June 2009


Today we wondered what we would find at Stick World. As suspected, the sticks were no longer, the giant tree indeed dismembered, most of the sticks and branches long carted away, large sections of trunk remaining in the parking lot, three men with chain saws and a truck there to cut and haul them off. The worker on the way to the park was quiet, we approached, looked, marveled at the diameter of the trunk, suspected, but could not prove, that the trunk diameter sideways on the ground was taller than our tallest two. We saw also that the living portion of the tree, which had split down the middle, two separate trunks, on split off and crashed for us to explore yesterday, the other left standing by nature cut down by the tree removal guys, only a fifteen foot or so section left standing today, denuded.

On the walk home we found the workers chatty when we stopped to ask questions. Turns out the tree was what the worker called a weed, a sumac grown for seventy years he estimated as he showed us the rings on the trunk, too far away for the kids to see, but real to me. The kids had coincidentally collected the leaves and flowers of a sumac from the overgrown edge of the apartment parking lot and were holding them as we talked. At home I had Sarah collect them, not sure if sumac is an ok plant to hold, my memory of sumac as a kid was that we called it poison sumac, it growing all along the railroad tracks at the back of the field behind our house, red flowers blooming in summer, big leaves of overgrowth blocking the kids’ path to the train.

Halfway up the hill after talking with the workers, we saw sumac growing along the fence. Kids sat and posed with it while I took pictures. Fun for us to explore this giant tree, a sumac like no other I had ever seen, nor the workers, and then the baby version. The kids buried themselves in the leaves, pleased to pose with their new friend.

Big morning of documentation, me, Sarah, Isabel and one five taking pictures of all sorts of things. My afternoon’s work will be to try and learn how to post the photos in an album for families to view. May be more photos than any of us wants to see, letting go of control of the camera as I did, you never know what might happen.

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At breakfast, one five notices my daughter looks different. “Isabel, I like your haircut.” he says to her. “She looks super different.” he grins at me.

“Thank you,” replies Isabel.

“______, I like you,” grins our two to her favorite five, and to me, making me smile, circle complete.

Today on our way to the park, on the first day of our summer schedule, we came across something amazing. Kept using that word, each of us, kids and adults alike, to describe the enormous tree that had tipped over into the parking lot of the high school. We have watched this tree since spring, noticing how one side of it’s enormous bulk was bare, without leaves, and the other side was leafing out week by week. Today we approached the tree carefully, me asking kids to stand by the fence and look from there while I took pictures of the sight. We wondered how it had come down. Some kids thought lightening must have struck, remembered the lightening from yesterday. We noticed, though, that the tree was tipped over, went closer and one five exclaimed at the hole, indeed we could look from there at the underside of the tree, broken off at the roots from the ground. All the kids gathered round to see the hole and the bottom of the tree, then of course, wanted to see the other side. We crawled under a place where the trunk did not touch the ground, and soon entered what the kids termed Stick World. Everywhere there were branches and sticks piled and strewn on the ground. At first I asked kids to leave them alone, Sarah reminded me this was silly, so we let the kids explore a bit. We climbed under, over, and through stick world, me dreaming of being in the woods, the photo at the top of this blog taken when my own boys were young and we found a series of toppled trees in the woods behind my mom’s house, the boys able there to climb to their hearts content, to enjoy the physical aspects of this rare delight.

Here in the city though, on the grounds of the high school, we felt less sure. My son, boy of Sudbury Valley freedom with woods and streams and pond, felt nervous. We wondered about the liability of the school, about our accountability to parents, about the people in the school looking out the window. Soon our worry conquered wonder and we pulled the kids reluctantly back to the carriages, to our usual walk to the park, glad for our moment with the tree. On the way back from the park, the equipment was there to dismember the wonder. Jonah was perhaps one of the last to see this awesome sight, sent over to explore it when we got home to tell what we had seen. I will send pictures soon, so you can be part of the wonder, too.

I am sitting in the hallway of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Albany, NY, early morning of the last day of the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) Conference, up early with my brain reorganized after my late night, wake up with images of the Talent Show last night, of my son juggling in the back yard on Friday surrounded by day care kids, my son and all the kids smiling, him so easy in his skin, a new thing to me, one I attribute in part to his year on another path at the Sudbury Valley School, and I think back over my day yesterday, of listening to the older generation describe Education and Democracy in the 1960’s: The Continuing Legacy of the Free School Movement, most still involved today, and the challenges they have faced over their careers and see now, and of the first session I attended yesterday, promoting an idea I at first found off-putting, Education for Human Greatness–A Higher Vision of Teaching, Thinking, and Learning, and I think that Democracy and Freedom and Human Greatness are really at the core of this weekend, of this alternative schools movement and idea that pulls me in and pulls me along throughout my life.

