December 16th, 2014

“A Wish Is A Powerful Thing”

I saw it online somewhere – a flash of the cover coming across my screen. It used to be one of my favorites.

Stories bring me back to places and times, to people and ideas. Stories are the anchors of my memory.

I’m not sure when I first read this one, though I’m sure it was my dad who introduced it to me. The Story of Holly and Ivy. A perfect Christmas story about wishing. A story about an ache and an emptiness. A story about wanting to be loved.

Nora and I are reading it now – it is so much longer than I remembered, pages just filled with words. We are two nights in and still only 3/4 of the way through. But the best part is that she loves it just as much as I did. As I do.

Tonight before bed she looked at me, smiling. “Holly and Ivy?” she asked, the excited lilt in her voice.

“Yes.” I said and we grabbed the book and cuddled up in my bed and read for longer than we should have. I heard her yawn, felt her sinking deeper into the pillow, kissed her head and thought about how this was my wish – to read stories with my children. To share the stories I love and hope that they anchor their memory too.

“A wish is a powerful thing,” we read.

And we both agreed. It is.

A Wish Is A Powerful Thing

 

What’s your favorite Christmas book? I’d love to hear in the comments.

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December 13th, 2014

To My Daughter On The First Christmas She Doesn’t Believe In Santa

You sang last night in your first holiday show. You belted out the words you practiced, performed all of the carefully planned hand motions at just the right moment. You stood with your friends and before you started you all held hands. As you started to sing, your joy was palpable, your grins wide. And that first grade joy? It spread to all of the adults sitting around me.

That’s what this season is about. Spreading your joy.

I thought it would be hard when you no longer had the innocent happiness and excitement that Santa brings to kids during the holidays. I thought I’d mourn the passing of your complete trust in me, in your ability to buy into the idea of the impossible. I thought I’d be sad when we talked about presents and you knew they’d all be bought by me.

But that isn’t what has happened.

Last year, as you started to put the pieces together, as you asked repeatedly why some people didn’t believe in Santa Claus, I told you I wasn’t sure exactly, but that I was pretty sure most people believed in all that he stands for. I told you I was pretty sure most people believe in the spreading of kindness, the joy of generosity. They might not believe in Santa, I told you, but they still believe in all the magic that comes from having a good heart.

It took me until I said it to you to realize that I believe that too. And I hoped that you would hold on to all of that even after the myth was no longer your truth.

One Saturday this summer you sat on the living room carpet, your doll from Santa in hand, and asked me to tell you the truth. Was there really a man who brought all these presents? I stalled. I didn’t want to answer. But you asked again, implored me to be honest, and so I was.

You were shocked at first. Even though I’m pretty sure you knew the truth already, I don’t think you were quite prepared for the answer. And like most things in parenting, I wasn’t ready to tell you that truth either.

I thought Christmas would be different when the grown-ups weren’t the only ones in on the secret, but really, it still feels the same so far – we’re still decorating the tree and reading our favorite books and seeing the Nutcracker. We’re still spreading joy and learning to be generous and paying attention to the kind things we can go out of our way to do.

But this year, you’re part of the magic.

You’re helping me spread the joy to your brother, talking to him about Santa and the magic he can do, reading him your favorite Christmas stories before bed, letting him watch Rudolph 8 million times.

You’re helping your friends continue to believe, telling me how you joined in to the class chant professing love of Santa even when you knew the truth, how you go along with conversations on the playground about Santa and his elves.

You’re finding out that there’s a lot of work that goes in to the holiday – that all the preparation and shopping, the list making and family coordinating doesn’t happen at the North Pole, but it happens right here in your living room. Maybe that is making you more grateful. I hope so.

I’ve realized that my worries (as usual) were for naught. You’re still finding the magic that does exist around us, even if you’re no longer looking for a bearded man in a red coat.

To My Daughter

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December 2nd, 2014

Let Them Tweet

I confronted a student today about something I found him tweeting last week. It wasn’t bullying or being mean to anyone else – but it was something that worried me as his teacher and something he should have thought twice before throwing out there to the public twitterverse.

