The Twitter Fiasco

We leave you with some lighter fare on this Friday by Stenhouse editor Maureen Barbieri. Maureen has been learning about and experimenting with Twitter and she often shares her excitement and her Twitter encounters during our staff meetings. She also shared this story that you are about to read and while we all laughed at first, I think we could also all appreciate the painful learning curve of some of these social media tools. I am sure you’ve all been there too. Share your own Twitter fiasco in the comments section by Tuesday, April 9, and Maureen will pick someone to win a free Stenhouse book!

The Twitter Fiasco

One of the things I like best about living in New England is the change of seasons. We’ve had a long, cold winter this year, but now spring is upon us, and this is reassuring. The year has a certain rhythm to it, and we know what we can count on. Still, the older I get, the more I realize that everything changes, that our days here are numbered. I face this the only way I know. I keep busy. I cherish my family, I read, I write, I stay in touch with friends. But most of all, I work.

In my sixties now, against all odds, I have a brand new job. Instead of being the one putting manuscripts in the mail and praying for a lucky response, these days I’m at the other end of the envelope or e-mail attachment—an editor who solicits work from eager young teachers who are passionate about what they are doing in classrooms. It is both a privilege and a big learning curve for me, not because I’m unfamiliar with what they write about—after thirty years as a teacher, I do know their world—but because writing, editing, and communicating have taken great leaps forward, and a person needs to know lots of new technology just to keep up. First I had to learn Track Changes, then Dropbox, Google Docs, and Concur. My NYU students compelled me to join Facebook, which I love mostly because it lets me see photos of their gorgeous new babies and keep up with how their teaching is going.

Lately though, I’ve become aware, again thanks to my former students, of the world of Twitter. At first I signed on just to follow people I admired, to see what they were reading and recommending. I follow educators, news agencies, arts organizations, even political groups, and I discover articles and video clips I certainly would have missed otherwise. Literacy specialist Shawna Coppola calls Twitter the best professional development available to teachers free of charge, and I tend to agree.

But I’ve begun to wonder if there might be more to it than just perusing what other people are saying or suggesting. Maybe I need to be more than what Chris Lehman calls “a lurker.” So the other evening, as I settled in to read my Penelope Lively book and watch television with my husband, I decided to check Twitter. Sure enough, there was a “chat” happening that I found intriguing. At something called #Engchat, teachers were talking about a new book that had just been published. I read interesting comments from people obviously committed to their work in classrooms. One person spoke of her love of poetry and how that helped her thrive. Others mentioned supportive colleagues. One said that yoga and meditation were important to her. Then, all of a sudden, I read this: “You know that if Donald Murray were alive today, he’d be on Twitter.” Well, that got my attention. Like so many writers, I adored Don. Teacher, mentor, friend: he was a hero to me, a huge influence on my life both in and out of the classroom. I perked up when I saw his name. I got brave. I decided to move beyond lurking and actually “tweet.”

“I agree,” I typed into my iPad. “I miss Don Murray every single day.”

Within seconds, there was my message, clear and bold on the screen. Except that it was a little different: “I agree. I is Don Murray every single day.”

Whoa!!!! Mortified, I choked back tears. I tore at my hair. I typed a furious correction—“I MISS”—and slammed the iPad shut. Then, as my husband realized what had happened, we both began to laugh uncontrollably. We didn’t stop laughing all week. My silly typo made me seem like a crazy person, thumping my chest on top of a mountain, claiming Don’s spirit. Since this happened, every time I express doubt about whether I can do something—drive in snow, cold-call a new author, plan a difficult meeting with a student—Richie says, “You can do anything. You IS Don Murray.” I married a comedian.

When I finally get over my embarrassment, there are a few things I will need to admit. First, I do try to channel my old friend as I navigate these rocky waters of being a grown-up—an “elder of the tribe,” as he used to call it. When I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or fearful, I think of him and remember his insistence that the show must go on. Life moves forward. We have to stay in the game: striving, contributing, and, most of all, learning. It’s been said that there are no accidents.

Second, I must acknowledge that it’s not complex technology that caused this faux pas. It was instead the simple failure to proofread. This can happen when using any device—even paper and pen—at any time, and there really is no excuse for it. My fingers may be too fat or too fast for the iPad, but I should not have let my words go out into cyberspace so easily. A good lesson.

Finally, I am grateful to all the people at Stenhouse, at UNH, and all the other places where I’ve been lucky enough to teach, whose patience and support carry me forward. Lisa Delpit says that the only two things we need as educators are humility and inquiry. Thank goodness these are two things I have in abundance. I want to learn to navigate Twitter because, in the words of Tony Sinanis, “Twitter is about the human connections you establish . . . about the people you get to know, respect, and value, much like what happens in a well-functioning classroom or school.”*

So, I am committed to trying. With the help of good friends, I will learn to use this and other social media to be better at my job, to find out more about the world, and to engage in meaningful ways with other people. I believe that, if Murray were here with us today, he would indeed be tweeting. And, of course, I will always miss him.


