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New Word, Forgotten Fact

A recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yielded unexpected revelations, and rather late in the day, too.

Upon arrival at 10:15, my friend Laura, three of our children, and I launched into a three hour tour of master works in the collection. We stopped to discuss paintings by John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargeant, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh.

I have been fortunate in my life to have seen work by these painters before. Looking at these paintings again, I found little new to say about or discover in them. But I was beyond happy to see our three children engaging with them, appreciating them.

They are high art — serious, important. Their creators studied painting for years and practiced their art over years of disciplined days. Our tour guide emphasized the fact that American painters at the beginning of the country’s history were essentially self-taught, and could not hold a candle to their European counterparts, at least at first. An interesting argument, and likely true, although Americans are nothing if not quick studies.

Meanwhile, downstairs at the museum, an exhibit of Haruki Marukami’s work is on display for a few months only. My daughter grew up on Howl’s Moving CastleSpirited AwayMy Friend Totoro — so before leaving the museum, we dashed downstairs to get a quick glimpse.

After so much seriousness, we were delighted to find bright colors and cartoon monsters displaying the entire spectrum of human expression on their faces. These fun images leaped beyond the bounds of their presumed frames to cover walls and floors.

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It was there that we learned the Japanese word, asobi, meaning playfulness. “The concept is central to the country’s creation myth, in which the Sun goddess Amaterasu, incensed at her impudent brother, sought solace in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness. Only the performance of a bawdy dance by another goddess, and the ensuing laughter, distracted her into reemerging and bringing light again into the world.”

The whole experience of being in the museum — first to appreciate the well-established masters, second to delight in an audacious newcomer — was a reminder that a balance between seriousness and playfulness is needed, and too often in my life anyhow, neglected.

Nothing reminds me of that more effectively than simply watching young children on their way out to recess at school. At the teacher’s signal, they leap outdoors, spilling gleefully beyond the bounds of their classrooms, to the open fields and playgrounds.

They have not forgotten the balance between seriousness and fun. We hope they never will. But in failing to show the ways in which we ourselves remember, we don’t always ensure that they won’t.

The Sea, The Sea


I just finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. It’s a book I’ve been waiting a long time to read. She started it over 15 years ago, just after 9/11, but couldn’t finish it. In the interim, she wrote some other amazing books — The Keep and A Visit from the Good Squad. She wrote Black Box, a complete and unforgettable narrative made up of tweets. But all along, she was puzzling over what became Manhattan Beach, researching the time period — pre-war Manhattan — and revising the pages that, she says in a recent New Yorker article, made her sick to her stomach when she read them.

Egan holds herself to the highest standards. Manhattan Beach is a compelling mystery, a vividly depicted historical novel, a feminist bildungsroman. It charts the course of Anna Kerrigan, woman diver. Anna’s father, an affiliate of an underground crime network, disappears when Anna is young, and she spends her life balancing her grief and her certainty that he isn’t really gone.

The book opens on the day that Anna and her father visit a wealthy man at his home on the beach and Anna first sees the sea. Her response is to kick off her shoes and stockings, to put her feet right into the water. Like a young Edna Pontellier, Anna’s desire to dive into the unknown is a permanent fixture of her identity after that day.

Anna is ambitious to work in a time and a field where women were humored rather than appreciated. When she puts on the wetsuit that divers used to wear, to prove that she can withstand it along with the heft of the ocean, it literally and metaphorically digs into her body, pushing her down. And yet she persisted… 

Anna’s sister, Lydia, is a dependent who can not care for herself. Anna and her mother bathe and clothe Lydia in the sweetest smelling soaps and prettiest clothing. They make a sort of domestic altar to her and love her as feverishly as a child loves a doll. Anna’s ambition is tethered to her family as long as Lydia is alive. Her ability to advance her dream of diving is stymied as long as she lives in her mother’s house. Interestingly, it is the other women in Anna’s life who keep her, at least at first, from achievement. Is this a part of why Egan struggled so mightily with this book? This historical accuracy is important.

Although my favorite of Egan’s books remains Look at Me, which Egan wrote before becoming famous with The Keep and A VisitManhattan Beach will stay with me for a long time. Anna’s relationship with ambition and her fearless exploration of the ocean’s vast territories, as well as her willingness to plunge the depths of her own heart, put her in the rarefied air of other great female protagonists. I expect to see many beach-goers reading this novel next summer, if they haven’t already read it this winter as an antidote to all kinds of cold.

Goal Setting for Short and Long Term Gains

It is parent-teacher conference season in elementary and secondary schools. Although not everyone looks forward to this time in the school year, I love it and think it is one of the most important things we do in schools. We set aside an entire day to sit down to talk about student growth — not with ourselves as educators, but with parents and students themselves. We get to look at each other face to face and share feedback across the table.

I had the opportunity this past week to sit in on my first round of student-led conferences, a hallmark of many middle school advisory programs. To get students ready to lead a conversation about their work with their parents and teachers, we had them create goal boards. Each goal board had room for short term, long term, and ultimately SMART goals — measurable goals like “read one book outside of school each semester” that very often lead to goal achievement.

It was not easy for our students to come up with goals that were attainable in either the long or short term. Many said that they wanted to “get more sleep” or be “less distracted.” We helped them to think about how to get more sleep by getting homework done earlier, how to be less distracted in the age of distraction. In articulating how, they inched closer to making those dreams into realities.

In talking with students about goal setting, we used Jan Chappuis’ goals framework to direct them to think about learning goals rather than performance goals. Where performance goals focus on end results and grades, learning goals focus on growth and improvement. Learning goals answer the questions, “What do I need to do to get better?” “What can I learn from my mistakes?” These goals reflect a belief that persistence is necessary, as is failure. 

