Sift, Sort, Spark, Joy

I am in the process of packing my family’s belongings as we prepare to move.

There is nothing particularly fun about sorting through fifteen years of accumulated objects and deciding what to give away. But according to Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo, what I am doing is more magical than it feels.

Decluttering and organizing my house, she says, will transform my life. I don’t know if I believe her. But I’m intrigued. Kondo recommends a simple test to determine what we keep and what we discard — not just when we are moving, but all the time. Gather all of one kind of thing that you own (example, shirts). Pick each one up and hold it in your hands. Ask the question, does this shirt spark joy? If the answer is no, to the consignment store it goes.

Hers is a useful philosophy for living. Keep what makes you happy. Discard what doesn’t.

Although I don’t think this is easy to do at all, I’ve already begun to annoy my children by repeatedly asking them to consider whether the clutter in their rooms sparks joy in their hearts.

“Does that raggedy notebook with most of the pages scribbled on really spark joy?” (“Mom!” )

Staring down a pile of t-shirts this past weekend, I wondered, what would happen if we applied this same spark joy test to school? 

A trickier business, no doubt. School is stitched from many threads, few of which can be teased out, not to mention thrown out. However, in schools across the country — public, private, charter, parochial, home — questions about what students need and ideas about how to best serve those needs seem to be piling up. It sometimes feels hard to find the simple spark of joy amid the heaps of things to think about, things to try, things to do.

So while I’m not convinced that throwing away old socks will make me happier, I agree with Kondo that thinking about the things we hang on to and why is important in both school and life.

It’s not easy. But it is vital to keep the flame going.

Twice Told Stories

My nine year old daughter came home from school a few days ago and told me that she is writing an adaption. It took me a minute, but based on her description — “a story I already know, but different” — I realized she was talking about an adaptation. I was excited to hear her version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. One of my favorite things in the world is a well-worn story in new clothes.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a great example of the way a retold story can gain resonance for one who already knows the story well. Whereas the animated film from the 1990’s is fun and heartwarming, the 2017 live-action movie gives viewers more to think about.

In this version, a real man is made into a beast as a result of his cold-heartedness, and a real woman restores his humanity through love. But it is the character of Gaston that really got my attention this go-around. Because he, too, is a real person and not a cartoon, his words and actions take on new dimensions in this latest iteration of the classic fairy tale. Played by the Welsh actor, Luke Evans, Gaston has the kind of eyes that crinkle at the edges in seeming sympathy and understanding. He wants Belle because she’s beautiful and smart. That, he says, “makes her the best.” He pursues her with a doggedness that mostly annoys and doesn’t intimidate, and for the first many minutes of the movie, I found myself rooting for the suitor I knew to be the real villain of the story.

But when Gaston assumes the mantle of Belle’s savior, won’t take no for an answer, and is determined to kill the competitor who won his girl’s heart, it is surprisingly jarring, not comical. At least, it was to me. Watching the movie with my daughters, ages 14 and 8, I couldn’t help wanting to say something about Gaston, about the way he was behaving toward Belle, her father, and the Beast.  I wanted to ask my girls if they thought Gaston was funny or scary. If they noticed that he was “beastly” despite how handsome he was. If they could discern where interest ends and obsession begins.

But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to break the movie’s spell. Instead I thought about the importance of story telling in its many forms and versions, in the experience of stories together, in and out of the classroom, today and every day.

Get On Board

I know I’m late to this party. People have been talking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for months, and it just won the Pulitzer. Even my husband has read the book, and he rarely reads fiction. But better late than never. Whitehead’s sixth novel is now one of my all-time top ten, right up with there other masterpieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven, and 1984. 

This may be because The Underground Railroad explores so powerfully a misunderstanding I had as a child. It began with a set of playing cards my mother gave me one holiday featuring famous American women — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolly Madison, and my favorite, Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, so plain in feature and dress, was a spy, an abolitionist, a champion of women’s and human rights. She looked different from the other women in the deck, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I loved her immediately. I imagined her running a station of the secret railroad coursing beneath the surface of the earth to carry slaves to freedom. I didn’t stop to think that the railroad wasn’t real.

In his book, Whitehead explores this fantasy of a magical railroad to freedom through the story of a runaway slave, Cora. After escaping her sadistic master in Georgia, Cora discovers a network of subterranean train tracks leading up from slavery and into various cities on the way to the free north. Each time she emerges from an underground station into a different southern state, she experiences a different racial dystopia with completely different laws and perils. But Cora is a quick study who will use whatever means necessary to survive.

