Day 2? Really? Slice of Life at the SI

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Another smooth morning after a night of sleep.  Today Tara was joining me for my rides up and back and for a day as my guest at the SI.  Day 2 was our only shot at the perfect opportunity for her to experience the HVWP’s Summer Institute and maybe it was better that we are still fluid, not quite yet a bonded community of learning women.  Tara felt comfortable and the group was welcoming. As I took the morning prompt, sharing our lives as Slicers with Two Writing Teachers on a Slice of Life Tuesday, Tara was the first one up with a posted Slice and it was perfect and easy to click right to her Slice and have her read it to the group. I knew Tara wouldn’t flinch. Perfect start and then a solid writing for 15 minutes now that I’ve traded in my bells for my guitar timer sounds of mystic river. I can write too, without distraction.  I did.

I liked it when Christine suggested we all shared something… all the voices, sharing.  I loved that!

And then we moved through the rituals- my pictures, Odell’s log, Christine’s TIW reflections and even with computer issues, now that everyone comes with a laptop and can easily access the web, we are free!  Heather was smooth with her TIW and I thought about my own relationship to science, wondering a lot about how real scientists feel about the way science is taught in most high school classrooms.  I thought about how Janine has been incorporating writing into her science.  I remembered Alan Alda’s work on stage and in the real world.  My mind was racing and I was engaged and relaxed. Two days and I’m still relaxed.

We took a break. Gathered the group downstairs for a full photo and then back up for TIW groups.  Each new opening seems to be moving smoothly. I loved our conversations about the TIWs in my group.

It was a love day for me.  Well, I didn’t love the kale lunch, or eating outside in the heat or that stale sweet potato muffin.  But I loved the company and that’s more important.  I have my lovely lunch back in the room.

Back in the room, Mary appeared to get us engaged in our writing museum.  I remembered grabbing up books, a journal before I left for the SI on day one. I had a good bunch but for the first time I took the time to think through the time line I created and I was annoyed I didn’t have other things.  Really I had enough, but that writing experience was more for me.

I loved setting up next to Tara who probably would have liked to have brought more but it was so good that I remembered to send her the assignment so she could participate fully in the day.  I hope it’s not too late to join the NWP for her at Rutgers.  Do they still exist?

I was tired as we finished our small group debrief.  I wanted to watch Jennie’s digital story but I had a trip to make and then another beyond.  Too much ahead of me and Tara was patiently waiting.

So I am home and almost finished with this reflection of Day 2.  It’s good, really good.  So glad I came back after a two-year break.

More coming my way tomorrow.  Shorter ride home to Ellenville.

Categories: Hudson Valley Writing Project, SI 2013 | Tags: , | 4 Comments

Reflections on Day One: Summer Institute

I was relaxed on our first day of our SI, really relaxed.  I even got more than 15 minutes of sleep last night- a lot more!

As Tuvia and I headed out this morning at 6:45 from my place,  I was covered in bags, balanced, ready to reach for my overnight bag but Tuvia was faster,  grabbing for it.  I argued. He ignored. I won 🙂 and we were off with plans to meet up for dinner in Paramus after we both worked a full day.

Both of us began on the Thruway but he was off  in ten, back to Paramus.  I was prepared to hunker down and love the ride to New Paltz.  I was riding with the wind at my back, struggling to stay closer to 70 than 80.  I was trying harder than most of the cars around me, but when I was close to the college, riding the back roads, with the mountains to the right, everything felt good, except the police car that suddenly blocked my view as I struggled to bring down my speed.  I was sure I was speeding and yes, with a bit of hesitation at first, I was right.  Red and Blue lights started flashing, whirling, and I moved over and stopped. I had lots of time, so early now, and I had to remember, be nice, the cop has the upper hand.  Don’t act pissed off.

So when the nice female cop came to my window smiling, shaking her head and reminding me that I had passed by two signs warning me to slow down, I agreed.

“Hey I know you’re in a hurry.”

” Yes, I agreed, first day of our Summer Institute at the college.” Never hurts to remind her that I’m in the “club”.

I handed over my license and registration before she asked.  I was really trying to wangle my way out of a ticket.

She kept me waiting just a few minutes as she checked me out in her car.

“Bonnie, Bonnie, come on.  You have to SLOW DOWN….slow down when you get close to campus. You know that, right?”

“Yes, of course.” Just give me back my stuff and ‘yes, I promise.”  No ticket.  NO TICKET!  I promised, really!

How could I not feel that everything was right with the world: a good night’s sleep, a clear day, a kind cop and I was on my way to kick off a fresh SI with my buddy Christine, our great group of returning fellows and new cohort of interesting, passionate women.

