My Happy Place

For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place.  This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners.  The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I’d made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide “authentic” opportunities for learning for students.

Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!

Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!

https://longislandwritingproject.weebly.com/saturday-series-2017-2018.html

As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today’s  gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island.  It is a  local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at  the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local  sites spread throughout the 50 states.  The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.

https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/about.csp

I  have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I’ve been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests.  As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment,  I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.

Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically address the academic needs of English Language Learners,  here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I’ve ever attended.  Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their “takes” on the topic.

Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.

I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to  benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator.  The conversation goes on…over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in.  I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they  devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities.  They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.

There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.

A Wedding Lures Us to Revisit Philadelphia

Philadelphia (/ˌfɪləˈdɛlfiə/) is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the fifth-most populous in the United States, with an estimated population in 2014 of 1,560,297.[6][7][8][9][10] In the Northeastern United States, at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, Philadelphia is the economic and cultural anchor of the Delaware Valley, a metropolitan area home to 7.2 million people and the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

In 1682, William Penn founded the city to serve as capital of the Pennsylvania Colony.[11] Philadelphia played an instrumental role in the American Revolution as a meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787. Philadelphia was one of the nation’s capitals in the Revolutionary War, and served as temporary U.S. capital while Washington, D.C., was under construction. In the 19th century, Philadelphia became a major industrial center and railroad hub that grew from an influx of European immigrants. It became a prime destination for African-Americans in the Great Migration and surpassed two million occupants by 1950.

Wikipedia

I admit to feeling that as U.S. cities go, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. are hard to beat. But I have learned through traveling in the U.S. in recent decades that some of the “lesser” cities have enough charm to entice me to want to revisit them. A nephew’s wedding brought us to Philadelphia this past weekend. We first visited Philly with our young children about 25-30 years ago. I have very vague memories of seeing the Liberty Bell and a village-like concentration of historical buildings. With half a day to ourselves before the actual wedding event, we set out to reacquaint ourselves with the city.

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Our first stop was Reading Terminal Market, a food mecca; our mission was to get breakfast at the Pennsylvania Dutch nook. As we stepped into the market, we joined a crush of humanity and soon found our destination.

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After a short wait on line, lovely, wholesome-looking young ladies dressed in Amish headgear and aprons served us heaping platters of eggs and turkey bacon, and their specialty, cinnamon french toast. For four people breakfast was $35…a bargain by NYC standards. We left smiling and well fortified for our walk through the city.

My first glimpse of the city as we emerged from the hotel was City Hall with a statue of William Penn atop its dome. Penn and other statues appear to be almost black, in sharp contrast to the whiteness of the building. They loom over the city in Gothic splendor.

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We then walked along Chestnut St. to the Old City. Our plan was nothing more than to take in the sights and sounds of a city that is relatively unknown to us. Almost everywhere we looked, buildings were embellished with lovely architectural details of a bygone era. One had only to look above the street level of most shops to find exquisite statuary, intricately carved mantels and cornices, and even elegantly crafted fire escapes. Philly has somehow managed to preserve these details that have become more and more difficult to find in NY. As for the new, I especially loved the bus stops; each one unique in its theme of wrought iron and stained glass. A city that takes the trouble to make the lives of its daily commuters more pleasurable is a city I could love.

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We did not visit the actual Liberty Bell; the line was much too long. But we did go to the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park and stayed to watch two short films about the history of the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the American Revolution. Every American is advised to take the time and trouble to revisit the birthplace of our nation in this welcoming city. Jaded by the year-long catastrophe that has been our Presidential campaign, it was refreshing to be reminded of the higher principles that govern our nation and the enlightened people who supported them.

Wandering around the Old City, we soaked up the loveliness of the original buildings of that era and appreciated how, within an area of several square blocks, so much of our history is anchored here and is still so well preserved. The neighborhood reminded us of our walks around Georgetown, D.C. for its loveliness and as a welcoming space to stroll and ponder our past in the heart of this great city.

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Having taken ill after the wedding, I missed out on the bagel breakfast the next morning, followed by a walk my family members took in the Rittenhouse Square District and along the banks of the Schuylkill River near the University of Pennsylvania. My husband told me that he, again, felt a similarity to Georgetown walking through these neighborhoods.

