"Words," said Papa softly. "Did you know that words have a life? They travel out into the air with the speed of sound, a small life of their own, before they disappear. Like the circles that a rock makes when it's tossed into the middle of a pond."
This is actually the book where Katie Wood Ray found the phrase, "wondrous words," that inspired the title of her 1995 book about teaching craft to young writers. So it's only fitting to think about the power of our words through this book.
When we teach, we write in the air. We write the story of what our students will remember about us for the rest of their lives. We also write the story of what they'll think learning is. Will they think that learning is true exploration, filled with risk and adventure, where their ideas are developed and honored for all they are, or judged and shot down for all they are not?
Katie Wood Ray's teaching friend Lester Laminack tells the story of how you can tell what's honored in a classroom. When kids' work is marked up for all that it's not, and the teacher flies around (Lester's words) like a reconnaissance jet, of course kids will cover up their work when a stranger walks in. When kids' efforts are celebrated for what they are, kids put forth their papers to share and celebrate when strangers walk in.
Think about the circles you create with your words. Not the words of content. That matters, but think about the words of instruction. That's what they'll remember. They'll remember how you influenced the process of their learning.
I ate my Littmus Lozenge slow. It tasted good. It tasted like root beer and strawberry and something else I didn't have a name for, something that made me feel kind of sad...
"There's a secret ingredient in there," Miss Franny said.
"I know it," I told her. "I can taste it. What is it?"
"Sorrow," Miss Franny said. "Not everybody can taste it. Children, especially, seem to have a hard time knowing it's there."
It's our job to make sure that learning isn't a Littmus Lozenge for kids. We have to stay tuned to the fact that learning is meant to be joyful, an adventure, and an exciting part of childhood. About a year ago, Katherine Paterson addressed thousands of teachers in Riverside Church at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion shared a study that asked hundreds of people what they remember most about elementary school. Only one mentioned an academic subject. Most of them mentioned friends, a special teacher, a humiliating event, or a moment of creativity like writing, art, or being in a play.
There are so many factors that easily take away joy from our children's lives at school. It's hard to keep our own joy going. It's true, you have to keep your eye on testing and curriculum, but first and foremost, we have to keep our eyes on the kids...teaching them and preparing them for the rigorous standards in ways in which they'll really learn. Chris Lehman tells us, "Engagement isn't just a thing. It's the only thing." Choosing books of beauty to read aloud, having rich conversations and creating good energy around learning will help. We also need to engage ourselves in our own joyous reading, writing, and learning to keep our own energy about school headed in the right direction. It will replace the sorrow in the Littmus Lozenge of learning with a drop of joy...and that tastes much better.
Past his mind's eye streamed all the faces he had seen, all the kind, angry, laughing, anxious faces that had peopled the days of his great adventure. And he remembered, too, those others: the woldweller's gray cheeks, fixed into furrows like the bark of a tree; the dwarfs, impassive and calm as the mountains themselves; the wind that spoke through a hundred wayward, invisible mouths; and Ardis [the mermaid] with her eyes wet and unfathomable as the lake that glimmered before him. He leaned over and studied the dim reflection of his own face in the water. Young and skinny, he decided, and tired and worried, too. A transient, changeable, ageable face. A people face. "And that's where I belong," he said to himself at last.
It's hard to be a teacher nowadays. The world is watching our faces. We aren't surrounded by mermaids and dwarfs, but by parents who don't always understand that we, too are acting as their children's advocates, by a public who think they can comment on our field because they all went to school once, and by leadership somewhere far away that thinks they can quantify our wondrous words and the craft of teaching and learning with some standard assessments.
Like Gaylen, we might be tempted to throw in the towel and do something else, because we're just tired of all the things that make our work so tough, maybe making our calling feel just like another job. But, also like Gaylen, we can notice our reflection, and realize that we have changeable, ageable, human faces...teacher faces that can change and grow and learn, because that's what we are called to do in schools that are exciting learning communities where we discover alongside our students, where year in and year out the teaching and learning feel different, because we make it that way, and that's something the reporters and politicians and bean counters will never understand. We have to say when looking at these reflections, "And that's where I belong."
One day, many years from now, when they look back at our generation of teachers and school leaders and they close read the learning in the Age of Common Core, this is what they'll remember about us.
It took a special type of person to work in the classroom...the kind that could use his or her words to take away sorrow and create joy and excitement for school, even when it was tough.