I arrived, got a spot in the circle right outside our building and grabbed up every last bag and my tripod and I was sailing up to the second floor in the speedy elevator.  I wasn’t the first but I was the most relaxed.  Really relaxed and ready to enjoy sharing the experience, participating in a writing into the day with a TED talk I knew well.   I wrote about my greatest fear- the fear of aging alone.  Sad, yes but I was writing free and open. Some people shared their writing even on our first morning and Christine was set with a very powerful workshop to introduce herself to the group who had met her only virtually via Google Hangout.

Whoops, Tuvia is here.  Time to power down, sleep and return for more of a great day. Later!

More fun on the first day- Christine put together a perfect first day workshop: sharing student work with a protocol!  Modeling what teacher collaboration could be and should be in the best of all possible worlds.  Are we moving yet, to the best of all possible worlds???

I loved the rich sharing in groups.  I felt free to read student work and get to know my group as teachers making sense of student writers.  PERFECT!  I loved the fact that modeling the TIW journey was clear.  I watched Sarah shake her head at me with confidence.  Sure, we get this! It was great to have Christine actually sit down for the reflection section and script the group’s reflections.

Break time: Calendar sharing, Reading Groups spelled out.  Books disappeared from the table and I was easy about a sudden change in my book selection.  I wanted to read another Lisa Delpit but, okay, Peter Johnson and his two-book set were known to me as well.

I chose to stay in our SI space and feast on my very healthy, calorie lite lunch of: Danon raspberry yogurt, a packet of baby carrots and a lunch-size tub on Sabra humus and water.  It was good but I wondered just how many lunches would be this controlled given my love for lunch spots in New Paltz.

I love the breaks of our SI schedule with time for a walk to take care of parking permits and someone to step up and lead.  I love reading with a small group.  I love returning for one last touch-base with the larger community.  Yes, the days will feel full before they end and I will dread the long ride home when I am fried but I wouldn’t trade a minute of this rich, unique experience- not a minute. And tomorrow I’ll be joined by Tara, Slicer extra-ordinarie.

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Categories: SI 2013 | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

Two Lovely Weeks: Slice of Life Tuesdays


Morning Slicers,

I am so enjoying my memories of the All Write Conference and my two weeks of transition before I plunge back into my wild riding up and down the NYS Thruway for our annual Hudson Valley Writing Project’s Summer Institute 2013.  After two summers off, I’m back in as lead co-facilitator with my buddy Christine and a great team of Returning Fellows.  We are a smaller group this summer.  Seems like teachers are more exhausted than ever after tough battles with the ed “reforms” that are kicking in. Some great applicants had to bow out, but we continue on.

We always begin after the 4th and just like Labor Day determines the start of school in our area, when the 4th lands in mid week, we get to enjoy a longer summer start before our SI Day One officially begins on Monday the 8th. Of course we do end in early August, but tomorrow we meet with our leadership  at Christine’s for a planning meeting.  Thanks to Google and their docs, Christine and I have been sharing the crafting of our agenda for the day.

So these weeks of break offered me time to read, to meet up with family, ( my 92-year-old aunt, Sally, a family favorite, is arriving on the 5th to see my dad, visit my mom’s grave(her sister, she’s the only remaining sister from the 4) and in her honor, we are dining on Friday night with lots of family who are joining us to see her.  I got to be a learner yesterday in a photo workshop led by one of my best buds, Sharon who collaborated with me regularly when we both taught at Pearl River High School.  She taught art, I taught English and together we met on the stage for at least on play a year.  But yesterday it was her show and probably I am best as a learner, when it’s something I want to learn.  How about that, I realized that  I do love abstract photography even though I usually capture humans.  And yes, I can move off the automatic settings to the challenges of manual, easier than I once could.  I loved yesterday even though we couldn’t shoot outside 🙂


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And last but not least, on Friday I met up with a Slicer who was missing from All Write 2013.  Tara Smith and I were back at our original meet-up spot in Ridgewood, New Jersey, drinking coffee and tea and not breaking down to scarf down my absolute favorite Crumbs Red Velvet  cupcakes.  We were caught in talk: catching up, sharing and planning a project that will take more shape next Tuesday when she joins me for a day at our SI.  I am SURE she will love it and the group will love her.  Too bad New Paltz in an impossible trek for her on a regular basis, but for one day, I can’t wait to have her with us.


So,  even with more rain on the way, I refuse to be held back from the fun of downtime: books, movies, video work, planning, family, friends  and Tuvia.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

Bonnie K.

Read more Slices at Two Writing Teachers


Categories: All Write 2013, Hudson Valley Writing Project, Slice of Life Tuesdays 2013 | Tags: , | 28 Comments

All Write 2013:Beyond Expectations on Slice of Life Tuesday

photo Before I take a ride back to Indiana, let me first take a  moment to RAVE about the  work of Alan Cummings, known for his Cabaret, his work on the Good Wife as Eli Gold and now MACBETH. Last night I dragged Tuvia with me on a sweltering Monday night to live through a night of Macbeth, just one more time.  Yes it was hot outside and inside as well.  What happened to the AC?  Maybe, it just added to the power of play.

