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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I Can See Clearly Now

Last February, just days after my sister’s memorial service, I noticed a shadow falling across my line of vision like a curtain. My poetic friends mused about the timing. Yes, I was living in the shadow of grief, but this was not that. Eyes, like sisters, work better in tandem, and it is startling when one has to suddenly work without the other. But this was not that either.  I looked my symptoms up on the Internet: “Call a doctor immediately, you may be going blind.” This wasn’t a metaphor standing in a barren field of loss. This was its own big thing.

I got an appointment the next day and was on my way to surgery an hour later. My retina had detached. I heard phrases like

“No guarantees.”

“Vision Loss.”  

“Risk of blindness.”

“Every minute counts.”

I was in the hands of the very best, but no one could help if I’d waited too long to come in. Only time would tell if I had. That was eight months ago. Eight months of adjusting to seeing the world through one eye. I found that I could no longer lose myself in the pages of a book. I had to find my way in a new way. Adapt. Adjust. Make do. And I did. But I really missed turning the pages of real books.

My sister and I grew up as voracious readers. Our passports and our library cards were our official documents. As sisters, we had our own built-in book club that spanned continents and decades. We approached her terminal illness the way we’d approached everything else: with book in our laps. We read about happiness, meditation, healing, joy, and serenity. We were creating a life syllabus that we referred to as the “Joy and Wonder Reading List.”

When I came back to school after the retinal detachment, I knew that I could make up for the time I’d lost by modeling for my students the joy and resilience that my sister had modeled for me. I did not have corrective lenses — the vision was changing too fast for that — but the font in children’s books was large and with magnifiers I could do it. Grading papers was hard, so I “spot checked” and found that I was able to get a very clear picture of how my children were progressing. Rather than reading their writing, I listened to it in small groups of children who became adept at giving tangible and targeted feedback with me. We helped each other and our sense of community deepened. I held on to what was most important in reading, writing, and math. We ended our year well and successfully.

In late August it was time for the second surgery. It would be much simpler and much more routine. I asked if I could wait until October– I knew how important setting up my classroom and building community with my new students would be. October came fast.

Two days ago I had the surgery. Yesterday I woke up and saw the world the way I used to see the world… with both eyes.

Later in the day I went for a walk without any particular destination. Suddenly I knew exactly where I wanted to go, to mark the occasion with my own private celebration. I walked to the Public Library. I enjoyed every step. I loved seeing the way the light lit the just-about-to-change leaves; I loved the squirrels running along the branches of oak trees. At the library I loved running my hands along the spines of the books waiting on the shelves, — finding, choosing, and checking out books that would be mine for two weeks.

Tomorrow I will be back at school with my third graders. Today I am celebrating by losing myself in a good book — a real book with pages. I can see clearly now.





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Don’t Forget to Look

fullsizerender3My memory is stored in touch, sound, sight, smell, and story. The places I lived and visited as a child are working stage sets for the truth-story mix that fuses my Once with the unfolding Now.

That didn’t happen by itself. I remember because my father asked us to tell a story about our day. Every. Single. Day. Every morning he sent us out into the world, telling us to take notes and bring back some stories. We did. We learned to pay attention to the world around us. We didn’t know we were becoming writers or developing a deep understanding of narrative arc. We were just trying to outdo each other at the dinner table.

When I read the writing of my third graders I remember. Children speak of ordinary moments with matter-of-fact reverence.

We are going to cook out tonight.

We saw lightening bugs.

There was frost.

We got a new fence in our backyard.

We are going to Golden Corral.

We had movie night.

We made pizza.

I rode my bike.

My soccer team won.

I got a library card.

I saw a possum.

We don’t create memories, we live life. Beautiful memories are the fruit of creating life together in the most ordinary ways. Celebrating small moments together makes the big moments sing across time. A trip to Disney is special, but don’t think for a moment that the magic of childhood is contained in a magic castle.  The kind of magic I am talking about is not in the castle. In fact, it is more mystery than magic because it won’t be controlled or manufactured. It  fleetingly waits to be discovered.

As their third grade teacher, I am teaching my young writers not to miss the majesty of the the moment they come in talking about. I am teaching them to see the story of their lives. I am teaching them to fall in love with the world. The weekend homework has been the same for for over thirty years: Look at the world with the eyes of a writer.  Don’t forget to look.


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Who is Your Inner Editor?

If you write, I am pretty sure you have one.  And if you don’t  write, I know you do– and I know they’ve had the last word.  So far.   Some people call them inner critics.  I have two and they have names.  Wise Guy and Breathless.  They both smoke. I don’t.

Wise Guy is fast talking, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He is impatient, and suffers no fools. Over and over he says, “What! are you kidding me.?” He sits at huge desk in a newsroom surrounded by the thunder of  clacking typewriters. His world is in black and white.

Breathless, on the other hand, hardly says a word.  She raises an eye brow, sighs, lifts her gloved hand toward her mouth and takes a slow drag on a cigarette held in a mother of pearl and onyx  holder.  And then she shakes her head.  Slowly. And as she mouths the word, “No…” smoke rings float above her head.   And I pull another piece of paper out of the typewriter, crumple another page  and toss it over my shoulder.  This is all figurative, of course.  I don’t own a typewriter.

What is not figurative is the crumpled paper,  the deleted paragraphs, the discarded worked and reworked drafts.  This innervation of inspiration by criticism that isn’t really there is real.  And those crumpled pages are food for Wise Guy and Breathless.

I haven’t been writing and Wise Guy and Breathless are getting bored.  They are loud this morning.  But it is different this time.  Wise Guy says, “What? Are you kidding me?  If you want to write, write!

And Breathless surprises me, too: “Darling, such fuss!  Just put something down.”  So I do.  They shrug.  Nod.  Link arms and walk  away.  It was all just  smoke.


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