First Teacher Appreciation

IMG_2525We just celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week at our school. In a shower of hugs, flowers, coffee, chocolate, gift cards, and hand written notes, I couldn’t help but think of my own teachers whom I still appreciate today. The great ones stand out against a backdrop peopled with uninspired teachers who did what was expected. I shake my head when I hear school reformers say that they are trying to get our schools “From Good to Great,” because it looks more and more like it should be “From Wrong Answers to Correct Answers,”  and we have been there before. The trickle down data craze keeps this thinking banging at the door. I am so lucky to teach in a school where we work hard to resist a culture of hyper-assessment that can reduce education to a trivial pursuit.

I am also lucky that I had a handful of great teachers who were in pursuit of the right answer over the correct answer. What is the difference? Often there is one correct answer, but many right answers. My great teachers guided and inspired me as experience, art, truth, history, and stories were woven into a an inspiring narrative. They knew facts had to be relevant to greater understanding. These great teachers didn’t show up until high school and college, but they made a huge difference my life. Their fingerprints are all over my teaching practice. Bill Blackwell, Jacki Vawter, and Sue Hanna (I know you can hear me), I am talking to you.

High school and college? That may seem like a long time to wait for great teachers, but wait. This is where I am really lucky. Today is Mothers Day. It should be called “First Teacher Appreciation Day,” because my mom was certainly my first teacher. The things I do well, I learned from her. I continue to learn joy and resilience from her. I continue to learn that happiness is choice every single day. My mother invented “growth mindset.” She continues to teach me to laugh at my mistakes because she laughs at her own. One day’s humiliation becomes the next day’s hilarious story. As children, when we made mistakes her response was always the same: “Well, you paid your tuition and you got an education.” She taught me how to cook by teaching me how a kitchen was supposed to smell and how food was supposed to taste. She taught me that joy was part of the alchemy in preparing a feast, and that a feast could be crackers and milk.

She gave me the most important teacher-ninja-superpower I have: Language. Our language lessons began before we were formally introduced; they began in the womb. Her heartbeat was a metronome set to the same meter as Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and Mother Goose. Our common language was a gift from her mother, my grandmother, and was transmitted in the same way. Gift. Grace. Miracle. I know that I heard my mother read aloud in the womb, because my mother always read aloud—to my father, my grandmother, her friends—and then to us. She carefully curated what she read and shared it appropriately. I was in my thirties when she called me on the phone to read me Laurie Colwin’s obituary by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Laurie Colwin had been one of our favorite columnists in Gourmet Magazine (from which she also often read aloud). It didn’t matter that I had the same column right in front of me, there was no stopping her. I loved the column and still reread it from time to time. And when I do I hear it in my mother’s voice:

Laurie knew that the line between joy and sorrow can be so fine as to be indistinguishable, but she set herself on the side of the angels. Her books had titles like “Family Happiness” and “Happy All the Time.” There wasn’t an ounce of manipulative or false sentiment in them, but they celebrated those things in life that lift and gladden the heart.

When describing her frustration at losing words with age, Mom said, “My thoughts walk a tight rope the breadth of a hair.” I thought to myself, it is a wonderful thing to have words to spare when you get to that point in life. Gather them while ye may.

When we go places she sits in the front seat and talks to Ben while he drives. I rest in the cadence of her voice. On one of these recent car rides she said, “I can’t see back very far or very well, but the fact that I had four such unique children is proof that I let them raise themselves.”  There is some truth to this.

Recently, I asked if she remembered her own third grade teacher.

“Oh, yes! I loved my third grade teacher and my fifth grade teacher. I don’t remember any of the others.”

“Did they love you?” I asked.

“Of course! All of us! And we all loved them.”

Well, there’s some data: Love counts.

Happy Mothers Day, Mom! With love and a whole lot of gratitude for the miracle of getting to be your daughter. Thank you.

