Data Collection

Today, February 4th, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Balancing my old, green suitcase next to me, I scanned my surroundings.  A restroom must be nearby, I thought to myself.  As fate would have it, my search didn’t last long.  Across from Starbuck’s, I spotted the sign.

Wading through dupattas, yarmulkes, turbans, baseball caps, men, women, and children – the sea of diversity that is Newark Liberty International Airport – I finally arrived at my temporary destination.

Once inside, I saw it.  It was located just above the automatic hand dryer.  The sign read, “How was your experience?”  Just beneath this question were three round buttons: happy face (green), ambivalent face (yellow), and sad face (red).  Data, I thought.  They’re collecting data on . . . the cleanliness of the airport restroom? That was my best guess, anyway.

Immediately, I thought about the people who actually do the work of maintaining restroom facilities in an airport.  How hard they must work.  And I thought about those collecting and analyzing the performance data being collected on airline customers.  Of course, concurrently this made me think about the current state of affairs in public schools, how we as teachers are constantly being asked to collect data on our students. And I get it.  John Hattie says, “Know they impact.”  It makes sense.  We do need to know where are students are in relation to visions of high level work.

But I worry sometimes.  Like the restroom smiley and sad faces, have we gone too far?  Could someone lose their job if too many sad faces are pushed?  Has all this data collection removed some of the humanity we once enjoyed?

I pulled my hands from beneath the dryer and pushed the green button.  Who knows, maybe I helped somebody out that day.

The Photo

Today, January 7th, 2020, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

I pulled the dusty white box from the shelf and lifted the lid.  “That lesson plan has got to be in here,” I thought to myself.  Expecting to find just file folders filled with old poetry lessons, I also discovered a small, faded manila envelope with my name written on the outside.  Curious now, I carefully pulled out the contents of the envelope. As I did so, I felt myself launched down a path of my teaching past.

In my hands, I held old name badges from previous schools, cards from colleagues thanking me for things I no longer remembered doing.  And then suddenly I felt the corners of my mouth turning upward in a smile as I came to a new item: a photo.  There it was.  I remembered it- me, nearly twenty years ago. In my white shirt and tie.  Smiling. Next to me was my old teaching partner, Amanda. In her black dress. Smiling.  Like me, Amanda was a teacher and a professional musician, as well.  As I held the photo, I remembered the first time my wife and I had visited her house; since Amanda didn’t own a piano, I had tried to play an accordion while she passionately bowed the strings of her viola.  I also remembered the teaching stations we had designed together at school to help middle school kids learn about the Holocaust.  I remembered the many laughs, the many tears.  And I remembered the fact that it has now probably been more than ten years since we have spoken.

Sitting alone in my classroom, I wondered how time can speed by so quickly? I wondered how it is possible to lose touch with someone we once found so dear to us?  How can that happen? How is that possible?

Removing my phone from my pocket, I snapped a quick shot of the photo and tucked it back inside the envelope.  I texted the photo to the number I had for Amanda.  Perhaps she’ll remember it, too? I wondered.

She did.

Lanny’s One Little Word for 2020

One of my great mentors once taught me that a significant difference exists between trying to fix something perceived as “wrong” in life versus living into a possibility. These are two separate ways of being in the world.

In contemplating a choice for my one little word this year – 2020 – I have spent a lot of time thinking about this important distinction.  The first way of being- attempting to right or fix a “wrong” – typically results in the constitution of thoughts that look, sound, and feel like strategies, defenses, or plots.  And although strategies, defenses, and plots can all produce desirable results – absolutely! – they are also ways of being that tend to lack such qualities as freedom, joy, and affinity for life.

So as I have considered a word to, in the words of Ali Edwards, focus on, live with, write about, craft with, and reflect upon for the new year and dawning decade, I have thought a great deal more about a word that could function more as a “North Star”, and less as a “how-to” guide.  For I wholeheartedly believe when we devote ourselves to living into the possibility a word can offer, we are more free; we are free to pursue life in ways that can truly light us up.  This is distinct from working to right something we have deemed to be “wrong” in our lives or “fixing” something (although there is definite value in this).

