Posts Tagged ‘school’

Poetry Month Day 10: The Work is Great

April 10, 2021

Today, I had the privilege of working again with other leaders from my Just Schools Cohort. Together, we’re working across districts to advance equity and justice in schools. This team of professionals…they’re amazing. And even on days where I feel discouraged about my own work, and my own progress, they are there to remind me that building a more just society is HARD. That we have a LOT of work to do. But that we can – and MUST – do it together. They inspire me.

It brings to mind a line from Pirkei Avot, a collection of Jewish teachings. Rabbi Tarfon said: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This Golden Shovel poem is my tribute to the incredible efforts of my colleagues.

Cathedral Rocks by Albert Bierstadt

When you stand at the base of a mountain, you
can’t ever see the top. Your feet are
just plunking down one after the other, not
knowing when-how-if they’ll arrive. They just know they’re obligated
by faith to
get you to a place where the work is complete
and whole and holy. The
temptation to be solitary in your work
is great, but
you know this journey is neither
easy nor short. So you are
going to need others with you,
others who know the only way to be free
is to
be strong, be strong, that our strength never allows us to desist
from the lifedream of reaching that mountain top, or from
the struggle of climbing it.

Poetry Month Day 6: On the Natural (Dis)Order

April 6, 2021

You could say this poem is a continuation of my reflections for the Slice of Life challenge about the need for a strong, steady chocolate stash in a school. I stand by what I wrote, even if my observations this week speak to the contrary.

Clearly
there is a problem
in our world:
there is some kind of
imbalance
within our universe
that is causing it to
behave badly
(like a puppy in a roomful
of long-laced shoes
or a nub stuck
all the way in a pencil sharpener
so that things get to a point
but not really)

because

how
on
earth
is it
that the natural order of things
has gotten so upside-down

that one can go
into the copy room
look at the dregs of the
chocolate stash,
at the poor unfortunate souls
left behind from
The Great Choosing
and
find…
THIS!?

Since when are SNICKERS considered the most inferior
of the chocolate world? I may have to rethink my life.

Sunday Sit-Down #6: Duped

February 21, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about today’s post, and I haven’t been looking forward to it. There are several stops on my journey that I know are difficult for one reason or another. Perhaps I carry guilt, embarrassment or shame.

Today, it’s anger.

You see, I – and way too many in my generation – were sold a bill of goods. We were duped. Fooled. Scammed.

We were led to believe that civil rights was “done,” that MLK and Rosa Parks had swept in and now we were done with racism. Everything is equal! Everyone is equal! Everyone now has equal opportunities and now everyone can be happy!

Yet I grew up at a time where sundown towns were still a thing. Where there was still a need to bus city students to the suburbs rather than focus on improving the educational system as a whole. Where black lives and black bodies were being criminalized at an alarming rate. Where kids around me were either victims or perpetrators of racist behaviors and comments. (And, being real, these things are STIL a thing.)

I would learn these things in high school. Coming to this awareness left me furious with a grown-up world that would shield me from this knowledge in the name of protection or false unity. I remember feeling – and still feel – a visceral sense of injustice, of betrayal, of anger that the world as it stood was hidden from me.

It wasn’t right.

Sad thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. When racial issues at my high school shattered this illusion, I was fortunate enough to learn from others with different perspectives. And, luckily, I was able to gain this understanding while I was still in my formative years.

But there are other white folks who never came to that realization, who never had the opportunity to see and recognize that our work is far from done. I think of the folks who saw the light after George Floyd’s death. Their coming of age happened ages after they needed it. I saw their confusion and shock unfold around me. They had bought into the lie, just like I had, and they realized how very long they had been living that lie. After this summer, there was no turning away.

At least for grown-ups.

For children – for white children – there is still space to draw the blinds, to lower the volume, to shield from difficult truths.

But to allow another generation to be deceived?

No. I can’t, and I won’t.

