3 Consecutive Saturdays of Learning

I have never done an institute on three consecutive Saturdays. In 25 years working with and at the Reading and Writing Project, I have never done a learning structure like this. Indeed it is challenging to get up on a Saturday morning after a whole week of work and get ready again for another day of work. However, as each face pops into a Zoom rectangle, I feel my energy for teaching and learning bubble up.

People sip coffee or tea or juice or water from big teacher mugs. The mugs themselves are as cheerful as the people, maybe more so sometimes. MVT- Most Valuable Teacher and I Teach. What’s Your Superpower? The mugs that lift and fall across the screen of 30 learners, were probably gifted to these teachers by students and their caregivers. The mugs symbolize the love of teachers that also gets me up on this weekend morning. It is a Saturday and people cling to their mugs with hopes that they can open up to learning like flowers do when they are watered in the morning sun.

In between our Saturday institute days, teachers took what they learned and tried it out with students and colleagues. In this institute, we are working to teach into and keep an eye on spelling development. In some ways this is an ideal learning structure. Instead of being in a super intense 3 day in a row institute that sometimes can leave people feeling full to overflowing with learning, this once a week 3 day course gives teachers time to digest and try and come back to learn more and to refine their understanding.

Teachers also come back with that they learned and they gather together and teach into our collective knowledge so that all of us are growing together. Each Saturday feels smarter than the Saturday before. This institute was also so interesting because it was so intimate. 50 people total, it felt like more of us could really interact. I come again and again to the idea that we are craving connection- all of us.

Teachers in a pandemic pushing themselves to keep their learning lives going even when everything about their professional and personal lives are different and hard in so many ways. No one talks about this when they talk about how teachers just need to go back to school. Just to clarify, they have been in school the whole time. Every day. Making it up. With no training. With generosity and creativity and grace. Teachers have shown up. Including three Saturdays in a row in March.

Supper Club with P. David Pearson

One of my colleagues was interviewing P. David Pearson this past Wednesday night and he asked P. David to talk about an article he wrote called Life in the Radical Middle: A Personal Apology for a Balanced View of Reading. Sometimes when someone talks, everything they say strikes a chord and feels exactly right to you. That is what happened to me when P. David Pearson talked about the radical middle.

I thought that he had written the article recently, in the midst of all of the current debate about the best way to teach reading. After the call, I went to search for the article and started to laugh when I saw it was written in 2001. I laughed because here we are 20 years later and the article is still very relevant. Or, maybe it is more accurate to say that it is relevant again.

That is part of the reason why he likes the radical middle. You have a very good vantage point on the swing that always seems to happen in education.

I think of the teachers I work with who are resistant to what I say or what I am trying to teach. I have learned to ask questions about their resistance. Michael Fullan reminds us that the most resistant teachers are often the most important to listen to because they can help us understand what might be in our blindspot, what we might be missing. P. David Pearson is watching the teachers in classrooms who are wanting to learn what will work for their students. In my opinion, many teachers are impatient with research because it talks at them and not with them. P. David trusts teachers. That makes me trust him even more.

Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to work toward a reading specialist license at Fordham University and I learned so much about the Science of Reading, although it was not called SOR then. In that same year, I was working in a teacher study group where a group of teachers were investigating the best way to teach writing in grades K-2. That same school year started with a new class of first graders and it also started with trauma and murder. It started with 9/11.

This year has a lot in common with that one. Covid and racism right now. Hatred is a through line for both times.

In some ways, the radical middle is exhausting because it means that you are constantly listening to both sides because you do not believe dichotomies are real and that they certainly are not useful. The radical middle means constant learning and adjustments and integration. Sometimes these shifts are bigger in scale and sometimes these are smaller in scale.

The radical middle means a lot of reading and talking and revising. It also means my favorite thing too which is trying things out in classrooms. The real way we know if something works is by trying it out with teachers and children in real classrooms. The classrooms need to be of all types and the teachers and the students need to represent a wide range of types too.

In the end, studies and data and findings do have so much to teach us but if there are no suggestions for how to use the findings in the actual classroom, with more than one child at a time, then I will continue to spend my time side by side with teachers. I will keep trying to figure out how to teach, with teachers, using what we are learning from our spot in the radical middle to help change the lives of the children we are so lucky to teach.

