The Play’s the Thing

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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.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

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For many, Wednesday was a day of triumph. For more, it was a day of defeat.

Such is the nature of competition. But for me as an educator and a parent, the 2016 election was a shameful spectacle from start to finish. An experienced female candidate for president, the first our nation has ever seen, was unable to garner enough support to overshadow her (and her husband’s) mistakes. An inexperienced male candidate for president, the 45th our nation has seen, was ushered into our highest office despite failing to demonstrate preparedness, empathy, or character to this point. To get elected, he used words that stoked the flames of fear, prejudice, and phobia in neighbors and friends. And in the aftermath, it is a struggle to file those words away or write them off. They stung, and the sting lingers.

At times like these, I find myself stalking my library. I’m looking for something to make me feel better, and based on two very heartening articles, I am not alone.

Time magazine’s Sarah Begley writes in “Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered” that reading fiction can be on par with other calming strategies. There is even a new profession, bibliotherapy, that has cropped up in England to offer soothing suggestions to those suffering from existential anxiety. At the School of Life in London, writes Begley, a group of bibliotherapists conducts sessions with clients that end with individualized prescriptions of six to eight books. Ella Berthoud, one of the bibliotherapists, says and I agree (although there may not be any science behind the idea), “a truly great novel gets into your subconscious and actually can change your psyche from within.”

It isn’t just fiction that can soothe what ails us — poetry, too, can be a balm.  According to poets.org, “more poems have been shared in the past two days than in any other forty-eight-hour period in the past four years. People are turning to poems seeking language, powerful and precise, to cope with this moment in our country when divisiveness has become so painfully clear.” For example, “since the election on November 8, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” has been read on Poets.org more than 35,000 times.”

My offering to readers — my prescription for the day — is by Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet. My students know that I think this is one of her best, #314, comparing Hope to a little bird that sings courageously in the storm, and can’t be silenced, and asks for nothing in return for its efforts. If a little bird can continue to sing in chilly and strange places, then so can we.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Ode to the Passage of Time

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I’m about to teach a unit on Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. There are many other noteworthy Romantic poets, but these four stand out for me as favorites, not only because I love their poems, but also because their poems remind me of some of the best moments in my life.

My mother introduced me to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was a girl. Mom was an English professor who shunned media other than the New York Times. She earned a PhD in Victorian Literature and I have her to thank for an almost intuitive connection with the words of 19th century writers. She read me the very strange “Kubla Kahn” by Coleridge and the image-laden “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth as I fell asleep in my parents’ bed.

In contrast, I learned to love Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats not by listening but through teaching their poems to boys at Collegiate School in New York in the late 1990s. My students were surprisingly receptive to the messages in such formidable odes to autumn, to a grecian urn, to a nightingale, and to the west wind. Working closely with my English department chair Susan, who meticulously annotated each and every poem for us to use in our respective classes, I gleaned deep and lasting understandings of the Romantics that serve me to this day.

Upon realizing this past weekend that I would need to brush up on my lesson plans for class this week, I panicked for a minute before remembering that I am an almost religious keeper of notes and past learning. I pulled open the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and plucked out my folder on 19th century poetry. Inside, I found pages and pages of photocopied notes on William, Samuel, Percy and John. Interspersed among my own much neater notes from long ago were notes written in the dark black, looping letters that I will always cherish — my mother’s — followed by notes penned in precise, thin lines. These were Susan’s notes, her annotations on “Bright Star” by Keats and her rivers of questions cascading down the side of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

I took a picture Susan’s notes on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and texted it to her in Seattle, WA, where she now lives. And I thought about how much time, space, and thought had just been covered in the ten minutes I spent looking over my nearly 20-year old notes.

In revisiting the Romantics, and in preparing to introduce them to my students in 2016, I traveled back in time to the 1800s, to my mother’s graduate work, to my childhood, and to my early years as an English teacher. The legacy that words create is the legacy that I cherish most.

 

Focus In & Let it Flow

“Stop what you’re doing,” Verena von Pfetten of The New York Times instructs us in her recent article, “Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?).”

She quickly qualifies her directive: “Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing. Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.) Just read. You are now monotasking.”

Monotasking — as in, doing one thing.

As in, not multitasking.

A great example of monotasking is, apparently, reading — what people in previous centuries used to do as a diversion from the tedium of life, but now, in the midst of a teeming 21st century life, do to reverse or assuage existential angst, exhaustion, or frenetic distraction. That something as elemental as reading is being rebranded is just further evidence of our becoming untethered from traditional ways of thinking about traditional habits.

For example, Pfetten quotes a 28-year-old writer who revels in the simple pleasure of doing one thing at a time at work: “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Another word for this natural and age-old phenomenon of paying attention to the thing–singular–we are doing is “flow,” defined by Bill Burnet and Dave Evans of Stanford D-School in Designing Your Life as “total engagement.”

Say Burnet and Evans, “Flow is engagement on steroids. Flow is that state of being in which time stands still, you’re totally engaged in an activity, and the challenge of that particular activity matches up with your skill — so you’re neither bored because it’s too easy nor anxious because it’s too hard.” People experiencing flow describe all manner of benefits including “ecstasy,” “euphoria,” “calm,” “peace” and “the feeling of disappearing.”

That feeling of increased dopamine that we experience when we repeatedly check our inbox or get lost in a chain of text messages can also be triggered when we focus in and let it flow. Monotasking — doing whatever we are doing in fullness with focus — is still the gold standard of really getting things done.

Instructional Coaching’s 1:1 Hinge

I was lucky to be in Kansas last week with Jim Knight, a leader of the Instructional Coaching movement in education. I heard about instructional coaching a few years ago from a forward-thinking friend in education, Matt Horvat, who had just created a new position at his school in Redmond, WA, for the express purpose of giving teachers some targeted support in their classrooms. At the time, I wondered whether teachers would want to work with an on-staff coach. Now, I am convinced that if done the way Jim Knight suggests, instructional coaching is not only a sound idea but a necessity in any school committed to constantly improving teaching and learning.

Successful instructional coaching relies on a few simple things: 1) the coach is not an administrator responsible for evaluation; 2) the teacher wants coaching and has a goal in mind; and 3) the coach and the teacher engage in an equal partnership where learning is the outcome of co-created dialogue, experience, and feedback. The hinge, though, is likely 4): the coach and the teacher work one on one. In a world where time and attention are perhaps our most valuable commodities, this one on one relationship remains the heart of learning. As I participated in Jim’s workshop, I considered how his coaching approach mirrors the ideal student-teacher relationship, where grades are not given, the student knows what he/she hopes to or needs to learn, and the student and teacher both adopt a learning stance.

During one of the seminars, my eyes began to wander around the room and landed on a dynamic but silent scene. A hearing impaired educator was sitting across from a woman dressed in black who was engaged in translating Jim’s words into sign language. The interpreter was using every element of her face, hands, and body to communicate and connect with the educator. They appeared to be locked in full communication with one another. Both parties clearly wanted to be there and to connect; their desire to learn from one another and to gain knowledge was palpable.

I thought as I watched, this is the dance of education — the sharing of information, the listening, the responding to, the feedback about, the final analysis or the decision to keep thinking — and it is sometimes the most profound when done one-on-one.

All of the content published on this blog is the original work and intellectual property of Jessica Flaxman.

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.