With this thinking in mind, I have chosen BALANCE to be my one little word for 2020.

As I have alluded to earlier here, I have selected this word not because of what is wrong, but rather because of what this word offers in terms of possibility.

What comes to mind when thinking about BALANCE?  A few contexts jump to my mind, and I will share a few of them here:

  • Balance, as on a bike:  Although decades now separate me from the experience of attaining balance atop a bicycle for the first time, I shall never forget it. It wasn’t easy.  It required hard work, perseverance, and focus…as well as support from others.  And it required a belief that I could do it.  But once I attained it, my gosh!  The thrill and the freedom I suddenly felt… so great! In choosing BALANCE this year, I plan to focus on and remember the sheer joy that can become possible when hard work and focus are combined to reach a goal.
  • Balance, as in a diet: It is common wisdom that in order to function effectively, our bodies need a well-balanced diet.  Working to get back to this principle in the coming year I know holds great possibility for increasing my energy levels, performance, and overall physical and mental health.
  • Balance, as in work life and home life: As a literacy specialist, I love the work I do with teachers and kids.  I also love my beautiful family.  In choosing BALANCE as my one little word this year, I am really taking a stand for a robust and heartening life in both of these areas.

It is hard for me to believe we are entering a new decade. I am sure many of us are feeling similarly.  I mean… 2020, really?!  It boggles the mind.  But I feel confident that BALANCE will be a supportive word this year, especially as I work to remain steadfast in my beliefs around ways to make a difference in the world.

To all of you who have taken some of your valuable time to read this post, allow me to express my gratitude to you.  May this year be one that holds great wonder, love, and possibility for you.  Happy New Year!


Bean with Bacon Soup

Today, December 17th, 2019, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’ Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Gently pushing the spoon down along the inside of the white porcelain mug, I scoop a small pile of warm beans.  Quietly enjoying a simple lunch on the couch, I suddenly feel myself transported back to my mother’s kitchen. Bean with Bacon soup.  Campbell’s.  Out of the can.  I remember.

So good.

Funny how some foods can bring us back to times gone by.  As I place the warm, white pinto beans into my mouth – no, I am not actually eating Bean with Bacon soup – I suddenly taste the comfort, the warmth, the love my mom used to infuse into all of our lives.

This will be the third holiday season we have lived without my mom.  And like many of us who have suffered great loss in our lives, I feel the hole especially strongly around this time of year.  It’s a chasm, really.  There will be no plans made to pick her up at the airport. No home-made Christmas clothing arriving for my little girls.  No puzzles or singing with Tutu (as she liked to be called).  No, this year – like the last two – we will celebrate without her thoughtful presents, nor her beautiful presence.

But the Bean with Bacon soup helps. Well, the memory of it, anyway.  Somehow it helps to remember that she was here, I think.  Setting the spoon down, I look around my living room.  A picture of her with the girls rests in a black frame on the book shelf.  On the piano, a photo with her and Lexi sits behind the music rack.  On the floor, some toys she sent years ago lay scattered beneath the coffee table.  And thanks to the small porcelain bowl in front of me, the memory of my mom has come flooding back. So I smile.

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The Tree

Today, November 26th, 2019, I’m participating in Two Writing Teachers’s Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge.

Gazing out the window, I spotted the small, scrubby tree on the hillside.  But then the train crossed a metallic bridge, and the tree disappeared from sight.  Returning from the incredible NCTE conference on Sunday, I found myself identifying with that tree.  Trees grow.  And I had grown.

One of my favorite authors, Donna Santman, once taught me that if at the end of a conversation we are thinking more, thinking differently, or have more words to say about what we thought already, then that conversation was good.  NCTE 2019 had felt like a conversation.  A conversation about equity, about inquiry, about representation.  And about growth.

Staring out the window, I felt like I had outgrown myself. Which felt good.  And fleetingly, I wondered if trees ever felt good when they grow.  Maybe not.

