Of candy, ice, & equity

Candy throwing

The throwing candy tradition. Lars PloughmannCC BY-SA

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Reading these lines for the first time as a college student, I smiled in recognition of Shakespeare’s schoolboy. In less than twenty words, The Bard encapsulated the drudgery of the school experience and the subsequent aversion of countless children since the dawn of education itself. I thought of my young self’s occasional feigned stomachaches and the heaviness of my own feet on the pavement en route to school. I doubt I had a “shining morning face” – especially since my mother sometimes grabbed a used dishcloth to wipe it while I recoiled from the sourness.

As an educator living over four centuries after Shakespeare nailed this image, I sigh. Two thoughts weigh in my mind: Why school is still drudgery for so many, and how the rich get richer.

In Shakespeare’s time, of course, only the boys of wealthy families went to school; girls in these families were tutored at home. If parents had money, their kids got the education, the wealth of knowledge, to be the next leaders and shapers of society. While all children in America today have access to education, they aren’t all at the same place when they begin school. We know this. I heard it said best at at a district Title I meeting years ago by the keynote speaker, an esteemed professor from a nearby university: “The problem is systemic. Systems are designed as if all children are standing on the same starting line” – he showed a slide bearing a line with little dots along it, even a few ahead of it – “when the truth is that many are starting from far behind.” He clicked, and little dots appeared at varying distances below the “starting line.” Many alarmingly below.

I looked at those dots below that line. I knew some of those children, how terribly much ground they had to cover just to be at the beginning place, while their classmates surged onward, clearing bars being raised ever higher. I knew the truth of the professor’s words. I nodded as he went on to challenge curriculum and practices, admiring his boldness. Although he didn’t name it, he was essentially pointing out the Matthew Effect in reading – those who had already acquired foundational literacy skills versus those who hadn’t, that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” Thereby hangs the achievement gap, that bane of many a teacher’s, school’s, and district’s existence.

It’s like a homecoming parade. Everyone turns out to cheer for the football team as the marching band sets the pace, followed by fire trucks blaring loud enough to wake the dead (side note – recall that chilling scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus?).  At my sons’ high school parades, I stood, hands shielding my ears, as people on the floats tossed handfuls of candy to the children lining the roadside. I watched the children who were closest, the ones who were strongest or most agile, scramble out to grab the candy as it fell. The ones farther back couldn’t get there in time. Over and over the scene repeated, unless a parent or a larger sibling got out there with the kids who couldn’t reach the candy. 

The parade rolls on, the beat keeps going, there are smiles and celebrations all around, but all things are not really equitable.

The chidren creep unwillingly to school often because access to the learning is not designed for them, in the ways that they learn, but for their stronger, more agile classmates. Or because it’s boring. Or because the teacher, with a sense of desperation borne of increasing expectations and evaluations, is tossing the lessons, the standards, in a catch-as-catch-can attempt. Some kids get it, some don’t. What about the child who’s already had plenty of this “candy” and is ready for something more? 

Drudgery, indeed – for everyone. To the point that teachers might creep unwillingly to school. Or leave the profession.

In recalling the professor’s words about “systemic issues”: Systemic change is slow. Glacial, I once heard it described, implying millimeters at a time. Agonizingly slow. But the truth is that glaciers actually flow – they mold themselves to the land and even shape the land, reforming it, as they go. 

Where does the momentum begin?

On the first day of my college math education course, the instructor eyed me carefully.

“You look scared to be here,” she observed.

“Math’s never been my thing,” I replied, with an attempted smile. Deep in my memory lay the words of my geometry teacher, who had attended the high school play in which I performed a lively comic relief role: I didn’t think you had it in you. My performance in her class had been poor; I couldn’t “catch the candy” and eventually transferred out before I flunked it.

My instructor pursed her lips. I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye.

She ended up pulling me into a group to present on the course and the college at a local event – we had shirts made with the words “Cutie Pi.”

The teacher – to this day, one of my favorites – turned my dread of the content into an experience, into something unexpectedly fun. She acknowledged and eliminated my barriers. Met me where I was and propelled me forward. 

One of her greatest statements: “The parents of the kids you’ll teach are not hiding their best kids at home. They’re sending you the best that they have.”

They don’t all start at the same place, nor will they all achieve at the same rate, but they can and will achieve. Systems compare students to one another; teachers must see each child’s strengths and weaknesses. Systems do not move children; teachers do.  Teachers, not the curriculum, are the architects and engineers of student learning, creatively building bridges between the child and the standards, finding the entry points and scaffolding.  Bit by precious bit, the ponderous glacier keeps moving because teachers are the gravity, the one absolute, magnetic force, whenever they make the sweet stuff – the love of learning, the desire for it – the real goal, with every child getting a true taste of it. 

 

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.

slice-of-life_individual

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. 

Shine

born-to-shine

 

This is the cover of my mentor text notebook, housing the writing I’ve done with and for children across grade levels.

I believe that every child is a writer, because every child has a story. Every child has feelings and ideas. The writing teacher simply shows how to tap into these feelings and ideas, to give voice to them, to organize them, so that the mind and heart of the writer impacts readers.

Writing is about the human experience: We are all born to shine.

