Browsing "Curriculum & Instruction"

A Walk in the Woods

My kids talk a lot. It’s not exaggerating to say that 11 of every 12 hours they’re awake, they’re making some form of verbal noise. They hum, they play, they tell stories, they crack jokes, they argue, they ask for things, they say “Mom” or “Dad” a hundred million times.

The nonstop verbal flow is both blessing and curse, as you might expect, and it’s hard to remember the days when we couldn’t wait for them to start talking. Of course, there are times when I wish they could practice silence, apart from the general stress of constant noise. Especially when I take them out on nature walks, I try to convince them that there are things to be quiet for, things that only make themselves apparent when the animals and insects forget that people are present.

This rarely works, though–like a lot of folks these days, I think the quiet scares them. With Connor, I can tell there’s a sensory angle, so I try to be sensitive to that. But in Griff’s case, he tends to wax philosophical while we’re out in nature, and for all that silence would be nice, I don’t want to quash his impulse to question things.

And, sure enough, when we went out to pick plantain weed so I could make more of the all-purpose herbal salve we use instead of Neosporin, the shortest of the short ones was full of questions. “Do cats feel wind?” “Does God know we’re picking plantain?” “Is Batman Poison Ivy named for poison ivy, or is poison ivy named for Poison Ivy?”

I face competing interests when the questions start flying. On one hand, I’m a smartypants–I know a lot of stuff, and I like to give answers. On the other hand, I want my kids to learn to think critically for themselves, which requires not giving all the answers right away. I try to use my teacherly instincts to know which questions deserve a quick, factual answer, and which deserve to be reframed and teased apart so we can come to an answer together.

In short, what this means is that my answer to a question is frequently “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?” This is not cheating, or doing a disservice to a curious kid. It gives them space to continue the conversation, to wonder out loud, to live inside the question for a bit longer.

Many parents get so freaked out, when conversation turns to the big questions, that they shut down right away until they have a chance to consult parenting books and blogs for “official” answers from the “experts.” But by the time they’ve equipped themselves with that information, the moment of the question has come and gone, and the kid has one more experience in his head that says adults don’t have the answers he’s looking for.

I took the boys to the Real Pirates exhibit at the Science Museum a few months ago. I’d been warned that the first third of the exhibit was about the Atlantic slave trade, without which there wouldn’t have been much piracy in the Caribbean or anywhere else, so it didn’t come as a total shock and I was ready to exploit the educational opportunity. When we came to the diagrams of how slaves were stacked like cordwood for the crossing, I knelt down at their level and we talked about what kind of ideas a person has to have before they can think someone should be enslaved to work for them. We talked about difference, and race, and values, and empathy, while no fewer than two dozen other parents stiff-leg-marched their kids past the whole slavery section, voices ringing with uncomfortably faked brightness: “C’mon kids! Let’s go see that pirate treasure! Won’t that be fun?”

If I were that kind of parent, I wouldn’t have kids who ask me questions. Griffin wouldn’t ask me the name of every plant and every star in the sky. Connor wouldn’t ask me, on a long drive, what kind of parents Osama bin Laden had. Maybe these sound like horror stories to some of you, whether you’re a parent or not. These conversations leave you open to questions you can’t answer, and saying “I don’t know” feels like a catastrophic failure, a loss of authority that can never be recouped.

The greatest gift you can give a child, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is the freedom to question and not know the answer right away. It teaches them to balance the uncertainty of life with the joy of mystery, and it opens the door to more learning, more participation, more citizenship, more action. Take Rainer Marie Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”

Role of a Lifetime: Reverb Broads Summer #3

Reverb Broads Summer, Prompt #3: Who are your role models? (by Dana at Simply Walking on this Earth)

As I got thinking on this question, I realized that my list of role models was, in fact, very short. This is not to say that I’m not surrounded by a beloved community of inspirational people. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people whom I admire more than words can express, from Nobel laureates, to fellow parents, to brilliant academics, to powerful advocates for a more just and loving world.

