The Fourth R

In this month’s issue of Educational Leadership, the theme of relationships threads through all of the articles. Relationships, particularly between faculty and students, are the hinge, the lever, the glue to the whole enterprise of school. On a single page at the end of the magazine titled, “The Fourth R: Relationships,” especially meaningful quotes were pulled from various articles.

“The most urgent questions students ask as they begin a new school year are, Am I safe? and, Do I belong?” (Rick Wormeli)

“I realized very early in my career that to successfully and thoughtfully teach my students, I needed to imagine life through their eyes.” (Cherish R. Skinker)

 “Care is in the eyes of the receiver; care doesn’t exist unless those being cared for truly experience it.” (Elizabeth Bandy and Elyse Hambacher)

This past week at my school – and at many other schools – students and faculty were visibly upset about the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC. While there have been too many other disturbing incidents across the country prior to this one, because it was local, this particular instance sparked an uproar and response unlike any I have seen since moving to Charlotte over 13 years ago.

Scott was killed on Tuesday afternoon. The following Wednesday morning, I headed to school with a heavy heart and a lot of confusion over what had happened, why, and what would happen next. Front and center in my mind, however, was wondering how our students were feeling, and what I could do to help. While I didn’t know what I would find, I knew what I wanted to make clear: that all of our kids need to know that they are safe, that they belong, and that the adults in their lives want to see things through their eyes.

That afternoon, I saw a somewhat diverse group of students who were gathered together and clearly distraught in the student center. I asked if I could sit with them for a bit, and they said yes. I told them, “I want to tell you that I see you. I want you to know that I care about you, and I’m here to listen.” From there, I listened and listened more. When I spoke, which wasn’t often, I told them that I cared about their feelings and I affirmed their confusion. I told them that I have been confused and upset in my life, too, and was upset by Tuesday’s events as well.

The next day, Thursday, was our all-school convocation and the celebration of the school’s 75th birthday. The day could have been strange at best and upsetting at worst for students and faculty still reeling from the news of Scott’s death. Surprisingly, it wasn’t either thing. Over 2,500 of us sat in the bleachers at the football stadium, the American flag waving above us. At first it was raining and the mood was somber, but then the rain slowed and finally stopped. The speeches began and we heard many wise and thoughtful words from school leaders, past and present, as well as from three phenomenal student leaders.

As I listened to our student body president boldly challenge us to be courageous and honorable, I began to relax. And as I listened to a fourth grade girl talk about what she appreciates about her school and the hopes and dreams she has for her future, I found myself smiling.

I felt myself being stitched back together by the strength and resiliency of young people, and the importance and power of relationships. When people take the time to listen to and understand one another, when the fourth R is privileged, not just learning but healing happens.

Millennial Mentors

I loved the recent article in the New York Times about a journalist in her 50’s learning new things from a journalist in her 20’s. Titled “Schooled by a Mentor Half My Age,” the article by Phyllis Korkki chronicles the unique experience of being middle-aged and needing help from someone younger, specifically, a “millennial.”

While precise definitions may vary, millennials are, generally speaking, people born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. They are known for their technological know-how, open-mindedness, and more relaxed attitude toward traditional rules. They are also regularly criticized for being entitled, selfish, and shallow.

Whatever views one might have of millennials, they are also here to stay: this past April, it was reported that millennials surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation.

Korkki shares a great story about the initial awkwardness of reaching out to her younger millennial colleague, Talya Minsberg, for help learning to use Snapchat. Korkki says, “I felt as if face-to-face communication was too old-fashioned a way to set up meetings with her; Email seemed old-fashioned, too.” Korkki resolves to use Minsberg’s preferred mode, Google Calendar. To Korkki, it seemed rude to peer into Minsberg’s schedule. To Minsberg, it was not only not rude, but collegial and more efficient. This was key learning for Korkki.

