Tripping the write fantastic

Fantasy

Fill your life with love. Dianne LacourciereCC BY-SA

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung

Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.

Not because the student is struggling.

The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.

“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”

The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.

For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.

I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.

I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.

The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.

I sit beside her at my table:

“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”

Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”

“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”

She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.

To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”

I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.

She grins.

I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”

She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.

Off she goes.

That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.

Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”

“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”

We look at the changes together.

“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”

“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.

“Indeed,” I smile.

Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”

My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”

At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.

I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.

I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.

I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.

I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.

I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”

Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”

I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.

We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

Making adjustments

Poor Banjo

Poor Banjo!

Banjo is my family’s 18-month-old yellow Lab. If he can be summed up in one word, it’s exuberant. If two words – wildly exuberant. He is a force to be reckoned with, ninety-one pounds of raw energy barreling toward us at top speed in hopes of 1) eating something or 2) having us throw a ball or stick for him to retrieve. Endlessly. Banjo goes into a frenzy if he thinks we’re about to stop throwing said ball or stick, the bodily equivalent of shouting NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! His beautiful gold-green eyes (sky-blue when he was a baby) go pink around the rims; he often leaves us humans coated in a layer of frothy slobber, prompting us to quote Bill Murray’s line to Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: “He slimed me.”

During attempted walks on the leash (key word: attempted – these walks are more like trying to restrain a steam locomotive), Banjo’s mouth foams to the point of looking rabid, unnerving to anyone who might recall a certain story about a big yellow dog exposed to hydrophobia. I mentally push this horrible connection away the instant it comes to mind. Managing Banjo has become something of a Herculean challenge, to say the least. Twice he’s escaped from us, running, barking and foaming, through our neighborhood, causing one woman to run into her house and giving young men chase. I corralled him once myself and got him safely to our fenced backyard. The other time my older son chased him for forty-five minutes, while Banjo had the time of his life ripping through neighbor’s yards and swimming in the pond across the street from our house. In disgust, my son gave up and stormed home, at which point Banjo, sopping with pond water, bounded back up the driveway.

Banjo escaped from the backyard recently, having dislodged two slats of the wooden fence by repeatedly jumping against them with his considerable weight. Looking at the slats, presently secured with bungee cords until we can nail them back properly, my husband said, “If we can’t contain him, we’re not going to be able to keep him.”

My turn to say NONONONONOPLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!! 

Despite all, I love this wildly exuberant dog. He’s been with us since he was seven weeks old, a ball of yellow fuzz that slept in my lap or on my feet. Banjo’s presence represents hope and survival, his own as well as my husband’s during a dark time;  I wrote about it in The unplanned baby. How can I just give him up? Yes, he’s one giant mess. Sure, he sheds copiously, enough hair to make a whole other dog. Yes, he dug up the pipe leading from the propane tank by the back deck until the stench of gas frightened us all, giving us visions of the whole place blowing at any moment, until we buried the pipe again and built a small wall of cinder blocks around it. Banjo barked at these blocks nonstop, all day, every day, for about a month.

But when he goes into his crate at night, he looks at me with those golden-green eyes and waits patiently for me to reach through and rub him for a minute. When I do, he leans his head against my hand, closes his eyes, and savors every second – the sweetest, most loving of creatures.

If only he would stay this calm more often . . . .

It was inevitable, of course, and past time, really. It had to be done.

We took Banjo to be neutered.

We did not know until we picked him up that he’d be wearing a cone to keep him from interfering with his surgery site until it healed – for seven days.

“There’s no way,” I said, watching Banjo writhing, twisting, and jumping, trying to rid himself of this horrid thing around his head. But after a few minutes, he sat still, with his head hanging down. Subjugated, submissive, maybe even dejected, Banjo seemed to be contemplating this new, unfortunate turn of events.

In the subsequent days, he simply made the necessary adjustments.

He learned that he had to put the entire cone opening over his food and water bowl to eat and drink. I laughed at the sight. He looked like something straight out of science fiction, a vacuum-headed suction creature from another planet. He ran through the backyard, as exuberant as ever, with his cone pointed toward the sky like a morning-glory flower. He wanted to play so badly that, despite the cone, he managed to drag a five-foot pine limb thicker than my arm to me in hopes that I’d throw it for him.

He still waited for me to rub his head when he went into his crate to sleep.

“I am so sorry about all of this, Banjo,” I said, working my hand through the bars and past the cone.

