Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing from the Heart

My mother moved to a retirement community a couple of years ago, vacating the home in which she had lived for 60 years. In the process of that move, I inherited from her a few pieces of furniture, including the cedar chest that had sat at the foot of her bed for my entire life. I recently peeked into that chest and found a treasure trove. Nothing of particular value to anyone else, but something of inestimable worth to me: a bundle of love letters from my father to my mother, written faithfully, daily, during the summer of 1947. They have been bundled up with a piece of string and look pretty much undisturbed, so I have to assume that they have not been touched more than once or twice in the past 66 years, if at all.

I never much knew my father, as he died of a brain tumor in 1967. He was 44; I was 6. I am already 9 years older than he ever got to be. As was the custom in 1967, nobody spoke much about a parent's death to the kids; my memory is that he died and we pretty much just acted like he had never existed in the first place.  So you can see, perhaps, why finding this stash of letters has been a balm to me. It's finally an opportunity to get to know a little bit about the big question-mark-where-the-parent-goes.

My father was a wonderful writer, and evidently quite besotted with my mother in 1947; I learned from this evening's round of letters that they had gotten "pinned" a mere four months earlier. My mother was on a 6 week vacation to the Pacific Northwest, where her parents were from, and my father wrote her faithfully of his roommates, his tennis exploits, his classes at SMU law school, and the 104+-degree temperatures. (I will try to remember during these approaching dog days that while Dallas has always been hot in August, people have not always had the luxury of air conditioners.) Every letter ends with how much he misses her - although of course he wants her to continue having a wonderful time. My father, Henry, wrote eloquently, with a delightful facility with the English language and a lovely vocabulary, and in probably 30 letters (I've made it through about half of them so far), there has been only one incidence of his striking out a word to replace it with another. I marvel at his process, knowing how many times I backspace to get a word or phrase even close to "right."

And the woman he was writing to is also someone I never knew. I suppose none of us can quite imagine the people our parents were before life and their children turned them into people they didn't intend to become. But the 19-year-old young lady Henry so longed for bears little resemblance to the woman I have known as my mother and is all but unrecognizable to me. Perhaps that young woman died in 1967, too, in a sense. Pondering this courtship 60-some years after the fact leaves me wondering what my own young adult children would make of similar correspondence, if I had any to show them. More and more, I am awed by this treasure I have discovered, and by the small oasis of family history it represents in an otherwise pretty emotionally arid relational landscape.

Reading my father's letters reminds me again of my six-year-old self and how I was robbed of the opportunity to get to know this man. I wonder how I made it through second grade; I don't remember that year at all. School is starting up again in just a few weeks, and you'll have kids in your class who have been robbed of things, too. Students will come to you from wonderfully functioning homes and from homes where someone is facing serious mental or physical illness or where someone is being actively abused. They will come from homes of monetary plenty and from homes of deep financial insecurity. And they will come to you with varying degrees of learned or innate resilience, or anger, or anxiety, or optimism, or some weird combination of all of the above, and then some. Many will not be equipped to talk to you about trauma they have experienced; many will tell you far more than you really want to know.

My father wrote from his heart, just as I have done here this evening. The things that come from our hearts mean something to us. My hope for anyone reading "these feeble words of ink and page" (as my pastor says each week) is that you will find a way to help your students connect to something deep within their hearts, and that their passions and joys and fears will somehow find a voice in this sometimes scary but nevertheless wonderful world we live in.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Teaching Digital Citizenship to Teachers & Principals

In a couple of weeks I'll  have the opportunity to teach the basics of Digital Citizenship to my school districts' principals, and a couple of weeks after that, I'll be including that topic in a back-to-school session at one of our high schools. Digital Citizenship is an area that I think is incredibly important, and very under-taught. It's one of those topics that everyone seems to think someone else is taking care of, and, in our district at least, I'm not sure it's really addressed much at all except in hidden pockets of unusually tech-savvy teachers. I love the analogies I heard recently about kids & Internet usage: that it is like a busy street, and we don't just build higher fences to keep our kids off the highway; we teach them appropriate behavior and safety skills. Or that it's like a wave pool: we wouldn't throw our kids into the deep end of a churning wave pool without teaching them basic safety skills. Either of those scenarios would be completely irresponsible, and unreasonable, but I often feel like we adults are much too quick to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to teaching appropriate Digital Citizenship skills (kind of like sex ed - but that is a whole different blog topic!)

