Dr. Cheri Beverly

What Sustains Me?

As an educator and learner,

Moments that move one from …

confusion towards clarity,

self-doubt towards confidence,

inability towards competence,

oblivion towards awareness,

insecurity towards strength,

singular towards community,

failure towards success,

surety towards confusion…

sustain me!

Moments when one …

says, “Now, at this moment, I am more than I was before”,

sees the complexity within the simple, and

the simplicity within the complex,

knows wonder and awe in knowing, and

not knowing…

sustain me!

learning

sustains me!


Cheri Beverly has worked with diverse learners, with and without disabilities, their families and their communities in rural, suburban, and urban elementary, middle and high schools and community based programs. She has worked with teacher candidates seeking licensure at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Cheri has worked with licensed teachers from around the world to build their knowledge and skills for including learners with disabilities into their schools and classrooms, enhance their confidence and competence to serve leadership roles within their schools and nations’ education systems, and to understand and support diverse learners. Cheri has also worked with learners from majors other than Education, helping them develop and/or refine their critical thinking and decision making, leadership skills, and learning skills. Not only has she taught learners in the US, Cheri has traveled to and with learners to facilitate their growth as global citizens and critical thinkers (as well as inclusive educators). Each of these experiences has taught Cheri about herself as a learner, as an educator and as a global citizen. Each experience has provided lessons and insight about the cultural, social, economic, and political contexts of disability and education of all individuals.  Each of these lessons impacts the knowledge, skills, and contexts Cheri brings into her formal and informal educational experiences. Learning expands Cheri’s world and her desire to support others as they experience the challenges of their own expanding world. She earned her Masters in Integrated Disabilities in 1987 and her Doctorate in Infant Education – Special Education in 1994.

Ian Linden

The People in My Balcony

Sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning I experienced one of those moments where I felt that the pastor had written the entire sermon for my benefit.  The sermon was about important people in your life.  He referred to them as the people in your balcony; the people that supported you, made a difference in your life, and molded you as a person.  It is the people that are in my “balcony” and the hope that I one day will be in the “balcony” of someone else that sustains me.

A turning point in my educational career came at an early age.  I was the type of student that did enough to get by.  Why work harder than I needed to if I could make B’s without much effort?  One afternoon during my fourth or fifth grade year I told my mom that I had finished my homework and asked to go out and play.  I had hoped for a quick “yes” and just to be on my way, but as was our routine, my mom had wanted to review my work first.  I could tell by the look on her face that she was aware that I had rushed a bit on some of my math problems.  Next thing I knew my composition notebook was hurled back at me.  I could not believe that my own mother threw a book at me!  She had told me that I was better than the work that I was producing.  Her expectation was that my effort would match my ability. Through a combination of wanting to please my parents, realizing that getting things right meant I got to go outside sooner and fear (did I mention the book throwing?) I strived to improve my efforts and began to produce work that represented what I knew.  I see myself in many of the students that I teach.  I also understand that many students today are not growing up the way that I did. Not all of them have a parent pushing them to be better. I’m not advocating book throwing, but that was what I needed at that time.   I want to encourage my students to reach their full potential.  I want them to see that their grade is not something that I gave them, but rather something they earned.   Helping students to reach their full potential sustains me.

Another person in my “balcony” was my fifth grade teacher Mr. Feinstein.  He was significant because he was my first male teacher.  On that first day of school my eyes were opened to a new possibility.  I could become a teacher.  For some of my students I am their first male teacher.  I didn’t truly realize how significant being a male teacher was.  However the world that I live in includes absent fathers as a result of divorce, incarceration, and death.  I am a father figure for students, sometimes their only father figure.  What an awesome task!  I thought I just had to get them to be successful in class but for some students I also need to be a confidante, counselor, coach, protector and advocate.  As Frederick Douglass said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”   The great responsibility of building strong children sustains me.

In Junior high Mr. Hauk was my math teacher.  He was a short man, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for with enthusiasm.  As is sometimes the case with students in their early teens our class was less than enthused about the math lesson.  I don’t think this was planned, but while still talking to us, Mr. Hauk jumped up in the air and landed on his feet on top of his desk.  Stunned silence ensued.  This was something not seen outside of some sporting events and perhaps an acrobat show at the county fair.  It is a moment that I have never forgotten.  From that day on we as a class were always waiting and watching for the next time that Mr. Hauk might do something out of the ordinary.  I liked that he was willing to be a little silly to get his point across.  Our students know when we are not passionate about what we are teaching.  Although I may not be jumping on tables every day (although I have stood on a couple) I try to share my enthusiasm with my students.    Taking chances, being silly and doing something unexpected in the interest of keeping students engaged in learning sustains me.

My first teaching position began as a long-term substitute.  I had some pretty big shoes to fill.  My responsibilities were to teach math, science and social studies.  It was here that Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Norris joined my “balcony”.  Mrs. Wilson taught language arts and Mrs. Norris was our special education teacher.  The three of us would teach Social Studies together in a large classroom.  Mrs. Wilson was my mentor teacher and I learned so much about the craft of teaching from her.  I often joke about her being the best sixth grade teacher I ever had because of our age difference (its mathematically possible that she could have taught me) but truthfully I’ve learned so much from her that she really is one of my best teachers.  When it comes to planning there is no one above Mrs. Wilson. She has every contingency accounted for.  The students in Mrs. Norris’ class received their math and science instruction from me.  Mrs. Norris would join her students in my class, which was really our class.   We would collaborate and co-teach the lessons together.  The information I gleaned from Mrs. Norris regarding classroom management, making sure students were really listening and the beauty of the graphic organizer I still utilize today.  I will forever be in their debt for taking a chance on a “newbie” teacher. I know their impression of me is what allowed me to continue teaching in the same school and on the same team when the person I was subbing for chose not to return.  Knowing that my colleagues believe in me sustains me.

When I think about the people that are in my “balcony” it is not the amount of knowledge they possessed that placed them there, rather it is the relationships that they built with me that were so important to my development as a person and teacher.  I wanted to be successful because I felt important to them, that what I did mattered.  Knowing that I can have a similar positive impact on students as the people in my “balcony” makes me come to work everyday.   I hope that someday I might find myself in the “balconies” of my students and colleagues.


Ian Linden is a sixth grade math teacher in the Harrisonburg City Public Schools.  He is originally from Babylon, New York.  Ian earned his undergraduate (’02) and graduate (’03) degrees from James Madison University.  He has worked at Thomas Harrison Middle School for the entirety of his 11-year career. Ian currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia with his wife Rachel and two children Noah and Amelia.  He is thankful for the opportunity to be involved with the What Sustains Us project.

Dr. Michele L. Kelty

Mindful Presence in Teaching

“I feel the most loved in this moment than I ever have in the 13 years of my life,” said Faye.  Kim shared, “I felt loved like I do when the people at our church bring us food when we have none.” These were comments made by seventh grade girls after I led them through a mindfulness exercise during the school day at a middle school where I work as a Professor-in-Residence (PIR) one day per week. The PIR program is funded through the JMU Office on Diversity. I have recently received training on using mindfulness interventions in K-12 education and I am implementing programs and practices learned.

I am a faculty member in the Department of Graduate Psychology at JMU and I coordinate the School Counseling program. I joined the PIR program because I missed providing direct services to children and adolescents and I wanted to be more connected to the work that my own students are doing in the schools. I supervise school counseling interns and I listen to their counseling work. I relate more directly now with the real-time needs of kids in our schools. I now realize that topical sessions over issues like grief and loss, friendship issues, academic concerns, and other counseling-related problems I used to work with in the school are often replaced by an overriding sense of life dissatisfaction and hopelessness for kids who are faced with an unfathomable number of life challenges. The problem is that many kids’ lives today are not only contaminated by intermittent environmental stressors; rather, the totality of their lives are invaded by chronic rejection, lack of support, and constant unfulfillment of basic needs (i.e. physical, social, emotional wellness).

