Category Archives: WILTIS

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.

Commencement

Commencement: a beginning at the end. I recently gave this speech to the class of 2015. I wanted to reach all of the students and all of the adults in the room. I used stories to do so. 

BACCELAUREATE SPEECH TO THE  CLASS OF 2105 — with love from Ms. Flaxman

I want to begin by saying how honored I am to be today’s speaker.

When I was thinking about what to say today, I naturally thought about the individuals in the class of 2015 who have been my students, some of whom had the good or bad fortune to have had me for two or even three years in a row. You know who you are.

I thought about what made our time together so great, and I realized, as much as it was each of us and all of us together, it was the stories we read that made us such good friends. Stories were our subject, and the time we spent talking about them together brought us into a fuller understanding of their meaning and each other.

But then I thought some more, about those of you I never taught and stories we never read together – and realized that although I have not read a book with every member of this class, I have nevertheless been reading this class for four years. And believe me, reading any text for four straight years will yield deep understandings. Give it a try some time.

So today I wanted to share what I have learned from reading you – the class of 2015. To help me in that process, I asked you to tell me a little bit about your favorite books because I believe that one of the best ways to read and understand other people is to know what they like to read. And your responses to my survey affirmed what I thought might be true: the books you love most say a lot about who you are and what you value.

Now, listen closely. You’ll like it! It’s a story about you.

The first chapter is about your early childhoods and Lower School. It’s titled, “Tell me a Story”

Remember the days when you begged your parents to read to you? When bedtime was synonymous with story time, and a good day had stories threaded throughout, not just at the end, before the light was turned off?

You had a lot of favorite books when you were little. One of your favorite books was Goodnight Moon. This is a very simple story about a bunny going to bed, a quiet old lady whispering hush, and an omniscient narrator saying goodnight to everything — the moon, a bowl of mush, the red balloon. This lucky little bunny is so loved and so safe.

Another of your early favorites was The Kissing Hand. Chester, a raccoon, has to venture out into the world at night in order to go to school. But he really doesn’t want to leave his mom. So they come up with a way for him to feel like she is with him even when he’s not at home. She can kiss his palm before he leaves, and later, at school, he can put the palm of his hand to his face and feel her kiss on his cheek. The Kissing Hand is a sweet story with strong lessons: there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Some bonds can never be broken.

You loved The Giving Tree, about a child who is nurtured throughout his life by a tree that gives and gives and gives, no matter what the boy does. And of course you loved Where the Wild Things Are, about a naughty boy named Max who gets put in time out and goes to a really strange place where wild beasts dance and rumpus and get jealous and cry when the boy returns home, where his dinner, still warm, is waiting for him.

The stories you loved when you were little are stories about family, safety, home, and clearly delineated boundaries. While hearing them over and over, your values were laid down like brickwork before you even knew it – your appreciation for your family, your desire to venture out into the world, your need to know that you can always come home.

Chapter 2 of your story is titled, “You will NOT believe this story!” It’s about your early adolescence.

The next chapter in your story is full of wizardry, magic, and heroes. That’s funny, if you think about it, because you loved these books exactly when you felt the least magical or heroic. That’s right: MIDDLE SCHOOL. The years of wild mood swings that only your parents can really remember, if they dare. You have a vague sense now of how awful it was then, but you really don’t remember how completely insane you could be. But the people in this room remember well how a perfectly good day could be utterly ruined by a sideways glance from a friend or a hair out of place on your head.

In middle school, you loved The Lightning Thief and the story of Percy Jackson, a boy with superpowers inherited from his father, the God Poseidon. At a time in your lives when you often felt powerless over your own reflection in the mirror, the story of brave Percy and his friends taking on the real and supernatural worlds captivated you and gave you hope that you, too, might do extraordinary things, despite feeling so very ordinary.

But as much as you loved Percy Jackson, he couldn’t hold a candle to your first and forever love, Harry. Harry Potter, born to not one but two wizards who died while trying to save him, never quits, always has fun, and has more than nine lives.

Harry is the master of the humblebrag. He’s the best at everything, but it never goes to his head. And he’s got the good sense to know exactly who his real friends are – he never ditches Ron or Hermione for the new kid with the cool sneakers. School is his haven, his place of safety, the antidote to the loveless home he lives in with the Dursleys who hate and fear him. Dumbledore, Hagrid, and Professor McGonagall are his surrogate parents, proving that if we know what we need and seek it out in the world, we can always find a place where we belong.

