Saturday, September 12, 2015

Contemplation of a Crescent Moon

"Did you see the moon?"

My husband's voice rose above the rhythmic pounding of our feet as we wound our way through the deserted park in the early morning stillness. I lifted my eyes to the darkened sky punctuated with sparkling points of starlight.  There, hanging almost shyly just above the roofs of the houses bordering the neighborhood park was the slightest sliver of a moon glowing a soft, pale orange.  It was so slight, in fact, it could have been easily missed in the great expanse of darkness.  It occurred to me that maybe that is what it hoped, that it could escape notice as it made its journey across the sky and disappeared into the light of day.  Perhaps it was focused, not on impressing others with its brilliance, but simply on completing the course that it had been set to follow.

And perhaps it did not understand just how beautiful it really was, for this was not the moon that prompts people to exclaim, "Did you see the moon last night?" That is a question usually reserved for the biggest, flashiest of full moons. But how much do we miss when all we notice is the biggest and the brightest?

It is easy to recognize those who stand out the most.  But what about the ones who hang quietly back? Do we see the beauty that they, too, contribute to the world?  Or are we too busy being dazzled by the ones who put on a grandiose display?  Which ones do we praise and compliment and congratulate on a job well done?  And which ones do we fail to fully appreciate for their gentle gifts that they quietly offer?

These thoughts churned in my mind as our walk took us in a direction that turned our backs to the moon.  As I contemplated these ideas I saw the faces of my students: the ones who shine brightly and the ones who provide a softer glow; the ones society will acknowledge and the ones that it will either pass over or want to "fix," molding them to fit their own vision of what is valuable. 

As we turned toward home, the moon once again came into view.  It was higher now, having continued on its journey as I continued on mine.  My eyes lingered on that slight little sliver of moon and I smiled.  It didn't need to be any bigger or any brighter. It had a gift no full moon could offer.  It was perfect just the way it was.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Bruised Toes and Orange Juice

I am horrible at juggling.

I remember when I was a kid my dad would grab three oranges from the fruit bowl and effortlessly toss them in the air.  Around and around they would go in perfect synchronicity.  He made it look so easy.  Certainly I could do that too.

My efforts only resulted in bruised toes and orange juice.

Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered that life as an adult is all about juggling.  And it seems the older you get, the more difficult it becomes, with more and more objects being thrown your way while those who mercilessly throw them chant, "Juggle, juggle, juggle!"  There you are, center stage, frantically trying to keep everything moving, knowing a blunder is inevitable and everything will go crashing to the floor.

Work. Home. Family. They all have their demands that need to be met, quite often simultaneously. Let us not forget that inner-voice that screams up from the deep every once in a while, "What about me?" Exercise.  Reading. Writing. Time with friends.  Time alone. So many balls in the air, going around all at once, no time to stop.  Must. Keep. Moving.

That's how I've been feeling, especially since returning to work full-time after working part-time for seven years.  Trying to tackle to-do lists ten miles long and growing, all the while satisfying the needs of those around me, has left me exhausted and overwhelmed.   I look around me, both literally and figuratively, and see so many oranges on the floor.  The house isn't as clean as I would like it.  There are piles of laundry that need to be washed, dried, folded, and put away.  There's the grocery list still to be made, the grocery shopping to be done, and the meals to be prepared.  Three weeks into the school year and I have yet to go online to check up on my middle schooler's grades or my third grader's AR progress.  I haven't made the 2 1/2 hour drive to visit my mom in months.  Beside me sits a bag full of papers from school waiting for me to go through it and lesson plans waiting to be written. Every direction I move, I'm slipping in orange juice.

And yet, oddly enough, this juggling act has filled me with a sense of purpose and accomplishment as well. Because the truth is that, while I may not be doing everything to the level of perfection I would like, I'm doing it.  The kids are clean and fed, and somehow I manage to get them to school each day, on time no less. There is food in the house and a home-cooked meal most nights of the week.  No one has had to go to school or work in clothes recycled from the hamper.  My students have never arrived at class to find me unprepared.  Okay, so my anchor charts may not be Pinterest-worthy, but they get the job done. And while I may still be figuring out exactly how to get there, I have a pretty good idea of where I want to go.  I haven't been writing as often as I would like (unless you count the "writing" I do in my head), but I am writing now. My husband and I have begun walking in the mornings, sneaking in a bit of exercise and cherished time together.  These are all things to feel good about.

It occurred to me the other day that I have been holding myself up to almost impossible standards.  I have been trying to be the wife and mother my mom was without making it the full-time occupation that she did.  Just because it's different doesn't mean it's inferior.  Our lives may not be the mirror image of the one I lived growing up, but it works for us. So what if we don't eat every single dinner at 6:30 p.m. at the kitchen table?  So what if the sheets don't get changed on the exact same day of the week every time? So what if there are piles of papers and piles of books where there shouldn't be?  In the long run, it isn't going to matter. I see my children becoming strong, confident, capable young men.  They know they are loved and cared for. My marriage has never been stronger. And I have never been happier. When I stop to look at my life as it is, without holding it up to the idealized vision in my head, I recognize that while it may not be perfect, it is just fine the way it is. 

Yes, my dad made it look easy, but he was juggling oranges for fun.  He was able to stop whenever he wanted. In life, we don't really have that option.  We have to keep going even when our arms get tired and the thought of keeping one more ball in the air seems like more than we can take. Occasionally, one's going to fall. There will be bruised toes and orange juice from time to time. But we can use that as our opportunity to acknowledge everything that's going right, to recognize how many oranges we manage to keep in the air every day.  It's also a time to decide which ones are truly necessary for our juggling act and which ones can be put aside and saved for another time.  It's our opportunity to pat ourselves on the back, take a deep breath, and start all over again, confident in the knowledge that we can do this.

Bruised toes and orange juice?  That's not failure; it's just a part of every juggler's life.

Monday, July 13, 2015

One Last Time

This month I am participating in Teachers Write!, a virtual summer writing camp for teachers held on Kate Messner's blog, Today's lesson was about writing poetry using rhyme schemes. We were instructed to write 12 line, using couplets or quatrains.  It's harder than it sounds!  Trying to convey meaning within the structure of rhyme and meter can be pretty challenging.  I found that it required a lot of on-the-spot revising as I had to change both my ideas about what I wanted to say as well as the words I used to convey those ideas.    

To further complicate matters, I chose to tackle a difficult subject.  Today marks one year since my father passed away.  I have been dealing with a lot of emotions over the last few days, and I knew I wanted to write something today to try to deal with some of those turbulent emotions.  The following is what resulted.

One last time you held my hand,
With your own, so soft and strong.
But like an hourglass dripping sand,
I knew we didn't have long.

One last time you sang a song,
One you had known in days long past.
For a moment, a smile erased the wrong,
A moment that couldn't last.

One last time you took a breath,
And I held onto mine.
I watched you slip away with death,
And said, "I love you" one last time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Just One Kid

"And it is all for just one kid."

