Thursday, May 7, 2009

This morning, I had the opportunity to introduce my sister at a workshop she gave for Academic Coaches in North Carolina. She wrote the book "Differentiated Literacy Coaching" (ASCD). Having been an Academic Coach in this same district in the not so distant past made me realize that leaving was the best idea ever. Introductions are like a writing genre unto itself, and I believe, when drafting, allows the audience to hear the "story behind the story".

Whenever I read a new book, I always go to the dedication page and Mary happened to dedicate this one to our parents where she says: “For my loving parents, you passed on to me a love of learning, a sense of community spirit, and an intellectual curiosity about the world around me. For this and for so many gifts I cannot begin to measure, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

If you could work with me for a moment, I have to make an important phone call and I need your help. You see, it is my mom’s 83rd birthday, or somewhere about, and I thought in the spirit of community with you all we could wish her a happy birthday. Her name is Catherine, but no one calls her that. So make sure you call her Polly. And we can chant all at once: “Happy Birthday Polly”

[I called my mom on the phone and the collective group sang her a Happy Birthday song over the phone.]

More than likely what I have to tell you about Mary probably wouldn’t find itself on the “About the Author” page of her next book. Instead, what I have to share is the back story of a life told in a way that only a little brother could tell it. And hopefully, with the story you are about to hear, you too, will get a sense of why she does the work that she does working alongside classroom teachers; why she believes in the principles and protocols outlined in the book as steps that can be taken so that the most important voice in the conversation, that of the classroom teacher, can be heard.

If there were a way to predict the way lives unfold, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised that Mary would be doing the work that she does. You see, as far back as I can remember, she allowed her younger siblings the opportunity to dream, to build, and to think of possibility.

For example, sometime in the late 60’s, we sat at the corner of Prospect and Irasburg selling lemonade to practically no one. At first, we thought that this wasn’t such a good idea because it was hot that July afternoon and the pavement at our feet was a scorcher. However, what I do remember is that Mary convinced us that selling this lemonade was the best idea ever and the money we made: we got to keep. That is what Coaches are able to do. Make believers out of the ones, who, at first, think that the ideas shared aren’t useful and if done supportively gives classroom teachers shiny pebbles in their pockets.

And speaking of pebbles, on a trip to Washington, the state; Mary, my brother and I found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine where Mary began collecting these pebbles. This is what coaches do, they are resourceful and do what it takes to work alongside classroom teachers gathering the pebbles that when used, create a beautiful garden. However, the difference was, on this trip, they weren’t pebbles at all, but gigantic rocks that she proceeded to put in her pocketbook. This would have been reasonable if she lived a few hours away; she didn’t. I began to question her sanity because she lived in New York. She needed them for her rock garden, she said. All I could do was shake my head. This is also what coaches do.

Mary was the person who couldn’t sit still (sounds familiar, huh) and as she ventured off to college and in between made her way to Paris and Ireland and other places around the globe she would always come back home again to the ones of us still there telling us the snippets of her story and all that she learned along the way.

Mary recently sent me one of her articles that she wrote titled, “Utilizing Information technologies to Support Coaching. Can you Teach an Old Dog New Tricks” and in it she talks about: the listserv; the podcast; the twitter; the wiki; the blogs and the google. You see, this is one thing Mary does. She isn’t afraid to learn new things; explore unchartered waters; or admit that she doesn’t have all the answers; instead, she takes that country road forward and along with the ones she coaches, continues to learn herself. She takes the first step by developing relationships with those mentors who will help her grow. It is not a mentor that someone else provides for her, but one she seeks out and is based on the direction her learning takes. Sometimes she finds them in unexpected places: the ‘autistic woman’ she was a companion of for a year in the 70’s; a storyteller she shares a house with during her work week; or her little brother. This is what coaches do.

Over the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mary as she worked within districts and schools in North Carolina, Maryland and New York. And throughout this time, something that I always knew, I witnessed her ability to make relationships instantly with the ones she meets. She does this by first, listening to the stories that are told; then, threads possibility in the midst and finally, supports the act of “trying it on”. She creates structures that give permission for classroom teachers to dream, to build, and to think…. ….of possibility. This is what coaches do.

Finally, as she shares with you the research and practical structures from her book, think in terms of how these are possible within your role as literacy facilitators. Think about the areas that need to be strengthened in terms of your direct service to building capacity within your school, whether that be in the form of lesson development, co-teaching, demonstrations or collaborative observations. And remember that the cycle of learning is continuously in motion so you too can dream, can build, and think of possibility…..

Friday, April 17, 2009

Beyond Worrying.....

