A Little Chautauqua

Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. There are brick walkways where streets might have been, but there are no cars in Chautauqua. Along the walkways are front porches with white wicker tables that hold vases full of gladiolus. Low walls made of slate and stone border flower gardens of purple hostas and bright pink cone flowers and black-eyed Susans. Window boxes on wooden ledges spill red geraniums and trails of ivy. The walkways are crowded with people walking to or from a lecture, book discussion, performance, or class. Beyond the snippets of debate and conversation, you hear abstract noises hidden behind dark window screens of houses– oscillating fans, the clang of dishes and flatware, and the animated talk that follows a lecture. Sometimes you hear piano scales, or a soprano, and sometimes in the distance, you hear a symphony in rehearsal.

I first went to Chautauqua when I was six weeks old. My memory does not go back that far, it just feels like it does. That happens when you are born to a couple of storytellers with a bent toward memoir. You somehow start thinking, or at least feeling, that you were witness to your parents’ lives before you were even born. My father often told me of wheeling me in a baby carriage to the symphony’s dress rehearsal in the large wooden amphitheater at Chautauqua. He held up this moment like a puzzle piece, so I could see it and look for the spot in my own memory and story where it might fit. He told me how we settled in; he read the paper and I slept. As he read, he listened to the tiny changes suggested by the conductor, and watched in amazement as those suggestions made something beautiful even more beautiful. He said from that moment on, he’d rather see a rehearsal than a performance. He loved the process of something good becoming even better than before.

My mother’s family introduced my father to Chautauqua, but the truth is that he was already a native to the philosophy of the place: renewal through arts, education, recreation, and spirituality. He was all about all of those.

I have childhood memories of our intermittent visits to Chautauqua. I remember wading into the children’s section of the lake and feeling the the smooth sand against the soles of my bare feet. I was six. Later, I remember sailing for the first time at Girl’s Club and being terrified. I remember a family reunion at an old wooden hotel. I was twelve. My great-aunt Shotty took me for a walk around the amphitheater, and with kindness and purpose, she told me she had a story to tell me. She told me about her brother and my grandfather, Rogers Elliott. He was a naval officer and had been killed in the second world war. They all grew up minutes away from where we stood. She said she wanted me to know him. It was my first inkling that someone can live through story.

I have had other visits there. My husband was the Episcopal chaplain at the Church of the Good Shepherd for a few summers, a week at a time. We were inspired by the themed lectures, readings, music, and discussions. We were energized by the speakers at the Hall of the Philosophy. I made a point to take the morning paper to the dress rehearsals at the amphitheater. In the clear sunlit air, I embraced all of it, responding to an invitation that had been presented to me through the tiny story of my first visit.

I haven’t been to Chautauqua for a few years. And I won’t be going this summer. But here at the beach, I have found we bring a little Chautauqua with us: spiritual renewal, recreation, a chance to tackle something new, a good reading list, and time with people we love. If I want an actual Chautauqua lecture, I can hear one. And so can you. They are available online here. The good news is that most of them are free.

Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. It is also a concept and an approach and a state of mind. For me, it carries the personal reminder that the tiny stories of our experience are often puzzle pieces looking for a spot in a larger narrative. In the classroom we call those small moments seeds. The writing teacher helps children to isolate the small moment and then to write from it. And then the teacher prompts, “What is this really about?” Themes emerge and children learn to write and love their lives. But the true writing teacher has to be willing to write and love his or her own life, and be willing to ask the most reflective question of all: What is this really about? The answer, a puzzle piece, falls into place. Like a conductor of a symphony, a writing teacher knows and believes that with a few tweaks, something good can be better than before.

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Begin Here

When I became a teacher, at the age of 22, I knew it was for the long haul. Teaching was how I chose to serve, and I knew it would take a lifetime to develop a practice that would be worthy of the calling. I was curious, well read, well-intentioned, and inspired. That’s what I had. I did not have much experience, but I knew that If I kept reading, stayed intentional, cultivated my curiosity, and sustained the spark of inspiration, it would only get better. And it did. People debate whether teachers are born or made. It doesn’t really matter, because born or made, teachers take time to become fully who they can be.

