Archives for category: To learn

The house we used to live in had a skylight in the living room, and outside that room there grew a number of mature trees.  One day, my grandson, who was then about 3 years old, said to me, “Mimi, circles are here.”  I had never noticed that the sun, when filtered through leaves (as if they were a pinhole camera), projects itself in circles of light.  Here is the best photo I can find to show you what I mean if you haven’t noticed this before:

Related image

That dappling, if you could see it without the texture of the ground, is made up of circles.  I had lived in that house for years and never noticed it.  It took the fresh attention of a little child to see it.

We used to lie on our backs and watch them shift around when the breeze stirred the leaves.  It was Zen T.V.  Very beautiful.  One day a cloud came and covered the sun and the circles vanished, and then, as the cloud blew across the sky, they came back.  My grandson said to me, “Do it again!”  As if I had the power to move the clouds.

It was very strange to me that I had never seen them, that I needed his help to see what was happening in my own house so frequently– and I have never stopped loving those circles, whenever they appear.

Yet another miracle of the eclipse is this:

Circles are cescents

The circles became crescents.

I couldn’t tell you why this is so lovely to me.  Partly it has to do with having been taught to see them by my beloved little boy, partly it has to do with beauty and mystery hiding right before our eyes, as much as to suggest that the world is far more exquisite than we have power to imagine or perceive.

But one thing is for sure: teaching involves making these overlooked marvels visible to our kids whose lives, we hope, will forever contain a little more of the numinous than they did when they arrived.

It’s all about the noticing.  Thank you, A., for teaching me to notice the circles.

As I mentioned, I went to see the eclipse.  My brother had said months ago that this was an experience we would never forget, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and worth all the driving it would entail.  So we drove.  It was my sister and brother-in-law and me.  We broke the trip in Roanoke, VA with a memorable dinner at the Three Little Pigs Barbecue, a restaurant in a strip mall that managed to nail it on food, service, ambiance, location, and regionality.

The next day we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC.  Beckham, the scruffy little rescue dog, found that the bbq had not entirely agreed with him.  We gave thanks for the beautiful cool mountain weather and rolled down the windows.

Arrival in Asheville and off to Biltmore, a Vanderbilt mansion on an unimaginable scale.  Go there and see Frederick Law Olmstead’s work as he could only imagine it– the trees are now what he planned they would be.  I wish I could bring him to life for one day to show him in its mature form what he dreamed and created.

Then a dilemma– do we chance traffic and congestion to go to the glider port in Benton TN to see our brother and meet up with old friends who were already there?  Or should we heed the warnings of quadrillions of cars on the road and just hop south a few miles?  We went for it, along the Nantahala river and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, to arrive at the Chilhowee Gliderport.  This was what it looked like:

Glider port

(That’s my sister in white, walking Beckham.  He feels a lot better now).

People were parked all along those trees there– maybe 300 or so?  And here was some pre-game celebration:

Corona tailgate

Coronas, to honor what we hoped to see, from a dear old friend (none for Beckham).

Then we waited.  We told stories and jokes and passed the time with friendship.

Telling stories


Then a bite out of the sun, then a bigger bite. We kept on looking!

Look up

K looks up

Then a lot of it was covered and the world looked odd– not quite twilight, but not normal either, as if it were blowing up a storm but the leaves were the right side up and no cool wind.  Then most of the sun covered.  Nearing totality, it looked like a movie that was meant to look like nighttime but it was really filmed in the day and put through some kind of filter that was fooling nobody.  Then, Then.  .  . Then!  The glasses on, the glasses off, and “Oh my God” on a loop– ohmigodohmigodohmigod.  The “diamond ring”, the darkness, the corona like an image of the Star of Bethlehem, a sense of cool, or was it chills?  I wanted to be alone so I could just cry and everyone around experiencing the same.  “Bailey”s Beads”– a pink jewel at 5:00 on the rim, pulsing.  .  .  Then the whole thing repeated on the other side.

daytime darkness

There’s no point in trying to sum it up.  It’s unsummable, numinous, ennobling.

Nature is the first and best teacher.  She knows that if you inspire awe, the rest will follow, as the night the day.

And when you’ve learned it, there you are with one another, closer than you were before.

all of us

Closer with family, when your brother was the one who told you to go and your sister who traveled all the miles with you.

3 siblings

Closer with the sweet family who took the photos and made it better by being there.

sweet fam

Closer with the world and all that’s in it and around it, including the sun, which I’ll never look at quite the same way again.

Would it be possible to imagine bringing awe into the classroom?  To re-envision our work as teachers as inspiring awe and fostering connection among seekers?

Who knows?  All I know is that I saw the moon pass across the sun and darkness fall in the afternoon.  And it made life better.