I still hold my anger, still nurse it when the time is right. Because as a teacher, I have the ability to help raise humans who can be optimistic and idealistic, AND still be aware that we have work to do in our communities and society and world.

It’s not political to want this for our future generation. Rather, equipping our kids with the tools and knowledge to follow their moral compass is compassionate. It’s what’s right and fair.

There’s more – so much more! – I could express. But that’s for another day

Thanks for joining me. I’ll be right here, same time next week.

Swinging For The Fences

February 9, 2021

I’m not going to lie.

This year, I have had some SPECTACULAR fails in the classroom.

And I mean, not just the oh-man-this-is-tricky-how-am-I-going-to-figure-a-different-way-of-teaching-this-to-the-kids fail. That’s just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, cost-of-doing-business, everyday type of fail.

No.

I’m talking about the holy-cow-this-lesson-is-crashing-and-burning-and-I-have-absolutely-no-way-of-backing-out-of-this-and-no-way-to-figure-out-in-the-moment-how-to-make-it-better-and-why-did-I-even-bother-getting-out-of-bed-today fail.

I’ve thought a lot about these fails.

They haunt me.

In the moment, failures as I’m teaching feel like I’m failing as a teacher.

The good news is that time offers perspective. And through the perspective of time, I get offered moments of clarity and growth.

You see, all my fails, at least the most spectacular ones, have had one thing in common: they all occurred when I was asking more of my students than they were ready for.

That got me thinking about what I do and why I do it. I was talking with my kids this morning about yet ANOTHER ambitious lesson we were going to try and take on. Here’s what I told them:

“Friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’ve been doing, and I realize sometimes I mess up as a teacher. And when I think about the mistakes I make as a teacher, I kind of have to decide. Do I want to make the mistake of overestimating what you can do, and sometimes ask too much of you? Or do I want to make the mistake of underestimating what you can do, and asking less of you than you might be capable of?”

Down to a person, we all knew the answer to that question.

So yes. I will continue to shoot big, and yes. I will continue to sometimes miss big. But If I didn’t shoot big, Would I ever get reasoning like this?

Done as a group together (you may have to expand, but there’s good stuff here).

Would I ever get writing like this?

Fourth-grade spelling. Gotta love it.

Would I ever get peer feedback like this?

This is what happens when you model feedback based on grown-up writing communities like the Slice of Life challenge.

Fact is, I wouldn’t trade all those difficult moments for the world, if it means growth for me and my kids. And maybe next time, these mistakes will pave the way to a smoother path next time, one that takes them – and my teaching – even further.

Sunday Sitdown #1: Here I Go

January 17, 2021

I’m a member of my school district’s newfound committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.*

For our last meeting, we were asked to compose a racial autobiography, to craft a reckoning of our experiences with race and identity. (Check out the Pacific Educational Group to learn about their work!)

There were a LOT of questions. And as someone who’s been thinking about and reflecting on race for a really, REALLY long time, I didn’t know how I could put it all together. I’m a person of words, but I couldn’t imagine the number of words I’d have to summon to do the assignment justice.

So I did whatever I do in situations where I need a direct connection with my thoughts: DOODLE. I grabbed my flair pens and started drawing. Instead of a written document, I came up with this:

As I drew, it occurred to me how very MUCH there is here for me to unpack. There’s a lot more here than pictures can convey. I’m going to HAVE to put words to these ideas. And I’ll have to do it one step at a time.

That’s where you come in. I’d love for you to join me on this exploration.

Each Sunday, I’m going to work my way through this autobiography, one image at a time. I’ll share the stories and memories that connect with each part. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake.

Here’s hoping I see you right back here next week!

*Yes, I have some general thoughts about committees for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. And also thoughts about those words needing to be capitalized. We won’t get into that right now. The good news is, I’m hopeful about what our group can accomplish. So there’s that. It’s also led by Regina Armour. So there’s also THAT.

Ah, Fiction! We meet again.

May 12, 2018

I have a confession to make.

