Archives for category: Trees

Or, how do you prepare?

This has always been a mystery to me.  How do you prepare to teach a bunch of kids you haven’t met yet?  You can’t know how to speak to them or connect to them until you know a little bit about them.  .  .  But you have to do something on the first few days while you size them up and they do the same with you.

What I have done in the past is to ask them to read V.S. Naipaul’s beautiful short story “B. Wordsworth” and then a letter I’ve written and photocopied about the story, and on the back of that they write a letter to me talking about the story, about my letter, and about themselves.  I wish I could say that took up most of the 90 minutes I typically see them, but it’s only about a half an hour.  “B. Wordsworth” says a lot about paying attention, about mindfulness, and about teaching.  It’s great.  But they can’t really take in anything on day 1 and maybe that’s better saved for later.

I’ve been told that you should do your most pizzazzy lesson on the first day so they go home all agog and tell their mums and dads.  That’s poor advice in my opinion.  Why would you want to set yourself up so the entire rest of your course is a let-down?  And anyway, they won’t remember it.  Day 1 is a blur.

I’ve also been told that you shouldn’t smile til Christmas.  This reminds me of a saying my father used to cite:  “A woman, a horse, and a walnut tree: the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”  I can’t speak for walnut trees, but I bet even the horses reject that piece of cruelty.

Image result for walnut tree

(Don’t let them hurt you, kiddo!)

No, the thing to do on day 1 is something that comes out of your own heart, expresses your values, respects the kids and yourself, and recognizes that we all need time and space to decide our feelings on anything so important as our new teacher.

I myself am not a fan of icebreakers, so I don’t do one.  If you like them when they’re offered to you, great.  Go for it.  For me, that would be phony.  This year I might give them an article (The Atlantic has one now about smartphones ruining a generation) and ask them to read and discuss in small groups and then open it up to discuss all together.  Or go over procedures, introduce myself, and give them the article to take home to read and begin Wednesday with a discussion.

I don’t know.  So the true answer to what am I doing this weekend is that I am sleeping as much as I can, buying plastic containers to pack lunches, visiting with my family, re-stringing my guitars, going for walks, having dinner with friends, and altogether living my life– invoking the muses to grace my creativity and imagination with lesson ideas that will inspire my students big time.

In other words, I’ll figure it out.  Ideally before the first kids arrive on Tuesday.

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(Can’t wait to meet those scary, wonderful kids).

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:

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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.

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

“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.

beech-nuts-2

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.

stpaul400x473

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.

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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.

 

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.

Today we had a tree tutorial in first period. On my way in to school, I picked up a maple leaf, a sweet gum leaf, an oak leaf of some sort or other (I never have learned all the oaks), and a couple of ginkgo leaves. I also had the leaf of what I thought I had heard called a willow oak, which I just looked up now and yes, that’s right. They recognized some of them and I told them about sweet gum trees with their prickle balls and their leaves the shape of stars. We chatted about gingkos, male and female, with their vile fruits, planted all over Philadelphia, about live oaks, about how oaks have acorns and that’s what make them oaks, about the Angel Oak, and so on—just a nice conversation, the gist of which is that if you are bored, you aren’t paying attention. There is so much to see, so much to learn.

 

I can’t wait for the Matisse oak leaves to start falling. I’ll take pictures when they do.

Like red oaks, I think.

Like red oaks, I think.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

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.

I am going to start asking people that question.

I suspect that everyone would describe the same school:

  • a beautiful, safe, sunny building in good repair
  • caring, experienced, knowledgeable teachers
  • a big, welcoming library with a trained and enthusiastic librarian
  • a green, tree-intensive campus with lots of playing fields
  • a widely varied curriculum with plenty of arts, athletics, and electives
  • help for kids at all levels:  those who struggle, those in the middle, those who excel.
  • small class sizes to allow for individual attention for all students
  • a vibrant and supportive community that values what happens at the school.

Funny how absolutely none of this is supported by current “reform” initiatives.  None of it would be improved by the Common Core, which presumes that teachers have been unclear on what to teach.

I went to a school like this.  Except for some details (like class size), I teach at a school like this.

 

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

A beautiful building and a beautiful campus.