I heard slightly different versions of that sentiment expressed for several weeks, and each time it made me pause.  I never responded, though, mostly because I wasn't sure what I thought about the whole situation myself. I just knew that the implied frustration that we would go out of our way for "just one kid" had triggered some kind of visceral reaction and it wouldn't let me go.

In a way, our entire community, what we held to be true about our school, had been challenged. While the world was reading about and speculating about the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner, we had our own gender identity drama going on.  Most of us were unaware of what was happening until our principal called us into his office, a grade level at a time, to inform us that a first-grader was adamant about wearing dresses to school.  Then, we were handed a copy of board policy regarding discrimination and told that we would be alerted to when the student would be coming to school dressed in traditionally female attire.

I walked away from that meeting with more questions than answers.  Board policy?  How was that going to help this first grader deal with the questions and teasing that were bound to arise?  How would that help my third graders to understand what was happening and help them to be supportive instead of cruel?  It seemed unreal that this was occurring at our school.  This was just something you read about, right?  Even though we were later given some information from the Gender Spectrum website, we seemed so ill-equipped to handle what lay before us.

I'm not going to try to pretend that I understand gender dysphoria.  I'm not sure anyone who hasn't experienced it possibly could.  I did try.  I tried to imagine what feelings you would have to lead you to the conclusion that you were living life as the wrong gender.  How would you know?  It was something that I just couldn't wrap my head around.

Ultimately, I decided I really didn't need to in order to understand and empathize with the situation that was unfolding at my school.  Even though gender identity itself was something I had never had to deal with, there were some elements with which I could definitely identify.  I began to consider the situation from this young boy's mother's point of view and thought about how difficult it must be to think of sending her child to school to face the inevitable teasing, ostracizing, and worse.  As a mother, I know that you worry about your child even under the best of circumstances.  My own child has had problems at times resulting from an overly sensitive disposition, and I live in fear of him suffering the consequences of openly displaying his feelings in public. The day he told me that he had no one to play with at school broke my heart.  More than anything, mothers want their children to be happy and to be spared any pain, even though we know that isn't really possible.  Every child will need to learn to deal with heartache and disappointment.  But how much greater must it be for someone who stands out so far from the norm? My heart ached for his mom knowing what they all were up against and how cruel people can be.  I also thought what a brave and supportive mother she must be to seek answers to her questions and to be willing to do what was best for her child.

I thought, too, of this young boy willing to risk so much in order to be who he believes in his heart he is.  I know many have criticized those who have called Caitlyn Jenner brave for her transition, but really, how many of us would be willing to risk everything to show our true selves to the world?  Do we not construct facades to protect that true, vulnerable self from the masses?  How much of ourselves do we hide on a daily basis, saving those pieces of ourselves for only the chosen few?  How much do we refuse to acknowledge even to ourselves?  And yet here was a child believing so strongly in something, he was willing to take an enormous risk.  That sounds pretty brave to me.  

Finally, I came back to the sentiment of "just one kid."  Yes, we were spending valuable time, time which we have way too little of, to focus on just this one kid. But that is what makes teaching such a difficult, and ultimately rewarding, job. That is our purpose.  To be there for just one kid.  For every "one kid" that walks through our door.  We get lucky sometimes, and the things we do meet the needs of many of those kids at once.  But each child needs and deserves something special from us.  The bonus of this situation is, if we do it right, we really haven't spent all that time and energy for "just one kid."  We will be teaching all our students about acceptance and kindness and diversity and the importance of judging people not by what they see on the outside but by what resides in the heart of each individual.  We will be teaching them to not act out in fear of that which they do not understand but to seek understanding and compassion instead.  If we do it right, we will be one step closer to making our world a much better place.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Let Them Read

Saturday afternoons you can often find me and my two sons at the public library.  This past Saturday was no exception.  After dropping our books and videos in the return slot outside, we headed through the doors to once again fill our bag to overflowing.  Jared immediately took off on his own, heading to the teen section, while Jack and I moved in silent synchronicity to the new books section.  Jack scanned the shelves quickly, deposited Food Trucks! in the bag, and, as I continued to browse at a decidedly slower pace, promptly disappeared.  I wasn't worried.  I had a fairly good idea of where he had gone.  Sure enough, he reappeared moments later, accompanied by Captain Underpants, which he proudly held out for my inspection.

"Is this one that you haven't read before?"  I asked.

"No, I've read it.  But not for a long time."  And with that, he was gone again, seeking out a quiet corner with a comfortable chair in which he could get lost in the comic misadventures of George and Harold.

I know there are some parents who turn up their noses when they hear the name Captain Underpants.  They probably would be equally appalled at the Babymouse books that also found their way into our bag on the way to the check-out counter.  Personally, I think they're missing the point of children's books.

Not too long ago I was sitting in a meeting with some parents regarding their son's behavior when the step-dad suddenly asked what books their son shouldn't read.  Yes, you read that correctly.  He wasn't interested in knowing what books I would recommend next for their Percy Jackson-reading son, but which books I would ban.  I was stunned.  In 20 years, no one had ever asked me that particular question before.  He went on to give SpongeBob SquarePants as an example of the type of material he felt was inappropriate.  I didn't mention that we have a few SpongeBob books floating around our house.  Fortunately, I was saved from having to respond by the mother who stated that they were perfectly capable of making those types of decisions themselves.  It wasn't too long after this that I saw a tweet from John Schumacher (@mrschureads) in which he shared witnessing a parent at a bookstore telling their child to get a "real" book when they selected a graphic novel.  And while incidents such as these make my heart hurt, I get it.  I was almost one of those parents myself.

My book snobbery actually predates my becoming a parent.  I remember as a new teacher declaring my distaste for Goosebumps books.  I found the plots simplistic and the writing even more so.  The excessive use of one sentence paragraphs drove me crazy.  This was not the quality of writing I wanted my students experiencing.  Of course, it was exactly what my students wanted to read.  In my defense, I was new to the profession, knew very little of actual children, and had spent four years in college reading and analyzing classic literature.  It didn't occur to me that simple plots and short, simple paragraphs might have been just what my students, many of whom were ELL, needed.  Sadly, I was still years away from understanding the importance of interest and motivation in the development of readers. 

Some years later I was forced to confront my book snobbery with my firstborn son.  Somewhere along the way he developed a love of anime.  When he discovered manga at the library (I'll confess right now that he was the one to teach me the difference between anime and manga), there was no stopping him.  Okay, I guess I could have stopped him.  I honestly couldn't see the appeal.  For one thing, they begin at the back of the book.  I have to admit, too, that I was never one to read comic books as a kid, and the format is one of visual overload for me.  Give me words and I will create my own visuals, thank you.  So, like I said, I could have told my son he couldn't read those, that he needed to check out "real" books.  But something stopped me.  Now I am so glad I didn't deny him his choice of book.