In a school day that is already packed to the gills with curricular "musts" that teachers have to address every day, I can definitely see how Digital Citizenship (found on no standardized test I'm aware of) would take a back seat to more pressing issues. Nevertheless, I'm really concerned that we are doing our students a terrible disservice by not providing them with more specific information about the permanence of what they post online, tips on managing their digital reputation, appropriate digital etiquette, and handling cyber bullying, just to name a few.

In addition to daily Internet use, our district will have student email for the first time starting in August, and I know many teachers are nervous about how to talk to their students about using that resource appropriately. Student email should provide a great opportunity to start some discussions about being a good Digital and Global Citizen! I've been scouring the Internet for tips on Digital Citizenship, and I've found the nine elements (see this web site if you are not sure yourself), and I have some ideas of my own about what I want to convey. But I would sure love some crowdsourced feedback here. Here is what I'm wondering about today: as either a principal or a teacher, what do you teach your staff/students about Digital Citizenship? What would you like to know more about on this topic? If you were going to a Professional Learning session on Digital Citizenship, what you want to take away from such a session? If you have *taught* Digital Citizenship Professional Learning sessions, what has been the biggest success for you, or the particular topic that generated the most interest? What might you do differently in a future session?

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Wonder of Reading

I had lunch with one of my former middle school students the other day. Back when I was a librarian, I tried hard to get to know as many of the kids in the school as I could, and I grew particularly fond of the ones whose reading appetites I could not keep up with. This young lady, now in college, was one of those; by the time she left 8th grade, I'm convinced she had read every book in the library that I had read. She was one of my "library denizens," the kids who hung around the library before and after school and sometimes at lunch, and I take a certain pride in the fact that I probably introduced the word "denizen" into her already huge vocabulary.

Our catching up time focused on what she was doing in college, what classes she was particularly looking forward to in the fall, and, of course, what we were both reading these days. I feel pretty out of things, library-wise, lately, having been out of the library and doing my tech gig for coming up on seven years. But as I reflected on what I was reading, and what we had mutually read several years ago when she was in middle school, I began to wonder about the strange staying power of certain books.

I remembered (although I don't think my former student did) how much I loved Koly from Gloria Whelan's Homeless Bird, and how a friend of mine and I still reminisce about the very-real-to-us character of Koly; we wonder together how Koly might be getting along these days. I thought about my favorite read-aloud passages from Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and Joseph Bruchac's Skeleton Man and Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen. I haven't had much of an opportunity to recommend a book to a student in almost seven years, but I still delight in that wonderful memory of book-talking  several of my favorites and the kids practically knocking themselves over to get to the book that had piqued their curiosity. There was always such a feeling of satisfaction when I was able to connect ANY book to the right reader, but particularly so for those kids who weren't at all convinced that reading had anything to offer them. I remember the student who could pronounce neither the title nor the author of Vivian Vande Velde's Heir Apparent, but checked it out repeatedly because she loved reading it over and over again; something in that book spoke to her.

I loved my gig as a librarian because when I saw those kids in the hall, I could strike up a conversation about what they were reading, ask them if they'd gotten to the good part yet, give them a knowing smile (but no information) when they asked me what was going to happen next, and then hook them with the next book when they finished the first. I loved that I never had to assess their vocabulary or their comprehension or whether they understood the author's purpose and/or tone; I just got to help them enjoy a book. Which is what real readers do.

I can still remember a certain passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, one I must have read and re-read 10,000 times when I first encountered it when I was fourteen or so. "A man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog." I vividly recall going over that passage over and over, weeping with the beauty and the pathos of it. What makes that line so beautiful to me that I can still quote it forty years later? I can't say. But what I do know is that I felt a huge connection to the people in To Kill a Mockingbird, just as I did to Koly in Homeless Bird and Eva in Lionel Shriver's haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin and the delightfully quirky Biscuit in Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others. Reading fiction, as this article from The Atlantic explains, helps us get into the skin of another person, experience empathy for someone else, and view the world from that perspective.

Which brings me to today's topic, something I've wondered about for quite some time. When students' main reading experiences involve sitting in front of a computer and reading a screen-long passage and then taking a comprehension test on that passage, I wonder how in the world they are going to develop the same love for reading that springs from a deep experience of empathy for a character who becomes real to them over a period of time. I wonder how they will develop that sense of connection to an imaginary, but wholly real, person, perhaps unlike anyone they might have the opportunity to meet in real life, from a character whose only point of existence is to serve as a comprehension checkpoint. I wonder what passage from that computer screen might speak to a child so deeply that she might remember and be able to quote it verbatim the next day, let alone forty years later.

