Tennyson Street School: passport

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.”

“By yourself?”

“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?”


“New York!”


“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.



Tennyson Street School: record

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.”

And yet.

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.”



Tennyson Street School: laboratory

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.


Tennyson Street School: syndrome

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.



Tennyson Street School: justice

Justice: (n) fairness, equity, objectivity, righteousness, honesty, disinterestedness
(n) a judge or magistrate, particularly a judge of the Supreme Court of a state or country

Javier sat fidgeting in the brown papasan chair, stalling, dangling legs kicking randomly, clearly not ready to begin reading. Since he was my only student so far, I had the luxuries of time and attention to offer him. I waited while he wiggled.

“Do you have a family?” he finally asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“A husband?”


“A boyfriend.”

“Nooo. But I do have kids.”

“How many?”


“Five kids?!”

“Yup. They’re all grown people now.”

“Your kids are grown ups?”

“Yeah, some of them even have kids of their own now.”

“Do they all live in Denver?”

“No, they live in different places – Fort Collins, Cheyenne, Boston, and in New Mexico.”

“So they don’t live with you?”

“I live with two of my sons in Fort Collins – one is 30, and one is finishing his last year of high school, before he goes to college.”

“What does the one who’s 30 do?”

“He’s getting ready to go to law school.”

“So you live with your sons?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes, I live with my daughter and her husband and her two kids. We like living all together, in our big family.”

“I live with my mom and dad, and my brother, my grandma and my uncle.” Javier looked at his shoes. “We’re Mexican.”

“Cool – we’re Danish.” Javier looked back up. “You know, you remind me of my son who’s 30. Your teacher told me you’re a fairness and justice guy – yeah?”

“Maybe,” Javier eyed me.

“Yeah, my son is too. When he was a kid, he’d get frustrated when things weren’t right, weren’t fair. That’s why he’s going to law school – he wants to help people when things aren’t right, using the laws that say everyone is equal. He’ll be a lawyer.”

I looked at Javier. “You could be a lawyer, too. We need more fairness and justice guys.”

“What does he look like?”

“My son? He’s 6’3”, tall and strong, has smart eyes and a warrior ponytail.”

Javier nodded in approval. He opened the book he’d brought. We read a chapter called “La Bamba” together. He helped me with the Spanish words one of the characters used from time to time, a boy named Manuel.

Javier hadn’t understood the name at first. “Man-ial?”

“Man-yuu-el, in English. But it’s Mahn-whale,” I explained, giving him a knowing raised eyebrow and hand gesture suggesting the obviousness of how we really pronounce this name. The familiar name rolled off his tongue naturally as we read the rest of the chapter.

Javier had never seen this Spanish first name written in any of his books. I wondered how many times this had happened before, he’d mispronounced a name from his own first language simply because they were underrepresented in children’s books, and none of us in the teacher’s chair had the time or attention to hear him and support a role model who looked and sounded like him.

As we walked back down the hall to his classroom, he casually asked, “So – does a lawyer make a lot of money?”

I hid my smile. “They can,” I nodded seriously. “They can make a lot of money.”


Tennyson Street School: better

Better: (adj) more excellent, more effective, preferable
(adj) recovering from illness, injury, or mental stress; healthier
(adv) to a higher standard, in a finer way
(n) that which is better, as “a change for the better”

Miranda stopped the kids at the doorway. We could all hear them in the hall. “We have new rules in Literacy Lab,” she announced, sounding sorry and aggrieved. A chorus of negative responses harmonized into a familiar childhood song.

“No, no, now listen. Listen!” She cleared her throat and brought her volume down. “So now when we go to Lab, there’s no talking.”

“But MISS!”

“SSSHHHH! No buts! There’s no talking for five minutes.” She sounded as if she was standing  up taller, or maybe just making her decision about where she stood overall. “That’s – reading – time.”

The kids slunk in, casting suspicious eyes my way as they passed my cubicle. “Is that your boss?” one of them asked Miranda.


We’d had a conversation, we three Fellows. I’d done a fair share of the talking, and Chloe much less. But in order for me to start having students soon, things would have to change. We couldn’t have three groups of loud, boisterous kids all wandering and running in one classroom at the same time.

