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friendship Grief

Death by Death

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Book thief quote

I have struggled to write this post for months.  And then, I just decided to take it “bird by bird.”  Still, it has taken me weeks to post it.  No, it still isn’t perfect.  But, in the spirit of being a “good enoughist,”  I pushed the button today.

 A dear friend’s husband died last April from lung cancer (he never smoked); he was 43. This is not supposed to happen and an uneasy chill entered my soul. I felt powerless and incensed:  what is God thinking?  Then, not long after, three dear friends of my husband died in rapid succession, leaving behind a bereaved spouse. As we left the last memorial service, I briefly decided (in a very self-absorbed way) that God might be putting me through “widow” school. I mean, my husband is significantly older than I am and maybe I needed to be ready for the next stage of my life – when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?  I did manage to recover from this moment of temporary insanity after remembering that not everything that happens is all about me.

I found the unfathomable grief deafening.  And terrifying. I hugged everybody and murmured worthless words that I desperately wished were comforting. But I felt powerless and STUPID. I had no idea how these graceful widows actually felt.  NO CLUE.  I could sense the sorrow, but I could not feel it with them.  I was an outsider – but I really didn’t want to be an insider, despite my clumsy ineptitude.

 For death, as Hamlet notes, is the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”  Although, Hamlet cannot possibly be right, as his dead father paid him a visit only a few scenes before he uttered these words.  Of course, Hamlet was not in his right mind.  I relate to Hamlet a lot.

 There was a lot of death last spring and summer.

 And then, the unthinkable happened.  My dear friend Nancy was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Nancy: the definition of what it means to be alive.  She was whole-hearted, full of zest, passion and love.

And despite the word incurable, I was certain Nancy’s cancer could be cured.  We just needed to find the right remedy, the right doctor, the right hospital.  I researched treatment options for her cancer like a woman possessed and efficiently put together a binder with tabs and places to record symptoms and medicines and tests and infusions and never-ending visits to doctors. I accompanied her to meet with docs to get a second opinion.  I kept very busy looking for solutions.

 Because Nancy could not die.   Who in their right mind thinks this way?

And despite my will for her to live, Nancy, the soul I loved and cherished, began to leave her life here on this earth.  Slowly, steadily, gracefully: on her own terms.  Even though I didn’t want her to leave – not just yet.  Well, I never wanted her to leave.

This is because I still didn’t (and probably still don’t) have a handle on this death being part of life thing.  There is this tenacious piece of my soul that refuses to accept that we cannot be with those we love forever and ever.  I understand that suffering is part of life – but death?  Who in their right mind thinks like this?

 Nancy knew this about me.  So, she kindly and gently helped me understand that she would die.  Despite my “valiant” efforts to help her get cured.  I drove her to chemo whenever I could.  I meditated and prayed daily, imagining her surrounded by healing blue light, as the therapeutic poison dripped into her veins.  When I arrived at her door after being away for three weeks, Nancy no longer could walk on her own and she was breathless even when lying down.  Her energy, which always had seemed boundless, had been stolen from her.  She appeared to be looking off in the distance most of the time and it was difficult for her to talk.  I think part of me knew that Nancy had begun to disembark from this world and she was seeking her way to the next.  But my heart refused to acknowledge it.

So, I was the friend she asked to come to the “end of life” discussion.  I think she knew I needed to hear the devastating news directly.  Frankly, it never dawned on me, as I drove Nancy and her daughter over to the hospital for what I thought was the next round of chemo, that there would be no more life saving efforts.  I saw that Nancy seemed even more depleted and made a note to ask the doctor for a blood transfusion, because I was sure her hemoglobin was too low.  I chatted away like we were going out to lunch.

 With my notebook and pen in hand, sitting next to Nancy in her wheelchair, furiously taking notes as the oncologist, in a detached voice, talked about the failed chemo and continuing tumor growth, I asked, “ok, what’s next?”  But nothing was next.  Well, no cure was next.  And no, there was no need for a blood transfusion.  I was filled with dread and my heart began to hurt, like someone was beating me on the chest.