But I make the distinction between those whom I admire, and those from whom I’ve consciously modeled some part of myself. I’m not much of a follower, even for people I admire–it must be the mile-wide anti-authoritarian streak in me. I’m a weird, idiosyncratic independent, and while I synthesize lessons from everything I see and learn around me, I almost never seek to fit myself into anyone else’s pattern.

The only case I can think of where this is not the case is in my teaching. I’ve been inordinately blessed by an abundance of phenomenal, life-changing teachers throughout my academic career, and their styles of imparting knowledge and wisdom (not the same thing) were hugely influential in the formation of my own teaching style.

When I moved to Whitewater, just before fifth grade, I’d only had one teacher who had rocked my world: Mrs. Smigelski, the Gifted and Talented coordinator at my suburban Milwaukee elementary school. She introduced me to ideas like brainstorming other uses for completely mundane objects, like a row of cardboard egg carton bumps (what, they’ve got a better name?) or the empty bubbles cough drops fit in. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it was a break from the soul-crushing boredom of constant work on academics I’d mastered before I’d ever darkened the school’s doorway.

The teachers I encountered when I started in Whitewater exploded every idea I’d ever had about how school was supposed to be. Both my fifth and sixth grade teachers were men–a novelty in my world so far. They used games to teach, lots of games, from weeks-long roleplaying games about early American settlement and Western expansion, to intensely strategic board games about Roman chariot races, solving mysteries in Victorian London, and World War I aerial dogfights. With these tools, they got a level of attention and work out of 10- and 11-year-olds that, faced with my own son of that age level, I find frankly astonishing. And, among all the games and lessons, they found little ways to introduce us to culture that most kids don’t discover for decades. We thrilled to some of the most terrifying ghost stories I’ve ever come across. We listened to Bill Cosby records and read funny stories by Patrick McManus. We watched episodes of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, the pitch-perfect Jeremy Brett ones.

From these teachers, I learned that games and humor could teach just as (if not more) effectively than rote memorization. I learned that an anecdote that humanizes a concept or a period of history sticks with students far longer than dry recitations of names and dates. And I learned that good games not only teach about their setting, but they teach about being a good person–learn the rules, take your turn, think creatively, work together, win and lose with grace and empathy.

When I got to high school, I encountered teachers who further shaped my idea of how the mentor/student relationship could be. Much of this was due to the extra work they put in, far above and beyond the school day bounded by bells. Our social studies teacher was also our yearbook editor, locked into the school weekend after weekend on interminable deadlines. Our English teacher was also the drama program director, supervising endless rehearsals and set-construction sessions. Our French teacher helped us organize the annual Mardi Gras dance, and bravely ventured across France with about two dozen high schoolers. Our Band director was also the one who pushed us around the field to learn marching band drill, and coordinated our enthusiastic efforts for pep band during basketball season. And our Choir conductor (also my church choir conductor) baked us treats and prepped us for contests and musicals.

And for all their time and effort, they got shenanigans. We called them by first names and nicknames. We pulled pranks all the time. We signed such luminaries as Han Solo, Mickey Mouse, and Elvis Presley out of study hall into the yearbook office. We talked Madame into letting us play petonque in the classroom, and go Christmas caroling in April to the Spanish class next door. We sang Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song in the football stands while waiting for the marching band halftime show, hoping to earn that quelling look from our usually unflappable band director. We put Cheez Doodles and Dr. Pepper into the yearbook index (Doodles, Cheez and Pepper, Dr., respectively).

The shenanigans weren’t the point, though, and the teachers saw clearly that our hijinks were a sign that we loved them and trusted them to know that we didn’t lavish our twisted affections on just anyone. And I learned that you don’t have to sacrifice authority or respect when you reach out and befriend your students. If kids love you, they’ll do extraordinary things, without the teacher even needing to ask. And if they trust you, you can go places–talk about awkward subjects, teach sensitive lessons, confront harsh realities–that a safer relationship couldn’t support.

