#ILA15 Day 1

It’s my first year at ILA.  It’s… a lot to take in.  There are people, noises, events everywhere, all the time.

So I ran out for coffee, because I hadn’t had my second dose, and was so overwhelmed I forgot to put in cream and sugar.  I had to go back into Starbucks. And on my way out, I walked into Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne.

I was a total dork because they are my among my teaching heroes and their work is totally transforming my school.  But Teri gave me an excellent piece of advice, seconded by Donalyn: Don’t go to the things you think you should go to. Go to the things you want to go to. This is your conference.

I took their advice and changed my next session.  Instead of the vocabulary strategy session I had scheduled, I went to one about poetry.

They were right. That was so much better.  Georgia Heard and Penny Kittle showed how they use craft in the service of the heart.

Georgia did a quick write with us, based on a poem titled “You Can’t Have It All”, but whose stanzas listed what the poet could have. We wrote for a minute, maybe two.  With my Dominican garden on my mind, I scribbled:

You can have tomatoes from a field
in a country not your own
and one fat sunflower to tether them to.

Then Georgia gave a few people the opportunity to share.  I half-raised my hand. Then I didn’t raise my hand. Then I raised my hand.  And an actual poet handed me a mic.

About five minutes later I had a slow, controlled panic attack.  I had just read something in front of a bunch of people who knew a whole lot more than me, were way more qualified than me, much better educated than me.

But in that moment, the other, more reasonable half of my mind said, “But did you hear what happened when you finished?”

Because the room whispered, “Ah.”

Well, there’s the power of an authentic audience.  Self-doubt was really close to swallowing me right there.  It was the reaction of the audience, those people who, for five seconds, were connected with my words, that buoyed me up.  They listened. They felt with me my split feelings for my two countries.  And in one sigh, they let me know I was heard.


Beginning with the assumption

When I got to the Dominican Republic, students, teachers, and administrators were all quick to tell me the way school worked.  They told me, “Dominicans don’t read.”  “Students won’t do anything unless it’s for a grade.”  “Teachers need to be told exactly what to do.”  Sometimes, someone would come right out and say it: “They are lazy.”

I don’t like to use the L-word lightly.  I agree with Peter Green that “lazy” is usually a symptom of deeper problems, and it’s more effective to figure out what that problem is.  Without discounting the experience of people who lived and worked in my new community, I decided, I didn’t want to start from that assumption.  If Dominicans as a whole were lazy, I at least wanted to earn the right to hold that opinion based on my own experience and best efforts.  I didn’t believe it was possible for an entire country to be, at its core, entirely unmotivated to get off its duff for anything without bribes or threats.

One year later, I still don’t believe it.

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