Since those days of manga, graphic novels have become increasingly popular.  Being a third grade teacher, I realized that I should at least familiarize myself with them.  The first graphic novel I read was Giants Beware by Jorge Aguirre and  Rafael Rosado.  Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.  It had a story I could follow and understand, and the illustrations enhanced the plot rather than overtook it.  In fact, it had all the elements of a "real" book!  Next, I read Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett Krosoczka.  I loved it!  Even more importantly, I immediately thought of a student in my class at the time.  He loved superheroes, but he was a struggling reader who would do whatever he could to avoid reading.  I brought the book in to school and handed it to him, telling him I thought he might enjoy it.  I can't tell you how many times he read that book.  The only way I could get him to give it up was to bring in more books in the series.  I even convinced our school librarian to order them.  It was the perfect fit for him.  It had the superheroes he loved and illustrations to support his comprehension when he struggled to decode the words.  I realized what was visual overload for me was visual support for my struggling readers.  It occurred to me, as well, that while I may form pictures in my head as I read, not all students do.  Graphic novels fill that gap and perhaps provide a model for creating visuals to go along with text.

Undeniably, we live in a time of standards, of pushing kids to read more "rigorous" text, to analyze those texts, and dissect them to examine their most basic parts.  There is definitely a time and a place for that.  However, we run the risk of turning kids off even more to reading if our emphasis is solely on rigor and analysis.  We must first show our students the inherent pleasure in reading.  Analysis can be interesting, but only to someone who has already discovered the magic of reading.  Otherwise, it is simply more drudgery to be endured and makes reading just another unpleasant task that is foisted on our students.  I have been a reader all my life, which is why I decided on majoring in English when I went to college. I have to say, though, four years of being told what to read and what to think about those books, was a turn-off even for me.  There was a time after I graduated that I didn't read much.  Books simply had lost their appeal.

Perhaps that is why I am so passionate about letting students have choice in what they read.  Yes, some books are silly and don't require any deep thinking, but so what?  If a child enjoys them, he should be able to read them.  Those books teach children that reading is a pleasurable endeavor.  He is also still developing fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills along the way.  (You don't have to tell him that, though.)  After all, no one ever said that you can't laugh and learn at the same time.

I think one of my biggest fears when my older son was younger was that he would always read the same type of books.  I realize now, of course, that that was utter nonsense.  I have since watched Jared devour series after series of books, moving naturally along an invisible continuum as his tastes have changed and matured.  Sure, he still occasionally reads manga, but it is only a part of a well-rounded reading diet.  A diet that he has developed for himself.  I can see Jack following in his footsteps, trying out different genres and formats, finding the ones that he enjoys most and devouring them.  Both of my sons love to read and can often be found with book in hand when we are in the car or waiting for some event to start.  They are fluent readers, have a rich vocabulary, and do well in school.  I can't help but view this as evidence that allowing children to read what interests them rather than restricting them to what we perceive to be "real" books provides a long-lasting benefit.  Just the other night, Jack asked for some paper so he could write a comic book.  What?  My son voluntarily writing?  He then informed me that he had been writing comics in his writing journal at school.  When I thought about what he had been reading, a steady stream of Babymouse and Captain Underpants, it all made sense.  Those books had made it possible for him to see himself as being able to create his own comics, envisioning himself and his friends as superheroes who save the day.  Not only had they fed his imagination, they had bolstered his confidence.  Now, not only is he reading, but he is writing, too.  That seems like a real win to me.

So, parents and teachers, let them read.  Let them choose the books they want to read.  Let them feed their imaginations.  Let them laugh and be silly.  Let them discover the joy and magic of reading.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Island of Grief

I wasn't prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn't just sadness, and it wasn't linear. Somehow I'd thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better - like getting over the flu. That's not how it was.

Meghan O'Rourke
April 20th marked 88 years since my father was born. It also marked the first time that he was not here to celebrate the occasion.  I thought I was doing pretty okay that day, getting ready for work, driving kids to school, and doing all the normal things I do without feeling weighed down with sadness and a sense of loss.  I was doing okay, until halfway to work the image floated through my mind of my mom waking up in the morning without him.  On his birthday.  And that struck me as impossibly sad.  Tears filled my eyes and spilled over as I continued on my way to work, all the while willing myself to get it together.  I hastily wiped at my eyes before exiting the car, thankful for the dark glasses that would hide the tell-tale trail of mascara.

The quote by Meghan O'Rourke seems to fit so perfectly what I have experienced over the last nine months. No, grief is certainly not linear.  It may move in a generally forward direction, but only because that's where time is going and time drags everything and everyone along for the ride. Instead, grief performs an erratic dance; it swirls and leaps and just when you think you've made it to someplace smooth and steady, it suddenly loops back to where it was in the beginning. Unpredictable indeed.

People talk about the stages of grief, and there probably are identifiable stages, I am sure I have experienced them all, but they don't neatly line up and usher you from one to the next until you arrive --ta da!-- at the finish line all completely healed and whole again.  One day--one minute--you're fine and the next you are wiping tears from your eyes because some song or some object or just some random thought mercilessly punched you in the gut once again.

Unless you've been through it, it's hard to understand.  And even if you have, there is a hesitation to acknowledge grief past a certain point.  Beyond the initial expressions of condolences, no one really wants to talk about it.  Maybe it's part superstition.  Maybe it's truly a desire to not want to bring up the hurt in the one who is grieving.  (As if we had forgotten all about it.)  Maybe it's just a matter of not knowing what to say.  The end result, though, is that you become isolated on a deserted island of grief.  You don't dare say anything either, even writing about it is risky, because you figure everyone expects you to be done grieving.  You've had enough time; get over it and move on.  But that's not how it is.

After my brief meltdown in the car, I made it through the rest of my day just fine, no more morose thoughts to lead me astray.  I taught my lessons, talked to my students and fellow teachers, and did everything as I normally do.  When I came home I did something else I always do; I grabbed my iPad and hopped on social media to see what exciting things had been going on in other people's worlds.  Scattered throughout my Facebook feed I found a few posts that could best be described as heartwarming.  They were from members of my family.  To my dad.  Wishing him a happy birthday.  

Now, I know there are people who think that sort of thing is weird if not just plain crazy.  A few months ago I was listening to the radio when a couple of radio talk-show hosts went on and on about how stupid it was when people posted as if the person was still alive.  I naturally would have to disagree.  It wasn't crazy.  It was beautiful.  The messages we all left said virtually the same thing.  We love him and think of him everyday.  Although separated by miles, there on my dad's Facebook timeline, we gathered together to share our grief and our love and our gratitude for all that he meant to each and every one of us.  We left messages to honor a man who deserves to be remembered.  

And in so doing, I was reminded that the island of grief I sometimes inhabit isn't really deserted at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thoughts on Becoming a Mother (to a Teenager)

I'm pretty sure I became the mother of a teenager last night. 

