Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Anansi with a Halloween twist

I told my first story in German today with our preschoolers. As I waited behind the wooden table I had set up on our blue rug, I watched the kids try to make sense of this new person at reading time (it's usually one of the other teachers, while I clean up after snack), and a new format of experiencing a story. Their eyes were big, and they hesitated at first, until they realized: Puppet Show! (sort of) Then there was hardly anything to keep them still, as they wriggled to find a place and kept sneaking up to look at the puppets behind the table. Can you really punish curiosity? All I could do was begin to satisfy it...

From behind the table came my right hand in a black glove: Anansi, the spider.

There once was a spider named Anansi. Anansi wanted only one thing in the world: to own all of the stories of the world! But at that time, they belonged to Nyame, the Sky God in the sun. So he spun his way all the way up to the sun to find him. When he asked to be given all the stories of the world, Nyame responded: "Hah! Do you think I will just give them to you? You must pay the price, Anansi! You must bring me three things: the fierce hornets of the forest, the great snake of the swamp, and the mighty tiger of the jungle. Then, and only then, will I grant you all the stories of the world!"

So, Anansi spun his way back down into the world and set about his tasks. He went to find the fierce hornets of the forest with a few things to help him: an empty gourd (pumpkin) and a big jug of water. He settled down close to where the hornets would come, and waited ... waited ... waited ... until - there they came! - the hornets came close. At this, Nyame started throwing the water from the jug up into the air, making the hornets all wet. "Hornets! Hornets!" he cried, "The rains are coming!" "Oh, Anansi, what shall we do? We hate the rain!" they called back. "Come into my gourd, where it is nice and dry," said Anansi. They did, and when they were all inside, Anansi closed up the opening with thick leaves. First task ... done!

Next, Anansi took a long bamboo stick with him into the swamp to find the great snake. When he found him, he made a bet: "I bet," said Anansi, "that you are not as long as my bamboo stick." "That tiny thing?" scoffed the snake. "Of course I'm longer." So he laid down next to the bamboo stick and streeeetched his head up toward one end and streeeetched his tail down toward the other. All the while, Anansi was weaving his silk around and around and around the body of the snake and the bamboo stick until the snake was entirely tied to the stick and couldn't move! Second task ... done!

Now, the third - surely the most difficult - task of all. Anansi crawled up into a tree and waited for the tiger to walk by. He waited ... waited ... waited ... until - there he came! - the tiger trotted by on his way home. Anansi followed him all the way back to his cave and watched exactly where the tiger slept ... (snore!) ... The next morning, when the tiger left his cave, Anansi set to work spinning a thick and strong web over the place where the tiger had slept. When the tiger returned that evening and laid down, he didn't see the web and laid down right on top of it. Anansi took the edges of the web, tied all the ends to each other, and had captured the tiger in his great, thick web. Third task ... done!

And so, Anansi spun his way back up to Nyame, this time with the hornets in the gourd, the snake on the bamboo stick, and the tiger in the web, and paid his price. Nyame was very surprised, but knew he must keep his promise. When Anansi spun his way back down to the earth again, he brought with him all the stories of the world, to tell to all the creatures of the earth. And do you know what? He is still telling them today.

(Adapted for German-language-learning preschoolers; I originally learned the story in Elder and Wong's (eds) Family of Earth and Sky)

Friday, October 30, 2009

It's the simple things ...

I wish I had a video of my time with Michael today.

Do you know those Knex-type spheres, that collapse and expand to your heart's desire? Michael was struggling with it a little today, and upon helping him, I found myself uncontrollably adding sound effects. When we collapsed the globe, I made an "ooo" sound that went down in pitch, and then made the same "ooo" when we expanded it again, this time going up in pitch, sliding along with my voice. Michael's face lit up with surprise, as did mine, and we continued collapsing and expanding and "ooo"-ing for a good ten minutes.

This is when I remember: It truly is the simple things that bring us the most joy in life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

May there always be sunshine

Oh, those two-year-olds ... I am so proud of them! Somehow, all of the energy they were putting into their detachment from their parents at the beginning of the day has now translated itself into the attachment that they can still feel, even when Mama isn't at school with them. Everything they make on a piece of paper - crayon drawings, paint blotters, gluing tissue paper - is "for my mommy".

