Always Remember Mary Oliver

The College School Butterfly Project at Shaw Nature Reserve

The College School Butterfly Project at Shaw Nature Reserve

On the morning of January 17th, when poet Mary Oliver died, I began to see notices, tributes, and quotes from her best known poems show up across my screen from the press and from friends and colleagues. Oh dear. One of my life muses. One of the people whom I felt that I somehow knew personally because her poems are like letters. Because her poems are directed to all of us, in a straightforward way. She said that, “poems are for anyone and everybody,” and that, “poems mustn't be fancy.”

My focus as an educator has always been on the creative arts and the natural world…on child development and the arts, on art, writing and environmental education, as we used to call it. For me, the most important thing has always been the marriage of the wonder of our imagination with the beauty of the world. In her book of essays and poems, Long Life, Mary Oliver writes, How shall I live? What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?

Mary Oliver posed these and so many essential questions as in “A Summer Day,” Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? My response has been to live as an educator who believes in the beauty all around us and in the strength, intelligence and creativity of children…to be an educator who loves life, the world, and children and continues to love learning in a way that is whole and beautiful.

College School fifth graders at Shaw Nature Reserve

College School fifth graders at Shaw Nature Reserve

The College School, where I taught and served as curriculum coordinator for almost 20 years, focuses on whole, integrated learning, field studies, the arts, and active, exciting learning for everyone. I always felt that Mary Oliver was the perfect poet laureate for The College School, with her presence and full attention on animals, birds, insects, weather, the natural world and the way that she wrote her observations and feelings into poems that she says could be, “like prayers, or songs.”

When I was working with the fifth grade one year, in 2003, I helped with a long project on monarch butterflies. This was and is still, as far as I know, a flagship project for the fifth grade. The fifth grade students make their own nets, chase and tag butterflies in the prairies at Shaw Nature Reserve, hatch their own monarch eggs, observe the monarch life cycle, release the butterflies and track their migration. Until the year I worked with them, they had not devoted much time to drawing with care and with high quality materials… the butterflies, the cycle of their life, and in the field. And, they had never written poetry.

Fifth Grade monarch portraits

Fifth Grade monarch portraits

I carry with me in my heart the message of Vea Vecchi, long time atelierista in Reggio Emilia and a life time mentor of mine…learning without the aesthetic and poetic dimension is not complete, not fully developed; it is impoverished. I thought the time had come to bring aesthetic and poetic ways of learning into the center of the project and the teachers agreed. Mary Oliver says creativity is always there but we have to make an appointment with it, regularly, or it gets tired of waiting…or just gets tired.

We started by reading Mary Oliver…”A Summer Day,” “One or Two Things,” “The Sunflowers,” “When I am Among theTrees,” “Red Bird”…a poem every day. We asked the fifth graders to remember specific lines that struck them, to say those lines back to all of us. They began to love the lyrical language, the names of things, and they began to realize that they wanted to write also. And we did.

Following the life cycle of the monarch

Following the life cycle of the monarch

The students wrote a letter to Mary Oliver and included their poems, saying that they had been inspired by her poems and her voice. Here is one of the poems that we sent by Max Gotterman. (Max is now 26 years old!)

In the golden plains, butterflies soar.

A soft breeze ripples my shirt.

I walk through open fields, stalking the monarch.

She is determined to find green milky milkweed, to leave an egg,

To begin a great cycle.

The egg splits open, a chewing mouth begins to devour, the chubby larva peels off its skin.

Ripe green chrysalides hang like raindrops, hang like ornaments, one after one,

Waiting their turn to become a flying stained glass window.

Mary Oliver wrote back to us on February 24, 2003. I conclude with her letter because, after all these many years, it is such good advice for all of us. And because, it is such an honor to have a letter from this most beloved and wise poet whom we will always remember.

Dear Class,

Thank you, and your teachers too, for sending me your poems about monarchs, and with the influence of my own butterfly poem. Of course I like them! so much thought, and color and action! I think probably you read the Sunflower poem too, didn’t you? I caught a bit of that flavor also.

Keep on writing, and feeling, and responding to the world, both the writing one and the actual one. And don’t forget to run around and jump a lot, that’s important too.

Here is a more recent poem for you, to say my thanks. It’s called a broadside, when one poem is printed in a fancy fashion like this one.

Love to you,

Mary Oliver

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The Shortest Day

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We have a tradition around the winter holidays to take our grandchildren to a performance of the Christmas Revels.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Revels, it is a lively, colorful performance of song, dance and theater featuring local singers, actors of all ages wherever the Revels is playing, now in nine cities across the United States.  This year, we attended the original Revels, founded in 1971 in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.  This December, they featured the culture of the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, Denmark.

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Ashley and I took our young sons year after year just before Christmas to the celebration of Revels North in Hanover, New Hampshire.  It is such a pleasure to now take Asher, age seven, and Delilah, age four, to hear many of the same songs and poems and to dance to the Lord of the Dance right before intermission. 

