The Calvin to My Susie

“I have an amazing life.” These are some of the last words my brother shared before he passed away this fall. Since his passing, I’ve sifted through hundreds of photos that celebrate the small moments that made up his life. The day he was born as he was held in my parents’ arms. Blowing out birthday candles. The skeleton costume. The sports events. School pictures. The mustaches. Top hats and sunglasses at New Year’s–our family tradition. Hugs from his nephews and niece. In this moment of loss, I’m reminded even more powerfully that we are only here for a short time. That our lives are full of stories. And we are all worthy of love and belonging. 

For many years now, Jimmy has been my greatest teacher showing me how to live a more loving and joyful life. In my work with teachers and children in classrooms, I am guided by Jimmy’s legacy. I remind myself that all learning is about becoming a better human. It’s about showing up in life for those you love and what you believe. It’s about recognizing the gift of our existence. 

I’m also guided by the reality that there were years in school when Jimmy was simply not seen, heard, or loved for who he was by his teachers. He thought his life was amazing. School was not. His busy body and boisterous energy wasn’t always understood. He was a Calvin. And I was a Susie. 

If you’re familiar with Bill Watterson’s comic strip, you know that Calvin’s brilliance and energy is consistently and predictably overlooked in school. His imagination drives his learning, not some external standards. Dinosaurs and aliens–yes. Multiplication and memorizing dates–no.  Paying attention and sitting still are not his strengths. So, what he’s seen and heard for is not paying attention, not knowing the answer, not showing up in acceptable ways. 

Susie’s brilliance and energy matches school expectations. She is driven by recognition and is eager to please. She knows the answers. She sits still. She raises her hand. Gold stars fill her college-ruled notebooks. 

Calvin and Susie have become so iconic, because in many ways they’re true. The thing is we’re all a little bit Calvin (if we’re lucky) and a little bit Susie. But the ratio of how much Calvin-to-Susie one has can have an impact on how children are recognized in school and for what. 

What we assume about children based on how they show up in our classrooms challenges us to ask ourselves what we can learn from our students, rather than just what we can learn about them. As a teacher, I’m drawn to the Calvins because I see my brother, Jimmy, in each of them. I know they are probably the students in the room with the biggest hearts, the widest imaginations, and the most to teach us. 

In honor of my brother, Jimmy, I invite you to consider the Calvins in your classroom and to see, hear, and love them a little bit more. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Get curious: Notice and name the kinds of behaviors you see in students and get curious about them as sources of strength. For example, a student dominating discussion could be reframed as someone with a strong voice and sense of self. A student who is distracted could be reframed as a daydreamer imagining new stories in their head. A student who likes to make others laugh can be reframed from class clown to wordsmith. 
  2. Use intentional language: Rather than constantly redirecting or calling attention to Calvinish behaviors use affirmational and presuppositional language: “I knew you were the kind of person who…” and “Remember what you can do…” and “You can decide what to try next…I trust you…”
  3. Offer scaffolded choice: Use the 5W1H rule to consider the kinds of choices students can make to have agency in their learning. For example: Who are students reading with? What are they reading? When are they reading? Where are they reading? Why are they reading? How are they reading? If students don’t have agency about any of those things, chances are some students will find the stories in their heads more interesting than the ones on the page. 
  4. Incorporate more play: Invite students to play with materials, play with language, and laugh out loud together. Incorporate daily jokes, riddles, or puns. Now’s the time for humorous read-alouds like Snappsy, the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) and the shape trilogy, Triangle, Circle, and Square by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Let students know your classroom is a safe space to be light-hearted and to take ourselves less seriously. 
  5. Invite movement: We have a human need to move. Incorporate gestures and small movements as a part of learning. Not only will it give students a chance to reconnect with their bodies, but their learning will be strengthened. Inviting movement doesn’t have to require a lot of planning but regular bursts of integrated movement can boost comprehension and joy. Incorporate movement as a natural part of read-alouds and small group instruction. 
  6. Keep track: Lastly, keep track of the children you are giving positive recognition to. Take a class list and put a checkmark next to a child’s name each time you say something meaningful and affirmational. Our voices have the power to become their inner voice. Are their voices saying I am worthy to be loved? 

Manifesto for Joyful Teaching, Leading, and Parenting

As this unusual and uncertain start of the school year begins, my husband and I returned to a manifesto we wrote for how to prioritize JOY in our family life and in our classrooms. We drew on the seven pillars from my book Start with Joy as a guiding framework to help us think about what matters most to us as parents and educators. When we inevitably face personal and professional challenges this year, we know we can return to this to remind ourselves of what we believe and whether we are being true to those beliefs in the way we live, love, and teach. Since we have to start somewhere, we believe we can start with joy.

