Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Loving Libraries

Six years ago, when Jennifer and I first landed in England with our two-year old in tow, I had something of a panic attack. And when I say 'something of a panic attack,' what I mean is a panic attack.

It all settled on me, seemingly, in an instant and I freaked out over leaving home, getting rid of all our stuff, packing up our toddler and moving abroad for Jen to work on her PhD and me to work on writing and live as close to the bone as possible without a car and without a drying machine and without, essentially, that often helpful thing called money.

After we had landed, those crazy questions and panic-inducing curiosities lifted off: What if the little house we rented was a scam? What if it wasn't real? WHAT IF IT WASN'T REAL!? What if we couldn't make ends meet over here? WHAT IF WE COULDN'T MAKE ENDS MEET OVER HERE!? What if we both failed in our endeavors and we ended up royally messing up our first child? WHAT IF WE BOTH FAILED IN OUR ENDEAVORS AND WE ENDED UP ROYALLY MESSING UP OUR FIRST CHILD!?

After a red-eye flight, we landed in London at seven in the morning, got our luggage, piled into a small black cab and went on a two hour drive to York's train station. From there, we piled out of the black cab and piled into another cab that took us to a small hotel room at the Priory Inn because the little house we were going to be renting wasn't ready yet.

(If it was even REAL!)

It was four o clock in the afternoon, and we sat in a small hotel room and my chest started to feel tight and I started to have that freak out feeling.

But then we left. We went to the York Public Library in the center of town. After walking the mile to get there, it was clean, well-lit, warm, and children's picture books abounded. We stayed there, sheltering from the rain that had suddenly started, reading books to Tyler and to ourselves.

The picture books quelled my panic. The library calmed my nerves. Seeing such a beautiful place, that was FREE to enter and FREE to explore and so welcoming and so kind and so warm and so DRY made me want to cry.

The panic subsided.

We didn't yet have any official mail with our names and address on it yet (if our address was even going to be a real place), but when we explained all this to the kind librarian, she said not to worry and gave us our library cards.

For free. Access. Warmth. Inspiration.

And this is why I love libraries.

Even though we are back in the States now, and we have cars we can drive and more stable lives, I still get that feeling of salvation and transcendence and possibility and warmth whenever I enter a library with our kids.

Picture books! Novels! Memoirs! Space to read, and writer, and ask questions, and find stories and examples and hope and maybe, just maybe, fight back the panic of fear and worry that life sometimes throws our way.

This is why I love libraries, and why whenever a hard rain falls or some dark inner turmoil rises, walking into a library opens a crack for me where that beautiful thing called hope can squeeze through.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Blasting Off Into Imagination

Five years ago, when my oldest son was 2, a laundry basket sat nearby us on the floor just before bedtime. Already, Jen had created the giddy habit of pushing Tyler around in the laundry basket all over our small carpeted apartment as he shouted wildly.

And so, when I should have been getting Tyler into the bath and the bedtime routine, he instead climbed into the laundry basket and looked up at me with wide, wondering eyes.

"Bedtime?" I asked.

"Not yet!" Tyler shouted, and then proceeded to bounce up and down in the laundry basket.

And so, instead of talking with Tyler about the importance of following routines and getting good sleep, I grabbed hold of the handle and proceeded to push. (Does this explain possible sleep problems now...hmmm...we'll deal with that in a subsequent post!)

Tyler's head tilted back and we raced around the apartment, turning the laundry basket into a jet, a boat, a bulldozer, a rocket ship, a fire truck, and more. With each new imaginative sequence, we changed our accompanying sounds and motions and let loose.

Twenty minutes later--me breathless as an out-of-shape Daddy and Tyler breathless for an in-shape screaming little guy--we both flopped onto the floor near the bathroom.

"Bedtime?" I asked.

"Not...yet..."

Later that night, when Tyler was finally asleep in his crib, I sat down at the desk and began journaling. But instead of writing about the day at school teaching, or a cool conversation Jen and I had shared, or about the book I was reading, or about the weather (Get the weather in! Hemingway always exhorted), I wrote a poem.

