A Fish Story

My son is excited about learning.

At eight years old, his passion for knowing more about fishing is matched only by his excitement to go to Lake Dixon with his grandpa in a few days. They’ve been planning the trip for weeks, and as a result I’ve seen my son’s taste in bedtime stories take a turn from the Hardy Boys to a paperback his grandma got him called Incredible and True Fishing Stories.

Out back I found a tree branch with a string tied around it that he has been using to practice, my own Huck Finn, missing only a straw hat and corncob pipe. Saturday morning I came downstairs to find him binge watching Monster Fish. He knew everything about the piraiba catfish and tiger sharks …and wanted to tell me about them.

DSC04212My dad is excited about teaching.

At eighty, the light that I’ve seen in his eyes as he talks with his grandson about casting and catching fish inspires me to believe that no matter what our age there is always something to look forward to.

This week he brought a fishing pole to our house that he used to teach me to fish with forty years ago. To see him talking my son through the basics, sharing everything about drag and bobbers brings a wave of nostalgia that takes me back to shores of my childhood.

I wish my son was excited about school.

We were at the grocery store yesterday and found ourselves in line behind a teacher from my kids’ elementary school. She smiled at him and asked, on this week before classes resume: “Are you excited for school to start?” He shrugged and looked at the ground.

All of us knew the answer behind that shrug.

That he has a capacity for curiosity and a love of learning is apparent in the catalog of fishing facts and string of library books he’s checked out over the summer with titles like Saltwater Angling and The Freshwater Fisherman’s Bible. From Monster Fish he’s accumulated more information about African rivers than anyone this side of Dr. Livingstone, I presume. He took time last weekend to explain to his sister the difference between a Nile perch and an alligator gar.

photoHe has patience too. As I watched my dad show him how the reel worked, my son’s eight year old hands soon discovered the Gordian capabilities of fishing line. The tangles profound, his teacher allowed him to experiment to find a solution, and stepped in to offer patient advice when that was the right thing to do.

That most of his first casts didn’t go too far didn’t seem to bother him. He tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and threw one that bounced off the wooden fence. The sound of that red and white plastic bobber hitting the wood could not have been more satisfying if it had come with a cash prize.

Through it all, he stayed captivated. Watching, trying, learning, he wanted to know more.

When Papa took a turn at the tangled fishing line, my son took the opportunity to read aloud from Incredible and True Fishing Stories and explain to him the difference between a marlin and a tarpon.

This inspiring learning was so unlike that shrug at the grocery store.

I know I’m sentimental, and so moved as to be almost teary watching my son learn on that familiar fishing rod. I understand that my own memory of fishing for bonito out of Long beach and trout in the Santiam River make me prone to romanticize things, but…

…but I wish so much that my son, and my daughter, and every son, and every daughter gets a teacher this year who inspires in them the same feelings of curiosity, joy for learning, and imagination.

Great teachers do this, and I can say from the experience of a dozen years of teaching, it’s not easy. Creating a classroom that validates, celebrates, and inspires students is hard work, and even the best intentions aren’t enough; it takes effort, and energy, and optimism. It takes a love of learning and love of teaching kids.

We stand on the shore of a new school year, ready to push our proverbial boats into the water. Will our kids get that teacher who connects with and inspires them? Will those of us who are educators be those teachers?

DSC04206Fishing, like education, is about hope.

And as I watched my dad and my son wrestling with that reel, I hoped that a day would come when he was as excited about going to school, and every teacher was as excited about helping each student learn, as he was about learning to cast.

Eight and eighty, these two showed me much about teaching and learning, or maybe love and curiosity, fish and fun, which may after all be what the best education really is. Well, minus the fish.

I don’t know if we’ll catch anything when we go to Lake Dixon, but I don’t think that matters anywhere near as much as the learning that has already taken place.

And this school year? This one could be the best yet. I hope.

Nice Catch

photoI went fishing today. I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time I picked up a pole, but I’d wager I was still wearing Levis 501 jeans and sporting a ridiculous 1980s haircut.

It was an unexpected trip; a handful of us, three site administrators, got together after work and decided to get outside to enjoy the sunny summer afternoon. One, the most seasoned veteran in our group and an avid angler, coaxed the other two of us out to the lake with promises of bass and adventure. I’m glad he did.

As we baited our hooks with mealworms, cast out into the water, and watched our red and white bobbers float on the surface of the lake, we talked.

Certainly talk ranged to fishing, youth, and sepia tinted summer afternoons of years past. It also took a decidedly professional turn, and before we’d pulled our first leviathan from the water, we’d bounced ideas off each other about how we could improve the work we did with kids, teachers, and colleagues at each of our schools.

We talked about building professional relationships, treating others with respect, and creating legacies that we could be proud of. We shared what went well over the past school year, what we struggled with, and what we already knew we’d do differently in the fall. Honesty and ease filled the afternoon, and as we caught and released we did something else, we really connected.

Finding people we can talk with is vital to succeeding in public education, where so much of our work runs the risk of being pushed into a vacuum by the bustle of days. Taking time to talk can feel like a luxury, and even though those connections are renewing, it takes effort to make them happen. It’s like that fishing pole leaning up against the wall of the front closet that we walk past every day, potential ignored by the hectic pace of life.

Teachers can feel this when they’re adrift on the solitary boats that are their classrooms; site administrators feel it too, the events to be covered and opportunities to help so many that time can get away, and we look up to find ourselves alone on the shore at the end of the day.

photo 2 (2)Our veteran host, who caught far, far more fish than either of the other of us, helped put things in perspective. “I try to do this every week,” he said, flicking his line into the water. “After a busy day it helps put things right.”

Today’s excursion helped put things right for me too. Honest talk about the important work that we do, shared in the company of friends, not only helped me feel good about the year I’m just finishing, but also got me reflecting on what more I can do to improve.

My time at the lake reminded me of the joy of youth that is fishing on a sunny afternoon. It also reinforced the age old lesson of patience; much of fishing is waiting, and the thrill of feeling a fish strike the line, knowing a productive struggle will follow, and that at the end, if all goes well, the result will be looking you in the eye, is worth the time spent standing on the shore.

Truth be told, that standing, that waiting, that feeling the wind on your face and watching the sun on the water, is just as important a part of the experience as catching a fish.

Like working at a school, the periods of excitement are complemented by the quieter times, and best when we put a priority on connecting throughout both, celebrating successes, and helping each other when it feels like we’ll never catch a thing. We will, if we’re patient, and we’ll come out of the experience closer, if we allow ourselves to relax, reflect, and be there for each other as we go about what we do.

photo 1 (3)Professional development often takes place in offices and meeting rooms, official, even if it’s interesting. Sometimes it happens online, PLNs built and nourished through Twitter or other digital platforms. Today, for me, it took place outside, looking out over blue water, laughing, and hoping for a bite.