The Melancholy of Reading a Book for the Last Time

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“It started with a pooper-scooper.” This is the opening line from, The PS Brothers, by Maribeth Boelts. Hopefully it will get my kids’ attention. This year I have a class with many kids who do not read. I watch them pretending. I read their journal entries which are often about the first paragraph of each reading section. I listen as they can’t discuss anything of substance from their book. Yet these kids are “on grade level”. I seriously do not know how they pull that off on their tests because while I love them, and all their quirkiness, they are not 5th grade learners, …yet.

As I’m reading this book, which is part of our LLI (Leveled Literacy Intervention) series I’m reminded how great this series is for my kids. LLI was introduced to us a few years ago. At first I wasn’t a fan of this, reading from a kit idea. But almost immediately I saw the power of it. The word work, the simple writing guides, the vocabulary work, the topics. They were all exactly what my kids needed. The chapter books that are sprinkled throughout are always perfect choices and this book is no different. The PS Brothers is about friendship, bullying, loss of parents (one to death and one to jail), overcoming fears, and some other serious grown up issues that my kids talk about a lot. These are common issues we deal with in our classroom and I would guess most classrooms across the country do too.

As I sit here reading through the book, anticipating the excitement that the reading and discussions will hopefully incite, I am reminded that I am winding down a 30 year teaching career. And the feeling is definite melancholy. While I look forward to beginning the next phase, I am sad this one is ending. I’ve loved my 30 years of teaching. I love the people I work with and the kids who have been a large part of my life for so many years. I shouldn’t be surprised by such feelings, but I am. They stop me dead in my tracks when I least expect it.

So enjoy your kids and the time you have with them. Cliche I know, but always amazed at the power of this reminder when the obvious is in front of me.

Mary

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Musings of a Life in Education

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Warning – This post wanders as I  reflect on  30+ years of teaching and my upcoming retirement.

Over the years I’ve listened to many a great writer extol the virtues of writers’ notebooks.  So I’ve tried them. They didn’t work…for me…yet. I’ve kept them. I’ve referred back to them. They didn’t inspire me to write…yet. Maybe I’m not a “real” writer after all. But still I write. I write when the spirit moves me.

In school I hated writing for several reasons. I was given prompts or topics that meant nothing to me, so I didn’t write. I had horrible handwriting, so I didn’t write. Then computers showed up and prompts ended and I began to write. About things that moved me at that moment. Here I find myself in a moment needing to write, or should I say, release from my soul the thoughts and feelings inside me.

A few months ago I was standing in my 5th grade literacy classroom and it hit me, I’m done. I no longer am enjoying my work. I knew this because I no longer loved jumping out of bed in the morning to go to “work”.  For 30+ years I have thought of my work with children as fun, inspiring, creative, meaningful, unpredictable…. I’ve loved it. But something changed. It didn’t feel fun or inspiring or creative. It became incredibly predictable. I promised myself 30 years ago that when I felt this way I would stop.

I told a fellow coworker/supervisor. She seemed sad. I was surprised by that. I thought it was obvious I was done because my spark was gone and I thought for sure that showed. She said it hadn’t. I thought some more about it. The decision did not change and so I gave my written notice, shared with a few close friends and coworkers, and then posted on Facebook. Some understand. Some saw it coming. Some were surprised. Some, more than I wish, were envious.

Now I sit here on a icy, rainy Maine morning and realize I need to empty my soul yet again and so I write. I’m confused about where this will go and it frightens me. My husband’s health care depends on my ability to provide our health insurance. Am I letting him down? He says no. His eyes say no. But I know that in his heart resides the same fear I struggle with.  But I move on because, “I know”.

So I reflect on my years of working with kids. My first experience as a young adult in college  was working with severely autistic adolescents. I fell in love with those kids and all their quirky behaviors. Their raw emotions sparked something deep inside of me. I continued working with deeply troubled kids. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life. They also burnt me out very fast. When I had my first child, my husband and I both decided I would stay home with our children. It was what I wanted more than anything. That decision led to years of borderline poverty. While my husband worked two jobs I stayed home and ran a home daycare. We had one car, lived in a very cheap home, and I took care of other peoples’ kids. Yet we were an incredibly happy family.

