Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to School

The lines snacked past the rows of rainbow Post-it notes, boxes of mechanical pencils, and 3-ring binders.  Staples, the office supply store, is a traffic jam of red carts and slowly expanding backpacks.  This summer Staples ran a crowd-sourced commercial of people showing off their excitement for back-to-school sales by busting out shopping cart moves (a gimmicky 1980’s dance move).

For the first time in five years, I’m joining the crowds, piling my own shopping cart high with binders, notebooks, pencils, pens, and reams of lined paper.  Two days ago I entered my new classroom, backpack filled, papers pristine and took a seat facing the blackboard.  I’ve swapped curriculum development and activity plans for problem sets analyzing standardized testing and books on leadership styles. 

As a master's student at Harvard’s School of Education I’m staying up late – no longer grading stacks of essays, but poring over readings on the economic trade-offs of countries seeking to provide greater access and greater quality education.  Over lunch I fall into conversations about the possibilities of creating mobile teacher corps in Tanzania and drawing out production possibility frontier charts on the tops of takeout boxes.

I must say it is rather fun to be a student again.

My classmates come from teaching in larger inner-city public schools and from small charter schools. They come from large consulting firms, law offices, college admissions, think-tanks, research centers, Pre-K classrooms, middle school classrooms, high school classrooms.  And they come from as far away as South Korea and Tanzania.  Having talked to just a handful of my 650+ new classmates I have learned that our ambitions are equally diverse, but that we share a common passion for improving what is happening in schools around the world.


As the autumn air begins to turn crisp, I hope you will join me on this new adventure – sharing in the conversations, experiments, and ideas that will be filling my weeks.  And while I might not be getting on a plane to a destination thousands of miles away, I am confident that come May I will have covered a great distance.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Exploring the Everyday

I have walked by the rambling fa├žade of #500 and for years never knew it was the childhood home of America’s first serial killer.  I have biked to the village store countless times and not once noticed, as I sped by, the overgrown road that was once bustling with mills and factories.  I have driven frequently past a particular farm-stand, often stopping to buy eggs, but I amassed a tower of egg-cartons before I learned that the tiny two acre farm was home to 12 miniature horses, 100 chickens, a peach and plum orchard and a maple syrup shack.

I have become captivated by these kinds of stories – the stories that rarely make the front page of the newspaper.  The stories that surround us, but that are often muffled by the commotion of our daily lives.

Five years ago I began exploring the small town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, where I spent my childhood summers.  I followed farmers up into the fields and visited elderly residents in their living rooms.  I traced town border stones camouflaged in the woods and I explored shaded cemeteries with moss-shrouded gravestones.

The stories I found were truly remarkable.  I met Valerie, who tends sixty-five goats, home-schools ten children and crafts artisanal goat cheese; Jim and Cheryl, who raise miniature horses, flocks of chickens and long eared rabbits and cultivate orchards of peaches and plums all on two tiny acres; Duncan, a third generation farmer, who harvests thousands of pounds of wild blueberries every summer; Chuck who runs a six-generation dairy farm; and David – a fireman, carpenter, town selectman and nearly one hundred year old storyteller.

This summer my nonfiction book Driving Backwards was published – a portrait of small town life.  As I have shared Driving Backwards with communities in New England and up and down the Atlantic seaboard, I have been struck anew by the vitality of these everyday lives and the sheer density of orbiting stories.

And as we head now into the heat of August I would like to make a suggestion. August heat has a way of stretching out the days like taffy. For many, the month is linked to family: an adventure to a new place, a retreat to a childhood home, or even a few days spent in the quiet of one’s own neighborhood.  I would like to urge you to take advantage of the sedated pace to listen more closely to the lives and the stories that surround you in your everyday. 

Often the particulars of our neighborhoods fade to little more than backdrop.  But, if you slow down just enough to listen and to ask, I think you will find that the everyday lives of the people around you are often remarkable.

I would urge you to drive a little slower down that dirt road you’ve motored down countless times before; perhaps pause when buying a tomato from a farmers market and ask the farmer about the history of the farm; perhaps drop by the local fire department on a quiet afternoon and learn a little about what it takes to be a fireman; or perhaps cross the street, join your 90-year-old neighbor on her porch and let her regale you with stories.


Most likely they will be stories you’ve never heard. They will be raucous and lively and vivid and poignant.  Hopefully they will make you pause.  And perhaps, like me, you will marvel at the quiet vibrancy that surrounds us.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Driving Backwards

It is extremely exciting for me to share with everyone that my first book Driving Backwards is being published and is shipping from the press next week! Driving Backwards has been a five-year exploration, a project I initially embarked upon as a sophomore at Princeton University.

I hope you will check out my new website and that you will consider buying Driving Backwards. I will be spending much of the next few months marketing the book. On that note if you have ideas for where I can reach out to, libraries you could ask to purchase a copy, book groups that might consider reading it, or even if you would be willing to host a book reading I would love to know and would be very grateful!

