Jumping Back In (with thanks to Julieanne Harmatz)

The problem with not having written a blog post for months (or in my case, over a year) is that the longer you go without writing one, the harder it seems to do. Where to start? What to say? How to explain—or not?

For me, the silence stems from some usual suspects. Work certainly played a part, but on top of that there’s the outrage, despair and exhaustion I suspect that many of us have felt about the state of our poor country—and our poor, precious planet. And all of that was compounded by some health problems that threw me for a loop and made the simple act of sitting at my desk and concentrating quite a challenge.

Fortunately, many months physical therapy and a handful of caring doctors have helped. But what I could do was walk and read, both of which offered much solace and joy. When it came to walking, I became obsessed with walking among trees, and almost every day for months on end, I’d head out for a walk in Prospect Park, Central Park, Riverside Park or the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, often with a book of poetry in my bag. And one day, I stumbled on this poem by Mary Oliver, which completely captured the kind of reverence and sustenance I’d feel as I looked up into the branches of a sycamore or a towering elm:

As for reading, while I read at least one poem a day, thanks to The Writer’s Almanac and The Slowdown, which each send a poem to my inbox every morning, I really gorged on novels. Some were mirrors, some were windows, but each one I stuck with and didn’t abandon (yes, it’s true, I’m a book abandoner) was marked by gorgeous language and amazing sentences. (FYI: I do love books with complex, nuanced characters, but when I took an online quiz to determine my reading personality, I was deemed an Aesthete: someone who “reveres writers whose words can exalt everyday experience into a shareable sublimeness.”)

I’m not sure if there are other Aesthetes out there, but here, in no particular order, are a few of the books that nourished and sustained me during those months of pain and discomfort. In addition to wonderful language, each has a powerful story to tell, with characters that might just break your heart:

 

 

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: There’s a devastating event at the heart of this novel, but ultimately it’s about redemption, with characters who learn to bear the unbearable with compassion and grace.

 

 

 

Paris 7 A.M. by Liza Wieland, who imagines poet Elizabeth Bishop’s time in Paris in 1937, which was the only year in her entire life that Bishop didn’t keep a journal. Must read for any Elizabeth Bishop lovers out there.

 

 

 

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck, a German writer who tells the story of a retired academic whose life is fundamentally changed when he becomes involved with a group of African refugees seeking asylum in Berlin.

 

 

 

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker, a seriously quirky, but in my mind charming, historical fiction novel about two sister in love with the same man in Oklahoma in the early 1900s.

 

 

The Need by Helen Phillips, a novel about motherhood with a speculative twist that really unnerved me and got under my skin.

 

 

 

 

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli about a family who embarks on a road trip from New York City to Arizona to try to find two lost migrant children and the ancestral homeland of the Apaches.

 

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, is another road trip book, but here the characters are a drug-addicted mom, a dad in prison, a 13-year-old boy desperate for a role model and the various ghosts that haunt them.

 

 

 

Now that my body is finally on the mend and sitting just involves sitting, I’m hoping to share some of the work I’ve done with teachers over the last year, along with some new thoughts and ideas—which, for better or worse, I never seem to be in short of. But for now, here’s a link to an oldie but goldie blog post from 2011, the year I started blogging. Interestingly enough, it speaks to what I believe is the real reason why we read—which is often quite different from what some of children perceive the goal to be. And hopefully it sparks some questions and reflections about what kind of messages are we sending students about the purpose of reading.

“I hope I get to read up to Level Z,” from What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

With Appreciation

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while, mostly because I’ve been working on several challenging projects, one of which involves writing copy for a new website that will house the blog and a variety of other resources (and hopefully be up next month)> But aware that this has been Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking about how much both past and present teachers have impacted and contributed to my life and feeling a need to share that.

From my own days in grade school, for instance, there was the English teacher I wrote about in “My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)”. She chose a story I’d written to submit to Scholastic’s Writing Contest—despite the fact that she was surprised that the quiet, meek girl who hardly ever spoke in class had actually written it. And last year for Teachers Appreciation Week, Heinemann shared a video of me sharing the story of how another high school teacher made me realize that, despite failing to get into AP English, I could, indeed, write insightfully about books if it’d connected to them deeply.