Pandemic-ing with teenagers

My two boys are teenagers. One a few days from turning 16 and the other 12 and a half. So, I guess technically my younger son is not a teenager but in some ways he has been a teenager since he could walk. Have you ever met a kid like that?!

We have been living through a pandemic together. I have learned so much about them as people because they have been forced to stay in and stay close. I worry about what this will mean for their development as people.

Early in the pandemic, I read an article that talked about how the pandemic would be the hardest for teenagers. Hard on everyone for sure for different reasons, but because of the stage of life they are in, hardest for teens. They are supposed to be expanding their distance from their parents, not contracting it. They are supposed to be interacting with peers all of the time in so many ways.

Instead, they get to interact with me. I get to work from home and they are doing virtual school and so I can make breakfast or figure out what is for lunch and let one of them make it for me. It is really kind of lovely. Because we are always home, we can volunteer for chores and take turns trying to get the easiest chore before anyone else volunteers for it. We spend a lot of time hugging our dog. One at a time, two at a time and sometimes all three of us together. The dog, I am not worried about.

Two very different things have happened with each boy. With Luke, I have become a seventh grader. He needs a pal. I am the person he tells ridiculous jokes to and the person he does gross body sounds around. He wants me to watch Family Guy with him and he expects me to know and laugh at the humor. He needs a seventh grade friend more than he needs a mom most days. He wants to wrestle a little and he sometimes tries out some almost curses. There is also plenty of teasing. So much teasing. Some days it is too much for me but most of the time, I am happy to sort of be what he needs.

And, with Dylan, there are long hours of total silence and separation. He has his own very small room that my husband built at the beginning of the pandemic. He turned a one bedroom that the boys shared into a two bedroom so that they could have their own space. It mostly works great but for school, nothing works great. We are really struggling with remote middle and high school. Really. Struggling.

Dylan comes to me several times a day though and I try to drop everything that I am doing when he arrives. He comes to me to talk about big issues and little ones too. He wants me to know what the current story lines are in each of the three major wrestling leagues. He talks in such detail and with so much passion and humor that his passion very easily becomes mine. Sometimes, he comes out to talk to me about politics. He knows more about politics than I do. Currently he is very involved in learning about raising the minimum wage. He definitely knows more about this issue than I do. None of this knowledge has come from school. He is doing this course of study on his own. Failing geometry but can do a course on the issue of the minimum wage.

Mostly I am happy about the extra gift of time that the pandemic has given me. I am pretty sure my boys are not as excited. Maybe someday when they are men, we can reflect on what this time was for all of us.

For now, I hope I am sometimes getting it right.

Meatloaf Anyone?!

Bat out of hell is an epic album. When I try to explain to my kids what it was like to have this album on a cassette tape that wore out from so many times playing it, they do not understand. How could I want to listen to the same songs in the same order over and over? Like a mantra. Sacred utterance with mystical powers that brings spiritual enlightenment.

My dad stands pressed against a panelled wall in the funeral parlor. We have cued the song and we are gathered with so many people to say goodbye to my mom.

Heaven can wait… and all the Gods come down here just to sing for me.

And the melody’s gonna make me fly without pain, without fear.

Meatloaf is singing with so much heart ache and I do not know what anyone else in the room is feeling but I am totally with my Dad. He is singing at the top of his lungs and I am too. And then I notice that I am crying. He is too. I know that my fifth grader and my second grader are out in the room somewhere and I know that all of the family gathered around us have them wrapped up tight.

I am both at the funeral of my mother, who I called sweet honey for my whole life, and grocery shopping with her at our Acme. Imagine a four year old calling sweet honey when she had lost sight of her mama in a crowd of adult legs and cereal boxes.

All I got is time until the end of time.

Grocery shopping was our jam. When I was a moody teenager, my mom would drag me along and I would feel needed and useful, even with pimples. When I was visiting from New York, we would come up with what I most wanted to eat and then shop so that we could make and eat delicious dishes together. Spicy crab cakes and giant bowls of salad with jersey vegetables fresh from the farm stands. When I had babies to bring to her house, even though they would tell her what they wanted from the basket of the cart, it was still our jam. How yummy to know that someone else could love those babies as much as I did.

I know that I’ve been released but I don’t know to where.

