Learning to Learn

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. Sunday’s Humans of New York was a young man talking about a teacher who changed his life. It’s a beautiful story. I’m sure many people have great stories like that: a teacher who made the difference in their ability to process information, see themselves more clearly, envision possibilities for their future that were well beyond what seemed expected or obvious. I have a couple of stories like that, too.

I also think about the people who’ve had not a singe positive experience of education, not a single teacher who cared enough about them to be that one beautiful story. I think about the poet I studied with freshman year of college who regularly belittled us. She told me I was a greeting card poet. She asked us to critique a Roethke poem and then told us we didn’t have the writing talent to be allowed any opinions about Roethke’s writing. Sigh.

But this is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m going to set those unfortunate stories aside. Who have been the stand-out teachers in my life?

The first answer to that question is easy: Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, my third grade teachers. They co-taught the experimental class I was lucky enough to be placed in. We had lots of options for learning through lay, for self-directed learning, for small-group activities. Our classroom was the school’s old cafeteria, so it was huge. We had stations all over the space — with books, with toys, with tools, with animals (which I enjoyed until I was bitten by the gerbil) with big floor pillows.

I’d worked with Miss Rittenberg before that year. In first grade, I’d been sent to study reading in her second grade class because at that point I’d been a reader for almost three years and many of my classmates were newer readers. And then she was my second grade teacher. So I got the wonderful experience of working with the same good teacher three years in a row. She knew me, knew how I learned and what I liked and how to draw me out of my painfully shy silence. Such an incredible luxury, finding a teacher who liked me, saw potential in me, encouraged me, knew how to support and inspire me … and then to have that teacher year after year.

loved my third grad class. I loved the non-traditional shape, size, and set-up of the room. I loved my teachers. I loved the freedom I felt in that class. I’m sure I wouldn’t have known to describe it that way, but that’s the overarching color of all my memories of third grade: I was free, I was in charge of … my brain, I guess. I wasn’t being pushed to do what everyone else was doing, I could move ahead in a book or stay behind to repeat something over and over if I wanted to. Freedom.

To this day, my favorite way to learn things is like third grade. I never had another learning environment like that, but it has been at the base of my thoughts about education ever since. When I read Mosaic of Thought in the late 90s, I was far from third grade. I was already an adult education teacher, working with emerging readers, adults reading between first and third grade level. I spent a lot of my time back then trying to remember how I’d learned to read, trying to remember how I’d learned to read for meaning. Though it wasn’t really the answer to those questions, one of the first things I thought about was being sent to Miss Rittenberg’s class as a first grader, being given the chance to read closer to my level rather than being made to wait for my classmates. And that wasn’t not about learning to read but was about facilitating learning, about acknowledging that people take-in information differently and that it’s possible to meet learners where they are and encourage them to keep pushing forward. I remembered how good it felt to not be held back, how good it felt to discover books.

Reading Mosaic was an incredible gift for me as a teacher. The book resonated with me on so many levels. The description of the ways to help learners come to reading, come to books, felt entirely familiar, felt like third grade. I didn’t know how those ideas of teaching would translate to the adult classroom, but I was instantly ready to try. (And so, happily, was my teaching partner and our bosses.)

Some things were definitely not going to be transferable. I wasn’t going to hold a student on my lap during reading time, for example! But there was so much to think about in the “simple” question of how to we become skilled, thoughtful readers?” And again I thought about third grade. What I remembered from my experience in Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa’s classroom was part of what I was trying to create in my adult literacy classroom.

Almost immediately after I started blogging in 2008, I stumbled onto Two Writing Teachers. The creators of the site — Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayers — taught children, not adults. Reading their posts, I quickly realized they were my modern day Rittenberg and Felepa, that their ideas about teaching connected with my Utopian memories of third grade. Amy of the teachers whose blogs I’ve read as a result of finding TWT have given me that same vibe.

Third grade shaped the way I envision classroom learning, and that’s huge, but it’s not the only thing I got from that year. I think it set me up for trusting my own mind. A lot of the learning I did in that classroom centered around things I chose to work on, things I chose to explore. I have no memory of anyone ever telling me there was one clear “right” way to do the work or find the answer.

After third grade, I was shoehorned into an uber-old-school classroom with a teacher who was nothing like my third grade teachers. We had moved to a new town and I didn’t know anyone. We knew nothing about my new school, so my parents couldn’t advocate for my placement in a classroom that might have suited me better (which is probably how I wound up in that experimental classroom in the first place … and, too, I doubt my new school had any classes that resembled third grade even vaguely).

“Freedom” was definitely not a way I have described fourth grade … or fifth or sixth or seventh … All the same, I made it through with my dream of third grade in tact. I made it through with my understanding that learning could happen in a lot of ways, not just with the teacher standing in front of the classroom telling us what to know and how to know it.

