Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

Sweepin’ the Clouds Away

Forty-five years ago today, I was in a first grade classroom in Overland Park, Kansas (don’t even ask why this East Coast girl was in the middle of Jayhawks country, but there I was). It was 1969, if you’re not in the mood for math. In a pique of progressivism, the administration at my school decided that it would be interesting to wheel a television into our reading lesson so that we, the pioneer children of the Space Age, could be exposed to a brand-new concept in broadcasting: the first episode of Sesame Street.

I remember that day, and I would have remembered it even if NPR hadn’t aired a terrific story about the program and the magical, eloquent, indelible mark it has left on me and every subsequent cohort of first-graders.

For anyone reading this post who is younger than I am, it may be difficult to comprehend the sheer novelty of bringing a TV into the classroom back in those days. Sure, we had visual media (who remembers the old filmstrips with the bell that rang when it was time to advance the frame?), but trust me when I say that this was a whole new world. And the program itself was revolutionary. Deliberately, wonderfully, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-everything. A neighborhood that was obviously urban, a little bit edgy (come on, there was a grubby green grouch who lived in a garbage can), and decidedly working-class. It was idealistic, but not preachy. And the messaging elevated PBS and Fred Rogers out of his world of make-believe into a real world where grownups could help children navigate their way through a lot more than vowels and consonants.

Looking back now, I can only imagine the sense of urgency the Sesame Street creators felt as they brought their sound-stage neighborhood to life throughout the public broadcasting network. During the pre-production stages, the world had shifted. The US was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Northern Ireland was in crisis. People had walked on the Moon. The summer leading up to the first episode had been filled with events that we now recall with phrases and one-word labels: Woodstock. Stonewall. Helter Skelter. Chappaquiddick. The Nixon Doctrine. What images from the news had made their way into the living rooms of the children for whom Sesame Street was developed? What worries and ideas were they struggling to resolve? On the steps of Susan and Bob’s apartment building, in Mr. Hooper’s store, in the alley where Big Bird kept his nest, how many difficult topics were raised and addressed with calm, measured, caring tones? And, in the context of the events of 1968 and 1969, and in all the subsequent years, who could have predicted that an earnest group of performers, puppeteers, and child development specialists from the Harvard Graduate School of Education would have built a legacy that has extended through at least three generations?

On behalf of all the grownups like me, who work in schools and have the unmitigated thrill of watching six-year-olds learn to read as an added bonus to an already fulfilling career, I would like to say, this post is brought to you by the letters that spell every good thing. With thanks to Big Bird, Jim Henson, Joan Cooney, Jerry Lesser, and Children’s Television Workshop.

Tuned In

One of the many reasons I love my job: The Head of School has initiated a “happiness group” among the faculty and staff. A couple of weeks ago, she sent a link to a TED talk by psychologist Shawn Achor, which has been viewed countless times and which, no doubt, has inspired countless people to re-think their ideas about success, satisfaction, and daily experiences. Toward the end of his talk, Dr. Achor offers suggestions for five daily practices that have been proven to raise our level of happiness:

  • Naming 3 “gratitudes” each day
  • Keeping a journal
  • Exercising
  • Meditation
  • Performing random acts of kindness

One of our 7th grade teachers had brought the talk to the head of school with the thought, “wouldn’t this be a great message to share with our middle school students?”

Of course, it’s a great idea. But before we bring it to the kids, our wise head of school said, let’s offer a challenge to the adults in the community. Let’s see if we can raise our own happiness quotients.

And so, our “happiness group” was born. More than two dozen people volunteered to choose one or more of Achor’s behaviors, and make a 21-day commitment to stick with it. We’ll all be checking in with ourselves and each other during the next three weeks as we try to make happiness a habit.

I like to think of myself as a generally happy person, and I think I try to seek opportunities to discover happiness in my day–but couldn’t we all be a bit more mindful about finding the good in our lives?

http://on.ted.com/f0U0c

Plotting Our Own Course

The Boy inadvertently gave me the metaphor for this post. On the way to school the other day,  he said, “I wonder if you could use the quadratic formula to create a set of coordinates for a circle.” (This is a good question to get your mind working at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning). He quickly realized that a different function would be required to create a shape that arcs back to connect to itself on a coordinate plane. Then we talked about how the quadratic equation always results in a parabola–a perfect, symmetric curve with two arms that reach, ever wider, into infinity.