 As the doctor left the room to get the papers to “release Nancy to hospice care,” I just kept writing furiously, vowing to stay in my head, ignore my breaking heart and silently prayed for a medical miracle despite this damned, seemingly indifferent doctor.  Nancy’s daughter had been softly crying and quietly apologized.  The room was so quiet, except for the sound of my pen scratching senselessly across the pages of my notebook. And then, Nancy said, “Allison, don’t apologize.  Your crying is perfectly normal.  Of course you’re upset.  I’m the weird one. I’m so detached.”

And with that, despite my heartache, I laughed – as did Nancy – as we had laughed together so many times before when sharing the sorrows and joys of our lives. Allison’s tears were soon mixed with laughter (Nancy’s laugh was one of the most infectious on the planet). I said, “Thanks for sharing that.  I am so glad you noticed your detachment. I thought it was just me.”

It was at that moment, I got it.  She was getting ready to depart – and looking towards her next life, in “the undiscover’d country.”  How like Nancy to help me see what I did not want to see.

For years, Nancy and I had talked as only good friends do as we “fast-walked” the Chicago lakefront path, often meeting before dawn to fit the walk into our hectic schedules.  But now, Nancy embarked on a journey that only she could take, with her family and friends at her side, but yet, alone, all by herself.

 I hated that she was alone.

 Nancy was the friend in the past 10 years that often helped me whenever I felt most alone.  She listened, supported and laughed, no matter what. Despite my relocation 1300 miles away, we i-chatted most days.  Often, she greeted me as soon as I opened my laptop in the morning.

I hated that Nancy was leaving.

Like Mary Magdalene, who clung to the earthly Jesus, I wanted to hold onto Nancy.  She knew this about me.  And even as she suffered through the final stages of cancer, she tried to help me let her go.  Slowly and lovingly.

I last saw Nancy and hugged her a few days before Christmas.  She died 3 weeks later.  On her terms.  And I grieve.  Every day.

 I realized at Nancy’s memorial service how much trouble I was having letting her go, despite her work to help me in my stubborn quest to keep her immortal. I fled the service quickly, consumed by grief, and I continue to struggle with the swiftness of her death (barely 6 months after diagnosis).  I watched cancer, that evil beast of a disease, ravage her body, once the epitome of strength and endurance. My yoga teacher, my shiatsu specialist, the woman who did 100 things a day could no longer sit up for more than a few minutes without being out of breath. But cancer never took away her wisdom, her beauty, her sense of humor, her love, her kindness, her empathy.  So selfishly, I wanted her to stay.  Despite her suffering.  Some friend.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?

 I know I must help clear the path for Nancy’s spirit to “move on” – these are the instructions I remember from the memorial service.  And I panic every once in awhile that I am hurting her by not clearing the path properly.  I’m not experienced in this death business.  Honestly?  I hate leaving places once I am having a good time.  Nancy and I used to joke and laugh about this difference between us – we would be out at a gathering or watching our boys play baseball together, and I would linger at the end, hugging everyone goodbye (sometimes twice).  And I would look to hug Nancy goodbye and she was long gone…she always said she knew when it was time to leave and that drawn-out goodbyes were not her style.  Clearly.

A dear friend, and widow, who despite her own grief, has gently reminded me that the souls that leave earth still visit us.  And though I sometimes claim to be an unbeliever in the spirit life (like Hamlet), most of me believes that we are watched over by those that have gone before us.  And so, every morning at my workout, when I clasp my hands together in a yoga pose and gaze over my left shoulder, I say softly, “good morning, Nancy.”  And sometimes her laugh enters my ears and I see her briefly smiling before me, surrounded by blue, healing light.

