Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Most Important Skill

Before the new school year starts, I try to think through a theme for the year--something that I want my students to carry with them long after the work of reading and writing essays and stories has finished for 7th grade. After reading article after article about the lack of empathy--and seeing such proof displayed, tragically, on the national stage all through the summer--I decided that this year we would try and work on what I believe is the most essential skill of all.

Growing up, I was very close with my oldest brother, Christopher, who is deaf. He lost his hearing at age two due to meningitis. Once I got to high school, Chris began to open up to me and vulnerably share what school had been like for him--the ways in which others did not view him or treat him with kindness and dignity, but rather with disdain and disregard.

His is not my story to tell: his journey belongs to him, and I do not want to speak on his behalf. Chris has a powerful, beautiful, and dignified voice all his own.

But I do want to share that after teaching for 13 years in a variety of contexts--at the high school, college, middle school, and Adult Ed levels--I am convinced that the most important skill we can help our students learn is empathy. It is more important than every single test score, every college essay, every other result or attribute.

And empathy is severely lacking.

The recent news out of Omaha, Nebraska, about Alex Hernandez is deeply disheartening. Watching Alex talk about his experiences of ongoing bullying (particularly the most recent instance when two male students stole his backpack and threw it into the toilet), and showing the clip to my current 7th graders, I cannot keep from crying.

But in the CNN article about Alex, in light of the wave of support and solidarity from people who heard about the disturbing incident and then connected with Alex, he shares a profoundly moving statement: "It made me very happy. It made me feel like I am not alone." This is the power of empathy. For a student who has traveled years feeling like he is alone, that his battles are his alone, and the cruelty of others is his alone to face (with little support, it would seem, from the school community in which he spent years), Alex finally feels like others see him for who he is. They are seeing the injustice that has been done to him repeatedly--not just in a single instance--and they are voicing their support of Alex and their righteous anger at those who attack.

One of the questions my 7th graders and I are exploring is why students who attack feel like they have the license to do so. In other words, why did those two male students who stole Alex's backpack think it was okay to do so? Why did they have a sense they would get away with it (as, by all accounts, they have. A mere mention that they didn't know Alex seems to have convinced the school that it was all a big misunderstanding--something that is often told to people who are systematically and consistently oppressed)?

One of the most insightful responses from my students is that students who bully and demean others do so because they do not have a deep, experiential, and intimate understanding of others who look, act, or think differently than they do. In other words: the segregation which plagues our school systems across this country is a massive culprit in the absence of empathy.

Our schools are woefully segregated according to race, class, gender, abilities, and many other attributes, aptitudes, and attitudes.

Instead of remedying this injustice, many of us seem to accept that this is the way schooling has been done, or that it would be too hard to change, or that it would impose upon principles of freedom. But when we allow segregation and misunderstanding to fester, anything else we teach or learn is meaningless.

What could have been done to prevent the tragic act of Alex's backpack being thrown in the toilet (and the thousand other cruelties Alex endured along his years as a student)?

Giving students experiences connecting with others who look, think, and act in ways that may be new to them. We need to invite speakers into our schools to talk about deafness, race relations, gender inequality, and more. We need to create experiential activities whereby our students journey outside the walls of their own schools and into others. We need to create new ways of fostering communities in our schools, and building schools that depend not only on zip codes but on justice codes: commitments to equalize housing costs and access to our public schools.

We can continue to pretend that standardized test scores are what matter, and that fighting for better scores for all is the work of justice. But that would be to deceive ourselves. What matters most is creating schools that model the kind of what in which we want to live: diverse, understanding, connected, and full of that most important skill of all: empathy.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Poem for the Maybe-Inclined


Open up the world.
See it for its breadth, depth, beauty, pain.
Life is bigger than we think.
Smaller than we scoff.
Go out and touch it.
See it.
Swim in the oxygen that
Sits still unless we take
Staccato breaths
And big steps
Off cliffs, out of boxes,
Where the air is thin and
Meaning is thick.
Reach.
Teach.
Learn.
Burn.
Think not of thriving
Or of dying,
But of all that is
Waiting to come alive.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Why We Remember

Lately, our two-year old, Benjamin, has taken to becoming a mini-Chris Farley in every aspect of his conversational life. Just like that fabulous persona on SNL where Farley portrayed an interviewer who began every question with "Remember when...?" Ben has been imbued with such a trait lately.