It’s a beautiful thing, the parabola. It’s anchored somewhere on the y-axis, but otherwise, its path — and the points within its branches — are limitless. What an elegant image to represent the path of our own lives: grounded in at least one base point, and open to possibilities. Every time we add new experiences and new relationships, it’s as if we’ve plotted more values on an enormous sheet of graph paper. The shape grows wider to hold more of the grid, but the formula guarantees that it will retain its integrity.

This week, my own parabola got wider, but my intercept values are still secure. On Monday, I signed a contract and accepted a leadership role at a new school. After 12 years of deeply gratifying work at an extraordinary place, the decision to leave was not an easy one. I have loved my students, my colleagues, the families, and the guiding principles of my school. I have watched children grow from wide-eyed, diminutive pre-kindergarteners into mature, poised, and confident teenagers. I have cried at graduation speeches, delighted in the progress of young readers and mathematicians, had my heart warmed by community celebrations, been nurtured and supported during my own challenges, and have been given the honor and the privilege of sending more than 100 novice teachers out into the world. I love my job. And yet, it’s time to reach further.

For the past year, I’ve been looking for the “just-right” position, relying on my inner quadratic function to guide me in the proper direction. After many conversations, interviews, school tours, and careful reflection, I have found it. Or, to be more accurate, the job found me. An inquiry from the Head of School nearly two months ago led to an exchange of increasingly exciting e-mails, a Skype call, a long day of travel and meetings, more e-mails and calls, and finally, a mutual sense of connection. It is right. It is a new x-intercept.

The Boy will graduate from my current school (his school, our school) on June 7. That morning will also be my last day as an official member of the faculty.Five days after graduation, I will turn 50. It is poetic, and fitting, to start my second half-century with a significant change. The Boy’s teachers have been my colleagues and friends; those points on my graph have been plotted and will always remain.  The Boy and I will walk out of the building together, each of us on the way to our respective next schools, with a summer vacation to serve as the buffer between the known and the new.

When September arrives, our lives will be quite different. My new job is 126 miles away from our house. I’ve reserved a fantastic (yet small) apartment in the heart of New Haven, where I’ll stay from Mondays to Fridays. On weekends, I’ll be back at our house in Massachusetts, or the Husband and The Boy will come to Connecticut. We’ve all made the trip, toured the city, seen the school, met the people, and begun to envision the future.

I believe strongly in the power of intention. I also believe that as long as we are alive, there is always time and space to learn, grow, embrace new challenges, resist inertia, and do our very best to contain all the points we build into our parabolas.

Tertiary Emotions

One element of my professional persona is that of psychology professor. In the comfort of that identity, I usually teach about child development. My courses include lectures and activities about physical growth and change, language acquisition, cognitive development, and the emergence of social-emotional awareness. I mention this because I’m about to write a whole post about  feelings, and I guess I want to establish a bit of credibility from the outset.

Human emotions can be categorized into three levels, which begin at a general level and become more specific as we move from primary (anger, fear, surprise, love, joy, and sadness are often listed as the core emotions) to secondary (think of affection as an aspect of love) to tertiary (think of compassion as a “next step”  after affection–an emotional response that evokes both affection and empathy).

I have written about gratitude many times in this blog. It is one of my favorite emotions. In my fortunate life, gratitude usually combines joy and love. I am grateful to so many people who have demonstrated care and affection for me. I am grateful to circumstances that have made it possible for me to receive medical attention, academic and professional success, and opportunities to experience awe in the world. I believe deeply that being open to gratitude is a mindset that is worth cultivating. Gratitude for me is connected to optimism. To be an optimistic and grateful person is, in my opinion, to be a happy individual.

In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself affirming another tertiary emotion–humility. In the context of my recent experiences, I have found that humility is directly related to gratitude. Humility requires a level of maturity and a willingness to accept my own vulnerabilities. It requires an ability to relinquish the need to be in control, a great level of trust in other people, and faith in my own values. It requires a willingness to hear the truth about myself and to accept both praise and criticism with gratitude. It makes me realize how important it is to stay grounded in the world and to hold onto the people who matter the most.

