Archive for the ‘Teachers and teaching’ Category

About ten years ago, I gave a talk to a group of teachers about the connection between home and school. I had been hired to tell stories, but instead wrote a series of letters back and forth between a mom and the teachers her kid meets along the way. It was an imagining of how teachers and parents might communicate, based on my own experiences as a parent and my work in schools. Over the years, I’ve read it in various workshops and people have always liked it.

Still, that was all I did with it. It’s my tendency to finish one project and just move on.

This past summer, Debbie (wife, president of our huge corporation(?), and now publisher) decided it needed to be a book and that we would do it ourselves. We sent it out to a variety of people – writers, educators, parents – for review and made some changes. Our longtime designer, Alison Tolman-Rogers, helped with the design of the book. I drew a rough of the cover illustration and she did the final artwork and design. We got some quotes from people we thought would like it, including George Wood, a first-rate principal and educator, and Amy Dickinson of “Ask Amy”, who worked with me years ago at NPR. Everyone liked it.

After a lot of research, we decided to publish initially with the self-publishing branch of Amazon. Debbie worked with them very closely, sending proofs back several times to make sure they got it right. Since then, we’ve found a printer that does a beautiful job at a better price, so we have our own copies from that printer, and Amazon sends out their copies if someone orders it from them. (more about, um, Amazon in another blog).

So now it’s out, and it feels like we’ve touched a nerve. It’s a small, simple book, and can be read in one sitting. There is an underlying philosophy, but it’s the story of the mom and the kid and the teachers that reaches people. We’re getting orders from principals who are buying it for their entire staffs, and I’ve been asked to speak at workshops and conferences about the book and how the relationship between home and school can be strengthened. Parents are buying it as Christmas presents for their kid’s teachers. I got an e-mail from a teacher friend who said before she wrote a note to the parent of a student in her class, she thought about the book and how to best approach the problem she faced.

I am not an expert on teacher-parent relationships, but instead, someone who has given thought to it and tried to find a way to talk about it. I seemed to have found a way for everyone to listen and talk to each other. My expertise, if I have one, is in imagining how things might be, and then getting people to tell stories. As I say in the book, it’s the decision to keep communicating that is the most important thing.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long” – it may take a long time for something to bear fruit. Some small thing I did a number of years ago has taken years to bear fruit, and I never would have dreamed it could still be alive.

And then, I should add, you can order it here.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I’ve been spending time lately looking at an amazing book my dad gave me, The Deep by Claire Nouvian, a photo essay about the creatures that live down there where no one goes (except, maybe and unfortunately, certain oil companies). The pictures, like the one above, are astounding, and Nouvian makes clear that we have only scratched the surface of the type of live that exists in that world. One can’t look at those pictures without thinking several things.

First, are there not certain similarities between the things deep underwater and those deep in space?

Second, it seems to me that Nature (with a capital “N”?) is really willing to try anything. A creature with seven eyes – let’s see. One lung? A mom who carries her unborn babies in her mouth? (Some frogs). Many of these experiments don’t work, or don’t work for long. (Hmmm – humans?) The restrictions on what kind of life is actually supportable for any length of time condemn many of them very quickly, but nature (small “n”?) seems to be shrugging its shoulders, unperturbed by its many failures and then saying, “Okay, what about this?”, and coming up with something even more bizarre. Every once in a while, one of them works – for a while.

In short, humans spend a lot of time asking “Why?” and the universe seems happy to ask “Why not?”

Good science begins in wonder. So does a good life, I think. So along with asking why, it’s a good idea just to walk around with your mouth open at the millions of bizarre things the universe offers up.

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If I were to design a test for the effectiveness of schools (and I won’t), one of the questions that everyone (teachers, students, administrators, staff) would have to answer would be, “How many people can you name?”. The more people everyone can name, the better the school.