The loving-kindness mindfulness meditation took place outside in the spring-green grass, underneath a majestic oak tree, beside the track outside of the school. The girls sat on the ground, touching various parts of the earth (i.e. a stick, a leaf, the grass) and closed their eyes. I led them in five minutes of mindful breathing and then asked them to imagine being surrounded by kindness and love, in whatever form made sense for them. One girl imagined her grandmother and another said that she encountered herself as a young woman. The girls then walked quietly outside for a few moments and came back to the circle.

After practicing the loving-kindness mindfulness exercise, the girls talked about why a sense of being loved seems to evade them and how they would like to learn to feel peaceful and grounded in spite of the fractured relationships and pain swirling around them. Aisha reflected, tears streaming down her face, “Yes, I am only 14 and my Mom let me get a tattoo.  Yes, I am only 14 and I have lost my virginity. Yes, I am only 14 and I have seen and experienced more than most people in this school. They look at me with judgment. They think my clothes are not good enough. I can’t afford $80 sneakers.” Min shared with the group, “My Mom yells at me and hits me all of the time. She says she can’t help it because that is how she grew up. I told my Mom that it is up to her to stop this cycle of abuse. You have to put your kids first, not boyfriends, and that is what I am going to do one day for my kids.” The girls then shared ideas about how they might be able to use mindfulness practices for themselves when in emotional or distressing situations both at school and home. Several of them shared that they felt they could tap into this sense of peace and self-love they experienced during the mindfulness exercise.

Experiences like teaching and practicing mindfulness with kids who seem to have little chance of transcending circumstances that may lead them into further hardship, sustain me as a teacher, a human being, and as a mother. It is one thing to read the text “At Risk Youth” with my students as they prepare to provide comprehensive counseling services to diverse students. It is yet another to encounter kids as fellow sojourners in this life, as human beings who may struggle but who also have colorful dreams for their lives and futures. I have learned to look at children and adolescents as equal beings who prefer looking at each other rather than through each other, and that it is not necessary to assume a one-up stance with kids.  I hope that this lesson regarding power and presence follows me into the classroom in terms of how I encounter graduate students.

As a teacher, encountering children and adolescents in hopeful and respectful ways takes me out of the “ivory tower” or the ‘expert role” that can feel so comfortable, yet is really harmful because it is removed from the truth of human beingness. I am sustained as a teacher because I can join hands with my students as we ask ourselves how we can extend compassion and love to fellow human beings, not as expert helpers set out to save others. I am sustained as a mother because I am affirmed in my belief that in order to learn, in order to feel safe to grow beyond our fears and known boundaries, we must first feel loved and accepted for who we are and what we bring. I no longer think about how I or my graduate students can change a child’s behavior, such as decreasing the number of sex partners at age 13 or keeping kids away from drugs. I think about how we can nurture in kids a sense of worth and strength so that they can come to grounded decisions from a place of internal acceptance and peace.


Michele L. Kielty is a Professor of Counseling at James Madison University. Currently, her work revolves around themes of integrative approaches to well-being and incorporating mindfulness into work with children and adolescents. Michele coordinates the school counseling program at James Madison University. She also works with the Professor-in-Residence program, providing services to an area middle school. She is involved in several K-12 school system projects, teaching mindfulness to students and teachers, and working collaboratively with colleagues. She lives in Staunton and has two sons, who help and encourage her be mindful and present.

Dr. Michelle Hughes

From Buzzard to Bluebird

Those who want to leave an impression for one year should plant corn; those who want to leave an impression for ten years should plant a tree; but those who want to leave an impression for 100 years should educate a human being.

                                                                        Ancient Chinese proverb

 No teacher would ever argue against the idea that teaching is a tough job. To be exquisite, teachers need to have content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and an attitude that conveys caring and commitment every day.  So, how do teachers face the demands of teaching year after year?  I believe teachers are sustained by the lives they touch; teachers do make a difference.

And that brought me back to the personal way in which a teacher touched my life.  Let me set the stage…It was fifth grade.  Once again I was in the lowest reading group; once again with Kenny H (ugh!).  They called our group the Robins, but we all knew we were the Buzzards. How I hated reading and our reading group – or maybe it was just Kenny.  In any event, the year started to draw to a close and it was time for the standardized test that would determine your placement for sixth grade.  I wasn’t very good at taking tests either so this time of the year was not pleasant.  Mrs. N told us to clear our desks of everything but a #2 pencil.  She followed the test script that outlined the directions for the reading test and told us we would have 45 minutes to complete the test.  We were to continue to each next page until we saw the stop sign in the lower right corner of the page.  At that point, we were to close our test booklets and put our pencils and our heads down on the desk.  I wondered if maybe this was the year that I would finish before time was called; I had never experienced putting my head down.  Forty-five grueling minutes passed; Mrs. N called time.  I still had three pages to go.  “Oh, well, Buzzards here we come in 6th grade,” I thought.

Then Mrs. N did something out of the ordinary. Instead of instructing us to pass our test booklets forward so she could collect them, she stated, “Exchange your paper with your neighbor.” You know what follows after that!  For some reason, Mrs. N was going to have us correct each others’ work.  My neighbor was my best friend, Patty C.; we had been BFFs since Kindergarten.  She knew I wasn’t the best reader, but now I would have the humiliation of Patty actually scoring my paper and seeing exactly how poor I was.  And, I was not wrong.  After reading off all the correct responses, Patty leaned over to me and whispered, “How could you only get 14 correct?”  Knowing my fate for 6th grade was sealed, I did something totally out of character.  I whispered back, “Please Patty, I can’t be a Buzzard next year.  Change my score to 41, okay?”  Patty did what every BFF would do. She wrote a big 41 on the top of my paper and passed it forward with the other ones.

The event was quickly forgotten as we moved on to other end of the year activities.  Summer was freedom – exploring the woods, swimming in the lake, and no reminders of being a Buzzard.  September came much too quickly and soon I was dreading the return to school.  The only cool thing was that I would have Mr. V as a teacher, the only male teacher in our school.  The first day of class, Mr. V announced it was time for reading.  He explained that test scores from 5th grade had been used to form the reading groups and proceeded to read off our names and our groups.  He called my name; I slouched as low as I could in my seat, knowing exactly in which group I would be.  Then a miracle happened – he called the names of top readers to be with me!  Patty’s 41 had not been changed.  I was no longer a Buzzard; I was a Bluebird!

And here’s where the power of being a teacher can touch the lives of students.  Mr. V expected me to perform as a top reader.  He guided, supported and encouraged me as a top reader. His expectations caused me to exceed where I had been before.  He expected good things and I lived up to those expectations.  Because of this one teacher I transformed myself from someone who did not see herself as successful and capable to someone who realized that with hard work and effort, I could do anything.  I never looked back.  Throughout the rest of my education, I was a Bluebird.  It didn’t come easy, but I was determined not to let Mr. V down or to become a Buzzard again.  Mr. V had believed in me and now I did.

That’s what good teachers do.  That’s what sustains me – knowing that my expectations can help students become something they never thought possible.  I held those high expectations when I was teaching first graders on the south side of Chicago, working with middle and high school students with emotional challenges, and now helping college students become exquisite elementary teachers.  And, of course, what helps sustain me are the kind words of my students when they recognize what I am trying to do.  As one student wrote recently in a thank-you card, “I am so grateful for your help in molding me into a better teacher.  Your dedication to and passion for education is inspiring. Thanks for all you do!”


