Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review of Stephen King's 11-22-63 - No spoilers

You know that a writer has created something magical when you find yourself invested enough in a story to actually will a storyline along toward the direction you desperately hope it will go.

I found myself really, really wanting certain things to happen to and for certain characters in Stephen King’s 11-22-63. Did everything turn out the way I hoped it would? Nope, but I understood why King wrote the denouement the way he did, and that made it not only bearable, but also ultimately okay with me.

As I finished the final chapter of this lengthy novel, I felt like things turned out the way they had to all along, and that the question of fate vs. free will had been adequately satisfied; we are both directed by forces outside of our control and simultaneously have enormous power to change the course of our lives and the lives of others. (Hey, students: that’s my informal thematic statement J )

I struggle to find anything more profound to say about this text than that – unless I began providing spoilers, which I refuse to do to anyone who might read this book, and I believe that a great many people should read this book.

I can say that King’s commentary about Dallas struck me as comedic since I was born in Parkland hospital a mere decade after J.F.K. was pronounced dead there and much of Dallas’ character in the 70s still resembled his descriptions of Dallas in the 60s. Some of the observations still hold true today.

King stated that he initially began to write this book in the 70s but that the wound of Kennedy’s assassination was still too fresh and that he didn’t think he could do the story justice. Apparently, he waited just the right amount of time. He has created a beautiful testament to teachers, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and - perhaps most importantly - to the beauty and power of true love.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Haiku Deathmatch (No students were harmed in the process of learning)

When students see the name of this activity on the board, they always seem a bit intimidated, yet intrigued. It definitely sparks interest and authentic engagement! I have played with other names, too, but this one seems to create the most buy-in. To be honest, I did not come up with the name on my own, as I had heard a colleague use “poetry deathmatch” before. As teachers do best, I adapted the activity to suit my needs, and I am happy to share my lesson in hopes that other teachers will do the same.

First, I introduced (or reintroduced) students to the haiku format. We discussed the origin of this structure and the fact that, in America, haiku are usually written in 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. We talked about the fact that the plural of haiku is: haiku (this prevents my annoyance upon hearing “haikus”). We looked at several examples of haiku – both traditional Japanese haiku and more modern examples.

Because we were already talking about the power of words in the context of my current curriculum, I had students list their favorite words and words they loathe in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. I listed mine with them, and we all shared. Here are some words that tend to show up across classes in multiple writers’ notebooks:

Words students love:
Words students detest:

Students listed their favorite words for about 5 minutes; then we shared our words. As we heard words that we either liked or disliked, we added them to our own list.  If you find that students are having a difficult time with this part of the activity, you can look to the following sources for inspiration:
Once everyone has shared, I ask students to write at least 2 haiku: one with a favorite word and one with a word that they don’t like. I assure them that it is natural to count syllables on fingers, and that they will see me counting on mine, too. I also teach them the trick to determine the number of syllables in a word by placing their hand under their chin and counting the downward chin movements. Here is a picture of my notebook from the last haiku brainstorming session:

After about 10 minutes, I ask for volunteers to share. There is usually a lot of nodding and agreement with the haiku containing words students like and dislike. You can almost certainly expect an anti-homework haiku or two.

Now that students are comfortable with the haiku format and realize they’re having fun in class, I challenge them to work in small teams to write haiku for the previous text studied in class. I generally choose one work on which to focus; however, this time, I asked students to review their summer reading via haiku. Thus, my students were asked to choose from either Beowulf, Brave New World, or a combination of both. I have previously taught this lesson while reviewing books such as The Kite Runner, Frankenstein, and a variety of shorter texts. It has worked well in all cases. Each member writes the haiku, but there is one official recorder who writes legibly. The team’s goal is to generate as many quality haiku as possible in the time allotted.

Each team selects a spokesperson/performer to represent their team. Two teams are called to begin the “deathmatch.” I devise a system for determining who reads first – sometimes they choose a number, or play rock-paper-scissors, etc. Each person selects a haiku to read. There is strategy involved because they want to select one that is good enough to beat their opponent’s, but they also need to leave strong haiku in case they advance in the competition. Based on experience, each person will need to read his or her team’s haiku twice. I generally have them alternate so the audience can hear the poems side by side two times. Then we vote. The team with the most votes remains to battle the next opponent, and this process continues until only on team remains. In the event of a tie, each team can select an alternate poem to read. Sometimes, I allow the first team eliminated to battle the winning team. This eases the pain of being knocked out of the competition on the first round.

