Thursday, October 30, 2014

Italian Bread Slathered in Red Gravy

“When I was in my country, I was like this,” Beppa cupped one hand atop the other like a cage for a small bird. “When I come from the other side, I was like this,” and she opened her hands. I could see the imaginary bird leaping from her upturned palms. And then she reached into the low hanging branches above and picked one ripe fig for me, and one ripe fig for herself.

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Beppa and me before Confirmation
“Beppa” is an Italian, female derivative of Josephine. Our Beppa’s name at birth was Guiseppa Ragolino. In America, she became Josephine Pratico. In our family legacy, the memories of our “Beppa” live on through Italian food and a fig tree.


Beppa left Italy for America on a steamship in 1927. In her mid-twenties, Beppa said goodbye to her parents, a sister, the family farm, a region still limping from the 1908 earthquake, and a country licking its wounds from World War I. She could not know this at the time, but Beppa would see her father and sister only once throughout the rest of her long, loving life.


While Beppa’s memories travelled with her across the sea, our memories of Beppa continue to travel across time through our stories. We tell stories because we can no longer ask her questions. So, as a family, we share the stories so that we can know her better and begin to understand her joy and tenderness, her kindness and toughness, just a little bit deeper.


My aunt Joanne writes, “Could you believe this small, Italian woman who had nothing could leave such an impression on all of our lives?”  We miss her like so many others in our family tree. Over the aroma of fresh, green basil and warm Italian bread slathered with red gravy, I wish everyone in our family could sit side by side again. I wish I could ask Beppa questions and pass my aunts, uncles, and grandparents her heavy plates of homemade raviolis, melting like butter by the forkful. I wish I could see the traces of soft, white flour on her apron again, and the bits of kneaded, fresh dough left behind on a wooden rolling pin. I would memorize her smile.


Because Beppa never learned to drive, and never owned a car, she walked to church and the vegetable stand. Trolleys clattered and trundled her off to work. My cousin, Marybeth, remembers Beppa walking home from the trolley--holding a black handbag close to herself--the white and blue uniform--the apron and cap that she wore every day until retiring at 65. In spite of living almost another 40 years after retirement--another lifetime for some-- Beppa’s lifetime never seems long enough.


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Beppa & Gregorio
Born three years after her retirement, I knew Beppa as a grandmotherly figure surrounded by simmering red gravy, crusty Italian bread, and sweet, warm apple pies. She spoke broken English between steady streams of Italian--but when I stole fried meatballs from her kitchen--meatballs frying in oil--meatballs she turned over to brown and crisp with bare fingers--Beppa’s English fell swift and precise upon her little thief, “Hey! get the hell out of my kitchen!”


Used to doing goodness for others, Beppa growled and complained in Italian when the family threw a surprise party for her 80th birthday. But she overcame her Italian blood, and even allowed a tear of appreciation to well-up on her lashes. For once, she didn’t have to cook.


Each New Year’s Day, family and friends streamed through her kitchen. We followed the scent of homemade pizzas--the baked and charred crusts--the sweet, piney, and warm basil--the gooey, fresh mozzarella--and ladles of red tomato gravy spooned into the center of the shell and swirled in red concentric circles towards the edges of the crust. It was only day of the year I ever remember her making pizza. Cut into geometric shapes with a pair of red scissors, it disappeared faster than Beppa could bake them--the oven worked all day.


Some afternoons I found Beppa resting alone in a reclining chair by the front window. While the easy guess is that she watched people passing through the neighborhood, I imagine the farm girl noticed the bristling pigeons on the overhead wires or learned to trace time by the way long, black shadows crept across the red brick neighborhood.


Surviving a long fall down a fight of hardwood stairs in her mid-80s,  Beppa walked away with a set of stitches in her soft, white hair and the early hints of dementia creeping into her life. For example, Beppa would eat and drink coffee all morning if family did not monitor her breakfast. Beppa would forget that she already had a cup of coffee and a piece of rye toast as she prepared breakfast a second time, and then a third time. When my aunt discovered that Beppa had eaten a half a loaf of rye bread one morning, Beppa shrugged and smiled--so cute and innocent.


For as long as I knew her, Beppa did not pay her own bills. My aunt, who lived next door, helped Beppa manage everything. Because Beppa's primary language remained Italian, my aunt read bills and letters written in English, and checked out books in Italian from the public library. Ever since Beppa first came to America, my family tried to teach her English.


Aunt Connie would say, “Beppa, say ‘one.’


And Beppa replied, “Say one.”


Another time, my aunt asked Beppa to show her how to make fried dough like the old Italians. My aunt laid all of the ingredients on the kitchen table: flour, eggs, oil, cold water, and powdered sugar. She scrubbed her hands with hot, soapy water, dried them on a clean towel, and said, “Ok, I’m ready.”
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Beppa and one of her sons, my Uncle Carmen

Beppa said, “First, get a big pot and put it on a chair.”

Pulling a pot from a cabinet, my aunt paused, “Why put it on a chair?”

Beppa said, “Because I’m short.”



Although Beppa needed more help as the years passed, she cooked three meals a day well into her 90s. The black knobs on her stove no longer showed numbers or lines as the markings had been worn away with use. That oven produced decades of hearty peasant food to fill our plates: creamy pasta fagioli (beans and pasta); green beans and potatoes coated in red gravy; and bowls of buttery shellfish and garlic. Dinners came with a cold salad of tomato, red onion, vinegar, and oil. She dipped crusty bread into the salad, into her red gravy, into her morning coffee. Softening the food made chewing easier.