Ben's questions come at the most random times. When we're sitting eating dinner together, Ben will suddenly look up and out with blazing eyes and remark with rapture on his face: "REMEMBER DINOSAUR AT BARNES AND NOBLE!?" 

This would be referring to a dinosaur book at Barnes and Noble where, when you push a button, the dinosaur selected subsequently responds with a resounding ROAR!

Tyler, Jennifer, and I all answer Ben, "Yes, we remember that dinosaur Ben!"

To which Ben replies, "Dino say ROAR at Barnes and Noble!"

At other times, we will, all four of us, be snuggled on the couch together ready to rock and roll with some reading before bed, and Ben will spontaneously pipe up, "Remember boy fell down!?" 

It referred to an incident three weeks when, at the beach, a boy had fallen while he was running and began to cry with every bit of lung capacity he possessed. 

"Yes, Ben. we remember that."

"That boy OKAY, that boy OKAY, that boy gon' to be OKAY."

To which we respond, of course, "Yes, Ben, that boy will be okay. he is all-okay!"

Jen and I have talked a lot lately about how fast everything seems to move. Rushing out in the mornings to get to school on time, rushing to get papers written and deadlines met, rushing to make dinner to get int the bath on time to read books to get to bed before OH MY GOSH HOW IS IT ALREADY 9;30!?

And with the rampant pace--and the rampant news cycle to keep up with, and all the beautiful and glorious work that we so long to do to make the world just the tiniest bit better--remembering seems to take a back seat to the NOW, to the DO, to the MOVE MOVE MOVE.

But maybe Chris Farley, and our little guy Ben, are on to something.

Maybe there's more to Remembering than meets the eye. Maybe slowing down and focusing less on the what-still-needs-to-happen and more on the what-work-has-already-been-done, we actually grow. Maybe it's in those spaces where we experience life close to the bone and learn from it, celebrate it, and remember it, that help us feel content and even peaceful. 

As Sarah Lewis claims in her inspiring Ted Talk, after all, sometimes mastery isn't about the absolute best and the absolute perfection; rather, it's about coming close and celebrating that fact--even enjoying it. 



Remembering reminds us that while we have much to do, we have also already done much. Remembering also reminds us that we do not need to make the same mistakes twice--we can learn from the errors we've already encountered and, by slowing our pace and taking the hand of a friend beside us, move forward with a little more wisdom. 

I hope to practice the art of remembering a little more, and striving a little less. 


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Get Your Looney On!

The Gant Family (Paul, Diana, Micah, Emma)
Mr. Looney, the 77-year old zany English teacher in The Looney Experiment, is all about depth, connection, and courage. The friendship he forges with 8th-grader Atticus Hobart is a testimony to what's possible when we are willing to get beyond the status quo for school, for ourselves, and for society.

To help spread the word about going beyond the status quo and into the realm of LOONEY, here are a few friends...

Ben Reynolds

Kathryn Erskine


Megan Devlin


Matt Devlin

Tamara Ellis Smith

Katie Benson



Susan Anderson

Jake Dustin

Deborah Underwood

Laurie Ann Thompson

Luke Someone or Other


Suka


Trixie
What does your looney look like?

#GetYourLooneyOn

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Of Soup and Synthesis

A few nights ago, Tyler announced that he wanted to make dinner for Jen, Ben, and I.

"What are you going to make?" We wondered aloud.

"You'll see!" came the excited retort.

And so, we saw.

Tyler asked Jen to purchase a number of items from the store--red peppers, onions, garlic, avocado, grape tomatoes, tomato sauce...and a few hours later Tyler was at the stove adding ingredients into one pan and getting ready to chop up others and fry them in another pan. The entire time, as he progressed in his yet-unannounced recipe preparation--he voiced aloud exactly what he was doing as he was working off the set of his own veritable cooking show.

Hearing our seven old utter sentences like,  "So what I'm doing here is I am cutting these peppers into very tiny pieces to get them all to be just the right size for the mix" filled us with a synthesis of wonder and delight.