Teachers can decide whether or not to have any type of prizes, but the real reward is the sneaky book review taking place, the decisions about word choice (the best words that will fit in the limited structural space), and the collaboration occurring while students discuss texts and language.

Some variations on this lesson:
  •       Haiku for a character (to study characterization)
  •       Haiku in the style of an author
  •       Haiku featuring a specific literary device (simile, alliteration, etc.)
  •       Students tweet their haiku using a specific hashtag
  •       Students write a back-and-forth dialogue through haiku
  •       Students combine haiku to form one longer poem on the given topic (They love this one!)
Please comment with any variations on this lesson or new ideas. I think there is a wide range of possibilities for this activity!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Prayer to the Teachers to Forgive them for Solely Using TPCASTT

Last year, I began moving away from the formulaic TPCASTT and Somebody-Wanted-But-So methods of poetry analysis in my AP course. I still teach those methods of analysis; any tools my students have for decoding poems that serve as potential pathways toward understanding are valuable, and I want them to have as many tools as possible! However, I found that by emulating mentor texts, my students were able to find all of the poetic devices and reach a deeper understanding of the author’s work. This is simply a natural by-product of analyzing which parts of the poem – diction, syntax, theme, repetition and other devices – that they would like to mimic in their own work. My students came up with some of the most beautiful and deeply personal work I’ve ever experienced – some of which they performed at a poetry slam that they organized at the end of the year.

To that end, tomorrow we will read “Forgive My Guilt” by Robert P. Tristram Coffin and “Prayer to the Living to Forgive them for Being Alive” by Charlotte Delbo (one of my favorite poems to teach, by a Holocaust survivor and heroine). We will look at the TPCASTT method as well as Somebody-Wanted-But-So, but my students will ultimately choose one of the two poems as a mentor text from which to gather inspiration. I will ask my students to follow the original poem as much as they see fit as far as structure and ideas, but they have creative freedom to make their own choices. This provides a safety net for students who need a bit more support in poetry-writing. They can simply replace nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. More adventurous students can depart significantly (or entirely) from the mentor text. This approach provides built-in choice and differentiation that are crucial to our modern classrooms. In my experience, students are capable of creating works that rival those in the literary canon.

I always do what I ask my students to do. It demonstrates that we are all writers and that this writing has value; it is not merely busy-work. Tomorrow, while my students write, I will craft my version of “Forgive My Guilt.” Today, I wrote my version of Delbo’s poem based on how I felt about the socioeconomic disparity between me and my peers in the mid-1980s. I recommend sharing as much of your life with your students as is appropriate. This will make it safe for them to share, let them know that they, too, can overcome obstacles, and engage them in a learning community in which everyone has a voice and valuable ideas to share.

When I discuss my version of this “Prayer” poem with my class, I will talk about my decision to emulate the syntactical style, fragmented thought pattern, repetition, and the accusatory effect of the use of 2nd person. This is also a good time to note why we don’t use “you” in essays, as it sounds very harsh! I will discuss the differences as well, such as my use of specific examples, the weight of her subject matter compared to mine, and the fact that mine is more personal (though I speak for everyone who felt this way) while Delbo’s definitely speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Teachers, I urge you: please get your students writing, and write with them! They will amaze you with what they write.

“Prayer to the Living to Forgive them for Being Alive” by Charlotte Delbo
(mentor text)
“Prayer to the Affluent to Forgive them for Being Materialistic” by Amber Counts
(inspired by Delbo’s mentor text)
You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
clothing which suits you well
or badly
or just about
you who are passing by
full of tumultuous life within your arteries
glued to your skeleton
as you walk with a sprightly step athletic awkward
laughing sullenly, you are all so handsome
so commonplace
so commonplacely like everyone else
so handsome in your commonplaceness
with this excess of life which keeps you
from feeling your bust following your leg
your hand raised to your hat
your hand upon your heart
your kneecap rolling softly in your knee
how can we forgive you for being alive…
You who are passing by
well dressed in all your muscles
how can we forgive you
that all are dead
You are walking by and drinking in cafés
you are happy she loves you
or moody worried about money
how how
will you ever be forgiven
by those who died
so that you may walk by
dressed in all your muscles
so that you may drink in cafés
be younger every spring
I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.

