Reflections: on life, learning, and finding a metric for meaning


As I was packing up my office — the flotsam and jetsam of 13 years as superintendent and 43 years total in school work — someone walked in and commented, “can’t you throw most of this stuff out?” In that moment I held this framed drawing in my hands, a personal going away gift to the principal from an artist as he was rising up to middle school.

I could see as if yesterday the face of the artist, a honey-blonde fifth grader named Ned with strong hands for his age, already a sculptor. I quickly slid the frame into a box and turned away. I couldn’t throw it into the industrial trash barrel that I was neatly filling with my life. I’d already culled remaining boxes of books and wrapped up plaques and my grandfather’s table, shoehorning the office remains into a pickup truck- the last stage in their final journey home.

My son’s already been clear that the artifacts of his family’s life won’t survive his purge one day. It’s the way of millennials- rather than be paid for their family’s china and furniture and paintings, they pay companies to haul it all away.

I haven’t unpacked anything yet. I can’t get motivated to do so with the same excitement I’ve held in every new learning space I’ve inhabited since I became a teacher. My new home office is a tiny corner of a room filled with WWII memorabilia — artifacts of a time when my son’s “greatest generation” grandparents built tanks, B-24 bombers, and yes, the atomic bomb to make the world a safer place for the minorities among us. I’m comfortable in there because I grew up on the stories of America’s goodness and its willing to sacrifice so much for people who lived on another continent. Photos on the wall, fighter plane replicas, and books pay homage to men and women in the family and to those whose lives remained because of the loss of so many Americans on foreign soil.

However, this room is not school and schools have been my garden for a very long time. Being isolated from learners and educators doesn’t feel normal to me and I doubt it ever will. To see school communities grow and thrive affirms my life’s work.

But back to Ned’s picture. The other night, while watching a show about Albert Einstein on NOVA, I was reminded of a sculpture by this fifth grade artist. It was fired clay, glazed brown, and held an uncanny resemblance to the violin-playing philosopher-physicist. I hadn’t thought about it in years but Ned could bring feeling to clay and that was very special. When I reached out to an intervention teacher (also an artist, reading not his forte — nothing new there) and the art teacher they both remembered him well and the gifts he brought to our school community. “Remember he had that Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll? Remember when he graduated from high school he went to one of the best arts schools in the country?”

I wondered what he was doing now and turned of course to Facebook where I found his dad and an album of his first show of sculptures which then led me to Ned’s blog.

I once asked my friend and global educator John Hunter how he knew what children were learning from playing his World Peace Game. He paused and then replied, “Pam, I likely won’t know that for 20 more years.”

It was an insight into what really matters as a measure of success for those of us who are educators. Our life’s work to educate well isn’t measured in a weekly spelling quiz, a 5-paragraph essay, a 60 item state math test, or a final exam performance assessment.

Kids remember little from most of what we measure. What they do remember gets embedded in emotional memories, sensory remembrances, stories that stick, the concepts they use to make sense of knowledge, and… even the feel of clay in their hands.

When our children move past us and remain simply as a remembrance of a picture in a frame, we know their success, and ours vicariously, can only be measured in the realization of their hopes and dreams, their talents seen, their potential made possible. I keep artifacts from children to hold on to that- to the timeless learning that represents who we are as educators and who our learners become across their lifetime.

Ned is an adult artist today and he has important thoughts to share about his frame on life and art. Maybe a good measure of our own success is that we knew he had the soul of an artist and we did everything we could to support that in him.

I Write for Savannah (#Blog4NWP)

This week, I write for Savannah.

She entered  kindergarten, a tough little girl with stringy blond hair, pushing hard to create space for herself. Her voice resided in her fists and eyes. We learned to let her come to us rather than backing her into a corner. She lived in her own world and no entry point emerged to connect her with other children – or learning. She often spent class time watching from outside the circle of children gathered to listen to  stories read aloud by her teacher. She had no interest in the alphabet or numbers.  We knew she lived in extreme rural poverty, a child of fields and woods rather than preschools and playgroups.

Waiting in the dark,

Lonely whispers tapping on my window.

