Archives For 85th Saturday Reunion at Teachers College

Kate DiCamillo stood in the nave of Riverside Cathedral, her curly hair barely visible over the podium, her voice clear and strong as she delivered the keynote address for the 85th Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Reunion (October 19, 2013).

She was exactly as advertised from the information on her website, “I am short. And loud.”

kate-dicamillo-floraandulyssestheilluminatedadvent-68She addressed the packed house of literacy teachers, some 2000 strong, who knew her as the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (a Newbery Honor book), The Tiger Rising (a National Book Award finalist), and The Tale of Despereaux (winner of the 2003 Newbery Medal), but her morning speech was about her latest book, Flora and Ulysses. She set the stage with her opening proclamation:

“This story begins as stories often do with a vacuum cleaner.”

Not just any vacuum cleaner. The vacuum at the center of this story was a 1952 tank Electrolux 2000, a treasured appliance belonging to DiCamillo’s mother. How treasured? DiCamillo joked that when her mother who was ill moved to be with her in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she worried more about the safe delivery of the Electrolux to the new home more than her own personal safety.”I want you to know that you can have the Electrolux when I am gone,” her mother told her. “It’s a really good vacuum cleaner,” she said and added, “The cord is extra long…and its retractable.”

The audience of teachers laughed; DiCamillo’s dry delivery in describing her mother’s attachment to a housecleaning appliance was part retrospective for the older teachers and part kitsch for the newer ones. “Remember the Hoover?” DiCamillo quoted her mother as saying, “that Hoover was useless!” But as she recounted how her mother’s illness progressed, the appreciation for this appliance took on new significance. “I really hope you will take the Electrolux,” her mother told her, “that makes me feel better.” So when her mother passed way, DiCamillo did take the Electrolux, but put it in the garage through that winter.

She spoke how in those dark days after her mother’s death, she found comfort in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God and she read the lines from the short poem:

“God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call Life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.”

She reflected that when her mother was dying, she had held her mother’s hand in comfort, an action profoundly different from all the ways her mother had taken her hand when she was younger. The crowd was visibly moved by this retelling of the loss of her mother, but in typical DiCamillo storytelling fashion, her speech then veered off to include the death of a squirrel.

Shifting from the pathos for her mother, DiCamillo recounted that one day, a dying squirrel had chosen the front steps of her home as the last stop on his final journey. His eyes were open, yet unseeing; his chest dramatically heaving with his last breaths.
“I didn’t want him to suffer and die on my front steps,” she bemoaned.
So, she called a friend.
“‘There’s a squirrel on my front steps…He’s dying’,” she told her friend (Carla), “‘what should I do?'”
The advice she received from her gentle and humane friend appalled her.
“‘Do you have a shovel…and a tee shirt?'” asked Carla.
DiCamillo admitted that she had a shovel, but that she “moved away from the front door so the squirrel would not hear what was being said.”
“‘Put the tee shirt over the squirrel, and I will come over and hit him with the shovel,’ replied Carla.”

Fortunately, before that plan could be executed, the squirrel had crawled away.
“He may have heard us, or he had moved to get away from my presence,” said DiCamillo. The same people who had been tearing up from from the death of her mother and the power of the Rilke poem were now laughing out loud; the cathartic shift in emotions had been seamless.

DiCamillo then told the audience that she considered her reaction to the dying squirrel was not unlike the reaction of E.B.White in an essay he published in The Atlantic, “The Death of a Pig”:

 “He came out of the house to die. When I went down, before going to bed, he lay stretched in the yard a few feet from the door. I knelt, saw that he was dead, and left him there: his face had a mild look, expressive neither of deep peace nor of deep suffering, although I think he had suffered a good deal. I went back up to the house and to bed, and cried internally – deep hemorrhagic intears.”

“White claimed that his novel Charlotte’s Web was not connected to this essay…but could this event,” DiCamillo speculated, “have been more?”
She paused to consider their mutual despair over loss.
“He wanted to keep the pig alive….I wanted to keep the squirrel alive.”

And in that instant, a cathedral full of teachers understood that great ideas do not happen in (pardon the pun) a vacuum. DiCamillo’s speech illustrated how the three seemingly unconnected elements in her keynote address were the elements of story she combined in her latest book Flora and Ulysses.