No, it wasn't my son's birthday.  We still have a few months before the title of teenager will officially be his. So there was no cake, no blowing out of candles, no off-key singing to mark the occasion. Instead, the realization quietly crept up and made itself at home as I was driving Jared and two of this friends to a comic store to attend their first Magic the Gathering tournament. 

There they were, three boys who have known each other since they could barely walk, crammed into the back seat of my Prius.  Their low, almost-man voices, punctuated by bursts of  young-boy exuberance, filled the car, drowning out the CD playing.  Excitement bubbled over and carried us to our destination.

Only it wasn't our destination.  It was their destination.  As soon as I had parked the car, the three boys tumbled out of the back and headed immediately for the store, leaving me, already forgotten, in their dust.  I followed them in to find them patiently waiting their turn at the counter. 

"Can I sign up for the Magic tournament?" I heard Jared ask confidently, as though he had done it a million times before, when the girl behind the counter turned to him.  Here in this place, a world completely foreign to me, he was right at home.

I hung around until they had all paid their $5 and had their decks checked to make sure they were tournament legal.  (Yeah, I didn't know there was such a thing before either.  Fortunately, you don't get arrested if they find an illegal card in your deck.) 

"What do you do now?" I asked.

"I don't know," Jared responded.

I would have been filled with anxiety not knowing what I was supposed to do.  The tone of his voice and the shrug of his shoulders made it clear that he was not bothered by it, but rather secure in the knowledge that he would figure it all out in due time.

As the boys turned from the counter, they discovered that a friend from school was also there.  They greeted Tad, who has a reputation for being a really good player, with enthusiasm.  I have a tendency to imagine all the kids I don't know at my son's middle school as resembling the punks they are portrayed to be in movies.  I was pleasantly surprised that he just appeared to be a normal kid with the added bonus of being capable of polite conversation.  Tad was clearly an experienced tournament player, the girl at the counter even had a nickname for him, and he led the boys to the tables where they would be playing.  Led them away from me.  Except for one last plea for some money for the vending machine, my son no longer needed me.  With a final  "good luck" and "goodbye," I walked back to my car and headed for home.

It was a strange feeling to leave my baby in a room full of men in their 20s and 30s, who were at worst child molesters and at best socially-awkward males who had never quite figured out the whole male-female dynamic.  (I know I'm stereotyping, but these are the crazy thoughts that go through your mind in situations such as these.)  The rational part of my brain recognized that the people gathered to play cards were probably none of those things. Even if they were, chances were pretty slim that one would suddenly leap across the table during the middle of the tournament to molest my son, who, now merely months away from earning his black belt, could protect himself better than I could anyway.  And of course, I wasn't leaving my baby.  I was leaving the confident, independent, smart, funny, semi-responsible young man that my baby had grown to be. I knew he would be all right. 

And so would I.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Journey Unfinished

Just the other day, I remarked to my husband that it has been twenty years since I earned my teaching credential.  Twenty. Years. "Wow!  That time has gone by fast," he said.  No kidding.

Dan and I met at the end of my first year of teaching.  Back then I was an English-Only 6th grade teacher at a Spanish bilingual school.  Looking back, it was probably an odd placement for me.  I was properly certified to teach English Language Learners, but properly certified doesn't necessarily mean properly qualified.  Many of my students had been in a bilingual classroom since kindergarten, but the program ended at 5th grade, so they were all unceremoniously dumped in an E-O classroom in 6th grade.  With me.  A decidedly green teacher who hadn't studied Spanish since her junior year of high school ten years earlier and who figured out pretty quickly that the language arts methods class had done little to prepare her for teaching reading and writing to actual children.

Although I was green, I was young, determined, and enthusiastic.  And single. Evenings and weekends were wide open for me to devote myself to figuring out what the heck I was doing.  Which was exactly what I did.  One day while waiting to get my hair cut, I calculated how much I made an hour by dividing my annual salary by the number of hours I actually worked.  I was making less than I had at my last job as a receptionist.  I didn't care.  I was happy.  I was living my dream and was confident that I would soon be a pro at my chosen career.

Now, here I am almost twenty years later and I am still trying to figure it out.  I am no longer green nor young and there are way more demands on my time.  And yes, while I still remain enthusiastic, I have to admit that the enthusiasm has been dampened a bit by the realities and politics of teaching.  What really frustrates me, though, is knowing that I should be better, that I should be further along in this journey than I am.  I joined Twitter a couple of years ago and was amazed and inspired by the brilliant ideas I found being shared.  Actually, stupefied might be a better word.  How was it that I didn't know all these strategies?  Why wasn't I doing all these amazing things in my classroom?  How had I fallen so far behind?

There were possible answers to these questions, but ultimately they had to be acknowledged for what they truly were.  Excuses.  At that point, at that proverbial fork in the road, I had a choice:  I could give up or I could start moving forward again.  I chose to move forward. I may never reach the pinnacle I seek, but I know I sure as hell am never going to get there if I don't journey on.  

The truth is, it is easy to get discouraged when you look at that long stretch of road behind you and realize you haven't accomplished all you had planned when your journey began.  Even worse is realizing the stretch of road before you is shortening by the minute, and you are left wondering if you're ever going to get to where you thought you were going.  You look around you and see all these other people who are so much more accomplished than you and you question if maybe you just don't have what it takes.  It would be so much easier to give up and just go through the motions.  Easier to just stay right where you are.

The other day I posted about a writing lesson I taught my students.  I almost didn't publish it.  It seemed so simplistic, so elementary, and I regretted that it wasn't more amazing and inspiring.  I felt like it was something that everyone else had been doing forever.  But it is where I am at this moment.  This is the journey I am on, and if I am going to keep pushing forward, I have to be honest about where I am.  I may be standing at the base of the mountain, but rather than be discouraged by all those who are further up the path, I will learn from them and follow their lead, knowing that they too once stood at the base contemplating the steep road ahead.  

Over the last few days the words of Kris Allen's song, "Lost," have kept playing in my head:  "Maybe I'm lost/But at least I'm looking."  I have always loved the raw, honest emotion of the song, but I just recently realized that the reason it speaks to me is because it is about acknowledging shortcomings but refusing to give up.  No, I don't have everything all figured out.  I don't have all the answers.  I don't even have all the questions yet.  But at least I'm looking. 

And so the journey continues. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Following My Own Advice

Today was the first day back after Spring Break.  In an ironic twist of events, after an incredibly dry winter, it was pouring down rain when I left for work.  Rain is too badly needed around here for me to complain about, so I simply placed the million papers I had brought home to read during the break in plastic bags and dashed from door to car and then, once I arrived at work, from car to door as quickly as I could.  

Fortunately, the papers stayed dry.  These weren't just any papers, after all.  These were the first drafts of the informational books my students had started writing prior to our two-week vacation.  I had brought them home to read so I could plan which lessons to teach next.  I hadn't realized at the time that I would be learning some lessons of my own.

