Archives for category: Gardening

A new teacher of my beloved acquaintance asked me recently, how do you bring your sense of social justice to a classroom in the culture of your school? He put it really well and I didn’t, but I know what he means. There is the school, and there are the principals and parents and community members with all their expectations and beliefs about what we ought and ought not to teach (everybody has an opinion)—and yet we have ideas about that, too. How do you reconcile all that and not lose your soul?

That, my dears, is a good question.

To answer it, I will tell you a story. But first, let me say that parents do get to trust that teachers aren’t lobbying kids out from under them. They send their kids to school with faith that their teachers are partners in their weighty job of rearing good humans to take up the mantle.  They must not fear that you’re dissuading the kids from all the lessons parents have labored to impart.

Also, kids get to expect that their teacher is there for each of them, not just the ones you love or agree with politically. You’re everybody’s teacher. Period. You may not say or do anything that imperils their trust that you see each student’s noblest potential and aim to teach them toward it.

Okay, here’s the story. I try to remember to tell this to every class. One day, when I was 21 years old, I was walking along with my toddler son under the beech trees of William and Mary. My head was full of all the things I needed to think and he lagged a bit behind, so I turned to wait for him to catch up, and saw him crouching, reaching for something with his hand. Another cigarette butt, I wondered? Toddlers will put anything into their mouths. No, it was something far more interesting.


“Beech nuts! Christopher, you found beech nuts!” And I looked up and noticed those regal trees for the first time. “They are the seeds of these big trees. Imagine! If you planted one of these, in time, one of these beautiful trees would grow from it. But these aren’t fertilized. You can tell because they are skinny on their sides. See how they cave in? Let’s look for fat ones. Then we could plant it and make a beech tree!” I was giddy. Looking up, looking down, looking at my son’s fat little hand with the beech nuts in it.


Then, I suddenly wondered: how do I know this?

Flashback: I am maybe 8 years old. We’re at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East Avenue in Rochester, New York.


It’s after the Sunday service and we’re out under the beech trees. My father is walking along, his hands clasped behind his back, looking down. He was always finding 4-leaf clovers and Indian arrowheads—yes! They’d rattle around in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

“Daddy, what are you looking for?”

“Beech nuts, fertilized ones.”

And he explained to me about the fat ones and thin ones. And he added, “If you could plant a beech tree, you would not have lived in vain.”

Flash forward: my baby’s face, my hands full of beech nuts, my father gone, never to meet this child, a memory recovered, and teaching, in its fullness, revealed. I didn’t even know I knew it, but it lived inside me, waiting for that man’s grandson to spark the memory of love and stewardship.

Teaching, it’s often been said, is like planting a seed. Like planting a beech tree. Like giving your soul in its purest form to a child, for love and no other reason. Because beech trees are sublime and children should walk along beneath them and ponder planting one themselves.


So that’s how you bring yourself to work. You give them the best you have, at all moments, out of pure love of the world, a love that surpasses your love of yourself or the kids themselves. You do it for the beech trees.


Inasmuch as trees are my role models, plants make rather good analogies for people. We need what we need and we dwindle if we don’t get it, under the right conditions we bear nice fruit, it takes a long time for us to mature and when the seeds are just sprouting they don’t look like much, and we’re surprisingly varied and diverse, both in what we need and what we’ll produce if we thrive. In the same way, the garden makes a decent metaphor for the classroom, with the teacher as gardener (although in fact the teacher is more nearly a co-plant, but no analogy is perfect).

And in this garden, reflected of course in the word kindergarten, there can be weeds. It’s disheartening to come across an infestation of poison ivy or stilt grass or crabgrass or bindweed, but they’re out there and we have to watch for them and then confront them when they invade.

One such weed is the tendency, when dealing with parents, to want to win. Some teachers call parents as a way of ratting out the kid, as if somehow being able to prove to a parent that his or her kid is a little twirp is beneficial to someone. I wonder who? There is no doubt that kids can be twirps—as can teachers, parents, administrators, and everyone else. Fortunately it’s a state most of us move into and out of readily, less a function of permanent being than a mood or reaction. Fixing that identity on a kid helps nobody, especially not the kid, and unsurprisingly parents are really cranky when you try to go there.

What works every time, in my experience, is to make the subtext of every call to parents your desire to help the kid thrive. “Hello, Mrs. X, this is your kid’s teacher. I’m calling to see how I can help your kid to thrive.” How can that get a negative response? Even if they’re mad at you, when you frame it in this way they have to be on your side, since there aren’t any sides except the side of the kid. Even if the kid has done something terrible and you have to inform the parent, you can still make the thriving the top priority, using this transgression as an event from which much can be learned.