Dr. Michelle Hughes is an associate professor in the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Reading department at JMU.  She worked for 15 years as a classroom teacher in both elementary education and special education.  For six years, she was a staff developer helping other classroom teachers enhance their skills in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  After receiving her degree from the University of Virginia in Curriculum and Instruction, she joined JMU.  When she is not involved in her professional career, she helps her husband maintain their 100 year old farmhouse.

Dr. Karen Eliasson Santos

Quotations inspire me… I carry them with me, read books of them, print relevant ones on special paper for workshop participants, create class agendas with special quotes for each session, frame them for my office, and look forward to two arriving by e-mail each morning. I resonate with the way that some people are able to capture illusive concepts with artfully composed words. These quotes frame what sustains me.

Your profession is what you were put on earth to do with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling. – Virgil

I felt I was put on earth to teach; to be a partner in learning. It started with a unique opportunity to interact with individuals with learning challenges and from that time forward a true passion for teaching emerged.  Since my early years, I have known “what I wanted to be when I grew up” and I worked to achieve this goal with relentless purpose.  This focus drove my selection of a university, a major, and all of my summer employment experiences.  I distinctly recall sitting in my first deaf education class at Northwestern University and feeling goose bumps because I was finally on track to become a teacher. Throughout school to my first teaching job, I was intrigued with understanding learning, excited about ways of teaching, and literally enthralled with how it all came together in a classroom. It was fascinating and I just couldn’t get enough. I worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity.  It was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Subsequent roles from teacher to administrator, from professor to head of the program, from school in-service provider to university faculty developer, as well as consultant, all have been about teaching and learning.  They were “puzzle like” experiences of finding and connecting the pieces to form a meaningful whole.  Regardless of my role, the focus was always on the learner and how to maximize a positive successful learning experience. Whether the learners were PK-12 students, teacher candidates, practicing educators, or university faculty, it was about serving and partnering in learning. This journey as an educator was what I was put on earth to do and the intensity and passion are what sustain me.

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. – Andy Warhol

As I contemplate the ways my career has changed, I realize it has been about vision. Although not always crystal clear, as I look back, it was one that unfolded gracefully and compellingly over more than 30 years. I did not wander aimlessly only then to have opportunities fall in my lap but rather I became deeply invested and engaged in each stage of my work in a way that captured my imagination and facilitated envisioning the next step.  For me, it was about sensing the need and working very hard to create the change.  That sustains me.

“Opportunities are seldom labeled.” – John Shedd

Opportunities provide the petri dish for innovation but sometimes what grows is unexpected.  I like innovation with it’s formal by products of “better,” “more effective,” or an “improved way of doing things” but equally important are the accompanying energy, excitement, newness, and fresh perspectives that are part of the process. I find it highly stimulating to identify a need and use creativity and imagination to creatively design a solution.  While each phase of innovation, from idea generation to implementation, is exciting I especially treasure the stage of new ideas arising from multiple sources and working collaboratively with colleagues to refine them into an effective plan of action. It never ceases to amaze me how ideas become better and better as a result of diverse perspectives.  Reflecting back on a variety of collaborative education ventures, examples come to mind… the satisfaction of creating sustainable structures for recruiting and orienting new teacher candidates, establishing comprehensive processes for advising and progress monitoring, aligning and sequencing curriculum, designing new courses, developing highly integrated applied practicum experiences, working on the development of national standards rooted in the real work of schools, and conceptualizing the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation. Many of these may seem like the traditional tasks of higher education but those of you who were partners in these innovations will recall how we seized the opportunities to innovate. Having the capacity to change things and lead these efforts to create something new or improved definitely sustains me.

“My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”  – Diane Arbus

I am nourished by a sense of adventure into the unknown, by variety and change…assortment of roles, array of courses, types of students, diversity of colleagues, multiplicity of ideas, novelty of spaces and new places. Throughout my career, this variety provided the fuel for constant forward momentum.  Each step along the journey had an unexpected sureness, not necessarily during the decision-making stage but once the decision was made, I experienced amazing certainty as it unfolded. I love going where I’d never been. Deep down, in the midst of significant change and despite what may have appeared as disparate work, I was sustained by a sense of meaningful continuity.

“Associate with people who are likely to improve you.” – Seneca

My professional contributions are a result of associating with people and forming relationships.  These relationships had a profound impact on me.  First and foremost, my family and my children improved me because they became the standard to which I held myself and others accountable.  Would I want this person teaching my own children?  Would I want this professional interacting with my family?  These special people in my life provided the benchmark for high expectations, not only challenging me to require this standard of others but demanding that I model the behavior and attitudes I hoped to see in others. Nothing could be more important in education.

I thrived on being surrounded by talented people who were different than me and who were likely to improve me, improve us, and improve our work. Admittedly though, I had a strong preference for those who also had a high level of passion and a strong work ethic. I was truly blessed to know countless individuals in local schools, at James Madison University, at other institutions, and in national organizations who possessed incredible drive, zeal, and dedication. It has always been incredibly stimulating to interact with colleagues with new ideas and styles… I thank them all for how they not only improved me but how they continue to sustain me.

“Sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

 My life and career have felt busy, at times hectic, characterized by so many opportunities and interesting challenges… maybe they didn’t all occur before breakfast but sometimes it surely felt that way.  This begs the question about what ultimately failed to sustain me.  In hindsight, it was not having enough time to think, to breathe, to reflect, to play a little hooky, to renew.  I do not want to portray a career of over commitment as negative as I would not have had it any other way and only I made the choices I did.  I was overcommitted because I treasured every opportunity that came my way.  Each was a special chance to learn, to grow, to work with new people, to contribute, and ultimately to enhance.  The infusion of frequent change helped sustain me but in the end, I needed a different type and pace of work.  I embrace this latest stage with enthusiasm and again, with certainty.  There may be less days with six impossible things before breakfast but that is now what sustains me.

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” – Buddha 

I have been sustained by an amazing array of opportunities which unfolded over the years.  Certainly this was “work” but interestingly, most of the time, I never thought of it as work.  I enjoyed it so much that I gave my heart and soul to it. I have been very blessed in my career to have been recognized in multiple ways for my contributions and accomplishments. These nomination letters and awards have always felt disconnected from the image I have of myself and I never truly internalized that the person being talked about was actually me. This was epitomized at a lovely retirement event when individuals I greatly respect and admire described my contributions. It was as if I was listening to descriptions of someone else.  Knowing I have had a positive impact on others is gratifying but through these relationships, it is I who benefitted and became the better person. I do believe I was put on earth to become an educator and this original passion has taken me on an exciting journey. I recognize that opportunities might not always have come with labels but on many days at least six were available to seize before breakfast.  I had the power to change things especially if I associated with people who improved me and improved our work.  Ultimately I have been blessed to discover my true work and to put my heart and soul into it. I have tremendous gratitude for this journey which continues to inspire and sustain me.


Karen Eliasson Santos is a James Madison University Emeriti Professor of Education and founding Director of the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI).  She earned her B.S. in Communication Disorders from Northwestern University and M.Ed and Ph.D degrees in Special Education from the University of Virginia.  Prior to serving as head of the Special Education teacher preparation program in the College of Education she was a teacher and a school administrator.  Based on a strong commitment to applied learning, she initiated and developed customized school-based practicum experiences including the JMU May semester at Marymount International School in Rome, Italy. Karen co-authored two books, To Think Like a Teacher: Cases for Special Education Interns and Novice Teachers and From Rigorous Standards to Student Achievement: A Practical Process.  She has received numerous honors and awards including those from the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, Phi Delta Kappa and James Madison University.

Dr. Dave Pruett

What Sustains Me

Following an engineering degree and a stint in the Air Force, I taught high school mathematics for three years in Henrico County, VA. Why the change of direction and why math? Nearly four decades later, a young woman student, who came to my office requesting a letter of recommendation, answered the latter question better than I could have. “Why do you want to teach math?” I asked, curious about what motivates today’s aspiring teacher and why she would chose a subject that is the bane of many. After a long pause, she responded somewhat hesitantly, “Well … math is sort of like …,” and her eyes lit up, “magic.”