*Tony Sinanis, quoted in “Social Media Is Better Than You Think” by Peter DeWitt, Education Week, March 11, 2014.

5 comments April 4th, 2014

Change is in the air

This time of the year is always full of transitions: students are getting ready to leave one classroom behind and start a new grade; some are graduating; and teaching colleagues might be moving on to new jobs. Maureen Barbieri is going through some transitions too as she goes from teaching and mentoring future educators at the University of New Hampshire, to becoming an editor here at Stenhouse. She’s been spending time with her interns at Woodman Park Elementary School in Dover and in this post Maureen shares how she prepares her students for the “real world” and how she is preparing herself for the changes in her life.

Leaving Woodman Park

maureenThe year at Woodman Park is winding down, and the interns are feeling stressed, anxious, and melancholy. They don’t want to leave. They love their students and their cooperating teachers, and they don’t like the idea of having to say goodbye. So, they dive in even deeper, tweaking their curriculum units, spending countless hours creating new art projects and bulletin board displays, and poring over students’ writing pieces. At seminar, when we talk about job interviews, they get jittery. Several of them tear up as they realize that next year new interns will be in their classrooms. Where will they be?

Yesterday we had mock interviews, with Patrick, the princely principal, and several faculty members playing the roles of interviewers. The questions were gentle, and the interns fielded them easily enough. Afterward, the faculty gave them kudos for how well they had handled themselves. I thought of Patrick’s visits to their classrooms last week. He observed each of them and e-mailed me to say they had all done well, that he believes they have shown real growth. I realized then that, for all intents and purposes, they’re finished. The time for exploring theory, reflecting on practice, and shaping pedagogy has passed, at least for this year. At first I bristled, because there seems so much left to figure out, and I worry about their final projects, which will be posted online and assessed at the university. I am resisting this wrap-up phase as much as they are, but I’m coming to see that Patrick is right. These young teachers need love and support now, as they go out on their job hunts. The time for pushing them is over.

What I have felt most at Woodman is the sense of community the staff have created. In their united commitment to serving children, they have made a space here for joy as well as for academic success. These people take care of one another. There’s Mr. Charlie, who knows everyone’s back story and who always has time to stop and check in, whether he’s shoveling snow off the playground, giving directions to a delivery person, or sweeping the floor in the downstairs hallway. There’s Maria in the front office, savvy, patient, and eager to help. Without exception, people hold doors open for each other. Children smile and say “Good morning!” to visitors and to me. You can tell it’s their school. When a teacher needs help with lesson planning, coverage, or finding a solution to a problem, there is always someone to step up. No wonder the interns want to stay. It’s a safe haven, a place where people unabashedly show respect and affection, and this attitude is contagious. Will we be as gracious when we’re working elsewhere, I wonder?

I have loved the children at this school. Last week Matilde, a first grader, was writing a story, which she asked to share with the class. “This is my favorite unicorn,” she read. She held up her drawing of a unicorn and a girl in a fancy dress for the class to see. Hands went up immediately. “If that’s your favorite unicorn, how many others do you have?” asked Ben.

“It’s not a real unicorn,” she explained. “It’s in my imagination.”

“What is the name of the princess?” asked Logan.

“I don’t know yet,” she said, a bit pensive.

So, the next day, when I went to Matilde’s room, she asked if I would like to see the latest additions to her story. “The unicorn is not real,” the words read. “He is in my ‘imgenashon’.”  On the next page, “This is another unicorn. He is also in my ‘imganashon’. The princess’s name is Rosabelle.”

I marveled at the way she had paid such attention to her classmates’ questions, revising her writing so deliberately. It’s the kind of move that makes a teacher’s heart pound. Then she asked me, “Do you know where I got the idea for the princess’s name?” I did not. “Teddy Rosabelle,” she said. “Do you know who he was?” Who wouldn’t love being in this classroom?

This and the time I get to spend with Patrick, hearing his take on educational issues, local and national, make it a privilege to be part of this team. Patrick values every single person on the staff, understands the challenges each one faces, and dedicates himself to helping teachers and interns—as well as students—learn. Patrick, father of three, former high school history teacher, current farmer and volunteer firefighter, is the most accessible, considerate, and insightful administrator I’ve known outside of New York City, and I have savored every minute in his company.

The poet Tess Gallagher says, “When you hug someone, you want it to be a masterpiece of connection.” At Woodman the hugs are mostly metaphorical. I think of the morning, several weeks ago, when I was preoccupied with worrying. I watched Patrick raise the flag outside the school, the wind blowing so ferociously he could hardly stand. We waved to each other, and I asked him how he was. “I’m worried about you,” he said. “Are you okay?” The last thing I ever expected, when I took on this role as a supervisor, was to find solace and support at work.