I was a weirdo in a lot of those classrooms, letting my third grade brain show out in some of the projects I created or the work I turned in. For the most part, my “weirdness” was tolerated, though sometimes only barely, and I was allowed to keep moving forward.

The things I learned about learning and about my own ability to think was made strong enough by what I experienced in third grade that it was able to survive the rejection of independent thought, self-direction, and creativity that I faced in the classrooms that followed.

I stayed shy and meek, and in some ways those traits gave cover to my weirdness. My thinking and learning were mostly silent endeavors. I looked studious, and I was, just not always in the ways my teachers might have imagined. And looking the part could be enough for teachers who weren’t interested in investing too much time or energy in their students — or, as the case sometimes was, in me specifically as the lone Black child in the sea of white children who “belonged” in the room.

So I’m kicking off Teacher Appreciation wee with a hearty thank you to the first teachers I ever had (outside my family) who saw and cared about me, who helped me start learning how to learn. Miss Rittenberg and Miss Felepa, I honestly can’t imagine who I would be — as a person or an educator — without you. Thank you.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Our Lives Hold No Value

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Korryn Gaines. Say her name.

Is there still any question
that our lives hold no value to the police?
At moments like this,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.

Our lives hold no value to the police.
Gaines son, five years old,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.

Gaines’ little boy, only five years old,
saw police kill his mother, saw them try to kill him.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.
His presence didn’t impact their decision to go in shooting.

He saw police kill his mother, try to kill him.
What his mother told him about the police proved true.
His presence didn’t impact officers’ decision to go in shooting.
Our lives hold no value to the police.

What Korryn Gaines said about the police proved true.
They took her ability to broadcast, then killed her in secret.
Our lives hold no value to the police,
they were determined to gun Gaines down.

Police took Gaines’ on-air voice, then killed her in secret.
There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
They were determined to gun Gaines down,
and made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.

There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby.
They made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.
Nothing else mattered.

A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby
because she had the nerve to fear and distrust the police.
Nothing else mattered
except taking her out, punishing her audacity.

She had the nerve — the intelligence — to fear and distrust the police,
and they proved her right,
taking her out, killing her as punishment for her audacity,
for a traffic violation.

They proved Gaines right
and proved it to her son by shooting him, too.
For a traffic violation.
They couldn’t have cared any less for that woman or that baby.

They showed Gaines’ son that his mama had been right —
they wanted to shoot her, wanted to shoot him, and they did.
They couldn’t have cared less for the welfare of that woman or that baby.
Gaines and her son’s lives had no value.

They wanted to shoot Korryn Gaines and her son, and they did.
That baby has learned his lesson.
His life had no value to the police.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.

That little boy learned a horrific lesson,
his mother murdered before his eyes.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.
The wounds will scab over, but will they heal?

I think of Korryn Gaines’ son. Will he heal?


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Her Last Breath

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Shereese Francis. Say her name.

Imagine the terror of running through your house
chased by four police officers,
when you’ve done nothing wrong,
when what you need is mental health care.

Chased by four police officers,
Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
She needed mental health care
but instead received brutality.

Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
Does “Protect and serve” only go for white folks?
Shereese Francis received brutality.
Her life squeezed out as she lay face down on a bed.

Is “Protect and Serve” only for white folks?
It certainly wasn’t on offer for Shereese Francis
as her last breath was squeezed from her body.
One more beautiful life taken.

There was no protection or service for Shereese Francis,
only the loss of her last breaths under the weight of four cops.
One more beautiful life taken.
Keep that count grinding down to zero.

The loss of her last breath under the weight of four cops.
Imagine Shereese’s desperation and fear
as the count kept grinding down to zero.
One more beautiful life taken.

One more beautiful life taken.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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One More and One More and One More

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Tyisha Miller. Say her name.

The stories cops tell to explain their choices
are never quite right, never quite believable.
They are offerings,
giving cover to everyone who wants to forgive them.

Cops’ stories are never quite right or believable.
And their victims are dead, cannot dispute.
The stories are cover, reasons to forgive.
And one more and one more and one more woman dead.

Police victims are dead, so cannot dispute any claims.
No matter how far-fetched, there is only one story.
One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.
One more Black woman blamed for her own murder.

There is only ever one story —
a history told and written and adjudicated by the killers,
and one more Black woman blamed for her own murder,
one more and one more and one more Black woman dead.

Our histories are told and written and adjudicated by our killers.
Tyisha Miller had her own story to tell.
One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.
Nineteen and silenced, her story erased.

Tyisha Miller had her own story to tell,
and we’ll never hear a word of it.
Nineteen and silenced, her story erased.
Her story, barely begun, now ended.

We’ll never hear Tyisha Miller’s story.
Twenty-three shots, a dozen finding their target.
Her story, barely begun, now ended.
How many times do you need to kill the same woman?

