Unwrapping December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Chapter in Room 204

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Grand “Schema” of Things

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

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

This Thanksgiving is so special…

Matt is safely home from Iraq

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

Celia is ecstatic about having her daddy home.

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

Remember that time?

I miss you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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School Reform or Reform School?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hope Sticks

photo(76)You could smell hope in the newly sharpened pencils.  You could see it in the stacks and packs of blank notebook paper.   You could hear it in the spotless new shoes squeaking on the varnished 100 year old floor. Hope whipped the unfamiliar into a wistful mist of encouragement as the weeks of “almost” became our new now.

In this first week together, I told stories about finding one’s voice, and folk tales about sweeping away darkness and gloom, and I  told a Greek myth about a box encrusted with jewels and entrusted to a beautiful mortal girl. She was told not to open the box, but then… she couldn’t help it. As newly released anxiety, nervousness, worry, lack of confidence loomed around her– she slammed the box shut.  And just in time, too!  Hope stuck to the bottom.  Uncertainty loomed around her, but she held on to hope.  She would never be without it.

I taught my new third graders how to make Pandora’s Box out of paper and how to paint the boxes with glitter glue.  Ryan is from China and speaks no English, but he is clearly artistic.  I motioned that I would like him to help those who were having a difficult time.  He quietly moved around the room and expertly lent a hand as needed.  When the boxes dried he, along with the others, wrote the word “hope” and tucked it inside the box.  I hoped he felt some of the hope that I feel for him.

As a class, we discussed and wrote about the hopes and dreams that these third graders brought with them.  Many children wrote that they hoped to be better writers.   Today will be our first writing workshop.  Hope sticks.  And love is launched in Room 204.


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School: Still Working to Get a Good Idea Off the Ground

wright_brothers_first_flight_1903The story of the Wright Brothers is not a new one for me.  Our summer trips the to Outer Banks have included restless trips to the Wright Brothers Memorial– visits punctuated with sulky complaints of heat and thirst and boredom and time away from the beach.  But this year was different.  So different that we went twice.  There was something pulling us about this story– something that awed us.  We walked through the story step by step and listened hard as it was retold by National Park rangers.  I’m not sure what was pulling my husband, but I knew that I had something to hear as a teacher and a learner.

It was right in front of me.  Wilbur and Orville knew how to get a good idea off the ground.  Their success was an alchemy of inspiration, imagination, experience, and determination.  Failures were all part of the process.  Keeping the plane in the air for 12 seconds was considered a step toward success.  Keeping the plane in the air for 59 seconds was world changing.   They never finished high school, but they became their own teachers as they lived a comprehensive curriculum of ornithology, environmental science, aeronautics, engineering, art, writing, and play.

Rather than discrediting the process, failure was essential information.  Flying kites, tinkering with bikes, experimenting  with cameras, drawing, and writing were not data driven tasks, but each had a role in achieving  success.  Wilbur and Orville knew the value of the beauty around them and let the wind, sand, and sky of the Outer Banks teach them.   Wilbur and Orville chose an isolated spot to protect their risky innovation from public scrutiny. They surrounded themselves with people who were not aviators, but who believed in their idea and wanted to help.  At no time in the process was flight declared a failure.

All of this teaches me what my students need from me.  It also speaks to what teachers need.

Many of us became teachers to step into the tradition of building something great.  Not just for our children and not for other people’s children, but for all children. We work hard, think big, and open our doors to everyone.  We don’t give up on anyone, but when it doesn’t work, people seem quick to give up on us.  Funding is cut.  Class size increases.  Fingers point.  People without experience lead the charge for change and call it improvement, even when it is not.  Demoralized, the wrong teachers and leaders leave.

We all need to find constructive ways of dealing with failure; there are no winners in the game of blame and shame.

Sixty-six years after that 59-second flight, the first man walked on the moon.  In his pocket Neil Armstrong carried fragments of fabric and wood from the 1903 Wright Flyer — an acknowledgment that it was the footprints that stretched through the years behind him that made his “one small step for man” a “giant leap for mankind.”

I am surrounded by people who want to continue to build something great.  There are many of us: teachers, parents, and citizens who care about all children.   We’ve been trying to get this right for a long time, and this is no time to stop. Somewhere along the line,  reform as verb was reshaped into a top-down (What-do-teachers-know?) noun.  When change consorts with cynicism it cheapens the process,  but when change partners with hope and respect, innovation soars.   It doesn’t happen with a mandate or with politicians who devalue public education and covet the public money that goes towards it. True change happens step by step.  It is hard work.  It is heart work.  We may have lost the word “reform,” but transform is still a verb that is ours for the taking.