I was enthralled with this story for a couple of reasons. First, it makes me feel better to know that I am not the last woman standing without Snapchat (although, now that Korkki has learned to use it, maybe I am). Second, I loved reading the story of a middle-aged woman’s growth in the face of challenge. Korkki could easily have just refused to use Snapchat, or refused to ask for help, and she did neither. She embraced her limitations and reached out to exactly the person she needed to connect with.

But last, and most important, I loved thinking about the impact of mentorship on the person who is usually the mentee. Talya Minsberg published a companion piece to Korkki’s about what it was like to be asked by a senior journalist for help. “I realized our mentorship provided me with something unexpected,” says Minsberg: “a chance to take what amounts to a leadership position I had not seen coming. As a relatively young professional, I was usually the one taking advice, not doling it out.”

As a teacher, I have been learning key skills and lessons from younger people for years. It’s great to see this same reciprocity taking place in other professions and industries. When people of different ages, skills and experiences trade best practices, everyone wins.

What a Student Wants; What a Student Needs

Something I consider essential is knowing what my students are experiencing and learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more proactive about gathering that information rather than waiting for it to possibly come to me. So last week I asked my new students ten questions about who they are, what they bring to my classroom, and what they hope to get out of it.

I gave each senior in my class a blank note card. I like to use note cards for quick quizzes about a range of topics, whether it be the previous night’s reading or their thoughts on a recent assembly speaker. I asked them where they hoped to go to college and also where thought they would go to college. I asked them what they want to work on in my class and who they would be on campus if not themselves. I asked them their favorite type of food and their favorite game.

One of my favorite questions was this: if they could introduce something new to school, what would that be? Their answers flowed from them without pause: student-led classes, scavenger hunts, nap time and quiet spaces, intramural sports, arts picnics, karaoke, speech contests, food trucks, playgrounds, and therapy dogs, to name a few.

It would be hard to miss the fact that most of these things are not academic in nature. Which might seem like a problem for schools, whose purpose has been to put students through specific curricula geared toward mastery of content as well as skills.

But learning that my students wish they could do more of the fun things in life while in school should not have come as a surprise to me. In second grade, I desperately wanted to be in Mr. Merlin’s class because of his name. That and the fact that his classroom had a loft where kids could read quietly if they finished their work early.  In eighth grade, I looked forward to Mr. O’Hara’s morning assembly quizzes because answering one of his trivia questions correctly meant being thrown a cellophane wrapped cinnamon flavored gummy bear.

Looking back at these and many other memories, I can see clearly that it was the combination of hard work and reward that made me a devotee of school life. What might be different today is that more schools are interested in giving every student, not just those who achieve, a chance to feel part of the fun of learning.

Cursive’s Cursory Moment

Last week, a few different people sent me messages with the link to Anne Trubek’s article, “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter,” from the New York Times. Although I wasn’t sure I agreed with the article’s main point about handwriting, it made me happy to know that my readers know what I like to write about  — literacy, education, technology, raising children. It didn’t matter to me that their messages were emailed to me and not sent by snail mail. That would have taken too long to be helpful to me.

Trubek’s article, which makes a case against teaching cursive in elementary school, is sure to ignite conversation among teachers, parents, and politicians. Cursive, Trubek says, is not needed or justified any longer. It takes too long to learn and to use. And although “people talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization,” she says that’s a fallacy. “If the goal of … education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting.”

I don’t think anyone can really argue with Trubek there. I remember well the typing class I took in 7th grade. I loved that class. Once I had the home keys down, it was a quick journey to the goal of “touch typing,” a skill that I draw on in infinite and completely unconscious ways, and have for the majority of my life. My handwriting is ok. My cursive, completely dysfunctional from disuse.

As a teacher who sometimes struggles to read student handwriting, I am actually passionate about the issue of legibility. Trubek cites Steve Graham of Arizona State, who found that “when teachers are asked to rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in legibility, neatly written versions of the paper are assigned higher marks for overall quality of writing than are versions with poorer penmanship.” People who type are given higher marks than those who handwrite. That isn’t because their ideas are any better, necessarily.