He shifted his head to help me reach him, leaned against my hand, and closed his eyes. So accepting and forgiving.

I rubbed him an extra-long time, tears stinging my own eyes.

My husband and I took the cone off after four days. We couldn’t stand it anymore.

Banjo is healed now, running unfettered again in the backyard each day of this glorious, sunny spring. He never fails to lift my spirits, this big, beautiful, messy boy. He reminds me that setbacks are temporary, that whatever pain and hardships come, there’s something good waiting just on the other side. Accept, make the necessary adjustments, carry on – cheerfully.

Just another of life’s lessons from an exuberant yellow dog that will hopefully be calmer now.

Regardless, here’s the truth about Banjo: He doesn’t belong to me. I belong to him.

Always.

Reflection: What are the necessary adjustments must you make in your own life, currently? Think acceptance, forgiveness, healing, moving beyond. What’s the something better that might be waiting on the other side of the struggle, the pain? Write your truths.

 

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

slice-of-life_individual

 

Born

“They said it would be a while,” announced the young man, as he came through the apartment door. “I gave the nurses your number – I figured I could wait here just as good as at the hospital, since it’s so close.”

“Yes, that’s true!” beamed his mother, closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you came!”

The young man’s father nodded from the table. “You’re just in time for strawberry shortcake. Come have a bite.”

The young man seated himself at the table while his mother dished up another serving of shortcake topped with freshly-whipped cream. He’d hardly tasted it when the telephone rang. He froze – it couldn’t be the hospital, could it? 

His mother darted to the phone: “Hello? Yes … yes he is.”

She held the receiver out to him.

Was something wrong? Despite the juicy strawberries, his mouth was dry as he took the phone.

“Congratulations!” said the chipper nurse on the other end. “You have a daughter! Mother and baby are doing fine.”

He managed to thank the nurse. He hung up and looked into the rapt blue eyes of his parents.

“It’s a girl,” he said, blinking. “She’s already here!”

His mother hugged him. She began to cry.

In a flurry, they gathered the dishes and set them in the sink. His mother took off her apron and grabbed her pocketbook. His father put on his black cap, and the three of them fairly scrambled out of the kitchen door and down the back stairs.

His mother-in-law and sister-in-law were standing at the nursery window when the young man arrived with his parents in tow. 

Said his sister-in-law: “It’s a girl – finally!” She sounded almost wistful, having no children of her own.

Turning to hug the young man, his mother-in-law said: “Looka there – a granddaughter, after five grandsons! I thought this baby might come fast. All of my mine did.”

“Mine did, too,” said the young man’s mother, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

The mother-in-law took her by the arm.”Come up close and see your first grandbaby.” And she stepped back to let the new grandmother near the nursery window.

“Ohhhh,” whispered the young man’s mother, gazing through the glass. “She looks just like a little angel.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, unabated. 

Her son, the brand-new father, peered through the glass beside her, frowning. He hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but one thing was for sure – the newborn wasn’t pretty. “Good Lord. She looks just like Daddy.” 

Everyone laughed at that. It was true – the wrinkly, ruddy newborn had hardly any hair and looked like a little old man – indeed the image of her granddaddy, who beheld her silently, smiling, his heart bursting with pride. He thought of the twenty silver dollars he’d collected  for his first grandchild. One day when this baby was old enough, he’d give them to her.

The in-laws congratulated each other on one side of the glass while the baby slept soundly on the other, while somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, the baby’s mother wanted to know when she was getting some supper, since the baby’s arrival had preempted it.

Thus was I born, that long-ago evening in May, strawberry season, in the city, when fathers were relegated to waiting rooms instead of witnessing and participating in births, before Cool Whip was even invented – alas.

As the day rolls around yet again, with every celebrant who gathered at the nursery window long passed on, it occurs to me that knowing the story of my birth is a gift. It ranks high, priceless, among all the gifts given me over a lifetime. I owe this mostly to my grandmother, a tireless storyteller, and some to her son, my father, who, in his matter-of-fact way, told me that my mother grumbled about missing her supper and that newborns aren’t pretty – not even his own! He made a similar observation at the funeral of his father – my grandfather – as we stood by the casket. “He looks really good,” I said, stroking Granddaddy’s snow-white hair for the last time, marveling at the smoothness of his skin. My father frowned: “I don’t know why people say that. Corpses don’t look good.”

Geez, Daddy.

