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.

A matter of heart

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-Ecclesiastes 7:8

Last week didn’t start so well.

On Sunday, I broke a bone in my foot while simply walking (and falling, somehow) down the garage steps.

I’d already taken Monday off to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral but spent it on my couch instead with my newly-damaged foot elevated, commiserating with my husband, whose leg has developed a discolored, painful bulge—the leg from which veins were removed for his bypass surgery last fall. It’s not a clot, and that’s all we know until his appointment this week.

“I never would have believed that I wouldn’t be able to attend my own brother’s service,” he sighed. It’s a seven-hour round trip; neither of us was up to it.

I surveyed our legs, propped on the same stool. His left, my right. Mirror-images of each other. Except for my orthopedic boot.

I sighed, too, the entire left side of my body sore from overcompensating for the right. “I know. This is like being eighty years old or something.” Which is decades away…

Our college-student son, passing through the living room, quipped in his deadpan way: “Well, at least you’ll know what to expect when you are eighty.”

So. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I returned to work. It happened to be the 100th day of school, meaning that most kindergarten and first grade students (and many of their teachers) came dressed as old people. White hair, glasses, wrinkles sketched with eyeliner, canes galore.

For a split second, I mused: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

But the kids were adorable, their teachers were having fun, and God knows we all need to have more fun at school. Too much of it isn’t.

That is where my mind was when a little “old” person wandered up to me in the lobby where I rested on a bench between the arrival of buses, my morning duty.

A kindergartner. Big, mournful eyes moving from my boot to my face: “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes! I am fine,” I said, touched by the obvious concern in that small voice.

“What happened to your foot?

“Well, I broke a bone in it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, really, it doesn’t. The boot is a cushion for it, see, and it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”

A flicker of relief across the little, made-up old face. The tiny pseudo-centenarian went on her way.

That was Tuesday.

And Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Everywhere I went, the kids wanted to know: What did you do to your foot?

I shared the X-ray with some of them, saw the fascination in their eyes.

Some didn’t ask anything. They came up to me just to say I hope you will be okay. I hope you feel better.

As I labored up and down the staircases, one careful step at a time—the elevator at school is BROKEN—I thought a lot about the curiosity and compassion of children, how natural these things are for them, how comfortable children are with asking and expressing. If we can preserve, nurture, stir curiosity and compassion through all of their formative years … what a different culture, what a different world, it would be. Possibly our greatest work.

The week ended much better than how it began. Not because of satisfying still more curiosity about my broken foot with ongoing questions, or the taste of true human compassion at its purest. Not because I made it through the first week of recovery, although that was a glad milestone. No. Friday was a day of festivities, of celebration, all shining from the children’s faces.

“Happy Valentime’s Day, Mrs. Haley!” called the little ones when they passed me in line in the hallways, inviting me to their classrooms to share their candy, their cupcakes, their joy.

Valentimes. The mispronunciation seems almost poetic. As in, these times are made for Valentines. Definitely for love.

Oh my, thank you, I’ll come see your goodies but you keep them; they were given to you.

You yourselves are gifts enough to me, children.

You as well as puppy therapy. ❤️

Dennis the dachshund takes turns between my lap and my husband’s while we prop our legs.

The course

Curriculum.

A Latin word that sort of rolls around the throat and off the tongue.

As well it should roll, since it literally means course, derived from curricle, a horse-drawn chariot for racing, and currere, to run.

So, perhaps that’s why there are pacing guides . . .

Moving on . . .

Suffice it to say that I’ve spent a good deal deal of time lately thinking about and discussing curriculum with teachers. At this point, I could launch into an exhaustive albeit incomplete analysis of types of curriculum (new facets develop almost daily), but it’s that’s not my purpose here. Having spent all of last Friday co-facilitating professional development for my colleagues on core instruction, I will reference my state’s definition of curriculum:

“The materials, instructional programs, texts, lessons and mapping (for academics and behavior/social-emotional functioning) delivered to all students. These should be evidence-based, aligned with student needs, provide clear mapping towards meeting standards, take into account student skill deficits, and align with school resources. The chosen curriculum should be evaluated often for effectiveness but with a keen eye first on implementation fidelity. In other words, before abandoning a program, the team should ensure it was implemented as it was designed because this is a common cause of poor outcomes” (NC MTSS Implementation Guide, “Defining Core”).

