Terms: (n) words or phrases used to describe something or to express a concept, especially in a particular language or branch of study; expressions, idioms, names, titles, labels, designations, appellations, monikers, descriptors
(n) fixed or limited periods for which something lasts or is intended to last; time, stint, spell, duration, run
(n) periods in the year, alternating with holidays or vacations, during which instruction is given in a school, college, or university, or during which a court holds sessions; semester
(n) stipulated conditions or requirements under which an action may be taken or agreement reached, as, “come to terms”
All I had to say was, “Remember when we didn’t do our words?” The first graders, still drunk on fresh air and playground mayhem, would sober up instantly. That memory would live forever in six-year-old infamy.
On that day of reckoning, they had arrived spoiling for a fight. When I collected them for Lab, I always picked them up on the playground, sometimes literally, like when Espe was chasing a boy through the climbing towers and launched herself from the final platform, crashing into me as she tried to land and turn simultaneously.
They squirmed and spun and jumped down the hall. Maybe they were late getting out to recess. That happened frequently. Or maybe this day, discord waited, inevitable; maybe the unseen stars burned in their galaxies, poorly aligned.
“I don’t want…to do…words,” Espe slowly intoned, stretching disinterestedly in her chair.
“Yeah! Can’t we just read now?” Angus asked plaintively.
“Yes, yes,” Sunny nodded eagerly.
How to read without words. I typically reviewed a few terms in their next book before handing it to them. New vocabulary can be tricky, and downright frustrating – so frustrating that some kids will just throw the book down in defeat. The program’s vocab support step was supposed to ease that aggravation.
“You want to read first, or do words first?”
“READ!” all three voices chimed.
“All right – here you go….” I passed out the tiny picture books with one line of repetitive text per page.
Then I sat back and watched.
They immediately flipped the covers open and dug in. Dug in hard. Lips didn’t just move – words were whispered, harshly, becoming louder as they tried to talk through each unexpected road block. It reminded me of people talking loudly to new English speakers, as if volume were the obstacle.
The boggy ground under our tiny Battle of See-Bull-Run was littered with discarded words. All three digressed into swampy territory until, mired and exasperated, they began calling for help.
“What’s THAT word?”
“I don’t know this one….”
“Ms. Barbara, I can’t read it!”
I helped them laboriously sound out words and fed them the beginnings of answers. Reading took twice as long as usual, and their brains were more than twice as muddy from the relentless effort. We didn’t have any time to write or color. They’d been routed from the field, and I dropped them off to their classroom exhausted.
We forget how much work children do each day at school, how much of life they have not yet experienced and for which they have no words. My grandma, home on the farm, saw her own children’s curiosity and tenacity tested and strengthened daily. She wrote sweet poetry about her days with them, noticing their engagement with the world.
“Mother, won’t you come and see?”
Says the toddler with much glee
As he tugs at my finger and I go along,
Wondering at his hurry. What could be wrong?
Then he drops to his knees at the edge of the grass
And watches with rapture as a worm crawls past.
— from “Mother Won’t You Come and See,” Florence Jensen, 1979
How much these first graders would have preferred to learn from watching that worm’s battle through long grass, instead of hacking through their underbrush of unknown vocabulary.
The next day, I’d held one copy of that same book in front of them. They all moaned.
“Yesterday, I was planning to tell you some of the tricky words in this book, before you started reading. Who can tell me: why do we look at the words before we start?”
Hands shot into the air.
“So we will know how to say them.”
“Yes. And? Espe.”
“So we can read our book easier.”
“Perfect.” I looked to my left. “Angus?”
Angus scowled. “I can’t read it.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “I can’t read.”
“You got stuck on that one word, over and over, didn’t you,” I clarified, nodding.
“It’s not fair! I don’t know that word!”
I looked at him, waited a beat, and smiled broadly. “Exactly right, Angus!”
His surprised face followed me as I turned to the other two. “You’re all right.” I held up the offending book again. “Yesterday, I was going to show you that this word – “ and I opened the book and pointed – “is ‘smooth.’ And this one – “ I turned the page – “is ‘rough.’
“And this one, Angus,” and here I turned the open book to him, so he could face his nemesis. “This is the one that wasn’t fair, huh. This one.” I tapped the horrid word. He nodded miserably. Then I showed it to the girls.
“Jill.” We all nodded solemnly together.
“A person’s name, Jill. And you’re right, Angus – you’ve never seen that name before, have you? So you wouldn’t know that word.”
I sat up taller, showing them how we steel our resolve toward mastery over all the Jills of this world. “So – since that’s not fair,” and I made sure I had eye contact with each one, “THAT’S why I show you the tricky words each day. To make it fair.”
I held up yesterday’s book. “Should I put this one away now?”
“YES!” They hated Jill for how she’d made them feel and never wanted to see her again. I unceremoniously dropped it into a book bin.
“So today, I have a new book: A Surprise. I wonder what the surprise could be? Before you start, let’s look at some of the words you will read.”
Negotiating at our tiny treaty table, three little heads bobbed and nodded, leaning forward, ready for their vocabulary review.
Gladiator: (n) in ancient Rome, a man trained to fight with weapons against other men or wild animals in an arena
Violet nibbled her goldfish crackers with long, slender fingers, trying to follow along in her book, while Javier periodically whacked Alejandro on the head. Supposedly friends, Javier struggled to allow Alejandro to read to the group, drumming on the table, drumming on Alejandro’s arm, and talking over his reading.
“Javier.” I’d tried tapping his book to divert his attention. I’d tried shaking my head, putting a finger to my lips, redirecting attention toward Alejandro, giving looks. I’d asked him to “make a different choice,” which he had ignored.
“Hands – to – yourself.”
He only escalated. He talked louder. Then he began singing – until, confused, Alejandro stopped reading, looking up at Javier dancing and singing in our tiny cubicle and wanting to smile and join in…but he wasn’t feeling it.
“Javier – if you can’t be respectful in Lab, I’ll have to talk with your teacher about whether or not you can be here with us.”
He ignored me. Alejandro looked back and forth between us, holding his open book with both hands.
“Javier, I need you to stop, or we’re done.”
“Okay – we’re done. Pack up, guys.”
“What? Lab is done?” Violet was incredulous.
“I can’t teach this way. Let’s go.” I stood up, waiting for them to join me. “Alejandro, I’m sorry, I wanted to hear you read. Next time.”
After reassurance, Violet hurried off to her playground mediation job with the younger kids at recess. Javier had bolted back to class, so I walked slowly with Alejandro. “You just keep focusing on what you need to do, for yourself, for your own reading. You’re doing great; keep it up.”
He looked up at me long enough to ask his deepest concern: “Will we still get stickers?”
“Of course. You remind me. We’ll put them on your treasure maps tomorrow.”
Stickers. I’d heard Alejandro liked to act the bruiser himself, posturing at lunch and recess, talking tough. I hadn’t seen it yet, and hoped he would decide to be his own man and not just follow bad behavior down a long, dark tunnel. I doubted I could bandaid this child’s fragile self-esteem with stickers for long.
Oh, Javier. How to discipline a child who refuses to recognize any authority? How to connect with a child who pretends he doesn’t care about anything?
At lunch duty, I meandered through the lunchroom nodding at kids who wanted to go get their milk, or a drink of water, or just go to the bathroom. But in my mind’s eye, I was looking in a mirror, back 45 years, to a kid who scoffed at adults in “authority” – because what had authority ever done for me? It hadn’t kept me safe, hadn’t heard my cries for help, and hadn’t been remotely smart enough to pick up what I was laying down as clearly as a kid can and still survive the horrible experiences that some kids go through.
I thought about Javier’s Lab dance, superimposing him into the movie “Gladiator” and hearing him as Russell Crowe’s character Maximus bellowing, “Are you not ENTERTAINED?!”
