July 2010


Day to myself here, began with high hopes to do all sorts of paperwork, did some, scheduling, interviewing, e-mail, attendance. then laziness hit, rest, then clearing out the fridge, and the guilt of another too busy week, fridge full of lovely veggies from last Saturday’s Ashfield Farmers’ Market, when the week ahead seemed full of possibility for cooking for my kids, didn’t happen, so here I am on Friday afternoon, blanching fresh broccoli and sweet corn, paring away the rot, stopping the deterioration, boiling beets, sauteeing their greens, freezing cherries withering but not gone, smoothies next, sorting out the cupboards and the veggie drawer, the fruit, figuring out what can go to next week’s day care meals, next week’s kid meals, this weekend’s lunch by the Deerfield or the Greenfield River, tonight’s dinner, strawberry rhubarb pie forgotten at the back of the fridge (!).

Feel like cooking, handling, processing all this fresh stuff, work of the farmers out west, not wanting it to go to waste, realize just before I write this is something I have been wanting to do, had imagined canning, making pickles, instead am freezing, cooking for later, serving more fresh, local food to the day care crowd, paying the local farmers to feel my kids, instead of Whole Foods or oil companies to transport and freeze and sell it to me at the store…

And while I cook and chop and prune and let myself settle into the beauty of a fresh cut beet, take in the smell of boiling beet, chop the greens and sautee with onion for dinner, I listen to my boys’ music, soundtrack to Juno for Jonah, Andrew Bird for Ben, nice alliteration there, too, and feel the happiness in my life in little things today.

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So, the Charter School application won’t go forward this year, giving us time to work on it this coming year, to make it really good, to bring in more good people, to learn more, to connect in greater depth with other schools and folks doing good things elsewhere..time, time, time…

So, no resume today, but Ashfield:) Time for a drive to the country, a quiet evening with frogs, stars, woods and water, early morning swim, Farmers’ Market, then off to see the kids and friends in Western, MA…more work on Monday, for now, time to play.

Last night my friend and I shared delicious food and drinks and a movie and conversation. When I woke up this morning, I thought about her mother, and mine, the last generation of women in our families for whom education was not expected, but craved, higher education sought after, underutilized, recorded in their daughters’ memory as a mark of potential, unfairness, something we ourselves might emulate or overcome, or not.

Like our mothers, my friend and I are also highly educated women. Neither of us does the work of a doctor or a lawyer or an academic. We work for a buck, use our brains and our sense of hard work to pay the bills for our families. No one ever says, wow, you’re a family day care provider, you must be really smart. Or, wow, you are an academic administrator, you are so lucky. In my case, people think I must be a really good person sometimes, the stereotype of saints who care for children.  As so many folks can’t imagine wanting to spend their days that way, they think anyone who does must be saintly, rather than skilled or talented, or challenged by the work. Its hard for most people who do work requiring higher degrees to imagine that being inspired and enriched by the lives of young children is the core of my work, rather than the more visible parts, changing diapers, feeding and dressing and cleaning up after/with them.

It’s not clear to me what sort of family day care provider I would be if I hadn’t gotten my two Ivy League degrees. To be a family child care provider you don’t need any sort of degree or diploma, and most of us in Massachusetts don’t have a college degree, many don’t have a high school diploma.

Which makes me wonder how much less I am using my education than my friend’s mother did, who got a Phd in science in the middle of the last century, taught in various contexts, raised three children, not a researcher or an academic, but clearly a very bright and dedicated woman ahead of the pack in terms of getting an education. Or how much less I am using my education than my mom did, the only one of the seven children in her family to go to college, she was trained to become a teacher, taught first grade for a year before I was born, then never went back to elementary classroom teaching, raised her children, substitute taught, worked as a reading teacher, then went back to school for her Masters in Reading, earning an award for her thesis on children’s reading and writing development in the early days of whole language, and eventually went on to teach as an adjunct faculty member at the local community college, where she was very good and dedicated, but never did get that full time job with better pay and benefits. That job went to the male Phd from the South, some might say to make the college look better for hiring more faculty with Phds.

Who knows which of us used our degrees to greater purpose? Certainly, it must have given my friend’s mom confidence to have earned a doctorate when few women did or my mom a sense of accomplishment to have gone to college when the rest of her siblings did not. Certainly, it must have enriched their own lives and those of their children to have been through so much schooling. It must also have set them apart, as it often has me, in the world’s from which they came or to which they belonged.

In a circle of family child care providers, many of whom consider themselves working class, while striving to be professionals, when I speak from the perspective of a provider who is white, with two Ivy League degrees, and formerly, with a husband who worked at Harvard and Wellesley and wrote math textbooks for a living, sometimes my background and education has been an asset and sometimes it has been a liability. Its easy to come off as clueless, out of touch, privileged, detached, when in a circle of providers working in the inner city, of the inner city, struggling with low wages, family challenges, serving children and families living in poverty in neighborhoods where not many children have role models with higher education and where many face the challenges of racial or ethnic or language barriers and discrimination. Its hard to know in those situations how much my education and background help, how much my own experience can contribute to the conversation, how much I have to offer.