You who are passing by
well dressed in designer clothes
the latest styles that suit you well
so you think
until you look back one day
and feel embarrassed
embarrassed that
you wore a rabbit fur coat
when it was 85 degrees
under the Texas sun
embarrassed that despite
perm after perm
after perm
your hair looked like fried straw
and your rubber bracelets
did not make you Madonna
You who cast aspersions
on my character
downward glances dismissive
based on my clothes
at least I stand out
in my second-hand jeans
clothes my grandmother
lovingly chose for me
while you
you all look the same
you all look like everyone else
everyone with money
everyone who can buy Gloria Vanderbuilt jeans
oh wait it’s Jordache this month
no it’s Guess
well guess what
I am more than the label on my jeans
You are just a label
a superficial label seeking
the acceptance of your clone peers
how can we forgive you
those of us who cannot
fit your mold
how can we forgive you
that you have everything
while we have nothing
yet you’re still unhappy
and often mean
how can we understand each other
when you think tragedy
means not going to Florida on spring break
or not getting the right color car
on your birthday
when tragedy for me
is bathing in the laundrymat sink
for school
because I am homeless again
skipping another meal
because there is no money for food
but these aren’t tragedies for me
they’re commonplace
this is my reality
But go ahead
laugh that I don’t have
my own Sony Walkman
because you do not have
the depth of thought
compassion or character
to understand my life
while you superficially make your way
through yours.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review of Mr. Mercedes

I read a lot of Stephen King's novels when I was young after my love of the characters in the movie Stand by Me led me to the short story it was based on, published under King's pseudonym. I quickly found what I think draws many to his work; King's characters are complex, and their thoughts, motivations, and dialogue are authentic. Recently, I returned to King's work to see how I feel about it as an adult whose favorite film is now The Shawshank Redemption - also based on his work.

When someone tells me that they don't like King's work, I often ask which books they've read. To me, that's like saying you don't like the Beatles. From which era? Which style or genre? With both iconic artists, there is simply too much variety for such blanket statements. 

It is true that many of King's works - though not all - contain some dark element. He has brought us homicidal cars, vengeful prom-goers, vampires, and alcoholic fathers who attempt to murder their family members. He has also brought us post-apocalyptic heroes, characters with the power to ease the pain of others, real female heroes, and some of the most touching tales of friendship found in print. His textbook, On Writing, is one of the best books I've read on the craft of writing. Ultimately, he captures who we are, for better or worse, and brings our hopes, joys, and fears to life through the written word. I understand that some don't want to examine the darker side of humanity, and anyone in that group should steer clear of Mr. Mercedes. (Note the clever car pun.)

In this mystery/suspense novel, retired detective Bill Hodges rouses from his depressed, suicidal state when the "Mercedes Killer" taunts him with a letter. This letter, intended to psychologically torture the retired cop, has the unintended effect of giving Hodges a renewed sense of purpose and sending him on an investigative journey. Since I refuse to spoil the plot any further (you've got Wikipedia for that), I'll just say that the pay-off is there at the end. I was ultimately glad I stuck with these characters through this wild ride, despite the sometimes gruff language and disturbing details. I've seen enough true crime shows to understand that serial killers don't get to be the way they are in happy family homes, and the fact that King provides a basis for why his killer acts the way he does just reinforces my earlier observation about King's ability to write real characters. There are some cheesy phrases and "Kingisms" along the way - mostly little jabs at pop culture, but again - these are timely and generally ring true to the character thinking or speaking the lines. I only rolled my eyes a couple of times. 

If you can stand a little darkness, if you like journeying with characters through a cat-and-mouse high-stakes game, and you want to read this before it becomes a mini-series, then sit back and enjoy the ride with Mr. Mercedes.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Drummer Boy (Who Plays the Bass)

My son turned 16 today. He didn’t get the keys to a car; that’s beyond our means right now, but he did get a pair of drumsticks and a practice pad so that he can learn to tap out rhythms. He recently joined the “School of Rock” club at his school, and though he currently plays the bass guitar in the group, he really wants to play the drums.

My son at 6 months with his drum
Before I get to my main point, let me back up several years. My son loved beating out rhythms since the days of his Little Tikes drum with connected plastic sticks. When he was about 5 years old, he advanced to a junior drum kit. I bet our apartment neighbors loved that! At 10, my mom gifted him with a more advanced drum set. It was still a learning model, but he had fun operating the bass drum and cymbals along with the drum heads. He began talking about signing up for band the following year, and as parents who met in high school band, we were only too happy to support his enthusiasm and musical ability.

At the next opportunity, we spoke with the middle-school band director. That conversation changed the course of a life.