But sometimes my students forget that twitter is open and public and there for the world to see. And without fail, every time I talk to a student about something I’ve seen on twitter, they are shocked that I’m there, shocked I can use the search function to find anything they are saying about me and my class, shocked that an adult is active on what most of them consider to be a playground for teens.

I’m never really surprised that they forget I can see anything they write – that anyone can see anything they write – because I interact with them mostly in a building where twitter is blocked by a firewall that is meant to protect students from the unknowns of the Internet. A firewall that I am sure is there for legal reasons I don’t fully understand or know, but that, in my opinion, creates more problems than it solves.

And, really, the firewall is mostly useless anyway since they can almost all bypass the wifi on their smart phone data plans.

A firewall sends a teenager a signal that there is something forbidden there – something that is not school appropriate – something that adults need to protect them from. It sends the message that we adults aren’t there tweeting right along with them (which isn’t at all true), that they can say whatever they want to say because no one in school will ever see it (which isn’t at all true), that it is a place for silly fun and not academic conversations (which isn’t at all true).

Now, I wouldn’t and couldn’t make this argument about all social media. I don’t see a reason for students to have access to facebook during school (though I’m not opposed to it). I would love if snapchat would just up and go away so I never have to see another teenage girl take a million photos of her own face during one class period. But twitter. That’s different.

let them tweet

So here are my top five reasons I want my students to tweet:

1. Real time argument. I teach rhetoric and I can think of no better place to see rhetoric in action. Take Ferguson, for instance. What better place for students to go and read and witness and – dare I say – participate in real-time argumentation and storytelling. I have used storify to compile some of my favorite threads on twitter – the ones where you can feel someone arguing to change the world or change someone’s perspective. But a black and white printed storify feed lacks the enticement of actually jumping on twitter and looking at what real people are saying about real things.

2. Access to Experts. One of my first real experiences with twitter was during a twitter party where Anna Quindlen (my idol!) took over Random House’s handle for the day. I tweeted back and forth with Quindlen multiple times over the course of an hour. It was a huge adrenaline rush. She felt so close even though I’ve never actually met her. I posed questions, she responded. To me. On twitter. It was amazing. And there are so many authors and journalists and scientists and and and who happily respond to tweets. Why not let our students pose questions or make comments beyond the classroom walls? Twitter is perfect for that.

3. Connection across the globe. Twitter is a perfect example of the huge world becoming smaller. Where else can you find media outlets from around the globe all hanging out in one place? Where else can you find the perspective of someone living across the globe – someone you’ll never meet but who most likely has something to teach you? In our digital world, teaching students how to make meaningful connections outside of their neighborhood is a skill. Shouldn’t schools help the students learn how to do that productively?

4. Hashtag research. If I were writing research papers today, I’d start my research on twitter. I teach a dual credit Rhetoric and Comp class focused on the issue of fracking and I know for a fact that perusing twitter hashtags and the feeds of certain publications and groups would be far more productive for my students than the google searches that churn out the same old same old. Twitter is a place where smart things happen. A firewall makes sure all of that smart stuff is hidden (and encourages students to make not so smart choices in what they tweet).

5. Digital Citizenship. The conversation I had with my student today – about representing yourself online, about watching what language you use when the whole world is potentially watching, about using twitter for good and not for evil, about nothing on the internet ever really going away (“But I deleted my twitter app on my phone!” was his defense… Ah, but that doesn’t mean the tweet doesn’t still exist!). Schools have always tried to turn students in to good citizens and now, in our current day and age, I’d say it is our job to turn then into good digital citizens too. If everything is blocked, it’s much harder to do that.

I want my classroom to feel like a part of the world the students live in – not a separate room with a firewall to block out what might matter most to them. The more our classrooms feel like a continuation of the place they live, the more we respect the tools they use and the way they interact with each other and the world, the more their learning will matter. My classroom should feel like the real world. And they don’t live with a firewall.

