February 13, 2016

Beyond the “Gist”

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Yesterday, Jan discovered that her thirteen-year-old’s shower routine consisted of getting in the shower, turning on the water, letting it run over him for a while, turning off the water, and toweling off.  When asked if he has taken a shower, he always responds affirmatively. However, he ran out of soap (apparently months ago) and never bothered to get more. Jan had to explain to him that, while getting wet creates the “gist” of cleanliness, a shower without soap is not really a shower.

Interestingly, we have found an unlikely parallel between showering without soap and many of the children we encounter in our work in schools. Very often, when we go into classrooms, we pull up alongside children and invite them to read aloud and talk with us about their reading.  Too often, they will offer a “gist” statement about what they are reading, rather than really thinking about it deeply. For example, one fifth-grader shared his thinking about the paragraph below from Holes by Louis Sachar:

Stanley dug his shovel into the ground. His hole was about three and a half feet deep in the center. He grunted as he pried up some dirt, then flung it off to the side. The sun was almost directly overhead. (p. 114)

He summarized the paragraph by simply stating, “He’s digging a hole.” But summarizing the sentences above as “digging a hole” is like taking a shower without soap. It offers the gist of the passage, but much is missed.

We want readers to understand that writers put each sentence into their books for a reason. The excerpt from Holes, above, offers readers insight into just how hard the ground was, how tired the main character was, and just how hot it was, all subtleties overlooked by the reader. Like showering, reading is more than letting the words wash over you. It is an investment of time and energy, and it takes a bit of intention.

Many, many thanks to the thoughtful educators at Two Writing Teachers for giving us a community for sharing and exploring ideas.

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Brave Hearts

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In The Girl With A Brave Heart: A Tale from Tehran by Rita Rohanforuz and Vali Mintzi (Barefoot Books, 2013), Shiraz, the main character finds herself at the home of an old woman who is tired and angry. She takes Shiraz to her kitchen, piled high with dishes and mess, and tells Shiraz to break all the dishes. Instead, when the woman leaves, Shiraz washes the dishes, puts them away, and cleans the kitchen. Next, the old woman takes Shiraz to her garden, which is horribly overgrown with weeds, and asks her to pull up all the plants by their roots. Instead, Shiraz pulls up only the weeds and prunes the plants, recovering the garden. After Shiraz has completed each task in her own way–rather than the way the woman directs–she learns that the woman has magical powers. She makes Shiraz very beautiful.

Upon seeing Shiraz’s beauty, her less kindhearted sister is jealous and wants to be beautiful too. She visits the woman, intent on becoming beautiful. The woman asks the sister to do the same tasks but, unlike Shiraz, the sister follows the woman’s directions, breaking the dishes and destroying the garden. True to narrative story structure, the old woman does not make the sister beautiful. Upon returning home, the sister asks Shiraz what she had done differently on her visit to the old woman. Shiraz explained that when the woman told her to break the dishes and destroy the garden, Shiraz knew that that the woman wasn’t asking for what she really wanted. Shiraz goes on to explain that, when people are sad, they sometimes don’t know how to tell you what they need. You have to listen with a brave heart.

This weekend, I (Jan) attended the 2016 JOLLE Conference, which was inspiring and thought-provoking. In particular, I attended a session entitled “Examining and Creating Artifacts: (Re)narrating Our Lives as Teachers” where Audrey Lensmire, a professor at Augsburg College, presented with Anna Schick, Samantha Scott, Amanda Mohan, and Aubrey Hendry–four classroom teachers representing kindergarten through high school. For a couple of years now, these educators have been gathering to reflect and write about their work. They construct their re-narratives around artifacts of their work. Two teachers wrote in response to photographs from their classroom, one wrote about the graffiti in the schools, and one wrote in response to the texts she sent to her husband during her first year of teaching.

All of these teachers teach in particularly challenging contexts. While their presentation was funny, engaging, and clever, what was most beautiful and moving about their work was their brave hearts. In a time when many teachers choose to manage the emotional strain of accountability pressures gone amok by blaming students or blaming themselves, these women are managing to see their students in admiring ways while still honestly exploring the complexities of their work. It would be easy to see graffiti in schools and decide that the kids are bad. It is courageous to, instead, recognize the creativity of the graffitti (such as that below) and learn from it, or even admire it. It takes strength and bravery to see the children as smart and beautiful and filled with promise, as opposed to seeing them as the source of our struggle.


This week (and all year), we invite you to tap into your brave hearts and see who your most difficult students are, rather than what they are doing. Find collegial support, accept the grace of others, and give some to your students. Look at yourself and your work through the same admiring eyes. You are brave enough to find the wisdom or the beauty or the humor in the complexities of your classroom, re-narrating them in ways that create new possibilities for you and for your students.

Thank you to the folks at Two Writing Teachers who have helped to jumpstart our blogging habit with their Slice of Life Challenge!

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Professional Soulmates

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As of late, Jan has had commitments that have required all of her time.  Because Jan is busy, I, Kim, will write a first-person Slice of Life. Once again, thank you to all of the fine folks at Two Writing Teachers who make this possible!

Because it was my very first book, the arrival of Reading Wellness was ceremonious. Taking it out of the box and touching it and seeing our labors as a final, finished product was enough to make me cry, however, the real tears began to flow as I opened the book and began to turn the pages.  First the title page. I traced my fingers over the letters and stopped when I saw my name sitting proudly alongside Jan’s. Next the dedication page. My eyes skimmed over the words that I had written for my husband. Then I glanced upward to be reminded of what Jan had said to her husband only to discover that the words had changed since we submitted them to Stenhouse. I read slowly and carefully: 

Reading Wellness Dedication

I began to sob.

When Jan and I began writing together in March 2012, I knew her only through reading Preventing Misguided Reading. Though I had had long conversations with her in the margins of my copy of the book she had written, these had been one-sided chats.

PMG page 2

She didn’t know me at all. However, after a couple of phone conversations she said, “Let’s write a blog together…and…let’s write every day.”

We hit the ground running.  At first, as much as I embraced the task, writing was an act of bravery. When she shared things that she had drafted, I was hesitant to suggest changes. I mean, she wrote books.  I just wrote…for myself. What did I know?

When I drafted blog posts,  I worried about sharing them with Jan:  What will she think? I wondered.  If I write this, will she think I’m a fraud? Fortunately, courage triumphed over fear and day by day, Jan and I got to know each other through our words and the white space between our words.

During that time, Jan and I talked regularly on the phone and now, a day without talking to Jan is like a day without brushing my teeth (which I promise, does not happen very often). When I go to work and I meet a child who says, “I think you are magic because you’re making me LOVE reading!”, my first thought is I have to call Jan. When I do, she says with genuine curiosity, “Tell me about the lesson.  What did you say?  How did you say it?” And on the flip side, when things don’t go well and I meet a child that says, “I don’t get this, this is boring,” again I think, I have to call Jan.  She listens to these stories with the same unprejudiced mind and says, “Tell me about the lesson.  What did you say?  How did you say it?”

And sometimes there are days when Jan needs to talk to me.  She will call and tell me about something interesting a child said during a shared reading lesson. Or, she will need to read aloud to me from a book that inspires her. She will tell me about what she is thinking and then it is my turn to ask her questions. We talk and talk and talk and oftentimes, we are surprised when we look at the clock and see that two hours have passed.

Four years ago, I longed for a learning companion and who showed up at my virtual doorstep? Jan.  So, yes, I wept when I saw Jan’s dedication to me because I feel exactly the same about her.  It isn’t often that you find someone who is a true friend and a good writer and when you do, you celebrate your good fortune.