Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Talking Kids Across the Achievement Gap

So already, the more I think about Paul Tough's recent New York Times Magazine article, "Who Gets to Graduate?"*, the more I keep recalling characters and scenes in Mystic Pizza, the 1988 coming-of-age movie in which working-class sisters Kat and Daisy Araujo, reared on the fishing piers of Mystic, Connecticut, struggle through the summer before Kat's freshman year at Yale, learning from their own and other people's romantic difficulties while waitressing at Mystic Pizza.**

Why this movie? First, because Kat and Daisy (the two on the left in this photo***) definitely share two of the three "'adversity indicators'" identified by David Laude, the former University of Texas chemistry professor and current U.T. administrator who is among those profiled in Tough's article: according to Laude, students with two of the following--"low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents"****--had a relatively good chance of failing his introductory chemistry course--and not finishing college. Second, because the movie happily wraps up before Kat actually becomes a Yale student, and Tough's article is very concerned about the actual freshman year experiences of college students who are statistically more apt not to graduate than their freshman peersAnd third, because Kat's not the only smart Araujo sister, though she's the only sister going to Yale: Daisy is wilder and academically lower achieving than her sister, but the script offers every indication that she is plenty intelligent if differently focused than Kat--or perhaps not very focused at all.

And that's what really has me thinking about this movie.  Tough's article is all about what needs to happen right before and during the freshman years of students who are statistically "at risk"--what words they need to hear, think about, discuss, even write. As I read about the David Laude programs and the David Yeager and Greg Walton orientation interventions that have helped lower- and working-class University of Texas (U.T.) students***** make it through the notoriously challenging first year of college and then complete their four-year educations, I kept thinking of a lot of non-matriculating eighteen-year-olds: had they just made it through the front door of either a two-year or four-year college, they might have similarly benefited from those programs/interventions. 

Whenever I start to contemplate who no longer is or never was a member of the freshman class of some college, I begin to think about all the "not you" and "you can't" messages that kids routinely absorb, often from people who are trying to communicate the opposite messages. During my many years as a high school teacher, I dealt with the Daisys as well as the Kats. And I witnessed many educational initiatives that had unintended negative consequences for the very students they were intended to benefit--for example, remedial programs that segregated underachieving students from their higher-scoring classmates, solidifying their negative perceptions of themselves as learners and effectively denying them opportunities to take elective courses that might have responded to other important needs that they had as learners and people. 

But it's not just schools that can inadvertently discourage kids from striving and risking; families can, too. Early in his article, Tough reports on a conversation between struggling U.T. freshman Vanessa Brewer and her mother. Having called home in search of her mother's "reassurance" that persistence would get her through a temporary crisis of confidence, Vanessa was further deflated by her mother's response: "'Maybe you weren't meant to be there, . . .. Maybe we should have sent you to a junior college first." Vanessa explained that she "'died a little bit inside . . .'" when she heard her mother's words because "'moms are usually right.'"

Not every eighteen-year-old would share Vanessa's view about mothers' wisdom. But Vanessa's comment reminded me of two potent and defining forces in kids' lives: family members' words and judgments and family members' achievements. Over the years, I've had students confidently assert that "My brother is in the one in our family who's good at English; I'm the one who's good at math," or "My sister's the smart one in our family." Luckily, I was often able to challenge the parts of the statements that seemed potentially limiting of their speakers' learning and achievement:  "She's not the only one in your family who's smart; you're pretty smart yourself," or "What makes you think you're not good at English?  Yes, you have stuff to work on, but so does everybody else." Sometimes, my responses began longer conversations about ways to learn and achieve despite the "family assessment." But not always: when the kids willingly embraced the familial and learning identities their families had assigned them, tethered by the strong sense of reassurance and acceptance that came with those identities, my suggestions often met with pleasant but firm resistance. In these cases, I couldn't talk my students across the achievement gap.

