A New Year with an Old Friend: Some Thoughts on My One Little Word

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:

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 . . .

All Quiet on the Prairie

All Quiet on the Prairie

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while because life has been just the opposite. Between working, traveling, trying to finish a book and various other fun problems (such as a botched basement floor installation and an email gremlin that tells me that emails I’ve written have been sent but then somehow don’t arrive), my life has been pretty crazy. In fact, it’s been to so crazy that as I read other bloggers posts about the one little word they wanted to hold on to for this (relatively still) new year, I decided that my word this year should be breathe. Just breathe. Then breathe again, in the hopes that by breathing I might get closer to some of those other words I considered—like balance, perspective and simplicity—that simply seem out of my reach right now. And maybe, just maybe, that breathing is working because I’ve found a bit of time and space to share here some of what I’ve been up to.

Complexity-elegance-visualFirst, the book: It’s working title (which is subject to change) is Embracing Complexity, which would be followed by a colon and a still-to-be-determined phrase that has something to do with a problem-based approach to the teaching of reading. It will build on the vision of reading for meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Doas well as the thinking I’ve shared here on the blog and at NCTE in November—in particular how to set students up to do more of the deep thinking work of reading with less teacher scaffolding. And it kicks off with a wonderful quote from M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, who urged his readers to do exactly what I’ll be asking you to do:

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multi-dimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience—to appreciated the fact that life is complex.

With any bit of luck and a fair amount of work, the book will be out sometime in the fall—though that means that things will be quiet on the blog front for the next two months. But I will be sharing ideas and work from the new book at two upcoming events.

Reading for the Love of ItThe first is the Reading for the Love of It Conference, which takes place in Toronto on February 9 and 10. I’ll be presenting two sessions—”Helping Students (and Ourselves) Become Critical Thinkers and Insightful Readers” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Nonfiction Texts.” I’ll be doing both sessions on the 9th and then again on the 10th, which means that there will be lots of time to catch some of the other fabulous speakers from the Conference’s stellar line-up, including Ruth Culham, Pat Johnson, Tanny McGregor, Linda Rief and Jeff Wilhelm.

Then the following month, I’ll be at The Teaching Studio’s Educators’ Institute, which will be held on March 14 at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Along with Sharon Taberski and Cornelius Minor, I’ll be presenting a keynote as well as one of the more than twenty other interactive workshops facilitated by teachers associated with The Learning Community, a Rhode Island charter school that’s been doing ground-breaking work on reading in collaboration with the Central Falls public school district. (And, yes, you read that right: three keynotes and a choice of over twenty workshops in one day!)

Educator's Institute Line-Up

And all that needs to be worked on, too, which is making me feeling the need to breathe again! So I’ll leave you with this old Swedish proverb, which I’m also trying to hold on to in these crazy times:

“Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.