Some Thoughts on the Myth of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder

With awe, admiration and a dose of humility, I watched many colleagues and friends step up to the daily March Slice of Life blogging challenge. Every day they found something to say, and every day they found time to say it—while I found myself drowning in yet another revision of the book that (to mix metaphors) has sometimes felt like a ball and chain around my ankle. What was wrong with me? No blog posts for months, no poem in my pocket, not even a picture on Facebook. Beside work and the book, all it seemed I could muster was the occasional tweet—and self pity.

But then one day I found a poem by the wonderful Jack Gilbert called “Failing and Flying” in my inbox. It came courtesy of Garrison Keillor and The Writer’s Almanac, and in it Gilbert uses the myth of Icarus as a springboard to contemplate what my teacher-mind saw as the problem of deficit thinking.

As you probably know, Icarus attempted to fly with wings attached to his back with string and wax, only to have the wax start to melt as he soared close to the sun. And that sent him into a death spiral. The myth is usually seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris or pride, with Icarus punished for having the audacity to think he could fly like a god. Brueghel paints him, for instance, as flailing in the sea, so insignificant you have to work hard even to find him in the corner of the painting. But Gilbert sees it differently. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” not just ignobly drowned. And so he “believe[s] Icarus was not failing as he fell/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

As you’ll see below, Anne Sexton strikes the same note in her own Icarus poem, inviting us to admire his wings and not care that he fell back to sea:

Sexton Icarus Poem

These poems helped me rethink how I was looking at things. Yes, I’ve not managed to get certain things done (which in addition to blog posts includes folding the laundry), but boy, have I learned and experienced a lot. Over the months I’ve been working on the book, I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing teachers in amazing places—from New Jersey to Oman and from Buffalo to Bangkok. And those teachers have pushed me, in the best possible way, to keep on learning and growing.

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Of course, I’m not sure that constitutes triumph, but it does speak to what I realized was the abundance in my life. And among the many things I’ve learned is that focusing on abundance vs. scarcity is yet another way of thinking about mindsets that empower, not hobble, leaners. And that, in turn, has made me think that in addition to the passion I wrote about earlier that’s helped me keep on writing, I—and I believe all learners—need someone (or something like a poem) to remind us of both our strengths and the richness of our lives.

That rarely comes up, however, when we talk about helping students develop growth mindsets—not even in some of Carol Dweck’s recent articles where she’s cautioned teachers that growth mindsets aren’t just about effort. It needs to be effort that results in learning, and teachers have a role to play in that. As Dweck writes in “Growth Mindset, Revisited”, “Teachers do everything in their power to unlock that learning.” But even she shies away from reminding students of their strengths. Perhaps that’s due to the bad rap praise has, but I’m not talking about empty praise here. I’m talking about helping students see that how they successfully solved something one time might help them the next time, too—or at least remind them that they’re someone with a history of figuring things out.

And who knows? If Icarus survived the fall, perhaps he would have gotten up and simply tried again, just for the sheer thrill of flying—and the equal thrill of figuring things out. After all, I got a blog post up.

Deep Thinker Fortune Cookie


The Gift of Words

Dickinson on Words

There’s been so many words of hate and fear unleashed in the world recently that this holiday season I’d like to share some that can bring us together, not tear us apart. They all come from an utterly wonderful book by Ella Frances Sanders called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World, which I discovered through Maria Popova’s equally wonderful website brainpickings.

As Sanders writes in her introduction: “The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive and indescribable,” but are, in fact, part of our common human experience. And as such, Sanders says, they are reminders, that [we] are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and with feelings.”

So while we’re surrounded by divisive words, here’s some that can remind us of what we all share—especially if we’re word and book lovers.

Dutch adjective

Dutch adjective

Italian verb

Italian verb

Untranslatable Boketto

Japanese noun

Urdu noun

Urdu noun

Now here’s hoping that this holiday season gives you lots of time to commouvere and is filled with much gezellig boketto and goya. And may next year bring more peace on earth and good will toward men.

Giving Thanks to NCTE

multilingual thankyou

Every year as NCTE approaches, I find myself wishing it was held at another time of the year—some time when things don’t feel quite so hectic, with the holidays looming, my work ramping up and a book still to be done. But this year in particular NCTE was exactly what I needed: the perfect kick-off to the holiday season and a great kick start for writing, with so many people giving generous gifts of wisdom, inspiration and joy.

