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 . . .

Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

One of the other things I love to do in summer (beyond institutes) is walk along the East River, watching the boats and the people who come from all over the world to see New York City’s famous skyline. And much of the waterfront in my neck of Brooklyn has become a wonderful park, with soccer fields and volleyball courts built on reclaimed piers, free kayaks and yoga, and an outpost of what in my humble opinion is the best ice cream in the city, Ample Hills, which takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Ample Hills

Every summer, there’s also new art, and this year we have sculptor Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” the neon and steel piece you see above that actually rotates 360 degrees. My partner David and I first noticed it from behind as it was being installed, and it took me a while to realize that the word we were trying to read backward was understanding—and that the workers on the ladders and cranes were literally constructing understanding, which, once I figured that out, delighted me no end. You see, I believe that deep, lasting learning best happens when learners are actively involved in the construction of understanding and knowledge, versus receiving, memorizing—or as Jeff Wilhem says in Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, consuming—information.

I’d say the teachers and coaches I wrote about last week were engaged in constructing an understanding of the different ways fiction stories can go. And in her gorgeous and brilliant new book The Journey is EverythingKatherine Bomer invites her readers to construct an understanding of essays by reading two spectacular examples, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (whose structure she also visually maps!) and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. As Katherine writes,

“The key to teaching essay well is understanding deeply what essay is. We don’t need to invent a definition; we only need to pay attention to what we see, hear and feel as we read essays closely. We can notice for ourselves what essays stir up in the minds and hearts of readers and then make that seeing explicit, naming the features of essay we can use in our own writing or teach to students.”

Of course, developing a vision of what we want students to engage with as writers is true for every genre, not just essay. And the deeper our vision is, the deeper and more meaningful our teaching can be, which I think is captured in this wonderful Japanese proverb which I discovered as I planned for my work in Paramus:

vision-without-action-is-a-day-dream-japanese-poverb

So before Labor Day is upon us and everyone’s back in school, I want to invite you to read a very short story called “A Story About the Body” by the great poet Robert Hass in order to construct a deeper understanding of what realistic fiction is and what it does for us as readers. As Katherine urged, try reading it attending to what it stirs up in your mind and heart and then, based on how it affected you, try to articulate in a more general way what you think the deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be and how writers convey that purpose. (And try to not default to what you already may teach, like saying that realistic fiction is a story about people and events that are made-up but could happen in real life, and it’s purpose is to entertain, which, as I wrote in an earlier post, doesn’t capture the complexity of what writers do.) And since it’s sometimes easier to construct an understanding of a genre by looking at more than one example, consider clicking on the links for two other short stories I’ve shared over the years, “Wallet” by Allen Woodman and “20/20” by Linda Brewer to see how they inform your thinking.

Finally, in the spirit of collaborative learning and community, please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here, by clicking on either the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title, the word ‘reply’ that following the list of tag words at the bottom of the post, or, if you’re a subscriber, on the comment link at the end of the email.

And now here’s Robert Hass’s amazing piece, which comes by way of genius.com:

A Story about the Body Robert Hass