Einstein thought so too and pondered, “How can it be that mathematics, after all a product of human thought independent of experience, is so appropriately adapted to the objects of reality?” That is, why does mathematics, an abstract language dreamt up in the human mind, so perfectly describe the orbits of the planets, the breaking of a wave, or the probability of finding an electron at a particular place in its orbital? It’s an amazing coincidence: thought aligning with reality. I teach mathematics because it really is magic, but that is getting way ahead of the story.

My 29th year was miserable. I was unmarried, on the downhill side of a broken relationship, under-employed, lonely, lost, and clueless as to why. Nothing was working out the way I’d envisioned my life. Worse, it seemed to be working out fine for everyone around me. It took several years and some good therapy to begin to sort out the major issues, but in retrospect the problem is pretty easy to describe. Like the Grinch’s heart, my worldview was at least three sizes too small.

I’d grown up in a provincial town in West Virginia, belonged to a religious denomination that bordered on the rigid, and adopted conservative parental values lock, stock, and barrel. But the value system that worked well when I was a teen was crushing my soul at nearly thirty.

The first tentative steps out of the darkness came in 1978, eight years after earning my undergraduate degree, when I entered UVA to begin working on an MS in applied mathematics. The MS solved the under-employed part of the problem, and after two years of working for a great little aerospace firm, I returned to UVA for a PhD. And there I plunged headlong into a deep depression that lasted for two months. In hindsight, that depression was one of the greatest spontaneous gifts I have ever received, because it forced me to do what author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer calls “heart work”—confronting the discrepancy between who we are and who we wish to be. During that process, the narrow confines of my old value system were revealed to me. Depression was a way of sloughing off and grieving for the old skin that had to go to make way for a new one, a value system that was genuinely my own. Starting afresh required a bold step. I transferred to the University of Arizona, leaving behind the familiar and comfortable.

In Arizona, slowly but surely, my world began to grow. My dominant impression during those first weeks in Tucson was of the unusually pure quality of the light, so different from the diffuse light back East that rendered everything in subdued tones. In contrast, the Arizona sky shone deep blue, rock formations displayed an amazing spectrum of earth tones, sunsets glowed a brilliant orange, and cacti turned radiant in the late afternoons, their translucent spines aglow when backlit. Like a houseplant that had been too long kept in a windowless room, I thrived on that light. I’m a mountain boy of the Appalachians, and I still love their lush green.  But I came to love also the austere beauty of the desert Southwest, and the Arizona “mountain islands” from whose summits one’s eyes could encompass tens of thousands of square miles. I left few stones unturned when it came to exploring Arizona’s charms: its canyons, mountains, parks, old mining towns, pueblos, and Indian reservations.

I became a world traveler too.  At first, it was just across the border to Nogales, Sonora, to find a good chile relleno, and later to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany at the alma mater of my advisor–the University of Stuttgart–and friendships established then with German colleagues persist to this day. Back in Tucson, I met my wife Suzanne, who was undergoing her own metamorphosis, a few steps ahead of me. She helped open my eyes to the travails of Latin Americans who live under the shadow of a very big neighbor El Norte, to the Sanctuary Movement, and to liberation theology.

I look back on those four years in Tucson wistfully. There I first gathered the courage to take some risks, to re-examine hand-me-down values, especially hand-me-down spirituality, to continue the “heart work” that would reveal my core, and to crawl tentatively out of my shell.  It was a time of immense personal growth. I’d like to think that I have been growing ever since. But in truth, like one’s body, one’s soul sometimes grows only in spurts.

It seems to me that, whatever our purpose on earth, a large part of that purpose involves growing: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. What then are the stimuli of growth?

Growing involves at least two ingredients: courage and education. Growth always involves some sort of risk, and it takes courage to get over the hump of risk. Courage to leave the familiar, courage to question the status quo, courage to challenge one’s assumptions, courage to challenge one’s society’s assumptions, or the courage to live with ambiguity when one is in the awful and exhilarating limbo of transition.

The second ingredient, education, is also key, whether formal or informal. Education creates the new synapses that will make possible a new and healthier way of being. Education is the closest thing we have to a genie in a bottle. It is the magic elixir that helps us transcend our limitations. It liberates the oppressed, whether they are oppressed by the “system” or, in my case, by a constrictive worldview. Education at its best makes us realize that we are not alone, but parts of an intricate and elaborate web of life. Education helps us see the trajectory of where we have been through the eyes of history and projects us into the future along the arc of evolution. All true education, regardless of discipline, ultimately points to the greatest truth of the oldest discipline—philosophy: the love of wisdom—as expressed in the most seminal three words of the Upanishads: That are Thou. What looks separate is not. The “other” is as sacred as you are, because ultimately, there is no other. Like the aspen grove, beneath outward appearances, we individual trees share the same roots.

Exploring the hidden connections that bind us to one another and to the anima mundi is the greatest joy of my life. Being able to explore those connections collectively, in a classroom of courageous students, is a privilege not to be taken for granted.

Is every day in the classroom scintillating, inspiring, or profound?  Do I connect at a deep level with every student. Of course not. Many days I feel like Sisyphus. Then again, there are days when I’ve received a note that made my heart soar, “Thank you for teaching me that science can have a heart,” or have read on a course evaluation:

“[This course] went outside the bounds of memorization and traditional learning; it entered the realm of intense thought and reflection. The ideas we covered forced me to expand my mind and examine what I know, who I am, and my place in the universe.”

At its best, a “university” is where one goes to study the universe and to seek one’s place in it.  I love being a part of such a university.  Where else does one get paid to explore, to grow, and to help others grow?


Dave Pruett will be retiring this summer (2012) after a checkerboard career that includes 25 years of teaching at various levels (16 at JMU) and nearly a decade of aerospace-related experience at NASA Langley Research Center.  Hard work, the support of family and colleagues, good students, time, and luck have earned him a number of awards over his late-bloomer career: the Robert T. Knapp Award of the American Society for Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International, the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Honors Teaching, JMU’s Distinguished Teacher and Madison Scholar Awards, and JMU’s first Mengebier Professorship. But upon reflection, his proudest accomplishment is the development of the Honors Course “From Black Elk to Black Holes: Tales of a Mysterious Universe,” which garnered a Science-Religion Course Award in 2000. Born of a personal struggle for integrity, “Black Elk to Black Holes” has touched many lives and was the initial inspiration for Reason & Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit, Dave’s 12-year labor of love which will be published by Praeger in May 2012.

 

Dr. Cindy Klevickis

Southside Diary

It is 4 AM. I have had only 4 hours of sleep. The coffee is made, my clothes are laid out, school starts at 7 AM and I have 2 hours to drive. I don’t usually have to leave this early, but, today, I need to catch the first class of the day.

Each week I travel to a Southside high school where I do science demonstrations, teach dual enrollment classes, help students with college applications and financial aid and hold teacher professional development workshops.  This is all part of our Professor in Residence Program. Our goal is to enhance the academic atmosphere in the schools where we serve and help high school students choose the kinds of classes they need to be competitive for college admission. Although we hope that this will eventually enhance diversity at our university, we are more concerned that students make good higher education choices than whether they choose our school. My personal goal is to instill a love of science through experiential learning. With the stress that goes along with standardized testing, students can loose the joy of learning.

As I pull into the parking lot, students are just arriving at school. Some of them recognize my car and soon I have a train of helpers offering to carry my supplies. I believe them when they assure me that their teachers will not mind if they are a little late to class.