WOW!  A one man Macbeth!  I had to see it and like the All Write 2013, I was taken beyond my expectations.  I never took on the “Scottish Play” myself when I was directing high school theater, but it was on the list- a Star Wars version :).  Alan Cummings made this monster his own and took us to a new place with a play that we know well. His setting fit perfectly, in a psychiatric ward complete with TV screens and guards.  I hope there’s a  way that it can be recorded for everyone who can’t get to New York City in the next few weeks.  A true Tour De Force.  I could see it again and again.  I think once was enough for Tuvia.  Shakespeare’s words are lost for him but he did love watching Alan. It’s the morning after and I’m still with Lady Macbeth descending into her bath, naked. Later her descent into madness, his descent into evil will remain with me.

Okay… I could say a lot more about this production and maybe I will somewhere else, but I need to marshal my energy and do some reflecting on my thrilling adventures in Warsaw, Indiana, okay?

So I was ready for this adventure.  My Hudson Valley Writing Project was picking up the tab (YES!) and I was set for hours of travel without the convenience of a direct flight.  Yep, I am very spoiled living so close to Newark Liberty Airport, a hub of United and direct flights everywhere.  Okay enough complaining.

I arrived at the Fort Wayne airport met by a very sweet driver who was waiting for me and a trio of education superstars: Carl Anderson, Jeff Anderson(no relation) and Terry Thompson.  Can you imagine the conversations in that van?  I was right in the middle of Carl and Jeff and it was non-stop talk.  Sadly, I learned more of the details of the recent settlement agreed to by the powers-that-be for teacher assessments designed for the NYC teachers.  UGH!  If you haven’t heard, I don’t want to bring you down now right now.

So we arrived and Mindy was on hand to give us a minute to get our rooms, wash our faces and join her for a ride to the opening dinner arranged by Ruth.  A room filled with SLICERS and interested teachers.  No we didn’t break into a Slicing prompt,  but we did take the time to introduce ourselves and I was overwhelmed, trying to recognize people that I’ve been writing with for years now, just from their blog pics.  Yes, I was overwhelmed as I shoveled down my salmon as everyone else was already on their last courses.


I sat across from Linda and close to Elsie, two Slicer buds who I counted on throughout the past year of mourning my close friend Eileen and my mom.  Every day I posted an entry they were right there with a comment.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t include Tara into that trio.  Three friends who always had something wonderful to leave me with.  Tara and I live close by and we do meet for coffee, dinner and movies.  It felt complete to spend quality time with Linda and Elsie throughout this intense three days, even though by 9PM I was ready to get back to my room, unpack a bit and change into PJs.

The next morning we were up early and picked up by Ruth with a small group of Slicers, Ramona and Nanc,for a quickie breakfast and then off to the opening of the conference.  Let the photo ops begin:


I was starting to feel comfortable and we were off with a shot of Starbucks and a bit of  muffin.  Our conference  space was a gorgeous school, with students still engaged in the last days of the year as we moved from space to space.  The auditorium was filled with 650 teachers as Carl Anderson, my bus bud, kicked off the conference.  Just was he was feeling his mojo and rolling along: FIRE ALARM and we headed outside and the conversations continued 🙂 with Deb, Christy and Tammy and when we returned Carl finished up and we were off to explore ideas with a wonderful variety of teacher leaders.

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I learned throughout the next 48 hours from Jeff A.,Jennifer Serravallo, Ruth Ayers and her partner DEB, Chris Lehman, even though I realized that there’s another Chris Lehmann that I had thought would be there.  Oh well, there’s two great Chris Lehmans.

I wasn’t expecting to buy any new books but then, not everyone is on Amazon’s Kindle section so, yes, I added to my library, like everyone else 🙂 And as we finished our dinner with Kate Messner and Mary Helen, my ace in the hole, encouraged me to pick up one of Kate’s books from my favorite 6-year-old Mia.  On Saturday, at our family barbecue she and her brother walked in reading books and I had one for her, autographed by Kate with a picture of us and the book.  She was blown away!

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And last but not least let me send a Shout Out to my Slicer bud, Mary Helen who offered me peace of mind when I was figuring out how I would get back to the airport on time. She had her charming son and his cousin drop me off at the airport and I could then enjoy her company and our Slicer group for one last evening of fun and one last day of conference learning.


I did love being with all these Slicers, face-to-face.  We seemed to pick up from where we left off from our online writing community . Yes, there is power in sharing writing in cyberspace.. KUDOS again to Two Writing Teachers.  Stacey, we missed you!

Next year?  Who’s coming???

