Wednesday, October 08, 2008


The most sentimental object I own now belongs to a two-year-old who is fated to destroy it. When I was six, my mother took me to see Donald Crews read aloud this book, Freight Train. I don't remember much--just standing in the back of a large room listening to a man with a powerful voice cast a spell over us all. Then I remember a long staircase and a man who signed a book in my name. My mother told me, "This is special," and it was.

Two years ago, my dad packed up all the books we'd had as children and mailed them out to California. I sorted through them all, threw away the ones too mangled or ripped, and gave the rest to my kids. Among those, they have chosen their favorites, the ones they reach to night after night for a bedtime story. My son chose Freight Train.

After one particularly sentimental bedtime ritual, I decided to track down Mr. Donald Crews and tell him the story of how I received this book and now read it aloud to my son. To my amazement, the publisher really did forward it on to the author, and Mr. Crews wrote back.

Dear Jessica,

Thank for your nice note referencing a long ago
meeting. It's nice to know it had and continues
to have value for you and your son.

Send it to me and I'll sign or additionally
dedicate it for your son.


Donald Crews

I haven't taken him up on his offer, yet, but I am deeply touched.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Reflections: Look

L wrote her first word today, all on her own. The word was "look." I am so inspired by this wonderful little girl.

She went back to the table and got to work writing all the names of her family and best friends. A few moments later, I saw that her letters were perfectly formed in mirror reflections of their actual shapes. Before freaking out that she was some kind of idiot-savant (ok, while freaking out but before saying anything), I googled it and found this is very common. Lefties go through this stage even more frequently. Good to know--nothing wrong with a little reflection.

Today I was asked to give a one minute speech about what I teach and why I teach. (I'm participating in a three-day training about how to improve school climate and reach our students better.) I thought about it a lot during the four minutes of break-time I had to prepare. By the time the dreaded one-minute window was up, and my ideas had petered out into the silent crowd, it occurred to me that I never mentioned "English." This is what I talked about instead:

I teach to learn. I chose a profession in which I, too, could learn a lot. I blame this on my fifth grade teacher who said that even though she's been teaching for decades, she always learns something new every day. We were all skeptical, but she persuaded us that she learns about her students, she learns about people, she learns about education, and she learns new perspectives even on the subjects she teaches. So I decided to go into education because I wanted a challenge and I wanted to learn every day. I also teach my students to learn. I believe fundamentally in every student's burning desire to know. They may not want to know how to write a research paper or how to make sense of the ending in Of Mice and Men, but they do want to know about something. Maybe it's about other cultures, other languages, other careers. They want to know how to read instruction manuals for computer applications and video game walkthroughs. I want to teach them the skills to find their own way. I want them to be able to use writing to pursue their own goals and dreams and careers, and to see reading as an opportunity to research their own interests with a discerning eye for what is credible and what is not. I want them to learn to ask good questions and to know where to look for information and how to synthesize the answers. That's why I teach and what I teach. To learn.

It feels good to know that I've answered those questions for myself, and moreover that I am satisfied with the answer. It feels good to be assured in the what and the why, so I can concentrate on all the dirty work in the how.

Tonight I skimmed through a few old posts about teaching. I have learned so much--including how much I really don't know. A colleague quips that teachers go through four stages in their development: conscious incompetence, unconscious incompetence, unconscious incompetence, and conscious competence.

Even more than my own growth, I am re-energized by the stories of former students, parents and colleagues. I look forward to the next ones, and I continue to look within for improvement. Look.