I knew we were not reaching Savannah with her every visit to the office, our every conference with her mother, and my every frustrated meeting with a  teacher who struggled to like this child.  We routinely discussed her lack of “doing school” skills and her resistance to learning.  We contemplated her promotion to first grade. In the end , we decided that Savannah needed a teacher who could help her unlock her words, thoughts, and stories.  She needed Jamie.

Sad secrets,

Movement but in silence,

Jamie, a committed early childhood teacher, was a master at creating a community space in which children learned to work and play together. She looped with her classes and was ready to pick up a new community group.  Savannah would be her challenge amidst a group of suburban “cocktail party” first graders, a group with a kindergarten reputation of chatter.

Jamie’s intuitive feel for how to enter a child’s world and figure out what she, the teacher, needed to do to get past barriers was quite remarkable. She defined herself as a facilitator of learners; young children in transition from storytellers to story writers.  If anyone could help Savannah figure out the power of voice, it would be this veteran teacher, tall, secure, with wiry grey hair that defied her efforts to tame it. Savannah, with her own tangled blonde hair, would be a match for her.  I knew Jamie was a poet at heart. I suspected Savannah might be one as well.

Blindness but no light,

Hinting colors sadly rustling.

Jamie knew she had to find Savannah through her interests, not through a curricula prescribed by educators working in Richmond. Her grasp of how to connect with children by figuring out what drew them into learning was truly brilliant. She had both been a participant and teaching fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and was a teacher leader responsible for building a community of practice dedicated to infusing the arts and writing throughout our children’s inquiry work.  One day she came to me with a darkly rich painting that Savannah had made after listening to Jane Yolen’s The Firebird.  “I think Savannah will become a writer from her art. It’s where we begin together.”

A family of birds takes advantage of

My hollow soul and

Builds a nest within me.

Jamie seemed to know just how to find the secrets and feelings within Savannah. The days of first grade eventually flowed into second grade; Savannah drew, she painted, she composed, she narrated and eventually she stopped taking any of her pieces of writing or art home. Jamie shared with me that Savannah’s mother used the Friday work folder’s art and writing papers to start fires in the woodstove. When Jamie spoke with her about it, she became angry that the teacher was interfering in their family.

Savannah began to hoard work at school in her own folder; one that was passed to us each summer for safe keeping until she collected it in the fall. A team of teachers  surrounded Savannah marveling at her evolving writing voice and delicate sketches that captured the natural world in which she lived. Each year, we watched her become more resilient and serious about her learning work. Her teachers did so as well. Our staff entered into deep study of writing process with Dr. Margo Figgins, UVa English Ed professor. Forming a community of practice, we committed to our own work as writers and teachers of writing, entering into year-round writing project work while reading common texts by Calkins, Graves, MacCrorie, Murray, Atwell and others. As Savannah grew as a writer, so did our staff.

On the day that Savannah’s fifth grade class celebrated their last moments in elementary school, some of us cried when she read “Waiting in the Dark” as part of the promotion ceremony. We knew she was still a “work in progress” but we had confidence in her capability to move to the next stage of learning. We worried our way along with Savannah through middle school and suffered with her when she hit barriers again in high school, leading her to transfer to a small, alternative high school in our system. I was no prouder at my own son’s high school graduation than when I stood on stage with Savannah  and watched her receive her high school diploma. Her next destination was community college.

But I do have feelings deep

Within me.

There’s a lot more story to Savannah’s life than I can share. Savannah, an elementary learner, was touched by the Central Virginia Writing Project in ways that today’s test-taking curricula never could. When she discovered her power as a writer, her life was altered forever.  She’s one of the lucky young people with the highest of risk factors who happened to land in a class with a teacher who, by both intuition and training, knew how to help her find her voice as a poet, anchoring her as a learner.

So, I write today for Savannah and in support of all the hundreds of thousands of educators who help millions of America’s “Savannahs” learn to write each year, rather than simply assigning writing.  It’s no small impact.  It’s worth the money. The National Writing Project makes a difference.

It has already begun to change

From dark to light now.

  • Savannah is a pseudonym. She has given permission for use of “Waiting in the Dark” which she wrote in fifth grade.