I picked up the local paper at the coffee shop this morning and then sat out on the back deck prior to my work day started and read with interest a story of Quiet Bravery. It shared the story of a fourth grade student standing in the face of violence in a non-violent way. It was a stance on no-bullying and for this, I honor the fact that this student felt compelled to stand up for one of his classmates. What perplexed me most was after sending accolades, well-deserved by the way of the student’s good citizenship and pleasant attitude, the classroom teacher made the statement: “I have some students I have to worry about….” I think it struck a chord within me because sometimes the struggles to make connections are with the students who aren’t compliant; the students who don’t immediately respond to our expectations; and for the students who may, for various reasons, not have pleasant attitudes. With this in mind, it poses the what questions: what are we doing to connect with the students who are complaint and to those who are not; what are we doing to connect with the students who have a pleasant attitude and for those who do not; and what are we doing to connect with the students who respond and for those that don’t. Something for us all to think about every time we walk into our classrooms. In reflection, continue to ask the question: “What actions, beyond worrying, am I taking to connect with every child?” Until next time…..Teach

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sunday Scribblings......Lost

The voice on the other end of the phone had me thinking about life on Prospect Hill. Distance was surely measured in years; however, I could tell that the childhood bond, in some small way, connected our disconnected lives. It had been close to 40 years in the making that separated that time from now, yet, amidst the “catching up”, it was that one idea we kept revisiting: growing up in a small northeastern town in that pocket of the world that I have always known as the “Northeast Kingdom”.

In that pocket of the world where living was simplistic, not simple; where there was no fine line between a kid and a grown-up; and when you went out the door after supper, you returned safely after dark. It is in these memories, those bonds of friendship past, and the new friendships developed through the years that make our moments matter.

And in the years between then and now whether it is a phone call unexpected or a cup of coffee with a friend, what I continue to return to are not those lost moments measured in degrees, but the stories shared and the ones still yet to come-until next time…..Teach

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Traveling north on the silver star.....

I traveled by train north on the Silver Star in the early morning of January 17, 2009. There were others sitting with me, and though strangers, our pilgrimage was much the same. Onward we traveled through small towns and large ones: Southern Pines, Cary, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Petersburg, Richmond, and Alexandria until we stopped on the tracks laid at Union Station. And on this same day, traveling south would be another man, far from ordinary, who we bestowed, the title of our next President: all hopeful that he would do extraordinary things.

And in the days that followed, others from all over the country and the world converged to be personal witnesses to this time in history. There was energy in the air throughout my days there, and though I had been to this city numerous times this was somehow different. And through my personal lens, it was in this difference that we embraced, collectively creating the beginnings of a new America where this possibility of inclusiveness was close at hand.

Everywhere we went, the back stories of individuals from Boston, San Antonio, and Chicago; Memphis, San Francisco and Tuskegee; Seattle, Little Rock and Charlotte breathed. We breathed deeply the individual reasons that brought us there in the first place; we breathed in the cold air of our collective history and, in silence, we possibly forgave our past injustices. We breathed and breathed some more, experiencing the joy alongside millions of others knowing that this marked the beginning, not the end.

And if, on the morning of January 20, 2009, in a city where millions converged from the United States Capitol well past the shadow of the Washington Monument is but a sign of times to come. Where kindness, thoughtfulness and optimism prevailed; then, I am hopeful that each one of us, will collectively pay it forward in our daily lives and in the work that still needs to be done.
I am fully aware that I am putting Barack Obama up on the highest pedestal. I know that he is just a man. I know there will be moments that he will disappoint; moments where disagreement, tension and conflict will arise. However I also know that if hope is what we long for, if change is what we seek; then I choose to walk alongside such a man in creating a positive vision of tomorrow.

In the wake of the new day, in front of the house on Capitol Hill, Phil and I stood alone underneath the streetlight waving to the 44th President of the United States as the Presidential entourage passed by on their way to Union Station. Though I have know way of knowing, I have to believe that Barack and Michelle waved back.

Leaving Union Station, I travel once again by train on the Silver Star in the late afternoon of January 22, 2009. There are others traveling with me, and no longer strangers the pilgrimage somehow changed us. Onward we traveled through small towns and large ones: Alexandria, Richmond, Petersburg, Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Cary, and Southern Pines until we reached the tiny town of Hamlet. And I, stepping off the train, stood still until the train moved slowly south, waving to these once upon a time strangers and the words of Barack Obama, our 44th President of these United States echoed through the silence of this Carolina night:
'Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.'

“America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon…..

With your eyes fixed on the horizon, look forward to possibility and continue seeking those spirit lines in your field of dreams. Until next time......Teach.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tell me more......

In the work that I do, I get to spend spontaneous moments watching the art of teaching unfold, and then, I write about these moments. As with the previous posting, this visit wasn’t planned. It caught me by surprise when visiting a school seeing Karen doing what she does best: working alongside teachers. I am in awe every time I have the opportunity to observe her teaching. I think it has to do with her attention to intention; I think it has to do with the fact that she knows the right time to step back and quietly wait, then, at the right moment she is able to provide renewed direction; and finally, I think it has to do with the fact that she is a learner herself and in her demonstrations of what is possible allows others to “try it on” before they, too, pay it forward.