It's getting to the point where I have moments when I look around, everyone is engaged, and I think: the only thing that needs my direct attention at the moment is my bladder! And that is just lovely (the fact that the kids are engaged, not the fact that I have waited too long)

In one of those very moments, I found myself recalling the prayer shared by a young Russian boy that somehow ended up a Raffi song:

May there always be sunshine
May there always be bread
May there always be Mama
May there always be me

Life just couldn't get any better than that, I think. I cringe to think of everything else I have asked for in my life. But: sunshine, bread, Mama (my fam), and me ... that is enough. It was enough then, and it still is.

Lass die Sonne weiter scheinen
Lass es Brot für alle geben
Lass die Mama immer da sein
Lass mich immer weiter leben

Sunday, October 25, 2009

No, silly!

David [dressed in play armor]: I'm a knight!

Me: Sure looks like it.

David [pointing to dragon on armor]: That's a dragon!

Me: Really?

David: Yeah, it breathes fire.

Me: Ooh, like this? [I muster up my best dragon impression...]

David: No, silly! That's Sleeping Beauty!

(I think he thought I was snoring. I'll have to work on my dragon breath.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Education as a moral endeavor

Did I mention I'm an eternal student?

Alongside writing my thesis proposal this fall, while also working part-time as a pre-school teacher, I couldn't resist registering for "just one class" at the UW. I don't technically need any more classes to graduate, but it had been a great desire of mine to take a class from Donna Kerr, a professor I'd seen present her research-in-progress at the Faculty Research Symposium last spring. When I heard she was teaching Education as a Moral Endeavor, I registered immediately.

My favorite thing about this class has been the basic approach and format of it. It is, in some ways, a typical graduate level course, complete with course texts, upon which a final 12-page course paper shall be based. Pretty basic, right? Wrong. Donna's approach to all of her classes, I have gathered, is to make sure that students are able to both read the course texts "generously" - that is, to hear first what it is the authors have to say, before launching into analysis and criticism - but also to hear what the authors have to say about students' own concrete experiences.

Let me explain a little more: We began the course by composing a two-page story from our own lives. "Think of a time," she said, "when you experienced or observed something profoundly immoral, or something profoundly moral, that still has you in its grips, that just won't let you go. Start there." In other words, before we were to touch any course texts, we first conjured up a bit of what we were bringing to this class, and perhaps, something that was bringing us to this class. The following week, we shared our stories in table groups. And then: "Now, let's just put those stories to the side. We will come back to them, I promise. But now, it's time to put our own stories to the side and completely rid ourselves of - just for a bit - our perspective. As we approach these texts, it's time to read generously, to listen to these authors as if we were listening to our own inner voice speaking..."

It was an exercise reminiscent of my theater and storytelling experience: instead of reading a text like I was sitting across the coffee table from the author, I was to become the author, myself, and learn how to summarize and access the major points of their works by saying "I believe..." and "I assert..." How very new, and how very intriguing ...

Now, let me introduce my personal cast of characters:

I invite you to peruse the previews Google books provides of these books by clicking on the links. It will let you a bit into the world of this course, not to mention into the worlds of each of these authors, each of which is more dynamic than the next.

This course, given Donna's background, leans heavily toward the philosophical corner of thinking about education. I feel right at home in this corner, and look forward to sharing more about it as the quarter progresses.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Field trips: the ultimate ECS

I've been reading a book lately called "Brain Rules", by molecular biologist John Medina, who is miraculously finding a way to teach me about my brain, and the brains of my students.

... And about the all-powerful ECS - emotionally competent stimuli - that serves to keep the brain paying attention, as emotionally engaged as it is cognitively. The role of emotion in learning is no new idea - I've known for a long time, for example, that my mother was afraid of dogs for so long, without knowing why, until her parents told her she was bitten by one at age 1. Everybody has something like that, that usually catches them when they least suspect it. On his website www.brainrules.net, Medina has much more actual research.

So, why is it - as I suggest in my title - that field trips are the ultimate ECS? Because we went to a local pumpkin farm last week and the only thing I remember in any great detail is the feeling of my arm falling asleep because there were two fast asleep three-year-olds balanced on it. I could have stayed in that moment forever.

