In the Shade of the Miracle Tree

photo(133)Throughout my career, I have stood sentinel on the line between church and state. Perhaps you imagine that line as a dividing line between people of different religions—or perhaps that line evokes an image of people of faith on one side and agnostic people on the other. I haven’t stood on one side or the other. I have stood on that line, guarding it, as a woman of faith who is trying to put her faith into action. I do not believe that religion should be taught or proclaimed in public schools. The separation of church and state protects my right to believe as I do, and it protects your right to believe as you do, and it protects anyone’s right not to believe anything at all. It protects something increasingly precious in this world that we inhabit together and share: religious tolerance. A lack of tolerance leads to disrespect, disrespect leads to factions, factions lead to extremism, and extremism leads to violence. This has been true throughout history, and it is certainly true in our world now.

Separation of church and state protects children from bad or self-serving theology. It protects the home as a place to share and teach and pass on the religious tradition of the family. I am against prayer in schools (though I encourage everybody to pray for schools). I don’t teach prayer, but I teach hope and love relentlessly. My students and I take hope into the harder parts of history, into those dangerous neighborhoods of our past. I teach that when we take a good hard look at the failures of justice in our past, we can look to the future with informed hope. I am a hope encourager when my children face personal struggles, too. “You’ll get through this,” I whisper, “Hope triumphs and love wins.” They know I mean it.

Sometimes we dare to hope for what seems impossible. Fervent hope becomes prayer. The hope is realized, the prayer is answered, and suddenly there we are, in the shade of the miracle tree. This happened to me last week. I went to Mexico to go to a very important doctor’s appointment with my sister and her husband. The doctors explained everything, including the fact that my sister, Elliott, had chosen not to have surgery and they concurred. This was a quality-of-life decision. They would watch her closely. I could see the worry and sadness on their faces. She had lost so much weight. They took so much time, listening and talking and asking questions with care. Then it was time to go to the examination room. The doctors each examined Elliott. They were perplexed. But slowly a very quiet joy came into the room. The tumor was no longer a tumor. Elliott was the one that said it, “It is gone.  I am okay.” It took all of us a minute for this to register. This was the miracle that we had been hoping and praying for.

The next day, in the shade of the miracle tree, we were so quiet; it was as if we were afraid our usual raucous humor might shake the bird of misfortune from the branches. The leaves of the tree cast patterns of light and shadow at our feet. The tiny shadow remnants of fear gave way to the growing light of revelation. Fear was vanquished. Hope was realized. There was no bird of misfortune, just a new reality. The miracle is not immortality. Elliott’s reprieve is that she now lives with the same unknown that the rest of us do. We now live with a deeper knowledge that life is short and life is beautiful.

I left my sister’s village in the very early hours of the morning last Sunday. It was hard to leave. She and I spent our childhoods imagining epic journeys that began on camel saddles that stood still in our bedroom in Egypt. We were unwittingly rehearsing for a real epic journey that we would one day face together. And here it was. She is the heroine, strong and brave and true. The car waited on the cobblestones outside her gate. A dog barked in the starry night. A rooster crowed antiphonally. I gave thanks again to God for the miracle of all of it, and for the many people who prayed and for all the traditions they represented. Which prayers worked? Which traditions? Which alternative therapies? Which traditional approaches? Does it matter? Bands of angels in the form of friends, good friends, gathered around my sister. They offered their strength and their gifts–just as my friends did when they helped me leave school for a week.

The snow came right after I got back and that meant another missed week of school. On Monday I will be back with my children and back at my post, standing sentinel on the line between church and state. I believe in the separation of church and state, but privately my faith informs my teaching and my teaching informs my faith. I love being part of a community of many faiths. What if my children ask me if the fact that my sister is well is a miracle?  How will I handle that? Simply with these words: Hope triumphs, love wins. Hope and love surround us in many ways. These are the quiet words spoken in the shade of the miracle tree.

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Homework or Home Wreck?

imageNot all good researchers are teachers, but all good teachers are researchers. We simply can’t help it.  We hypothesize. We look for trends. We make connections. We develop questions and we seek solutions. We test the research of researchers who may or may not know what we know after years of practice. We reflect. We revise. We begin again. It’s what we do.

