a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Taking Action

I am still digesting all the professional development I consumed at the NCTE convention.  I am still looking for ways to make the feeling of inspiration last as long as possible, to let the best practices I absorbed soak deep into my teacher soul.

So far, the words that keep resonating in my head and in my heart are Jeff Wilhelm’s: “I don’t know about you, but I want my teaching to matter.” 

Wilhelm reminded me in 6 words why I get up every morning and head to work.  He urged me not to let myself “off the hook.”  He pushed me to keep fighting against being rendered ineffective by mandates and initiatives that seem to be in direct conflict with teaching that matters. 

I am clinging to his words with everything I’ve got.

I returned to school last Tuesday, after 5 days of NCTE Convention bliss, with Wilhelm’s words on my mind.  To my surprise (and delight), a former student came to visit me after school.  A visit from a former student is a great way to be reminded that my teaching matters!

One of the perks of teaching 8th grade: High school students actually miss it and bother to come back around to say so.  Sadly, one of the main reasons high school students miss 8th grade: High school sucks.  Seriously, I am not just saying that because it seems like a popular attitude to adopt. 

Me: So how’s school?

Visiting Student: Nobody recommends books to me anymore.  My English teacher doesn’t like to read.  She only reads magazines.  When I asked her what I should read, she said, ‘Read your math book and do your homework.’

Me:   {then hopeful} What are you writing?

Visiting Student: Nothing, but my teacher said that we might start an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird next week.

Me:   {deflated of all hope}

Unfortunately, the conversation I had with Tuesday’s visiting student went much the same as conversations I have had with 6 other former students since the start of this school year (BTW, all 7 of these students are in honors classes). 

Although I wish I could do more to enact change in my district’s approach to high school English (personally, I would start by hiring Deb Day—it would be a long commute, but it would be worth it), I decided to at least do something small: I started another blog!  I figure if high school English teachers won’t recommend books; that is at least one thing I can do.  I am still working on getting word out to as many former students as possible, but I have to start somewhere. 

Now, I just have to figure out what kind of blog would nudge them to keep writing…

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I knew when I registered for the NCTE convention that it was sure to be a rewarding experience filled with opportunities and fuel for professional growth. 

But I had no idea how deeply I would connect during the convention.

Thursday I hopped on 55 north and headed downtown for my first session.  It was a clear day.  I rounded a curve and an excited gasp escaped my lips amongst the Bangles song lyrics I had been singing.  My inner city girl swelled with a sense of pride.  The Chicago skyline was far enough away to have blurred edges, but close enough for me to make out the shapes of individual buildings.  I immediately felt a sense of connection to the city and to the college girl inside of me who used to own it.

Friday morning held the promise of another connection—or rather an extension of the electronic connection I’ve had as a slicer via the Two Writing Teachers blog.  I cannot explain the connection any other way than to say that sitting with this group of slicers at breakfast felt like being at home.  I felt welcomed.  I had the sense that I was part of something bigger than me, bigger than us.  And I was.  I am.  We are.

Saturday I was finally able to take some time to walk through the exhibit hall.  I hoped to find some ARCs to stash in my bag, some authors to sign beloved books, and maybe even a new professional book to dig into.  Of course, I found all of those things.  And more.  First, I ran into Dr. Stovall.  Do you know how it feels to hear the most amazing college professor tell a colleague that you, YOU, are one of the best students he has ever encountered in his entire career?  And do you know it is the very professor you were almost in tears over every day because you were sure you weren’t measuring up to his standards?  It feels incredible.  Like you are connecting with the best part of yourself.

But that wasn’t even the best part of Saturday!  After the encounter with Dr. Stovall that made me feel warm and fuzzy, I ran into Mary Helen in the exhibit hall.  Do you know she is the kind of person that makes you feel warm and welcome and valued in the first instant you meet her in person?  You know, the way it feels when Linda or Deb or Elsie comments on a post of yours?  We headed to Ruth and Stacey’s session together.   I was filled with deep admiration of all Ruth and Stacey have accomplished and the level of professionalism they display as I watched them, but I also felt something else.  I felt a swell of something like...friendship, perhaps, for them.  I was pulling for them (after all, Katie Wood Ray was in the audience!), and I wanted to see them succeed.  I was able to—they rocked their session.   People were spilling into the room from the hallway to see them!

Sunday surprised me the most, though.  I think the connections of the past 3 days were sinking in and taking root inside me.  During a session, the participants were asked to do a quickwrite, turn and share it, quickwrite again about the experience of sharing, and then we debriefed as a whole group.  The woman with whom I had shared, raised her hand to share her response to the experience.  What she said floored me.  She said that the experience of exchanging ideas with me had made her feel connected to me in a way she hadn’t expected.  She said she doesn’t even know me, but somehow sharing our ideas made it feel that we did know each other, deeply.  I had felt the same way, and her words validated that connection.  In fact, her words articulated my sentiments about so many of the connections I had made over the past four days. 