Faceless and nameless doesn’t work in a learning environment, and when you read about the consolidation of schools to save money, you know it’s going the wrong way. The more people, the fewer of them you really know. When you know the people around you, and you feel part of a community, you care more about what happens.

There’s an editorial in the New York Times yesterday talking about the success of small schools in NYC. When large high schools were broken up to smaller theme-based schools, student performance went up (and not by some shaky test measurement, but by attendance and graduation rates).

Of course, this makes me think, “Well, duh”. It’s so obvious we shouldn’t have to say it. But it needs to be said. You can put all of this under the heading of “Things we know, but don’t pay attention to”.

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I know, I know, I know. It’s dark out there. The BP oil spread (not spill) is like an incubus sitting on our souls, reminding us of how dark things are and what we have wrought. Afghanistan. Iraq. Global warming. Corporate greed. And the clock is ticking. What chance do we have to turn this thing around?

And yet….and yet.

Like Dickens wrote “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…a time of great hope, a time of great despair.” When I pay attention, I’m constantly being reminded of the things that are happening that have never happened before. Good things, that show something might change in a way we can barely dream of. Here are three:

Zack Lieberman (son of my friend and fellow storyteller Syd Lieberman) has found a way to use computers to enable disabled folks and others to do things that seem impossible. Zack says he wants to replace DIY (do it yourself) with DIWO (do it with others). Here’s a video of him talking about his work:

My lifelong pal Dave Kidney told me about a young guy from Vermont (now in Troy, NY), Eben Bayer, who has figured out how to create insulation from leftover plant material (soybeanhusks, peanut shells, whatever) and mushrooms – no Styrofoam, just organic substance created on the site. He’s talking to Ford and other corporations about how to use it in their products. Talk about low impact – here he is talking about that.

Finally , in the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Stern reviews Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet and says that despite the dire situation, significant movement is being made towards humanity’s addressing global warming. The governments are moving, albeit slowly, and innovation, like that I mention above, will make a difference. We are being asked to do something together in a way humanity never has before. And people are trying – finding new ways to collaborate and develop.

So, today, I’m not wallowing in despair. Oh sure, tomorrow I’ll walk around with a cloud over my head. But hope is just as reasonable as despair.

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I’m working on the list of songs for a family folk song album I’ll be recording this summer and am thinking back to the songs I liked to sing when I was in elementary school. One that I loved was a version of “The Titanic” I learned from other kids on the school bus. They learned it at camp.

“Oh they built the ship Titanic
And when they were all through
They thought they had a ship
That the water wouldn’t go through
But the Lord’s almighty hand
Said the ship would never stand
It was sad when the great ship went down

It was sad (so sad)
It was sad (so sad)
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the…)
Husbands and wives
Little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down

And that’s just the start. It’s all downhill from there. There’s drinking (“the captain said, bring the whiskey from the hold!”) and class strife: “the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put ‘em down below, where they were sure to go”.

I loved this song – very singable (great descant on “husbands and wives” when it goes to the dominant chord). And the story was so compelling – completely fascinating for an eight or nine year old. The lesson of hubris taught in four or five verses – the horror of the headlines put to melody. When I read “A Night to Remember” a year or two later, I already knew the broad outlines of the story and got more out of the book.

But – does it go on the recording? I’d like to put it there – I know many kids would love it – and grown-ups too, for that matter. But is this family fare? It would be (and was) for my family. But lot of families probably don’t want death and destruction on a family album, and I understand that. The three year old is listening with the nine year old.

“Who died?” comes the little voice from the car seat in the back.

“No one you know,” says the dad. “It’s just a song.” Hoping that is enough.

“Why did the ship sink?” the voice continues.

“It hit an iceberg.”

“Are there icebergs here? How many people died? Did we know them?”

An insistent voice, because, well, death is compelling. Who wants to explain it all to a four year old? Especially when you’re tired at bedtime.

