Collection #sol19

Collection #sol19

July 23, 2019

I was torn between my appointed slice writing this week and a looming library book deadline.  You see nothing is more frustrating to me that an unfinished, long-anticipated library loan squandered by poor reading planning on my part.  Truth be told, Susan Orleans’ rambling, loose, though not quite long, The Library Card, has sucked me in after 79 pages and six chapters and I don’t want to leave it behind until I see where she might be going with this.  Plus I have waited for this book since early June.  Having listened to Jennifer Serravallo’s podcast yesterday about comprehension and the differences between an actual book, a ebook, and audiobooks,  I am deeply unsatisfied by this ebook.  I gave the beautifully presented mysteriously red bound book to my son’s girlfriend for Christmas and of course, have wanted it for myself ever since, a problem we can discuss another time.

So here is my compromise, a story slightly like The Library Card, rooted in a moment in the past, carried through decades, and finally, the stuff of not only family lore but mission.

The Smashed Pennies

Sometime in the late summer of a year in the late 1990’s, my husband and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary, perhaps fifteen years, with a trip to San Francisco for a long weekend.  Not as much of a commitment distance-wise from the midwest as it would be from New England, leaving two young sons behind with their grandparents gave me enough worry to leave a typed note in my chest regarding their care should something happen.

After much hustle and quiet a bit of bustle, we arrived in downtown San Francisco with the long list of must-sees that only two over-educated, ever-learners could compile.  I could tell you about all of those amazing first sights and experiences, alleyway fortune cookie making, tea gardens, Ferlinghetti’s favorite book store, and fancy coffee shops before the rise of Starbucks, but that isn’t this story.

This little slice is about smashed pennies.  If you haven’t seen a smashed penny, it’s just that, a penny that has been rolled through a machine until elongated and flat and pressed with the imprint of its current locations.  They, of course, cost fifty cents along with that penny to roll them through the machine.  However, this story begins before we had ever seen one of these marvelous penny smashers.

San Francisco was full of amazing sights and people.  As we were taking in all end, we saw a young man with a tube contraption nearly as tall as he was.  Noticing us, he said this is the only portable penny press in the world, I designed it myself.  Using his arm and body strength,  he pressed the penny until it was stamped.  Having never seen a smashed penny before and taken by his ingenuity, we were sold.  Then he told us there were many, many machines around the city operated manual with a crank.  For the low price of half a dollar and a shiny penny, we could have a souvenir from each of our travels.   In the age prior to ready phone internet access, we were off on a hunt to locate these machines around the city.

Thus began our collections of smashed pennies.  These days, silly collections might not be in vogue. They seem so old-fashioned, the machines, the pennies, the impressions stamped upon them. Each son  collection remains on their childhood dressers in decorative boxes with the other ephemera of their childhoods.  They are a condensed travelogue of all the places we saw when they were young, dozens of zoos, aquariums, parks, and ships.  There are ones from New Salem and something called The Sixth Floor Museum.  There is a penny from Wall Drug and The Alamo,  The Grand Canyon, and The Sydney Opera House.  As I look through, I am reminded of all those halcyon days.

To this day as my husband and I travel around here and there, from habit or nostalgia, we stop when we see one of those old penny machines, and press one again for old times sake.


Profile of a Reader #sol19

Profile of a Reader #sol19

What I’m reading

July 9, 2019

Several weeks ago I received a Facebook message from a long lost friend.  We haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years.  She and her husband retired to Wisconsin quite a few years ago and from her page, it looks like she enjoys her garden, crafts, her book club, and her grandchildren.  It was surprising to get a direct message from her, but the message itself was  the big surprise.  She said, I read these books with my book club and I thought you might like them too.  Send me your address and I’ll send them to you.  

The next week,  I went to the MFA and the Kelleher Rose Garden with a retired friend from here.  She reached into her bag for a book.  I started to tease her about not going anywhere without a book when she offered it to me saying, You’re the person I knew I could give this book to, the girls (her daughters) wouldn’t understand a reference to George Peppard.  

It might not seem unusual for a literacy coach to be given books by friends.  It’s not even all that usual for friends to share books with each other, but the books themselves made me consider who I am as a reader, what I do like to read, how my reading has evolved, and what I always want to share with friends.