She is Harriet Tubman; she is Anne Frank; she is Wonder Woman. She is everyone who ever ran from a bad life in search of a better one. She is one of the lucky few to make it all the way to freedom, all the way home.  And as she makes her way “into northness,” she learns that the railroad doesn’t depend on station masters or trains at all. It is one’s own creation, a figment of one’s imagination, made real by hope and perseverance and luck.

The Underground Railroad reveals the many tough truths and mysteries of American slavery. Run, don’t walk, to catch a ride on this novel.

A Flipped Script

One of the best things about working in an independent school is advisory, that time each week when students and teachers gather in small groups to eat and talk. In my advisory over the past decade, my advisees and I have vigorously debated politics; discussed aspects of social media, Hollywood news and fashion; watched Saturday Night Live skits; shared favorite video games and pet peeves; debriefed assembly speakers; complained, worried, listened, laughed and cried.

More often than not, I am the listener who gives guidance, and I like it that way. But this winter, I found myself in the unexpected position of needing support from the very people I usually advise. When my husband accepted a new job in another city, I had to tell my school community that I, too, would be leaving at the end of the school year. I started with my advisory.

My advisees had a lot of questions about what would happen to them in my absence and what my life would look like. Where would my girls go to school? Would I take time off? What did I really want to do with my new life? How would I manage the cold? Did I plan to come back for their graduations?

They moved quickly from surprise and concern to excitement. Which makes sense, upon reflection. Students know from the time they enter high school that their time there is limited, that they are on their way to somewhere else. It’s only a question of where, not when. And the feelings about moving on, while sometimes bittersweet, are skewed toward the positive. Moving on is the natural and wanted thing.

But for me, the script was flipped. For a few weeks, I needed more advising — and cheering — than they did. As I got used to this script, though, I found I liked it more and more. Never before had I seen my students in exactly this light, or seen them step into this role.

I didn’t anticipate it, but my being out of joint was actually helpful to two of my advisees who were also trying to figure some important things out. One hadn’t yet been accepted to a college of her choice, and the other hadn’t yet received a scholarship she was competing for. My being uncertain about next steps allowed them to be certain for me, and, in time, for themselves as well.

Things have settled out nicely for all of us. The four juniors in my advisory will stay together with another teacher who they love and who will see them through to graduation. The seniors and I will leave our beloved school together. The student competing for the scholarship won it. The other was accepted to several colleges she will be happy to attend. I’ve found a new position in a new school. My girls have, too.

Nowhere is it written that every story will have a happy ending. But in the case of our advisory, it already has.

Lessons By Design

I like expanding the condensed meanings in poetry, especially with the help of my students. But my students don’t always feel the same way. For some, poems  — and poetry lessons —  are like labyrinths with pathways to nowhere. Which is why, after teaching a poetry survey for nearly two months, and listening to various complaints, a colleague and I decided to put a design challenge to our high school seniors: to build a better high school poetry lesson.

The challenge we set our students to solve was actually twofold: learn Design Thinking (not easy, actually) and use it to design a better way to teach poetry (not easy, at all). In groups of 4, students had about a week to design a 10 minute lesson on a 21st century poem that would be better than or different from the traditional lessons on traditional poetry that we gave them in the fall.

I gave myself a challenge as well: to watch and monitor rather than teach or participate during this time. I saw groups that immediately got to work and others that sat in prolonged silence. There was one that, at least at first, bickered back and forth. I really wanted to intervene. I mostly didn’t.

I’m glad I held back because given a little space, they got more and more comfortable with the project. They conducted interviews of others students to learn what their experience learning poetry was like. Then they brainstormed ideas. Then they prototyped, revised, and finally delivered their lessons. Voila, Design Thinking!

Were their poetry lessons better than the gold standard method I and other teachers tend to use (assign poems for annotation, read aloud, listen to others read aloud, break things down by line and stanza, look for figurative language, consider author’s purpose, etc)? I don’t think so. All of their ideas and lessons were sound. But none of their lessons resulted in the class really understanding the poems they taught, and they all recognized that fact.

As many of them wrote in their reflection, the 10 minute time limit was, in the end, the greatest challenge of all. It wasn’t nearly enough time to teach a poem effectively, no matter how innovative they had been in the attempt.

Understanding poetry, like so many other challenges we face in our daily lives in and out of school, takes time. But what my students learned during the Design Thinking challenge transcended all of these particulars. Through working together, listening to one another, delegating tasks, meeting deadlines, and speaking publicly, they came to a better understanding — not of poetry — but of themselves and their teachers. That’s what the project was ultimately about.

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?