Nevertheless, I cherish my birth narrative as told by those who were there.

Tonight I celebrate them and their truths, their personalities, their wit, their lives – and their stories, which allow me to see events from their perspectives. Tonight, for just a moment, I am at the window, watching through their eyes, when I am born.

The fascinating reciprocal, of course, is that because of their stories, they live on through mine.

Reflection: Do you know your birth – or adoption – narrative? If you do, write it down! If you don’t, ask, if possible. If not possible, well, that’s a powerful story in itself. Explore your beginning, experiment with perspective  – and write. And, by all means, if you know the birth stories of others – tell them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The value of value

Rose & shadow

Rose and shadow. ankakayCC BY

We have a new principal at our school.

On his office wall is a certificate presented to him by his previous school: “Most likely to make you feel appreciated and valued.”

That word, valued, set my thoughts firing like electrical arcs in a dozen directions.

The first thing that came to mind, strangely, was an image of light and shadow. From an artist’s perspective, in artist terminology, value is the shading that gives depth to a two-dimensional object, almost magically transforming it visually to three dimensions. Values make an image pop, bring it to life.

A fascinating concept for a leader of a school, or any leader, isn’t it – to be an artist of sorts, to harness the light and the shadows of the given entity, to have a vision, to go beyond the surface and bring depth, meaning, and make it work. Artistically speaking, that’s the value of value.

Another image was immediately conjured – the vast machinery of systems. Have you ever had the sensation of being a tiny cog rotating in a mind-boggling conglomeration of structures that do not fit well or operate properly together, with old, vintage pieces welded precariously to shiny new ones, like something out of steampunk? As the cogs we cannot even see the full extent of the machinery looming far beyond us; we can only feel the unwieldy vibrations as it lumbers on. That’s often how education feels today. In truth, it’s not the structures that hold things together and keep everything running – it’s the cogs, the teachers. Teachers are the most crucial pieces – and the end product isn’t the perfectly standardized student. The students aren’t end products at all – don’t we want them to keep growing, learning, discovering, contributing, as long as they live? That’s something no machinery can produce.

Which gets back to value.

To value something means to hold it in high regard, to recognize its worth and usefulness. We value things that are important and beneficial to us.

My thoughts branch out into a hierarchy of what-ifs:

What if systems valued schools more than data? What if they scaled back and simplified rather than adding on?

What if principals communicated their value of teachers through their actions instead of words?

What if teachers made all students feel valued – and valued their differences? And taught students to do the same?

What if everyone realized that these are matters of the human heart and spirit?

I can see the light and shadows separating already, magically transforming things, creating a depth that’s been needed for so long.

slice-of-life_individual

Come SWiRL with me

SWiRL

Our Literacy Lunch team’s T-shirt design

Q: What’s a fun way to engage families in English Language Arts activities with their children?

A: Have a Literacy Lunch!

Every year, families look forward to Literacy Lunch at our school. It’s one of our best-attended events.

Our theme this year, “Come SWiRL with Me,” centered on the facets or domains of language: Speak, Write, Read, Listen (we added the “i” to the SWRL acronym to make a real word), as speaking, writing, reading, and listening comprise the ELA standards and language skills needed across all disciplines.

So, grade levels came up with activities that encompassed all elements of SWRL. Some included poetry, in recognition of National Poetry Month.

 

Spring poems 1st

First graders wrote spring poems with families, to read aloud. Second graders wrote “I wish” poems.

Swirl poem 4th

Fourth graders composed “swirl” poems with families.

Book tasting 5th

Fifth graders treated parents to a “book tasting.”

Wax museum 3rd

Third grade’s wax museum: Meet Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Jackie Robinson. Visitors pressed a “button” to hear the historical figures speak. This was the culmination of a biography writing unit.

After the in-class activity, families went to the cafeteria:

SWiRL - Cafe

All ready for families to eat together – and to write on the tablecloth.

The children seemed to enjoy writing on the paper tablecloths at lunchtime the most – at the end of each lunch, tablecloths were covered with messages and small sketches. One carefully crayoned note from a first grader: “I love you.” Underneath, the neat printing of a parent: “I love you, too.”

Upon exiting, parents gave feedback: They were in awe of the artwork,  fascinated by the children’s ideas and their creative expression. One parent commented: “Public speaking is VERY IMPORTANT!” Another parent, after attending kindergarten’s renditions of reader’s theater, wrote: “I’ve seen so much improvement in my son’s writing and speaking.”