Talk of joy, in fact, was so prevalent that my wonderful colleague and session pal Kathy Collins warned us not to talk about it so much, lest it become the next new thing, like grit, to teach, complete with lesson plans, assessments and rubrics. But another pattern I noticed in the sessions I attended was the importance of process. In a session titled “Rethinking Our Thinking: The Role of Revision in Writing and Reading,” for instance, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and Dan Feigelson put process front and center as they shared a range of ways to consider and help students embrace revision as, Naomi Shihab Nye puts it “a beautiful word of hope,” that’s integral to the process of both reading and writing.

Appreciative inquiryProcess was also at the heart of a session called “The Art of Knowing Our Students: Action Research for Learning and Reflection,” which was chaired by Matt Renwick. The first speaker Karen Terlecky shared the Appreciative Inquiry process—and showed how it could transform the way we think about meeing professional goals, not as something to achieve but something to inquire into and explore. And Assessment in Perspective authors Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan offered a process for thinking about and looking at formative assessment that can help us move beyond beyond raw data to the living, breathing child beneath the numbers.

Journey of ThoughtAdditionally, process formed the heart and soul of a gorgeous session presentation by Randy and Katherine Bomer. Called “Tracing the Shape of Human Thinking: Reclaiming the Essay—and Writing about Literature—as Complex and Beautiful,” Katherine began by making an impassioned plea to return the essay to its original intention, to explore something through a journey of thought (i.e., a process), rather than to argue or prove. And Randy invited us all to attend to our own journey of thought as we drafted and revised our thinking about poet Li-Young’s devastatingly haunting poem “This Hour and What Is Dead.”

But perhaps what stood out the most for me was the way the whole Convention seemed to be the result of a process that we, as educators, went through over the last several years as we sought—and fought—to find our voices in the age of mandated education reforms and the supposedly objective supremacy of data.

VoldemortOnly three years ago, for instance, the only whisper of push back I heard (at least in the sessions I attended) came by way of the teacher and cartoonist David Finkle. In a five-minute presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” David shared a classic scene from The Wizard of Oz, which he used to question the authority and wisdom of the man behind behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards, a.k.a., David Coleman. At that point, however, like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, he seemed like a “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” specter—someone who’s so powerful his very name could unleash dark forces.

And now, three year’s later, here’s a stand-out moment from a stand-out panel discussion called “Expert-to-Expert: On The Joy and Power of Reading.” Chair Kylene Beers ended the session by asking the three panelists what policy changes they would make to ensure that schools become the place we all want them to be. And without missing a heartbeat, here’s what each panelist said:

Kwame Alexander, the author of this year’s National Book Award winner The Crossover, said he’d make every politician across the country read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl NCTE PanelDreaming. And he’d insist on filling grade K-12 classrooms with much more poetry.

LitLife and LitWorld’s dynamo Pam Allyn said she’d require all members of Congress to send their children to public schools to ensure that they’re actually stake holders in whatever legislation is being considered.

And recent NCTE President Ernest Morrell called for the elimination of all deficit language in schools, for students and teachers alike, which means no more labeling of children as strugglers and teachers as ineffective.

This process also led many of this year’s speakers to share new thoughts and ideas. Ellin Keene, for instance, shared her latest thinking about what’s involved in true student engagement, versus its evil twin, compliance. Her answer? Engagement requires the following four factors:

Intellectual urgency (or the need to know),

Emotional responses to ideas,

Perspective bending, and

Opportunities for aesthetic experiences

Tom Newkirk, on the other hand, helped me recognize something I knew but had never really articulated before: that we don’t read great nonfiction to learn information, but for the same reason we read any other kind of literature: to deepen our understanding of the human experience and, in the words of Kenneth Burke “to arouse and fulfill our desire” to connect. And my friends and colleagues from the Opal School, Matt Karlson, Susan Mackay and Mary Gage Davis, were on fire as they shared new ideas on the connection between beauty and social justice—and made their own impassioned plea to bring imagination, “the neglected stepchild of American education” back into classrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about these ideas as time goes by, as they really got my mind churning. But for now, many thanks to NCTE for reminding me to always:

Trust the Process


Pour la France

Vive la France

When my daughter was young, a teacher once asked her where her family came from. She said she really wasn’t sure but thought it might be England (which was, indeed, where two of her great-grandfathers came from). But she did tell her teacher what she knew for sure: that her mom always wished she was French.