When you have felt connected to a place and to the people in that place, it is not easy to move on. As much as we want to keep our “masterpieces of connection,” we all have to deal with the inevitability of impermanence. Yet surely our lives are changed by every single person we meet in this life, for better or for worse. There have been lots of Matildes for me, as there will be for these interns. Maybe there will be other Patricks too; who knows? Still, I am feeling wrenched at the thought of leaving Woodman Park. Like these young women, I want to hang on, to freeze time, and to live over and over again the hundredth day of school, the Valentine’s Day serenade, Pete the Cat’s visit, the quiet hush in the room when a teacher reads a new picture book, the daily celebration of children’s writing, their candor and their resilience. What is it we will carry away with us when we leave?  What is it that will last? Warmth?  Loyalty? Consideration for others?

I tell the interns, again and again, that they are on the verge of a grand adventure, that their lives as teachers will be hard and challenging but also rich and filled with surprise and deep satisfaction. I tell them that they will have the chance to learn and grow and help countless children discover joy and beauty in this world, even as they cope with its heartaches. I tell them this in different ways, together and separately, week after week. Yesterday, as they spoke about why they want to be teachers, I could imagine their future classrooms, the children they will love, the learning they will inspire. Perhaps this, in the end, is the real solace, the enduring connection. Perhaps Woodman Park is just a beginning.

10 comments May 8th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 4: ‘No detail is too small. Tell about the place’

If you participated in last year’s Blogstitute, you might remember Maureen Barbieri’s post about her unlikely writing group. This year Maureen agreed to write about her group again and talk about how a place can shape our writing. Have you had a chance to visit a new place and write about it this summer? Share with us in the comments section!

Loving the Landscape

In her beautiful book Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels’s characters have to move to another country. The older man comforts the boy, who is reluctant to leave what has become home to him, with these words: “If you have learned to love one landscape, you will learn to love another.” It was this line that my NYU students inscribed in the book they gave me as a farewell present when I left New York four years ago. Missing my beloved city, I have tried to keep the lesson in mind. And Maine is a gorgeous landscape indeed.

We are surrounded by water here on Cutts Island. I wake up to the sound of waves and, in the spring, birdsong. Every day, wherever I go, I pass the Atlantic Ocean, Chauncey Creek, and Pepperrell Cove. If I’m heading to the University of New Hampshire, I peer over at the white church steeple in Portsmouth, from high atop the I-95 bridge, which spans the Piscataqua River. I proceed across Great Bay on my way into Durham. Sun, rain, or fog, I am grateful.

Last summer my writing group and I took a ferry ride over to Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, to spend the day wandering and writing. We strolled around examining the wildlife and the old buildings, trying to imagine who had walked there hundreds of years ago. It is a timeless place, and we found it easy to let our imaginations run wild. Beth sat next to an old tombstone and mused about the short life of the woman buried there. Had there been a love affair? Were the winters brutal, with the waves crashing and the wind howling? Was the loneliness hard to endure? 

The beauty and quiet of Star slowed us down. We loved the big old hotel, of course, with its wide wraparound porch. We sat on the rockers and listened to the slap of the water on the rocks and the shouts of children playing soccer. (Eavesdropping, we realize, is an essential skill for writers.)  Meandering around to the back of the hotel, we watched teenage employees throw freshly folded towels into the waiting arms of their colleagues, who were leaning out of windows, two and three stories up. Then from the gazebo came the lilting sounds of a trumpet, unexpected but somehow appropriate.

We wrote about all of it, the gulls and the driftwood, the sound of dishes being stacked in the kitchen, and the trumpet music. We wrote about how fast our lives move these days and how hard it is to lose people. We wrote about circles, moving away from homes we’d loved and coming back, only “to know the place for the very first time.” On the ferry ride home, we shared what we had written and felt that deep satisfaction derived from taking a chance and being surprised at what emerges.

It was such a memorable writing day that we’ve decided to make it an annual excursion, already looking forward to what we’ll write this summer when we go again. There is something seductive about the place, that particular outcropping of rock, jutting out of the sea as it does, with the rose hips wild and rampant everywhere you look. The weathered old cottages and the little stone church seem testament to fortitude and courage, invitations to speculate, to consider possibilities.

Always hoping for inspiration, our group went to hear Anna Quindlen speak recently at the Portsmouth Music Hall. She had us laughing and cheering and blinking back tears. She’s been writing for more than thirty years and told stories about her work at the New York Times and Newsweek, about raising her three children, about her girlfriends, about growing older and not minding too much. But mostly she talked about being a writer. She told us that if she hadn’t been writing, she wasn’t sure she would have survived the days in New York right after September 11, 2001. Writing, of course, is the way we cope with whatever happens. As I listened, I realized what a quintessential New Yorker she is. Living there has shaped her, given her moxie, wisdom, and grace. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, she writes, “I came to live in the city that seems to suit my metabolism the way hot fudge suits vanilla ice cream.”

And we have come, wherever we are right now, to our own place. We become part of it, and it becomes part of us, part of our consciousness. This is our moment to take notice, to attend to what’s going on around us. Is the foxglove early this year? Is that really a bird’s nest under the drier vent? Is the paint on the barn peeling already?    