I love my Goodreads profile.  I keep track of books that friends are reading, books I’ve read about, and I try to keep myself on track with my own reading. I find it a good balance that the number of books I have currently read surpasses finally the number I want to read.  I know this is only temporary.  Perhaps you will fill my comments with other books I should add to my growing list.

Like many readers, I think, I have piles and bags and baskets of books in various stages of read, lend, currently reading, and will eventually read.  On the top of my summer to-do list is make a reading plan.  I can’t seem to get through all of my reading.  Something in a book will interest/distract me.  I’ll have to go and look that up and read more about it, then come back to the book.  This habit can really slow a person down, which brings me to my profile.

I believe myself to be a reader that respects research.  I recently read a book, The Editor. The Editor isn’t a particularly long book, a particularly deep book, or honestly a particularly memorable book.  It is a good book.  The most significant way it is a good book is that it’s clear that the writer, Steven Rowley, did his research.  He made his fictionalized story breathe of the almost.  As if he knew me,  he shared his research bibliography at the end of the book.  Points for that.

Back to my gifted books and my profile.  Beth sent me two books,  Save Me the Plums and Where the Crawdads Sing.  I know why she sent me Ruth Reichl’s memoir.  I loved Gourmet Magazine and read many of the copies she mentions in the story.  After Beth sent me the hardcover version, I abandoned my audio and Kindle versions and savored this book out in my garden.  I haven’t read Where the Crawdads Sing yet, but I know why she thought I might like it.  The review says it is reminiscent of Barbara Kingslover.  Beth and I read many of her books together and she continues to be one of my favorite authors.

So here I am finally steeped in my vacation days, surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of reading materials.  This might be heaven.

The Charm Bracelets #sol19

The Charm Bracelets #sol19

Collections #1

Unexpectedly, I was drawn back to the charm bracelets this week.  I hadn’t thought about them in some time.  They used to be ever present, but now…  My husband was thinking of places he’d like to visit and said, I’d like to go to Lake Tahoe.  I think I’ve been there, I said.  You should check your bracelet, you’ve probably got a charm from there. 

As I was walking by the jewel box with the charm bracelets on my dresser yesterday morning, I stopped and opened the lid.  There they sat gleaming in the still morning silence. There are two bracelets,  one curated during my childhood and one began as a gift from my husband so many years after. Pulling them out, the soft jingle gave me that feeling, that soft, safe feeling of memories on memories on memories, and I began to gently touch each charm in turn.

I wish I knew how the first one began.  I look through the charms, but the origin doesn’t come to me.  Perhaps it was that set from my distant aunt.  Why did she begin to send those and then stop after just a few?  That broken charm with the Portugal seal is from that set.  Are these four Asian ones as well?  Each one is spaced out along the bracelet, so perhaps she sent it all, the bracelet and the charms.  The rest, they are adventures of my childhood.  Each one a story.  Some are silly.  Why did I pick that oneI think as I consider each one.  That Hopi one had hoops in each hand.  That chair lift from Banff?  From my father’s trips?  That worry bird, I know why that’s there.  

Charms were once ubiquitous, every gift shop and jewelry store was full of them. I recall moments of pouring over choices, carefully deciding which to pick.  My mother and grandmother each had broad thick gold charm bracelet nearly an inch across with  silhouettes dancing along the edge, girl heads and boy heads for my grandmother’s grandchildren.  I’m not sure what happened to them.  The three of us were scattered from each other after my father’s death so many years ago. And now, they are gone as well.  My charms remain from that time, stubbornly grasping those memories and make each one strong and clear.

Memories of car trips and museums, wonders and joy, wrapped into silver plate and jingle.  There’s a beautiful articulated pineapple, still shiny after all these years.  Who went to Hawaii, I wonder.  My mother didn’t fly, afraid, I suppose.  Perhaps again from my father, but now it shines here as a promise that I should go.  Ballet shoes, musical notes, a roller skate remind me of a younger Susan, each accomplishment growing the woman she would become.  Race cars, old cars, prospectors and broncos from a father who shared so many things he loved.  Nearly fifty charms to represent a childhood and the memories and love that can be contained there.