At the end of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, I wrote about what I had learned from the experience.  Learning is one thing; doing is quite another.  I was determined to not let that learning go to waste and to apply it to my teaching.  Because I had experienced firsthand the power of positive feedback, the first thing I did was compliment each student's writing. I will admit that it was more challenging to do in some cases than it was in others, but when my students received their writing today, the first thing each of them saw was a bright pink, heart-shaped sticky note with a positive observation.  To alleviate any anxiety, I told them ahead of time that I had only written notes on what I had really liked about their writing. When it came time to return the papers to their owners, one of my students exclaimed that she was excited to see her note from me.  All around the room, I could hear students reading their notes out loud. It was a nice change of pace to see students actually excited to read my feedback on their writing!

Next, I shared with my class some of the things I had learned about myself as a writer over the last month and identified three areas I wanted to improve in.  I then asked my students to look at both their work-in-progress as well as an earlier piece that I had assessed using the informational writing rubric from the Units of Study in Writing and choose their own goals to work toward.  Each of us wrote our goals on a piece of paper, which was then hung on our writing wall.  As we revise our work, I will refer my students back to those self-determined goals and help them find ways to achieve them.

What I didn't tell them was that when I wrote out my compliments to them I also made notes to myself on areas that needed further development.  I made a really simple chart with each student's name and the three main categories of the writing assessment:  Structure, Development, and Conventions.  

I will refer to this chart when I confer with students and use it to help me guide them toward improving their writing.

As we finish up the unit, I plan on constantly revisiting my own learning to help me better direct theirs. My hope is that they will continue to enjoy writing and want to push themselves to make their writing the best it can be. In the meantime, I will relish in the fact that writing time is actually something that both my students and I can look forward to.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Do It While You Can

Do it while you can
My mother did say.
Been wasting too much time
So starting today--

I will smile
I will laugh
And wear high heels.
I'll cast glances
Take chances
Just to know how it feels.

I will dance
And I'll sing
Though horribly off-key.
I'll do it loud
I'll do it proud
So everyone can see.

Love me
Or hate me
Do as you please.
I'll stand tall
And won't fall
Down to my knees.

I'll jump rope
And play games
Maybe learn to play guitar.
I'll have fun
And I'll run
Though probably not far.

I'll travel
Drink wine
Go out with the girls.
I'll view sunrises
And sunsets
Watch storm clouds whirl.

I'll imagine
And wonder
I'll make a new plan.
I'll dare to dream
And do everything
While I still can.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Devoid of inspiration
And the desire to change.
Each day a dreary repeat
Of the day before.
Moving forward
Like empty cans 
On a conveyor belt.
Moving forward,
But not really.
Stuck in place
As the world drags you along.
Nothing new
Nothing captivating
Nothing to light the spark
And reignite a passion
That burns,
And explodes with a force
That nothing can stop.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What I Have Learned

And just like that, the month of March has passed on by.  It doesn't seem that long ago that I was nervously embarking on this adventure called the Slice of Life Story Challenge.  I didn't really know what to expect or if I would be able to write everyday.  It appeared to be such a daunting task.  Now here I am writing my 31st blog post in as many days.  Along the way, I have learned a few things about writing and the teaching of writing and about myself.  Many thanks to Stacey, Dana, Tara, Betsy, Beth, and Anna of Two Writing Teachers for making it all possible.

So, here are the top 13 things I have learned from SOLSC:

1.  I have something to say.
Sometimes quite a lot, actually.  In the beginning my biggest worry was that I would be unable to think of something to write each and every day. I don't have any stories!  I am by nature a quiet person and tend to do more listening than talking.  It was amazing to discover that even quiet lives are actually filled with important stories that translate into deeper meanings.  Those kiddos in our classrooms?  They have stories to tell, too.  The trick is to give them the opportunity and the freedom to share them.

2.  It takes a bit of courage to put your writing out into the world.
I once described sharing my writing with an audience as something akin to standing naked on a street corner.  (Not that I have any experience standing naked on street corners, mind you.)  The similarity, of course, is the vulnerability you feel.  When I write, I expose parts of myself that I normally hold back. When one opens oneself up that way there is the very real possibility of being rejected.  And that's scary.  This experience has made me realize that every time I ask my students to write,  I am asking them to share a piece of themselves, to open themselves up to that same vulnerability.  That vulnerability needs to be acknowledged and honored.  These little acts of courage should be treated with the gentleness and respect they deserve.

3.  Praise builds confidence.
Positive comments make a world of difference.  They not only make you feel good about what you have accomplished so far, but they encourage you to try even harder the next time.  I am ashamed to say that when I began teaching I took my cue from teachers I had as a kid and spent the majority of my time marking up my students' papers, pointing out every little thing they did wrong.  Now, I focus more on what they are doing right, and surprise, surprise, I no longer have a classroom full of students who hate to write.

4.  Writers need to feel comfortable to take risks.
The heaping of praise on a writer has an added bonus.  When students know they are not going to be skewered for every misstep they might make, they are more willing to take risks in their writing.  At least that is the conclusion I have reached after trying out various writing styles, even going so far as to share poetry.  I have never shared my poetry with the world at large before, but the supportive community made me feel comfortable enough to take a chance.  As I have learned, some risks pay off, others do not.  A writer needs to be okay with that and having a supportive community helps.

5.  With confidence comes the desire to improve.
One of the most surprising things I discovered was that as my confidence grew, so did my desire to improve.  I read other bloggers and wondered, How did they do that?  I found myself reading comments and wanting to ask, But what could I do to make it better?  Likewise, what I am starting to see with my students is that the more confident they are in themselves as writers, the more accepting they are of my gentle nudges toward improvement.  Now I tell my students, "This is really good!  I think if you try. . .it will be even more amazing!" This seems to yield better results than the aforementioned strategy of marking up their writing with the dreaded red pen.

6.  Critique needs to come from someone you trust.
In the beginning of the challenge, every time I saw I had a comment, the first thought that popped into my head was I hope it's nice. I have no idea why I thought that.  Maybe just a little leftover paranoia from my days as a student.  That thought, though, pointed out that while I wanted some constructive criticism, it couldn't come from just anybody.  Critique needs to come from someone you trust and respect as a person and as a writer.  As a teacher, this means that building a supportive and respectful classroom culture is crucial.  Students need to know that the one giving them feedback has their best interests at heart.

7.   Writers need to believe in what they are writing.
The fact is, not everyone is going to love what you write.  Some days, no one will.  That is why it is so important to engage in writing that you honestly believe in.  There have been days that my blog hasn't seen much traffic or has failed to receive one comment.  That's okay, because at the end of the day what really matters is that I found something I wanted to write and I said what I needed to say.  One of the parts of teaching I used to dislike the most was grading student writing.  It was awful!  I realize now, of course, part of the reason for awful writing was the lack of author buy-in.  Most often they were simply completing an assignment, not writing about a topic that had significance to them.  If the writer doesn't buy it, chances are no one else will either.  If I want my students to produce inspired writing, I need to let them choose topics that inspire them.

