Ultramarine Utopia

There’s nothing like the blues of the ocean for clearing the head, lifting the spirit, and finding utopia.

The Merrimack River where it meets the Atlantic, as seen looking north from Plum Island toward Salisbury, MA  (K.Nollet, 2015)
The Merrimack River where it meets the Atlantic, as seen looking north from Plum Island toward Salisbury, MA (K.Nollet, 2015)

Every season at the beach has its unique beauty and tone.  One teacher colleague of mine believed this was essential science for children. She took her class on an annual field trip to her Maine beach house, to teach them about the ecology of the winter beach.

Spring beach trips in New England are chilly and unpredictable.  Last weekend I went to Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the infinite shades of ultramarine blues in the sea restored my creative spirit.

 

Teddy the Terrier

IMG_3688What’s blue and tan and smart all over? Meet my nine-year-old Yorkie, Teddy.

Don’t assume what you read about Yorkshire terriers to be true, like making good lap dogs. For Teddy, this is 10%. He cuddles when he feels like it and if the conditions are right. (Is the crook of your knee available? Will you stroke him? Is there a soft blanket in the sun?)

The remaining 90% of Teddy’s time is spent working an independent agenda, true to his breed’s curiosity and roots as a ratter. Open doors intrigue him. No hole remains unexamined, no rocky crevice unexplored, no object unaudited.

A blur of Teddy checks out a hole.
A blur of Teddy checks out a hole.

From his post atop a Victorian wicker settee, he evaluates neighborhood intruders: people with dogs, motorcyclists, bicyclists, walkers who lag.

Although highly motivated by food, Teddy loves another kind of reward: sitting in a parked car. Harnessed into his car seat. In the garage. Teddy stares at me when he decides it’s time for this; if I’m busy and don’t notice, he barks.

 Zen and the art of carsitting-in-garage.
Zen and the art of carsitting-in-garage.

As an educator, I don’t compare children to dogs. But life with Teddy has reinforced why I never make assumptions about students. Assumptions can limit a teacher’s expectations and even form invisible barriers to growth. It’s our job to find out what’s unique about a child and to help each one thrive.

 

Your Story Through Song

baby dreamsSongs connect us to all of humankind and tell our story from the earliest days of human history. You have songs that tell the story of your life, too. Did you sing while you did chores?  Rode in the car? During play?

Think about the earliest songs that hold meaning for you. My father sang I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen when he drove me home, days-old, from the hospital. My mother sang Baby Dreams every night. When I see a crocus, a kindergarten song runs through my mind: “Out of the earth, a crocus springs, just like a jack-in-the-box…”

We kids sang while swinging and washing dishes; a ride in the car meant breaking into three-part harmony. At my grandmother’s, we sang songs like Elsie from Chelsea. My sister and I knew all the songs from Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music from records. Extended family gathered at Christmas to sing Handel’s Messiah.

Color My World, by Chicago, was my prom’s theme. In college, I sang along to Orleans and The Beach Boys while learning airs, madrigals, lieder, and chorale themes used by Bach.

As both teacher and principal, I taught children to sing patriotic songs; God Bless America became the all-time favorite. I played the familiar two-note shark theme from Jaws on the piano as a classroom quiet signal. The result? Instant silence and it worked every time.

What’s your story through song?

Restorative Justice in School

Teenager Jon swore at his teacher, threw a notebook at her, and when told to report to the principal, he bumped his shoulder into hers as he left.

What do you think should happen to Jon? Punitive action, a call home to notify his parents, in-school suspension, out of school expulsion?

ScalesHow about restorative justice? Lots of schools have implemented such programs to hold students accountable for their actions, to show them the harm they’ve inflicted on others, and to make reparations. Restorative justice follows a protocol—no loosey-goosey conversation here—and takes time and commitment to establish.

A student like Jon may have big problems in his life that cause him to act out. It is a school’s (and a family’s) responsibility to teach Jon how to think, to examine his actions, to apologize, and to make reparations.

Research shows that the brain can be rewired well into adulthood.  Every parent, leader, and teacher should lobby their school for restorative justice programs. A teenager’s future is worth it.

I Whistle a Happy Tune

When is the last time you sang or whistled this song? It’s from The King and I, an Oscar and Hammerstein award-winning musical. In it, teacher Mrs. Anna Leonowens sings it to her son, so he won’t feel afraid as they reach the Kingdom of Siam.

Something about whistling puts people in a good mood and boosts confidence.  You can’t argue with “I whistle a happy tune/And ev’ry single time/ The happiness in the tune/Convinces me that I’m not afraid.”

Here’s a karaoke version for you to sing and whistle along with piano accompaniment.  Be sure to use it and share it today.

 

 

 

Thanks to jennahxmai on YouTube.

 

The Grade of F

Did you ever receive an F on your schoolwork? It meant you failed, utterly. Written in red pen in your teacher’sIMG_3680 impatient hand, it was accompanied by the uneasy message See Me on the top of the paper.

Perhaps your teacher handed the papers back in order of grades from A to F, with the Fs at the bottom of the pile. As if failure wasn’t bad enough, a measure of public shaming came with it.

Teachers today know better. We know moreIMG_3681 about how children learn and that there are many different ways to learn. Teachers don’t use red pens any more because they convey shame. And if your child attends a more progressive school, they aren’t labeled as academic failures. They are “Just Beginning” to grasp a concept.