 And every day, I work to sweep the path for her, always wondering if I will get any better at this, death by death.

nancy  Continue Reading

Assessment Education PARENTING Teaching

Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble…

TEST CAULDRON

So…I’m weighing in. On the bubbles. And the #2 pencils.  My views on this exercise in futility are in line with Rachel’s (not much of a surprise, I know).  Two weeks of ISAT testing (the Illinois version of standardized tests, known as THE TEST in Chicago) is mind numbing, frustrating, exhausting.   But , in truth, I am growing a bit weary of the constant critique of standardized testing without an equivalent effort towards generating viable alternatives for measuring student learning and teacher accountability.

But I suppose we need to figure out what’s broke in order to fix it.  So here’s what I think about the bubbles.

THE TEST pisses me off.  Just so you know where I stand.

I’m praying my former students don’t read this, because my opinion doesn’t jive with my words…the words I began to utter roughly 2 years into teaching:

“This is important because it will be on THE TEST.”  

All eyes would turn toward me, albeit briefly, and a hush would fall over the room. And I would feel HORRIBLE, and I would think, “I have become a bad teacher.”  In truth,  I used THE TEST ploy more often than I care to admit.  I had learned that my students (and their parents) had been conditioned to believe that the ONLY things we learned that were important were those that were on THE TEST.  And sometimes, I wasn’t sure if the problem we were solving or what we were learning or working on together would actually be on THE TEST  But I said it anyway, because I knew, sadly,  that THE TEST would clothe the concept or skill with gravity and importance in my student’s eyes.

I had approached teaching with the idea that THE TESTwas not supposed to be the focus – authentic learning and teaching intermingled with social justice – that was the focus. I figured if I developed and effectively taught engaging and meaningful curriculum that covered the state learning standards (Yes, I kept a checklist), my kids would perform well on the state tests.  My own assessments (formal and informal) would tell me if the kids were getting what I was teaching.  Assessment is an integral component of instruction.

angif-bean-counter

But then, the bean counters showed up, claiming to be able to NUMERICALLY QUANTIFY what my kids were learning and how well I was teaching (Ah, yes: ADDED VALUE) and whether my school was worth keeping open.  Okay, the bean counters were there when I started teaching in 2005,  but somehow, their voices grew LOUDER and their power and influence seemed much greater as the years passed.  I think it was because they were shouting at the top of their lungs:  ‘DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION!’ Which means many things to many people.

Over, time, It became impossible for me to shut them out.  Especially when the fate of our school (probation? closure?) was ruled by the counters, the beans (the data or test results) and how, exactly, they were counted (or construed).

Duncan Youngkids

So meeting after meeting, teachers and administrators pored over and disaggregated data (mind you, it was 6 months old). We were precise – we were going to use this data to increase profits – whoops – raise achievement by analyzing this data and build – whoops – target instruction for each and every widget – whoops – student.

I BEGAN TO HATE DATA. In truth, it doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the students, their real progress or their potential.  Generally, it never takes into account who these kids are or where they’ve been academically or emotionally.  In my experience, THE DATA overall lacks context.

data_meeting_big

But I succumbed to the pressure to “get my kids ready” for the state test by dutifully using the “interim assessments”  doled out by the district  which would ensure we would get our kids on track to do well on the test.  Never mind that these interim assessments were not, in educational parlance, “aligned” with what I had been teaching in my classroom.  The results of these assessments: more DATA.

overtest

In a flash, we were assessing kids monthly, sometimes weekly. Bell-ringer math tests that were reviewed by the administration to assess student recall of math facts.  Dragging students to the computer lab (which was almost never available otherwise) to complete ridiculous assessments:  long, contrived reading passages followed by multiple choice questions.  Practice, Practice, Practice.  My 8th grade boys one year figured out that if they answered the questions for a passage INCORRECTLY, the test ended.  And yes, they knew what they were doing. Suddenly, kids who were reading at or above grade level seemed barely literate. I was chastised (not by my students) for not emphasizing the importance of the so-called interim assessment. It was my job to sell it to them.