She told us emphatically that my son would not be allowed to play in the percussion section in band because he had not taken 3 years of piano lessons prior to beginning a rhythm instrument. Wait. What? I’m pretty sure most of the drummers I rocked out to in the 80s hadn’t been required to take 3 years of piano lessons before they started playing. Though I clearly see how this practice would be helpful in playing the xylophone or marimbas, I could also clearly see that my son would not learn toward those instruments. Besides, piano lessons are incredibly expensive. We could not afford them. I kept all of my opinions about elitism to myself and beseeched the band director to let him join if we promised to find a way to get piano lessons on the side. She stood firm with her answer: no.

I checked with some other parents about the veracity of this answer, and as far as anyone knew, this was the norm for this school. Parents don’t always feel empowered to question the system or even know how to begin doing it if the need should arise. Often, parents just do what they’re told, and that’s what we did. In retrospect, I wish I had been a stronger advocate for my child in this case.

Feeling dejected and not wanting to play any other instrument in band, my son struggled to find enthusiasm for any other extra-curricular activities in middle-school. As it turned out, some of the 8th-grade orchestra students from the middle-school visited his elementary school within days of his hearing the verdict. A particularly cool bass player (they’re still friends to this day) caught his attention by playing the bass line to a Green Day song. The next thing I knew, we were learning all about orchestra and figuring out how to buy and transport a bass.

My son has loved playing bass. He’s pretty darn good at it, too. He is excited that he can play the bass guitar as an extension of learning to play the double bass. But he feels like something is missing. He feels like he should be marching with the drum line at his high school.

This breaks my heart.

Here’s why. Can he learn on his own and still play the drums now? Yes (hence the birthday present). But he will never benefit from the years of a qualified band director or school-associated private lesson teachers to learn from. Will he ever experience marching band? No. He will never experience the camaraderie of the rhythm section of the band, and there’s nothing else like it.

Would it have hurt that band director to consider making an exception for a highly motivated, enthusiastic child who had long-term goals in her program? No. It would not have. As it turns out, the other schools in the district don’t all have the same policy. I didn’t know that then. I have asked several of my percussionist students – some of whom have qualified for All-Region and even All-State band – over the years if they took piano lessons before they joined band. About half say “yes.”

I felt moved to write this piece because as an educator, I feel that it’s important that no one in this profession ever forget that these moments of interaction do alter our students’ lives and have far-reaching implications. We must know that each decision we make is not based on some arbitrary rule that is designed more for our convenience, or the state’s, or the district’s, than the student's, and that we make each decision on a one-by-one basis. After all, these are human beings, not mere units in a band. We must know why we give the answers we do, and we must believe in them so strongly that we could look that student (and his or her parents) in the eye years later and still support that decision.

Note from my son: As he read this to offer or decline his approval, he stated that it would be the same as if they had asked him to take 3 years of guitar lessons before joining orchestra. He has a point. And he offered his approval of this message :)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See (a review with a few spoilers)

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2014
Major Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2015)

There are so many places I could begin in reviewing this book, so let me start with an informal phrase I uttered when talking about this book with friends: This is the least warry World War II book I’ve ever read. Simply put, while this book follows the plight of several characters before, during, and after the war, its focus is on those characters and how their lives intertwine – not on the vast scope of the War itself. Each choice that each character makes can and does have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences, and this book shares two major ideas with Rowling’s Harry Potter works, including the necessity of doing what’s right instead of what’s easy and the fact that it’s our choices that define who we are. Hmmm. It seems that within the course of writing this paragraph, I’ve talked myself out of my original statement. What could be more relevant to war than the extreme circumstances that people find themselves in and the importance of the decisions they make?

The second characteristic I would like to note reflects my only real criticism. The treatment of time is somewhat jarring. We move forward and backward in time along three different story arcs, waiting for them to intersect. This non-linear progression proves difficult to follow at times, especially if listening to an audiobook, according to a friend. Experienced readers know as soon as they are introduced to both Marie-Laure, a young, French, highly intelligent blind girl, and Werner, a mathematical and mechanical prodigy recruited by the Hitler Youth, that their lives will intersect. We spend about 2/3 of the book waiting for that to happen. While Werner unwittingly helps endanger Marie-Laure’s life, will his past experiences prompt him to help her? I felt like I had been stuck in a time vortex for hundreds of pages before I found out, and while it was all beautifully written, it did, at times, feel exhausting. Perhaps that was Doerr’s intention. Shouldn’t a book about such things feel jarring, uncomfortable, and unreal? I get it, but I feel that this structure was employed with more craft at some points than in others.