Categories: All Write 2013, Slice of Life 2013 | Tags: , | 34 Comments

A Wild Ride Ahead: Slice of Life Tuesdays

Morning Slicers,

Crazy day ahead:  Dentist in the early morning, maybe an hour at the gym, finally, on the 3rd try the right sized air conditioner will arrive and then a hair appointment at Salon Elyse.  Just another crazy Tuesday and yes, time for packing to make my way, tomorrow, for the All Write Conference: joining up with Ruth, Elsie, Linda and more.  I’m just hoping that the flights to Indiana run smoothly so I can make my connections.

I’m ready for it!  So looking forward to a great atmosphere in a small town in Indiana where a group of amazing educators are coming together.  Hey, did I juice up my batteries?

Lots of time to get to the latest book I’m hooked on: Americanah by Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie, who created an amazing TED talk about the Danger of  the Single  Story.   It’s been awhile since a book has had a hold on me and tomorrow will be for reading.  And I am also participating in the National Writing Project’s Making Learning MOOC.

MOOC Welcome


and here’s Kevin’s Intro model:


I have an introduction to complete today.  That could happen as I wait at the dentist’s office, for the Air Conditioner, at the salon, as I wait for my refreshed look.  Lots of time for the next two days, once I get where I need to be.

Maybe I’ll add mine later today.

Never a dull moment.



Categories: Slice of Life Tuesdays 2013 | Tags: , , | 18 Comments

Lots to Chew On: Slice of Life Tuesday

Morning Slicers,

It’s another rainy morning over the Hudson and some of the roads in our area are flooded but it looks like I’ll be able to get to finish my professional development project at Highland Falls Intermediate School today.  Teachers are finally able to get into computer labs to have their students create digital stories. YES!

Last night though I was back in Finland as I edited a piece focusing on a wonderful retired education professor, Viljo Kohonen at the University of Tampere.  He was our very first interview.  I had just arrived, unpacked, and we were off.  He sat with us for two amazing hours and I am sharing 15 minutes of our conversation with you if you are game. He been at the center of Finland’s educational reforms.

I was thrilled to have Stacey invite me to write a post as a guest blogger and reflect on my experience on my recent visit and it pushed me to get something down on paper.  If you missed it and want to take a read it’s right here.

My good friend Christine will be home as her Fulbright ends on June 15th and then together, our plan is to create a documentary. But I needed to begin my thinking with some deep reflection and a small piece of our experience with Viljo, who welcomed me into the Finn educational experience.

But before I end this post I need to share another video piece. Last Saturday I attended the One Voice rally in Albany organized by NYSUT, our teacher’s union. We were able to avoid the rain and even though we arrived early to an empty space at The Egg, by noon, as the rally officially began we were surrounded by approximately 25, 000 fellow teachers, administrators, students parents and even a few politicians. After my wonderful trip to Finland, I needed this experience.








Here’s a video of the speakers. My favorite voice, is the voice of a student who has just graduated high school. He is a key to our hope of ending the “madness.”

Categories: Finn Education, Slice of Life Tuesdays 2013 | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Playing in Pluck: SOLT


13 years of classical guitar under my belt and yesterday with Pluck, our guitar orchestra, I played my part with calm and confidence and joy, surrounded by adults and kids who share my love to the guitar.

     Here’s our Mozart Symphony #25

I have been living a very crazy few months.  Good months, but traveling without my guitar  and  when I get back home and have to decompress before I can pick it up again, I am close very close to a lesson and way too unprepared.  But my teacher , Jonathan Trotta, is wonderfully patient and knows how to problem solve with me to get the most out of our lesson time together and my practice.

10+ years!

For the last week I played a lot and I followed the process Jon’s process to the tee  and it worked!

No shaking hands. I loved it!  Yes I was exhausted and wished I could race out of there when we were done,but  Tuvia’s family had come to see me, and Tom Chapin was still waiting to perform, so we were all there until the end.

And now, after a lesson the very next morning, I have a new song to work on, and old pieces to return to again.  My skills are growing to meet my passion.

I love making music.


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Categories: Pluck | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

How Finns Create a Sense of Community in Their Schools


                                     How the Finns Create a Sense of Community in their Schools

   I spent most of my twenty-eight years of high school English teaching in two New York State school districts and in two classrooms. Both rooms were tucked away from the rest of the rooms on their floors.  As the high school drama teacher, I had some dramatic license from colleagues and administrators, and it wasn’t unexpected to hear a bit of shouting and rumbling coming out of 101 and 310.  My classrooms were my islands where I was left free to create an environment that allowed my students to feel safe, to be themselves and learn along with me. I think most teachers felt that same freedom and respect.  Their classrooms were their castles.

  Sadly, in recent years, that freedom has been dramatically stripped away from many public school teachers in the United States, which brings me to Finland.  As a committed blogger who shares my Slices of Life regularly at Two Writing Teachers, I have been reading, writing and sharing posts about Finland’s work in school reform on my blog, Facebook and Twitter -so it didn’t come as a surprise to friends in my online communities when I finally figured out the best way to see what Finnish schools were really like for myself.

