Off-The-Page Artwork by Caldecott Winner, David Wiesner

 

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The thought that he was implying violence to a naturalist by drawing glasses lying on the ground near open cages and free crickets made illustrator David Wiesner smile.

“That makes me smile. David Wiesner explained the effect of critics in a blog, “The Beginning“(Wiesner, 2020). 

This account is left right there. That is all Wiesner has to say about it. “That makes me smile”; a four-word phrase that implies quite the opposite of violence…

Unless, the implication was to stimulate a “violence of thought”; Not “violent thoughts”; But, thinking so transformative, so life-altering, so paradigm-shifting as to be jarring–to clash with the cognitive systems already set up, that are comfortable and familiar. 

The beauty, the magic of Wiesner’s work is that it raises more questions than answers. Why does the criticism of his very first professional art assignment cause him to smile? Did David Wiesner smile the moment he learned of people’s misgivings about his illustration? This statement is written in the first person present. Is he still smiling? Is this a constant source of laughter? What kind of smile is it? Condescending? Amusement? Bemusement? I can picture Wiesner’s emotions evolving through many smiles.

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David Wiesner
Author/Illustrator

Why do we smile? We are told to smile. I tell my students to smile. My thinking has been that a reason for smiling will surface once you have begun. If we wait for a reason, it may never arrive. Jumpstart the happiness by raising the corners of your mouth. Smiling can be an act of violence, especially, when you don’t feel like it. You are waging war on your soul. 

David Wiesner’s smile is a metaphor for this picture, drawn in 1979 for the table of contents of the September Cricket Magazine of that year. It was his first commissioned artwork. He had all summer to produce it. I bet at the end, after Trina Schart Hyman praised his work, he removed his spectacles, free to smile at his accomplishment. Having just graduated art school the spring before, David didn’t plan to enter the world of children’s literature. Like a cricket, chirping in the corner of the room, it beckoned him.


I first stumbled across David Wiesner when my daughter Scarlet became enamored with frogs. We found the book “Tuesday” (1991) in a used book store. We were drawn to the text by the beautiful cover. This tale of frogs flying through town, managing mayhem and inspiring mystery, was an instant favorite. We “read” it over and over. The word read is in quotes because this is a wordless book. 

bef4859ec8b61e61257b341891c27f98.jpgAt first Scarlet and I were attracted to the artwork and frogs, but as we reread it, many more meaningful lessons were uncovered. How do you “read” a wordless book? I spoke to my emergent reader about what was happening in the images. We took turns asking each other questions and pointing out phenomena. We celebrated one another’s surprises: “Did you see this?!” How many “Oh my goodness-es” were uttered?

The “goodness” is that each reading was a goldmine of conversation between a daddy and his daughter. The lack of text makes the illustrations more open to reader-interpretation. The artwork lies somewhere between realistic and animation, just like the story line. Scarlet and I discussed how plausible it was for frogs to fly. The frog faces show expressions. How much do frogs feel or think? They seem to operate a remote control for a television in one picture. Do you think frogs could do that? Would they want to? 

I use “Tuesday” in my third grade classroom to introduce the reading strategy, Questioning. It is the second day, and I have students write down questions while I page through the illustrations. We discuss the students’ questions along with how important “questioning” is, as a reading strategy. I am still finding details in the artwork that I hadn’t noticed before.

  • BIBLIO: Reprint, 2011, Clarion Books, $6.54
  • REVIEWER: Matt Weimann
  • FORMAT: Picture Book
  • ISBN-10: 0395870828
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395870822

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A 1905 illustration of the pigs doing away with the wolf makes it look like one of the pig’s feet is stepping out of the story.

A book that I use later in the year that David Wiesner also wrote/illustrated is “The Three Pigs” (2001). This one may have text, but the storyline is much more dependent on the artwork, thus awarding it the Caldecott Medal of Honor. The three pigs discover a way to escape the mean wolf through completely exiting their story altogether! They then explore a parallel universe of nursery rhymes where they find a few other lost souls. The three pigs help extricate the characters in peril from their tales. 