The lunchroom floor was sticky with trails and splashes of red juice from canned strawberries.
I let myself imagine the Roman Coliseum, the roaring, incoherent crowd, the dirt arena fouled with all manner of body fluids and gore, the hot sun beating down on fighters soaked in sweat and blood and fear – and rage.
I walked over to a little girl with her hand raised who asked if she could clean up and put away her tray now. I didn’t know her name. So many of them were still anonymous to me. I let myself remember being an unheard child. I had felt unknown. I pushed my memory to rekindle the horror and fury of hopelessness, a fury that fueled unnatural strength and fearlessness. I didn’t care what anyone said to me, did to me. I raged like a fire, and burned everyone around me. I didn’t care if I burned your world to the ground.
For the first lunch, I had devised a plan with the other para’s – divide and conquer. Three teachers’ classes, second and third graders, all ate together, piling onto the tables not taken by the ECE preschoolers. The chaotic scene was only somewhat improved since Miranda’s last lunch duty. I had talked each of the para’s into taking a class, once finished with lunch, herding them to a different corner of the lunchroom to line up and wait for their teacher.
I could see the para’s struggling to maintain focus on dividing the kids into manageable groups. Other children called for attention, whether by throwing food at each other or pushing each other or wanting to read a joke to them from the side of their small milk carton. Yet each week, a faint but strengthening core of ordered expectation was growing as the kids started to remember our new drill.
I stationed myself near the doors, calling out the class names and directing traffic toward the corners with my extended arms. “Ms. Rachel’s class,” I motioned, “Ms. Holly’s class,” the other side, “and Ms. Lauren’s class.” The final corner. “Ms, Rachel’s class, Ms. Holly’s class, and Ms. Lauren’s class.” Over and over, I moved slowly like a windmill, slowly grinding the rebellion out of the room as we split their ranks and gained control. Then one by one, the teachers appeared and led their classes from the food fight arena.
We like the kids with spunk. Spunk is rebellion made palatable to the masses. We enjoy their sweet-edged naughtiness, their self-limited pushback, the way they’re ultimately seeking a balance between autonomy and approval. We like them in the school arena because we know that these little gladiators are going to ultimately fall when pressed with the swordpoint of authority. Spunky kids are easy, pleasers in pretend armor who help us believe we aren’t destroying their spirits by teaching them to behave.
“Get in line,” I heard myself saying with no small degree of disbelief at the end of second lunch. “If you can get in line, I can dismiss you for recess.” If you will just fall into line, I can allow you to go release your frustrations and pent-up energy. But only for a very limited amount of time. And only in school-sanctioned forms of play. Which you need to accept without giving any of us any attitude.
Javier was ready to read at the end of the day when I stopped by his classroom. We walked down the hall together.
“We need to talk for a minute about how Lab went today. I want to understand how you were feeling, what you were thinking.” I looked at him and just waited.
“I didn’t want to read that easy book.”
“Yes, I got that.” I looked at him a second. “What were you feeling?”
Javier concentrated hard on this one, before saying very openly, “I don’t know. I didn’t want to read the book, but…I don’t know what I was feeling.”
Just then, a girl he knew saw us heading toward the Lab. “Javier, do you go to Literacy Lab?” she scoffed.
“Yes you do! You go to Literacy Fellows!”
“No I don’t!”
We sat in our cozy seats for our reading time. Javier shook his hair back, as if trying to settle his mind.
“Do you think,” I asked tentatively, “that you might have been feeling…embarrassed?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” He looked around. A couple kids I didn’t recognize walked by in the hall. “No, I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t anything.”
“That’s fair.” He flapped his book back and forth against the chair. “Javier, have you ever heard the term, ‘pick your battles’?”
And so at the end of the day, we talked about what you would fight and die for, and what you really would not, and how to start recognizing the difference. That there is a difference. That you don’t have to come out like a gladiator, fighting to the death, every time.
And then we read “I Survived Pompeii,” totally relaxed, reading about impending disaster side by side in our cozy reading chairs.
Collaborate: (v) the act of working together with someone to produce or create something,
band (together), concert, concur, conjoin, conspire, join, league, team (up), unite
(v) traitorously cooperate with an enemy
Harrison was in a great mood as we approached Thanksgiving break. As his group colored their drawing pages, he announced, “I’m going to be…uh,” and then a wide grin, “the first person to WANT! to go INTO A BLACK HOLE!”
Marker poised at the white board, I clarified, “So you want to be an astronaut?”
“No; a teacher.”
BA-DUM-CHING! You could almost hear the vaudevillian drum and cymbal. Speaking truth, Harrison, I thought.
“My first day of teaching, I will have long hair, and I’m going to wear a dress.” When Harrison made his most provocative comments, he switched from roaring like a crowd of one into a voice of utmost affectation, best spoken wearing an ascot and a velvet dinner jacket. Or long hair and a dress.
“Cool,” I added. Teacher, I wrote on the board.
“I know how to spell it.”
“I’m gonna have a flower shop. And I’m gonna wear a flowered shirt, and my nametag will be shaped like a flower, and it will have my name, Poppy, right on it – because my name’s a flower!” Poppy had it all figured out. She was busy drawing the details of her life.
“How did you get a name Poppy? For being a flower-seller? Is that a Mexican name?” Hailey asked, genuinely amazed that her lab pal had a name that bespoke destiny.
“I’mpuertorican,” said Poppy, as fast as a human tongue can rattle off its proud credentials. She bore Hailey no irritation or ill-will at what must have been continual correction of others’ assumptions.
“Is that by Costa Rica?” Hailey asked.
“Not really,” Poppy said, reaching for her next colored pencil.
I had made them coloring pages for this last day before the holiday. “I Can Be A _____” followed by the deliberate intention, “when I go to COLLEGE!” They had three drawing boxes: yourself now, yourself as an adult doing what you want for a career, and then an image of what you think college will look like.
This project wasn’t fully my idea. The tutoring program was quite a Fellowship of the College Ring. We were charged with promoting the idea and expectation that these students would go on to college. My job was to normalize that forward course.
The pragmatist in me knew the kids needed college if they wanted to ever leave financial desperation behind. And I knew they wouldn’t all make it.
I also knew that most American colleges offered a standard bullet list of unsurprising core curriculum designed to offer a general educational foundation – what we used to call “high school.” They’d get maybe a year’s worth of specialized courses specific to their chosen major. If they actually wanted an education, they had to shoot for that elusive fit of interest and program and school and financial aid and location and personal support – the Holy Grail of Higher Ed. I felt like a fraud, a liar, and a traitor.
When my own kids graduated from college, each hit a wall. The adrenaline rush of four years was over, the campus living was over, and after the parties came the looming, depressingly rhetorical question: that’s it?
They’d expected more. Because I’d lied to them.
I told them college was their ticket to a better life, better than the scrimping working-class poverty in which I’d raised them. I told them college would be better than high school, that they’d get to study what they actually cared about, that their education would finally be personal to their dreams and life goals. I told them it would all be worth it.
That isn’t exactly what happened.
At the expensive private college on the East Coast, my daughter was harassed by a professor who thought she was some little rich girl sleeping off a night of partying when she fell asleep in class after working her two jobs the night before. At the small state college back home, her sister struggled with her hostile major professor enough to question her choices and dread each semester. My son cycled through three different universities, looking for anyone who might actually care that he attended, that a significant other had attempted suicide before either of them was 20, that he was paying his own way and working hard and just needed someone to walk him through getting an extension on a project due to being completely freaked out and overwhelmed by that experience.
These were honor students in high school. My daughters earned merit scholarships. It should have been so easy for them all, considering they were all labeled “gifted and talented.”