Chloe’s kids were golden. Her prior experience in tutoring programs shone, immediately evident in the silent parade of attentive students in and out of the Lab. We all knew that. We all knew why we were talking.

But I’d tried to be realistic, too. “I feel optimistic about showing these guys how we come in and out,” I said, referring to the program model of focused attention, silent entry, silent exit, so we showed the kids we were all taking their learning time seriously. “How we’ll be as I’m instructing – no idea. But I still think it’s important that we approach this as a team, and try to set the same standard.”

Miranda had sighed. “Sorry, guys,” she’d apologized sincerely. “I’m trying….”

Chloe had patted her arm and told her not to worry. I’d added, “I just think it’s a shame you didn’t get the same training and support – and that’s not your fault. I know it’s so much more work to go back and reteach them the Lab norms now….” I did not, however, say not to bother. We all knew that. We all knew what I was saying, and not saying.

Chloe and I had talked wistfully of our love of evidence-based models. It’s as if social science could be Pinocchio, a real science after all, able to faithfully replicate outcomes if only we, the woodcarvers and accordion-players, would just follow the blueprints, stick to the plan.

“Evidence what?” Miranda had asked without interest before grabbing her lunch and headphones.

I had seen them work. I remembered a 2006 New Yorker article titled, “Million Dollar Murray.” The key quote from the article was spoken by police officer Patrick O’Bryan, who had been arresting and interacting with homeless Murray Barr on the streets of Reno, Nevada for years. “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.” Million Dollar Murray became a rallying cry for systemic change among agencies working with the homeless. Out of this understanding grew the phenomenal Housing First model, where homeless individuals and families are first provided long-term shelter, the thing they need immediately, and subsequently offered support services to help them keep that housing.

We learned from that article that it would have been much cheaper to just rent Murray an apartment than to aid and abet his cycling in and out of hospitals, rehabs, and jail. Housing First has been so successful, in Denver and across the nation, that it has become not only an evidence-based model of its own, but included in more complex evidence-based models for serving the homeless.

Give them what they need. Our students immediately needed to be able to focus, in order to be able to learn. In the Lab, we could give them an environment that helped them focus.

“SSSHHHH! I MEAN it! Knock– be…quiet…,” Miranda corrected herself, adjusting her voice down a notch, as well. They read. They got squirrelly. She SSSHHHH!’d them loudly.

And then – they read out loud, one at a time, for her. Before they started pestering each other and grabbing pencils.

As she walked them to the door, Miranda looked in at me, eyebrows raised in a question.
“Better?” she mouthed.

I gave her two thumbs up from behind my laptop training screens. She smiled bashfully, but looked pleased.



Tennyson Street School: strand

Strand: (v) drive aground, leave high and dry
(n) a waterfront, seaside, beach, sands, shore
(n) a single thin length of something, especially when twisted together with its fellows

Parent-teacher conferences were held during the school day. The students led their parents in to sit in the small classroom chairs, and, nudged by their teachers, carefully apprised their parents of their academic progress. Work folders were reviewed; art projects on the walls were pointed to and exclaimed over. For most kids, it was a day at the beach, showing the pretty shells of writing you’ve collected, or the bright pebbles of math shining in the sun, while walking around any behavior issues like bits of broken glass in the sand.

A few students brought their parents in to meet their literacy tutor in our Literacy Lab. Miranda fielded questions of student progress like a politician, since we hadn’t started testing or mapping achievement gains yet, so early in the year. “He’s doing really well. As we start testing, he’s going to do really, really well.”

More “really’s” seemed to be the key to her pitch. I shook my head and continued reading about all the components that seem to be really, really necessary for a written lesson plan, though for the life of me, I thought the whole thing seemed unnecessarily convoluted and overly complicated.

Lesson plans looked like some sort of military requisition to my eyes, citing standards like CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.2 in one box, the children’s “Lexile” range in another box, “Objective” (which was somehow different than “meeting the district standard”), book title, vocabulary, clever catchy hook to pique their reading interest, and an insane number of acronyms – TLW, CFU, and HoD didn’t even scratch the surface.

