Monday, March 31, 2014
Blind, Deaf, PhD, My Teacher
He was blind from birth, became deaf when he was seven, and when I met him, he was working on his PhD in Computer Science. We were both students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; he was a much better student than I. I had seen him with his seeing eye dog numerous times around campus, and every time they crossed my path, I found myself amazed and mesmerized by the surety with which they walked and the calm, gentle aura they exuded. I always stopped and watched them pass and wanted to say hello, but, well, how? So rather than trying to cross the uncomfortable feeling bridge of “I don’t know how,” I copped out and melted into the crowd of silent but staring faces. I disappointed myself. Not knowing what to say or how exactly to say it was never a fear that paralyzed me from pressing forward or risking the connection to be made; until now. So time passed, our paths silently crossed, and I remained disappointed with my fear to cross a bridge. Then an opportunity appeared in the form of a notice on the bulletin board of the house where I was living. The notice read, “Blind-Deaf student requires assistance with homework.” Although it had to be him and this seemed to be the bridge I myself had been unable or unwilling to conjure, I still did not immediately call. Feeling intimidated by his handicap and highly inadequate to reach toward this challenging and completely unfamiliar collection of needs, I resisted. How could my ignorant hands help without understanding? I had no training. I was just an ordinary student. But I did have a bit of time to spare and serving the need of another was the desire of my heart. Perhaps ignorant hands can be trumped by a willing heart. Perhaps ignorant hands can be taught as long as a willing heart builds the bridge. I called. We met. He taught me how to help him with his school work. He was infinitely patient with my ineptness and we frequently shared laughter as I often quite clumsily stumbled up the steep learning curve of serving in this circumstance. Regularly I found myself transcribing very complicated mathematical pages from textbooks to braille which he would sit and read as quickly as the printer handed them over. Supremely complicated math problems he could solve without writing them down. He was unquestionably a genius, unbelievably brilliant, and I was humbled and honored to watch him work. We became good friends. He invited me to his lectures which were far too complicated for me to understand but I attended because I was so proud of him and blessed by his unquenchable passion for learning and sharing. Church, grocery shopping, taking his dog outside to do her business, pizza parties with his other blind and/or deaf friends, walking about campus, bringing him to visit the students in the hospital school where I worked, checking basement mousetraps, these were among others on our list of bridge building activities and interspersed through all were amazing conversations about life and dreams and hope and gifts. I learned more from him than from most of my textbooks. He taught me about living optimistically and hopefully despite circumstances and about how one must rise up with courage using every gift available in faithful service to others. He changed my life forever. He taught me that in reaching out to be a blessing we in fact ourselves are deeply blessed. Yes, he taught me.
Saturday, March 29, 2014
Their Courage, Their Honesty, Their Perspective, My Teacher
In the midst of IV’s, hospital gowns, doctors, nurses, therapists, and colorful artwork on the walls, there was a school right there in that enormous pediatric unit. Student-patients came faithfully to the hospital classroom every chance they had because keeping up with homework kept each one thinking forward to the glorious reunion with friends and teachers and coaches in the hometown schools they each longed for. Having health and strength to attend school and participate each day in every part of school was indeed the hopeful dream of these student- patients. A hopeful dream not recognized at all as such by those students who have never had to study and learn in the hospital school. It’s so easy to take for granted things that are easy and good and ours, but things can change as the wind blows. Change, expected or unexpected, often serves to bring perspective. These dear, brave student-patients longed for school. One particular day, I was asked to do bedside tutoring with a student-patient who wouldn’t come to the school; everything hurt and everything was wrong. She had spina bifida. She didn’t want to talk, so we just sat that day and for the next few, as well. Homework was pointless, she asserted. Okay. Interested in singing? I ventured the suggestion without making eye contact. Stupid. Too loud. Silent sitting resumed. The next day, I offered, singing in sign language because it wouldn’t make any noise. With a combination of incredulity and hilarity and contempt, our first eye contact occurred. What? Come on, it will be fun, and I wrote this song for you. L-O-V-E, love is special, a song just for her. It worked. She loved it. We learned it and continued to sing it silently on my every visit to her room. When she got tired of singing it, she let me help her with homework. Eventually, she agreed to come to the hospital school only to help me teach her song to the other student-patients. She thought it would make them happy and she was pretty certain I couldn’t teach it as well as she could. She was absolutely right.