One of our favorite poems of the Revels is Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day:

So the shortest day came, and the year died,

And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world

Came people singing, dancing,

To drive the dark away,

They lighted candles in winter trees;

They hung their homes with evergreen;

They burned beseeching fires all night long

To keep the year alive,

And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake

They shouted, reveling.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us-listen!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day

As promise wakens in the sleeping land:

They carol, feast, give thanks 

And dearly love their friends

And hope for peace.

And so do we,

Here, now, this year and every year.

Welcome Yule!

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This time of the shortest day and the darkest month of the year brought us a new grandchild! John Allen Cadwell, “Jack,” was born to our younger son, Chris, and our daughter-in-law, Leila on December 2, 2018.  We were fortunate and so happy to spend Jack’s first three days home with him and his parents, helping, cooking, holding him and falling in love with the newest baby in the family.  We are full of gratitude for our Christmas with all three grandchildren and our dear sons and their wives. 

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With all the difficulties and challenges that we face in education and in many aspects of our lives on this beautiful planet, we are grateful for the beauty and quiet of the season and the love that we share.  We send you all our warmest greetings as 2018 finishes and as we open a new year, full, once again, of hope and promise and all possibilities.

Louise and Ashley

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p.s. We are now off on a January adventure.  We will be in touch through Instagram and Facebook and we will be back with new year’s blog posts in early February. 

Tiziana Filippini in Boston

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The Wonder of Learning exhibit from Reggio Emilia was in Boston from June through November, 2018, and has just departed for Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks ago. It was such a joy to have this exhibit in Boston. The leadership and organizers did an outstanding job generating and coordinating tours, workshops, initiatives, collaborations and conferences. The whole education community of Boston, of Massachusetts, and of wider New England is so grateful to have had the time to visit and revisit, and consider the inspiring and beautiful work from Reggio Emilia over the last six months.

The last professional development day was focused on documentation and was organized for Monday November 12th when teachers had the day off for Veterans Day. Tiziana Filippini was the featured speaker from Reggio Emilia. Mara Krechevsky and Megina Baker from Making Learning Visible project at Project Zero at Harvard presented as well. I was part of a group of educators offering workshops in the afternoon that focused on documentation.

Ashley and I were thrilled to see Tiziana in Boston. We have known her for 28 years and she is a dear friend. She was among the first Reggio educators I met when I attended a conference in Washington D.C. in the fall of 1990 when the exhibit then entitled The Hundred Languages of Children was at the National Children’s Museum. When our family arrived in Reggio Emilia in the fall of 1991, Tiziana was the pedagogista at the Diana School where I spent a good deal of my time that school year. Her daughter, Elisa is the age of our youngest son, Chris. Tiziana’s parents lived in the same apartment complex where we lived close to Scuola Diana. Our sons, Chris and Alden played with Elisa and other children in the courtyard and were treated to snacks by Tiziana’s generous and kind mother.

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At the conference on November 12th, Tiziana spoke to us without notes for over an hour. I was spellbound. She began by putting up quotes and images about the foundation of the work in Reggio Emilia. She said that she wanted to make sure that we understood, as much as possible, what they believe about human beings, school, and systems before she could speak to us about documentation. She quoted Jerome Bruner: The choice of one model for the human mind rather than another has political and social relevance. She told us that in Reggio Emilia, they view and build their educational project on the premise that school is a living system that is ecological and systemic…that these parts form an interdependent whole: the “ecology” of the environment, spaces and relationships; family involvement and exchange over long periods; building relationships and involvement with the town of Reggio; the atelier and the 100 languages; life long professional development and collegial work and exchange; and projection, documentation, observation, interpretation and relaunching learning. She said that the curriculum is not just about the disciplines, rather it is an ecological system of knowledge and teaching and learning strategies. She told us that documentation is not an end game…not a follow up of a finished process, but rather an essential practice of learning for every protagonist, the teacher, the child and the parents.

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She continued to use the analogy of learning about trees throughout her talk. She referred to the activity of giving children brown paper for the trunk and green for the leaves and telling them how to put a tree together…how to represent a tree. (She had observed this in a school in North America.) She asked us to think about what assumptions we have if we ask children to do this…What is the relationship we hope that they might develop with trees? With the natural world? With knowing trees as living elements as part of our world? With the diversity of kinds of trees? With all parts of trees and the network of relationships with the earth, the sun, the sky, creatures. She told us that we are talking about children’s relationship with the natural world which we hope will be authentic, deep, and beautiful.

When I lived in Reggio Emilia, I followed a long project on plants and trees with the 4-5 year old children, with teachers Paola Strozzi and Marina Mori, atelierista, Vea Vecchi, and pedagogista, Tiziana Filippini. I wrote about this project in chapter three of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home. I lived inside the ecology of the system of school that Tiziana described in her talk and inside the project about the relationships among the children and the trees. I am so grateful for that and for the opportunity to write about it. I am full of gratitude also for the chance to spend time with Tiziana in Boston, and for the community, far and wide, that continues to be inspired and to stretch and learn from the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

May we all be grounded in the presence and beauty of learning on this earth alongside children, and may we all continue to reach for the stars.