I am not sure that professional development gets better than this.  I am not just walking away with new ideas, new passions, new insights. I am not just a teacher with renewed energy.  I am a renewed person.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NCTE Convention Day One: A Teaser

1 video of Donald Graves conferring with student writers
1 poem about Clearasil (by Douglas Kaufman)
1 Def Poetry Jam clip from Penny Kittle
1 autographed previously owned and loved copy of 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief
1 sighting of Donalyn Miller
1 sighting of Rick Wormeli
1 chance encounter with THE Ruth and Stacey!
1 bag of popcorn to eat while listening to Donald Gallo
1 baby photo of James Dashner (author of The Maze Runner)

and a thousand reasons to be inspired!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The News Story We Never Hear

Last night, I actually took a break from school.  I closed my laptop for an hour and just watched sitcoms with my husband.  It was a glorious escape…until the teaser for the local news came on: “A bullying victim was brutally beaten and parents say the school did nothing to stop it.”

Immediately I was jarred out of my happy, mindless escape into the world of sitcom Monday night TV.  I was pulled back to reality, the reality of the angry world we live in today. 

Really?  The school did nothing to stop the attack?  Maybe I am just biased, but I have a hard time believing that’s true.  Certainly I have encountered my fair share of incompetent, disengaged, or just plain mean teachers and administrators over the years.  However, they are not the norm.  I think it is far more likely that the faculty and staff at the high school referenced in the news story are in tears over this case. 

I was told yesterday by my 9th hour class that the “new” rule we have about teasing and bullying (a reference to a recent crackdown by my team of teachers on a growing teasing/bullying problem) just makes students want to do it more.   They claimed our expectation that they be nice to each other was unfair.  And many of them are the victims. 

My response to them was, of course, that I refuse to just give up.  It so important to me that they feel safe, that I am willing to deal with a temporary increase in bullying until students realize we are serious.  But in my heart, I know we can’t catch it all.   We can’t be everywhere, hear everything, and keep them all safe. 

But we are trying.  And we are pouring our hearts and souls into taking care of our students.  I guess that doesn’t make for a good news story, though. 

This is the story I want to see on the news:

The teacher who is in the classroom next to mine recently had a student come to her with a torn pair of jeans.  He said, “I remember at the beginning of the year, when we were introducing ourselves, you mentioned you like to sew.  Can you do anything with these jeans?  They have a big hole and my family cannot afford new ones right now.”

I want my “escape” tonight interrupted by the teaser: Student sees his teacher as a helpful resource for taking care of his basic needs.

Guess what that student was wearing the next week?  Those jeans looked like new. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Book to Savor

Have you ever read a book so good you wanted to absorb it for a while before picking up another book?

This weekend I read Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  I don’t know what it is about Gary D. Schmidt’s writing, but I love it.  I always start out expecting his books to be boring, but I am always, always captivated by them.  This was one of those books I want to savor for a few days before filling my mind with another story.1

Okay for Now is a finalist for the National Book Award.  I read about the latest finalists on Nikki Grimes’s blog.2  She was on the committee this year to decide the finalists and the winner.  She also wrote a recent post that touches on the idea that the current young adult publishers are seeking lower quality literature than they should be.  Reading Nikki’s ideas, it struck me that Gary D. Schmidt is one of the few current writers whose writing is truly in a class of literary artistry. 

As a result of reading his latest book:
·      I want to take up drawing again- like really drawing.  
·      I was inspired to book talk all of his books to my students.  Gary D. Schmidt fans I will make of them yet!
·      I want to write like that.  I want to write like Gary D. Schmidt. 
·      I think I should start a campaign to make Gary D. Schmidt’s books part of all middle school language arts programs (or at least make a change to our district board approved novel list).
·      I am filled with hope.
·      I have a renewed faith in the goodness of people.
·      I am ready to whip out my lesson on book flap copy because I think this is a poor example of book flap copy.  It does not do this book justice.3
·      I have a blog post!

1 I am wondering how to allow for that in my classroom reading workshop.  I am thinking that maybe Nancie Atwell’s letter-essays might be the answer.

2 Did you know that Nikki Grimes will be at the NCTE Convention?  I will also be at the NCTE convention. {big grin}  Gary D. Schmidt, however, will not be there.  {sad face}

3  My apologies to said book flap copy writer.  You have a way cool job, but I mean, let’s be real: You didn’t stand a chance going up against the brilliant writing inside the pages of that book for which you wrote a flap.  Plus, the book is such a quiet story.  How do you do that kind of story justice in so few words.  Better luck next time!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Slice of Life Story in which Falling Behind Puts Me Ahead

I turned off the water in the shower and reached outside of the curtain to grab my towel. 