 

 

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What I Know Now

FullSizeRender(5)In 1978 (almost 40 years ago), I walked into my very own classroom for the very first time. I felt like I knew everything and nothing all at once.  But the truth is (and this is true for all new teachers), I knew a lot more than I was pretending to know. My intuition was simply waiting for words and experience and relationship  to be  stepping stones toward understanding and know-how.  I didn’t really know what I was doing in 1978, but what I knew for sure then, is what I know for sure now: everybody is worthy of respect. Kindness is never wasted.

Here is a list of some other truths I’ve learned along the way since I began. This list has been shaped and reshaped by what I hear and see and experience.  It is fluid and changing and evolving because I am still learning how to fly this thing.  I love that about my life. Figuring out how to teach at the beginning was intimidating and overwhelming and scary.  Figuring out how to teach now is exhilarating, enlivening, and creative. Once I was having a conversation with my step daughter, Susanna.  “Everybody gets to be who they are,” she said.  And as she said it, I heard those words land at bottom of the truth well with a golden ping. It is so. Or it should be so. Everybody gets to be who they are. It leads the list of My Teacher Truths.

My Teacher Truths

  • Everybody gets to be who they are.
  • Teaching is an act of hope and hospitality.
  • What you teach first and last in a day really matters.
  • To inspire others, you have to seek and be open to inspiration yourself.
  • Teaching children to look at the world with the eyes of a writer is teaching them to fall in love with life.
  • To teach reading and writing effectively you have to be a thoughtful reader and a writer yourself.
  • Process matters and so does product.
  • If you want to teach the whole child, you have to work on being a whole teacher.
  • If you want to teach responsively, you have to live responsively.
  • Teaching only happens when learning does.
  • Stamina is taught and built.
  • A teacher’s voice is an instrument that can help create harmony or dissonance.
  • Reflection is renewal.
  • Story connects us.
  • Practice makes perfect (sense).
  • Quiet is the gift that children want and cannot give themselves.
  • Children feel safer with clear limits.
  • A teacher’s language can encourage, empower, engage, and enchant.
  • A clean desk (and classroom) is an invitation to learning.
  • Manners matter (in teachers, students, and parents).
  • Encouragement should be taught and spoken in every classroom (and every home).
  • For teachers and students, a great day starts the night before.
  • If you want to get it done, get started.
  • If you want to do something big, start with something small.
  • Children must feel safe enough to be transparent about what they know and don’t know.
  • Planning is important, but improvisation makes a plan sing.
  • Vocabulary can either limit or extend our knowledge, imagination, and possibilities.
  • Excellence is Routine.
  • Multitasking is the enemy of mindfulness.
  • A habit can be successfully launched or broken in five days.
  • Acceptance, surrender, and resolve are the handmaidens of hard truths.
  • Play should be part of learning.
  • Learning loves community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Living the Questions with Children

IMG_2182“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

“What do you know to be true?” This spacious question leaves lots of room for the answer to change and grow, and it is strong enough to last a lifetime.

What do you know to be true?

I know this to be true: If you want to teach children to ask questions, you had better be asking them yourself…lots of them. A good lesson is only as good as a good question. The best questions are in patient pursuit of meaningful answers. Right answers melt like snowflakes on hot pavement. Meaningful answers take time. A teacher’s questions are only a start. In teaching my students the art of good questioning, I teach them that good questions have more than one right answer; must be supported by the text; and invite discussion.

We often follow literature with a routine called “No Answers, Just Questions.” I begin with a well-crafted question as a model, and then turn this routine over to my students to collectively craft their own. We move around the circle, questions hanging in the air, until everyone has had a chance to participate. We now have a pool of questions from which to choose for deeper reflection, discussion, and writing. Good questions need rich beautiful literature to grow.

And what else do you know to be true?

I know this to be true: Questions are the bedrock upon which we live our lives on tiptoe… stretching to peer around the next bend. Questions both beckon and prod our wondering, marveling, seeking, and celebration. Questions keep us from standing still and from being stagnant. And as we work to live “along some distant day into an answer” we can have some beautiful conversations along the way. When it comes to teaching, the best question is the right answer.