 

Teaching The Boy to Cook

Tonight I made green risotto. I’m sure there’s a recipe out there somewhere for this dish, but here in our kitchen, dinner emerged as the result of a discussion between me and the Boy about what to do with a bright, aromatic bunch of fresh late-season basil.

We make pesto on a regular basis. Today, it just seemed too mundane for us to turn a lovely bouquet into a batch of the same-old, same-old. As an improvisational cook, I am delighted to share a deep enthusiasm and knowledge with my son about the possibilities for a meal. He is developing a strong sense of the way ingredients come together, of the flavors that complement each other, and of the techniques that elevate a simple idea into an elegant presentation.

In the past few years, The Boy has learned knife skills, essential ratios, herb profiles, the uses of kitchen tools, elementary sauce preparations, and complex food profiles. He can make a chiffonade of herbs. He can make a roux, expertly varying the level of color depending on the intensity of the stock he plans to prepare. He can make a marinara sauce and a tomato cream sauce. He is my go-to person for tasting dishes as they simmer, and his recommendations for spicing are spot-on.

He’s an extraordinary apprentice and collaborator, this son of mine. When we pick up our CSA share at the farm, he eagerly suggests ideas for how to use our cornucopia of the week. He enthusiastically tries everything. Last week, we got a really big watermelon in the crate. I decided to make an agua fresca (see below for the super-easy recipe). The Boy was my first taster. Today, we stopped by our excellent local cafe so that I could get a cup of the best latte in town. There was French onion soup on the menu. The Boy had himself a cup, liked it, assessed it, and gave me a full rundown on how we should make our own onion soup (fewer chunky onions, more herbs).

Which brings us back to the green pesto tonight. When I was out shopping this afternoon, I tossed a bunch of fresh oregano into the shopping cart. I told the woman at the wine store what I was making, and she pointed me to a fabulous Montepulciano. Back at home, I pureed the oregano with the basil, a couple of tablespoons of butter, and two cloves of garlic in the food processor. When I mixed it into the simmering arborio rice, the aroma brought both guys from distant corners of the house.

Checking the risotto

The boy (who also knows how to uncork a bottle of wine), followed every step of the preparation. Served with a fresh loaf of bread, some local cider, and the beautiful wine, we had a great comfort meal on a rainy night. Everyone was happy at our house.

Agua Fresca: To start the process, I placed a big metal colander into an even larger metal bowl. Then I removed all the flesh (with seeds and everything) from a large watermelon, and placed it all into the colander. With my hands, I squeezed the juice out of the melon chunks. Once most of the juice had been extracted, I pressed the rest of the pulp against the sides of the colander with a potato masher, then discarded the drained flesh and seeds of the melon. I added the juice of two fresh limes and a pinch of sugar to the juice, then poured the results through a funnel into a glass pitcher. Mixed with seltzer, this makes an easy and refreshing beverage!

Modifiers

I love words. Adjectives are among the best.

A single word came to mind the other day, and it planted the seed for the rest of this post. One of my friends uses the term “snappy” as a compliment for wardrobe choices that she particularly likes. She’s the only person I know who employs that word, and it’s perfect for her. “Those are snappy shoes,” she’ll say. I haven’t seen her in awhile. I miss her, and not just for her occasional reviews of my fashion sense.

I especially like words that are specific and descriptive. I might have mentioned before that abundant is one of my favorite words of all time. The New York Times, in its inimitable fashion, provides a brief weather description on the top of the front page every morning. Whenever the forecast is for “abundant sunshine,” I have a daily highlight before I even leave the house. To me, abundance is about joy. There’s an exercise that I include in a literacy course that involves building a web around a particular word. The purpose is to instill an appreciation for language in the classroom, and to encourage pre-service teachers to think of themselves as language models for their students. For the past several years, I’ve started the activity with the word “enough.” I talk to my students about the essential meaning of that word, and then we generate a set of categories, synonyms, connotations, and interpretations of the word. It’s an interesting challenge, especially when people are not accustomed to making finely tuned semantic distinctions. What’s the difference between “sufficient” and “plenty?” When does “abundance” turn into “excess?” How do you feel about the word “ample?” Personally, I’m not a fan.