I had a lot of conversations with people yesterday. Mostly I listened and watched and that felt good. So often in places where I go to learn about education or children, I talk too much, try very hard to engage and change the dialogue with my thoughts. Yesterday, I was content to be in the audience, except in one session on Curricular Considerations for Democratic Education, where I felt my role creep back, explained my experience as a teacher and a parent with media, setting limits, stepping back, watching our kids grow, growing with them.

The theme of the day that emerged for me while I dreamed last night was Human Greatness, termed by Lynn Stoddard, a soft-spoken, articulate, understated Mormon father of twelve, grandfather and greatgrandfather of many, former teacher, principal, now writer and activist and hoper for the future. When I read the program I had thought Human Greatness was a funny way to describe my goals for children and education, when I was done listening to him, I thought it was apt. Lynn Stoddard, who I expected from the program to be a woman, was in fact a tall, white haired man, who in his suit was possibly the only person in the AERO conference who could have been mistaken for a downtown businessman or professor or senator. He got this term from his work as a principal of a public elementary school in Colorado, where his teachers tired of presenting their ideas for what was to happen during the school year in a back to school night for families each fall. Instead, these teachers wanted to meet with each child’s family to see what that family wished for their child. From this shift, the teachers learned that three themes emerged, three things which all families wanted for their children. For these qualities, Lynn uses the words Identity, Inquiry, and Interaction. Lynn Stoddard has made a series of handouts, pamphlets, booklets and a book, the book sadly not in publication due to the closure of the small publisher who published it. He had nine copies to sell when the session I attended began. After his presentation, which included one woman from the audience who stood up and gave her overwhelmingly positive attachment to the book, there were none. I tried twice to get one of the nine copies and failed. I got the booklet for one fifty, which I began to read last night. Makes total sense, written in plain English, describes the work of one principal, many teachers, students, and families, in ways that feel practical, useful, doable, right. Lynn Stoddard is gathering folks to support the sharing of his ideas for changing education today with the concepts of Human Greatness at the core. Deborah Meier, who will speak today on Democracy and Education, has leant her support, as has Alfie Kohn. I have added my name, address, and e-mail to Lynn’s contact list, hope to be helpful in some way.

But for today, he has been helpful to me, as were the folks who sang and played the ukelele last night, who wrote poems from their experience , one young black man from an urban school in Indiana, who wowed a session he led in the morning with his human greatness, including Liana, who was moved by this young man and his ideas, enthusiasm, leadership, experience, poem–another  a middle aged white man from the midwest who told a truck and farm joke in the am to a modest response and who performed a fabulous poem at the Talent Show, My Asprin on Wheels, this one about a man and his hard-knock life and pumped up car which made the young black man from Indianapolis and a group of young dread black men I had not yet met smile and laugh hard behind me, made the young black man and I each walk around after the Talent Show repeating the Asprin on Wheels lines out loud and smile. I loved the Human Greatness on display at the Talent Show last night, four more elements added to the original list on the cover of the booklet on the hotel carpet here beside me, Imangination, Initiative, Intuition, Integrity, added to the original elements, Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, arranged on the cover in a Venn Diagram which shows some ways these dimensions are related.

I thought at first in my session with Lynn that his school’s idea for developing Identity  by means of a Talent Show was a little off. As he described it, though, and over the course of the weekend, I have come to appreciate his wisdom, to see how his term, PHD, or positive human diversity, could be lived through a Talent Show, or how each kid or person could see school, or their life as a Talent Show, how each of us at the conference, which had another theme of how small the alternative education movement is, how much it wants to grow, often does not know how, is hopeful that it is growing again after years of shrinking, is growing some small unique talent, or some big giant talent with each one of use who is here, not only at the conference, but around the world, doing our bits in our own ways. The Talent Show last night and my conversations on the walk there and back with quiet woman my age or older, white women who work with gifted kids, with homeschoolers, in family day care, reminded me of all the ways we seek to bring our talents to kids, of the potential in an alternative school environment for each of us to bring our gifts, adults and kids alike. What pervaded the Talent Show for me last night, and the whole conference, really, is the pleasure a life on the edge can bring, the focus on joy and humor and making others and yourself happy not at the edge of this group at all, or of their/our way of being in the world, but right there out front, at the core, the very reason for life, and education. As the keynote speaker yesterday morning, so far away now, Kalif Williams, proponent of Humane Education put it, up on the screeen in powerpoint, the whole point is Joy. How we get there is not so easy, but what a goal to live for, and to spend your life creating for the world.

It is awfully late and I am tired, but want to write something before I read my new flier, Educating for Human Greatness by Lynn Stoddard, and book, The Discipline of Hope: Learning from a Lifetime of Teaching by Herbert Kohl.

We are staying in a hotel in Albany where pretty much anyone associated with the AERO conference stands out. The man in the coffee shop this am started a conversation with me about our obviousness, and all day long as we walked around the downtown, we knew just who to ask for directions of information, something clear about who was there for the alternative education thing.