We believe…

In Connection

-in assuming the best and seeing the good in all people, especially children

-that “please”, “thank you”, and “I’m sorry” are the most important words to make a habit

-that we all seek connection and belonging 

-that all children deserve to feel unconditional love at home and in their classrooms

In Choice

-that children can be trusted to make choices about their bodies, their clothing, how they use their time, and what they are interested in

-that having choice and agency is a child’s right

In Challenge

-in instilling a love of challenge as a basis for finding courage

-that having real, authentic challenge is a human need

In Movement 

-that our bodies shape our minds 

-that movement is a powerful tool for learning

In Discovery

-that feelings of awe and wonder make learning memorable

-that discovering something about ourselves, others, and the world helps build a happy life

In Play

-that everyone–kids and adults–should play more

-that play is always purposeful and educational–even if we don’t know what the purpose or learning might be 

In Story

-that we are storytelling creatures who want to be heard, seen, and valued

-that our lives are full of stories

In Joyful Parenting

-that our children should feel unconditional love

-that we are responsible to our children but not for them

-that when we face doubt we can focus on what is simple and sustainable

-that all behavior is a form of communication 

Let The Children Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s a timeless question that some children ask out loud directing their hopes for play at loved ones and even at those they’ve just met. It’s also a question often unstated, particularly as children grow older and as their awareness of the vulnerability of a possible rejection grows. Almost nothing hurts more than the rejection of play or the anticipation of play that is then unrealized.

In my experience, by the time many students reach fifth grade they’ve learned that play is so rarely a part of learning at school anymore that they stop looking forward to learning at all. But this moment of global crisis is an opportunity to reset what learning can look like when we return to classrooms. To rekindle what’s worth learning. To invite play. To bring more joy.

At the heart of any learning situation at any age is the heartfelt desire to play. In his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Dr. Ned Hallowell proposes that when we have learning experiences that start with play, we create a cycle of happiness that can sustain us over and over again in life. Whenever I need to remind myself of what’s most important for learning and happiness, I ask myself “Where is the play?”

Here’s how the cycle works: When learning starts with play, it gives us a reason to practice. Learning anything is hard and usually requires repeated, intentional practice. When we practice enough, we reach a stage of mastery where we use less mental energy to continue growing in our knowledge and skills. When we reach a stage of mastery, other people recognize us for our efforts and success.

Here is essentially what we’re telling ourselves when this cycle is in place.

Play is inherently joyful–fun, even. The experience makes us want to keep trying. We lose track of time while doing it, don’t want it to end, and choose to practice. We’re able to recognize our own success. Finally, we feel seen, known, and loved by others. Without the first step, the cycle falls apart.

But the reverse is also true. When learning is initiated with tasks less play-oriented, practice becomes rote and boring and is then abandoned. If we give up on the “invisible practice” needed for automaticity to solidify, we never get to a place of mastery and ease. Or we get there through tears, arguments, and maybe some heated book throwing and pencil breaking. When we miss the opportunity for mastery of a new skill, it’s pretty unlikely that someone else will recognize us for our efforts or success. Rather, we will be recognized for the negative behavior that stemmed from a lack of practice and a lack of mastery ala No, David!

In this moment of learning from home, teachers and families have an opportunity to invite different kinds of play into learning that are incredibly difficult in today’s typical classrooms like:

  • using nerf guns to practice phonics and grammar skills
  • going on an indoor/outdoor scavenger hunt
  • creating reading forts with boxes, blankets, and pillows
  • using food to enhance learning like making structures with sugar cubes and learning the parts of a paragraph with Oreo cookies
  • telling or creating stories with toilet humor ala Captain Underpants
  • giving kids time and space to figure out how to play alone

But if all learning is strengthened by starting with play, what does that mean when we are back in classrooms? We know from research on the childhood roots of adult happiness that the primary components of a happy life are positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence, and strong social bonds–all of which are enhanced through learning that starts with play.

Imagine a nonfiction unit of study. Rather than lead with the skills of identifying the main idea and key details, what if learning started instead with enticing photographs and the challenge to generate 20 questions about the image with a partner? Or a scavenger hunt for text features across different texts? Or the opportunity to build something from loose parts that will connect to a shared topic? Learning how to identify the main idea and key details in a nonfiction text is strengthened if we start with play first.

