No Faster Way

Working with Yasmin is always, on one hand, an absolute delight, and on the other hand, an utter frustration.  She is one of the most diligent students I’ve ever known, eager to learn and willing to stretch herself, approaching me politely to ask for extra work.  “I’m not sure I understand this,” she will tell me: “Can you give me more?”  The frustration comes from seeing all the times that her efforts don’t pay off; retention is difficult for Yasmin, and on Wednesday, many times, the things that flowed seamlessly on Monday don’t work.  “I kind of forgot”, she will say sheepishly, when we revisit a thing that she previously learned.  “Can you teach me?” Over time, Yasmin shows a net growth in her skill set; the challenge is that those around her grow, too.  It can be hard, sometimes, to not worry about all the time that passes, while she learns a thing and forgets a thing, while she diligently demonstrates the gaps in her understanding, her effort far outstripping, at times, her ability.

Ever since I’ve known her,  Yasmin has always been committed to doing the best that she can with what she’s able to use.  In second grade, a math assessment required students to “draw place value blocks to show 251.”   Most students neatly knocked out the correct answer: two big rectangles to represent 2 hundreds, five upright rods representing ten each, one little cube for the ones place of the number.  I stopped her as she drew her eighty-seventh square, whispering, “You don’t have to keep doing this.  You can write, ‘It’s too hard’.”  Carefully, she finished her answer: one more square and a handful of letters.  tis to hard.  “Nicely done, my friend.  You can go on to the next one.”

It took a long time for Yazmin to understand multiplication in word problems, but when she did, it delighted her.  I first showed her that, yes, it was mathematically correct to add the same number to itself, again and again, and told her each time, “But there’s also a faster way.” That was two years ago, and she still beams when she says it–she still says exactly my script to describe multiplication.

Now, we are writing 5-paragraph essays, to develop a central thesis statement through reasons and evidence.  The grade level writing curriculum involves a “boxes and bullets” graphic organizer: you write your thesis statement in the box, and use three bullet points to introduce three reasons that support it.  Each bullet, for this exercise, becomes its own paragraph, with multiple pieces of evidence to support each reason, and with the three reasons coming together to support the ultimate thesis.    If this assignment were a place value drawing, there would be many more than 251 blocks.

The classroom teacher is brilliant, thoughtful and high-reaching in her lesson design: she makes the assignment open-ended enough that students who are ready to do so can advance any thesis they are able to support, but first has the group flesh out an outline together that struggling writers are invited to adopt as their own.  “The journey to the New World was difficult, because…”  She co-creates an anchor chart from a giant sheet of paper: “Let’s Write An Essay!”, it cheerfully exhorts.

Yasmin is a hard worker, and a motivated learner, and it kills me, sometimes, to see how much effort she puts in things that don’t work out for her.  “She gets stuck, sometimes”, the ELL coach says, “but when she gets stuck, she doesn’t stop.  She just writes or says the same thing, over and over.”   I look at the draft of her essay, where she did not understand the prompts I attached to her bulleted outline–where she simply recopied all the fragments again.  I think of how the outline itself was a duplicate, because before I wrote the prompts to guide her into structuring the essay, she’d already written the outline two times–with slight changes the second time, but no real movement past the fragments.  I break things down further, giving her explicit verbal direction this time, and eagerly, she does everything I suggest for her.  She puts in a paragraph symbol to remind her to indent, adds the words to her paper that she says out loud to make some of the written sentences more grammatically acceptable, thinks for the five thousandth time about starting with a capital and ending with an end mark.  We progress to the paragraph about colonist food.

And I can’t help her massage what she’s got; it’s too jumbled, the fragments are out of order, and none of it gives the reader complete information.  “People were greedy”.  “Some food spoiled”. “Stuck at sea for six months”.  A fragment about the ‘gentlemen’ who belong in the next paragraph, where the teacher has made clear statements about their unwillingness to work.

I don’t want to make her erase it.  I know how slowly she works, and how much effort she puts into things; I know that writing those fragments for the second excessive time took precious learning minutes that we can’t give her back. I know that it will take her awhile to erase all those lines, because she is sometimes disorganized even in her motor skills, and the paper may tear as she rubs too hard on part of it.  “My friend, this needs to go, because you have something better to say here. May I?” She nods.  As I quickly pass the little pencil tip over the paper, I am glancing quickly at her face to see if it is crestfallen.  To my surprise, she’s smiling at me. “There’s a faster way.”