—There you have it, friends. That’s the course.

The running of this course is what concerns me.

Consider those phrases: aligned with student needs and taking into account student skill deficits. A course of study, a prescribed curriculum, doesn’t always, and isn’t able, of itself, to take into account student needs and deficits. The curriculum is a thing. A long and winding road that’s sometimes treacherous to navigate, for the thoughts, ideas, ideologies, theories, experience, assumptions, and intents of curriculum designers (and adopters) are not always clear or evident to the minds of those who are trying to discern them while simultaneously attempting to plot the course for a class of diverse learners. We see the what for the arduous path it is. We can sometimes see, even appreciate, the why. We struggle most with the how. The how too easily becomes an effort to run this course at all costs, to finish well, to plow on full-strength to the best of one’s ability in order to cover the necessary ground, i.e., all the standards and objectives as laid out. And the greatest how of all: How to run this race well when so many students are nowhere near the starting gate in regard to meeting standards, or proficiency?

Years ago a mentor told me we must stop thinking via the deficit model. We must see the whole child, meaning that we must acknowledge students’ strengths and focus on what they can do vs. what they can’t. I believe in the truth of this; I just know that it’s hard to hang onto in the throes of the daily race while rattling bumpity-bump down a formidable and rigorous course. Last Friday my teaching colleagues spent a lot of time thinking about children who aren’t “making it” in core instruction. Teachers considered why, then why again, then why again . . . coming to the conclusion that while there are curriculum tights to adhere to, for all kids to have the chance to be successful, there must also be curriculum tweaks. Collective decisions made with professional judgment. A concentrated meeting of the minds, a gleaning and sharing of experience and expertise, not for any other children but the very ones in front of us . . . .

That brings us to instruction, the real how. That’s why we HAVE professional development, to continue reaching for strategies, better ways of supporting students in getting from where they are to where they need to be. It doesn’t come prepackaged. It comes by knowing the children. In growing pedagogical know-how. In creativity. In thinking a great deal more out of the box when the box clearly doesn’t fit. In collaboration, through collective decisions made with professional judgment, with respect to the professionals that teachers are. The true art of teaching means tapping into the very core of humanity, in fostering atmospheres and experiences in which all learners will grow. . . and that undoes our analogy, doesn’t it? For if curriculum is the running of the race, who, then, is the charioteer? Who are the horses, running for all they’re worth? What, pray tell, is the chariot? Is education itself merely a marathon, a twisting and turning through obstacle courses laden with increasingly higher hurdles to clear, a jumping through hoops that progressively constrict?

When I was completing my teaching degree I lamented the high volume of work for little meaningful benefit or lasting takeaways. My advisor sighed: “I might as well tell you that education courses are basically tests of endurance.”

That is not what education should be. For students, for teachers, for anyone.

I’d rather think of the course as Life. The student as the charioteer. The student’s teachers over the years as the chariot engineers and artisans, continually building, tightening, tweaking, balancing, and adding their own unique embellishments to the vehicle that will carry that student forward through the future. The horses are named Knowledge, Wisdom, and Preparation; they are always hungry, always wanting to be fed so that they can keep driving on. The horse leading them all is called Inspiration . . .

But of course education, nor curriculum, is really about racing. Right?

“Thank you for pointing out the importance of professional wisdom,” said one of the teachers leaving the core instruction session last week, “and for honoring all the things we’re already doing. It was so uplifting.”

We’ve been off and running so hard for so long but now, oh yes, maybe now, we are getting somewhere.

Photo: Chariot (The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany). Shawn Allen. CC BY

Traction

Summer.

It brings to mind vacation. Travel. Beaches, ocean, sand. Rest. Living, loving, luxuriating . . .

Until the sands of life shift suddenly.

As they did it this summer when my husband landed in the hospital twice for a collective nineteen days and two heart surgeries. Existence as we knew it changed in an instant; just as we felt we’d gained a foothold, the sands shifted again. There was no time to think of the sun or even a chance to see it deep in the fluorescent-lit maze of tiled corridors and rooms. No taste of salt on the ocean breeze—oh, and salt is taboo from now on. Savoring life converged to a pinpoint, a prayer, many prayers, for staying alive, every day an uncharted vista with its own unfamiliar seas and long, long shores of loose, uncertain sands.