The research on homework in elementary school is mixed. Alfie Kohn makes a compelling case against homework. Kohn questions whether or not there is any benefit to it at all. He argues that homework interferes with family life, and that family activities are more beneficial that homework.  He  discounts researchers like Harris Cooper who promote homework as a way to build a disciplined mind and boost academic performance.

Robert Marzano, one of the leading researchers on effective instruction, takes the research of both Cooper and Kohn seriously. His research indicates that homework can be an effective strategy to increase learning and raise the level of instruction. It. Can. Be. His research shows that appropriate and well-designed homework can increase student learning.

Campbell (that’s me) has done extensive research on her own and finds that all three of these guys are right. But this is a lot of gravitas about a simple task that should and could be done with “alacritas” (cheerful readiness.) The simple secret to getting homework done is getting started. When getting started is a problem, Kohn is right: homework interferes with family life. Homework drama can hold a family hostage. Life comes to a standstill in a homework stand off. The would-be effectiveness fades as tears or pouting or sulking or tantrums take center stage in a massive power play.  Parents tend to think that this only happens at their house. Not so. It happens at a lot of houses. On the other side of the coin are children who love doing their homework, produce beautiful work, but don’t end up “owning” the material. There is no transfer of knowledge. This makes me wonder… is homework all it is cracked up to be?

The reality is this: the 21st century third grader is responsible for an unprecedented number of complex, precise, academic words. Children need multiple exposures to “own” this challenging vocabulary. Success on high-stakes tests depends on these high-stakes words. I design differentiated homework built around these words.

This week we will do all our homework in class. Through classroom discussion, we’ll check the value of the values promoted by homework promoters. What will take the place of homework at home? Will less homework lead to time outside? Dancing in the living room?   Making art? Getting more sleep? Playing cards with a sibling or a board game with a parent?  I hope so.

We know that too much homework is a bad idea. But if “no homework” increases screen time, then “no homework” is a bad idea, too.  Maybe this is an old topic that just needs a fresh look.

This week, I will introduce “opinion writing.”   All we need is a topic to research that matters to kids, — and it looks like we’ve found one.

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Unwrapping December

photo(130)Discover. Uncover. Reveal. Unwrap. This was the deliberate work of December in Room 204.   We  started with a stack of brown paper packages tied up with string. I had a master list of titles that represented the genres of poetry, winter folktales, Hanukah stories, historical fiction with a Christmas setting, biographies, and scientific writing.

On December 1, with one of the packages on my lap, we talked about the busyness of December. We talked about the shortening days and the lengthening shadows. We talked about the tilt of the earth’s axis and how that made December the darkest month of the year. We also talked about the way December gets so frantic. “That’s why we are going to slow December down,” I told them, “And unwrap it day by day, package by package, book by book. Carefully. Slowly. Deliberately.” And that’s what we did.

Each day we unwrapped a book during morning meeting, and traced the theme of light in darkness through the stories, biographies, and poetry that we shared. We found light through characters’ actions of kindness, truth-telling, standing out, and stepping forward. We heard about the great miracle of just a little oil creating just enough light for eight days. Over and over we encountered the mini-miracle of a change of heart.

Metaphor stirs imagination and deepens learning with its telescopic wide-angle lens. The deeper we dig, the broader our range of vision becomes.   On a trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, we talked about art as a light in darkness, and how the art of the ancient Greeks cast light on another time and place.   We learned about Cesar Chavez in social studies, and observed that citizens who make a difference are a light in the darkness. Before long we began to notice the acts of kindness of one another. We began to notice that each of us, in our own way, became a light in December.

This year December taught me an important lesson. I taught more and accomplished more than I ever have in any other December. And I did it by slowing down. Way down. The pacing chart never left my peripheral vision; we met the curricular goals; but we did so much more.

Regardless of our faith tradition or background, December holds up a special mirror. In the mirror is a reflection of what family life can be. The reflection shows life enhanced with tradition, music, ritual, and family meals, and often includes religious observance at home. This mirrored reflection is the work of home. Home. Work. No traditional homework assignment could be as important as this, so I stopped assigning homework in mid- December. Slow down.