She taught me about courage and honesty and perspective and connection and love and joy even in the pain. Her story and my song for her is one I have shared every Valentine’s Day since then with the students in my own classroom and is now on youtube to share with you. http://youtu.be/Qvn8P_71_Vo
She taught me.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Their Patience, Their Joy, Their Trust, My Teacher
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.
Just Say Thanks
It’s really quite simple. When the car is running out of gas, you fill the tank; that is, if you want the car to continue moving. People are not dissimilar to this with respect to appreciation and encouragement. Kind, gentle, affirming words fill the soul with energizing joy despite the age of the hearer. And kind, gentle, affirming words are free of charge; no need to add a line to the budget. Balm to the soul. Impetus to run a little farther. Uplifting to the heart. The push to carry on, to try harder, to jump higher, to get up again, to not walk away. Sometimes, all that’s needed is thank you. And yet it seems we have a strange propensity to hoard these sorts of words, as if uttering them diminishes us or will serve to arrest aspiration in the hearer. We, however, freely and generously pour out our unsolicited opinions that bite and snip, our whiney complaints, and our interminably long lists of chores and orders, in much the same manner as a spigot stuck on high. Is it really easier and more beneficial to beat people down with the work harder speech than it is to offer the encouragement or appreciation speech and watch them work harder of their own volition in response to verbal affirmation? Which stirs the most meaningful motivation? Which builds and nourishes the strongest loyalty? Which empowers for the long-term? In our classrooms, which, in obsessive pursuit of metric excellence, have frequently become places of scripted interaction driven by the time constraints associated with high-stakes testing, the unscripted but life-giving words of affirmation which desperately need to be said and heard often get lost in a stressful flurry. Unless I tell you it’s not good, assume that it is good and keep at it. What sort of motivation does that limp verbiage inspire? Emptiness is the result of that limp verbiage. And no one can run on empty. We direly need to stop. We direly need to breathe. We truly and absolutely need to look one another in the eyes and speak encouragement and affirmation and appreciation to one another. Students. Colleagues. Family members. Neighbors. We’re running on empty and the fuel to share, the fuel we need is free. Why are we waiting?
Monday, March 24, 2014
The Best For Our Kids
Visiting with some parents at a Head Start event, we shared thoughts on high priority activities, behavioral habits, and experiences which would serve to benefit their little ones greatly in preparation for school. Simple things. Inexpensive things. Things, however, that required a faithful, never-ending investment of time. Children represent great hope and great promise, and each parent in our conversation clearly carried that twinkling spark of hope in his or her eyes. We long for our children to succeed and to watch their dreams come true. Somehow, somewhere along the way, however, life seems to get in the way and our very best intentions get hopelessly tangled in the mire that is the lock step of daily living. Distractions lead to compromises of time and trade deliberate learning and growing efforts for auto-pilot screen-babysitters. Two jobs. Three jobs. No jobs. Life is very hard. Raising children is very hard. That conversation at Head Start has continued to reverberate in my mind over many years. As a teacher, what do I see? As a mom, what do I do? With both hats on, and with a very humble heart here are five simple thoughts on high priority activities, behavioral habits, and beneficial experiences for little ones:
1. Read to little ones. Read. Read. Read. Any books. All books. Go to the library. Get books in their hands. Abe Lincoln had one book as a child. He read it over and over and over again. Traveling through the pages of hundreds of books together, my boys and I were able to travel in our imaginations to places we would never be able to afford to actually visit. Free field trips. Free vacations. Never too tired to read. Never too tired to be read to.