But he is home at last, convalescing. I grapple with new regimens—dressing wounds left by chest tubes, administering medications, a different diet, slow, slow walks in the driveway. Extra doses of patience. New priorities. The word traction comes to mind. We are on solid ground. We are moving forward, bit by little bit.

Perhaps that particular word returns to mind from childhood. My mother suffered with several health issues, one being injury and surgeries on her back. Her convalescence involved sitting in a chair beside a bedroom door with a rope-like contraption thrown over the door itself and a cup in the dangling loop for her chin. Each day she was to tighten this rope and sit in the chair for a given amount of time to stretch and align her spine. It was called traction.

I love words, their shades and nuances, so once traction got hung in my mind I kept spinning it to see its colors and facets. Traction as a foothold, as aligning, as momentum. Grabbing hold, finding a place of solidity, setting things in motion, in the right direction. I can say that my adventure this summer gave me new spiritual depth and traction.

And when I wrap myself in such metaphor I tend to see what else this blanket enfolds . . . school. I have missed the beginning of school, and while I wonder how I’ll gain traction with so many new programs and systems I’m expected to learn and teach this year, my mind doesn’t linger there. Perhaps it should. But perhaps not. I think of the children and the growth they’re supposed to make. They never will if all the sands keep shifting, if things are not aligned or set in motion in the right direction.

The lesson of my summer was restarting. My husband’s heart was restarted twice. Once during CPR which fractured his sternum and once after bypass grafts. The surgeon repaired his heart and his fractures. Healing is underway. We have new priorities. Life is restarted, with new traction. Why should it be any different for our schools, for our children? It is time to restart, to find a place of traction in shifting systems, opinions, policies, and priorities, and do what needs to be done for their sakes. Too much is at stake. It took a medical team—several, in fact— to save my husband this summer. And so it will be a collective effort to meet the needs of children on their educational journey. We shall seek and find solid ground. We shall move forward together, bit by little bit.

To me the story is the same, no matter how you slice it or apply it. This is life. It all begins and ends with the heart. Start where you have landed and find your traction.

A boy and his secret

boy & puppy

Boy and Dog, Adigrat, Ethiopia (cropped). Rod WaddingtonCC BY-SA

One day when I was off campus, the school psychologist sent me a text about a student:

He’s looking for you. He has a secret he wants to tell you.

—Gracious.

I texted back: Tell him I’ll see him first thing tomorrow morning.

The student is my tiny friend who came to our school from another country several years ago. He landed in first grade with no English and a lot of frustration. When I met him that year, he was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I pointed to it and said, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

He smiled.

That’s how our friendship began.

I’ve written before about his perceptiveness, such as how he explained, after his bleak performance on a mandatory reading assessment, that he had Big Spanish while I have Big English. His English continues growing “bigger,” just as he’s growing in stature with each passing year. Although he remains physically small for his age, it’s hard to encapsulate or convey the power of his personality. He has enormous presence. He’s a dynamo. Strong-willed, yet a charmer. Witty.  His thoughts are like quicksilver—always moving, fascinating, alive. He’s a keen observer; when he didn’t understand directions in class, he’d watch what other students did and quickly followed suit.

He tells his teachers: “Mrs. Haley is my friend.” He usually greets me by flying faster than a speeding bullet to throw his arms around me with a joyous cry: “Mrs. Haley!”

Then he asks if we can read or write.

That’s alchemy. When the gold finally appears.

So, as to this big secret he had for me . . .

I’m waiting for him when he gets off the bus. He barrels right to me, face beaming:

“I been looking for you! I have a secret!”

Extricating my midsection from his hug, I bend down. “That’s what I hear! So tell, me, what IS this big secret?”

“Shhh!” he says, in overly dramatic fashion, looking around. What a wonderful stage actor he’d be. He’s larger than life. He beckons me to lean in closer. He whispers: “I got a dog!”

I can’t imagine why this needs to be secretive, but, okay, I’ll honor it. “You did? That’s great! I LOVE dogs. What’s his name?”

He looks me dead in the eye. “Her,” he says. “It’s a girl.”

He has no idea what he’s just done. It’s profound. A sign of how well he’s mastering the language, for pronouns are often terribly challenging for English learners. I want to bask in it indefinitely, but I can’t stall now, I have to respond. Blinking, I stammer: “Oh, um—sorry! What’s her name?”