And all I kept thinking was just how smart and clever those guys were for thinking outside the bubble.

Standard-Tests

Standardized testing with high stakes (the fate of students, schools and teachers) is, in my view, preposterous and extravagant.  And yet, we continue to engage in this exercise year after year in our public schools, with a perplexing emphasis on those schools where student populations live in poverty and amidst life-threatening violence.

Yes, it is essential to know what our kids know and don’t know after a year of instruction (although ISAT tests were administered with roughly A THIRD of the school year remaining). Sure, it is important to objectively assess kids and examine the data in a timely fashion to see if they are learning  what we are teaching – and so we can figure out what to do when they are not learning.

BUT should a school’s future – a kid’s future – really ride on how well they perform on a multiple choice test on a given day?  How reliable is this data? How timely is this data?   What does this data tell teachers?  Administrators?  Especially after it is massaged by the bean counters and provided to teachers months later, and sometimes well into the following school year.  THIS TYPE OF DATA – FOR TEACHERS – IS OF LITTLE VALUE.

dont_fit_standards

The most recent numbers I can find reveal that the U.S. spends about $1.7 billion every year on standardized testing. A lot of beans.  But the overall “costs” are actually much higher.  Last week, the Washington post published a piece that listed 13 ways high-stakes standardized tests hurt students (click here to read it). Here are my personal top five intangible costs of standardized tests:

  1. Loss of Instructional Time: Assessment and prep take time out of the learning day.  No way around it.  The minutes beforehand to get our kids to focus on the assessment and the minutes after to get them to regroup after intense concentration.  Valuable time.  I’m not talking about classroom assessments – I’m talking about the standardized test assessment practice to “gauge” levels of performance.  Oh – and generally, state assessments eat up at least a full week of instruction. No, I’m not kidding.  Even allowing restroom access is a big deal during state testing.  And as Rachel points out, our neediest kids who are pulled out for one-on-one time for learning and social/emotional support are neglected during these testing days (often because the specialist teachers who are pulling students out are proctoring tests).
  2. A Narrow Focus: As I mentioned above, my students had previously determined that if it wasn’t on the test, it wasn’t worth spending time on.  I did my best to dissuade them and worked to keep them curious, applauded their questions, and celebrated their learning successes – with the purpose of cultivating life-long learners.  Filling in bubbles is boring, after the initial adrenalin rush (kids are naturally competitive for the most part).  I think it is our job as educators to reward curiosity and awaken the imagination of our kids. An overemphasis on multiple choice tests requires our students to think in, rather than outside of, the box (or bubble).
  3. Increased Stress : The pressure on students is ENORMOUS.  They are carrying the weight of their own future (“Will I meet standards?  I better exceed standards!”) and often the fate of their schools and teachers. I’ve written about my kids who throw up, cry uncontrollably, or start a fight to get out of the testing room.  Anxiety is high because it should be.  The test matters.  And for kids who are living and surviving in high stress homes and neighborhoods, the test can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
  4. Internalized Failure:  NEWS ALERT:  NOT EVERY STUDENT WILL MEET STANDARDS BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF THE TEST ITSELF.  In Illinois, the test is a combination of norm-referenced and criterion- referenced items (ISAT 2013 guide) which are used in a mysterious formula (guarded like the gold in Fort Knox) to determine whether students “meet” standards.  Norm-referenced tests are comparative (comparing the test taker to a group of peers) and thus a certain portion of students will fall at the lower end of the bell curve (failing to “meet” standards).  I’ve often wondered who this group of peers might be when testing inner-city kids. As Rachel noted, the test passages can be pretty white, with middle-class scenarios.  My favorite one had an illustration of a camper and a campfire and one of my students was concerned about why people were living in a bus in the forest.  I made a note of going over campers the following year when I was getting my students prepared for the test.  I have digressed.  My point is this: some students will always struggle and after failing to “meet” standards in 3rd and 4th grade, well, they give up. It takes a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get some kids to even fill in the bubbles on the test.  Kids who think they are academic failures are generally the kids we lose by the time they get to high school.  
  5. The Numbers Game: It takes a while for test scores to be calculated and calibrated.  Really?  Don’t let anyone kid you about the ease of standardized test scoring.  They don’t just run these scoring sheets through a machine and spit out the scores.  These beans are so important (in terms of education dollars) that districts spend months analyzing the outcomes and work to produce the best possible outcomes (eliminating test items, etc.).  Also, schools get points for kids who meet standards and extra points for kids who exceed standards.  Except, much of the time, administrators who are pressured heavily from above, push teachers to focus on the groups they can “move.”  If kids are certain to be below standards, they can be gently set to the side while we work on beefing up the scores of other kids.  This is not education.  This is not Social Justice.  It’s a racket.

