The elf is not on the shelf. He was a minute ago, but my son moved him. Earlier this morning the elf was hanging from the light above the kitchen table, around lunch I spotted him in a ceramic container in the living room, and I just tucked him into the nerf basketball hoop that hangs on the inside of the door out to the garage.


There was a time that my wife and I joined the ranks of so many parents, swearing quietly on the nights we were snug in bed and had forgotten to hide the scrappy little doll our kids expected to magically move from one place in the house to another overnight.

Truth be told, I think moving the elf was always my job. Perhaps that speaks to the dynamics of our relationship. But one way or another, my kids bought in to the notion that this red clad embodiment of holiday surveillance was in the house from December 1st through Christmas Eve. They’d find him in the mornings, not touch him (that was one of the rules), and see him show up in a new location the next day.

Magic. For them. And some cold nights a pain in our parental figgy pudding.

I hope not to sound too curmudgeonly when I say that this went on for years. Yes, it was magical to have two youngsters who believed in, or at least allowed us to think they believed in Santa, elves, and the whole festive shooting match. I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit that those Christmas mornings when the kids’ eyes were wide with amazement at what was under the tree weren’t some of the happiest of my life, and…

About a week ago we realized that the elf was moving.

My clever hiding places weren’t enough. He was getting some help from my son.

At first my wife thought this intrepid ten year old was prompting us to be sure we moved the elf; I’ll admit that not every night did I remember to move the damned thing, but then we realized that my son was having a ball.

There was a certain life altering delight in the notion that he could pick up the elf. He could find a spot that he wanted to see those beady eyes looking out of, and he could tuck that elf there for us to find.

As an educator that struck a chord.

I taught high school English for a dozen years before becoming a principal, and I saw that same gleam in my students’ eyes that I saw this December in my son’s when they realized that they could have some control over what they were learning. It could be as simple as letting them pick the book they wanted to read, or as daring as asking them to take responsibility for teaching lessons to their peers. It was in those moments when I asked the class what direction they wanted to take that they came most alive.

How much like placing an elf was my choosing to teach Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. Fun for me, sure, but not for every student. (Former students reading this, please don’t bombard me with “Yes The Sea Wolf sucked emails; it really is a kooky and delightful adventure!)

I think that maybe there was a time when my control over the process was appropriate and could lead to positive results. I’m convinced that some of my students wouldn’t have found Haruki Murakami, CP Cavafy, or Zora Neale Hurston on their own, but I’m also convinced that if I had always continued to insist that I was the only one who knew where the magic was hidden I would have deprived them of a magic all its own.

The power to take life in our own hands, and for students to take learning in theirs just as my son made the decision to pick up that elf and walk across the room, is or should be an important part of education.

It also gets easier the more we allow our students to do it. The first time I gave up control in my classroom, allowing students more voice in what they were studying wasn’t easy for all of them, nor was is particularly easy for me. So too, when she saw her brother moving the elf this week, my teenage daughter confessed that when she was little she once moved the elf herself and them moved it back where it had been, so no one would notice and she could see what would happen.

A step toward independence, I’d argue is what happened, accompanied by a pinch of rebellion and delight.

In a classroom there is a certain approval that goes along with being the master that disappears when students take the wheel. This can be tough, particularly for those of us who want so much to make sure things “go well,” and it’s something I know I’ve felt as a principal too.

Just before winter break I came to my staff with a decision to be made about when to deliver several lessons (as part of Erin’s Law) to our students. I had an idea of how to do this, and opened up discussion for others to share their thoughts. We discussed our plan for a bit, and afterward used a survey to get a sense of where people were landing. My idea came in second from last.

The result will be a decision that is better for my school than if I’d made it myself. Like a classroom teacher who gives the gift of decision making to her students, I know that listening to my staff’s voice benefits us all. The road ahead isn’t mine alone to navigate; I’m with good company, fellow travelers I’m wise to trust.

In addition to the community building that shared choice contributes to in a classroom, there is also a feeling of freedom and sense of adventure that comes with watching students take ownership.

I understood today that this student ownership brings the same mix of pride and surprise, acceptance and delight that I felt when I realized that the elf was no longer on the shelf.

