School begins this month in millions of classrooms, and as teachers begin to build a learning community with 25-180 unknown humans who will enter their classroom spaces, many of us will ask some version of the question “What did you do this summer?”
I know what you’re thinking. “No we won’t. We are so beyond that.”
It might sound like “tell me about your family” or “tell me something you want me to know about yourself” or “tell me what you’re good at” or “interview/introduce the kid sitting next to you.” It might be writing an “I Am From” poem or completing a list of “favorite things” or an open-ended free write, or an autobiography, or a survey about reading or a “bingo” game where they find who has a pet like theirs or is left-handed or has lived in another state…but essentially, it will be a way of learning tidbits about students’ life experiences and contexts.
And this is fine. But as I think about some of the things I’ve been reading and learning this summer, I believe we still aren’t asking the right questions to set the tone for the year in my opinion. (And, believe me, I know that if I were preparing to greet students, I would be getting out some of my favorite ice breakers, music, readings, “I Am From” poem examples and quick writes to prime this pump just as I always do.)
And I’d be missing the boat just a bit.
(Apologies to those of you who hate sentences beginning quite ungrammatically with coordinating conjunctions. My thoughts on this topic keep unfolding in just that way with “ands” that keep cascading.)
New research shows that the students I will greet next week likely will not work in a traditional economy. Over half of them will be freelancers doing project work in teams (with colleagues like themselves, some of whom they will know only virutually). Their success will rise and fall based on their ability to deploy a set of skills that I am only beginning to articulate to myself:
-the ability to see and quickly understand a need/problem,
-the creativity to design solutions,
-the skills to analyze what it will take to build the answers,
-the confidence and self-awareness to identify what skills/knowledge they personally can bring to a project
-the experiences and networks to find others they need to collaborate on their project for successful outcomes
-the knowledge of where to go to learn what they need to get a job done if they don’t have all the skills/information,
-the communication powers to reach out to teammates and entice them to join the work,
-the practice with and skills to collaborate,
-the ability to critique and revise without fear,
-the confidence to defend what they think and create,
-the ability to communicate results, and sell themselves as solution makers by building their own brand,
-and the knowledge of where the best “product placement” of themselves will be to get asked back to do more projects.
They will need to be constant learners and scanners of “what’s out there?”–frequently analyzing their options and paying attention to the details of evolutions so they don’t become extinct themselves and so they stay fluent and relevant for their own work.
What questions do I ask the people who will live and work in that world as they come through my classroom door for the very first time? How can I get them starting to orient themselves to a world that probably even they cannot envision because A: they don’t even think about adult life yet really and B: it doesn’t quite exist in that form in most of the things they observe around them…YET.
I struggle to think about what I need to ask these learners, to set the tone for the year of learning ahead, for the kind of work ahead…
And I think I’d start with some small shifts in what I want to learn about them as we begin. I would start by changing my OWN first questions to them.
Not “What did you DO this summer?” but “What did you LEARN or LEARN TO DO this summer?”
Not “Tell me about your family” but “Tell me what things you do that help your family survive and succeed” (or some version of that). “What skills do you have that no one else in your family has?” “What are each of the people in your family good at?”
Not “Who are your friends?” but “How do you make friends?”
Not “What do you like?” but “What do you want to know more about?”
Not “What is your learning style?” but “Where and whom do you learn from?”
Not “Tell me about your pets, bedroom, etc” but “Tell me what’s on your bookshelf, Kindle, iPod, app list, blog, “recently viewed” history, or Twitter feed right now and what does it tell me about you as a person?”
Not “What worries or upsets you?” but “What do you do when you’re faced with a really interesting or tough-to-solve problem?”
Not “What do you want me to know about you?” but “What do you want the world to know and think about you?” Now and in the future.
Yeah. I think that’s where I’d start. (And I would STILL entice them into the fun of my favorite “I Am From” poem creation…but before that, I’d start with the kinds of questions that the world is going to be asking them someday.)
New Year’s Day for those of us who have spent our lives in schools is NOT January 1. It’s the first day of school. The fresh page. The blank slate. The aisles of school supply sales at Target. The clean classroom. The empty plan book. Each year, as educators, we have this one great, gigantic, glorious restart on the work we have given our lives to. What a gift. And this time approaching it…well, it’s the time when we ponder how to do it all again but even better this time around. The time when all things are possible, all lessons fit perfectly into the time we imagine they will take, all students come ready and willing before real people embody the ideal image we have of them…the time right before we roll up our sleeves and get to work to build messy, imperfect, achingly human relationships we will never forget.
In this beautiful crystal-clear space of waning lazy summer days, I can clearly imagine the perfect ten months ahead. A year in which I will flawlessly execute my ideal school year. A year in which I will be the teacher I dream of being. It is always possible once again as I stand at this point ready to begin. Year after year, I can imagine who I want to be and take aim once more before I set out on my work with students–all of whom will walk through the door with high hopes that THIS year will be great.