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December 1st, 2014

That Kid – All Grown Up

Like many of you, I read the post that went viral a few weeks ago – Dear Parent About THAT Kid – and as a teacher I thought of my 15 years of That kids. . Tonight, I saw one of them at the grocery store… 

 

I stood behind him at the grocery store tonight. I had a few things in my basket and he held his few items in his hands. His bright red sweatshirt hid him from me as I stood in line and watched to see how long it would be until it was finally my turn.

Something made him turn around and he recognized me. “Hey! How are you doing?”

“I’m great,” I said, “Funny to run into your here!”

It was funny because it wasn’t the first time I had seen him in the grocery store. A few years ago he had gotten his first job at another store just down the street. I had seen him there and noticed his smile, wondered what had happened to him. Had he ever graduated? How old was he now?

I wasn’t sure he would remember me – the English teacher who he used to cause so much trouble. The class where he would storm out more days than he would sit and work. The teacher he used to curse quietly under his breath, just quietly enough to catch my attention but never loud enough I could prove what he had said.

He was the kid we talked about in grade level meetings. The one we all sought to figure out and help. There was a good kid somewhere under that hardened, tough, disrespectful exterior. I just knew there was.

At his first grocery store job, he changed. I would stand in his line and he would greet me by name, ask about my day and flash his nice smile.

He would say, “Remember when I gave you hell?”

“I sure do,” I would reply.

“I’m so sorry I did that. I just didn’t know better.”

“I know. I always knew there was a good kid in there somewhere.”

He kept that grocery store job much longer than I thought he would, much longer than any of his friends who started at the same time. He rang up my groceries and watched as my daughter grew, as I grew more and more pregnant with my son. He commented on what a good mother I seemed to be. He talked about getting his GED.

And then he suddenly wasn’t there anymore.

Again I had to wonder what had happened to That kid.

Until he stood in front of me in line at the slightly nicer grocery store tonight. He told me about his new job working a delivery route for Coca-Cola products – an improvement from the checkout line. He told me he had seen my husband a daughter at the store recently – he commented on how much she had grown and how much she looks like me. He asked if I remembered another boy from his class – a boy who gave me almost just as much trouble and who had eventually come to me for help with some of his problems. I remember him well. He died in a car wreck last year, he told me.

“I can’t believe you remember him so well,” he said.

“I know. It was almost 10 years ago now that you both were giving me hell in my class.”

“Ten years. That’s crazy. You were so patient. I just didn’t know better then.”

He patted me on the shoulder as he passed me on his way out the door. He told me to take care and he was sure he’d see me around.

He was a kid who could have been so easily written off – that kid who doesn’t want to learn, who doesn’t know how to behave, who is just looking for trouble. But, like all kids, there was so much life behind his rough exterior.

It just took him  a while to figure that out.

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November 30th, 2014

Tree Shopping With a Three Year Old

Buying A Tree FullSizeRender (8) FullSizeRender (9) FullSizeRender (10) FullSizeRender (11) FullSizeRender (12) FullSizeRender (13) FullSizeRender (14) FullSizeRender (15)

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November 18th, 2014

Retraining

“No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf, this having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.” — Mrs. Dalloway

I’m retraining myself.  I stopped making lunches at night and I hoped that I’d feel the pull towards words again, but instead I’m now making lunches in the morning and still avoiding words at night. I’m not avoiding any particular words, I just can’t pull them out as easily as I usually can.

It’s starting to feel a bit disconcerting.

Where have my words gone?

Words usually pour out of me. I usually narrate my life as if I’m living a story, seeing the world and all its detail as the setting and plot line of the way my own story is unfolding right before my eyes. But lately that narrator is taking a break. It’s replaced by less satisfying urges to play games on my phone and watch mindless TV. And sometimes binge read awesome young adult books.

But I do those things and I’m never quite as happy as I am when just the right words put a cap on the day that I’ve lived.