Celia Thaxter planted gardens on another of the Isles of Shoals, Appledore, and Childe Hassam went with her to paint and capture its splendor. When her gardens were flourishing, Celia wrote poems. Like those two old souls, my friends and I try to pay attention, to notice, and to celebrate being here, being together. I remember Annie Dillard’s admonition, “You were put here for this, to give voice to your own astonishment.” I want us to continue to be astonished.

As I bid goodbye to the elementary schoolchildren I’ve worked with all year, I remind them to read lots of books—we make lists—but I also ask them to do some writing. Will they travel over the summer? If so, I hope they’ll jot down their impressions in journals I’ve given them. How is Ohio different from Maine? What do they notice about the people in Quebec City? What kinds of flowers are indigenous to Idaho in July? What is it they want to remember about this new place? I tell them about postcards, how people love to hear specific details about particular places: “Don’t say, ‘Wish you were here’ and let that be all; share something you’ve noticed. No detail is too small. Tell about the place.”

11 comments July 16th, 2012

Summertime Reading: To Compete or Not Compete

This week we have a great post from teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. She has written for the Stenhouse Blog before, reviewing Waiting for Superman and sharing the story of an inspirational writing group After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.

We would love to hear your thoughts on summertime reading. How do you encourage your students to keep reading during the summer months? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

It happens every year around this time. School children seem more restless wishing that recess, in schools that still have recess, could last a little bit longer.  No doubt about it: summer is coming, and the kids are counting down the days.  Teachers too.  The ones I work with tell me they’re looking forward, more than anything else, to some long stretches of reading time.

Teachers also wonder about their students’ “summer slide,” a common term for the loss of academic progress children have made since September. One of the biggest concerns, of course, is reading proficiency.  Teachers hope against hope that students will maintain the gains they’ve made and start the new school year with sustained passion for reading.  Towards this end, some schools initiate summer challenges.  How many books can each child read over the summer?  How will we recognize the effort?   Who will read the most?

Of course, we wish our children would all be like Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird who says, “Until I feared I would lose it, I did not love to read.  One does not love breathing.” We want our kids to see reading the way Scout does.

In some towns, libraries organize reading initiatives, offering prizes to children who read books.  Where I live, children are asked to keep track of the minutes they spend reading.  Then, if they’ve read a fair amount of time, they’re given a coupon for ice cream cones, pizza, or cups of chowder.  In the fall, at the high school’s first football game, there is a halftime ceremony to applaud their achievement. Students who have participated in the library’s reading program are invited onto the field at halftime for recognition, to the delight of their parents. Other libraries have wall charts, where students’ names are posted and stars given for each book completed.

I have been intrigued by Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, which details several longitudinal studies that indicate human beings’ tendency to be unaffected or even turned off by extrinsic rewards.  What really inspires people, Pink explains, what actually fosters more productivity, is autonomy, the chance to create something at one’s own speed, in one’s own way.  Pay raises or other external carrots often have a negligible effect on workers’ motivation.  I’ve been wondering how his research relates to children’s desire to read.  Shouldn’t children want to read because it’s just about the most satisfying thing in the world to do with one’s mind?   Pink says,  “In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward –and no further.  So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth.” (page 58)

Teachers I know agree.  “The trouble with giving kids stickers for every book they read,” says one, “is that pretty soon they want two stickers or three, insisting that’s the only way they’ll read.” Exactly what we don’t want to happen.  We can almost hear their reasoning, “If reading is so great, why do I need a bribe?” Teachers want to help students become confident, joyful readers, to see the myriad ways reading can change and enhance our lives, to be able to stretch and roam and celebrate the whole arc of human experience, one book at a time.  A sticker for reading a book?  A star?  A coupon?  Are we crazy?

But sometimes these reading competitions get the kids into the library,” one reading specialist insists.  True, and this is obviously a great thing.  But, as Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn knows, the trip to the library with its implicit invitation to take books home, should be its own reward.  Our library has story hours every week, one for toddlers, and one for older children.  It’s this kind of experience that can entice a child, from earliest days, to know in her bones that there’s nothing in this world as magical as a good story.

One of my University of New Hampshire students argues that rewards like stickers or coupons might be a good way to get a reluctant reader to read.  “If the person who doesn’t like to read just hasn’t found the right book yet,” he says, “then maybe the reward is a way to put the book in his hands and get him to try it.”

Another student who tutors elementary students in reading insists that for struggling readers, lollipops are great inducements.  “At least in the beginning, I have to have that carrot to offer. This doesn’t last long though; once they see how great reading can be, they’re off and running.  Reading a chapter book is something they clamor to do.” Much as I want to stand with Daniel Pink, Scout Finch, and Francie Nolan, my students stop me in my tracks and remind me that all children are different.

