“Slow down, you move too fast…”

W.C.Gloucester,_VA_Flower_Basket_on_lamp_post._-_By_Chuck_Thompson_of_TTC_MediaI remember fondly my first mentor teacher, Jeannine. For a semester in the fall of 2005, I helped in a first and second-grade classroom in an iconic Denver school building, called Steele Elementary. It was there I met a parent who would later become a force for seed-to-table gardening in a new movement aimed at improving school nutrition and agricultural education in Denver Public Schools. I’ll expound on these wonderful memories and connections in a future blog. Back to Jeannine.

I learned how to make books and how to make them with first and second graders. It was so much fun! Jeannine was very active in giving her students hands-on learning experiences all day long and she also made them read for a really long block of time every day. She read with everybody, one-on-one, all the time. Kids who finished their books were encouraged to reread them once, even twice, if they had time. Reading was about intimate practice. Making books was about community creativity and the process invention.

At strategic times during her semester, she would engineer big class book projects that became community expressions of common experiences and responses to literature they read, or structures they built, or science experiments they conducted. Each book became part of the classroom library and was part of the shared story of the kids.

I believe she knew someone in Ache, Indonesia, when the tsunami struck in 2004. Instead of simply teaching kids it had happened on the other side of the world, it became an opportunity for her students to connect with pen pals. Simultaneously it began an altered book project that became each student’s chance to express what peace and love meant to them and their families.  Jeannine found an old, linen-bound book, the type you might have found in your grandparent’s basement, without the mold.  Each kid would take home the book for a week, choose a page, and make it their own. They wrote poetry, drew pictures, used paint, ink, white-out, fabric, or any art materials preserving the flatness of the book. She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. It was hard not to be inspired and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.

She taught her young students how to transform a tragedy into a new kind of understanding about the world and their place in it. Somehow, she helped a bunch of 7 year-olds in Colorado, make a connection to a community with whom they had nothing in common, except perhaps their humanness. It was hard not to be inspired. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn from her.  Jeannine taught kids that reading is intensely personal and completely connected to human experience.  I was a profound and humbling experience for a young teacher on the cusp of a career.

She also started her day, every day, by welcoming her students with music. They walked in at three minutes till the bell to Simon and Garfunkle’s “Feelin’ Groovy”.  Whenever I hear the song played I always think about Jeannine and it stands as a powerful reminder to slow down and experience the art of teaching.

Sometimes when I puzzle over why education is in such a crisis, I think that teachers have forgotten, or been encouraged to forget, how much of an artist you must be to do it well. It has always been difficult for artists to justify (to their parents or governments), why art is critical to humanity and can be a calling in and of itself. It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to seek inspiration.

It helps me to remember that these summer months are essential for me to find my muse; (she often disappears during the testing months of  March and April) and I spend May cleaning the studio. My job during the year is to see all the hues of each individual kid and mix them in a palette that compliments the whole canvas.  I have to manipulate the metal of their armatures to help them create the structures that will support their layers of experience. I have to take risks, trusting that my decisions will sculpt the fundamental shape of their brains in positive and lasting ways.

If you are a teacher but don’t consider yourself an artist, you should. You might be Picasso, Rembrandt, Klee, and Hurst all wrapped up in one person. You are creative, expressive, and visionary. You are not meant to simply analyze data, attend professional development meetings or share memes about coffee.

Teacher friends, enjoy your summer vacations, find your muse, for soon, we will all be called back to the canvas to engage in work that can be both beautiful and emotionally powerful.






“There is no oxytocin…”

One of the benefits of teaching kids on the verge of puberty is that we all laugh and laugh and laugh when we have to talk about it.  Tweenagers are such interesting animals! Their social sensibilities are developing, their political awareness is beginning, and their sense of humor is not quite the miracle of sarcasm that Middle Schoolers perfect. There are many opportunities to express laughter and excitement in any classroom, but 11 and 12 year-olds are my favorite group, by far. Not only are most of them still grateful for the advice and life skills you teach them, but they are more able to tackle the sometimes tragic and often challenging topics that make life poignant.

Another benefit of teaching kids is that you sometimes get to work with amazing people from the community. One year, I was so lucky to welcome some nursing students into my classroom for the end of the school year. My school sat right next to the Nursing College, but in the 15 years the school had been open, no collaboration had happened. I hope both schools are still partnering. The Nurses were completing their practicum classes and most of them were on the verge of graduation. They had all seen some pretty tough stuff. Not only did these folks get to observe kids in their natural developmental states, they helped in so many ways in the class.

They read with students, shared riddles and puzzles, made copies, filed newsletters, organized curriculum files, participated in games, danced, listened. It was a great experience from my point of view. Andrew came up with the quotation that begins this new blog. During a particularly awkward discussion about hormones and deodorant with very squirrely 5th graders, he quipped, “There is no oxytocin to dull the pain of 5th grade.” Perhaps not, but laughter is abundant and does a heck of a job.

Connecting students with a possible career is one of my goals. I teach the middle years when kids’ bodies and brains get weird and you can make much more of an impression on them as a human being than you can as an authority figure – or an assessment coordinator. At this age, teaching is so much about relationships and about helping kids see into the future.

I’ve recently read many differing perspectives on how to attract more teachers to the profession. My home state, Colorado, is facing extreme budgeting problems and a teacher shortage, despite being the healthiest economy in the region. News Flash – Colorado’s excellent culture boom will not last unless the state solves a very serious education problem. What Tech Executive is going to send their kids to a public school that can’t attract skilled professionals to educate their kids? It embarrasses me to know that Colorado was at the bottom of the heap in education funding three decades ago when I was a kid and has remained there.

Of course, salaries are a concern for teachers. Improving teacher salaries is a band-aid, and will always make us feel a little bit better if applied with gentle, loving care. The answer to solving our very real education crisis in this country is all about connections.

In an age where you need never talk to another human being, or wait more than a few minutes, to investigate most anything that makes you curious, what we lack as a country is a human connection. When schools and teachers seek opportunities, beyond field trips, to connect with skilled and compassionate adults, everybody wins.

These relationships are hard to quantify and are not the most immediate resources that come to mind in the current education climate, driven by data analysis and funded by governments. Nor are they a defensible reason to increase teacher salaries, despite being one of the most complicated aspects of my job and for which I have the most training. I have enough experience to know that no matter what standards we apply, which tests we administer, or what data points we track, there is no way to justify the value of human connections in a child’s life. And that is why I teach.

Welcome to the blog! I hope to continue to write about education and my experiences in teaching and I hope you tune in for further ramblings. I look forward to making a connection with you and maybe convincing you to pay that connection forward. Support a teacher, or a school by participating and we will all win.