Monthly Archives: December 2014

What I Learned This Year in School

In 2014, I learned that John Dewey was right when he said, “education is life.”

When I first read those words in Democracy and Education, I thought both “duh!” and “huh?” But over the course of the past year, I understood the beautiful simplicity in Dewey’s proclamation. And I suddenly saw what is on the line for every child around the world– the future, their future.

Also in 2014, someone I respect a great deal told me that there is no such thing as balance. It was another “duh!/huh?” moment.  But I think I get it now. If we are learning, we are naturally off-kilter because learning causes us to continually tip to one side or the other and all of the places in between.

So, one of my resolutions for 2015 is to stop talking about finding balance – not because I don’t think it an extremely valid life goal, but because it isn’t the state of being I want to achieve. If I did, I wouldn’t have gone back to school while teaching school while my own children are in school.

If I did, I wouldn’t have grown several feet taller, and a few inches askew, at least in my imagination.

Warning: This Post May Cause Uncertainty

I’ve been thinking about the “trigger warning” phenomenon that’s rising. It has already risen in colleges and universities and is sure to become relevant to secondary schools.

As an example, according to an April 14th Inside Higher Ed article titled “Trigger Unhappy” by Colleen Flaherty, Oberlin College faculty were advised to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism… and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly… contribute to learning goals.” Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart was cited as one that could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more,” and therefore might be eschewed.

This perplexes me.  Although teachers do not take the Hippocratic Oath, we do practice a “do no harm” philosophy to a degree. We construct our classrooms to minimize discomfort – physical and social – and do everything we can to create fair conditions for learning. But I don’t know that we can be asked to whitewash the content we have studied and learned so much from.

It’s a fact that characters in many novels worth reading do distressing things like fling themselves in front of trains and swim out to sea. We can’t change that, and I’m not sure we should try to.

As an English teacher who believes that literature – and the humanities in general – serves society best when it pushes and challenges us, I’m struggling with how to navigate this “trigger warning” business. And I can’t help but notice that what trends in mainstream culture and on social media is not nearly as sensitive as we are expected to be in schools. The gap between what is acceptable to talk about with and teach our children in schools and what they are exposed to elsewhere is widening.

In reality and in imagined realities, people suffer. They hurt – themselves and others – and when we read about that, we learn. I understand the rationale for removing stories that might “trigger” discomfort from classrooms, but I am unsure about how doing so will impact learning.

Deferred, but Not Dismayed

As parents of high school seniors well know, the early decision season has just come to a close. There was a brief burst of energy – light for some (accepted!) and fright for others (denied!) – and for the rest, the odd state of being deferred.

It’s certainly odd to be told, “not now, maybe later,” by anonymous admissions committees at the very places we have declared, out loud, that we’d like to study and live.

We immediately think, why not now, and why maybe later? And we wonder, we really rack our brains, about what could we do to change just enough to convince someone we don’t know that we’ve got the foot to fit their shoe.

I was deferred from my college of choice, and I turned out more than fine. In fact, being deferred and subsequently denied from the place I idealized attending was arguably the best thing that happened to me. I tell my students this each year, and it usually doesn’t help. But it could.

The college I ended up going to was the portal to worlds of happiness and opportunity. It offered me a chance to hone my craft as a writer, to study abroad, to know diverse and fascinating people, and to realize that a good friend of mine might be better as my husband.


Today, while visiting with a student just home from college, I realized that I was doing the same thing, slightly altered, that I have been doing for nearly 20 years.

There I was, sitting down with a young person who was no longer in my class, not to mention my school, who took time out of her busy life to come say hello – really a lot more than hello – to her old English teacher.

This got me thinking about how much of school life is recursive – repeated actions and exchanges that reflect the past but are also completely new. I’m not talking just about the recursive work of teaching and learning, but about the beautiful echoing that school walls capture.

Talking with this charming college sophomore, I got that eerie feeling I sometimes get when I feel time looping. Was this 2014, and was I the 40 year-old teacher, or was it 1994, when winter break from college was incomplete without a visit with my high school English teacher, the woman who taught me to love Wide Sargasso Sea almost as much as Jane Eyre?

Winter Dreams

When I was little, I looked forward to the winter holidays because that was when I would receive the year’s award winning picture books wrapped in shiny paper. On the title page of each, my mother wrote the date and a simple, loving wish for me in her unique handwriting.

What she wished for me on the title pages changed as I grew older, but the sentiment was much the same: she hoped I would always love books and turn to them for inspiration and comfort as I grew. Whether giving me Tasha Tudor’s most recent masterpiece (my favorite is still the nostalgic A Time To Keep) or Maurice Sendak’s latest (I never quite recovered from the strangely terrifying Outside, Over There), my mother was ensuring that I would associate celebrations and vacations with reading.

Given how I feel about books today, it’s no surprise that I’ve done the same for my own children. Today as I wrapped books from this year’s top lists for my own girls – Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun for my older daughter and Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit for my younger one – I wrote simple notes to them on the title pages. Notes about how much I love them, and why I think they’ll like these books, and unspoken but certain encouragement to read.

I was thinking about this when I read Bruce Feiler’s article in today’s New York Times, “So, How Do You Wrap an E-Book?”

Good question. He asked several authors for their view, many of whom embrace the notion that “reading is reading.” I largely agree. Still, I like Jacqueline Woodson’s response. She’s the author of Brown Girl, Dreaming, the 2014 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature. In response to Feiler, Woodson says that holding a book, “smelling the pages and having that tactile experience,” is like being in a kind of reverie.