My profession offers this amazing annual “do over” unlike any other. As I stand here on the eve of “one more time” for the 29th time in my life, I am as excited as I’ve ever been and grateful for that wellspring of eagerness to get started that comes “free with purchase” upon choosing to teach.
The rhythms of a school year are perpetual and as familiar as old friends. As “Back to School” kicks off, I recognize happily the sights, smells, and feelings that come with it over and over again–crisp class lists with names of people I hope to love, neat stacks of materials, bright smell of Fantastic and Febreze in my room, long droning faculty meetings packed with reminders, new pens and markers, the themed bulletin boards we got inspired for somewhere last week with school closing in. I know these feelings. I have stood many times in this place and felt these rhythms start up again. I know they’ll be followed by the autumn sunshine of September afternoons that call to us to stay outdoors at recess just a little longer than planned, the slow turning of October leaves as I stand on afternoon bus duty, the gray skies of November that make us almost glad to be indoors learning together, the first snowflakes swirling lazily outside my windows which kids will greet with all the excitement of people who’ve never seen one before in ways that derail a lesson completely (and that we gracefully surrender to because they remind you that you, too, are excited to greet the snow), the fevered expectations of the holidays through children’s eyes, the dark January mornings when you struggle to find lessons that will make all of you engage and count on coffee to get you through first period, the February carnations delivered by the Student Council that poignantly remind you of the despair of being friendless, the melting muddy footprints in the hallways of March, the countdown to Spring Break, the weak April sunshine that you greet with joy and dawning realization that learning IS happening, the frenzy of May’s “end of year” events and the “only fifteen more days” reminders of summer on the rise, and the bittersweet realization that time is almost out on this year in the community you built back in August. We wave good-bye excitedly as the buses roll on the last afternoon of the last day and go back to pick up a classroom that holds only echoes, memories, and a couple of notes from kids who want you to know you made a difference to them. One more year is done. One perfectly imperfect amazing year of unexpected moments and challenges, students we learned to love or help, differences made in small and life-altering ways.
THAT is what begins here in a few days, and I cannot WAIT to get started just one more time. I love it. I love it all. We are the luckiest people in the world to get to teach.
Like all those who worship light, I love those long, lazy summer evenings when the light hangs in the sky till well past the time we should be getting tired. I love the fireflies darting in tiny random trajectories through the backyard on the edge of our woods leaving jet trails of light when I squint to bring them into clearer focus. I love falling asleep on a late summer night with the windows open…allowing the cooling earth to enter the room on whispering breezes. Love the voices of kids with dirty bare feet, playing in the cul de sac drunk on summer freedom as dusk begins and mothers start calling them home. I love the rising crystal-bright evening star in a sky more deep blue than black. Love the darkening edges of night tinting the sky to black while one strip of tri-color light (rose, cream, and velvety blue) frames the horizon for what feels like forever after sunset.
Summer is such joy.
The solstice appears at the height of all these things I love. It tips us over toward the shortening of days…but instead of feeling sad that we are headed downward, I bask in the apex of the light–enjoying both the lengthening of days preceding it and the long days that hang on after it. They are not shorter yet, and so they feel like celebrations to me–each one its own line in the secret hymn of praise I sing to the light.
The solstice reminds me that light leaves an echo just like sound…the hours of daylight hanging on in the air and slowly fading as we roll into fall, when the “blue hour” just at sunset arrives earlier but still reminds us just a little of the just-past clear golden light of summer. When fall comes, some of us will dream about light that stayed up late just as we did with nothing but time on our hands–laughing and talking on June nights. In the long light of summer evenings, we were all children out of school once more…drunk on freedom in the days when all things are possible.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
– Stanley Kunitz
Once again…one of my favorite bloggers, Lindsey Mead, gives me a quote worth pausing my hectic pace to sigh over. “The moment is dear…precisely because it is so fugitive.” Fugitive moments. Fleeting, fleeing, fugitive moments of our lives hide from us in the days that unfold upon one another. They are precious because they are gone. To hold them might devalue them, and yet we ache to do it anyway. I recognize these words as truth the moment I read them. As a compulsive journal writer and scribbler of the wispy thoughts that float through my mind and then are never seen again, I, too, have hunted for the magic that will make the moment stay. I have felt myself be in a moment and known that I wanted to pin it down forever, to feel it so deeply that I would be able to reach into myself and touch it again, press “play” in my head and be there once more long after time has moved on from this spot. To keep the sunset staining the sky for just a minute more. To stop the ocean spray midair and watch it endlessly hanging for as long as I want. To close my eyes and know that when I open them, the scene will not have changed, the breeze will still lift my hair gently, the snowflakes lazily drifting through the air will not melt, the golden crimson leaves will not fall from the trees all wreathed in glory. I feel the sharp remorse sometimes as I watch my grown children and wish that I had been able to flash freeze moments from their past…so I could see their little shining eager innocence one more time now and then, capture and re-see their delight in the world, their surprise in things that are long since “not new” but were, at the time, amazing. “Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.” Such words. I think about my fascination with stories of time travel or bending, tales of people who stand in “the thin places” in the universe and cross through them. Maybe they resonate because it is transcendence I seek, that we all seek. The ability to not have our days pass away into forgetfulness of what it meant to stand here and now, to live here and now, to feel and be and work and hope and love and breathe. The sharp deep beauty of the moment…captured, run to ground, not a fugitive at all, but ours to hold or at the very least, to cross back into and revisit when we wished. If we could, we would not always be leaving something behind at the last station as we moved forward but taking it with us…precious cargo…to the end of the line. I think of poets who have captured and preserved with spare and lovely words and phrases the fleeting instances of life that they experienced–the beauty or the pain or the painfully transient beauty. If poetry is the pinning down of these moments for others long afterward to open, animate, and feel again, then poets are, for sure, the heroes and heroines of all humanity.
