Monthly Archives: August 2015

Remembering Lesley

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Celebrating a life well lived. You can read other celebrations here.

I have been teaching a long time. I have gotten to know many parents. Most of them have been helpful, thoughtful, kind and supportive. A few have been difficult and even hostile. A few more have left a deep and indelible mark on my heart.

Lesley Arnold was one of those parents. I was about six years into my career– still pretty green. Lesley’s daughter was in one of those classes that you remember forever, a class that clicked. Full of wonderfully creative, intuitive, hard-charging students. I loved working with them. While Lesley was clearly aware of the many gifts her daughter Edith possessed, she never made a big deal out of it. She was a no-nonsense kind of parent, firm, honest and fair – helping out with all of the kids. And, she was incredibly loving and nurturing. She wove the many facets of her personality into a natural motherhood. She made it look easy. I know now that it’s not.

Lesley offered me her assistance whenever I needed it, but she really stepped up to help me develop my art history skills. As a tireless volunteer, and accomplished artist, she headed up the Art to Grow On project at our school.  But she also made it personal by bringing me countless books and magazines and ideas for infusing more art into my curriculum.  I grew my understanding and appreciation of art because of her. I became a better teacher of art because of her.

She had a wicked sense of humor which was revealed by a little book that she gave me entitled “Great Housewives of Art” by Sally Swain. It still cracks me up.

Mrs. Monet cleans the pool.              Mrs. Gauguin has a Tupperware party.       Mrs. Seurat adjusts the TV set.

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She had a beautiful British accent and a very graceful presence. But right underneath that proper front was a rascal who could deliver a one-liner without ever cracking a smile. And she suffered very few fools.

I lost touch with Lesley when she and her husband Graham moved to Tennessee. I wish we had stayed in contact. A few weeks ago I read her obituary in our local paper. I cried like a baby. Such a bright light, such a wonderful person, just gone.

Then a friend of mine forwarded me an email he received from Graham, with the words “Maybe say a little prayer of joy for a change…” And then there was a photograph of a beautifully radiant Edith, in a hospital bed, holding her newborn son. My heart jumped with joy, and my tears started again. NOT gone! How perfect, the circle unbroken, life moving on. All of the goodness that Lesley put out into the world, continuing on in another life.

I will say a little prayer of joy and a giant prayer of gratitude. Thank you for Lesley.

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Folders and Disguises

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A slice of life from San Pedro. Click on that to read more from other places. Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this space and fellowship!

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On my walk this morning I zipped into the local Office Depot. It’s that time of year… 1 cent folders are hard to resist. Since they won’t tell me when the mark down will happen, I check in every so often to see. Last year I was able to sweet talk the guy into letting me buy sixty, but usually they have a limit. Today I had visions of finding the cheap price and then having to go in every few hours in different clothes. I could disguise myself and get sixty, no, 120, no– even 180!

A new folder in a bright color for a new writing unit always seems so special. My students love taking out the stuff they don’t need anymore, storing it in a portfolio, while keeping our word wall, a few charts, maybe a favorite mentor text, and putting it in a crisp, clean folder.

This is an easy and small expense for me. Except for the disguise part.

I had a quick flashback of my dad doing a similar thing a few years ago. My mom was trying to get rid of some old computers from our church’s school, which was closing down. There is an electronic waste disposal center in our town where they come out in Hazmat suits to take the old stereo parts, computers and clock radios from the back of your car. When he got there with the Civic’s back seat piled high, they told him they could only accept three. Businesses couldn’t just dump all their waste at once.
My dad was furious. “This is not a business, it’s a school. A private school, but a school! Come on!”

No deal.

So my dad, the rule-follower that he was, went home and stormed into the bedroom. Mom followed him in, “What happened?” He took off his shirt.

“Did something spill on you?” (A good guess.)

He changed hats.

“Don, what is going on?”

He explained, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back out. He moved the remaining computers to the back seat of their other car, and headed out to complete his dastardly deed.