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Cinderella and the Underground Railroad

This week I announced that we were going on a field trip that did not require signed permission forms. We were going on an imaginary field trip that would require courage, open minds, and a willingness to be other than who we are.   We would go back in time and meet people on this field trip who would teach us amazing lessons in survival–because even though they were willing to die, they didn’t. We were going to go on a railroad that wasn’t real–not because it was imaginary, but because it was a metaphor. We would meet the conductor who was real, but was not really a conductor. She saved lives. Lots of lives.   I told them we would break laws, but not to worry, the Supreme Court would later use the Constitution to change those laws to protect equality. That is what the Constitution does. It makes life more fair.

We’d studied Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We’d walked back in history by looking at Kadir Nelson’s beautiful paintings in Heart and Soul, starting at the end. Now it was time to tackle slavery, but I did not want my students over-identifying with privilege or enslavement based on the color of their skin. I shared this dilemma with a non-teacher friend on a walk. She suggested I start with a book like Cinderella. I knew this was right. My favorite version is Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful retelling.

I have developed my process of using literature in the classroom over time. I choose a book for morning meeting. I read. We “drop into silence” and reflect on what I’ve read. I then ask the “Big Question.” My students use the Big Question to reflect some more and share with the people around them. Then we come back to the group.

A Big Question must have more than one right answer, and  the answers must be supported by the text. The children use the Big Question, along with their critical thinking skills, to uncover the layers.

The Big Question: How can this story help us understand slavery?

This begins my very important work as a teacher. I listen and repeat. Listen and restate. Listen and elevate. I elevate words to the concepts that slip into the room on the wings of my children’s insights: Listen. Restate. Elevate. Overarching themes come into focus. They float above our heads like crepe paper streamers. We reach for them and use them to organize our ideas.

One child starts, “Cinderella had to help the sisters get ready to go to the ball, but she was not allowed to go.”

Listen. Restate. Elevate word to concept.

“You are saying that she was denied the right to go to the ball? She did not have the same rights as her sisters? She did not have the same access?”

“The stepsisters were getting everything they needed because Cinderella was doing all the work. And Cinderella was not getting what she needed.” Her basic human rights were denied.

“The sisters were about greed and power.” Greed and power can oppress.

“Maybe they wanted Cinderella with them at first, but they stopped seeing her and just saw the work she did. They stopped treating her as a person. It was like they didn’t know who she was.”  Let’s look at the word “dehumanize.”

As we move around the circle in response to the Big Question, children can agree, disagree, add to, wonder about, hypothesize, build a theory, or pass. If they answer, they back up their thinking with the text and refer to the previous answers of their fellow inquirers.

The children who passed the first time around the circle now had their hands high in the air and added their thinking to our conversation.   We were ready for the field trip.

I had packed carefully for our imaginary field trip.   I had the art of Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringold. I had the music of the Underground Railroad. I had the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.   I had beautifully illustrated children’s books with artwork to inform our historical imagination (with imaginary field trips, you can’t leave home without it). We took along curiosity and the questions that would uncover the majesty of courage and the glorious fight for our freedoms.

We came back from our trip singing the songs that had been used as code. Wade in the Water, wade in the water, children… We wrote and drew about all that we’d seen. We saw a lot on that trip.  We knew what we were looking for.

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The Gift of Silence

img_1621What is the gift that children want and cannot give themselves? My third graders are ready with the answer. Silence. This is a secret most children have not yet named for themselves. Silence is a gift revealed in increments of minutes; for adults it is a gift to be recovered as a practice. Silence. When did I first discover it?

I remember silence being louder than the whistling winds in the woods of my childhood. I remember silence as sunlight spilling on puzzle pieces arranged on the floor. I remember finding silence underwater as I dove for pennies and did handstands in the pool. But my first memory of silence is the snow that muffled both our laughter and the trudging sound of our red rubber boots. I remember that we stopped. We listened. And we heard it. We heard silence falling from the sky in lacy flakes and landing without a word.