The problem is acute in a different way when there's an academic high achiever in a family to whom brothers and sisters--or even uncles and parents--don't "measure up." An uncle of a former student who was admitted to an Ivy League school warned him "not to think you're better than the rest of us." And in Mystic Pizza, there's a poignant, difficult conversation****** between Daisy and her mother that begins with Daisy's angry, negative summation of herself--a projection of her assumption of her mother's disappointment in her--and ends in uneasy agreement between mother and daughter:
  • Daisy:  I curse, I'm stupid, I'm a slut.
  • Daisy's Mother:  All I want is for you to make something of yourself!
  • Daisy: Yeah? Well, I'm not gonna go to Yale. You're just gonna have to deal with that.
  • Daisy's Mother; I don't expect you to go to Yale.
  • Daisy's Mother: I'm just so worried about you.
  • Daisy: Me too.
Among kids who have two or three "adversity indicators," some accept the intellectual and achievement limitations others have assigned to them. But others struggle against the perception, their own or other people's, that they aren't particularly smart and academically able, often while insisting simultaneously on their right to be accepted and valued just the way they are. Daisy is one of these frustrated strugglers. But Daisy's
mother doesn't know how to talk Daisy across the achievement gap. She doesn't expect Daisy to be Kat, but she also doesn't know how to advise Daisy about next steps that might allay the worries about Daisy's future the two of them share and that might create opportunities for Daisy beyond Mystic, Connecticut and beyond Mystic Pizza******* (even though the movie firmly establishes that Mystic Pizza's chef-proprietors' work ethic, treatment of their employees, and high standards for the pizza they serve are to respected and admired).

So I concur with Paul Tough and his colleagues that students' mindsets are potent factors in students' learning, achievement, and success. In 1995, I advised a student whose Senior Project examined the academic experiences of her fellow African-American classmates. From a survey she designed and administered, she learned that many of her classmate respondents did not seek individual help from teachers for fear that those teachers would view them as "stupid" or as incorrectly placed in challenging courses. In sharp contrast, her fellow white students asked for individual help without fear of teachers' negative opinions. More than fifteen years later when I returned to the classroom to teach AP English Literature & Composition, I quickly became aware that the students in my class who met two or more of Laude's "adversity" criteria, a number of whom were students of color, seemed more hesitant to ask for individual help with their writing than their non-at-risk, often white classmates. The old problem was persisting, and I needed to respond.

Writing Conference Sign-Up Sheet
My solution, which I recommend to teachers of all writing-intensive courses, was to require that all students schedule individual writing conferences with me twice a semester. I also realized that what I said and what I emphasized during those required conferences would be critical. I had two important responsibilities: (a) to communicate my belief to all of my students that every young writer benefits from more personalized writing consultation, and then (b) to convey to my students that my job was to help them say what they wanted to say, not what they thought I wanted them to say. 

When I met with those students who tended not to seek individual help, we began by speaking about their ideas (they always had thoughts and ideas!), not about their grammar and organization, although that was almost always where they assumed we were going to start, because they were certain our time together was going to focus on what they were doing "wrong," not what they were doing "right." Sometimes, we spent some time crafting sentences that needed to convey the complex connections among several ideas. Always, I took a moment to reiterate my belief in the helpfulness of individual conferences and one-on-one work sessions in learning--and encouraged my students to share their thoughts about being reluctant to ask for help even when they felt some guidance or support could help them. Sometimes, when students were hesitant to speak up, I shared reasons that past students had given for not wanting to schedule individual conferences. 

Ultimately, we all breathed easier; everyone felt like a visible individual; no one felt singled out as "really doing badly" and "not being right for AP" (what the article labels as fears related to "ability" and "belonging"); and the writing of all of my students (I think!) became argumentatively stronger and personally more significant, from their perspectives and from my own.

This final result is important because a number of my students had already decided that they were or weren't good writers before they entered my class. As a result, one subset of students initially believed they didn't need to work at their writing because they had always been "good writers," while another subset believed that no amount of effort would significantly improve their writing abilities.******** Tough's article discusses the particular challenges faced by the high proportion of at-risk students who "believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence--that intelligence was fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study." But I believe that many high school students, struggling and not struggling, are disadvantaged by similar beliefs. Fortunately, students can explore these beliefs in advisory programs; in individual conversations with teachers, mentors, and advisors; and even in writing conferences mandated for all. But students must be given the opportunity to explore these ideas.

In 2007, my then principal and I were among those asked to speak at one of several Cambridge School Committee-sponsored events intended to demystify and help close the achievement gap. In a joint presentation entitled "Exploring 'The Gap,'" each of us spoke about different aspects of students' lives and thinking that might help to explain the significant differences between student groups in the achievement data. As a someone who was often in other teachers' classrooms, thus in the company of students, I spoke about student attitudes and beliefs that made learning and achievement  difficult.

