The Work Around

I embrace mistakes. I do.  Really.  I don’t mind making mistakes.  I always think of creative ways to fix them.  I’m not sure how I developed this mindset.  Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family.  I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece?  How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right?  I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity.  It will be a success not a defeat.

Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead.  On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness.  Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.”  And I teach this to children.  No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block.  Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes.  Don’t be afraid.  Create something new.

I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom.  I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate.  It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine.  And they did. The space was loud and messy at times.  Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning.  It was a true play space.  No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design.  When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken.  From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun.  Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!

I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities.  The Wonder Lab started to remedy that.  We were just beginning.  But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton.  However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play.  They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets.  As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands.  This space was necessary.  It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around. 

For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air.  It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened.  There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office.  It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials.  I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter.  It would make a great wonder space for a small group!  I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building.  This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts.  When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head.  I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?”  She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up.  You are always thinking of another way to do things.”  I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them.  I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids.  I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!

One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative.  She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison.  A bison?  Yes, a bison.  Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison.  I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison.  Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned.  We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions.  During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play.  Simone asked for another big box.  I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.”  It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with.  Looking back, Simone has had a rough year.  COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated.  She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments.  But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus.  She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her.  She thought of a work around.  That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear.  I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.

During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately.  We talked about the obstacles she faced this year.  We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year.  As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head.  I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling.  Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity.  Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.  

Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg

Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Was That on Purpose of by Accident?  By Janelle Fenwick

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.

– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo

A Candle in the Darkness

This week I am celebrating.  I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing!  As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years.  My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.

Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people.  I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years.  I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family.  She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me.  I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process.  Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.

A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog.  I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work.  I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers.  They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.

When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become?  What could I accomplish?  It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language.  Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:

I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)

Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:

My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened!  The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!  

William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker.  In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up.  I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.

I have been teaching for over four decades.  I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know.  Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning.  I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them.  I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness.  Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives.  Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people.  I am very grateful.

This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research.  He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom.  I marveled at the list of his publications.  But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.”  When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings.  Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue.  All things were possible.  In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely.  It was a wonderful time.  And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down.  His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned.  We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say.  It did not take away the pain.  We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing.  More and more – more and more rapidly.  And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people.  Soon we had no more Lego people.  I brought this problem up to the class.  I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.

Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person!  What was it doing there?  Who put it all the way up there?  I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence.  I asked them what they thought happened.  No one said a word.  Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there.  He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears.  Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone.  I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place.  I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones.  Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed.  One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales.  Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors.  I encouraged him to write.  As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter.  I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise.  Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig.  Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row.  They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow.  There was a little light in the darkness.  A small glimmer of hope.

And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for.  Marco is happy and healthy and safe.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding out a candle to light our way as we tell our stories.

Books as Breadcrumbs

Last April, I began writing this blog consistently every week upon the invitation of Ruth Ayers.  It was April 10th to be exact – my 64th birthday, and Ruth invited me to join her  SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog  group, because I had replied kindly to one of her blog posts. This is my 37th blog post since then, and I’ve been thinking about connections.  Specifically, how do people connect us to ideas and how do those ideas make us grow – give us hope and courage? On my blogging journey, I discovered many fellow-bloggers with many amazing, funny, and heart-wrenching stories. I’m indebted to all of them because their experiences help me take on new perspectives and make me see the world in ways I had not yet imagined. One such blogger is Julie K. Cox who writes about family, teaching, writing, and most of all reading. I have found that whatever books Julie recommends, I immediately seek them out. 

On Julie’s recommendation, I have read Emily P Freeman‘s A Million Little Things and am currently halfway through her book, The Next Right Thing.  I find her voice both calming and enticing. She beckons her readers to take action gently.  And though she is much younger than me with a totally different lifestyle, I find myself following and considering and feeling like I’m following the right path. Emily talks about the time when she and her husband were in the midst of trying to figure out the next right vocational step.  She talked about how instead of following answers, they began to follow arrows – signs that would lead them to the right decision.  I smiled to myself when I read that. I thought, That’s what I have been doing with my students these past forty-two years!” Only instead of arrows, I’ve laid down some breadcrumbs in the form of books, which they follow until they set down their own breadcrumb trail of books that lead them to new adventures and interests.

Much of my teacher life has been working with struggling readers and writers.  They would choose to do anything else in the world rather than sitting down to read or write.  They would even consider cleaning their rooms or doing the dishes!  But just as Lorraine Skovron, my 5th grade teacher, set me on a path as a lifelong reader with her first breadcrumb, Misty of Chincoteague, I knew I could find the right book to set my students onto their own reading paths.  I knew if I listened very closely and got to know my students as people with unique interests and desires, that I could find books that would connect them to their experiences and to new ideas. 