 The perfect storm fell into my lap when my Hudson Valley Writing Project teacher buddy, Christine McCartney, won a Fulbright to study the Finnish schools during this spring semester.  It was  always a given that I would join her, just a matter of when it would be warmest. As we got closer to my arrival date in late April, Christine scheduled an intense week and a half of interviews for us with education professors at the teacher training university in Tampere and with classroom teachers, teacher trainees, and administrators in the local schools and in one teacher training school in Helsinki, the country’s capital.

  With the doors wide open, I was able to walk freely through the schools with my cameras, documenting the daily school experiences in hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, and playgrounds. While many students were a bit shy of the camera, teachers were more than willing to open their classrooms to us and meet during their free periods and after school for interviews.

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  In a Youtube video I watched about Finland a few years ago, I remember the sign RELAX  hung over the school entrance and yes, walking in and out of schools I felt relaxed in their open spaces. With a luxurious  break of 15 minutes between classes in the middle and high schools, students met together, checked email and read quietly. Teachers in faculty rooms congregated with cups of coffee and conversed comfortably. No one raced from class to class and by late morning, the aroma of home cooked  food wafted throughout the building and everyone enjoyed a free lunch on real plates in the cafeterias. One teacher trainee recalled the cook at her school by saying “she cooked for us everyday, and did so happily…she loved us all.”

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  We were both impressed with many of the school norms we observed and learned about from the variety of teachers we spoke with. It was exciting to learn that elementary teachers are the most respected in the school community  and spots in their early education training programs are the most difficult to land. Positions, especially in the earliest years of  the school experience are the most sought after.  To  establish a strong community of learners , teachers move with their students from grades 1-3 and then 4-6 and even in the middle school, when it is possible, one teacher stays with her students in English as a Foreign Language, for example.  This allows for wonderful continuity in the school community for the teacher, her students, and their parents.

   Children on the other hand, as they come to the end of Middle School in ninth grade, have a choice before them.  Do they apply to traditional high school or look into a vocational education program with a wide variety of choices?  At one time, most students opted for the academically-geared schools, but now it’s about 50/50.  Either path is open to them and the education is of a high quality in both vocational and traditional programs. The paths continue to be open, even if they change their minds and no one is burdened with college loans: education is free pre K-university in this socialist country.

   So by now, if  you’re thinking, yes, that all sounds good, but how do we compare a country with a fairly homogeneous population of five and a half million people, with less than 5% of the population in poverty, to the United States? Well, forty years ago, when Finland was overhauling their education system and studying models from other countries, they could have followed our lead and jumped on our No Child Left Behind bandwagon, eventually moving to high-stakes testing and teacher assessment as a means to improve education.  Check out  Christine’s wonderful video comparing the educational reform trajectories of United States with Finland’s.  

   Instead, they moved in a very different direction.  The center of their community is the child and the education system they continue to improve offers a great public school education for all children, demanding that teachers compete for a spot in a rigorous teacher training program including a in-depth foundation in teacher reflection and collaboration- a habit that continues beyond the university experience.  After all, the teacher is not to blame if students are falling short, but the whole community that needs to take responsibility.  Finnish school communities are charged to provide their children with safe environments to allow them to play, create and collaborate.

   Sitting across from Antti Hitti, a young teacher trainer at Tampereen Normaalikoulu, and  listening to him speak proudly about the autonomy he and he colleagues enjoy in their classrooms,  I ached for the teachers I work with at the Hudson Valley Writing Project and in our service-area schools who are burdened with the high stakes tests, tied to their annual assessments.

   Back home, as I start to sift through the hours of video interviews we collected for the documentary we will create and share when Christine returns in June,  I  wonder how I can best share what I’ve learned and what I can do to support the teachers I know well,l who deserve that same respect and freedom the teachers in Finland enjoy. One event will be held on Saturday, June 8. I’ll be marching with fellow teachers,administrators,  parents and students at the One Voice United Rally in Albany, New York, calling for an end to political obsession with high stakes testing and corporate control of public education.

Categories: Finland, Finn Education | 20 Comments

A Memoir Due on June 1st: SOLT

Hi All,

Given that Tara Smith and I live close, we get together for coffee,  movies and dinner not as often as we’d like.  Just Saturday we brought along our SOs and saw  the  latest, The Great Gatsby with Leo.  LOVED IT!   We also caught up on what we’ve been writing. Both of us with news coming from Stacie, signed up for the Sketchbook Project and while I’ve been thinking about my story, Tara’s been writing and revising hers and guess what, it’s due to be done and set out in the mail by June 1.  So with a day of rain, I’ve been writing and revising in the last 24 hours.  I am sharing my memoir with you if you are up for a read.

