Saturday, March 31, 2018

SOLSC in the Rear View Mirror

This was the fourth time I participated in the March Slice of Life Story Challenge. I am thankful to the folks at Two Writing Teachers for awakening the writer in me each March. While the challenge itself doesn't change, the experience is always a bit different for me personally each year. And although what I have written today doesn't resemble a narrative, it does tell the story of my experiences and what I have noticed and learned about writing over the last thirty-one days. 

Process

In my professional life, I am an elementary school teacher. I have spent years teaching students the academic writing process of prewrite, draft, revise, edit, and publish. I have even purchased cute posters to hang on the wall carefully delineating the process for all to see.

As I have done more writing outside the world of education, I have discovered that my writing process doesn't necessarily follow this neatly packaged linear format. Prewriting is typically an informal affair done entirely in my head and revision and editing are often interwoven with the drafting stage. Publish isn't necessarily the last step either; I have been known on many occasions to continue to revise and edit even after the publish button has been hit.

What was interesting to me this month was realizing that my process varies according to what I am writing. In spite of the fact that I think of myself as a planner, many of my slices reflected more of a "pantser" approach and were simple, sit-down-at-the-computer-and-write pieces. When I wanted to write a piece responding to social media comments regarding March for Our Lives, however, my process looked much different. There was research and note-taking involved, and I found a need to write things down the old-fashioned way with paper and pencil, as I organized my thoughts. In this case, my process did in fact more closely resemble the writing process I have been teaching all these years. Purpose, then, became a critical factor in deciding process.

Implications as a teacher: Students need to learn that writing is a process, but I think they need to be taught that the process isn't quite so linear and that it isn't static, either. Everyone's process might look a little different and it might vary from one writing experience to another. There is a time and place for planning and focusing on structure, but students need opportunities to write freely as well. I need to respect that every writer is different and not be rigid in my expectations of what their process should look like.

Structure

What I became more aware of this year was that some stories demanded to be told in a certain format. Occasionally, I would have an idea about a topic and it would present itself in the form of a poem. It wasn't that I set out to write a poem that day, it just sort of came out that way. Some pieces needed dialogue while others did not. One piece demanded a more expository format in order to be told correctly. Each piece told a story, but there wasn't just one way to tell it. The structure was often dictated a little by purpose and topic and a little by the gentle prodding of an unseen muse.

Implications as a teacher: I used to put my primary focus on structure: how to organize a narrative, how to organize expository. Now, I realize that ideas need to come first, and within the different types of writing, there is a wide variety of structures. There is no one right way to tell a story and no one right way to share information. I need to expose my students to as many different structures as I can to allow them greater flexibility and choice, so that they can find their own unique voice and develop as writers.

Routine

When SOLSC began this year, I established a routine of each afternoon identifying what my story for the next day was going to be and doing some composing either in my head or on the computer. I would then finish up the piece and publish bright and early the next morning. It had a nice, easy rhythm to it that made writing daily a simpler task.

Then Spring Break came. I no longer had to be up at 5:00 a.m. and out the door by 7:30. I was free to write at any time of the day. That seems like it should be a good thing, but I lost my rhythm and the writing actually became more difficult. Having a set time and place for writing turned out to be an essential element for me to enter what Donald Graves called a "constant state of composition," thus making daily writing an easier task.

Writing every day also gave me the opportunity to experiment and play with my writing. In addition, it helped me to recognize some bad habits and identify areas that I would like to work on to become a better writer, things I'm sure I miss when I write only sporadically.

Implications as a teacher: Students need time and space to write everyday if they are to grow and to gain a sense of themselves as writers. They need to time to experiment and write a variety of different pieces, more than I could ever possibly grade.

Audience

There were days I felt extremely frustrated that very few people were reading my blog and/or commenting. It felt somewhat like putting on a performance for an empty room or, worse, for an audience who came, but then got up and walked out disappointed. It fed my insecurities and at times triggered that annoying little voice in the back of my head telling me to give up. Fortunately, the comments I did receive and the support from my friends and family gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. Even one comment proved that a connection had been made, and it seems to me that sharing ideas and establishing connections is what writing is all about. When we put our writing out into the world, we send it with the expectation that someone somewhere will read it and understand and appreciate.