So had I. I had been all those things. And it didn’t stop me from dropping out in the middle of my first semester of college, full-ride scholarship be damned. No one cared when I pulled out of the University Honors Program and my double majors. No one cared when I let go of all that scholarship money. No one questioned me or counseled me or slowed me as I broke and ran.
No one cared.
I’ve wondered if maybe someone at a smaller school, or a private school, might have cared. But my daughters’ experiences make me doubt that. My son’s experience makes me pretty sure.
If you’re smart and say what you think, especially when you disagree or want something better, you risk alienating people in power. If you are personally overwhelmed in college, you’re seen as unstable instead of being seen for what you really are: young.
All of our educational woes were due to being young. Why be part of the American educational system if you do not have understanding for or compassion for or any interest in supporting and encouraging young people? Thousands of jobs exist that pay better and need smart, cynical people to make hard-edged decisions. Please – go get one. Because our children and budding adults deserve so much more than cold comfort. I deserved better than that. My children did, too.
And now, this generation of sweet grade schoolers were supposed to be looking to college as the answer. “When I go to college, I want to be a…animal saver! What’s that word?” Hailey asked.
“A veterinarian? An animal doctor? Or do you want to save them like save endangered species?”
“Like save endangered species…do they go save rhinos and monkeys?”
“Yeah, so that would be a wildlife biologist…a zoologist….” Hailey gave me an awesome squinty face of absolute disapproval. “No?”
“No, not those.”
“Do you just want me to spell ‘animal saver’?”
So Hailey wrote, “I want to be a animal saver when I go to college.” You tell ‘em, Hailey.
Before we left for the holiday, the staff had professional development training about how to use a certain online curriculum, plus a discussion about how to refer kids for additional support services in hopes of staving off a referral to special ed. The Literacy Fellows were instructed to attend the referral portion, which meant we sat in on the ice breakers and team-building activities.
“Does anybody have a Shout Out?” the administrator asked. Teachers offered praise and appreciation to the pera’s and to teammates who had been particularly helpful. We Fellows applauded along with the rest, even though we didn’t really know most of the staff being named.
Then Commanding Teacher spoke up. “I’d like to recognize Ms. Barbara for ‘Collaboration.’ I have a student with some trust issues, and even before she began taking literacy groups, she started building a relationship with that student. It’s been working.”
Everyone applauded as the administrator brought me a long thin red pin for my ID lanyard. I didn’t know what to say, shocked that my efforts had even mattered, let alone been noticed, or, unbelievably, valued. I attached the pin and looked down: “COLLABORATION.”
A few minutes later, as I grabbed a drink from the snack table, two other teachers who sent kids to me for Lab waved me over. “We were just saying – you’re doing such a great job with our students.”
“Yeah – we’re so glad you’re here.”
It all felt so strange. I did not expect to be included. I did not expect to be welcomed into the camaraderie of those brothers and sisters in arms. Walking past watercolor turkeys on brown paper lining the halls, I felt thankful for the unexpected opportunity that had come my way, to step back into the educational system that I had railed against my entire life. I admitted to myself that I was thankful my children went to college; they’d never been unable to get a job. In fact, the East Coaster got that editorial gig in publishing, just like she’d hoped. The mountain college daughter is getting a second bachelor’s now, heading into medicine. And the son who reeled from college to college – he’s the one going to law school.
The thing about college is not just the college degree – it’s crossing that threshold. It may be a lackluster, mediocre educational system; but now by god it’s your lackluster, mediocre educational system. It’s yours to return to any time you’d like, because now you have access. That’s how you actually work the system. You learn the system.
And like we were taught in our middling, unremarkable, undistinguished American public schools, once you learn the system – work the problem.
Joey: (n) a young kangaroo or other marsupial; a baby or young child
“What’s that for?” asked Angus, a freckled first-grader with a shock of strawberry blond hair cut into a fade-hawk, meaning he sported military sidewalls and a thick central mane of untameable thatch. Stripes had been shaved in above his temples.
“That’s Joey,” I answered, reaching for the pumpkin-orange stuffed animal perched on the low filing cabinet in the corner of my cubicle. “He’s a kangaroo, from Australia. He came all that way to be our Lab buddy.”
“Can I hold him?” Angus asked tentatively.
“Sure,” I said, handing him the toy kangaroo. Angus gave Joey a gentle hug, his eyes filling with worry.
“Sometimes, I get mad…and I hurt people,” Angus confessed quietly.
I gave him a sympathetic expression, saying nothing.
Sunny added, “Angus sometimes needs his book.” She nodded knowledgeably.
Esperanza chimed in, her low, monotone voice like an upbeat Eeyore perfectly pitched to explain, “It helps him calm down.” Angus looked appreciatively at his classmates.
“Just like Joey,” I said, smiling at Angus. “He sits here, by our ‘Better Choices’ compass. Do you remember what we will use that for?”
Angus shook his head slowly. “Nuh-uh.”
“If you are having a wiggly day, or a mad day, I might ask you to make a better choice, like write your words, or sit straight and strong. And Joey – “ I touched the top of the kangaroo’s head – “can help you make your choice.”
“Can we just hold him sometimes?” Espe asked.
“Of course. Joey likes hugs.”
“Can I hold him?” Sunny asked. Angus handed over the toy. Sunny gave him a squeeze.
“Can I hold Joey?” Espe asked. Sunny handed him to Espe. She smiled at him, cradling him on her lap and holding his soft paws in her fingers. Then she handed him back to Angus, who stood and carried him to the filing cabinet and set him on top.
I had been inspired by a teacher from my own children’s grade school days. In her room, she had a cuddle couch filled with stuffed animals and soft pillows. “Because some days are hard,” she had explained. This forgiving space existed in the Gifted and Talented class’s room. The teacher had been well-versed in the needs of “gifted” students, including comfort for an emotional immaturity that often lagged well behind their intellectual maturity.
It seemed to me that many children carried emotional burdens far too mature for their age. All kids want to do is fit in, be one of the pack. But that’s harder for some than for others.
My heart has always held a special place for the outsiders. Oddballs. Misfits. Angus was certainly one of these. Wherever his anger came from, gifts or curses, I, too, knew that big feeling in such a small body; it was scary, overwhelming.
“If you have a hard day, and I ask you to make a better choice, are you in trouble?” I asked the group now. Angus looked at his classmates, who immediately answered, “Nooo,” so he joined in.
“Right. We have our compass to help you make a new choice. And we have Joey.” I smiled at them. “And I’ll help you, too.”
Suddenly, Angus leaped to his feet and burst out, “You’re the nicest teacher I ever had! Can I give you a hug?!”
I opened my arms, and immediately my tiny doppelganger with his terrible haircut was holding on for dear life, clutching me around the waist and burying his small head under my ribs. I felt him in my gut, the hug and his feelings. As I looked down, he looked up. “Thanks,” he smiled. Then he sat down in his chair, and we had our lesson.
Next came the fourth and fifth graders. I predicted Violet, Alejandro, and Javier might roll their eyes and ask why we had a baby toy in our space.
“Oh, what’s that?” Violet asked, delighted.
“It’s like a stuffed rabbit,” Alejandro explained.
“That’s not a rabbit – it’s a kangaroo,” Javier corrected.
“Exactly right, Javier,” I said. “His name is Joey.”
“Can I hold Jonny?” Violet asked.
“Joey,” Alejandro and Javier both said.
“Can I hold him?”
I handed the toy to Violet, who seemed quite pleased with the little orange kangaroo. She hugged him with genuine affection and patted his paws together, then handed him back to me as we prepared to start our lesson.
“Where’d he come from?” Javier asked.
“Australia,” I answered.
He rolled his head in feigned exasperation. “No, really?”