Please, please let me know what you think.  I want the best story I can write and I’m asking the best circle of writers I know for help.  Tara is on board when she can end her work day.  I actually loved writing it, returning to my teaching roots.


I Stand on Jack’s Shoulders

I was not the kid who lined up her dolls, preparing to teach them everything I knew at 5. No, I was the kid who loved to dream with her mom when she shared her dashed dreams of becoming a lawyer. Together we watched Perry Mason, the Defenders, movies about Clarence Darrow and I came to love Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch even before I read To Kill a Mockingbird.

But even though her lawyer fantasy was so appealing, she urged me to keep an open mind and follow my own passions. College in the late 60’s was all about pursuing and experimenting and some time between my freshman and sophomore years I fell in love with European history and the trappings of the college professor . BA at Hofstra University, grad work at SUNY Albany, I was on my way to a PhD with mentors who encouraged me to suffer through the long road to a doctorate and a job that would be hard to find but it would all be worth it in the end.  I was up for the challenge until I spent a summer in Rochester, New York, teaching social studies on Jay Street in Operation Young Adults with a group of my graduate school friends

Operation Young Adults, on paper it might resemble an early draft of Teach for America if it hadn’t been for Jack Harnishfager, the educational leader of our team who was tall and lanky with long arms, who lived for basketball in his free time.  Even though none of us were planning to teach public school, we were fired up with the spirit of adventure and it was hard not to get caught up by Jack’s passion for the program he had created in the middle of Rochester’s slums.  A program supported by the corporations of the city, primarily Polaroid, Jack’s school was a renovated pickle shop. The pickle aroma was gone but a respect for the neighborhood of the past was everywhere. But make no mistake, this was a space created for kids to learn in an environment very different from the traditional city public school.   Students accepted into this program had already been expelled from traditional high schools and this was their one last chance before they were set free to fend for themselves. In this work-study model,  they spent the morning with Jack and his staff in classes, earning their missed credits for graduation  and in the afternoons  they  worked with jack-of-all trade contractors, learning  how to renovate burned out buildings in nearby neighborhoods. Their finished houses were then sold to back to members in the community. They created works of art.

It didn’t take me long to salivate for this unique opportunity, especially when we were offered $150.00 a week for our contributions, more than I had ever made in a week before in my life. I was in, even though I didn’t know anything about how to teach.  I  rested on the memories of my favorite teachers burned in my brain but then they had made it look easy and I soon learned , it wasn’t.

We returned to Albany to finish the semester and plan for an unexpected summer in Rochester, New York.  I started having nightmares about what I would do in the classroom. I was not an education major.   Jack instinctively sent us some curriculum materials and a list of his favorite education books by John Dewey, Jonathan Kozal and  Peter Elbow.  The authors were new to me but I raced to the school’s book store to take action. Little did I know then, that I would be resting on of the shoulders of this trio throughout the next 40 years.

We rented a large apartment in a complex not far from the school on Jay Street and arrived on opening night when the  students and their parents were invited to meet the summer school staff and sign up for their courses.  I was listed as the Social Studies teacher who would be teaching Black Studies. As I was catching my breath as a tall boy of color with a dose of style and swagger made his way over to me.

” Scuz me, Miss, are you the one who’s teaching social studies this summer?”

I said, “Yes, hi.

” My name is Prince Jana Taylor. It’s gonna be Black history?”

“Yes.”  Where was he going with this?

“But… he paused… you’re white.”

“Correct,  but don’t worry,  I’m qualified.” I smiled and tried to keep from staring a the scars the covered both of his uncovered arms.

He didn’t smile back.  Was I really qualified? ” We’ll learn together.”

“Hmm…” and he turned a swaggered away.

Would they see me for the fake I was?  What did I know about teaching high school, kids living in poverty with serious problems?  But I was in.

Jack appeared as the evening ended. “Hey lots of kids signed up for your class.  I heard that Prince met you.  He signed up.”

I smiled nervously.

” Hey, don’t worry.  I have a good feeling about you.  Just be honest and kind and firm.  Don’t let them play you.but keep smiling. They’re pussy cats.” Before you leave help yourself to copies of books that might work for you in our library.  We have lots of copies of most for of them.

I jumped at the chance to spend our free week preparing now that Prince had made the upcoming experience real.  Short stories written by leading black writers, The Autobiography of Malcolm X,  etc.  I filled my bag and left ready to stay up all night reading, prepping rereading the trio of great educators for tips.

Our classrooms were all on the second floor, the newest addition to the building.  I could still smell fresh wood.  Probably some of my students had worked on their own school building.  What a great way to feel ownership.  Kids entered the room promptly a 8AM,  following a key rule of Jack’s. He was sweet with the kids but strict about the school’s clearly mapped out rules.

