Turtle meditation

It’s almost summer here in rural North Carolina, which means two things: tobacco is lush in the fields, and turtles are busily crossing the roads.

Which also means that turtles are frequently run over by inattentive drivers.

There by the roadside, these wounded creatures die. Sometimes they leave a trail of blood on the pavement where they dragged themselves to the other side. Any roadkill is disturbing to see, but something about the inner pinkness of the turtle showing through the broken shell pieces troubles me immensely.

Maybe it’s because the shell, perfectly designed to protect the turtle, failed to do so.

But turtle shells are not meant to withstand the weight of a vehicle.

The pinkness represents vulnerability to me; I automatically begin thinking of other vulnerabilities due to failures of structures meant to protect or to edify.

Brokenness occurs on many levels in societies. Governments fail to protect the people, businesses fail to protect employees, family members fail to protect one another.

As an educator, an instructional coach, I see how expectations grow greater all the time and how the weight rests heaviest on teachers. I worry about the cracks, the brokenness, the damage – for, you see, the children are the most vulnerable part, the part we cannot afford to lose.

Any alleviation of this weight, any solution to such brokenness, lies first with the drivers.

Whomever and wherever you are.

Pay attention.

Reflect: Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote: “All things great are wound up with all things little.” Consider the brokenness around you. Repairs and healing will not be complete in a day. Where’s a small place you can begin, in a small but positive way? Positive results only come from positive words, ideas, and actions – and awareness. 

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A time to break down, a time to build

Old hotel

Old hotel. PhillipCC BY-SA

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . . 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3b

Along the country byways where I live, there are lots of old houses and barns in various stages of falling down. There’s an odd elegance to the sway of a gray weatherboard structure still holding its own, somehow, after decades, maybe even a century, of standing. Eventually, the wood returns to the earth, and the earth, in time, takes it back into itself.

I don’t know why I love dilapidated houses and barns so much, beyond their elegiac grace. I do not know why I find pictures of abandoned structures like schools and churches so compelling. Eerie and haunting, too, but mostly intriguing. Perhaps it’s due to my love of story, my wanting to know who was there, when, and why the places were abandoned – where did all the people go? Is there no one left who cares any more?

I only know that there’s a time to break or tear down, just as there is a time to build.

This doesn’t just apply to old, unsafe buildings.

It might apply to us, as we age. With time our bodies break down, albeit slowly, as they are not meant to keep going forever. Sorry, I do not have a build parallel for this.

It might apply to systems, procedures, approaches that once worked and don’t anymore – a time to examine, evaluate, break down and build anew.

Which begs the question: When is it time to break down? To build?

When the structure is dangerous, apt to cause harm, can no longer be used for the purpose it was originally intended, needs far too many reinforcements, has limited or no more effect, the time has come to break it down.

It’s the inevitable, really.

If a purpose remains, and a structure is needed, it can be built fresh. Stronger, more durable, more appropriate, more effective, more creatively, sometimes even simpler than what was there before.

Take stock around you. What’s falling down? What needs to go? What needs to stay, be scrapped, be rebuilt altogether from the ground up? If it’s not working, why, and where should you begin?

And do you mean for what you build to last for a day, a year, or a lifetime? The planning and the vision make all the difference. The foundation is the most essential part.

Consider who you’re building for, and why.

You’ll find the way.

It may be time.

The value of value

Rose & shadow

Rose and shadow. ankakayCC BY

We have a new principal at our school.

On his office wall is a certificate presented to him by his previous school: “Most likely to make you feel appreciated and valued.”

That word, valued, set my thoughts firing like electrical arcs in a dozen directions.

The first thing that came to mind, strangely, was an image of light and shadow. From an artist’s perspective, in artist terminology, value is the shading that gives depth to a two-dimensional object, almost magically transforming it visually to three dimensions. Values make an image pop, bring it to life.

A fascinating concept for a leader of a school, or any leader, isn’t it – to be an artist of sorts, to harness the light and the shadows of the given entity, to have a vision, to go beyond the surface and bring depth, meaning, and make it work. Artistically speaking, that’s the value of value.

Another image was immediately conjured – the vast machinery of systems. Have you ever had the sensation of being a tiny cog rotating in a mind-boggling conglomeration of structures that do not fit well or operate properly together, with old, vintage pieces welded precariously to shiny new ones, like something out of steampunk? As the cogs we cannot even see the full extent of the machinery looming far beyond us; we can only feel the unwieldy vibrations as it lumbers on. That’s often how education feels today. In truth, it’s not the structures that hold things together and keep everything running – it’s the cogs, the teachers. Teachers are the most crucial pieces – and the end product isn’t the perfectly standardized student. The students aren’t end products at all – don’t we want them to keep growing, learning, discovering, contributing, as long as they live? That’s something no machinery can produce.

Which gets back to value.

