Monday, June 21, 2010

Books-n-Boys: Library Day

I envision Library Day as a peaceful immersion into the fascinating world of children's literature.  I envision my sons and I wading through the books with calm even strokes, enjoying the feel of them between our fingers, until we forget that time is passing.  And then, the perfect tale will catch our eyes and we will swim toward it and float upon the joy of our discovery. I envision leaving the library with a satisfaction that I can feel in my lungs and muscles.  I envision this, but Library Day is not like this at all.  Instead, my boys race ahead of me and dive head first into the stacks, splashing chapter books and graphic novels all over the floor.  I can hardly keep them all in my sight as they dip in and out of the aisles.  Before I can even get used to the change in temperature, they are making their way to the checkout counter.  When we leave, the only thing I feel in my lungs is the makings of an enormous sigh.

But, I look forward to Library Day every week and so do the boys.

Today we returned a book I loved, Pete & Pickles by Berkeley Breathed, most famous for his comic strips, Bloom County and Outlands.The cover wooed me with a tiny pig playing gondolier atop the belly of an elephant. The story was incredibly touching without being sappy -- the pig and the elephant are an unlikely, unplanned pair who end up breathing life into each other.  Not only was the story wonderful, the illustrations were their own special delight.  Famous works provide the inspiration for many of the pages and the art becomes as engaging as the characters.

Nicholas is on a Geronimo Stilton kick and checked out three new Stilton books today. We were first introduced to Geronimo when we received an audio version on CD of The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid (Geronimo Stilton, No. 2) as part of a Chik-Fil-A kid's meal.  When we started reading the books ourselves, we loved the fun fonts used throughout the book and the humorous illustrations.  The books also have maps, factual reports and other expository materials that enhance the story.  Nicholas sometimes has me read the books to him and sometimes he "reads" them on his own.  They are really above his reading level, but because of the styled fonts, the colorful pictures and the additional info I mentioned, he feels like he is reading on his own.  I think this is a great sign, actually, because it shows that he is willing to go beyond his comfort zone and push himself into an area that is a bit too advanced.  He isn't discouraged by it at all, evidenced by the three books that made today's cut.

We should finish James and the Giant Peach this week (only a few chapters to go) and then we will begin The Phantom Tollbooth (the boys have been more receptive to it since we received it as a gift from someone we like).  I am looking forward to seeing how they let James go and let Milo in.

Until the next Books-n-Boys,

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Elvis, Lullabies and Magic

When I was in the 5th grade, I tried out for the school choir.  I was new to Alta Loma Elementary School and had to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to a few of the upper-grade teachers.  I remember sitting across from these teachers at a green picnic table, its paint chipped and peeling, outside the classrooms.  And I remember using a falsely-soprano voice to sing the song.  I guess I assumed that was what they wanted a girl to sound like.  I didn't make the choir.

The next year, I tried out for choir again.  This time, as I sat across from the now-familiar teachers at the same picnic table, I decided to sing in my real voice.  I made the choir and was convinced this was a lesson in being true to one's self in order to get what you really want.  However, my mom's reaction when I told her I made it was, "Of course! Now the teachers know how smart and good you are, so they want you to be in the choir no matter how you sing."  Reputation, not skill, was my saving grace in her opinion.  She was probably right.  When I prepared a duet for the Christmas performance with a friend of mine, the peer who was accompanying us on the piano nearly quit when I couldn't perform to his standards.  Apparently, we took this stuff pretty seriously back then.

Singing has always been a skill I have envied and desired.  I have made peace my lacking in this particular talent.  I often tell my students, "We each have our  own gifts" and I realize singing is not mine.  So, I am taken aback when someone compliments my voice. In fact, I can remember very clearly the few times this has happened.  Once was on the summer of 1991.  I had turned 18 and was celebrating with an evening in Beverly Hills with a few of my closest friends.  We went to the Hard Rock Cafe, the Beverly Center, and then my favorite restaurant ever, Ed Debevic's, for dessert.  We had all squished into my mom's Ford Taurus and my friend J. was driving.  On the way home, almost everyone else had fallen asleep.  We were listening to the oldies station (which may have contributed to their slumber) and an Elvis song came on.  (BTW, the pic above has no connection other than the fact that this peanut is dressed up like Elvis. It is located in the Visitor's Center in Dothan, Alabama and the boys loved it, even though they do not know who Elvis is.)

I began singing along and J. said, "You have a really nice singing voice."   Of course, this was much like the choir story.  I am sure it was not the quality of my voice, but the quality of my character that allowed my friend to enjoy my voice. Or maybe he was hearing more Elvis than me. Either way, the truth is, I had an incredible crush on J. so the fact that he was complimenting me on something I felt was less-than-good about myself made it an even sweeter moment.