All timed. Teachers have to time out each tiny segment of each lesson, each minute of learning, the number of minutes actually listed in a box beside each and every task. Who can make such determinations? TLW: The Learners Will copy these vocabulary words at exactly the pace I have predicted, no one will break a pencil lead and meander to the sharpener, no one will need to erase and accidentally tear a gash in their page and request a new one, no one will get into an elbowing match because “Miss, she’s on my paper!” Which no one will vehemently deny, and an argument will not need to be stopped, elbow space will not need to be managed. CFU: Check For Understanding by telling the elbowers, “Is that understood? Good.” HoD: Habits of Discussion explained.

Later in the afternoon, I heard a soft rustling near our doorway. Assuming a straggling student was bringing their parents for a conference, I came out of my cubicle and around the bookshelves to find an older lady nervously peeking into the room, unsure about entering.

“Hello; can I help you?”

Her eyes scanned me, the room, and looked for something…else. “I’m looking for…Ms. Chloe?”

“Right back here,” I showed her, and Chloe stepped up from her own low student table to greet her visitor.

I went back to the maddeningly overorganized, cryptic coding of lesson planning, convinced I would find some meaning to this format that looked like a cross between warehouse inventory and a barcoded mailing label. Surely we were not warehousing children or labeling their learning into stacks of simplistic little boxes.

Suddenly, I looked up to see Chloe standing hesitantly at my cubicle. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

“No, I was reading…this….” I waved dismissive hands at my laptop.

“It was so sad….” Chloe’s eyes were looking for a friend.

“Come on in here; what happened?”

Chloe pulled up a tiny blue plastic chair, and we both leaned our knees against my tiny table.

“That was Javon’s grandma,” she began.

“Without Javon, I noticed.”

“She asked me how he was on the First.”

“So, yesterday?”

Chloe nodded. “And I told her he’d seemed a little subdued, but he still did his reading.”


“And so I guess he waited and waited all evening on Halloween, but his mom never came to pick him up to go trick-or-treating, like she’d promised.”

We shared a moment of deep disappointment, as if we were standing beside Javon at that dark  window, looking for a relationship that might never improve, might never show up on time to let him just be a little kid who wants to go trick-or-treating.

“He lives with his grandma,” Chloe confirmed. “And she said stuff like this happens all the time, and then he sometimes has a hard time. He gets mad, she said. Throws stuff. I told her he has never done anything like that with me.”

Chloe got fired up. “How can you do that? Just not even show up, or call? He’s such a good kid!”

“I think they all are,” I tried to soothe. “I think we may have quite a few living like Javon. There are a lot of reasons why their parents might not be able to be there for them.”

“Yeah,” Chloe agreed. She sighed. “His grandma told me about how she has to take care of him now – she’s got custody of him, and his little brother. And I mean – that’s a lot for her!”

“For sure,” I nodded. “But maybe she’s really stable for them.” I looked thoughtfully at Chloe. “It was probably such a relief for her, to be able to talk to you about his situation, and see that you think he’s a good kid too. She might not have anybody else she can share these stories with.”

“You know where she works?” Chloe’s eyes were wide again. “In our gym, after school. She does the after-school program.”

I thought of how small our fellowship stipend was; then I thought of being 10 years older, trying to raise two grandchildren on a similar wage. I tried to imagine raising my grandchildren because my daughter was AWOL with her own miseries to tend to; I could feel the pressure, of age, of money, of heartache. I wondered where they lived.

“Well, now Javon has both of you wrapped around him,” I smiled at Chloe, my arms illustrating a big hug. “And if all you ever did to help was to hear her story, that mattered. She needed you to hear her, and you did. And you didn’t judge her, or her daughter.”

Chloe started to breathe easier.

“And if you stop by the gym at the end of the day once in a while and just wave Hi, you will be building a relationship. It might really matter.”

Chloe’s face brightened. “I can do that on my way down the hall before I leave.”

The Fellows were an eclectic bunch, all crossing paths here as we all headed somewhere else, footsteps in the sand as we continued on, seeking that further shore of ourselves. “I know you’ve told me you want to go into law,” I ventured. “I see how talented you are with the kids. Maybe there’s a way you can combine the two? You’d be such a great advocate for them.”

