Friday, February 10, 2012


I have been living with voices all week long. First, I have been living with Tom Newkirk. Tom was one of my favorite professors during my graduate studies at the University of New Hampshire. He is one of those people who has the rare ability to think deeply and offer brilliant insights on a new topic every year. One year he will be thinking and writing about first grade writers, the next year he's thinking about teaching English effectively at the college level, and then the year after that it's boys and literacy. A couple of months ago, Tom released his newest book, THE ART OF SLOW READING. In the early pages of the book, Tom offers these words:
(Slow reading) has to do with the relationship we have with what we read, with the quality of attention we bring to our reading, with the investment we are willing to make. It is based on the belief that good writing is never consumed, never fully understood, and that though we often read for the efficient extraction of information, this extraction is not the most meaningful or pleasurable reading we do. Slow reading repays even repeated readings and speaks to us in new ways with each engagement..." (p. 2)

There is usually an ebb and flow to slow reading, times when we are immersed in the narrative flow, and times when we pause to reflect or reread or just savor the moment…Although I am convinced that slow reading is essential for real comprehension, it is also clearly crucial to the deep pleasure we take in reading and the power of reading to change us. As John Miedma eloquently puts it: "By opening yourself to a book in this way, you invite ideas and feelings that enrich and expand your interiority. Reading is the making of a deeper self." (3)
Tom devotes a good chunk of the book to six practices that he believes help readers to delve deeply into texts. One of those practices has to do with poetry. Specifically, memorizing poetry. Tom talks about how poetry works its way deeply into our hearts and then surfaces when we need it most.

I read lots and lots of poetry with kids. They memorize some poems because we read them over and over and over again, but I don't usually specifically ask kids to memorize poetry. After reading Newkirk, I'm thinking I might choose a few poems that I love, e.g. Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son" and ask my students to memorize them. I think a poem like "Mother to Son" could become a life song for my students, and when life got hard, they could draw on it for strength and sustenance.

One of the reasons I have been thinking about Newkirk's work is because I have had a poem dancing in my head and my heart all week. It's Eve Merriam's, "A Lazy Thought." I'm posting the poem in its entirety because it's all over the web.

A Lazy Thought

By Eve Merriam

There go the grownups
To the office,
To the store.
Subway rush,
Traffic crush;
Hurry, scurry,
Worry, flurry.

No wonder
Grown ups
Don’t grow up
Any more.
It takes a lot
Of slow
To grow.

The last three lines of this poem, "It takes a lot of slow to grow" have been echoing in my head all week long. We are about four weeks from state testing. This is the time of year when the "Power Standards" hanging next to my desk seem to glow like a neon sign. And the things I have not yet taught (partly because they are in Unit 11 in the math book and we are only finishing unit 7, which, according to the pacing charts is exactly where we are supposed to be) seem to greatly outweigh the things I have. And I feel like that scene in the old CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY movie, when they are all on the boat in the dark, and the boat is moving faster and faster and faster, and everyone is screaming and hanging on for dear life. And I have to fight the temptation to teach faster, faster, faster, and remind myself again and again and again, "It takes a lot of slow to grow…"

I have to remember it takes a lot of slow to grow every time I teach math. You see, the math book devotes about three days to this topic. My kids truly have mastered long division, but it took two and half weeks for some of them. Days of reminding kids that they weren't allowed to say, "I don't get this," but that they could say, "I don't get this YET." Days of practicing with me, with a para, with other students. Days of moving from "Huh"" to "No, hon, put that number in the quotient," to "You are almost there, what's the remainder" to "Yes, I know you love long division, but we can't do it every single day." And now we have got it. And every time one more kid crossed over the bridge, we all clapped and cheered. But on the inside, I was mentally counting the days until testing, thinking about area and perimeter and percents and polygons and acute and obtuse angles. And I have to stop, breathe deeply, and remind myself, "It takes a lot of slow to grow…"

And it's the time of year I have to breathe deeply every time I teach reading. We are working on themes right now, and the genre we are explore is folk tales and fables. Yesterday I chose a fable called "The Crow and the Pitcher." And I thought we were going to talk about themes like perseverance and problem solving. And instead I ended up explaining to the class what a crow was, and drawing a picture of a pitcher on the board. And I wonder how these nine and ten year olds, who would much rather hunt for the pigeon in Mo Willems' on the end pages of Mo Willems' latest book, are ever going to cite evidence for a theme in a work of literature.

And it's also the time when I have to remember to breathe deeply every time a child shows me a piece of writing. "Look, Ms. W., I used dialogue, just like you showed us!"And I look, and sure enough, there is dialogue, but it's that kind of overused dialogue that goes three pages and doesn't say anything.
"How are you?"
"Me too."
"What are you doing?"
On and on and on…
Or in another extreme, the dialogue does say something, but the punctuation is totally wrong. And the child is so, so, so proud of herself for having tried something new, something I have suggested that writers do. And I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, we only have four weeks and this has to be totally perfect, or else she'll get dinged on the test." And then I need to breathe deeply, and say to myself, "Relax, honor the intentions, celebrate the baby steps, and remember, it takes a lot of slow to grow…"

This time of year is hard for me because it's about perfection and mastery and high standards. And I totally believe in perfection and mastery and high standards. But the problem is, between the starting point and perfection, there is a lot of messiness, a lot of partially formed thinking, a lot of approximation. It really does take a lot of "slow to grow."

And so, this week, I am thankful for the poetry. I am thankful for words I have memorized, the words that have worked their way deep into my heart, and are sitting there, waiting to remind me what I believe about teaching, and maybe about living…


Linda B said...

I hear your frustration at the time limits, and also see that you are so patient with the students & take that 'slow to grow' line seriously so that they can grow & be so proud of the leaps they are making. I love that you've connected the poem to your teaching and then in your life. Even at my school where there is no testing, we take pride in what we call 'next step, next step' so there is always pressure on the teacher to show that students are moving & improving. It's tough. I think I will share your poem with them, maybe helping to find a little calmness in the storm. Thanks for all the real examples, Carol.

laurasalas said...

Carol, Did you put your link in Mr. Linky? I didn't see it when I clicked on all the posts there...

What a lovely poem and post. And someone else --Heidi Mordhorst, maybe? posted about math and slowing down--yes, it was Heidi, at

I feel your fight as you struggle to help kids learn and love to learn and also help them achieve--totally different things in our test-filled world.

Thanks for sharing this Eve Merriam poem. She's a gem!

Carol said...

I actually did post in Mr. Linky. Somehow, though, I managed to link to a post I did in November. Couldn't figure out why five people commented that day on SPINSTER GOOSE, which is actually a great book, but no one commented on my new post. Still can't figure out how I did it???????

Nanc said...

you are the master connector...and I need to remind myself of that in the wake of little second graders trying to get up to that master 100 words a minute....they want to know what it means...they yearn to understand first- that is our nature. Our craziness with speed is getting away from the main point.

Carol said...

Thinking perhaps you are using a monitoring device that I had to use for a while, but that was recently stopped. One year our fourth graders were all really proud of themselves because they had doubled in speed. Because I am such a doubting Thomas, I had to ask kids what the text had been about. Not ONE kid could give me a main idea or retell or summary or even a reaction that was anywhere close to accurate. I don't care how fast you are word calling- if you don't know what the text is about, it's not READING!