In this story, there is a vacuum, a squirrel, a shovel, and several lines of the Rilke poem.
To be more specific, there is the near death experience of the squirrel, mistakenly sucked up by the Ulysses 2000; there is a comic-book superhero aficionado who intervenes; and there are several drafts of meta-physical squirrel poetry.  The story has the “beauty and terror” from the Rilke poem as well as the giving of a hand for comfort. There are what DiCamillo terms, “eccentric, endearing characters” presented in a format that combines print with comic book styled illustrations. Like the keynote address, the novel plucks at both the heart and the funny bone; it is a wonderful story.

The biography on DiCamillo’s website reads, “I write for both children and adults, and I like to think of myself as a storyteller.” Listening to her speak, I cannot think of her as anything else.

The education reformers often look back to see what lessons can be learned from the past in order to direct the future, and the recent article in The Wall Street Journal  “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” (9/27/2013) by Joanne Lipman integrates current research to the old-fashioned teaching techniques of her former music teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky. After creating a nostalgic portrait of a demanding educator, Lipman posed the questions, “What did Mr. K do right? What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?“ She continued:

Comparing Mr. K’s methods with the latest findings in fields from music to math to medicine leads to a single, startling conclusion: It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works.

In responding to her own questions, Lipman listed out the eight factors that were the hallmark of Kupchynsky’s teaching style, a style that Lipman admits would be controversial. She writes, “Today, he’d be fired.”

The tenets of Kupchynsky teaching method were summarized by Lipman as:

  • 1. A little pain is good for you.
  • 2. Drill, baby, (kill and) drill.
  • 3. Failure is an option.
  • 4. Strict is better than nice.
  • 5. Creativity can be learned.
  • 6. Grit trumps talent.
  • 7. Praise makes you weak…
  • 8.…while stress makes you strong.

I also grew nostalgic reading the article. I doubt Kupchynsky ever had to mention his objective. He never was mandated to place the Common Core Teaching Standards in a visible location at all times or worry about collecting data from formative assessments to inform his instruction. This was a man who knew his discipline and was disciplined in his teaching. The evidence was in the success of his students:

Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement.

This story about Jerry Kupchynsky’s teaching came to mind when I heard Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project  (TCRWP) Director Lucy Calkins speak this past Saturday at Columbia University at the 85th Reunion (10/19/2013).

Calkins offered an afternoon session about “Leading From Within: Turning Schools into Places Where Everyone’s Learning Curve Is Sky High” and her opening wry comment, “This session could be titled ‘Staying Alive in a Toxic World’,” was met with appreciative laughter by the audience of educators jammed into the large meeting room.

Calkins immediately addressed the reform efforts, teacher evaluation programs, and the Common Core State Standards.  “We cannot control what happens to us,” she stated clearly, “but we can control our reactions.”

She discussed how her acceptance of the Common Core, detailed in her book Pathways to the Common Core, has put her on the outs with many education reformers, and she acknowledged with some frustration that the “350 billion on tests and technology…nothing left for support for teachers and kids,” angers many educators.

Against these controversies, she asked, “Is there a way for us to move students/our work forward?”  and she explained that in trying to find that way, many opportunities have been presented to TCRWP, and that the pressures in this environment, “Can lead you to do really problematic things.”

She paused for a moment and then said, “Sometimes to say ‘no’ is good.”

The room was quiet as the teachers in the crowded room considered what Calkins meant.

“The ‘nos’ protect your brand,” she said emphatically, “the ‘nos’ define your brand. If you do not say no, then you have no brand…but we must be evidence based when we say ‘no’.”

Lipman’s music teacher Kupchynsky had a brand.  I imagine he said “no” quite a bit. Consider how easily “no” fits into seven of the eight ways his brand was defined. For example, “no pain, no gain” is the same as “a little pain is good for you.” Even the idea that “creativity can be learned” refutes the commonly held belief that people are born with creativity or they are not.

The Kupchynsky model worked because he knew his discipline and the direction he wanted for his students; he had a brand.

The Calkins model works because she knows her discipline and the direction she takes as she pushes the teacher leaders at the TCRWP; she has a brand.

noThe toughest teacher in the room, however, does not have to employ the Kupchynsky methods of teaching; given today’s climate, the behaviors detailed in the article could lead to a dismissal.  The toughest teacher in the room can be quiet and unassuming, yet someone who is passionate and skilled in a discipline.

The toughest teacher in the room has a brand, and like all brands, one that is defined by “nos”. The toughest teacher in the room says “no” to excuses from any stakeholder that stops student achievement in the classroom.  The result can be a brand of teaching that possesses the “unyielding demands” like those made by Kupchynsky, the brand of teaching that provides evidence reported in a newspaper article some twenty years later by a former student.