test-cartoon-picture20testanxiety1

Here’s an interesting pro/con standardized testing discussion to look at BOTH SIDES of the debate: Testing Arguments if you aren’t sure where you stand on the issue.  Me? You know where I stand. A system of bubbles is fraught with trouble.

I think it is time to turn the energy away from the debate and toward a solution: an authentic system of teaching and learning accountability developed at the school level.  Let’s stop trying to create widgets and, instead, work to foster thoughtful thinkers, mindful humans and world changers.

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Book Club Option Book Review Education READING

In the aftermath of horror and in the midst of grief, we must dance to heal and survive – or bake cakes.

Baking Cakes

Baking Cakes in Kigali  by Gaile Parkin

Cakes.  Birthday Cakes.  Bat Mitzvah Cakes.  Graduation Cakes.  Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony.   The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece  to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.

Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations  in the most unlikeliest of places:  Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical  and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza.  Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children.  Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.

africa cake

Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.

Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine.  These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.

rwanda_map

Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity.  At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate.  It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”

As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago.  It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging.   The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest.  It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced  –

It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.

I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.  It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).

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Book Club Option Book Review READING

Talking, Language, Memory, Anthropomorphism, Mirrors & Love

  missing fern

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler

“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary

The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended.  Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover.  I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it.  I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.

This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter.  It is full of beginnings.  Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.

fowler book

I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science,  ethics and the animal rights movement.  Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.

And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished.  And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon.  She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.  

And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered.  And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings.  She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human.  Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?”  And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.

I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?

beside ourselves Fern

Ages: 14 and up.  Some profanity.

Book Review READING Teaching WRITING

Take Me Out to the Ballgame… A Triple Play Review!

Spring Training is underway and pitchers and catchers in both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues reported last week, with position players reporting this week.  And for many, this winter’s fiercely frigid weather has made us anxious for the baseball season to officially begin as that first pitch is a definite sign that spring is in the air!  So in honor of all things baseball, together with recognition of Black History month, this review looks at a few titles that explore baseball before and during the Civil Rights movement and the efforts to break the color barrier on the baseball diamond.

I love books about baseball, well, because I love baseball.  It is a quintessentially American sport and its history reflects the challenges we have faced as a culture (and those we continue to face in this age of desperate measures to be the very best).  My classroom library has always contained a bursting bin with books about every aspect of baseball, including one on the physics of baseball.

My favorite books in the baseball bin are the picture books — which capture the beauty and movement of a sport that is demanding, exacting, front-loaded with failure, torturous (extra-inning games), but always (almost) unpredictable, with great potential for dramatic action.   Three of my favorites are laden with pictures, paintings, and photographs which can be enjoyed by baseball fans of all ages and can be meaningfully incorporated into a K-12 ELA and Social Science curriculum.  They can be used alone or together.