Literary Guides

I loved Nicholas Noyes’ recent NYT article with pop-up illustrations, “How to Use a Novel as a Guidebook,”  in which he describes following Oliver Twist’s footsteps in London to see the city through Oliver’s eyes.

With help from a map of 1830s London, Noyes was able to connect as a 21st century reader/traveler with a place and a time long gone, Dickensian London. “Names of roads have changed. Rivers have been redirected underground and 180 years of development and decay have changed a landmark or two,” Noyes writes. “But Dickens’s description of Oliver’s entry into London is easy to follow. And following Oliver’s journey connects London’s 19th-century geography to the modern city.”

I was thinking about this topic — what literature is good for — in light of the winter edition of Independent School magazine, titled “What’s Happened to the Humanities?” It’s a question I think about often, as an English teacher facing students who may still love to read, but don’t feel they have the time or focus they need to immerse themselves in reading. It’s a question I think about from the perspective of an administrator heeding the call to provide more STE(A)M experiences for students, which can be hard to balance with traditional ways of assigning and assessing literary texts and understandings.

The good news is I’m not at all alone. I found a lot of wisdom in Janet Alsup’s article, “Literature in the Age of Google,” in which she writes that reading fiction is still very important for learners, and the reasons are more varied and nuanced than the potential connection between a 21st century traveler and 1830s London. “Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts,” she writes, which leads to “increase[d] inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.”

Reading literature helps us to forge powerful, if imaginary, connections between people and places and, magically, encourages real-world caring. Given that, Alsup’s question, “How do we encourage reading in an age of surfing,” is an apt one. Thankfully, she provides a number of good suggestions for teachers and parents alike: expose children to literature, read with them, give them choices, ask questions that move beyond plot summary, help them to make connections between what they read and what they see/experience, and don’t assume that they will emulate the people or stories they encounter in books. 

I’m about to bring my seniors on a journey back in time to Victorian England where a little girl named Jane Eyre is tormented by a cousin in a grand house and argues her way right into a chilly school for orphan girls. With Charlotte Bronte’s novel as our guide, we will make our way through the byways of the 19th century and arrive at key understandings about Jane’s world and our own, understandings we can best gain from literature.

What I Learned in School This Year (2016)

I learned a lot this year, much of it in and around schools.

I learned to be an instructional coach, I learned a skill set for antiracist education, and I learned to be a design thinker. I took four students to our state conference to present on leadership, I wrote book reviews for different publications, and I kept my blog going while teaching AP Literature to 16 seniors and partnering with my husband to raise our daughters. I lost sleep, got a puppy, and cleaned out closets. I spread my respect for John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning to faculty by running a professional development course using his book during lunch periods this fall. I started an innovation committee and pitched a new idea for summer programs.

It was a busy and rewarding year while also a very difficult and troubling one. I stopped reading or listening to the news for a time. It felt irresponsible of me as an otherwise engaged global citizen, but I couldn’t bear to look at the violence in Aleppo, the pain on the faces of protesters in St. Louis, or even the picture of the polar bears huddled together in the dirt because their icy home has melted. I traveled to France in June, just before the attack in Nice, and I saw and felt a tension I have never experienced in my life. Someone picked my pocket on the street, just a small pebble in the well of desperation and disrespect spreading across the globe. I sat with my own students as they cried and questioned in the aftermath of a police shooting in our community. I myself cried and questioned when Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump.

Although for others the events of 2016 were immediately and truly devastating, many of those same events, for me, were like little earthquakes in the night. I woke up safe, the tremors distant enough from me to do real harm, but I woke up changed. I don’t think I have been complacent in my life, but those little earthquakes in the night have jostled me into a new level of commitment and concern in 2017 – particularly for schools, students, and the future.

Questions I am thinking about:

How will I help schools continue to adapt to an ever-changing world where technology continues to outpace our handle on its effectiveness?

How will I help students continue to develop the skills and capacities to discerningly cull through the tsunami of news, information, critiques and criticisms that flood our inboxes and search engines?

How will I continue to help answer the question of what schools will look like in 2025?

These are not necessarily new questions. But they are vital ones that seem to grow more urgent each and every day.

In a year of great highs and despairing lows, one moment of 2016 stands out for me. It was a simple thing that happened just a few weeks ago: a student sent me an email seeking advice about what novel she should read for her extra credit project. Rather than consult Google or some BuzzFeed list, she asked me. Because I am her English teacher and, I think, she believed I would know what she would like, and she respected my opinion.