“Sometimes, it can be frustrating to work so hard on reading and writing. It’s not always easy….”
“I think it’s easy,” said Javier.
“I think it’s easy,” said Alejandro, mimicking Javier’s exact tone.
Violet didn’t say anything.
“So – if you start to feel sad, or frustrated, or you need to make a better choice while you’re here,” I looked around at them all, “then you can hug Joey if you want. It makes some people feel better.”
We started our reading lesson. Alejandro, who read well below Javier’s level, copied Javier’s hurried whisper and quick page turns. He looked over at Javier constantly, as if they were in a competition. But at some point, he forgot to compete, and started reading the text by mistake. He turned pages more and more slowly. He continued reading after Javier had finished and was pestering Violet, who read even slower.
“Respect,” I admonished Javier. “Let people read at their own pace.”
Alejandro looked their way briefly, then looked toward the corner, and finally at me. “Can I hold Joey?” he asked softly. I nodded. In a couple quick steps he had retrieved the stuffed kangaroo and was back in his seat, finishing his book, holding Joey gently in the crook of one arm.
After the big kids and after lunch duty and after I ate at least part of my lunch, it was time for group with the kindergarteners. With “bubbles and hugs,” meaning bulging cheeks and arms wrapped across their chests in their no-talking-no-touching hall-walking behavior, they arrived into the lab – and then burst into squeals of delight.
“What is that?”
“Can I hold it?”
“I want to hold it!”
“What’s its name?”
“Sit for story time,” I motioned to the tiny excited faces. I pulled the kangaroo from its perch on the filing cabinet. “This is Joey,” and I held Joey out so they could touch him. “He’s a baby kangaroo. He is our new Lab buddy.”
“Hi, Joey!” squeaked Marisol. “He’s smy-wing at us!”
“Hi, Joey!” called out the other three.
“Is Joey really a kangaroo?”
“Really a toy kangaroo for us to be friends with.”
A slower, more thoughtful voice asked, “Can I hug Joey?”
“Yes you may,” I said, handing the stuffed toy to Micah. Micah was the slow talker in our group, but would also take his time figuring out each word in his beginner reader books. He held Joey gently and carefully.
“He’s soft,” he told us quietly, with the beginning of a smile.
“Can I hold Joey, Micah?” Micah handed the kangaroo to Katherine. She hugged the toy tightly and grinned. “He IS soft!”
“Can I hode Joey, Kaffwin?” Katherine handed the kangaroo to tiny Marisol. “Hi, Joey! You my fwend, Joey. I wuv you, Joey.” She hugged him again.
Now it was Brandi’s turn. Brandi was the tallest kindergartener. Originally, I had wondered if she was a year older, but she was not, even though her voice was deeper, her sneer was practiced, and she corrected me when I complimented her on her fancy denim vest with torn-off sleeves: “It’s not a vest, it’s a jean jacket.” Brandi was the toughest chick in kindergarten.
I watched her watch Marisol cuddling Joey. I saw her hands start to move from her lap up to the top of the table. Finally, she couldn’t keep her cool facade any longer.
“Can I hold Joey, Marisol?” She shot me a glance, but I just half-smiled nonchalantly, communicating hey, no big deal, everyone else asked for the kangaroo, whataya gonna do, eh Brandi?
Brandi held the kangaroo close. She hugged him to her heart. She held him quietly for a long time, while the others got out crayons and coloring pages and chattered and giggled and told stories. Then she whispered to the top of his furry head, “I love you Joey.”
Survive: (v) continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship; pull through, get through, hold out, hold on, make it, keep it together, remain, endure, persevere, abide, carry on, persist, be extant or undestroyed
Some kids seem to rebel just for the sake of rebellion; but in my experience, that’s never true. Not my nascent teaching experience – my life experience. It will be the same kids, over and over. They’re trying to tell you something. There are no rebels without a cause.
When we made our passports, all the groups dug in deep, especially the older students. They talked about their drawings, and their dreams. Into such tiny boxes on a skinny strip of paper went so much detail.
“Let’s clean up to go back to class,” I announced, looking at the clock. Violet and Alejandro dropped pencils into the plastic bin, tucking their writing books into the group box on the shelf.
Javier wasn’t having it. He continued to color the background of his passport drawing.
“Javier, time to go. You can work on it again tomorrow.” Javier completely ignored me, seemingly oblivious to all but the colored pencil’s rapid rhythm in his hand. Violet and Alejandro waited at the door.
“Javier, people are waiting on you.”
His frustration exceeded the situation, “AAHH!” he growled suddenly, fiercely pushing back from the table, colored pencils rolling over the edge and onto the floor. He stalked to the line at the doorway, wadding up his passport and dropping it into the trash.
I walked them back to class. Javier jumped and spun in the hall, pretending to shoot baskets, providing color commentary to his imaginary game. Violet and Alejandro alternated telling me anecdotes.
At the intersection of hallways, a small boy spotted Javier with a big grin. Javier stopped his game and immediately hugged the child, a boy I knew as a bit of a wild man in the lunchroom. “He’s my little cousin, Prince.” Prince was black. I wondered if Javier was testing me, to see if I was such a racist white person I couldn’t tell the difference between Black and Hispanic. I Iet that thought go; families come in all colors and combinations, and that may well include Javier and Prince. The word “cousin” also means many things to many people, not least of which is “close as family.”
When we met up at the end of the day for one-on-one reading, Javier showed me the “I Survived” book he had brought. “I Survived” is a series of chapter books that are just about right for his actual reading level, not the low level shown on his records from his last tests. He blew off those tests, according to his teacher. Those low test scores had dropped him into a category that flagged his move into middle school next year. Those low test scores had earned him a seat in Literacy Lab.
“‘I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001.’ I remember that day.” I looked at the cover of his book, a softly painted image of a kid looking up a New York street at the iconic scene, two tall towers billowing smoke in the moments before they came crashing to the ground.
“Were you there?” he asked incredulously.
“Not in New York. Not that day. But I’ve been to New York since. Where those two big buildings stood, now there are two massive holes in the ground.” Javier looked at the cover of his book a moment. “Most grown-ups remember that day, though. They made the holes into a memorial, so we’ll always remember.”
Javier pulled up two chairs in the comfy reading area, a cushioned teacher’s chair for me, a tall stool for himself, and read part of the story of the Twin Towers attack, about a boy and his firefighter father and all the friends from the fire station they lost that day. I alternated between watching the words on the page and sneaking peeks at him, his face, his expression as he read. Serious. He was taking this story very seriously. He understood what he was reading.
Javier read until the bell rang for the end of school. He continued until he finished the page, where the boy asked his father, “Where’s the building?” And his father, seeing the unusual ash falling from the sky, answered, “It’s here, all around us.”
I hadn’t said anything about his behavior in group, about not following directions or his outburst or throwing away his passport. I hadn’t mentioned his hallway antics, either. We were just getting to know each other. Here was a smart kid applying himself sporadically, to art but not to writing, to sports but not to tests. I wondered what motivated his choices, and what might harness his energy. The books he had in his classroom book bin included several “I Survived” stories. Why did a book need to include a traumatic escape from disaster to appeal to this child?
When Javier’s group returned to Lab the next day, I announced time to finish our passports, as promised, before we moved on. Violet and Alejandro got their folders and pulled out their passports; Violet carried the colored pencils to the table. “Javier,” I directed, handing him his folder.
“I don’t…,” he began. I shook his folder slightly at him. He sighed and took his folder grudgingly, plopping down into a chair and opening it.
“What the…what?” he stammered. “But I threw it away!”
There was his passport, rescued from destruction. He’d dropped it into the recycle bin, not the sticky trash can; I wondered how lucky a toss that had been, or if just possibly it might have been a good shot, instead. A cry for help, we call that in social work.