Speaking of structure, I absolutely loved the artistry of the sentences in this book. Alas, I do not have my copy handy or I would share some beautiful examples. The short chapters aid in devouring the book and processing the power of the words before moving forward. The imagery – especially sensory imagery, especially as experienced by Marie-Laure – serves as a powerful means of drawing the reader into the characters’ experiences while reminding us to notice the minute details around us. Her loving father, a locksmith by trade, painstakingly crafts two model cities with small wooden replicas of streets and buildings in order to allow his daughter to “see” her world through her fingertips in an inspiring act of fatherly love and devotion.

While Marie-Laure grows up in relative stability, this is not Werner’s experience, though he escapes hard physical labor due to his prodigious engineering skills and his Aryan features. These traits make him a valuable member of the Hitler Youth, even if he does not agree with their tactics and ideology. Nonetheless, we watch Werner struggle with whether to take action to do the right thing or serve as a bystander. At times, he finds himself in both roles, and he carries the weight of his inaction and inability to help his friend and another victim, a young girl, with him as long as he lives. Werner reminds readers that painting all Germans during the war with the same brush does not allow us to honor the special lives affected in the madness of the war on all sides. There were many murderers, torturers, and bystanders, but how many Werners were there?

All of the symbols and motifs in the book – light, eyes, and truly seeing, remind us to seek truth, beauty, and peace. They remind us to act and live in the light.

Monday, May 18, 2015

First, we wrote.

First, we wrote. Then we talked. Then we wrote some more, talked even more, and from this: great ideas were hatched and explored. This past weekend, I attended a leadership meeting for the North Star of Texas Writing Project. If you aren’t familiar with North Star, please take a moment to check out their website here: . Having previously attended writing workshop professional development, I had no idea what I was getting into last summer at the invitational institute, or how it would continue to change my life – even in the course of a brief Saturday-morning meeting.

What sets NSTWP apart from any other writing workshop PD I’ve participated in is the fact that once in the company of Dr. Wickstrom, Dr. Revelle, Dr. Robertson, and other leaders and Teacher Consultants, I felt empowered. One teacher remarked on Saturday that the program “met each of us where we were at” – whether student-teacher or veteran teacher – and valued what we had to share. This is true. Though the summer days were long and intense, I felt refreshed after my month in the summer institute due to the camaraderie, mutual respect, atmosphere of idea-sharing and learning, and the fact that each person is valued for what he or she has to contribute. My confidence as a writer soared, and more importantly – my ability to build my students’ confidence in their own writing increased dramatically. This year, I write beside them, we revise together, we thank each other for sharing our thoughts and feelings, and we support each other as writers. I have finally accepted that I was a pretty good teacher from the start, but I will never go back to the way I taught pre-North Star.

The fact that I was even at a leadership meeting on Saturday is telling. After working through the summer institute, members become Teacher Consultants who are valued for their expertise. As a TC, I was one of many teachers and professionals invited to take an active role for planning North Star’s future activities. Just as in the institute, we sat together as intellectual equals – each with value – despite differences in our career paths and educational levels. As I previously stated, we wrote before we launched into discussion because we believe it is important to “walk the walk” as writing-instruction educators to not only see the importance in writing, but also to practice writing regularly. Writing and thinking go hand-in-hand, and being surrounded by others who share that belief was inspiring. I only knew a handful of people at the start of the meeting, but knowing that we all share similar beliefs and a thirst for life-long learning allows us to quickly build new friendships. It was so refreshing, renewing, and reaffirming. Why does this feel so rare? Isn’t that what the educational field should be like on every campus, in every district, for every teacher?

Just a side-note:  I’m not a huge fan of rhetorical questions in my own writing, but I do wonder about these questions VERY often. How is it that I’ve never experienced this level of satisfying planning and mutual respect at work? Why do teachers I’ve spoken to from a variety of schools and districts feel more drained than inspired after planning with colleagues? Most importantly: how do we fix this problem and ensure that we build teachers up rather than wear them down? Well, that last question might be way too complex to tackle here, but let’s think about the others...

Ideally, every teacher would attend a North Star summer institute. So my first advice is that if you’re ever invited – Run there! Yes, you’ll give up a chunk of summer, but you’ll gain so much more. That’s not immediately realistic for a few reasons, so what can each of us do on our campuses to capture this feeling? Here are some ideas, and I invite readers to leave more in the “comments.” After all, we think better as we think, write, and reflect together.