Chappuis offers educators and students a clear picture of what really matters when it comes to student achievement: optimism that comprehension can be built — and improved –over time, coupled with realism as to where things currently stand. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching and advising young people is that they are not yet adept at gauging their own performance. They can feel wildly overconfident or completely lacking in confidence in one or all classes, dependent upon perceptions that are not bound in facts.

I am convinced that the thing that helps students most to understand their own learning is simply working with them to think about it. Using prompts, visual aids, and examples, teachers and parents can really help students to feel better about where they are in their educational journey and in their lives.

Hard Facts

This week, hard facts were everywhere.

Look to the left, find sorrow in the aftermath of a mass shooting on Las Vegas. Look to the right, see fires moving through Northern California. Look a few weeks back, see hurricane waves and winds snuffing out lights and prospects in island and coastal communities. Look into a child’s eyes, find a flurry questions, some spoken, some not. Look into your own heart, find a well of uncertainty, as well as a need to come up with not only the right thing, but also the true thing, to say to the children in our care.

At times like these, I find myself thinking about other trying times in history. Growing up, like many others I was a little bit obsessed with Anne Frank. I wanted to know a person like her. She was so brave. I conjure little Anne in my mind’s eye and marvel at her resolve, her optimism, and her commitment to creating a legacy of the hard facts she and her family faced.

I hear echoes of her work in the brave words and actions of people like Michelle Gay, the mother of Josephine Gay who was killed at Sandy Hook and founder of Safe and Sound Schools. In the face of such hard facts in her own life, Michelle has built a legacy for her daughter and a bridge to the future by bringing awareness to the issue of school safety.

Listening to Michelle speak about the day her life changed forever, December 14, 2012, I was struck by the power that is within each of us to find something meaningful to say and do in the face and wake of hard things. I was reminded of these famous words from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 

Wonderful — yes. And necessary.

Essential Emily & Marilynne

“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”

“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”

I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.

Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.

It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).

Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.

Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all time favorite books. I know I’m not alone. But while reading it with my 9 year old this month, I was surprised to find that despite the book being very important to me, I had forgotten nearly everything in its pages.

What I remembered: time/space travel, a very smart child named Charles Wallace, some strong weather at the beginning, a missing father, a malevolent (I think!) force called IT.

What I had forgotten: the word, tesseract, which for some reason, my mother gave me as a name when I was little. Also forgotten: how sophisticated many of the words in the book actually are. And the fact that Calvin likes not only Meg but also her mother.

Which made me remember: we used to read books like A Wrinkle in Time on our own time and without incident.  Which isn’t to say that we understood all of what we read. Rereading the book today, I know it isn’t possible that I understood the book deeply. Clearly, I didn’t remember it well.

But, it sort of didn’t matter. I thought I read it, and I really loved it. And, I don’t think we were expected to understand what we read all the way through back then. Instead, we were expected to read a lot. To just read. Whatever we wanted, and as often as possible. It was totally fine for us to pick up a book and put it down, only to pick it up months or even years later and resume as if no time had passed at all.

That’s why my mother thought nothing of giving me a copy of Jane Eyre when I was 10. And again when I was 12. And then again when I was 15, at which point I could finally make sense of the first pages and persevered all the way to the end.

Books were our wrinkle in time. We’d open a portal to one and walk through. Stay a while in its world and then exit on the other side, changed.

Raising and Caring for our Little Adults

I loved Julie Lythcott-Haines’ How to Raise an Adult and had the good fortune to hear her speak last spring when she visited Charlotte. The book, like Julie herself, offers straight-talk to parents and teachers who take the responsibility of preparing future generations for whatever awaits them very seriously.

In a nutshell, she tells us to give our kids more space and time to become themselves without our constant interference. Sitting amid an audience of hundreds of parents, I couldn’t help but notice that there was not a person, including myself, who was not laughing and cringing all the way through her talk.

As a dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haines saw first hand how easily thrown freshmen were in the face of any challenge. After being “overparented” — and therefore never having to do anything completely for themselves while also never feeling total independence or pride in the wake of their achievements — these high flying young people with high GPA’s were having a ton of trouble acclimating to college life. They were — are — suffering from acute anxiety, depression, and worse. Having accomplished their parents’ and often their own dreams, they were finding the reality to be both a bit underwhelming and somehow also overwhelming.

Frank Bruni’s editorial today, “The Real Campus Scourge,” adds an important layer to the discussion about how we are preparing young people for the places, situations, and demands they will confront. I read it just after talking with my niece, a newly minted college freshman who described finding it very hard, in these early days of freshman year, to eat regular meals, find people to connect with, even work out at the gym.

In his essay, Bruni hits the nail on the head: college, at least at first, is lonely. That college freshmen feel alone has nothing to do with the way they were parented or the fact that some may be like snowflakes that melt in the heat. Says Bruni, “In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”

Those numbers are pretty staggering, but what they really confirm is simply the fact that being alone is, for most of us, lonely. Also, people leaving home, if they are loved and lucky, miss home. Years ago this was true and it is still true today.

Tomorrow, I’m spending some of Labor Day collecting things for care packages for my five nieces and nephews who are currently in college. I wish I had the time and the funds to send one to each of my past students, too. This blog post will have to serve in the place of those hundreds of boxes full of symbolic hugs that I would send out tomorrow if I could.

It’s not easy to raise — or be — an adult. But it’s also not something any of us have to do all by ourselves.

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.