We relished it. (Even if we were just a bit mystified and fearful of how the eventual result would taste.)

Fast forwarding an hour later, we all sat down do a kind of soup. The onions had been fried and we browned just towards the heavy side of soft, the peppers were (as predicted) just the right size, and the other ingredients seemed to elbow out their space in the mixture to announce themselves subtly yet powerfully enough to get noticed--"Hey man! I may be small and have strange ties to varies but I AM HERE TOO" said the garlic.

In the days that have followed, I've thought a lot about soup.

Soup.

It's a synthesis really, and I have thought a lot about synthesis lately, too, since my 7th graders just finished writing their synthesis essays and since my school backpack is burdened with the 100 essays labeled TO BE GRADED.

The theme my thoughts have taken with all of this soup and synthesis has coalesced into one curiosity today: I wonder how many students in our schools feel like they can make their own soup?

In other words, I am wondering how often we ask our students--and our children--to work with the ingredients they know and come up with new possibilities. Instead of handing them recipes to be followed meticulously, how often do we let their minds wander around the educational grocery store and say, come up with something new!

RUBRIC is a buzzword we hear everywhere these days, and if I ever assign some kind of writing and don't provide a rubric (which is becoming more and more frequent!) I certainly hear the fear that arches back: "But how will we KNOW what to produce?!"

And the answer that rises up--the YAWP if we can invoke a little Whitman here--is simply, "You won't!"

And maybe that's okay. Maybe that's even a good thing.

In one of his poems, the great rule-breaker e.e. cummings wrote, "I would rather learn from one bird how to sing /  than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance." Maybe part of what he meant here relates to soup and synthesis. Maybe part of what he meant was about learning a new song rather than teaching what NOT to do because it's not on the rubric.

I have a lot to learn. And watching my seven year old son make soup, I felt a kind of challenge from the young to the old: watch this, Dad. It doesn't have to be all planned out. I don't even have to know what I am doing! And it will be okay!

It may not always taste great. But then again, isn't that, too, what real learning is all about?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Charmed and Delighted": An Interview with Tara Lazar


Tara Lazar is a veritable whiz of boisterous, joyful, fun, and empowering picture books. She is the author of The Monstore, Little Red Gliding Hood, and many other books--including her latest, Normal Norman

As a teacher and a dad, Normal Norman is about everything I want my students and my kids to know and believe: that being EXACTLY who you truly, authentically are is the only real "normal" worth striving towards! 

Tara hits this beautiful message out of the park with her latest picture book, which includes an awesomely unique orangutan and a passionately empowered young female scientist. It's DEFINITELY worth buying and reading to yourself and your kids and your students many times over again!

And here's Tara's wisdom on writing, living, Normal Norman, and her love of waffles and Roald Dahl...

How did you first get the highly original and engaging idea for NORMAL NORMAN?

All I had was the title, or rather, the character’s name. I love word play so my only real thought was that it was fun to say. This kind of thing pops into my head from nowhere, so I don’t remember any specific lightning bolt of inspiration.

I’m a pantser, so sometimes ideas don’t manifest themselves fully until I’m actively writing. It seemed to make sense to introduce Norman first, so I created the junior scientist narrator. Then I knew Norman had to be very uncooperative. And the story took off from there!

You've created not only a very unique and fun and funny orangutan, Norman, but also a very empowered young female scientist! How did you arrive at the identities of these two protagonists? Did they change throughout the revision process?

I just wrote the words. S.britt created the characters. I had no idea what they looked like! I never specified what kind of animal Norman was, nor did I state that the junior scientist was female. That was all Stephan’s brilliant interpretation.

Norman started out as a lion, but he didn’t feel quite right and we all knew it. Then he was a blue lion but he looked more like a monster. Then came the purple orangutan and we all knew it—we knew it like you know about a good melon.

One line you hope kids think or feel after reading NORMAL NORMAN?

Ooh-ooh-ahh-ahh-ahh-roo-wee-ROO-WEE!

Ha ha, just kidding.

“…everyone likes being his or her normal self.” No explanation needed.

One line you hope parents / teachers / librarians think or feel afterwards?