I remembered wishing that I knew where she had been released to. I remember thinking that I would do anything to follow her there. It was impossible to think of myself still here without her. I wondered if she knew where she had been released to.

Sacred utterance with mystical powers, I sang my Meatloaf mantra at the top of my lungs like the teenage-me did, out my window of my bedroom, on a hot summer night.

Wishing for both enlightenment and lighten-ment.

It was epic.

Trauma Writing

I spent the day reading and rereading the text that I was supposed to be working on. I was supposed to be figuring out ways to move the text along. To make it more clear and more powerful. But I was not able to think of anything. Not a single original thought. Anything that I did think of was already written by someone else. It was really scary.

At every moment, I moved back and forth between almost crying and hopeful reading. What if I never have another original idea ever again? Trauma writing is what I did today. Which is to say that I really did no writing at all. I read a few paragraphs and found a smile creeping over my face as I could almost feel an idea heading toward my fingertips and then… nothing.

Give yourself a 30 minute break. A snack and some dish washing. The dish washing was way more fun than the writing. I found myself thinking about cooking something with several dishes and pots so that I could spend more minutes washing dishes. Today’s work looked like nothing because there was nothing to measure, nothing to count. Maybe that does mean that I did no work.

Oooooh. Here are some questions. I can answer some questions. How hard could that be? Every question, I was not sure about the answer. What if I am never sure of an answer again? This trauma writing day was really the perfect follow up to a trauma teaching day yesterday. I am so tired of being so tired. Not a single part of me feels creative.

Read the same paragraph 300 times in a row. I do not understand a single sentence. Wait. I think I wrote this sentence. It looks like other people have understood it because no one has put any comments in the margin. Now I am convinced that I am brilliant because my paragraph is without comment.

Is everyone sure that they do not have other things that need cleaning? Or organizing? What if I am not needed in this work anymore? Where are all my words? My ideas? Trauma writing has been traumatizing today.

Time to sleep. Maybe that is where my creativity is hiding. Or, I am sure there are more dishes to do by now.

“How are you tonight Leon?”

We have lived next door to each other since 2008. When we moved in, his partner was in the beginning of her battle with Alzheimers. I did not know that at first. We found her one evening, near Christmas, wandering our floor calling through doors for Leon. She was really scared and she was getting louder and louder. At first, I foolishly thought that she may have had too much to drink. I could not understand how she could be on her floor and not be able to find her own apartment. I am crying now as I write this.

I rode up in the elevator with Leon tonight. My dog had just had his walk and we were waiting for our very slow ride to the seventh floor. “How are you tonight Leon?” I asked.

“Not good. My girlfriend died on Saturday and yesterday was her funeral.”

I knew how to do this now. When my mom died, I learned how to do this. Stand there. Join my heart to his and try to feel some of his pain because even though his loss of his love was not technically my loss, a loss of a loved one is a loss for all of us. The human family.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” he answered. And then, “But, life goes on.” I said, “Yes. Life always goes on but that does not mean that this is not incredibly sad.”

Everyday, for the last 10 years, Leon would wait for the bus and then head over to see his girlfriend. The only days he missed were the first few days after the hip replacement he had to have a year ago. I would bump into him in the hallway when I was heading to the garbage shoot with our recyclables and he would be doing his rehab exercises and he would always say, “I have to get back to see my girlfriend.”

Before the surgery, when his hip was really bad, he would roll over that leg again and again as the hip no longer let his leg roll within the joint. He would be carrying a bag loaded with treats for his visit with her. Newspapers always. He would read to her everyday. She was a newspaper writer before she went to care facility. Photos and other things that were not always visible from my quick glance at his bag.

Standing there, waiting for the elevator, I asked, “Were there lots of good days when you would visit?”

“Everyday,” he said. “She was the only person in my life that never let me down. Even when she was having such a hard time, she was always there for me emotionally. The only person in my whole life that I ever connected with like that.”

As he headed to his apartment, I called, “I will be thinking of you and of her.” I wished I could take more of the weight. It seemed like he was limping a little more today than he had been.

But, he was hurting tonight after all. His hip maybe but his heart for sure.

I commissioned a song for my sister’s 50th- (shhhh don’t tell her!)