My adult bracelet has a subtle difference, but still carries memories of trips and passions.  A stand mixer and bundt pan.  A bright blue crystal heart and the clock from Marshall Field’s.  A pine cone, a pea pod, and a towering sequoia from my favorite place on earth. A flat charm that holds the barest trace of the young faces of those two cherished boys, so long grown.  They were so excited about that one.  I remember them in the photo booth and then waiting, waiting from the charm to come out.  Precious, precious memories.

I used to wear the charm bracelet when I was nervous, if I had to get in front of a crowd or have a tough meeting or interview.  I rubbed my opposite hand along the charms, touching this one and that, causing that gentle tinkle, to sooth myself.  It worked every time.  When my second one started to fill, it became nearly impossible to wear the two of them at once, so I’d choose which one based on which strength I wanted to draw from, my beginning or my now.

We still look for charms on our trip and talk about them in between.   You rarely see charms now, a tradition from another time. If I see one in an antique store, I look at each charm, thinking about the collector.  Some day someone will look at my charms.  I hope they will feel them as I do now. Those charm bracelets in that antique box on my dresser waiting to stir the memories of a well-lived life with each turn of my wrist.


To Do List #sol19

To Do List (Leading Well Reflections)  #sol19

June 24, 2019

I read an article yesterday about publishing your To-Do-List on Instagram.  It was by a social media expert #notme and a self-made entrepreneur #alsonotme, but as many things I read it started me thinking about public agendas.  Her points were as I interpret them were that many people ask her how she manages her time and what she does each day, publicly stating her agenda keeps her own track and accountable.  Her writing encouraged me to consider the idea of public agendas.

Last week in our wrap-up/planning meeting with our literacy leadership, the idea of what the role of the literacy specialist/reading specialist/literacy coach was explored.  We broke up into two groups of 6 or so each.  First we wrote what came to mind when we thought of the role.  Next we silently sorted our ideas, talked them through, prioritized, and then gallery walked each group’s considering.  At first look, the organization, areas, and even word choice between the groups seems disparate. One group lead with intervention and the other group lead with data.  As we talked through each, they began to seem like just different doors to the same route.

This reflecting, prioritizing and discussion drove so many deep thoughts to the surface, the idea of student-centered work, the role of data in driving our work agenda, and ultimately how different the shape of that work can be from environment to environment, dependent on so many things.  Ultimately, the large check boxes were similar; the use of data, the student at the center, the coordination of intervention, resources management, and professional development in all its possibilities.  Today as I read in Leading Well,  I was struck again about how the shift from a good learning community to a great learning community can seem easier on the surface, but can pose so many roadblocks to success as we consider changing things that  seem inherently successful.

Here I return to the idea of a public agenda:  a public agenda for the literacy coach in whatever name feels comfortable, the learning community of the school, and the learning community of the district.  The agenda’s may seem clearer than they actually are, often there are more than one, and motive and actions may be misinterpreted depending on the stakeholders.  My seemingly loose agenda ripples through my school, my work, and my colleagues to varying degrees.  In that statement, it seems to give my public agenda a crushing amount of wait.  However,  I want to continue to view my work, my learning in the same context I wish the students to view theirs.  We are moving forward.  We are trying things. Things are going to be messy.  Plans can change.

I’m an incessant list maker, note taker, crosser offer.  Sometimes my lists are just thought dumping- all those things that I hope to finish and empty from my consciousness.  Occasionally this is success, often it just leads to more lists, thinking, and to-dos.  In my summer half-life,  I am much more inefficient with these lists seeing at least more time stretching out before me.  Leading Well causes me to desire to increase my intentionality,  my collaboration, my movement toward a shared vision.  All the things I strove for before, but now perhaps with a tighter plan.

So today my list shifted into sharper focus.  My notes from last week, reflected upon today will develop into a potential plan.  This week I’ll consider how to create an agenda for my work that seems more like shared work.  In the next month, I read more, write more and think more about that public agenda and what goals it reveals.

The Numbers Speak #sol19

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 7.28.29 PMThe Numbers Speak #sol19

June 18, 2019

Today is the first actual day of my summer leave.  Friday was the last day of school and yesterday there was a wrap up meeting for our district literacy leadership.  I was planning on going to school today to finish up writing my year end report, but the silence of home opposed to the silence of school called to me.  I’m in the half-life right now.  I can still feel the echoes of the school year, missed opportunities, almost-made-its, minor successes.  The horizon of next year looms with expectation and hope.  Here I stand (well, sit) in between, using the numbers of this last year to inform what I hope for the next.