Unless they’re a Wishtree.

I thought about the insignificance of the tree.  After all, it was only one tree on one hillside.  And not that big or remarkable.  Among 8,000 teachers this weekend, I felt that way.  A little.  There were so many larger, more remarkable and knowledgeable trees there.  But then I thought, ‘I’ll bet that little tree might host a nest in its branches someday.  Or maybe it will help someone to think something important.  And those two things alone could make a difference in the world in some way, for some reason.’

Chuckling to myself in my gray Amtrak seat, I realized… well, that had just happened to me.  Hadn’t it?  Not the nest.  But the thought.  I also realized that even small trees like me can make a difference, too.  And that should be what life’s about.

Shouldn’t it?

A Rich Reading Life

I am participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge today, November 12th, 2019.

“Time for lights out, honey,” I whispered to my oldest daughter, now ten years-old.  I could see that the pale light emanating from her flashlight was now luminescing the room beyond her bedtime.

“Aww, Papa…but I only have four chapters to go.”  Her words were more a question than a statement.  A veiled request for more reading time.  Although for the sake of her rest and cognitive regeneration I should have insisted she extinguish the light and go to sleep…I didn’t. I relented.

So the light stayed on.

Exiting the room, I found myself thinking about something author and keynote speaker Stephanie Harvey said last week at the Connecticut Reading Association Conference: “All readers deserve a rich reading life.”  I would venture to say refusing to turn out the light so that the last few chapters of Louisiana’s Way Home may be read by flashlight is perhaps the mark of a rich reading life; a mark for which I, of course, feel great pride.  But I worry about all the kids for whom the joy of a rich reading life has not yet been their reality.  The kids for whom that light is not yet lit.  And I worry about what Maryanne Wolf has written about in her book, Reader Come Home (2018) in regards to readers growing up in this digital age.  In discussing the dearth of research conducted around the formation of the reading brain “while immersed in a digitally dominated medium,” she writes, “There will be profound differences in how we read and how we think depending on which processes dominate the formation of the young child’s reading circuit” (p. 8).

But I suppose this worry gives meaning to the mission of a Literacy Specialist.  How can we ignite the light inside all children? I wonder. I travel to work each day with this question before me, knowing it is not an easy one to answer.  But nonetheless a worthy mission to pursue.

I’ll also travel today knowing the light for my own child still shines brightly.  And that’s something.

Kids Say the Darndest Things…

Closing the front door behind me, I breathed a silent sigh. I had reached the end of my workday.  From the kitchen, I could hear the voices of my wife and youngest daughter wafting into the entryway in which I stood.  Quickly, I removed my shoes, hung my coat in the closet, and shuffled into the kitchen.  With my oldest daughters not home from school just yet, I wanted to soak up a few minutes with just my youngest (now 3.5 years old).

“Hey, baby!” I chirped happily.  Leaning against our kitchen counters, my wife held our sweet cherub in her arms.  I thought about how sweet and innocent my little one looked.  “How was school today?” I asked, kissing the top of her head.

With deadpan seriousness, she responded, “Mark and Chris said ‘sh–‘ today.”

Wait, what did she just say? Did I hear that correctly? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did, I thought.  The digraph and closed syllable were quite clear. My wife and I made eye contact, and I could spot the laughter welling up in her visage.  I felt it, too. Contain it, I thought. Remain calm.

Then it came again, “Yeah, Mark and Chris said ‘sh–‘.”  Again, clear as a bell.

My mind raced, working to form a response.  I needed to strike a tone of casual disdain for such language used in preschool, but not overreact.  So, “Oh my gosh!  You’re kidding?!  That’s terrible!” was definitely out.  I couldn’t say that.  I also found myself desperately fighting the urge to laugh hysterically, which could send another unintended message that swearing is funny.  Couldn’t do that either.

“Hmm…” I said.

* The names of the pre-school offenders have been changed in this story to protect the innocent.