Implications as a teacher: When we have our students write for an audience of one (the teacher) we are obfuscating the real purpose and the joy of writing. We need to give kids opportunities to connect with each other, to show that they have stories to tell and that their stories matter.

Accomplishment 

Unbelievably, we are now at the end of the 2018 March SOLSC. The month went by fast and I am proud to say that I wrote every day. Some days were better than others, true, but there is something to be said about committing oneself to sitting down and composing every day. Due to time constraints, there were many days I felt compelled to hit the publish button before I was ready, and inwardly I cringed knowing that I would be judged by what I regarded as an incomplete work still in need of revision. 

At the start of the challenge, there is always a doubt that I will be able to actually do it, that I will be able to find 31 somethings to write about and the time in which to write them. And yet, each March, I find both the time and the topics. If it can happen in March, why not every month? Success in whatever form encourages one to keep striving for more.

Implications as a teacher: Writing in the classroom shouldn't be limited to only pieces submitted for a grade. Equally important, students should not be graded solely on writing to a prompt with a time limit imposed. This type of writing isn't necessarily indicative of their skill level. Students need to be given time to play with their writing, to experiment with new topics and new structures, and to write simply for the sheer joy of it.


Going Forward
  The pressure of publishing every day will no longer be there starting tomorrow. Hopefully, though, the habit of writing each morning will stay with me. There is time. March proved that. There are things to say. Once again SOLSC showed that to be true. This month of writing is always a month when I feel renewed and alive as I look at the events of my life a little more closely and find value in even the most mundane of moments. And since I like feeling renewed and alive, this seems like a good habit to cultivate.

Implications as a teacher: Students need to be given multiple opportunities to experiment with writing and to write for an authentic audience, not just for a grade. Their work needs to be appreciated and acknowledged so that they may develop the drive to improve. They need to know that their voice, above all else, matters.

It has been a marvelous month of growth and discovery. Many thanks to those who have joined me on this journey.


Friday, March 30, 2018

The Easter Guests

The table is set,
The food is prepared,
The guests begin to arrive.

The house fills with noise and laughter,
Another family celebration begins.
Everyone is here, but. . .

You're not here, Grandma,
with the platter of deviled eggs, paprika sprinkled on top.

You're not here, Grandpa,
with your pipe, the warm, spicy scent of tobacco in the air.

You're not here, Sister,
with your creamy fruit salad, thirty minutes late.

You're not here, Dad,
with your questionable jokes and easy laugh.

You're not here, but. . .
You are.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Lesson of the Egg Hunt


"Do you still want to have an Easter egg hunt?" I asked my teenager, somewhat nervously.

"Of course," he replied, giving me that confused, why-would-you-even-ask-that look.

Phew! I had been worried that he had decided he was too old for such things. I am big on tradition and we have always had an Easter egg hunt. I wasn't ready to give it up just yet. I was pretty sure my 11-year-old wasn't either, but what fun would an egg hunt be for just one person?

Thus reassured our tradition would continue for at least another year, I dutifully began washing out four dozen plastic eggs, all the while grumbling to myself about why they can't manufacture clean ones. Although we dyed eggs just for the fun of it, it was the plastic variety that we used for the hunt. I had bags of candy hidden away that I would use to fill them later on and, thinking the kids would probably appreciate finding some money hidden in a few, made a mental note to look for cash.  As I dried the eggs, my mind drifted back to the Easter egg hunts I had enjoyed as a child.

Each year, my mom, sisters, and I would get dressed in our new Easter dresses (and patent leather shoes when I was really young) and head off to church. While we were gone, my dad would hide the eggs we had dyed the previous day. No plastic eggs for us! When we came home, the hunt was on. We lived in the same house my entire childhood, so there were really only so many places to hide eggs, making it easier to find them as the years progressed. Still, my dad usually managed a couple of surprises each year. Because these were hard boiled eggs we were searching for, it was imperative that every egg be found. This led to a lot of counting and recounting and repeated "Did you find the one in the . . . ?" I don't think my mom relaxed until every last one had been accounted for.

It's kind of funny, but the truth is I actually hated hard boiled eggs. (I'm still not a fan.) Yet it was a tradition I loved and eagerly anticipated each year. It never occurred to me to think, "I don't even like eggs. Why bother looking for them?" I don't know if I knew this at the time, but I have come to understand it wasn't about the eggs at all. It was about the hunt and the discovery and the satisfaction that came from finding that which had been hidden.