I’m trying to retrain myself. To notice the wind on my face and the way she holds her pencil. To memorize the silly things he says as he tries to grasp more and more language. To be patient for the story to settle in as he refuses each night to go to sleep. I’m trying to get back my writer’s lens, my inner narrative voice. I’m trying to think of the story that began long ago and ended tonight with her showing me the last sentence of the latest book she’s read.

There are stories all around me.

I just have somehow forgotten how to tell them.

A book I’m reading for school struck me last week. In it, the author, Randy Bomer, argues, “The ability to tune into your own thoughts – to listen inside and find out what you’re really thinking about – that is an academic literacy…And it’s another important skill to be able to compose new thoughts in words – not just to find out what you’re already thinking, but to make yourself think something new.”

So I’m practicing this skill right along with my students.

I’m tuning in and listening and recording and seeking to find that something new.

Thanks for sticking around while I search.

Retraining

 

Linking up with Heather for Just Write.

 

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November 6th, 2014

Collections

He collects rocks. And tiny sticks. Anything that can fit in the pockets on his t-shirts or the oh-so-small pockets on his toddler-sized pants. On the playground at school or on his walk to and from school he looks for pieces that fit and he puts them in his pocket ever so gently.

In the afternoons, they are my gifts. “Look what I got for you today, Mom!” he says as he reaches his tiny fingers into the pockets and tries to draw them out to show me.

They are gifts, these rocks and sticks. Mementos of his time away from me.

I like to think that he remembers me all day in fits and spurts, just like I remember him. I like to think that he is running around after his friends, having a ball, pretending he can fly, when all of a sudden he sees a rock in the shape of a heart or a rock with just the right color or a rock that he knows will fit in his pocket oh so perfectly and he think of me. He thinks about me and collects something for his pocket and then he goes on with his chase or his building or his game of superhero.

That’s what I do. I conduct my lessons, I read drafts of papers, I discuss literature and politics and modes of persuasion. But somehow, in the middle of it all, I still am stopped dead in my tracks. I still, six years into this working mom gig, have moments where my brain can only focus on the wisps of his hair or the sound of her voice or the way their hands feel in mine.

I collect things too – her artwork, his stolen pieces of nature, the way his hair curls out over his ears, the way he cocks his head to the side when he talks, the perfect empty space in her mouth where baby teeth used to be, the way she looks each night as she reads herself to sleep. I take his rocks in my pockets, her art in my bag and in those moments when I miss them, I have a collection of tangible and intangible to get me through. I remember or look or feel and keep teaching.

He collects, puts things in his pockets, and keeps on playing.

FullSizeRender (5)

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November 4th, 2014

Flying

In June, as we drove across the country, he incessantly talked of flying. He was sure he could do it if he reached deep enough for the power all of his beloved superheroes possessed. “I’m going to fly,” he would say over and over again.

At night he would jump onto the beds, arms stretched out in front of him as if he could just take off. He would land in the pile of pillows he’d set out for himself. Every once in a while, if his running start was good enough, he’d declare success.

He was sure he could fly. He was so sure that it sometimes scared me. What if he tried to fly and there were no pillows to soften his landing?

At the Air and Space museum he looked at the rockets and planes and the astronaut suits and he marveled at their power to take flight. At the top of the stairs, as we headed out to continue our travel, we spotted above us a suit made for flying. A human suit with wings attached. I looked up at that contraption and wondered if its inventor also had a small boy who wished every day that he could fly.

Pretty soon the declaration faded. His intention to fly was overtaken by his fascination with running and jumping and building and fighting pretend bad guys. He would run as fast as Flash and for a while he seemed content with keeping his legs firmly planted on the ground.

But lately, he wakes up and tells me that he dreamed of flying. He will be riding in the car or playing with his cars and he’ll look up at me, head to the side, and say wistfully, “I dreamed I could fly.”

This morning he ran laps in the house before we left for school, arms out to the side flapping up and down in classic flying motion.