A number of years ago, I worked with a little girl who was Dyslexic. Reading came hard to her, but she was tenacious and resilient.  I admired her spunk and courage and kept feeding her books.  One day while she was working hard to decipher a text, she slammed the book shut and declared, “I hate reading!”  I took her hands into mine and said, “Oh no, you don’t hate reading!  Reading is hard, but the stories are worth it. You LOVE stories.”  She smiled and nodded, “Yes, I do love stories. Can you read to me?”  And that’s what I did for the rest of the session. I read to her and filled her mind with questions and wonder, helping her restore her energy for reading.  I will never forget that day.  I learned how to help struggling readers balance the focus needed to read the words with the joy those words presented in the form of story.  The story was the key, the story was the breadcrumb or arrow that would lead to a rich life of unbridled ideas.

This year, I work with both struggling and gifted readers and writers.  The arc of my work keeps me on my toes and makes me reflect on what moves I make to push my students forward.  What arrows or breadcrumbs am I laying down?  The first thing I do when working with students is to listen to them and give them space for them to tell me who they are. As Parker J. Palmer says, “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”  Sharing my struggles and successes with students help them to open up and share what is easy and difficult for them.  Then together we plan next steps to reach our goals.  This is true for students who have learning differences and students who find academics easy and are searching for more and more challenges. 

Last week, one of my gifted 5th grade students who is reading at the 8th grade level reached a plateau in writing.  She had written a twenty-seven-page mystery and was spent.  Usually, she has a wealth of ideas from which to draw, but for the past few weeks, she didn’t want to write.  She said she was empty.  I let it be because as her tutor and not teacher, I could give her that luxury for a bit.  However, I felt the time had come to nudge her, but nudge gently.  So I asked myself, how exactly I should do that. And as often happens the answer came in the form of poetry.  I asked Maren if she’d like to write a sensory poem about winter.  She eagerly agreed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. After some discussion and revision, Maren wrote this final poem.

Winter Joy

 The snow falls hard outside my window.
 The ice makes the roads slick and cold.
 Neighbors grab their sleds and laugh 
 As they tumble down the hillside.
  
 A large SUV slips down the road, 
 Its roof piled high with skis. 
 An eager little face peeks out from behind the window, 
 A baby doll clutched in her small hands
  
 A toddler, too excited to wait until spring,
 Toddle-bikes down his driveway. 
 His mittens, attached to his coat by yarn,
 Sail behind him like tiny woolen kites.
  
 A woman in a thick coat 
 Passes out warm hot chocolate
 To shivering little faces
 That light up with joy. 

Then I thought, let’s take this poem of which she was so proud and turn it into a story. I asked Maren to choose one stanza that stood out for her the most.  She chose the last stanza. From this stanza, she started a new short story project. This is how she began:

A woman in a thick coat passes out warm hot chocolate to shivering little faces that light up with joy. Sitting down on sleds, they laugh and joke with one another as they drink. A teenager with dark brown hair poking out from under his patterned hat throws a snowball into the trees. The wind whips through the trees, as if calling the children. They put their cups onto the porch banister and zoom down the hill. Faster, faster, faster, until they fly through the air and land in one big pile, laughing and shaking snow out of their boots. 

A small boy in an old camouflage patterned jacket watches from the top of a tree a few meters away, his sandy hair tousled, a content little smile on his face. His own sled, duct-taped and patched in more places than the sled actually shows, lay at the bottom of the tree. Unable to resist, he ignored his mother’s constant reminders to stay away from the other kids and found himself swinging off the branch. He took the frayed rope in his hand and ran up the hill. His small voice was hardly heard among the loud children, but he was accepted into the tight-knit group without any problems. Up and down they go, flying faster every time as they developed new paths and balanced different ways on the sleds. 

I am so eager to see how this story will unfold.  What choices will Maren make?  How do the books she’s reading influence her writing style?

This week, I worked with a gifted 1st grade girl who reads at the 3rd grade level.  We have read two books in the Paddington series:  A Bear Called Paddington and Paddington Abroad.  She loves them!  It is hard to find books for a gifted 1st grade reader which will support both her intellectual and emotional growth.  A Peruvian bear dressed in a funny hat who gets into all kinds of trouble was just the ticket.  After reading the books, I asked Lily to write a sequel.  She chose to write Paddington in China because she knew a lot about living in China.  She dictated the story to me as I typed.  It has two chapters so far and is fifteen slides long.  Her choice of vocabulary was amazing and her style of writing shows just how much attention she gives to author’s craft. Lily is a deep thinker.  I asked her to write a bit on her own when we were not meeting together.  When I looked at her work I found this portion:

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Brown.  “The only way to know is to ask the pilot.”