I reflected more, though, on Diana, another three-year-old who cried her whole way through the farm visit. It began when she arrived at school and realized we weren't leaving for the farm until after morning circle and snack - continued when we went to visit the animals first before gathering the pumpkins - and did not cease until we were back at school. Her mother was one of the chaperones, so she stuck by her side for the most part, dismissing it as "Well, you know, she just gets the idea in her head, and doesn't want to let go of it".

Another example is the firefighters' visit to the school today. They came in all their gear, a ladder truck, and even extended the ladder out as far as it could go, just for show. I greatly appreciated that the man who showed the kids the gear very carefully showed how he put it on, and crawled up to them on their level, instead of bearing down on them like a wooly mammoth. (When I thanked him later, he mentioned he has a Kindergartner at home, himself. Good learner.)

Regardless, most of the kids were absolutely astounded, and quickly incorporated firefighter characters into their free play later that afternoon. ... Except for one ... Kevin, at the sight of the firetruck, grew quiet, and preferred to look away from the firefighter in the suit. He also declined to climb up into the firetruck. I couldn't quite gather what it was that frightened him, or caused him to pause, but it was clear there was a much different emotion at work for him.

The reading of this emotional resonance has become a way for me, over time, to get to know my students from a more nuanced perspective. It has nothing to do with their capacity, their intelligence, their abilities or mistakes ... it has everything to do with the pure experience of life. Both Diana and Kevin showed distress at our activities, which, I suppose, could have been considered a 'bother', or maybe just 'too bad'. But I found myself wanting to look a little deeper, wanting to be able to read both situations better. Would it have helped me help them? I don't know. More importantly, I begin thinking about how to help (which is often how I think of my teaching - helping, that is) from the vantage point of the emotion of an experience, rather than the content of a lesson.

Not that the latter is not important! However, how can I expect my students to engage in any content learning if the context of that learning is not a positive stimulus to their emotions. In other words, can you take in any new content when you are in distress?

Back to field trips, briefly: We've been in school all fall. We see each other every day. But it took a field trip for me to see more of some students, and that was valuable seeing. It has left me wondering what will happen on the next field trip ...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When in distress, turn the wheel ...

In a way, being back at school after my two-and-a-half-week trip to Germany is like having woken up from a dream. Was I really gone??

I am back in the swing of things, including the newly developed two-year-old program that my school has begun this year. It is absolutely amazing to me what a difference just six months to a year makes at this stage of childhood. Several of the kids are still struggling through the separation from Mama, which breaks your heart, yet also serves to remind that if we never learn - and trust - to say goodbye to Mama at age 2, we'll never have the confidence to become independent adults.

One of the ways I'm trying to support those who struggle more than the others is to ease them into the day with a ritual, of sorts: a book. It's not a story, in the sense you might be thinking. It's a good-sized cardboard book with a different theme of items on each page: Foods, Animals, Clothing, etc. The catch is, there are cut out circles in the book, whose edge sticks out the top of the book, so you can turn the wheel and change the picture that emerges. The goal is to turn the wheel until you find the picture that fits the theme, e.g. the butter in the kitchen, the piglet in the farm, and the sock with the pants, not some other combination thereof.

The children are learning how to turn the wheel, and there is certainly something about the anticipation of the picture that engages them enough to realize: "Hey, if I say bye to Mama, I get to discover this!" Well, they may not have reached that point yet, but I have noticed that the more familiar they become with it, the more they trust it and me.

My hope is that they will reach the point of not needing the book, but for now, I have to admit: I am enjoying this little morning ritual.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up ...

"Alle Kinder räumen auf!" calls the teacher.

Laura mimics her tone, as if assuming the role of teacher, herself. "Alle Kinder räumen auf!" she cries, again and again, walking around to be sure that all the kids know: it's time to clean up.

"Du bist auch ein Kind," says the teacher, "You are also one of the kids. Don't shout, clean up!"

But what does it mean to clean up, anyway? Laura was just copying what her teacher does, instructing with words and then doing something different (not that what the teacher is doing isn't important, it's just not quite in line with what she is instructing the children to do).

It is painstakingly clear to me that some of our students - for one reason or the other - simply don't know yet what "cleaning up" means and entails. Luckily, I do not have to reinvent the wheel when I begin to think about how to address this, because I have a buddy, and his name is Lev Vygotsky, whose works demonstrate and philosophize on the power of what we know now as "scaffolding".

