Archive for February, 2014

Whew!

DCIM100MEDIATeacher strike averted. So, so glad that people like my bro–who takes time to sing with his third graders and fills their brains with good books AND has built a donkey for an Ethiopia Reads Bring a Book Buy a Book project is on the job and not on the picket line.

One thing that kills me is that in my lifetime as a teacher, I saw a lot of schools go from places where kids sat frozen in desks doing worksheets to places where kids had classroom libraries and wrote books and did lots of hands-on projects to places where kids are sitting frozen in desks doing worksheets.

DCIM100MEDIAWorksheets and tests are the way we gather data.  But our utter faith in gathering data is getting in the way of good instruction.  Up with making donkeys and learning about kids who love books and school a half a world away!

100_0213The Ethiopia Reads horse powered literacy project reaches kids too remote (so far) to have access to school. Sometimes as many as two hundred kids gather to listen and learn.

I’m thinking about reading and writing and learning because, this has been a week where I put on my own teacher hat and respond to what my Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA students are sending in their packets. It always fascinates me to think about how people learn to write dazzling fiction. How did I learn? What helped along the way? Some people would say it can’t be taught. I know from my own experience that certain skills and approaches and useful ways of thinking about the words on the page CAN be taught.DSC04782

I’m re-reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf–seen here at her desk. I got to talk with her briefly in her office at Tufts about a project she’s been doing in Ethiopia that’s pretty fascinating.

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506466/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/

What are we all capable of learning and doing?

As a teacher said to me last year, schools have gotten pretty good at gathering data but we gather far more than we have time (or sometimes expertise) to analyze well and use to draw useful conclusions. In the meantime, it seems we forget the basics of what we already know–that young kids like to do what the beloved adults in their lives like to do; thus, there is power in modeling a passion for reading and writing.  That people will do the hard work of reading when they are gripped by a story or an idea, and we need librarians and teachers who know and love books and know and love students and can match the two up. That humans are innately curious and nimble-minded and will often grab the slightest thread in their eagerness to learn and grow.  Read the article and see what I mean!

ChrislibOf course, it won’t surprise you that I think books and learning WITH a great teacher is even better.

 

Teacher strikes

1 teachersEmotions are sizzling in Portland as the public school teachers–including my brother and sister-in-law–go on strike next week. Eeek.

Overpaid whiners? People actually write that? In public? These days? Eeeek.

I’ve worked with so many amazing educators–classroom teachers and librarians–in the past 10 years.  And of course I am a teacher. I’m on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program. cookingI started my adult life as a teacher of writing in an alternative school–here are some of my students cooking up something to write about. And what I know is that teaching is hard. Exhilarating. But hard.

mishmash 009So much of what people think they know about teaching and learning comes from their own days as a student or from what seems as if it would make sense. Learning to read, for instance, seems to be a matter of associating sounds with letters…and for many (most?) people it does start that way. But everyone who has watched a person start to read knows that something mysterious happens, too. Skillful readers look at black marks on a white page and somehow absorb a lot of information in a flash–including context clues having to do with pictures and the other words in the sentence–that allows them to recognize words and also infer what’s beyond the words.

Brain research shows that information that comes associated with emotion tends to stick.  Stories, anyone?kids with netelas

And yet a lot of educational policy is constructed as if teaching and learning were simple. As if it didn’t take innovative, thoughtful, patient, hopeful people with lots and lots of different skills and the willingness to try and adjust and re-try and be kind in the process.

Chris readingMy brother and I have taught together, done author visits together, taken teacher groups to Ethiopia to share skills and ideas with educators there. I trust him to make learning interesting and fun.  I know him to be someone who never stops thinking about how to be a better writer, a better reader, and a better teacher.

KSGreat educators–like this Kansas librarian who has helped with Ethiopia Reads and with the research for Anna Was Here–know books and know kids and know how to connect them. They know what’s working and what isn’t in schools. Are we listening?

As an Oregon parent wrote in her blog, it’s great to have lots of ideas about how to make things better for kids in school everywhere. “However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system. If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.” http://amywhitley.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/medford-oregon-teacher-strike/

Parents, teachers, grandparents unite! If we don’t have good teachers who are given reasonable resources and who are given room to do what they know how to do well, we don’t have anything!

Elise

What good does an author visit do?

snowWow!  We’ve had more snow in Portland than (I think I heard correctly on the news last night) we’ve had in 21 years.  My sister Cathy came over and we tromped through it together.  Just like old times!  (She’s the one sitting in front of the snowman and I’m behind it–in the year we lived in Boise, Idaho and not Ethiopia.)

IMG_0151I’ve been fretting about the native plants in my yard.  If Portland doesn’t get this kind of weather…and now it does…what happens to plants that are adapted to a usual Oregon climate and temperatures?  OTOH it’s been a dry year.  Adding the moisture to the ground has to be good for the birds and bees and butterflies and plants.  Right?  This is the spot where the bulbs I planted last fall were starting to send their green growth charging up through the soil…and I can’t wait to see what those shoots look like when the snow melts.

Last night, I caught the tail end of an Olympic interview where someone said that she’d traveled so relentlessly for so many years that now she’s obsessive about nesting.  Maybe that’s the deal with my yard, too.  Not since I was a kid in Ethiopia have I felt so intensely connected to the…um…soil.

Hosanna skyTomorrow, though, if the ice doesn’t block me, I’ll be traveling again.  I’m going to Memphis for three days of author visits and talking about Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org) to several groups of teachers.  This is what Ethiopia looks like in January and February–through the eyes of artist Stephanie Schlatter who was just there.  It’s where we all should long to be as the ice trickles down!

blizzardsI used to do author visits almost every week.  It seemed as if every school in the United States wanted to have an author come to talk about books, about where to gather ideas and details, about the writing process.  I remember a high school teacher who said to me, “Around here we’d never hire someone to teach basketball who had never played basketball, but we have people teaching writing who don’t spend much of their free time writing.”  And it’s true that while I can’t explain exactly how the blizzards I lived through in ND one snow-filled year became my picture book River Friendly River Wild, I can use it to show a lot about how a writers’ mind goes searching here and there for vivid details and the right words to evoke an experience.  I can model what it’s like to be passionate about reading and writing.

These days, schools often think themselves too busy or too broke to have an author come.  Too busy to show young readers and writers what’s the same and what’s different about the way they approach writing from the way a devoted and fanatically interested writer approaches writing.  Too busy to have kids fall in love.Kansas 001I dream of a day when politicians listen to teachers about the things that make a young brain spark…about how complicated teaching and learning really are.  I dream of a day when more young readers and writers get to see their teachers and principals awed and thrilled by having an author in the school.  The pendulum has to swing again sometime.  Doesn’t it?

In the meantime, I’ll savor this opportunity to talk about Anna Was Here and Ethiopia and reading and writing and to meet the kids who care so passionately about books.

Feverbird