8.  Embrace your moodiness!
I've always known I can be a pretty moody person.  I found my writing during the month to be equally moody:  one day sad, the next contemplative, and the following wryly amused.  Each mood had its own voice and I didn't always know which one was going to come out when I sat down to write.  I didn't try to fight it, though; I just let it lead me whichever direction it decided to take.

9.  Writing can be liberating.
As I mentioned previously, I tend to be a pretty quiet person (well, for the most part).  Writing every day gave me a chance to tell the stories I usually keep to myself.  It allowed me to find a voice that perhaps has been too quiet for too long.  It felt good to sit down each day and write out what I thought about a myriad of topics. Writing can be equally liberating for the children in our classrooms, allowing them to try out different voices and find the one that is uniquely their own.

10. I need to read my writing out loud.
This was another surprise.  I simply cannot revise without reading my piece of writing out loud.  And not just once.  Over and over and over again.  Each time I change little things here and there, occasionally adding or taking out entire sections.  Whenever I watch American Idol and they start talking about pitch and staying in key, I have no idea what they are talking about.  All I know is if it sounded good to me or not.  When it comes to writing, I discovered it isn't just about the words and the ideas.  I listen closely to the flow of the words and arrange and rearrange until just the right rhythm emerges.  It has made me realize that I don't do enough of this with my students.  I need to show them what I listen for and give them multiple opportunities to listen to the music their own writing makes.

11. I write pretty slowly.
One short blog post shouldn't take that long, right?  For me, it could take hours. Just getting the ideas down can be time-consuming, but then there's all the revision to get it just right.  Finally, there's the constant rereading to catch any mistakes.  (Usually, I still find something to edit even after I have published my post.)  Hopefully, acknowledging this about myself will translate into increased patience in the classroom when that one student still isn't finished with her piece of writing.

12.  I am hooked!
I awoke this morning feeling a little sad, knowing that today was the last day of the challenge.  For me it has been like having a personal trainer in writing, someone to keep me accountable and force me to show up for my workout each day.  I loved having a reason to write.  Even though my blog posts may be a little less frequent from this point forward, I plan to continue writing on a daily basis. 

13.  I am a writer. 
A month ago, I would not have dared to assign myself that title.  Today, I claim it and wear it proudly.  Many thanks to those who encouraged me throughout this journey, thereby giving me the confidence to say at last, "I am a writer."

Monday, March 30, 2015

Appreciating the Small Moments

"I don't want to leave you."

Those were the last words I heard my father say to my mother.  I think about them often and marvel that, even after 64 years of marriage, it still wasn't enough and the part of dying that bothered my father the most was leaving my mother behind. 

Like many SOLSC writers, as the challenge winds down to its final days, I have been reflecting on what the experience has meant to me.  One of the greatest gifts has been learning to look at the small moments of each day and recognize the stories and life lessons that lie within.  I have come to realize that it is a gift that my parents always owned.  My mother has an amazing memory and can recount stories of events that happened decades ago, evidence that she always has been smart enough to appreciate life as it unfolds.  Maybe this was part of the reason neither of my parents ever wanted much; buying presents for them has been a difficult task over the years as there really was very little that they either wanted or needed.  They lived simple lives, yet their life together was rich and meaningful.  They paid attention to those small moments, cherished them for the incredible gifts they really were, and quietly tucked them away in their memories as they built a life worth living.

Toward the end of my dad's life, it couldn't have been easy for him to get up every morning and make his way through the day.  His emphysema and the ever-present tube that tethered him to his oxygen machine made simple chores, such as talking and eating, excruciatingly difficult.  But every day, he got up and did it anyway.  I have come to the conclusion that it was love, pure and simple, that gave him the strength to keep going.  Love for my mom and love for the rest of the family.  A couple of years ago, Dad was diagnosed with skin cancer.  The doctor bluntly told him that he didn't need to have it removed; the emphysema was sure to kill him before the cancer would.  Even though he didn't need to do it, even though it required an extreme amount of effort to get to the doctor's office, and even though leaving the house caused my dad great anxiety, he had it removed.  I was both relieved and proud of my dad for making that decision.  I'm not sure why he did it, we never talked about his motives, but I saw this bold move as my dad's testimony to how much he still had to live for.  No matter what, no matter how difficult or how painful it might be, he chose life. Neither fame nor fortune can provide the kind of power needed to keep going when it would be so much easier to give up; only love can do that.

My dad chose life right up until the moment last July when his body finally said, "Enough," and he took his last breath.  Although I would have given anything to stop the end from coming, I am grateful that my dad died not in the sterile, impersonal confines of a hospital but at home.  Home.  Where he and my mom had lived and loved for over 50 years.  Where they raised their five children and welcomed their 11 grandchildren.  Where they argued and laughed and danced and cried and worried and hoped and held on to each other through it all.  Much of the family was there, and I have often thought about how much like any typical family gathering it was.  The house was filled with the sounds that had brought my dad happiness so many times over the years, the sounds of his family gathered near.  It was a fitting ending to a life well-lived.

Although I am thankful to have had this chance to share my writing, to connect with others, and to stretch myself as a writer, I am most thankful for the reminder it has given me that a life of greatness is built of the small moments that happen every day.  It is within these precious slices that the true beauty and meaning of life can be found.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beauty That Lasts a Lifetime

A few months ago, I celebrated my 47th birthday.  Honestly, "celebrated" might not be the most accurate word to describe the occasion.  It wasn't the number 47 I objected to.  Rather, it was its frightening proximity to 50 that had me gnashing my teeth.  How could I possibly be 50?  I know, I wasn't 50 yet, but I was going to be, and in just three years.  Three years passes in the blink of an eye these days.

When I shared my incredulity about the situation with a friend who happens to be the same age, the response I received was "Don't worry.  You'll be a hot 50-year-old."

Now, I will confess as a middle-aged woman I was initially flattered.  "Hot" isn't a word I would ever use to describe myself.  Still, there was something about the comment that irritated me, and I found myself thinking about it periodically, questioning what it was I found so objectionable about what was surely intended as a compliment.

The thing is, at this point in my life, I would hope that my worth is measured by who I am and not merely how I look.  I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a writer, and I would hope that my accomplishments as such would count for something. I don't think the comment was meant to be sexist, but upon closer examination it began to look that way as it reduced my complex feelings about aging to mere worry about fading physical attractiveness.  Do I really have nothing more to offer?  Is my function as a woman simply to look good?  And what if I do make it to 50 with my "hotness" intact?  That's not going to last indefinitely.  Every day I discover that the gray hairs have multiplied and more lines have etched themselves into my face.  Should I crawl away and hide when I no longer meet society's standard of youthful beauty?

