Category Archives: WILTIS

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.

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.

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.

Milestones By The Letter

Yesterday, my younger daughter reached a milestone in her life: she went to sleep away camp.

Although many moments in my childhood have faded at the edges, the unhappy memory of being dropped off at an unfamiliar place far from home remains crystal clear in my mind. To this day, my lifelong friend Lindsey, whom I met at camp 31 years ago, laughs with love and sympathy when she remembers me at 12. I was so homesick, and so terrible at hiding it.

But my daughter seemed ready for action in the days leading up to the big drop off. One of the things she was most looking forward to, she said, was getting mail. “I bet I will get the most mail of anyone,” she said with confidence, knowing that she comes from a family of writers.

At 9, she does not yet have a cell phone, but since everyone else for the most part does, she’s never really received many letters. She’s also never written more than one or two in a month, usually to her grandparents. More and more, she’s asking to use my phone to text people. Someone. Anyone. Soon, we will give in and she’ll get her own device. Soon, she will not have to wait more than one or two seconds to connect with a friend or loved one, whenever she wants to.

I am ambivalent about that upcoming milestone in her life. It’s part of the reason I appreciated Boston Globe writer Jaci Conroy’s recent article about the many benefits that flow to letter writers, and especially children. In addition to giving kids a chance to practice and hone their writing skills, Conroy points out, waiting for mail to arrive is a great lesson in delayed gratification.

Before my daughter went to camp, I promised to write to her every day. I plan to do so — I’ve got plenty of pretty cards to send, if not a lot of news. But when I dropped her off, I told her this: in the beginning, you will probably write a lot of letters. After a while, you might start to forget, and that’s ok. I’ll know it means you are having a lot of fun. For me, that will be better than getting a letter. 

I mostly meant what I said, about being happy not to hear from her. It’s an expected marker on the parenting road I’m on, and I want to meet my milestones as bravely and enthusiastically as my daughter is meeting hers.

Tangible Evidence

Per Marie Kondo’s advice, in the last two weeks I have made it my mission to pick up and hold each and every thing in my house that I have in order to determine whether or not it sparks joy. I am doing much the same thing in my office at school.

I have thrown out thousands of sheets of paper, gifted hundreds of books and clothing items, and placed myriad things into binders, envelopes, boxes, drawers, suitcases, and bags.

Naturally, some revelations have occurred to me as I have undertaken this challenge. Because no matter where it happens, school is always in session… I am learning while I am packing.

  1. I hold on to things. Old photo id cards, letters, books, scarves, hats. Papers I wrote in high school. Papers I wrote in college. Essays I wrote that never got published. Essays that did. Pins. Pens. Postcards. The sheer volume and relative pointlessness of the things I have held on to is stunning, embarrassing, and probably metaphorical.
  2. I have changed a lot since 2002, when I moved to Charlotte from New York. Pictures reveal a shifting face and body as I have raised two children and ushered hundreds of students through high school. My feet have grown a half a size. My hairline has receded what feels like half an inch.
  3. I have not changed much at all – not since 2002, maybe not since 1992. Based on the journals and other miscellany I have been sifting, the person I was when I graduated from high school is very much the person I am today. I am one who loves to read, write, think, talk, remember, exercise, travel, and eat. In that way I am completely ordinary.
  4. If there is one thing that always sparks joy in me, it is the moment when I see or create a connection. I hold on to things the way I do because those things are the tangible evidence of what can’t be held in my hands: ideas, hours, voices, love. The things that matter most.

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.

School’s Out for Summer (but not forever)

Although June 21 is the solstice, Friday June 3rd was the unofficial first day of summer for students at my school. Exams were all wrapped up on Thursday and before I even realized it, the quad had become a ghost town.

Students vacated swiftly and definitively, disappearing like dreams. The courtyard, usually bustling with the activities students do best — eating, sharing videos on their phones, talking about how much work they did and how much work was still left to do — was no more than a silent sweep of concrete and greenery.

The lockers, usually shut neatly, looked askew with their doors left hanging wide open. The library was so empty that when I walked through, I felt a kind of uneasy solitude and found myself calling out, “Anyone in here?” From the back, the voice of a student with a late exam replied in a distant, quiet voice. Outside, it was already nearly 90 degrees in the sun.

In the aftermath of their departure, many of us felt bereft, me included. Don’t get me wrong; we greeted each other with a sense of gratitude — it’s over! — but also resignation — it’s over. It’s not that we don’t want a break as much as our students do from the rigorous, sometimes unrelenting, pace of school life. We do. It’s just that without them, school feels so lonely and dull. The fun of preparing classes, schedules, lessons and assemblies is sharing them with students, hearing what they like and don’t like, thinking about things from their perspectives, realizing our blind spots and omissions, laughing about the things they thought we said that we don’t think we ever said.

The close of the school year is a longed for but bittersweet moment, a necessary interruption in a story that isn’t ever really finished. Learning takes a lifetime. And if the summer solstice comes early, it only means that the September equinox with students is that much closer.

Dynamo Girls

A few weeks ago, our younger daughter surprised us when she insisted that we do a “backyard birthday party.” We asked her what that meant, wondering whether she had in mind a throwback party from our own childhood birthday parties at home, before the age of parties at Sky High, Monkey Joes, and Sports Connection.

“Games,” she said. “Running around. But not with a counselor we don’t know. With you.”

Momentarily challenged, we quickly enlisted our older daughter and four of her friends to help us play games with eighteen second grade girls. It took some planning and some baking. There was basketball, corn hole, swinging on the swing set, cupcake wars, water balloon toss, and some epic rounds of freeze dance. Best of all turned out to be the simplest: donut on a string.

It was so much fun to watch these girls have fun. For 2.5 hours, it seemed that they never stopped moving or playing. They were loud. They were competitive. They laughed when they got out, got tagged, or missed a shot. They howled with glee when they threw water balloons at each other. They casually wiped away the powdered sugar that got all over their faces and the chocolate frosting that covered their hands, or left it there and didn’t care. It was beautiful and unruly all at the same time.

My friend Vanessa Bennett, founder of Dynamo Girl in New York, had a piece in the Huffington Post this week that really resonated for me. The first-person essay begins, “We are living in an age of girls’ empowerment. Every shampoo and tampon commercial tells us so — urging girls to be themselves, stand proud and redefine what it means to be a young woman. Around the country we espouse language that encourages girls’ efforts over results; risk-taking over complacency; speaking out over keeping quiet.” 

Vanessa is right about the soundtrack of youcandoanythingyouputyourmindorbodyto currently playing in girls’ lives. But what’s remarkable is seeing the origin of that soundtrack — it’s the girls themselves. They know these things intuitively and act accordingly.