As usual, the numbers frustrate me.  They can be so one dimensional.  I complete the form that someone designed to compile the teacher-driven spreadsheets, but does it give a picture of what this last year was.  I can compile statistics of how many total readers in first grade hit the Fountas and Pinnell benchmark and above, but because of how we collect data currently,  I can’t say how many grew like weeds through those levels.  I can’t say how many were so close and in a different book on a different day, they could read that level book with confidence.  I can’t say how they feel about themselves as readers or how they feel about what they learned this year.

Don’t misunderstand.  I adore data.  Data is on the top of my hit parade.  When I think about how I inform my practice, how I coach others to inform their,  data is always the place I start.  It just might not be just this data.  I might not overemphasize this one very amazing assessment over all the data I might be able to see.  I might want to know more about this data, how many students could summarize the text with ease,  how many understood the character motivation and could empathize by imagining themselves in those situations, how many understood the role of the minor characters, how many saw the craft moves the authors was making.  I don’t know.  That data is not reported in my reporting form.  Don’t panic!  It was passed on to the next teacher.  I hope she savors that knowledge and searches for signs of emerging skills.  I’m confident about this.  But today’s report won’t tell the administration any of that information.

Poor writing.  So often the second thought in our literacy examination.  So difficult to collect data on.  How to turn those amazing ideas generated into numbers.  Perhaps so much is lost when we do.  Peering into shared writing that I have squirreled away in my unit books,  I find treasure.  Treasure developed over time, time conferring, time watching, time waiting.  For this year, I’ll have to let the collaborative time we spent talking over student work suffice.

The talk…  How to quantify those moments where ideas were shared, breakthroughs were found, struggle was revealed?  I can calculate how many times I worked with individual students,  how many early morning discussions pouring over student work, teacher plans, and coffee.  Would those calculations show the synergy of that work?  How those ripples changed work, changed hearts, changed practice?

One year, I made an infographic to show my year of coaching.  It was my favorite way I have ever reported that work.  It felt like a living and breathing thing, a thing that doesn’t end after 180 days.  This calculation about this year, maybe I should think of it more as a preset for the next.  Making a plan, while I examine the numbers, of what could happen next.

Ending with the Beginning in Mind #sol19

Ending with the Beginning in Mind #sol19

June 11, 2019

There’s so much at the end of the school year that it’s tempting to metaphorically throw things in the closet after the students leave and say All set!  Late spring can be a time when we are our most reflective.  The year’s experiences are fresh in our minds.  We see the capacity of learning at its peak.  If we can get past the  tired,  this is the greatest time to plan for the next year.

We have targeted shared reading as a goal in our learning community for next year, strengthening book choice, strategically planning for learning needs, and assisting teachers in considering shared reading (and interactive reading) texts.  Having that in mind, we made a plan for some of us to meet together to plan out at least the first unit of first grade’s framework for shared reading as school opens in the fall.

Coming from my perspective,  I was considering the framework, each day of the week’s focus and learning objectives.  I was thinking of a template, of thinking stems, of routines that would ensure shared reading become a expected routine in each class.  I was ready to talk about these structures.  I had the phonics units.  I had Understanding Texts and Readers,  I had the Guide to the Reading Workshop.  I had the first units of study in reading.  I had talked over the structure with a fellow literacy coach and thought I was prepared but flexible to teacher needs.

Yesterday afternoon, I met with the teacher.  She immediately started talking about what books would fit together and what level they would be.  Well versed in the units, she began logical with the suggested book in the unit.  Knowing the author, she began suggesting other titles.  As I shifted my thinking, I caught up to her and we spent the next couple of hours, creating a stack of possible book choices making it through to our upcoming February’s unit.  Now we have a stack and the next time we meet we will dive into the routine, the additional poems, and other plans to round out this thinking.

As I consider this work time,  I am excited about the potential for success.  The teacher clearly took the lead, with me listening to ideas and offering up suggestions.  With history of collaboration, we spoke quickly and generated ideas and abandoned some ideas with equal speed.  All of this made me think about how to spark initiatives in others.  Here’s what I’ll try

Be open to inquiry.  From creating mentor text lists, to toolkits, to ideas from articles, to needs that teachers feel that they or their students have based on the day to day work.