My first stop is the ESL classroom. For the last six weeks, these students have been taking a series of state-mandated tests. They have either a full day of testing or they are literally locked in the library until other students in their class finish the tests for that day. Their teacher wanted me to do something with the students that might help offset the tedium of day-long testing and set a positive tone for the rest of the day. I will be making ice cream with liquid nitrogen and the students will be having ice cream for breakfast. One student, Saliq, is confined to a motorized wheel chair. The school was built more than 50 years ago and his chair does not fit through the door of some of the classrooms. Because his wheelchair does fit in this room, I invited him to join the ESL class for this demonstration.

There are dozens of good science lessons that I can highlight as I make the liquid nitrogen ice cream. I can customize the lessons for any class level or almost any subject. Some of the ESL students have surprisingly good science vocabularies, even those who have been learning English for only a few months. I have no problem explaining how heat capacity and density applies to what they are seeing.  To make ice cream, I pour liquid nitrogen directly into a mixture of heavy cream, whole milk, sugar and vanilla. The ice cream freezes and the nitrogen boils away. As the liquid nitrogen boils, the nitrogen gas that is given off is still cold…so cold that any water vapor in the air condenses and we make clouds.  I love hearing students respond as they feel the cold clouds and watch them sink to the ground. They tell me that the reason the cold clouds sink is that “cold air is more dense than warm air.”  They are exactly correct.

Saliq can’t use his hands. Sitting next to me, eyes glued to the bubbling flask, he makes sure he does not miss a thing. His head down with one ear on the table, Saliq can feel the clouds.

1 year later:

I received an email from Southside this morning. It was about an essay students wrote for an assignment called “School Experiences that Have Inspired Me.”  One student wrote that he did not know how much he loved science until he saw liquid nitrogen ice cream. He knew that he did not have all of the required prerequisite courses, but he was going to do the best he could to find a way to major in science when he attends college. The essay was signed, “Saliq.”

Michelle Kielty-Briggs, one of my colleagues in the Professor in Residence program, recently wrote “You cannot put a price on education or a meaningful future.”  She noted that“ The authors of “At Risk Youth” tell us that the most powerful protective factor in a child’s life is the presence of one caring adult.”  Like her, I am grateful that our university has invested in the future of young students by allowing faculty to invest our time in the lives of students.

Making a difference in the lives of students historically marginalized from science—this is what sustains me.

 

Citation: At-Risk Youth: A Comprehensive Response: For Counselors, Teachers, Psychologists, and Human Services Professionals (Counseling), 4th edition, J. Jeffries McWhirter – Arizona State University, Benedict T. McWhirter – University of Oregon, Ellen Hawley McWhirter – University of Oregon, Robert J. McWhirter, Cengage Learning, 2007


Professor Klevickis, known as ” Cindy ” to both faculty and students, earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin and her doctorate in Biophysics at the University of Virginia. She has taught full time at JMU since 1994 and was a part-time faculty member since 1982. 

Cindy is the advisor for the Roop Residential Learning Community for future K-12 teachers at JMU. She is also the James Madison University Professor in Residence at Huguenot High School in Richmond, VA.

Keeping in mind that students tend to teach in the same way they were taught, Cindy’s classes embrace the concepts associated with reform in elementary math and science. Cindy is also a great promoter of student empowerment and community service learning. She takes students seriously and students respond with remarkable achievements.

Dr. Carol A. Hurney

Reflective Change Sustains Me

Teaching is my journey. My teaching journey is filled with wondrous sites, puzzling anomalies, and interesting side trips.  This journey is my life challenge – and it sustains me.  The daily process of teaching is filled with creating assignments, drafting exams, posting readings, answering questions, preparing lectures, and grading.  Although I take pride in accomplishing these tasks with an eye to perfection; these things do not sustain me.  And although I really enjoy being in the spotlight, lecturing only provides temporary sustenance and like a good jolt of caffeinated coffee, lecturing feels really good for the moment but has no real staying power.  Staying power is important.   The staying power – what sustains me – in my career comes from moments when I meaningfully reflect on the impact my career has on my courses, my students, and myself.  This reflection is exhilarating – because it stimulates me to change – and when I change something to improve student learning, I do it.  I mean I really take it to heart, gather my thoughts, scholarly reflect and then bam!  I step outside of the box.  Actually, I purposefully and gleefully dive off a cliff into the ocean, anxious to reach the expected and unexpected challenges of the water below.  Wheeeee…..

My discipline sustains me.  I think that everything about Biology is fascinating.  Yet, I don’t imagine that I know all of the wondrous details about biology, nor do I feel obliged to cover all of these details for my students.  The first time I was compelled to dive off a pedagogical cliff was when I realized that less content is more.  I began critically analyzed the content I “covered” for students.  Biology is a growing sea of facts that are often presented out of context and in overwhelming amounts.  I constantly asked myself whether students needed to know a particular biological fact or concept to grasp the major emphasis of the topics we were covering in class.  Consequently, I created courses that bore little resemblance to the content organization of the courses I had taken as an undergraduate.  For the non-majors, this meant that we explored real world topics such as the impact of the human genome project, the biology of cancer, emerging infectious diseases and other tantalizing topics.  For the biology majors, reflecting on the role of content resulted in me giving the students more responsibility to “cover” content on their own, pushing them to prepare for lectures and lab classes in a more meaningful way by holding them accountable for content using on-line quizzes, Socratic lectures, and other cooperative learning techniques.  I recall many moments when I would be lecturing while having the realization that I didn’t need to cover some aspect of the topic.  I would make notes of these experiences and still do because although all the details are fascinating, they don’t always need a spot in the prime-time agenda.  My first pedagogical dive into the academic ocean was hard, but worth it.   Now I constantly celebrate my discipline by thoughtfully delivering content and empowering students to embrace content that relates to the course, even if I didn’t “cover” it in class.  My discipline still sustains me.

Implementing active learning environments sustains me.  Before making a grand pedagogical dive away from the lectern, I was fairly content with myself as a teacher, lecturer, and biologist.  I felt I had a firm grasp on the content I was delivering and felt that my students were happy and learning.  But were they learning what I wanted them to learn?  When the answer to this question came crashing down upon me – NO – they were not learning what I wanted them to learn.  I was devastated.  I didn’t really care if they knew the different kinds of blood types, I wanted them to apply that knowledge to real problems, I wanted them to use biology, to think differently about biology, and to stay excited about biology.  My neatly organized, instructor-centered course was comfortable for them and me – but was completely missing the point.  Ok, next pedagogical dive.  I started, slowly at first, to implement a variety of strategies and technologies to engage students in learning such as cooperative learning, personal response systems (clickers), and pre-class warm-ups (Just-in-Time Teaching).  Almost instantaneously the waters from this pedagogical shift welcomed me and I felt the impact and more importantly I could tell my students felt this shift in the waters and their interest and excitement about class piqued.   To my surprise, I found companions during this dive and continue to swim regularly in the scholarly waters of evidence-based pedagogies, sampling and implementing techniques that will hopefully enhance the staying power of my course, not just on me, but for my students.  Now my courses are designed to foster the kind of learning I want students to experience, the kind of learning that helps them realize the process-oriented goals of the General Education Program and the Biology curriculum.  Now I continue to design and deliver an environment that contains dynamic readings that include on-line articles, podcasts, and video clips, warm-ups based on readings that students complete on-line prior to each class, cooperative learning class assignments that challenge student understanding of course objectives, interactive clicker questions designed to hold individual students accountable for learning, projects that increase skills in process-oriented learning objectives, such as finding reliable scientific resources, and non-multiple choice exams with questions representing multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning.  Implementing active learning environments still sustains me.