Twenty-three shots, a dozen found their target.
Instead of medical care, Tyisha Miller was dealt death.
How many times do you need to kill the same woman?
And the always question: why shoot to kill instead of wound?

Instead of medical care, Tyisha Miller was dealt death.
Tyisha, you deserved so much more, so much better.
My always question: if you must shoot, why kill and not just wound?
Tyisha, your story deserved to be told.

One more and one more and one more Black woman dead.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Another Beautiful Life Taken

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Kendra James. Say her name.

Another traffic-stop kill.
When did driving violations become capital crimes?
Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
And of course it’s her own fault.

When did driving violations become capital crimes?
Please point out her attempt to leave the scene
so I’ll know Kendra’s murder was her own fault,
blame her for her demonization and death.

Please point out her attempt to leave the scene —
an important detail if you want to make her responsible,
blame her for her demonization and death,
absolve the officer of his choice to shoot her in the head.

Details of the case help make Kendra responsible
unarmed and innocent, but it’s still okay that she’s dead.
Absolve the cop of his choice to shoot her,
let her name disappear from memory.

Unarmed and innocent, but it’s okay that she’s dead.
What can you do if people won’t follow orders?
Let her name disappear from memory,
she’s just one more number in the count down to zero.

If people won’t follow orders,
surely death is an acceptable punishment.
Kendra James, just another number in the count down to zero.
Kendra James, another beautiful like taken.

Isn’t death an acceptable punishment?
No matter the crime, the killing is easy.
Kendra James, another beautiful like taken,
just another number, keep the drumbeat count going.

No matter the crime, the killing is easy.
Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
Another number, keeping the drumbeat count going.
Zero is reachable, so easily reachable.

Kendra James. Twenty-one. Dead.
Like Eleanor, like Rekia, like so many before her.
Zero is reachable. So easily reachable.
All it takes is our dehumanization. And your apathy.

And your apathy.

I stepped away. First I stopped writing poems, then I started again but didn’t post them. I’ve really struggled with what is the value, the good of putting these painful things into the world. Some conversations with friends and the opportunity to be in the audience for In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body helped me come back to this space, decide to post again.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Unworthy of a Longer Life

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Deborah Danner. Say her name.

We’ve been here before —
shots that kill rather than wound.
We are here again and again.
The first choice is always to destroy.

Shots that kill rather than wound —
Deborah Danner could be alive today.
Why is the first choice always to destroy?
Why can’t we live?

Deborah Danner could be alive today.
Mental illness isn’t a capital crime.
Why can’t we live?
Deborah Danner, like Eleanor Bumpurs, dead.

Mental illness isn’t a capital crime —
unless you’re Black?
Deborah Danner, like Eleanor Bumpurs, shot dead —
deemed unworthy of a longer life.

When you’re Black,
the slightest infraction becomes a killing crime.
You’re deemed unworthy of a longer life.
You’re shot to kill, not to wound.

The slightest infraction becomes a killing crime.
Deborah Danner was unruly. Now she’s dead.
Shot to kill, not to wound.
While white active shooters are brought in alive.

Deborah Danner was unruly. Now she’s dead.
She had a bat, the cop had a gun.
White active shooters are brought in alive again and again.
What explains the difference if not race?

Danner had a bat, the cop had a gun.
Now she’s dead. She needed care, but now she’s dead.
What explains the outcome if not race?
The first choice is always to destroy.

Why can’t we live?


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Flyaway Chaff on the Wind

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Sheneque Proctor. Say her name.

It’s a natural thing,
a parent wanting their baby to come home,
a parent wanting their baby safe from harm.
That need, that desire, powerful.

A mother wanted her baby to come home.
Instead, had to find her in a police station.
The need, the desire to find her child so powerful.
But, instead of coming home, her baby died.

A mother tried to find her baby in a police station.
Sheneque Proctor was only 18.
Instead of going home with her mother, Sheneque Proctor died.
Instead of care, this baby died (alone?) in a police cell.

Sheneque Proctor was only 18. Only 18.
The police said she should have been fine.
Instead, she died (alone?) in a police cell.
Another too-young life lost.

The police said she should have been fine,
but they refused to release video of Sheneque’s time in that cell.
Another too-young life lost,
another police department shrugging it off, hiding information.

Police refused to release video of Sheneque’s time in that cell —
a refusal that reeks of knowledge, of culpability.
They shrug off Sheneque’s death, hide vital information
as if she is nothing more than chaff on the wind.

The refusal screams knowledge, culpability.
Sheneque’s baby son is motherless, she is gone,
flyaway chaff on the wind.
How can she be thrown away so casually?

Sheneque’s baby, motherless. She is gone.
Her son will never know his mother,
casually thrown away.
The clock hands click down toward zero.

It’s an unnatural thing.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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