Clearly my love of France has added to the heartbreak I feel over these hideous attacks in Paris. But I’m also reminded of 9/11, when for weeks my eyes would well up with tears every time I opened my front door and left my home for the streets of my poor wounded city. During those weeks I carried a poem with me that the New Yorker ran the week after the Twin Towers fell. And I’ve found myself reaching for it again now as I look for something to hold on to in a world that, at this moment, has simply stopped making sense. I share it here because I also feel the need to open my door and join the world in all its grief and majesty.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski

Paris Vigil

On Conventions, Conferences & Other Great Adventures


I’m not quite sure how it got to be November, but for those of you who’ll be in Minneapolis for NCTE later this month, I wanted to offer a heads up that I’ll be presenting with the Kathy Collins in a session called “Becoming the Teachers of Reading Our Children Need Us to Be,” which will look at a variety of ways to help students become the curious, engaged and passionate readers and thinkers we all want them to be. The session will be chaired by Katie Wood Ray, who along with me and Kathy contributed to the new Heinemann book The Teacher You Want to Be, and it will take place on Sunday, November 22nd, at noon. My hunch is that some of you may be heading home by then, but if you’re still around and looking for one last hit of inspiration and some new ideas, please come and join us.

For all my international blog readers and friends, I also want to share that I’ll be presenting at two NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) events in the early part of next year. First, I’ll Bangkokbe in Muscat, Oman, on February 5 and 6 for NESA’s Winter Training Institute, where I’ll be exploring “The Power of Grammar” for two days with teachers and administrators. Then I’ll be in Bangkok from April 1 – 4 for NESA’s Spring Educator’s Conference, where I’ll be facilitating a three-day Foundations of Reading workshop for Grade 6-8 teachers. And while I’m already excited beyond belief about these two opportunities, it would truly make my heart sing to see and meet any blog readers out there who are in that part of the world.

Back in the States, I’ll also be presenting at the New England Reading Association’s yearly conference in Portland, Maine, on May 20 and 21. There, I’ll not only facilitate a session but I’ll participate on what promises to be a very special panel comprised of folks who contributed or worked on The Teacher You Want to Be. While plans for that are still being finalized, I have no doubt that it, too, will be both inspiring and thought provoking—and a great way to connect with other like-minded educators who believe that first and foremost we teach children, not curricula or standards.

Finally, for something completely different, I want to share an amazing non-teaching opportunity for any photography and wildlife enthusiasts out there. As some of you may already know, I was in France last summer with my partner David, who’s both a photographer and an Adobe Lightroom expert. Most of our time was spend cycling, but David also arranged a two-day photo shoot for us through a company called Create Away.

© D.A. Wagner 2015,

© D.A. Wagner 2015,

Create Away is based in the south of France, in an area called the Camargue. Situated in the delta where the Rhone River splits and spills into the Mediterranean, the Camargue is a regional park that’s home to an ancient breed of white horses, one of Europe’s few colonies of pink flamingos, the kinds of black bulls you’d find in bull rings, and an intriguing mix of French natives and gypsies. In fact, the musical group the Gypsy Kings are from the Camargue. And if you read The Da Vinci code, you’re already familiar with the Camargue town of Saintes Maries sur Mer, where as legend (and author Dan Brown) would have it, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the sister of Lazarus, landed, along with the Holy Grain, after being cast our of Judea.

As you can see, the shoot was spectacular—so much so that we’ll be returning at the end of August, when David is teaming up with Create Away to offer a special one-week photo tour of the Camargue with between-shoot (and great French food and wine) Lightroom classes. If this sounds like the kind of bucket trip you’ve always dreamed of taking, you can find out more at David’s—a.k.a. Lightroom Guy’s—website.

Wild Horses in the Camargue

© D.A. Wagner 2015,

So here’s hoping that between Minneapolis, Oman, Bangkok, Portland, and France  some of our paths will cross. And now I really need to dig into my NCTE Convention Planner!