Great teachers believe in great beginnings. Each fresh start is one more run toward getting it right. This month teachers are having all kinds of adventures, but I know from experience that whether in a tent in the woods or on a bridge in Paris, part of every teacher’s attention is on that bright shiny start in September.

Teachers don’t talk as much about endings, but last September I began with a deep curiosity about ending well. Committed to the twin intentions of beginning well and ending well, I threw myself into my work. I knew it would be my last year and I wanted to savor it. I wanted to teach well and to make it good to the last drop. I slowly confided in my closest friends and administrators. I needed the support of my tribe while I tested my decision for certainty and peace. I began to try to listen to and practice what I preached as both teacher and mentor:

There is not a problem that cannot be solved

Be strategic.

If you don’t get it YET, take a break . Then keep going or ask for help.

The secret of getting done is getting started.

Brainstorm ideas to find the most elegant solution

If it is too big to accomplish, break it down.

If you want to do something big, do something small.

Set the goal, see the goal, achieve the goal.

Anything worth doing is worth doing with good manners.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I wrote and wrote.  I wrote about the beauty I saw in the classroom, I listed the moments that made the day come out right. I wrote about messes.  I wrote about the things that fell apart and how they came back together. I taught and taught and taught. And thanks to a glorious class of students (and their parents), and to a generous host of angels in the form of friends, former students, student teachers, and parents, it happened.  We ended well. We successfully tied a loose knot in the golden thread that runs though every teacher’s story. There was just one final step. I began this last year with a curiosity about the ending. And now I’ve ended this year with a curiosity about beginnings and the way they gently take shape. So I end at the start of “next” and wait for next gently to take shape. I begin the way May Sarton began her journals and the way I begin mine. I begin with these words: “Begin here.”

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Third Grade is Habit Forming

These days it is hard to pick up a magazine or  listen to a podcast and not encounter the latest thinking about the oldest trick in the book.  Habits. After all, habit formation is the bedrock of cultures that created the training of ancient armies and sustained the rituals of primitive religions.   Habits were life sustaining and soul sustaining. They still are.

Habits are age old.  I often tell my students that they were born in the 21st century,  I was born in the middle of the 20th century and my third grade teacher was born at the end of the 19th century.  We are part of the long chain of history. Third graders are the same, but the world is very different. When I was in the third grade if we had “good habits,” it meant that we were neat and clean in freshly pressed clothes and had nice manners.  Those are certainly good habits, but there is a difference between habits of presentation, and habits of agency. Both are important, but I am keenly interested in habits of agency: habits that help third graders to feel and be more independent and purposeful.  Rilke asks us to live the questions. One of the most powerful questions I have lived as a teacher is, “Which habits will support my students as critical thinkers, reflective readers, and creative problem solvers?” There is no answer key for that one. It is a question that stands firm and seeks new answers.

Habits may be nothing new, but the world we live in is.  Habits around cell phone use, email, video games, super-sized fast food, drive-thrus, social media,  and streaming mark the difference between living creative lives of self-control and living lives where technology, uncontrolled, encroaches upon our schools, homes, and lives like the desertification of arable land.

There are two kinds of classroom cultures. There is the culture that is intentionally built and supported by routines, habits, humor, and mutual respect.  And there is the culture that is built by mistake– a culture of heavy top-down control and shame based-practice that keep those terrible twin wolves, Fear and Chaos, clawing at  the door. No one chooses that. Not the teacher and not the children. The intentional classroom is the fiercely conscious and loving classroom. This is where the agency of the teacher comes in.  Love can’t be mandated. It is a fiercely conscious choice.

I’ve had a ringside seat for 40 years.  The world is a more unpredictable place than it was when I started teaching, but it is no less beautiful.  Over the years I have become more intentional about creating a safe space with my students in the light- filled corner room on the second floor of Fox where we can uncover the beauty of the world together.   Years ago, the piano and easel were taken out of my classroom to make room for computers. I worried. I had to learn how to let go of the piano and the easel and still intentionally create and preserve space for music and art in my classroom.  I want creativity to be a habit in the lives of my students.

I teach cheerfulness and happiness as habits.    I love a good fresh start and teach my children that each day is a new beginning.  I believe that walking across the threshold of a classroom door should always be an act of hope.  In Room 204, alongside my students, I have worked to cultivate the habits I teach over time. One of the most important habits is to “Look at the world with the eyes of  a writer.” I don’t want my students to miss a minute of their unfolding stories.