Some time ago, but well after age 50, I determined to learn to play the guitar. I can’t say why I did, but all of a sudden it mattered to me. Since I last learned anything really hard, I’ve developed quite a lot of discipline and stamina—surprise!—and I worked hard at it. Then I lost my teacher and found a new teacher and to my sorrow, discovered that I’d learned some bad habits that were going to hold me back if I didn’t reform my ways. This felt like going back to the beginning. Discouraging. Very.

Yesterday at my lesson, my new teacher, Dan C., cautioned me against overthinking and trying to get too far too fast. He said if he were going to try to learn gymnastics, he wouldn’t start on the parallel bars. First he’d have to lose some weight and get stronger—before he even approached any of the equipment. He said just as you don’t start teaching babies the Latin name for fruit trees before they’ve learnt “apple,” so you can’t get ahead of yourself in any other enterprise.

But I don’t want to be where I am! I want to be farther ahead. Now.

And that driving, striving attitude will defeat the most disciplined learner. You can’t be where you aren’t. You have to be where you are, fully, deeply, without judgment. You have to live rich and open in the place you are. Only in that way can you move forward.

It’s a little like walking along with a stack of books piled high on your arms.



This guy is content to be where he is.

As you learn, the books go inside you and your arms are freed up for more. This takes time. The only way is bit by bit. You can’t just pile more books on top and run ahead, grabbing more books. It just won’t work.


This guy is trying to get where he isn’t.



This guy is going to have to put some of those books down.

To learn stuff best, whether it’s guitar or how to teach or what were the causes of the Civil War, you have to be where you are with it, possessed of curiosity, tolerance, patience, courage, and faith. Trying to motivate yourself (or others) with chiding and yelling merely communicates that where you are is no good. How can it be no good? It’s where you are! You have to start there.


It helps a lot if love and respect flow freely between teacher and student.

It turns out that the fastest way to go anywhere is to be fully where you are. You have to pay attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

So mindfulness and learning, it turns out, go hand in hand.



As I read the newspapers and hear the noise, this is what I’m learning:

  • Good teachers are crucially important in kids’ lives.
  • There aren’t enough good teachers. Too many aren’t worth what we’re paying them.
  • Those who are no good are disproportionately congregating in the schools of low income kids. That’s why those kids are not succeeding.
  • Therefore, we need ways to measure teachers against one another, to make sure we have more good ones.
  • Thus we have to make teaching as miserable, standardized, and soulless as possible, bleed the creativity right out, so we can have better teachers.

I totally agree with the first one! Yes, good teachers are truly important to kids. I should know, for I had many superb teachers and I don’t live a day when I don’t owe them my thanks.

The people I’m trying to speak to in this blog are teachers, teachers-in-training, and those who care about them (which should be everybody, if we care about our future, but oh well). So how, under current circumstances, do you become a great teacher? Given that just about everything you read is about judgment, antagonism, ignorant assumptions, and punitive measurement, how do you let your light shine?

I think the first step is a vow: I will treat my students with respect.

We should all say this aloud, ten or fifty times a day. Everybody needs a reminder. For the fact is that kids can be exasperating. They don’t turn in their work, they talk in class and ignore you, they put on their makeup or reorganize their book bag or ask to go the bathroom precisely when you’re baring your heart and the soul of a poem, and when you ask for their attention, they can pull a face and sass at you and give you names of all the other people who are so much worse than they are right at that very moment so it really can’t be their fault atall. You want to leave them out in the rain.

But this will not help them learn. Indeed, if you start to hate them, even a little, they will either suck up to you so they’re on your good side, or they’ll make it their business to thwart you as far as they can. Teachers, of all professions, know what it feels like when you’re doing your utmost and all you get is grief—hardly encouraging of that extra measure of effort.

And our students have the added excuse of being kids. This is where (I blush to disclose) I have a distinct advantage over many other teachers, for I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all when I was in school. I do not forget that as annoying as my students can be—and yesterday I had to take a moment in a colleague’s room to hold back the tears of frustration and furor—I was pretty bad myself. I sometimes imagine some of my former teachers smiling contentedly down from heaven on my red face and brimming eyes. So I understand the rebellious spirit.

After all, if the kids came to us rarin’ to learn and laser-focused, they could teach themselves and we’d be out of a job. It’s precisely because they are annoying, chatty, distracted, ignorant, entitled, callow intellects-in-bud that we’re worth our paychecks.

It’s very tempting to go into high dudgeon and decry “kids these days,” refuse late work, teach by packet, sneer and snipe, create picky quizzes and tests that reasonable readers can’t pass, and make the whole thing into a power struggle, but it’s a bad idea. For that isn’t teaching but withholding, ranking, scrabbling for status.

