Love’s Signature

Is there room for a eulogy on a teaching blog?  In this case, I think there is.  I learned so much about writing and living and loving and teaching from my sister.  I have written about her on this blog many times.  Katherine Elliott Joachim died on February 2, 2016.  It seems right to honor her here.   

IMG_9266I am Elliott’s sister, Annie, one of the Hopkins girls. I am the Annie of “Annie and Katie” (Elliott’s childhood name).  She was my sister and as little girls we developed a little school of love and friendship that we would later take on the road as we learned to love and befriend others. I think you all will agree that when it comes to love and friendship, Katherine Elliott Joachim was an expert.  We know.  We are here because we loved Elliott Joachim and she loved us.  And we, all of us, are better for it.

I am a teacher by profession, but my sister was a teacher by nature.  Ever the teacher, she planned this service so very carefully today. She asked me to do the eulogy.  I took some notes as we talked.  Later when I picked up the notepad, I noticed that she’d drawn a big heart on the paper with these words: “I’ll be watching from heaven.” No pressure, right? She was a purveyor of truth, hope, joy, and courage.  She did everything well, and when she found out she was going to die, she was determined to do that well, too.  It turns out that she had a head start on this.  I was present when her doctor told her that he too had become her student because she was facing death so bravely and with such determination.  But this did not surprise him. He said to her: “We die as we live.”  And it turned out to be true.   If you want to die well, live well.  If you want to die bravely, live bravely.  If you don’t want to die with unfinished business, don’t live with unfinished business.  

When I asked her what she wanted me to say in this eulogy, she said simply this: “Say that mom is my monument and my legacy from my mom is my charm.” We laughed at the irony of this: My grandmother once said to my mother, “I’ve sent you to three finishing schools; it is not my fault if you are not done.” Elliott talked about how my mother’s charm could not be contained by convention. How she was so aware of our talents and made sure that we had lessons and opportunities to develop them—for Elliott that was art and dance. And glamour. She talked about the dinners of our childhood—lovely meals cadenced with stories shared and how they always ended on just the right note.  It was from our mother that Elliott developed her beautiful gift for language, leaving a trail of pithy poetry in the air and in her wake. She talked about how we were taught that good manners were to make the people around you more comfortable.  She said that mom taught us to laugh at ourselves but not at others.  (By the way, laughing at one another, as siblings, counted as laughing at ourselves—but we were not to take that out into the world.) We were taught to laugh WITH everyone.  I promised Elliott I would say these things.  And there are some other things I want to say.

Her truths were hard won, but she never imposed her them on others.  She assumed that the rest of us were working on our own hard-won truths.  She was a work in progress–a beautiful work in progress–and she knew this was true for all of us.  Elliott knew Grace. She knew forgiveness.  She traveled with a stack of “Get out of Jail Free Cards,” and knew that resentment was a blind alley to nowhere.

As teenagers, Elliott and I were devoted to magazines, especially Seventeen Magazine and Glamour Magazine.  We especially loved the “How to do Anything Better Guide” in Glamour Magazine. Elliott became a walking “How to do Anything Better Guide” — the queen of self-improvement–because she knew life could be better.  She could be better.  We could be better.  She read countless self-help books—each one ‘life changing.’  Elliott was brilliant.  

I was six and she was three and we felt like peers.  When she was three and said to me, “I would say you were stupid, but Mommy says you are getting an inferiority complex.  I went out and asked my mother what an “inferiority complex was.  She responded with, “Katherine Elliott Hopkins come here right now!”  I still didn’t know what an ‘inferiority complex’ was, but I knew I was at risk.  

Yes, she was brilliant.  She was creative.  And she was highly sensitive:  The perfect storm for addiction.  Addiction provided the backdrop for a duel between joy and torment that lasted for years and took her away from us for a long time.  Ultimately Joy won.  And the Queen of Self-Improvement found the ultimate self-improvement program: Alcoholics Anonymous.  