Carefully, she unzips her supply pouch and retrieves a pink rubber square–a larger eraser.  And I realize that Yasmin has a lot to teach me, about persistence and optimism and accepting a process for exactly what it is.  There is, I am realizing, no faster way to do this, and I simply have to trust that we’ll muddle through in time.  The smile on Yasmin’s face, as she recognizes that she’s making her essay better, reminds me of what matters.  Reminds me that, at the end of the day, Yasmin will always be able to draw on strengths that I didn’t put there but that I can still support–her sense of herself as learning and growing, her willingness to try again as often as it takes.

We erase it all together and we get back to work.

 

 

 

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16 Reasons

Aaron is new on my caseload this year.

He’s a bright-eyed second grader who is in almost constant motion, bouncing and wiggling and re-tying his shoes.  Frustration tolerance has always been a challenge for Aaron, but last year, his issues exacerbated to multiple instances of property damage a week. His teacher would ask him to do something he didn’t want to do, or he’d make a mistake on something he was doing, and he’d begin systematically pushing the desks around him against each other, and then begin knocking things from the desks to the ground.  He’d neatly upend the chairs, or turn a table over so that the legs pointed skyward like a splayed-out butchered animal. At home, these tantrums often resulted in changes and bribes, because his family would do anything to get them to stop.  At school, it was often desperately difficult to keep these instances from leading to positive consequences–the reality was that, well, when you knocked over all the desks with the worksheet you didn’t like on top of them, it did become less likely that you’d have to do the worksheet.

Back before he was on my caseload officially, I got involved anyway because it was simply not possible for his teacher to address his needs while also protecting the kids in her class. I carried my phone with me everywhere, and when she noticed an issue developing, she’d simply text me one letter from the alphabet to alert me to the need to hurry by when I could.  If need be, she’d then take the class out of the room while I stayed behind with Aaron.

It was always a little chilling, to watch these explosions. Whenever things went a different way than what he’d been expectingAaron worked silently, brow furrowed, to play out in the world around him the amount of chaos and threat that registered within him, unattached to words that would help him express things verbally.  It took us three months to get beyond “I don’t know” and “nothing”, towards “mad” “confused”  and “frustrated” as feelings that might be beneath the behavior. It took several instances of utterly wrecking the environment around him while adults looked on, impassively, for him to realize that this behavior was no longer effective in getting him what he wanted.

Over the summer, Aaron’s family secured effective individual play therapy for Aaron, and therapy and guidance for the family unit.  He also began taking medication to help him with impulse control and anxiety.  Aaron also grew and matured over the time that it took to complete the process leading to his placement on my caseload. Ironically, now that he gets my services, he seems much less likely than he used to, to need them.

And yet, our time together is far from wasted.  Aaron continues to have difficulty paying sustained attention to things that do not interest him; his conceptual understanding of math is impressive but his careless mistakes and impulsive responses make his computational accuracy low.  He is now less likely to throw tables, but the things that used to upset him continue to upset him, and his efforts to control and organize his world are not always sufficient to keep his anxiety at bay.  My sessions with him are typically divided between quick academic remediation, social skills building, and if-then contingencies (first work, then play), to increase his general compliance with adult-delivered demands.  Lately, I’ve been purposefully sneaking small frustrations into his time with me–activity he enjoys that challenge his fine motor skills, strategy games that I play at my actual capacity instead of letting him win, a timer that goes off before he’s done with his drawing, deliberate small imperfections in the things he gets from me.

Last week, as he worked on a detailed drawing with markers that were just a little bit dried-out, he asked me a question that made me set the timer for two extra break minutes to buy myself some time.  “My friend asked me, ‘Why do you work with Teacher Beth?’, and I want to know what I should tell him.”

My first impulse was to put the question back on him, to hear his own thoughts about the question. “Well, I have  a few ideas for an answer, but I think the most important thing is, ‘what would you like to tell him?'” Aaron answered quickly. “Well, I already did tell him.  I told him I used to get really really angry, and that’s why.”