It was a very simple, short poem that essentially walked through the stages of our little imaginative adventure.

So it is especially fun and with great gobs of gratitude (what do gobs of gratitude look like? I imagine them to be like handfuls of strawberry jam ready to be propelled onto giant-sized pieces of toast) that I wait with excitement to see the picture book Bedtime Blastoff! be released on January 26th.



Even though the poem was written in a single night after our play, it proceeded to go through more than a dozen revisions and still take 3 years to get it towards its journey of becoming an actual book. But what I most appreciate is the small ways wise people helped to fiddle with each phrase, wonder about each scene, imagine the imaged with fresh perspectives--people like my wife, Jen, who is the catalyst for the idea in the first place! And people like my agent Ammi-Joan Paquette whose excitement and work with the manuscript helped it reach its eventual publisher. And people like editor Orli Zuravicky whose energy and zeal and interest propelled it towards its finish.And to awesome artist Mike Yamada who brought the scenes to vividly to life!

But what I am most grateful for is Tyler. And children. They come ready to any situation with the innate and infinite capacity to imagine. A piece of wood can become a talking robot; a laundry basket can become a host of vehicles; a tree can become a space station; anything can be transformed into something beautiful, jovial, miraculous, and fresh.

And I still see glimmers of this kind of willingness to imagine in my 7th graders, too. When they write creatively, when they let go of the worry about a grade and delve into the hope for a new world, their eyes sparkle and they seem somehow free.

Jen and I talk often about how to balance all the little necessities of life--the worries about paying bills, the to-do lists of parenting and teaching and finishing degrees and laundry (laundry, always laundry, aaaahhhhhh!) with the need for imagination. And it isn't always apparent how to do so, but when we go on a family hike up a mountain or climb a massive rock along the trail, we all start to feel like the mountain might be something more than a mountain, the rock might be something more than a rock.

Our lives are imbued with a sense of symbolism--that what we do in our most basic, physical ways can actually represent so much more. And it's this ability to leap from logic to liberty--to live, for a while, with the symbol rather than the definition--that energizes us for the to-do lists of normal life.

And this possibility is what excites me most about parenting and teaching.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Imperially Marching to Elmo's Song

With a 7-year old and a 2-year old at home, we go back and forth between the graces of Elmo and the terror of Darth Vader. Watching my two sons be riveted by each, though, the thing that surprises me most is how they're finding joy in the other's favorite.

Last week, before bath time, Tyler and Ben were both in the living room and we were all dancing our hearts out. Initially, we marched and pivoted and jumped and turned and 360-ed in the air as we listened to the Imperial March of Darth Vader's destruction.

Then, we segued into a giddily gleeful romp to Elmo's Song, roaring the words aloud as we cascaded across the carpet.

Each song brings with it a certain amount of engaged interest, and as we danced our way upstairs for bath time, the two songs seemed to synthesize so that we sang a gobbled, garbled mash-up of Elmo and Darth Vader each marching and playing the piano and somewhere amidst the whole big mess laughter erupted.

Though I would never remind him of this outright, my 7-year old son will still sit and be enraptured by Elmo's song. And my 2-year old son can already say "DARTH VADER SCARY!" with big eyes ready to pop out of his head and bo-ing to the wall on the other side of the room.

Their delight in the music of the other reminds me that fun isn't always about what seems 'cool,' or even about what makes sense (as our mash-up taught me). Delight is about finding surprising ways to interact with all that we experience in our lives. Delight is about dancing goofy moves to scary music, and accomplishing some serous tasks--bath!--to the accompaniment of some goofy music.

As a teacher and as an adult, I think I have a lot to learn from imperially marching to Elmo's song. There is joy and delight to be found in rather serious places, and there is a great sense of purpose to goofiness. And maybe our efforts to try to consistently separate the two should be re-examined.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Value of Imagination

It is hard to figure out why telling a story is so important when the front pages of every newspaper flood fear, hatred, danger, violence. Reading through headlines and delving into analysis pieces and reportage, my head swirls and I look away and then look back, committed to know what is happening in the world--yet fearing it and feeling insignificant and deeply troubled by it.