I hope my sons feel the same way: that the simple joy of the hunt is worth so much more than the prize at the end.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Hello, Spring



I love spring.

The bright pops of pink, purple, red, and yellow against a backdrop of vivid greens and crystal blue. Newly green trees dappled in sunlight. The twittering of birds fluttering here and there. The warm air that dares you to remember winter ever ruled the land.

I spent my day immersed in it all today. A quick trip to the nursery this morning provided new little plants to spruce up the yard. Patio furniture was dragged out of hiding and given a refreshing bath before being dressed in brightly colored cushions. Everything was carefully arranged to welcome spring in style. The green spotty carpet of weeds brought by cold, winter rains was vigorously removed.

And that's when the sneezing and the sniffling and the scratchy throat began.

I love spring. We just don't get along too well.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Preparing for Easter

Laundry needs washing
Floors need scrubbing
Silver needs polishing

Gotta get busy
I'm running out of time

Carpets need vacuuming
Windows need cleaning
Furniture needs dusting

Gotta get busy
I'm running out of time

Eggs need dyeing
Baskets need filling
Decorations need hanging

Gotta get busy
I'm running out time

Groceries need buying
Food needs cooking
Cake needs baking

Gotta get busy
I'm running out time

Mind needs calming
Nerves need soothing
Body needs resting

But I gotta get busy
I'm running out of time!





Monday, March 26, 2018

Armed Only With Signs and Their Convictions



I smiled at the picture. Three of my co-workers holding signs and smiling proudly as they participated in a local March for Our Lives event. I felt a little guilty, sitting at home still in my pajamas, writing on my computer about my morning, while they were out there standing up for what they believed in. If I had known about the event, would I have gone? Probably not. Even though I believe fervently that something needs to be done to fix this broken society in which problems are handled with guns and violence, I abhor conflict and avoid anything the least bit controversial if I can.


Basically, I’m a coward.


But I admire those who take that risk and promptly added my “like” to the chorus of others who applauded these women’s efforts. It became clear as I read the comments that these women and countless other people like them, armed only with signs and their convictions, were striking fear in the hearts of people with guns. I’ll admit I was baffled. I read in disbelief some of the comments made, mostly by one man who seemed to have nothing better to do than hang out on Facebook all day, cutting down the efforts of people willing to go out and take a stand. My blood began to boil and the urge to respond became overwhelming. I knew, though, that a heated, emotional response would do no good. When I spoke, I needed to be centered and calm. So I waited, and while I waited, I educated myself on some of the facets of the gun issue that make it such a contentious subject.


Let me just say that I know I only scratched the surface in my research. I could study the issue for years and by no means ever be an expert. Unlike some, I don’t proclaim to know what the answer is. All I know is we have a huge problem and we need to try something, most likely a lot of somethings, to fix it. I also know that we need to loosen our grip on our tightly held beliefs if we are to work together to achieve what we all really want: a society in which active shooter drills are no longer a necessity. If we are going to do anything to address gun violence, then it seems that we need to be willing to spend at least a little of our time looking at gun laws and guns themselves.



“If you want to see school shootings stop, it is very simple place armed men and/or women at every school and these shootings will stop real quick. . . .”


But is it really that simple? Somehow, the issue of school shootings doesn’t seem simple to me and I strongly doubt that the solution will be either. On the surface, armed guards seem like a reasonable solution. Dig a little deeper, and the reasonableness wears away a bit. Just look at the two most recent school shootings: Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Florida and Great Mills High School in Maryland. In both instances, an armed guard was present. In both instances, it did nothing to deter the attackers. Some will argue that Scot Peterson, the sheriff deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas failed miserably at his job, taking cover outside while 17 people died inside. True. But Nikolas Cruz had no way of knowing that would be the case. He undoubtedly knew there was an armed guard, and he went in anyway. The same is true in the case of Great Mills High School, albeit there was a different ending to that story. The presence of an armed deputy was not enough to dissuade Austin Wyatt Rollins from entering the school with a gun and killing a 16-year-old girl. Deputy Blain Gaskill is to be commended for engaging the shooter and possibly preventing the loss of more lives. I say possibly because the circumstances of this shooting are different: the shooter gunned down a girl he had recently broken up with. There was an identified, personal target. Who’s to say if there would have been more lives taken had the deputy not shown up? How many lives lost are we willing to accept anyway? Are we really okay with living in a world where a school shooting only results in one or two dead? I suspect that Jaelynn Willey’s parents wouldn’t agree with that. Any life lost is too many. As we see in both of these cases, armed guards didn’t prevent school shootings, and isn’t that really the goal, to stop them before they occur?