I nodded, and responded, “well, I think that is part of it.  I want to think a little more about other things you can say. Because there are so many different reasons kids work with me, and kids don’t have to say anything they don’t want to say about that.”   While Aaron enjoyed his additional two minutes, I started drafting a list of “26 reasons”, explaining, “Not all of these reasons are true for every kid.  Some of them might be true for you, or you might think of other reasons that make more sense.  Either way, it’s good for you to know that I work with lots of kids, I am glad we work together, and we can do some really good, important stuff together.”

I ran out of ideas at 16.  But I hope I created enough of a menu to give Aaron the message of, ‘there are lots of things I could tell my friend, and I don’t have to tell him anything, if I don’t want to’.

 

 

It also seemed important to highlight reasons that students would associate with being ‘more than’, rather than ‘less than’, the expectations around them.  While I often joke with grown-ups about the sad reality that nobody transfers into my program because they are simply too sweet, adorable, intelligent, and compliant, I want my students to recognize that they have gifts that need nurturing as well as ‘deficits’ to address.  The reason for ‘need challenge math’ may very well be ‘because child is unwilling to behave appropriately while the rest of the class does the regular math that is perceived as utterly too boring to sit down and let happen’, but I wanted to put the best spin on it, here.

I was uncertain, at first, about surfacing all of this. Over the years, I’ve grappled heavily with the question of, ‘how much should we tell young kids about the services they need?’ What helped me make the list in that moment was Aaron’s own suggested contributions to it.  One initial idea he put forth was, ‘because they’re addicted to being with their friends.’ This was his interpretation of a struggle I had helped him with the previous day; in the absence of a clear targeted lesson objective in class, he had repeatedly chosen to sit at his friend’s desk and draw rude cartoons, and he had not picked up on the cues that his friend actually did feel a little bit of guilt about Not Following Directions.  We turned that into Reason #8-  Might need help with good choices.  Each time, Aaron’s idea for why a child might work with me was framed much more negatively than I would choose to frame it, so it felt essential for him to hear me say that yes, there are reasons,  but no, they aren’t quite the reasons you think they might be.

After we drafted our list together, I took Aaron to visit another member of my cadre–Peter, now a third grader whose athleticism and natural leadership ability instill great admiration in younger peers.  He and Aaron know each other from other school activities and have hung out before, without me facilitating; with both boys’ permission, I had them take a look at the list together.  Last year Peter dealt with students asking him questions about why he went to the office after lunch every day–the honest answer was that he took medication to control his ADHD, but we were clear with Peter that he was under no obligation to say that.  I invited Aaron to ask Peter the question, “what do you say to other kids about working with Teacher Beth?”, and Peter heartily endorsed the ‘not your business’ option. As we made a copy of the list for both boys, Peter admired Aaron’s drawing, so of course, we copied that too.

Often, I wish that my students didn’t need me.  At other times, though, I’m grateful that I can be there, and I am glad when there are opportunities to connect my students with one another for mutual support.  Peter and Aaron will, I believe, need to incorporate within their own strong identities the ongoing reality that they benefit from adult assistance to make progress on things that come more easily to others, even as they are both academically gifted kids.  It’s not the narrative that school kids are used to, but over time, I hope, we are changing the narrative.

 

 

 

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FaceBlog: 2/04/2016

I am on the recess yard, at the tail end of a conflict mediation involving two second-grade boys. Another child from their class approaches me to alert me to another conflict involving three additional children. I turn to the kids I have managed to calm down, and ask them, “Hey, what’s up, do you think, with all the problems today?” One furrows his brow, thinks a little, and responds, “It’s the 100th day of school. I guess maybe we have 100 problems today.”

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Empathy

IMG_1758.jpgOne part of my job that gives me a great deal of satisfaction is the whole-group instruction I do around social and emotional skills.  Typically, when I have a student, like Peter, for whom perspective taking and managing strong feelings are the largest challenges they have in the classroom, I work with the whole class to built more of that toolbox.

And this year, an actual Toolbox is involved.  TOOLBOX distills the basic social competencies necessary for interpersonal success–self-calming, considering how others feel, hearing differences of opinion, choosing words carefully, letting little things slide, etc. etc. etc–into 12 specific “tools”, each with visuals and gestures and pithy little mantras, introduced in a series of small suggested lessons and practiced over time with reminders and prompts.  It gives our school site a universal vocabulary for conflict resolution and social intervention, and it gives my students more specifics than ‘calm down’ and ‘be good’.