I may not know what school will look like in 2025 or beyond, but I have long believed, and still believe, that no matter what they look like in a physical sense, schools will always be fueled by one steadily beating heart: the relationship between adults who want to show and children who want to know. And because of that, I’m excited for 2017.

Malaprops & More

People often ask me what my favorite book is, and I always have a lot of trouble answering. There are so many books that have imprinted my heart and mind. Right now I’m loving Ann Leary’s The Children and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but next week I’ll be touting some other titles, I’m sure.

Easier to answer is the question I don’t usually get about my favorite bookstore, which is Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in Asheville, NC. I went there last weekend and was as excited as a kid in a candy store.

Malaprop’s is a down to earth place, just like the town it resides in — but has it all. Not just books, and interesting ones at that, but people on hand to talk to you about the books they have loved and you should read. My favorite thing there is the wall of books wrapped in brown paper with words written in Sharpie to suggest some of what lies beneath (see photo — “Blind Date With a Bookseller”).

The store’s name, taken from the word malaprop, alludes to that thing that happens when someone uses the wrong word for something and the sentence that results is highly entertaining. The most famous character to have this problem is Mrs. Malaprop from Sheriden’s 1775 play, The Rivals (Ex: “He’s the very pineapple of politeness”).

I have always loved malapropisms. I’ve certainly said a few of them in my lifetime (although never one so witty as the famous one from Yogi Berra, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”). Students make them all the time without knowing, and it can be fun to talk through where and why we get the words wrong.

We all get things jumbled up from time to time. We hear things incorrectly, or translate what we hear to fit what we think we know (“The Sixteenth Chapel” instead of “The Sistene Chapel”). It’s part of being learners, of being human.

But even if we are not always aware that what we have said is not what we have meant, words matter. The best way to understand the words we say and know is to listen, question, and read. For ideas on what to read this holiday season, check out some of the best books of 2016.

The Play’s the Thing

play

My favorite play in recent years, Hamilton, continues to grab headlines. Featuring our country’s founding fathers in their full (albeit imagined) humanity, Hamilton is worthy of continued attention, and not just because actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Vice-President Elect Mike Pence at a recent performance.

Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us” — a clear plea for the incoming Trump-Pence administration to, among other things, nurture and protect diversity, care for the earth and global relations, and remember that America is a story of immigrants. Dixon’s direct address to an audience-member was certainly dramatic. But was it unprecedented? Not at all. Actors, and through them, playwrights, have long made a habit of addressing their audiences, whether directly or indirectly, before, during, or after the show.

I have been thinking a lot about drama since the election — yes, about the dramatic events playing out on our national stage, but also about drama, the literary genre because coincidentally, my students and I have been reading and discussing plays for the last few weeks in school.

We started with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where we learned key terms like pathos, catharsis, and irony. Students worked in pairs on posters depicting Oedipus’ experience of coming to consciousness about his identity, actions, and position in the world. Their work cleverly used symbols like glasses, light bulbs, and magnifying lenses to illustrate Oedipus’ painful journey from ignorance to knowledge. We then read Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, published in 2004. Ruhl’s humorous play turns classical ideas on their heads — the Underworld is more Alice in Wonderland than land of shadows, and the chorus is made up not of esteemed elders but three grumpy stones that act like bratty children at a birthday party — to suggest that dramatic irony can be much more than one character’s realization of his worst mistakes. When Ruhl’s Eurydice chooses to dip herself in the River Styx at the end of the play — when she chooses ignorance over knowledge — my students were quick to note an ironic inversion of their own expectations given the outcome of the play we had just read, Oedipus Rex.

These plays are different in fundamental ways: Oedipus Rex is deadly serious and Eurydice provocatively humorous; Oedipus Rex conforms to conventions of classical tragedy while Eurydice breaks rules and subverts conventions. Hamilton, too, while serious and conventional in some ways, relies heavily on humor and rule-breaking. It also profoundly flips the conventional script by casting diverse actors of color into roles played exclusively in real life by white men and women.

They are the same, however, in how they perform the spectacular feat of illuminating key and timeless truths about the human experience. As importantly, they each cause audience members to sit still, observe, and reflect on meanings both ancient and new. Whether tragic or comic, theater creates and comments on community in essential ways.

Although President-elect Trump didn’t care for the unscripted moment in Hamilton, Dixon didn’t do anything so different from actors and playwrights of old when he used the stage as a platform for public commentary. And when Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us,” he continued the legacy of theater that goes back to ancient Greek times. Contrary to a tweet from President-Elect Trump, Hamilton the play is not overrated — nor is theater, in general. It’s the very thing to keep us all connected, optimistic, and engaged with timeless questions about who we were, are, and will be.