Sunday, March 9, 2014
A Teacher Has A Choice
1965-1966. First Grade. A big year for reading and learning, as they all should be. Unfortunately, my first grade teacher was a yeller and her perpetually frustration-laced, roarish voice filled our classroom with fear rather than sweet wonder and encouragement. Regardless of one’s tender years, one quickly learns the survival strategies of not making eye contact and not rocking the boat, so as to be able to inconspicuously fly under the classroom teacher’s radar and avoid being at the receiving end of her verbal attacks. It’s pretty tough to be “bad” in first grade as little ones long to love and please their teachers. Can’t imagine the exponential increase in volume and in anger had we been naughty. We were not naughty. We were, however, terrified, and when you are afraid, it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to learn. Fear has no place in a classroom, because it’s unfair and it’s paralyzing as it squeezes the life, the joy, and the hope out of a classroom leaving nothing but cold walls and clock hands that don’t move fast enough. I survived. I learned to read. At home where I was not afraid. At home where I was encouraged and smiled at. At home where no one yelled at me. I wonder how my first grade classmates did? I played school at home. My best friend and I took turns being the teacher. We were never like her. The lesson she taught, which has been indelibly etched into my heart, is how not to be. I am sorry for her because she missed the joy, the opportunity, the brilliance, the wonder, the miracles that are forever happening in a classroom of discovery and delight. I am now a teacher and have been for thirty years. Every year is new and exciting and fresh and full of limitless possibility. A classroom full of children represents the hope for the future, and to have the privilege of serving in this way and tending daily to this treasure is exhilarating. Teaching. It bears a weight of responsibility such as no other. Precious children, uniquely gifted, wired, inspired, filled with wonder and dreams and infinite potential to touch, change and serve this world as no one else can; these are the treasures entrusted to our care eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, every year throughout their most formative years. With clay feet and great weakness, I stand before each class, each day in full knowledge of my inadequacy. What have I to give them but love, encouragement, and the best of what I have and am. I am honored and humbled and thankful to be a teacher.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Paper or Plastic?
We talk about the “jump” from ordinary to extraordinary in most any department and we realize that the “jump” we are speaking of, in a word, is the infusion of “creativity.” Creativity, as a full byproduct of a busy imagination, sees the infinite potential dwelling within the bounds of the ordinary, and then can see beyond that to the path that will lead to extraordinary brilliance. Creativity is imagination affirmed. Creativity is imagination with confidence. Creativity creates extraordinary. We plant the seeds for this type of thinking in children when they are very young and quite honestly, it requires a rather counter-cultural perspective. Marketers, who instruct our behavior, and the Joneses, with whom we love to keep up, might suggest or expect that we fill our toy boxes with the latest, greatest, flashiest, costliest items or gadgets or e-games, most of which make spectators of our children, but I would contest that the deepest, truest seeds of creativity are not found amongst these impressive devices. Out-of-the-box thinking comes from out-of-the-box toys; no surprise. Brown paper bags, for instance, offer limitless possibilities for anything anyone might need. From book covers, to drawing paper, puppets and crowns, from bricks(when stuffed), pirate maps, and birthday cards, to trees(when duct-taped together), wreaths, and journals, from wrapping paper, fresh-out-of-the-oven cookie cooling paper, and cowboy vests, to masks, helmets, and valentines, and on and on and on out to the edges of one’s imagination, brown paper bags do it all and regularly make the “jump” from ordinary to extraordinary in the course of creative play. And they cost nothing more than the correct answer to the perpetual grocery store question, “Paper or plastic?” Paper, of course! Tinfoil, duct tape, pipe cleaners, empty thread spools, popsicle sticks, and countless other ordinary, inexpensive items would fill the toy box in the home of creativity seed planters. For our children to think creatively, they must play creatively, and to play creatively, they must be given simple, ordinary tools with which their extraordinary imaginations may work to create wonderful, magical, unique brilliance.
