By Fran Haley
I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battles or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. — John F. Kennedy
I’ve been thinking a lot about the human spirit and what it means to be a literacy educator.
Sometimes the work can be spirit-crushing: Navigating the ever-changing tides of literacy instruction. Keeping a foothold while major pedagogical approaches fall in and out of vogue like flavors of the day. Straddling the continuously-shifting tectonic plates of standards and curriculums. Sustaining a vision for who your students are and all they can be, recognizing that data points on graphs can never tell the whole story of living, breathing, unique individuals. Surviving professional development that is often dictated rather than designed to meet your own needs or interests. Feeling like an island when opinions and methodologies clash. And all this before the advent of COVID-19, before the mad scramble to online teaching, before becoming a daily onscreen presence in student homes, before losing contact with students as families cope with shutdowns, before the still-escalating illness and loss of life, including that within one’s own circles of family, friends, and associates, before the devastating, divisive, demoralizing year that was 2020.
While this work is not without its own particular “battles or politics,” it is also a story of the triumph of the human spirit. When our times reinvented education, we educators reinvented teaching. As if by some magic (but I know better), teachers instantaneously produced magnificent digital resources, toolboxes, and tips that were shared freely. I have never been more grateful for my network of literacy colleagues close to home and across the globe, nor prouder to be numbered among you in this unfolding story. As teachers of reading and writing, we know the power of words. We know that as we shape the emerging readers and writers of our times, they shall shape those to come.
So, when I was asked recently what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”
Today I am altering my answer a bit.
We need to make room for awe.
Let me explain.
Quite of its own accord, awe decided to be my defining word for this new year. When I turned the pages of my planner from December to January, I discovered a tiny subscript: Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you) can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. There was another sentence about intentionally creating awe; I will get to that in a moment.
Those words speak to me on several levels. First of all, I’d never thought of awe as being beneficial to one’s health or as something that stirred a deeper concern for the well-being of others. I do know, however, that at the heart of teaching lies a recognition of being in the presence of something bigger than yourself. It shines from a kindergartener’s eyes; it is in the spontaneous song of the adolescent. It is also in the timbre of a voice of someone you love. It is the thing that makes any human strive to create something powerful, meaningful, and lasting, even in the crucible of chaos. Awe is the deep language of the human spirit. It is what we experienced when the world paused long enough to listen to the words of a young poet reciting for a new president.
Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman?
Have you heard anyone ask (because I have): “Why is this type of writing not valued in our schools?”
Maybe that question ought to have the word now tacked onto the end. When I’ve facilitated workshops for teachers as writers and we prepare to write around an object, artifact, emotion, or memory, faces suddenly light up. Teachers say: “I used to love this kind of writing!”
Perhaps it is time to return.
Think about intentionally creating awe. Writing tends to throw the awe-door wide open. For us as well as for the students.
Begin by carving out moments to experiment for yourself with language, ideas, creativity. Just play. See what happens. Here’s a few simple things to get going—you can make them as quick and easy or as intricate and consuming as you like.
- Dig with the Golden Shovel. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem. It may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.
A line from Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.
Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,
tossed dice, never quite landing, as
we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.
In the spinning we still loved as we grieved
and we’ll go on, won’t we,
even as we did when odds against us grew.
From Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.
Now, who are we
and what should we do,
here where the sun shines not
and Earth’s colors fade.
consider how easily
we glide from
that room to this,
enduring, rather than living, life
—You get the idea, now.
You might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying—anything, really.
Use it yourself first. Switch it up. Use your “golden line” as the first words of your own lines instead of the last. The Golden Shovel is a good tool for awe either way.
- Revisit the acrostic. It is an ancient form. You remember, the first letter of each line spells a word vertically…see how creative you can be with the form now. I wrote this acrostic on social distance in the early days of the present COVID-19 pandemic while thinking of my granddaughter, a fan of the movie Frozen:
Soon the spell will be
Over and we
In the same bright kingdom together
Let this virus go, let it go
Don’t come back any more.