Today, in several yards behind several family homes across several states several fig trees grow. All of the trees are family. They sprang from cuttings from the original fig tree that grew in the back corner of Beppa’s yard. That initial fig tree did not grow on its own. Fig trees are not native to Philadephia. Beppa and Gregorio planted the cutting they kept alive for thirty days on a steamship--a tree suspended in metal cups of water to keep its roots soft --a tree they took turns holding open above deck to drink in the sun--a tree that survived the journey from Beppa’s family farm in Calabria, Italy--a tree that has carried her memories across the sea--a tree that carries her memories across time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Unexpected Perspective

For twenty years I have been in a classroom with 8th grade students. Teachers see students through many microscopes--some thrust upon all teachers across the country, some self-imposed. Most of the lenses are cut from content, data, and standards. We so often zoom in and rarely zoom out and actually look at people.

Our administrators observe us, but we rarely observe each other.

In the past few weeks I have observed four colleagues. My goal is to observe thirty by Christmas even though I have not observed four teachers over the past twenty years.

Two per week during my planning periods should get me there.

Sitting in a 6th grade science classroom on Thursday and an 8th grade foreign language classroom on Friday offered me an unexpected perspective:

I've taken some things for granted.

I have forgotten how much kids grow from 6th grade through 7th grade through 8th grade. I have forgotten that a 6th grade student needs so much attention in learning how to be a student. I have forgotten in 8th grade we can engage so deeply in the content because of the incredible work that has occurred in the grades before us. Our 6th and 7th grade colleagues are, in a sense, pulling double-duty by delivering a robust curriculum in addition to channelling so much energy into the habits of being a good student.

In the 6th grade science room, it was like their skin was on fire with energy. They wriggled. They talked. They leaned from one side to the other. They smiled. They fidgeted. And they engaged with the teacher, Judy, over the directions for the lab:
In your groups, take two plastic cups and write SALT on one and SUGAR on the other. Fill each halfway with water. Put two tablespoons of SALT in the one marked SALT, and two tablespoons of SUGAR in the one marked SUGAR. In each, place a small carrot. In a notebook, make a prediction about what will happen to the carrots--they were starting a study on scientific method.
Those (simple) directions took over twenty minutes to deliver.  Not so simple when your skin is aflame with energy.

The directions were delivered in chunks and were repeated. The teaching strategy was something akin to part-part-whole. Teach one part. Then the next part. And so on.

The students verbally repeated the directions along the way. And then Judy demonstrated each step before pointing to the directions, hand written, on the board.

No stone was left unturned, but turning over so many stones takes time. It was incredible to be reminded just how much guidance an engaged 6th grader needs.

Along the way, students repeated parts of the directions and held their hands in the air in the proper way to hold a scale. They were reminded not to run in the classroom with or without the cups of water. They were reminded not to drink either the salt water or the sugar water. They were reminded not to eat the carrots.

Along the way, they answered questions. Some left their seats for a moment because they had to move. Their bodies have minds of their own. Their bodies made noise. The room was noisy but in a focused, well-directed, vibrating swarm of insects sort of way.

They accomplished their task with energy. They had fun. And they clearly needed to run. Soon.

When I observed the 8th grade foreign language classroom, the students entered on another level. Yes, they talked to one another. Their athletic bodies climbed over desks. They moved respectfully to grab a piece of paper from a shelf. But when they sat, they sat still, and needed at most 45 seconds of directions from their teacher and engaged in the review.

They would be taking a quiz during the second half of class.

My colleague, Marc, led them through chunks of conversations in Spanish and connected with the kids with humor. They were asked to extract information from the conversation, to recall the rules of the sounds of letters, and to notice names they hadn't encountered previously.

Similar to the 6th graders, the 8th graders were repeating things. At times, they repeated the correct pronunciation of words. Mostly, they repeated words and phrases that they had committed to memory.

Nowhere in the process did they need to repeat the directions aloud.

The 8th graders raised their hands like the 6th graders but it wasn't a competition like it was for some 6th graders. To be called on in the 6th grade classroom was a little victory. It was winning. It was a combination of "Yes, I was chosen!" and "Yes, I know the answer!" It was a part of feeling liked, of being noticed, and of being acknowledged.

The 8th graders were not roiling with energy. Their pulse runs deep. They think. They listen.

Yet, they crave opportunities to laugh, to take a breath, and to play too.

And they need adults in their life who take them seriously--who listen. The nature of being a parent, a coach, a teacher makes adults talk at and direct kids. A lot.

But in 8th grade, they thrive under conditions where adults take them seriously. Adults who listen. Adults who engage their minds without holding their hands through everything.

It wasn't any one thing that reminded me of how important our relationships are with our 8th grade students, but it was the act of looking through the lens of teaching--the original lens.--as opposed to the lenses of content, standards, and data. The teaching lens is the one we looked through before we ever finished our education degrees. It is the one that too often collects dust.

Another colleague of mine listened to me share my experience in the 6th grade classroom. I told her about a boy who left his chair and half skipped, half paraded up and down the aisle and then simply returned to his seat. He went back to his work. He just experienced a momentary explosion of joyous energy.

My colleague smiled and said, "See, that is just like my son. My son needs that too. Sometimes I just wish they would just let him get up and run around for a minute too." In that moment, she was a teacher looking through the lens of a mother while talking about other teachers who looked through a variety of lens--some imposed on them, some self-imposed.

However, without zooming out and looking at the landscape of where we are and who we teach, we can take something for granted...we teach people who depend on us for our kindness and compassion as much as they do our knowledge and experience.

And long before our students reach us, they have a history of teachers who taught them a lot about being good students and good people.

And it always points back to our example--the things we do and see more than the things we say.

And because that is true, then seeing our colleagues teach is one lens worth picking up and adding to our perspective.