What a great word: scaffolding. You can just hear the metal bars clank into place when you say it. And in the classroom, you can already sense the guided discovery and practice that is taking place - instructive, but encouraging as much student agency as possible; teacher-led, but student-focused.

"Ok," I say to a group of boys sitting complacently around a strewn about pile of cardboard blocks, "I'm going to put away all the green blocks. What about you, Nathan? I know red is your favorite color, why don't you get the red blocks..."

"Yes, the red blocks!"

"I have the blue blocks!"

"Sounds good ..."

Together, we stack them all up in no time.

And now, onto the dress-up area ...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

And now for something completely different ...

... my Master's Thesis!

Yes, I am a woman of many identities - Teacher by day; Storyteller whenever and wherever the opportunity arises; Musician in stolen moments, and STUDENT ... always have been, always will be, for ever eternal ...

At the moment, being a student means pursuing a Master's in Education. I'm in the last stages, with "only" a thesis left to complete. Easier said than done. However, it is a fascinating process, and I wanted to be sure to take my time with it. It is serving several purposes: it's not just the fulfillment of a requirement of my program, but also an exercise in "real" research, similar to what I might pursue in a Ph.D. program sooner or later, as well as my first attempt at writing something not just for the grade, or even just for myself, but for possible publication. It is my personal goal that something - anything - that might come out of this thesis might be published in some shape or form. We shall see ...

What am I writing about? Well, as the eternal connection-maker that I am, I cannot help but recognize how ever more embedded my practice of teaching and my practice as a storyteller are in each other, and ask myself whether other storytellers have ever felt like teachers, too? How can storytellers be understood as educators? What insights can storytellers offer on what it means to be a teacher?

The origins of education can be traced back to the tradition of storytelling, which emerged within human culture as the first form of teaching. Thus, we might think of storytellers as the world’s first teachers. Today, storytellers continue to practice in the oral tradition of old, surely with as many developments as we've seen in the practice of teaching, yet observably grounded in something that reaches back - way back - to some common memory of human culture. In this was, I wanted to design a study that would explore what insights into teaching and being a teacher are gained from today’s storytellers.

Pending approval from the Human Subjects Department, I will interview 4 or 5 tellers in what is called an "exploratory" or "descriptive" study, which means that the questions I ask will be mainly open-ended. Later, in the process of analysis, I will take what I anticipate will be very different responses to those questions and attempt to identify patterns ... again, easier said than done.

Yet, I am eager and inquisitive, curious and intrigued, but more than anything: my ears and eyes are open and ready to find something amazing that won't necessarily make everything make sense, but will remind me why I am eager and curious, and that being so is something so natural and so integral to who I am and how I will continue to be in this world, regardless of whether I go on to pursue more academic study or not.

So! This fall, I have prepared my proposal and will submit it very very soon, along with an application to Human Subjects. Both are proving to require more reading and reflection already than I had anticipated. Especially in preparing the proposal, it has been hard to know when to stop reading and connecting ideas for a theoretical framework, and start writing them into a cohesive paper. There is a lot of back and forth to this process, and I find I am enjoying it. Most entertaining is, most certainly, my literature map of post-its on a wall:

What can I say? An external processor at her finest ...

More news on this process to come!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

P.S. Perhaps stories are like stars...

Perhaps stories are like stars, concrete clouds of gas and fire that do, indeed, exist - we see them with our own eyes and can prove their existence in scientific ways - yet exist in a time and place that we cannot access from our vantage point. We cannot touch the stars for they are both too far away and far too large and magnanimous to touch. Even less are we able to move them from where they are set in place. Yet, generations of humans have looked to the stars and attempted to use them to make sense of the word - to draw pictures in the sky that explain and recall who we are as a people. We do the same with stories: we return again and again to the fundamental themes of learning how to live, pointing to something that we know and experience every day, yet feels very far away when we try to grasp it between our fingers.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Back to the roots"

To take a quick hiatus from my life as a teacher, it's time to share another emerging passion of mine: my family tree!

As a storyteller, it is no wonder to me that I was sucked into the fascinating stories of my ancestors at such a young age, and have now - by two aunts - been tapped to continue to the record-keeping for both sides of my family. What has become a wonder to me is: Why me? Why, of all of us, am I so rapt with the stories that have survived, and the artifacts, and the photos ... ?? I can only assume that there is something within these treasures that will help me understand. So, I keep researching (thank you, ancestry.com), keep sorting those photos, and writing down the stories as I hear them.