Years later, with the invent of computer, I realized that I embraced something called Waldorf education. I had no idea that our poverty living supported an idea already out there. No matter what our financial situation was we served real food much of it food  we grew. I chose not to get certified by the state of New Hampshire because they would not approve of the food I served. Tofu…no way! Cheese from a local farm…dream on. But they would approve of hot dogs and Kraft Mac and Cheese. In other words, foodlike crap filled with harmful ingredients. This unfortunately is still the rule behind much of the food we serve our kids in our schools and daycare centers. Parents loved the food I served and often dropped off items they knew I would enjoy preparing for their children. Our days included making bread, creating our meals together, outdoor play, and crafts. Waldorf education says no to plastic. Well that’s all that was available at the local Salvation Army so plastic toys we had. But we also found items from the outdoors to bring into our play. I thought that was just poverty living. I had no idea that “rich” folks actually bought that stuff. We had a seasonal table long before I ever heard of such a thing. We had that because we brought in and played with whatever was outside at the time. No paints? No problem, just make them out of plants from the outdoors. To this day I embrace Waldorf education (not the man who made it popular).

So why am I “done”?  I’ll be honest and admit that I have struggled to stick to our prescribed curriculum. This year I found that I had abandoned all my usual arts/sciences/nature fun that has always been a central theme of my classroom. One recent day I was discussing with a coworker my inability to get my kids engaged. We, she, came up with a behavior plan that included earning a variety of things including “free time” choices. As we discussed this free time I became happy, something I hadn’t felt all year. She presented our class with art supplies. I felt happy. I pulled out our weaving kits, knitting, and needle felting. I felt happy. Yesterday these supplies were introduced to my kids. The excitement was obvious. We “played” for an hour with the supplies. I was happy. I felt a spark ignite deep inside. I was reminded of the power of  feeling happy, excited, inspired, creative as an educator. Or at least on this educator. It, I realize, is vital.

I wonder if this woman, who has worked closely with me for 9 years, saw my emptiness and respectfully knew exactly how to address it. Are these “earned free time” activities designed as much for me as they are my kids? I don’t know but that is how it’s playing out. Something I do know is that this highlights the power for humans to create, use their hands, relax, and have fun if we are to learn while in school.

Many wonder  how new teachers will make it. How they will navigate the incredible demands put upon them, the overwhelming responsibility of educating children who will grow up to someday carry on the work of adults. My advice to them is to bring whatever ignites their creativity into their classroom. If the teacher isn’t happy, the kids won’t be happy. And if the kids aren’t happy, they won’t learn. We know that. We know that the lifeline of education is the teacher and so more focus needs to be on the needs of creating an environment where the teacher feels happy, safe, embraced. The teacher needs permission to be creative.

I have been blessed. I know this. I watch as many young adults struggle to figure out what they want to do with their lives. I always knew. I also know that to be an effective teacher we need to be happy, feel supported, and have some power in the decisions on how we spend our days in our classrooms.

So here, as I reflect, I pass on advice on what has kept me happy in the classroom for so long: Be creative. Embrace nature. Grow plants with your kids. Cook with them. Move. Practice mindfulness. Dance. Sing. Tell jokes. Read. Write. And Laugh, a lot.

Peace, love, and rock on with your kids,

Mary

When Kids Teach

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When kids lead their learning amazing things happen. How is it that after 30 years of teaching I can lose sight of that? While I hate to put the blame on others, because the ultimate blame is all mine, I blame our educational system.

At the close of last year I wrote about how I lost my way.  After working through the beginning of this school year which has been like no other I have experienced, I have come to realize that I did not lose my way. We, as an educational system, have lost our way.

This year began with my promise to myself that I would follow our curriculum tooth and nail. Nothing was going to get in the way of us staying on task per our curriculum calendar. There’s only one problem with this grand idea, the kids can get lost in the shuffle. When we follow the guiding belief that no matter what, we stay on target with our calendar, our kids lose something precious. An example of what they lose will become clear with this story.

The stresses this created both in my kids and myself can’t be underestimated or unexamined. For the first time in all my teaching career I put the blame on my class. “They aren’t coming together as a community. They don’t seem to care about each other or their work. They don’t demonstrate inner motivation to learn. They lack any semblance of self control.” The list of all this class “can’t do” goes on and on. But then something unexpected happened. The kids finally earned some free time. They chose to watch a movie and work on some posters they were makin. It was Friday, I was tired and I too needed some down time. What I didn’t realize was how much they needed it too. I worried that they would fall apart with the change in routine. So far every single little change in routine this year has caused them to fall apart. The lack of self control with this group is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sure, some kids each year struggle with it, but a whole class?