He looked at me with soft, open eyes. “Thanks.” I got to see his genuine appreciation. I got to see him, Javier, the kid, for just one fleeting moment.
“Welcome,” I smiled.
Two deep wells, those eyes. At the 9/11 memorial site, the empty foundations of the towers each have a smooth, low, stone wall surrounding them. A metal overlay across the top of the wall, back-lit, has cutouts that resemble the windows of tall buildings. But those oddly shaped, imperfect windows are actually the names of the people who died. Each one shines, a window of light into the darkness. Behind this image of what once was, inside the entombed craters, water pours down flat walls, down to a smooth pool, and a sizable hole left open in the middle. Into this hole the waters pour, nonstop, the eternal weeping of tears that can never bring back the lives in the windows, the light in all those eyes.
People often go unseen, just stereotypes and behavior issues to which we turn a blind eye. Maybe we don’t want to see, don’t want to watch the slow-motion trainwreck before us. It can look a lot like a plane intentionally flown into a building, and we just cannot understand what would drive someone to destroy themselves and anyone they can take down with them.
But that’s not the moment on which to focus. Look for the days and weeks and months and years and generations leading up to that moment. Just pick a moment, any earlier moment, and see if you can see any small light shining from those oddly shaped windows. Or you can walk on down the street, trying to decipher the unusual ash slowly drifting down from the sky, breathing into your lungs the disaster of lives lost. It’s here, all around us.
Vision: (n) the faculty of being able to see; eyesight, sight, observation, view, perspective
(n) an experience of seeing someone or something in a dream or trance, or as a supernatural apparition; hallucination, illusion, mirage
“My dad came from Mexico.”
“My dad too.”
“When he married my mom, then he didn’t have to go back to Mexico any more. He got to stay.”
“One time I visited my relatives in Mexico; they were nice.”
When we made our passports, we began telling origin stories, where we come from. I had originally envisioned our craft project as symbolic of a Passport to College and New Ideas. But like many passports, it had become an interwoven tale of where we come from and where we wanted to go. I had cleverly torn blue carnival tickets from a roll and stapled them to their passports under the catch-phrase, “Reading Is My Ticket,” as in, ticket to learning, ticket to upward mobility. I hadn’t thought through my own role very well, however.
Even with my slick sales pitch for the Literacy Lab, it was evident to the kids themselves that they had a lot of hard work ahead of them if reading was going to be their ticket to anything beyond a driver’s license and an entry-level job. Most of them knew their test scores, their defined reading levels. The price of their ticket was already fairly steep.
Sometimes I become so enthralled with my own vision that I forget to take a clear-eyed look around. When I get into that state of mind, I think I must appear quite near-sighted to people around me. A bit dreamy. Unrealistic.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. And…the unrealistic dreamer is true. They’re both true.
When I was a kid, I got to take gymnastics one year, before it became too far to drive from our farm and too expensive to continue. For that year, I was following in the iron-toed footsteps of the tiny Olympian heroes of my day – Olga Korbut from the Soviet Union, and later the Romanian star Nadia Comaneci, she of the perfect 10s. I learned to walk on my hands, vault over a pommel horse, hang from rings, and swing nearly a loop around the lower of the uneven parallel bars. And best of all, I learned to traverse the balance beam.
I loved the balance beam. With the wiry strength of a rambunctious 7-year-old and the fearlessness of a circus high-wire performer, I followed where Olga led, toes pointed with each steady step forward, lifting onto the balls of my feet and simultaneously pirouetting then solidly down onto the bar again, now facing in reverse, arms outstretched to the sides or one forward, one back, fingers pointed like a dancer on a cliff’s edge. I learned to dip-step, one foot scooping down from the beam and back up, then the other, a pretty little prance so joyful it made me smile. With a spotter, I practiced tucking into a somersault along the beam, regaining my feet in one smooth motion and standing tall, then lifting my arms like a salute – before taking a cartwheel off the end.
On the balance beam, you have to envision yourself graceful and acrobatic, a dancer on a narrow ledge high above the mundane world. You must believe you can flip and spin in that tiny orbit. You must trust your slender footing, and then you have to leap – and immediately land, leap and land again. The beam is hard and unforgiving if you miss, but reassuringly solid when your feet alight, toes gripping, legs steadying, arms like wings. You must believe you can fly, and then, you must cartwheel into space and hit the earth like a meteor. Rock solid. Stick the landing like a mountain. Thrust out your chest with pride, chin held high because you dared to believe in yourself, and then you dared to return to the mortal world without apology.
Hailey struggled the day we made our Passports to New Ideas. She struggled with her belief in herself. I saw her lip quiver.
“Hailey?” I asked very quietly, crouching next to her as Harrison and Poppy put their drawing materials away on the shelf, chattering happily.
“Reading is not my…it’s not my…,” and her lip quivered again.
“What is reading like for you, Hailey?” My voice was as soft as I could make it, my eyes searching for hers under her mop of bangs.
She looked up, then down at her passport. “A hard job.”
I nodded. I nodded until she looked up and saw me nodding. “Then that’s what you can write. ‘Reading is my hard job.’ Right there.” And she did.
“Do you want this?” I asked, holding up her carnival ticket. She nodded. “Where do you want me to staple it?”
She pointed to the same place everyone else’s tickets were attached. I clicked the stapler. Reading Is My – blue ticket. Her ticket opened like a lift-the-flap toddler’s book, revealing words only she and I knew were there.
“Good for you, Hailey: that’s honest. That was brave, to say what’s true for you. Good for you.” She gave me a bashful half-smile.
Sometimes we need a vision held over our truth, a reminder that we, too, can believe in ourselves. We need an Olympic hero, a strong coach to spot us, to strengthen us, to cheer us. What we get might be a starry-eyed dreamer with a love of dancing on the edge of possibility; but isn’t that someone who understands what a hard job is?
“What’s that line on your glasses? Are they cracked?” Harrison asked, staring intently into my bifocals.
“Yeah, in a way. But it’s on purpose. I have two ways to see with my glasses – one way up here, and another down here.”
“Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?” I stood up tall, and reached a hand as gracefully as I could toward Hailey, inviting her to join me. “Ready?”
She smiled and stood, and we all walked proudly back to their classroom. “Because we are Literacy Lab students,” I’ve taught them. We work hard, believing in ourselves, taking those leaps of faith.
Passport: (n) an official document issued by a government, certifying the holder’s identity
and citizenship and entitling them to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries; path, way, route, avenue, door, doorway, key
“I brought two things to show you – a big book and a little book. I used them when I traveled. What do you think these are?”
In each group, hour after hour, small hands shot straight up, while other eyes looked hard, willing the books to reveal themselves. I’d call on someone.
“I think that…those are…your books you used, um, when, um, you went there,” pointing to the wall map.
“You’re right, I did; and what do you think these books are?”
“Um, I don’t know….”
And so in each group, hour after hour, I would tell them the names of these books.
“The little one is called a passport. It – “
“Oh I know! It lets you go to another state, like Chicago!” Poppy squealed.
“Chicago’s not a state…,” Hailey countered.
“Raise hands. One at a time. Poppy, you almost had it. It lets you go to another….”
“Planet!” Harrison was jumping in with his trademark exuberance.
“Like the United States,” I hinted. “That is our….”
“COUNTRY!” All three shouted it out.
“Voices.” They grinned at their own shouting. “You got it! We use a passport to travel to another country.”
This was a story of wonder and mystery for most of them, who had only traveled to visit family in a nearby town or state. But for others, they had stories of their own to tell.
“When we went to Costa Rica, um, I got to go snorkeling,” Hailey told me excitedly.
“Did you see any fish?”
“Yes, and a eel,” and her eyes got bigger for dramatic effect, “and – a shark.”