“I’ve been thinking about that! I really want to intervene. I like that idea.” Chloe talked more about her hopes and goals, for law school, and for her life.

“Well, you’ve got to do something with kids, because you are such a natural with them.”

She’d told me she wasn’t pursuing a teaching career, because she couldn’t live on the poverty income. It was a crime, robbing year after year of students of Chloe’s sweet calm presence. I found myself just as sad as I had been about Javon, envisioning students coming to a classroom door that would never lead them to Chloe.


“Sort of.” Chloe smiled at me, standing and pushing in the tiny blue plastic chair. “Thanks.” She turned and looked back at me. “You’re good at what you do.”

I smiled encouragingly. But inside I wondered, what is it I do?

There’s no planning for these conferences, these lessons. No box exists. The Learner Will follow a long, thin line drawn in the sand, cling to it like a rope, hoping it leads to more than a stick absently abandoned near the water’s edge.


Tennyson Street School: familiar

Familiar: (adj) well known from long association, informal, casual, relaxed, open, unpretentious; “hail-fellow-well-met”

(n) a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of a small being or animal

(n) a friend or associate

“What do you want to be?” is a difficult question for children – unless it’s Halloween. With endless possibilities, they tend to zero in on the costume that most delights them, whether because it makes them feel magical or beautiful or shockingly bold. They attune themselves to their inner superhero, mermaid, bunny, or monster, and for one evening, we get a glimpse inside their alternate universe.

It’s empowering to remake yourself. We get to play God, creating someone in our own image, an image we hardly dare glimpse a lot of times – the image, the dream, of who we truly want to be. Who we actually are.

Miranda helped me put another barrier between us. To give myself more whiteboard to write on (and another wall to funnel her kids into her cubicle), I took her up on her offer to wheel another whiteboard partition down the hall to our room. As we struggled to wiggle it into place, the top corner came loose, exposing the crumbling particle board inside where a sharp screw had torn through.

“Want my Gorilla Glue for that?” she offered.

“You’ve got some? That would be perfect.” Filling the broken places, we then pushed the whiteboard’s edge back into the partition frame. I held it together while Miranda got our wide packing tape from a drawer. ”If you would, put a strip around the whole frame here,” I indicated, nodding at my hands above my head, and she strapped tape from one side, past my glasses and my ear, around the corner to the other side. “Nice. Now, one over the top, to hold the first tape in place.”

Letting go of the partition, I saw that it held. Good fences make good neighbors, I thought, quoting Robert Frost and imagining his stone walls. Yet the necessary intimacy of working together, reaching so near each other to fix the board, had opened a psychological barrier even as it repaired a physical one. Freed of my wall, I looked around Miranda’s teaching space.

Her word wall was colorful and appealing, and already had words the kids had asked her to spell for them. Group photos of each of her tutoring classes grinned down from another wall. As was expected of all of us, she had a corner dedicated to her college experience, with a smiling photo of her in cap and gown. And another photo, in another cap and gown. Colorful pennants from her four colleges hung above her space, inviting and encouraging.

“That one’s when I got my Master’s in Library Science,” she pointed at the most recent photo. “I just got that in May.”

We talked about her program of study, and about her two undergraduate degrees, in English and Education.

“So you know how to do all of this – the lesson plans, the district standards, the objectives…,” I confirmed, her technical expertise dawning on me.

“Yeah, I just made a little mistake?, so I’m doing this for now.” I looked at her quizzically, but she just continued on. “It’s really not that hard. I can give you one of my lesson plans to look at, if you want.” She smiled at me, then looked over at the utter disaster of papers that was her bookshelf. “I’ll…uh, find one…I’ll email you one.” She looked back at me sheepishly.

“That would be great. I haven’t ever written one before, and it’s a bit daunting.”

“For me, it’s the classroom management I struggle with. That’s why I got disciplined. I have to do training now.” She said it openly, though clearly chagrined.

“Oh, are you doing the online trainings? I think they’re great, super helpful. I geeked out on the research – it’s so cool!”

“Yeah, the coordinator said I have to do them, since I was hired by that last guy, the one that got fired, and I didn’t get any training….”

“Well great! I mean, not great that you didn’t get any training from him, but – “

“Yeah, that’s why I got punishment.” She hung her head just exactly like the kids do when they feel defeated by their reading assignments.