Harry will always be in your hearts, and a part of you will always wish you had his powers – although at this stage of your life, you would perhaps be more satisfied with his friendship. But toward the end of middle school, you started to love books with more subtle magic and less obvious heroism.

In The Giver, you entered a world of too much safety, a world without color. In To Kill a Mockingbird, you entered a world where ideas about color were extreme. You were old enough to know about American history and the legacy of Jim Crow. You saw the events in Macomb through young Scout’s eyes. You saw the ugliness and injustice, and saw the way a quiet hero, Atticus Finch, stood up for what was and always is the right thing to do.

You saw that without the aid of a wand or a potion, individuals can and do bring about magic in the real world, and this was perhaps your most favorite story, and probably still is.

The third chapter is about your time with us in high school. It’s titled, “Listen to my story” 

To Kill a Mockingbird was the book that brought you into a more adult perspective on the world and yourselves. In some ways, it was the path carrying you from middle to upper school, where you would be asked over and over again, by me and others, to tell your own story and tell it well. Beginning in ninth grade, you sharpened the pencils you’d later use to write your college essays. You began to compile the pages of your portfolios. You tried out different voices to see which one sounded the most like you.

At around this time, your favorite book was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. You loved it because even though the story is sad, it was real to you, and you bravely confronted some of the challenges that Hazel and Augustus faced in having cancer.

The same thing happened for you when you read The Glass Castle, about a dysfunctional family moving in and out of homelessness. You sympathized with Rex, the alcoholic father with the magnetic personality, and his wife, the mentally unstable painter who hoarded food from her own children. You felt for each of the kids, stuck in this family but also lucky to have it, and you felt for yourselves, stuck in your lives and just as lucky.

No book dovetailed so nicely with your high school years, however, than The Great Gatsby. The parties, the secrets, the arrogance, the lies. Myrtle Wilson with the broken nose. James Gatz in the rowboat making his way to Dan Cody’s yacht, rowing his way to a different and more interesting life. Daisy’s voice full of money. Bad drivers and foul dust, and boats against the current borne ceaselessly into the past. It was all so beautiful and fun and sad, just like the 1920s themselves and Fitzgerald’s own life with Zelda and the other celebrities of the lost generation.

This most recent chapter in your story was full of dreams, resilience, and an ever- sharpening sense of identity. It was the chapter in which you yourselves were resilient, spoke with clarity about who you were, wrote and talked about your dreams, and saw many of them come true.

Over the course of your lives in and out of school, you have moved from children at home to adults at home in the world. And in less than a week, you will graduate from here, and the next chapter will begin. No one knows what events, people, or places will fill those pages. It’s exciting. And it’s a little scary.

In response to one of my survey questions, one of you mentioned the book The Opposite of Loneliness, which I hadn’t read, so I got a copy and read it. I’m glad I did.

The book contains essays and stories written by a young woman of tremendous promise named Marina Keegan. Her professor put the book together after Marina died tragically in a car accident on a stretch of highway on Cape Cod when she was 23 years old, on her way to visit her parents. I have driven up and down the very same road countless times on my way to my parents’ house.

The book gets its title from a commencement speech that Marina gave at Yale, in which she talked about her fears of leaving a place she knew well. Of leaving the people she loved so much. She said:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow after Commencement and leave this place. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. More than finding the right job or city or spouse, I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.”

I love this idea of “the opposite of loneliness” because it summarizes exactly what we have all been part of during your time here. We’ve been reading books and we’ve been writing stories.  You and I and your other teachers and mentors have been talking, watching, reading, writing together, and although we’ve each probably felt lonely at one point or another, we have never been alone. We have created a beautiful web. 

As you go forward to write your next chapters, take a page from the books you have loved and that have shaped you.

Be kind. Be quiet. Be loud. Tell people you love them. Be creative. Be brave. Be loyal. Think big. Say yes. Say no. Remember that it’s the little things that always make a huge difference. Admit when you don’t know. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable.

Live every day – not as if it were your last, but as if it were the single day upon which you would be judged by your reader.

And don’t let this be the end of the story. Keep in touch with each other and with us. And get out there and do amazing things that you can tell great stories about.

Centered on the Wheel

This week in school, I watched an art teacher give a demo lesson in ceramics. She took a block of wet clay, threw it down in the middle of the wheel she was sitting at, and told students how difficult and important it is to center the clay.