Spring of Hope

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Charles Dickens… Tale of Two Cities

It was the winter of despair

Times are tough in public education right now. In back channel conversations, I hear many educators –administrators and teachers alike – express a troubling sentiment that the battles have just become so overwhelming it’s hard to keep coming back to work. Some of them long to return to the days when we could just “just close our doors and teach.” There’s a reason why, once upon a time, this phrase became a mantra among public educators. I suspect the phrase emerged when public education slid more deeply into a factory model; schools enlarged in size; and anonymity increased inside learning places as staff members and students grew apart.

It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity

Decades ago, in my first six months of teaching I first heard that catch phrase from an experienced teacher with whom I shared lab storage space. She was, fortunately for me, one of those “one in a million” teachers who both enthralled and related to learners. I learned from her the power of metaphor, story, and inquiry, not because I knew much of what was occurring in her classroom but because we co-sponsored an ecology club. I’ll never forget her describing the common mullein plant on one long-distance field trip. She began with a story of young Quaker girls rubbing their cheeks with it to simulate blush, which led to its common eastern name – Quaker’s Rouge. Then, for good measure, to make sure the boys didn’t lose interest, she shared a funny story alluding to its western name “cowboy toilet paper.”  Then, she encouraged the kids to “try it out.”

She also taught me about the independent contractor model of teaching. It meant that she could perform just fine on her own. Any interference from peers and administrators inside the school or central office personnel outside the school was viewed as relatively irrelevant by her – more of the irritation of a mosquito buzzing that could be ignored than a bee sting that needed attention.

We educators know that independent contractors have existed in schools for a long time. They create their own worlds inside the classroom and school; instituting their own unique brands of order-disorder, control-freedom, or irresponsibility-responsibility as they, in isolation mostly, interact with those they were hired to serve.  As long as they color inside the lines and know the unwritten rules of who not to offend, they can, for a career, exist pretty much on their own.

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness

Reflecting back, I taught in a pretty isolated environment with little opportunity to learn from others. I needed to leverage significant commitment on my own part to study what were atypical expected practices in the day; use of mastery learning and Bloom’s taxonomy to plan units and assessments. I began to reach out and find others who felt similarly and we became, in some cases, lifelong critical friends. I learned alongside them what it takes to keep coming back to work in a career that’s never been easy, financially lucrative, or 9-5. Together, we supported each other to figure out not just what to do, but why we continued to do it over and over again.

I’m convinced that one of the most important actions we need to take means  abandoning forever more the phrase “close your doors and teach.” It has no place in today’s contemporary learning spaces. It’s an isolating maxim we can ill afford to use. We’re at a pivotal moment in America’s educational history; a time of high tension that’s as great as any we’ve experienced in this nation.  Today, we need each other more than ever to ensure that we don’t give up coming back to work.

it was the season of Light

This tension we all experience isn’t just about the politics that permeate educational decision-making; a kind of politicizing of education that’s gone far beyond reasonable governance under the United States Constitution, state codes, or local policies. It’s not just about the economics of bad business decisions that’s led to devastating losses of resources needed to educate our young people at a time when this nation needs to close gaps across schools, districts, and states, not widen them. It’s not just about the inequality of personal wealth that’s created a “haves and have-nots” schism unlike anything in this nation’s recent history. And, it’s not just a result of the 24/7 media preoccupation with market share that’s caused reporters to chase negative stories about education that in no way reflect the mainstream of teaching and learning occurring day in and out across America.

These are all symptoms of a much bigger problem. Indeed, we have become exactly what a system of scientific management by fiat set up public education to be – factory schools in which workers band together  mostly for their protection rather than to engage in their profession. The unified impact of current-state politics, economics, class divides, media and educational institutionalization has supersized a national paranoia that threatens the Statue of Liberty schooling model that inspired many of us to enter teaching.

it was the spring of hope

It’s no coincidence that first generation college graduates became the educational workforce of the last century, fueling the life cycle of public education. Many of us pursued educational careers because we aspired to become the teacher who helped us achieve our goal of becoming a college graduate.

Today, some among us discourage those we teach from considering the profession. Our own children watch us work and we hear them say “I’d never want to teach.” In the middle of the night, I ask, “How close are we as a nation to endangering the life cycle of public education by disrupting the flow of energetic, young people into our profession? What’ll be the impact of a workforce of temporary teachers stopping in for the short-term rather than being dedicated to a lifetime journey towards masterful teaching? Who will teach our children in the future?”