2. Eat healthy food. A bag of potatoes, for instance, is less expensive than a bag of potato chips and so much better for growing children. Simple fresh food is typically less expensive than the processed snack-types and is completely, absolutely better for you. Eat healthy.
3. Drink plenty of water. Water supports the brain, and the body needs so much more water than we think.
4. Play. Forget about the fancy, expensive toys, and use what you have to foster creativity and imagination development. Children need far less entertainment where they passively observe, and far more mind-engaging, problem-solving creative play with paper, crayons, rocks, sticks, water, and imagination. Play inside, play outside, get lots of fresh air, gross motor with lots of flailing and running, and fine motor demanding concentration; just must play.
5. Enough sleep is unbelievably critical. Do not ever underestimate the necessity of sleep for little ones. Sleep allows the brain and body time to rest and recharge. A well-rested mind is exceedingly more able to concentrate, focus, and engage in learning.
The future belongs to our children and it will be shaped to match their dreams. For the few short years that are ours to hold their hands and lead them, let us together make those years significant and opportunity-filled. They say it takes a village or a community to raise a child, and there is great truth in that. Our precious children deserve this promise and faithful commitment from us.
Saturday, March 22, 2014
The Fliptop Desk
The early eighties and before boasted most frequently of classrooms with desks containing attached seats that rather creakingly wobbled from side to side as one needed to get in or out. But the greatest feature of the desks was the wooden fliptop, which when one opened it revealed a large cavernous space perfect for storing and losing an entire school year’s worth of papers, notes home, permission slips, consumable workbooks, number two pencils, all one hundred and sixty four completely unboxed crayons, secret notes from friends, and all sorts of other necessary tools of the students’ trade. When the fliptop was open, hurricane would be the word that would come to mind in description of the helter-skelter within. Cleaning was intermittent and half-hearted at best so as not to disrupt the delicate balance between control and chaos wherein the spirit of imagination and creativity reside. When the fliptop was closed, peace, tranquility, and order were the illusion a visitor to the school might be impressed with if he or she peeked into our classroom. The first graders and I were, at that moment, dwelling in the illusion state as they were putting finishing touches on some art projects, fliptops closed, and I was savoring their unbridled creativity as they created artwork upon their fliptops. Gerry was suddenly looking a bit pale. Are you okay? Yes; just a little too full from lunch. Do you need to visit the nurse? Oh no, I just need to rest my tummy. I can rest my tummy while I’m working; see? You are doing a great job, Gerry, but if you need to see the nurse, you just let me know. A bit paler. Gerry, how are you feeling? A little better. You sure? I’m sure. Let me know if you would like to see the nurse. Nobody likes to get sick at school. Feeling icky is no fun. Gerry was looking a real bad shade of green, and I went to get the trash can from the front of the room. On my way to Gerry, I saw him lift the wooden fliptop of his desk. Gerry got sick inside the desk, then closed the wooden fliptop and put his head down upon it. It was sad. Gerry was sad. We all felt sad for Gerry. The nurse came for Gerry and he went home to really rest his tummy. After that, the janitor came and removed Gerry’s fliptop desk for a sound cleaning. Monday would be Gerry’s turn to restore the proper balance to the interior of his fliptop.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
The Sound Of Heaven
I sometimes wonder if the sound of Heaven will be children’s voices singing, because on earth, there is nothing more precious, more beautiful than this. Frequently, when I am accompanying our three hundred elementary aged students singing with all of their hearts in our weekly chapel, I close my eyes and feel overwhelmed by the power of their sweet yet unconstrained and glorious sound. Absolutely angelic. One year, with the sixth graders, we were working on creating motions to a contemporary Christian song which we were preparing as a part of a program for an upcoming trip to a retirement center. At last our work was finished, polished, and ready for sharing. One of our students’ moms heard that the song’s recording artist was to be in our hometown and on a whim, emailed him describing our project. He responded and wondered if he might stop in and watch them perform. We