“. . .if these people want a gun they will get a gun and there will never be a thing that can be done about that.”


This is simply defeatist thinking at its worst. Even if that were true, should we really be making it easy for them to get a gun? According to a 2004 report from the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, as reported in this Baltimore Sun article, 68% of guns used in school shootings were obtained from their own home or that of a relative. Austin Wyatt Rollins used his dad’s gun to shoot his ex-girlfriend. Nikolas Cruz used his own. Adam Lanza used guns legally purchased by his mother. They didn’t need to go out looking for weapons, they had easy access to them. Even though the guns used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were illegally obtained, they were done so with relative ease, purchased from a gun show and a private party. It would be difficult to prove what they might or might not have done had they not been able to lay their hands on powerful weapons with very little effort.


As to “there will never be a thing that can be done about that,” that too is questionable. When Australia enacted tougher gun laws in response to a 1996 massacre, the country saw a 74% decrease in gun-related suicides. Similarly, in Israel, once they began prohibiting soldiers from taking guns home on weekends, that country saw a 40% drop in the suicide rate.  This disproves the notion that if someone wants a gun, they will get one using any means possible. As the drop in suicide rates suggest, guns are chosen in many circumstances simply because they are readily available. Interestingly, in the case of Australia, there was no increase in other types of suicide, countering the argument that they will just find another means of achieving their goal.



“. . .more gun laws is not the answer to stopping people from getting killed by guns. . . .”


Maybe. Maybe not. Looking at the statistics, though, makes it hard not to argue this point. The United States has the highest guns per capita in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly we also have the highest gun homicide rate among developed nations.  If our goal is to prevent death from guns, it stands to reason we would all be a little safer with fewer of them around. In addition to the decrease in suicide rates noted above, research has found that kids ages 5 to 14 are 11 times more likely to die accidentally by guns in the United States. If more guns lead to more gun deaths, then it stands to reason that fewer guns would result in fewer deaths. This is not to say I am advocating for taking away all guns. I most definitely am not. Rather, I am merely pointing out that gun laws might very well reduce the number of people killed by guns.



“. . .a criminal or a mentally ill individual will always be able to obtain a gun. . .”

Perhaps it would be easier if the perpetrators of mass shootings fell neatly into these two categories. And while I agree that anyone who would do something as heinous as open fire on a crowd of people is clearly not in the best mental health, mental illness has been found to be a contributing factor in 3-5% of violent acts and most of those acts do not involve guns. Of greater significance seems to be alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.


That being said, I do believe that more needs to be done to address the mental health of our children.  I agree with Sue Klebold who said, “I’m convinced that by recognizing the signs that a child is struggling early on, we can get our children the help they need -- before another Columbine takes place.” Ask just about any elementary school teacher, and I’m willing to bet she can tell you of at least one child she worries might one day resort to violence. We see an awful lot of angry, anxious, confused, and isolated children. Sometimes their internal struggles far exceed our capabilities, but all too often there is no one to answer our calls for help. Additional resources in this area might very well be part of the solution to school shootings.


And let us not forget, that in many cases of mass shootings, both the mentally ill and criminal labels came after the fact. Before that, they were just ordinary citizens.



“. . . we have a ton of common sense gun laws and none of them or any potential additional gun laws are going to stop a criminal or a mentally ill individual from obtaining a gun. . .”

I’ll admit, I really didn’t know much about these “common sense gun laws” I kept hearing referred to but never saw explained. I did suspect, though, that given the current state of affairs the gun laws weren’t doing a whole lot to prevent gun violence, particularly mass shootings. After doing a little digging, I began to see why.


As I stated before, the majority of guns used in mass shootings are purchased legally. This, I believe, is wherein gun control advocates’ greatest concern lies. Why would anybody need a semi-automatic weapon capable of mowing down a multitude of people in a matter of seconds? Many believe no one does.