Working with my students to make my courses learner-centered sustains me.  A few years ago while on vacation, I read Maryellen Weimer’s book on learner-centered teaching.  I really thought as I began reading this book that I would be reading about my teaching journey, the essence of my teaching philosophy, the learning environments of my courses, and the strategies I was using to engage my students in learning.  I was wrong.  Although I was providing a learning environment that engaged students in learning … I was doing everything.  I decided the course content.  I controlled exams and assignments.  I was responsible for student learning.  I had ALL of the power.  My class was instructor-centered.  Learner-centered teaching in its fullest form represents more than creating a course where students are engaged.  Rather, it represents a shift in the balance of power, function of content, role of the instructor, responsibility of learning, and role of assessment.  In practice, learner-centered teaching gives students choices about content, responsibility for making connections between course content and other topics, opportunities to create framework that contextualizes content, control of methods used to determine course grades, and more.  This seemed overwhelming to me.  How could I let students do all of those things?  Was I really prepared to take this pedagogical dive?  I felt lost and wanted to delete all of my teaching files and start over, which felt like I would be jumping off a cliff into an empty pool.  Unfortunately, I only had about three weeks to regain composure, reorient my journey, and attempt to make my courses learner-centered.  Grounded by my faculty development experiences consulting with instructors about implementing new teaching strategies, I took some of my own advice – view the implementation of a teaching strategy as a continuum rather than an all or nothing approach.  And so I made the dive and it was a spectacular experience.  The best pedagogical shift I had ever made.  The experience was so powerful, I felt like running to the top of cliff and diving off again, and again.  Now each semester I reflect on past experiences, explore the literature, and walk into the classroom fully prepared to design learning WITH my students, not for them.  Now, the students in the non-majors course select new topics each semester, reflect on the pedagogical value of the active learning strategies, and add value to assignments that ultimately measure whether they have achieved the learning objectives.  And now the biology majors realize that I will not tell them everything they need to know to successfully complete each lab and that I will not answer every question they have.  I continue to shift the balance of power and the role of the instructor for both of these courses toward the learner-centered end of the pedagogical spectrum.  Now for each course, I talk less, they talk more, and they participate more meaningfully in their learning.  Swimming in the learner-centered waters is still a challenge for me.  It is hard to resist the urge to answer student questions during the course of the lab that they could answer for themselves by reviewing the lab manual.  It is also hard to watch the students struggle with a complex, application-based assignment without trying to help them.  But if I am patient and resist the urge to “tell” them or “help” them, I begin to see my students swimming along side me in the learner-centered ocean and although it is a struggle, we celebrate the experience and seek out new waters and future dives.  Working with my students to make my courses learner-centered still sustains me.

Meaningfully involving students in biology content, active learning and the design and delivery of learner-centered courses sustains me.  Working with them gives the mundane teaching tasks – creating assignments, posting readings, preparing lectures, and grading – staying power.  Staying power is important.  When you finally arrive at your grown-up job destination, staying power gets you out of bed each day.  Staying power fuels the passion you bring to your work.  Staying power turns the daily tasks of any job into the essential elements that help build a body of work, a career, and ultimately a lifetime.  My staying power is change – the dive.  More importantly, my staying power is taking students with me as we change and having them guide our journeys through the charted and uncharted waters of lifelong learning.


Carol is the executive director for the Center for Faculty Innovation and associate professor in the Biology Department.  She directs a number of campus-wide programs that support the teaching, scholarship, leadership, and service roles of JMU faculty and has been teaching General Education courses for majors and non-majors since 1998.  In 2005, Carol was honored as the Distinguished Teacher in General Education. Carol recently discovered the wonders of learner-centered teaching and applies this philosophical approach to her introductory course for non-science majors and the lab course for biology majors.  Carol is still a biologist at heart and spends time with her undergraduate research students exploring tail development in the four-toed salamander,Hemidactylium scutatum.  In her free time, you will find Carol doing the other things that sustain her – riding her bicycle, teaching a Step class at the Wellness Center, or cooking some fantastic meal with her family and friends in her fabulous kitchen.

Dr. Hood Frazier

What Sustains Me

Finding the New Mind

“…unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness…”

—from Patterson, by William Carlos Williams

I came to education through poetry; and poetry is but one way to discover the architecture of the self and, by doing so, pushing the line towards a new mind, a new way of seeing.

As a child growing up in West Virginia, one of my earliest memories was of lying in my grandmother’s bed smelling the scent of camphor and listening as she sung me lullabies.  Or later, after taking those long trips to visit my father’s parents in Bluefield, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he, dressed in a navy blue suit, would tell me stories or recite poems that he had memorized.

Raccoon’s tail has rings all around
but possum’s tail is baa
Little rabbit ain’t got no tail at all

But just little bitty bunch of haa.

 

Later it was poetry that Mrs. Cartright asked me to memorize and recite as part of my elocution lessons. Since, I was to follows in my grandfather Esker’s footsteps to become a medical doctor, my mother was determined that I would take elocution lessons to keep any vestige of a West Virginia accent at bay. So, I memorized poems and recited them when I was in grade school and what I found was that I really liked poetry. In addition, I sang as a child and later joined a church choir and on one occasion, we went to a concert by The Columbus Boy’s Choir from Princeton, New Jersey. Afterwards, they hosted auditions and I was the only one who the director said, had perfect pitch and a perfect ear. They wanted me to join the choir that night, but my parents after much deliberation, said no. This “gift” I also believe is one reason that I was drawn to the interplay of words and sound, the cross-beams that lie at the heart of poetry.

Even as child in language arts class, I enjoyed poetry writing.  I will never forget the Dr. Seuss writing that we did in Ms. Chapman’s fourth grade class when we were to create a make-believe animal, write a poem about it and then draw a picture. My creation was a bird that ate “buckets.” So, I went through the alphabet to create a poem about my bird making up imaginary words by simply substituting a new letter of the alphabet for the “b” in “bucket,” and then using each word in a line, I interspersed them to create my poem.  “A” “aucket,” “C” “cucket,” “D” “ducket,” “E” “eucket” and “F” ….(well, you know where I’m going with this one.) Once I did my drawing and wrote my poem, I gave it to my teacher who was young and new to the teaching profession. Since it was Parent’s Night, she posted all of the children’s poems and drawings around the classroom, not taking the time to edit them first. And it wasn’t until the next morning at breakfast that my father said, “So, where did you hear THAT word!” And though, he didn’t quite believe my explanation, I realized something about the written word even at such an early age, and that was poetry had power!

In high school during the late 1960’s, several of us who were involved with counter culture activities started our own underground newspaper, the M.O.L.E. (Movement of Liberal Equality) a novel undertaking in conservative, Parkersburg, West Virginia.  Since, I was listening to lots of the Beatles, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan, I became the poet and wrote mostly rhymed anti-war poems for each issue.

When I studied English as an undergraduate at West Virginia University, I took my first creative writing course, from an outstanding professor, Winston Fuller. There, I began the serious of study of poetry and several years later completed my MA with a creative thesis, How to Make Magic: Writing Poetry from Dreams.

By the time I finished it, I was hopelessly hooked on writing poetry and believed in the importance of creativity and creative thinking. I was particularly drawn to the Surrealists and loved the improvisational aspect of writing that they explored through automatic writing, collage and language play. When I began teaching community college, I experimented with alternative ways of working with poetry drawn from my class with Winston Fuller and encouraged my students to experiment as well.  However, the more I wrote and taught poetry writing, the more I began to understand that poetry writing could provide students with a way to tap into their voices and to say things that were important.  Since I was teaching developmental and college transfer courses at Southside Virginia Community College at the time, I had the opportunity to work with adults who had been locked out of the public school system when the schools closed in Prince Edward County and with them, I experimented by having them write poetry as a way to frame their experiences.  I will never forget one woman who was probably 10 years my elder, saying after she finished reading a piece that she had composed, “I never thought I would be able to write a poem.”