A librarian friend describes what goes on in her library.  During the summer, the place is jumping.  Families come often and stay for various events, including magic shows and concerts. There is a sense of community here.  Older students keep track of how many hours they’ve read, and the person who reads the most wins a Kindle.  Younger students win smaller prizes, based also on the number of minutes they’ve read.  One year they all read detective stories, so every reader won mustaches, badges, or dark glasses.  Other years the library has given children coupons for pizzas.

While I’m not a fan of these prizes, I do like the focus on minutes read.  The problem with reading competitions that reward kids for the number of books completed is that they tend to privilege fast readers.  The more books read, the better, right?  For children who already love to read and who read fairly quickly, the competition becomes a game, something fun, another feather in the cap.  But for those who struggle or just prefer to meander through their stories more carefully, savoring every moment, why then the competition will be nothing more than a frustrating distraction or, worse, reinforcement of the notion that they are simply “not good readers.”  We never want a child to feel judged by how fast he or she reads or to have reading be something intimidating.  Slow reading, on the other hand, is more deliberate, more purposeful, more thoughtful, as Tom Newkirk argues in his new book, The Art of Slow Reading: “. . . it has to do with the relationship we have with what we read, with the quality of attention that we bring to our reading, with the investment we are willing to make.” (page 2) Why is it better to read ten books over the summer than to read three or four, reflect on what they mean to us, and hold them in our memories?  Perhaps, as Newkirk suggests, we should all slow down a bit.

When my librarian friend describes the giant white board where kids who check out books write their names, and how proud they are to do that, I am reminded of Frank Smith’s notion of “joining the literacy club.”  Librarians here know their patrons and chat with them about what they’ve read lately, making suggestions about what they might like to try next.  Clearly, in her library, reading is a social enterprise.  This kind of encouragement feels natural and right.  As summer vacation approaches, I’ve heard other good ideas.

At a Maine high school, students going into a sophomore  AP writing class will get together to choose four books to read over the summer, but they won’t write traditional book reports –  what a friend calls “book autopsies” – on these.  Instead, they’ll meet with their new teacher four times in small groups during the summer to discuss the books.

A colleague in Brooklyn describes a similar plan.  Charts are posted in the corridors with book titles in boxes.  Students and teachers sign up to read and agree to meet at appointed times to share their reactions. The key here is, students choose which group to join, based on the book title, and the time and place of the group meeting.

Finally, at one local elementary school, teachers help children choose books to borrow over the summer.  Knowing the kids as well as they do, they’re able to suggest specific books for each student.  They pack these into little canvas bags.  “We lose some books,” the reading specialist tells me, “but it’s worth it.”  Letters are sent home with the books, suggesting other titles the child might like, urging families to make reading a daily ritual during the summer months.

Nothing quite tops the involvement of families.  Recently (April 24, 2012) author Mo Willems was interviewed on NPR, sharing his process of writing books for young children, acknowledging that he always keeps the adult audience in mind.

“I want the parents to be engaged,” he insists.  “I want them to laugh because then it’s cool.  I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids . .  so if they’re enjoying reading a book, suddenly the kid is going to say, “Wow, reading books is awesome!”

There you have it.  Reading books is awesome.  We know it, and we want our students to know it too.  Better than a sticker, a coupon, or a contest might be some quiet lap time, a chance to meet up with friends for some book talk, or a dinnertime question, “Hey, what did you read today and how did you like it?”

4 comments May 23rd, 2012

Work That Is Real: What Sustains Today’s Teachers?

Teacher educator Maureen Barbieri recently conducted an informal survey on her Facebook page, asking teacher friends what keeps them going in these confusing, difficult times for teachers. She shares the results in this essay. We would love to hear from you: what keeps you going as a teacher?

In her poem “Tribute to Teaching,” Shelley Harwayne poses the question, “What gets you up in the morning?” In other words, why do teachers keep coming to work?  Lately this question has been on my mind, given all the forces that seem to be stacked against teachers these days: the media obsession with school reform, which tends to give teachers short shrift; commercial curriculum chosen with little teacher input and little room for teacher autonomy; high-stakes testing for younger and younger children; and a widespread distrust of public spending and public servants of any kind. Faced with all of this, what keeps teachers coming to work?

Pondering this question and aware of the challenges teachers face, I’ve been doing an informal survey on Facebook of friends and former students who are teaching right now. “What sustains you as a teacher?” I ask. Their reflections fall into three general categories: (1) they love working with kids, (2) they respect and appreciate their colleagues, and (3) they embrace the intellectual rigor and creativity that their work demands.

Diana, who’s been teaching middle school for many years, says laughter keeps her going. She says, “Surely somewhere it has been written, ‘Teachers, love the children more than you love the personal money you spend on hand sanitizer, tissues, paperbacks, writers’ notebooks, and writing utensils for them; teachers, love the children more than you love a clean house, a free weeknight, a calm Sunday afternoon, and a leisurely lunch; teachers, love the children more than you hate wasteful meetings, mindless paperwork, and pointless bureaucracy; teachers love the children more than you dread the faltering economy, the angry taxpayer, and personal bankruptcy. Perhaps I exaggerate.” Perhaps she doesn’t.