  • Always remember that every teacher has something of value to share, even if he or she is new, having trouble in a particular area, or insecure. Help each person feel welcome, create a safe atmosphere for him or her to share ideas, and avoid artificial hierarchies. Isn’t this all stuff we’re doing for our students already?
  • My best music teachers continued to practice their instruments; my best art teachers crafted their own pieces; those math teachers who made me feel confident in math worked through problems with their students. It stands to reason that writing teachers should continue to read and write. I am always flabbergasted when I encounter ELA teachers who “don’t like” or “don’t have time” to read or write. How can we teach what we do not do? Not only do these practices make us better teachers and allow us to hone our craft, but we also gain credibility as reading and writing professionals.
  • Provide all teachers with a voice and a chance to lead. This is aimed more at those in leadership roles, but important for each of us to expect from our leaders as well as ourselves. Some campuses are great about this, while at others – it seems that the same few people lead everything. We all have different strengths, passions, and ideas. Let’s remember that just as we want to be heard when we feel strongly about an idea or program, it’s also important to listen to others and foster new leadership whenever possible. Isn’t this also something we’re already doing for our students?

I desperately want everyone to feel the same support and inspiration that I have felt since joining the North Star of Texas Writing Project, and I want to hold on to that feeling throughout the school-year. I know there are other programs out there, and I hope that everyone finds one that offers that support. Meanwhile, let’s do what we can on our own campuses. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015


It happens every year. In the month leading to the AP exam, I worry.

Are my students prepared? Have they read a wide enough range of texts to support any Q3 prompt they might encounter? What could I have done to encourage them to read more? How many students missed good lessons because of the multitude of field trips - especially in the spring? How can I help students individually when they rarely attend tutorials?
These are just some of the questions that keep me up at night, but then I realize: much of this is completely out of my control. Students know (or at the very least, they've been told) that it is necessary to practice reading and writing to become better readers and writers. They know that tutorials are available. While of course I will continue to revise lessons and look for better ways to teach course content, the real questions I would like answered are:
  • How can I help students take ownership in their own learning?
  • How can I make students want more for themselves than mediocrity?
  • How can I teach someone to have a work ethic (other than modeling one myself)?
You see, if I only cared about English, and the acquisition of skills related to my content area, I would just issue the grades earned and never look back. But I want more for my students. I want them to be lifelong learners. I want them to be excited when they learn something new and feel an uncontrollable urge to share their new insight with others. I want them to know how to communicate and understand that it is this ability, combined with empathy, that makes us human. I want them to know how to get stuff done even when they don't feel like it because let's face it: that's a reality of adult life.

This is why in the month leading to graduation, I worry even more.

I worry that a system that was designed to make sure that no student is left behind might in fact be enabling people to hold themselves back from their true potential. I worry that by making it so difficult to fail, we are failing students by making a little bit of effort seem like it's enough. It's not enough.
I worry that teachers doing their best to cover curriculum don't always have time to teach the truly valuable life lessons, but I know the greatest teachers try. One reason I love teaching seniors is that I can support them during this exhilarating yet scary phase in their lives and offer some of the wisdom I have gained in the 20-something years since I was in their shoes. As my students transition into the adult world of college, work, and societal roles, my pleas to them are the following:
  • In everything you do, please do the best you can. If you feel like it could be done better, learn from someone who knows more than you do. Ultimately, aim to find a more efficient or innovative way to perform the task. Innovation made this country great; let's perpetuate that practice.
  • Be kind. It might sound trite, but this is one of the most basic yet important concepts that, sadly, seems to be forgotten at times.
  • Try to learn something new every day. Try to teach something every day.
  • Technology is an awesome tool that can be used to bring people together. The trick is to know when it is separating you from other people. Don't let that happen. Look up from your device every once in a while. Actually see the world around you and the people in it. Make connections.
  • Balance work and play. In the end, no one ever says they wish they had spent more time at work; alternatively, diligence can allow you to do more of the things you want to do to achieve spiritual or emotional enlightenment. On a related note: travel as much as you can afford to; see the world; meet and seek to understand other people; visit historic places and great works of art and architecture.
  • Read. It really does make you smarter and more interesting. I know, I know. You think it's an English teacher thing. Nope. It's a scientifically proven thing. (Well, the smarter part at least - the part about you being more interesting is admittedly based on empirical evidence.)
When I reflect on my life, and the fact that I learned these lessons despite numerous obstacles and adversity, I know that as long as they are open to new experiences, education, and relationships, they will be okay. Heck, they will probably be a great deal more than okay - as long as mediocrity is no longer enough.