“DID IT TRY TO EAT YOU?” Harrison shouted.
“No. I mean – YES! But I swam away.”
Our school existed in a changing neighborhood, a changing time. But the neighborhood had always been changing.
I had lived just up the street in the 1990’s when my own kids were in grade school, when the area was predominantly Mexican families and my blond-haired babies were a noticeable minority. They had attended the beautiful old stone and brick Edison School, with floor-to-ceiling windows and oak banisters wrapping the wide staircase. Edison was closest to the house I rented then, a charmingly dilapidated brick bungalow much like every other house on the block, perched on a slight rise above the flaking stone sidewalk, with a small lamppost and an ash tree out front.
My kids had walked to school, and together we had walked to the park, and to the post office, and to cub scouts, and to have pizza or tamales on the weekends. Driving had been our utilitarian necessity, for groceries and work; but walking had been our pleasure.
Nothing compares to finding your way together along uneven paths, holding hands, arms swinging in unison, small voices chattering happily in expectation of cub scout craft projects or chasing at the park or a salty pepperoni pizza or soft tamale. Walking together let me hear their voices and notice the tiny details of their growing up, one of them taking a surer stride, a head that now reached to my shoulder, a voice that knew its own mind.
I had been as green a parent as I was a tutor. Unintentionally arrogant, I had assumed I could live wherever I could afford, and I could parent because I wanted to parent. I drew most of my inspiration from my grandma, teaching my children as many of the farm skills as I could on our small city block in North Denver. I gardened, and sewed, and knit them hats and mittens. I took them to a county fair every summer, and baked them banana bread using my grandma’s recipe.
A grapevine grew in our backyard, planted before any of the residents of my time, back when it had been an Italian neighborhood. All the backyards had these old, thick grapevines hanging heavy with fruit, and so the kids and I had made jam every fall, waiting for that first frost to condense the sweetness of summer into full ripening.
But I could not give them a true farm, or walk with them along every path, or guard them against every stumble and fall as they stepped forward into their own lives. As a divorced single parent, I sent them off to another house every week, and they returned with experiences I could not prevent – not actual abuse, but those small hurts that sting long after you can no longer see them. And as a young parent on my own, I made my share of hurtful mistakes, too.
Children are resilient, and forgiving, even when they shouldn’t be. It is the nature of a child to reach toward love, grasp at it, always trying to grow toward the light. They are organic little beings, and they sweeten if we do not pluck them from childhood too early, before they are fully ready. Let the seasons change in time; don’t hasten that first frost. Don’t wish for them to be bigger or older than they are in this moment.
“And what is this bigger book?” I asked next.
“It’s like a chapter book.”
“Yes, it is like a chapter book.”
“What does it have inside, Miss?”
“Let’s see,” I opened to the middle. “Oh look! I see….”
“Are those pictures of your trip?”
“What does it say?”
“This bigger book is a guide book. I used it to find my way when I was traveling. I needed to be able to read it, the words, the maps, to find the places in the pictures. I used my guidebook to travel all the way across Spain by myself.”
“Across Spain? Is that a country?”
“Let’s find Spain on the map.” I pointed to it. “So I went from here, Denver – “ and I touched a red star I had affixed to Denver, “ – all the way to here,” and I touched Spain, and traced my finger across it.
“And every day, I read my guidebook, to find my way.” I smiled. “So – where do you think you want to go in your life?”
“Well, you’re going to need a passport – let’s make one!”
And so, in each group, we wrote our names, and drew our passport photos onto the first page of an accordion-fold strip of paper on which I had drawn various lines and boxes. The kindergarteners wanted to travel to the Children’s Museum; the fourth and fifth graders wanted to see the riches of Dubai. We had a passport page for things we wanted to try: I had listed surfing, while some wanted to swim at a beach, or be Spiderman, or fly an airplane.
But by far the hardest box was the one I had naively added without a second thought. It was a rectangle captioned, “My Family.” Child after child became nervous, agitated, or visibly distressed at the thought of creating a simple picture of the faces around them. For some, it was just too much, so I made up new directions on the spot.
“For ‘My Family,’ you can draw faces – or you can draw your house, or your apartment. You can draw a pet. Anything you’d like.”
And with audible little sighs of relief, I saw kids return to the “My Family” box of their passports and draw a house, or a cat, or a dog, while their friends made circle after smiling circle and labeled all those smiley faces “Mom” and “Dad” and siblings.
Home is a loaded box. I realized that a passport can take you anywhere except away from “My Family.” We all have to walk that path ourselves. It’s a long journey for some of us.
My grandma was a devout Christian, and felt that the Bible’s way was the only way. Several of her children, my father the oldest of them, wanted something new, more scientific, something more attuned to the changing times we were living in. It’s interesting to me that all eight of her children grew up to be good, decent human beings who struggled with marriage and parenting in a changing world, watching as their children, me and my generation of siblings and cousins, fought and divorced and shared custody and forgot our grandma’s lessons about love and kindness.
She was always focused on children, wherever she went. They were drawn to her like sweet little garden moths to her light. She was like the taste of still-warm grape jam on buttery toast, little fingers licking that sticky delicious taste of home.
I have yet to find a definitive guidebook on parenting. I still have the church cookbook Grandma gave me, though, filled with Scandinavian names and Bible verses and recipes that take me back to the farm. Maybe she was on to something.
Record: (n) a piece of evidence about the past, especially an account kept in writing; documentation, data, dossier, report, transcript
(n) the sum of the past achievements or actions of a person or organization, their previous conduct or performance; track record, history, reputation
(n) the best performance or most remarkable event of its kind that has been officially measured and noted
(v) set down in writing or other permanent form for later reference, especially officially
(v) convert (as sound or performance) into a reproducible form
The best observation occurs by becoming a shadow on the wall, where your presence is merely a dim corner filled with the soft sound of scribbled notes, and not a true distraction. I had arrived at the nearby middle school to watch and learn as Relay Fellows strutted their superstar stuff, and now I sat in a student chair, notebook in hand, as a program coordinator, their supervisor, had the first at-bat.
Relay Fellows are people with a Bachelor’s degree, typically in Education, who have been accepted into the Master’s in Education program associated with our year of service. These are the Fellowship MVPs. I had red-shirted, walking onto the field determined I’ve got game. Now we’d see, as one of the coaches showed me how it’s done.
With a beaming smile at his student, a girl named Vanetti he greeted by name, Joltin’ Joe let the first pitch go by so smoothly I didn’t even realize it had caused both Vanetti and me to involuntarily smile back. He asked her to read for him in a way that made it sound like she’d be doing him a favor. As she read, he could step in with helpful questions: “Did that make sense as you read it? No? What word was tricky? How would you like to work with that word? Sure, break it into parts, you go girl.”
Never has “you go, girl” sounded so sincerely encouraging. I found my pencil poised in mid-air, simply watching the incredible action on the field, as Vanetti answered TDQ (“text-derived questions”) so Joe could CFU (“check for understanding”), using her book as SRM (“source/ reference material”) like a pro. Her voice became stronger, her answers more confident, just during the 20 minutes she read with Joe. She wrote vocabulary words on her small whiteboard. She argued her point by finding the page that had the sentence she needed, and sliding her finger under the exculpatory evidence contained therein. This was a struggling reader, according to her school records. OMG.
So. Many. Fist bumps. So many base hits…RBIs…so much success. He thanked Vanetti for reading with him today. I felt like cheering from the cheap seats. I felt like throwing my beer on Joe.
Then his Relay Fellow took her turn at bat – with the entire class. Amanda was a big stick in her own right, corralling over 20 kids as they worked on spelling various words with a long “U” sound – cue, menu, few, too. While the words seemed easy, the work by the students was anything but. Nor for Amanda; this is a rigorous student-teaching gig if you get into the Master’s program, a hard-working, low-paying internship right out of the gate, on top of taking the requisite courses. Less than three months in, I’d say Amanda nailed a solid stand-up double.