This is the house my great-grandmother grew up in. The second floor windows have been added, and the straw roof restored in an extensive and fabulous renovation by the current owners.

While living in Germany, my aunt back in the States made a genealogical connection that sent me to a family reunion on the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to meet relatives I never knew I had. I was so inspired, I decided I had to do it again, and engaged in a search for another branch of the family. Through the very roundabout workings of snail mail, chance encounter, and email, I have come in contact with folks who - in this strange tradition - invited me to attend their family reunion over in the east of Germany.

Unfortunately, I had already left Germany when I received the invitation, but this year, I was able to cash in my airline miles and go "back to the roots", as the Germans are so fond of saying of us emigrants. I was accompanied these past weeks by my aunt and uncle, who oh-so-gladly chauffered us along the Autobahn in a rented Mercedes. We retraced the residences of my great-grandmother in the north, and of my great-grandfather in the east, where we met those descended from distant lines of my great-grandfather's line. It was quite a whirlwind, but, on my return, this is the story that remained (shared at our October story swap):

Why do we tell each other stories? What lies within a story that allows two people or two million people to feel more deeply connected to each other? Can we trust stories to be concrete enough to found new relationships, or to connect us to those we have never known?

I am a storyteller, yet I know all too well that the power of stories far exceeds anything the most wise teller could conceive of. I can only surrender myself to them, letting them tell themselves, thus completely negating the very identity I claim to have. Yet, without tellers, stories would not exist. And without stories, I don't think any of us would be where we are today.

Without stories, I would never have found myself in a most unspectacular courtyard, completely overwhelmed with how much it meant to me.

I was in Germany, in the small eastern town of Zeitz (pronounced Ts-eye-ts). It was no beauty of a town, with several abandoned buildings and an obviously struggling economy. This was the town my great-grandfather had left all those years ago to sail the seas as a merchant marine, and, eventually, to settle on a distant shore. One by one, he organized for each of his sisters and his parents to join him.

Almost a hundred years later, I stood in front of what used to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Strasse 54, and contemplated the former abode of this family. It looked so normal, so typical for a German apartment house: a storefront on the ground floor, neatly stacked residential windows above, and two great iron doors on the far end of the front wall. Behind those doors, I knew there would be a courtyard, the real meeting place of the families that had lived there, the real personality of the place.

The iron doors were locked, and with only two names on the list of buzzers, the chances of gaining entrace were not good. Just at the moment when I was ready to step away, something caused me to lose my balance and lurch forward, leaning onto one of the great iron doors. It gave way.

It opened.

I stared at the wonder: an open door ... a door I had assumed would be locked.

I walked in, past the residential entrance, to the back courtyard. There was a greatly distressed brick wall to the right that indicated the property of the next apartment house over. The ground was paved asphalt, obviously catering to the cars that were meant to occupy the row of carports that extended to the building on the other side. Next to the carports, the outer wall of a brick building showed the outline of where a building used to stand next to it.

It was such an unspectacular sight. The 360-degree turn I felt obliged to take must have seemed an act of graciousness. There was really not a lot to look at. Yet I felt as if I could feel the entirety of the world beneath my feet, as the one great circle that it is ... just one circle, but a circle that was whole and complete.

We ate lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant on the Altmarkt - the old market place. As the exotic Americans, we were greeted with enthusiasm, treated to the house Federweisser wine, and we ate, drank, and spoke merrily. As we left that afternoon, I leafed through a book I had bought with historical photos of Zeitz, and came across a picture of the hotel restaurant from almost exactly the year of my great-grandfather's emigration. It occurred to me then that the family would have walked by that restaurant every time they went to the market. I don't know whether they ever ate or drank there - surely, they could not have afforded it. But I like to think they would have been as happy as we were - perhaps even proud - to know that we did eat there. That we are well. That we are who we are because of who they were: because of the lives they lived and the decisions they made.

Now, when I remember that courtyard, I wonder whether we seek the stories of our ancestors so as to know them better, or to know ourselves, and understand where we come from. All that held me there, still, in wonder, was a story. But it was because their story in that place that I not had a story in that place, too.