Specifically, I spent some time talking about  things that students said in class that created "teachable moments," opportunities for teachers to help students examine their beliefs and assumptions about school, learning, and themselves, particularly those that
might negatively affect their academic effort and performance. Certainly, Jennifer Hogue had to respond to the comment made by one of her students (at the left) before it demoralized the students in her class who did trust that working hard on challenging assignments was not only "normal" in a "college prep" class, but necessary for learning and achievement. Perhaps even more importantly, the comment opened the door for a potentially enlightening conversation with the individual student, or even with the whole class, about the purposes and value of challenging assignments--and the purposes of school. What's the value of successfully doing challenging work, even if you would rather not have to do it? Just maybe, that conversation would have a positive effect on the speaker's future efforts.

The quotation from one of my own students illustrates the ambivalence that too many of our "at risk" students--the Daisys of the world--have about sounding and seeming smart. When their learning success is new, many of them hesitate to give up their identities as "the ones who aren't at school to learn" and the social capital that accompanies those identities.  But they know "the word"--not only what it means, but how to say it. Given the high correlation between academic language usage and high achievement, I have but one choice in situations like these: insist that the students say the word. The minute they invoke the word in any way, it must come out of their mouths, even if they need me to say it again so that they can repeat it. Academic language is a valuable tool for talking one's way across the achievement gap.

First Light, Last Light by Debi Milligan
Frankly, it's the comment of one of Debi Milligan's students (that's a photo by Debi on the right) that makes me think most of the at-risk freshmen on which Tough's article most focuses. Too many students who don't expect themselves to be able to do high quality work--a common expectation of many kids who exhibit Laude's "adversity indicators"--give themselves little or no credit when they actually do. When during a late-semester critique Debi's student attributed her beautiful, technically sophisticated photograph to "luck," Debi was initially shocked.  Then, she stepped back, realizing her student needed to reflect. Calmly, she reminded her student of particular times during the semester when she had persevered, learned, experimented, imagined, tried, tried again. Especially when her classmates remembered earlier photos and earlier efforts, the student began to recognize that her high quality photo was not an accident, but rather a culminating expression of her learning, discipline, creativity, and investment. Debi, with the help of the rest of the class, had succeeded at talking her student across the achievement gap, at least on that one day. But maybe the experience made a deeper and more lasting impression.

In the quest to devise programs that will "fix" all of our students who are at risk not to succeed academically in high school, not to complete college, and therefore not to make a middle-class wage, let alone participate in an "innovation" economy and contribute to America's national well-being and international competitiveness, we forget how strongly our students' beliefs and identities shape their performance in those carefully envisioned programs. And we forget that by listening to what our students are saying not just about what we are trying to teach them, we're apt to pick up on those attitudes and beliefs, allowing us to reinforce some, challenge others, and simply come to understand yet others that might have a strong effect on how our students tackle learning and achievement.

That's why I love Yeager and Walton's "U.T. Mindset"-focused online freshman orientation. It's not just the topics of the assigned readings that normalize and then suggest possible effective responses to difficult freshman experiences; it's what the students do after they've read: they "write their own reflections on what they'd read in order to help future students." In less than an hour, Yeager and Walton turn anxious freshmen into mentors, requiring them to talk future freshmen through some common difficulties--and potentially across the achievement gap. Needless to say, the exercise is helping the new freshmen lay the emotional/ideological foundation for coaching themselves through the difficult moments they're bound to encounter. They're beginning the process of talking themselves across an achievement gap that may just never have to materialize.

We hear all the time that the new educational "3 Rs" are Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.********** But Yeager and Walton's orientation strategy confirms the need for a fourth R: Reflection. Whether reflection remains private, is expressed in conversation, or is paid forward in writing to an imagined student of the future, it actively engages students in what they have heard, potentially transforms their assumptions, and potentially empowers them to respond to situations--like a particularly challenging freshman year--in new ways. While reflection often happens in relationships, it merits separate billing: too often, "supportive" relationships become contexts in which the fears and anxieties that plague students are accepted as justifications for the students' repeated failures to stretch and strive personally, socially, and academically. Not all talk talks kids across the achievement gap.

When it comes to jumping from stone to stone, a frequent requirement in the hills of water-abundant western Massachusetts, my husband and I couldn't be more different. Having lived near a rocky inlet on the South Shore and summered in the Berkshires, Scott bounds from rock to rock spontaneously, unconsciously, and confidently. I, on the other hand, grew up in Boston with little opportunity to wander relatively unsupervised in natural, nearby places that invited leaping and climbing. Consequently, Berkshire stream crossings paralyze me, set me to planning, induce shortness of breath. It takes Scott's clear, kindly delivered strategic advice--and often his extended hand--to make me screw up my courage and take the plunge, which I'm always a little fearful will be just that.

