educator, I came away with one heavy, lingering question:

Aren’t ALL children beautiful?