Perhaps most telling is this comment, one frequently echoed throughout our years of Literacy Lunches: “Thank you for this special time with my child.”

Speak, write, read, and listen well, for words are important.

So is time.

SWiRL table

Reflect: What message do you need to communicate to someone today? Make time.

 

Elegy written in the countryside

Tobacco barn

A friend tells the story of a visitor from England who, while riding through our rural North Carolina community, asked: “What are all those quaint, narrow houses in the fields?” My friend chuckled: “Those aren’t houses – they’re tobacco barns.” 

I thought: They’re really elegies written all across the countryside.

I love tobacco barns. Within a short radius of my home stands a grand one with a shiny tin roof, another crumbling in a timbered wood, and another housing two mules – seeing this makes me feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. So, with serious apologies to Thomas Gray, I attempt to pay homage to tobacco barns on this last day of National Poetry Month.

Along the winding roads, bereft, they stand
Beyond their use, and most beyond all care,
Just empty shells of creaking wood, unmanned;
Gone gold, within, leaves sweetness in the air.

The fires no longer burn, nor flues convey
The curing smoke, the farmer’s cash-crop dreams;
Those hands and hearts that worked all night and day
Lie spent, burned out, unremembered, it seems

But for the spectral structures standing yet,
Hand-hewn ghosts, whispering to passers-by:
“Press on, work hard before your sun shall set,
Live, love, build well.” – I hear the old barns sigh.

Reflect: What in your landscape, your neck of the woods, speaks to you? What does it say? Why? Listen – and write. 

 

 

My book bag

Bookbag

Everywhere I go, my customized book bag is a topic of conversation.

First of all, it’s literally a BOOK bag, sending the message “I’m a reader.”

Then people realize what the “book” is about. A play on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my book bag bears the title “Magical Worlds and Where to Find Them.”

Opening a book, for me, is akin to Newt Scamander opening his suitcase – we step in and walk through magically expanded worlds. Whatever the book, it’s a passport to the minds and souls of other people, where I find myself reflected not always as a writer or thinker but as a fellow human being on the common, complex journey of life.

That’s the message I want to send to my young students, who are frequently in raptures over my book bag: Read. Expand your world, your mind.

My book bag actually sends more than one message:

Bookbag spine

It’s an homage to my favorite fantasy writers and the worlds they created, old and new.

Much is written and debated, perhaps, on the importance of reading fantasy. Here’s a favorite quote on the subject:

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don’t see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can’t verify. 
-Katherine Paterson

The magic is a draw, certainly – in regard to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, who wouldn’t want to experience singing stars and merfolk, a centaur, talking animals? Who wouldn’t want a chance to feel the tingle of the box of dust from the lost island of Atlantis and ride on the back of a huge owl? Truth is, the bigger, deeper exploration is not the mysteries of the magical world but the real workings of the human heart – we read fantasy to escape our world, to live in another for a time, and all the while we’re looking into a mirror. This is where our thinking truly broadens – in understanding self, then in pushing the parameters of possibility.

Dr. Seuss said:

Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.  

The lines between the fantasy stories we love best and the world we live in are much blurrier than we realize. It’s where the impossible and possible merge – who’s to say where all the boundaries really are?

Which is fun, sometimes even comforting, to think about.

So everywhere I go, I carry a little fantasy, a little magic, with me.

Via my book bag – a messenger bag, indeed.

Bookbag back

slice-of-life_individual

Committing assumicide

Through the window

Through the window sepia. Jo NaylorCC BY

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.
Isaac Asimov

This quote brings a little girl to mind.

She shows up in my classroom early for her reading intervention group. I am hunkered over my laptop fighting with a SMART Board activity I’ve created on word families.

“Hello,” I say, without looking up, frowning at my screen and the uncooperative technology. “Come have a seat. The others will be here in a few minutes.”

She sits right next to me, a small warmth at my elbow. “What are you doing?”

I sigh. “Trying to fix this activity for your group to play – it will be fun. Something’s not right, though. I’m trying to figure it out.”

She watches while I attempt to cut a word from one side to paste on the other. Unsuccessfully.

Even as I fight the program, I wonder what she is thinking.

She struggles terribly in all academic areas, an ESL student with processing issues beyond the language barrier. She is soon to be tested for disabilities.

“What is that line in the middle?” she asks.

“It’s a dual screen – two screens instead of one.”