So I can relate when students--especially anxious "at risk" students--teeter uncertainly on the brink of new learning experiences, even--or perhaps especially--the ones they've been dreaming of and working toward. But in addition to creating programs for them and mandating their participation, we need to listen to them and to speak with them. Around those perilous rocks, the sun is shining and the water is reflecting. Good coaching can help one get across those gaps: there are definitely some better ways to get from rock to rock, and even some safer ways to slip and fall should one lose her footing.

As far as Mystic Pizza is concerned, I think Kat does fine at Yale and Daisy finds her way, too. Or maybe that's what I hope! It's certainly what the movie wants me to believe!

* Tough, Paul. "Who Gets to Graduate?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2014. Web. 26 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0>.  
** http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2008/10/mystic-pizza-twenty-years-anniversary-movie.html
*** http://wearemoviegeeks.com/wp-content/uploads/251original3.jpg
**** Note: we are not provided with information about Kat's SAT scores, though we know she has distinguished herself academically.
*****  Screen shot of web page: http://www.utexas.edu/campus-life/getting-involved
****** http://www.subzin.com/quotes/M45288572b9/Mystic+Pizza/Yeah%3F+Well%2C+I%27m+not+gonna+go+to+Yale.+You%27re+just+gonna+have+to+deal+with+that. 
******* http://www.scene-stealers.com/wp-content/uploads//2014/05/mystic_pizza.jpg
******** The majority of my students did believe that hard work and commitment would elevate their writing skills, regardless of how they assessed their skills.
********* Screen Shot from http://davisortongallery.com/previous/
********** New graphic created using following image:  http://www.principalj.net/wp-content/uploads/blogger/-QrdNJpqLmcI/T-aU6qod4vI/AAAAAAAAAYE/AAp_LdfX25E/s1600/rigor%2Brelevance%2Band%2Brelationshih.jpg

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Words, Words, Words . . . And Seasons and Stages

So already, I've been thinking a lot about words--my words, other people's--and the degrees to which they help and hinder, obscure and reveal.  All this while fully understanding my penchant for them, my attraction to them, maybe even my addiction to them. Maybe it's the English teacher in me, but I'm always looking to put experiences into words, to use language to express even those experiences that don't need words, that inherently dramatize language's limitations. Sometimes, it's the desire to communicate those experiences to others--because there's something about them that wants telling, describing; sometimes it's the desire to integrate them into myself and my understandings of the world--as if without words, those experiences and all the associations and meanings they gave rise to will evanesce. I'm not particularly nostalgic, but there are moments that I want to hang on to because there's a quintessential fullness to them. Such moments, somehow preserved and therefore able to revisited, have the power of "over and over announcing your place/In the family of things," as the last lines of Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" put it. Frankly, I like feeling part of the "family of things." And I don't always feel that way.

On March 27 "The Writer's Almanac" featured "Words" by Dana Gioia as its poem of the day.  To the right is the screen shot of the web page that featured that poem. Love the images, the music, the meta- physics, the rever- ence, and the gentle, enlarging irony of the poem's last lines. Words, though not always needed, have a beneficent function in this poem, and "we" are beneficent beings.

But while Gioia's poem says something that I couldn't put into words so well and that I actively feel and think, he's not the only poet in town talking about words, especially the words of poets. I've been reading--and really liking, though I can't say I've completely wrapped my mind around--Frank Bidart's Metaphysical Dog: Poems.*  The following lines from "Writing 'Ellen West'" reveal a poet who knows he doesn't really know what he wants to know, what he needs to know, but who is compelled to write despite, or perhaps because of, his combination of courage, critical self-recognition, hope, and doubt:

"He was grateful he was not impelled to live out the war in his body, hiding in compromise, well wadded with art he adored and with stupidity and distraction."

"After she died his body wanted to die, but his brain, his cunning, didn't.

"Arrogance of the maker."

"One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough."

The second section of the book is called "Hunger for the Absolute," but the speaker in "Writing 'Ellen West'" fears that he's not even close to the Absolute--unless perhaps the Hunger, or the vain quest for it, is the Absolute. In one of the comments featured on the back of the book, Stephen Burt of The New York Times Book Review says that "his [Bidart's] poems are doors best opened with cautious attention--behind them you might even see yourself."