The first three Tools go well, for my second graders.  The “Breathing Tool” is the foundation for all subsequent lessons, as children learn the specifics of diaphragmatic breathing and connect it to the idea of listening to their bodies before they take action.  “Quiet/Safe Place” teaches students to visualize, within themselves, a place of calm and comfort. We spend a lot of time constructing these individual mental worlds, with Teacher Beth pushing gently back against stocking them with candy and fart jokes and Disneyland rides.  When you’re a young child, it seems, a place that feels good to you must be exciting –it takes awhile to appreciate the value of just peace.  The “Listening Tool” is hugely important, especially for the particular group of learners I’m working with in Toolbox this year.  All of it makes sense, and they immediately understand it. “We listen to others with our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds:” the kids don’t yet have the full nuance of that, but they get the big idea.

Next up, Empathy–standard dictionary definition is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  I like what Wikipedia adds to that definition–that the understanding comes “from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”   The tool that represents it is a level; to represent it in gestures, you lift both hands and balance them, updownupdownupdown and then even, making it clear that both sides have weight. The tagline we recite is, “I care about others, I care about myself.”

There is research to support the idea that empathy is innate, but there is also…um, the playground, which shows it needs developing.  Intervening with a group of 7 year old boys who have, for the fifth time in 4 recesses, ended the play period with at least one child crying or bleeding, I ask them, “Be honest–how does it feel to you to play games where people get hurt?”  One child  tells me, “I kind of laugh when people get hurt.” I ask him, without judgement, “Why do you think that is?” and he responds, “It’s tough, where I come from.”  I tell that precious child, “We can’t let it be tough at this school.  Not like that.”

To teach the tool of empathy, we tell kids about the idea of someone ‘walking in my shoes.’  I open the binder that I borrowed from the other second grade teacher, that she copied from the binder that the principal bought one copy of, and I go through the suggested lesson plan.  Have three actual different pairs of shoes, adult sized so that everyone can actually step into them.  Have kids take turns, putting on the shoes.

I’ve seen what happens when there are three things for these twenty children, even when their socks are on.  And three possibilities, I think, is not enough.

What I did, instead (and next time, I might do real shoes also) was print out pictures of ten different people from the knee or ankle down.  A ballet dancer.  A business person.  Muddy boots for a construction worker.  Tiny shoes that a toddler was being helped to put on.  A kid’s signed ankle cast that a doctor’s hand was touching.  Holey, beat-up shoes that were probably the stock image for a charity on homelessness or poverty.  Clean basketball shoes, tearing up a slick court.  Another and another, until I had what I felt was a representative sample–something more manageable than all the shoes in the world.

We sat in a circle with the cards in the middle, face down.  Breathing Tool for a moment to ground ourselves, eyes closed briefly to get ready to imagine. Once it was quiet and calm enough to begin, I asked one child to start a card around–to look at it briefly and then pass it on.  A little time passed and another child was asked to start another card, and then another, so that nobody had to wait too long for a picture.  As we did that, each time, I asked the kids to think .  “What might this person be like?” “What might this person like, or not like?” “What might be a hard thing that this person has to do?” “What might be a feeling that this person might have?”  Some kids furrowed brows and approached this with discipline; other kids just laughed at the ‘smelly’, broken shoe.  It did not, to be honest, go quite as smoothly as TeacherBeth might hope, and there was one moment when I lost my cool.  “Ezra, that shoe belongs to a PERSON.  Would you laugh at him like that?  Then DO NOT LAUGH NOW.”

Afterwards, I asked the kids to vote with their hands, like we often do when I want a choral response but don’t want the noise of it.  Thumbs go up if the answer’s ‘yes’, and if the answer is ‘no’, I have them wave hands quickly, inside and out (because I have kids show agreement and disagreement with one another’s ideas, it’s important for me to avoid thumbs-down).    I asked the kids if their thoughts were the same for each pair of shoes that they saw, if they thought the same thing for most of the shoes, or different things, if they thought, each time, that “this person’s just like me.”   Then, I asked them if each person was important.  Some of the kids voted no, at first, and I told them, “Yes.  Each person is important.  Because we are all important.  And empathy helps us to really see that.”