gathered for an all-school assembly and began by singing many songs all together, filling the gym with huge, magnificent, all-in, raise-the-roof, beautiful song. He arrived in time to be blessed by this. As he unobtrusively stood in the gym doorway, he shut his eyes and sang along with the voices of the three hundred children. He watched the performance of his song. We thought he would quietly slip out after that to prepare for his own performance that evening. But no. He asked if he might share a word with the students. He spoke of love and gifts and music and blessing. He spoke of the importance of reaching beyond ourselves and sharing. He had the rapt attention of each student. The gym was silent, but for his voice and words. In closing, he asked if he might play a song for the students to sing with him, which they were more than thrilled to do. He played. They sang. He sang along for a while, but then he closed his eyes, kept playing, and just listened to the children as they filled the gym with their heavenly voices. He was blessed. They were blessed. Many are blessed…when children sing.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
From Dirt To Treasure
The cousins would come inside exhausted after hours of adventure-having, fort-building, hike-taking fun in the rolling and seemingly boundless country landscape. Each day, a new brilliant chapter would be written by these cousins with imaginations on fire and love for one another bubbling over. Childhood paradise. Imaginative adventures encouraged and celebrated. Country life was wide and free and served as the perfect balm and medicine for the nebulous ills resulting from a typical urban rat-race. One is well aware that imaginative, adventurous, outdoor playing frequently results in substantial rips and mud and scrapes and the occasional poison ivy itch, but one also soundly recognizes that those meager costs are ever so worth it for the infinite creative and relational blessings gained. Cousins with dirty hands, covered in the happy grim of nature’s playground, would come bolting inside for a short breath-catching, tummy-filling rest, sometimes finding the soap and water on the way in, but usually not. All adventurers dashing to the basement for ping-pong and an assortment of ice cream treats in the freezer, left their precious outside handprints in all the cousin sizes down the basement stairway wall. Precious handprints that represented love and fun and being together simply could not be washed clean when the cousins went back home. Absolutely not. Instead, grandma and grandpa began to trace the handprints and color them in with permanent markers including name and date captions thus forever capturing moments and memories in time. It became known as the handprint hall. Through the years, cousins continued to trace hands, color hands, and date hands as did their friends, guests and all such other important visiting adventurers. Hundreds of hands. The handprint hall. Famous. Perfect. A gallery of rare, beautiful, ongoing art to which we were all connected, all key contributors, all precious. Amazing how a mud-splotched wall, seen as annoying dirt to some, could be seen as priceless treasured art to someone else. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.
Monday, March 17, 2014
I Didn’t Do It
The knee-jerk response to most every “shouldn’t have done it” incident is I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it! Regardless of the age of the spokesperson, two to ninety-two, this response more often than not remains consistently uttered, for it represents the finest in Teflon outfitting defending one against all sorts of true or false but always uncomfortable allegations. I can be watching a student do the very thing he or she has been instructed not to do and when called on it will almost unequivocally, bordering on the brazenly, assert, I didn’t do it. Many times a day. This phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to schools and students, however, for these students have had to be carefully taught, which they absolutely have been. The I didn’t do it mentality and societal norm seems as automatic to human nature as bowing for applause. I didn’t do it is usually followed by a bit of anemic bantering along the lines of yes you did, no I didn’t, yes, no, etc. where it then fizzles to conversational complacency, a very safe place where it quietly rests until it is needed again. It never gathers moss nor grows dusty waiting, though. In complacency it is deemed not a worthy fight, and in complacency it is perpetuated with increasing shamelessness. But it’s a lie. A big, fat, bold-faced lie. I am not sure why we are okay with this. Over and over and over again in every walk of life and living from classrooms to legislative halls, from snarling interactions