There is a question that reverberates inside me a lot lately: How do we not get lost? It was a question Jennifer and I first heard when we watched the film Dinner with Friends years ago. It is the story of two couples--one of whom is divorcing, the other of whom stays together. By the close of the film, one partner wonders aloud, "How do we not get lost?" In essence, how do we confront and face all that seeks to obliterate love and forgiveness and mercy in our world, and not get lost?

This past weekend, my seven-year old, Tyler, and I went outside to climb the trees in a nearby field. For hours, we climbed and created imaginary games about pine-cones and contests and races and reaching higher. I didn't notice it in the moment, but those hours were the first in a long time that I was existing at only one moment: the present one. I was so deeply enthralled by the imaginary visions of my son that I stopped--at least for a while--with the imaginary visions of all the horror that was yet to come in our world.

I hadn't realized how deeply it was with me. All the time. On the drive to teach my 7th graders, while teaching, and on the way home.

How do we not get lost?

I think there is a balance between knowing as much as we can--trying hard to stay current and then do all we can whether giving money or time or sharing messages or writing letters--and then also living in that beautiful world of possibility: imagination. And when we do one to the denigration of the other, we lose our ability to keep moving forward. We lose our ability to have the endurance to keep loving and letting ourselves be loved.

We become, without balance, much like one of the characters in a novel. The Absolute Value of Mike, that my 7th graders read. His name is Poppy and he is unbearably despondent after the death of his son, Doug. Rather than allow his wife and others to love him, Poppy shuts himself off from the world. The world is too painful, too cruel and untrustworthy, and so Poppy chooses to sit and remain in a world of his own.

What Poppy doesn't realize is that while his son had suffered and died, the world is still very much alive. There is more work to do, and more love to bequeath. Poppy had left the possible--the new kinds of love that others around him choose to imagine--undone and unexplored.

The value of imagination is that it helps to provide balance, and imbues us with the energy to keep moving forward, believing that even in the face of treacherous violence and fear, love is still possible. Storytelling, then, is a way of sustaining our spirits so that we can act in love. Stories seek and speak to our souls so that we remember, inside, that life is still worth living.

As a kid, I remember reading and re-reading to shreds a book called The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was a collection of ghost stories--hilarious and ridiculous and terrifying---that I could go to anytime the house erupted with screaming and yelling and fighting and fear that I wanted to flee. Those ghost stories were a form of imagination that helped me live through a reality and yet move on from it, simultaneously.

When Jen and I visited Russia many years ago, we were deeply struck by the orphans we met and learned with there. They thrived on two things: hugs and imagination. They let themselves be enthralled by the power of stories, and they gave and received hugs with a kind of reckless abandon and efficacious joy. I know so little of what their lives were (and are) truly like, and yet in the small moments they showed both of us the power of balance: how to live through horrendous experiences and still crave love, crave imagination, crave the possible.

God, help us crave the possible rather than quit because of the present. Help us to be willing to walk into stories--both of ourselves and others and this world and other worlds--allowing our souls to be stirred up there, empowered for further action, small or bigHelp us to remember balance, boldness, and tree-climbing. Help us not to flee truth, but to touch it and still walk forwards.

This, I think, is one way that we do not get lost. This is the power of imagination.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Our First-Draft Selves...Our Tenth-Draft Selves

When I first heard the news that a second Harper Lee novel was going to be released, I did an actual jig. Even though I am not much of a jig-dancer, I did. (I created my own jig, which probably would have made the Riverdance professionals hang their heads low in embarrassment on my behalf.) Yet, as journalistic reports and media coverage of Lee's hotly-anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, came out, I began to view the release with a certain sense of ethical dread. 

Was this what Ms. Lee wanted?

Was it about money for those involved on her behalf?