“I wish I could get the air like a bird,” he said, looking at his arms and wishing here were feathers where he had skin. “Then I could fly in the air.”

I’m pretty sure he knows he can’t really fly, but that doesn’t stop him from dreaming and wishing and flapping his arms and hoping beyond hope that if he flaps enough he could sprout wings. Today he pretended all of his food was bird food and he looked up at a bird sitting atop a telephone pole and said, “If I was a bird I could fly up there and talk to the giants.”

He runs and flaps and declares his intention to fly and I listen and watch and wish that for a moment I too could feel the joy and possibility and weightless wonder of a young boy who looks at the sky and wishes to be up there looking down, swooping and gliding and talking to the giants who live in the clouds.

flying

Linking up with Heather for JustWrite.

 

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November 3rd, 2014

Casting My Ballot

Casting My Ballot

 

The very first time I cast a vote I was 18. I stood in my dorm room and penciled in the circles indicating who I wished to be president for the next four years. I sealed the envelope and mailed that ballot halfway across the country so it could be counted in my home state.

The next time I voted, I spent more than an hour in line. It was cold and dark in Boston that night as we stood, coats zipped and hats on, in the parking lot of the VFW waiting to go in and cast our votes. For some reason my memory of that line is vivid: the darkness, seeing my breath escape into the cold air, Ken’s blue coat with the fuzzy collar. That year we all learned just how much a vote can matter and that hanging chads were a thing most of us had been previously unaware of.

Four years later I stood in line at a small New England fire house. The lights were bright and the fire engines shiny red. The ballots changed that year – no longer on paper or with complicated buttons.

Four years later and I was a mother dressing my infant up in a onesie sporting my candidate of choice. I went to hear him speak and held signs boasting his name. I was excited by what could be. And I stood in line at the community college, heavy carseat draped over my arm, and I voted for the first time with my little one by my side.

It’s been that way ever since. She and I standing in lines I am sure are worth standing in, picking candidates and pressing the red button to make it official. It was that way with my mom and I too – I could go back even further to memories of standing in lines as a kid, going with my mom into the booth with the blue curtain and a plethora of buttons and levers.

Before last week, I had never early voted. It seems weird to me for some reason – the ability to just walk into the grocery store or the community college or the library and vote. There’s usually no line.

There’s something about the line on election day that I enjoy, that triggers memories of all the other times I stood in that line. But last week I realized that Nora and I could go, just the two of us, and vote together. I could let her turn the wheel to select the names I had meticulously written down on my voting guide I created for myself.  She could press the red cast ballot button and hopefully start to soak in the same pride in making her voice heard that I soaked in many years ago in voting booths that are now relics of politics past.

Hopefully she’ll learn to never miss an opportunity to speak up or out and that voting means something.

Strangely, I’ll miss standing in line tomorrow.

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October 27th, 2014

Let Them Read Books

I spent the last hour of the school day today stamping brand new books. It’s the best feeling, really, opening box after box of books that tomorrow I’ll get to put in the hands of teachers who will then get to put them in the hands of students.

Some of these books are bound to be the one that finally shows a student how amazing a book can be. Or maybe one of them will remind a used-to-be-reader of why they used to sneak books after bedtime when they were younger.

For some, one of these books might be the very first book they’ll ever finish.

Last week I read a blog focused on “this generation” of students, how they lack focus and attention span and how they just aren’t readers. The blogger wrote:

The underlying problem here has been studied both empirically and anecdotally by anyone who has been in a classroom in the last 15 years. An alarming portion of the students who enter college classrooms apparently have not read…anything, really. I have serious, well-founded doubts as to whether some of the students I deal with have ever read a book. I know for a painful fact that most of them read no news. At best they look at headlines. Essentially anything longer than a tweet or a Facebook status update is too long. Any video longer than about 3 minutes – the average Youtube clip – is also incomprehensible. This is the first generation of college students who were raised on both the internet and wireless devices, and it is absolutely goddamn staggering how poorly they are able to focus on anything. Anything at all, be it educational or entertaining. Open a textbook in front of them and their attention is drifting off to their smartphones before the end of the first page.