How do you explain “Out-of-the-box thinking” to youths? Share with them this “Out-of-the-book story” by David Wiesner. Practice the art of thinking this way by “rescuing” a character from a different book. Students could draw comics to illustrate what could happen if a character stepped out of their story to explore the outer world. 

Another use of this thinking is to teach the uses of literary parameters. An author sets up “givens” that help readers interpret actions in a story. Readers won’t be happy if halfway through a story, the historical fiction narrative completely changes to science fiction, with aliens visiting from outer space. Even with our three little fugitive pigs, the illustrations and ideas are consistent throughout the book. They can visit other stories, but they don’t become microscopic and fall through the atoms of matter. In order for there to be “Out-of-the-box thinking” there must actually be a box

Information about other texts by award-winning author/illustrator, David Wiesner can be found on the “Bookshelf” page of his website. 

  • “I Got It!” (2018)
  • “Fish Girl” (2017)
  • “Spot” (2015)
  • “Mr. Wuffles!” (2013)
  • “Art & Max” (2010)
  • “Flotsam” (2006)
  • “Sector 7” (1999)
  • “June 29, 1999” (1992)
  • “Hurricane” (1990)
  • “Night of the Gargoyles” written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Wiesner (1994)
  • “Free Fall” (1988)
  • “The Loathsome Dragon” retold by David Wiesner and Kim Kahng (1987)

 

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Take off the artificial lenses and see the world through cricket eyes.

I leave you with this thought: The more mature a writer becomes, the less drawing fills his/her pages. A five-year-old only draws. Teachers instruct youths to add text. We get children to provide words to describe the settings they see in their minds. Develop character traits through actions. What word choice will perfectly convey the mood and theme of your story? Are we capturing and boxing up these young minds by teaching away the artwork? Perhaps the cages from David Wiesner’s illustrations at the start of this blog were setting the crickets free. Artwork is the music for text penned and sung. Let’s help our crickets sing their song.

 

Sources

Wiesner, D. (2020). Bookshelf. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.hmhbooks.com/wiesner/bookshelf.html 

Wiesner, D. (2020). The Beginning. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from http://www.davidwiesner.com/work/the-beginning/ 

 

A Measure of Class

One year ago I got in my head that I would share with my daughter Scarlet the theme of my classroom: “Be Classy.” Although, at 7 years old, she is increasingly similar to the students I teach in my third grade classroom, speaking to only one child is surprisingly different from talking to all 25 kids at the same time.

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Scarlet takes care of her lunch box.

When I call students to the carpet, they naturally model for one another; First, one begins making his way to the carpet and sits down. His friends follow, one by one succumbing to the pressure of conformity, until we are waiting for one or two stragglers.

 

Scarlet is an only child, and when I ask her to do something, there generally isn’t a model beyond myself. Luckily for everyone involved, I am skilled at explaining the “why” of most things.

When it comes to describing what it means to be “classy”, however, I found myself searching for synonyms. It struck me that a classy attitude, and even actions, could be charted on a map or continuum. This is where the “Class-O-Meter” came from.

I grabbed some of Scarlet’s large drawing paper and sketched out a dial of sorts. Diagramming and categorizing levels of class made my thinking more clear, even to me!

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Just found the original “Class-O-Meter”

The paper was left on the dining room table. We referenced it quite a lot at first. Scarlet and I talked about where certain actions would have measured with the Class-O-Meter. The idea was for it to get colored in and kept. In stead, it got “picked up” with everything else, during one of our house-cleaning sessions.

 

I was pleasantly surprised when it resurfaced yesterday. And, looking it over sparked new thoughts.

At the time of its conception, I liked the idea of having a go-to-goal of classy behavior being slightly beyond simply positive. As in, it isn’t good enough to “not be bad”. Strive for class. Don’t just clean the car. Wax it. Polish it. See your reflection in its finish.

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Is it possible to be “Too Classy”?

Of course you can’t live your life at “award-winning” levels of class 100% of the time any more than you could constantly drive at 100 miles per hour! It would be dangerous to drive through town at that speed. Navigating sharp turns might mean slowing down to “good.” How might the people around you feel if every single thing you did was outstanding?