Be open to shifting.  I have a head full of ideas based on what I’ve read, tried, and seen.  All the professionals I work with have their own schema.  The synergy of those can be really strong.

Be open to messiness.  The truth is growth is full stops and starts, of missteps and progress, of surprises and triumphs.

So I learned a lot yesterday.  Here’s to continuing to grow.

The Trees in the Forest #sol19

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 1.22.53 PM

The Trees in the Forest #sol19

I have pursued many opportunities in the last few weeks to gather feedback from students, from administrators, from colleagues and from parents.  It doesn’t seem odd this time a year to put a point on the work that has been done.  Through data meetings, end of year assessments, planning meetings, and casual talk, I began to see a picture of the work that I have been a part of over the last year.  For the first time, I didn’t like all that I saw.

Truthfully,  it’s not the first time, I have courted brutal honesty.  It might be said of me that I like that type of feedback most of all.  Just give it to me with no sugar-coating, just raw, unaltered truth.  What’s that saying, You can’t handle the truth? I believe I can.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a few days to digest.  For example, when folks say it’s not personal, it most assuredly is profoundly and deeply personal on a cellular level.

But this really isn’t a story about that… or is it?  This is a story about having an opportunity in the midst of all this amazing crack-openly honest feedback to see the work vertically, agenda-free, through the eyes of complete strangers.

As you may have read a few weeks ago, our school was visited by some curious educators from another district.  These educators wanted a peek into our literary lens, the view and philosophical stance we have toward reading and writing in the workshop.  It’s a lot to explain in a couple of hours, but we made a plan to lay out the vision, tour the classrooms vertical in small groups, and then create a panel of local question-answering educators when we returned from our viewing.

Rarely is there an opportunity to distill the work we do day after day into 20 or so minutes of elevator talk.  Rarely do I talk a vertical swath through the school.  Never do I take such a swath without a clear agenda (of my own). Rarely do I give myself over to the vision in someone else’s eyes.  But here I was on a Friday, giving my elevator talk about the units of study, strolling along enjoying the sights, and having my eyes opened at the same time.

For you see, I am often thinking of improvements to make, not celebrations to have. (personally,  I love to celebrate what I notice in students and classrooms).  I am often set on purpose when visiting or talking.  As all of us,  I am busy in the day to day work of the hive.  But in this moment, which these educators at my side, my mode changed.  I slowed down.  Even before they came, I took some time to carefully think of what I had noticed in our literacy journey.  Not what pitfalls we had seen, but what we noticed was important to success.

As we walked the halls in my small group, I gave myself over to seeing our world through their eyes.  I noticed how long the kindergarteners were sticking with independent reading and how they were eager to share moments of that reading with their peers.  I noticed how our first graders could explain their semantic maps and how they were comparing information in two text.  I noticed their engagements and their ability to easily use all the tools their teacher had provided for them.  I noticed how teaches could have a few minutes to chat with the visitors as their children worked independently or together on authentic work.  I noticed how the writers were choosing independently how they would convey their learning, I noticed how the students were sticking in the work when it got tricky and how teachers were noticing that difficulty and letting the students work through it.  I noticed how even though students were talking, it wasn’t loud in the rooms.

I saw students and teachers trying new things.  In revision, holding on to the original as we craft ideas for how we might revise.  Reading the simple texts first to get a basis for the learning.  Conferring with each other before asking the teacher.  Generally behaving like people who understand and like the work that they are doing.

It’s late in the year, so perhaps independence, collaboration, and agency are not so surprising.  Perhaps in a different moment, things might have been going a lot less smooth.  You can fake agency though.  You cannot fabricate each and every student in every class in every grade being able to clearly articulate what they were doing and why they were doing it.

In that moment,  I truly knew that is all we really want, for student to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.  For each of them to have a goal to work towards. For each student to have purpose in their work.

So on that May morning, I say with fresh eyes and I explained with a new voice. Hopefully, what I see and hear will be forever changed by those moments I took the time to just notice and wonder, distill and consider.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be difficulties and criticisms.  What it means is that the trees in that forest are pretty important and their growing strong.