Now, more than ever, we educators need each other. We need each other to make sure we keep coming back to work; that we don’t quit. We need to learn from each other- new technologies, new strategies, and new ways of connecting with the young people we serve. We need each other to challenge the status quo, to question change, and to take responsibility for the critical shifts we must make to advance our work.

We also need each other not just for inspiration and to reach our own career aspirations but, most importantly, to act together on behalf of all the young people who depend on us for inspiration, to reach their own aspirations, and to sustain their hope for the best of times as they journey toward their own futures.

we had everything before us

We educators live in a crucible of heated discontent right now. We’ve for sure created some of the heat ourselves.  It’s also generated by variables we don’t control.  However, of this I am certain, there is nothing more powerful than the work we do. Now more than ever, we must open our doors and learn to talk with each other. We must maximize our professional voice in every forum available to us. We must remind each other and every community in this country that educators still keep alive the “spring of hope and season of Light” for all of America’s children. We’ve “everything before us.” It’s our story. It’s our nation’s cycle of life.

It’s why I #blog4reform.

Family of Children: p. 118 (Gossett and Dunlap, 1979)


A Book, A Librarian, and an Eclipse

Moments become inextricably linked, becoming known to us only as new events emerge. They take their places on the unfolding timeline of our lives. In the dark of last night, I stood outside and gazed skyward, waiting in silence as the lunar eclipse unfolded until an umber orb hung high above twisted branches of winter trees. The hollow’s light breeze and air’s chill strung together a timeline of nights and days of generations of tribes that spent lifetimes watching lunar and solar eclipses come and go under a North American sky. We, today’s tribes, mostly watch with an appreciation and understanding of the science behind the eclipse; reveling in our new capabilities to grab instantaneous images, beam them through phones to the world, or choose, if under clouds, to watch the event streaming via NASA around the globe.

Luis Acosta / AFP - Getty Image on MSNBC eclipse photo blog

Last night, I was reminded at 2:00 a.m. of lunar eclipses I’ve watched along my own timeline. One night, perched in a cupola atop the roof of a college dorm, I rank as the coldest but clearest of my eclipse watching opportunities. Decades ago, the second eclipse night, hanging with a few science students from my classes, reminds me why learning and teaching aren’t always a congruent Venn universe.

Wikipedia moon's total lunar eclipse path through the earth's shadow.

That night, I noted the difference between a student seeing a textbook image of the moon in full eclipse, hearing a teacher explain how it occurs, or simulating it with a lab group as compared to experiencing the painstakingly slow march of a lunar eclipse in a midnight sky. These memories led back to my first eclipse experience, a solar not a lunar eclipse. It also connects to my other story, that of a librarian.

Over the weekend my mother called to talk. It’s a ritual going back to my first week in college. Over time, the conversations shifted from questions about how I was doing in school to discussions about everyone’s jobs to stories about grandchildren and the ups and downs of the Atlanta Braves.  In the last decade, those landline calls began to bring news of the deaths of my parents’ contemporaries- my teachers, the local judge, a minister, neighbors. Midway through the decade my father’s name was added to the list. This past weekend, my mother whispered the name of a woman who influenced generations of readers of all ages in my hometown; the longtime public librarian.

She was 97 when she died and according to her housekeeper she just slipped away. In town, she was known as an iconic matriarch of ‘all things books’ who led, shepherded, and, when necessary, pushed a community of less than two thousand out of its one-room library and into a modern day space. I still have my first library card and remember the day she filled it out by hand and assigned me the number 294. I learned how to dream myself out of my small, dirt-poor southern town because of her. She was a fierce protector of a young, precocious reader, allowing me to stay for hours and absorb as much as I could from books and her stories.

Bamberg County Library Built in 1933: A Great Depression Project

I spent every Saturday morning in that library, sometimes on the floor, sometimes on a library ladder, pulling book after book off the shelves, searching for the perfect title, a passage that intrigued, an ending that stunned. It’s where I learned to read in whatever order I wanted to, paying less attention to the beginning, middle, end, and more attention to the feel of the book. I learned to take books apart and put them back together again – in order. Knowing that I’d flown through the juvenile collection (too soon in her opinion), she began to set aside other books for my visits; adult books I really had no business reading. She said more than once, “you can take this book now, but only if you promise you’ll read it again when you’re older.” Eventually, I moved past her censorship and took home stacks of books held tight in thin arms, often reading as I walked. Over time, I read my way through every shelf in that library and eventually found myself walking into her new library – itself now 40 years old.