Continuing the metaphor, if you were to get stuck in traffic, it could very well be beneficial to put the classy vehicle in “neutral”.

Here’s a controversial thought: Is it ever appropriate to be rude or mean? Could it be that, while not classy, it is sometimes necessary? I’d love to hear thoughts about that!

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 5.34.41 AMMommy and daddy are having Scarlet do more and more things for herself. Taking care of her lunch box at the end of the day is one of her new duties. Huffing and complaining, IMG_6625or requiring her parents to hound her to take care of this is far from classy. That is rude behavior. Needing a reminder, but taking care of the lunch box independently would be neutral, neither classy not “unclassy.” Doing the chore without any reminders, and doing it effectively and immediately would be good, which is moving closer to a classy attitude of taking care of school materials in general, working toward being a helpful contributor to a friendly family life. If you want to be really impressive, you could ask if there is anything that mommy or daddy need help putting away, take care of things other than just the lunch box, keep toys and supplies nice and neat, etc.

I’m pleased to announce that Scarlet has performed a commendable act recently, in that she has been asking to learn how to wash the dishes. There aren’t any awards for classy family life, but if there were, would you win one? How are you training your kids or students to behave in a way that would get them recognized for being classy?

Pedagogical Easter Eggs

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Search “Easter Egg” on Youtube.

If you search “Easter Eggs” in youtube, you might get some videos of kids running around a field, but more likely your server will be flooded with videos of people sharing stuff that is seemingly hidden in movies. When I was a kid, I remember people going crazy about seeing ghosts mysteriously appear in a few frames of a movie. Supposedly, you weren’t intended to see this, which made it all the more creepy!

Easter eggs are different, in that they are apparently purposefully hidden by directors, illustrators, etc so that cult-like movie-watchers will find them. Could this just be an excuse for watching a well-liked film an otherwise abnormal number of times? Perhaps. And, maybe the producers of these films are aiming to foster this kind of multi-watching phenomena. 

Interestingly, the term may have come from one of the most cult-producing movies of all time: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. According to Urban Dictionary, the guests/prisoners of an alien home participate in a completely random Easter Egg hunt. When the characters fail to find many of the hidden eggs, they appear later on throughout the movie. Viewers enjoy looking for the literal Easter Eggs, which spurred the use of the term for hidden items in films. 

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It was a “BowtieTuesday” when I taught this lesson.

Easter Eggs in Teaching

The reason all of this came to mind is that I was teaching a lesson that had Easter Eggs in it, and I thought this was a neat pedagogy to explore. What if teachers purposefully hid learning experiences inside lessons, so that students would have to go back and find them? 

My school district is working hard to introduce computer science in elementary school. We used a grant to buy some SpheroEdu kits. A team of teachers was formed. Instructors were brought in to train us in the world of coding. We brainstormed and planned how we might share this information with our district’s students. Each of the teachers on this “tech team” tried out the lessons in our own classrooms, and now we are sharing them with all of the 4th and 5th grade students of the district.

I just taught lesson 1; This is the one that had the Easter Egg. The tech team built a slideshow in the Pages app that could function as an independent or whole-group teaching tool. The “pages” (slides) walk students through some instructions on how to use Pages, what is expected, and how to complete the lesson. We chose to use the Pages app, because it forces students to learn a tool on their iPad that they may not be familiar with. Also, it has an easy to use drawing tool. 

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Students practice using Sequencing Commands

The lesson requires students to move some images, arranging them on a grid. Paired kids, sitting back to back, take turns using “Sequencing Commands” (the object of the lesson) to get their partners to draw a path on an empty grid. Once done, the two partners compare their screens. Would the path land on the squares that images are resting on? They are to take screenshots of their work and a picture of their partner’s grid. This way, they can put the two images side by side to evaluate accuracy. Part of their reflection is to analyze what could have helped them use fewer commands. Also, is there a better route for collecting the images?