To value something means to hold it in high regard, to recognize its worth and usefulness. We value things that are important and beneficial to us.

My thoughts branch out into a hierarchy of what-ifs:

What if systems valued schools more than data? What if they scaled back and simplified rather than adding on?

What if principals communicated their value of teachers through their actions instead of words?

What if teachers made all students feel valued – and valued their differences? And taught students to do the same?

What if everyone realized that these are matters of the human heart and spirit?

I can see the light and shadows separating already, magically transforming things, creating a depth that’s been needed for so long.

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The coaching tree

Coaching Tree Lg

Early in the school year, my instructional coaching colleagues and I attended district training where participants were tasked with creating an image to explain the coaching process.

My group thought for a moment.

“You know, coaching is an organic thing,” I said. “Or at least it should be. We all know it takes time to develop relationships and trust. It’s about honing practices, sure, but this is a growth process for us as well as for our teachers. We grow together to reach goals.”

A colleague said, “Yes! I’m seeing a tree, branching out . . . .”

In a few minutes we’d sketched the tree. We began to label it, recognizing coaching elements that correlated to parts of the tree. The more we worked, the faster the ideas came.

Relationships are key in coaching, the foundation, but certain things must feed the relationships before the process can begin. These roots are trust, the human connection, listening, collegiality, safety, empathy, and support. Coaches must meet teachers where they are and be willing to plug in with what teachers want to accomplish – it’s not as much about seeing the work as it is seeing a fellow human being. The vision develops from there, and needs to be a shared one.

The trunk of the tree symbolizes this togetherness with inspiration from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Near the bottom of our tree, we placed a little heart: Coach + You. The heart of coaching is just that – having a heart for each other.

A solid, thriving coaching relationship branches out into nearly endless possibilities, aspirations, and directions, such as goals, the 4 Cs (communication, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration), encouragement, self-modifying learners, reflection, growth mindset and learner agency.

My coaching colleagues and I stood looking at our work, feeling pretty happy with our Coaching Tree.

“We need to put the sun in,” said a colleague. “The sun is the climate, of course – a warm climate conducive to coaching is necessary for the process to work. That’s where administration comes in.”

We put the sun in.

At this point, something struck me – “Trees bear fruit! What is the ultimate goal of coaching, the payoff? What’s the fruit of our labor?”

We created a basket then, and labeled it The fruit of our combined efforts. It holds apples: Love of learning, data, increased student achievement, teacher fulfillment, students graduating college or career ready. 

As teachers are fulfilled and productive, we desire to branch out into new areas. The growth continues. As students achieve, as they go on with their lives, some will go into the teaching field and the cycle begins anew.

At the close of the training, small groups presented their work to the whole assembly of coaches. The other groups had designed diagrams, cycles, or flow charts, all of which artistically, appropriately encapsulated the continuous reflective coaching cycle of support.

My group was the only one to present the coaching process as a living thing, something organic.

We were startled by the enthusiastic applause from our fellow coaches.

Upon returning to school, my colleagues and I recreated the Coaching Tree in the teachers’ lounge. It stands there to encourage, invite, celebrate, and maybe inspire or spark hope when we all need it, a visual reminder that our work is not in vain, that we’re in this together, to help each other along, and the sky is the limit.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

A rising tide lifts all boats

Boats

Fishing boats. karol m. CC BY

At a recent team meeting of K-12 cross-curricular educators dedicated to improving writing instruction, we discussed the Calkins and Ehrenworth article entitled “Growing Extraordinary Writers: Leadership Decisions to Raise the Level of Writing Across a School and a District” (The Reading Teacher, Vol. 70, No. 1, July/August 2016). While takeaways included the need for a shared vision of good writing and good writing instruction, as well as a need for shared expectations and ways to track growth – the reason for the formation of this team – what struck me most was this line on the transformative power of professional development: “It should be focused on strengthening teachers’ methods and spirits.”

Yes. Spirits must rise, I thought. Before we can raise the level of writing, before we can raise the students at all,  we must first raise each others’ spirits. 

The truth is that professional development is so seldom inspirational. For the last year, when I planned professional development in writing for teachers, my driving question was, How can I inspire them? How can they tap into the wellspring of their own power, their own voices, all that matters to them?

When I spoke on this at the meeting, a colleague chimed in: “We have to be the rising tide. If we rise, we’ll raise others with us.”

“Yes – a rising tide lifts all boats,” I responded, recalling those words associated with John F. Kennedy.

I grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. I have been on the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel when the tide was high, in a storm; as I descended into the tunnel, waves crashed above the entrance and spilled over the car. A layer of salt remained on the windshield when it dried. I’ve seen boats grounded when the tide was low, making the would-be sailors push and pull that much harder to get them afloat. I’ve walked floating docks of marinas on sunny days, feeling the sway of the boards under my feet as boats rocked with the incoming tide, the metal of their moorings and buoys clanking softly, rhythmically, as if coming to life with with the rising flow.