So when I woke up to snow on Saturday morning, there it was: the silent sound of deep beauty and majesty. Silence has a quality that can’t be found in loneliness, boredom, or insomnia. Snow reminds us what to look for in silence, so we will know it when we find it deep in the woods or at the bottom of a pool… or even in a third grade classroom.

What does true silence in a classroom feel like? True silence is not an imposed silence that feels shrill with exasperation. I am not talking about that kind of silence. I am talking about the silence that blankets and hushes the cognitive dissonance that rumbles in our heads as we work our hardest to learn something new. I am talking about a deep inner and interpersonal peace that is in the listening, the reading, and the writing. True silence feels deep and quiet and communal.

Anything that can’t be measured is on the chopping block when it comes to instruction. Faulty models of high student engagement are pressed into molds of mandated busyness that can be seen and measured. Silence can’t be measured. This endangers pondering and wondering and contemplating and questioning– the very skills required for critical thinking, reflective reading, creative problem solving, and incisive writing.

Children need silence to know what they are feeling, because not being able to identify feelings blocks their ability to learn. With young children, silence often happens with a crayon or a pair of scissors in their hands. With older children it often happens with a book or a blank sheet of paper. In our classroom, stamina for silence is built alongside our stamina for reading and writing.

Silence is also part of my direct instruction. I’ve learned as a teacher to build buffers of silence in between the questions I ask. It should seem obvious to a teacher, but it wasn’t always obvious to me. Children need silence to hear themselves think in order to recall information, vocabulary, or make connections. Silence provides equity for processing speeds, learning styles, and personality traits.

Teaching about silence, like teaching reading and writing, is more effective when it is born out of personal practice. Silence awaits me in the predawn light of my kitchen, in the first sip of coffee, in the blank page of my journal. And once in awhile, I wake up look out the window, and see the great teacher of silence—majestic and beautiful—snow.

 

 

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A Little School of Citizenship

img_1292I became loosely aware of politics in the third grade. President Johnson came to our church. And another time his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came. I stepped forward to say good morning and that moment stands still in a newspaper clipping. Dr. King had given his “I have a dream” speech, and Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique that year. These were people asking questions about how to make the world a place that was fair for everybody. Yet none of these people was mentioned in school. This didn’t surprise me. School had nothing to do with the real world; my elementary school was not the school of “what’s happening now.” My school was stuck in another time with its own language: cloakroom, wraps, galoshes, lavatories.

While the sixties raged in a blur outside my classroom window, we sang songs about happy wanderers, kookaburras, and that song about Dixie. I could never figure out who Dixie was, where she was, or why she should look away.   When I asked my mom who Dixie Land was she laughed and shook her head. My mother did nothing to clear up the mysteries of school, an oppressively close place that smelled like a mix of floor wax, lavatory soap, the incinerator, and hot rolls.

My friends wanted to be teachers. Not me. Why would anyone want to go to a school if they didn’t have to? Third grade was simply a waiting room for the life that was waiting for me at home—a life of books, imagination, ideas, siblings, and endless time outside with the York River behind our house and a vast field in front of it.

My teacher told me that although I needed to concentrate on “collecting my belongings,” I was a good citizen. Citizen. Finally. Here was a relevant word that was used with reverence both at home and at school.

I was raised in a patriotic household. My father was making the world a better place though diplomacy and my mother helped him do it. And so did the four of us. We were clear on that. When “we” were assigned to the American Embassy in Cairo, I knew that I was expected to represent my country as a good citizen.   Under date trees, bands played patriotic songs at embassy Fourth of July parties and I was glad to be a part of a bigness of something I could not name or even fully understand.

Later, I knew that my life’s work would be part of this bigness. As we continued to move from place to place, I wondered what that work might be. School became more relevant and enjoyable, but never did I think I would spend my life in a school. And yet…

I am a teacher. I teach my third graders that to be good citizens we must be kind, fair, and responsible; that we must include others and respect the rights of all; and that as thoughtful readers and writers, we can make a difference. Every day when we sit in a circle on the carpet, I remind my students to widen the circle to make sure that everyone will fit.   I am teaching them about the bigness that I felt in the air when I was a third grader myself…it is called Democracy.

