When I taught Senior English for the first time at Dana Hall almost a decade ago, the summer reading book was one that I hadn’t read before, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I wasn’t in love with it at the start; I wasn’t entirely sure that this book was going to fit well with the course that I was teaching, an interdisciplinary, co-taught course focused on Black history and literature. However, the central lesson of this book and the story from which the author takes its title has proven to be incredibly valuable to me and my work in many different ways.
Lamott tells a story from her childhood of her younger brother’s attempt to complete a school project on the cataloging of local birds, a significant assignment that he had left until the last possible moment. She writes, “He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
This idea of taking it bird by bird deeply resonated with me, and with the students in my class all those years ago, as we used it to frame our school year. The idea of fighting against racism and inequality often seemed to be a supremely insurmountable task for the change agents of the 18th century and those in the present. But we learned of many people who took it “bird by bird,” who saw what they could accomplish and set out to complete their large task one bird at a time. The students themselves felt encouraged to think about change in the same way, to ask themselves what they could tackle in themselves and in the larger society that would help them move closer to their goals, giving them a sense of both agency and progress.
This summer, I found myself thinking a lot about Lamott’s story once again. As I engaged in numerous conversations with administrators and faculty members about all of the things that we had to do to make sure that we were prepared for school this fall—rethinking time, redesigning curriculum, recommitting ourselves to our goals of equity and inclusion—the task of doing everything that we wanted to, everything that we needed to, sometimes felt so large and unattainable that it left us feeling stymied and deflated. In a small group work session with the faculty one Tuesday night in early August, when someone expressed their uncertainty, I found myself telling the group about this story from Bird by Bird. As I watched faces change, now feeling heartened and newly emboldened where they had once felt discouraged, I realized that perhaps this story could become one of our central themes of the school year for the faculty.
In our meetings a few weeks later as the year began, I told the faculty, some of whom had already read Bird by Bird, of Lamott’s work and how poignant I found its central message. I wanted everyone to know that we could take the school year bird by bird, and we have. The adults that are a part of this community have done an impressive amount of work since last spring to think critically about instruction, classroom culture, and student engagement in this new educational world. And even in a regular year, one not colored by a global pandemic, those are huge tasks central to good teaching and learning. But if we take them bird by bird, if every day we strive to do one thing better, make one single choice that’s going to make a more inclusive classroom experience, engage student more deeply, support all learners in being their most successful selves, we move one step closer to reaching those huge goals.
I think taking things bird by bird is a positive message for teachers working amid a global pandemic, but it’s a good motto for anyone, I’d argue, regardless of profession or circumstance. We all could often use the reminder to just take it bird by bird, to do what we can to help move us closer to our goals with a sense of purpose and control, particularly at a time such as this one in which our lives can feel lacking in both. And it is certainly a great message for our students as well. When the students’ code for AP Computer Science won’t work for the 13th time, the task of debugging it can seem incredibly overwhelming, but encouraging them to take it one line at a time, one step at a time is how they will accomplish the task. Perhaps the idea of improving her analytical writing in Social Studies feels like a giant task to an advisee, but focusing on one piece of improvement at a time, such as thesis development or topic sentences and transitions, can help make that task feel, and actually be, much more within her grasp.
And so, for anyone reading, I end with the same pep talk that I’ve given anyone who will listen all year long. Just take it bird by bird, everyone. Whatever “it” is, you can do it and get through it. As a Dana Hall community, we are doing it and getting through it, and we will emerge even better than before. We just have to keep taking it one step, one bird, at a time.