Got hope?  Bring it.

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Imagination + Inspiration = Impact

photo(72)Oh, I miss posting on this blog.  And I am touched that people have noticed that I’ve been absent and that they even want to know why.  Well, here it is.   I am on the home stretch as a candidate for National Board Certification.  That means I am writing ALL of the time, but I am not writing here.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Why do you need it?”

“Why would you want that?”

“Why would you risk failing something, when you don’t have to?”

These questions are really all the same and there is really only one answer.  I love this profession.  And I embrace the idea of teacher driven professional standards.  To prove that, I am seeking certification.  The more I write about teaching, the more I learn.  This kind of qualitative  research (where questions lead to reflective inquiry) is part of instructional accountability in the classroom.

I am seeing more and more that institutional accountability is more quantitative (looking for numbers to back up and enforce policy) than qualitative.  These parallel lines of accountability don’t intersect, because parallel lines never do. That’s math.

The assumption in the policy world right now is that data is proof. But data from arbitrary measures in a system of accountability with ever moving goal posts and ever changing variables will never prove anything.    It is hard to prove  learning and transformation in a classroom with numbers.  Think about transformation and deep learning in your own life.  It there a mathematical formula for it?  The proof is more likely in your life choices and contributions to the world around you. Maybe that transformation began in classroom with an accomplished teacher (shout out to Mr. Blackwell and Mrs. Vawter).

Good teachers know how important inspiration and imagination are to the literate and successful life.   They are measured by  hard work, steadfastness, and compassion.  And  joy, relationship, imagination, inspiration, community, and collaboration.  These can’t be mandated or prohibited or codified or data-fied.  They blaze success in the lives of real teachers, with real children, in real communities.

I am in this to win.  Not just the National Board process, but teaching.  Education.  I am suspicious of “policy” as a parallel track.  It seems like a salaried arm chair sport. How can we merge institutional and instructional accountability to produce real impact? I think it begins with inspiration and imagination.

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Morning Meeting and Mali

“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”   Rilke

Miranda and AinsleyMorning Meeting is a simple and powerful routine for building community, trust, and respect in the classroom.  Every morning, sometime around 9:15, I put on piano music played by Jim Bennett, a friend and local musician. The tune is “Morning has Broken.”  The music is a lovely and wordless signal for the children to put away their “Morning Start-Up” work and come to the rug.

Once gathered, we make sure that no one is left out of the circle and begin the greeting.  One by one, we look into the eyes of the person sitting on our right and reach out our right hand in greeting.  Other than the chain of one child saying Good Morning to another, the only sound in the room is the music.  When the greeting is done, the music is turned off.  In the silence that follows, I ask a question– and it is not a question with one right answer.  The children go around the circle to answer or pass or agree or disagree with someone who has already spoken or elaborate upon a previous answer.  I often take notes as they speak.  When it comes back to me, I try to synthesize what I’ve heard and they let me know if I am on the right track.

Not all of Morning Meeting is serious.  We do silly stretches or sing or play quick games that might strengthen word sense and vocabulary and math skills.  There is often a book.  A story.  Pictures to look at.  A mini-lesson.  Sunlight pours through the big windows of our corner classroom and spills through the laughter in the air.   My children love Morning Meeting, and if for some reason we don’t have it, they are the first to say that the day doesn’t feel right.

The day feels better when we greet each other.  And honor each other.  The day feels better when we begin with a question rather than a bunch of right and wrong answers.  Early in our study of Mali (a state requirement), I asked a question and I did not fully know the answer: “Should teachers teach their children about suffering?” Some said yes and some said no and many were not sure.  I was among the “not sure,” but I was worried about “Disney-fying” Mali by ignoring its current problems.

We forged ahead and talked about drought, famine, struggle, violence, and loss.   We talked about the vulnerability of orphaned children.  We were cautious.  Careful.  Answers took a backseat and now we were looking for solutions. Two things were clear: my children needed to be assured that they were safe and they needed to feel like they could do something to help.  It is very hard to feel safe if you feel helpless. It was time to find a way to take action.

We were looking for an organization to support in some small way, but this was difficult as Mali’s government was coming apart.  I wrote UNICEF in Mali and did not receive a reply. I tried the Peace Corps, too; the Peace Corps volunteers had been evacuated. Reina’s mom helped us find an organization. We researched it online.  It was important for us to find an organization that helped children and enabled boys and girls get an education.   We were happy to find the Zorokoro Project at  www.acfacorp.org. We decided to have a bake sale to support this organization before the holiday PTA meeting. The director of the ACFA, Kadiatou Sidibe, sent each child a pamphlet about the organization.  Sarah Lisk, a former student of mine who volunteers once a week, helped the children make a banner for the bake sale. The parents baked and baked and baked. Molly’s parents donated fair trade coffee from Africa for us to bag and sell.