Each child I have taught has been part of my unfolding story as a teacher.  Forty years ago I wanted to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of children.  My students have made a difference in me.

This is my last year as a classroom teacher.  I’ve kept it quiet because instead of a “last” year, I just wanted one more really good year– one more chance to get it right. I am loving this year and this class.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to be ending my career with the same love of teaching that I had at the beginning. It is time to turn the page. In June I will step across the threshold of Room 204 into “next.”   It works in both directions. Stepping across that threshold has always been an act of hope.

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Rounding Grief’s Corner

BlessedThe people at Hospice take grief seriously. Serious grief?  It sounds comically and tragically redundant, and I didn’t want any part of it.  They told me counseling was offered as a benefit. Grief counseling sounded like being sad on purpose. I didn’t want that either. It was bad enough that I’d lost my mother and my sister within two years.  I wondered how I could honor them by taking sadness seriously. As if I had a choice .

I have had four immediate family members lose their bigger-than-life lives to cancer. Because of this, a grief  counselor explained that I was high risk for something called “complicated grief.”  I found out this happens with multiple losses and can be as severe, and with the same symptoms,  as clinical depression. I knew I didn’t want that. So I did as I was told. I took grief seriously and accepted the counseling. I avoided complicated grief, but I learned there is no escaping grief itself.  As a friend pointed it out, grief is like the children’s chant about the Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.”

Grief is like a scavenger hunt.  One intuitive clue unlocks the next. Day after day.  I couldn’t see where I was going, I just did the next brave thing. Intentionally. I read the poem, wrote the poem, walked the woods, and walked the dog.  I got the massage, cleaned out the refrigerator, organized the pantry, and went to the ballet. I cooked my way through my mother’s cookbooks and wept on the beach. I read my mother’s essays and read my sister’s journals. I sobbed my way through dance documentaries at night and somehow stood cheerfully at my classroom door in the morning.  My husband and I hosted holiday dinners and upheld our family traditions and planned family vacations, just like we always do. He held my hand tightly and I laid my head on his shoulder. Life goes on. Life is different.

Grief is like a tide that moves in and out with a fog of sharp edges. I learned not to be afraid of the sharp edges of grief, those unpredictable chards that could and would poke through any moment unannounced and uninvited.  They cut deeply, but they did not scar. And, oddly, they did not preclude joy. That is the mystery. Joy breaks in much the same way pain does, and with the same unpredictability. I began to recognize joy with a new kind of familiarity that reminded me of the people I’d lost– but in a good way–and helped me celebrate the people around me.  I couldn’t create joy, but I could make room for it. And I could keep my eyes open to it.

Grief comes with a map that has a cryptic warning and promise.  “Do not get stuck here and you won’t get stuck here.” I had to believe it.  We are creatures of habit and I worried that sadness would become a habit too. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t get stuck in grief as long as I sought the reminders of life’s richness every day.

The months rolled on, but grief’s fog continued to roll in. I discovered I needed a transitional bereavement policy that didn’t exist. Yet.  So I decided to create one. I gave myself permission to put my students and their instruction first and excused myself from faculty meetings and arbitrary deadlines.  I wrote my own excuse. To make room for the work I needed to do, I stopped writing this blog.  People said it was a mistake. They knew what I knew: the way to kill a blog is to not post on it. But I didn’t trust myself to write for the public. My writing needed to be private. It was a risk. If someone is reading this now and is helped by it, it was worth it.

I poured what I had into my teaching and my students. I worked to model the truths  I learned from my mom and my sister. Happiness is a choice.  You can’t compare loss. Everyone is worthy.  Feelings are not right or wrong, it is what you do with those feelings that matter.

June came. We did well as a class and the year was a success. In the summer I could fling open the doors and breathe deeply. I had time to take it all in, and to begin to give back to those who had given so given so generously to me. Morning by morning, I woke up and chose life.

September came and with it a new class of incredibly wonderful children. I find that I love teaching as much as ever and that my teaching is informed by last year ’s deep reflection on what is most important in the classroom. The calendar page turned and I waited. The people at Hospice told me that the thirteenth-month mark is significant in the grieving process.  It eases. Life is established as a new normal.