Gioia's poem comforts me, establishes "my place/ in the [sunlit] family of things." But Bidart's poems insist that I see the darkness; identify me as "— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!"**; and caution me about poems, words, and language that claim certainty and sincerity, neither of which they actually have. Not that the writers of these words don't long to be certain and sincere! The intent of each "dishonest" writer is not to deceive others maliciously, but rather to know and speak with certainty (which always soothes to some degree), thus, subconsciously, to deceive him/herself. That's precisely my challenge as a writer: avoiding subtle, partial self-deception; avoiding the sanitation of the difficult in order to make it more palatable, more manageable, more conducive to peaceful sleep; avoiding the terror of too much not knowing, even when not knowing is often so natural. Because I like things tidy, neat.  Because the non-rigid "Absolute" comforts me, especially when it's bathed in light.

But wait! Sunlight and darkness both exist; and language may indeed elevate and illuminate. Idolizing one's own idiosyncratic version of "the family of things" or "the Absolute" would be problematic, but striving with and through language may simply be something very human, very natural--and downright useful. People's language bring people's perspectives on what's possible, probable, actual. Those of us who are inclined to seek avail themselves of whatever tools we have. Language presents us with many of those tools: stories, teachings, words, . . . poems.

Speaking of stories, last week while reading Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs***, I was surprised by the many different righteous Jewish paths that people could follow, paths that reflected their talents and inclinations, as well as the material and spiritual circumstances of their lives, past and present. This didn't mean that every one of these people became a teacher in the sense of transmitting knowledge accrued over the ages, but it did mean that the behavior of every righteous person--the actions and the spirit with which the actions were performed--was potentially instructive. Furthermore, role and appearance did not tell all:  the town cobbler might have as highly developed a life of study and prayer as an acknowledged spiritual leader. Interestingly, some people quite deliberately concealed aspects of their righteousness.

I was also surprised--and then comforted by the fact--that even the renowned mystics and spiritual leaders sometimes needed to reroute themselves in order to develop over time. It seemed to me their recognition of the need for some kind of change of course**** was the result of a combination of developmental forces, growing wisdom, effort, and intentionality. In various tales, important characters recognized the need to make changes in their lives, for example, marrying after having assiduously avoided marriage, participating more actively in community after having embraced and protected predominantly isolated lives of prayer and study, exiling themselves from the community after having been a participant in it, or returning to the community after a period of religious exile. Spiritual evolution came with joyful persistence and the understanding that further spiritual evolution was always possible. Absolute certainty, but always distance--understood and accepted--between oneself and "the Absolute." And always the effort to minimize that distance.

As much as these lives and stories diverge from my own, they inspire me with their variety, their non-linearity, and their centeredness-in-God. Personally, I'm not feeling centered, though centeredness is tremendously appealing, and I thank God and think about God a lot. As I look ahead to the next phase of life, feel some real yearning to plan for my next stage, I have this great privilege of choice and time--for work, for play, for study, for music, for walking outside. I want to use my my privilege, wisely and well. I'd like to experience it emotionally as less of a burden/challenge, and as more of a gift/opportunity. I know my yearning is not only about "what to do" and "what to be," though these are most often what people ask me about. I have to be authentic, aspirational and actual. And I'd really like to feel centered.

So can words--my own words, in conjunction with the words of others--lead to authentic centeredness? I continue to hope so. There's no question that writing with relative ease can lead to the kind of cunning and inauthenticity that Frank Bidart talks about: formulating and expressing in order to have "something" to say that, by its very written existence, speaks with personal authority, genuine or not. I want to avoid writing "one more . . . [blog post] in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough." But I believe writing moves me forward: I feel like I get something right every time I write, even if it's a very little something. 

The theme of the meditations for this week in Day by Day***** is "Finding Our Way" because Numbers 1:1-4:20 takes up the Israelites' wilderness wandering experience.  Tomorrow's meditation is particularly apt, given this blog's topic:  "The biggest lie I tell myself is . . . For a moment I thought I could complete that sentence, and that would have been the biggest lie of all! But I do understand what is the great struggle of my life: to know the inside of me better, to examine what I'm about to do, as well as what I have already done" (229).  