Or take a narrative writing unit. Rather than starting with a story map graphic organizer, what if you started with comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes to laugh out loud while learning about how characters often land in a sticky predicament? Or with costume pieces and small props? Or with stick figure puppets? Or with lines cut up from stories that the class has to put back together in order? Or with wordless picture books for students to add descriptive sentences, dialogue, and internal thinking? Students will understand and remember how stories work and what makes a great story if we start with play first.

When we return to classrooms, children will expect and need learning that is joyful and gives them a sense of purpose and recognition. It will require letting go and giving children, and ourselves, the freedom to make decisions and try something new.

If you want to read more about play, here I share some more ideas about how to invite play into learning and here my husband and I explore what play looks like in middle school. We also talk about play in Episode 5 of The Professor and the Principal podcast.

Have you played today?

The Professor & The Principal, Episode 5: Wanna Play?

In this episode, Chris and I talk about how we are inviting play into our lives and our children’s lives right now as we home school/crisis school our boys during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, and Anchor. If you have a moment, it would mean a lot if you could rate our podcast or write a review. Thanks for listening and subscribing!

Continue reading “The Professor & The Principal, Episode 5: Wanna Play?”

What Are You Making?

If you are like me, many of the moments you remember most from childhood might involve making something. There’s the pillow I made by hand in elementary school that I still have stored in a plastic tub in the basement. The Madonna-inspired music videos I made with my two best friends. The pumpkin bread each Thanksgiving. The project posters. The mix tapes.

As our modern world often demands 24/7 connectivity, there has been a surge of interest in making things as a way to unwind, release our creativity, and even to combat addiction: cooking from scratch, knitting, woodworking, essentially anything you do with your hands that focuses on repetitive actions at a skill level that can always be improved upon. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as entering a “flow” state where we reach a balance between skill and challenge that fosters in us an almost unconscious drive to keep trying. To keep making. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the secret to happiness.

In schools, we’ve seen the Maker Movement and project-based learning bring renewed focus on making. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, explains that the Maker Movement is about more than gadgets and technology. It’s about making things you care about, things that are meaningful to you and meaningful to others around you.

Children are really the best makers. My eight-year-old makes flip books, comic books, lists, and marble runs. This week, while getting out the frying pan, he said, “I want to make my own quesadilla.” The urge to make is always there especially when the process and the product go hand-in-hand.

As we get older, the things we make sometimes change. Our eleven-year-old likes to make lists of basketball drills that he writes in a journal dedicated for this purpose. He made a Top Ten Basketball Players of All-Time slideshow just because. He doodles and draws, but mostly when no one else is looking over his shoulder.

Throughout our lives, we never lose the urge to make things. My mom is an avid and skilled needlepointer. Her favorite things to make are ornaments. Small projects that she can finish in a week or two. Thanks to her devotion to making things for the people she loves, we have dozens of ornaments that bring us joy at every major holiday. Her love of making ornaments is consistent with research that shows that the act of doing for others gives us an immediate sense of satisfaction unparalleled by things we can buy for others.

Of course, the act of creating can be frustrating. The lines we want to make straight may turn out squiggly. The drawing we hoped would be perfect may turn out “ish”. The building might collapse. And the cookies may burn. But when we try to make something and it fails we learn it’s okay to try again.

Writing as Making

It’s easy to forget that every piece of writing we craft is an act of making. In writing workshop, the question “What are you making?” is a more joyful alternative to “What are you writing?” This shift in language is subtle but significant. When we reframe writing as making, we free students to try and experiment much as they would when making something in the kitchen or in a laboratory or in a workshop.

Memoirist and writing teacher, Suzanne Farrell Smith, explains in her book The Writing Shop: Putting “Shop” Back in Writing Workshop that we can reclaim writing workshop as a method that draws from its namesake–the shops of craftspeople like carpenters, quilters, visual artists, architects, or cooks. She explains that a true writing workshop offers much more than technical expertise. It also offers “self-awareness, impulse control, seeking help, listening carefully, cooperation, conflict negotiation, appropriate risk-taking, grit, initiative, courage, [and] consideration of the health and well-being of others.”

Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play

When designing things you care about is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the materials are: wooden blocks, paper and pencil, seeds and soil, a keyboard and screen. What matters is the opportunity to design creatively and to play with the materials to see what happens. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab has developed a set of principles around making that, well, make a lot of sense.

