Native Species


The region in which I grew up is rich in Native American history. I waded in the waters at Conimicut Point. I balanced across plank bridges in the Great Swamp. Everyday, I passed places with names like Narragansett, Miantonomo, Apponaug, and Pawtuxet. Along the way, I learned the history and interaction of my colonial ancestors and the indigenous peoples, but the place names became commonplace and part of the fabric of my everyday life that blended into the background.

When my own burgeoning family outgrew our home a few neighborhoods over from the one in which I grew up, we moved deeper into the state; where native history remained vibrantly alive, resisting the squash of suburban sprawl. With signs marking the Narragansett watershed and roads transiting Shumunkanuc Hill, my desire to understand this new land meshed with a desire to better understand the native history and tradition that shaped it.

In an effort to do so, my girls and I visited Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI, our state’s only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich cultural heritage of its native peoples. We had a wonderful time, viewing historical exhibits, examples of artwork, basketry, and artifacts. I read the words of Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas in one glossy display detailing the meaning of and pursuit of happiness for modern native peoples. While their home culture and tradition teaches them to be in tune with nature, stewards of the earth with utmost thanks for the gift it is, upholding generational, tribal, and oral traditions, public education counters Native American values and history, forcing an incongruous duality of individuals, students, youngsters.

As I read the poetic description of the aspiration to a higher good we all possess, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to society as a whole. While not all populations in modern society deal with an environment hostile to their ways of life, we all suffer from a sort of disconnect.

We are totally disconnected from the earth, the land.

We can go to the grocery store and buy apples any day, any season of the year – not just during fall harvest. We go to the farmers’ market in spring and balk when we can’t find the main ingredient for our peach pie. We are conditioned like a spoiled child to have an endless supply of food placed before us whenever we want it, with no thought of the hand that put it there.

We are totally removed from nature’s rhythms, its cycles.

We look down the road waiting for a rush of cars when it is the rush of the wind through tree boughs.

We condition our air, we shut our windows tight. We notice not the storm clouds or fog rolling in until the weather report tells us to.

We miss the signal of the birds squawking in the trees or their sweet songs rejoicing in the spring.

We don’t find the hidden places on the back roads because we’re speeding down the highway. We don’t discover the interconnectedness of us all, regardless of background because we’re too busy to talk.

We forget how to, the benefit of, interacting with the world, the people right in front of us, because we’re so intent on interfacing with those halfway around the world through the computer screen.

The sacredness of simplicity is lost.

The elemental forces of the universe are covered over by the noise we humans have created, covering over ourselves.

But on days when we stop to hear a song, shake a rattle, smell the sweet grass, the stories become part of us and there is an elemental shift within – perhaps drawing us all closer to ourselves and each other.



Education and Learning: A Mutual Understanding or Mutually Exclusive?

Believe it or not, I came home from a presentation on common-core requirements for kindergarten with a positive outlook on my child’s education.

“Surely, you jest,” you say.

No. I don’t.

The woman who facilitated the workshop, an early childhood educator with a masters in education, reminded me of the education professors I had in college, who were so excited about the learning process. Every moment was the teachable moment; every question or observation the origin of a journey they were willing to follow to its completion. It wasn’t about quantifiable results, but the complex ways in which our brains learned to work.

And this was the same thinking this presenter offered us. While children are expected to be able to name and recognize twenty letters of the alphabet upon entering kindergarten, that does not mean we should be drilling them with flashcards if they do not. Letter sounds and shapes are all around us; we can identify them on signs as we take a drive we needed to anyway. A lesson in classifying objects is as close and natural as mixing two boxes of puzzle pieces together on the floor. See the different ways your child separates them and make note of it. Basic math skills can happen at the dining table. If there are four people, but only three napkins on the table, ask your child how many more you need.

While all of these examples are seemingly ‘no-brainers’, it’s easy to lose sight of them during the course of a busy day. If we as parents are on our game, though, these are things we do innately every day. Likewise, all the insanely scripted tasks and goals of common-core are things good teachers do innately. People in charge of children with a true love of learning embed meaningful experiences into every activity.

This was what got me excited as I left that workshop. That there are still people, in the face of such crushing paper chases, who still marvel at making connections, flipping on the light bulb of learning, making that ‘a-ha’ moment happen. That is why people become teachers. That is what makes learning absolutely magical and powerful.

