Sunday, May 21, 2017

Teaching Writing and Tacit Knowing

Devon at 6.


The photograph above always reminds me that interests are far more important than any given direction. Devon wrote the first two lines --"Spring is here. I can play"--from dictation and with support.  He was in kindergarten and had turned 6, two months earlier. I can remember that after he finished he thought for a moment and then he drew the triangle-like shape, paying a lot of attention to darkening the edge. I was curious as to what he was creating. Then he wrote his own sentence.  

"This is A BLA hoL." (This is a black hole). 

He asked me to help him make the words correct. I showed him on another piece of paper and he then added the changes, using the red marker. 

Which statement is more interesting to you as a reader? Which statement tells you more about the mind of a child at 6? Which statement prompts you to pose questions?


I think about these lessons I learned at home with my son when I think of the many ways we attempt to teach writing to children at school.  With the CCSS's narrow stance on writing product, there are a lot of units of study being enacted in schools as if knowing the parts of a report or argument might somehow be what is most essential for being a writer. 

Yet, when I read students' writing--the product that is being developed in many classrooms I most often grow bored. The texts seem so lifeless.  Having something to say is rarely a matter of recipe and more often a matter of curiosity, stance, question, passion, and belief. Knowing what you want to say comes from being wide awake, being uncertain, and having a habit of writing. It is not from studying the parts of an argument or the sections of an expository report.  Yes, these bits of knowledge can help shape a text, but ideas are rarely generated by following steps that have been explicitly stated by someone else. 

The irony here is having something to say often involves not knowing. Here, tacit knowledge is more king than pawn.  I wonder if there is room at school for such matters?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#SOL17: The Handmade Art Book

Part of a two-page spread.

Bettina's handmade journal.

Last month, when my art journaling group met we created handmade journals using composition book covers, file folders, and wax linen to bind the books. I used white file folders and have found that these work well as pages. I also have been surprised at how well paint (acrylic and watercolor) and collage papers adhere to the folders. They really make an excellent substrate.

The book making process was complicated, yet very doable, especially as we had an excellent teacher. One of our group members, Bettina Makley, taught all of us how to create the journals. Bettina is a practicing artist and she was gracious to teach us. We had seen a journal she had made at a prior session that was held in her studio and we knew we wanted to try our hands at creating our own.

This past week, I finally started to use my journal and I must say that I am loving it. Using a journal I made by hand is special.

Note: You can see more of Bettina's forays into book making here. She is available to teach small groups if you have an interest. You can contact her through her Facebook page. She is an excellent art teacher.

Below are some of the first pages from the journal.

Journal from side view .
I created different sized pages to add interest.

Part of a two-page spread.

Part of a two-page spread.
A cut page (you can see the pages that peek out)

2 page spread background only - not sure what I'll be doing on this page - Perhaps some buildings.

Just started 2 pages.

painted woman on tissue paper and textured background

Friday, May 19, 2017

#SOL17: Newark, 20 Years Later

4th graders creating a map

2nd grade teacher reading aloud a novel
20 years ago this month, I accepted the position of the director of literacy for Newark Public Schools in New Jersey. I was in my 30s and had just finished my dissertation and would defend it that next spring. The job was somewhat overwhelming given the academic needs that seemed so prevalent, the pressure heaved upon children and staff to produce academic gains as measured on a state assessment, and the scale.  When I worked there the enrollment was about 50,000 students across 80 schools. Working with staff and students in Newark was  the most important work I would do while employed in public schools.  What I didn't understand well until today is that the years there would fundamentally change me, allow me to see whiteness in ways I simply had not and prepare me to be, perhaps, a better mom to my own son who would be born two years later. What was most important, without question, were the children and teens who populated the schools. 20 years later, I still know that to be true.

Newark was a source of love.

4th graders from NPS reading Hawthorne's The Pomegranate Seeds during a Greek Mythology unit.

Working in Newark allowed me to be a minority--as much as one white woman from Ireland might be. For the first time in my working life there were daily references to music, art, literature, food, dance, and historical and contemporary happenings that I did not understand, and needed to learn. Working in Newark and becoming friends with so many there allowed me to (un)learn some matters of race as I had been taught and to experience from others there the nature and pulse of profound joy and kindness that often were connected to community and faith.

20 years later, the published news out of Newark continues to be more desperate than kind, and often is limited to recounting dangerous situations and terrible deaths. The myriad of caring acts that more typify the different communities there are lost or under-reported. And frankly, we are all the worse for that.

I still work in Newark helping schools there to better ensure the development of fine readers and writers. It is such doable work and some days it feels a bit frustrating to know how important these learning changes could be had and to not be able to influence the public schools who seem bent on chasing academic success with products, not people. If products alone could alter performance trajectories, large scale need would no longer be an issue. In the last two years of Rob's life, before he was diagnosed with cancer, he worked with me in the city. He told me more than once that he understood why I found the place, the people, and the work so compelling.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

#SOL17: Waxing Crescent Moon

Crescent (M.A. Reilly, Rockport, Maine, November, 2012)

Earlier last week, I removed the ring that Rob had placed on my finger all those decades ago. It was done with far less ceremony than when we first married. I removed it without hesitation. Sometimes you just know when it is right. And I knew without question that Rob was gone forever.

There's death, it's aftermath, and then there are those singular events that profoundly show what has been known, yet not truly felt.

My husband is dead. I am not.
Life pulses on.