Why was the novel only being released after the death of Lee's close confidant and handler in all legal issues, her sister Alice Lee?

But as the release approached, I knew that I would have to read the book. My first thought: I'll put my name on the library waiting list so I don't have to necessarily support the whole Lee-being-taken-advantage-of-for-money possibility, etc.

So I put my name on the waiting list, and BAM! There I was: 298th in line for our town of Acton, Massachusetts.

But I was resolved to wait it out.

Until I wasn't. I was on my way home from the library one day and my car kind of drove itself to our local indie store, Willow Books. There, I purchased a copy of Go Set a Watchman, went home, and promptly read the thing as fast as possible.  

Like many readers who once idolized the heroic and calmly brave Atticus Finch, I cringed as I read about him in this semi-sequel. I finished the book, and I almost as though it was my own father who had been pretending--and many years later I had found out who he really was, what he really believed. 

And I mourned--for a little while--the fact that I had even named my own character in The Looney Experiment after him: Atticus Hobart! An eighth-grader who learns what real courage is all about. I saw the "new" Atticus through the eyes of my own Atticus, and I could hear my character asking, WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT ME!!??

I tried to calm him down, let him know that everything was going to be okay. That his courage is still courage. But when I read an article about an actual couple changing the name of their seven month old baby after Watchman was realeased because they no longer wanted him to be named Atticus, I admit I lost some sleep. 

After all: I couldn't change the name of my eighth-grader! And he certainly felt like a real son to me. 
And then I proceeded to devour every news story released about the saga. And my heart kind of flooded over with a certain gratitude when I read about Tay Hohoff, Lee's editor for To Kill a Mockingbird. From all evidence gathered, The New York Times did an incredible job of painting the scene: Mockingbird had been the EVENTUAL draft--the final draft--of Lee's masterpiece. But Watchman had been the first foray. It was only through Hohoff's extensive revision requests and effusive encouragement that Lee was able to get to many drafts later and the masterpiece we have come to know. 

In essence: First-draft Atticus Finch was not the man that later-draft Atticus became. And it was only through the insight, counsel, and support of an astute editor that we came to meet the real Atticus Finch. 
I began to think about this in terms of my own character, Atticus Hobart. And I realized that, at the start of The Looney Experiment, he is definitely his first-draft self. He is terrified of life: of speaking up in class, of talking to AUDREY HIGGINS, or being real with his Dad, of using his voice in any way to speak his truth. 

But Atticus Hobart doesn't stay there. His first-draft self is not his finished self.

And then I began to think about myself, too. And about the people I love. And I realized that we all long to grow from our first-draft selves. We try things, we get it wrong. We try again, we get it wrong again. We make mistakes, mess up, miss opportunities, remain silent when we should speak, speak when we should remain silent, attack when we should repent, repent when we should attack--and so on. 

We all mess up, and were life a courtroom drama, I suspect we'd all be found guilty of a jury for all of the above. For our missed moments and our unkind actions. But the thing is, life is more a novel than a courtroom drama. We get to see our first-draft selves and then we're not stuck with them. We get new chapters, new revisions, new drafts--and we get the chance to create second-draft, third-draft, fourth-draft...tenth-draft selves. 

And the truth is, this process of getting to out next draft-selves is a lot easier if we've got someone supporting us. We can't do it alone. Just as Lee had her editor, Hohoff, to help Atticus Finch become his best-draft self, we too need others to love us, challenge us, hold us, push us, see us, and--especially--see what we can yet become. 

Sometimes, I remind my character, Atticus Hobart, of this fact. Atticusyou don't have to be like anyone but yourself. You are free to become the best-draft of yourself that you can be. 
And I sometimes remind myself of this, too. 