In every election I teach about the candidates as fairly and impartially as I can. I highlight that which is kind, fair, and responsible about each one. That was harder to do this year. I did not want my children to remember me as silent when a presidential candidate held a broad brush of insult toward women or religious groups. Children saw snippets of news wherever they went. They were confused by what they heard.  I was not silent.

After processing the election, I have reminded my students that the presidency is worthy of our respect, no matter who is in office. Democracy is a beautiful ideal and it works.

I met Hubert Humphrey at church at just their age. I met justice, grace, mercy, and lovingkindness there too. As a woman of faith and as an Episcopalian, I continue to learn about these things so I might live them in the world. Every time someone is baptized, the priest asks this question, and I am reminded of my job description:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 Respect the dignity of every human being. All people. Every human being. Every student. Every parent. Every candidate. Every voter.

Last week a young man came to see me. He was one of my former students. He stopped by to let me know that he was in college and that he had just voted in his first election. He said he knew I would want to know.

He was right. And he was kind, fair, and responsible.

 

 

 

 

 

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October Truth

My first real teaching interview was in Stafford County, Virginia.  It was still rural then and there were only a handful of elementary schools. Everyone knew that if you were from Emporia you would get a job; the people in charge were from Emporia.  I wasn’t from Emporia– I didn’t even know where it was– but I’d done my student teaching in Stafford.  I was applying for a first grade position and hoping for the best.  My father, having interviewed hundreds of people throughout his career, had given me solid “insider’s” advice. I was ready.

I don’t remember much about that interview, but I remember the end of it. The Assistant Superintendent seemed to be scratching his head about what might have been an unanswered or unasked question.

“Don’t interview the interviewer,” my father had warned.

“Is there something else?” I prompted.

“Well, yes, there is,” he said. But he paused and seemed reluctant to go on. I nodded, encouragingly. I wanted this to be over. The interview had gone very well. But now I was getting nervous. What was this?  Had he seen through my well-rehearsed performance of “22 year-old confident teacher?”

“Don’t speak into the silences,” my father had warned.

“I’ll be glad to answer any other questions you have,” I volunteered with an ebbing perkiness.

Mr. Webb went on, “I’ve interviewed a lot of first grade teachers,” he drawled. “I’m curious about one thing….I’ve never interviewed a first grade teacher who didn’t say she loved children. Until you. You haven’t said it.”

“Reflect before you respond,” my father warned.

I didn’t reflect. I didn’t think. My face reddened and I just blurted out, “I know I love teaching, but how can I love children I haven’t met yet?”

I was horrified that I hadn’t given a more measured and perhaps less honest answer. I wasn’t sure that kind of honesty was the way to go.

Mr. Webb threw back his head and laughed. He stood up and put out his hand. What was happening here?

“You are going to make a great teacher. Welcome to Stafford County Public Schools.”

I teach third grade now. I’m in a different grade and different place. It is 38 years later, but I am still living out this story’s happy ending. On the first day of school I am matched with 25 children that I don’t love yet. They are sitting in the desks of children that I’ve just lost to the next grade. I don’t panic, because I know I will love them.  I move through September setting the ground work for excellence and relationship and community. I move through September waiting for my students and me to become ‘us.’ I move through September as if they were my favorites until ‘as if’ becomes truth. And it always does.

It happens on an October day that is crisp around the edges with fall and brighter in its burnished light. A child slips her arms around my waist and says, “You are the best teacher I’ve ever had.” I know that she may well have said that to her teacher last year and might easily say it to her teacher next year. She is not insincere. And neither am I. She, like me, is living the satisfaction and beauty of the hard work of September.  It isn’t about me. It’s about us.  By October, it is real for us. The hard work of September is the heart work of teaching. It happened on an October day thirty-eight years ago and it happened on an October day this year, too.  I love them.

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