Frank Bidart and I could both be naturally tempted to complete that sentence about the lie. But it's the last part of the meditation that has the potential to help me find my center in a context that views the quest and desire to find "a center" as natural. Looking inward, looking back, looking forward: sounds right to me. It's exactly what we teachers at Pilot School asked all of our students to do in conjunction with their reading and writing portfolios so that they could move forward as learners and people. I realize I've been looking inward and looking forward, but have been neglecting looking backward as much as may be useful.

Last week as I was contemplating the development of particular Chasidic spiritual leaders and mystics over time, I remembered that Hinduism recognizes various life stages and that one of the later stages relates to redefining oneself in retirement.  As Huston Smith explains in The World's Religions******, "Retirement looks beyond the stars, not to the village streets. It is the time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy into a way of life; . . .." (53). If the retiree can, s/he actually physically departs from the socially organized world of the village in which s/he has been active as a "householder," becoming a "forest-dweller" liberated from the responsibilities and expectations of the second stage of life in order to fulfill third-stage purposes. Smith goes on to assert that if, upon completing this stage, the retiree returns to the village streets, s/he is a "different person" (54) even if s/he pursues a life that appears identical to the one s/he led before.

Working out a philosophy, not merely choosing a new career in the old ways, or an old career in the old ways. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Lots of good words from many places, and some warnings about the seduction of words, too. They're not always truth. But sometimes they are, or can lead there.

* Bidart, Frank. Metaphysical Dog: Poems. S.l.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014. Print.
**Jacques LeClercq translates this line from "Au Lecteur" (To the Reader) by Charles Baudelaire as "Reader, O hypocrite — my like! — my brother!" <http://fleursdumal.org/poem/099>
*** Schneersohn, Joseph Isaac. Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs: The Memoirs of Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn of Lubavitch. Trans. Nissan Mindel. Brooklyn, NY: Otzar Hachasidim, 2004. Print.
**** Screen shot from <http://kavirunner.blogspot.com/2009/08/watchung-reservation-trail-run.html> 
***** Stern, Chaim. Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print.  
****** Smith, Huston. The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Experimenting with Twitter, Wandering Among Books, and Seeing the Windows for the Trees

So already, the last couple of weeks have been technology- and nature-intense for me. At the same time, I've been doing a kind of approach-avoidance dance with three books I've been "reading":  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel; Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs by Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn (translated by Nissan Mindel), a narrative of the history and evolution of the Chasidic movement; and Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, a "field guide to the dark," according to the Sharon Salzberg's comment on the book jacket.  Newly arrived from Amazon is the book I'm supposed to finish reading by the last weekend of May:  The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. 

On the tech front, I've been trying to figure out how and why to use Twitter.  Whenever I get "mentioned," "favorited," or"retweeted," I feel that maybe I'm getting the hang of of it; but then I wonder what that electronic recognition signifies. Twitter does seem like a better place to be "serious" than Facebook is. But how many different "areas" can I be serious about on Twitter? How many places can I be an online presence without feeling that my world is more virtual than actual? And do I really need one more reason to be tied to my computer?   It's a soft, balmy, grayish spring day outside of my window, and I'm peering at the multiple windows open on my computer screen rather than out of the open window nearby. Is this really the right moment to be gathering my thoughts in this online template? The clouds (not the iCloud!) are just beginning to thicken a bit, the birds are chirping at soothing intervals, and the air is sweet with scent of still exuberant blossoms.

So now for a few details of my Twitter experi- mentation. A few weeks ago, my wonderful cousin Eli, an observant and committed Jew, and the person who gave me the Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs because of my interest in many of his postings on his Facebook page, posted something that resonated strongly with my teacher soul:  you can read what he posted in the tweet above. Though I was relatively sure Eli was thinking of students and teachers whose learning intentions were religious, spiritual, and deeply Jewish when he posted the above, I kept thinking how easily his words (actually, since they were in quotation marks, I wasn't sure who had actually said them**) might have been uttered by any of the educators whose work with their students is intentionally, deliberately shaped by Reggio Emilia and Making Learning Visible values, sensibilities, and best practices. 

My own major concern as an educator during the last decade has been that our very narrow views of achievement and assessment, best expressed by our preoccupation with aggregate student data, have deceived us into thinking that we teach curriculum, not students. The Reggio Emilia/Making Learning Visible (MLV)* view is that through our individual and collaborative exploration of documentation that "makes visible" students in the act of learning (or not learning--and we're not just talking about the products they create as a result of their classroom learning experiences), we can learn a great deal about our students--not just what they know and don't know, but how they learn, what interests them, what roles they can play in their own and others' learning. 