So that’s a weed I’ve not had much trouble pulling. I don’t want to pit the parent against the kid, or make the kid a rope in a tug of war between parent and teacher. I just want to help the kid thrive.

The weed I’m looking at right now is taking kids’ responses to my lessons personally. More on that tomorrow.

Seeing them is step one.

Seeing them is step one.

We are at the time of year, heading into first semester exams, that teachers are asking themselves what on earth, of all the multitudes of gems we’ve showered upon our students, they will take away.


WARNING: do not ask them this question.


They may well not know. They might shrug their shoulders and cast their minds back to try to find something to make you feel better. Or they might lash out and catalogue your iniquities (all of them committed in innocence). Neither they nor their teachers can yet know what has been taught, what has been learned. Whatever we test at this point may or may not stick. Many things we’ve tried to tell them may still be seeping down into their sinews and veins.

It’s a little like asking a garden, what did I plant?


Oh, it's planted.

Oh, it’s planted.

Nothing shows yet. Even if something has begun to grow, it doesn’t look like much.

Watch this space!

Watch this space!


I couldn’t have told you what my best and most influential teachers had taught me as their courses ended. I couldn’t have known.

There is a line of mature oaks outside my classroom window. I continue to be grateful for those who planted them. They’re taller than the second story roof. They began as green loops in the soil. What did the passersby think of them when they were a quarter of an inch tall? Not much.

All we can do is throw out handfuls of good seeds and prepare the ground as well as we’re able. It’s up to the kids to do the rest.  After all, it’s human nature to learn (and also human nature to be impatient and fussy and feel it’s not getting what it wants).

You have to wait.

You have to wait.

Yesterday I had the privilege of being the student of a gifted teacher: fascinating on so many levels.

This was my son’s first guitar teacher and he was in town for a short time on his way to a WWOOF placement in Maryland (my kind of guy. He’s also an “avid walker.” I wonder how he feels about otters). He met me to give me a single lesson and I had emailed to say that I’d like to try to untangle my confusion about chords and intervals and to try to improve the sound of the songs I can play.

He was highly encouraging: I came away replete with courage. I liked hearing him tell me I’d done a good job and use my name. It turns out that even we older learners are hungry for faith that we can accomplish and achieve. He exuded confidence, both in his ability/mastery and in his interest in helping people to learn. From an email in answer to a question:

I am indeed, very patient.  I feel like it is the most important skill to learn as a guitar teacher, as well as a good memory back to the days when my struggles on the instrument were the same as my student’s.  I think most guitarists encounter frustration in the same areas of physically and mentally adjusting to the instrument from beginner to advanced.

He had a lot for me to work on. I’d told him what I wanted to learn and he had firm ideas of how to work on learning it. He asked me to figure stuff out and when I couldn’t, he was there with both the answer and some supportive remarks about my thinking process. He gave me a scale to practice that will teach me a number of things, as well as serving to strengthen my fingers. My initial awkwardness at the scale didn’t trouble him. I didn’t feel judged: just part of the process.

The experience was challenging and rewarding. I wish I could take more lessons from him: it felt like being part of something bigger, as if I were a dues-paid-up member of a musical community. He told me two small things that were especially helpful:

  1. when you hear buzzing, that means you need a hair more pressure on a string. Use that buzzing not to be annoyed but to teach you the precise amount of pressure you need to apply. This transforms my relationship to buzzing. Now it’s my teacher.
  2. I’m past the roughest part of my barre chords. The hardest part is making them sound on each string. Transitioning smoothly to them takes time, sometimes lots of it, but I’m already past the part where they don’t sound like anything. So yay for that. There are stages and I’m past one of them.

In addition to learning some good stuff about guitar, I hatched a couple of questions.

I wonder whether yelling at people (using the term loosely, as the kids do) is ever useful? What I got from Chris was kindness, information, encouragement, ways to approach my practice—but no dissatisfaction, no message that I’d fallen short. I don’t need to be told that anyway: I’m acutely aware of how I fall short and I’m highly motivated to do better. Maybe the stern and cranky approach is necessary for those who are dogging it? I know I reproach my students at intervals, when I feel they are blowing off what I am telling them.