So I’ll be my own kind of parent, and friend, and activist, and writer–I’m never going to be quite like anyone else, and I’m good with that. But as a teacher? I want to be just like my role models.

A Thousand Little Things

This is Gwen.

I’ve been working for a while now, in all my copious spare time, on organizing a fundraiser to help some dear friends. Given how closely to the bone my family lives from time to time, it may seem like an odd choice for me to use my time to make money for someone else, but my efforts aren’t about the money. The money’s just the most immediate way to begin righting a wrong.

Elizabeth and Shreyas have two daughters. Nirali is two years old and completely adorable. And Gwen is eight, whip-smart with a smile as big as the world. Gwen is also autistic. Her family has had to pull her out of the public school where she’s been going since they moved to California because of its stubborn refusal to follow the Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines Gwen’s difficulties, goals, and the school’s obligations to help her function at her fullest capacity. IEPs are legal documents, and the school has broken the law time and time again by refusing to provide the support Gwen needs to learn and participate.

If her family just pulls Gwen from the school, with no follow-up, there will be no record of the egregious offenses the school district has committed. Another family with their own bright, high-functioning autistic child might run into the same obstinacy and intransigence, and never know that their experience is part of a pattern that goes back years.

The only way to change things in the future is to fight now. And fighting is expensive.

In return for donations to help Gwen’s family fund the legal fight and prove that a private school can do what the public school refuses, I’m putting together six months of new short fiction from a fantastic roster of writers. Every other Monday (with occasional “freebie” days at random), subscribers will get something new to read. Readers of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and generally offbeat stories will recognize some of the authors who’ve already committed their talents: Matt Forbeck, Kenneth Hite, Josh Robern, David Niall Wilson, Cam Banks, Steven Savile, and more. Still more authors are still stepping forward; I’m thrilled and humbled by everyone’s generosity. You can subscribe right here.

But I’m not just doing this for Gwen and her family, much as I adore them. I’m not doing this just because it’s the right thing to do, though it obviously is. I’m doing this out of gratitude for the thousand little things my sons’ school does for them, above and beyond Connor’s IEP requirements.

I’ve written before about the misunderstanding, the ignorance, and the physically and psychologically scarring bullying Connor received from both administration and classmates at the school where he attended kindergarten. His Asperger’s Syndrome was so obvious to trained observers that, when we switched him to a different school for first grade, we were called in for a meeting about his diagnosis before the first month of school was over.

Over the years, we’ve had meetings upon meetings around that packet of papers labeled “IEP.” They’re full of jargon, full of measurable annual goals, services and modifications, assistive technology considerations, and other daunting phraseology. But that jargon translates into real help that makes a real difference. It gives him permission to walk out of any situation that’s overwhelming him to the point that he feels a meltdown coming on. It gives him access to tools like fidgets and weighted vests that allow him to focus longer and be more at ease in loud, crowded situations. It justifies the time spent in social skills group and occupational therapy, when other kids are drilling on academics that Connor mastered a grade or two ago.

All those therapies and tricks and tools are incredibly helpful. But the things for which I get down on my knees in thanks, and that I wish for Gwen and every other amazing kid trying to cope in this noisy, gaudy, overwhelming world with their quirky superhuman senses, are the things that aren’t ever written into an IEP. They’re the points of human contact, of compassion from professionals whose hands are more than full with the everyday concerns of all the other “perfectly normal” kids.

It’s the way that, when Connor had a meltdown at school after a week of substitute teachers and his mom in the hospital, the principal offered him a hug, and just held him as he sobbed under the weight of emotions too big and complex for him to sort out alone.

It’s the way that the school social worker offered to use “special funds” to buy a pack of undershirts so Connor didn’t have to wear the pressure vest that helps him stay calm on the outside of his clothes, where it might be noticed and commented upon by his classmates.

It’s the way that they recognized that his need for a break in the day could be fulfilled by an activity that would raise his self-esteem and make use of his extraordinary talents, and set up a schedule to act as a “reading buddy” to second-graders who could use a little extra attention.