We walked our separate ways into the December holiday all the richer for having unwrapped the month carefully, slowly, and deliberately. A beautiful and meaningful holiday continues at our house that includes four generations. For me, it started on the first day of December in Room 204. We unwrapped December and uncovered the light.

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Another Chapter in Room 204

photo(127)February was the month of love that we started celebrating in January.  January 15 to be exact.  Set Up is key.  This is true if  you are giving a party, telling a joke, or painting a house.   It is really true when you teach something new to third graders.  And it is really, REALLY true if the topic requires analysis, connection, problem solving, and application.

February is Black History Month, but we start it in January.   I introduce Black History through the concept of Freedom History on Dr. King’s birthday, along with the notion that until everybody has equal rights that are protected under the law, no one really does.  Dr. King understood the twin engines of intellect and imagination in change and transformation.  Through his brilliant “I Have a Dream”  speech, word was entwined with image and became  hope– a rope to pull  people, white and black, out of entrenched injustice.   Our collective imagination leaped (and leaps still) at the invitation to see something new. The heart was stirred and the intellect sparked. The gargantuan, epic task of tilting the axis toward justice began.  He used imagination to make his dream our dream.  I was entering the third grade when he gave that speech.

Fifty years later, I am still in a third grade classroom — now as a teacher.  I try to follow Dr. King’s model and use imagination to amplify what was and what can be.  Imagination was taken for granted as a part of every third grader’s life in those days… but now imagination is an endangered commodity inside classrooms and out.  And so is our hard won diversity.  I am lucky to teach in a school that treasures both.

It is tempting not to acknowledge the importance of imagination in the classroom.  After all, it is not part of the Standards of  Learning or Common Core, and will never appear on a high stakes test.  But imagination is the fiery furnace that refines mismatched standards into golden threads that weave a fabric of deep understanding.

February is over.  We take forward what we we learned; each of us will spend our lives writing the next chapter in Freedom History.   It takes hope, imagination, and love. Beginning our March chapter has been postponed by snow, but I am excited about what comes next.  I haven’t revealed it to my students. When we get back to school, each child will find a brown paper package tied up with  string  We will begin by unwrapping March together. Set-up is key.

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In the Grand “Schema” of Things

Annie and KatieI wrote this five years ago, but I am reposting this in honor of  my beautiful sister, Thanksgiving, Family, and Reading.

My sister and I can read each other’s minds. Really. On Thanksgiving the table was set, the turkey was in the oven, the flowers were in place, and the doorbell was about to ring. I dialed her number in Mexico, put the phone to the CD player and hit ‘play.’ The music was the theme music to the Walton’s Thanksgiving. We squealed as she “heard” what I was feeling in a few bars of this wordless music:

This Thanksgiving is so special…

Matt is safely home from Iraq

He is fine and joyfully reunited with his wife and family.

Celia is ecstatic about having her daddy home.

You should see him with his baby! I wish you were here…

Remember that time?

I miss you.

No one else would have heard all of that that without explanation. This has nothing to do with paranormal experience, but it does have a lot to do with how reading comprehension works. She and I heard the same thing because of our uniquely shared experience. Our young lives were festooned with the same stories, books, and experiences. We have shared “schema.”

Schema comes from a Greek word that means map or plan. The map of our experience is what we bring to the table as readers. When we read we connect the story of our lives with the story set before us. New stories bring old stories to life. In Rm. 204, we are building community and a common canon as we move through carefully chosen children’s literature. In the alchemy of book and experience is reading comprehension.

“Oh, this reminds me of…” is the language of activated schema. It is the language of readers who think while they read. It’s the language of a literate community and it’s the language of connection.

You are strengthening your child’s reading comprehension with every book that you read with him or her and with every experience that you share. This happens as your child reads to younger siblings, too. See 100 Picture Books Every Child Should Know for some good suggestions for this.

The holidays are a great way to see schemata in action. Watch. When you are with your extended family you may feel like you can anticipate what each other is going to say, or recall a hilarious story with just one word. A shared glance might erupt into instant inside joke. This is the joy of family relationship – of being with people who carry the same map. It is the way that you too are a mind reader. And it has a lot to do with how you became a reader.