Once we've been "the students of our students," as Eli would put it, we invariably have more and better ideas about how to design the curriculum, instruction (lessons and activities), and performances/assignments that are most likely to inspire and foster the learning of the particular students in front of us. We have better ideas about what we can say to each of them and have them be able to hear. We have ideas about how best to encourage, cajole, or demand. Yes, we need to be that aware of the individuality of our students, and even of the distinct personality of the group they are together as a class. It can't be about how we think students ought to be able to learn, or how other students have learned in the past:  our educator moves must take into account who is standing before us right now and needing to learn in our classrooms today.

So I tweeted, as you can see above.  And I got retweeted and favorited.  A few days later, I tweeted the same quotation, this time in response to a prompt from another tweet that asked people to share their favorite education-related quotations; the New Teacher Center favorited my tweet. Wiser Ones' Quotes began following me.

The whole time I was getting retweeted and favorited, I kept enjoying that my "education contribution" was derived from the active, committed very Jewish spiritual strivings of my cousin. I kept enjoying that one of my most dearly held educational beliefs was aligning, at least briefly, with my continued, serious, but also generally haphazard and often tangential exploration of Judaism in general, and my own Judaism in particular. I've been wondering how to lead a life that feels authentically Jewish and authentically mine, so I relish moments when my public secular self (which I recognize is shaped by ethics and considerations that are very Jewish, but which is active in a primarily non-Jewish world in which spirituality and belief are often hidden and spoken about indirectly if at all) and my much more private Jewish self connect. Twitter aided the connecting.

Whatever internal negotiations I've engaged myself in around "to tweet or not to tweet"; "to go online or to go outside"; and, when small education-related employment opportunities have arisen, "to work or not to work," there's been one aspect of my post-CRLS life that has been without conflict:  I have loved every minute that I've been out walking this spring, and I've never once questioned whether being outside in springtime was a good use of my time.

The other morning, I took a bunch of photos while walking in East Milton . When I looked at one and realized that there were upstairs windows in the background, I said to myself, "I would love having a window that looked into a flowering tree." At that point, I realized most of my photos captured obscured windows and full-out flowering trees.

All my life, I've loved looking into other people's windows (I've especially loved this at night in Cambridge where many people didn't draw their blinds or close their curtains, and many homes were set very close to the street) and looking out of my own. And so I began thinking of the potential relationship between the outdoor world of nature and the interior worlds that those windows also looked into, particularly about the lives beyond those windows that could privately, easily, and annually survey this astonishing explosion of delicate blossoms. Was this a particularly special time for the residents? Did they anticipate it each year, revel in for as long as it lasted, and give thanks for it?

I came home to two more internal negotiations: (1) should I bring my iPad with me to Cambridge to use in the time I would have between commitments, or should I plan simply to read, just sit there and read, delivered from the entreaties of e-mails, tweets, or messages; and (2) what should I bring to read, given my reading malaise.  I went onto Facebook to check something, and there I was reminded that Eli's Facebook current profile picture is a window! You can see it here at the right. One of Eli's Facebook friends identifies it as the "Yud Shvat" window. A window into a place of prayer and study. 

That clinched it; no iPad; just the Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs. About these, and some of what Eli has explained to me since then, I hope to blog in the future. There's much here that's feels remote from my daily life and interior life experiences, but much that feels strangely but significantly relevant to them. My preliminary thinking about the teachings and lives that others have been studying for years will need to viewed as just that:  there's too much that needs study and talking about to be spoken of with any kind of confident understanding. In fact, I need time to think, wonder, synthesize just to know my preliminary thinking, let alone convey it.

Later in the day, as I sat down in the lobby of the Sheraton Commander Hotel, where I spent most of the time I had between engagements, I remembered that the early part of the book presented a very spiritual man named Baruch as experiencing God in nature.  I reread the following passages--"So the winter passed and spring came. As Baruch lived on the outskirts of town, he felt very near to G-d's Creation, which he loved so dearly.  He now began taking long walks in the country" (56-7), and "Here [in the country post-Shavuot] was a world where all Creation was singing a song of praise to the Creator" (57)--then picked up my reading from a later point in the text. I didn't miss my iPad at all.