I would like to think I live in a world with more depth to it, but evidence to the contrary bombards me daily.  The media hold up women for admiration based on beauty and fit physiques.  Middle-aged women are equally criticized for letting nature take its course and for employing artificial means to erase the tell-tale signs of the passing of time.  Maybe men face these same problems, making this not an issue of sexism but one of superficiality.  I don't know.  I am not used to analyzing behavior to determine if it's sexist or not.  I grew up in a mostly female household and had parents who led me to believe that I was an intelligent human being whose future would be determined by my actions not my looks.  The message women get from the media, however, contradicts what my parents taught me.  Just recently headlines were made when the picture of a "regular" mom wearing a bikini went viral.  Somehow the implication was that women should feel good about this.  Yet, I couldn't help but notice that words like "flawed" and "flabby" were used to describe her body.  Why are we so concerned about this woman's body anyway?  Rather than being a triumph for the average woman, to me this becomes one more example of a woman's value being determined by how close she comes to meeting an impossible ideal.

As I said, I don't believe my friend's comment was a conscious display of sexism.  Perhaps if there hadn't been so much discussion on Twitter recently about the discrimination of women in the publishing world, I wouldn't have even given it a second thought.  But I did.  And it made me more aware of (overly sensitive to?) the myriad examples of women being scrutinized and judged on a daily basis for the most superficial of reasons, making me wonder how this came to be and how to raise my sons to understand that there's so much more to a woman than how good she looks in a pair of tight jeans.

A few weeks ago my husband surprised me with tickets to see Garth Brooks.  Before the concert tonight, I will spend time on my hair and make-up and slip into a pair of jeans and my cowgirl boots.  I will admittedly put extra effort into my appearance in the hopes that he'll think I look--dare I say it?--hot.  I hope, though, that the beauty he sees when he looks at me has less to do with hair, make-up, and clothes, and more to do with everything he has learned about who I am on our shared journey of the past 18 years.  I hope he sees the kind of beauty that lasts a lifetime.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The View from Here

Clear blue skies stretch overhead and the steady whoosh of waves crashing against the shore fills the air.  A cool breeze blows my hair around as birds soar above.  Even though this is not where I live, I am home.

I am not entirely sure why, but I have always been drawn to the ocean.  I lived for the better part of seven years by its side and even though it has been more than twenty years since I left, I still feel a little homesick for the coastal town I called home.  Yesterday afternoon when the road to Monterey finally revealed the expansive view of the bay, my eyes filled with tears.  I had been reunited at last with my long lost friend.

I remarked to my mom the other day that I would move back to the coast in a heartbeat.  She said she would pick the mountains over the coast.  She doesn't like the fog.  I actually love the moodiness of the ocean.  From her happy, playful topaz to her pensive navy to her stormy battleship gray.  She is always beautiful to me.  She soothes as she lovingly caresses the shore, but she never leaves any doubt of the intense power she contains.  Within her strength lies her true beauty.

Tomorrow I will leave my friend once more and there are sure to be more tears as I say goodbye.  But for today I am content to stand on the shore and watch her dance.

Friday, March 27, 2015


Waiting to hear.
What's taking so long?
I know it takes time.
But still.
I am all abuzz with anticipation.
Will they?
Won't they?
Someone else decides what happens next.
All I can do is wait.
Others' phones ring
Yet I still wait.
Right now I exist in the realm of possibilities
But soon it will be decided.
No more hanging in uncertain suspense.
No more

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back Then

Back then. . .

. . .Dad wasn't the king of the remote.  There was no remote.  If you didn't like the channel, you had to get up and change it.

. . .traveling required a map.  Printed on paper.  Good map skills meant being able to fold it back up again.  The right way.

. . .kids either walked or rode their bike to school.  Dad was at work and Mom had better things to do than to drive your lazy ass the 3 blocks to school.  

. . .moms didn't say things like "lazy ass."

. . .suntan lotion was meant to enhance your tan, not prevent it.

. . .sunburns were simply an expected part of summer.

. . .lunches were carried in brown paper sacks or metal lunchboxes, filled with plastic baggies and a thermos whose top was a cup from which you could drink.

. . .when you got hot in the car, you rolled down the window.  By hand.

. . .bell bottoms and plaid were a part of the everyday landscape.  And everyone seemed perfectly happy about it.

. . .music filled the air by way of vinyl records and transistor radios.

. . .summer heat was chased away by screaming, giggling children running through sprinklers on their front yard lawns.

. . .one of the best things about weekends was Saturday morning cartoons.

. . .phones weren't things you carried around in your purse or pocket.

. . .playing after school meant riding bikes and roller skating up and down and around the block.

. . .parents weren't afraid to let their kids ride bikes and roller skate up and down and around the block.

. . .one of the first signs of Christmas was the toy catalog arriving in the mail.

. . .we didn't realize just how sweet life was.

Oh, to be able to spend one more day. . .back then.

Very old and faded picture of my sisters and me (center) in 1975

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Are You a Writer?"

"Are you a writer?"

The question caught me off guard.  I had been explaining to my brother-in-law about the Slice of Life Story Challenge when he dropped that bomb of a question that sucked the air right out of the room.  I didn't know how to respond.

Am I a writer?

I was embarrassed to answer yes.  Who was I to say I was a writer?  Am I a published author?  No.  Not unless you count a UCSB English Department publication that included an essay I wrote my freshman year.  (And that was close to a million years ago anyway.)  Do I have a work in progress?  No.  I do have a collection of disconnected scenes I wrote two summers ago when I participated in Teachers Write, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't count.  Am I enrolled in any classes or belong to any writing groups? No and no.  

All I have is a blog I started somewhat accidentally two years ago (again, when I was participating in Teachers Write).  Every once in a while I will share my writing there.  My audience, however, has been admittedly limited.  So, even that doesn't seem like it would qualify me as a writer.

"Well, I was an English major in college," I stammered almost apologetically, as if I needed some explanation, some excuse for thinking I could take part in a writing challenge.  With so much evidence supporting the conclusion that I was not a writer, why couldn't I just laugh and admit I wasn't?

Because somehow "no" didn't feel like the right answer either.   If I am not a "writer," then what am I?  For the last 25 days I have sat down faithfully, even on days when I felt like I just didn't want to, and I have written.  Sometimes the ideas just weren't there.  I wrote anyway.  Sometimes my head was filled with ideas but the words refused to flow.  Still I wrote.  There were days I would have to stop what I was doing in the normal course of my day to jot down ideas in my writer's notebook.  Once I even walked to my son's class to pick him up, scribbling away, all the while simultaneously praying I wouldn't run into anyone or, worse yet, a pole.  I  have read a post over and over and over again, making adjustments each time.  I have taken risks in topic and in style, some of which have paid off and some of which have fallen incredibly flat.  I have waited eagerly to hear what others have thought about what I shared, wondering if it would resonate with anyone or not.  I have read others' writing, marveling at their word choice, their thoughtful reflections, and the sheer fluidity of their words.  I have envied others their talent and given thought to what I could do to improve.  I have spent my days thinking, planning, and rehearsing for the next post.  And every minute of it, even the stressful I-don't-know-how-to-say-what-I-want-to-say ones, have filled me with a renewed energy and sense of purpose.