Singing Together Can Help Us Grow
Six languages in one first grade classroom. Swedish. Greek. Japanese. Afganistan. Spanish. English. Our hope was to teach them all to read. Our priority was to build a community, to communicate, but the first few days of school made that priority seem quite remote and that hope nearly impossible. We had no means by which to connect and our only apparent common ground right then was that we shared a classroom, a cold, lonely one at that. After lunch each day, we had a twenty minute window of time during which we played acoustic instrumental music, and the students were encouraged to either look at a picture book, quietly draw a picture, or simply relax and listen to the music. Surprisingly, most students opted to listen to the music. It was calm, soothing, peaceful, and biased toward no one language. Each mind processes music in its own language. Perhaps music held a key. We wrote a song about counting to ten. We asked each student to count to ten in his or her primary language, which we phonetically wrote down. We all learned how to count to ten in each of our class languages with great and enthusiastic help from each other. It was a spectacular song, made exponentially better by the robust participation and growing esprit de corps of our classroom community. By sharing a little piece of each other’s language, we were able to share a little piece of each other’s heart. Our community grew. Our trust grew. Our learning grew. We became readers. We became friends. We shared a song.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
One of the most significant outages of metrics driven educational accountability, as I see it, is the absence of time for relational connection to the students. There simply are not enough hours in the school day to accommodate all of the paperwork that needs to be accomplished in terms of a variety of assessments, high-stakes testing with endless prep for that, and documentation on each issue of each student so that suitable amounts of paper trails can cover every measurable aspect. Information is not the enemy, however. We have a tendency towards the extreme, and that is the problem. The “go big or go home” mentality which drives our culture and permeates our every moment, pushes and extends the wide-sweeping swing of the pendulum of trends to new extremes that readily enslave us all. We seem to have lost all sense of moderation and balance and have traded that for superlative amounts of the next new-fangled idea, whatever that may be. Excessive, obsessive amounts of metrics fastidiously gathered for the purposes of something that may or may not be working relative to educating students successfully is fast becoming ridiculous. And what has been traded for the boxes full of pointless data which will sit and ultimately become kindling for the fire resulting from the spark of tomorrow’s next theory? Show and tell has been traded. Arts have been traded. Field trips and special curiosity-driven projects have been traded. PE, an extra recess and normal-length lunch hours have been traded. All things that make education real and human and meaningful and relatable have been traded. That is a gargantuanly pricey trade. The numbers have added little besides significant stress and have taken beauty and connection. In thirty years of teaching, I have sadly witnessed exponentially increasing numbers of relational breakdowns all around but beginning with families. Kids are resilient is what the experts all say and it’s true to a certain extent but it is not the whole story. Scars. Fear. Pain. Insecurity. And on and on. These are the rest of the story. These are what students carry to the classroom, to recess, to the nurse’s office. These are the things that tummy aches are made of. These are the things that stir in bullies. These are the things that result in high distractibility and disengagement. These things hurt deeply and permanently and affect every single aspect of school. These things are not documented alongside reading scores, but they influence every assessment. All of the traded elements mentioned above provide balm for the deep hurts such as these, and without them our burdened children merely go superficially through educational motions. To talk, to interact, to share, to relate, to express, to create, these are meaning-making attributes of education that inspire engagement and foster affirmation that in turn will encourage confidence and desire to discover. Swing pendulum, swing away from the numbers that allow decision-makers to enthusiastically pat one another on the back, and instead swing toward those deep things that honestly reach and nurture students. We yearn for connection; it’s a human need, and it cannot be extracted from educating children without suffering an unfathomable price. We are there.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
The Gift Of A Life
Twenty four hours. A gift to have and a gift to give. She had end stage cancer. Although she had battled cancer twice before and won, this time was different and she was very tired. She was a mentor, a role-model, a light in the darkness, an endless giver, a perpetual hugger, a tireless servant, a champion for the voiceless, a babysitter for my boys, and a dear, dear change-your-life kind of friend. She was the person who, when she entered a room, all in the room were made better simply by her quiet, loving presence. She, in her vivid and brilliant imagination, constructed programs to serve those in greatest need in our community and then somehow managed to graciously sidestep the voluminous red tape of well-meaning committees and enact her loving programs, always serving up smiles, hugs, and assistance. She danced ballet. She painted beautiful pictures. She basked in God’s glorious creation all around her. She fiercely loved her family and her neighbors. She loved. She lived. And in her living and loving she taught us lessons of infinite and eternal importance without ever writing a lesson plan. She poured more life and living into her short years, than most people do in ten lifetimes. When the end was near and exhaustion was mercilessly gaining, her