In The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, originally published in 2009, Donalyn Miller explains her philosophy of teaching, and how she creates a rich reading environment in her classroom with structures, practices and support for independent reading with her students. I appreciated her long-term view of the importance of developing students as readers for life, not just for a test. I respect that the author has endured the test-happy environment in the great state of Texas as a Language Arts teacher.
Miller shows an obvious interest in her students through her support of their interest-based reading. She challenges students to read 40 books in a school year. There is precious little talk of this kind from most pedagogues. It seems everywhere in education the dominant mindset is that students have to prove everything through skill-based activities and multiple choice tests and that we have to hold their hand and spoon-feed everything. Sadly, this is the lowest common denominator and has not improved society’s literacy at all. It’s as if, “If it ain’t on the test then it doesn’t exist.” Getting kids to love reading in this environment is rather like trying to get someone to savor the flavors, scents, and sights of a gourmet meal while the chef is quizzing them about their daily calorie intake.
I recognize that if I am to embrace this kind of approach, then my first step is to contend with my own life as a reader and step it up a few notches. I love non-fiction, and am a self-professed nerd when it comes to reading. I have my own “Miller Mountain” at home of books I want to read. I also like to write, blog and write songs. I primarily “read to learn,” read/write poetry, love philosophy, ancient mythology and stories that connect to the great mysteries of life. But mostly, I love to read non-fiction.
I do want to connect my students with books they love too though, and in order to do that I need to be reading more of those books myself. I have to admit, she shamed me into reading more. My goal this year already was to read 25 books, which I think I will make this goal. But I set that goal before I read her book. To be a better language arts teacher, Donalyn convinced me I need to read more of the books my students will want to read, which I tend to avoid doing during my free time because it feels like “work.” So yesterday I pulled 4-5 titles from my classroom bookshelves that I want to read and who knows, I may make 40 books yet by December. I have convinced myself that it isn’t really “work” if I choose titles I am interested in. I hope I can convince my students of the same.
How can we achieve a balance between self-awareness and awareness of the world around us? There is the ordinary everyday life and there is life in the spiritual world, or spiritual truth, spiritual reality. This can also be considered in another way, as balance between self- awareness and that of another, or awareness between self and a group, or society as a whole. It seems this is a fundamental question we must resolve in the course of life. The battleground of the heart is fought on the pages of our calendars, where we give our time and attention. If we give too much attention to the mundane parts of life, then it can tend to lose its joy and meaning. If we devote our attention entirely to spiritual questions we may lose a grip on our closest and most endearing values, our relationships, or we may not manage our resources effectively or for the most benefit and enjoyment.
Isn’t it possible that the natural world is just as holy and just as sacred as the spiritual world?
One only has to plant a garden to consider this possibility. The gardener marvels at his harvest. He knows that he did not provide the rain, the sun, or the forces that make a seed sprout, nor the forces that make it bloom, grow, and reproduce. All of those forces are inherent in creation itself. But a gardener does take part in this great dance. He does his part, observing his garden, observing the seasons. He does his part to plant the seed, he tends it with his love and hard work and he reaps the reward of his dedication and hard work. This begins with observation and willingness to take part in the dance of creation and help it along.
It is a sublime lesson. The ordinary, simple and everything things in life are in fact quite spiritual. This then leads to an acceptance of ourselves and others. Nothing is below us. Scrubbing the toilet is a necessary part of everyday life. Changing a diaper, doing the dishes; these are all necessary. We are all here to experience life from a certain angle or perspective which was provided at birth, and can be discovered in the birth chart, our astrological blueprint.
We are doing a fabulously, wildly diverse job of experiencing life from billions of perspectives. An estimated 8 billion people all with unique perspectives, all inhabiting the planet at the same moment. Earth is teeming with human life, just bursting at the seams with it. Humanity has probably never lived in a more frenetic time-space experience than now. Our current times are a wildly robust. Appreciating that robustness of life with gratitude creates excitement for living. Understanding our unique perspectives and blueprints create more acceptance of self among diverse people from different times and places, something so greatly needed in our times.
Are we finally getting tired of “being safe nowhere?” The epidemic of violence in society and what we can do about it.