Maybe the solution to this digital-age conundrum is to wrap our gifts of reading to our children, in whatever form we give them, in paper with handwritten notes attached. That way, there can be no confusion about what we are really gifting them – ideas, escape, and dreams.

Dewey and Design Thinking

I was thinking today about John Dewey.

A lot of people do this, so there’s nothing too special there. Dewey had so much to say about education, and said it so broadly, that his words can be affixed to nearly any idea and they’ll pretty much make it glow.

For example, Dewey said that failure, something we all dread, is actually “instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as he does from his successes.”

I talk every day with students about whether or not a certain mark is proof of success. I like having the wisdom of Dewey behind me when I counsel that learning is about growing, and that education, like life, in order to be truly enjoyable, should be pursued for its own sake.

Life in and out of school tells us that this is true – consider the affection we have for American Dream stories in books and in the news, all of which hinge on the against-all-odds, rags-to-riches, up-from-bootstraps moxie of an individual. We like reading about, knowing, and being people who can make something out of nothing, or something better out of something just ok.

Maybe this is because, as Dewey says, “we only think when we are confronted with problems.” Problems cause us to want to find solutions or, if we can’t find them, design them ourselves.

Rust, Stardust, and The Social Network

I got an email from a student today with a link to a buzzfeed article – “51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature.”

The email message read, “saw this and thought of your class :)”

Smiley face indeed – these are the kinds of little things that make me happy in a big way. I put the email out of my mind and turned my attention to more pressing matters, but all day I looked forward to reading the sentences that buzzfeed billed as beautiful. And I wondered, why 51? Why not 10, 50, 100?

Some were expected – Austen’s “What are men to rocks and mountains?” and Forster’s “Only Connect.” Others less so, but because of that, more striking – Hinton’s “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” and Nabokov’s “And the rest is rust and stardust.”

These brief phrases that I agree are beautiful filled me with renewed admiration for the power of literature, and reminded me that when we don’t read deeply, taking time to feel words’ power as we read, we miss out in potentially infinite ways. For example had I never pored over the pages of Forster’s A Passage to India in college, I would likely not have chosen to teach it, and if I had not taught it, I would likely not have remembered it well enough to use it in a personal essay that helped me get into graduate school. And I certainly wouldn’t feel inspired upon reading its epigraph in a buzzfeed article today.

Some people say that technology is destroying our ability to read deeply enough to attach to what we read, and I think that’s possibly true. But on the other hand, social media depends on a social nexus, which depends on shared knowledge and values.

Although I still don’t know what is magic about 51, I’m heartened by the fact that a staffer at buzzfeed took the time to compile such a list, and delighted that my student thought to share it with me.


Whistling Vivaldi

When I was 23 and in my first year of teaching, in 1997, my department chair handed me the Bedford Reader and told me to steer my sophomores through the basics of composition. Brent Staples’ masterfully written “Black Men and Public Spaces,” in the anthology, was particularly resonant for me and for my students.

In the essay, Staples describes what it’s like to be outdoors in society and to have strangers respond to his presence in a number of nervous ways — women crossing the street, drivers locking their car doors, and other undeniable yet hard to prove things that told him he was doing something different from what he thought he was doing, which was walking down the street.

Staples responded by whistling classical music as he walked, to let others know that he posed no threat.

Social psychologist Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, explores the impact of stereotype threat, a peculiar situation in which people behave in unusual ways out of fear that their actions may confirm negative stereotypes about their social group.

For Staples, this behavior looked like whistling. For students, Steele’s and others’ research shows, this behavior can look like academic underachievement.

Staples paints such a powerful picture of a grown man lonely in the world, whistling to keep not others but himself safe in the face of their fear.

Today, and in light of recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island,  I learned that we have not come as far as I believed we would when I first began teaching, and naively assumed that in the future, no one would need to do anything as sad as to use music as a shield against bodily harm.






The Weight of Monday

Today I learned that the Monday before winter exams feels… heavy.

The weight of today was the result of a lot of gathering things: rain in a dark sky; hours to be spent in review;  the impending shift from questions to answers;  grades to be tallied and recorded; indelible records of achievement soon to be committed to a database and attached to individual names.

Add to that the additional weight of holiday shopping, anticipated travel, nightly cooking and clean up, bath time and laundry, and it’s easy to imagine beating a hasty retreat to the woods in search of Thoreau.

But despite of all that weight, there was lightness. The student who sat in my office this morning and said that he couldn’t conclude his paper because he couldn’t accept what he had realized about the world through the process of writing the paper — this student gave me the gift of levity by taking a kind of flight of the mind before my eyes.

I bounced along the top of the rainclouds for a while after that.




December 5, 2014. Let’s get started.

Every night, across the country and in most places around the world, adults ask children what they learned that day in school. I ask my children this question, just as my parents asked me when I was growing up.

Last week, my six year old answered my question with one of her own: “Mommy, what did you learn today in school?”

Her question was sweet, not sassy: I am an English teacher, a curriculum director, and a graduate student at Teacher’s College. So why did it leave me at a loss for words?

I fear it’s because I have grown accustomed to thinking about school as a place where students learn rather than what it really is: a space — real, imagined or virtual — of learning.

Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something worth sharing — about young people, about literature, about education, about culture, about technology, about adults, about families — and this blog is the binder for those lessons.