The months between Rob's death and now, have revealed a new understanding of what it means to be a parent. No longer can I turn my body into Rob's and seek answers through touch. No longer can I pass parenting to Rob, knowing he will care for Dev. Now, the joys and challenges of being the only parent are all mine.

Some days it's lonely here without Rob--other days, less so.


After a week, an imprint of my wedding band remains. For years I have been wearing that slender bend of a waxing crescent moon wrapped tightly around my finger.

Now, that young moon is gone and only the pale glow remains. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

#PoetryBreak: The Main Thing to Know

Grief (Cohen and Reilly, 2016)

The main thing to know
about grief is how lonely it feels,
like an empty boat moored
beneath moonlight.
Here, breath
remains the color
of silence.

When you
finally speak
grief rises
from the ground
like thunder,
like a too-angry god
so loud
you can't hear
your own wings beating.

Even now,
your heart
feels too tender,
too undone
like the bowline
that slips
my hand
to form
this poem.

It is in the making
that you learn
to live

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#SOL17: Hard Work

What I Meant To Say (M.A. Reilly, 5.1.2017)

Dying is such hard work, as is bearing witness and living afterwards. Before Rob's death living was not a burden, was not work.

In the weeks before death, Rob became less and less earthbound, so often staring beyond the here and now at what I did not know, could not name. We, who had been so connected across the decades, so much in one another's pocket, were no more. My husband would forget both home and name as agitation and restlessness gave way to more and more sleep.  In the days leading to death, only sharp pain would cause him to yell my name aloud. Mary Ann! The first time it happened I didn't realize he had even called my name after not saying it or any other name for days. It wasn't until my older brother pointed it out that I realized some part of Rob could still retrieve my name.

Against these dramatic changes was the knowledge that a handful of months earlier we were planning a holiday in Maine, untouched by the diagnosis of cancer and the failure of doctors and hospitals whose carelessness would alter our lives forever.

60 is too young to die.
17 is too young to be fatherless.
56 is too young to be a widow.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

#SOL17: Unfinished

(M.A. Reilly, 2017)
When he died, I felt lonely, not just for his physical presence in our lives but also lonely for the incomplete picture that was my life after he left. It’s as if someone took a pair of scissors and cut out half of the photo, leaving me unfinished.  -  Michelle Steinke-Baumgard  (from here)

Another death that happens after the loss of a beloved husband or wife is the death of "us."  At first it is subtle, not rearing its medusa-like head as shock and terror, loneliness and fear abound.  But in time, that loss of us becomes more prominent, noticeable. I was reading an article by Michelle Steinke-Baumgard, Who Should You Love After Loss?, that a friend sent to me and I realized that this second year after Rob died is largely about mourning the death of us--Rob and Mary Ann, Mary Ann and Rob--and all that our names joined together represented and promised.  And it is the promised that is hardest to look in the eye and not blink, or at least tear up. But it is also those promises of a future that will not come that must be let go.

Steinke-Baumgard writes about the space necessary to learn to listen to the self you are and are becoming. She writes,

To find these new ways to feel full as an individual, I realized I had to stop hating my alone time. Instead, I needed to see my alone time as the opportunity to meet myself, listen to myself and love myself. The quiet times are when I could hear the most from deep inside and find out who I was as an individual.
Whether we have suffered one loss or another or none that feel traumatic, the sense of being unfinished is largely human and remains with us,especially if we are circumspect.  Who we are is emerging, never complete, nor consistent. Even with Rob alongside, my sense of incompleteness may have felt less noticeable, but it was nonetheless present.  The person Rob met in 1988, is not the women who held his hand as he died in 2016. I think here of Kurt Gödel and the second incompleteness theorem. We cannot prove our consistency within ourselves. I think in many ways that is the power of love. Our consistency is often shown through the gestures, words, and actions of another in relationship to self. I learned about myself through my husband and others.


The space where I quibble with Steinke-Baumgard is in the idea of a self being complete. I get what she is saying about learning to listen and to love yourself and I agree with all of that.  I think she captures all of this so well. I love the silent spaces where I can write and paint. These are more solitary, than not. I don;t think that everyone who grieves needs to embrace the silence.  For some this would be an anathema and would be more harmful than helpful. If I have learned anything these last two years, it is that the path after the death of a husband is multiple and what is possible is best defined by those doing the walking.

As I read the second half of the article, I wondered what being complete means. What did Steinke-Baumgard had in mind? Being complete is offered up without definition and that is problematic as it continues a myth that 'loving one's self' is akin to completeness. Further she says that we need to be complete before beginning other relationships. I was certainly not complete when I met my husband.

She explains that,
Grief has changed you, shifted you and transformed you into a new being, and while some might see that as a negative, I see it as nothing but beautiful and amazing.
This feels wrong to me.

Perhaps it is because I am a mom to our son who is now just 18 or that I love Rob and was loved so deeply and was nevertheless incomplete. There are pieces of myself that have not been transformed. There is a bedrock sense of self that has been shaken, but not broken. My fierce sense of love and protection of Devon was present before and after Rob died. My love for other people and interests I have had continue to exist. My sense of social justice is ever present--a commitment that has not eroded. I carry with me a belief in possibility and hope still remains.  I have a deep commitment to understand and love other--to become as Maxine Greene has penned, (other)wise. Yes, this loss shifts so much and leaves open new definitions of self, but there is something essential that also remains. To love and have loved one man for 28 years, shapes a psyche and a soul and even though Rob has died his touch and presence still (in)forms me.


We are all unfinished. Whether we suffer the loss of a spouse's death or not, we remain unfinished. As scary as that may feel it is more truth than not.