Just Beginning is far more useful assessment, I think, because it conveys a range of understanding. We know the student will understand with a different approach, continued encouragement, and practice.

Consider it.

Teenage Destiny

Many teacher movies are variations on a formula: difficult kids plus an understanding teacher equals transformed lives. Movies usually make it look far easier than this really is. But in To Sir, With Love, teacher Mark Thackeray, played by Sydney Poitier, resonates with lots of secondary teachers. His students are rude, incorrigible, and the boys challenge him to a boxing match. Every student presents individual challenges of poverty and miseducation.

Real teaching feels like this. No mattered how battered or exhausted we feel, our job is to educate children for a future we know nothing about. We help shape our students’ destiny and it’s tough work. Like parents, we do a difficult job day in and day out. We encourage, plead, threaten, laugh, fume, and stick by them because we see so much promise.

To Sir, With Love may appear dated, but it’s not. Mark Thackeray decided to leave teaching and take an engineering job offer. Take a look at the ending and enjoy Lulu’s singing.

 

 

Empathy and Kindness, Pet-Style

A few days ago, our family lost our beloved 17-year-old mini poodle, Muffy.Muffy Aug 2012  Saddled with a girl’s name, Muffy lived a pretty healthy life. Though he endured infirmities as a senior, we accommodated him by finding snuggly blankets, adjusting his water bowl to a comfortable height, and carrying him in and out.

In his younger days, I brought Muffy to school and the students made him an instant celebrity.  He’d never had so many stories read to him in one day.  The students showed empathy and kindness, something we now have entire curricula to teach.

I admire teachers who keep pets in the classroom because they seem to have a special insight into children. Their focus tends to be less about teaching children responsibility and more about what each of us learns from animals. I know educators who bring their dogs to school and I’ve seen how stroking them helps evoke a kind of mellow grace in students. Especially in older students.

Other colleagues of mine have created ingenious roles for animals in schools.  One kept an aquarium with a student desk and chair parked in front of it. She’d read that watching fish could help children self-regulate, and she had a couple of students in mind.  The rest of the class wanted to use the aquarium for quiet thinking, too.  Soon she had to post a sign-up sheet.

Another teacher kept a rabbit hopping around freely.  You might think that would distract first graders, but not at all. The children easily integrated the rabbit into their routines and learned to step carefully around him.  The rabbit used a litter box, too.

In one urban school, a teacher kept two guinea pigs in a huge cage on legs. She made it into a writing center.  Children drew their chairs around all four sides, some propping up their feet on its edge.  The guinea pigs went on with their lives as students watched them and worked on writing projects.  Each child who wanted to hold one knew the procedure for letting out the guinea pigs, always putting the animal’s needs first.

Empathy, kindness, care, grace, sharing, patience–that’s a short list of what students learn from school pets. How lucky the world is when children carry those forward.

 

 

 

 

Art and Empathy

Look at this fantastic work, The Sower, by Van Gogh, painted in 1888. Give your eyes time to move and rest on details. As you do this, pay attention to your reactions to what you see. Note the thoughts, emotions and feelings that arise inside you.

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Are you startled by the richness of the sun or do your fingers itch to trace its grooves? Does your mind imagine hearing the sower’s feet pressing into the earth? Who is the sower and what is his story?

When we tune in to an experience with art like this one, we learn a new way to talk with children about empathy. I think that one of the best reasons to use art is to build understanding and strong connections to humankind.  Learning to see and experience through new eyes—or the eyes of another—challenges our minds to grow.

Education philosopher Maxine Greene urges us to realize that understanding  art through experience is an essential part of every child’s education.  I agree.  Whenever I think about the history of human civilization, art and empathy appear together as the deepest elements of our story, as deep as the grooves on Van Gogh’s radiant sun.

 

 

Swings and Learning

One of childhood’s pleasures is endangered. Swings are beginning to disappear from school and public playgrounds, mostly because adults worry about student injuries and lawsuits. As someone who has spent thousands of hours supervising recess, I prefer teaching children how to follow a few simple rules so they can enjoy the benefits of swinging while supervised. It’s worth this effort when you think about what children learn while gliding through fresh air.ID-10031697

First, they have to take turns because there are never enough swings to go around. The unspoken etiquette on playgrounds is universal: first come, first served, but don’t hog it. A child has to be fair about the amount of time spent swinging, and there are no better timekeepers than other children waiting for their turn. Already these lessons encompass enjoyment and sharing, patience and restraint, manners and learning to negotiate!

Sets of swings create the perfect laboratory to study the social and emotional development of children while they are happy and autonomous. Children talk, chant, sing, laugh, and get out of breath as they stretch, lean, and pump. I’ve noticed that children’s moods lift when they swing, too. There’s nothing like twirling yourself into dizziness and silliness to feel good and have fun.

Finally, swings teach children what freedom feels like. The wind slaps their cheeks and tousles their hair. They sail up to get a good view of their world and they learn that the harder they pump, they higher they can sail. Teachers know that observations of children at play reveal much about their growth, especially when children play without adult interruptions.

At home, if your swings are gone because you think your children are too old, put one back up and wait. You’ll be surprised to see who rediscovers them.