with referees, police officers, and parents to defensive exchanges with neighbors and road rage enthusiasts, we fight to abscond from the responsibility of simply owning what we do. The reality is, despite what our insecurities may shout at us, owning our actions, fessing up to our behavior, or begging the pardon of our screw-ups does not in fact really hurt that much. Mild embarrassment perhaps. Or maybe a pinch of shame. But honestly, bearing responsibility for our good or bad behavior strengthens integrity and is honorable. We all make mistakes with great regularity for it is in our very nature to push back a bit against the rules, even the most compliant among us. Own it. Claim it. Confess it. Apologize for it. Then be free of it. If you refuse to own it, it will in fact own you, and you will be diminished by it. The automatic I didn’t do it response is not good enough for today’s students, or yesterday’s for that matter, because it doesn’t call students forth to be strong or to be responsible, both of which they will need to become the leaders they are capable of becoming.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Bravery Despite Broken Glasses
The lunch recess bell would ring in ten minutes, summoning the spring-fever-stricken students back to class for a busy afternoon of learning. After the long, cold, inside winter, however, recess back out on the playground was unanimously greeted with unbridled zeal and, when the bell rang, was ever so reluctantly handed over to the call of the classroom. Bustling about the room and readying the afternoon tasks, I had not immediately noticed the sad little friend in the doorway. Well hello! Oh dear, what has happened here? I broke my brand new glasses. I just got them yesterday. I am going to be in trouble. I fell off the monkey-bars and landed on my face and they broke. Tears. Many quiet tears. Hug. Very thankful for no cuts, scratches, bumps, or bruises. Glasses can easily be fixed. I have had my own glasses fixed many times. Accidents happen and when they do we are just glad if no one is hurt. Why don’t we go outside and you show me where this happened. Okay. Right here; these monkey-bars. I don’t think I will try them again, even though I love the monkey-bars, because I might fall again and falling is scary. Falling is very scary, but if you want to try again I will hold you and make certain you do not fall. Really? Really. Do you promise? I promise. Up he went. Slowly he crossed. Cautiously he pulled his knees up and turned a somersault. The safety net of the teacher’s arms followed this brave little heart as he boldly looked his fear in the face and modeled the powerful life lesson of getting back up when you fall. We adults love to pad our falls with excuses and blame and well-rationalized reasons why re-attempts are pointless and not meant to be. We walk away with battered pride, a flippant chuckle, and a whatever wave of the hand, yet in walking away we have walked away from the risky business of a second attempt. Try again? How embarrassing! What if I fall again? Or again? But what if I don’t fall? What if I do succeed? What if I do accomplish this? What if I can? What if? In reflecting on my life, I do not relish the thought of looking back on very many what ifs. Fear and insecurity leave a mighty pile of what ifs. Having and being a safety net keeps fear and insecurity from paralyzing possibility. As the lunch recess bell rang and we headed toward our classroom for a busy afternoon of learning, I was struck by the deep and significant learning that had just occurred on the playground during lunch recess.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
Flying On The Wings Of Creativity
The first day of summer vacation could irrefutably be the most eagerly anticipated and longed for day on the calendar of all school children. In a word, freedom! My own boys were faithfully counting the minutes, starting weeks before the late winter snow had fully melted in the upper Midwest. On the eve of the day above all days, much discussion was occurring in my home among the boys as to exactly which television program might kick off the glorious three month hiatus. From my couldn’t help but listen post at the kitchen counter, I knew we could do better than this to usher in the summer, a beautiful season of different learning. The woo hoo day arrived with torrential rain but none-the-less great jubilating joy. The race to the television was stopped in mid-step with the pronouncement that everyone needed to hop in the car. What? Why? Garage sale-ing. Ughhhh. Everyone gets five dollars to buy a broken appliance to take apart. It’s raining! All the better for a day at the workbench. Garage sale hosts are exceptionally enthusiastic to have customers during a rain storm, so the deals were extremely