I love that image of my dad. He loved rules. He was a man of integrity. And yet, when he perceived an injustice or ridiculous rule, he did what he had to do.

He taught me well.

Office Depot, watch out.

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Circles

The title of Sunday’s last conference session was “Taking Back our Schools– Organizing to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline.” It promised to discuss restorative justice. I walked in and sat in the second row. It started with a short film about the school to prison pipeline. I had heard this before, Marian Wright Edelman spoke of this at NCTE back in November. Here I was again, drawn to the topic again, circling back.

The video disturbed me. I knew the stats: If you are suspended you are three times more likely to drop out of high school. 80% of incarcerated youth have been suspended and 50% have been expelled. While correlation does not equal causation, it certainly can be argued that overreactions to smaller discipline problems are part of the problem. The video provided multiple examples of apparent overreactions. I was not prepared to see police officers with German shepherds in school hallways, ordering everyone down. Students hitting the floor so they could be searched for drugs. That was an eye-opener.

The presenters asked us to hold our questions until a bit later, so they could get through the entire session as planned. They sensed the room could talk about this subject for hours. I could. I chose to attend this session because my district recently implemented a new discipline policy which has caused a lot of frustration at my school site. We were told we could not use certain words (like consequence) and that in effect, there was nothing that could be done any longer for students who were acting out. They couldn’t really be disciplined by being removed from class. The district would come down hard on any principal who disciplined a child in any punitive way. That is how it was explained to us. And what we saw was children who were beginning to catch on that they could pretty much do anything, and nothing would happen. What a disaster of a discipline policy. I knew there had to be more to it. So here I was, learning.

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The term restorative justice is a big and general term for some very specific practices. It is modeled after traditional justice and accountability practices of indigenous peoples, especially the Maori of New Zealand. It is primarily a relationship building program that aims to prevent harm by growing communities. It aims to teach children (and adults) that we are part of communities. We must hold ourselves accountable to our communities. Communities, as opposed to rules or policies. If I know you, and I have a personal connection to you, I am much more likely to want to honor that connection and not act the fool. And if I do, then I need to make amends, and enter back into the community, not be isolated and punished.

This is what my former partner Henry and I used to do with our fifth graders. It was called Magic Circle and was a part of the Human Development Program. It focused on community building through conversations held in a circle. Everyone was in. We would talk about some general topics, and then we would make space to talk about any conflicts that had come up. We taught students that we as humans have needs. Conflict arises when your needs are not being met. Being loved/liked, belonging, autonomy and respect were the four we focused on. So, when you are upset because someone cut you in line, the root of that anger is not the person with whom you are angry, it is not being respected. When you are acting out on the playground after a lunch where no one would sit with you, your basic needs of belonging and being liked are not getting met. We would practice four-part messages where we learned to express what we wanted and what we needed in clear ways. This circle was another full circle to the work Henry and I used to do. We both still do the four-part messages. Why did we stop holding circles? Time pressure? More testing, less teaching? Full circle again.

My favorite part of the presentation was hearing Ayesha talking about her experiences using restorative justice community building circles with her students at a middle school in Watts. The power it gave students to handle problems on their own speaks to the power of community. It was a very hopeful and positive message. It works.

She had us try it. We sat in a circle, we passed a talking piece, and we talked about something she would suggest, like “Talk about a person in your life who inspired your teaching.” We listened to each other without interrupting. She showed us how to do a version of “jazz hands” when we wanted to cheer for something, so we could maintain a quiet, listening circle. We also played a few games. Just fun. Giggles. All in a circle. Getting to know one another. A community in circle.

The new discipline policy of my district is aimed at “embracing proactive, non-punitive enforcement strategies.” Yet, it seems to ignore the preventative work that is vital for this policy to have an ice cube’s chance. My goal is to help my colleagues embrace the circle and get to the heart of each of our students. Because once you know you belong, you can overcome and achieve almost anything.

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