But still, she hangs in there. “The best days for me are the ones where I can say, ‘I made ‘em laugh today!’ I relish finding new ways to bring the wonder of language (and human nature) to my students in a way that makes them THINK, LEARN, and SMILE. . . .”

Of course, it is about the kids—for Diana, for every teacher who responded to my question, and for countless others who press on in the face of discouraging circumstances. These are extraordinary people who consider it their vocation to build relationships with young people, to share their own passion for learning, and to entice students into exploring the life of the mind.

“When I think of teaching, I don’t refer to it as ‘work.’ I say ‘school’ because for me, I am learning from the children. They drive my instruction, and they bring out my energy,” writes Eileen, a Brooklyn early childhood educator and mother of two young sons.

Ashley, a former University of New Hampshire student, is now teaching first grade in Harlem. She says, “The statistics vary, but many read that only 40 percent of NYC students graduate high school. I wake up in the morning, think of that statistic and realize I can change it (or at least I can try to).”

This determination comes up, again and again, as I read teachers’ postings. They are listening carefully, finding energy in the needs, the honesty, and the efforts of their students. They see their work as meaningful, and they want to make a difference.

“It’s the kids,” writes John, who teaches middle school in Brooklyn. “Even when the reality that we as adults bring with us intrudes, the kids are always curious (not always about the things we want them to be curious about, but curious just the same), genuine (in a way we are not), and filled with possibility. . . . Not only do they change and grow constantly, but they force me to figure out a way to change and grow with them.”

Jason, who’s been teaching for fifteen years, reminds me that teaching is, and always will be, inherently political. “What sustains me? Some days it’s the little moments . . . working with a student at lunch, a random incidental teaching moment or conversation. Some days it’s the grand successes . . . the student I got into the Stella Adler Acting Studio, the student who turned in the best writing of her academic career in the form of her college admissions essay. Some days it’s the joy of the craft of teaching . . . the lesson itself that works out exactly as intended. Some days it’s the creativity . . . coming up with a new way of doing things that puts the focus on the students. But at the heart of each and every one of these experiences beats the core value of student agency. I got into teaching because I saw how adolescents were being devalued, how their incredible insights were dismissed, how their voices were stifled by adults in the community who viewed them as human becomings rather than human beings. And each day, I do all I can to provide a safe, productive, critical space for my students to engage in that sense of voice, to realize they have power in the world and in our school. Whether they’re questioning a text, questioning me and my ‘authority,’ or questioning school policy and advocating for change, their drive sustains me. . . . The mini-revolution that happens once my classroom door closes is more than enough to get me through.”

Teachers also speak with gratitude about being able to work with dedicated, like-minded colleagues and administrators who trust them to make their own decisions in the classroom. Natalia explains, “The adults around me are motivated and passionate and make it their intention to nurture. Being an eternal student myself, what I have learned is to embrace the rewards and challenges of teaching by choosing to be graceful in everything I do instead of ‘perfect.’”

Melissa also knows that colleagues can make all the difference. “So often it is said that teaching can be a solitary profession, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I get through the difficult days with the support and guidance of my sage colleagues. They inspire me with their intelligence and empathy and also provide a healthy dose of humor for those moments when you feel stuck in a French absurdist play.”

Meredith says, “My colleagues are an essential part of my longevity in the classroom. . . .  And by extension, things like this [Facebook] page sustain me—along with books, magazines, and blogs about teaching—it all reminds me that I am part of a much larger community of educators with heart.”

Finally, they’re grateful that the work is challenging. They do not shrink from difficulties, embracing instead the chance to be flexible, compassionate, and courageous. Don Murray used to say, “I’m apprenticed to two crafts I will never master, writing and teaching.” It’s often the need to do it better that keeps us in the game. Every day is another chance, and teaching, like writing, is all about revision. These smart teachers appreciate meaningful professional development. They do research, attend conferences, and take courses during the summer months.

Kerry, a French teacher in Maine, goes to a workshop every year where she is able to learn more about progressive methods of teaching language through storytelling. She also presents her own work, a challenge she welcomes. “I look forward to it all year,” she says. “And I always come away more inspired and eager to teach.”

“What sustains me changes daily,” says Meredith. “And THAT is what sustains me over time—the richness of this profession. Two snippets/quotes float into my head when I’m at school (or just thinking about it). One is the title of a Calvin and Hobbes collection, ‘All the World in a Day.’ In our lives as teachers, each day holds so much: we make thousands of small but loaded decisions, we act as parents/psychologists/nurses/mediators/scientists, and we interact with the wide world in all its complexity through our students’ needs, backgrounds, personalities, and actions. By 3:00, I often feel like I’ve participated in a seven-hour reenactment of human history.