When violent events such as those in Uvalde happen, it would seem obvious to expect that many children and adults will be more anxious about attending school this fall. Add to this, in our local community, the impact of the tragic events of the Collins family murders at the hands of an escaped convict. The Tomball community and Tomball ISD students and teachers have been directly impacted by these tragedies. Allowing for the expression of grief within the community will be very important in the coming days and weeks ahead and in the coming school year. We need to promote the reverence of life and the solemnity of this moment of loss.
So many types of brutality and violence exist today, from road rage to random shootings, and it exists in so many places: shopping venues, schools, workplaces, entertainment venues, really anywhere. Are we finally going to have the political will to take a tiny step towards what other western societies had the will to fully achieve in the 90’s? Are we finally getting tired of “being safe nowhere?” Even before the days of Columbine we could witness the spreading epidemic of mass shooting incidents. Gun ownership did not help the Collins family. There is a prevalent degradation of reverence for all forms of life. When added to other factors such as the degradation of the environment, the economic hardship of the current times, homelessness, and the prevalence of technology taking over the human quality of all of our interactions in society, then the bleak picture of where we currently stand becomes clear. Add uninhibited, easy access to powerful guns by children, enabled by the exaggeration and aggrandizement of second amendment rights, and you have conditions we currently experience. Columbine, sadly, was only the beginning. We have simply rinsed and repeated for decades and added social media to the mix.
School shootings from a teacher’s perspective
As a teacher executing active shooter drills throughout this time period, I have had to answer the questions from students that naturally come, such as, “What if the shooter comes from this entrance over there, what should we do?” I have had to imagine these nightmare scenarios, trying to assuage the fears of students (and myself!) and assure them of adults’ resolve to do everything we can to protect them. But deep down, each of them recognizes how vulnerable we are. We are sitting targets, whether teachers start packing guns or not. This is truly the gravity of the matter. It makes me want to shout from the mountaintop, “Do something, America!” I could not agree more with the comment made by Lexi Rubio’s parents, victims of the Uvalde shooting, that right now, guns are more important than children in America. Deplorable, but true. We have failed an entire generation of children by perpetuating a lack of reverence for life. Guns don’t make us safer.
As a teacher, I now have to regularly plan my own tactical, defensive responses to potential attacks:
What are the weak points of security in my classroom? How will we respond to get our students to safety? Where are the safest areas to go in the event of an active shooter and we can’t escape? What will I or can I do if we have to stay in place? Lastly, if it comes down to it, how will I attempt to protect my life and the lives of my students if a shooter enters my classroom? I call this plan, “my last ditch effort.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate needing to plan my defensive tactics when I became a teacher in 1995. The only words I can think of are “gut-wrenching.”
While I personally don’t carry a gun, many in my family do, and they do not want to see a complete ban on weapons. Living in Texas, I do respect the prevalent desire to protect gun rights. But, these horrific acts will continue as long we continue to do nothing about the lack of reverence for life. Putting guns in classrooms will open the door for guns to fall into the hands of students who are struggling with mental health. If we lived in a healthy society, then things would be different. In that case, we could all own as many guns as we wanted and nobody would ever get murdered because everyone would act responsibly. In that imaginary world, we would all “be safe,” but that is not the current state of the world. Guns don’t make us safer, friends. Making it harder for the deranged to get access to guns will make it *a little* safer.
Gun Laws and MEntal Health
Sensible limits through gun laws could help in the immediate, short-term. Gun laws have been effective at reducing these kinds of incidents in other countries. This to me, feels like a mental health crisis of the highest magnitude, one that governmental gun regulations will immediately “help,” but not solve. This is a deeper issue of societal mental health.
Along those lines, the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is true. For that reason, more intensive mental health measures are needed. We need both. But perhaps like many, I struggle to understand what motivates someone to commit such deeds. This is a very important line of questioning because we have an individual and a societal responsibility to identify people with mental illness who pose potential threats to themselves or others. For us to do our part, gun buyers should have to present three or more verifiable character references in order to process their purchase, or perhaps requiring waiting periods and/or proof of evaluation by mental health professionals for those under the age of 21, or restrict the purchase of guns to 21 and older altogether.