Easter Egg Time

As it turned out, moving the images was not exactly easy. It works well to first tap the image, and then touching the very middle of it, you drag it onto the grid. If you don’t get the middle, you’ll enlarge it. “Undo” is our best friend!Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 7.20.34 AM.png

If kids click on the text that is near the images, it becomes “active” and covers the images. When this occurs, there is no way to get to the images to move them! Oh no!!! 

Here is your Easter Egg for the lesson: Students must “Unlock” the text box. Then they can “Arrange” the order of objects, placing the text box behind the images. Now, the image may be accessed again. Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 7.25.38 AM.png

Questions for student reflection:

  1. Why would you want to “Lock” an object or text box? 
  2. Why is it important to know how to “Arrange” the order of items on a page? 

Impressive Learning

This Easter Egg was only found because a student let go of an image too soon. He was getting ready to drag an image up to the grid, but stopped right over the text box. Oops! When he couldn’t figure out how to get to the image, he brought his iPad to me, and we worked on gaining access, again. I then showed the classroom STEM teacher whom I was partnering with on the lesson. I wanted him to know how to remedy this kind of problem if it came up again. 

Something that struck me in that moment was the idea of teachers thinking that they have to have all of the wrinkles ironed out before doing a lesson. Guess what. More often than not, you will create a new wrinkle when you carefully iron out a potential problem. Perhaps locking that text box was thought to help students grab the images and not the text box. But, it ended up covering the image and preventing us from getting to it!

I thought of a way to remedy this for future lessons: make the text part of an image, along with the grid, that is the background for the slide. Then images cannot go behind it. But, then again…

Nooooooooo! Don’t fix it at all! Leave it as is, and even show earlier finishers of the lesson this problem. Here is an Easter Egg in the lesson. See if you can figure out how to solve the problem. Then these kiddos could help anyone who comes across this problem in the future. 

I leave you with this: How can you build Easter Eggs into your lessons? How could you purposefully plan problems that students may not find, but that could give them something to chew on, enriching the learning experience? 

Happy Easter… All year round!Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 6.21.57 AM.png

The Superpower of Naming Things

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My right eye: Can you see the tiny mole?

I have a small bump under my right eyelid. I’ve always had it, but didn’t notice it until a few years ago.  

What is it? Many people have these kinds of tiny bumps on their faces. Sometimes, but not always, they have some color to them. Some people are famous for them. Cindy Crawford’s is iconic (Brolley, n.d.). Did you know that kids can buy these and stick them on their faces? How many movies have teenagers using markers to add them?

My mom called them “beauty marks”. She had many. She was beautiful. She assumed beauty. We recognized it as such. 

The truth about beauty marks” (Brolley, n.d.) explains that they are all technically moles, but the ones on a person’s face are sometimes referred to as “beauty marks.” This incredibly interesting article discusses some historical facts about our beautiful little bumps. Shakespeare had a thing for them, for one. Did you know that beauty marks have been politically active? And, they are not dangerous… just scandalous… if you were to travel back in time to the 18th century, Great Britain. Be careful, Doctor Who!

What struck me, though, is that simply renaming… branding something differently, completely alters your perception of it. “Mole” doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as “beauty mark”. I witnessed this superpower of renaming first hand when I helped my daughter Scarlet re-see her handicap of hearing impairment as a “superpower”. 

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Scarlet shares reasons she would use her superpower to a crowd of 3rd, 4th, & 5th graders.

At the beginning of last year, when Scarlet was beginning first grade, she voiced frustration in the fact that she did not get to experience recess the same way her peers did. When rain was imminent or it was drizzling out, Scarlet was kept inside because it is important that her hearing equipment not get wet. 

Recess is a big deal to an elementary-age kid, and Scarlet liking school and being happy is a big deal to me, so I put my mind to this challenge. The winning idea was to spin Scarlet’s struggle into a positive point of view. Yes, she would have to forgo some fun, but she can do something that no one else can; She may not have the same recess as her peers, but she DOES have a superpower!

The moment I named Scarlet’s hearing impairment a superpower, she became proud of herself and her situation. I previously wrote about a cute story of her telling a dentist “It’s Okay, I Have A Superpower” just before she used it to NOT hear the loud air pump he was about to turn on. The success of this experiment led us to compose a little children’s book, “Scarlet’s Superpower”. 