good and it was clearly the peak season for broken appliances. With three items and quite a lot of pocket change in our possession, we headed dripping wet to the basement workbench. Although the start was a bit slow with excitement in the project noticeably underwhelming, the momentum quickly picked up and soon tools were flying and the chatter of creativity was escalating in volume and speed. The project lasted hours, days, and weeks, and grew to include the neighbor kids who were already tired of watching television and much more interested in engaging their hands and ideas in the project. Early on, it was determined that all three appliances were completely unfixable, but by pooling all of the parts and adding this and that from various nooks and crannies in the basement, the garage, and the neighbors’ houses, a brand new idea emerged. The new idea led to drawings, plans, suggestions (only when asked) from engineer dad, and many phone calls (by the kids) to a variety of local gear shops. Fund raising efforts were organized to have money to order and purchase parts to continue work on the project. The project was brilliantly and delightfully consuming and exhilarating and half of the summer whooshed by in a flurry of creativity before a calendar was ever noticed. Camps, family vacations, and assorted lessons punctuated the project efforts, but it all was good and fun and happy. In what seemed to be a snap, we were buying school supplies and shoes again readying for a new school year. Impossible. On the magnificent wings of creativity, the summer flew in the most joyful way hovering over the well-lit basement workbench, while the piece of furniture known as the television collected a good amount of dust.
Friday, March 14, 2014
The Improbability, The Impracticality, and The Impossibility of Creativity
It was an ordinary July morning about to become an extraordinary one as well as an indelibly etched memory simply because of the word “yes,” which is creativity’s favorite word. In a world of “no’s,” where everyone has a reason why not, why you shouldn’t or can’t, why it’s ridiculous or a great waste of time, or what would clearly be better, which is all about those who are the naysayers and how their ideas trump anything thing else on the table, the brave, small voice of yes fiercely fights to stand firm and hold open the door of possibility. Nothing crushes the possibility or the actuality of creativity more completely than a no face, a no spirit, or a no personality, yet no is easiest answer, because, like a hot knife through butter, it cuts off the inefficiency and messiness associated with creativity and keeps us all neatly in lock-step, robotic and only superficially engaged. Once you say yes, the lid of Pandora’s box flies to the wind and time is caught up in the swirling wonder of imagination; a place of play and a place of seeing things differently. This is a precious place where joy and innovation collide and burst together into a splash of technicolor brilliance. It was pouring with rain this hot July morning, and it had been pouring with rain on and off over a number of days in a row. Inside activities, experiments, and projects were ongoing in every corner, when one of my sons casually presented the genuine wish of his heart in that moment, “I really would like to go snowboarding today.” In the nanosecond subsequent to the proclaimed wish, my mind raced between yes and no, why and why not, practical or impractical, possible or impossible, ridiculous or exhilarating, and I attempted to buy a pinch of time with the obvious question, where could we go in July? As if the entire seemingly problematic gap between winter and summer had been fully scrutinized and mentally bridged, hence resolved, prior to the question, the response was simply and immediately, mud is as slippery as snow. Hmmm. Of course. So with the yes door flung wide open, we loaded the board in the car and set out in the pouring rain to find steep enough muddy hills adequately suitable for mud-boarding. The perfect hill was discovered. He was absolutely right about mud being slippery as snow. Run after run after run with increasing laughter, increasing rain soaked mud caked clothes, and increasing competence on the mud slope, my son lived his July wish. Joy. Test and full affirmation of what to some no faces might have seemed a ridiculous impractical impossibility. An idea dreamed, an idea tried, a wish fulfilled. All because of yes. Every yes most certainly builds significant confidence toward the next new idea, which is exactly the place where creativity loves to dwell. Are there enough yes’s at school? Are there enough yes’s at home? Are we wearing yes faces enough so that this next generation of dreamers can imagine, then plan, then build an exciting and hopeful future?