“Discipline,” I offered.

“Yeah, discipline,” she agreed.

“I think training is always a good thing.” I smiled hopefully at her.

“Yeah…,” she tried to agree.

“Well, my background is in social work with homeless families – so I feel pretty good about managing behaviors. Maybe we can trade, yeah? I can learn from you, you can learn from me?”

“Yeah! They’re good kids, my kids, they’re just a little…,” she wiggled her hands, trying to decide what they were.

“High energy?” I offered.

“They just need to settle down.” Her brow furrowed. I remembered the lunchroom.

“It’s hard, but you get to kind of start over,” I sympathized. “You can reset the tone you want.”

“Yeah.” Miranda turned back into her messy, colorful space. “Well, lunch time!” Then, putting on her headphones, she ate a sandwich while watching the training videos.

“Fixed and Growth Mindsets are related to skills, comfort zones: ‘I’m just not good at X.’ With a growth mindset, all absences of skill are understood to be temporary and malleable. You might not know how to do something, but you assume you could learn if you took the time. We find ways to express the same relevant information about your present lack of skill, without encoding it in a sense of defeatism. Instead, speak of how you’re not as skilled as you could be if you trained or practiced more.

“So growth mindset applies not only to ‘abilities’ like public speaking or math or dancing, but also to traits or typical responses you have. It’s easy to hear about growth mindset and think, ‘Oh yeah, I know that I can improve my skills, obviously I have a growth mindset!’

“Not so fast. What about your traits? Descriptions not of what you can do but of what you tend to do? The way to talk about these from a growth mindset is to put these tendencies in the past. Note that this it totally allowed even if they’re in the really recent past, like if you’re talking about a reaction you had just days ago, or even a few minutes ago.

“And it doesn’t assume that you are certain it’ll never happen again. It just means that you’re not condemning yourself to that fate…but waiting to see, and anticipating progress.”


“Ms, Barbara, can you tie a tie?” Miranda asked me as she escorted a boy to my tiny table in the afternoon.

“Mmm, not from memory,” I said to the disappointed boy. “But I know how to find out.” He perked right back up, and Miranda left him to me.

“Come on over, let’s look and see,” I offered, typing into my laptop. “How…to…tie…a…tie,” I narrated, hitting the Enter key with a flourish. “Excellent – step-by-step pictures.”

I brought up the illustrations and the boy came to stand in front of me. As he stood patiently, I read the instructions out loud for us both, stumbling and fumbling and having to restart. Miranda came back to watch, chatting companionably as I tried to figure out the steps; and eventually, I completed a simple single knot.

“So if there’s something we need to know,” I summarized, finishing tucking the end through, “like how to tie a tie,” and I slipped the knot up to the boy’s collar, “we can just look it up, read how to do it,” I finished, straightening the knot. “We can learn how.”

All three of us smiled happily. “I’m a teacher,” the boy explained, showing me his costume. Me too, I thought wryly, and smiled even more.

“Thanks, Ms. Miranda,” he beamed at her. “Thanks,” he said to me.

“Go join your class!” Miranda barked at him; he took it good-naturedly and hustled out the door.

She turned to me. “Have you seen the parade? It’s SO cute.” We grabbed our jackets and headed out to the playground, dressed as teachers, while a universe of possibilities paraded by, right before our very eyes.



Tennyson Street School: brilliant

Brilliant: (adj) brightshiningblazingdazzlingvividintensegleamingglaringluminous
radiantcoruscatingvividintensebolddazzling, intelligentcleversmartastute,

Back in the farmlands of 1970’s Iowa when I was a kid in elementary school, I was not allowed to be bored. That’s not true; I was not allowed to say I was bored, so long as I kept my boredom to myself. In my family, if you said you were bored, you were assigned extra chores, usually fairly unpleasant cleaning tasks.

This was the first approach to self-discipline that I learned: do not say what you are thinking.

When I started school, I was initially one of those eager learners, the bright-eyed kid throwing their hand so high in the air, waving it so frantically, it starts to lift them out of their seat. Learning made my brain feel like I was flying, soaring over the corn fields and hog barns, glimpsing far away lands where people talked about visionary ideas and crafted new inventions and found wondrous new stories I’d never heard before.