We are all masterpieces--classics of a sort--waiting to become a new draft that is just a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder, a little bit braver. And we all need someone to help us along that road. 
In this way, I see Atticus Finch in a new way. No longer do I view him as a perfect model of sensitive strength. Instead, I view him as a draft--because now I know where he began in Watchman, and how far he came along to get to Mockingbird

I too have a long way to go and a long way to grow. Atticus Hobart does. We all do. And the good news is, that's a journey worth taking. That's a journey worth talking about, writing about, and believing in--no matter how long it takes. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Climbing Mt. Grace (Kind of)

About a hour and a half from us is a Massachuseets State Park called, intriguingly, Mt. Grace. And so, this past weekend, when we were looking for a fun place to explore, something about the name beckoned and two kids + dog in tow, we trekked off towards the small town of Warwick, Massachusetts.

It was a Saturday. A sunny, 80-degree Saturday. And if Walden Pond State Park and Wachusett Mountain State Park were any indication (surefire favorite exploration places for our family), surely Mt. Grace would also be packed.

Teeming with people!

Hard to find a parking spot!

But when we arrived at the parking lot, there were two cars. Two cars and approximately 148 empty parking spaces. I didn't even bother to lean over towards the glove compartment and grab our nifty MA STATE PARK PASS, which allows us to visit any state park for free. No parking fee!

Here at Mt. Grace, though, there would be no parking fees.

Ben woke from his nap, yawned, and then yelled out, "Ball!"

Even though there were no actual balls around, part of the surface of the parking lot must have looked a bit like one. Tyler took off his seat belt and leaned forward, inquiring, "We're here?"

"We're here!" I replied in my jovial Dad-voice, trying to hide the confusion I was already feeling--and the question: But why isn't ANYONE ELSE here?

We all climbed out of the car, and proceeded to read a disturbing sign that informed us of the following (paraphrased):

HUNTING IS ALLOWED IN MT. GRACE STATE PARK. IF YOU DECIDE TO HIKE HERE, KEEP IN MIND THAT YOU MAY BE SHOT AT, AND POSSIBLY KILLED. WHILE THE LIKELIHOOD OF BEING SHOT (AND KILLED, MAY WE KINDLY REMIND YOU) IS NOT EXPANSIVELY HIGH, THERE IS A CHANCE. THUS, WE THUSLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU WEAR BRIGHTLY COLORED CLOTHING AND TRY YOUR BEST TO ACT AS HUMAN-LIKE AS POSSIBLE--WHATEVER THAT MEANS TO YOU. IF YOU SHOULD SEE OR HEAR HUNTERS, WE RECOMMEND THAT YOU SHOUT OUT, LOUDLY, "WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS ON A HIKE! DON'T SHOOT US PLEASE!" WHICH SHOULD ALERT HUNTERS TO THE FACT THAT YOU ARE NOT TARGETS. HAVE FUN! ENJOY YOUR HIKE!"

After chasing Ben down--who was gleefully on his way towards Rt. 78--I turned to Tyler and said, "Maybe we should hike someone else..."

Tyler inquired why, upon which time I re-read the sign, aloud, to him.

Now Tyler was nervous too. And Ben seized the moment to dart towards Rt. 78 again.

We began heading back towards the car, when I saw the sign, "SUMMIT," and an arrow point up a steep path. We had already come this far. Shouldn't we at least try?

This could be a very stupid parenting move OR a decision to not let fear overwhelm my parenting. Aren't there dangers inherent in anything?

We began hiking. I listened intently for gunshots or any sounds of walking as I imagined hunters might walk--stealthily and slowly. I listened for the slow snap of branches, the steady crushing of leaves.

After 20 minutes of hiking, we had seen or heard nothing and no one. I began to shake the fear. Tyler did too. Ben merely looked for ball-shaped objects and Rt. 78.

We eventually did see another human being (and not one with a gun in his hands). Two, actually. A couple were hiking down with their dogs, one of whom frolicked in a particularly goupey muddy puddle. Tyler, Ben, and I laughed.

It was going to be alright. We were safe.

An hour later, we were all wiped. The temperature had risen, our legs ached, and Ben grew heavier on my shoulders. Tyler asked, "Can we go back down without reaching the top?"