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As in many cities experiencing a renaissance in America, there is a lot of construction going on in downtown Philadelphia. And, yes, that is mostly for new residential towers and skyscrapers. There is definitely a hum of energy and revitalization throughout the city. There is also a wonderful melange of ethnicities on the streets and in the popular venues of Philadelphia. I know that the city is not without its own racial issues; but in the shared streets of City Centre, diversity is present and only adds to the cache of the city. Oh, and did I mention that Philly appears to be packed with younger people, lending it a vitality that will ensure its continued growth and prosperity.

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As we left the city midday on Sunday, each of us shared our mostly favorable impressions of Philadelphia, and as well as the desire to return to discover more. With the young newlyweds, both of whom are beginning their lives as attorneys, putting down roots in this historical city, there are now many reasons to return and learn more about the birthplace of our nation which appears to be enjoying its own remarkable rebirth.

Why We Should Encourage Curiosity: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

A week ago, August 24th to be exact, I came upon this quote embedded in an editorial entitled The Case For Teaching Ignorance by Jamie Holmes in the NY Times:

“…in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.”

I couldn’t help but think of the recent Fox News TV debate by the odd assortment of Republican candidates for the Presidency. What I saw and heard, in addition to blustery Donald Trump, was a bunch of men making declarative, sweeping generalizations about their positions on various matters that were often ridiculous. It seemed they were trying to make their positions clear to the American people in the hope of becoming the favored candidate.

This kind of mano a mano debate leaves everyone dissatisfied. How can a few targeted, and sometimes loaded, questions responded to with truncated air-bites by the candidates give us the information we need for carefully choosing a new President? The process has almost become a parody of itself.

Many would agree that uncertainty is where we live at this point in time in the United States (and perhaps the world at large). We no longer have all the answers…that has become abundantly clear. Our Middle-East policies have failed, our financial institutions are failing working Americans, our education system is in turmoil, our medical system is in a state of constant flux. So how can a bunch of self-proclaimed experts on tv claim to have all the answers?

One of the few changes that I do support in the Common Core is the renewed emphasis on teaching students to ask meaningful questions in their quest for knowledge. Not only do I believe students need to be encouraged to ask more and better questions, I also believe that teachers need to become facilitators for seeking knowledge rather than experts.

“The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline–where knowledge meets ignorance extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Children are naturally curious and we ought to be focusing on deveoping their passionate minds. Before retirement, one of my favorite (albeit old-school) ways of beginning a new unit of study was to use a K/W/L chart. This consists of hanging up a large piece of chart paper on a wall or easel with three columns entitled What do you KNOW (about the subject); What do you WANT to know; and What have you LEARNED (as a result of the lesson). I am always very interested in the middle column, which becomes a list of the students’ questions, because it is that list that will drive our inquiry process.

Once we agree on what we collectively know as a class and record that information in the first column of the chart, I allow students to choose a question from the list of questions in the middle column that they can research alone or with a partner or small group. Becoming invested in seeking answers is what helps students dig deeper for information (another appealing Common Core principle ) and “own” what they discover. This process is so much more thought provoking and motivating than having me spoonfeed them everything I think they need to know.

It would have been so refreshing to see anyone on stage during the Republican debate not pretend to know all the answers but to pause and ask some questions of his own that might have helped reframe the debate into a more meaningful exercise for the American people. This would have taken courage, but isn’t that a quality we are seeking in a President?

“Our students will be more curious–and more intelligently so–if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.” Let’s help our students to realize that it’s ok to ask thoughtful questions; to not know all the answers; to understand that knowledge changes over time; to learn that seeking knowledge is most of the fun. If you get a chance to read the Times article, you may find yourself questioning, as I did, your own model for teaching and, perhaps, how we run our political campaigns.

Addendum: One of my heroes, Oliver Sacks, about whom I recently wrote on this blog, died this past weekend. In a feature written by Gregory Cowles in Monday’s NY Times, Dr. Sacks, reflecting on his youth, is quoted:

“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child…were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head.) I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”

Thank you for sharing your deep curiosity about life. Rest in peace, Dr. Sacks.