“The other words that often come to mind are from Marge Piercy’s poem, ‘To Be of Use’: ‘The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.’ For me that line connects especially to teaching because teachers have to truly ‘submerge in the task.’ Teaching has forced me to learn how to be much more present, to work in the realm of the real rather than in the realm of my own projections, fears, and assumptions.”

Shelley wrote a poem that ends with these lines:

I’m up now, really up

Eager to go to work,

Eager to see the honest faces of children,

Eager to lose myself in the important work at hand—

Teaching children to make a better world.

The teachers who were kind enough to send me their notes from the field are immersed in “the important work at hand,” and I’m hoping they’ll stick with it for a long, long time.

Works Cited

Harwayne, Shelley. 1999. “Tribute to Teaching,” in Going Public: Priorities and Practice at the Manhattan New School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Piercy, Marge. 1973. “To Be of Use,” in Circles on the Water. New York: Knopf.

3 comments November 7th, 2011

Blogstitute Week 7: An Unlikely Writing Group

We end our Summer Writing Blogstitute with an entry by teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.

This is your last week to purchase our special summer writing package at a reduced price of $80 — a savings of $28!

We hope you enjoyed our Blogstitute and that the posts helped you prepare for a new year of writing and teaching writing. We hope you will join us for future blog events — until then keep commenting and keep writing!

Expect the Unexpected: An Unlikely Writing Group

Years ago, when I moved away from New Hampshire, Donald Graves made me a promise: “Wherever you go,” he said, “you’ll find other literate people.” Sure enough, in Cleveland, South Carolina, and New York City, I was blessed with friends who loved what I love.

When I came back to New England in 2008, it was heart wrenching to leave my job at NYU. My husband had retired, and, as a result of what turned out to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, full-time work eluded me. During those months of adjusting, there was one constant in my life: daily exercise at a local women’s gym. In a small room, women worked the machines in a circuit, so it was hard to avoid other people. But surely these women’s lives were unlike my own. Many spent winters in Florida, while others spoke of playing golf, quilting, or gardening. I kept my head down and did my exercises in silence.

One day I overheard a woman named Kerry describe how much she admired her mother for raising four children alone. When Kerry turned thirty, she had hired a private detective and tracked her father down. Fascinated with her story, I blurted out, “You really should write about that.”

“Write?” she asked. “I’m not really a writer.”

“Well,” I told her, “I had a teacher who used to say, ‘Everyone should write her own story.’” My friend Don Murray believed that writing lets us discover meaning in experience.

A week later, another one of the women at the gym was eager to tell me she had found Murray’s Boston Globe columns online. “He’s a great writer,” she said. I gave her his books My Twice-Lived Life and The Lively Shadow. Thus began my friendship with Beth, sharing reactions to books, chatting about our families.

Slowly, the gym took on new dimensions. A year passed, we continued to talk books on a regular basis, and then several things seemed to coalesce. Beth was itching to try writing. Kerry’s mom became ill, her memory faltered, and Kerry lamented stories left untold. She wondered if she should write down some of her own recollections for her daughter. Nancy, an accomplished journalist, wanted to try memoir and was looking for advice. Michelle, the mother of two boys, one severely handicapped, wanted to write about them.

We began our writing group with trepidation, holding our first meeting at the local library where Beth was a trustee. New to writing for an audience, the women were nervous and unsure of what to expect. Though I’ve taught writing and worked with new writers for years, I felt rusty, not having written anything personal in a while. What if I had nothing to say?  I remembered that Murray always saw himself as a student at the writer’s desk, ready to be surprised by whatever appeared on the page. His spirit propelled me forward. Kerry’s husband baked madeleines for our first meeting and—partly because good food builds community and helps break down barriers—the tension eased. We spoke about what we wanted from the group:  an audience for our stories; gentle, supportive feedback; questions.

Now we gather at each other’s houses once a month. The anxiety has lessened with each meeting, and stories have emerged: the courage of sick friends; memories of parents, siblings, and teachers; the heartache of first jobs, leaving home, and the rigors of getting older. Sometimes we try prompts, but mostly we write for our own purposes:  Kerry, a eulogy for a beloved friend and a tribute to a colleague of twenty-five years; Michelle, blog posts about motherhood; Nancy, reflections on being a bone marrow donor for her brother.

Our meetings run late. Friends now, we hate to say goodnight, but there’s something else. The stories have become richer, more textured, and replete with the “revealing specifics” Murray prized. Because we consider each other “audience,” we respect deadlines and strive to be more effective.

As I spend time with grandchildren, students, or my husband, part of me assumes the role of spectator-participant, and the writing yields new attention to ordinary days. A boy I worked with in Chinatown years ago observed, “Most of the things that happen in your everyday life aren’t very important, but when you write about them, you make them important.”

We tell students that writing is a way to communicate, but it is so much more. Writing allows us to discover what our lives have been, are now, and may yet be. What would happen if busy teachers made time for this kind of exploration on a regular basis?  To write about life and work, and then to meet with people eager to listen, seems a worthy endeavor. Literate people find each other, yes; and, in the sharing of stories, we sustain each other too.