As a sneak preview below is the opening page of Driving Backwards…..



In two months, David Bickford will turn 100.

One hundred is an age when memories have often faded with time, details become jumbled and lost, conversation turns repetitive. But, David has forgotten nothing. His memories are vivid pictures of the past. When he tells of neighborhood dances half a century ago, he remembers the day of the week and who was feeling under the weather. When a story includes a rainstorm, likely as not he knows the number of inches that fell. David re- counts stories as if they happened the previous day. Nearly one hundred years of yesterdays.

Now, David lives alone. He buys his own groceries, mows his own lawn and grows his own robust tomato plants in plastic pots next to the house. David used to feast on tomatoes as a teen, eating them as you would an apple, but he has since developed allergies. Nevertheless, each year finds him checking fastidiously for hornworms and laying fertilizer.

Four years ago in 2009, David’s roof developed a leak. He climbed slowly, methodically, up to patch it himself. He gathered sheets of asphalt roofing and caulking for the journey. He took with him too a four-pronged cane that usually rests by the door. The cane is a precaution only, an occasional means of steadying against the slant. In public, he never employs the cane. “It would,” he confides, “make me look like an old geezer!”

Wrinkles collect like a maple bark along David’s neck, but hardly any place else. His voice is low and soft around the edges. He laughs often. When he smiles, wrinkles do appear: his whole face crinkles upward. His hands are burled; his fingers angle out. His handwriting is tight and precise. He favors red ballpoint pens. David dresses simply, in white button-downs tucked into slacks— blue or olive-green. He bends to tie his own shoes and, when he rises again, he mimics pines in verticality. David credits his elongated countenance to Native American ancestry, four generations back. He wears thin-rimmed oval bifocals over light blue eyes and each day he reads two local newspapers in their entirety. He wears his white hair short. His next haircut will be free—a hundredth- year birthday present promised by his barber.

In nearly a century of living, David has been, among other things, a farmer, a carpenter, a mechanic, a fireman and a town selectman. I know him best as a storyteller….


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

General Assembly

In the last month I have acquired a United Nations of adult learners.  I have students from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, as well as students from Vietnam, Japan and India. I have two Chinese students and, in the last week, I have gained a Tibetan couple. From Africa, I have students representing Somalia, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco.  And from Europe, there is a single delegate from Turkey, a young teacher who came to America only five months ago. 

More than a quarter of Cambridge residents were born overseas, hailing from more than eighty countries.  In kitchens, studies, and living rooms across the city, families converse in sixty tongues.  But, while at home a family might chat in Creole, Cantonese or Khmer, on the streets of Cambridge they must get by in English.

Since January I have been piloting an online English class for students, sponsored by the city and a local non-profit.  Whereas the majority of immigrants seeking to improve their English can choose from a buffet of in-person classes, family-care obligations or jobs with long hours prevent many from enrolling. They have had to make do on their own – often sweeping up only a dusting of phrases.

We are designing our online program for such students – a mother with a third son still in a stroller and a young man who works long shifts as a dishwasher in a home for the elderly.  They are determined women and men who scrape together hours from around the edges of long workdays, meal preparation and diaper changes to sit in front of a computer and study the future tense.

America has long run on the determination of such immigrants.  Already I have acquired over twenty such students. 

I meet my students only once.  After they enroll, classes exist only in a virtual universe.  I watch their progress from afar, edit their writing as they submit it online and send along emails of encouragement.

My students are of all ages and their stories are as diverse.  A woman younger than me, newly married in her home country, arrived only last month; an older woman has lived in Boston for over a decade, working in cancer research and sending her daughter to Boston University.

I have many mothers in my class.  The youngest bring their children to our initial meeting – a young boy with a Thomas the Tank Engine hat, an infant with big black eyes swaddled in puffy down.  Some speak of jobs they had back in their home countries – they were kindergarten teachers and religion teachers and computer engineers. 

I am vividly reminded of when I first landed in Thailand over three years ago.  I knew only the number of words and phrases that could be crammed into an hour crash-course.  Life in that first month was distilled to the basics: how to successfully order soup with pork balls, how to tell a bus driver an address, how to haggle for a mango in the market. 

Foreigners do not often make an effort to learn Thai, which became an unanticipated boon for my own stumbling progress in the language.  Everywhere drivers and vendors encouraged my limited Thai with smiles, listening as I mangled their tones and distorted their words.  They were patient and coaxing and on more than one occasion put down a spatula to provide an impromptu Thai lesson right there on the side of the road.

I would suspect that my students have not had a similar experience on the streets of America.   We are perhaps, as a nation, not always so patient with new immigrants, not as forgiving, not as disposed to set aside time to listen to and encourage a stranger’s halting English. Rather than be excited that an immigrant can speak some English, many people take those skills for granted.