Gathering the children on the floor in front of her she quietly waits until all are sitting on the carpet. When she leans forward in her chair slightly, I believe it is intentional because Karen has learned that this seemingly simple gesture lets them know that what they have to say is important.

Today they will be problem solvers: those independent thinkers puzzling through on their own, a word problem that is displayed on the poster board. From the onset, Karen creates a space where thinking is at the core of her teaching. Instead of feeding them the answers, she nurtures the soul by posing questions that will let them discover for themselves the path that needs to be taken. The language Karen uses defines her as a teacher. She is one who seeks to understand: “Tell me more.” “What are we trying to find out?” or “If you don’t know, turn to your neighbor and ask.”

These questions are intentional and based on what the children tell her. Through the lens that Karen views the world, the destination reached isn’t the most important part of the journey. It is in the steps taken along the way that allows for possibility.

Using her internal road map, Karen scaffolds her teaching around every bend in the road. This is based on the social aspect of learning that she values, creating frames of action that permit children to interact with their neighbor, to share with the group questions and surprises, or, if necessary, one-by-one, to stay behind on the carpet for a little while for further clarification.

And when the moment ends, I slowly move out the door, and turning one last time I whisper……tell me more-until next time…..Teach.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Spirit lines often overlooked.....

A feeling of joy happens every time I have entered her classroom and it’s not the fact that this is her namesake, though, some of you may claim that our names dictate the way in which we view the world. If you are a believer then this truly would be the case.

In this classroom thinking is valued in a way not often seen. It is in the way that Joy interacts with her children that sets her apart. The way in which the language used lets each of her children know that first, they are loved; second, that she expects much; and finally, the teaching that unfolds is based on what her children tell her.

Joy doesn’t tell her children what or how to think, instead, through the demonstrations of her own thought process and the way in which she phrases the questions asked informs her teaching and possible next steps.

Five minutes into my visit, Joy sits on the edge of her seat leaning closer to the students and says, “Tell me more.” This simple gesture of moving closer provides a sense of warmth that resonates throughout the room. A silent agreement that says, “All voices are heard in this space.”

Another student when asked to share her thinking in solving a problem blurted, “I got it wrong.” Joy’s response back was, “That is ok. I want to know what you were thinking along the way.” The child then lifted her thinking from the pages of her life.

The “spirit lines” often overlooked came to life that Thursday morning: “I want to know what you were thinking along the way”

Tell me-until next time…..Teach.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sailing to distant shores.....

The turns in the road dictates the direction one takes in life and no matter what the wishes of others seems to be; ultimately the decision is ours to make. As I work alongside teachers and academic coaches, I must remember that my charge is to facilitate a stroll to the water’s edge, then, my responsibility rests in demonstrating “the tools of possibility” that are available. When constructive and informed decisions are made, individuals within schools are better equipped in potentially deciding for themselves which distant shore to sail.

In my interactions with others within schools, I am reminded of my own beginnings and I remember those who held my hand as I strolled down to the water’s edge. It was Esther, who was the first to give me feedback. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear; however, it was what I needed to hear in order to grow as a classroom teacher. It was Esther who walked alongside me for awhile as she demonstrated “these tools of possibility”. And when the bend in the road pointed in two directions, it was Esther who let go of my hand. And I, not knowing which road to take, turned around as she waved me on. I stumbled until next in line came Barbara who reached out her hand as well and side by side, we continued along the path.

Back then, I was given an opportunity, that taste of possibility to re-invent for myself all that lay ahead in my adventures to distant shores. So on this day, I leave you, my readers, with three gifts:

The first one is to slow down. I want you to know that in this race the journey along the way is important as well and sometimes, when we are focused on the brand new sneakers on our feet; the pavement below the rubber; or the tape right before the finish line we lose sight of our purpose. Then, possibility and opportunity pass us by and we don’t get to see with brand new eyes.

The second gift that I want to give you is one of time. I want you to know that the winners aren’t always the ones through the tape first. With that in mind, my gift to you is to take fleeting moments of time to hear the wind whistle on your back, to look up and see the soaring eagles fly in circles in the sky: to stop to breathe along the way to wander off the path for a time to sit on a rock and listen to the sound the river makes.

And the third gift I want to give you is the will to finish. Yes, we will find ourselves at the threshold of the finish line, and instead of racing with all your breath, my gift is for you to create those moments in your life that take your breath away. So remember in life and the work that is yet to be done, when you go out into the world: slow down, give yourself time and most of all have to will to finish.....until next time-Teach