In kindergarten, I was quick. In first grade, I was a delight. In second grade, I was an undisciplined behavior problem.

I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself from learning. Every question my teacher asked, I answered – even when she was trying to ask questions of the entire class. She’d tell me to let the other kids try, but then she’d ask another fascinating question, and I knew, I just knew the answer it was so fantastic, and before I could think I had thrilled my own brain with that soaring flight of connection and discovery. Again I would answer, shout it out, loud and proud.

Eventually they would label me “gifted.” My second grade teacher labeled me impulsive, undisciplined, and disruptive.

I remember the desks arranged in a mod circle, my young, beautiful teacher practicing the latest classroom structures for group learning. And I remember my desk removed from that circle, stuck back in the corner by the pencil sharpener and the trash can. Now I was not allowed to answer any questions. I became bored, and lonely.

When my standardized test scores came back, they were off the top of the charts. My No. 2 pencil was allowed to make the school look wildly successful, but my voice had been silenced. The group would not be learning from me, because I would see and hear very clearly in that silence outside the circle that I was not part of the group – I literally did not fit in. I was not normal, I was not okay, my thrill at learning was selfish, and I should not say what I was thinking.

What I learned in second grade was that I was a bad kid. This translated into behavior issues, especially with babysitters. Since my parents needed to work, I finally ended up going to my grandparents’ farm every day after school. There, stepping down from the confines of the yellow school bus to where their dusty lane met the edge of the gravel road, I felt free.

Grandma Jensen taught me about discipline – which was simply groundedness for my mental energy. I needed her one-on-one attention to help me learn to ride the powerful, wild horse of my mind, to channel my curiosity into self-mastery. With her never-ending patience, I learned to follow directions to sew a quilt, weed and harvest in the garden, wash clothes in a wringer washing machine and hang them on the clothesline, iron, chop, bake, knit – and write.

Grandma got me writing little stories about the things I was thinking and learning. She let me staple my pages together, and use markers and pens to make covers and illustrations.

My grandma was a brilliant teacher. She was my first, best teacher, supporting my endless love of learning. She gave me back my voice, a way to speak my mind, say my truth. I wrote about everything. I wandered the farm, exploring happily, silently noting details of monarch butterflies on milkweed, the rippling waves of a hay field like water, the variety of clouds overhead and whether they meant rain. I thought about worlds so small you’d need a microscope to see them, waves of oceans I had never seen, and soaring above the clouds like traveling through time, off into the vastness of space, where the light we see is only the memory of star shine.


Tennyson Street School: affinity

Affinity: (n) a fellow feeling for

While technically still in training, I was asked to meet regularly with Javier. “Ooo, good luck,” the other Fellows had told me with a sympathetic wince. He had a reputation for disregarding rules and fighting back. His test scores showed his attitude more than his ability; a student teacher had advised me Javier “hadn’t felt like trying that day.”

I felt myself bristle ever so slightly. I have an affinity for the smart kid who picks all the wrong battles to fight. I come from a long line of Javiers.

Grandpa Jensen didn’t actually get his degree from Iowa State; he enrolled, took all the required classes, and passed them all – except for one. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pass the English.

Holger was a conundrum for those who knew him: a hard-working farmer but a lackluster student, a fun-loving guy with a strong stubborn streak, a proud man who didn’t talk about himself, humble yet fierce. His thick Danish accent was a daily reminder that he was a first-generation American; he might be born here, even able to speak the language, but inside his parents’ home, vi er danskere. We are Danes.

He became an ROTC second lieutenant who technically didn’t graduate college. Maybe Iowa State didn’t have Fellows or tutors to help ESL students complete their degrees in the 1920’s. They had professors, however, and other students, native English speakers. Holger could have asked for help; the problem was that Holger…just…couldn’t. Something in his character, his personality, maybe his upbringing, made that the distasteful or shameful choice. Knowing him, his attitude would have been to clench his jaw and walk away without looking back.