The experience of publishing our story lead to a school contacting us about sharing our “super message” with its students. Beaver River Central Elementary School in upstate New York was launching a “Literacy Celebration”, and they invited Scarlet and I to help them kick it off. They were attracted to our tale because they were using a superhero theme to celebrate literacy. Their slogan was “I’m a reader, what’s your superpower?” 

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Daddy/Daughter team of presenters; This was so much fun!

In the same way calling a mole a beauty mark readjusts one’s perception of it, this school district was telling its students that readers are super powerful. Here’s a wild fact: Cindy Crawford considered surgically removing her facial mole! Had she done that, who knows whether she would have achieved the stardom she has? The fact is that we don’t always appreciate our greatest gifts. What if Superman wanted to get a little cobweb off of the ceiling, and ended up flying right through the roof! Oh, man! I hope the home owner’s insurance covers that! 

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Look at the faces of students listening to Scarlet!

Kidding aside, viewing reading as a superpower is a beautiful way to inspire youth to develop this ability. The principal at Beaver River Central told her students that it is a power that no one can take from them. What a powerful message!

In preparation for sharing “Scarlet’s Superpower” with the audience at Beaver River Central, I thought it would be neat to act it out in a short play. In this way the audience would have more to experience, it would involve Scarlet, and I could get kids from the school to participate. I wrote the story into a short skit, complete with stage directions. A group of fifth graders worked on practicing it, and I rehearsed it with Scarlet at home. 

You should know that Scarlet has never spoken in front of a group of people this size, let alone acted out a play! She began voicing her concerns the night before the performance. I could have explained to her that it was natural to feel nervous, and then tried to console her. Instead, I told her that what she was feeling was “excitement”. We get excited about all kinds of things, and it isn’t perceived as negative. Why let Scarlet see this wonderful experience through a negative lense? 

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Those moles you are feeling are really beauty marks. 

She did great. We did great. The 5th graders from Beaver River Central did great. Interestingly, the students seemed to be much more excited to meet Scarlet, because they were actually part of her story. Incidentally, I didn’t call the drama that I composed a “play”, either. I labeled it a “Readers’ Theater” because I allowed the students to have their scripts with them. This cuts down on nervous feelings. Renaming things can be super helpful!

Thank you Beaver River Central, for inviting us to be part of your literacy celebration. 

What have you “renamed” in order to infuse superpowers?

Source:

Brolley, B. (n.d.). The truth about beauty marks. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from https://www.thelist.com/130854/the-truth-about-beauty-marks/ 

Mountain Biking Text

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A trail Scarlet and I hiked last summer

A person wants to get from point A to point B. Point B is on the other side of a forest. The first time that the person finds his way to point B, it takes a while. He gets scraped up. Some frustration may be involved. There will definitely be corrections in direction. He might use tools like GPS or a compass. Probably, the person will mark his travel. On the way back to point A, he will have an easier time of it.

The next time that the person wants to travel from point A to point B, it will take far less time and work. Plus, the person will not get as beat up, because he will know where the briars and boulders lie, and he will avoid them. He might even cut them back or move them, if he plans to travel this way regularly.

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These boulders are unforgettably huge!

Now that there is a trail to follow, getting from point A to point B is easy, fast, and thoughtless. You know what to expect. You look forward to the natural outcroppings of rocks and groupings of trees that mark your progress along the route.

Technology has developed to the point that mountain bikes are available and in vogue. You get one and begin using it on your favorite trail.Getting from point A to point B evolves into a recreational activity. While you use the trail to get from one place to the other, the journey has become the entertaining part of the trip. You even invest some time in building parts of the trail to make them more fun. A straight path up a hill becomes a switchback with berms. Maybe you search out gnarly terrain to shred instead of racing directly to the end of the trail. 

Eventually, your passion and excitement is communicated to others, and they want to try your trail. It morphs from a singletrail to a wider path.

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You’ll need to move that fallen tree for convenient travel.