The Bamberg Regional Library today (built 1970)

I also became a student of history and science as I learned to appreciate the hunt of the limited research I could accomplish in the old library. I remember the day when the librarian shared news that made her eyes smile. Our local library had joined a regional library group and she could now borrow books on behalf of her patrons.

That’s how she connected through me to last night’s eclipse. I had heard on the nightly news that the low country was going to be one of the best places to watch an upcoming solar eclipse. The anchor also warned citizens not to watch the eclipse without a viewing device at the cost of damaging one’s eyesight. I shared my goal of watching the eclipse with her and we joined forces in the hunt to figure out a solution. We finally found it because she could borrow a book that allowed me to create the simple technology needed to watch the eclipse. Who knows whether that event led me onto the pathway to become a science major in college, a science educator in the classroom, and a person who’s still willing to get up after midnight to watch eclipses? I do know I remember that event.

I had the good fortune to be born a reader- a fast reader. Eventually, I left that small town for college, other towns, and other libraries. But, it was only last night that I considered how a book, a librarian, and an eclipse linked my life’s timeline together.  It’s a 3:17 a.m. eclipse moment I’ll forever hold dear.

data for a small town library, 2009

(I am somewhat dismayed to hear of libraries in rural, urban, and suburban areas cutting back hours or closing because of lack of funding. The statement about a small local community that chose to build a library during the Great Depression while still suffering the economic aftermath of the American Civil War speaks to the critical value that communities of responsibility have paid forward to subsequent generations.)

habitats for learning? we must first abandon the lecture-room

When I Heard the Learn’d  Astronomer

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

….. Walt Whitman 1865

I have always loved the voice of Walt Whitman and the loft of his words. He defines for me the poetic storyteller, the reflective teacher, the fierce truth-sayer.

Whitman speaks in yesterday’s language about today’s learning challenges. So many young people in our world feel sentenced to school; a place of doing time until they too can wander out of our classrooms and into a world where sitting in lectures no longer sucks the life out of learning.

We’ve worked for years to change up pedagogy with little success. Mostly, we continue to teach as we have taught for years – in front of the teaching wall arranged along assembly line classrooms of our factory schools. Could it be that changing the lecture room must be our focus before we try to change the lecture? I’m pretty certain after a week of intensive observation and design discussion facilitated by @irasocol with teachers, librarians, and principals that learning communities can not form unless spaces are designed to become communities.

It  became apparent to me – one of those “ahas” of life- that creation of vibrant learning communities today is more than just teachers’ application of the right combination of  technology, content, and pedagogical knowledge. A teacher’s expertise in creating a contemporary community of learners for learning also depends upon an effective intersection of color, light, furniture use, available furniture, floor covering, space flow, space gradient, and multidimensional space. What makes this so complex, indeed, difficult to accomplish?

Each learning space represents a unique challenge and there is no one right design answer that can be applied universally. That’s the puzzle of the social architecture essential to crafting a built environment for each classroom community. It’s about figuring out just the right ingredients for each habitat for learners. It’s about selecting the tools we need to construct those spaces. And, it’s about the time to look in classrooms and find the design that sustains the uniqueness of the teacher while providing a zone of comfortable learning for each learner, all day long. This takes a sense of design aesthetic, a resonance with the community, an understanding of the full range of technologies needed in the space, and a feel for flow. These are not a set of skills used in isolation, but rather a set of skills used in collaboration.

Someone said once that if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten. Why would we ever expect either teaching or learning to change as long as children continue to enter classrooms where desks line up in rows, chairs stand at attention and a projector takes aim at the target of a stark white board?  Perhaps, we need to take out the desks, the chairs, the teaching wall, the single projector, and all the books lined neatly on shelves around the perimeter. I also wonder if we need to wander outside and look up at a starry night, then come back indoors and begin anew to create a habitat that sustains communities of learners.