Still Writing

still-writingLast month I read Dani Shapiro‘s book Still Writinga memoir/writing advice hybrid that fellow educator and blogger Catherine Flynn had recommended after we discovered we both were fans of Shapiro’s novels. Of all the things I’ve been meaning to read—from the mountain of books stacked up on my nightstand to the dozens of titles on my amazon wish list—I wasn’t quite sure why I decided to pick that one at that time. But as I started reading, it became clear to me that this was a book my soul needed.

You see, I’m still writing the book I’ve been working on for two years—still wrestling, struggling, wildly swinging back and forth between exhilaration, frustration and despair, and often kicking myself for making the fact that I was writing another book so public. And so I needed to be reminded that what I was trying to do was, in fact, really hard, which Dani Shapiro did. As she writes:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed . . . [and] all we can hope is that we will fail better.

I also needed to do what Shapiro does herself: “to remember that the job—as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy—of the [writer] is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

Of course, that’s easier said that done. And why I ever thought that writing a book I was hoping to call Embracing Complexity (alas, that title’s now been taken, which is yet another thing that derailed me) would be easy is beyond me. But I share this now to answer the “When will the book be coming out?” questions (the answer is simply not yet), and because working on it for as long as I Failurehave—and feeling like it’s still not quite there—has made me have to stare something in the face that’s been getting a lot of press lately: failure.

As you may have noticed, there’s been much touting of the benefits of failure lately, whether it’s in posts like “What Do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure” on the educational site Mind/Shift or in articles like “What If the Secret to Success is Failure?” in the New York Times. Posts and articles like these suggest that failure is good for us because because when we fail “we’re forced to adapt and change” and we learn important life lessons, like success rarely comes without lots of hard work and the importance of not giving up.

I’m not saying these aren’t true—nor that a fear of failing can’t destroy a love of learning, which it can. But I’m here to tell you, if you don’t already know, that feeling like you’ve failed really sucks. And the idea of creating scenarios in classrooms that actually set students up to fail (as some of these pieces suggest teachers should do) in order to teach them these lessons seems almost sadistic to me.

What looking at failure in the eye, however, has made me do is to think about how I cope with and manage it. And I have to say it’s not because I’ve embraced what Psychology Today says is the “magical properties of failure [to] rewire the brain and get the creative juices flowing.” Nor do I think it’s because I’ve got grit.

Certainly there are things I persevere with, whether it’s cycling up a hill to reach a stunning vista or plugging away at trying to learn French and Italian. But I’m also someone who regularly abandons books rather than forging on to the end of something I’ve heard is great but doesn’t quite strike my fancy. And I’ve been known to give up on those hills and just walk my bike to the top, despite the fact that my partner David always tells me that I’m capable of making it but I psyched myself out.

PassionNo, what I’ve come to realize is that I only persevere in things I feel passionate about. I’m passionate about moving through a landscape on two wheels propelled by my own two legs. I’m passionate about French and Italian and the soul-stirring places where those languages are spoken. I’m passionate about words and the power of language to change hearts and minds and actions. And I’m passionate about supporting teachers to help their students experience the beauty and power of language, too, whether it’s in the texts they read or the ones they write.

What’s interesting, however, is that passion rarely comes up in discussions about grit—though even Angela Duckworth, whose work inspired the whole grit obsession, concedes the importance of it. In an NPR piece, for instance, called “Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead,” she says:

I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love. So when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That’s as much a part of the equation here as the hard work and the persistence.”

Why we focus so much on grit and so little on passions speaks, I think, to a belief system that’s much more comfortable with the old puritan nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic than anything as extravagant and potentially unruly as passion. But passion, not grit, is definitely what keeps me going—as well as the intrinsic rewards that Trevor Bryan shared recently on his wonderful blog (and you can see below):


And so I keep writing, believing in what Dani Shapiro says: that writing

has been a privilege. It has whipped my ass. It has burned into me a valuable clarity. It has made me think about suffering, randomness, good will, luck, memory, responsibility, and kindness, on a daily basis—whether I feel like it or not.

Here, for instance, if nothing else, struggling with writing this book has made me remember the power of passion, without which I simply wouldn’t keep going. And writing this blog has renewed that passion, which is getting those creative juices flowing in ways that just grit never has.

And so, as I turn from the blog to the book that is still there waiting for me, I ask you this: What are you doing to cultivate passion in the readers and writers in your rooms? And what passions are you cultivating and nurturing in yourself, knowing that they will fuel and sustain you far more than failure and grit?

Creative Passion

The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”


It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.