A friend recently shared a story her cousin had written about his decision as a young boy to fill his new fly-fishing vest with a “charm” or token from each of his family members. It was a novel little idea that led to his bag of charms growing over the years and coming to represent so much more to him than a way to fill his pockets. I loved this story, and it made me think for a moment about the things we carry. Kristin once told me that her favorite assigned novel in high school was the book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s story of a Vietnam platoon and the tokens each man valued enough to keep with him. As someone who would claim she doesn’t value possessions much, I must confess I am nevertheless passionate about what I would probably call my personal “treasures.” When it comes to the old question about what you would save if the house was on fire, I always say “just the family,” but my heart always hurts for just a moment when I think of the loss of some of the other things I carry. I am a minimalist when it comes to home décor. My house is full of light and space and the view of the outdoors is my favorite interior design element. I find light and room more restful than lovely furniture, art objects, fabrics, paint, or interior accessories. There’s no accounting for personal taste, but this is mine. Thus, it is in the places I allow clutter that you can see what I care about. My home, where it is cluttered, is filled with odd accumulated little treasures—stacks of old books that came from my relatives, stones collected from everywhere that my children or I have been, photos, refrigerator magnets, a sprawling set of blue and white dishes I almost never use that were Grandma’s treat for all our birthday meals, Christmas ornaments, the silver tea service like my mother’s that is oddly out of place in our contemporary home but which she gave each of us as a wedding gift, the two little jade figurines that perched on Grandma’s kitchen windowsill that now live on mine…Joe’s awkward little school pottery projects, every card or letter people I love have ever written me, books…did I say books? And the place where these things find themselves is important too. My kitchen window ledge is completely full—the one place I stand multiple times a day and look and remember. My refrigerator door and the bulletin board I see when I come through the door every night are loaded with memories/photos/quotes/ribbons/tickets and the magnet collection Kristin and I increase each time we travel to someplace we love enough to deem “magnet worthy.” My bookshelves are loaded not only with books but with photos, children’s projects, homemade gifts, or little reminders of places I’ve been. My dresser drawer is stuffed full of writing—letters and notes from Tom and the kids, my own scribbles, quotes or stories I’ve copied. I can’t open it without them falling out, and I open it every day. It should drive me crazy, but it doesn’t. So, yes, even this minimalist loves charms, too. They are those little reminders of the people who matter kept where we can see them every day and think of them every minute. They are not cluttering our lives; they are, in fact, the visible reminders of them. I love my friend’s story of this seventeen year old boy’s charms because he carried them with him…because somehow he knew just as Tim O’Brien’s soldiers did that a little piece of all the people we love is the best accessory we can have.
Today in this great workshop, we were discussing how much structures help us begin writing…not because we need to copy, but because we sometimes need those mentor texts to get ideas from. Ralph showed us a poem he’d written about his childhood and asked us to write our own. It began, “Sometimes I remember the good old days…” As I sat there in the banked lecture hall, balancing my notebook on my designed-for-right-handers desk just like in college, in an audience of teachers, with winter sunshine pouring in the tall windows set in the ivy-covered walls of Jordan Hall, I wrote this:
Sometimes I remember the good old days
Thirty pairs of expectant eyes watching me start class
Praying I have something to give them that will be both fun and life-changing
Murmur of voices talking about stories
Scratch of over-sharpened pencils skimming across lined pages on scarred desks
Snow falls outside and I walk gently through the aisles
Soaking in the quiet satisfaction of being a teacher
Stopping to read and talk and hug
Letting them creep into and take over my heart
I still can’t imagine anything better than that.