Judy and Mrs. Bird ran up to the pilot and asked when their conversation came to a stop, “Paddington, why did you run over here to talk to the pilot?

The pilot and Paddington exchanged mysterious glance. “Nothing,” the pilot said,” We were just talking about when the plane was going to take off. It has been delayed a little because the engine broke!”

What the pilot said was true, but it was not all.  What they were really talking about was the best places to go in China because what Paddington really wanted to see was a Chinese person speaking Shanghainese.

“Fine.” Mrs. Bird answered.   In her mind though, her suspicions were raised; almost nothing at all did her eagle eyes miss, and she had seen the glance that was passed between them.  She still didn’t want to offend Paddington so she didn’t say anything.  Almost everyone was depending on her eagle eyes except Paddington so without her saying anything the matter was soon forgotten, at least for the time.  The pilot hurried over to the plane engine and checked it several times before rushing back to the Browns and declaring, “THE ENGINES ARE FULL OF MARMALADE!”

I am getting used to her incredible use of language and her agility with dialogue.  What surprised me was her use of a semi-colon. I asked Lily who taught her how to use a semi-colon.  She said, “I read a lot and I noticed authors using that mark when they had two sentences and wanted to put them together.  It can be used instead of and.”  I chuckled.  I told her that she was indeed correct.  Then she asked me what the mark was called again. I told her it was a semi-colon.  I am in awe of not only how much Lily can retain, but of how much she can figure out all by herself.  When I was in 1st grade I was still trying to decode the mysteries of the alphabet!

Yesterday, we had ten inches of snow, and we got a much hoped for Snow Day.  Bright and early, I received an email from Lily asking me for another book series recommendation. Here is a natural reader.  She is a reader for life. On her snow day, she is asking for books!  In fact, when I asked her what she thought she was going to be when she grew up, she told me that she did not have to be one thing.  She intends to be a doctor, an artist, and a writer.  I have no doubt that Lily will achieve these goals.  I also wish for her days of playing in the snow and the sun. I hope I can lay down some brilliant breadcrumbs to make her journey sweet.

Room to Read

This school year, I have taken on two positions rolled into one: curriculum coordinator and learning specialist.  Yes, it is a lot of work.  Yes, it is good I have a monkey mind and enjoy spinning lots of plates on long wobbly sticks all at the same time.  But the best part of my job is that I am the one teachers call upon to solve student puzzles.  I love having the opportunity to read and write with children and figure out why they are having trouble. I calm my monkey mind and I focus in on the student reader.

This week, a fourth grader confided to her teacher that she couldn’t understand any of the passages that she had been assigned.  She started to panic.  There were tears.  Then her teacher called me.  The next morning, I came to Lindsay’s class. As I entered the doorway, she jumped out of her seat and was eager to come with me.  I was surprised by her response because the year before, Lindsay tried her best to avoid me.  But now she was ready.  She wanted help. She wanted to read better.  We walked together down the long, bright hallway chatting about the summer and the best flavors of ice cream. Then we went out the door, through the courtyard, up the stairs to another building where my office is located.

Lindsay and I settled into our seats in front of a large picture window.  I was glad the room was large and cheerful with lots of light streaming in and a view of beautiful trees and flowering shrubbery.  I could tell Lindsay was a little apprehensive, so I kept the conversation pleasant and positive.  I asked her about what she had read during the summer, and she confessed that she read only two books. Instead of focusing on quantity, I asked her what the books her about.  She could not remember the titles or the topics.  This told me that she was definitely not connecting with books.  She had not yet entered the story and become part of it.  I knew that was going to be my job this year, and I was energized by that knowledge.

I told Lindsay that I had not always liked reading.  I told her that my dad was a writer, my mom was a teacher, and I had an older sister.  They were all readers.  I wanted to be different.  I wanted to do something else.  Then, when I was in 5th grade, Mrs. Skovron was my teacher.  She helped me to learn to read better.  She told me that I did indeed love stories and that together we would find the right ones for me to read.  And that’s exactly what she did, and that’s exactly what I promised Lindsay we would do together.  I looked at her and she was smiling.  She was ready to take the first step.  First, I taught her strategies for when you come across an unfamiliar word. We broke several words apart syllable by syllable, and her shoulders relaxed.  She read a passage silently and made a key comprehension error.  I pointed to a part in the passage, and I asked her to read it aloud.  She did and her eyes lit up. 

“Oh, I was wrong!” she said.  “I understand now!” 

We both laughed together.  I told her that for now she should read aloud so that she can hear the story unfolding and can pay better attention to it.  I talked about making pictures in her mind as she read.