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Grateful

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This Thanksgiving holiday, we are with Ashley’s extended family…his five brothers, spouses, nieces and nephews and a few family friends. We are gathered at the farm in Vermont where Ashley grew up with his brothers and where eight generations of this family have lived. We are in two houses across the barnyard from one another with a classic white barn in between. To the west, we look out at the now snowy Taconic Range and, to the east, over the fields and hills. Our own sons and their families and are not here this Thanksgiving, so we miss them.

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This is the first holiday without Ashley’s mother, who died last spring and we miss her. And yet, her presence and love is everywhere. Many of us have had some bumps and illnesses, injuries and challenges, like every family. Being together in a warm and honest way in this place sustains us.

One of the traditions that we have cultivated over the years is to have a family circle before the Thanksgiving meal. We used to stand in a circle and say briefly what we were thankful for. This tradition has evolved into more of a Quaker Meeting style sharing where we sit in the big room with a fire and speak about what really matters to each of us. It is a beautiful weaving of story, gratitude, struggle, sadness, kindness, support and love.

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This November we are also waiting for the newest member of the family, due to be born to our son, Chris and wife, Leila any minute. This Thanksgiving we are grateful for our family circles, our friend circles, our educator circles, and the beauty of the earth where we all live.. Each enriches our life and makes us whole.

We love David Steindl-Rast’s view of gratefulness that he has written about in his books, and spoken about in a TED talk and also in this five minute youtube video that is beautiful and accessible. Be sure to watch it with family.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to each of you. We send all of you our very best wishes for a beautiful holiday season.

Louise and Ashley

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Education Is Democracy

Harold Gothson at the University of Vermont

Harold Gothson at the University of Vermont

It’s fitting that I write this on November 6, 2018, election day. (I voted happily and hopefully…what a privilege….)

I hosted Harold Gothson here in Middlebury, Vermont this past week. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children had invited Harold to speak with them about his experience in Sweden where he and his colleagues have established a high functioning network of early childhood educators. I wrote about Louise’s and my experience with Harold in Sweden two years ago.

Harold has been an observer of and thinker about the Reggio Emilia approach since the 80’s and has integrated and adapted many of the principles and practices in his Swedish early childhood education context, especially with the collaboration of Anna Barsotti and Gunilla Dahlberg. Together they established the Swedish Reggio Emilia Institute.

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has declared their intention to develop a fully realized Strategy to achieve affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families by 2025a lofty goal, even audacious in these times. When I first read about this initiative, I emailed the director, Aly Richards, to ask for a meeting. At our meeting, after listening to Aly’s description of their work and their intentions, Louise and I volunteered our support.

Besides imparting, in three different gatherings, many good ideas about organization and professional development, Harold challenged the administrators and educators with whom he met to think more deeply about what they mean by “high quality.”

Harold pointed out that much of educational research on learning most often is discussed as neutral in value issues or is turned into methodological advice…group learning is looked upon as a method instead of being seen as a basic aim for the learning process.

Harold described his Swedish colleagues’ profound connection with Reggio Emilia.

In Reggio Emilia, we met not only a celebration of beautiful principles and declarations about children. We met a local society experiencing the idea of preschools as a democratic force that inspires the development of the identity of a city. It was an idea that inspired not only teachers but also local political thinking and acting, as well as empowering a new citizenship by developing participation of families in the everyday life of the preschools. Here we could see and touch a practice that showed that democracy is not fulfilled by the pure right of voting. Democracy demands that the most important role of a school is to support the possibility to formulate and respect your own viewpoints AND to put your viewpoints in to negotiations with your peers so that you can learn together…and learn the strategies that turn conflicts into energy.

Visting the University of Vermont Campus Children’s School

Visting the University of Vermont Campus Children’s School

Listening to Harold as he addressed the different groups I wondered if his larger, more complex aspiration for education was too much for his audience? For instance, was it not grounded enough in the practical matters of curriculum development? Apparently I need not have worried. The responses generated from a post visit survey indicate understanding and motivation. Here are a few examples:

This is a societal shift we are trying to make - it’s so much bigger that a bill or a funding ask. We really need to change the cultural perspective of early childhood and the value we place on our children.

Our learning environments - this includes the children and the families - should be seen and treated as learning communities where we practice the skills needed to understand and actively engage in democratic society.

The outside world is the “school,” the school building is the lab or studio. Children’s best learning is directed by themselves, with teachers as guides…a learning community in which the adults put the emphasis on wondering rather than conducting.

You can learn more, volunteer, and invest in the Permanent Fund and this on going work. Vermont intends to lead the way with strategies and models for other states and communities. We need this kind of leadership! Thank you to the Vermont Community Foundation, to the Permanent Fund, and thank you to Harold Gothson for inspiring us all to think widely and broadly about the dynamic, big picture and values that are the foundation to this vision.