I am delighted to participate in a MOOC for the first time: Designing a New Learning Environment through Stanford, powered by Venture Lab.

Class is just beginning, and as we introduce ourselves I’m already learning and engaged.

A week after school ended, I cleaned out my son’s backpack and discovered his teacher put together a book of poems the students wrote. I immediately recognized the I Am poetry format I used many times in my own classrooms over the years. My son’s teacher and I, though, do things very, very, very differently.

I need to respond, but I cannot begin to figure out how, and I need your advice.

My son, a second grader, has autism. This was his first year at that school, and the school tried to keep him from enrolling because they “already had enough autistic kids.” We struggled from day one, and now this: his poem, on page two of the book sent home to all families as a year-end memento, has this repeated refrain: “I am weird. I am annoying.”

I am at a loss for words when I try to begin a phone call, email, letter, or anything else to this teacher about the final straw in a heartbreaking second grade year. Advice is welcome.

As a writer, teacher, student, learner, collaborator, and brainstorming addict, I have found a niche online this summer, through a little PD, a little PLN:

 

Teachers Write!

 

So excited to learn from, with, and about Kate Messner and co.

 

 

I got a robocall from my child’s school district. A message from the social media director informed me about a contest: submit your most creative idea for how to save the district money, and win a prize!

I wonder how many people had the exact same idea I did: First, save money by eliminating the position of district social media director.

I don’t mean to be harsh. My son’s school lacks money for many needed things, such as art and music. The last week of school is being canceled to save money. Parents are donating tissues, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and volunteering to clean the schools when the maintenance budget is cut.

I understand the value of crowd-sourcing for innovation, but I felt that robocall sent the wrong message.

 

I had lunch today with a former principal of an alternative high school, an impressive educator who had “I Am” poems with her that she wanted to share. As we looked at a special one, she told me the story of its author. “I had to expel him” she said. When I reacted visibly, she definitely taught me some things.

“Well, I had to expel him,” she said, “he brought a weapon to school. I told him, ‘This is the choice you made, and this is the consequence. But that doesn’t mean we’re done with you. We are still in each other’s lives. I still love you. You can still call me.’ And I still called him. He went to another school because I couldn’t let him stay, couldn’t lie or cover for his bad choices. But I still loved him, and he’s a grown man now. He must be 25, and he’s doing just fine.” 

I learn from her words, her student work samples, her example. She also had photos on her phone to show me. Yes, there were pictures of her kids, but there was a also a photo of her car door. Something was broken, and she decided to fix it herself. She took it apart, researched, Googled for the parts she needed, fixed it, and put it back together. “It was fun,” she said, “and I was pretty proud of myself.”

As well she should be.

There are infinite ways to learn from a gifted educational leader.

 

Today, I heard historian and scholar Yehudah Bauer speak about many things, all of them interesting. But at one point I found myself fascinated by his discussion about language. He says that the word Holocaust is not a good word, but it is the word we have, so it will have to do. Then he talked about the word tolerance. To paraphrase, he said something like, “Who wants tolerance?! You can tolerate someone but really and truly despise them and wish them away! Tolerance is not enough!”

I nodded hard enough to hurt something; I have had this very same thought.

The word Holocaust might be the only word we have for the genocide that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but we have better choices than “tolerance.” I don’t really want to teach tolerance. I want to teach acceptance, kindness, and inclusion.

On Friday, I attended an event called Memories Matter: Stories of the Holocaust. To my right sat Holocaust survivors. Behind me sat students ages 13-18. In front of me sat local and state officials. To my left, representatives of philanthropies. We came together to celebrate middle- and high-school student for using writing and art to reflect what they learned from Holocaust testimony. This was a room full of stories and storytellers.

When keynote speaker Esther Safran Foer made her presentation, you could feel the collective awe.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Foer now directs a synagogue in Washingon, D.C. One of her sons, Jonathan, wrote “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Her other son, Joshua, wrote “Moonwalking with Einstein.” I had heard of her sons, and read their work. Her short presentation at the awards ceremony had an incredibly powerful impact, however — much like testimony can.

I can’t do justice to her story, in which she recounted her quest to learn about the half sister she never knew. I can only tell you that no one could have done a better job introducing a day intended to celebrate story, memory, learning, testimony, and survival. The students who won prizes each received cash, and a study trip to Washington. They, like Esther Safran Foer, had the chance to read their work aloud in the auditorium on Friday. A poetry winner read his prize winning poem about how conflicted he felt facing a bright future watching the testimony of a woman who appeared about the face a bright future until the Holocaust robbed her of almost everything. She, now in her 80s, sat in the chair just in front of me and to my right. She nodded as she listened to the poetry, to the young man who said he prayed for her, and I noticed she remained dry-eyed, while I wept quietly behind her.

I can’t think of a better prize for such a contest than a study trip to Washington, D.C. where they will get to meet again with the remarkable Esther Safran Foer.

I was humbled to be in a room full of such powerful storytellers, teachers and learners, both young and old.