Who Will Sound the Alarm?

By Lester Laminack

September,

Fulcrum between summer and fall,

I have come to count on you

to sound the alarm.

 

I’ve been listening.

 

Where are your rumbling buses,

the hydraulic whoosh,

the inward folding doors?

 

Where is the chatter and the chuckle

of backpacked-children,

that clamber up steps,

the shuffle to find an open seat?

 

Where is that waterfall of youth

splashing onto freshly cleaned corridors,

the squeak of new sneakers,

the squeal of old friends,

the morning bells setting it all in motion?

 

Where is the thunder

of two-hundred-twenty feet

marching in unison,

eight steps to five yards?

 

Where are the grunts and groans,

the slap and thud of muscled young men

clad like gladiators in helmets and pads?

 

Where is the rising and waning roar

of thousands filling seats

escalating upward into the Friday night skies?

 

September,

I fear you have become the latest victim

silenced by this virus,

this crazy, cunning menace.

 

Who will sound the alarm?

—Lester Laminack 2020

I think many of us are feeling like this, like nothing is the way it should be. In mid-March I was working in a school in Parkersburg, WV. That morning I was the visiting author and met with two large groups of elementary school students. I was scheduled to be the speaker for a Young Authors celebration in the district that evening. I returned to the hotel after the second assembly with a plan to relax until the celebration. I had been at the hotel less than an hour when I got a call from the ELA coordinator.  “I’m so disappointed to tell you that we have to cancel our Young Authors celebration this evening. Our superintendent just got off the phone with the governor’s office and all school events have been cancelled in response to this new virus.”  

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It was too late in the day to begin the travel back to North Carolina, so I made a dinner reservation and got things ready for an early morning departure. On the six-hour drive home I received several other notifications cancelling or postponing events scheduled for the remainder of March and April. Over the next three weeks events into May were cancelling and the pattern followed with events toppling like dominoes stacked in a line. Some just cancelled. Others postponed indefinitely. And several went virtual via Zoom. Schools were rapidly moving to “virtual” platforms and it felt as if the whole country was in some sort of pivot trying to right itself in the midst of growing anxiety.  

Here we are in September, still trying to find our footing. Back in March I believed we would “get back to normal” by June or July and certainly by the time the new school year began. Perhaps you were wiser, but many of my friends held a similar belief.  And now the new school year is underway with teachers, students, and communities scrambling to manage one or another of a variety of “re-entry” plans. No matter what format your school or district has selected, I feel fairly confident that none of it is ideal. Teachers are stressed, parents are stressed, communities are stressed, so it goes without saying that our children are stressed.  

Many of us are suffering from a disruption to routines and schedules that took away our sense of knowing what comes next and altered the we mark the progression of time through a school year. The world feels out of order, chaotic even, for those of us who thrive on routines and schedules and known expectations. After all these months of not knowing, of trying to make the best of less than ideal circumstances and shifting expectations I am feeling the impact of the stress. If I feel it, then I can only imagine that feeling is intensified in our children. 

In times like these I find myself thinking of Fred Rogers who kept the children his singular focus for over thirty years. While he was not a classroom teacher, and he didn’t have assessments, standards, curriculum mandates to deal with, I think there is wisdom to be gained from reflection on what made his program work. From my perspective there are a few simple principles that we can replicate:

  1. Keep it focused—each episode had a central theme that threaded through our visit. 
  2. Keep it consistent—there was a predictable routine to each visit, a set of verbal and nonverbal signals for each transition point. 
  3. Keep it simple—there was no hype, no flash and dazzle, the entire visit was calm and simple involving story, music, a visit with a neighbor, imagination with simple hand puppets, inquiry with “picture picture” on the wall, science or art that could be done at the kitchen table.  
  4. Keep it real—in every visit, Mr. Rogers was present, fully present and not distracted by things around him. He remained focused on YOU sitting there on the other side of that screen. 
  5. Keep it manageable—the pacing was consistent and something that even young children could follow, the content was never overwhelming, examples were supportive.

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University in where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States. Lester has coauthored a number of professional books including Heinemann titles Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Instruction into Writing OpportunitiesLearning Under the Influence of Language and LiteratureReading Aloud Across the Curriculum; and Bullying Hurts. In addition he has several articles published in journals such as The Reading TeacherScience and ChildrenLanguage ArtsPrimary Voices; and Young Children. Lester is also the author of six children’s books. Connect with him on @lester_laminack.