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Trading In Homemade For Store Bought
With bright, wildly excited eyes, he exuberantly shared with words spilling over words that the long awaited and much anticipated huge science project was to be a creation of the solar system. Artistic, creative, original, unique, any medium, any materials were all descriptors from the teacher concerning this wonderful project. What do you think you’d like to do? I have thought about this all day and all the way home from school, and I think origami planets in different colors of different sizes all connected with pipe cleaners would be perfect. That sounds fantastic! What do you think we need to get for you create this just as you imagine it? With supplies gathered and work space cleared, the imaginer set to creating. Other than peeking in now and again, we, the support team, were to not distract or disturb the imaginer. Colorful origami planets began to fill the space, while pipe cleaner connectors held them in their proper orbits. Evenings filled with brilliant, beautiful creativity flew by punctuated with awe speckled giggles and other sounds of pride. When at last the stunning, fragile solar system was complete, we were invited to a viewing. Magnificent. Perfect. The imagined solar system had at last become the created one, and hearts were dancing with joy as they do when creativity is swirling in the midst. Although this humongous creative science project was due on a Friday, several students had decided to bring their projects in Thursday, and what our imaginer saw on Thursday crushed the zeal that had set his spirit soaring through the numerous previous evenings. Most, if not all, of the Thursday solar systems were made from purchased kits with every component perfectly set in place per the specific directions contained in the box, which made them actually, perfect; quite the same but nonetheless perfect. Friday morning in the parking lot, as other beautiful boxed solar systems streamed by, a very sad thought struck our imaginer. Suddenly, pipe cleaner connectors and origami planets were the tools of losers and others who created without directions in the box. The bright, wildly excited eyes dulled and from the previously jubilating heart came the whispered words, I can’t turn mine in; it’s dumb. My solar system doesn’t look perfect like boxed ones do, and the teacher will think I didn’t work as hard. Gentle, encouraging words from the support team were not quite enough to get us beyond the parking lot crisis occurring in our car, but an intuitive, sensitive, empathetic teacher saved the day, the moment, and a creative heart under siege. This wise and good teacher, upon hearing of the crisis, tenderly pulled the student aside, reminded the student of the excellence of creativity and imaginative work, and affirmed the highest priority and value to be placed upon all of the extra effort involved in creating a unique project, which was, in fact, the assignment. The imaginer’s smile returned thankfully. When do we actually trade in our out-of-the-box imaginations for boxed kits complete with perfect directions? Once we make the trade, are we able to go back?
Monday, March 10, 2014
In The Aftermath Of A Yeller
Following a frightening first grade year with an incessantly yelling teacher, trepidation filled this young heart in anticipation of second grade. Fear, one method of classroom management and control, manifests in students through their downcast eyes, rounded shoulders, and obvious crushed confidence. First grade accomplished this for me. Just weeks from second grade, hopes were not too high for anything better. Upon arrival in the new classroom, we second grade students were greeted with a breath of lovely fresh air. In a word, kindness. This kindness was to escort our class throughout second grade, refilling our learning sails with a gentle breeze of optimism allowing and encouraging us to bravely and excitedly explore new oceans of learning. Kindness. A gentle voice. Happy eyes. Probably not attributes asked about on a teacher job application, but clearly attributes deeply affecting classroom morale and ultimately individual and collective classroom successes. Kindness pierced through the learned fear of the previous school year and nurtured a restored eye contact, strong shoulders and a sweet growing confidence among all of us blessed to be in this happy second grade classroom. I do not recall content taught nor content learned in second grade, albeit to recognize that we all advanced to the third grade. I do recall, however, with vivid and joyful recollection, the loving-kindness of a very gentle, very special, very encouraging teacher, whose tender ways brought smiles and motivated excellence. I have never forgotten to consider the tone used in delivering words to children. Kindness matters. Kindness builds up. Kindness outlasts content. Kindness is soothing, healing balm to the wounded spirit that has been staggering under the excruciating weight of another’s bitterness. Kindness lifts and restores. Kindness is free. Kindness is priceless.
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.