I have not written fiction in…I cannot remember how long.

There’s just something about writing fiction that stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what it is. Personal narrative? Poetry? Essay? I’m all in. Fiction? Move it along, nothing to see here. I’ve tried countless times, with stops and starts.

To tell you the truth, I had been feeling guilty about it. After all, I’m the queen of getting in there with my kids, rolling up my sleeves and writing along with them. Except with fiction. I always demonstrate my pre-writing, model my storyboards and such, then quietly fade away when it’s time to do the actual composition.

Well, this week I had an assignment for one of my classes. We were supposed to imagine that an educational reformer from history visited our classroom, and to respond creatively.

My original thought (as it so often is) was to use poetry. Little by little, my verse started reading more and more like prose. Until I finally sighed, gave in, erased the line breaks and embraced my writing for what it was. Fiction.

Here goes. It’s a little rough around the edges; I’m not gonna lie. But boy am I proud that I climbed this mountain after who knows how long.

———————————

Monday morning, 7:36 a.m. Time to begin my daily ritual. I slung my teacher bag to the floor, threw my coat over my chair and slumped down. I reached into my bag to unpack. My laptop and plan book assumed their rightful positions at the altar, as did the pile of grading I should have done the night before. Pencil in hand, I began to assimilate just exactly how the day would go.

A shadow in a dark suit appeared at the door. Crikey, I thought. Please tell me I haven’t forgotten some sort of meeting. I straightened and turned to the figure, then grew puzzled. It wasn’t someone I knew. “Good morning. Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for a…Mrs. Levin?”

Rising from behind my desk, I reached out to shake hands. “I’m Mrs. Levin, and you are…”

“Dr. John Dewey. They didn’t tell you I was coming? I’m here to observe your class for the day.”

“Wait…John Dewey?” I replied.

“Yes, from the Time-traveling Reformers for Enlightened Education.”

“Ah…TREE. I’ve heard of you. Well…welcome! Have you been to many classrooms before?”

“A few,” Dewey said. “So here I am, ready to learn from you.”

Holy cow! This guy wrote the book – literally! – on progressive education. I better have my A-game ready today. “I don’t know,” I stumbled. “It seems I’m probably the one who has some learning to do from YOU. Well, Dr. Dewey, my mentor teacher always says that you can tell a lot about a teacher based on how the classroom looks.” I gestured towards my clearly lived-in classroom space. “So what do you think?”

John Dewey adjusted his spectacles, cleared his throat, and began his tour. He started by examining the tables for groups of students, the supplies I keep in the room available to the kids, the Wonder-Bot 3000 some of my loveys made for when kids had questions to research for fun. He thumbed through my shelf full of professional books (Reading with Meaning, The One-World School House, Learn Like a Pirate) and gave a satisfied “humph.” Turning to my desk, with the too-large pile of grading on it, Dewey gave me a quizzical look. “Are these…worksheets?”

What? If only he knew how much busywork is my nemesis. “Oh, no,” I quickly say. “My students are exploring the evolution of the English language. These packets help guide them on their research.”

“Ah, I see.” Dewey looked through the pile, pulled out a random paper and began reading. “So, you’re studying Noah Webster and his contribution to American language.”

“Well, he IS kind of a dude.” I feel myself turn red before adding, “At least the kids think so. You know that’s one of the highest compliments they can give a person.” An awkward silence. “Perhaps you’ll understand when you meet them during your observations.”

“I suppose I will. Well, Mrs. Levin, your classroom does seem to be quite student-centered, and their work does seem interesting. When do the children arrive?”

“In a bit. They just need to check in with their home rooms.”

“Home rooms?”

“Yes. The students just come to me for language arts enrichment. These are students who demonstrate a high aptitude for reading, so they come to me for additional challenge.”

John Dewey furrowed his brow and folded his arms. “So…this opportunity isn’t available to all students, then?”