“Babe?” My husband’s voice startles me.  He is usually still sleeping at this point in my morning routine.  I know I hit the snooze button a few more times than usual, but I am not that late.

“Yeah?” My response is muffled as I dry my face with the towel.

“You never set the clock on your side of the bed back an hour.” 

“So I am early?  An hour early?” the realization slowly sinks in. 

“Yeeeeahhh,” his response is measured.  He doesn’t trust Morning Christy to respond kindly.

“Oh,” for now he is spared my wrath.

I guess I am not late after all, but somehow I am not feeling relieved.  I am bummed.  There is no turning back now.  I am awake.  Wide awake.

I was dog-sitting at my mom’s house all weekend.  When I arrived home late last night, the clocks around the house were all set back an hour.  Or so I thought. 

It never occurred to me that my husband wouldn’t have touched my alarm clock (honestly, probably a smart move on his part).  It never occurred to me that the time on my side of the bed was different than his.  Probably because IT IS ALWAYS DIFFERENT!  (He sets his clock 20 minutes faster than mine.  For no reason.  It does not cause him to be early.  There is absolutely no reason for it.)  It just never occurred to me, but I struggle for the first fifteen minutes after the realization, trying to make it my husband’s fault.  

Now that I have settled into the idea, and I am all ready to go—an hour early—I am also ready to let go of my irritation over the mix-up.  It is really my own fault and my own inconvenience.  My husband has been found innocent on all charges. 

Instead of looking it as an hour of lost sleep, I am instead going to look at it as an opportunity to start out my day an hour ahead.  And I could sure use a day where I feel ahead of the game, even if only for an hour!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

Lately, I have been thinking of the idea of “editing.”  By editing, I don’t mean copy-editing (as in checking for conventional language use).  I mean editing in terms of holding back, cutting things out, scaling down. 

I am a big fan of Project Runway, which just reached its season finale.  One of the things Josh, the runner up, was constantly told by the judges was that he needed to “edit” his designs.  He was known for over-embellishing and making his outfits too busy.  His final collection was so strong because he heeded this advice.  For him, it did not come naturally.  He had to keep reminding himself of what the judges and his mentor, Tim Gunn, had previously told him. 

While I was writing book reviews of the books I read this past weekend, I realized that I, too, have to do this sort of editing.  In fact, I also have an editing voice in my head.  Part of me wants to include every idea that pops into my head while I am writing.  However, the editing voice in my head urges me to find a way to connect it, find a way to “make it work” (as Tim Gunn would say), or leave it out, let it go. 

For example, I had to let go of an idea I had about Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellas by Gary Paulsen just because it did not connect to the other things I had to say about the book:

In addition to reading four books this weekend, my husband and I watched one of his favorite old movies—Rear Window.  He hadn’t seen it in ages, and I had never seen it, though I do enjoy a good Hitchcock flick. 

Anyway, the basic premise of Rear Window is that a photographer is bound to a wheelchair with a broken leg as a result of being too daring a journalist on a recent assignment.  He is restless and unable to do his usual work.  So, he focuses on the view out the window of his apartment at the rear of the building.  From that window, he can see the rear windows of many other apartments.  He begins to get involved in the lives he witnesses from afar, and eventually suspects a murder, which leads to the events in the climax of the movie.

The cover of Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellas by Gary Paulsen is reminiscent of the movie setting.  So, naturally, I made the connection.  In fact, the first story in Paulsen’s book contains a character who looks in on another apartment in a similar manner as Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window.  I think there is something there—in the connection.  However, as I wrote the review, I knew the review was not the right place to explore this connection.  So, I left it out.  I edited. 

What strikes me is how difficult this is to do.   The voice in my head helps me do it naturally, but I am not sure how that voice got there.  Years of feedback from teachers and mentors?  How do I help my students hear their own editing voice?   And even then, there was still a voice countering my inner-editor's rational voice—a voice that said, "I like this idea.  I want to share it.  This is too good an idea to leave un-written."

These thoughts reminded me of a post by Ruth from the end of last school year.  So, I went back and reread her thinking.  Although my students are 8th graders, I think a mini-lesson similar to hers, about this inner-editor, would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I {Heart} Basketball

 I love basketball.  But not for the reasons you might be thinking.  You see—I love basketball because it matters enough to my toughest learners to motivate them to change. 

I had three conversations today with three different students (from my invented intervention class of disengaged learners) that I never could have had a month ago.  Thank you, basketball!