My springtime walks are a good thing.  And I'm exceedingly grateful to my cousin Eli for the books he sent me; his patience, generosity of spirit, and really understandable answers to my questions; and his enthusiastic interest in "the progress" of my post-CRLS life.  Even though Judaism and "my work" are bound to be inextricably intertwined, they each deserve their share of my undivided attention at this point in my process. I want to make time for reading, thinking about, learning more about Judaism, mystical Judaism in particular. It needs that, and I need that. The connections and purposes will come later.

*The Making Learning Visible Project came out of a collaboration between the Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Reggio Emilia preschools and infant/toddler centers.
** When I asked Eli who had written the quotation, I learned the words were his.  His explanation for them made me think even more about Reggio-Emilia teaching and learning ideals: "That quote was something that occurred to me as I was considering some observations . . . of how the transmission and ownership of knowledge is handled. There is the statement from the Mishna, Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding' (Psalms 119:99).  So I can’t say that wasn't an influence but I was thinking along the lines that teaching knowledge or the tools to acquire knowledge, and especially knowledge which connects one to a higher state like Torah , is about opening a door that is, without exaggeration, unlimited and certainly opens a potentially unique road of discovery for each individual. So if we really believe in what we are teaching and in our students, then logically each student must be able to become our teacher  – and it struck me that to become a pupil to your pupil is in fact the surest sign of success in teaching.  If we don’t believe that , then I don’t think we are truly teaching i.e. we are not opening the door, at least consciously, to the real deal – to what is unlimited and unique for the student – i.e. the real essence of the subject matter!" Love his line about believing in what we are teaching and believing in our students.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Inspiration from Helen Jacobson as the Fourth Month of Retirement Begins!

So already, it's a cloudy, still raw May 1 in Greater Boston. But the temperature is slowly climbing. And the air is redolent of spring.  Who knew it would be such a pleasure to carry my newspapers and plastic containers to my building's recycling bins this morning?

Today marks the beginning of my fourth month of retirement from the Cambridge Public Schools. I've never been one to believe, as Eliot says, that "April is the cruelest month." But April did seem to distress more than delight this year.

During April, I wrote and did feverishly--but not with a clear sense of purpose. I chose not to blog at all about my retirement and the disorientation associated with it; instead, I blogged about other topics, worked a little*, began reading Wolf Hall and Learning to Walk in the Dark, prepared for and observed Passover, paid attention to Boston Marathon week, read the newspaper and got endlessly angry, experimented with Twitter, spent happy times with friends and family, relearned some music, walked, walked some more--and hoped that purpose and direction would somehow precipitate out of the sometimes frantic mix.

They didn't.  And I often felt more driven to do what I was doing than free to do it. It was a peculiar month. And so I begin my fourth month of retirement very much adrift--but with a renewed commitment to the slowing down I claimed I was going to embrace when I blogged in March. May I do better in May!

I did do something helpful as April ended:  I called up my good friend and former boss, Helen Jacobson, just to compare notes on how our Seders had gone and how our respective creative efforts were going. It's Helen's studio at the old Waltham Mills building on Moody Street in Waltham that you see pictured above. Helen retired a few years ago from her position as Chief Academic Officer at English High School in Boston; and since then, she has worked to balance and integrate her public identities as an urban educator and dedicated friend, mother, and grandmother with her more private longtime identity as a gifted but often thwarted painter, and with her emerging identity as a writer.

I came away from our conversation with not only the latest news, but also inspiration and hope. A piece by Helen called "My Renewed Passion"** had just been published in CapeWomenOnline.  I read it, and I loved it:  I could hear Helen's voice and feel her spirit--and her relief. But I also knew it had taken her a while to get here. Her most recent paintings--you can see two of them to the right--have felt bolder, freer, and deeper to me. I wonder if their vitality and intensity, their expressiveness, are in part a reflection of her having fully, actively, and confidently embraced the painter part of herself. Like my husband, Scott Ketcham, she has to paint! And she knows she knows herself better than anybody else does.

I asked Helen's permission to share the link to "My Renewed Passion" on my blog, so you can read it by either clicking on its title above or using the web address below.  I hope you will read it, and I hope you have the chance to see her work at the Waltham Mills Open Studios next November. 

Meanwhile, thank you, Helen, for letting me share your link, for providing the photos that I've included here, and for giving me hope that in time, in time, I too will find the purpose and direction that should be mine.

* When I say I have been working, I mean that I have been doing some work as an educator for pay.