Though my university years the traditional poets that we read in my oversized Norton Anthologies of English and American poetry, through the creative writing classes I read modern and contemporary poetry and was deeply influence by the surrealists and the works of Gregory Orr, Robert Bly and others who were experimenting with surrealism in language. While finishing my MA program at West Virginia University, I deviated from the normal thesis to write “How to Make Magic: Writing Poetry from Dreams.” This was a critical study of some of the French symbolists, the surrealists, and it had a grounding in the works of Freud, Jung, Gestalt and anthropological dream work. However, the culminating product was a collection of dream poems that I completed based on keeping dream journals for over two years, this was the very foundation in my exploration of self. By climbing through this trellis of dream work, I could not help but face my demons of the dreamscape and feel, in this new darkened light of the power of the word.

The art of poetry has illuminated my teaching. It was through poetry that I began teaching at the Community College and later, leading a grant-funded Virginia Literature class for inmates at Buckingham Correctional Institution where I employed poetry by inviting in contemporary poets and scholars to the speak us about their poems and their lives. It as at that time that Gregory Orr, a poet from UVA, wrote about the guilt he felt for the death of his older brother from a hunting accident.  What was particularly moving was that after his short lecture and reading, several of the inmates walked up to him afterwards and shared their compassion for him. I will never forget this one inmate who said, “You know it is ok, we all have done things that we regret. We must be able, however, to forgive ourselves.”

Poetry also became a tool that I used at Murray High School, where I taught “at risk” high school students. There I taught a course in poetry where the students wrote, read and performed poems. I still remember Becky who sat quietly in the back of the room each day, who never volunteered and didn’t really participate at all until I read several of the poems that she had written. I praised her poems which were deeply personal. She had a natural ear and strong sense of image, but what surprised me the most was the day when I was speaking with her about the quality of her writing and when I asked her why she didn’t share them with the class, she looked up at me and said: “Where I was before in school, I sat in the back of the room, and even by the end of the semester, the teacher never even knew my name.” Through poetry, she began to share her story, began to take the risk of stepping from her silence into the world.

Or, David, who had failed English the previous year, so this was his last chance to pass and then graduate. He was a natural class leader but generally loud and negative. One day when we were writing persona poems, David wrote from the point of view of a rapist. The poem was graphic, violent and quite negative but he created quite a character with the piece, so much so, that I had to defend it in the class when his classmates attacked him about it. When I explained the poem to the class and how masterfully he had handled the speaker, he began to come around and he began to take the class more seriously, so much so, that he competed the work and eventually graduated. He asked me to award him his diploma for graduation, a real honor at that school. It was really the power of the poem that allowed me to make these deep connections with the students and with the inmates.

Poetry through teaching was a way to create a new line and, by doing so, to create a new mind. One of my favorite poems is the following that was written about a painting by Alfred Leslie titled, “The Raising of Lazarus” (1975) that is currently in the Bayly Art Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lazarus Rising
Past the light, the stretch of trees that leads
to his house, past the doorway to the room his sisters
keep alive with their incense of tears, he comes
like a crow eyeing these shiny emblems of his life.
In shadows three days, he watches
his sisters drifting in rooms as if upon water
till on that third day they are almost transparent, flat,
something he can put his hand through.
By the fourth day, it is uninhabitable:
he can not remember why he has come nor why
light hurts his skin so, nor what the settling of
dark birds means.
Motes move through him but not God.  Evening bleeds
to the horizon, women’s voices move around him—
an insistent sirocco that will not cease.
A man wearing white comes then leaves again— his hand
burns, the light burns… something he has known,
a distant whisper then moving…  passing the branches…  the
stone by the tomb’s door…   a luminescence….
When he awakens from that second sleep bandaged
in what he could remember, a dream of falling
in which the air itself had become a seam of light, an insect
humming close that would not leave,
he first heard the voice of God
an indecipherable whisper, over
and over in his ear.
based on the oil painting titled:
The Raising of Lazarus
Alfred Leslie (1975)

 

Recently, in an interview that I conducted with the poet, Gregory Orr, as part of a book project that I am working on called The Last Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Orr said that his first experience writing poetry in high school was transformative.

It was the emotional experience of writing a poem – I can remember a particular poem—that was so liberating that I thought, “This is the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.” That particular poem was a poem of escape, a fantasy of being somewhere else. That’s a kind of poem people write a lot, especially when they’re teenagers. It was such a powerful experience that I thought, “God, I didn’t know you could be transported by imagination combining with words.”  On top of what I was experiencing in the writing, the teacher was responsive and that was a real thrill for me. So the combination of what it was doing for me and what it was communicating to someone else was pretty intense. I thought, “This is what I’m going to do with my life.”

                                                                        (published in The Writer’s Chronicle)

Today, with standards driven education, the crush of new and diverse cultures, the divisive political climate that undermines both education, the integration of such cultures and support for the arts, it is vital that we write our own lines and, by doing so, open ourselves and our students to the lifelines that poetry and the arts can provide. We must find what sustains us. By doing so, the poem is but one way to find the new mind and as Robert Frost writes, “the one less traveled.” As the poet Gary Snyder writes in his poem, “For the Children.”

In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pasture, we can met there in peace if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
stay together
learn the flowers
go light-
References

 Frazier, Chapman Hood. (2010) “A Conversation with Gregory Orr.” The Writer’s Chronicle. V.29,

(5), Associated Writer’s Program. March/ April.

Frazier, H. (1990) “Lazarus” The Writer’s Eye:  An Anthology of Poetry  and Prose.   Bayly Art

Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1.

Snyder, G. (1974) Turtle Island. New Directions: New York.


Chapman Hood Frazier is currently a Professor in the Middle and Secondary Education Department with a specialization in English Education. A published poet, Hood Frazier is currently working on a series of interviews with contemporary poets and initiated the Poetry Hit Squad, a group of JMU students currently developing innovative methods for working with poetry in the classroom. As a Professor in Residence, he has brought high school students from William Fleming High School, Murray High School in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg High School to campus for Poetry Day. He has published poetry, articles and interviews in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The English Journal, The Patterson Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle and Shenandoah. He is interested in creativity in the classroom, alternative non-traditional educational practices.

Mary DeVier-Scott

Moments that Sustain

Making split second decisions, fielding rapid-fire questions, continual multi-tasking, acute awareness of your surroundings at all times – A description of the

floor of the New York Stock Exchange?  Perhaps the boardroom of a multi-national corporation?  How about the emergency room of a large metropolitan hospital?  No, actually I am describing a typical day in my sixth grade classroom.  Throw in the potential for snow, or a beautiful spring day and you can magnify these activities exponentially!

Those of us in public education understand the often all-consuming job of teaching.  Now in my thirty-first year, you would think I have it down to a science, (even though I currently teach U.S. History!)  Far from it!  Each year has brought new challenges, and not just in the form of new students.  I have been here long enough to witness the swing of the proverbial pendulum from a “middle school” philosophy that emphasized teaching through interdisciplinary, thematic units, allowing for flexible schedules, project based evaluations, cooperative learning, and team teaching, for example, to what I would call a “junior high school” model of rigid schedules with multiple class changes per day, departmentalized teachers, and high stakes evaluations.

In thirty-one years, I have also witnessed an explosion in technology, none of which was in use when I was training to become a teacher.  Another significant change has been the increase in the diversity of our community’s population.  Addressing the needs of students whose first language may not have been English and whose parents may not speak any English has been an ongoing challenge for our school system.

I didn’t expect teaching to be easy! About 120 students pass through my doors each day.  I am one stop in their seven period school day.  No matter how much energy I give to planning, preparing the classroom environment, interacting with the students during the hour they spend in my room, I never feel as if I have given them all that they need.  And that can leave me feeling rather drained and discouraged. There are daily frustrations and challenges, some of which I can control and some that I can’t; yet, I have never thought of leaving education for another profession.  So what does sustain me and what has sustained me for thirty plus years?   I can say without hesitation that I have been fortunate enough to work with creative, energetic colleagues who have inspired me, challenged me, encouraged me and pulled me along.  A positive work environment helps sustain us in any profession, but like many in the business of working with children, I am most strongly sustained by the children themselves.