And the fact that our secretary of education, “reformers,” and sometimes even our administrators take that tone with us is no excuse.

So I propose that no matter what else we do, we respect our students, individually, as human beings of unknowable potential. Only in that way can we realize our own potential as teachers, which every kid needs more good ones of.

Doctors have their oath.  We need one, too.

Doctors have their oath. We need one, too.

There are three strands to this post and I hope to braid them together into something coherent.  We’ll see.

First, I’ve been thinking lately about self-improvement and how it can feel like self-rejection.  Alan Watts talks about this, the sense that we have to white-knuckle our way out of being who and what we are to become something a whole lot better, and how the real message there is self-hatred.  I had a big checklist at the New Year, with all sorts of improving things to do each day (exercise! practice guitar! floss!) and I kept it faithfully, most unlike me, for twenty plus days, to find life had become miserable.  The whole time I was doing one thing, I was eying the rest of the undone tasks and scheming on how to cut corners on each so I could squeeze them all in.  It was horrid and I’m still recovering.

I think about this with some of my students, who, some of the time, are playing me.  They don’t want to do the work I set for them and they find ways to kick against it.  The message of an assignment is, after all, that I’m not accepting them the way they are.  I want to see them grow.  That’s not bad, but it is a potentially annoying part of the relationship.

Second strand: this morning I read a long article in about Steinbeck and the journal he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, detailing his many crises of confidence, his self doubt, his granite commitment to this important novel, and his fears about not having the skill to bring it off.  He suspended his life to write the book, all the while wondering if his ability could do justice to his conception.  And yet not to write it!

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Inspiring to think even these kinds of writers have doubts.

Third strand:  Mister Rogers.  Watch this:

Mister Rogers Good-bye.

My transcription of part of it: “I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us.  And I know how tough it is some days, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.  But I would like to tell you what I used to tell you when you were much younger:  I like you just the way you are.  And what’s more, I am so grateful to you for helping all of the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.  It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”

So how do they go together?  Is the answer to refuse to write a Pulitzer/Nobel book, since it’s so painful?  Or to accept that some kids will take advantage of their teachers and brag about it to others?  Or to grind our molars and force ourselves to do what we think we ought, regardless of the heartbreak?

No.  I think there may be a quietly insistent inner calling.  We know what seeds we contain.  Having a baby isn’t the easiest thing, either, but some of us wanted to be mothers badly enough that we braved it.  And it was magnificently, opulently worth it.

We have to love ourselves and one another just the way we are, and know that that also means loving the seeds we contain.  Some, like Steinbeck or my mentee, are going to have to give up the present to grow those seeds to fruit– but the cost of not doing it is so great that we can’t bring ourselves to pay it.

And I must continue to love my students, even the advantage-takers, just the way they are and hold out faith for the seeds that they contain, even if right now they cannot muster Steinbeckian courage.

A master teacher.

A master teacher.

It is a beautiful, varied, "standards"-defying world. Photo credit:  Jason Kinnan.

It is a beautiful, varied, “standards”-defying world.
Photo credit: Jason Kinnan.

I keep meeting with smart people who believe they see benefit in establishing “standards” for what kids must learn in school.  I feel like Dave Barry’s wife, of whom he remarked about her experience in childbirth, “Would you believe, she almost completely lost her sense of humor!” So that I can quit sounding so peevish at dinner parties, here is my platform on “standards:”

  1. Kids learn at different rates, so what is a good target for one kid at a given age is inappropriate for another kid at the same age.
  2. “Standards” place intolerable pressure on kids who cannot meet them and render invisible kids who already surpass them. “Standards” inevitably aim toward the big middle. If we adopt them, we are no longer taking an interest in our best and brightest, who can already pass all the stupid, reductive bubble tests. This is no way to “compete in a global economy.”
  3. We should not be trying to standardize kids, anyway. What we want is creativity, resourcefulness, and diversity of thought and ability.
  4. Even if the standards could be made flexible enough to suit all kids (ha!), what’s the point of codifying what they need to know today when we don’t even know what problems we will face tomorrow? “Standards” are inherently ponderous and slow on their feet, unable to keep up with the rate of change.
  5. We’re never going to agree on them anyway. Either everyone already knows it, like the fact that all kids should know how to read, or people can’t agree on it. When should we teach symbolism? Comprehensive sexuality education? Global warming? The proper place to fight these battles is in communities, where there is some hope that wisdom can in time prevail, as opposed to Washington, where if you’re for it, the other side has to be against it just because.
  6. They are very, very expensive. All time and money devoted to testing is time and money away from kids learning things—billions of dollars and countless hours. Why create a sinkhole for money and expertise when both are in short supply?
  7. “Standards” presume that teachers don’t know what to teach, but they do. They always have. We don’t have a problem with teachers not knowing what kids can and should learn—we have a problem with poverty traumatizing kids to the degree that they are unable to learn it. That’s the bulls-eye of the problem and it cannot be solved with “standards.”
  8. By allowing “standards” to be foisted upon us, we allow the presumption (#6 above) to stand. We devote enormous time and money (#5) to identify all those putative horrid failing teachers rather than asking them what they need to do the job better.