First, when we make things, the joy factor increases when we are involved in a project, ideally of our choosing. I was visiting a school this week and the science posters I saw captured the immense creativity of these fifth grade students . They were free to choose a topic within their unit on the solar system that they wanted to learn more about and were free to display what they learned using a variety of materials. I had never seen three-dimensional student posters til now.

Second, when we make things related to our passions, or the things we care about, we are more willing to keep going when the learning process gets hard or we run into obstacles.

Third, when we make things with our peers, we learn to collaborate, negotiate, and make group decisions–all of which are essential for finding happiness. Of course, part of the beauty of making anything is that you can choose to do it alone or to make something with others.

Finally, the play involved in making is about more than fun. It’s about experimentation, creativity, and getting in a flow state all of which lead to greater overall happiness in our lives.

An Invitations Approach

I’m a believer in the power of an invitations-approach to learning. Giving students the invitation to make something with materials allows students to tap into their sensory selves, to embrace the mess, and to discover something new about the making process and themselves. In my classroom, I had a corner of recyclables especially paper towel rolls and plastic containers. One week’s worth of recycling led two boys to spend a month building a rollercoaster and another to design a playground. When we make something, we know we have the power to create again and again. There weren’t step-by-step instructions for things to create. The materials were the invitation.

At home, our kitchen table is often designed as an invitation to create with paper, pencils, markers, and other making tools handy. My boys are fortunate to be ongoing penpals with their great grandmother and great aunt who send them handwritten letters with questions that invite a response. They’ve grown up knowing first-hand that a personalized letter means more than an email or text and that the recipient will love it no matter the spelling errors. The letter is an invitation to write back.

A kitchen table can be an invitation to create, to write, and to make something

This past week, a big box arrived with an unexpected gift for my husband from a friend. The box was a bigger hit with our eight-year-old than the gift inside. He spent two weeks decorating the box, making holes in it, turning it into a make shift chair for his desk, and building a fort with it. He finally put it in his closet so that he can pull it out when he needs to release some creative energy and make something out of it once again. He has learned that he can create an invitation for himself for the future.

We Are Always In the Process of Making

Try a little experiment. Over the course of the day, take notice of all the ways you make things. Meals. Coffee. Writing. Friendships. Even mess. The more we are mindful of the things we are making, the more it helps us recognize we have purpose and meaning. Support the children in your life to notice the things they are making that have meaning to them and that have meaning to others.

Try These Simple Tips:

Reframe the writing process as a making process

Model things you are making in your own life

Create invitations for children to make things with a variety of materials

Embrace the mess that making inevitably creates

Read aloud books like Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg that let children know making is worthwhile and imperfect

Story Puzzles Make Waiting More Joyful

Life is full of waiting. Dr. Seuss even has four pages dedicated to the necessity of waiting in Oh, The Places You’ll Go:

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting. (18)

When you are a kid, life can feel even more full of waiting. Waiting on line. Waiting for your turn. Waiting for dessert. Waiting to reach 5 feet. Waiting for teachers. Waiting for parents. Waiting for siblings. Children learn early on, that life is full of waiting.

The nearly wordless picture book, Wait, by Antoinette Portis reminds us that sometimes children are our best experts on waiting. We often need children to remind us there is value in waiting over hurrying. When we reframe waiting as more than an inconvenience, or fact of life, but as a gift to see the world a new way, we make ourselves happier in the process.

Like life in a classroom, life in a family requires waiting. But there are ways to make waiting more joyful. Lately, my husband has introduced story puzzles to our boys especially when we are waiting in restaurants. Story puzzles, also called lateral thinking puzzles, are just like they sound–a hybrid between storytelling and puzzles. Some information is given about a strange situation, but you aren’t given the full story. Someone is the storyteller or quizmaster, and everyone else is a puzzle solver. Listeners can ask yes or no questions to try to explain the situation. Quizmasters can answer with yes, no, or irrelevant. Here are two of our recent family favorites:

Story Puzzle 1: A man was heading home and saw someone in a mask. He turned around and went the other way. What happened?

Answer: The man was a baseball player and the person in the mask was the catcher.

Story Puzzle 2: It was a good thing Betty died in the ocean. It was a bad thing Carla died on land.

Answer: Betty and Carla are hurricanes.

Story puzzles turn waiting into a time to play and connect with one another. Try one the next time you are waiting with someone else and notice the ways the time feels more joyful. You’ll almost be disappointed when your food comes or your wait is over.

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.