And, like Trubek, I bristle at ideas that conflate ethics with skills. In her article, she takes readers through a brief history of handwriting and includes an anecdote from the American South where it was once thought that one’s ability to write cursive, and the individual characteristics of one’s cursive, revealed something important about one’s personhood.

But is it a slippery slope? Should I care more about doing away with cursive if on the horizon is handwriting altogether? I don’t know.

Yes, I love my mother’s beautiful cursive. When I get a letter from her in the mail with her looping, black letters connecting to make thoughtful lines of heartfelt sentiments, I feel connected and happy. But I would, too if she sent me a printed note, or, I have to admit, an email.

It’s the fact that she wants to reach out to me that matters, and that she does. It doesn’t so much matter how.

Time to Think — It’s Essential

In his very readable book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown tells us what we should already know about our limited resources when it comes to focus, work, and energy.

The single best thing we can do to improve our performance and our level of happiness, he says, is to narrow our focus to just one or two things that are truly essential. In its application to education, McKeown’s idea is clearly related to the mindfulness movement and to all manner of wellness issues as they pertain to students and teachers alike. But because it is so simple, it is especially striking.

So this summer, I gave myself an essentialist gift: time to think. It’s what everyone involved in teaching and learning wants and needs due to the pace and nature of the school year, with its many deadlines, checkpoints, and requirements.

I let my mind roam. I thought about the state of the world, politics, culture. I thought about my marriage, my children, our respective health. Pretty soon, I felt able to think about my work, and what I love about it, and what more I think I can contribute. And I went further — I thought about which community service project I want to get involved with, and about getting a puppy.

I thought about a lot of other things, too. But I didn’t do a whole lot about any of it, or worry about when I would. For me, that was a significant and welcome change.

School is about to start up again. What I’m thinking about needs to shift, and fast. There are classes to plan and meetings to run, conferences to have and presentations to give. But I feel more ready than I ever have before to jump back in.

Having time to think is the reason why. I know what I am going to focus on this year, and what I am going to politely push to the back burner. I’ve asked my leadership team to do the same, so that we can be aligned in our focus — on students and what is essential for them.

Summer Session in the School of Life

The tagline that I wrote for this blog when I started it 18 months ago is my tribute to John Dewey, a simple statement that I really believe: because no matter where it happens, school is always in session. School, the “place” we go to learn things from and with other people, transcends walls and calendar days. It is always happening and we are always learning something.

I was reminded of all of this and more when I traveled to France two weeks ago. As I usually do, I brought several books with me, books I really wanted to read. I looked forward to the more than 24 hours I would have to read on the planes and trains we were going to take. But each time I tried to read, I found my attention drifting. Book after book fell into my lap half read and abandoned. I was incapable of doing anything other than looking out of windows, looking through my camera lens, watching the world around me.

Yes, at the end of the school year I am tired — of talking, of thinking, of reading. But it was something else too. There was much to see that actually felt new. In Paris, teeming bags of garbage lined the streets and there was graffiti in surprising places. Armed police men and women stood nearby, watching, ready for what I didn’t dare think about. In Avignon, Syrian refugees stood fully clothed in the hot sun at intersections holding signs pleading for help. News about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union compounded a feeling that things are changing, and not necessarily for the better. Trash, refugees, security risks, crowds, exits, break ups, everything on the brink of something less familiar and seemingly less good.

Of course, much of what I was seeing was actually quite old – perhaps just less familiar to me. Conflict and concern about security goes as far back as humanity itself. Many of the places I visited were once walled off — the stone city of Gordes. Roman ruins in Glanum. The hospital at St. Remy where Van Gogh painted and tried to heal. I found myself taking pictures of spaces and places without people. Windows and doorways, walls and lavender fields, crumbling walls. The specter of the rise and fall of cultures, clashes among the people within them, was all around.