For Elliott the “Anonymous” was very important… but really only when it came to other people.  For Elliott, Authenticity trumped Anonymity.   In AA she found release and recovery; she reclaimed her life and family. And eventually she also found true love.  In an AA meeting at the United States Capitol, Elliott met Bruno Joachim, the love of her life. “Are you sure?” I asked.  “Are you sure AA is the place you want to meet someone?”  There was no question.  He was the one. She fell in love with the man and then fell in love with his four children: Kathryn, Alex, Curtis, and Max. . She never wavered in this love, which grew to include Anna, Curtis’ wife and Ollie, Kathryn’s fiancée… and the mother of his children, Kathy Ahearn.

And then Elliott met her second great love: Mexico. Ground zero for magical realism.  A perfect fit.  She and Bruno went there for a vacation and bought a house.  They never looked back.   Mexico was Elliott’s victory lap.  A good long victory lap.  Love in slow motion for a place, a people, and a community.  She lived well and she loved well.  She gave well.  The regional head of Cruz Rojas (the Red Cross in Mexico and her favorite charity) said that her philosophy had benefited so many: “Have fun. Do good. Raise Money for others.”  She loved her life and she loved her family and she loved her friends.  Mexico was the final destination in a circuitous search for home.  Having grown up around the world, home had been a nomadic notion of the heart.  Home was family…. But finally, in Mexico, home found a place.

When Elliott was diagnosed it was horrifying.  She was a quick wit with a silver tongue, and her voice harmonized with her powers of keen observation.  That silver tongue and distinctive voice were compromised by her illness.  But she kept on living.  And she kept on loving.  She gave recovery every chance, even though every chance made life harder. She stayed charged with the possibilities that life holds. She helped us hope because hope helped us.  She helped us hope even when her hope was rapidly diminishing—not because she was losing her ability to hope, but as a realist she knew she was losing her life.  We scanned the horizon for the miracles we wanted.  Elliott just scanned the horizon for miracles.  And I can tell you that she found them every day of her life.  We had one name for miracle: “cure.”  She had so many names for miracles and she counted the names of her family and friends—your names– among them.  We wanted faith that would move mountains and end this; she wanted faith that would sustain her through the end.  And that is the kind of faith my sister had.   Together we learned that faith is not controlling the outcome; it is living fully in the face of the outcome.

My sister lost her life to cancer, but she did not lose her battle.   Facing this mighty foe, and fighting valiantly, she sharpened her focus and her faith.  She said to me once, “We are all terminal; most of don’t know what it is that is going to get us, but I do.”  There was nothing defeatist about this.  There was something victorious. The fight was going to be worth it, no matter how it came out.  She lived her life out in the world as much as she could. A day out meant days resting at home… and to Elliott it was totally worth it.
She died as she lived, with courage, grace, exquisite manners, and yes, with the charm that she learned from our mother.   As people talk about Elliott, one phrase comes up over and over:  Elliott lit up the room.  She did.  But she was lit from within and she learned how to tend and cultivate that holy fire.  To paraphrase the poet Steven Spender: “Born of the sun, she traveled a short while towards the sun, and she has left the vivid air signed with her love.”

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Learning Joy

I know that a lot of learning takes place in Room 204; the children learn from me and I learn from them. These twenty-five students are twenty-five teachers. We teach each other and, as a result, I live a life of perpetual learning that is infused with joy. I don’t have a choice over the learning—life itself is an insistent teacher—but I do have a choice about seeing and experiencing  joy. One the most important lessons I will ever teach my students is a joyful life is a choice. Joy can’t be mandated, but it can be cultivated.

The joyful classroom is not a “happy all the time” classroom, any more than a joyful teacher is a “happy all the time” person.  Joy is not a switch that can be thrown or a smile plastered on a face. Joyful learning is not formulaic in the sense that one size fits all. But as an intentional practitioner,  I have learned that there are some patterns in the joyful classroom (and life).