As she spoke and the wheel turned quickly, the lump of clay sprang to life, shifting from square to round to tall and oval. “Things move fastest when centering,” the teacher explained. That made sense and we could see it unfold before our eyes. There was a quickening of elements in the beginning and then a falling off of intensity as the clay appeared to take shape and open up.

The lump of clay began to become something recognizable to all of us watching, something real – a bowl, a vase, a vessel. But the lesson was not done. “Without centering it right at the start, you get a wonky mess,” the teacher explained as she illustrated exactly what happens when the clay loses center. The previously exquisite almost-bowl was becoming a lopsided affront. With a deft flick of her wrists, she then moved the clay back to center, and it resumed its shape.

I felt a relief seeing the bowl resume and even improve upon its former state of being. Her demonstration complete, she lifted her hands from the clay as the wheel continued to spin and reflected, “This worked out, but sometimes, you have no choice but to start all over again.”

The Truth About Fiction

I watch Mad Men the way I read. I scour Don’s interactions and facial expressions for meaning, trace motifs strung like pearls along episodes, pore over images like prim and proper Betty shooting birds in her backyard.

The theme song repeats in my head long after the show closes, and the graphic of Don falling in perpetuity gets under my skin every time. I want him to stop falling. I don’t care if he lands and lives or crashes and burns. But at the same time, I don’t want the show to end.

Good serial television, like Serial the podcast and 19th century serial novels, casts a spell that is hard to shake. It distracts, delights, disturbs. Last night I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t decide whether or not this season’s new character Diane, a waitress with as angular a face as Don’s and as little compassion, is a figment of Don’s imagination or a reality. Every scene involving her feels like a scene out of The Sixth Sense.

Analyze as I will, I know that there is no right answer. Moreover, I know that it doesn’t actually matter if she exists or not. Don doesn’t exist either.

But we do. When we read fiction in any form, although we can never know things absolutely, we nevertheless experience truths. As Heidi Julavits writes in The Folded Clock, “Readers… experience real feelings as a result of fiction.”

Words, words, words

In a recent article in Education Gadfly, Robert Pondiscio wrote that “to grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery … when it comes to vocabulary, size matters.” I couldn’t agree more. A diverse and broad vocabulary is more than handy, more than a way to earn a high score on a standardized test. It’s powerful.

I’m teaching seniors this semester, some of whom love English class and others who may not take another English class after graduating high school, and I can accept that – seniors are basically adults without some of the privileges of adulthood. Still, I want to make their time with me and with books as enjoyable as I possibly can, whether I’m their last English teacher or one of many. One of the ways I try to do that is to give them the gift of more words. They don’t always see my emphasis on vocabulary quite the same way.

I thought about this recently while we discussed the character Syme in George Orwell’s 1984. Syme delights in his work on the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, cutting the English language down to size in order to diminish the power of any individual to speak, write, or formulate thoughts not approved by the Party. The class consensus was that Syme was essentially a criminal, one who commit acts of violence against words as well as people.

But when it came time for us to turn from the text to learning new words, there was less obvious agreement in the room. Frowsy, gambol, claptrap? These seemingly useless words struck few in the room as gifts or keys to autonomy or power.

But they are. And I am hopeful – and confident – that most of my students will see that, now or later.

French Lessons

In my class on Dystopian Literature, we talk a lot about what I call “hallmarks of dystopia” — those aspects of an imagined society that make the individual citizen’s life feel proscribed and unfree. If Utopia is an imagined place where all is right in the world (for the one who dreams it, anyway), dystopia is its direct opposite, and comes in many forms.

In 1984, possibly the most influential dystopian novel yet written, the intrusion of the Party on people’s thoughts far surpasses any of the other nightmarish aspects of a life of deprivation. It’s worse than the miserable lack of diversity Winston Smith experiences in what he consumes, worse than the loneliness he endures.

As in other dystopias, individuals in 1984 have no freedom of written expression and no right to free speech, but beyond that, they have no freedom of thought. I was thinking about this as I read about the violence in France this week, where those at Charlie Hebdo were targeted for attaching their names to their viewpoints, controversial as they were in some cases.

Although Paris has been a place of political unrest and violence over the centuries, for me it has always been a place of beauty, a refuge, a place of dreams — a utopia of sorts. The attacks in Paris are a reminder of so many things — most of them terrible, scary, and sad — but they are also a reminder of the power of our thoughts and words.