The children worked hard. The day of the sale they scooped and measured and bagged andCara weighed coffee. They labeled packs of cookies and tied packages with curling ribbon.   They created brochures to be handed out at the bake sale with their key talking points.  Brook’s mother, sister, and grandmother came to help package and price baked goods after school (his grandmother also organized many of her friends as bakers!).   My third grade colleagues pitched in: Pat Kite made Blondies and Danielle Adkins helped organize baked goods.

Miranda and Synia stayed after school to help.  Children arrived early and positioned themselves for their jobs.  Some stood at the entrances with brochures about the Mali project; they know the power of greeting and eye contact and personal connection; they learn it in Morning Meeting everyday.  Others stood behind the table and waited.  They didn’t have to wait long.  James’ mother helped count money.  Ainsley’s dad was there with a “square” for his Ipad so we could take credit cards. Some parents made generous donations.

These third graders were tireless; they were inspiring; and they were effective. Children Bake Sale for Mali1love competence, agency, completion, and success. It is part of the human engine to want to make a difference.  The children of Room 204 wanted to help the children of Mali, and they did.  Money continued to trickle in.  The total amount came to $668. 08.  With  a matching grant from the Segal Family Foundation, our class raised $1,336.16.

Later that week, I invited our question back into Morning Meeting.

“Should teachers teach their children about suffering?”

“Yes,” they said, one after another around the circle.

They elaborated:

“If you do, explain it carefully—know that sensitive kids will worry.”

“Be cautious about what you are teaching.”

“If you do, be sure you can teach how to help.  It makes sense then.”

“Don’t study suffering if you can’t take action.”

“Children will feel bad if they can’t help.  Carefully spread it out over time.”

“Teach gently.”

“Know that it is okay for helping to be fun.”

“Learning about the world is learning about the world. Sometimes that means learning about suffering.”

“Make sure you have reason to do it, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”

I asked a question that we lived out together.  And, once again, my children taught me the answer.

Mali Class

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Opening Doors

photo(62)“The geranium on the windowsill died but teacher you went right on…..”
Albert Callum

The Empire of Mali is a third grade Standard of Learning: Virginia Social Studies 3.2. Mali has a magnificent past.  When the light of learning in Europe dimmed for a time in the Middle Ages, it was burning more brightly than ever in Mali.  The university in Timbuktu provided safe haven for the Latin and Greek texts of fallen Rome. Griots sang epic poetic songs of history and tradition.

Over the years I have developed an integrated unit about Mali that is rich in folktales, history, geography, art, and music.  Many of our American traditions, like the banjo, can be traced back to this part of West Africa.

I teach about Mali every year, but this year it has been hard. Mali is in the headlines.  Mornings begin with a cup of coffee and horrific stories of drought, violence, famine, and fear.  As my children dance to the traditional music of Mali, I think back to an article in the morning’s paper: Mali’s musicians have been silenced and are fleeing for their lives.

As we talk about Griots and their traditional tales of triumph, I can’t help but think of the newly orphaned children whose life stories have been interrupted by loss.  Can I, should I, teach the glorious past of Mali, in the shadow of the current suffering of its people–Without even mentioning it?

How do I open my students’ eyes to the suffering in Mali, and at the same time protect their tender hearts and shield their joy in time of wonder?  My steps on the path of truth-telling must be gentle steps. I lead with the story of The Magic Gourd by Baba Wague Diakite.  The story opens with Brother Rabbit (Dogo Zan) looking for food in a time of drought.  As he searches, he sings a song of hope.  Luck does come his way, but he takes only what he needs and shares it with many.

We’ve learned that drought leads to famine; famine leads to hunger; hunger often leads to a scramble for power; a scramble for power often leads to violence; and violence leads to loss.

When confronted with suffering, children need to know that they are safe.   And then they need to know that they can help.   I have assured them that they are safe and that we can help.  I suggested a bake sale to support a project that would help children in Mali.  They loved the idea and we got right to work.

On Tuesday, just before the P.T.A. meeting, we will have a bake sale to support the Zorkoro Project in Mali. This is a project to expand an orphanage that has a sustainable farm.  You can read more about this project (and even donate) at www.acfacorp.org.

I began this journey with a folk tale.  Once again, a story is our doorway to truth.  And truth is a doorway to change.

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