Not nearly as sweet, though, as the moment I had yesterday.  As I have shared, the boys and I are reading James and the Giant Peach together each night.  On Thursday, we read the chapters with the Cloud-Men who attack the peach with hailstones.  When I finished, my oldest son Michael asked me to sing them a lullaby because the story had scared him a bit.  I started to launch into "You are My Sunshine" which is a favorite of mine, but he stopped me and said, "No, the one about us."  He was referring to a lullaby I made up when he was only hours old.  As I held him in my arms, just the two of us in the hospital room, I couldn't help but sing to him.  The song just came to me and over the years, many times, all three boys have had it sung to them, with their names in place of Michael's.  The song's lyrics are:

Michael, our little angel,
Sent from the Father up above.
Michael, our little angel,
we will share with you a world full of love.

You're our happiness
You're our joy
You're our beautiful baby boy
And we know that you're a gift
So up to the Lord we lift

Our baby Michael
Precious Angel
Sent from the Father up above.

I finished the song, we said our payers, and I kissed the boys good-night.  The next morning over breakfast, Michael said, "Mom, did you know that every time you sing that song to us, I don't have nightmares."  And then, he exclaimed, "When you sing, it's magical!" My heart nearly leapt from my chest with joy!  Then, reality check -- my son likes me, so his compliment shouldn't necessarily be considered accurate, right?

Then I remembered the letter.
When my father lived in another state to find work, he sent me a letter.  I was in the fourth grade.  My dad was always embarrassed about his writing, always commented on how he couldn't spell or punctuate correctly.  In fact he often had me proofread what he wrote so that I could fix any errors.  To my dad, his writing was a weakness, but to me -- holding that letter in my fourth-grade hands, missing him with my fourth-grade heart -- his writing was magical.

Michael was right. It is magical that the thing I always thought I was bad at has the power to take my sons safely into dreamland.  Through our children, we are given the amazing gift of seeing ourselves through new eyes,  eyes that love us without question. Because of that, our flaws, our weaknesses, the things we often try to hide, are the very things that our children adore.  And if that isn't magic, what is?

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Call for Teacher Testimonies

Summer vacation means hours at the pool, library visits, no homework and so much time with my family that we can hardly stand it.  It also means a break from new Teacher Testimony posts, but it does not mean I am not still thinking about educators and how they impact our lives.  I would love to spend this two-month hiatus making contact with educators I can begin featuring once we are back in school and I would love some suggestions.  If you are an educator, perhaps you have a colleague you think would be great for Teacher Testimony.  Or if you are a parent, maybe one of your child's teachers has had a positive impact on your family.  Or maybe there is a teacher you had when you were in school whom you feel has some insights we would benefit from.  If you know a teacher who would be terrific for Teacher Testimony, please comment with the teacher's name, school and location.  I will follow up on these nominations and hopefully we can give those terrific teachers a little recognition for the amazing work they do!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are There No Good Collaborations?

I am reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden this summer, and though I am only 150 pages in, I have been thoroughly seduced by it.  His characters, so odd and human, rise from the page; the conflicts in which they engage tug nastily at my heart.  I can only read for short periods of time, partly because my sons keep begging me to take them to the pool, but mostly because in each sitting I am moved to re-examine myself -- a beneficial, but sometimes painful, process.

Yesterday, this passage leapt into my lap: “What do I believe in?  What must I fight for and what must I fight against? Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.  Nothing was ever created by two men.  There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy.  Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.  The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of man" (Steinbeck 132).

The word collaboration struck me.  In education, we constantly talk about the power of collaboration.  Our district provides collaboration time twice a month, I recently finished a week-long institute which expected collaboration for the creation of learning scales.  Collaboration seems to be one of those concepts (might I say one of the rare concepts) about which few disagree.  We laud its benefits and clamor for more opportunities, but I found myself replaying that statement in my mind -- "There are no good collaborations." Perhaps we all want to be in on the miracle, we all want to be the one who had the idea, or found the solution, or brought something new into the world.  But our job as collaborators is a bit less visible, and certainly less glamorous than that.  Our job as collaborators is to  put aside the dream of creation and embrace the notion of nurturing an idea to maturity.  For teachers, many of whom were drawn to the autonomy often enjoyed in this career, this is bitter work. I could see this in my colleagues as we worked throughout the week. 

I wonder if the challenges of marriage might also stem from this concept.  Marriage is a collaboration, but many of us want it to be our creation.  We want to take credit for its existence in our lives. Yet, often, neither spouse wants to follow or be led.  And so, we miss the opportunity to build and extend the relationship as we argue about who owns it.  I know I do this.

In Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath  he states that "owning freezes you forever in 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we'."  I have read that book at least five times, studied it with numerous classes and never did I take that concept of owning beyond physical possessions.  But now, I am considering that statement in light of my work and my life -- teacher and wife.  What am I trying to create, and thereby own? Is that keeping me from experiencing the richness of community? When must I accept the precious loneliness of "I" and when is it best to join the efforts of "we" in building something together?