Standards are worse than useless. They are actively hostile to teachers and their work.

Instead of bogus, artificially imposed, conformist benchmarks, we need to cultivate the best and highest in every single person.

Each person, highest potential. EP, HP.

Each person, highest potential.

Each person, highest potential.


Now I'll go back to my trashcan and try to cheer up.

Now I’ll go back to my trashcan and regain my usual cheery disposition.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

A student sent me the following link and implored me to watch it, saying that this guy lives so much of what I’m trying to teach:

Stephen Jepson:  Growing Bolder interview

Boy did she get that right.

Beside the inspiration of his energy, humor, agility, coordination, and all the rest, I came away with this urgent question: How did we let our lives get so boring?

I used to play jacks, climb trees, jump rope, and ride my bike so much that when I was finally snatched off the seat and forced into bed, it felt as though my feet were still going round and round and round. Exploring in the woods, making up games, hopscotch, tossing a ball in the air and seeing how many times I could clap my hands before it came back down—what happened to that spirit?

When I mentioned the tyranny of goals and checklists and doing this to get that and purpose and all the rest of it to a friend, she said of those folks they are trying to pave a road rather than following a path. Stephen Jepson does what he does for the joy of it and the results he receives are a bonus.  He’s following a path of play.

My poor students. So many of them have already drunk the poison of thinking that what we do today is merely so we can get what we want tomorrow. Our culture is full of that poison. I’m full of that poison and I’d like to find the antidote.

Stephen Jepson:  making the world less fall-y-down-y and also less goal-y-obsess-y.

Here is his website:  Never Leave the Playground.

Is this his morning's  commute?

Is this his morning’s commute?


So strap your bones right to the seat Come on in and don't be shy — Just to make your day complete You might get baked into a pie

So strap your bones right to the seat
Come on in and don’t be shy —
Just to make your day complete
You might get baked into a pie

Somehow I missed this entirely—my kids were too old and I wasn’t watching kids’ TV in these years. Lily Tomlin was Miss Frizzle! To me she will always be Edith Ann and Ernestine.

And that's the truthhhh.

And that’s the truthhhh.

But as I talked along in class on Friday about how my new class has my number (one kid said something like, “This isn’t really about English at all. You are not doing the hard sell on poems and stories and all that. This is about making us better people- and I like it.” They are so onto me), period 4 totted up my role models: Mary Poppins, Maria Von Trapp, and Miss Frizzle—but I’d never heard of her. So I pulled up an episode on YouTube and there they were, transformed into bees, with their proboscises (probosces?) sipping nectar and turning it into honey and solving their problems and there was Miss F. cracking wise with one awful pun after another.

So yeah, The Magic School Bus is IT. That is what we teachers are all trying to do. Or jumping into chalk drawings in the sidewalk

Prepare to jump.

Prepare to jump.

or dancing around Salzburg singing in harmony.

Now that's a classroom.

Now that’s a classroom.

But these days I observe that lawmakers appear to be driving the Magic Schoolbus off the cliff of test scores. How can we turn it around so we’re back doing what we ought to be doing: leading daring expeditions into the unknown?

You said it, Frizzle.

You said it, Frizzle.


One of the best things about being a teacher is that we get do-overs. Each new set of kids is a fresh start. Yesterday I met my new batch of tenth graders for the first time and I spent the class chatting with them about expectations (mostly mine) and attention. I want to explore attention directly. How far can it be taught? Can we teachers develop routines and exercises that help kids pay better attention? Can we help them manage the stressful or joyful thoughts that distract them? Can we inculcate in them a sense that boredom is a function of one’s own mind and not an essential quality of the thing they find boring?

Mainly what I wanted them to take away is a sense of my philosophy: the sense that curiosity and discovery, adventure and exploration are paramount. I also told them I didn’t want them to converge onto a spectrum to be measured against one another or against a “standard.” I want them to ray out and be ever truly more themselves in all their unique vibrancy. (It would be fun to take a photo of them when I’m talking like that. Their faces are so intently human, so full of peaceful dignity.)

And I told them that if I had my druthers, I would begin our time together silently, leading them down the stairs and out the door to a waiting bus, where we would depart for adventure number 1. The logistics and expense of that are insoluble, so instead we will venture out imaginatively, beginning with Emily Dickinson:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.


All aboard!

All aboard!

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.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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