Fifteen boys and girls found seats around the circle I had created in my small room.  A diverse group of kids that I would  have for two hours every other day and then share them with my friend Jane who would teach them English.  It was an easy way for them to make up for failed classes if they ended the summer with perfect attendance.   So I would be seeing them a lot.  With the help of Peter Elbow I began the class with writing even though it was Social Studies class.  I had journals for them to use and leave in class.  I had one for me as well.  I loved journal writing but I had never  shared my writing with anyone and I knew if I wanted them to buy into this daily practice I would have to write and share with them.  Honestly this was an idea I floated to our team during an orientation session with Jack and everyone was game.  So I wouldn’t be on my own.  Every day we would be writing and sharing.  Would they cooperate?  More than anything else, Jack  stressed the need to make our time with them significant, meaningful- modeling good citizenship for them, beyond the classroom.

I was a nervous wreck.  We were all nervous wrecks but excited and comforted that we had Jack be there with us.  We spent most of that first week planning together.  I was teamed with Jane, who was staying on in school  for her doctorate in psychology but what she really loved was literature and together we worked on an interdisciplinary project, centered around the Black experience in America.  Jack had been working with us, sharing what he knew about the kids we would be working with and sharing his teaching tips.  He had been a social studies teacher in Brooklyn and Rochester for 20 years before he moved out of the classroom.  He never really moved out of the classroom.

Both of us would be focusing on building our classes into interdisciplinary communities that we could move back and forth with.  So on day one Kenny, Prince, Tyrus C. Pointer, Helen… and the rest of my very first class, arrived and found a seat in my circle and waited for me.  It was quiet.  It would never be that quiet again.  Jane poked her head in during that first session, I found my way into her room to do the same. But in that first writing and sharing together something wonderful clicked for me.  It was a simple prompt: tell me about yourself.  I talked a bit about how writing into the class would kick off our class each morning and I had my copy of Elbow’s Writing without Teachers. Prince wanted to know more about that,  but held him off for now.  I felt a bond with him after our first conversation.  We wrote for 10 minutes.  Keep writing no matter what…change the topic is you have to.  I kept writing. I looked up from time to time.  Most of them were writing. Some were done, but waiting patiently.  When I called time and I asked for volunteers to read, Prince raised his hand.

” Are you going to read too?”

” Of course.  Do you want me to start?”

“No, I’m gonna read first, but I wanted to know about you.”

Of course he did. Makes sense.

He had written a lot- two full journal pages and he read every word to us.  He had a lot to say from that first day on.  Prince was the right person to meet first and win over.  He led the way.  He read, Tyrus read, Helen read, finally, I read last. It took almost an hour, but it was the best hour I’ve ever spent in a classroom.  My very first was the best.

As I remember that first summer of teaching, that first summer that led me to  career in classrooms with chairs in circles, I was prepped for success and even though the kids were sometimes more than I could handle, there was a team, a network behind me and that made all the difference.

Of course there was that time when I was getting close to my birthday and the kids knew it and someone left me a gift in the top drawer of my desk, something that was a sign of affection but really, an envelop of pot?  Here was a issue  our teacher  team had to deal with without Jack’s knowledge.  It was too serious.  We brainstormed as a group and it was decided that I would make it known that while I was complimented that they had a gift for me, it was something illegal and inappropriate.  I spoke for about 10 minutes to a silent group.

But Prince had something to say.

“Hey, Ms K.  we don’t get it.”  We like you and we all chipped in.”

“Stop there.  I appreciate the effort but I know that you are hearing me. You know this is not correct.  I did not mention it to Jack, because he would come down hard on everyone of you. So someone is going to make this disappear before the start of school tomorrow.Everyone understands, right?”

Everyone nodded and finally Prince too.

I’m sure Jack knew about this but didn’t say a word.  He let us take care of it and the envelope was gone when I looked the next morning. Thank God.

It was an amazing summer with these kids. I was the firs of our team to seriously reassess my post grad plans.  Of course, I would need certification and student teaching, but no doctorate would be necessary.

I was thinking… we were all thinking.  I wonder what would have happened if Jack had offered us jobs as the summer ended.  It was hard to leave, really hard to leave.

I saw Jack once after that summer.  I was back in Rochester when I finished my masters in Albany, visiting my friends Betty and Sam who had introduced us to Jack in the first place.  I  was wondering  if I should work first before I returned home to go back to school for my certification.  Jack had a job for me.  I spent the weekend deciding, ultimately turning him down and but not the change in my life.  Jack on Jay Street.  I’m thinking about him now.  Remembering where I began.

Categories: Slice of Life Tuesdays 2013 | Tags: , | 14 Comments

RIding Up the Thruway Again

Morning Friends,

It felt so familiar and fresh to give into my early morning restlessness and begin the day in darkness.  I tried hard to keep Tuvia sleeping through my shower and prepping to leave, but no luck, we were  actually showering simultaneously and as I grabbed for a towel, he handed me my essential 1/2  glass of OJ.