She read the next passage aloud to me. I stopped her when I knew her understanding was breaking down, and we talked about what was happening in the text.  Little by little, slowly we make our way through the text.  When she reached the end, I could tell by her facial expression that she really understood the story and could retell it confidently.  She had worked hard. It was time to return to class.  Lindsay saw a colorful box on the windowsill and asked me what was inside.  I opened the box to reveal a collection of seashells. 

“Pick two,” I said. She looked up at me,

“Really? They are so beautiful.” 

“Yes, you worked hard.  Take two,” I told her. 

I knew that I had made a reading partner, we were ready for a year of adventures.

Room to Read
 
I was not a born reader
For me, reading was work
Long, hard work,
Words stretched out
Each and every sound
Slow... slow... work,
Work that required patience and precision,
Which, at times, I had a short supply.
 
 
Everyone in my family was a reader
All my friends were readers
I would rather be running
Swinging, swimming, biking
Hiding in the woods, skipping stones
Reading was slow
Reading was done inside in a quiet room,
Reading required singular attention.
 
Then I entered 5th Grade,
Loved my teacher at first sight,
And I knew she like me.
Very soon, she realized I was not a reader.
I read aloud in a staccato monotone,
I gulped, sighed, and struggled my way
Through sentence after sentence.
When I was done, I had no idea what I had read.
 
My teacher didn’t give up,
She was patient and precise,
She helped me unlock the sounds
And read more smoothly.
She held out book after book to me,
I shook my head – no, not this one –
Or that one – or that one –
None held my interest
 
Until Misty of Chincoteague.
I loved horses, and wild ponies
Piqued my curiosity.
That day I brought the book home,
I filled my bathtub
With pillows and blankets
and climbed inside - book in hand,
Snuggled down and began to read.
 
I was there on the island surrounded
By sand dunes, tall grass, the smell of salty air.
My mother knocked on the door
Wanting to know what I was doing.
“Reading,” I responded.
She peaked in to see me
Reading in my reading nest
And quietly closed the door.
 
Those ponies, those words, that book
Unlocked reading for me.
I read horse book after horse book,
Then books about ancient Egypt,
After that, I read about a girl named Harriet
Who got into a lot of trouble.
Now, I was a reader.
Now, I was ready for another story.

Listen to Their Songs

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

Last week, I attended yet again another professional development webinar.  This summer they have run the gamut from strategies for reopening given the new pandemic reality, to antiracism, from identifying and reducing anxiety to techniques for project- based learning.  All were informative, helpful, necessary, but as we drift into August, I am beginning to get weary of learning.  I desperately need a respite before the tsunami of teaching in a pandemic begins to swell again.  This latest webinar feature A.J. Juliani as the keynote.  I have heard this dynamic speaker before, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.  What I didn’t expect was his final words of encouragement to teachers in the form of a video from Clint Pulver, a motivational speaker.  Clint is an author, musician, and employment retention expert. He helps companies and organizations retain, engage, and inspire their workers. Clint believes that a single moment is transformative, and he demonstrates this in a video about his school experience about his interactions with his teacher Mr. Jensen – here.

I was blown away by Clint’s story and was lucky to have champions like Mr. Jensen throughout my school career.   Clint’s story reminded me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  She went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  Gillian Lynne is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities.

This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade.  One of my students, Michael, was a talented violinist.  Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult for me, since I had no background in music.  However, Michael was eager to weave music into his day. It was an integral part of who he already was at the tender age of seven.  During whatever we were learning, Michael was humming.  He created songs throughout his day, even during quiet working times.  This caused consternation among his classmates.  Michael’s humming disrupted their thinking, no matter how quietly he hummed. One afternoon after dismissal, Michael stayed behind to speak to me about this problem.  He wanted me to know that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The songs, he explained, just came into his head. I reassured Michael that I knew he wasn’t humming to annoy his classmates.  That afternoon, we came up a solution that involved rearranging desks, which would allow Michael to continue to softly hum, while also enabling his classmates to work in quiet. 

That year, I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students.  As Carolyn Hildebrandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote, “… teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music.  The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” In the coming months, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to write a song about taking care of the earth, showcasing various students’ instrumental abilities by asking them to demonstrate their talent at musical show and tell sessions.  The children also made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.  While constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music.  In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans.  While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch.  Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers of their own lives.

Although, I was not musically inclined, I did realize the need to hold all children’s talents in high esteem.  I remember vividly times as a child when a poem would pop into my head as if by magic. I’d repeat the words over and over again, as not to forget until I got home to a paper and pencil.  As a teacher, I knew I had to nurture students’ passions and allow them to create.  Instead of silencing Michael’s nascent musical abilities, I thought of ways to honor them and connect them to the classroom culture. And what did Michael grow up to be?  A concert violinist, of course, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me