I arrived feeling out of place in my white blouse and skirt last night at midnight to a lobby full of folks in funky clothes, but by this evening at the Talent Show in an old church turned community arts center, I felt right at home. The tables full of books in the middle of the conference area are a mixture of things I have in my home library, things I would love to read (am exercising restraint, have only bought one book and one pamphlet, so far) and things a bit too far out for me. As one woman said during the conference, that is the nice thing about this group. Where you come from you may feel on the edge of things, very much on your own, but in this group, you find people doing similar things and there are always folks doing things much more radical than you are, and so you get some sense of safety from that, and support.

Won’t write more tonight, as I am tired and uninspired, not by the day, but in my ability to organize and write about the day. Hopefully, a good night of sleep and dreams will tell me what to write in the morning.

So far, very glad I made the effort to be here, and a whole lot of fun to be here with Liana. I am sure the experience will bring something new into our personal and work lives, just don’t yet know what.

Isabel and I stand at the counter at nine o’clock at night fulfilling my fantasy of making my favorite pie, strawberry rhubarb, with berries and rhubarb from the Davis Square Farmer’s Market, a surprise stop this week in light rain on my way to the shoe repair shop, parking spot on the other side of the market from the shop. It is late and we have had a long day, but I want to leave something sweet for my family before I go for the weekend and then over a week away. My mom left me the self-same pie on her counter while I was visiting home last weekend, and it tasted like it always did, delicious. Want that taste again.

While Isabel is hulling berries and I am making crust, using my mother’s recipe for the strawberry rhubarb pie, taken from a Betty Crocker cookbook I found at a Texas Antique Mall, the same cookbook we used as a kid in my home kitchen, recipe confirmed by Isabel in a cell phone call to Grandma, and the recipe mom taught me for the crust, written by me in a notebook with pink flowers I bought when I was first away from home and cooking on my own, we listen to music.

I wonder what to play, scoot through the playlist on my itunes, stop at John Denver, we listen to it, my daughter noticing me singing along and looking wistful, maybe, asks me about the music, I tell her it was from when I was a little girl, one of the only records we had and an old favorite. She wonders who I listened to the music with, I tell her my sister and my mom, she wonders about my dad, no, the music came after he had died, but it reminds me of him.

Isabel says at some point shortly after, “I like music that makes you feel.”

I agree, and Isabel adds, “Some music makes you feel sad and some makes you feel happy, but both kinds of music make you feel like other people understand.” She said it even better than that, but in spite of my strong wish, I did not have a tape recorder to preserve her eight year old voice and words and person. Some days I wish I did.

We talk some more about the kind of music we like, other kinds we don’t, which Isabel imitates, that go, “Blah, Blam, Bahh” or some rowdy, head banging version of that. Her brother is nearby juggling, asks if his sister listens to the words, or just the beat, as he believes is true for me, the lyrically challenged, the words are part of the beat for me, he thinks, knows, I think, but doesn’t say, his sister is a dancer, feels the music in her body, not just in her heart, all through.

After berries and crust, Isabel washes dishes, happier for the task when I remind her that is what I did when making pie as a little girl with grandma and great-grandma, I wipe the counters, put things away, fold laundry, sweep the house, getting ready for my leaving. John Denver is over, John Prine takes his place, just by the good fortune of the first names being alphabetical, but the flow works, more down home music while we work and the pie bakes, filling the house with the good feeling before I have to go.

Pie for breakfast or after work treat today, out of the oven too late for dessert last night, bedtime story instead, read with my daughter in turns, late night.

First beautiful night in the city in awhile. Rode bikes with the girl to Powderhouse Park, a place with hills and rocks and paths and big trees and a stone powderhouse like a castle. Kids of all sizes are trying on and practicing tricks on stilts, learning to mime, tumbling on fold up mats on the grass. The sun shining through the trees on the grass and rocks is so beautiful I have to comment, tell a mom nearby my thoughts, she tells me her favorite part of the circus tonight is watching all the folks in cars, stopped just before the rotary, looking out their windows wondering what is going on. We talk about her rain barrel, her compost bin, the possibility of car wrecks due to people looking out their windows at our kids, while my girl marches around in her tie dye tank top and flowered pink flowing pants. Another mother tells me how much her daughters loved that same pair of pants, how they look like flower children when they wear them. Takes me back to Ithaca, and music on the Quad in the summer, all the country folks and hippies and college kids working and taking summer classes hanging out and listening to bluegrass or zydeco or folk or rock and roll or blues, easy life on the grass in the sun, thought then that I wanted to live my life in Ithaca, found my place here in the bigger city, my kids and I very much at home.

Riding our bikes home we think of hot dogs on the grill and salad from the farmer’s market in Davis Square. For the first time my girl and I think summer, last day of school this am long forgotten, day care in the am with her and the babies, then next week all the big kids and little kids together all day, old friends coming back to visit, circus three nights a week, away most weekends, good life, hard to complain. Summertime and the living is easy, remember that song from my daughter’s favorite lullaby tape, may play it for her tonight at bedtime, keep the theme alive.

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