Another great teacher of my experience, Madame Menendez who taught me French in high school, once had a sit-down with us about our using the absolutely-never pile-up “de le.” In French, that just doesn’t happen. It switches to “du.” Somehow even as seniors we were sometimes saying de le, which would be like saying “I are.” It just doesn’t happen. For that moment she stopped being encouraging and enthusiastic and registered her frustration. Why, WHY can’t we remember that? And we said, well, it doesn’t come naturally. And she replied, okay fine, but then correct yourselves after the fact at the very least. I took that message and I honored her frustrations. It was a legitimate question.

But it was really nice to be with Chris yesterday and not fear getting yelled at, not even once. Is yelling generally productive? Or is it risky?  Is browbeating someone into learning a way to go?  Or does it just antagonize the learner?  Are you asking this question, “No Excuses” charter schools?

And it also raises this question: wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be a student in my own class? Boy would I learn a lot about how to teach and (I suspect) how not to be annoying.  I wish Chris could be his own student for a lesson. He would feel very proud.

A sincere thank you to Chris for all the teaching about guitar and about teaching. I hope fate has arranged for us to reconvene for more learning and sharing in the future.


WWOOF photo of the month, from their website.  Take by Rodrigo Rocha.

WWOOF photo of the month, from their website. Taken by Rodrigo Rocha.


It’s the end of the marking period and everything just keeps going. I have learned that my AP’s struggle with the following when reading poetry:

  • They don’t want to put the poem on a Procrustean bed and make it mean something it wasn’t meant to mean, but they feel driven to come up with something profound to say.
  • They know they have to get the literal level first, but they have lots of anxiety about going to the figurative level. See Procrustean bed, above.
  • They don’t know many Bible stories or myths, so their recognition of allusions is problematic.
  • They don’t know as many words as they thought they did and some of the words mean something different from what they had believed.
  • They struggle with archaic language: thou, dost, anon, wast. . . tres difficile.


Largely they just don’t have much experience with poems. When we read Poe, we know what we’re in for. When we go to a movie and things start blowing up, we know what we’re in for. They don’t know what they’re in for!


(true story: We used to watch the absurd Blake Edwards movie The Great Race with our kids when they were small, a family favorite. My son once showed it to a friend as an adult. At one point, the friend turned to him and remarked, “All this movie needs now is a pie-fight.” If you’ve not seen it, you should know that the pie fight in that film, occurring mere minutes from when the guy made the comment, is epic, putting all subsequent pie fights to shame. I believe they’re retired the concept from movie-making. He knew what he was in for)


If they keep reading poetry, or indeed anything literary and challenging, these problems will resolve themselves. But waiting is hard.


(is it annoying if I keep pointing out how testing will screw everything up if we let it? These impediments to understanding are a function of their youth and inexperience. We don’t need to and shouldn’t force these kids to be ahead of where they are. It will only make them into anxious message-hunters. Let them explore poetry for the love of it, and soon all these problems will go away)


You can't force the flowers to bloom, but given the right conditions, you can't stop them, either.

You can’t force the flowers to bloom, but given the right conditions, you can’t stop them, either.

There is so much stupidity out there that I could spend all my time rebutting the moronic, illogical contentions of those who know nothing about education except precisely what to do to “fix” it. Frank Bruni of the New York Times made an ass of himself, as usual, today. But unless I determine to write him a letter, I’m going to ignore it.


Instead I want to remember something that happened yesterday in class. We are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God and we are at the beginning. The kids noticed with some alarm the language describing Janie’s awakening under the pear tree. I recalled for them walking in April under the magnolia trees on Oxford Street in Rochester, age 12 or so, and a shower of petals fell about me, and I longed—pined– for a boyfriend. That surge of energy, pure and unrelated at first to lust, is what Janie experiences. I knew I was unready for love: chubby, spotted with pimples, and sporting ugly braces on my teeth, I needed no one to tell me that I was no man’s dream. The loneliness and longing! And kids told of their own embarrassment and shame in veiled references and tentative acceptance of a passage quite recently passed. For a few moments we were all just human beings together, and united with Janie under her glorious pear tree. One girl raised her hand and said that until this moment, she never considered how alone she felt in this universal experience. Here we all were, all of us in memory of our awkwardness, that isolating conviction that we were the only ones on earth so gawky and unlovable—never dreaming that our very isolation was universally understood.


I live for moments like that. Thank you, my dear E.K., for that.


(let’s see you put that on a standardized test, “reformers”)


Enough to make a girl's heart swoon.

Enough to make a girl’s heart swoon.