And it’s the way that these amazing teachers and administrators are extending the same caring resourcefulness to Griffin, who doesn’t even have an IEP, but has needed help adjusting to kindergarten. They created a “job” for him, carrying a crate of books to the nurse’s office in the morning, and back to the classroom in the afternoon, to let him feel proud of helping as he gets some much needed movement breaks. It’s the special desk they made for him, with faux fur, sandpaper, and a bumpy silicone potholder glued to the underside for him to fidget with instead of constantly touching his classmates and their work.

A thousand little things that make our kids stronger, calmer, more confident, more self-aware, and better prepared for the thousand little things that none of us can foresee from day to day. Like those waterfalls of brightly colored ten thousand origami cranes, fashioned by hand from paper and love, a labor of such dedication that it’s believed to grant the recipient one wish. Except that the visible sign of the grace and compassion of these people isn’t as perishable and impermanent as paper.

It’s the fast, bright, smart, funny, kind, curious, and beautiful boys that their actions are helping to grow. Every parent and every child deserves an education that gives results like this.

That’s why I’m fighting for Gwen.

Teach Me to Teach You: Reverb Broads 2011 #21 & 23

Reverb Broads 2011, December 21: If you returned (or went, if you’ve never been) to college to study anything you want, what would you major in, and why? (courtesy of Matt at and December 23: If you could have any job, what would it be? (courtesy of Dana at

I am a teacher, simply put. Whatever I learn, I want to share with others–family and friends would probably agree that this happens whether they want it to or not. I wasn’t able to finish my doctorate at the university where I took my comprehensive exams, so if I could go back to college, my first priority would be completion of a degree to get me back into a classroom. I’ve been able to teach without the Ph.D., but adjunct teaching positions are both underpaid and insecure, and with so many Ph.D.s on the market right now, the few colleges hiring these days can choose applicants with doctorates, when previously they would have to offer a professorship to lure them in.

While the Ph.D. would be nice, because I really do prefer to teach at the college level, I’m not opposed to the idea of teaching high school, especially French. I substitute-taught for a few years, and I enjoyed those days in the French classroom far more than I expected to. My only reservation is whether my body could hack the physical demands of a schoolteacher’s schedule, but I’ve considered more than a few times the possibilities of getting certified. Honestly, it’s only the financial investment that’s prevented me from doing so.

I’m trained as a historian, and I love ferreting stories out of disparate records, but it’s all so I can tell those stories to others. Since the sources I’m most interested in are from other times and places, I think of languages as lock picks; the more tools I have, the more stories I can unlock. My B.A. is in French, which I’ve been learning since I was 11, and I’m still reasonably fluent despite the fifteen years since my last stay in a Francophone country. I also studied Latin for several years, a necessary exercise for any medievalist. Between those two and a good dictionary, I’ve got 50-75% comprehension of written or spoken Spanish and Italian, though I don’t have the grammar or vocab to form replies. Additionally, I can decipher texts in other languages I’ve studied: German, Anglo-Saxon, Old French (very different from the modern version), Old Irish, and Modern Welsh.

I could go to school from now until the day I die and not learn all the languages I would like to. I can’t be the only person with two wish lists of languages: the ones I want for study (Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic, more Welsh, Old Norse, and Japanese), and the ones I want to learn for fun (Hindi, Arabic, more Italian, maybe Norwegian or Swedish).

Finally, every once in a while, I toss around the wild notion that it might be fun to go to seminary and get myself trained and ordained as at Unitarian Universalist minister. It’s not as disconnected from the rest of this as it may seem. World religions are an area of historical expertise for me, especially the connections among them–people tell the same kinds of stories, the world over, to explain the mysteries of life, which is what religion basically is. And UUs believe that there’s no One Right Path to truth, so all the linguistic and historical study I’ve already done gives me perspective on the variations of the human story, as well as its universality. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between lecturing and preaching, when it comes down to it, and I like to take care of people. Again, financial considerations keep me from really pursuing this, at least for the time being, but who knows? Whatever I end up doing, I’ll be the one behind the podium.