Walking on Air: Remembering Seamus Heaney

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And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air …. I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible.”

Seamus Heaney’s lecture to the Nobel Foundation recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995

I woke up at 3 a.m. and in the early morn I could almost hear Seamus Heaney reading “Death of a Naturalist” on a YouTube video, perhaps preserved for all time. I’d driven down one of the old roads of Virginia the day before, a road that reminded me of another Heaney line from “The Wood Road.” In the dark, I turned to my phone and tweeted out the line with an image I’d captured from the side of a gravelled lane.

woodroadHow many times in the lives of humans do we connect moments together in the night only to figure out why in the light of day?  What compels the subconscious to make sense of that which is important to us when the conscious forgets?  When I opened an RSS news feed from Ireland mid-morning I knew why Heaney had slipped his voice into my night dreams. Today. August 30, 2014. The first anniversary of his death.

I’m reminded on this anniversary that it is a poet’s words that make the content and context of humanity accessible to us all. Poets make meaning for us – the artistry of converting image to word.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

(from “Exposure”, 1975)

Poets solve conundrums and, like mathematicians, they subtract the extraneous and leave the essential, the perfectly constructed theorem on the blackboard. They notice the world; quantum word mechanics who machine together patterns of space and time.

He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

(from “Clearances”, 1986)

Poets create lines of code, a complexity of action no less sophisticated than the work of a great programmer.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

(“Postscript”,1996)

And, poets seek to understand as philosophers, seeking unknown answers to questions asked.

….  Where had we come from, what was this kingdom
We knew we’d been restored to? (from “Leaving Going, 1993)

Why cherish the words of poets in a time when we educators are told it’s far more important to focus today’s children on informational texts than poetry?

I am no poet. I studied science. I taught science. My love of science has shaped my interests and my perspectives on education. At the same time, I know we humans have always reflected the importance of  the cultural spaces we inhabit. Cave paintings under flickering firelight, images created on walls before poetic word.  The ancient language of Beowulf,  spoken aloud by Seamus Heaney as poetry was intended to be shared. NPR’s anthology of rap  and fifth grader ‘Savannah‘ who wrote “Waiting in the Dark” so many years ago in the school where I was principal.

Why poetry in 2014? Poets explore the richness of what makes us human, placing words perfectly into the air for us to hear.

Poets link the disciplines of learning. Poets evoke the faces around us. Poets remind us we humans are more than the training manuals and research texts that some would say define us in this century.

Heaney’s poetry did all of that for us.

 

 

 

Three Stories: One Influence

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One:

I am listening to Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. It’s full of research about all the topics that educators discuss when they see children, adolescents, or teens who struggle because of challenges attributed to home environmental stressors. It’s painful to listen. Much of what Tough reports as empirical research represents the common sense understanding of educators who know children growing up with an overload of allostatic factors increasing chronic stress will typically experience disproportionate academic and behavioral difficulties as they move through school. They are more likely to be labeled special education students, need behavioral intervention, or be suspended, expelled, or drop out of school than their middle class peers – and far more often than children living in poverty who do not experience intense familial stress factors.

While poverty is often a root cause of chronic stress factors, there are children living in poverty who succeed. Such children live in homes where strong, functional attachments to a significant adult make a positive difference for them. I was struck by a body of research reported in How Children Succeed related to attachment theory. Intervention that helps young mothers, at-risk because of their own stress factors, to learn positive skills to nurture infants and toddlers actually makes a greater difference in the success of young children entering school than other interventions, including building early cognitive skills. In fact, according to Tough, kindergarten teachers in large numbers report that it’s not children who struggle to learn the alphabet or numbers that’s the biggest challenge for them as educators – it’s children who lack basic capabilities to build positive peer relationships, relate to adults, and control anger impulses.

When children have high allostatic loads, they enter school with chronic stress. Their symptoms often continue unabated through school impacting their capability to hold what they learn in working memory, a basic prefrontal-cortex function that supports learning in school.

I wonder how our at-risk children’s success in school might be different if an intensive, national initiative to provide deep parenting intervention occurred? How might breaking the cycle of chronic stress in children change their emotional and learning trajectory as they move through school? Imagine how different their learning experiences could be.

Two:

Seamus Heaney died this week. I often have thought of the great poets as being the best of farmers who till words into soil, then reap poetry from the land. Heaney’s gift for  sowing words created poetry that fed the world. His perfect command of word is a great loss in an imperfect world.

However, I am comforted that somewhere out there another great poet grows into her or his own, finding pathways to expression because a teacher creates space for children to explore language as more than an information base or a response to a writing prompt. Perhaps, just as Heaney did, such a child struggles to make sense of an imperfect world, digging as poets do when they reach down to plant earth with words.  Every class contains poets, and somewhere out there the next version of  a Seamus Heaney one day will emerge to “gobsmack” us with his or her unique talent to till image into verse.

writer

It’s our role as educators to support children to sustain their creative passions and find their own voices through art. After all, poets,  storytellers, artists, musicians and sculptors define the bandwidth of our culture, not politicians, economists, or CEOs.  Because of artists, we see and hear a different world, one filled with color, symphony, story, and dance. We may need STEM to save the world, but, I for one, believe we also need artists to advance humanity and civilization even more.

Three:

I talked with a teacher, @hobbes4564,  this past week who just blogged about how she is  helping children learn about friendship. Beth’s a fabulous teacher who engages kids in powerful ways through old and new learning tools. Her third grade kids are maniacal bloggers who routinely log and share posts and comments with other children all over our district – and the country. She’s started a new activity, “Challenge Friday”, that builds from her love, and the children’s, of Legos as learning tools. Last week their challenge was to build a working lever made of Legos and use it to lift a 50 g block. It was fascinating to watch children work in pairs to explore concepts of force, load, and fulcrum as they experimented with their Lego bricks.

However, her goals for learning go far beyond cognitive skill acquisition. This weekend, she reflected upon how she is helping children who come from a mix of countries and localities to make and sustain friendships. Playful Lego work in her class offers not just opportunities for children to learn new content and skills, but also to build friendships, learn new language and express themselves artistically. I loved listening to the children talk with each other when I visited. One child asked another, “how do you know what to build?” The other child responded simply, “I see a picture of it in my mind.”

legokid

In watching children in her class work so carefully and civilly together, I am struck that this educator is teaching them both how to succeed and to become artists in their own right, even as they create and build STEM principles with their Legos. I’d love to be able to bottle her expertise as an educator – her understanding of how children succeed is worth its weight in gold.

________________________________________________________

Together these three somewhat disparate stories that I experienced last week connect for me the importance of our influence as educators beyond building cognitive skills and knowledge among young people we teach. We educators aren’t miracle workers, but we do make a difference with children who need strong, positive, trusting relationships with adults in their lives. Not every child will grow up to become a great poet, but every child needs to grow up with a communicative voice.  Not every child represents chronic risk factors, but all need to know they’ve adults in their corner.

We hold the power to help all children gain a sense of strong personal voice, sustain curiosity, develop caring relationships, maintain well-being, and explore learning through multiple pathways.  We are responsible for nurturing the complete child, not just their cognitive functions, using every possible strategy to protect children with allostatic risk factors – not add to their debilitating stress during their hours with us. In doing these things, we gift children with competencies that equip them to succeed in life – as parents, community members, co-workers, and friends.

That’s why I believe educators represent the most important profession in the world.

hollymead

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