husband called and asked if I had a few minutes to visit with her. Dropping everything at the tiniest chance to give to this matchless giver, I raced over. He said she was tired and that a few minutes would be all she could muster. Whatever she wanted. Whatever she needed. So we talked and talked and laughed and reminisced and before long, she asked her husband for an old photo album which together we wandered through with waves of emotion swinging from giggles to tears. It was precious, precious time. A deep and lasting gift from her which I will forever cherish. We shared time, the priceless treasure. The gift had nothing to do with the right most eloquent words to say or the loveliest purchased present; to be sure, and any thought to any of those would have diminished the true gift which was simply shared, treasured, beautiful time. A perfect time that I was blessed forever to share. Time. She passed and left the world much more beautiful than she found it.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
The First Recital
Six years old with a brand new dress, curled hair adorned with a complimentary bow, and fancy patent-leather shoes; the world was perfect in this moment and this little girl’s smile matched the shining sun. Recital day was here. But for one who had never been to a piano recital, who didn’t fully comprehend what was in store, this experience to this point resembled a lovely and very special party. The simple sweet piano selection was memorized and had been for many weeks. The Princess Waltz was the ideal selection for an occasion such as this very first recital. We were to bring the music with us to the recital. My family was dressed up and ready to travel to the downtown YWCA where the recital was to occur in a large reserved auditorium. Upon arrival, we noticed that the auditorium was fast filling with supportive family and friends, quietly finding suitable seats and engaging in hushed, congenial conversations along the way. All of the piano students, at least fifty of us, were to convene at the front of the hall, near the stage upon which we were to present our selections on the huge shiny black grand piano which sat front and center. Our teacher, a stern perfectionist-type retired concert pianist, organized us into our seating order with a wave of her hand. We were to play in our age order, which meant I was to play first. At the appointed time and following necessary salutations and recognitions, our teacher commenced the recital. Silence. My name was called. My patent-leather shoes clicked on the tile floor all the way to the stage steps, which I ascended with The Princess Waltz in my hands. She stood at the top of the stage stairs, at the corner of the stage rather like one of the guards at Buckingham Palace and collected music as the performers, in this particular instance me, proceeded to the Steinway and prepared to play. Silence. My patent-leathers couldn’t reach the pedals, the gravity of the situation descended around that piano bench with oppressive heaviness, and in that painful silence a six year old’s mind went blank; The Princess Waltz was absolutely nowhere to be found. From her corner, after an eternity of silence, the sentry-teacher began heralding each note of The Princess Waltz to me as one might call off bingo numbers. The gentle musical flow of that sweet song was fully lost in the punctuated call and response playing. She could have brought me my music but she did not. Crushing mortification. Crushing. And then it was done before anyone could fix it. In the shocked silence that accompanied my clicking walk from the piano to the sentry’s corner to collect the illusive music, one didn’t dare make eye contact with anyone in the room for each one unequivocally understood with brimming tears the depth of hurt which had just occurred. I didn’t return to my seating order and didn’t ask permission either, my party dress and I, instead, found our way to my family where on daddy’s lap I melted into a puddle of embarrassment. Sometimes, hopefully not too often, our lessons are learned through circumstances that break and hurt.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Community Starts With Willingness
Twenty four hours. Times seven. This can feel excruciatingly long when one is anticipating spending that time engaging in a task for which one feels thoroughly inept or severely unqualified. I had the time to give which was why I volunteered, but, despite my willing and sincere heart, the realities of the work to be involved were far, far beyond my skill set and that was terrifying. Who on earth did I think I was to sign on to be a counselor at the muscular dystrophy summer camp for a week? Four adolescent campers were to be charged to my care. The responsibility for their health, safety, and fun at their special week at summer camp and away from home was on me, and I was nothing more than willing. They arrived in wheelchairs wearing various body braces and each one had a sparkle of camp magic in their eyes. Their camp magic eyes melted my fears and fortified my resolve help them find the fun that was synonymous with summer camp. They giggled me through my nearly hopeless ineptness and patiently taught me how to serve them. We became quite the flamboyant little gang o’ fun. From hilarious costumes and daily elaborate accessorizing, to snappy, chic hairstyles and late night heart to heart conversations, we became a tightly bonded example of lovely esprit de corps; a beautiful community. My girls. Twenty four hours times seven absolutely flew and suddenly the time was expired. In a sad silence, we packed up our camp belongings preparing for the breaking up of our gang o’ fun and the return journeys to our homes and regular lives. Regular seemed to somehow represent a significant letdown. Camp magic had infused willingness with adequacy and then lifted and changed us all, and in that change, we would each forever carry a piece of that week, of that twenty four hours times seven, of each other, with us. Community started with willingness, was shaped through patience, and became treasured through commitment and love. Belonging. Connected. Us.