“Oh. You are trying to move this word to here?” She points from one side of the screen to the other.

“Yes. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I say in exasperation. I glance at the clock – I should have caught this problem sooner! “I’m going to have to quit now – I’m out of time. Your group will have to do something else instead.”

Without removing her eyes from the laptop, my student reaches over, clicks on the obstinate word, then drags and drops it on the other side.

“There,” she says, matter-of-factly.

I stare at her. “How did you know that? Have you seen a SMART Notebook before?”

She shrugs, laughing at my expression. “No. Just a try.”

The group was able to play the interactive word game. That day my little girl was a much more willing participant, with considerably more confidence.

The outcome could have been quite different. In my frustration, it would have been easy to answer her questions with Oh, never mind. It’s too hard. I could have thought, There’s not much need of my explaining. You won’t understand.

Had I done so, I would never have known that she had this ability, that she could “see” what to do with the new software when I couldn’t.

I would have committed assumicide.

It happens every day.

Teachers assume that students who struggle in academic areas struggle in all things – and thereby limit the students further. Although the thought may never be verbalized, it lurks in the mind: They can’t do that . . . so surely they can’t do this . . . .

A friend of my family was born with cerebral palsy. His father was an avid golfer who decided early on that he would treat his son as if he didn’t have the disability. As soon as the boy was big enough, his father started teaching him the game.

I have often wondered how many eyebrows were raised at the time: What is that man doing? His child can barely walk or dress himself – why in the world would he teach him something requiring as much precision as golf? That boy will never be able to hit the ball! I wondered if some people may have been angry over the injustice.

If so, they eventually learned that they’d committed egregious assumicide.

The boy grew up living and breathing golf. He remains a local expert on the game with a room full of trophies won in multiple tournaments, long after his father had passed away.

Yes, that’s right – a room full of trophies in a precise game like golf, when the two halves of his body don’t work together for him to climb stairs and his hands shake when holding a cup so that it can only be partially filled, lest he spill the contents.

When I needed a fast P.E. credit one summer to complete my teaching degree, the only thing available, to my great chagrin, was golf – and this extraordinary man coached me through it. I have page after page of his painstakingly handwritten notes and drawings on “the fundamentals of golf.”

When I was growing up, my parents had the In the Wind album with Peter, Paul and Mary singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As a child, I loved the three-part harmony and haunting lyrics:

How many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

Maybe it’s not always a matter of not seeing, but seeing wrongly – seeing the deficits, not the potential.

For the teacher, what isn’t working too often overshadows what might. Sometimes we see but don’t act because we don’t know what to do, or because we believe our efforts won’t matter. We assume we are defeated before we begin. Sometimes our focus just isn’t where it needs to be when worry, exhaustion, fear, discomfort, directives, even the need for self-preservation and validation, occlude our vision. Sometimes it’s hard, in the throes of teaching – and of living – to stop and breathe, to listen, to see, to let go when we’re so focused on whatever it is we are trying to make happen. Accordingly, we close more doors than we open – for ourselves as well as for others.

We assume, and something dies.

I decided at the end of eleventh grade that I wanted to go to college. Higher education wasn’t talked about at my home, wasn’t encouraged. The general expectation is that I would keep taking courses like business typing (which I bombed, miserably) to become a secretary.

I needed to take several college prep courses in twelfth grade even to apply for college, and the college prep English teacher wouldn’t let me in his class.

He had the reputation for being the hardest teacher in the school. He reluctantly met with me, frowning over my transcripts. “You haven’t taken the prerequisites for this class or demonstrated that you can handle this caliber of work,” he commented, handing the transcripts back.

“Y-yes, sir, I know,” I answered, trembling. “I hadn’t planned to go to college until now.”

He eyed me over the rim of his glasses. Piercing blue, absolutely no-nonsense eyes.

“Tell me why I should let you into my class.”

“I’ll work hard. I can do it,” I said.

He sort of snorted. “A lot of students before you thought they could do it, too, and transferred out of my class, even when they had prepared for it.”

“Please.” It was all I knew to say.

He shook his head. “I am doing this against my better judgment,” he grumbled, and signed my special permission form.

That year I encountered the great poets, studied sonnets, wrote so much about the spider in Robert Frost’s “Design” that my teacher noted at the end of my interpretation: Exhaustive analysis! I memorized and recited – in Middle English – the first thirty-four lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I hung on my teacher’s every word about London during the time of the Black Death; his descriptions were so vivid that the images remain clear in my mind to this day. For my final paper I wrote about the function of King Claudius in Hamlet – and when our teacher announced that four students tied for the highest score on the paper, I was one of the four.