Some of the times I have learned the most about the larger world of work, family, education, and care have been in groups of urban men and women, in my time on the BAEYC Board, in Somerville’s Early Childhood Mental Health Study and Supervision Group, in the training I took last year in Boston on Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consulting, in our now extinct Family Child Care Accreditation and Support Group, in grassroots organizing work I joined trying to create a Professional Organization for Family Child Care providers in Massachusetts, in working for a year on State Standards for Family Child Care. These are the things I want to list on my resume, not only for the content of what I learned, but for the perspective I gained working with urban workers, some educated highly, some not so much.

In my early days of teaching, I always imagined myself working as a teacher in an alternative urban public school. Right now I am working with a group of people who, like me, dream of creating such a place in Somerville. I have images in my mind of how it could be from my student teaching work at Central Park East Elementary in Harlem, and PS 3 in Greenwich Village, as well as from time I spent dropping off our landlord’s son for two years at Graham and Parks and interviewing for jobs at King Open and Follow Through, all in Cambridge. I loved the feel of those places as much as any schools I have ever experienced, and I believe deep in my bones from being there and seeing what those schools were about, that they served immigrant, poor, inner city children of color as well as the Sudbury Valley School serves its less urban, slightly more well off population, and as well as Central Elementary, where I did my first teaching experience in Ithaca in an alternative school in that small city, served its whiter, smaller city population.

I can only hope that the work I have done all my paid teaching years is relevant to what we are trying to create, first in a church housed child care center in San Francisco, then in a university child care program in Somerville, later in an independent progressive school in Cambridge, after that in a suburban public school in Mansfield, and for the last fifteen years, in our independent family child care program in Somerville. Before becoming a teacher, I was a camp counselor for children with special needs, an art director for my hometown’s neighborhood parks based recreation program, a camp counselor at a 4-H camp in Ithaca based in a public housing project, an intern in a residential school for autistic children in London. All the pieces matter (title of the compilation of tracks from my all time favorite tv series, The Wire, loved most because of the season on education in inner city Baltimore).

So, how does this middle aged white lady with two Ivy League degrees, a working class profession, fifteen years experience raising kids and looking after a household while working full time as a day care provider and volunteering with various organizations, prove she knows the least little thing about creating an urban alternative school in the age of NCLB and standardized testing and accountability and equity and closing the achievement gap? All the pieces matter. Arranging them into a coherent picture that makes sense is my challenge of the day, resume attempt number three for the week.

The larger challenge, though, will be convincing the outside world that a white middle class lady can have a clue about what brown-skinned poor kids, some of whom speak English as a second language, need from their schools. My belief is that they need a lot of what every kid needs, to be known, to be supported, to be cared for and challenged and loved and looked after and guided on their way. How and why and when and in what form is what we’re struggling with in our Charter application. I do wish there were a way to bring my experience in the world of family child care and infant and early childhood mental health groups, where the membership was diverse and talented, to this founding group, so it wouldn’t be conjecture and assumption, but shared visioning and accountability with folks who have not only dreams and ideals, but experience working with the poor, with the wide range of families and children represented in our city, and with education that works and some days more importantly to me, that I can believe in with my whole heart and soul.

This morning there are pickling cukes from Ashfield to chop. There is a giant yellow soft and juicy pulpy melon to empty of its seeds and slush and to chop in bite size pieces. There are juicy bowls and cutting boards and choppers to wash.

We do most of this work with little talk. Two of my girls have been cooking with me for four years or more, since they were one, one returned for just this week in summer from kindergarten, amazing and not how easily we slide into our kitchen routines together.

And the silence feels good, too, something like meditation, this handling of fruits and vegetables, knives, boards, primal in its satisfaction and its feel and today we even taste, as this melon is new to us all, softer, squashier, sweeter, juicier than most, we like it, though with reservation for its newness.

We are all done, my girls exclaim, dish drainer full of things. Ok, let the water out. How? Oh, I see. And the water, drain plug lifted, recedes back to the earth, girls go to dry off, kitchen chores done for the moment, never, ever done.

Rick Posner talked about cooking at his school, Jefferson County Open School, and the importance of that ritual and experience in creating community and a sense of belonging. I agree.

It’s been 19 years since I wrote my last resume. That time around, I landed my first and last paid public school teaching job, from which I departed when my first child was born, and to which I did not return once I opened the West Family Day Care. I’m pretty sure I typed that resume on a computer, but it wasn’t a laptop, and I don’t have a copy of that disc, or if I did, it wouldn’t go into my laptop now.