I’d been told Javier’s family spoke Spanish at home, which might also be impacting his English language skills. I went into the 4th-5th combined classroom to meet him, a beautiful boy who will be a strikingly handsome man one day. Strong and sturdy, Javier looked like an athlete, and his sporty attire confirmed the image. We would be reading together one-on-one in addition to our Literacy Lab time, so after introducing myself, we sat down by the classroom bookshelves.

“What book will we read?” Javier asked me, trying hard not to sound too interested.

“Why don’t you pick one book that’s too easy, and one that’s kind of hard,” I suggested.

He glanced at the shelves, but was actually watching me. “I’ve read all of these,” he shrugged.

“You’ve read ALL of these?”

“Mm-hmm.” He eyed me casually but intently.

“That’s a lot of reading.” I didn’t push; letting the ridiculous exaggeration stand seemed to allow Javier to let it go.

“I can just reach in while I close my eyes and choose, like this” – and placing one hand over his eyes, his other fingers danced over the tops of some chapter books within reach. He snatched one from the shelf.

“‘Bailey School Kids’ – those are good ones. You like the ‘Bailey School Kids’ books?”

“It’s okay.”

A voice popped up on the other side of Javier. “Hey! I know you!” A small, thin boy grinned even as he tried to scowl at me.

“And I know you,” I greeted him. “Your name begins with a D…,” I feigned ignorance.

“D-E-L-E-O-N, DeLeon.”

“Hi, DeLeon,” I grinned back.

Javier looked back and forth between us. “Can we go read now?”

“Did you pick an easy one, too?”

Javier grabbed a thin picture book. He flapped it at me exasperatedly, as if he’d been waiting for hours for our reading time.

“Ready? Nice seeing you, DeLeon,” I waved. DeLeon gave a little wave back. Javier and I left the classroom for a reading and study area up the hall, across from the Lab.

The study area was carpeted and corralled by low walls made of smooth wooden railing and colorful square insets. A high counter ran along it’s farther wall, with bright blue barstools the older kids liked climbing into. The rest of the space was filled with a hodgepodge of discarded office chairs, small ottoman-style vinyl seats in fun shapes and colors, and a brown corduroy papasan chair with a metal frame. I thought of my “learning environment” admonishments: everything in your space MUST serve a purpose; less is more; label everything. Javier plopped into the papasan chair, and with a gracious wave of his hand, offered me the office chair next to it: the teacher’s chair.

I had him start with the easy book. It was a colorful, cartoonish picture book about baseball, aimed at a much younger child. As he hurried from page to page, reading words in the stilted Frankenstein walk of trampled, unrecognized meaning, suddenly a realization came to him.

“Hey! Did you hear that? It’s like a poem!”

“You’re right, it rhymes.”

Javier nodded and continued trampling, occasionally repeating a few words when he recognized the rhyme scheme.

When he reached the end, I asked him what he liked about that book. His big eyes grew thoughtful as he looked directly into mine. “The poetry. I like books with imagery.”

“Imagery like illustrations? Or imagery like pictures in your head?”

“Pictures in my head.”

Javier the baseball fan liked poetic imagery. The picture in my own head was changing focus, gaining depth. The caption I’d been given did not accurately label this complex image.

We started into the chapter book. As Javier stumbled over the character names, calling Liza “Lizza,” I soon figured out he’d never read a Bailey School Kids book before. The premise of this popular series involves a group of four elementary school students who keep suspecting various teachers of being various kinds of monsters.

Where other children grin knowingly as they try to determine if the math teacher is, in fact, a goblin, Javier seemed taken aback. It quickly became clear that he did not want any of the teachers to be any kind of monsters. He seemed relieved when our reading time was up, though he made no move to extricate himself from the cozy depths of the papasan chair.

Comfort zones may be refuges, but they are also limiting. “Time to go back to class.” I stood from my chair, holding the easy book and looking at him expectantly. Javier finally clambered up and out, and now with a gracious wave of my hand, I had him lead me back to his classroom.

“What grade are you in, Javier, 4th or 5th?” I clarified as I opened the door.

“Fifth.” He looked directly in my eyes again, waiting to see how I would respond.

“Thought so,” I smiled.

“We’re going to get you all ready for middle school, bud,” his teacher added now, affectionately tossling his hair and absorbing him back into the room. She was none other than Commanding Teacher.