Not wanting to fall behind, I had planned to weave the movie between reading, writing, and math. I was greeted with many sincere,”That’s not what we want to do,” comments. Sensing a mutiny, I asked one boy, who is respectful, hard working, and who demonstrates enough self control for the entire class, what he would like. “We just want to have some fun. We don’t want to work today. Can’t we just do fun stuff like you said we would?” I found myself listening to his genuine plea. “Sure,” was all I could come up with. So I erased our daily schedule and let them help me build our day. Part of the day would be one young boy teaching his classmates how to make origami paper cranes. This boy is bright and curious but has demonstrated a total lack of self control all year. He has been one of my most challenging kids this year.

That’s when the magic started.  As others got what they wanted on their desks for the movie, a black and white original Helen Keller movie, (Yes, you read that right! That’s the movie they wanted. And they LOVED it. Go figure.) this young boy set up his origami station. I watched as he demonstrated a focus like I have not witnessed this year. He cleared off the entire table, putting its contents exactly where they needed to go to be put away properly. He got the spray and wiped down the table. He got the origami paper, the name sticks, and a piece of paper and pencil. As his classmates watched the movie and worked on finishing up some posters they started the day before, he called them back to his table one at a time and successfully taught each one to a make a paper crane. He did that for over an hour, nonstop. He was kind. He was patient. He was encouraging. He smiled often. He taught kids who can barely write legibly to fold sophisticated paper cranes. Then when he was done he said he wanted to donate the cranes he made along side each child to the cause we are making them for. He said if he did this then each of them could keep their first crane. He felt that was important.

I nearly cried at the beauty of what I witnessed and then nearly cried again as I realized all that I had taken from them this year by focusing on a rigid timeline and expectations. The problem was that I fell into the dreaded trap of teaching content and not teaching kids. How could I let myself fall into that? Fear. Fear of not having kids “perform” well enough on tests. Yes, I allowed myself to fall into that fear. Even with all my experience and conviction to never to do that, I did just that.

It is vital that we stop sometimes and allow our kids opportunities to shine in ways they want to shine. To give them opportunities to stop and get to know each other on levels that are different than through traditional academics. I have no doubts that the lack of community in my classroom falls squarely on my shoulders, not theirs. We will continue to find time for opportunities that encourage joy and creative expression.  I will meet them where they are instead of insisting they jump to where I want them to be and slowly we will cross that gap together so each and every one of them remains spiritually intact.

As we approach our shortest day of the year and the many wonderful winter holidays, may you remember that teaching the whole child includes their soul. Break away from some of the strict demands our educational system puts on all of us at all levels of education and have some fun with your kids. Sew things, create things, sing, make cards for the less fortunate, laugh, show love, and drink some hot chocolate together.

Mary

To/From Japan With Love

 

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All throughout human history we have had periods when the world feels a mess. I don’t think it’s surprising to acknowledge that this is one of those periods. When we look back and study history we also notice that small acts of kindness by ordinary people are what get us through those dark times. This project was inspired by that simple thought.

For a year many, many of us teachers and the families we serve have watched in fearful awe the direction our country is going. We feel like those who need the most are being left out and worse. They are targeted for the years of repressed fear, hatred, and racism our country continues to deal with. Educators all across the country share stories of the hardships our families endure because of the policies that are put in place. They are also noticing stories of hope. Here is one more story of hope. Hope was our word of the week when a package arrived in my mailbox. It contained the items shown above as well as a few more.

The art and haiku poems were inspired by our school wide Writers’ Day. The entire school writes and posts their writing in the hallways. Our hallways were lined with our students’ writing. Visitors were encouraged to use stickies to write positive comments to stick to each piece of writing. It’s quite nice to see especially once the stickies begin to show up.

A young friend of mine, Myra, moved to a city in Japan to work with school children there. We’ve kept in touch, discussing the differences and similarities of our educational systems. This sharing of work came from that exchange.