We are the Ship (The Story of Negro League Baseball), by Kadir Nelson

front of we are the ship

Kadir Nelson’s breathtaking narrative about the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues is packed with punch.  Hank Aaron penned the foreword and the story is told from the point of view of an unnamed “Everyman” who provides a “first-hand” chronicle of life as a black player beginning not too long after Abner Doubleday was said to have invented the game.  The book is divided into nine chapters or “innings.”  The “first inning” details the story of Rube Foster, the founder of the first Negro League and the “ninth inning” accounts the journey of Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color line into the previously all white major leagues.  The paintings of the players, the stadiums, the baseball cards, the ticket stubs all add to this detailed and compelling story of baseball and many important players, who may not all be as famous as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, but who forged a path that led to Jackie Robinson’s dramatic debut.  The pain of bigotry and segregation is detailed in the words and the eyes of the players Nelson so beautifully depicts.  And yet the joy of playing baseball leaps from every page.

back of We are the Ship

Satchel Paige, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, with paintings by James E. Ransome

 satchel paige

“Some say Leroy Paige was born six feet three and a half inches tall, 180 pounds, wearing a size fourteen shoe. Not a bit of truth to it. And some argue that when Mrs. Lula Paige first held her precious Leroy in her arms, she noticed his right fist was tightly curved around a baseball. Pure fiction. It would take him eighteen years to grow to that size and about half that amount of time to realize that his hand and a baseball were a perfect match.”

Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband James Ransome have collaborated together to create a number of extraordinary books and “Satchel Paige” was their first joint work, and is a lovely tribute to the first black player named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.   James Ransome’s paintings bring the amazing Leroy Robert Paige to life as we learn how he came to be called Satchel (from carrying bags at the train station in Mobile, Alabama where he grew up).  Lesa Cline-Ransome’s narrative is enthralling as the reader learns that Satchel was caught shop-lifting and spent five years in reform school where he perfected the art of pitching.  “And no one pitched  like Satchel Paige.”  The writing, the paintings, and a chart of Paige’s vital statistics at the book’s end make this book an informative, entertaining and visually compelling read.

  Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, Illustrated by Paul Bacon

Teammates-Golenbock-Peter-9780152006037

“The general manage of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was a man by the name of Branch Rickey.  He was not afraid of change.  He wanted to treat the Dodger fans to the best players he could find, regardless of the color of their skin.  He thought segregation was unfair and wanted to give everyone, regardless of race or creed, an opportunity to compete equally on ballfields across America.  To do this, the Dodgers needed one special man.”

And so begins the story, as told artfully by Peter Golenbock, of Jackie Robinson’s early days in what has been called “the great experiment.”  This short but powerful narrative of the many challenges faced by Robinson in making the Dodgers and traveling with the team is told simply and directly.  And the stark truth of the death threats and the constant cruelty and humiliations by fellow players and opposing team players is seen in the short, muscular, declarative sentences describing Robinson’s life in the major leagues.  Golenbock’s dramatic description in the closing pages of  Pee Wee Reese’s bold move (for the time) in support of Robinson is direct and powerful.  Paul Bacon’s watercolor illustrations are combined with black & white photographs and headlines from this important time period in the history of baseball – and civil rights.

This book can be read by all ages and, despite its complexity (of subject matter) and simplicity (in words and pictures) be understood by all who read it.  We all want to be as brave and talented as Jackie Robinson and as brave and fair-minded (not to set aside the talented) as Pee Wee Reese.  These two baseball greats made history in more than one way – they helped change our world for the better.

Useful Resources:  Here are some additional resources to learn more about the Negro Leagues, the integration of major league baseball and James & Lisa Cline Ransome.