It’s funny how
Some distance makes everything seem like
Time is frozen
Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day
Nearer to overthrowing this
Corona-nation separation to resume our happily
Here’s an acrostic attempting to capture a feeling while contemplating the clouded, haloed moon:
Shrouded in clouds, the
Lifts a bit of veil in
Consolation, for enlightening
Every skyward-turned eye on Earth
Did I mention you might use photos for inspiration? I do, all the time.
- Write around one word. You can probably guess mine. Here I combine it with quotations from Vincent van Gogh and his painting, The Starry Night, in addition to a new phrase I learned. When the sun is far enough below the horizon at dawn or dusk that its blue wavelengths paint the landscape, it’s known as “the blue hour” (isn’t the sound alone just so poetic?). The sky’s the limit, when playing with the possibilities of just one word:
Awe (The Blue Hour)
on the blue hour
at the falling away of day
and the coming of the night
with hope of stars
givers of dreams
singers of songs
that there is no blue
without yellow and orange
like the crackling fire
in our souls
beckoning one another
to stop, come and be warm
instead of passing by
in wisps of smoke
in tendrils of wrongs
in electric-blue currents of memory
by anchoring itself
to the last blade
of living grass
the color of forgiveness
in the blue hour
A final plug for writing poetry: It’s freeing. It doesn’t have to be bound by capitals, punctuation, grammar constraints…it’s about words and rhythms and images and maybe a thesaurus. English Language Learners can excel at it. I once had an ELL student dictate a poem about his love of baseball to me. Then he owned it. It was his. He practiced reading it aloud with a smile that shines in my memory to this day.
Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you)…
One has to ask who’s making the greater contribution to the human spirit.
Then there are letters.
In professional development on the power of writing, I once encouraged staff to write letters to someone who’d had a big impact on their lives. The person could be living or dead. They were to explain the impact and thank the person for it. I asked for volunteers to read their letters aloud after the writing. One teacher offered; as she read, she began to cry. “I didn’t expect professional development to be so emotional,” she wept.
It is exactly those moments that we remember most, psychologists tell us. Experiences around emotion. Being valued by others. Taking part of in a shared experience. They are brief but powerful, meaningful, and lasting.
Our staff spent some time writing letters of encouragement to one another that year. We kept encouragement folders containing these letters, to reread when our spirits needed a lift.
I know that some teachers are currently writing letters of encouragement to students. I have found myself thinking: What would happen if we wrote letters to parents, thanking them for enduring our online presence in their homes? What if we told them that we admire their strength, their perseverance? What if we read these letters aloud to them?
Such things might transform a culture.
Speaking of which…
Don’t Forget the Read Aloud
It’s magical. For all ages, nothing promotes the love of language like hearing words read aloud by someone who understands that it’s a performance. One of the greatest things I’ve seen this year is an online poetry slam in which students shared their original work; some even had videos of themselves acting out the poetic images and scenes they crafted (some impressive videography at the elementary level!).
Whether letters, poems, or books, reading aloud is an invitation for awe. Consider Gorman again: in listening you actually lose sense of yourself for a moment; you feel part of something larger, vibrant, transcendent. That’s the awesome power of language. Even when I work with small groups, with limited time, in person or online, I read aloud to them for a few minutes. A current favorite book with conveniently short chapters: Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot. It has a theme of overcoming, of survival, of redefining home. Who’d have thought that artificial life would stir the human spirit so.
For it is one thing to be literate, and another to be life-literate.
If we have learned anything this past year, it is that we have only so many moments before the final chapter of our times is done and the dust settles over our cities. Life may be in charge of the story, but we are responsible for the craftsmanship.
And our contribution.
Fran Haley is a K-12 English Language Arts educator currently serving as an elementary literacy coach. Writing is her favorite thing to do and to teach; she finds awe in helping people of all ages discover the power of their own writing and fall in love with the craft. That’s her primary goal when facilitating professional development in writing for teachers. She authors the blog Lit Bits and Pieces: Snippets of Learning and Life. As a member of several online writing communities, she interacts with educators around the globe. Connect with her on Twitter: @fahaley.