Starting fresh after all these years is scary. I’ve been a mom. I haven’t considered applying for a single job. I’ve loved my work. I still do. To be listed as a founder of a school, I have to submit a resume. So, I’m doing my best to make one up, on my own, from the one I made over twenty years ago, when I graduated from college and drove cross country to find the next best thing, not knowing at all where we would land, my college roommate and I, road tripping on limited funds, we ran out of cash and steam and road in San Francisco, where I did land a job, teaching in a day care center, working with three year olds, not too different from what I do today. Who knew?

But in all those years since learning the thrills of cornstarch and water (on carpet, atop a shower curtain in big plastic tubs at the end of the day, what was I thinking? again, though, not much different from today), I have been working and living and learning, and now it’s my job to capture that in words relevant to today on a page or two of paper. Not at all sure how to do that. Wish for a career office, or a friend in a similar boat, haven’t got either, on my own here, not easy, taking a stab, as I am in so many other places in life these days, again, not so different from that cross-country trip, hoping not to run out of money, or of steam, hoping for the next version of home to take shape soon.

I wake up this morning from a powerful dream. I think on it awhile. Someone no longer in my life brought me a tray of freshly made sliced bread, just at the moment when I needed it. The image of being known, understood, cared for was so strong it woke me from the dream. The opposite of being alone, which I have been struggling to learn how to be.

I spoke to Rick Posner this weekend about his work with Jefferson County Open School, after having met him at the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) Conference and having purchased his book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, which I returned to last night before falling asleep, long day, rose at 5, left Ashfield at 7, am, drove home, checked messages, did the shop, put away a bunch of local food gathered in Ashfield on Saturday, less local food gathered at my local market, Whole Foods, made lots of food for my kids throughout the day, and was with them as they enjoyed it, swam at the local pool, felt cooler, better, listened to music, gave and received a bunch of hugs, watched 30 Rock, laughed and smiled with my little family on pillows set out by my daughter, on a screen set up by my son, beside my teenager, who sometimes sleeps all day and thinks all night, beside me for that moment of shared understanding and laughter.

But I woke up this morning, wishing for the plate of bread, remembering the intimacy of being known on that level by another human being, gifts which are just right, music shared and loved together, food prepared for one or for a group that is both delicious and a gift, laughter that is deeper than casual, hard to explain, conversation about things that really matter, a hug or a word that says I understand, touch.

And for some reason, the place I want to put these thoughts this morning is here, in my ideas about a school, perhaps no surprise to those who read, who know that for me it all comes back to that on some level, the thinking about how we treat one another, how we raise and educate our children and our youth, love is at the core, and I could say it again and again and again, and the work we are doing this week in our school founding group is on governance, which turns out to mean administration, whereas I would like it to mean love, don’t know how to put that in an application, so I go to my dreams, go to my books, go to my children and my mother and my friends and my life, this afternoon to my day care, and I test it out, look for it, document evidence of it, study it, whole year and many more, studying on love.

Yesterday I thought about love of swimming and water and children, how for many years my love of my children, perhaps my wish for them to love what I love, kept me from swimming. I stood guard over them rather than go out in deep water to find my way, to move my own body, to float away. Now they are older, I can swim laps, swim in the deeper water, but I haven’t swum away, would not yet swim across Lake Ashfield and back while they swam near shore and lifeguards, lazed on the beach, I wouldn’t go that far. Thing is I wouldn’t do it on my own, either, not there, still swimming laps close to shore at Lake Ashfield in Western Mass even when my kids are with their father swimming in Walden Pond with our good friends and their kids, still have that habit of being close, even when they are far away, also no comfort yet in deep water on my own, need a swim buddy just in case. In case what I wonder? I knew I wouldn’t swim alone in the pond in our back yard in Ashfield back, if I had been at the place on my own. I imagine drowning, going down deep, never coming up, a sudden cramp, a heart attack, a stroke. A crazy bird attacking my chest might be more likely, but I’m not there yet, swimming alone without a witness or companion. Even my friend Jackie in Cleveland, trained lifeguard, skilled swimmer, feels this way, told me a story when I visited this month about being tempted to use the school pool when she was a young teacher alone in the school at night after hours, craving water, had the key to unlock the pool. She wouldn’t have done it she said, even though she loved to swim and craved the water, and I wondered if I would.

But back to education, to what we need and want in our schools, which is so hard to describe I feel I may be failing here. The security of being known, witnessed, supported, looked after, fed, that deep showing and feeling of intimacy and love is a risky, hard thing to say out loud when creating a school, not so much a child care program, where those things are expected, after all we are providing care, often for the most vulnerable littlest ones, but for a school, it is a bigger risk to pronounce to the world that we want to create a place of love and care, where children and young people and adults all exist day to day in a place that holds them, comforts them, provides them love and feedback and support and challenge, all in caring ways, in ways that allow the individual to both know her/himself and to be known in relation to others, one-on-one, and in community. Its a risk to say it on some level, its a risk to do it, a bigger one to step back and to put that piece of education last or even second to curriculum, standards, assessment, testing, even governance, if that is not done with caring and love at its core, though the department of education or the board of trustees or the larger world may disagree.