  1. Lisa Cline-Ransome’s website
  2. Negro League’s Baseball Museum
  3. Negro League’s Legacy
  4. Negro League’s Baseball Player’s Association
  5. “A Long Toss Back” (Smithsonian Magazine)
  6. Scholastic Lesson on Negro League’s (with a link to a “Breaking Barriers” essay contest for grades 4-9)  Essay deadline is March 14, 2014
  7. Negro League Baseball website
  8. National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum

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READING Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip WRITING

A Place to Reflect: Using a “Think Book”

think book photo

It’s that time of year:  pedagogy has been tossed out the window for worksheets, practice tests and practicing “extended response” or “writing to a prompt.”  High-stakes testing is the culprit.  Administrators and teachers themselves have a hard time trusting that the “learning” in their classroom is enough to prepare students for the standardized tests that will determine whether a school has made adequate yearly progress, a teacher “adds value” to the school, or a student is meeting benchmarks and is ready to tackle curriculum in the next grade up in the fall.  High stakes, indeed.

All the practice testing before the testing wearies the soul, even if it reassures administrators and teachers that students are READY to fill in the bubbles and write an essay that fits “the prompt.”  And admittedly – it is important to teach “Tests” as a reading genre unit of study prior to the big day. Click on the links below for pdf resources concerning this unit of study:

Standardized Tests as Genre     Grade 5 “Test Taking” Unit of Study Sample

Another option that just might be as valuable is using  interactive notebook/dialectical journal approach to enhance student critical thinking skills. During my last two years in the classroom, I utilized a “Think Book.” I want my students to ask questions, not just answer them.  I wanted them to think about and reflect on and write about (or draw about) information.  So I designed Think Book Labels for marble composition notebooks (discourages students from ripping out pages) and these books became sacred spaces used for capturing student-generated critical thinking.  Students were required to have their “Think Books” with them in every class and routinely they were needed for homework assignments.

So, what makes a book of pages a “Think Book?” In these pages, you will find a student’s work geared toward developing all levels of  what is defined as “critical thinking”:

Critical Thinking Skills

We used them to practice taking notes, to organize and analyze information, to write reflections, to create charts or visual depictions of concepts.  I loved using them for independent reading work and used a lot of the ideas from this book:

Independent-Reading-Inside-the-Box-9781551382258

Here is an example from the book which shows how to use graphic organizers in an intentional way to organize, observe and assess reading strategies to improve reading comprehension:

Reading Boxes

Think Books are flexible tools.  Here is a wikispace describing math and science interactive notebooks as a tool for inquiry-based learning:  Interactive-Math-Science-Notebooks.

Think Books can be created for each subject or Post-it Tabs can be used to divide the pages into sections for each subject.  Teachers need to keep their own Think Book which can be used to track assignments and to model possible entries.

And, although it is February, it’s probably not too late to introduce students to using these notebooks as annual standardized testing dates loom – if you’re not using them already.  Think Books can be valuable tools for assessing student skills and levels of growth.  I’ve seen a multitude of versions of “Think Books”  on the web and I think more precise terms would include:  Interactive Notebooks, Interactive Student Notebooks (ISNs) or Dialectical Journals.

Whatever you decide to call them, Think Books should be structured around the idea of students creating a portfolio of work that is creative, meaningful and uses higher level skill sets (see chart above).  The web is loaded with resources with structured ideas of how to create a Think Book that can be tailored to work in any classroom or at home (Parents: For the kids who just don’t get science or math or social studies – create a Think Book at Home that helps them work with information using the skills listed above).  I’ve listed some links at the end of this post that should help you work with notebooks for your classroom.

I can hear some rumbling in the back of my own teacher brain:  are you crazy?  It’s one month until standardized testing in Illinois schools and teachers don’t have time for this!  But maybe they do.  The work students do in a Think Book could help them navigate different portions of the test:  Science (what should fourth graders know?  seventh graders? Diagrams, Charts), Language Arts (literary devices, plot diagrams), Math (data analysis, graphs).  Those of you who love graphic organizers…use them in the notebook!  Here is a link to a great presentation on “foldable” graphic organizers (developed by Dinah Zike) which are three-dimensional graphic organizers – engaging and a great change of pace for the pencil and paper work of test prep:

Basic Foldables

Here is an example of a foldable:

grammar foldable

Engaging, thoughtful assignments can be created and kept in this Think Book.  And after testing?  Keep using them – a valuable overview of student work that will inform your assessments and teaching will be contained in them.  At the end of the year, let students take them or recycle them or save the best ones for your teaching portfolio – and to help you use authentic student work to inform your teaching for next year.