He looks around to be sure no one can hear, and whispers into my ear:

“Mrs. Haley.”

And then he skips away, grinning from ear to ear, this bit of quicksilver, bright as the blinding winter-white sun above us.

I can barely see for the tears welling in my eyes as he blends into the throng of students going to breakfast. I cannot verify that the story is true—that there’s really a dog, that he really named it after me—but this doesn’t matter. The story is his, either way. Born from his heart.

And he shared it.

A gift of pure gold.

That I’ll carry with me, always.

*******

Previous posts about my inspiring young friend:

Big English

Like Superman

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.

Snow day GIF documentary

If you work in education—in central North Carolina, anyway— you know that the merest rumor of snowflakes sends people into a frenzy. Mostly because 1) We must go buy bread and water in vast quantities, or at least the necessary ingredients to make big pots of chili; and 2) We want to be home quickly, because we really don’t know how to drive in this stuff.

Just to be safe, systems dismiss early, sometimes before any flakes fall.

Such was the case yesterday. The masses went home to stay glued to weather reports and social media, all the while asking: When will the snow start? How much will we get?

And the question of all questions: WILL SCHOOL BE CANCELED TOMORROW?

So, as a few flakes dropped in various areas, but not in others, as the evening wore on, the waiting intensified.

I amused myself by reading tweets to the school district about when a decision would be made about school closings. Many had GIFS such as these:

Dumbledore.gif

tenor.gif

Those, by the way, were sent by staff. Not students!

Then the announcement came: There were, in fact, enough snowflakes to cancel school today!

Someone tweeted this as the parent reaction across the district:

John Ritter.gif

Poor parents! And poor John Ritter, for that matter . . . is anyone else out there astonished that this will make fifteen years since he died?

By and large, however, there were hundreds of celebratory tweets from students with variations of GIFs such as this:

Peanuts

Many of those tweets said something like: “THANK YOU! You saved me and my grades!”

Okay . . . that really begs more investigation as to exactly how one snow day can save a GPA . . . and why grades are the whole emphasis of education . . .

Then there was this cheery admonishment from the school system: “Everyone stay safe! Kids, don’t forget to read!”

Truly warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Except for a long thread of student responses like this:

“Don’t expect us to read, though.”

Reading that sentiment was, to me, like being impaled by a jagged icicle. My reaction:

Why.gif

Why do the kids hate reading so much? When they say “reading,” what do they actually mean? After all, they text constantly, they’re a huge presence in social media, and their choices of graphics to communicate feelings are both entertaining and dead-on. Today’s average student is quite literate, digitally.

I think—I shiver as I say this—that the aversion is to reading books. Whether it’s actual books or those on a screen is a moot point. My question is: How have we, educators, failed on such an epic scale to promote a love of reading, to the point that our students, especially those who NEED to read more, view it as such a hateful chore? As long as they feel this way, when will our students ever, hopefully, pick up a book that they simply want to read?

The year is young; there’s no time like the present. Snow days are ideal for thinking of ways to revamp instruction to help the kids get excited about books and develop a love—or at least a very strong like—of reading. Will they all? Truthfully, probably not. But that’s no excuse for not striving for something far better on their behalf:

Books are great.gif

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

Reformation

SONY DSC

Martin-Luther. Awaya LegendsCC BY-SA

On this day, 500 years ago, Martin Luther hung his list of protests against corrupt practices on the door of the Wittenburg Castle church, igniting the Reformation that would change the course of human history.

Reform. The idea is like a diamond glittering in the dirt. Not change for the sake of change, but for the sake of those who are suffering, oppressed, under excessive pressure.

I can’t help but think of public education today – the pressure on teachers, on students. The need for large-scale reform is too widely known to be a point of dispute. The trouble with attacking any huge, knotty problem is figuring out where to begin, then where to go next, without re-tangling what’s just been untangled.

