Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feeling Thankful

Holidays always seem to bring out the sentimentalist in me.  Spending Thanksgiving apart from my parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews this year has made me even more sentimental than usual.   As I reflected on Thanksgivings past, it occurred to me this morning that sadness is but happiness remembered and serves as a reminder of all that we have been blessed with.  So if moments of sadness creep up on me during the course of the day, I will be thankful.

Thankful for friends, past and present, who have filled many hours with laughter and thoughtful listening.

Thankful for growing children, who have taught me the true meaning of "love of my life."

Thankful for my husband, who quite possibly will never fully understand me (I'm still working on that myself!) but "gets me" more often than most.

Thankful for family, who have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in me yet still claim me as one of their own.

Thankful for my parents, who spent their entire lives working tirelessly to provide for their family.  Who created a stable world to grow up in when the rest of the world was not.  Who made it possible to feel anchored no matter where my own personal path led.  Who, in the process of just living day to day, established a bank of memories that point the way forward as I work to create loving and sustaining memories for my own children.

Thankful for all that has been and all that will be.

Happy Thanksgiving.  May your day be filled with happiness.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lessons in Letting Go

It seems like the last few months have been all about the sometimes painful process of letting go.

A few years ago I reconnected with an old friend from my college days.  I have a tendency to drift away from people, so I was happy to have someone in my life who "knew me when."  That "when," of course, was pre-marriage, pre-children, and pre-teaching.  A time that now, in the foggy days of middle-age, sometimes feels like the time when I was truly me.  (Whatever that means.) It felt good to have someone to talk to about a me that no one currently in my life knows anything about.  It was like my friend was the key that unlocked the door to a part of my life when everything still lay before me and the world was full of hope and promise. Talking to my friend allowed me a chance to escape from the painful parts of reality and the opportunity to laugh, something I fear I do too little of these days.  And then one day my friend slipped away.  I had suspected the day would come when that would happen, and I even know, in part at least, the reason for it. What hurt was the walking away without a word.  To me, that silence said our friendship never really mattered.  I thought about reaching out to my friend and tried for a long time to figure out what to say, but everything seemed childish or passive-aggressive, and that was not who I wanted to be.  The only reasonable choice, I realized, was to simply let it go.

My second lesson in letting go came courtesy of my elder son.  As a sixth grader, he was going to attend science camp for a week.  I was excited for him.  I could still remember (surprisingly, given how many years it's been!) my own experience as a 6th grader at science camp.  I later returned to camp three more times as a 6th grade teacher.  I had come to view it as a wonderful opportunity for kids not only to learn about science in an outdoor setting but also to experience a little independence, an important step in the process of growing up.  As I prepared my son for his trip, I made a startling discovery.  Having my son live away from me, even for just a few nights, was an important step in my own process of letting my son go.  It is strange to think that over the next few years he will live more and more of his life beyond my grasp until that moment comes when he leaves home for good.  I know what that will mean for him;  I've been there myself.  But what will that mean for me?  How will I be a mother without children to take care of?  Who will I be then?

The upcoming holidays have provided me with perhaps the most difficult lesson in letting go.  For my entire life, I have always known exactly what I would be doing on Thanksgiving. My family gathered every year at my mom and dad's house at 2:00 p.m. My mom would have gotten up at the crack of dawn to begin preparing, so even if you arrived early, the house would smell of turkey and pumpkin pie.  There would be a certain energy in the house, the result no doubt of my mom bustling around, stressing out about the most minute of details, wanting everything to be perfect.  She needn't have worried.  Even if the turkey had been a little dry and the gravy a little lumpy, everything would have still been perfect.  We were all together, talking and laughing and marveling at how much the children had grown.  Often we had not seen each other for months, but that only made those hours together more precious. Writing about it now, I can actually feel the sensation of standing in my mom's kitchen, sun streaming through the window onto the neatly set table covered in fall-colored linens and laden with food, surrounded by the sounds of voices and laughter.  Family. Home.  That's what the holiday was all about.

But things change.  As I have grown older, so too have my parents, and the holidays of the past are no more. My mother's arthritis prevents her from bustling around the kitchen, and my dad's emphysema makes hard work of even talking.  So I am lost.  I have reached the point when the traditions of the past can no longer continue.  It is my job now to create new ones.  But everything I consider seems completely lacking in comparison.  Dinner for four will just be too quiet and lonely to truly be considered a holiday.