All three of these students made the team.  And their coach, who teaches at the high school, communicates with us regularly.  Thank you, basketball coach.

All three of these students were part of a group of friends that the team of teachers I work with pulled out of class one day.  We met with them to address some teasing that had been going on amongst them.  Their attitudes are always, “We’re just joking around; it doesn’t bother us; we don’t care about being teased by each other; we always do this…”  You get the picture.  The purpose of the meeting was that we wanted to give them a fair warning to prevent them from getting in trouble.  We let them know the teasing is unacceptable to all of us and that we will be writing dean’s referrals, no matter how silly they sound, from now on. 

One student is teased about having big lips and gray tufts of hair.  Another is teased for having a big nose.  The third is teased about his crooked teeth.  The teasing is sometimes subtle: a sniffling of the nose or a fake sneeze and pointed glances accompanied by not-so-well-hidden giggles.  Other times, the teasing is more disruptive: a raised hand followed by, “Is it bad for young kids to have gray hair?” or, “Why do we even have noses?  Do we really need to smell if we could just visualize it?”

Today, in one class, these questions were actually asked.   By two of the students, targeting each other.  Needless to say, the referrals were issued.  Important to note is that tonight is the first basketball game. 

At lunch, one of the students came to me and said he needed to talk.  This is the same student I have been determined not to give up on.  Here is how his conversation went:

Student:  I am getting in trouble for something I didn’t do.  Did the other teacher tell you?

Me: Yes. 

Student:  I just had a question.  It wasn’t even directed at anyone.  I really wasn’t teasing.  I just had this question.  I really wanted to know.

Me:  Did the question have anything to do with what you were talking about in class?

Student: We were done with the lesson. 

Me:  I am really sorry, but in this case I just can’t see the situation from any point of view other than the teacher’s.

Student: But I am serious.  I really wasn’t trying to say anything bad. 

Me:  You have everything to lose here.  I understand why—to take care of yourself, to protect yourself—you would convince yourself that what you are saying is actually the way happened, that you really were just asking an innocent question.  However, I have to believe that somewhere deep inside of you, you know that is not really the truth.  I believe some part of you is willing to admit that you just forgot yourself; you slipped up.  If you had come in here saying, “I made a mistake.  I don’t know how to make it right, but I want to fix it.  I know I shouldn’t have said what I did.  I am trying to do better and make better choices,” then we would be having a whole different conversation.  But until you are ready to own what you did, there is nowhere to go.

Student: I made a mistake. 

While I still had to talk to this student about how part of owning up to his mistake is taking the consequence, I was astounded that he actually did own up.  I made sure he knew how mature and important a step that was.  He even apologized to the teacher whose class it happened in!

The second of the three conversations went almost identically to the first.  The student who had asked the other question asked to talk to me during class, after lunch.  He, too, started out in denial and ended up owning his choice.  Two in one day??  The surprises did not end there, though…

The third student is one who I vividly remember at the beginning of the school year standing in the center of my classroom saying, “I don’t trust nobody,” with the fiercest scowl on his face. 

Today, in response to a book talk about Paintings from the Cave by Gary Paulsen (in response to a book talk, can you believe it?), this student raised his hand to share that his great, great grandfather also had a rough childhood.  The student went on to explain the great, great grandfather’s story.  Our conversation went like this:

Student: As a child, his family came to the United States from Ireland (pause for a reaction).  None of his family would or could care for him, so he was left to take care of himself.  He found my great, great grandma and moved in with her (lowers his voice here, like he is sharing a secret), and she was African American.  I guess they decided they liked each other, so they got together. 

Me:  How do you know all of this?

Student: When my family gets together, they all tell stories, and they told me about my great, great, grandfather.

Me:  How cool that your family shares stories like that.  I always wanted to be part of a family that shared stories that way. 

Student:  They always tell stories.

Me:  That is really incredible that his history is part of you.

Student:  Why?

Me:  Well, you come from people who are survivors, who can take care of themselves.  Those are pretty strong roots to have within you.

From this point, the class was bursting with raised hands and family stories ready to be shared.  With Ruth’s story-telling post in mind from yesterday (Have you ever noticed that once you notice something, it is everywhere you look?), I pounced on the story-telling opportunity that had presented itself.  I asked who else could think of a family story to tell.  I described the idea of story-telling and said I hadn’t thought of family stories, but this student’s story inspired me.  I suggested maybe we each work on a story to tell and that maybe we could share them eventually with a class from the elementary school that is attached to our 6th-8th grade building.  The class erupted into urgent cries of, “Can we?  Can we?”

I think maybe that student is beginning to trust some people after all (but because I teach middle school, I know enough not to point that out to him). 

Can basketball season last until June?