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A Life Speaks

FullSizeRender(6)Barbara Elliott Hopkins (Sparks)

August 16, 1928- October 9, 2017

When my mother asked me to write her eulogy she said, “It is going to be hard to try and figure out the words for what I’ve tried to say with my life over the past 89 years.” She was right. It is hard, but I will do my best.

The fact that my mother was bigger than life is both our comfort and our heartbreak. Heartbreak–let’s get that word out in the open. She would not want me (or you) to dwell in heartbreak any longer than we have to. She lived her life as proof that the worst can happen and you can still go on one step at a time until joy regains its foothold on your life. For Mom, heartbreak was never an excuse to avoid joy. My mother taught us that when we fall apart, we hold it together. She taught us to keep going, because she knew that life would get better. Easier. More beautiful.

Early on, my mother took fate by the hand and they traveled together as choice and chance. Chance was the invitation; choice was her response.

By chance she ended up in Washington. She was flying to New York from Florida in the early fifties during a hurricane. The plane made an emergency landing in North Carolina and then had to make another in Washington. She chose to get off the plane in Washington and did not get back on. She never looked back. By chance she had friends who lived in Washington who welcomed her.

By chance, she found a poem by John Updike in the New Yorker Magazine. She chose to tuck it into her wallet to read and reread. She said she didn’t remember the title, but remembered the yearning for love. One night, a thief came up the fire escape and stole her purse through an open window. The purse and wallet were later recovered, but the thief kept the poem. “He must have needed it,” my mother said. And she pointed out that she no longer did, because by then she’d found love.

It was by chance she found love when she met my father on a streetcar at DuPont Circle. There was no question that he was the one. Not in her mind. He, on the other hand, took some convincing. When he came to Washington he had been given one piece of advice: the best way to advance in Washington was never to get married and have children. That advice slowed him down, but it never stopped her. She lived across the street from him and then when an apartment opened up in the building next to him, she moved in. When he asked why, she responded that she’d read in a magazine that nine times out of ten the boy marries the girl next door. They may have met by chance, but my father didn’t stand a chance.

I asked him when he knew. When did he know that she was the one? He said that she took all her friends to New York by train in a club car to attend a party her brother was giving. She invited him to be her date. On the way back they all stopped for breakfast at Aunt Marge’s farm near Philadelphia. Many of my mother’s cousins were there and my dad fell in love with my mother’s family. It was the first inkling he had that if she became a Hopkins, he was going to be an Elliott. That’s how it works in this family. At its best, this is an inclusive family and no one was more inclusive than my mother. Her rule was simple: if you say you are one of us, you ARE one of us.

By chance she only had four children. She’d always wanted six, like Grandma Elliott, but she once wrote for her writing group, “The good Lord knew what he was doing by just giving me four— especially the four I had.”

She stuck by us no matter what. Her parenting philosophy was that love trumps supervision, and her mother-love was fierce. When we got into scrapes (and we did) she was philosophical: “You paid your tuition; I hope you got an education.”

Her rules were simple: be polite, don’t pout, and be home for dinner. Those rules extended to the many people who ended up living in our house. And there were many. Coming home for dinner was no hardship and our friends loved coming home with us. My mother was an amazing and adventurous cook. She grew a lot of her own vegetables. She, with my dad, presided over the stories and antics at our dinner table. Many of our family jokes were really punch lines of stories that had been told over and over:

“Never get married and have children.”

“One streetcar later and none of this would have happened.”

“Now you see her, now you don’t.”

My mother could laugh at herself. And did. When my parents were stationed in the Middle East, they had a weekend house in Jericho. The house was set upon terraced land at the foot of the Mount of Temptations. The veranda led to the roof of the tool shed that stood on the terrace below.

They often entertained guests there, and on this particular Sunday, my parents were entertaining a congressman from Washington. We were told to “comport ourselves with decorum” and we did our best… until my mother stepped just beyond the veranda and said with her most elegant elocution, “And here we have a view of the Jordan River.” And then she disappeared through the roof of the tool shed. Whoosh. She was gone. Disappeared. We couldn’t see her– we could only hear her laugh. We started to laugh. We couldn’t help it and we couldn’t stop; we held on to each other and couldn’t move. We were helpless. The congressman looked horrified. My dad, by then also trying not to laugh, shrugged and said with great flourish, “Now you see her, now you don’t.