12 comments August 22nd, 2011

A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

We know many teachers who have avoided watching the documentary Waiting for Superman because of what they’ve heard about the film’s view of public school teachers. We asked teacher educator Maureen Barbieri for her thoughts about the film and the messages it sends. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Maureen.

Too many of our inner city students are not thriving in school.  So along comes Waiting for Superman, a compelling documentary produced by Davis Guggenheim, to raise the question: “What is our obligation to other people’s children?” The film is an indictment of the public school system with particular criticism aimed at teachers’ unions, the villains of the piece.  Heralded as “inspiring” and “one of the best films of the year,” it left me heartsick. The movie is slick and manipulative, advocating a school reform agenda that pushes charter schools and “teacher accountability” tied to students’ standardized test scores.

Guggenheim deserves credit for shining a light on education, but his solutions are simplistic and ignore the fact that societal inequities are more powerful than any force teachers can bring to bear in schools.  The pedagogy of rote learning, endorsed in the film, is one that many contemporary educators have abandoned in favor of a more student-centered approach that recognizes that knowledge is a process of coming to understand, connecting new information to previously held concepts.

Waiting for Superman casts a rosy glow on Geoffrey Canada, founding principal of Harlem Success Academy, who narrates a short cartoon in which a teacher walks from student to student, opening heads and pouring something from a pitcher.  “It should be simple,” he says. “A teacher filling her students’ heads with knowledge and sending them on their way.  But we’ve made it complicated.” This feels like a leap back into the past; what we really want is students who are much more active participants in their own learning.

Waiting for Superman accuses teachers’ unions of being the monkey wrench in school reform.  If only we could torpedo teacher tenure and move to merit pay, insists the film’s other star, Michelle Rhee, everything would improve.  Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, closed 23 schools in one year and offered teachers huge salary increases, if they would agree to forfeit tenure.  Now she travels around the country advancing the idea that unions are the enemy of school reform, and she has been persuasive.  She is not alone in her disdain for the unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, where some people place blame on unions for everything from low test scores to budget deficits.

In New York City today, teachers applying for tenure go through a rigorous process of compiling a portfolio, securing letters of endorsement, and being observed and interviewed.  The vast majority of teachers I’ve known over the past 28 years, twelve spent in New York City as a literacy coach, principal, and university instructor, have been conscientious in their commitment to students, something the film ignores.  Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.

These issues are complex and it won’t be a “superman” who will address them.  The film’s melodramatic portrayal of moms too poor to pay Catholic school tuition, its blanket condemnation of unions, and its presentation of dubious statistics will do little to help. Other, more constructive, ideas abound.

For every dedicated educator shown in the film who is working at a charter or private schools in New York, there are thousands of equally committed and creative teachers working within the public school system. In addition to being excellent teachers in the classroom, they devote hours of free time to their students beyond the school day. I am thinking about two young teachers from IS 131 in New York’s Chinatown who spent their Saturdays taking immigrant kids on walks around the city, encouraging them to make observations, ask questions, and wonder about the implications of what they had seen.  I’m remembering the year a science teacher and I took a group of eighth grade “feisty females” to art museums, cafes, and bookstores every Friday after school. I’m thinking about a fifth grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea who designed and implemented a social justice curriculum requiring children to observe and write about what was unfair in their communities and then develop action plans to make changes.

These days I get emails from former NYU students, telling tales of being compelled to follow scripted reading programs. They’re dismayed at the lack of value placed on the teaching of writing and at the obsession with test scores.  They love working with students, but they are disheartened to have such little voice in what happens in their classrooms.  Several have left in frustration already, pursuing journalism or law careers.  Among my current students at UNH there is a sense of foreboding where there was once a sense of joy.  They lament the lack of respect for teachers in the media and among the general public, and they are uneasy about their futures.  I worry that they will lose heart.

Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity. Unless we can counter this mind-set, we can anticipate that talented teachers will leave the profession and smart young college students will make other career choices.  The stakes are too high here to allow the nation’s attention to be hijacked by such a narrow, simplistic agenda as the film advances.  Other voices are sorely needed in this conversation: the voices of thinkers like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling Hammond; the voices of families whose children are thriving in many types of schools; and, most of all, the voices of teachers who know better than anyone else what it means to work and learn and think alongside other people’s children.

For more information about the issues raised by Waiting for Superman—and the reality behind them– check out these links:

  • Diane Ravitch looks at the reality behind the schools and reforms profiled in the film in her review in the New York Times Review of Books.
  • The Grassroots Education Movement of New York has just released a documentary challenging the picture of public education portrayed in the Guggenheim film.
  • “Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles” students face when they are not in school writes Joe Nocera in a recent column in the NY Times.
  • Alfie Kohn takes school reformers to task for advocating what he calls “poor teaching for poor children” in this recent commentary in Education Week.

18 comments May 25th, 2011

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