When the tide rises, it lifts everything with it – everything rises.

When our spirits rise, we lift others around us – everyone rises.

That’s so needed in education today.

It’s so needed everywhere.

The power lies within you. Tap into that inner wellspring; let it flow.

And rise.

Note: The one word I chose for for myself at the beginning of this year is Rise. If you’re interested, here’s my little poem: Rise.

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Signals

signals

Untitled. abarndwellerCC-BY

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, in “To A Louse: On seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”:  O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us…

I have often pondered that idea, people needing to see themselves as others see them. To see myself as others see me. What a frightening prospect. Certainly the power to see ourselves as others see us would free us from many a blunder … one would hope.

The lines spark a question I pose to myself and teacher colleagues: What signals are we unwittingly sending to students?

Years ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. I thought I would try it, almost reluctantly, as I needed a job and my own children were still in school. I wasn’t thinking of teaching as a calling or whether or not I was cut out for it. I took a temporary position, fifth grade remediation in reading and math, with some trepidation.

“I am not sure what to do,” I confessed to the hiring principal. “I don’t know if I can really help the kids.”

She smiled. “Just love them. The rest will come.”

Here goes, I thought on Day One, as I stepped into a classroom where kids milled about, working collaboratively on math. It’s sink or swim.

From across the room, a boy saw me standing in the doorway. He didn’t know me, didn’t know why I was there, but he shot across the room through the throng of his classmates to throw his arms around me.

That was my induction to being a public educator.

A child, sinking fast, clung to me like I was a life preserver. Perhaps he perceived, instantly, that we were in – or out – of the same boat. It was sink or swim for both of us.

In this classroom, I watched the boy try his hardest to swim. He struggled academically. He struggled with controlling his impulses. He struggled socioeconomically – he wore the same heavy black ski jacket every day, even when the weather was hot. He was chastised by his teacher for every infraction, great or small. The teacher – widely respected by colleagues – was clearly suffering from burnout,  undoubtedly tired of swimming herself. Whether or not she intended it, she sent a signal: Do not approach me or question me.

Do we, as teachers, send a signal – with  or without words – that we are safe harbors or treacherous ground?

I remembered a teacher of my own. She stayed in a constant state of frustration with our geometry class, once giving me detention for leaving paper in my desk despite my impassioned protest that I hadn’t done it. Math wasn’t my strong suit and I sank to the point of dropping the course, as I had all the math credits I needed to graduate. Later that year I landed a role in the school play and this teacher came to watch it. As people congratulated me backstage after the performance, this teacher stepped forward:

“Well,” she said, “I never would have believed you had it in you.”

You decide: Would I have ever been successful in her class?

One last note on my little friend back in the fifth grade: He went on to graduate.

On his behalf, I thank all those teachers who were, along the way, safe harbors for him.

Reflect: What messages do you send to others, verbally and non-verbally, about their value? Think of the teachers you had: Were they repellents to the learning in their classrooms, or were they encouragers? Were they the treacherous ground or the safe harbors? Write. Find a viable preserver when you need to. Rest a for bit. Then keep on swimming, mindful of those who are swimming so hard, so close by. 

The Harry Potter club

harry-potter-club

Every semester a new group of them arrives, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, often clutching owls or wands, quivering with excitement and  ready to be sorted into one of the four houses … no, they’re not at Hogwarts. These are third, fourth, and fifth grade students who signed up to be in the Harry Potter club at our magnet school.

A colleague and I are the founders, the “co-deputy headmistresses” of the club, formed in conjunction with the school’s mission to expand arts and science integrated opportunities for the students. Staff chooses what to offer; students can sign up for anything from cooking classes to a foreign language to astronomy. Since it began, the Harry Potter club has operated at maximum capacity. Once we know students’ names, they receive their own rolled parchment letter of acceptance (as yet not delivered by owl, but we headmistresses are working on that).

My colleague and I expected to have fun – after all, we chose a theme that was fun for us. We expected that the kids would have fun, and they do. From Day One when they are sorted with the help of an online quiz  – we call it the “technological Sorting Hat” and we always end up with an alarming number of Slytherins, prompting discussions about character traits – through sessions of making their own wands, Quidditch pencil brooms, golden snitches, and patronus pictures, the students savor every moment. One of us, a teacher or student volunteer, reads aloud from the books while the club members work on their crafts. As students are sorted, someone reads Harry’s sorting experience to the group; when students make wands, one of us reads the scene where Harry goes to Ollivander’s for his wand. All students chime in right on cue, because they’ve seen the movies and they know: “The wand chooses the wizard.”