In 1994, the federal government instituted a ban on assault weapons. By definition, an assault weapon was determined to be one with a detachable ammunition magazine. When the law was passed, however, banned weapons were also required to have at least two additional features, such as a flash suppressor or folding stock. It didn’t take long for gun manufacturers to modify their guns to get around the ban. For example, Colt modified its Colt AR-15, banned by the law, by removing the flash suppressor and bayonet mount and renamed it the Colt Sporter, now perfectly legal but with the same basic functions as its predecessor. The 1994 ban was allowed to expire in 2004.


I was surprised to learn in this Rolling Stone article that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is limited in their ability to enforce what gun laws we do have. They are prohibited from inspecting licensed gun dealers more than once a year and they are not allowed to compile a registry of gun owners or gun data. There is no database of gun purchases and no federal limit of the number of firearms or ammunition any one individual can purchase. Therefore, when someone like Stephen Paddock begins stockpiling weapons, ammunition, and bump stocks, no red flags are raised.


The same Rolling Stone article stated that only about 60% of gun transfers happen in legally licensed stores. The others occur either privately or at gun shows, which are largely unregulated. This is how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were able to attain some of the weapons used at Columbine. Unlicensed dealers do not have to perform background checks. Given that both Harris and Klebold were minors, age doesn’t seem to be a concern either.


Gun control laws also vary from state to state, and even from city to city. While California and New York City regulate the frequency with which an individual can purchase a gun, 30 and 90 days respectively, Nevada has no such laws, and in fact, does not even require a permit to purchase. Nor do they have any regulations on assault weapons. The lack of consistency greatly hampers the effectiveness of gun laws. Guns can easily be purchased in a state with lenient laws and brought in to states with much stricter ones. Such seems to be the case in Illinois, where a 2015 study, as reported by National Public Radio, found nearly one-fifth of guns used in non-gang related crimes and one-third used in gang-related crimes came from the neighboring state of Indiana, where permits and licenses are not required and there are no waiting periods.


Also perfectly legal is the purchase of bump stocks, which transform the semi-automatic into the equivalent of an automatic. At least 12 of these bump stocks were found in Stephen Paddock’s hotel room in Las Vegas, along with clips holding 50-75 rounds. His legally purchased weaponry gave him the power to murder 58 people and injure dozens more.


It would appear that those “common sense laws” aren’t actually all that common.



“. . . how could you possibly think that anything other than placing armed guards/school resource officers at schools will stop a school shooter from killing people??”

How? Let me tell you. By doing a little research and entertaining other ideas. By keeping an open mind and looking for alternatives. By believing that there has to be a better way than turning our schools into a battleground.


We cannot afford knee-jerk responses. Neither can we afford to sit on our hands and do nothing. We need to look long and hard at all the factors that contribute to gun violence, look at all the ways we are failing the members of our own society. And then we need to come up with a plan to address each and every one of those factors and implement it.


The arguments presented by gun advocates typically fall along two lines: we must protect our 2nd Amendment rights at all costs and we need to protect ourselves from the bad guys. Both arguments are driven by emotion, and that emotion is fear.  Is this really the way we want to live? Ruled by fear?


I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t have the answer. But I do believe that if we can let go of our fear, if we can listen to each other and keep an open mind, if we can admit that this is a complex issue that yes, is about guns, but also so much more, then maybe we have a fighting chance to solve the problem.


Next time you see a group of protesters, armed only with their signs and their convictions, stop a moment and listen to what they are really saying: We believe our children should be safe. We believe we should all live without fear. We believe we can do better.  We believe.


I hope they have an extra sign for me.





Sunday, March 25, 2018

Stuck



Today I am stuck. It isn't that I don't know what I want to write. I do. The subject matter is clear. Less so is what I want to say about it. A tornado of thoughts swirl in my head. I am unable to catch and hang onto any long enough to express them in any sort of comprehensible manner. 

But I will. I just need more time. More time to think. More time to quiet the emotions that rage. More time to find the right words to break the silence.

I have spent my morning reading angry, hurtful, fear-ridden comments on social media and researching facts that seem to be missing in far too many arguments. I am gathering up my arsenal, as it were, but I will fight with words, not weapons. There will be those that will say it will do no good. They are probably right. I am, after all, just one voice. I will fight anyway. I have held my tongue, refused to engage for too long. 

I may be stuck for now, but I know I won't be for long.