I ended that portion of the lesson under absolutely no illusion that I’d made much of an impact yet–the idea was simply to get the thing started.  After spending some time with the more abstract idea of the lives of folks they don’t know, I had students work at their desks about people they DO know–each child made a ‘caring circle’, with the names of the  people  (and pets!) who are closest to them.  I circulated the room, asking them to tell me a little more about those people, trying to help them think more deeply about them.  It isn’t natural for young children to spend much time in contemplation of the inner lives and feelings of others, because for kids, the most immediate and natural reference point is automatically the self.  Piaget, one of the most foundational experts in child development, posited that when children passing through the pre-operational stage (roughly ages 2-7) are asked to reflect on the perspectives of others, they innately assume  other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same as the child does.  When we try to resolve social conflicts on the yard, we must work patiently and with diligence to open up each child to the perspective of the other.  And I think it’s significant that our most common empathy question isn’t, exactly, “how do you think Sarah feels about ___?” It’s, “How would YOU feel if x happened to YOU?”

The research, and my own practice, shows that empathy can be taught– we can move children from seeing just themselves, to seeing themselves and the circle they care for, to broadening that circle to include other people they don’t yet know and love.  I take the shoe pictures and mount them on a poster, with the same prompts:”What might this person be like?” “What might this person like, or not like?” “What might be a hard thing that this person has to do?” “What might be a feeling that this person might have?”  It is an optional idea bank for writer’s workshop, for students to choose a perspective and examine it through telling a story or writing their thoughts.  For next week’s lesson, I will begin by having each student spend 30 seconds thinking deeply and in silence about someone in their caring circle, imagining that person and feeling warmth for them–a kiddie-light version of lovingkindness meditation .  And then, I will read them Enemy Pie , in which spending time with someone is enough to make an enemy a friend.  Week in and week out, we’ll work on our Empathy Tools.

I draft this post on Friday, and leave it just at the words above, trying to think about a personal connection I can make before I publish it–a way that what kids are learning in class translates into how we adults live our lives.  I think about a challenge a friend and I are having right now, with understanding one another and the choices that we make.  I think about the political sphere.  I think about my housing co-op.

And then, it is Saturday night, and I get on a subway to go to a party.

When the train stops at a station between two major cities, shots are fired within one of the cars.

Fifteen feet away from me, behind me and past sliding doors, a man dies, and another man jumps out and takes off running.  In my car, we don’t see all of this as it happens–I see the aftermath later.  But first, there are seven minutes when a handful of the people on my car scream and run, but the rest of us pull each other down to the ground, huddling below the seats, afraid that it is terrorism.  Only knowing that we live in a major urban center, that we are riding a major transit system, that this seemed exactly timed for when the doors were opening, and that the last time in our state that a gun made the news for firing in a crowded space, the gun didn’t stop firing until dozens were dead.

Minutes pass in near silence; I press my face against the bottom of the seat and don’t look up, breathing deliberately in and out, quietly repeating to myself the one word I use when I’m with a kid in absolute crisis.  Okay.  Okay.  Okay.  It’s okay, I am telling the kid when I do this–I see what you’re experiencing, and I don’t reject you for it.  It’s going to be okay, I am telling him–this is something we’ll manage together and then figure more things out.  I am giving myself a message here that is almost the same, but different.  This is happening right now, so it has to be okay.  This is happening right now, and soon, however it ends, it will be over.  I breathe, and I huddle, and I tell myself, okay.

And in the minutes between the first set of shots, and the second set that doesn’t come, there is time for me to do so many kinds of empathy–to care about others, to care about myself.  I think about whether there is anything I can do to be safer than I am, right now, and I realize that there isn’t, at this moment. If a gunman comes in here, I think…if a gunman comes in here and starts firing, I will gesture-prompt the people near me, and more than one of us can move at him, but right now, he’s not here, and I don’t want to move. I think of all the people I care about; I reach out to a few of them, quickly, by text. Two minutes pass and a few of us sit up.  There is suddenly more screaming; middle doors fly open and more people run through and we hit the ground again.  The person beside me whispers to ask if I am calling 911, and I shake my head–because first, it feels too vulnerable for me to put my hand up to my head and speak aloud in this train car, and second, I can’t imagine that 911 doesn’t already know.  That, I realize later, is an empathetic failure: I am so deeply in my own perspective, and the perspective of the others in this train car, that when the train operator’s voice comes over the loudspeaker minutes later, it utterly shocks me that he asks, ‘Did something happen?”  A couple brave people stand  up and move to the paging system, telling him that shots were fired, and another person says that he saw a man run, and gradually, as this conversation unfolds, as the person next to me stands up gingerly and walks to the next car over, I realize that it’s safe for me to sit up.