At my parents’ house for a quick pit stop on the way home from France, I woke up early and found myself lingering at their bookshelves. I finally wanted something to read after so much watching, reflecting, resting, thinking. One book shimmered at me, asking me to pick it up. It was Sebold’s Austerlitz, which I knew nothing about and had never read. I opened it up. There was a bookmark with someone’s handwriting on it. It was in the handwriting of my father’s friends from Belgium, where he had studied in the 1960s. It said, “Whenever you pick up this book, I will be with you.” Tears immediately came to my eyes. Yes, I was tired from travel. But my tears were the result of something more. I began reading Sebold’s book and felt my heart in my chest.

Austerlitz is about a man who is searching for his identity. His name is Jacques Austerlitz, and he travels Europe studying cities, fortifications, and architecture – but really he studies cultures, people, and conflicts. Eventually (spoiler alert) we learn that he was one of the lucky children to have been saved from the fires of the Holocaust – sent to England on a kindertransport, he lived a safe and other life while his family perished presumably at Auschwitz.

The character, Austerlitz, is fictional, created by Sebold to express and make real the unreal reality that people can and do disappear from our memory, individual and collective. Books have the power to startle and stun us with their artistry. But books are not the source of understanding — we are, as readers.  In order to make real sense of books, and the worlds in which they are created, we sometimes need to look up, listen, and take note of the life and times we live in.

We are called to read — words, yes, but perhaps more importantly, the light in the trees, the faces of the people we love and know, the changes in atmosphere as we travel to new and old places and spaces.

roman

School’s Out for Summer (but not forever)

Although June 21 is the solstice, Friday June 3rd was the unofficial first day of summer for students at my school. Exams were all wrapped up on Thursday and before I even realized it, the quad had become a ghost town.

Students vacated swiftly and definitively, disappearing like dreams. The courtyard, usually bustling with the activities students do best — eating, sharing videos on their phones, talking about how much work they did and how much work was still left to do — was no more than a silent sweep of concrete and greenery.

The lockers, usually shut neatly, looked askew with their doors left hanging wide open. The library was so empty that when I walked through, I felt a kind of uneasy solitude and found myself calling out, “Anyone in here?” From the back, the voice of a student with a late exam replied in a distant, quiet voice. Outside, it was already nearly 90 degrees in the sun.

In the aftermath of their departure, many of us felt bereft, me included. Don’t get me wrong; we greeted each other with a sense of gratitude — it’s over! — but also resignation — it’s over. It’s not that we don’t want a break as much as our students do from the rigorous, sometimes unrelenting, pace of school life. We do. It’s just that without them, school feels so lonely and dull. The fun of preparing classes, schedules, lessons and assemblies is sharing them with students, hearing what they like and don’t like, thinking about things from their perspectives, realizing our blind spots and omissions, laughing about the things they thought we said that we don’t think we ever said.

The close of the school year is a longed for but bittersweet moment, a necessary interruption in a story that isn’t ever really finished. Learning takes a lifetime. And if the summer solstice comes early, it only means that the September equinox with students is that much closer.

Pop-up Bookstore(s)

During the past few days, I have handled hundreds upon hundreds of books.

I am the person who manages the book orders for the many classes we offer to our more than 500 high school students. I have a lot of help from department chairs, teachers, and the very patient representative at the online company that secures and sells the books we and our students use. But it’s still a lot to keep track of.

I like the challenge, though. Not just because I like books, which I obviously do, but because I like how they are still completely essential to who we are and what we do as a school. Historian Barbara Tuchman famously said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” And, in many ways, books are still the lifeblood of education.

