Sunday, April 16, 2017


The suckers are running.

Opinions vary on the official sign that spring has sprung.  Could be the first sighted robin.  Maybe the vernal equinox.  The opening day of baseball season, the Final Four, or The Master's golf tournament all scream spring to sports fans.  My parents cry "spring" when the maple sap begins to flow.  For me spring arrives when there are suckers in Armstrong River.

Suckers are a bottom feeding rough fish that leave lakes each spring to spawn in rivers and streams.  Obviously (hopefully) they swim on these spawning journeys, not physically run, but the term used for the event is a "spawning run".  Thus, the suckers are running.

Most years these fish don't show up in our river until the very last days of April at the earliest, and more often than not the calendar reads "May" before they arrive.  Like everything else this year, they've arrived earlier than we can ever remember.  Regardless of month or timing, their presence confirms that winter is done and spring has taken hold.  If the fish are in streams then the lakes are ice free and water temps have warmed.  If it's warm enough to vanish ice it's warm enough to thaw soil; the ground begins to green, tree buds begin to swell, gardeners begin to twitch.  Oh sure, snowflakes and frost are still on the menu in Northern MN until at least the 4th of July, but I'm telling you - if the suckers are running then spring is here.  End of discussion.

Suckers swimming on Easter Sunday seems like a powerful omen of rebirth, renewal, return.  It's time to blog again.  Three months have passed since my last post.  Three very full months.  On New Year's Eve I wrote about my OneWord2017 which was/is "evolve".  I wasn't planning to evolve away from blogging but I've made an effort to evolve away from unnecessary tasks that felt like chores.  Blogging had become a chore, so I quit.  But I've kind of missed it.  Occasionally.  So I'm back but not making promises.  I used to make an effort to blog twice a week - I'm now hoping for once.  I used to write a mix of education and nature topics - my interest in education is fading fast so I may have to rethink the title of this operation.

I write for me, but I do appreciate the requests I've received these last few months to write more.  Thank you for your patience - I hope your wait will be rewarded with some interesting observations.  I've got ideas and plans.....but the sucker run doesn't last forever, so neither does this post.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Patiently Pushing

I spent almost all of the recent holiday break from school at my parents' farm.  Most afternoons I sat inside a fish house on Secret Lake #2 or #4 to take advantage of some really good fishing on the early ice.....well, really good on #4, pretty lousy on #2.  To break up the monotony of staring at holes in the ice and a Vexilar screen I also put in some hours wandering around the farm property in search of deer sign.  Eight to ten inches of snow on the ground made walking a chore but provided good proof of where the deer had, and had not, been moving during the previous week or two.  The deepening snow also forced me to walk a little slower than normal which gave me time to do more than look for deer I looked at the trees.  (Side note:  Those folks who read my posts regularly will recall the hunting day I scoured the tree tops in search of deer and almost ran into one on the ground while doing so.  I'm not hunting in this anecdote, though, so no funny stories this time.)

Days prior to the school break I had a great morning conversation with a colleague who surmised that while our Title I students don't always appear to be making academic growth they are growing in ways that can't always be measured.  I had been grumbling about Student A and Student B.....and probably Students C through to the amount of input they receive to improve their reading skills compared to the output of their reading ability.  My wise colleague also pointed out that we do more than just teach reading to these students; we make them laugh, we give them structure, we listen to them - things they probably aren't getting opportunities for anywhere else in their lives.  Her words shook me out of my dour outlook towards these students' progress and led me back to the focus of teaching kids instead of reading.

The next day cosmic forces took a turn at shaking me up a little bit.  I was reminded that I had posted this Tweet to an educational chat a couple of months ago:  Push yourself and your students, but be patient with each as you do so.  Neither you nor they become great in one day.  My own words were now scolding my frustrations at our struggling readers, giving me nearly the same message I'd been given the day before:  Stay patient.  And now, back to those trees....

With snow on the ground and hunting season a distant memory our trees could be viewed differently than at other times in the year.  For starters, now I could actually study them rather than just walk among them while studying everything else.  Their growth was at a complete halt; they were what they were going to be until after the spring thaw.  The snow had pushed down and covered most of the grasses around the trees allowing them to be clearly seen from top to bottom, especially those trees who were still struggling to rise above the grass and weeds of summer.  Hang on.....struggling trees.....struggling to grow......behind the others......Holy Hannah, I was walking amongst my students!

Like students to school, these trees arrived at the farm as seedlings.  Students are planted in different classrooms, our trees in different areas of the farm.  In some spots the trees took off and grew immediately, while other sections of land have seen much slower growth from trees planted at the same time.  Same thing happens in different classrooms whether we want to admit it or not.  But even in areas where our trees have grown really well every year, there are still one or a few individual trees that have struggled to keep up....just like students in classrooms.  Unlike students in school our trees aren't receiving constant care from us, but we have applied a few interventions over the years to help growth:  spraying with deer repellent, removing pests like sapsuckers and porcupines, wrapping tree cages around younger trees, mowing down thick grass.  Even with these efforts there are still trees that just can't seem to overcome the hand they were dealt and continue to lag behind the surrounding trees that grow a foot or more every year.  However......

We planted several thousand oak trees over a decade ago.  For years these trees did nothing, and those that did would get clobbered by hungry deer every fall.  We wrote off the oaks as a failure and poured our efforts into the evergreens that were clearly thriving year after year.  But last spring, before the summer grasses had begun to rise up, my dad and I noticed something - those oaks we had given up on hadn't gone away, and were instead still reaching towards the sky.  Some were leafed out, some were even taller than the pines and spruces we had planted after calling the oaks a failure.  While walking last week I could easily find rows and rows of these persevering oaks that were now standing above the top of the snow rather than buried beneath.

We have to stay patient.  We all want what's best for ourselves and for our students, but sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, we aren't going to see that "best" right away.  I don't have any magic answers for how to balance a desire for greatness with the patience needed to let it happen.  Maybe there isn't an answer because of the complex nature of growth - each unique specimen having a unique set of needs.  Or maybe the answer is patience.  Maybe it's a serving of patience mixed with a pinch of faith.  I do know that growth won't happen if we don't expect it and nurture it and push for it.  But, like the oaks and pines and spruces......and Students A through L....the growth isn't always happening in ways we can see.  Remembering this has kept me patient and renewed my faith in the process of teaching and good grief maybe this whole thing is just one big cycle:  Patience and faith leading to growth that won't be seen without faith and patience.

I plant trees with the expectation that they will grow; I teach students with the same expectation, as do most teachers.  We would all do well to step back on occasion and look at our students through the lens of how far they've come instead of how far they still have to go.  Doing so will renew faith in ourselves, our faith in the process, and our faith in the students while also refilling our reserves of patience, the key ingredient to the growth of those students who need us the most.