“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Dewey. All students need the opportunity to be creative and to explore. You may not entirely agree with the premise of gifted education. I know not everyone does. Heavens, even I didn’t for part of my career, and I was even a product of that system.”

“You’re not making a strong case for yourself.”

“Allow me to continue,” I said. “The thing is, gifted students need each other. This classroom expands their opportunities to be creative and explore the world around them. To make it better, they often go back to their classmates and spread that knowledge and those skills.”

“I see,” Dewey said.

“The thing is, Mr. Dewey,” I went on, “I agree that it might be nice if ALL students had the chance to engage with curriculum to the same degree of depth and complexity as these students do. But…given the time constraints classroom teachers have, plus the expectations to meet our state and national standards for every child, many classroom teachers don’t have the room or the freedom to pursue courses of study like this one. You can thank your friends in the standardization movement for THAT one.”

He replied, “We have some philosophical differences, Mrs. Levin, but you do seem to have your students’ interest at heart.”

“I’M HERE!” interrupted Sandro as he strode through the door. “DID YOU MISS ME?”

“Of course I did, Sandro. It’s been a whole three days! Where are your classmates?”

“They’re coming.” He turned to John Dewey. “Who are you?”

“I’m Dr. John Dewey, young man. I’ve made some important contributions in the past to the way you learn, and I’ve traveled through time to visit you and your teacher.”

“Wait. Dr. DEWEY!? I know that name!” he shouted, as the rest of the class came straggling in. “Hey you guys! This is the Dewey Decimal System guy. Can you believe it? Here’s here from the past – to visit US!” A commotion arose as the other students gathered around, asking all kinds of library questions all at once.

John Dewey’s shoulders sagged, and he gave a heavy sigh. Clearly this was not the first time he had heard this one. He adjusted his spectacles, shook his head (did he just roll his eyes?) and said, “No, no. That’s not me. You’re thinking of MELVIL Dewey. He’s the library man. I’m JOHN Dewey. I made reforms in progressive education throughout the early twentieth century.”

Amelia piped up. She was never shy about asking questions. “What’s progressive education?”

“Simply put, young lady, progressive education means that learning is there for you to explore and learn about your world. Learning is not just to prepare you for some job later in life, but to help you make the most meaning of your life now, as you live it.”

There was a general murmur as the students considered this idea.

“That’s kind of like what Mrs. Levin does!” answered Jenna. “She lets us explore cool stuff all the time! Have you ever heard of Noah Webster? We’re studying him now.”

“I am vaguely familiar,” Dewey said as he shot me a look. He continued, “I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your studies. You must remember how important it is to seek out big ideas and make them a part of your educational experience. It is the best way for you to understand and connect with the world around you.”

“Dr. Dewey,” declared Sandro, “you’re a DUDE.”

From behind his spectacles, John Dewey blushed as the other kids nodded in agreement. Check’s in the mail, kid. Check’s in the mail.

 

Right Poem, Wrong Assignment

April 24, 2018

Today I had my fourth graders write about something small, taken for granted, or unappreciated. We started with a poem I wrote and shared about lowly feet. Then it was time for the kids and me to get cracking.

I meant to do the assignment along with them. I really did. But I couldn’t think of ANYTHING to write. So after a few minutes of being blank (which felt like an eternity) it struck me that perhaps boredom itself goes unappreciated.

In I went to compose a poem elevating boredom through poetry. But then a different poem came out. It’s still one I kind of like, so I’m sharing it here.

The kids still have me on the hook for the real assignment, though.

Boredom

When my pencil
(poised above paper) awaits,
Anxious to do the bidding
Of my master/mind
Yet no command comes
A standoff:
As my hands
(eager to get moving) wonder
What is wrong with
The machine that moves them
And my mind
(unused to blankness) panics
When finding itself
In silence.

So my imagination
(relenting to this break in the action) sighs,
Succumbs to numbness,
Twiddles its thumbs
And waits
For a lost, lonely idea
To find its way
Home.