We shine through our fears, our losses.

We shine beyond the choices we make and the choices of others, beyond the things done to us and the things we have done.

We shine no less in our failures than in our successes; in fact, in learning and pressing on, we shine the brighter.

We shine in knowing what to hold onto and what to let go.

We shine when we harness anger before it burns away all that’s of value within us.

We shine by leaving footprints of hope for others to follow, for the human heart runs empty on despair.

We are ALL born to shine. Whether or not we do is up to us.

Reflect:  In the book The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip, 1974, a mysterious creature had the power to turn people’s eyes around to see inside their minds; they died from what they saw there. Writer, know thyself. Look deep within. You will be surprised by what you discover – the beautiful and the not. Write – and shine.

 

Born musician

piano-window

Piano & window. Alan Mayers. CC BY-SA

Years ago, a woman – tired, seven months pregnant – sat in the front row of a church. The morning sun shone through the stained glass windows, casting jewel-tone light on the baby grand piano, a soothing sight to the weary woman whose busy child was churning her insides. The pianist took a seat and began to play the prelude.

The baby stopped moving. He or she didn’t move again until the prelude ended. After the final notes, the child resumed the high activity.

The baby hears the music, thought the mother, marveling. It was the first of many times she would notice the unborn child’s response.

Around age three, the boy frequently hummed a tune to himself. His mother recognized it: “Amazing Grace.” When he was four, the child started playing cassette tapes of gospel music that had belonged to his great-grandfather. After his fifth birthday, his mother stood in the doorway of his bedroom, watching the boy making tally marks with a dry erase marker on a whiteboard easel.

“What are you doing?” she finally asked.

“I’m counting the syllables,” her boy replied, with a serious expression on his little face. He continued his business, listening to the tape, steadily making marks.

It’s the beats, the mother thought. He’s counting the beats.

When he brought home his “All About Me” book on finishing kindergarten, his parents smiled at this page:

when-i-grow-up

“When I grow up, I will be a qiur drekctr (choir director).”

When he was seven, watching him tinker occasionally on his great-grandmother’s upright piano in the living room,  his mother said, “You love music so much – why don’t you take piano lessons?”

The boy shrugged, something of a disappointment to his mother, who expected he’d be excited. She took him to lessons anyway.

He wouldn’t practice. The lessons were abandoned before long.

His mother was sad.

In middle school, the boy decided to play alto sax in band. He began tinkering with the piano a little more. Then one day, when he was fourteen, he said, “Hey, Mom, listen to this.” And he played a medley of Christmas songs on the piano – both hands, all the parts – as if he’d been doing so all of his life.

His mother stood marveling, knowing, tears in her eyes.

The boy played the medley on the baby grand piano for the prelude at church on Christmas Day, to the astonishment of the congregation.

He played alto and bari sax for marching band throughout high school; he developed a love for jazz. Few of his friends knew he could play the piano as well. None knew he could sing. One of his teachers did, however. She sought him out when she couldn’t find sheet music for a song she planned to perform at Senior Awards Day.

“This is a version of ‘Perfect’ by Pink – do you think you can play it?” she asked the boy.

“I think so,” replied the boy.

He had two days to prepare.

The result:

One week after graduation, he was hired as the director of music programs at a church, fulfilling his childhood desire of being a choir director.

The rest of the story remains to be written, as it is still unfolding.

I am excited to see where the music takes you throughout your life, Son. Keep learning and reaching.

Much love –

Your infinitely proud mom.

Reflect: Few of us know what we are meant to do so early in life. It’s never too late to find out. What are your dreams, the things that bring you the most fulfillment? Pursue them! What are your gifts? Use them to benefit others. Encourage them to do the same.

 

Why I write 2016

writing

I write because it’s the closest thing there is to magic.

From words spring worlds.

Worlds of understanding, perception, knowledge – of humanity and of myself. I write to explore the world without and within, the real and the fantastic, the important and the insignificant, the extraordinary and most certainly the ordinary. Where there are ideas and images, there are words – lanterns for encircling thoughts, illuminating objects and scenes, mystically shining from one mind to another.

I write because the narrative voice in my head is continuously composing, often drowning out other important things.

The power of story compelled me to write when I was six years old, sitting at the living room coffee table with a pack of wide ruled paper and a fat pencil. A few years later, a teacher said, “What vivid descriptions! Keep writing.” Every year thereafter, a teacher strategically appeared to give a refining bit of feedback: “Wonderful writing. Here’s a way you can make it even better … and keep writing!”

I kept writing, even when my dad grumbled, “Why are you wasting so much notebook paper?”

Today, I write with children. I witness their discovery of their own voices, their courage in putting pieces of their souls on a page. I share in the excitement of their creations, in every little triumph over challenge. I work to empower teachers as writers, for the empowerment of student writers, that all might tap into the magic.

And I keep writing.

I write to wrap a cloak of immortality around everything I have loved – what was, what is, what will be.

I write to scatter the ashes of all my yesterdays, to walk in the light of all my tomorrows.

I write to celebrate having lived.

In honor of National Day on Writing, October 20.

Reflect: Why do you write? What have you wanted to write, but haven’t yet? Carve out a pocket of time today and begin. Tomorrow, repeat.