Read like a hero

The coming of spring at my school means it’s time for Literacy Lunch, an annual event where families are invited to take part in literacy-related activities in class followed by lunch in the cafeteria with their children. It’s one of our best-attended events. We do it over three days; parents with multiple children typically come on all three. The comment they make most often: “Thank you so much for this time at school with my child.”

It won’t happen this school year.

Our theme was to be Read Like a Hero! Our committee, entitled Reading Incentive People, otherwise known as the RIP, brainstormed and came up with suggestions to use with families. Note the emphasis on writing to be read aloud and art, which can also be “read”:

The “hero in me” digital word cloud (student photo with digital word cloud of student’s character traits)

Any reading/writing about community heroes OR superheroes

-“What makes a hero” activities, such as artistic representations of adjectives that describe a hero, with discussion

Character development (create a hero; use heart maps? ) Note: I’ve done this when teaching fantasy writing—we used heart maps to create villains!

Research and present living/historical heroes (tie to social justice?) Consider having kids present as a wax museum! Note: We’ve done a wax museum before, with students holding a “button” on one hand for families to press and hear them read as their character, in costume. EVERYONE loved this.

With heroes OR superheroes: Consider comic strips, saving the world, or any activity incorporating beginning, middle, and end

Onomatopoeia art/action word art for heroes/superheroes

Handprint heroes, real or superhero, with written stories to be read aloud

Create masks representing heroes, with corresponding poetry, story, or play writing, to be read/performed

Create action figures, with story writing; what about a short action film?

Opinion writing about the superpower students would want and why, to be read aloud

Favorite hero/superhero costumes welcome, so students can truly “read like heroes”

THE POINT: Creatively celebrating the joy of reading and the value of it—hence, being a reading hero.

I share this now for several reasons.

First being that our theme was set in motion before COVID-19 hit; we’d be gearing up for it at school now.

Secondly: I wonder if choices of heroes would be different, if kids and families would now choose to research, represent, or write and read about doctors, nurses, government officials (Andrew Cuomo, anyone? And I’m not even in New York!) How about those who are providing childcare for medical professionals and food to those in need? Maybe strangers who share their stash of toilet paper? People making and distributing hand sanitizer for free? The concept of hero, in just a few weeks’ time, is suddenly redefined.

And as for comic strips … how many might feature a specially-created superhero to defeat the monster COVID-19, also known as CoronaVirus? How many fictional doctors or kids in a lab might create an antidote?

Imagine a student creating and reading that aloud.

One day, my school will hold our Read Like a Hero event on campus—I already have the shirt (the lead photo). I am wearing it as I write this. One day, we’ll all enjoy gathering to celebrate literacy, learning, and lunch together—when we’ve defeated the tiny viral archenemy currently terrorizing us.

Until then … here’s to reading and being the hero of living one day at time.

A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt, or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.

—Christopher Reeve

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.

What child is this

African Angel Boy. bixentroCC BY 

What child is this, who, laid to rest . . . .

Snow is falling. Huge flakes like white feathers shaken from the sky, a rare thing in the North Carolina Piedmont at the beginning of December.

Another rare thing: Today a former student is buried.

He was eleven years old.

I stand at the kitchen window, watching the snowflakes fall. Eleven years. That is all he had.

An only child. A latched seat belt—I can envision his mother reminding him—wasn’t enough.

I begin wondering about enough.

Did we do enough?

Nearly the whole of his short life was spent at elementary school. How much of our focus was data and test scores? Did he feel successful?

College and career ready doesn’t matter at all when you die at eleven.

Should it matter so much when you don’t die at eleven?

Were we enough? Did he enjoy coming to school, or did he endure it? 

I can hardly endure the heaviness of that thought.

The bleakness of the gray December day, but for the snow, matches the bleakness in my soul. On the television in the living room, Christmas music softly plays:

What child is this . . . .

He is Everychild now. Mine, yours, ours, all children, coming to school, day after day.

Do they have the chance to get out of the box, before they’re put in a box?

Do they have the opportunity to develop a hunger for knowledge? Do their teachers create dynamic experiences that empower the children to own their own learning? Or are the children starved for authenticity, their minds and days numbed by worksheets, by sameness, by constant assessment, by irrelevance, by teachers in survival mode, by hierarchical machinery?

Underneath all those wheels in motion lies the child. Motionless. Powerless.

Haunting that such a beautiful snow should pour on such an ugly day, for snow can mean many things beyond ice crystals. It represents death, yes, but also wisdom, purity, innocence, blessing.

Wisdom, blessing, and strength to you, Everyteacher, for Everychild in your hands. Strive for more than enough. For joy, for awe, for love-of-learning-for-life ready. There’s no way of knowing whether this child will live a hundred years, or just eleven.

What child is this, who, laid to rest . . . whom angels greet, with anthems sweet . . . .

Every minute matters.

Trust

Child jumping

Едно, две, триии…(One, two, three…). Vladimir Petkov. CC BY-SA

I am eleven years old, standing at the end of a pier beside my uncle. He’s holding both of my toddler cousin’s hands as she jumps from the pier’s edge toward the murky green depths of the Piankatank River. She squeals with delight. Just as she dips, her father swings her back. She lands safely on the wooden slats, laughing. Over and over she jumps. Her feet never touch the water. 

I know the water is over her head. The biggest jellyfish I’ve ever seen are floating all around. We can’t even go swimming because of these ghostly orbs, larger than my head and so heavy that when I catch one in the crab net, it fills the net and I can barely lift it from the water. Hunks of the jellyfish ooze through the net, too, plopping back into the water.

I shudder.