  1. Joy is about keeping it real when life hurts. Joy isn’t about smiling through the tears. It is an insistent reminder that our tears are not the whole story. Feelings are not right or wrong and it helps to name them and have them acknowledged. Sadness is real, but it isn’t the last word. The fog lifts. The sun breaks through. In life’s hardest moments, love and laughter knock at the door as life’s unexpected guests. It is okay to let them in—even in the midst of complex feelings and circumstances.
  1. Joy is a about keeping our eyes open to life’s small celebrations. I use a book by Byrd Baylor in my classroom called I am in Charge of Celebrations. I love this book and its simple, but radical message. We are in charge of our own celebrations. How do you tell when a moment is worth a celebration? This book has the answer: “You can tell what’s worth a celebration because your heart will pound and you’ll feel like you’re standing on top of a mountain and you’ll catch your breath like you were breathing some kind of new air.” In Room 204 we learn to cultivate these moments and celebrate them in our writers notebooks. We mark the moments that are surprising and the moments that are beautiful and the moments that are just plain fun.
  1. Joy is about saying yes: We say yes to the risk of learning something new. Yes to new friendships. Yes to possibility. Yes to reaching out to someone. Yes to hope. Yes to stepping up to a challenge and stepping forward when others may pull back. Yes.
  1. Joy is about honoring the inter-connectedness of life. Every morning we sit in a circle and greet each other. We connect. As we study the protagonists in literature, we find that we connect to them and to each other. Patterns in math and science sift into patterns in our own lives. Over time we find that the dots are already connected and they connect us.
  1. Joy is about wonder. Or, more accurately, joy consorts with wonder. Mary Oliver tells us to “pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” There is no better place to be astonished than in nature. Every Wednesday morning, we go outside for “Outside Science.” We pay attention. We breathe. We connect. We are astonished. Nature is the loveliest of teachers and she teaches us to look.

Finally, joy is knowing we are each a star on our own map, but we are not the center of the universe. We are the hero of our journey, but we have a place in the bigger story of life. Joy is not folly, but taps into a deeper truth. Joy works best in the present tense–joy is in the acceptance and celebration of now. How do we teach and learn joy? We live it.

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Stop and Say Hello

Thirty-seven years ago I became a teacher. I became a teacher because I was passionate about peace and justice and I wanted to make the world a better place. It was the right decision and I grateful that I stumbled into the work I love at the age of 21. I am still teaching because I still love it. And because I still want to make the world a better place. I am still passionate about peace and justice, but I have learned some things. I have learned that peace and justice begins with please and thank you. And hello. There is simply no way to leapfrog over love and courtesy to righteous indignation. Don’t get me wrong: righteous indignation has been the fire of change in a world that is under the spell of “how it has always been.” But there are no shortcuts here. Love and courtesy pave the way for peace and justice.

“Hello” is the first real vocabulary word teachers teach. It won’t be found on a test, but you can find it in every language, culture, religion, and civilization. The word is familiar—too familiar – and has been cheapened over time. We use it to punctuate sarcasm (Helloooo????) or to demand attention (Hellooooo!!!!!) or to proclaim discovery (HEL-LO!). So, it takes some intentionality to dust off this treasure and restore its beauty. Like most restorations, it is worth it.

I am not a purist. I know that the best hellos come in many forms—some of them raucous and some of them silent. Whatever the form, the important thing is to learn to acknowledge the grace and dignity of each and every person we encounter along the way. This isn’t a skill or a personality trait. This is a choice and a practice. This isn’t a Virginia Standard of Learning, but it certainly one of the most important things I teach.

School starts this week and once again I will embrace this word and the nuanced values that it represents: I see you; I respect you; I greet you; I want to work with you; we are okay; I am willing to deepen this relationship; we are part of a bigger world.

My children and I will learn how to greet one another in morning meeting every day. As the year moves along this becomes a sacred practice. They learn that it matters. It is so simple, this practice of saying hello, but it changes us. It is a doorway to making the world a better place. Stand in that doorway with me. Stop and say hello.

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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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