Next, people who don’t mountain bike find that your trail is a convenient path from point A to point B, and they begin using it. Now, there are bikers and hikers. The hikers don’t need the entertaining gnarl of the mountain biking trail. They level portions, clear your favorite bunnyhopping logs, and widen the path.

As more and more people use the path for traveling, the importance of getting from point A to point B in less and less time with fewer distractions becomes valuable. It gets leveled, and then paved. It grows wider and marked. Eventually, your entertaining path turns into a rode.


Why does the last word of the previous paragraph look rong? Wait. What is happening hear?! Why are these homophones being spelled incorrectly?

This entire blog is an analogy for learning to read. These supposed misspellings at the end are obstacles for you to mentally bunnyhop over. If you have made it to this point*, you are a masterful reader who uses sounds, spellings, and can identify common letter groupings unconsciously. 

Hopefully, you didn’t “yardsale” when you red (I just did it again! Ha ha) the word “rode”. It is ironic that the past tense verb for mentally travelling through this text would sound the same as the noun for the symbol of the text itself! Daniel T. Willingham rights (Sorry, I can’t help myself! Last time, I promise) about how our mind translates text when we read in “The Reading Mind” (2017). With wildly entertaining (at least for a geek like me) examples and figures, he explains the way we interpret sounds, decode meanings, and relate commonly used letter groupings. Reading this book shows how technical this seemingly simple task is, as well as how natural it becomes once we figure it out. Chapter 3 “Reading At A Glance” was the inspiration for this blog. 

And now to wrap it up. The point** I was trying to make was that the process of reading evolves in each of us, and we get better at it by doing it. As adults, we read many texts that get us from point A (ignorance) to point B (knowledgeable) with the goal of speedily fixing our ignorant situation. This is often necessary and important. It is the goal of teachers to train students to be able to read well, so that they can also easily traverse the distance between point A and B. Given that this skill is refined by much repetition, wouldn’t it behoove the practicing reader to enjoy the process? 

I am composing this blog to challenge adults to model mountain biking through text, so that others see your example and want to try out the trail for themselves. I suggest you find something fun to read, and make it visible, modeling your performance to inspire others. If you are a teacher, show your students. If you are an administrator, spur on your teachers. If you are a parent, show your child how useful reading is. 

There is an adult reading challenge that I threw together for Twitter users that you might enjoy using. I made this in order to inspire a game/social angle for sharing our mature reading habits publicly. Feel free to join me and other grownup readers as we share our mental mountain biking! 

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Include #TeacherReadingChallenge with your tweets.

Source: 

Willingham, D. T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads.

*Congratulations on successfully finding point B; the place where all of this is explained.

**Point B, throughout the analogy was never a tangible place, but rather reading, itself. 

The Inspiration for “Green-Lights”

It happened a couple of times. The first time was annoying. The second time was downright frustrating.


Do you travel the same way to work every day? My school is only about six miles from my home. There are a couple of ways to get there. While I vary my route from time to time, no matter the path, there will be several intersections with traffic lights.

As I reflect on it, there are a few that I can count on turning red, but those I have devised either turning right or checking email on my phone. Eliminating down time, I don’t feel a hint of pain, waiting for the light to turn. One or two pauses in the hurry to work doesn’t hurt. For the most part, I am usually traveling in the direction that affords most traffic lights to be green, most of the time. 

One morning in the spring of 2019, I was on my way to work, and every single traffic light was turning red right just as I got to it. Was someone messing with me? Although I had plenty of time to get to school without being late, the annoyance of being held up was acute. Having already checked my email (several times), I felt the vacuum of down time; wasted time; robbed time! These lights were stealing my productivity from me. Just the kind of thing to make me see red.

 

It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later that the same thing happened again! I’ve been driving these roads for nine years, and never had this many red lights to sit through. What was going on? It was like the planets aligned, and they hated me! 

 

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What if your whole life felt like one red light after another?