 A woman arrived at our meeting last week pushing a stroller. A round-faced boy with ruddy checks and a firm grip peered out at us.   I begin these meetings with simple questions: “Where do you live?” “When did you come to the US?” “What country did you come from?”  A student’s English level is quickly apparent and I correspondingly steer the conversation into different streams of nuance or simplicity.   Even the most basic questions were beyond this woman’s ability.  After five false starts, she handed me a cell phone and I dialed her husband, whose English was impeccable. And yet, despite lacking even rudimentary English, she had found her way to the center: she had navigated the streets and the buses. She wanted to learn.  A week later I was following her slow but steady progress online as she practiced each successive lesson.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Thane and I

Recently Published on the Folger Shakespeare Library Blog Making A Scene

The large dented cauldrons of spicy green curry, red curry and duck soup were cloaked in hovering fog and steamy air of the monsoon season.  It was evening at the Gate Market in the heart of the old city of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As I slurped a bowl of noodles so spicy it induced tears, all I could think about was Macbeth.

Three days fresh from college graduation, I had boarded a plane bound for a one-year teaching fellowship at the prestigious Chiang Mai University.  Growing up, my favorite musical was Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I, the story of Anna, hired by the King of Thailand to tutor the royal children. I was forever singing the lyrics to Getting to Know You, beginning with Anna’s declaration that “When you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.” Now, heading to classes as a young teacher, I could not help but think of Anna.

By day I guided a hundred and fifty university students in my elementary-level English classes through the intricacies of usage between “say” and “tell”.  But, I wanted something more: I wanted to teach theater.  So, I approached my colleagues in the English Department with an ambitious plan. The students in the university’s English Club staged an annual play in English – Cinderella last year.  Hesitantly, I proposed to direct Macbeth – my favorite Shakespeare ever since I played the First Witch and Macduff’s doomed son in a 7th grade production.  The department was dubious – the language would be too difficult.  I persisted.  Auditions were set.

But our real challenge was not the play’s language, but its content. In one of the last countries with a revered king, I was preparing to stage a regicide.

While monarchies worldwide have become nearly obsolete, the Kingdom of Thailand’s ruling line remains robust.  King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, has sat on the throne longer than any other current ruler.  He is the great-great-great grandson of the famed monarch who had hired Anna.

Arriving in Chiang Mai, I discovered that The King and I was banned. The king is endowed with near-divine status, and is protected from slander by strict lese majeste laws: Anna’s irreverence to the king crossed the line.  Adapting Macbeth would not be as simple as robing Shakespeare’s characters in traditional Lanna-style sarongs.

I found that Thai students were reluctant to engage in open political discourse. In college classes in the U.S., I had been inspired by the boundary-defying nature of theater. I wanted to draw my students into political discussion, to have them think critically about the parallels and differences between East and West.  Yet it was crucial we remain respectful of the monarchy and of Thai cultural traditions.

We began adapting Shakespeare.  Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, and the other thanes would be Thai politicians. The ghostly apparitions would be conjured through Thai shadow puppetry.  The witches became street children, who sell jasmine garlands at night across Chiang Mai. 

We erred on the side of caution.  We nixed the colors red and yellow, being too closely associated to the two rival political parties, and opted for a neutral orange. We modified the traditional Thai sword on our poster, because it resembled the weapons favored by the monarchy.  When I suggested that the play end with Macduff placing a foot on the severed head of the Scottish tyrant, the actor, an otherwise modern and outspoken junior, refused.  In Thailand the head is the most sacred part of the body.  The feet are the lowliest. I dropped the idea quickly.

In the jungle gardens of the university, we discussed modern politics – twenty college students debating thanes and politicians.  One girl brought up corruption, relating how she had been offered bribes for her vote in a local election.  Another girl drew an analogy between the recently ousted Thai prime minister and Macbeth. After one rehearsal, a student caught me on the way out: “I hardly ever have these discussions with anyone but a few close friends.”

The night of the first performance arrived. The lights dimmed on Thai rock music, and three street children ran giggling onto the stage, asking: “When shall we three meet again?” 

The following Monday, I met with my freshman English class who I had assigned to see the show.  I asked them to identify the Thai elements in the production – expecting such responses as: the attire, the puppetry, the traditional Thai greetings.  

One girl raised her hand: “Macbeth’s final speech.”  She was referring to Macbeth’s final soliloquy: “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day… Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Confused, I pressed her to explain. “He’s describing the teachings of the Buddha.” Macbeth had finally realized the insignificance of his vaulting ambition – a first step toward enlightenment in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded.  I had read Macbeth, studied Macbeth and acted in Macbeth – never once had I drawn the parallel.

Miss Anna had gotten it right. I had set out to teach my students Shakespeare.  But, in the end, by my students I was taught.