It’s not rocket science that those of us who have been called to the noble profession of teaching must believe that we can do something to positively affect a child’s life, but even after all my years of experience I am still skeptical that the little I have to offer a student in 180 days could have that much impact.  So, what sustains me the most are the small surprising moments that leave me feeling humbled and inspired.  I think of these humbling moments as glimpses of realization that working with children goes much deeper than getting them to pass a test.  Every once in awhile I get a glimpse into a child’s world and sometimes, if I’m lucky, the realization that I have and am somehow a part of that world.  So the stories that follow are just some examples of how I have been humbled by students, moments that have touched me in a way that is sustaining.

I help sponsor an after school Ecology Club with my husband, a sixth grade science teacher.  We collect recycling for the whole school and attempt to educate the student body about environmental issues.  We have also raised money for projects that promote environmentally sound methods of improving the lives of people living in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.  There are Monday afternoons when I would just like to work alone in my quiet classroom.  How do these kids have so much energy after a full day of school?  But I am usually glad that I have spent time with this small group in a non-academic setting.  Our club is open to all grades and all ability levels.  Some members are fifth graders who are experiencing middle school for the first time.  We have students who are in advanced classes and students who need extra support from resource classes.  We are especially lucky to have a few seventh and eighth grade members who have been with us multiple years.  I am always amazed by our older club members, who take on a leadership role by guiding the younger members, generating ideas, and just being good role models.  If we need something done, these students practically have it done before we can explain!  I do not take credit for teaching these skills, but I am gratified that I am able to help provide a forum for their leadership skills to grow.  And I am inspired by the leadership qualities of students whose contributions to our world will go so far beyond their participation in Ecology Club.

Sponsoring an after school club is a refreshing venue for interacting with students, but of course, the majority of my time is spent in the classroom, teaching a state mandated curriculum.  High stakes tests have dominated education long enough now that my current students have not known anything else.  I am frustrated by how much pressure students and teachers feel to meet a standard.  And I know the students get really tired of the constant push to get ready for a test.  Many appear to be apathetic about the tests, homework, about school in general, but one student reminded me this year how much he and probably most really do care.  Our school is now giving benchmark tests three times per year, in addition to spring SOL (Standard of Learning) tests.  Because the tests are online, the students can see their scores immediately.  I ask the students to raise their hands when they are ready to “submit” their tests so we can see their scores together.  I like to be able to offer congratulations or words of encouragement.  Many students show their anxiety by closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, etc. before submitting.  And then there was Alan.

Alan is a very polite and cooperative young man.  He works hard in class and he eagerly raises his hand to answer questions.  The problem is that often his answers are just a little off target.  It breaks my heart to tell him, “Not quite, but . . .”  So, imagine my surprise when he scored a 100% on the first benchmark test of the year.  I am ashamed to admit that my first thought was, “Could he have cheated?”  I really didn’t think so since the test questions are randomized.  I gave him my quiet congratulations in the computer lab while he grinned.  But what came after we returned to the classroom is something I will hold onto.  It was so spontaneous and genuine.  When I offered him a more enthusiastic congratulations, he beamed and gave me a big hug.  I could have cried!  Alan’s response will improve my own perspective of how kids feel about being evaluated.  Of course they want to do well and receive good scores, but because of Alan, I will humbly remember that kids really do care deeply.

I work with students of mixed abilities in each of my classes.  This is a challenge that I feel I meet only adequately well.  I am never satisfied that I have equally challenged my advanced students while helping those who struggle to successfully learn the same material.  Alan reminds me how important achievement is to students, but Melissa reminds me how important a positive attitude and the ability to persevere is for success.  Melissa reads well below grade level and receives speech services.  At the beginning of the school year, she came to me, smiling shyly and asked, “Can I talk to you?”  She proceeded to ask me if she would ever have to read out loud in class.  I assured her that we didn’t do that very often in my class and if we did, I would not force any student to read out loud.  As I didn’t really know Melissa very well yet, I didn’t know if she was going to be a student who just avoided participating or if there was true fear.  As I’ve gotten to know her, she has become one of those students who inspires me to try a little harder.  Despite her weaknesses, this is a girl who comes in smiling every day, easily holds a conversation with me and is always ready to work.  Contrary to my initial concern that she might be looking for a way to avoid work, Melissa asks for help when she needs it, and then she applies that help to the task at hand.  She has never looked discouraged, even when she doesn’t do well on a test.  What teacher wouldn’t welcome a classroom full of students like Melissa?  She is a “struggling reader,” but more than that she is a young lady who has so many valuable life skills.  As her teacher, I am humbled by Melissa, a student who has not let her own weaknesses dictate the kind of person she is.

Occasionally, as teachers, we are given a belated gift that allows us knowledge of our impact.  A few years ago I was asked if I would accept a high school senior who was interested in a teaching career to spend one period in my classroom every other day.  The placement was part of a mentorship program open to seniors at our local high school.  While I have worked with numerous college student teachers, I was a little hesitant because I had never been responsible for mentoring a high school student, but the young woman had been a very successful former sixth grade student of mine, so I agreed.  I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by Anne’s ability to not only help students when I asked, but to really understand what students needed.  She exhibited great poise and initiative for a high school student.  Again, these were not qualities I taught her, but I felt very fortunate to have her in my classroom on those days.  Anne is now in college, preparing to be a history teacher.  I have happily written recommendations for her and am humbled to think that I played a small part in her career choice.

Anne is one example of a former student whose path I’ve later had the fortune to cross, but I will close with one additional small encounter that had a big humbling impact.  My husband and I were attending a local art showing when I crossed paths with Ellen, who was helping with the show.  Now in her twenties, I hadn’t seen Ellen since she was in middle school.  She had been my student when I taught sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies.  Ellen was one of those memorable students simply because she was such a great student in so many ways.  She worked hard, had a positive attitude, and great organizational skills – she had all the qualities for success.  In addition, she was very bright, the daughter of two professors with a great family and all kinds of support and experiences.  She was one of those students a teacher can’t help enjoying, but for me, at least, one of those students for whom I never quite felt I did enough.  How could I challenge this model student who came to me with so many skills?  Imagine my shock when Ellen told me at that art show that I was the best Language Arts teacher she ever had!  What?  After a highly successful high school career and four years at a prestigious college, she told me I was the best?  I guess she could have said that to be nice, but she explained that I helped her so much with writing and really laid the foundation for her future success.  How humbling to receive such praise from such a high- powered student.  With the current trend of our legislative leaders promoting their philosophy of tying teacher evaluation to test scores, how wonderfully refreshing to receive an authentic assessment from a former student.

Teaching is hard work.  If we are honest with ourselves, as professionals, we don’t go home every day feeling we have saved the world, much less individual children, but what has sustained me for 31 years are the moments that leave me humbled by my students.  Moments that on the surface are fleeting and maybe seem insignificant, but as a collection, give me something to hold onto.  Moments that remind me that what all children need hasn’t changed that much regardless of the pendulum’s swing or what language they speak at home.  Moments that remind me I do have an impact.  Who wouldn’t be sustained by that?


Mary DeVier-Scott is a sixth grade United States history teacher in the Harrisonburg City Schools. In her 31 year career, she has taught language arts, history, health and even math. She currently teaches at Thomas Harrison Middle School, right next door to her husband, a sixth grade science teacher. She has three children, one son-in-law, and a senior citizen cat. She resides in Rockingham County where she has a beautiful view of the mountains.