During one of these red lights, it hit me: This feeling of frustration is what some people feel all of the time! While I generally expect things to go just fine for me, there are people who experience trials and conflict at every single intersection of life. This got me thinking about how ignorant people like me are. I use the word ignorant in the literal, “Not knowing” sense. And, I am the guy coasting down the green-lit road. What if this tiny feeling of frustration that I experienced for only a moment, and then it was over, and I had a great day, was a prolonged, every-single-day, all-day-long feeling?

 

What if I teach students who experience this feeling? Everything they try to do is wrong. Even if it isn’t true, they might feel like they can ONLY make mistakes! What if they come from a household where nothing is ever good enough? What about the families who can’t get a break? Would a child that comes to school from such a family see life differently than one whose family is financially successful? I think so. What about health?


I almost understood my ignorance once before. When I was in college, I ran my own College Pro Painting business, and it was extremely successful. I won a medal, even… “Rookie of the Year”! 

I remember this like it was yesterday: Before winning the medal, during the height of my most successful time of the summer, when I had several crews pumping out high-quality, prosperous production, I was finishing up the evening’s estimates and feeling good about landing several of them. A couple realizations swept over me. 

The first one came from my reflecting on all that I had done. The summer before this one I had risen from a first-time painter to goal-driven, successful foreman on a painting crew. My leadership was so powerful that I pushed my tiny crew of three to shatter our manager’s expectations time and time again; To the point where he practically begged his boss to interview me for a managerial position the next year.

This boss did give me a go. The interview process was severe, but I got hired. Next, I underwent several weekend training sessions that taught me how to run my own business. 

Now, I was driving around an old Dodge cargo van that I had paid for with my own money; money that I had gotten as deposits on painting work that would be completed that summer. This was my first vehicle! Before beginning the marketing season, that spring, I didn’t have more than a couple hundred dollars in my bank account. I was selling clothing at a retail store in the King of Prussia Mall a couple times a week for minimum wage, plus commission that barely covered my travel expenses. 

This was my junior year of college. I was 20 years old. I had been dating a girl whom I whole-heartedly expected to marry for about a year and a half. The week before finals she dumped me. She did NOT say, “It isn’t you; it’s me.” She had been preparing to tour with a drama team during the summer that I would be pioneering this painting business. The leader of that team was very funny, popular, and attractive. “Bye, Matt.” 

traffic-lights-15289837432tbThis devastated me. I don’t remember if it came before or after the breakup, but at some point this girl had said to me, “I’m afraid you won’t be successful.” Where this came from, I don’t have a clue. I had hit the ground running, and HAD already experienced quite a bit of success, booking more work early on than anyone else in the district.

Being dumped made it pretty awkward to borrow my ex’s car to do estimates. I began borrowing a friend’s old jalopy. Uncle Buck’s car had nothing on this rolling, sputtering, brown boat of a car! But, this did not dissuade customers from agreeing to have me and my painting crews paint the outside of their houses! Eventually, I saved up enough in deposits to buy my van. I used deposit money to buy painting equipment and put advertisements for college students looking for summer work in the local newspapers. (They were paper back then!) Deposit money was used to pay for direct mailing that the corporate painting umbrella company College Pro Painting put together and mailed for me. All I had to do was tell the company how many bundles and where to send them, then pay for it. 

I followed College Pro Painting’s training to a T, and added my own passion, coupled with persistent energy. It proved to be a recipe for success. In the afternoon, after classes, I would drive over to my “turf” and go door to door, asking people if they wanted a free estimate for exterior painting or “Would you mind if I placed a lawn sign on your lawn?” My pitch was simple and sincere: “Hi, my name is Matt, and I’m a college student trying to start my own painting business in your town.” This message was incredibly well-received. I was well-received. I was able to place lawn signs on the lawns of houses covered in vinyl siding that sat on main thoroughfares. Also, I was able to conduct and land all kinds of jobs. I hustled. I took any job; none was too small or big or difficult or easy. 

One last thing before I move on from this success-story: Two of the 20 or so people that I hired to work for me during that award-winning summer were college students who had painted the year before. Not only that, but they had worked for a College Pro Painting manager like me, so they knew the ropes. These two proved to be the spine of my business. The one with a little more spunk was made foreman of the crew, and I left his buddy on his crew. This last act was probably one of the best decisions I made that summer. You’d think that splitting them up, and making each a foreman of competing crews might have been more profitable. The camaraderie these two shared helped them absolutely love what they did that summer… That and the totally awesome bonus money that they earned! 