Eventually, the people in my car and I make our way downstairs, to the station gates.  They have closed, with all of us still in here; “It’s a crime scene”, says one traveller, and the station agent asks that witnesses come forward.  Behind me, two young men are milling in the crowd, speaking loudly.  One says to the other, “Man, we were in the wrong car.  We didn’t get to see anything.”  And I turn to that man as though he is Ezra, as though he is smirking with a card in his hand. “NO. A man is dead.  Another man killed him. Don’t say you are upset because you didn’t get to see that.”  I turn quickly away before I say anything else, before I let them see more than I need them to see of my anger.  I move past the bystanders who gave first aid and CPR even when they knew it was probably hopeless, past the people who looked out for other people on the train cars, past the people who are crying silently like I am as we walk.  Out of the station and into the night, onto a bus and towards people that I care about: the strangers from my train who are walking out with me stay close to me, and to each other, until we finally part ways.  Over the next several days, I will hold two ways of being in my opposite hands as I regather myself in the presence of my loved ones.  I will measure how brutal and disconnected the world seems right now against what these moments and their aftermath showed me about strong human connection–and how it seems most greatly needed precisely in the situations where it’s obviously not there.

“I care about others, I care about myself.”  Something to work on; a tool to keep using.

 

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FaceBlog With Picture: 1/06/2016

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Every time it rains heavily, our school playground floods, and there is a puddle 50 feet wide and three inches deep, separating the primary building from the upper building, cutting off access from cafeteria to bathrooms, making outside unsafe even after the rain stops. As I leave this evening, I see that the after school program teacher has the second graders experimenting with building little cork boats. This is who we are, in education. We can make any damn difficulty a teachable thing.

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Imagination

In Ms. Andrea’s 5th grade class, students are reading Home of the Brave, the story of a Sudanese boy who comes to Minnesota after he watches his father and brother die at the hands of government soldiers.  The writing is simple and gorgeous, told in Kek’s voice.  I take Ms. Andrea’s copy home Tuesday and read it in one sitting, turning pages stabbed with post-it flags where she will point something out as she reads it to the class.  One flag says “Write long”, and I am in the room when she leads them through this, inviting them to make their own connections to Kek’s musings as he sleeps in his aunt’s midwestern apartment.

‘You and I will sleep in the other room.  We’ll take turns on the sofa. You know you are welcome here,’ Ganwar says, but I cannot tell if he means his words.   It’s a strange pain to be with those you belong to, and feel you don’t belong.

The children share their own ideas—round-faced David talks about sometimes being chosen last for a sports team, Rachel observes that, “When there’s a new baby in the house, you don’t get as much attention.” Malaya’s journal is blank.  She says, “I don’t know.”  Day after day, I will use Home of the Brave to help her learn to make connections, to imagine, to bring her own mind towards the mind of someone else.   

Historically, we believed that children on the autism spectrum were simply, definitionally, incapable of making such inferential leaps; they were seen as inherently and always lacking in what psychologists label a ‘theory of mind.’  I love the words of Kamran Nazeer, the pen name for a man who was educated in a school for children with autism, expressing the firm belief that this idea is wrong.

…autistic children aren’t unique in lacking a theory of mind.  Everyone lacks a theory of mind to begin with…Everyone needs to learn to read other minds….Looking back on it, this was the major premise in the proposition that our school was running.  The teachers didn’t believe that we lacked the ability to understand the possibility of or content of other minds, only that we needed to develop it, as all children do, and that, for us, that process was going to be harder, deliver later results, and we were going to require more guidance.