My first thought was NO! We've got to summit! And we're so close! But then I remembered that the hike today was about getting out into nature and having fun--exploring, have space to roam and run and be loud. The night before had been a rough one for sleep in the Reynolds home, and we were all wiped.

"Yeah, we can go back," I said and held Tyler's hand as we made our way back down the mountain.

At the bottom, I was grateful and happy about two things: 1) We hadn't gotten shot. 2) There was a huge field just off the trail, where I put down the backpack with Ben inside. And then we all proceeded to play numerous rounds of tag.

Spider tag.

Lion tag.

Kangaroo tag.

Crocodile tag.

Tickle tag.

No-base tag.

And Tyler seemed to forget how tired he was. I did, too. Ben giggled as he watched us run, trying his best to keep up (and even seeming to forget about balls and Rt. 78 for a while).

We stayed in that field by the foot of Mt. Grace for over an hour--running until we were breathless and happy.

And walking back to the car, I kind of felt that climbing Mt. Grace wasn't really ever about reaching the top for us: it was about two things: 1) Not letting fear stop us; 2) Enjoying the journey.

Sometimes, playing and laughing at the feet of Grace is good enough, which is particularly potent for me right now. Maybe 'good enough' is okay--even better--than struggling for a standard that breaks our backs and pushes us beyond joy.

Tyler and Ben hiking Mt. Grace

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Everything is a Ball. Or Not.

Benjamin is now 16 months old, and everything is a ball to him. Balls are balls, of course. Basketballs, soccer balls, kick balls, bouncy balls, footballs. But then there are other things about which his pure relish and love of balls makes his little mind transform into balls.

Things like: the round tops of chair backs, the round handle of a toy fishing net, any building with a curved roof, the front of a car.

While Jen and I repeatedly say back the right word, "ROOF ... ROOF" or "CHAIR ... CHAIR" this doesn't seem to matter much. Instead, his bright eyes and gleeful face grow ever wider and he replies to us and to his big brother Tyler (who also helps in the ball dissuasion mission) "BALL! BALL! BALL!"

And then, usually we all laugh because, hey, it's kind of fun to see almost everything as a ball.

Right?

But then I read the news. I open my front door and proceed to go teach my 7th graders. And everywhere I look I see the brokenness in our world. Baltimore. Nepal. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. And I wonder about that question Langston Hughes asked so powerfully and which Lorraine Hansberry brought to life so vividly: "What happens to a dream deferred?"

What happens when we want--desperately--to see the world be peaceful, equal, kind, and instead we see racism, hatred, fear, war, natural disasters, confusion?

What happens to a dream when it is deferred, or worse: impossible?

There is a great scene in Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun when Beneath says to her Ma about her older brother, Walter, "There ain't nothing left to love!"

Walter has acquiesced to the racism of the whites in his neighborhood, who have offered to buy out the black family so that they move out of the neighborhood. Walter is broken, defeated man.

But Ma says to Beneatha a line that makes me tremble: "There's always something left to love." Her subsequent speech to her daughter beautiful articulates that when we are most broken, that is when we most need love.

Years ago, I would have my 7th graders in Hudson focus on that speech, and rewrote it about someone in their own life. We would read Hansberry's play and act it out in class, and every time one of my students read that line from Ma out loud, I would tremble. I would cry.

One year, we brought out students to a live performance of Hansberry's play. And when that scene occurred, I vividly remember sitting among my 7th grade students and just weeping. I mean, weeping so hard many of them around me looked at me and wondered how anyone could ever let an emotional wreck of a guy like this teach them!

And my heart sometimes feels so weak. I can't read about the brokenness in our world without crying. And when I cry, I can't help wondering what I can do. What any of us can do against injustices that seem so formidable.

How can we change a deeply entrenched system of racism?

How can we find hope for deeply broken forms of education?

How can we transform lives--our own and others--fraught with despair or fear or hurt?

And I come back to Hughes. And I come back to Hansberry. And I come back to my sons.

Again and again and again I come back to trying to see the world not just through my own crying and weeping and wonder, but through the lens of hope which others show me.