When I decided to have the kids write haiku poems for our wall hangings, it was for a rather simple reason. They struggled with syllables. As a student who struggled with spelling, syllables saved me. They were my first check point to self assess if I was on the right track. I thought this strategy might help my kids too. It does. As we were exploring haiku we decided to visit to our school garden with our FoodCorps service member, Emily. She directed the kids to notice the small, often unnoticed parts of our garden. Their talk was all about the bees, the flowers, the colors, the carrots, the tastes. Perfect haiku inspirations. We collected words on stickies and brought them inside. We started playing with words and syllables…5,7,5. We went back outside, clipboards in hand, and started observing again with the 5,7,5 haiku beat guiding us. Back inside they shared their writings and started helping each other with words, beats, and creating feelings or visions. It was much harder than I thought it would be. It was clear many still thought of a word as a syllable. A few more sessions of arm tapping and chin counting (techniques which help isolate syllables) and our haiku poems were complete. It was time to hang them up in the hallway. The problem was they looked so plain. Knowing that presentation is everything, we pulled out watercolors and painted colors to enhance the feelings of our haiku poems. The results were lovely. Lovely words. Lovely art. Lovely, happy, proud children.

Haiku poems originated in Japan. They are usually about nature. Three lines. Five syllables first line; seven syllables second line, five syllables third line. Rhyming is not a must but lyrical flow is a goal. When we began studying the origin of haiku I thought again of my friend, Myra, and reached out to her to see if she’d like to partner up. Her supervising teachers thought it was a good idea and an authentic way for her students to play with the English language, so we proceeded forward. My kids made a Google Drive class slide show of their haiku poems and paintings; one slide per kid. We shared with Myra. Several weeks later I got an envelop with the following contents in the mail:

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My friend had printed out our slide show and shared them with her students who are learning to speak and write English, a task she says is not easy. When her students read our haiku poems they replied in English and Japanese. She photocopied them all and sent them back to us. Tomorrow I am going to give them to my students and hang them with these Japanese comments back up in our hallway. The Japanese/United States connection will be clear. The similarities of our students will be visible. The love and hope will be shared.

Communicating with students from other countries is one simple act we can do to encourage breaking stereotypes and knocking down the doors of ignorance. I know my kids will be filled with warm feelings when they read these comments from the other side of our small world. The kindness of these comments and the kindness that these students and their teacher took to write them will  not go unnoticed. My kids will notice. And they will feel the love that was shared. This small act of kindness was not only educational and fun but it filled our hearts with hope and love. Not so small after all.

May you and your students engage in simple acts of kindness to spread hope, peace, and love.

Mary

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Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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We all have that child in class. The one who can’t find the “just right” book. This may be the book for that child I have in my class this year. After reading a little about this story on Twitter, I ordered the book. I read it in one sitting. I loved it.

Several reasons I can’t wait to get this into the hands of my kids. First of all, it’s real. Its characters are real and so is its plot. In a very engaging way it deals with many emotions that kids growing up experience. From insecurities, to fears, to pride, and to love. It’s also about a good kid who is rough around the edges because of the lousy cards life has handed him. But when a coach steps in we see the power a positive male mentor can have on a lost boy. And finally, it’s about running track, sprinters to be exact. As a high school sprinter this book brought back many fond memories for me. The camaraderie, the goals, the hard practices, and the freedom that running brings. It reminded me of the power that sports can have on a kid who feels lost. I loved this book and I hope my kids do too. I hope it might even turn a few kids onto the notion of running track next year.

However you decide to go through life may you at one time or another run like the wind and feel the wind in your hair and the bounce in your feet.

Mary

1620 A New Look At Thanksgiving

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Anyone else feel like the old traditional ways of recognizing and celebrating Thanksgiving aren’t quite right? For years I’ve struggled with how to teach about Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, and Indians happily having a first meal together to celebrate; but to celebrate what exactly?

I found the above book and opened it up to see if it could help answer some questions that I had about this. I’m going to type the first page from this book, word for word.

Forward written by Nancy Brennan-Executive Director Plimoth Plantation and Margaret M. Bruchac- Wampanoag Indian Program Advisory Committee.

“Back in the 19th Century, one paragraph of only 115 words in one letter written in 1621 about a harvest gathering inspired the growth of an American tradition that became a national holiday: Thanksgiving. A number of today’s assumptions about that event are based more on fiction than on fact.”

As I read this honest reflection I realized that I may have found a source that will help me move forward. After all, if Plimoth Plantation, what many of us consider a Pilgrim museum, can wonder about this and explore our beliefs while searching for the truth, certainly American’s can too. No?

So I continued reading: “Many Americans think that the Pilgrims took over empty land from roving Native wanderers who had no fixed settlement. They are unaware of the continued existence of Native people. Unquestioning acceptance of biased interpretations can affect the way we treat one another, even today.”