Jackals and Spies

I was in high school the first time I read Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, a rollicking adventure about a shadowy hit man’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Fast paced, groovy, and allegedly adult, the 1971 novel ticked all the boxes those tomes I was reading in Mr. Shinkle’s English class did not. This was no Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome couldn’t put together a sniper rifle. 1960s Paris looked and felt nothing like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge.

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1I was a solid student; no one would have described me as a reluctant reader; give me Turgenev and I would read Turgenev, but the truth of the matter was that ever since I’d left The Hardy Boys behind somewhere before my twelfth birthday, the books I read tended to be for class. The Day of the Jackal changed that, at least a bit, and I realized that reading could be fun again.

Two decades later, when I found myself teaching a reading intervention class, I remembered that hit man, and the value of giving students choice in what they read really sank in. Mine were not students for whom Melville held any cachet. Heck, Jack London bored most of them and he wrote The Sea Wolf! When they had the opportunity to select books that they wanted to read, however, they were more willing to put in the time to actually read them.

It was a lesson I brought to my other English classes, where we still read books together (no one should be forced to go upriver in Conrad’s Congo alone) and I built opportunities for student choice.

In a twelfth grade world literature class, where we traveled around the globe continent by continent, students could choose any book length text from a bank of authors given to them at the start of a unit. As we were reading poetry and short fiction from Africa together in class, for instance, the list of possible authors for their out of class reading might include Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.

At the end of the unit students wrote about their own author and book, making connections to what we’d read in class, and then, as a culminating activity, they gathered in book groups based on what they’d read. At one table a group of students who had each read a different book by Haruki Murakami might discuss commonalities they saw in his various works. To hear students have expert discussions juxtaposing Sputnik Sweetheart and The Windup Bird Chronicle was energizing, and just as rich (if not more) than our shared conversations on Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain.

As adults, those of us who read most often chart our own literary course. That high schooler I was, quietly enjoying The Day of the Jackal, graduated and moved on to other adventures. In college I read the classics, voraciously to be honest, but still found time for more popular fare.

Perfect SpyJohn le Carre was one on that pop fiction list. I enjoyed the efficiency and sense of Cold War era certainty of Tom Clancy (who a friend of mine once described as writing “novels … very liberal in nature. Consider: Clancy’s characters, whether in the military, politics, or intelligence, are capable, hard-working, well-intentioned, and intelligent. It’s like reading a political fantasy, where everyone has the good of the nation at heart, is competent at their jobs, and sincerely wants what is best for the country as a whole, not just themselves”) and I dug the palpable tension of Stephen King, but it was le Carre’s A Perfect Spy that showed me that popular fiction could include books of consequence. A Perfect Spy was never a book I assigned as a teacher, though I have no doubt that with its complex narrative voice and poetic sensibility it could have supported discussions as rich as any in my high school classroom.

Perhaps it’s because of my own affection for pop fiction that I’m a fan of bringing academia out of the ivory tower. Part of a teacher’s role is helping students see their world critically, and one way of supporting this is to give them freedom and choice.

By that I not only mean freedom to choose the books they’re most interested in, but also freedom from the judgement that one work is regal while another’s gold foil makes it cheap. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale started out on the bestseller list before it became a staple of high school reading lists. Mass market paperbacks can (and sometimes do) hold more than simply mysteries or romance.

handmaid's taleCertainly there are degrees of litr’y merit, but an acceptance that literature can live in a supermarket magazine aisle strikes me as a positive quality not an indictment of taste.

I still want to explore Heart of Darkness in the company of fellow adventurers, but along the way I’d love to hear about their own travels to worlds less dark.

I reread The Day of the Jackal and A Perfect Spy this year, curious how my adult self might see them, and was pleased that I enjoyed both as much as I remembered liking them in my youth. I’d never consciously thought how much less silly le Carre’s book was than Forsythe’s, and noticing it now I chalked one up in the favorable column of growing older.

Rereading was a choice, and a good one, not like supporting those students who pick up a paperback because they think they’ll like it. Reading can and should be fun too. Along with travels to Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County, it’s healthy to encourage readers to spend a little time with jackals and spies.