No one was laughing harder than my mother. Dad walked over to the gaping hole the roof and said, “WHOA Sparks, you all right down there?” She shouted up, “Couldn’t be better!”

My mother was ingeniously generous. One morning, when I was about nine, she said, “I have a surprise for you when you get home.” I knew it would be good. When I got off the school bus that afternoon, there it was: a brand new bike on a kickstand. Actually there were four brand new bikes on kickstands, because there were four of us. No doubt she had pulled each of us aside and told us that she had a surprise for “just for us.” That’s how she worked. We were thrilled, but it turned out that the real surprise had been for my father.

That week, he’d worried about bringing home important visitors for lunch, and this was to be the day. His concern was not unfounded. Though she had great taste, my bohemian mother, with her flower child heart, cared more about self-expression than decor. My dad fretted, but my mom had a plan. When he went off to work that day she alerted the trucks that waited around the corner. They sprang into action and unloaded and installed new draperies and carpet. They unloaded and arranged new furniture. They unloaded four brand new children’s bikes.   They took the old furniture away and when my father and his guests arrived, the new table was set, lunch was ready, and he stood in a room he didn’t recognize. His favorite record—“Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk— was playing on a new Victrola, and he couldn’t say a word in front of the guests. He told me that somewhere in the middle of the meal he stopped worrying and started enjoying what my mother had created… just for him.

My mother was adventurous and fiercely dedicated to her family. As each grandchild graduated from high school, they went on cruise with mom. These adventures took them all over the world. She took all of us to Capon Springs every year, a place she dearly loved. She made sure that everyone could afford to go to our annual Elliott Family Reunion. Her idea of family was expansive and she was so encouraging to so many. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. He hadn’t met my mother. She kept home alive for all of us.

My mother understood acceptance. She watched two of her children die– our sister Elliott and our brother John– both incredible people. Her heart broke, seemingly letting more light in and more light out. When I asked her how she could not only endure this, but go on with her life, she explained that she was honored to be there when they each took their first breath and it was an honor to be with them at their last.

When I asked my brother Charlie what I should say today, he told me to talk about how Mom spent her life learning how to be an angel to so many, and how she depended on the angels around her. He told me to talk about the way she always said, “When you need an angel, you get an angel.” She believed it and delighted in the almost daily proof of it. One day, Mom had an appointment in an office building. She pushed her walker to the big heavy doors and when she realized that she could not open them, she peered into the empty lobby. No one was there, so she waited for her angel. Finally someone came through the door and held it open for her. She thanked him and said cheerily, “When you need an angel, you get an angel!” She went through the door and realized she faced another set of heavy doors that she could not open. She turned around to see if her “angel” was still there but he was gone.

“What did you do, Mom?” I felt the discomfort that comes with worry. She said, “I waited for my angel. It didn’t take long. Someone came through the door and held it open for me. And I reminded them, ‘When you need an angel, you get an angel.”’ Mom lived with angelic force and had faith in the economy of Grace. She never wavered. Over and over, even at the end of her life, she marveled at how lucky she was.

A little over a month ago, she found out that what she’d been calling gas pain was Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She was matter of fact and pragmatic. “I want to go to movies, I want to see my people, I want to teach cheerfulness with my last breath.”

My brother Charlie and I, along with Ben and Teri, were honored to help mom write her last chapter just the way she wanted it. And many of you, friends and family, helped us do it. We did go to movies. We had big family dinners, and walks with great grandchildren and bubbles, and dancing in the living room.

Mom was a radiant mix of the luminous with the numinous. When asked how she was, she always responded with “Better than I know how.” And she meant it. Her wish was to die at home with family and friends around her. She said over and over how lucky she was that this wish was coming true. I gathered her words in a notebook that I kept close by.

She said:

“I want to go fast, but not today.”

“People give what they have to give.”

“People do the best they can.”

“It takes a special family to produce such people.”

And she said, “Everybody has to die, but it is nice if illumination of character shows up in the end.”

She was a wordsmith, but she spoke most boldly with her life. Her last breath was her last word — punctuation on a life lived well. And yes, she did it: she taught cheerfulness with her last breath.