Oh, Vanetti, thy name is Ms. Barbara. Thoroughly humbled by the seemingly effortless talent of Joe and the obvious hard work and practice of Amanda, I left that day so impressed by the possibilities of hiring talented people and training them in this model, I wanted a fan jersey. On the long drive home, I pondered how much of the program I could actually assimilate and use in my small Lab space. I worried about striking out, over and over, because I took my eye off the ball.
We take our eye off the ball if we’re distracted, or afraid. I told myself my worry was that I was out of my league; in truth, I was so worried about the kids falling behind and giving up hope that I was nervous to even step into the batter’s box. What if I choked?
Soon Joe was back, now at Tennyson Street School. He had come to train Miranda and me in how to complete Reading Records. Having no idea about any of the terminology I came across daily, I was guessing that Reading Records were akin to a gradebook or report card on reading.
Not even close.
We were given copies of a student reading text, the words of each sentence spread out across the page. With seven identical pages before each of us, we watched a video that showed us how to observe a child as they read. Step One was to Listen. Step Two was to make a specialized tally mark over each and every word of the text.
Reading Records were simply observations. The secret was mindfulness. I breathed an audible sigh of relief. Oh thank god; I didn’t have to know anything about improving reading or accelerating learning – just listen carefully, and mark the words.
On the first page, we practiced making a checkmark when the video student read each word correctly. So easy!
On the second page, we practiced writing a substitution, a wrong word, over the written word, and making a checkmark when the video student read each word correctly. Fun!
On the third page, we practiced writing an R next to a word if it was repeated when read, and drawing an arrow back to indicate if a phrase was repeated, and writing a substitution over a word, and making a checkmark when the student read each word correctly. Okay!
On the fourth page, we practiced noting if they self-corrected their substitution, which we still wrote over the wrong word but now added a grid and “sc,” and writing an R next to repeated words, and drawing an arrow back over what was reread, and marking if the “sc” occurred during the first or second or sometimes third repetition, and making a checkmark, and WOW! Deep breath…and…
On the fifth page, we practiced noting omissions and insertions, plus the whole 12 Days of Reading Errors, “and a check-mar-ark if they got it right.”
On the sixth page, we practiced what to write if they suddenly and without warning SPEAK TO US! How…? I’m supposed to answer their question AND make a grid over the word WITH vertical separators WHERE I mark “A” that they asked (but “A” is for “appeal,” because “ask” wasn’t formal enough?) followed by ANOTHER vertical separator where I now give the rote response, “You try it,” and write a “Y” (for “teacher responds with ‘You try it’ I am dead serious) but the “A” goes above the word where the student’s responses all go and the “Y” goes below the word grid line and after the separator after the “A” – and then when the student just sits silently puzzling why I would tell her “You try it” when she clearly asked me what that word is, a final “T” shows that I finally “Told” her the word. Written below the grid and after yet ANOTHER separator.
Sweet Mother of Copy Editing! And at speed, as the student reads! Who copy edits in real time? It felt like court transcription combined with live translation. I felt like Yogi Berra: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”
I could see the value in recording exactly what mistakes the students were making. How do you tell a batter how to fix their hitting unless you look at every aspect of their batting – stance, grip, alignment, timing, angle, swing, follow through.
“You can observe a lot just by watching,” according to Berra. You can see ways to improve. And it’s too hard for kids to observe themselves and their reading errors. So we could do it for them. Because “you cannot think and hit at the same time.” They needed to keep their eye on the ball. They needed to just watch each word as it came, with mindfulness. And then knock it out of the park.
I would be their batting coach. And together, we would use their Reading Records to find ways to improve. We would raise their comprehension and testing game. We could frame it like Yogi:
“I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.”
Laboratory: (n) a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching
“Congratulations! You’ve been chosen to come to Literacy Lab!”
“WE get to?”
“I’ve never gotten to come to Lab before!”
“Well, now you do! Would you like to see it?”
Room by room, over and over, I stopped in to introduce myself to my new students. If only I’d carried an oversized check and balloons, my huckstering would have been complete.
Hypothesis: I’d decided that coming to the Literacy Lab for support was like winning the lottery for any kid who struggled with reading and writing. If I did my job, observing their struggles and attending to their needs, the program was designed to marginally improve their test scores. What I was actually watching for, however, were initial signs of all those other social improvements – game-changers like higher graduation rates, decreased teen pregnancy and gang affiliation. Especially for kids of color, the school-to-prison pipeline was real; I was hoping to disrupt that flow, sabotage that pipeline. Rogue science.
“When we come to the Lab, it’s different than regular class. We have special rules. Why would we have special rules?”
Little hands shot up in the air above excited faces as we walked down the hall together, groups of three or four students with me at a time.
Raise your hands will be an easy rule, I thought. “Violet, why would we have special rules?”
“Because it’s a lab,” Violet answered proudly. Her short, straight blond hair bobbed at her chin for emphasis as she nodded with the word “lab.”
Ah, circular reasoning begins so young, I smiled to myself. “And so – what IS a lab? Alejandro?”
“It’s, like…a place where you do experiments,” he answered calmly.
Javier belonged to this group, but was busy tossing a plastic bowl from his snack and ignoring Violet and Alejandro.
“Exactly right,” I commended Alejandro. “Bowl,” I said to Javier, who reluctantly handed it over. “So when we come to Lab, we are going to think about reading and writing differently. Like we are doing experiments, to see what happens, if we get better at it, if your test scores get better.”
“Cool,” said Alejandro.
“Come on, I’ll show,” Javier said, trying to push past me.
“Ah, but wait – this is where the Lab rules kick in, right here at the door. We line up at this yellow star; it reminds you to be a scientist, use your science brain. What does it say?”
“Ready to Learn.”
“Ready to Learn. We will enter the Lab in silence each day, so we can…” and here I put my hands around my eyes, simulating goggles, or peering down into something.
“Fo-o-o-” I started the word for them.
“Focus!” said Violet.
“So we can focus,” I nodded. “The science says, if we focus, your reading and writing will improve. So – line up.” They jostled into more or less a line along the wall. “Yellow star?”
“Ready to Learn!”
“We will enter the Lab silently. You can look around the space. When I wave my hand like this – “ and I made a beckoning motion – “it will be time to leave. On ‘GO’ – Ready? Set, GO.”
They filed in silently, wandering around the tiny table, looking at the map, the compass rose, the pictures and postcards from around the world. When I beckoned with my hand, they made a line again, bumping into each other from behind, then silently trooped out.
“Why is there a map?”
“What are the directions for?”
“Did you go all those places?”
“So many good questions,” I smiled. “You are excellent scientists.”
Just then, we walked past a very small child on her way to the office. Javier got an enthusiastic hug from her. “That’s my little cousin,” he explained. Pleased by the hug, he pulled a package of M&Ms from the pocket of his hoodie. “Want some?” he asked Alejandro, shaking some into Alejandro’s open palm. “Want some?” he asked Violet, who had held back while he shared with Alejandro. Javier shook M&Ms into her hand, as well. “Want some?” he asked me.
“You guys have those,” I declined. “But thank you so much.”
I was reminded of the Jewish tradition when a child begins study of the Torah. They are given honey with the first letters they read, so that they will associate learning and study with joy and sweetness in life.
M&Ms: scientifically formulated sweets designed to attract children. I needed to put some in my prize box, used for rewarding good behavior, like consistently staying on task. Research it – there’s a whole “Science of M&Ms.” It’s mostly about how quickly color dissolves.