More guidance.  I pull Malaya and a classmate with similar challenges for ten minutes, every day that Home of the Brave is read aloud in class.  We work, painstakingly, to get past “I don’t know” and towards “Maybe I wonder”.  Malaya’s character maps start out stark and simple, with everyone initially described as simply ‘nice’.  Ganwar the embittered teenager with his missing left hand, Hannah the open-hearted foster child who has her own stories of loss,  Dave the aid worker, Kek’s sad-eyed aunt Nyatal. As students move through the grades, narrative fiction becomes increasingly real in its characters and plots: there are no bad guys depicted here.  Everyone is, truly, more or less ‘nice’, but there are shades of meaning and pathos and depth beneath that surface, revealed in gestures as small as the aid worker looking at his shoes, as large as Kek suddenly weeping in a midwestern supermarket.  The author never directly connects his outburst with the story he tells next, about watching a sick baby die in the camp; when we get to that part, I will make it explicit.  There’s more than enough for us here; there’s more food in a supermarket than Kek ever thought he’d see.  Where Kek came from, there wasn’t enough.  People died because of that, and Kek cries because he remembers that.  He cries because the dead people didn’t have this food.

I show Malaya photos of the Sudanese refugee camps, to help her understand the extent of what Kek has experienced.   I  show her photos of a Nuer family, with the children smiling in their parents’ arms, initially because I don’t want her to think of Africa as a place of mere desolation.  I realize, seeing the picture as I project it for her, that this is actually more heartbreaking than seeing just the camps, because if she’s able to connect things, she will realize that families just like that one have been severed by violence—that if this was Kek’s family, two would be killed.  She doesn’t connect it.  I don’t force the issue.

Malaya’s fundamental problem is that she imagines too little.  And I see that playing out for me in heartbreaking ways, with the refugee crisis at boiling point in Europe.  A picture goes viral on social media: the drowned body of a Syrian toddler with neatly fastened shoes.  For months, spoken and written pleas for action have met with little response; today every word that has been summoned to spark the world’s consciousness stands off to the side of this one damning photo, and everyone is looking. If describing isn’t enough, you can use visual aids.

My students disengage because they’re imagining too little.  And, while I know it’s an oversimplification of a heartbreakingly complex topic, I think there is a bit of that happening outside the classroom, in the places where decisions are made that led, directly and indirectly, to the children on the beach and the families at the train stations and the walls being built to turn them away.   A weak imagination can shield us, too effectively, from the suffering of others we don’t understand, as when the Slovakian government recently, grudgingly, offered to take in 200 Syrian migrants–as long as they could hand-pick the Christians.  A strong imagination can move us to act, like the Icelanders who countered their government’s proposal of 50 slots for refugees with specific ideas to increase the support. “I would like to help: I have clothing, kitchenware, bed and a room in Hvanneyri, which I am happy to share with Syrians.”  As humans, we learn, and we can act on our learning;  in the days immediately after the publication of the photo, an online petition to UK Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the crisis went from 40,000 signatures to over 300,000.

But there is also the opposite problem, of imagining too much.  I see a twisted version of that in the lurid headlines of British tabloids, decrying the flood of suffering humanity as a “swarm” of potential terrorists.   I see it in the hyperbolic vitriol of human hairpiece  serious Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who states that immigration is “killing our country” by flooding it with rapists.  And I struggle myself with another excess of imagination, that makes me turn away from the photos because I cannot.stop.seeing.them, that makes me disengage from the pain because I feel it too intensely.   “I unfollowed Daniel’s feed today”, my friend tells me, speaking of a mutual friend who uses social media to spread his concerns about multiple key issues, both at home and abroad.  I respond quite sincerely that a part of me thinks it’s better to unfollow the whole Internet.

Imagination is dangerous, both in scarcity and excess.  And it is never enough, to merely imagine.  Sometimes, when I look at the tasks in front of me as one person and one teacher, and then I look past myself to the tasks in front of all of us in this interconnected and deeply broken world, it feels like nothing will ever be enough.  Nothing can be enough, because everything’s too much.  Kek, who has climbed up into a tree in a Minnesota farm field for reasons I’ll need to explain simply to Malaya, expresses a pain that is his in its particulars, but universal in its reach.  I sigh.  There are too many hard things.

But like Kek, like the Icelanders, and tragically, like the Turkish police officer who cradled Aylan Kurdi’s small body and brought it in from the sea, we are all able to start with small, tangible actions.  Home of the Brave ends with an epilogue reuniting Kek with his mother “15 months later”, but the climatic point of the story is when he and Hannah bring a decrepit old cow to a petting zoo, unasked, because a neighbor has to sell the deed to her farm. He has named the cow Gol, from the Nuer word for “family”; the local police, called to deal with the issue of a cow on the freeway, escort them to the ticket booth and help convince the employees that Gol should be let in.  Hannah kisses Gol and Ganwar pats her flank and I stroke her neck and whisper in her ear and then off she goes to her new land to begin again.  Even the smallest act can have a significance that goes beyond itself.