We all know that life brings changes and we inevitably have to someday say goodbye to those we love.  I get that.  But knowing something intellectually and experiencing it emotionally are two entirely different ball games.

Rather than lessons, I suppose these experiences have been reminders.  Reminders that things change, and once they do, you can never go back.  Reminders to embrace all that is good and beautiful in your life so that when it is gone you can move forward with no regrets.  And reminders, too, that while letting go is sometimes sad and difficult, it allows us to reach out to the future and whatever it may hold in store for us.
At least that's what I hope.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A First Venture into Close Reading

Last week I began reading Falling in Love with Close Reading:  Lessons for Analyzing Texts--and Life, written by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts.  The idea of teaching students to read with a lens made a lot of sense and seemed like it would be a manageable approach for helping readers to look more closely at text.  As it happened, I already was planning on having my students look at details in the story we were currently reading, The Talking Cloth by Rhonda Mitchell.  I wanted them to examine the relationship between two of the characters and "reading closely for text evidence" seemed the perfect way to do it.

I became convinced this was the perfect lesson when, the day before I planned to teach it, one of my students suggested the problem in the story involved the relationship between the father and the aunt.  I told my students that we would look at that relationship more closely the next day to determine if this was in fact the problem.

To begin the lesson, I told my students I was curious about the relationship between Amber's father and her aunt and wanted to try to figure out what kind of a relationship they had.  I asked them to help me find details from the story that showed these characters saying or doing something that involved the other.

What I noticed right away was that they had a fairly easy time identifying what the characters said to each other, but they didn't notice the more subtle actions that took place between the two characters.  After pointing out one place where Daddy laughed, the students were able to find other instances where the characters responded to each other with laughter or smiles.  (One student even found a detail I had missed.)

Next, we looked at how the details fit together.  (This is where I should have thought out my chart a little better ahead of time because it got kind of messy with arrows going everywhere.  For some reason, though, the kids thought this was fascinating!)  We looked at all the things the characters said and noticed they were not very nice.  Then we looked at the characters' responses, which were smiles and laughter.  When asked what laughter makes you think of, they responded "happiness," "funny," and "joking." 

I was very encouraged at this point, believing that my students were beginning to understand that Daddy and Aunt Phoebe didn't have a problematic relationship but actually had a typical brother-sister relationship where they liked to kid each other.  I bravely (foolishly?) asked my students what new understanding they had. 

I was somewhat disappointed when the first two students I called on told me that Daddy and Aunt Phoebe had a bad relationship.  It became apparent to me that they were hung up on what the characters said and confused by the contradiction between dialogue and action.  At this point, I backed up and again pointed out the contradiction:  what the characters said sounded mean to us, but the characters' responses were those we use when we think something is funny.  Therefore, I reasoned, the characters must be joking with each other.

It was interesting to me that, although they could see the characters were laughing and they connected laughter with happiness, they still only used the dialogue to characterize the relationship between Daddy and Aunt Phoebe, which led them to determine the relationship was "bad."  Even more interesting was thinking of the five previous years I have "taught" this story and never realized how confused my students were by this relationship (if they even thought about it, that is). 

In retrospect, I think I should have downplayed the "meanness" of the dialogue and set up my chart so that there was a clear connection between the dialogue and the non-verbal responses of the characters.  Also, we needed to spend more time working through the apparent contradiction between the two.  This part was probably too rushed, in part because it was almost time for recess and in part because I panicked when I realized they didn't know how to resolve that conflict.

Did my students get anything out of the lesson?  I think so.  If nothing else, they saw how an experienced reader doesn't just "know" what's going on but looks to the details of the story to build comprehension.  They learned there were steps to follow and that they could follow them too.  What I learned was that even stories that seem simple can have layers of meaning that students miss.  Students rely on the most obvious of details to formulate their ideas.  Without a focus, there is much they read right over.  Even when the more subtle details are pointed out to them, if these contradict the obvious ones, students don't know what to do with that contradiction and will simply ignore them.

For years I have taught my students to use the text to support their answers.  Students as young as 3rd graders can do this pretty well.  As I learned yesterday, reading a text closely - finding details first and then using them to formulate their ideas - is much more difficult.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Rather than being discouraged, I am encouraged by my experience with this lesson and look forward to seeing my students grow in their ability to analyze the texts they read.

                                                       My messy chart :)