What are the oppressive practices that need to go for true education reformation? It varies, depending on who’s asked and what personal or professional interests are at stake. Luther wrote ninety-five theses; I’ll spare readers and list my top five, although they’re not anything new:

  1. Standardized testing. Everyone knows – don’t they? – that scores do not accurately reflect a person or that person’s potential. It’s a data point at a fixed moment in time, not for all time. How many students come through the system believing they are failures because they didn’t measure up? How many teachers and schools work hard, only to be considered the same? In a country historically admired the world over for creativity and innovation, giving and living the test is the best we can do?
  2. Teaching reading and writing as separate entities – often sacrificing writing for the sake of reading. It’s a dichotomy that sends the subliminal, counterproductive message that understanding others is more important than understanding self, which is what authentic writing does for people. If we want the world to be a better place, it begins with understanding why we think and feel the way we do. Empathy and compassion are born from this. Write.
  3. Cutting the arts. The test alone proves that people are diverse learners, and the great emphasis on improving reading scores already limits student self-expression. Students who have trouble focusing are often extraordinary actors and dancers; they bring powerful interpretations to scenes, can read and create brilliant choreography. Some students, considered struggling learners, are constantly composing songs in their heads and can sing with startling expression, emphasizing all the right phrases. My son, who showed an affinity for music early in life, asks: “Why aren’t kids given a chance to experiment and explore in ways they really enjoy? Why aren’t their talents or their strengths maximized?” He endured his education. Today he has a job in the music field.
  4. Teacher education and professional development as we know it. Sigh. That’s what we typically do, isn’t it? Better, deeper preparation for the diverse learners and the demands of the field is critical. Ongoing professional learning needs to be practical, designed specifically for the needs of the children AND the teachers. If we speak of deficits and gaps – how about creativity deficits and vision gaps? If the hallmark of a great teacher is getting students to love learning, shouldn’t we first love ours? How about some inspiration? It’s a pretty big motivator (wouldn’t you say, Martin Luther?).
  5. Whatever the expectations, the requirements, the new layers of things that come along as purported magic bullets that will save everything, hold these two things utterly sacred every single day: The read-aloud and time for students to generate writing that means something to them. These are proven to lift the level of thinking – authentically, organically – which will never come through compliance alone.

What are your theses for true education reform? Today, in the spirit of Martin Luther, be bold. Speak your mind through the power of the written word.

And if you teach, teach on.

 

 

Parodial school

School

School. vazovskyCC BY-SA

Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.

– Lois Lowry, The Giver

 

They come to us just as they are.

That’s a good thing. Educators are to value student diversity, to see it as a gift in the classroom community – in fact, a teacher can be evaluated on this.

For children, we know, are not standardized.

They are living portfolios of experiences, abilities, thoughts, feelings, perspectives. They are unfinished stories, works in progress, masterpieces in the making.

Some know several languages. That’s diversity – a gift.

This doesn’t always show on a fluency assessment.

Some are born storytellers, song composers on the fly, wordsmiths extraordinaire, but only when speaking – not always when reading or writing.

Data points can’t capture innate artistry.

Some are engaged in tough battles, have greater mountains to climb – these kids aren’t from houses covered with vines who will go everywhere in two straight lines – yet there’s a nobility within them, born of courage, of gaining hard-won ground, more so than any knight of legendary lore.

Many of these are innovators. Because they have to be. The bulk of their energy goes not into conforming, but into coping.

Their diversity might blow the top off the charts while their test scores might lie at the other end of the spectrum. Growth is difficult to measure in a constant state of change.

So, one cannot, in the same breath, value diversity and mandate standardization. To celebrate Not-Sameness, yet to penalize schools and teachers for not attaining Sameness – what words are there for this dichotomy?

Paradox? Oxymoron? Mixed messages?

Bizarro World?

Parodial school.

That students have a right to a quality education is an unequivocal point. That the absence of order and structure invites chaos is understood. Conformity, however, doesn’t beget excellence; inspiration does.

This is the hinge on which the entire portal hangs.

For what is true for students is also true for teachers.

As a non-traditional age undergraduate, I encountered The Giver for the first time as assigned reading in a course. I subsequently wrote an essay on its imagery that the professor believed could be entered in the university’s research and creative achievement competition. At this event, I walked hallways lined with exhibitions from the medical and engineering fields, until a university official greeted me: “Ah yes, you’re representing the Humanities Department.”

“No sir,” I replied, shaking his proffered hand. “I’m representing Education.”

His expression was clearly perplexed. “We hardly ever get anyone from Education here.”

This, at a celebration of research and creative achievement.

My question remains: Why, in the unlimited universe, not?

The answer, I suspect, is that teachers don’t realize they have that power.

We must, in turn, keep a wise perspective of the things over which we’re gaining control and those we are relinquishing – squelching – in the process.

In the hearts of students as well as in their teachers’.