What was she trying to say with her life?  It is my task to come as close as I can to putting it in words.  I think it is this:

“Go forth and choose joy. It’s waiting for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Flying Without a Net

Trapeze artists fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but not without a net.  No one flies without a net, but it can feel like we do. Teachers are high flying acrobats who fly the highest at the beginning of the year.  Before  our students even enter the room, we have a repertoire of the tried and true. Our stunts and maneuvers uncover the rigors of our classroom, the joy of a literate community, and the excitement of getting something brand new just right. We get to know our students; they get to know us and each other. The more skilled we are, the more effortless it all looks. Our repertoire helps us make it through September.  By October, it is clear that the pairing  of teacher and class is a love match. The routines and rituals have been established. We soar, learn, and make mistakes. Only the teacher knows the amount of summer preparation, reading, cleaning, organizing, writing, and coursework that is involved in laying the groundwork for the acrobatic feats of deep learning. September is tough. September is worth it. September makes way for October.

This year September is tougher than usual. Room 204 is happening without me.  The first week of school my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The second week of school she was hospitalized. Now she is a Hospice patient at home. I am absent from school so I can be present to her.  This.  Here.  Now.  Sometimes it feels like we are making this up as we go along and discovering new moves in mid-air. It is the most daring of family acts and my mother is bent on the good finish. But sometimes it really does feel like we are flying without a net.

The first thing I did was find a great substitute teacher.  The next thing I did was choose a great book to help my class process my impending  leave.  To ease the transition, I gave each child a piece of string and asked my third graders to brainstorm all the ways string might be useful and important. They held on to the string as I read The Invisible String by Patricia Karst.  In this book, a mother  explains to her children that we are connected to the people we love–and to the people they love–by invisible string that will not break.  I explained to my third graders I was leaving for a while and why.  I told them  they could keep the pieces of string in their pencil boxes as a reminder of the invisible string that connects us, even when we are not together.

Much of what I do now is help my mother welcome her wonderful friends who come to support her. A group that has met at my mother’s house for the last 27 years came last week. I told them about The Invisible String.  Before I knew it, I was reading them the book. Suddenly the book (like most good quality children’s literature) took us to a deeper, quieter, and more poetic place.

And then I saw it. When we leap into the unknown, we may fly high–but never without a net. Not ever. Our net may be invisible, but its invisible string shimmers with love, hope, grace, and profound connection.  It is strengthened by who are and who we love and who loves us.   It stretches from the past and into eternity.

Our family story is a great big beautiful messy love story with lots of happy endings.  My mother taught us to believe in happy endings, but never more powerfully or courageously than she is teaching us now.  Each day is a stunning leap into the unknown.  But never without a net– a net made strong by invisible string.  A net made strong by love.

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My Life at the Improv

 Not too long ago, my mother 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.” Without trying, she speaks her truth in metered poetry. But that bit of truth is only part of the story. My mother decided her children were brilliant, whether we were or not. She knew we were talented—because every child is. She knew how to tend our talents. Collectively, we were actors, dancers, singers, artists, drummers and fifers, divers, football players, and ice skaters. She did not raise us to be stars or Olympic champions. She just wanted us to be us.

I wanted to be an actress. It didn’t mean I would be one, or even that she thought I would be. It meant that together we stumbled upon a path with a sign that said “This way in….” She sent me on my way to learn how to greet and follow passion. She enrolled me in the first of my acting classes when I was twelve. There were more acting classes, and lots of plays to read. When I was sixteen, she got me into an Improvisational Workshop at The Arena Stage in Washington. In my summer at the “Improv,” I learned that improvisation is the ultimate in playing well with others.

Improvisation wasn’t new to me. My dad, when he wasn’t a buttoned-down diplomat in a Brooks Brothers suit, was a jazz musician. He had a deep repertoire, studied the greats, and practiced. A lot. Simple scales, rooted in the classic canon of composers, became creative ingenuity that was the soundtrack of our childhood.

I did not become an actress; I became a teacher. But improvisation has been as important in my classroom as it might have been on the stage. Improvisation is both a trust fall and a leap into the unknown. It is deeply collaborative and responsive to the talent in the room—my third graders. It draws upon deep skilled practice and a repertoire built over time. To be able to improvise, I have studied the greats, practiced, and used literature as a starting point. I have learned in the classroom what my father learned at the piano: letting it fly is very different than “winging it.”