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I am the daughter of a wonderful cook.  While other people were growing up on casseroles, I skipped home to Salad Nicoise and Gazpacho.   “We are having a Great Dinner From Life!” my mother would say.  Great Dinners from Life was the name of a cookbook she loved and used.  But the truth is they were all great dinners from life.  Even now, when I am with my mom at her dining room table,  a sliver of cheese with an apple feels like a great dinner from life.

I love to cook and people assume that I learned to cook from my mother.  It is not that simple–my mother did not teach me how to cook.  She did, however, teach me that cooking was a joyful, generous, and creative process that was not complete until the meal was shared.  She taught me what the kitchen was supposed to smell like and feel like.  I learned that cooking is a creative outlet that added meaning to meaningful time with others.   The only thanks required was that we would linger at the table.  The meal was not over until my father complimented my mother, “Great Dinner, Sparks.”

Last weekend I remembered all of this as I cooked in her kitchen.  Though my mother did not teach me how to cook,  I learned through osmosis that ingredients are not meant to be alone.  I learned that they work best when they are carefully paired  with others: orange and chocolate, onion and celery, mint and lemon.   Last weekend, my nieces wanted to learn how to make Fettuccine Alfredo.  Butter and Cream.  Pasta and Parmesan.  And then we got creative and added another pairing: Shrimp and Spinach.  Fettuccine Alfredo  became Fettuccine Aunt Annie and Her Lovely Nieces.  And it was delicious. Of course it was, the Alfredo recipe came from Great Dinners from Life.

I know I learned about language the same way I learned about cooking. And in the same place. Language is a joyful, generous, and creative process that is not complete until it is shared. Words are not meant to work alone. They work best when carefully paired and grouped with others.  They are meaningless until shared.  Words are the ingredients of the feast.  And it is at the feast they are best learned.  Taught in isolation, words are tin cans 0n a pantry shelf– right and wrong answers waiting for a test. They need to be opened, poured, mixed, and enjoyed.   Language in a classroom that is rich with authentic opportunities to read, write, think, and speak is a constant invitation to something greater:  Come to the table. There is a place for you in this feast of words.  You are invited to this Great Dinner from Life.

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School Reform or Reform School?

The third grade Virginia Standards of Learning in Social Studies (Virginia’s version of the Common Core) define community as a place where people work, live, and play (3.10).  This definition is too limited.  Community is deep and broad and soars through imagination.   It is what happens when like-minded people work together, or when people with differences turn their hearts and minds to common purpose.  Community is a place, but it is also a result.   Community’s parameters can be infinite with online communities and social networks, and yet, community remains the place where you are, the place where you care, and the place where you work with others to make a difference.

Words transform.  Words are big and beautiful and powerful.  They help us reach and they help us dig deep.  Words are the tools of the educated person. Words change hearts.  Words change minds.  And sometimes words change. Reform used to be a positive word.

John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

John Dewey is not writing about a place where people live, work, and play.  He is writing about a group of concerned citizens who pool their sense of possibility for all.   Idea is only one letter short of ideal, but it can be so much narrower.  No one would call “school reform” an ideal.  It is a movement without grace.  I have watched this idea of reform intently as I have held on to my ideal of public education.  There is less talk about citizens and more talk about “workers.”   Reformers say that our graduates are not “work ready,” and yet our current graduates are the result of  this school reform.

The goal posts move.  It is not enough for our schools to pass; children have to continue to pass at higher rates every year or a school doesn’t “show improvement.”    And now the tests are changing to show “critical thinking.”  This leaves me to wonder if the meaning of critical thinking has changed, too.  Language is crucial to critical thinking.  Test-ready definitions are too narrow and result in narrow thinking– the antithesis of critical thinking.

We need standards.  We need common standards.  We need high standards.  Standards guide what we teach, but they should not be used to bully administrators, teachers, and children.  They should guide conversation and experience and expand our intellectual lexicon. School reform should not turn our classrooms into reform schools.   True school improvement is not an abstract policy movement about educating other people’s children.  Real school improvement is grounded in the reflective practice of real teachers who are passionate about what works for our children.   Class size matters in this work.  Effective classrooms are places rich with language and literature and ideas and problem solving.  The health of our community depends on it.

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