Syndrome: (n) a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms;
a group of symptoms that consistently appear together or occur hand-in-hand
Miranda brought cookies. Fresh from the grocery store’s holiday bakery display, they were soft and crumbly, a cross between a sugar cookie and a shortbread. I had one for breakfast with my coffee, and then I grabbed another for later. Full of sugar and sprinkles and that warm feeling that begins after Halloween and leads into Thanksgiving, I continued putting the finishing touches on my learning environment.
Based on my long hiking journeys, I’d settled on a travel theme. Above a laminate map of the world I’d written, “We Are Going Far!” I’d drawn arrows from college into the world and across oceans.
My Lab groups would start in one week, after I’d had a chance to shadow Fellows at another school. Even though I had reviewed the routines and format of our program, I was feeling nervous to actually begin tutoring, because I knew full well that book knowledge is one thing – street smarts are another.
A savvy, experienced educator set off like Commanding Teacher, leading her well-provisioned expedition into the wilderness of learning. I had found the term I dreaded in a reference journal called the “Missouri Conservationist” put out by the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1979: Greenhorn Syndrome.
“When you [sufficiently] plan an outing, … you can march into the wilderness, knowing that if you become lost, shoot your toe off or fall over a cliff and break a leg, someone will become concerned when you are unreasonably overdue and notify authorities.
“When your sense of direction departs and familiar landmarks vanish, there are two basic reactions. One is the greenhorn syndrome: finding himself disoriented, the greenhorn is likely to start looking unsystematically for recognizable landmarks. This usually results in the victim’s flogging about in the woods, getting nowhere and, eventually, going literally in circles. Consequently, he becomes more and more lost, rather than less, and finding him is more difficult for searchers.
“The experienced outdoorsman, on the other hand, finding himself disoriented, can save much anguish and spare possible search parties a great deal of trouble. Since his method is the preferred one, let’s examine it in detail, with a view toward improving your own response in a similar situation.”
As I strapped my whiteboards with colorfully patterned masking tape into defined data areas according to the Literacy Fellows model, I felt quite disoriented, already far beyond my recognizable landmarks. I worried that once I had students, I would begin flogging about in circles due to ignorance and inexperience.
But I was an experienced outdoors…person. And an experienced social work…person. I may not have the Masters or marksmanship awards, but I had years out there in it, in the wilderness of human relationships. I had enough behavioral tools not to shoot myself in the tenderfoot as I figured out how to be a tutor. This was just a new, unfamiliar landscape; trekking, I knew how to do.
“When you find yourself with the unpleasant realization that you are lost, your first move should be to sit down, make yourself as comfortable as possible and pour a cup of coffee from your Thermos bottle. While you’re sipping your coffee, let your eyes roam around. Enjoy yourself. Watch the squirrels and listen to the birds sing. In short, relax. When your coffee is finally drunk and you are thoroughly relaxed, you are ready to consider your situation objectively.”
I finished my coffee, enjoying my second cookie. The purple, blue, and green colors in the space were beginning to come together. I liked how this learning space felt.
I began to work on my small “Better Choices” bulletin board. Each student’s first name was written on a clothespin. At the beginning of group, I would place the students’ names on a colorful continuum, from “Star Student” all the way to “Call the Office.” Initially, they all started on “Ready to Learn;” if they weren’t displaying “Ready to Learn” behavior, we might have to move their name down one color, to “Make a Better Choice.”
In my experience, it’s easy to agree when we’re not feeling ready – to learn, to hike on, to start tutoring. It’s not hard to agree to make a better choice, either – but how? What would a better choice look like? This is the moment we start to feel lost in the woods. How do we not start flogging about in pointless circles until we either fall off a cliff and break our leg or get called to the office?
When we feel lost, we need to make a better choice. And choice-making is much easier with guidance toward useful options.
“Get your compass out (you should have one, you know) and establish your directions. If you don’t have a compass, use the sun and with a strong mental twist, move the directions back where they belong. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes north will seem to be east, so much so that only by a definite intellectual effort can the sun be wrenched into its proper place and the cardinal points of the compass be fixed accordingly.”
I cut the four bright colors of paper into long triangles. Orienting one to point straight up, one to the right, one straight down, and one to the left, I was creating a compass rose on the small bulletin board. In the teacher’s workroom, I had come upon the curious marvel that is the letter stamp, a simple, nearly-antique tool involving stamp blocks for each letter, but using built-in blades instead of ink, cutting a perfect letter from construction paper using only a well-positioned letter block and your arms to pull down on a long metal lever. Now each bright triangle was anchored near the center by its cardinal letter and an associated choice: E for Explain my idea; W for Write my words; N was ask for what I Need; and S to Sit straight and strong.
“Determining your proper orientation with regard to directions may clear things up to the point where you can proceed….”
I couldn’t have agreed more as I glued a pointed paper dial to a large magnetic block, the needle we would use to reorient ourselves in Literacy Lab if we became confused or restless or any other kind of lost. A very analog system for children of the digital age, but I felt that a limited number of positive choices would let me guide them back on track easier and faster than asking them to brainstorm a solution when they felt lost and bewildered.
“If your wristwatch has hands, instead of a digital read-out, you can use it for a compass. Point the hour hand toward the sun; south is exactly halfway between the hour hand and “12” on the dial.”
I looked up at the old-style clock on the classroom wall. Its long black hands simply told the time, like the old Timex watch on my wrist. Neither gave flashy feedback about heartrate or how many steps I walked or my efficiency at anything, really, other than my ability to note the passing of time in the blink of an eye.
“Where are you going?” I heard Miranda asking. I stepped out from my cubicle. A little boy was walking all around the Lab; but he was not a Lab student.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Thanks,” she said with relief, returning to her students arguing in the corner. “His class is next door.”
I looked over, confused, but she had her hands full and wasn’t looking my way. I thought next door was Spanish ECE, tiny people who liked to sing Spanish songs loudly, con gusto. This little guy was quiet and peaceful, and seemed a little bigger than a preschooler.
He looked up at me with calm, soulful eyes, almond-shaped and dark. Multiple cracks in his dry lips caught my attention, a common symptom for children with Down’s Syndrome, which appeared to be his situation. He touched my wristwatch, as fascinated by the smooth face as I was by him. Then he looked back up at me again.
“Let’s get you to your class, okay?” I touched his shoulder to walk with me, and he came right along. We entered the open classroom next door.
“Hola, David – que pasa?” the Spanish teacher asked him.
“He wandered into our Lab next door – does he belong in here with you?”
“He comes in for Spanish, but not right now. I’m Lourdes,” and she smiled at me. I introduced myself, as well. “You need to go back to class, David,” she told him.
“Do you know where his class is? I don’t,” I told her.
“Oh! Yes, I think it’s across this way?” Lourdes pointed diagonally across the room and out the door.
“Okay. David, shall we go?”
And David immediately took my hand. Holding hands, we walked down the hall to a first grade room, where his teacher gave him an impatient scold. “Did you go to the nurse? Did he go to the nurse?” she asked me.
“I … no idea, he wandered into the Literacy Lab…it’s colorful…and….”
“Did you get changed?” she commanded. David would not let go of my hand.
“Do you want me to…take him to the nurse…make sure…?”
“Can you? That would be great,” she sighed. “Thanks so much.”
So David and I slowly walked back down the long hall to the nurse, who said yes, he’d been changed, then back one last time, all the way past the Lab and back to his classroom. We didn’t talk. We just held hands, walking happily together.
This, I knew how to do, smooth as the face on my watch, which was useful in establishing not only time but a relationship. So glad for hands, which can be used as a compass in a pinch, pointing me in the direction of my own magnetic north by pointing me to look away from myself: be who you are, the hands indicate. Just be here now, along for this part of the journey.