Important Poetry

April 20, 2018

Once again, my students and I are composing poetry, this time based on Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book. It’s such a charming read, and both the kids and I love how Brown takes ordinary things in our lives and sees the poetry within.

The kids wanted to write their poetry today about paper. So, I joined in. It may still be a work in progress, but I thought I’d send it out into the world for now. Have a good read!

The Important Thing

The important thing about paper
Is that it is thin.
We find it in any size
Or color.
We ball it and throw it.
We fold it and tear it.
It carries the weight of words
And stories
And lists
And lives.
But the important thing about paper
Is that it is thin.

On Feeling (not) Useful

April 19, 2018

Well, it certainly has been a while since I’ve stopped by. I felt the pull to write once again as I am watch my fifth graders craft allegorical stories.

Funny thing is, they’re the same group who formed trusted reader circles in fourth grade.

And here they are, working with a new set of trusted readers. They’re talking to each other about what’s going well, where they are struggling, and what they can do to improve their writing.

And me?

I’m here. They’ve all shared their work with me, and I can read every piece. I can comment on documents and confer with my students. They can also come to me if they want me to be one of their readers. And I will.

Right now, though? I’m just…enjoying the view.

IMG_7110.jpg

 

Finding Trusted Readers

May 2, 2017

C-wv5U9XoAAVkQO.jpg

Kids discussing work with trusted readers.

Sometimes, I don’t have all the answers.

(Whaaaaatttt? Stop the presses! And don’t tell my children.) Naw, just kidding.

But really. I know I’m not the only one who gets blind to my own writing, unable to either see or overcome the shortcomings of my craft. That’s when I need somebody else’s eyes on my work.

My fourth graders have been composing poetry for several (glorious!) weeks now, and the time has come for them to begin putting together their collected works. In addition to crafting numerous poems, they are setting about the task of choosing the poems that best belong in their collection and refining those poems to be publication-ready.

That’s where the “other eyes” idea comes in. We talked about how important it is to have a circle of trusted readers we can go to, and how we need different types of readers depending on what feedback we want:
-buddies who can give us validation and cheer us on
-writers whose craft we admire
-people whose perspectives are different, and sometimes contrary to our own.

At some point, we need all of these people in our support network. So my kids put together their lists of trusted readers. But they voiced that they weren’t quite ready for having these (sometimes tricky) conversations completely on their own. That’s where they needed support.

Enter a pre-reading slip to help guide conversation between poet and trusted reader. It allows the writer to express what they’re trying to do with that particular piece, gives the reader a sense of what to look for, and specifies if the poet simply wants feedback or actual suggestions.

unnamed

Notes from a conversation about my poem. I’ve got work to do!

I modeled conversations about my poetry with a (thankfully, willing!) volunteer from class, expressing my purpose for writing and entertaining suggestions from my reader. I got some great ideas that helped my poem come closer to the vision I had in my head. And, from what I can tell with the conversations I’ve seen around the room, the students are getting there too.

Next up? We’ll do some training in how to frame difficult conversations. This is, as I so often like to put it, a GOOD problem to have. What do we say to a poet when we don’t understand what they’re trying to say, or if we don’t think a poem is quite ready? Knowing how to tackle these “speed bumps” is both a literary and a life skill.

And, if you’ve made it this far, I suppose I’ll let you read the Golden Shovel poem I wrote and worked on in front of the students.

Dawn (after Byrd Baylor)

Morning. Stillness all
Around as I
Nest my toes into the dewy grass. They know
The cool earth is
Their home, their true grounding. Suddenly
Light shifts, wind stirs. I
Sense a wakening that wasn’t
My own, and it wasn’t the
Earth’s. It could only
Be coming from the one
Mourning dove, with its soulful, solitary singing.

April 2017

(post-script: I didn’t notice, when writing this poem, that the first and last lines of the poem matched. It’s a nice effect, I think. Let’s just call that a happy accident…)