I first learned of the tradition of choosing one little word to guide you across a year in 2015, when I started noticing blog posts by colleagues and friends who’d all picked a word for themselves. Being a word lover, I adored the concept and immediately started searching for a word to embrace that would support and inspire me.
There were many I was tempted by that year, like balance, simplicity and presence. But I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for those yet. I was coming off of a super busy year, which seemed to be barreling straight into another one, and I worried that those words might require too much of me. What I needed was a word that would help me feel less overwhelmed and stressed, but that also seemed realistic. And so I chose the word breathe. Surely I could breathe without a whole lot of effort.
Breathe turned out to be a good word for me. It kept me centered. It slowed me down. It calmed me when I felt frazzled. In fact, it was so effective and helpful, I felt ready to move on to a new word when 2016 rolled around.
So once again I started considering words, beginning by clicking on a link my friend Julieanne Harmatz shared on her blog. The link sent me to another great list of words, but as I quickly scrolled through the list to envision the possibilities, one word seemingly leapt out and grabbed me:
To be honest, at that point, I wasn’t quite sure what drew me to the word. In fact, it felt more as if the word had claimed me rather than me claiming it. I didn’t feel, for instance, that I needed to seek something—at least not the usual suspects, like peace, love, God, fame, truth, or the meaning of life. But I definitely felt that this was it. I didn’t have to seek any further. And so seek became my one little word for 2016. And when I look at my life and work for that year, I see its influence everywhere.
Each time I write a blog post for instance, I seek images that somehow connect to what I’m writing about. And I’m always seeking texts that will serve a particular purpose I have in mind, whether it’s two biographies on the same subject that convey very different author messages, mentor texts that would help students see that writers do more work in the beginning of a narrative than write an engaging lead, or just the right quote to kick-off a new year (which I’ll share again here, just because it’s so wonderful):
That one little word was so useful for me in 2016 that I decided to hold onto it for 2017 and again in 2018, when, among many other things, it helped me discover:
- Sherman Alexie’s amazing poem Hymn, which he wrote in response to the events in Charlottesville
- An insane list of vocabulary words for first graders to learn during a unit on Early World Civilizations
- Herb Gardner’s wonderful play A Thousand Clowns, which has one of the most marvelous setting descriptions I’ve ever encountered.
In each of these cases, I was seeking something that would be good for something I was working on, be it a lesson, a unit, a blog post or a presentation. And the fact that I rarely came up empty-handed makes me believe what the great Persian poet Rumi said—which is exactly what I experienced when the word seek seemed to claim me.
But I also seek for other reasons. I seek to understand what’s going on in students’ heads as they read—and in the head’s of the teachers I coach. And I sometimes seek without a goal in mind. That is, I seek for the sheer fun of seeking.
As I thought about writing this post, for instance, I did a little seeking about the word seek, and not only did I discover the Rumi quote, I found this wonderful poem by Langston Hughes:
And just the other day, my eye caught the name Tove Jansson in an online journal I subscribe to. Jansson is the Finnish writer and illustrator of the Moomin books, which both my daughter and I loved as children. But when I clicked through the link I discovered that she was also a painter of some renown. Here, for instance, is a gorgeous mural she painted for a restaurant in Helsinki:
And here is a photograph of her and her assistant actually working on the mural:
Immediately I felt the sense of delight, which seeking often sparks in me. There was something delightful about the idea that the woman who created the Moomins was the same one in those Katharine Hepburn gaucho pants with a cigarette (or palette knife) dangling from her mouth—just as there was something delightful in stumbling on that poem, when it seemed, for a moment, as if Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and I were connected across time.
The Janssen piece was a reminder that people are complex and multi-layered, with lives that often take surprising twists and turns, which I found comforting and hopeful. And that somehow triggered a synapse in my brain that made me remember that way before Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who, he drew political cartoons, like the one I subsequently discovered, which, well, I’ll leave the reaction to you!
And so I’ve decided to hold on to seek again. You see, when I seek, many other things happen. I notice more. I’m open more. I appreciate more. I’m present more. I trust myself more to solve the many problems responsive teaching poses. And I feel the joy and thrill that comes with serendipitous discovery, the act of stumbling onto something delightful that you didn’t know your heart or mind needed until suddenly it appeared.
The word seek also helps me stay in a life-long learning stance, which is just what we want our students to take. What other word could do all that? If you’ve got one, let me know! And in the meantime . . .