What my colleague and I didn’t expect were the far-reaching effects. Parents frequently tell us: “My child is SO excited about being in the Harry Potter club!” We didn’t expect the depth of the discussions students would initiate on their own, regarding various characters and their motivation:

“Professor Snape was really protecting Harry the whole time, not trying to hurt him.”

“That’s because Snape loved Harry’s mother – they knew each other when they were little, before she knew Harry’s father.”

“It was Harry’s mother’s love that protected him – she died to save him, and that’s why Voldemort couldn’t defeat Harry.”

One would have expected students to be drawn most by the magic, the fantastic, or the old good vs. evil theme, but at the ages of eight to ten or eleven, the students talk more about love, the huge, shining thread that winds through the stories and ties them all together.

My colleague and I certainly never anticipated one student’s attending the club from its inception to the day he left for middle school. As the club is in high demand, repeaters are not usually allowed. One of his teachers made the appeal: “He doesn’t like school, but he loves the Harry Potter club. He’s always here on club days. Can he please be in it again?”

His mother said: “It’s all he ever talks about – the Harry Potter club.”

Our young friend turned out to be a jubilant Gryffindor (as is yours truly, for the record). By his third go-round in the club, he was made Head Boy; he coached newcomers on club matters. He occasionally stopped by my room to discuss Potter trivia and other topics of his interest, always smiling. When he graduated from the fifth grade, my colleague and I presented him with a Hogwarts T-shirt. He wore it for the ceremony.

Just before his departure, our veteran member was asked why he loved the club so much. His brow furrowed in thought for a moment before he replied: “It’s this whole story about a boy who loses his parents and everything is hard for him all the time, but he still tries to save everyone. He’s so brave.”

He paused. We listeners wondered, with tears brimming, what sage, profound connection might be coming next. Our Head Boy just shrugged: “And there’s no Star Wars club.”

Ah, perspective.

Reflect: The power of story is limitless. Read a story to someone. Tell yours. It matters.

 

The secret gates

ditch-gate

Into the ditch. jam343 CC BY

When I was a child, my neighborhood flooded regularly.

I lived on a block where all the backyards joined at a long ditch. When I went to play with a friend, I took a shortcut by running alongside the ditch and jumping over it, taking care not to land in it, for the ditch was lined with thick, black mud; if it did not stink outright, it certainly smelled organic, stagnant. Sometimes fleabane, tiny, hairy daisies, grew along the banks. That’s about it for ditch decor.

Whenever a heavy rain came – and a few times during a moderate rain – the ditch overflowed. Storm drains in the curbs overflowed as well, until water covered the streets and most of the yards. My friends and I had fun wading through it as we walked home from school, sloshing as much as we could.

My father, however, was irate every time.

As soon as he saw the water backing up, he got the city on the phone.

“Listen, I’ve called before,” he’d snap at the City Official on the receiving end. “You ought to have a record of it. This whole neighborhood is flooded AGAIN. Get whoever is paid to do it to open those drainage gates.”

Every time, the City Official pleaded ignorance about said gates.

I watched Daddy’s florid face redden. “You people always act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, but I am telling you, there are flood gates controlled by a switch and somebody up there knows how to use it. There’s NO EXCUSE for a place to flood like this. Open the gates!” He glanced through the picture window in the living room. “A canoe is going down my street right now. So help me, I will get in it, come down there, and find that switch myself.”

A canoe was going down our street, neighbors having dragged out their camping stuff, rowing merrily along. A teenage boy in waders, hip-deep in the water, pulled younger siblings on a raft behind him. To my horror, one young neighbor tossed a puppy from the front steps out into the water to make sure it could swim. It could; that the puppy swam back to its owner amazed me.

Daddy’s voice got louder, his face redder, until he hung the phone up in disgust, but within an hour of his call, the flood began to diminish.

As the water level went down, so did the color in Daddy’s face. In his eyes was a glint of victory, or perhaps vindication. The City Officials had, yet again, scrambled to open the secret gates they kept forgetting about. Good thing they had my dad to remind them.

Did the gates actually exist? Did they lead to the nearby river, or where? I never knew for sure, but the timing between my father’s phone calls and the floodwaters receding is intriguing, suggesting more than a fluke.

Our regular neighborhood floods were mild annoyances in comparison to the devastation experienced by anyone whose home has been lost or whose life has been endangered. The forces of nature are beyond human control, despite the best of foresight and man-made safeguards. On a small scale, my father did what was within his power to change a situation. One voice, persisting. Today I think of the labyrinthine educational system, of American politics, the overwhelming need for change when so much is at stake, and those who are suffering. What are the gates to clearing the way, and where lies the switch? Change is a force within human control. As Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery penned: “All things great are wound up with all things little.”

Believe, be the voice, reclaim what is of value, before it is lost.

Reflect:  Water is a symbol of life, as well as adaptability, healing, and cleansing. When things become overwhelming, one of these might well be a switch to seek. Which might be yours? How might you help others?