Monday, May 18, 2015

Perceptions

Dear Teachers,

Several years ago now, the pastor at my church was at the epicenter of a lot of strife. In my humble opinion, this person was (and is) an embodiment of love and peace, and at the time he happened to be the victim of a slander campaign. My opinion is based on the fact that I loved the man, and do to this day. But there was a big hoopla, a brouhaha, a to-do about all of this person's shortcoings; and a big church-wide meeting was called so that all the members  would have an opportunity to come together and share their concerns about whatever it was that people thought was going on. My friend the pastor stood up and spoke to the congregation with love and eloquence. I have no idea what he said, but I remember thinking, "I'm so glad he had the chance to speak his piece. Now people will understand what a wonderful individual he is, and will see that they have been unfair to him."

He excused himself from the room, and the next person who got up to speak said, "See there?! There he goes being divisive again!"

I really couldn't believe it. It was so obvious to me that my friend had exonerated himself, and yet others apparently saw it completely the opposite. Haters gonna hate, I guess, is the moral there.

That story is the one that I come back to every time someone surprises me with an opinion I didn't expect, or judges someone in a way that seems unfair to me. Each of us has our lens, our bias, our prejudgments, our opinions, and those all are formed sometimes without our even being conscious of doing so.  Once we have an opinion of someone, whatever that person does is seen through the lens of our opinion of him or her. Take political candidates, for example. We will tend to view positively the candidates of our preferred party, and will likely ignore anything "good" from the opposing party. Human nature, I suppose.

A personal example is a coworker of mine. I think she is just about perfect: cute, smart, funny, kind beyond measure. Anything she does reinforces my opinion of her. Anything that doesn't quite fit? I write it off as my error, or at the most, she was having a bad day. I am quick to excuse any shortcomings (to be clear: I don't see her as having shortcomings, although she probably does have at least one), and every sweet, cute, funny thing she does reinforces my already positive opinion of her. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone would see her any other way.

Conversely, there is a person in my life right now who seems to have gotten a negative impression of me, and no matter what I do, my actions seem to be viewed negatively. This has been going on for several years now, and I don't quite know what to make of it, as there doesn't seem to be a particular event or action for which I could apologize, or that could be addressed in a conversation. I have tried to make amends to this person, but whereas I could make it up to them for something I've DONE, I can't really figure out a way to make amends for who I AM.   I am at the point where I have to acknowledge that the person is going to find fault with me no matter what I do, and that is very uncomfortable for me. But I am learning to deal with it.

And maybe the most stubborn prejudices of all: those we hold of our family members. I wrote once about my mother, characterizing her as difficult, boring, unfriendly, unlikeable. While she still has the characteristics that made me believe those things, I have had to confront my own deeply held prejudices about her lately. In watching her a little more closely while she's been at the rehab facility for all her broken bones, I've slowly come to see a different mother, if I let myself. She eats in the same place every evening (this confirms my opinion that she is set in her ways and inflexible). She makes the other women at the table laugh, and they joke around together. WHOA.  Eleanor, one of my favorite of my mother's current rehab companions, says to me at every meal for which I am present, "Your mother is so funny. She keeps us all in stitches." Apparently my mother is perceived by others as - dare I say it? - FUN.

And here's another illustration. I wrote down a name and phone number from the answering machine at Mom's apartment, but I had heard the name wrong. "LYNN Levy? That's not her name - it's ANN Levy," my mother corrected sternly, as though I were quite the dolt. Chalk up a confirmation of my opinion of her as critical and exacting. When she called ANN back, they giggled together like schoolgirls. "I miss you, too," I heard my mother say. "Thank you. I love you too." (Who IS this woman sitting before me?)

I suppose this is the best kind of cognitive dissonance, learning new things about someone we had been convinced was a certain way. Just a tiny alteration in my own attitude - my own heart - that opens up chasms of room for a shift in perspective. Will my mother continue to get on my nerves? I suppose. But I have to tell you I'm kind of enjoying cutting her a little slack, and trying to see her in a different light after so many years.

Which brings me back around to you. You probably have about two or three weeks left with the current crop of kiddos. Do you have an opinion of one of them that you might consider changing? Is there one kid who consistently affirms your somewhat negative opinion of him/her? What could you do to see that student in a different light? How could you end the year surprising yourself and that student with your own acknowledgement that maybe - just maybe - there is more there than meets your eye? And what about that parent? You know: THAT Parent. The next time you cringe when you see That Parent's name in your inbox, stop and take a deep breath. Read the email as though it was from your very best friend. Maybe the words will be far more benign than you imagined them at first.

You may not need to shift your perception, but if you do, I hope you'll let someone surprise you this week.

Fondly,

Nancy




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Making Readers

Dear Teachers,

Since I'm a former librarian, it probably won't come as a big surprise to any of you that I have identified as a reader pretty much my whole life. I can remember walking up to the toy store that was just a few blocks from my house, with birthday or babysitting money in my pocket, trying to decide between the horse book or the Nancy Drew book. Usually the Nancy Drew book won, because I loved that someone with MY NAME could be so intrepid and such a good sleuth. I voraciously read every episode I could get my hands on, numerous times; I was always on the edge of my seat wondering how that Nancy was going to get out of the scrape she found herself in.

And then one day, Mrs. Brubaker, my 5th grade teacher, gave us an assignment. We would have to give a book review to our classmates. "This is great!" I thought. "I'll be able to tell everyone how cool Nancy Drew is. Maybe someone else will want to read about her, too!" I don't remember which installment of the series I chose to present, but I do remember the shame I felt when the teacher I had loved and trusted decided to criticize my choice of book in front of my entire class. "That is not a real book," she chided. "It's just a formula. The same basic thing happens in every book." I was so embarrassed.  The conclusion I came to? Maybe I wasn't a real reader after all, if I hadn't even been reading a real book.

The next reading memory I have is of discovering To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in the 8th grade. There is a passage near the end of the book that I can remember to this day, because I must have read it about 10,000 times. I remember absolutely weeping for the beauty and sadness of the passage. To this day I can walk into a book store and practically turn right to the page that I loved so.
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
I don't know why that passage spoke to me the way it did, but I do know what a profound effect it had on my reading life. Forty years later, I still get a little choked up when I read it, but it's the memory of my 13-year-old reading self, I think, rather than the words themselves.

I've been thinking of my early reading memories because I've been working for a few months now on our district's Secondary Reading Advisory Committee, a group of lovely and committed Reading teachers who are looking at revamping our middle school Reading curriculum. It's been my privilege to work on this committee and to witness the care and thoughtfulness that these dedicated teachers bring to the work  of thinking through and creating a new reading program. The members of the committee have examined numerous research studies on what makes kids become readers; have read several books about what makes kids become readers; have discussed our observations about what makes kids become readers. The clear "winners" include student choice, time to read, and plenty of access to reading materials.

But the other winners, of course, will be the kids who reap the benefits of the hard work that these wonderful teachers have been doing over the past few months; the kids who will very likely become readers because of these teachers and many, many other teachers like them. Once again, I am reminded of how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work in this profession. Because of this reading committee - maybe because of YOU - someone, somewhere will likely find his or her Secret of the Old Clock or To Kill a Mockingbird. And that someone, 40 years from now, will remember how you made them feel about that book, and hopefully will thank you.

Fondly,

Nancy