Just before 7,  I was back in my car, prepping its audio bluetooth for Alec Baldwin’s latest NPR podcast.He could easily keep me distracted for my 62 miles ahead. The forecast for the day was rain and more rain, but maybe just the overcast skies would hold for me.  One last wave to Tuvia, who would never go back for one last snooze, and   I was off on very empty Paramus roads ready, I hoped, to  kick-off our 13th Hudson Valley Writing Project’s  Summer Institute.

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For the past two years,  Tom Meyer has been anchoring the SIs with different co-faciltation teams. As I step back in after my two-year hiatus we will be creating yet another new variation of a cohort.  Christine, finishing up her Fulbright work in Finland will be joining me as a co-faciltator along with  three returning fellows from last year’s team, 3 brand new returning fellows and a smaller than usual group of new teacher consultants. We will be  fifteen in all which is not a bad number for our action-packed July ahead of us.  Maybe more time for us to write and reflect and breathe!

Yes, it will take patience and careful planning to make sure everyone feels comfortable in this new community, but good thing that as I planned my trip to Finland, Tom and I found the time to plan for the orientation days and  allowing for a smooth handoff, Tom will be spending the morning working along side me as we  begin the essential work of creating a new cohort community.

With the exit just a mile ahead and Alec’s interview with Martin Green coming to an end, I grab my iPhone to check in with Tom to get a sense of where he is in his race to join me with the journals, lunch, coffee pot, handouts etc.  In the early days of our work together the early-morning call was a welcome staple.  He is gulping down one last sip of coffee with his wife, Julie and then ready to make his way to the college with a packed car.

Will I make it through the day finally freed of Fin jet lag?

I arrive in front of our Ed building with my pick of spots.  There’s just spot taken by, Camile  already there, waiting in her car.  It’s great to see a familiar face for both us.  She helps me empty my car and we search a bit for an open door and head up in the elevator to the second floor, to a room at the end of a hallway, which will be ours for next week and the rest of our SI in July.  Jennie and Rebecca, more familiar faces are already wondering how we might set up the room.  A U might be perfect!


Tom has arrived earlier than expected and the caravan begins to unload his car.  So many details to consider. I hang back ready to welcome the newbies who enter with a bit sheepishly, not sure what they are doing here on a precious Saturday morning at 8.


Coffee is set, my bagels and muffins are nibbled and conversations quietly begin.  It will never be this quiet again.

We wait for a few stragglers and the room is perfect.  The U works to bring everyone into the community. I introduce myself and  we begin with our morning ritual, Writing into the Day with an short article by writer Ken Haruf about how writers write. And we all write about how we, writers write for 15 minutes.  It’s the most wonderful silence I know. I’ve remembered my bells. We come out of our writing to  share in pairs.  I make sure to share someone new, it’s  Kenneth a wonderfully interesting and thoughtful person-writer.  It’s an interesting conversation about his need to incubate his thoughts in writing.  I focus on my issues with writing as a lefty- why it was so easy for me to give up the pen for the computer keyboard.


A full swift sharing as each new SI member  shares the essence of that first writing in a brand new HVWP gifted  journal.

We have invited Elaine,  a teacher consultant from last summer’s SI to present her workshop on the power of using blocks and writing.


I’ve seen her present this workshop before and yes, it’s a wonderful way to kick off the this SI.  Tom anchors the discussion as the group is introduced to  the Teacher Inquiry Workshop strand.  This is always the most challenging of all our challenges and no matter how clear it seems I know that it will be tough for the new members.  I’m wondering if pairing up our returning fellows with each newbie will be effective. It’s worth a try and the smaller numbers allow for it.

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I’m wondering too how we deal with the question now an issue, how can take something from this workshop, all workshops, back into their classrooms?  What power do they still have over what they teach?  How they teach? One of our new members, a  3rd grade teacher shares that because there isn’t enough funds to offer all teachers blocks, those that have a set has lost them in her school.

I’m wondering how we stay positive and supportive in this reformed world of school.

Tom leaves as we begin lunch.  A few housekeeping details and   we have just one activity scheduled for the afternoon. Heather leads an modeling introducing the reading strand with key National Writing Project text, Because Writing Matters, published in 2006.

As we read the introduction together, I’m wondering what others a thinking about a text written before the recent changes in public education.  I hope there’s a update in the works.  We all need it.

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It’a good day, a really good day even though by the end of that day I can’t see straight.  Jet Lag is still with me and the skies have opened sending down some powerful showers.  But I pack up, share last goodbyes and head for home.


Yes, this will be a good one, a great one when I get my mo-jo totally working. 🙂

Categories: SI 2013 | Tags: | 12 Comments

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