Monthly Archives: August 2017

Anything is Possible

Some characters get under your skin, if not into your heart. Elizabeth Strout’s formidable Olive Kitterege of Maine is one such character; Lucy Barton, of Amgash, Illinois, is another.

Readers of Strout’s unforgettable fiction know Lucy from the tremendous My Name is Lucy Barton, published in 2016. In that slender book, Lucy tells a mostly sanitized version of her childhood in Amgash, where she and her family lived in terrible poverty. Like Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle, Lucy and her siblings withstand indignities, confusion and isolation growing up with an inappropriate father and a cold mother who struggled to provide more than a roof above their heads.

In Anything is Possible, Strout widens her lens to include a number of other characters who lived near, but did not socialize with, the Bartons in Amgash when Lucy was growing up. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these chapters come together to add vibrant color and luminous detail to what was a sketchy image of the town of Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. And while Lucy was certainly one of the most neglected children in the community, she was not the only one raised on insufficient food, education, and love.

Strout never fails to breathe truth and wisdom into her work, no matter how tough some revelations are: people are not all good or all bad, but some combination of both, all the time; everyone who is unkind to someone is sad or broken in some way that explains, if not justifies, his or her hurtful actions; people take care of each other to the best of their abilities. Lucy, who hasn’t been home in nearly twenty years, gives money to her sister, Vicky. Tommy, the school janitor, asks Pete Barton to work with him in a soup kitchen once a week, just to get Pete out of the house. Charlie, a war veteran who betrays his wife, accepts the love of the guidance counselor, Patty, who helps Lucy’s prickly niece apply to college. When Lucy has a panic attack after visiting her siblings Pete and Vicky at the end of the book, they drive her back to Chicago so she can resume her life without them.

Because the people in Strout’s powerful fictions are fully complex, anything – connection, redemption, happiness – is possible, if not always probable.

Rules of Engagement

We can’t deny that kids on the playground will sometimes get into stuff. They might exclude one another or push their way to the front of the line. They might say something unfair or untrue directly to one another, or behind one another’s backs. They might raise their voices, cry, even in rare cases, use their fists.

What almost always then happens, and should always happen, is that one child, or a group of children, will run to find a figure of authority — their teacher — for help.

In an ideal world, their teacher is already right there, ready with an empathetic but firm action plan for deescalating the situation. In a less ideal world, their teacher is just around the corner, or on a bench at the far end of the asphalt, ready to listen, willing and able to swoop in to help.

Astute teachers can see conflict coming and do all they can to help children to address their disagreements and hurt feelings with civility. That is, after all, the bedrock lesson of elementary school, without which the more complex and content-specific learning of high school and beyond is unlikely to happen.

On the playground, if two children get into a fight, they bear some responsibility for their actions, for their choices. But because they are children, the greater responsibility lies with the adults who fail to anticipate, educate, intervene and protect not only those involved but those on the sidelines.

It’s hard to think of a world where a teacher will say to two allegedly guilty children, well, you’re both apparently guilty, so there’s nothing I can do about it. Such an approach does nothing to better the problem, and instead shows a tacit or overt agreement that the perceived conflict is real and also justifies poor behavior. Such an approach fails to capitalize on the white whale of education — the teachable moment.

It’s hard to conceive of a school that functions without an adherence to an agreed upon code of conduct, on the playground and beyond. That’s because students can’t learn effectively when they don’t feel safe. Schools can’t function without civil discourse and a commitment to being actively anti-bias, anti-bullying, anti-violence and affirmatively inclusive.

Nor, it seems, can societies. And whereas kids on the playground ought to know better, and sometimes don’t, we, the adults in their lives, need to and do.

It’s Not What — It’s How

This week, as I am transitioning from high school to elementary and middle school administration, I had the chance to read about the philosophical underpinnings of the Responsive Classroom.

Among the many wise tenets of this educational framework is a simple observation about what really counts in school: how teachers teach. It echoes the bedrock principle elaborated in John Hattie’s Visible Learning series, where Hattie aggregates global educational research to pinpoint which exact teacher practices have the greatest impact on student learning.

I fully agree with both Hattie and the smart people behind Responsive Classroom: it’s not what we teach, but how. But I didn’t always feel this way. Years ago, as a novice in the classroom teaching Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I felt much the opposite. In fact I remember thinking, if I can just show them how interesting this story is, they’ll like it and do well. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, the substance of Kafka’s work is definitely interesting. A man wakes up one morning to find that he is a human-sized bug. He has all of the feelings and thoughts of a human being but not the appearance or the capacity of one. He just wants to get up and out the door for work, but it’s no longer possible. His parents and sister try to remember the man within the insect, but they just can’t. It’s sad. And a little funny. And gross. And confusing! How are we supposed to feel about this person-no-longer-a-person? What is Kafka’s overarching message? It’s a tough reading experience for most students, with its advanced vocabulary and its absurdist humor.

Knowing then what I know now about Responsive Classroom and Hattie’s research on the effects of teacher practices on student learning would have improved my teaching dramatically. Rather than think about my own engagement, I would have thought instead about how to make Kafka’s text accessible to all of my students, to slow and quicken the pace where needed, to take the time to let students co-create the story’s meaning, and to allow them to experience the text in groups during and outside of class. I might have known to send a note home to parents inviting them to read the story, too, to have given some talking points for the dinner table.

It’s not what, but how. Sometimes the content we are delivering to students is so interesting to us that we forget our main purpose as teachers: to engage our students and teach them what they really need to know.