I’ve been in the classroom 15 years and I often think about this too. What have the iphones and smartphones done to our kids? To us? Are they making us smarter? Are they sucking away the valuable moments our students should be listening to a teacher or speaking with a group? Is sneaking a text different from sneaking a note on a lined piece of paper?

Will the iphone generation be the generation that stops reading – where, as Aldous Huxley argues in Brave New World, what we love will be our demise?

My students are supposedly reading Brave New World right now. At least, that’s what I’ve assigned them. We are talking about this in class. Some of them will be writing about this too. And because I talk about this for 3 hours a day, I keep entering in an argument with myself.

Yes. Huxley was right.

No. He wasn’t.

Which is it?

My students are distracted. If I look up at any given moment, I’m bound to see an earbud in, a phone lighting up with a text, a student taking a selfie and probably snap chatting. They have a constant distraction at their fingertips, their friends always a text away, the newest game calling to them as the teacher asks them to read or write or solve or hypothesize.

I wonder, though, if they are more distracted than my former students, than I was when I was a teenager. We wrote notes. We went to our lockers when we didn’t really need anything out of them. We made up our own games of distraction.

Is the smart phone making today’s students distracted? Yes. But if it wasn’t, something else probably would.

My students aren’t all readers. But I don’t think I can say any class I’ve ever taught or taken was comprised 100% of readers. I’ve certainly had classes where most were, or most were worried about grades enough to fake it. Maybe my students aren’t the avid or, at least, willing readers I taught 15 years ago, but I don’t blame the iphone for my students not reading the news or being unwilling to read a short story.

When I was a teenager I didn’t read newspapers. Neither did my friends. We were high-achievers, but only some of us were true readers. We didn’t even have flip phones.

If I blame anything for today’s students lack of interest in reading, I’m going to look, not at the phone, but at the educational landscape. What are we doing, or not doing, to make it a true statement that a student can get all the way to a college classroom without having read a whole book? What are we doing, or not doing, to make reading seem like a chore and not like an investigation into life, love, human nature, the world we all live in and share?

We aren’t letting them read books.

We are assigning test-prep packets* and focusing on raising test scores*. We are replanning lessons to combat the “distraction” of the phone instead of teaching them how to use it as a tool for learning, reading, sharing knowledge (I have a lot to say on that – which I’ll save for another post). We aren’t giving them time to read for the simple pleasure of it.

I read my daughter a chapter from Ramona last night and during the part where Ramona exhibited pure joy at the thought of sustained silent reading, I started to think about how different things were in the 80s when Beverly Cleary wrote of the idea that a student would read a book – any book – for the pure joy of it. No book reports. No worksheets. No “accountability” except for reading it. The students in Ramona’s class all loved it. Students in today’s classes would too. But how often do we allow them to just read. To pick a book just because.

Maybe that’s why today’s students complain a lot about reading.

No one has taken the time to show them the way in to the reading world, to hold a book in their hand as a form of entertainment, as a way of finding who we are, as a way of answering questions we don’t even know we have.

We still must, of course, assign reading and give assignments -expose them to ideas and viewpoints they may not find on their own (I obviously assigned a novel. They obviously don’t all love it). But  that can’t be the only thing we are doing.

So let’s let them read. Let’s not always follow it up with multiple choice questions or art projects. Let’s let them explore books that might matter to them – not just the ones that matter to us. Let’s just let them read.

I bet that might solve some of the problem.

And if they find a good book, I bet, just like good books used to distract us from whatever made our minds wander, they’ll forget about their phones for a while.

 

Let Them Read Books

*I feel compelled to say that these are my observations from teaching over the past years and that myself and my colleagues do not test-prep our students to death. I work in a school that supports literacy over test-prep. I wouldn’t work at a school at which that wasn’t true. 

 

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