Improvisation is about noticing, connecting, and drawing from an acquired party mix of what works. Improvisation is an invitation to use your talent, passion, wit, and grit to make something new again with others. All you have to do is work hard and know when to stop and say yes.

 

 

 

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At the Heart of Reading

img_1097I love…

I stood at the blackboard that had been there since the school was built in 1911. Black slate. It was the first day of school and hot sunlight streamed through the large open windows that lined two walls in my corner classroom. I stood before first graders who did not know how to read. This was not unusual back then, and it was certainly not cause for alarm.  This was before kindergarten was the new first grade.  This was way back when first grade was the new first grade.

I told them that they did not need to be nervous about learning how to read, I was going to teach them.  And not to worry, because I was an expert.  I began that first reading lesson with two words that many of them already knew: I love….   I asked them to write those words and then, when they were ready, to draw a picture of one thing they loved.  Reading is more than hard work–it’s heart work– and this is where we began.  The third word would be theirs.  Meaning and connection would result in letters that spilled upon the page from the tip of my pen…and they would have a new word that was theirs to keep.

I moved around the room connecting with each child as they shared what they loved most in the world, and in return I gave them the word they needed to begin to write their life.  And then I got to Sam. He looked up at me with a shy smile.  His glasses pushed back and slightly crooked on the bridge of his nose, a sign of his hard work and concentration.  I looked at his paper and was awed.  I knelt down for a closer look at the scrolls he had drawn with his yellow, brown, and black crayons.  “Oh, Sam,”  I whispered. “What a beautiful word to choose… I love Torah, too.” I wrote the letters carefully. Reverently. Intentionally. T-O-R-A-H. I stayed for a few extra seconds, not wanting to rush what had just happened.

His mother told me that he came home that first day and excitedly told her the news: “My teacher is Jewish.”

“Hmmm,” she said. “Annie Campbell?  I don’t think so.”

She and I remembered that story together years later at his Bar Mitzvah, when Sam honored me by asking me to read a poem about the sacredness of reading.

I teach third grade now, but I am still in the same classroom. The slate blackboards have been covered by slick white boards and the room is now air conditioned.  Sunlight still spills across the room and I often think about kneeling beside Sam’s desk. The memory is a reminder that there are holy moments in teaching.  And we never see them coming.

Such holy moments remind us that teaching reading and writing is sacred work. It forms community in a classroom, and creates a space where something new can happen. Reading connects us, deepens us, changes us.  Reading  builds empathy and leads to self-awareness.  Reading builds words and language that are spent in a lifetime of service to thought and imagination and the long view of the possible.   It starts in the heart with the lexicon of the soul:  I love…

 

 

 

 

 

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In Praise of Summer Reading

img_1032-1I am in West Virginia at a place that has been dear to my family for a long time. The present evokes the past with the familiar: the sound of rain on a tin roof; a rushing stream just outside the screen door; that  summer mountain smell of  fresh rain on slate and storm-drenched leaves in the woods. And books. Everywhere. Every summer I’ve had a bag of books to read on a porch or hammock or Adirondack chair.   For as long as I can remember, I have loved summer reading.  But  I have not loved summer reading lists.

My summers have been populated with books that I have embraced and books I’ve resisted.  I resisted the mandatory books on mandatory school summer reading lists.   They got in the way of the reading I loved. I did, however, like the summer lists of suggested books. That’s how I met Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and visited Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and happened upon Daphne Du Marier’s Manderley in Rebecca. Without fail, I devoured the books I chose and avoided the books that were mandated. I am now revisiting  the books I once ducked– the books I said I read but didn’t.  So now they have become books of choice.  Readers love choice.

While moving through some pretty tough reading, I’ve had a summer epiphany.  I’ve realized in a new and personal way that the struggle is an important part of what we teach when we teach reading.