But, I repeat, gun laws alone do not solve this problem. We need better mental health treatment. Early and regular mental health check-ups provided for free as part of preventative health care are desperately needed. Health insurance plans have long been too skimpy in providing for mental wellness. Disorders can be uncovered and treated much earlier and especially at critical points in child development: at ages 6-7, ages 12-13, and the crucial age=17. This would enable a much more proactive approach, allowing greater mental health support for a developing child and for the family as a whole, while something can still be done about it, when the person is young. Additional regular mental health screenings during the mid-life crisis age of 41-43 would also be helpful for many parents, as the early 40’s is also the age of many parents when their children hit those rocky teen years of 15-17. Through studying the profiles of previous mass shooters, identifying the common points, and then screening and achieving early identification of mental health disorders, we can work towards reducing crime and other societal impacts of poor mental health.
Realizing that schools are often the targets of these incidents should also tell us something, namely that society must address the reality that schools are not always the ideal places of actual learning and nurturance that they were intended to be. Often schools are the backdrop for where seeds of violence are planted: child bullying, and in some cases, the worst forms of psychological and physical abuse are perpetrated and perpetuated, whether by other students or adults, tacitly or directly. This makes schools natural targets for such attacks motivated by revenge. Awareness of bullying, who gets it, who gives it, and why, increased throughout the early 2000’s and anti-bullying campaigns were a good start, but it has not been nearly enough to combat the problem in schools.
Schools as the epicenter of violence
From the ages of 7 to age 14, students absolutely need three things that most children are not currently getting:
1. Sufficient daily access to nature and the outdoors with an adequate amount of physical activity to offset the overuse of electronics,
2. a deep bond with at least one positive authority figure outside of the home that they respect (a teacher a coach, or other adult mentor), again – to offset the overuse of electronic media influence, and
3. regular exposure to images of goodness, beauty, and truth – again to offset the detrimental influences of a morally degraded society. Those alone would greatly help the current mental health crisis. Everything about academics would also improve if we focused on these three game-changers and stopped acting as if test scores were the most important.
In future posts I might take each of these three issues point by point to examine more closely why they are so crucial to child health. But these stand out as the most potent. We could also explore and evaluate the effectiveness of previous anti-bullying campaigns and determine why these have failed to address the mental health crisis in schools.
There is perhaps a fourth need that could be better addressed as students mature into middle and high school, and that is providing a relevant purpose for being at school. Most adolescents who struggle, do so because they lack a sense that school adds any meaning, value or purpose for them. Jumping through hoop after hoop merely to pass a test year after year is not enough of a reason to come to school, especially if you face daily bullying. If there is no sense of purpose and you experience physical or emotional bullying as well, then it’s easy to take your own life or easily take someone else’s.
Families and schools need to re-establish the reverence for life as a core societal value regardless of distinct religious beliefs or faiths. All of these issues are addressed through the following principles:
reverence for life as a shared value
Humans consist of mind, body and spirit, and to educate well, all three must be addressed. (Children are not robots.)
Humans develop in distinct seven-year periods that have distinct needs. (Stop treating kindergarteners like college applicants.)
Relationships matter for all phases of development, but between age 7-14, the teacher as the primary AUTHORITY FIGURE for the children in the community/society needs to return. (Communities need to have the backs of teachers, as we have now moved forward to join police officers and other first responders who risk our own lives on the FRONT LINE.)
Teacher autonomy to meet the needs of students, more voice in government and leadership.
Emphasis on the long-term moral development of the student rather than immediate academic knowledge to pass tests, or surface, skill learning. (Stop killing education with overemphasis on test results. We are raising human beings, not making widgets.)
Emphasis on cultivation of social health within the classroom, not just a smattering of anti-bullying campaigns thrown around that come and go with the local politics.)
Teachers that intentionally engage in and are supported by activities that support their own mental, physical, and spiritual health to enable us to do this important, societal work with our most vulnerable population – our children.
Lastly, I see the potential for well-informed astrology to offer helpful insights into an individual’s psychology. Astrology is the ultimate study of patterns. I am not talking about the kind of soda pop astrology most people are familiar with here. I am referring to serious research with the aid of big data. Astrological and statistical analysis could help identify people with greater potential for mental health disorders, thereby helping to prevent murders and suicides through earlier identification and earlier treatment. One team of researchers at Astrology-Zoadiac-Signs.com found that the water signs were the most deadly serial killers of all the zodiac signs, according to their research of 500 serial killers. In another example of astrological research, one British astrologer, who compared Eric Harris’ chart to that of the Dunblane shooter found that both mass shooters had Mars and Saturn in a similar, stressful condition. Harris was one of the Columbine shooters. Read his piece here.