Last week, my office was transformed into a pop-up bookstore. There I sorted and distributed to faculty 70 copies of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, 20 copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 12 of The Buddha in the Attic, and 14 copies of Netherland among others. In addition, I handled countless single copies of carefully chosen and dedicated books to be bestowed to our top scholars in an awards ceremony on Thursday and at graduation on Friday. The local pool just opened for the season but I haven’t made it there much at all — I have been swimming in books.

As if that wasn’t fun enough for me, my husband emptied out a huge bookshelf at our house. Lining the fireplace until last night were stacks and stacks of our children’s books, which I finally hauled upstairs into the study where there was, no surprise, no room for any more books. The books are sitting in somewhat neater piles now, waiting for me to find the time and the space to file them away. I’m anxious for the weekend, when I’ll have time to thin the stacks and organize things on to shelves. A patient pile of books in disarray exerts a subtle pressure: pick me up, read me, put me in order.

Yes, book publishers have had to reconceive their business models, and ebooks are likely here to stay. Some booksellers have unfortunately gone out of business. But it’s no accident that after all the fanfare of moving bookstores to online settings, amazon.com itself is considering buying 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores according to Greg Bensinger’s February 2 report in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t think of too many places as pleasant as a peaceful bookstore — only maybe the peaceful pages of a book.

Near the end of last week, I had a few extra copies of the books I had ordered, so I invited faculty to stop by and take what remained. The first two takers were math teachers, and the extra books were gone by the end of the day. My office is mostly back to normal; the pop-up bookstore is closed. Until the next time.

My Bitmoji

If I do anything fun with social media, I have my teenage daughter to thank. She’s the one who put the GIF app on my phone and helped me get an “avatar emoji” known as bitmoji. Without her, I would be helplessly uninformed about these and other features of communicating in the 21st century.

My bitmoji is definitely a little silly (she says “let’s taco about it!” with a taco in her hand) and I tend to be serious. But I have to admit that I like being able to respond to people with a funny cartoon that looks a little like me doing funnier things than I usually do.

A great article in the New York Times magazine this weekend about avatars by Amanda Hess asks a question, one I have been thinking about since getting my bitmoji: “Online, we present ourselves in ever-more-numerous guises across a variety of platforms. What does the ‘avatar’ we choose say about who we really are?”

Hess recounts the history of avatars from Hinduism to today. “In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods,” she says, “reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.” When I paste a bitmoji image of myself into a text message, I don’t consider myself a god, but I see Hess’s point about wanting to participate in, if not reinvent, the world I’m living in.

Hess points out that we represent ourselves differently via different platforms and uses herself as an example: “On Facebook, I’m posed by a professional photographer, waist contorted into a slimmed line, eyes peering up out the window of a skyscraper. On Snapchat, I’m burrowed into my office chair, blankly blinking my eyes open and closed.” She is not alone. Although my bitmoji is my only cartoon avatar, I use different photographs of myself on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to communicate different things about myself, as do many others.

But I wonder, haven’t people always acted, and presented themselves, differently in different settings? At least to some degree? And isn’t it arguable that successful people know how to modify their affect or appearance to suit a given context? Don’t we all, for the most part, dress up for the opera, and down for the grocery store?

As I usually do when pondering these kinds of questions, I turn to literature. In response to Hess’s question about what our choice of avatar says about ourselves, I think about Jay Gatsby, a lower-class kid from the mid-west who could have won an Oscar for his performance as a monied New York blueblood. Gatsby’s charade didn’t last forever, and it cost him his life, but in my opinion it wasn’t criminal that he tried to be something that he wasn’t.

I probably owe my attitude toward human chameleons to another literary figure, Oscar Wilde, who was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and with whom I spent a good year of college. It was Wilde more than anyone else who helped me to understand and accept that identity is not a static state of being, but a fluid reality. He understood that better than most, given that it was illegal at the time for him to be who he was.

In our use of digital avatars today, we continue a long legacy of trying on different masks and seeing which ones fit.

Yes, It’s a Thing

I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.

Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.

The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.

An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenwhich she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.

It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.

In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.