After three eye surgeries in little over a year (the last one just a couple of months ago) I have had to reclaim my reading life and regain my reading stamina.  As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to research the reading process in a very personal way. I am both subject and researcher as I work to better understand stamina, engagement, and responsiveness in reading.  Authentic reading responsiveness, that artful synergy of thought and text, is at risk for our young readers.  Too often reading is reduced to workbook-like assignments. Big ideas and grand conversations are freeze dried into structures that work with high stakes computerized tests. These tests have more to do with top down institutional accountability than with the education of the reader.  Testing and textbooks are big business– one big business.  If we are not careful, we can ruin reading with reading instruction. As I choose to struggle with text, I am  very conscious of how I use what I teach readers in my own reading.

Amazon, both bookseller and virtual mind reader, seems to know I am thinking about these things and recommended Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers and Robert L. Probst.  The authors say that we read best when we engage text with our head and our heart. Their Book, Head, Heart Framework (BHH) is a way of paying attention while we read. With head and heart engaged, we track how our thinking might be changed; or how are our empathy is enhanced; or how our observations of characters might be sharpened. This is key to staying awake to what we read, and to our thinking while we read.

At the recommendation of Beers and Probst, I am intentionally asking what Dostoevsky thinks I already know—and what he would want me to know–about the world of the Brothers Karamazov. I am asking what I see and what he would have me see. As I plow through Writings of Ruth Benedict: An Anthropologist at Work by Margaret Mead, I am incorporating what I read into what I’ve previously read and known and experienced. Sometimes a book falls open and we fall in.  And sometimes we have to pry a book open with intention and determination.

The reading path of struggle is full of heavy vines and thorny brambles that block our way.  It is the long way in to that most desired summer destination: Lost-in-a-Book.   I am sticking to it. I intend to reemerge as a renewed guide to help readers negotiate unknown terrain and to help them get lost in the very way they may ultimately find themselves–with books.

I didn’t become a reader or English major or teacher because of mandated summer reading lists.  I became a reader because I lived in a house where I saw people reading for pleasure.  I became a reader because I had time to read.  I became a reader because my father took me to the library and let me choose my very own books with my own library card.   I became a reader  because in the shadow of mountain hemlocks standing tall against the sky, in a thousand and one firefly  summer nights, I let books choose me.

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The Stormy Seas of June

IMG_2794This past month we turned the calendar to a fresh page and entered the stormy seas of June. With the clashing weather patterns of high stakes testing looming, and the happy anticipation of summer beckoning, something else came crashing in on us. Loss. Somebody spoke it: “We only have three weeks left.” A quiet sadness settled over the room.

I walked over to the sink and took three paper towels…one for each week. I soaked them with water and began to squeeze. And squeeze. And squeeze.

“It’s a metaphor,” I prompted. “Who can work out what this means?” They began to work it out together and then worked it out with me. “Let’s squeeze out everything we can out of these three weeks. Let’s make these last three weeks ‘Good to the last drop.’”

These children rotate leadership. Each day we have two new team leaders who are responsible for taking attendance, passing out papers, running errands, and supporting the routines of Room 204. On Thursday, the second to the last day of school, we had a pizza party on the front lawn of William Fox School. I reminded my third graders that those with pork or meat restrictions should be served first –Then I  turned it over to the class. Red and white checked tablecloths were spread out on the grass. They ate and when everyone had finished they lined up for seconds. They took turns serving. When they were done eating, they folded the cloths, collected the trash, chased butterflies, and played tag. I took it all in. Good to the last drop.

As sometimes happens, yesterday was the last day of school and also my birthday. Birthdays are big in our classroom. In Morning Meeting, the birthday girl or boy sits in the center of a birthday circle. We drop into silence and reflect on the child’s gifts that we see in Room 204. I point out that these are the gifts that will be thrown out into the world. After a moment, hands are raised. The birthday child calls on his or her classmates, and in turn they say what they see. Finally the child comes to me and I name the gifts that I see. In this way, each child gets celebrated. Their gifts are named in front of their community. Love and appreciation go public.

With the help of their parents, my children threw a surprise birthday party for me, and it ended with a birthday circle. Their kind and generous words reflected the collective values that have been built over time. These are habits of the mind and heart that we work on all year long. They are deceptively simple, but they are the bedrock of respect, community, and learning. If this hidden curriculum had a report card, it might look like this:0001ST

I know this… if there were such a report card, each child would receive “exceeds expectations.” This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we made it good to the last drop.

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