And then there’s the art teacher who instilled in me a love for visual images, the legacy of which you can see here on the blog. I took after-school art classes from her for years, first in her attic (which had sloping ceilings just like an artist’s atelier in Paris) and then in the incredible studio that extended from the back of her house. Frequently she’d create a still life for us to paint—a bowl or plate filled with apples and grapes, a jug overflowing with poppies—and in spring she’d have us take our easels outside to her garden to paint the flowers, “en plein air,” just as the Impressionists had done.

From her, I learned that looking and seeing are actually two different things, and that as poet Mary Oliver put it, in words I only discovered years later, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” But perhaps, most importantly, she made me feel that I had the sensibility of an artist, with a unique way of seeing the world—which, I think, is exactly what those English teachers did, too. They noticed something in me despite all those despites. And even though my medium turned out to be words, not markers or watercolors, each of these teachers empowered me in ways that have shaped my life.

More recently, though, I find myself inspired and impacted by teachers in a different way. Whether it’s the teachers I work with in schools, the many colleagues I have who’ve become dear friends, or those I’ve never (yet) met in person but feel like I know through twitter, it’s teachers that keep me thinking and learning—and reflecting on the question I often feel compelled to write down in my notebook:

Sometimes, this happens when a teacher says or tweets something that pushes me to reflect (in ways that aren’t always comfortable, but needed):

Sometimes it’s when an educator writes something that makes me realize that I hadn’t fully understood something that I thought I had. Recently, for instance, in his blog post, “Confronting the Disimagination Machine,” the Opal School’s Matt Karlson made me realize that worksheets are even more insidious than I’d previously thought: Not only are they not meaningful to kids, but they standardize children’s experiences and thinking in ways I hadn’t, until then, considered.

Sometimes, too, a teacher will share a project online that helps me see possibilities I’d never imagined before, which makes me incredibly happy). For example, just recently I stumbled on the work kindergarten teacher Faige Meller‘s kids’ did when she invited them to go outside and, inspired by the installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, create art from nature (which seems like the perfect antidote to the disimagination machine):

And then there’s Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, who always gets me thinking (as do Rebecca O’Dell, Alison Marchetti and the other teachers who share ideas at movingwriters.org). This year for National Poetry Month, Amy challenged herself to write 30 poems, one for each day of April, about a single subject (#1Subject30Ways), using a different poetry technique from her book Poems Are Teachers for each poem. And she invited teachers and students to join her. Amy’s subject was the constellation Orion, which inspired three of teacher Emily Callahan‘s students to write poems about Greek Mythology, like this one:

And here’s a gorgeous poem from teacher Kate Rodger, whose subject was poems about home:

Finally, there’s the teachers who invite me into their classrooms and schools to help them puzzle through problems that perplex them. Recently, for instance, I got an email from a school I’ll be starting to work with in June on embedding more meaningful grammar instruction into their middle and upper schools. And the email included the following questions, which were on their mind:

  • What might a grammar curriculum across the grades look like? How do we build in inquiry/apprenticeship work from one grade to the next – should we cover the same concepts/techniques but with different (increasingly sophisticated?) mentor texts?
  • How do we address student errors in addition to focusing on teaching grammar in terms of craft? How best to address grammatical errors when giving feedback on student writing?
  • How do we find time to integrate inquiry grammar lessons into our curricula?
  • Is there a place for direct instruction? Does it matter whether students can distinguish between a helping verb and a linking verb or a clause and a phrase? Should students learn grammar definitions, and if so, when in the process should terms be introduced? Is there ever a place for testing or quizzing students on grammar?
  • How can a teacher tell if inquiry/apprenticeship instruction is effective? How do teachers encourage students to try new grammatical/stylistic techniques in their writing without having it feel forced?

I have some answers up my sleeve already, but I actually relish the opportunity to wrap my mind around these questions again and see if anything new pop up. It fact, it’s partly what keeps me going—along with remembering that paying attention is our endless and proper work.

Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

According to Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” I completely agree that learning to think should be one of the essential goals of education, but as I wrote in an earlier post, many of the tasks we set for kids and the scaffolds we teach them to use don’t really seem aimed at fostering thinking as much as completing those tasks. In that post, I offered an example of what a lesson focused on actual thinking might look like. And here, I’d like to take a deeper look at what we really mean by thinking and how we actually do it.

One of the most common definitions you’ll find online is that “Thinking is a purposeful organized cognitive process that we use to make sense of our world.” That isn’t bad as definitions go, but it doesn’t offer any clues about how to think or what that process entails. Nor do any of the taxonomies and matrixes we’re often asked to use to ensure rigor. They all focus on the what, not the how in good part, I imagine, because of the fact that not even cognitive neuroscientists fully understand how we think.

So for how to think, I turn to writers, who not only engage in making sense of the world but can express how they do that in ways that, to me, feel more accessible, practical and authentic than the words of reference books or science. And one of the things I’ve noticed about writers is how much value they place on the act of noticing.

Here, for instance, is what Norman Maclean has to say about thinking, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I quoted in What Readers Really Do:

This is what The Fault in Our Stars author John Green thinks about people who notice things:

And here is Mary Oliver’s simple instructions, not just for thinking, but for living life fully:

As I’ve considered the implications of words like these on my own work in schools, I’ve come to think that the essence of thinking is noticing something then making something of what you’ve noticed, which seems implied in each of these quotes. And when it comes to reading, that process can look like this:

When doing read alouds with students,  I usually start out with a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which is a thinking routine that abbreviates the chart above. Unlike K-W-L charts, which ask students to think about what they already know and wonder about a book or topic before they read, then what they learned after they read, a text-based Know/Wonder chart invites students to pay attention to what they know or have figured out about a text as they read and what they’re wondering about. And to get a feel for what that thinking can look and sound like, here’s what happened in a fifth grade classroom that had just embarked on Katherine Applegate‘s wonderful novel in verse Home of the Brave, about a young African refugee named Kek who struggles to make a new home in Minnesota after a civil war erupted in his homeland, as a read aloud.

The class had already experienced how using this thinking routine could empower them as readers and thinkers. And here, without reading the book’s back cover or hearing a summary, they already had figured out much. In the first poem, for instance, they’d figured out that “the flying boat” Kek talks about was, in fact, an airplane, and that he must have come from a place quite different from Minnesota because he’d never seen snow before, nor seen, let alone tried to put on gloves. And they had a ton of questions: Why was Kek there? Where was his family? Where they already there? Would they be coming soon? Or had something happened to them?

Having noticed what was noticeable in that poem and then ‘made’ something of that (i.e., questions), they then noticed something in the next poem below they might otherwise not have noticed, a verb:

Their teacher Karen Bassano had paused here and invited the class to turn and talk about whether they’d figured out anything else or had answered any of their questions, and they zoomed right to the lines “He isn’t tall/like my father was,” where the past tense made them worry that Kek’s father had died.

Similarly, they made much of a punctuation mark they noticed in the third poem, in which Kek responds to a question Dave has asked him about the flying boat:

What they noticed was the dash, which they interpreted in two slightly different ways. One camp thought that Dave had stopped talking because he didn’t want to suggest Kek’s mother might be dead, while the other thought Kek had interrupted Dave because he didn’t want to hear what Dave might say. And those interpretations led them to wonder whether Kek was in a state of denial or if his parents might return in the spring, just as Dave had said the trees that looked dead in winter would do.

To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about. They had, of course, experienced this before—and had found the whole process meaningful enough that many decided on their own to use it for their independent reading books.

To be sure, there were other things Karen had done, especially in terms of creating an environment that valued thinking more than answers, that I’ll explore in another post. But for now, I’ll end with some final words about the power of noticing from the writer, musician and artist Brian Eno, which, I think, have implications for both students and teachers.

To learn more about this way of teaching, take a look at my new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingwhich contains more examples of students reading closely and deeply, plus lots of guidance and tips for implementing it in your classroom.