While reading programs that focus on Lexile improvement might raise test scores (and truth be told, I'm not completely convinced about even that), I can't for the life of me see how they do anything toward helping students love the act of reading. Those programs bear no resemblance to how real readers read in real life. At least part of what's missing in those programs is any kind of relationship. There is no relationship between the reader and the characters, and none between the reader and someone else who might have read the same thing and want to discuss it.

I wonder how we can convince teachers of the value in reading simply for reading's sake, when there are so many competing curricular objectives; how we can bring DEAR time back into every classroom, every day, without its feeling like a luxury; how we can take advantage of technology like e-readers and web sites like Scholastic's The Stacks in the very best way: so that students get to read a book - a whole book - and then have time to write or talk about it with someone else. And then when they're done, NOT ask them to take a test on what they just read.

Yes, comprehension and vocabulary and grammar and understanding an author's purpose are important and probably need to be assessed from time to time. Just not every time. Please. Because more than just about anything, I want kids to find at least one book that they connect with so deeply that it still haunts them forty years from now. And I wonder how we're going to make that happen without the conditions that allow them the time and the freedom to just read.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Value of Wondering

In Steve Wheeler's blog post from back in May, he describes a time when he asked a question in class. Years later, his memory is vivid: "[The teacher] looked at me with contempt, told me I had asked a 'stupid question' and then made a big joke out of it. The whole class laughed at me, and I went bright red with embarrassment. I was only 8 years old, but I can still recall how it felt. It taught me a lesson. I never asked another question in class throughout the whole of my school life."

I too, had a complete aversion to asking questions in school, based on something a fifth grade teacher told us time and again: "I have told you everything you need to know. If you ask me a question and it's something you should already know, it means that you weren't paying attention, and you'll have to stay after school." I was one of those kids who were preternaturally afraid of getting in trouble, and earnestly believed whatever my teacher said, so I learned never to raise my hand (unless I had the right answer to something SHE had asked, of course). I was actively taught to not wonder, which for me meant that I learned not to think very deeply. I was in grad school before I learned to ask any kind of meaningful question or to wonder deeply about things. Being afraid to ask a question must be one of those universal fears, akin to public speaking.

Many of the things I deal with on a day to day basis involve the questions for which either I or someone else already has an easy answer: "Don't forget to click the 'Publish' button when you're done." "The handout you need is on our web site - I'll send you the direct link." "I know a great app that could help you with that problem." They're the Google-y kinds of questions, those that have a readily available answer.

But more often, the hard questions take time and effort to address. I try to respect the questioning and wondering process, as Rainer Maria Rilke admonished:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I find that it is true that, given time, I can often wonder myself right on in to a challenging question's solution, particularly if I have the opportunity to wonder along with others and the luxury of time to think. The solution doesn't often come quickly and the ultimate decision is arrived at after many unsuccessful attempts. I don't like the failure part much, but I know the whole being-patient-in-your-heart thing  works.

So I expect to wonder  into answers about how to explain the SAMR ladder and how to provide effective professional learning experiences and how to convince teachers that it would be okay to let kids read something without assessing them. I don't expect those answers to come today (although that would be great!) but I am confident that the answers will make themselves known in time. The important thing is to continue to do the right kind of wondering and questioning. Even if it seems like something I should maybe already know.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Here I begin.

I have resisted blogging for quite some time. I would sit down to write - actually most of the time I would just think about sitting down to write - and I would give up quickly. The loudest voices in my head told me "What do YOU have to say to anyone? Who would care to read anything you wrote?"

For a long time I was a lurker on Twitter, consuming eagerly but never posting anything for the same reasons I've been hesitant to blog. I didn't value my own contributions. The fear of irrelevance seems to be a common one.

I often give the following advice to my friends when I think they are being hard on themselves: if that were someone else other than you saying or feeling the things you are describing, what would your response be? Would you ever be as negative toward someone else as you are to your own sweet self? Of course you wouldn't.

So I'm taking my own advice and giving it a shot. Because while I'm not convinced yet that I have any great words of wisdom to offer anyone, I do wonder about so many things.

I wonder about how we get our kids on board with good Digital Citizenship habits when we adults have been so slow to address these topics head on. I wonder how we are going to get teachers to understand the SAMR tech model when some teachers still struggle with such basic computer skills as file management. I wonder how I can be a more effective leader in my district. I wonder how I can convince people that one doesn't inspire kids to be good readers through the overuse of those razzle-dazzle online reading programs that promote themselves as the best solution to raising test scores - as if test scores say anything about one's true reading life.

So I'm going to start writing about these things, and a few others, because I know that sometimes when one writes, one figures things out in ways that don't happen through any other mechanism. And because maybe someone else is wondering about these things, too.