And when I remember this, I stop worrying and celebrate their graduation and transition into adulthood.
On a related note: one of my friends and colleagues just brought me this poem. I think it ties right back to one of my original questions: How can I make students want more for themselves than mediocrity? Read it and see what you think, and remember: comments are welcome :) 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Last week, I taught for 2 days with no voice. Why?

(I wrote this a week ago while recovering from the strep throat that my students gifted me. I suspect that I became sick while I cleaned up the snotty tissues that they left on tables. No worries, though. They also gifted me warm tea and chocolate to help me feel better :) )

I’m trying to teach class today with no voice. Why? Because I’m sick, but I’m also stubborn. I figure that even on a bad day, I’m probably better for my kids than a last-minute sub. Because I didn’t want to leave “busy work,” and we had something we absolutely needed to do today. Most of all, because I felt too lousy this morning to wrap my mind around creating sub plans and calling in. Too sick to call in sick: is this just a teacher-thing? I wonder.

My 7th period is (mostly) completing their collaborative and self-evaluations as instructed, so I thought I’d share my observations after a day of teaching with no voice. Here’s what I found:

  1. If you have successfully created a collaborative learning environment, students will work together to get class going. I had students passing out papers, guiding others to read the PowerPoint and follow instructions, and speaking to the class on my behalf. I rarely had to ask. Only a handful of students took the opportunity to be off-task, but those were the same students who are incessantly drawn to their phones even on a good day. Interestingly, other students felt that this behavior was somehow more disrespectful than usual, and they kept each other in line. Students largely reacted in a positive way toward the opportunity to take initiative.  When students know you are there for them throughout the year, they enjoy being there for you when you need it
  2. Teachers really don't need to talk as much as many teachers talk. Give the students what they need to succeed and then get out of their way! Of course, I don't really mean to get out of their way; they need us. We have vast knowledge in our content & in pedagogy. We have life experience that they lack. We see the big picture. However, if we really facilitate their ownership in the learning process, they don't need us hovering over them with the "correct" answer at the ready. If we create optimal conditions in which learning takes place and provide students with adequate support, they can accomplish an astounding amount on their own and with each other.
  3. Careful analysis of my observations has led me to reconsider the implications of missing a day of work. My students have shown that they can work well with minimal intervention if parameters are set. So why don't I trust that this will take place under the guidance of a substitute teacher? While it's true that the thought of creating sub plans was enough to exacerbate my illness, I should always have a clear back-up plan and materials in place just in case. In short, I should just take time off when needed.

Perception is Everything.

I hadn't been to the nursing home that housed my great-grandfather, Pappy, since I was a small child. As I left his daughter and my grandma there today, I noted just how much smaller it seems. Once cavernous rooms and long corridors have, through the magic of time and perspective, become cramped and confining. This place that once evoked feelings of freedom and exploration now seems more warehouse, hospital, prison, waiting room.

I often credit that nursing home with teaching me the patience that has come in so handy as a wife, mom, friend, and teacher. Visits there meant visiting not just Pappy, but a variety of other personalities as well. While Grandma gave her dad a haircut and a shave, Dorothy and I played ball. She dropped her arm down next to the wheel of her chair and rolled her soft, pink therapy ball to me. Sometimes, its trajectory was so far off that I would dutifully run down the corridor and fetch it before rolling it back to her. We played until I wore Dorothy out, and then I would visit Alice, who always had perfume sample bottles to share. I sprayed some of each on in turn, asking how I smelled. "Beautiful," she would respond, but I can only imagine the olfactory assault that resulted from the combination of inexpensive perfumes. Another dear woman whose name I can no longer recall saved her paper medicine cups for me. That was all she had to give, but she wanted to share something with the little girl who sat and listened to her stories. To me, the cups were amazing. I used them to "feed" my dolls, as course markers for Hot Wheels races, and for tower-stacking. Of course I fondly remember these kind people and the small gifts they gave me, but the greatest gift they bestowed was the ability to patiently listen to someone else talk about his or her experiences and learn from them. Their stories were incredible! Maybe, just maybe, my love of storytelling began in that place! Thank you, Dorothy, Alice, and others. While I brought a little light into your life with my visits, you gave me so much more.