I’ve composed a song in my head:

The Piankatank River 

Ain’t the place to swim

Because it’s full of jellyfish

And other things within.

I don’t even know what other things are within but I sense that they’re utterly treacherous. My toddler cousin’s reflection zooms out again over the shimmering, placid surface. Back she swings to safety.

“Why isn’t she scared?” I ask my uncle.

He smiles, holding tight to his daughter’s small hands. “She knows I won’t let her fall. She has no fear because she trusts me completely.”

My little cousin jumps once more, with wild abandon. Her face turns toward the sky as she swings backward, dangling from her father’s hands.

Her expression is one of absolute joy.

That image, that moment, has never left me.

He was enjoying her joy. Allowing her freedom to dare, to be a risk-taker, yet keeping her safe at the same time. Had he been less attentive, less vigilant . . . she might have gotten wet, or worse. I knew what dangers awaited, the harm that could come, and also that my uncle wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t confident in his own strength. I marveled at his easy assurance and peace of mind. He wasn’t afraid, either.

Of myriad connections I can make out of this moment, the one that rises to the surface of my mind first is teaching. Creating the conditions for good learning to occur means letting children explore, dare, make choices, take risks, all stemming from a foundation of safety, an environment of trust. Children have to know they can take leaps and that their teachers will not let them fall, that they have nothing to fear.

For that to occur, we as teachers must  recognize our own strength and continuously strive on behalf of those entrusted to us. Teachers must be risk-takers, too. We must believe that we can get students safely from where they are to where they need to be, even beyond. Not just for now, this quarter, this year, this test – but by inspiring students to actively pursue learning for the rest of their lives.

It’s no small feat, when our own piers stand in the murkiest of depths. But we’re standing in the singular position that affects outcomes. What lies within us is greater than external forces. By far. We make the leap when we move from belief to action, from self-esteem to self-efficacy. Trusting others, trusting self, trusting in the safety of shared trust, strengthening one another, propelling each other forward. Professional trust isn’t holding on loosely; it’s everyone holding on tight, not letting go. When done with confidence, responsibility, and mindfulness, we develop a dynamic of grace, a synergy of poetry in motion – swinging out over the depths with our faces turned skyward.

The safe environment of will not let you fall. 

A paradox, really, that it takes a collective grasping of hands to experience the freedom, the joy.

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Seeing past the surface

Blue crab

Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Image: Bob Peterson CC BY

One summer long ago, my grandmother took me crabbing at South Creek, a tributary of the Pamlico River. We knelt on the weather-beaten pier, tied a long string of twine to a raw chicken neck, and lowered the bait into the murky green depths. Grandma anchored the loose end of twine to a rusty nail jutting out from a piling.

“Now we wait,” she said. “But keep your hand on the string so you can feel when a crab starts nibbling.”

Being a novice, I was sure I felt a crab nibbling right away. I pulled up the length of twine ever so slowly, only to see the fleshy chicken neck. I released the twine. The bait plummeted out of sight again. Within minutes, I was positive I felt nibbles. Reeling in my string, I found only the bait once more.

Grandma chuckled. “You have to be patient. Give the crabs time.”

“I thought I felt nibbles,” I said in my own defense.

“You feel the bait drifting. You’ll know when it’s a crab.”

I waited, my mind wandering. The day was bright; Grandma’s sunhat cast a ruffled shadow on the gray boards, warm and splintery.

Next thing I knew, there were erratic tugs on my line.

“Easy,” said Grandma, sensing my excitement. “Pull slow and easy or you’ll lose it. Pull so the crab doesn’t realize you’re pulling.”

Bit by bit, I inched the twine up through the water to find not one but two – two! – blue crabs picking at opposite ends of the chicken neck. Holding my breath, I pulled until the crabs were just below the surface of the water. I dared not move as Grandma scooped them up with the dip net.

As the crabs scuttled inside a galvanized tub, I tossed the slightly-gnawed chicken neck back into the water, observing: “It would be a lot easier if we could just see to the bottom. Then we would know when we have a crab.”

“Well, isn’t that the fun of it?” asked Grandma. “Not being able to see what’s there, but pulling until you can?”

Decades later, I sat listening to a group of fourth grade intervention students rereading a script.

“You’ve all come a long way with your fluency, recognizing words automatically without needing to self-correct. I can hear some great expression,” I commended them. “I have one question: What is this scene really about?”

As students tossed out random answers, images of a weather-beaten pier, twine, and raw chicken necks came to mind. “Wait, you guys. You’re all skimming along the surface, just seeing the words. There’s a deeper meaning you’re not seeing; it goes past the words into the ideas behind them.” I told them of my long-ago crabbing days, how I knew the crabs were there, hidden from my view, and how I had to watch, feel, and finally pull them to the surface. “Reading is like that,” I told the kids. “There is more than what you see at first. To infer, you have to take your time, go back, and try to feel what’s not actually said before you can grasp the meaning. Some words give you more clues than others, but a deeper understanding is always there. Sometimes you have to wait, think, and work to pull the meaning out.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t imagined crabbing as a metaphor for reading comprehension, or, for that matter, teaching. The students often come to us with their backgrounds, experiences, struggles, and gifts hidden from us at first. The depths can be murky, indeed; how easy teaching would be if we could automatically see everything that each child needs to be successful. The best way to start is by throwing out the greatest “twine” we have: the love of learning. Keep your hand on the string, Grandma said. You’ll know. Pull easy so you won’t lose them. Be patient. 

To me, the true joy of teaching is first hooking students with a love of learning, then watching myriad treasures rise from those depths, especially when students start pulling on their own.

Reflect: Where can you strive to see past the surface of experiences and relationships to something deeper, of value? What unique exploration can you share with a child?