In three sections- write words that capture a life time relationship. I have no idea what the singer-songwriter will make of these answers but I hope my sister will love it. We both love music and how many people can say that they have a song written for them and about them? So, this is what I wrote.

Song Must Haves

We used to fight like crazy when we were teenagers. She was my younger sister but she was way more of a risk taker. Way more of a fun party haver.
Losing our mom was devastating for the both of us.
She is a kind, caregiving, do the right thing because it needs to get done- nurse.
She gives hugs that she calls “Louis” hugs because that is our last name and the hugs are over the top hard and over the top long. That is how she loves.
One of the things I wish for the most is that in the coming years, she and I spend more time together- that we join our lives together more. To laugh and cry together. Together we are kind of the perfect person.

Favorite Thing About Them

She is funny and tell it like it is. She is no nonsense. She maybe curses a little more than most women do but never at people, more about situations. She is strong and she fights to make a better life for herself and for the people she loves too. She inspires me to be the true me because that is who she always is.

Favorite Memories

Holding hands when we were little and heading into the ocean waves in wildwood New Jersey- singing Winnie the Pooh , Winnie the Pooh so that we were brave enough to jump the waves. Holiday dinners with her and my mom and dad. Apple martinis.
We love to tell the stories of how we bought our Christmas gifts.
Dancing together at her engagement party and at my 50th birthday to Donna Summer songs.

I can not wait to hear the song that is created. I hope it makes her laugh and cry. I hope it lets her know how much she means to me.

Not As Well As I Expected

“How is your writing going today, Ian?” I leaned in close to my computer screen and turned my volume up. Ian was in Texas and I was in the Bronx and we were in a writing conference together. Both amazing and terribly dissatisfying at the same time.

Not as well as I expected.” I took in his tone and his body as he said that. Yep. They matched. His words and his body. That meant it was serious. I followed up by staying on that path.

“Can you say more about what is happening for you?”

I can not come up with a topic for my next poem.” No kidding, I thought. Happens to me all of the time and then I feel like it is all not going as well as I expected too.

“Do you have strategies you usually use to help you find writing topics?” I treated him as if his writing identity was already developing when I asked this question.

His answer was incredible. “I usually use an image in my mind but today I can not find any images.” Jackpot answer. The way forward in a writing conference always has a moment where I feel completely in the dark. A tunnel where I am so far in that I can see no light. Not in front of me and not ahead of me. Dark. Breathe. Look at Ian. Relax. Smile.

Smile especially on Zoom. Force a smile because our faces are less animated when physically removed from the energy of each other. That energy does not travel well through Zoom.

“Have you ever searched for images on the internet when the images in your own mind are gone? Ian, what do you love?” I asked.


I googled images of libraries. One of my favorite parts of all this computer teaching is the chance to tech assist my teaching. Within a few seconds, I had images of the most amazing book spaces. Libraries and stores. Ian’s loves.

“Let’s say what we see and write a poem right now in the air, Ian. Do you want me to start?” Tiny nod. Almost not a nod. A nod. Like the smallest leaf shake in the tiniest breeze. Only visible if you are holding still. Still.

I began.

Books stacked in a wall

Five stories tall

I don’t know,” Ian said.

“What do you see?”

He continued.

So high

How will I reach the book I want?

Stay quiet now Natalie. I whisper this to myself so that I do not spoil the moment with all of my words because they come so easily. But easy words do not mean right words. Quiet. Stay still. The hummingbird of Ian’s thoughts are hovering unexpectedly at the flower of a poem.

So many books.

Who puts them all up there?

A tower of books.

With book buying people everywhere.

I think I see the one I want.

“Ian. You wrote a poem. You wrote that poem right in the air. Will you go write it on paper now?”

No smile. But his body left quickly and there was an energy there that made me know that this was very much more like what he expected from his writing time.

One Day- 15 minutes at a time

The trick is to not let one time slot carry into the next one. Let go of the emotions that may happen in one meeting and start fresh in the next. I write this as a reminder to myself before the day starts. Man, has it ever been emotional. I open myself up each day to the teachers in order to serve, in order to hopefully help lift the burden a little.

In order to reset, I plan to do some square breathing- 4, 4, 4, and 4 in between my time with each teacher.