I try to see that anything good--a poem, a play, a word on the blank page, an interaction with a student, a protest, a smile, a plea--is never wasted.

I know that, soon, Benjamin will learn the reality that not everything is a ball. Some things are most definitely not, and are in fact the complete opposite. Life is hard. Life is unjust. Life is fearful and confusing and painful.Life has jagged edges that don't even  approach roundness, smoothness, and a curve towards good.

But there are still balls in the world. And there is still some hope that we might transform things that had no earthy business being balls into balls.

We might use the tools at our disposal to change, re-envision, rethink, and redeem. We might find ways to help create curves of growth and curves of possibility where none seem possible. And though I can't always find the strength to wipe away my tears and work, I find it most often when I realize the truth of Ma's statement.

In all our brokenness, there is still something left to love. There is still something worth fighting for. There are poems, plays, protests, pleas, and purposes which need hands and feet to energize them.

There is always something left to love.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Waiting for Knowledge...or Pursuing It?

There’s a great scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says to Vladimir, “Let’s go.” And Vladimir replies to his buddy, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett then gives us the final stage direction: “They do not move.”

Usually, talking to my 7th graders about the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is a bit like that scene. There is not a whole lot of movement when it comes to deep learning, knowledge, and reflection.

So this year—my sixth as a public school teacher—I decided to not really talk about the test very much.

I figured that if my students were learning to become more effective writers, stronger readers, and deeper thinkers, that would show up on any kind of assessment they were forced to take.

But with three days to go until the test, I noticed something: a bunch of my students began to freak out.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you going to prepare us for the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, WHEN IS the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, what are we going to have to do this year on the MCAS?”

And that’s about when I realized that I was either doing one of two things: 1) being a terribly inept teacher in not photocopying a slew of models and worksheets and test preparation activities for my students; or 2) practicing what I had been preaching all year long: that education is about more than a test grade, and that authentic learning is more about going deep than it is about going fast or far.

However, I relented a bit and explained what the MCAS was about, and what it would ask them to do. I even photocopied a few examples of what the MCAS people said were strong writing samples.

This seemed to quell the anxiety of some of my students. Yet the day before the test, I asked all of my students in each of my five 7th grade classes to close their eyes. Then I asked them to hold up a hand with fingers from 1 – 5. 1 meant I am really freaked out and nervous and anxious about this test tomorrow! 5 meant I am not worried at all; everything will be fine.

While some students held up 5’s, I felt a pang inside myself to see that some students felt a 1 or a 2. Many held up a 3. In years past, I had done more test prep activities, and I had detested every minute of it. It felt so awkward to stop what we were doing as a class to hand out practice bubble-tests, practice test-writing prompts, and practice readings.

I love writing and reading. They are my lifeblood, and I believe that words have the power to dramatically transform lives. But I struggle with the intention behind the words we ask students to read and write. If the intention is words for the sake of accountability, my heart wants to distance itself from activities in this camp.

Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe I need to learn how to help my students pause the normal classroom activities and prepare with conscientiousness and a good work ethic for the test that they are required to take.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I need to learn to think about my students more—asking, if they are forced to take this test, then isn’t it my responsibility to ensure they are impeccably well-prepared for it? In this vein, my actions this year indict me as self-focused and unkind.

But some part of me wants to hold on to the hope that as we talked (briefly) about the MCAS this year, and as I used the refrain, “You are more than a test score” over and over and over and…Perhaps something of that reality set in.

Perhaps my students were able to reflect on the fact that we can focus on writing and reading for the sake of writing and reading, rather than bubbling, and they felt the continuity of our class and curriculum moving deeper and deeper.  

Maybe, come next Fall, their scores will provide the verdict.

Or maybe, we won’t be just sitting around waiting to hear their scores. Maybe our stage direction will look a little different than Vladimir’s and Estragon’s. Maybe we won’t be waiting, at all, for the knowledge of if we are strong writers and readers, so much as we’ll be pursuing it.