If we were to conduct greater statistical analysis of all known mass shooters on file, would we find more specific markers for mental illness that would enable better identification? How would mass shooters differ from serial killers? There are so many more potential astrological and other psychological and health indicators that could be discovered: early learning disabilities, prevalence of existence of other health conditions, existence of suicidal tendencies, but so much more research is needed in general.
ways we can move forward
Sensible laws, improved mental health screenings for young people, and required character references for any person seeking to own guns, improved methods for identifying those with mental health disorders in general, and improving mental health in schools and bullying will help. These types of endeavors could bring together people from a wide variety of fields and disciplines. When we come together to intensively address the problem of epidemic violence and do more to support mental health in our society as a top priority from multiple disciplines, it can be assured that more ways to identify and treat mental health disorders will be found, resulting in restored reverence of human life and greater wellness throughout society.
Several years ago I subscribed to a newsletter put out by Education Re-Imagined, a non-profit organization that connects people and programs that work on the frontiers of educational innovation. It was through reading one of their recent newsletter issues I learned of this book, Thrive. Its co-authors are Valerie Hannon and Amelia Peterson.
Hannon is co-founder of the Innovation Unit of Global Leader Partnership and Peterson, has a PhD in Education from Harvard University.
Thrive gives a research-based overview of existing evidence and case studies of innovative school programs world-wide with a framework of suggestions to realign educational goals towards creating conditions that promote “thriving.” First, the authors set about defining what they mean by “thriving.” They give four levels of thriving:
A. Global B. Societal C. Interpersonal D. Intrapersonal
Then they identify four key questions:
1. How can all learners best prepare for economies with technology-driven opportunities and development? 2. What tasks can humans perform better than machines and conversely, what tasks can machines perform better than humans? 3. What knowledge and skills do humans need to shape and direct computing power? 4. How can people best be prepared to learn and relearn skills to do human work, rather than be second class robots?
There is a central theme throughout the book of generating a more sustainable relationship with the Earth and its resources in the future. The authors identify both economic globalization and migration as key issues effecting the future.
They prioritize a different relationship between humans and our environment as a key desired outcome. The authors make the claim that education’s purpose is not to merely position kids for wealth acquisition in the job marketplace.
Hannon provides ample school examples already creating conditions for thriving with descriptions of their programs. She discusses an Ecosystems Approach that addresses:
A. Equipping learners for a disrupted jobs/work landscape (published post-Covid) B. Educating for building respectful relationships in diverse, technologized societies C. Creating local sustainability endeavors that address problems in local communities D. Providing real-life application of knowledge, addressing “learner agency”
I liked hearing about how innovative schools in others locations are already adressing and accomplishing these tasks. I would have liked to have seen more data about learner outcomes attached to this overview of innovation. More could be done to follow up on these outcomes. How well did students of these types of programs do on measured learning standards, and perhaps for the more established programs, how did the graduates measure in terms of life happiness, mental health, employability, and the broader goals of interpersonal and intrapersonal thriving as they became adults? Where results were available, it would have been nice to hear more of it although the lack of data is not the necessarily the fault of the author.
The book does accomplish the goal of helping the audience become aware of what is currently being done in schools across a broad range of issues to address global problems we face. Teachers interested in innovation and change will be interested in this book.
If you love the stars and history, what a sweet little treasure you will find in The Star Tales of Mother Goose. This is a fun read, full of beautiful, playful illustrations and the beloved mother goose rhymes for the little ones. For adults, it is informative and engaging and re-ignites our childhood wonder of the stars. Stewart-Adams explains the history and meaning of each Mother Goose Rhyme for adults and brings it alive with stories.
For example, in the well known rhyme Humpty Dumpty, she explains how the king’s horses and king’s men are the four constellations of the four seasons and that Humpty Dumpty himself is the SUN! Summer solstice is the wall, “the moment when the sun stands still, highest above the celestial equator.” Then the sun falls back down again and Bootes, Hercules, and Perseus are the KIng’s men and Pegasus and Equeleus are the horses. In like fashion, she explains ten different rhymes and their starlore meanings.
She also guides the inexperienced in locating these stars with easy descriptions of how to find them and their constellations without any technical terms. Wonderful for parents and children to watch the night sky together with and dream or just for the young at heart. I highly recommend this book for parents of young ones or to give as a gift.