For the first three time slots, I totally forgot to do my square breathing. I have however figured out a nice, tight structure for those 15 minutes- which really ends up being 10 minutes once teachers are released by the roving substitute, make it to their computer and log on. While I am waiting for the next teacher to appear on my Zoom link, I try to envision their walk to our meeting. Final calls from students, “Where are you going? What do we do?” As if their teacher is leaving for good. The restroom, that they pass because they are feeling late and do not want to lose time for more learning. The internet connection is not so good in their school building so they have to press against the outside wall where the windows are to hear and see me without delays.

I have figured out that really these time slots are teaching conferences. Like writing conferences and now I am loving the plan for this day because I love conferences. I love conferring. My structure goes like this: Connection with the person. Restating the focus they named for me in a previous email. Ask them to elaborate on the focus for a minute or so. Then deliver a mini-workshop with three to five practical tips that match their focus. End with a declaration of my admiration and love and a reminder to care for themselves because we need them.

That’s it- a little 5 part teacher conference structure that I do over and over again. 17 times. But, each one feels like the first one because each teacher is new. They deserve to feel new to me. They deserve to be heard as new. And, at the same time, I wish they knew that they are also so very much the same as their colleagues. Struggling with so many of the same things. Grieving in so many of the same ways. I knew I loved teachers before the pandemic started, now I am positive that I will love them forever and always.

Then the principal and the assistant principal get on at the end of the day to listen to how the day went. At first I think that this is a different kind of meeting with the people in charge and then what I realise is that this too… is a conference. People need conferences. All of them. All of us. We need connection. Back to my structure I go. I do not think I have any tips for them and then as I sit with what they want to focus on- how do we start to go forward again from here- I have a little workshop.

No one has answered that question before. How to go forward after Covid? But we get to. We get to make it up. Perhaps we redefine the world with our answer. There are so many things that need fixing and they are long overdue.

Do you have 15 minutes to get started?

Kindergarten Aubrey

“Would you like to see my book?! I just finished it.”

Yes, please.

She holds her 5 page booklet up to her Zoom screen to read. “How to Make a Cake by Kindergarten Aubrey.”

Kindergarten Aubrey.

I was so struck by her calling herself that. It was almost as if she understood that she was yet another incarnation of Aubrey. That she would be constantly evolving throughout her life. We went on to talk about her writing. It was a writing conference where I was really trying to understand Aubrey the writer and more than that, Aubrey the person.

Later, thinking about how she called herself, I wondered why I had never called myself the same way. What if, upon presenting my first baby, I said to hospital visitors, “This is Dylan Patrick by 35 year old Natalie.” I did not have a grade at that time to name. We are not in grades after a while after all. But, we still have seasons of our life. What might I have called that season besides my age?

I found myself thinking about this as I walked my dog. I noticed he was searching for snow again. Now disappeared. He had come to love his daily king-of-the-mountain poops. What was a tired old tree trunk poop compared to that?!

Maybe that season was my baby making season. Imagine me again with those same hospital visitors, “This is Dylan Patrick by baby making Natalie.” I kind of like the idea of naming my season so that I see that time as just that a season. It is both permanent in how it feels at the time and totally impermanent in a life time. When I first had Dylan, my mom said to me, “My best advice to you is that everything is a stage. Good. Stage. Bad. Stage.” Wise advice for sure but my mom was 55 when she said this and Aubrey, 5.

Every Natalie is connected to all of the Natalie’s who came before and all of the Natalie’s who will come after. I will never know which Natalie is the last Natalie and I have a hard time choosing my favorite Natalie. Here are just a few of the hers that I have been in this life.

Peace Corps Volunteer Natalie.

Barnes and Noble Natalie.

New New Yorker Natalie. (Oooo… that one is catchy right?!)

First year teacher Natalie

Jimmy loving Natalie.

How did Aubrey know all of this already? How did she know that she will evolve through so many seasons? As a guest teacher, and like all teachers, I will just get to see a small part of her evolution as she moves toward becoming the fullest version of herself. A few seasons probably. Sometimes really just this one season. And, if that is true, then what I say to her in this 5 minute writing conference, matters. Kindergarten Aubrey will carry this on with her and I want it to power the evolution of her most authentic Aubrey. This piece of writing will fall away. But kindergarten Aubrey… now that’s an investment.

Kindergarten Aubrey is wise about life.

She also does really know how-to make a cake.

You should ask her about both.