So, I’m sitting in my van in the middle of my successful summer thinking back on my humble beginnings, tragic rejection, and hard work. I’m finally feeling the emotional fruits of all of this success, and I think to myself…

If I can do this, anyone can. Why don’t more people start their own business and experience success the way I did?

Typing this thought makes me cough inside; Like, I feel like I am punching myself in the gut! My only consolation is the next thought came fast:

Wait a minute. NOT everyone CAN do this. 

When I thought this last idea, it was not with hubris. It was a realization that I was lucky. If I had bought this van I sat in with “my own money”, it was only after having been trained in how to acquire that money. Also, the people who entrusted this money to me believed that I would provide the painting that I promised. Would they trust anyone? No. 

Part of my drive that summer was due to proving my ex-girlfriend’s fears wrong. Does everyone have that going for them? Would I wish those painful feelings onto other people? Of course not.

Sure, the area where I ran my painting business was what the business called a “Pioneer Turf”, in that no College Pro Painting manager had worked there before, but College Pro Painting was far from a pioneer business! My customers had the assurance of me working for a company that had successfully trained and operated student-managed painting businesses for over 25 years! 

Lastly, having two guys who already knew how to paint and how the College Pro Painting system worked was gold! While they produced work, I trained other painters. I had them train painters. Success bred success, and everyone was happy to be working on a winning team.

traffic-lights-438806_960_720.jpgI may have had a couple of hiccups along the way, but my van and I had driven through green light after green light, picking up speed as we went.

Years after this college experience I heard the phrase “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps”. It seemed to make sense. Take what you’ve been given and make something of yourself. At the time, that’s what I thought I’d done. I did not understand that other people and situations and unearned personal talents/abilities were like a jetpack lifting me the moment I touched my boots

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Where are the bootstraps?

I’ve done a little research on this phrase. It is more than just a little ironic. It  was used as a put down, suggesting that someone was delusional, for how could you lift yourself from yourself? (Alvarez, 2015) Not only was it an insult, but originally to use the term “Bootstrapping” was to make fun of people who thought that others could be successful from nothing! 

I don’t think that it is classy to make fun of anyone. I will say that I felt a little silly, when I realized my own flawed thinking about personal success. When I sat through one of several red lights on my way to work that fateful morning mentioned at the beginning of this blog, all of this flooded my psyche. If it were even possible to “Lift yourself up by your bootstraps,” some people’s straps snap. Other people don’t even have boots! This got me thinking about a better metaphor: Traffic lights. 

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What have been your experiences with privilege and inequity?

Now that you know where the ideas for “Green Lights” came from, how might it be interpreted? What parallels to teaching and life can you make? Who is sitting at red lights? What can be done to help them? Will it hurt the person driving down the main road with all of the green lights? Is that appropriate? Who is the jaywalker? Who was driving the Ford Crown Vic that had an accident? The elderly person? I challenge you to look for literary easter eggs. What does it mean to you?

Sources:

Alvarez, S. (2015, April 7). Where does the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” actually come from? Retrieved January 5, 2020, from https://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/where-does-phrase-pull-yourself-your-bootstraps-actually-come.

The Reading Super Bowl

This blog was originally published under the title “Competition is Classy”. I decided to retitle it “The Reading Super Bowl” as I reblog it because it isn’t actually about the concept of competition being classy. The article is all about a classy competition that motivates students to read.
This past fall I finally read Daniel Pink’s seminal work, “Drive”. This has caused me to rethink the idea of using extrinsic motivations like this competition to impassion attitudes and habits. I’d like to write a blog in the future that explores whether competition is or isn’t classy; or, the classy aspects of it. This one is just about a fun competition The Polite Pirates have been conducting for years. “The Reading Super Bowl”!

The Captain of Class

Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 8.56.16 PMThe class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure…

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