Which is where Rick’s book comes in. Chapter last night was on Lighting the Fire of Learning, subtitle partway into the chapter that catches my attention this morning, Students Who Discover What Gives them Joy. My talk with Rick on the weekend about his school in Colorado and our new school here kept coming back to advising, his word, I think, for the relationships between adults and young people in a school, but the book also talks a lot about knowing oneself, and the power in that, and here as I write, I see what may be the obvious connection to most of you, that being known and knowing oneself are often in tandem. I think of the image of mirroring ,which we learn about with our littlest babies, and I remember smiling into the faces, staring into the eyes of my own newborn babies, looking for a reaction, finding one. I think of how I could have gone on and on and on in that place of newborn bliss, but how my boy sits next to me now laughing at 30Rock. You have to find new ways of looking into one another’s eyes.  You can’t live without it. Failure to thrive in infants means the infant doesn’t have the love it needs to exist. Love is it. It comes in many forms. You can survive without having each of them. I don’t believe you can survive without any of them. At the very core you may survive with only love for yourself. You probably can’t get that without having experienced the love of another, or others.

Which reminds me of another very powerful book and talk and person I met many years ago, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, by Dr. Ned Hallowell, who spoke at a conference for caregivers to which I was invited when life in early childhood was flush with funds. The salient point from that book and talk for me was that if one adult in a child’s life loves that child unconditionally, it can make all the difference. It doesn’t have to be a parent or a teacher. It could be a family day care provider, a neighbor, a coach, a friend. If that child feels that unconditional love, it can make a difference in whether or not that child goes to jail, develops a mental illness, graduates from high school, attends college, lives a happy and satisfying, sustainable life. Maybe that person in Rick’s school is the advisor.

Time to be that person to my family and our day care. I need to go to the day care kitchen, measure the ingredients to make the bread which Alice will share with a small group for lunch today, while I start the morning driving my girl and her friend to swim camp, bread from my dream, swimming from my writing both here in my real life day. Dream, reality, dream, reality, dream, reality, feeding one another as well as any bread.

p.s. I am reminded when I step away, think back, of my discussion with one of Hilltown Cooperative Charter’s three leaders, that he also advised us to remember that making a school is at the core about creating a place where children are known. I wish I could quote him, because he said it with real elegance and assurity, so that I knew/imagined he could make it happen in real life. I can’t quote him, my memory doesn’t work that precisely. Conversation, like life, is fleeting, and all we can hope to do is remember the feel and key points and to recreate the bits we love in little pieces going forward. Amen:) I will try.

And lastly, I found this on my facebook page this morning, and it feels like another way of saying what I am trying to say above. The more voices in the mix, the stronger we will be. So without knowing the etiquette around sharing facebook pieces in a blog, here goes. I like this one and I imagine you will, too.

Stephanie Pace Marshall

On the Current Story of Learning and Schooling……
Stephanie Pace Marshall

“Conceived and framed within a context of scarcity, deficiency, and fragmentation, our current patterns, processes, and structures of schooling are not designed to ignite our children’s joy, intellectual energy, and imagination.

They are not dynamic or integrative enough to enable our children to analyze and solve complex, messy problems and to engage with passion in exploring their real questions about life.

And they are not experiential enough to encourage our children to access and experience the mystery and enchantment of their rich interior lives, understand how they belong to the world and one another, and embrace and celebrate their remarkable capacity to sense an emergent future and evoke its creation.

They are quite simply irreconcilable with the principles of life and learning. As a result, many of our children have become schooling disabled in a learning-abundant universe.”

Getting in that swimming habit. After years on the side of the pool or lake or on the sand of the ocean beach, I have been diving in. My kids are big enough to swim, well. No more scooping up drowning toddlers drinking water on the edge of Walden Pond for me. No more worrying about out of sight mothering. So, I swim. I float on my back. I breast stroke, back stroke, old lady moves, but graceful enough, and as I put the dinner on the table, I can feel the workout in my arms and legs and butt, swam yesterday at Ashfield Lake with my mom, at Dilboy Pool today with Isabel, Jonah, and a friend. Laps of luxury…more adult learning in the summer.

Makes me think of things we each love and how we find our way to them, away, and back. Wishing to give those opportunities to kids in school and day care and summer programs, to find the things they love, to explore them while it feels right, to step away, to step back in, time and space and distance and right up close, all different ways of learning and being are worthy of our respect.

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