Same for them, too!

You've got an amazing and inspiring (and hugely helpful) blog WRITING FOR KIDS WHILE RAISING THEM, and you also run PiBoIdMo, the picture book writing equivalent to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Can you share why you so strongly believe in, support, and create picture books?

I have always loved picture books, the unique format, the interplay between words and pictures. Honestly, I love the pictures more than anything else! I remember being in 2nd grade and being told to read chapter books and novels. BUT THERE ARE NO PICTURES, I said. I was devastated. To this day, I still feel sorry for my 8-year-old self.

I create picture books because they are a child’s first introduction to literature and I want the children reading the books to be charmed and delighted. I want them to LOVE reading for a lifetime. Reading is instrumental to a child’s success in school and later in life. If I can reel one kid in, my job here is done! Err, I mean, my job here is ongoing!

Can you finish these lines for us...?

If I were to have a five-hour breakfast with someone, it would be...

Roald Dahl (with waffles)

If I could have a superpower it would be...

To fly.

If I had to choose between eating the same piece of fruit every day for every meal or only relying on a tractor for all forms of transportation, I would choose...

The tractor. Come on, how fun would that be?

If I could create a constellation of my own design, it would be...

Roald Dahl (with waffles)

And last: can you share a little about your journey as a writer--what has inspired and sustained you?

The kids! My readers. When I receive a fan letter, my heart melts and I feel happy, content and inspired to keep creating.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"An Act of Hope": An Interview with Francisco X. Stork

Ever since I read Marcelo in the Real World, I have admired, been inspired by, and devoured everything Francisco X. Stork writes. Creating characters and worlds with great depth and remarkable heart, Stork is able to elucidate what maters most in life. And he connects with readers in ways that not only make for engaging and powerful reading experiences, but can truly change people's lives.

He has already changed mine.

So it is with a huge amount of excitement and gratitude that I want to share an interview with Francisco X. Stork, along with a plea: please (please! please! please!) read his most recent novel The Memory of Light. I wept, exulted, and relished the chance to hear such an authentically moving and life-changing novel. It is one of those few books that I truly believe everyone needs to read, and I thank Francisco so much for writing it.

Growing up, were there any school experiences that either inspired or hurt you? 

More than experiences I think that there were certain persons who guided me and pushed me in the right direction. Many times this guidance was in the form of small gestures that turned out to be significant. I remember, for example, Mr. Halpern, my English teacher at Jesuit High School in El Paso. One day he called me to his desk when class was over and handed me three typed pages. It was a list of a hundred books or so listed in alphabetical order starting with Antigone and ending with Zorba the Greek. 

“These are the books everyone that wants to write should read,” he said. I spent that summer and most of the following year reading each book on the list. It’s how I fell in love with Borges and Cervantes and Dostoievski and Jung and many other classic books of fiction and non-fiction.

As a writer, what part of the process do you love most?

I love it when after a lot of thinking and daydreaming and doodling a character comes to life in my mind and I feel like I can be him or her and think and feel and talk the way he or she does. I think that 80 percent of the writing process happens before I actually start writing. A character needs time to grow inside of me and it is hard to wait for the character to be whole and unique enough for me into step into her shoes. I also love the first draft process when I’m not sure where the book is going and I’m not so much controlling the process as following where it takes me and discovering what I want to say in the process of saying it. During those times I am able to quiet my inner editor and simply write the book that is in me.

In THE MEMORY OF LIGHT, Vicky's journal is so raw and real and full of both despair and hope. How did you find the courage to be able to journey with Vicky in this way? How did you find the words?

It probably helped a lot that I’ve been writing in a journal almost daily since I was a teenager. My journal is a place of total self-honesty. No one will ever read what I write. I don’t even read what I write in a journal once it is written. When Vicky writes in her journal she is also in a place of total honesty. She doesn’t need to pretend that she is strong or happy when she is there. You would think that such self-honesty would be painful and it is - but the process of finding words for what you are feeling is a healing process. I found the words that Vicky used because I’ve experienced what she experiences and probably wrote down for myself some of the things that she writes. Even when the writing is full of despair, the act of writing is an act of hope. There is a hope and faith that there is someone listening to us. In many ways, whether you are overtly religious or not, writing during those times is form of prayer.