I’d like to see us start pursuing this goal for every kid in the U.S.  If we stopped the runaway testing, we might even have enough money for it.

It would do more than merit pay to attract and retain gifted teachers– and it’s our best shot for the next generation who constitute our future.

New Hope November 2013:  Near Fred's Breakfast

New Hope November 2013: Near Fred’s Breakfast. Looking across the river to Lambertville.

I received a wonderful email from a former student the other day.  It’s always interesting to hear what has taken root:

And even though it’s been two years, there are a few things about you and your classes that have stuck with me:

*I still know all of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, and remember it whenever I see the new, bright green buds and leaves on the trees that line the streets and side walks of West Chester University’s campus.

*I subconsciously “crock-pot” ideas whenever I’m writing a paper that I feel very strongly about.

*I have a dream (and though unrealistic, it is very dear to me) about being able to walk to my place of work.

*I sometimes wonder if I’m being “mule-ish” in my classes, and if I find that I am, I try my best to snap out of it.

*Oh, and I have recently been trying to eat nice things (Eat food, not too much, mostly plants) which is, unfortunately, discouragingly difficult on a college campus.

As you can see, I’ve realized recently how many wonderful habits and dreams you have inspired in me, and for this I thank you. You may be wondering why I’ve waited two years to send this e-mail, and perhaps why I’m sending it out at nearly three o’clock in the morning. To answer the first part, I’m currently in a class about environmental sustainability and I just keep thinking of you, and how easily and casually you were able to introduce our class to such admirable habits. As to the second, this was just one of those ideas I couldn’t fall asleep with, without doing something about it.

I am proud of these lessons.  I stand by them.  But I’ve noticed something curious:  students rarely tell me that they learned to read or write from me, which is, after all, the point.  It’s possible that what they learn about their skills becomes so natural to them that they don’t think about it.  Like this anecdote from David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Once a student told me that the most wonderful thing that ever happened in my class is when I showed them this video:

Antwerp Flash Mob

The point is that we give them everything we’ve got, never knowing what’s going to stick.  If one darling person can learn to detect her own mulish tendencies, can learn to let ideas simmer in the crockpot of her brain, can aspire to sustainability in all she does, can eat well, thank Michael Pollan, and hope to walk to work while reciting Frost and admiring the fresh green of spring leaves– well, how much can we hope to influence anyone anyway?

Thank you, Brittany.  You made my day (also, let’s face it:  you write beautifully).

Students learn to be human.

Mulishness is a defense against learning.  Good students learn to be human.

They say that to make an omelette, you’ve got to break some eggs.  When you do that, there is sticky, gluey egg goo on the counter, plus a bowl to wash, plus egg shells to put in the compost and have to dump on the pile at some point, plus a pan that had butter and eggs in it to wash.  .  .  You have to disturb the universe, as Prufrock observed.

So here’s my gardening residue:

Oh, the scrubbing.

Oh, the scrubbing.

From hands to feet:

They actually looked worse 15 minutes before this photo.  Walking around loosened some of the dirt.

They actually looked worse 15 minutes before this photo. Walking around loosened some of the dirt.

It was so nasty that my husband brought me my robe in the basement so I could strip next to the washing machine and leave the muddy jeans away from the clean house.  But I planted

  • 2 Kousa dogwoods
  • 2 prostrate yew (cephalotaxus harringtoniana)
  • 1 boxwood
  • 1 upright yew
  • 2 hinoki cypresses, one of which weighed at least a thousand pounds

and all that was after having dug out more &*%$ing forsythia stumps the day before.  Also repotting the abutilon and hours of weeding.

But here is what my friend Brooke’s grandmother did to improve her hands and nails after gardening:

It helps.

It helps.

The first step is to disturb the universe and the next step is to figure out how to mitigate the aftershock.  Here is to Brooke, her grandmother, and all our sister gardeners who teach us how to forge on, undaunted, and mop up the aftermess with elegance.

And here’s to my hinoki cypresses and all the rest:  may you live long and prosper!

Doesn't it look like the Vulcan salute?

Doesn’t it look like the Vulcan salute?

And thanks to my beloved grandson, Andrew, for taking the photos of my filthy hands and feet.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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