Students need to invest – and see the point of the Notebooks.  So…teachers should grade them.  Rubrics work well and again, depending on your approach, there are a wide variety of options available through a simple internet search.  Here is one that I think would be helpful in terms of thoughtful assessment and to inform instruction (how should I group these kids?  Do I have any Stage 3 kids?):

Science notebook rubricAnd next Fall, you just might be anxious to make them part of your curriculum and routines.  Think Books help students engage with, reflect upon, organize and process information covered in class in ways that are meaningful TO THEM.  Used effectively, I believe they empower students to be responsible for their own learning and are powerful repositories of assessment – for both teacher and student.  I think the possibilities are endless!!!

Please share your own Think Book/Interactive Notebook experiences in our comments section below!

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RESOURCES:  USEFUL LINKS FOR LEARNING ABOUT THINK BOOKS/INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOKS 

THE SCIENCE INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK (PPT)

EXAMPLE OF INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK  (YouTube Video)

HOW TO SET UP AN INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK (PPT)

THE ELA NOTEBOOK

IDEAS FOR NOTEBOOKS: CRITICAL THINKING ACTIVITIES

Book Club Option Book Review READING

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart

As teachers, we often seek stories to help us explain or show concepts (i.e. compassion, kindness, patience) that are hard to define without concrete examples.  As readers, we sometimes reach for stories to help us understand or explore our spiritual side.  As mothers, we might search for stories to help us explain to our children what is meant by God’s unconditional love.  Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion is an astounding collection of stories that can accomplish all of these tasks.

Tattoos on the Heart  demonstrates the power and possibilities of boundless compassion and kindness through the sometimes startling and always unique stories of the former gang members (a.k.a. “Homies”) Fr. Boyle  (a.k.a. “G-Dog”) has worked with at Homeboy Industries in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 24 years.

I love the title of this  book.  But after reading it, I was compelled to write on its cover (my husband hates when I do that, but I am saying I was compelled) an additional phrase:  “Kindness is the only strength there is.” Fr. Boyle’s own story illustrates the fundamental kindness that transforms not just those who receive it, but those who give it.

G-Dog knows how to tell a story with grace and humor (I would love to go to a mass where he gives the homily).  His detailed and riveting accounts  are tales of deep suffering, hope, grace and redemption.  So many of the stories show the intense power of unconditional love and acceptance as well as the importance of fighting despair.

Through these stories and Fr. Boyle’s thoughtful reflections, we learn about compassion, mercy, baptism, gladness, kinship and God’s presence in our lives. We discover more about meaningful success: standing in solidarity with those in need and persisting faithfully, despite numerous failures, and not abandoning our post, despite the lack of “evidence-based outcomes” (ring a bell, my teaching colleagues?).

I loved this book.  Many of these stories are now “tattooed” on my heart and remind me, as did so many of my former students,  that every life matters.   Meeting the world with a loving heart will truly determine what we find there ( not my words but Fr. Boyle’s).  G-Dog has a way with words  and an ability to articulate deep truths, such as the concept that true compassion for the poor: “stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

Whole chapters or even just a few of the stories in Tattoos on the Heart could be used in a late middle school (8th grade) or high school classroom as authentic, mentor text for writing narratives.  Or to explore the meaning and power of empathy and compassion (focus of chapter 3 of the book) with visual arts activities (yes, we all have tattoos on the heart and so many students pre-write more effectively if they’ve created  a visual representation first).

(Intended audience:  Ages 14 & up)

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