I also like words that are novel or idiosyncratic. “Groovy” is a superb word. I have a friend who regularly coins new terms that make their way through the vernacular of a whole social network. “Butane” is his word for anything that is especially worthy of comment. The Husband and his best friend have a habit of shortening words to single syllables. Making plans to dine at a restaurant involves making a “rez.” Once you arrive for dinner, they are likely to order a favorite cocktail, the New Orleans classic Sazerac, known colloquially to my guys as a “Saz.” While you are eating, they will review the meal in their own jargon. An especially good condiment earns the highest praise, as in: “This sauce really hooks it up.” If you’ve spent any time around the people in this paragraph, you inevitably find yourself drawn into the lingo. You’ll probably also find yourself with a one-syllable, or even a one-letter, nickname. Because in the end, brevity is the soul of wit (and wisdom).

Thoughts to Begin the School Year

Meredith Small, an ethnobiologist who has written extensively about child development across cultures, reflects in her book Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children,

“One of the greatest joys in life is seeing a child grow. It’s also a daily tragedy, as any parent knows, because no matter how much we love this or that stage, kids just keep on growing into adults. A record of their growth in shoes or on a chart is one of the most sentimental records many parents can have. You can read in those records the day-to-day life of a child, the progress of biological growth, as well as the development of a person. And if you have been intimately involved in this process with one or more children, it is one of life’s greatest experiences—and one of its greatest mysteries.”

The Boy's Height Measurements on the Doorframe

As a parent myself, this message resonates deeply. My son is turning into a teenager. In every physical, emotional, and intellectual way, he is leaving childhood behind. I am awestruck on a daily basis by the transformation of this human—my child—from a precious baby into a delightful young man.  I have loved every stage of his life.

As an educator, I find another level of meaning in Meredith Small’s words, especially in September. I work in a school that spans a broad spectrum of ages and developmental stages, giving me the opportunity to follow hundreds of children for many years. Greeting them and observing them on the first day is magical. This little person, who left in June as one of the smallest students in the building, is now noticeably taller and looks so mature next to the pre-kindergarteners. This other person, who I’ve known for six years, gives me a hug and I notice that her head is now at the height of my shoulders. And here is a bright smiling face attached to an energetic second grader, giving me a warm hello and asking if I remember that great book we read together last year. A first grader, simultaneously proud and shy, brings his little sister to meet me. She is entering Pre-K, and he can’t wait to explain how everything works at our school.

As a professor of education, one of the first thoughts I share with my graduate students each year is embedded in Meredith Small’s words. I believe that every child deserves to be someone’s favorite human. Every child is entitled to know what it feels like to be loved all the time. I have written those sentences in the singular, but that is not to imply that parents of siblings would have a single favorite among their offspring. To rephrase myself, I would also say that all children deserve to know that someone thinks they are essential, cherished, and worthy.

Treating children as essential, cherished, and worthy does not mean that we overlook their mistakes, shower them with excessive praise, indulge their behaviors, or give them every toy or treat they request. It means that we value them enough to encourage resilience when they make a mistake or experience a disappointment. It means that we respect them enough to speak to them honestly. It means that we teach them the value of “doing your best,” even if you’re not “the best.” It means that we provide rules, establish consequences, and continue to love them even when their actions are less than we expect from them. It means that we celebrate their successes, but we love them just as much when their efforts are not successful. It means that we consistently show them and tell them that they are worth our time and effort.

Unfortunately, not all children are fortunate enough to be treated this way. In those cases, it often falls to us, their teachers, to try to fill some of the gaps in their experience. “You never know,” I say every year, “when you might be the adult who makes a difference for a child.” To be intimately involved in the process of development of people is to experience a career filled with contrasts. Teaching is both humbling and uplifting. It is demanding yet rewarding. It is incremental yet immediate. It is urgent yet carefully paced. It is a job that involves benchmarks and milestones, but it is never finished.