Pappy didn't feel well enough to play ball or save trinkets as he approached the century mark, but he never failed to express his love for me. His charge to "be a good girl" resonates with me still. I sometimes wonder what Pappy would think of me now, or how upset he'd be to learn that my mom and I don't talk. My memories of Pappy are few. I know we ate chicken pot pies together when we both lived with Grandma, and I remember feeling sad when he needed to move into the nursing home. In my mind, I can still feel his rough whiskers scratching my cheek where he kissed me. I could never decide whether it tickled or hurt. I guess it was a bit of both, but it was sweet. He was a wonderful man who stuck by his family through war, economic depression, another war, and the years of ups and downs that followed. He was firm yet gentle, and the love he gave my grandma taught her to unconditionally love each successive generation. Grandma has always made me feel loved and secure, and my visit with her today was largely about me trying to return the sentiment. When grandma told me that she was "close to 100 years old" and that it was "time for [her] to go," I assured her that though I know she is tired, she will always be with me. I have always made sure that grandma knows what she means to me, but today, I wanted to make sure that I said it all again. What passed between us is private, but I will say that my heart could burst from the amount of love and admiration shared in that small room.

The tangible artifacts that represent my grandmother's life now fit on the top of a small dresser. Clumsily arranged photographs and a couple of knick-knacks serve to remind Grandma of her family during the hours when we cannot be with her. They aren't her favorite photos or knick-knacks, but this is just an example of how my uncle doesn't know his own mother as well as I do - because I have always enjoyed speaking with her and listening in a way he has not. I would have known which items should decorate her new home, but no one asked. She was moved last week while I was sick, and her apartment has since been ransacked by greedy relatives more focused on things than on sentiment. I think that grandmothers share parts of themselves with granddaughters in a unique way that no one outside that relationship will ever understand. It was this way with both of my grandmothers, but perhaps it was also because I saw them as wonderfully interesting people and got to know them as such that they have meant so much to me. I hope that I have grandchildren one day, with whom I can share my stories and the stories of my ancestors. Maybe they will visit me in a nursing home one day, but I admit that the idea of living in one depresses me. 

Grandma shares her 10' by 10' room with another woman. Two antiquated hospital beds, powered by hand-crank, anchor each woman's "living space" and leave little space between for living. That point might be moot, since my Grandma and many of her neighbors are not so much living as they are surviving. My grandmother told me that she was "bored," "didn't have a reason to know what day it was," and that she was "exhausted". She is preparing herself for the inevitable, and she is also preparing me. She wants me to be okay with her leaving, and though I don't want that day to come, today, I had to make her feel that it is okay to leave when she is ready. Being a grown-up sucks sometimes. 

In retrospect, I can see that the life and energy I brought on my visits as a child was in stark contrast to the death that hung over the nursing home like a winter coat. Most families are pretty lousy when it comes to visiting regularly. They're busy, and visiting is depressing. As a little girl, I didn't see the nursing home that warehoused the elderly in their final years; I saw a wonderland where I was free to roam the hallways without fear of being kidnapped. I had friends everywhere I turned, and while they were happy to see me, I was excited to hear their stories about a time before television, a time before Barbies for Christmas, and a time when school meant one room, heated by furnace, where each grade sat on a different row and students ate leftovers for lunch out of pails. 

I am desperately trying to see the nursing home in that light again. I want to replace the sorrow I feel for my Grandma being in that place with contentment. Though she shared the sentiments I listed earlier, she also said that she "has never been around nicer people" and that the "nurses here are the best." She said she has everything she needs. But I cannot deny that it is cruel that we warehouse our elderly. There are reasons, of course. Many of our homes are ill-equipped to provide a safe environment, and most nonagenarians require nursing care around the clock. We want them to be secure, but how do we reconcile the fact that they spend their last days separated from the very family that loved them enough to place them in a care facility? 

As it turns out, Grandma has already shown me the way: she loved her father, my Pappy, will all her heart. She reached the point where she could no longer take care of him. She moved him into the very same nursing home where she herself now resides. Grandma knows that we love her, and I'm sure she also knows that I am struggling with the same feelings that she grappled with almost four decades ago. So I will follow her example. While I won't offer her a shave when I visit, I will offer her all the love and patience that I have. I will point out the positives about her new home and encourage her to roam the hallways and share her stories with any who will listen.

My grandma, Mary, among wildflowers c. late 1930s to early 1940s.