Unfortunately, that is not the direction in which education is moving. The hopeful feeling I had was tempered by the reality of the high stakes environment my daughter will experience upon entering school. She may not feel the pressure in kindergarten, but her teachers will and it will eventually filter down to her as she moves up in grades

I get it. We need to ensure that the millions of children across our country have an equal chance at quality education. We therefore need standardized language to articulate what that quality education will look like across the board. To assess adherence to and progress toward, we need quantifiable goals as part of this standardized language. All great ideas – in theory.

Essentially, the pie-in-the-sky learning process I described from my education classes in college was theory, too.

The future of education in America depends upon which theory will win.

SmART meets heART

When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum.  Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.

SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula.  Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect.  At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods.  That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building.  Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along.  Once, I convinced my entire team to come along.  While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.

While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies.  We acted out salient scenes.  We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures.  We played ‘games’ that built community.  We ‘became’ emotions.  We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way.  Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.

Through art, they became the book.  They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page.  And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them.  The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.

The PeaceLove Studio

The PeaceLove Studio

Fast-forward six years.  I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did.  Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health.  I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local.  Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.  I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now.  A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there.  That was my first real-world experience with the organization.  But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action.  Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.

PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”.  Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story.  First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell.  I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity.  It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.

My shoe-sterpiece!

My shoe-sterpiece!

As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out.  Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected.  Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot.  And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance.  Ultimately, it’s not about the details.  It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.

I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too.  We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes.  We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation.  I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that.  Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them.  It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.

"On the inside, we may feel empty, but we've left our mark nevertheless."

“On the inside, we may feel empty, but we’ve left our mark nevertheless.”

I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations.  I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean.  I hear you.  I feel you.  I am with you.”

I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you.  Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.

If you walked in my shoes . . .

If you walked in my shoes . . .

Schooled in the Ways of Crap

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school . . .

I have always loved that song by Paul Simon.  I wasn’t entirely sure I agreed with it, because I did, in fact, learn lots of useful things, but his thrumming on the guitar was so infectious I’d bounce along in time.

Then I became a teacher.  I student-taught in high school, but ended up in the seedy underbelly of the ancient junior high building I attended myself as a skittish prepubescent.  Many of the veterans I spoke to said junior high was where we all started out, paid our dues, and then transferred to the high school.  The general tone was that no one wanted to spend much time with the roiling turmoil that was the junior high population.  I can still hear the words of a talented veteran, though, who also happened to be the mother of a good friend I made in that school years earlier.  She said stay put until you earn tenure and if still like junior high kids at that end of those three years, this is where you’re meant to be.

I spent the next seven years with junior high kids, teaching English/Language Arts.

I might still be there if it weren’t for an extended leave after the birth of my second child that turned into stay-at-home-mom-dom and a third child.

I’m still very much a teacher, though.  And not just in the “parents are the first teachers” sort of way.  It’s definitely a mindset.  I’ve kept all the instructional materials I created, the units of study I formulated, the texts I used to teach.  I still read books in such a way that makes me wonder if I’ve taken my analytical reading to another level or if I’m dissecting it in order to reconstruct it with an imaginary class.  I listen intently to fellow parents’ descriptions of child behavior and learning experiences as if I have a stake in their success or struggle.  I’m sure I make my child’s teachers wonder why I’m nodding as if I know exactly what they’re going to say when they explain how educational standards are once again changing.

These are all positive carry-overs from my teaching career.

There’s also a bane that comes with teaching: the feeling that you never graduate.

I counted down the final days of student teaching until graduation, only to fall headlong into another classroom.  The fact that it was in a junior high that I had already spent two years of my life in added to the sensation of demotion.  Back to homework – because giving it to students means you yourself have it.  And that’s just the correcting.  Not the involved planning (though the planning and successful execution of lessons was by far the most enthralling part of teaching).  You perpetually feel like a student yourself.

Like I did when I sat down to the computer this morning.

Hmm . . . how to start today’s blog entry.  Let’s see.  Well, I started with a question last time.  Oh, a quote?

That’s when I realized I was walking myself through the eight types of leads I’d taught my students.  And that I was as haunted by all that crap I’d learned – and taught – in school as Paul Simon was.  The role of perpetual student did not end when I left the classroom – neither sitting in the desk nor in front of it; it still follows me.  And while it’s humbling and rather uncomfortable to still be learning the lessons I taught my junior high students, it’s validating to know that at least one lesson was valuable if it’s germane to my current writing.  At least that day I wasn’t trying to learn them some crap.

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