Today, there are children beyond everyone’s help.  But there is still something to be done, everywhere and always, for our own sense of humanity and for the children that remain.  I make a small donation to an organization that helps refugees and others in conflict zones.  And I continue working with Malaya and others–students, teachers, families, peers–trying to build their understandings of people whose realities differ greatly from their own. Teaching others to imagine.  And imagining, myself.

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Destiny

I am working with Jonathan on his Mountain Lion essay.  It has, per classroom instructions, an introductory paragraph and three additional paragraphs.  What they eat, where they live, and… “Destiny?” “Destiny.  Destiny is very important.  All characters have a destiny. Sometimes, it’s about what your name means.  So, for my third paragraph, I want to talk about destiny for mountain lions.”  I remember that the class has been reading Leisl Shurtliff’s Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin, which is set ‘in a magic kingdom where your name is your destiny’.  The class had also dug deep into fairytales and folktales before this current assignment hit the inbox, and Jonathan, like many learners on the spectrum, is not always able to shift gears very fast. Okay then.  Destiny.  I’ve cleared it with his classroom teacher, who was hoping for a paragraph on conservation issues but believes, poetically, that we might be able to get exactly there from here.  I try to help Jonathan flesh out his understanding, and thus, his third paragraph.  “Destiny is what you’re meant to be, what you’re meant to do.  So, what do you think a mountain lion is meant to do?” Jonathan’s brow furrows as he reviews his paragraph about what mountain lions eat.  “They’re meant to hunt.  And eat meat.  Maybe even people.  Oh no.  The destiny of a mountain lion is to eat all the people.” Ever the optimist, he tries to reframe.  “Maybe, maybe the destiny of a mountain lion could be to be friends with people.” We work on it for awhile, trying to hit a nuanced place between two exaggerated impossible futures, trying to satisfy the classroom teacher’s intentions while still honoring Jonathan’s interpretation of what’s important to know and write about.   “In a fiction story, you could make the mountain lions all be friends with people.  And actually, in a fiction story, you could make the mountain lions villains, and have them decide that they want to hunt all the people and eat them.  But Jonathan, if this is a research-based essay, you’ve learned some important, true things about mountain lions.  They aren’t tame, are they?  They don’t want to be close to people.”  Jonathan nods.  “It wouldn’t be realistic to give them a destiny as pets, or friends, I don’t think.  It wouldn’t be likely to really happen in the world, for all of the mountain lions.  And..you researched what they eat, right?  Are people at the top of that list?” It was a rhetorical question, because I’d just finished helping him massage THAT paragraph beyond “They eat meat”.  First, we generated a long list of all the animals mountain lions could conceivably devour, and then we did the thing that Jonathan will need to do for at least the next ten years of his life: stretch it out to fill up the page.  We made one sentence to cover small/medium animals, and one completely different sentence for medium/large animals.  At times, I strongly dislike the five-paragraph essay–especially when paragraph two really doesn’t have enough to stand on its own, but every new topic must be its own paragraph. People had actually not appeared in any of the requisite three sentences for Mountain Lion Diet Paragraph. “So, it’s not going to be their destiny to eat all the people, either.  I wonder…maybe there could be something kind of in the middle.  Where the mountain lions are around, and the people are, too, and it works out for everybody.” With a bit more, um, indirect verbal prompting, Jonathan finishes his Destiny paragraph, hitting all the key points for mountain lion conservation and staying well within the boundaries of informational text.  Before, um, going on to take me at my word and construct a bonus Folktale, in which the mountain lions did, in fact, slaughter hundreds of the soldiers of the Wealthy Evil Prince.  Leading to another serious of mini conferences conducted through Google Docs, in which the classroom teacher begged Jonathan to consider a way for the mountain lions to solve their problem “without so much killing”, Jonathan responded that “sorry, the mountain lions have very sharp teeth and no jail”, and I pointed out that a crucial element of most Folktales is the hero learning to wield tremendous power with responsibility and discretion. My destiny as a teacher will never be a dull one.

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