He returned my paper on the last day with this comment: “For someone who had to have a special conference to get in this class, you have done remarkably well. You have surpassed expectations.”

All of which leads me to believe that the First Commandment of teaching should be Thou shalt not commit assumicide.

Perhaps it may even need to be the First Commandment of humanity.

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Deeper than data

Moonrise

Moonrise. magnoidCC BY-SA

Papers are spread across the conference room table. The projector shines a graph – a student’s reading assessment history – on a screen. Discussions center on interpreting the erratic data points on a trend line in relation to the aim line toward a goal, the rate of improvement, and whether or not this student is a retention candidate.

A colleague turns to me: “What do you think? You’re the literacy person.”

I consider the numbers, the color-coded risk categories, where this child falls in all of it.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I haven’t heard this child read.”

Silence. Eyes are on me.

“I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

I leave the meeting to do just that.

The child is eager to read and turns out to be highly accurate, reading slowly and deliberately; the time that it takes this child to finish reading is why a high risk is indicated on some measures. In fact, the child can read and fully comprehend text above grade level expectation. The only enemy is time, and that’s only an issue in assessing. The desire to read, the ability to self-monitor, and an obvious work ethic so early in life will take this child far.

I think of Brené Brown, professor-author, who says: “I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.

It takes another soul to reach it.

I listen to another child reading with great flow and prosody, to discover that this young reader isn’t making meaning beyond the surface of the text – and struggles a bit even to retell what’s explicitly there. This child, whose data looks near-ideal, “in the green,” is of far greater concern. Supports need to be put in place immediately or this child will fall through the cracks.

On paper – on the dust jacket – this child looks just fine.

A few months ago, as I was printing data reports in the computer lab, I saw a young man walking with a class down the hallway. Subs are getting younger and younger, I thought, gathering my papers and returning to my room to begin analyzing them. Two colleagues joined me at my table.

The young man came into my room, smiling. “Mrs. Haley, do you remember me?”

I look at him. A little face, frowning over a book, springs into my mind. “Yes, I do! Goodness, you’ve grown up!” Mentally, I am counting off years – Good grief, how long have I been doing this?

Turns out he’s not a sub, he’s a high school volunteer. I breathe a little easier about the passage of time. He was one of my first intervention students at this school.

“I am planning to go to college to teach,” he says with a grin. I marvel at his poise. He exudes young professionalism.

“Really? What do you want to teach?”

“Reading. In fifth grade. I think I can help the kids love it. I really didn’t love it until I was in high school and suddenly I couldn’t read enough – I read all the time.”

I am awed. “That’s amazing! I am so glad to know. The kids need you. What a great role model you’ll be.”

One of the colleagues at my table asks: “Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?”

His face – once so little and serious, nearly scowling as he sat at this very table – lights up with a beatific smile.

“Yes. Mrs. Haley.”

My colleagues’ eyes tear up. I cannot even blink, cannot quite process this.

“But – you said you really didn’t enjoy reading until high school,” I manage.

“It took a while,” he laughs. “Reading was hard for me when I was little. I didn’t think I’d ever be good at it. You were the one that gave me the confidence, the one who said I could do it. I kept trying.”

Behind the data is a story. Behind the story is a little soul. A precious one.

Sometimes we never know how the story unfolds once the children go on. We only play a part for a little while, but how priceless is that tiny window.

If data were the whole story, I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t be writing this now. My parents didn’t go to college; one didn’t finish high school. The odds were against me. But my parents bought books and magazines, my grandmother read to me long before I went to school, and teachers challenged me all along to strive for more.

Another meeting, another table strewn with papers. I stand up. “I have to go now. It’s time for me to read with a student.”

This student and I read every day, if we can. He struggles with vocabulary but his primary issue is lack of confidence – he doesn’t want his peers to hear him.

I am running late. When I find him, he tries to hide a smile.

“I thought you forgot,” he says, as we settle at the table.

“I was in a meeting,” I explain. “I had to leave it.”

Pure astonishment is on his face. “You left a meeting? To read with me?”

“Well, yes. Your reading is important. Let’s get going.”

He looks at me, wide-eyed. “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

“You’re more important than the meeting,” I say.

He smiles in spite of himself.

And he reads.

I listen.

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