What would your advice be to a struggling high school student who is scared about speaking with others about her or his pain? 

The first thing I would say is that it’s okay to be scared. It’s normal to have this fear because you are making yourself vulnerable to another human being. I say this because you shouldn’t wait until the fear goes away to speak to someone. You should just go ahead and do it even though you are afraid. Usually, we have a gut feeling that someone will be a good person to talk to. Maybe we see in someone a kindness or an understanding, a way that a person listens to others, that makes us feel as if we could trust that person. Follow that gut feeling. You don’t have to understand why you’re feeling the way you do before you talk to someone. Just explain what you are feeling and try to communicate the thoughts that you are thinking. “I feel like crap.” or “I have these thoughts about hurting myself.” Just tell what is happening. You are not weak or a bad person for feeling and thinking this way.

Your advice to teachers?  

Be the person that a student can trust. A person in pain is on the lookout for someone who is kind and who can listen. You don’t need to be the student's therapist or even the student’s friend. You just need to let the student’s know that you care. Learn about depression and other mental illnesses and find ways to integrate a discussion of these in your classroom.  Resist as much as you can the pressure to motivate your students by fomenting competition. Let your classroom be a safe place for all. 

Thank you so much to Francisco X. Stork for sharing such depth of heart, and for so honestly walking through both despair and hope. His words remind me of Robert Frost's dictum about writing, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." 

And if you are looking for a book that is not only riveting and inspiring and authentic, but also has the power to truly changes lives, please read The Memory of Light. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Loving Libraries

Six years ago, when Jennifer and I first landed in England with our two-year old in tow, I had something of a panic attack. And when I say 'something of a panic attack,' what I mean is a panic attack.

It all settled on me, seemingly, in an instant and I freaked out over leaving home, getting rid of all our stuff, packing up our toddler and moving abroad for Jen to work on her PhD and me to work on writing and live as close to the bone as possible without a car and without a drying machine and without, essentially, that often helpful thing called money.

After we had landed, those crazy questions and panic-inducing curiosities lifted off: What if the little house we rented was a scam? What if it wasn't real? WHAT IF IT WASN'T REAL!? What if we couldn't make ends meet over here? WHAT IF WE COULDN'T MAKE ENDS MEET OVER HERE!? What if we both failed in our endeavors and we ended up royally messing up our first child? WHAT IF WE BOTH FAILED IN OUR ENDEAVORS AND WE ENDED UP ROYALLY MESSING UP OUR FIRST CHILD!?

After a red-eye flight, we landed in London at seven in the morning, got our luggage, piled into a small black cab and went on a two hour drive to York's train station. From there, we piled out of the black cab and piled into another cab that took us to a small hotel room at the Priory Inn because the little house we were going to be renting wasn't ready yet.

(If it was even REAL!)

It was four o clock in the afternoon, and we sat in a small hotel room and my chest started to feel tight and I started to have that freak out feeling.

But then we left. We went to the York Public Library in the center of town. After walking the mile to get there, it was clean, well-lit, warm, and children's picture books abounded. We stayed there, sheltering from the rain that had suddenly started, reading books to Tyler and to ourselves.

The picture books quelled my panic. The library calmed my nerves. Seeing such a beautiful place, that was FREE to enter and FREE to explore and so welcoming and so kind and so warm and so DRY made me want to cry.

The panic subsided.

We didn't yet have any official mail with our names and address on it yet (if our address was even going to be a real place), but when we explained all this to the kind librarian, she said not to worry and gave us our library cards.

For free. Access. Warmth. Inspiration.

And this is why I love libraries.

Even though we are back in the States now, and we have cars we can drive and more stable lives, I still get that feeling of salvation and transcendence and possibility and warmth whenever I enter a library with our kids.

Picture books! Novels! Memoirs! Space to read, and writer, and ask questions, and find stories and examples and hope and maybe, just maybe, fight back the panic of fear and worry that life sometimes throws our way.

This is why I love libraries, and why whenever a hard rain falls or some dark inner turmoil rises, walking into a library opens a crack for me where that beautiful thing called hope can squeeze through.