When I read that section I knew I located exactly what I was looking for. In this year, the year of 2017 in the United States, what many of us refer to as the year of the Upside Down World, the year when chaos took over our country’s soul, I needed something to help me find truth.  Did the election of our 45th president bring about racism or did it just expose what has always been here? An honest question in my mind. Many say it goes back to slavery. Yes, it certainly does and slavery is certainly a sin we still have yet to truly acknowledge and make reparations for. But in reality it goes back much further than slavery. It goes back to the day the first white European stepped foot on this land because that is when the genocide of the native populations began. Our country is founded on that genocide. We have never acknowledged that sin and we still don’t. Many are shocked by the blatant racism that exists in our country today. But yet, until we acknowledge the fact that our country was built on someone else’s land we will never be able to successfully extinguish the racism in our country.  I’ll keep going…

“In 1947 the founders of Plimoth Plantation created a museum to honor the 17th-century English colonists who would come to be known to the world as the Pilgrims. In doing so, the founders left out the perspective of the Wampanoag people who had lived on the land for thousands of years. At Plimoth Plantation today, we ask questions about what really happened in the past. We draw from the new research of scholars who study documents, artifacts, homesites, culture, and formerly untapped sources such as the Wampanoag people themselves. We encourage new scholarship that includes multiple perspectives.”

When I read that I wanted to cry. 100 years ago we say we may not have know any better. I guess. But today, how can we not? Today we can know better and thus we must know better. We cannot continue to play ignorant just so we can continue this cultural celebration. What we did to the native peoples is nothing less than what Nazis did in Germany during WWII. Both are examples of the desire to exterminate a people. So I continued to read.

“What  you will read in these pages represents new thinking about the people and events of 1621. This book is just one part of a museum-wide effort to reinterpret the 1621 harvest feast through books, videos, educational materials, and a reenactment that gave birth to these photographs. We invite you to join us here on this shore and view the past from a different perspective.”

Happily, I continued to read this book. I hope you too will reconsider how you teach the next generation about Thanksgiving (and Columbus Day). We can still have our big family and friends meals, turkey and such, Macy’s Day Parades, and give thanks for all that we have. But as a nation we must reflect and ask how we can build a nation, our nation, one where we honor and treat each other with respect and empathy. We certainly can’t do so on a lie. It is time we unearth the lie. While that may be just a first step, it’s a powerful step, that will hopefully open the doors to real acknowledgement and reparation to the people we harmed.

May you enjoy your day of thanks with gratitude and reflection, and by giving thanks to all those who continue to work for peace and justice for all,

Mary

About the book: In October of 2000, Plimoth Plantation cooperated with the Wampanoag community to stage an historically accurate reenactment of the 1621 harvest celebration. 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving exposes the myth that this event was the first Thanksgiving and is the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday that is celebrated today. This exciting book describes the actual events that took place during the three days that the Wampanoag people and the colonists came together. The photographs taken by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson capture the spirit of the event and bring it to life. Co-authors Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac worked closely with Plimoth Plantation historians to produce this timely new book that tells the whole story by including the voices of all who were involved.

Wishtree

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It’s not often I email our literacy coach and only say a few simple words. But as I read this book I emailed her and said a simple, “Thank you.” This book of hope, friendship, and magic was exactly what I needed right now. And I believe it is what my kids need right about now as well. So I’ve decided to change what I had planed for a read aloud tomorrow and instead will begin to read this. You see, I love trees. But more importantly, I love magical trees who give us hope.

Last week each member of our Children’s Literature study group was given a copy of wishtree by Katherine Appplegate. I dug right in and immediately realized that I was happy. Her prose, her topic, her gentle way of interweaving accurate science.

Written through the eyes of a great oak tree named Red, we follow Red’s thoughts and plans as a new family moves into the neighborhood. We meet a young girl, Samar, who struggles to feel accepted in her new neighborhood and who’s gentle spirit allows her to befriend this old tree, its little critter inhabitants, and a neighbor boy. If this sounds too corny, I hear you. But please trust me when I say that this story is anything but. It is nothing short of melodious beauty on a very deep level.

I have a request for the few readers who may read this post and then hopefully read this book. If you feel like I do, grief as we watch our country’s soul being ripped open, then I’d love to read your thoughts on this fabulous story and hear any connections you may have made. Please share in the comments section so that it may, like the wishtree itself, share our combined wishes of love, tolerance, and peace.

May your week be filled with hope and love,

Mary