People who have made a lot of money seem frequently to believe that this confers upon them a special skill, that somehow creating $$$ for themselves means that they have acquired wisdom and the ability to see into the very heart of things.

They are wrong.

They often turn their attention to education and advocate for businessy incentives, like pitting schools and teachers against one another or merit pay, as a result of their unshakeable faith in the efficacy of money as motivator.  These incentives don’t work, as has been shown over and over again.

Indeed, people don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money.  We want to be paid a living wage, a wage that allows us to live in modest comfort in the communities in which we teach, but we are not in it to make a killing.  What we want instead is to be part of a winning team, a school that does a really good job, where we can see our students thrive and grow.  That is our motive:  seeing kids flourish.

Others have written eloquently on this topic.  I can’t improve much on this:


Laura Chapman on Education, which is not a business


Except maybe to add this:


Dan Pink sums up the research (old research) on motivation and creativity.


This isn't a business either.  Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

This isn’t a business either. Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

We teachers experience a new year twice a year, and this is one of them.  We arrive at school full of hope and so do our kids.  There are many limits on our hopes, many realities to navigate, even mines in our field.  It’s a good thing that this is the time of year when seeds go out.  from this:

Make a wish when you see this.

Make a wish when you see this.

to this

Strange cases with new life inside.

Strange cases with new life inside.

To this

Oh the work plants do.

Oh the work plants do.

This time of year is all about getting seeds planted.  If only there was more fertile soil.

Here is to good, deep, rich loam in us all.

This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

This is the Frick Collection: not very photogenic.

On a rainy summer day, we went to see this somewhat forbidding building and the treasures it contained.  Renoirs, Vermeers, Gainsboroughs, Turners, Rembrandts.  .  .  it was very impressive, and it was meant to be.

We wondered where Frick had obtained all this money.  Ay yi yi.  “The most hated man in America” took the fall for some of Andrew Carnegie’s cruelest actions.  Who decided to call the Pinktertons, to fire on the Homestead strikers?  Frick or Carnegie?  They were called and fourteen people died.  Someone hated Frick so much he tried to assassinate him.  He failed and this generated enough sympathy for Frick that he could fire more than a thousand workers and hire the rest of the strikers back at half pay.

So Vermeer et al were paid for by the lives and wages of workers.  You have to really want that kind of wealth to be willing to do what you have to do to get it, and Frick succeeded brilliantly.  He built the house so as to make Carnegie’s house look like a miner’s shack.  That’s a competitive heart.

According to

Later in life, he (Andrew Carnegie) reportedly sent Frick a note suggesting that the two men put aside their differences. Frick gave a cutting response to Carnegie’s personal secretary, who had delivered the letter: “Tell him I’ll see him in hell, where we are both going.”

Did I mention that both Frick and Carnegie helped to cause the Johnstown Flood?  Yes.  It was their club’s private lake with its unsafe dam that broke and flooded the town.  That killed 2,209 people.

The collection is priceless and you can go to see it, too.

And there, on the table, in the middle of the room, regarded by all the great ladies painted by the great painters, was a vase of lilies.  It looked something like this:



They grew in the dirt.  They smelled wonderful!  You could grow them, too.  And no matter how you look at it, they are as beautiful in their way as the paintings and rare furnishings are in theirs.

They reminded me of a farmer I heard interviewed on NPR years ago.  A neighbor asked him why, when there was no profit in it, he planted an entire field of sunflowers.  He replied, “Because I’m too poor to afford a Van Gogh.”

I share Frick’s desire to collect and curate beauty.  Good thing there are cheaper and easier ways to do it.

As if to remind us, whether we want to remember it or not, of the fact that new life is as relentless and unstoppable as the other side of the wheel, our house wrens fledged this morning.  As I walked out the door to go to school, there they were, mum and dad encouraging, kiddos hanging back in trepidation, under the gardenia blossoms.


If I were a wren, I’d like to live here.

There was a nest like a little tunnel:

Made of leaves and pine straw, untidy but effective.

Made of leaves and pine straw, untidy but effective.

We couldn’t see into it, but this morning, we saw them fly.  In an act of perfidy, rooted in his fear of disturbing them, someone (I name no names) refused to take a picture of the perfect, tiny birds on their way to the wider world.  But here’s what we saw:

Subtly colored yet dainty in the extreme.

Subtly colored yet dainty in the extreme.

And off they went.  May nature treat them kindly– unlike the way she sometimes mauls our hopes.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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