But I also know that putting these things in the context of a song presents them in a way that people can look at them. Children deal with mortality and hubris, loss and injustice all the time, and songs like “Titanic” give them a framework to begin to think those things through.

And who’s going to sing those songs if we don’t? Is it all rainbows and ponies?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I have to answer it in the next couple of weeks. At least for this recording.

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I got an e-mail from a friend that she is losing her position as school librarian – as a matter of fact, all the elementary school librarians in her district are losing their jobs. While the idiocy of this move astounds me, it really made me think of something else that happened to me a couple of months ago. What happened goes part of the way towards explaining why schools don’t have librarians.

I found myself sitting at a gate at Midway Airport in Chicago, waiting for the plane to board to Providence. Next to me was an older couple – I’m guessing late sixties. I struck up a conversation and asked if they were headed home.

No, said the man, they were just going to visit relatives. They used to live in the Rhode Island area.

“Where do you live now?” I asked

“South Dakota”, he answered.

“Wow,” I said. “South Dakota. How long have you lived there?”

“Three years,” he answered.

“You must have moved for family,” I guessed.

“No,” he harrumphed. “No family there.”

“Oh, “ I said, a little perplexed. “Why’d you move there? Work?”

“No, we retired there,” he said.

“Retired to South Dakota. Why?” I asked. No slam on South Dakota. I’ve been there a number of times and liked it, but it’s not your typical retirement spot.

“No taxes,” he said.

“You moved so you wouldn’t have to pay taxes?”

“Nothing compared to what we had to pay where we were. We were sick of paying taxes.”

His wife nodded. “We did the research and found the place where we would have to pay the least taxes. We live in the cheapest place in the country.”

“Do you still have family in Rhode Island?” I asked. I was trying to reorient to the whole notion of moving away from your home and community because you didn’t like the tax structure.

“We go to see her family,” the man nodded at his wife. “I don’t care if I go back.”

“You must live in a nice town, and made some friends,” I said.

“No,” the man said, “It’s a real small town – only a thousand. And we live outside of town and don’t really know anybody.”

“Do you see anybody?” I asked. This was all sounding kind of desperate. If they were in the federal witness protection program, I could understand it, but…

“Well,” the man said, “we brought her mother out with us. She’s ninety and lives in a nursing home about ten miles away.”

I was really trying to find something encouraging to say but it sounded like a nightmare to me. I was wondering how excited his mother-in-law was about leaving her family and home behind to move to South Dakota and live by herself in a nursing home. “That’s quite a change,” I said.

“We got a good sized house and we don’t have to pay property taxes. We don’t pay any taxes,” he said. She nodded.

“Oh,” I said.

“No taxes,” he said definitively. She nodded. They were both quite proud of the fact they had pulled this off.

I thanked them for their conversation, then got up and moved.

I suppose it is fine to try to pay less taxes, or at least not pay more than you have to. And I don’t want government to be wasteful (in my case, a few less bombers would be fine, thank you). And there may be more to their story than I was told – I know that people are strapped by the economy. But with that said, this attitude mystifies me. It seems that the refusal to pay taxes, and the decision to abandon a lifetime of community to avoid paying taxes, is put forth as a virtue. I didn’t get the impression that these folks absolutely couldn’t, but that they felt they shouldn’t have to pay taxes and they didn’t want to. The decision to balance government budgets by cutting programs because we won’t pay taxes is laid out in terms of acting responsibly. In my own town meeting I’ve heard it couched in terms of not passing a debt onto our children.

From another perspective though (and that would be mine), it just seems selfish. There is another debt we’re passing on when we don’t want to pay taxes anymore. As a result of our refusal to pay our share, and to show concern for others in our community, we cut the librarians, and let go of teachers. We do this under the guise of responsibility, but that’s not what it looks like to me. Libraries don’t really work without librarians. Schools don’t really work without libraries. Kids don’t learn well with thirty students in a class. And civilizations don’t really work without educated people.

Even in South Dakota.

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