"Are you a writer?"

It was such a simple question that should have had an equally simple answer:  yes or no.  Yet,  neither answer adequately described me.   Yes and no exist in a world of black and white, and as I discovered when confronted by that very simple question, I exist instead in the gray world that lies somewhere in between.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Can't Stop Spring

Fourth year of drought. 
Only one year of water left. 
That's what the scientists are saying.
And yet. . .

Plants still explode across the landscape in fiery bursts of color like fireworks lighting up the night sky

And stand in in-your-face defiance of these grim prognosticators of doom.

They still sing a cheery song of immutable determination and faith

And spread their arms wide,
inviting you to join them in their joyful celebration of life.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Yelp for Teachers? I Don't Think So

Sitting at the kitchen table the other morning, sipping steaming hot coffee from my Grumpy cup before heading upstairs to take a shower, I picked up my iPad to peruse the morning headlines on Yahoo.  Usually I don't go much further than the headline itself, but one caught my eye and demanded that I click on it and read the actual article for once.  The title was "A Yelp for Teachers," written by Matt Bai.  You can read the article for yourself here.

I really should have known better.  You can't turn around these days without being slapped in the face with an article bemoaning the state of education and if we could just get these darned teachers to do a better job, then all would be right with the world. I should have stopped at the first "accountability" (it was the tenth word in), but I didn't.  I kept reading.  I felt my blood pressure rising and I still kept going.  Partly because I was intrigued to see how Yelp was going to fix the evils of our educational system and partly because I don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction to every article on teaching that prevents me from objectively evaluating others' points of view.

Bai begins by pointing out that many teachers are being rated based on students' test scores, but that districts are reticent to reveal these ratings to the public and unions are actively fighting to keep them "secret."  Bai admits midway through his article that these ratings "may be incomplete or flawed," but contends that they should be used anyway because of a "massive cultural shift that is reaching into every corner of the society."  Basically, it may be worthless data, but everyone else is doing it so education should too.  He then moves onto the argument of  "teachers are public employees, and so, technically speaking, they work for us." Therefore, "we have a right to know if students are learning the relevant material or not."  Of course, he fails to mention that the ones who really need to know if students are learning the relevant material or not, students and their parents, do know. 

Unfortunately, Bai also does not explore what "relevant material" really means and who gets to determine its relevancy.  I would assume, although he does not name them outright, that he means Common Core Standards, yet there are many, including highly regarded experts in the field of education, who would argue that some of those standards are not particularly relevant for the grades in which they are taught. 

Putting all question of relevancy aside, what if students are not learning the material?  Given the complexity of human beings, can we draw a clear line from student "failure" to teaching failure?  If a child does not do well on the PARCC or SBAC tests, does that necessarily mean that the teacher is to blame?  There are so many factors that play a role in a child's learning, it would be hard to delineate a clear cause and effect relationship.  Teaching does not occur in a vacuum and our students are not empty vessels waiting passively to be filled with knowledge.  I sometimes wonder if those who only write about education forget that our students are in fact human beings, complete with emotions, experiences, personalities, and home lives over which we have no control.  We don't teach theoretical children, we teach real ones.

It is at this point that Matt Bai suggests that parents should have a forum for providing "consumer feedback."  Before mentioning Yelp, he refers to Consumer Reports as the way in which consumers back in the dark ages of the 80's were able to find out "whether most people liked the products they paid for."  While Consumer Reports does provide ratings based on customer satisfaction, they also develop standards and do their own testing.  Their recommendations aren't simply based on consumer opinion.  I'd like to point out, too, that these ratings are of products, not people.  We're educating children here, not building refrigerators.  Please don't suggest it's the same.

Bai states that a platform like Yelp would be useful because parents "know better than anyone else" what teachers are like.  Teachers should welcome such evaluations because they would give "the small minority of teachers who fall behind some useful feedback on what's not working and some genuine incentive to fix it."  

What is particularly interesting about this idea is that if you Google Yelp, you will find numerous articles detailing the problems with the review site.  Is it any wonder?  The reviews are based on opinion.  It would appear that many are no longer able to distinguish between the two, accepting opinion as fact.  Let's face it:  some people are going to like you and some aren't.  How they review you will be based on those feelings and their own personal criteria.   Jim Handy, a contributor to Forbes, wrote in August of 2012, of his experience writing a review for Yelp.  He had used the services of a company recommended by a friend.  His experiences with the company prompted him to write a favorable review.  The company only had "one Yelp review at the time, and it was scathing."  Two people apparently had extremely different experiences with the same company.  Is one right and the other wrong?  With two such opposing viewpoints, what "useful feedback" did the company receive?  How will they know what to "fix"?  As a potential consumer, how do you know which review to trust?

You don't.  

In a 2011 article on Huffington Post, "Yelp Review Problems: Top 9 Reasons You Can't Always Trust the Review Site," one of the problems they mention is that people are likely to review "if they have very good or very bad experiences, making it hard to trust any given review."  Very few people actually take the time to write reviews.  Think of all the times you have been directed to participate in a survey after shopping at a store or dining at a restaurant.   How many of those did you actually complete?  Chances are you weren't unhappy with your experience and would be perfectly willing to go back to those places, even though you didn't spend the time rating the experience.  It seems like this would be the case with parents reviewing teachers as well. 

I know of a teacher who had a parent who was constantly complaining.  This teacher couldn't do anything right in the parent's eyes.  Much of what the parent thought was based on misleading information received from the child.  What kind of review do you think that parent would write?  Would this be an honest and accurate assessment of this teacher's ability?  Yet, according to Matt Bai, parents "know better than anyone else," even if they aren't present in the classroom.  As a parent myself, there are some things my children's teachers have done that I could conceivably complain about or write a bad review based on.  Fortunately, I know better.  I am not in the classroom every day.  I am not privy to the whole picture.  I also know that my child's perception isn't always 100% accurate.  If there is a concern, I am not going to head to my computer.  I am going to speak directly to the teacher.  This seems like a much more honest and humane approach.  Gossiping behind her back and tarnishing her reputation would benefit no one.

The Huffington Post article also points out that "People do all sorts of weird things when they know they're unidentifiable - which can throw off the average on sites like Yelp, which rely on the forthrightness and honesty of strangers."  Would we really want to evaluate people based on a system such as this?  What would be next?  Yelp for Friends?  Yelp for Husbands and Wives?

I'm not arguing that evaluations aren't needed.  Certainly they are.  I just believe that there is so much involved in teaching that trying to reduce it to numbers or relying on opinions isn't the way to go.  We need to do better than that.

I suppose in Matt Bai's eyes I am just one of the "reflexive defenders of the status quo who will read this and brand it as just another form of teacher bashing, which is how they dismiss all talk of modernization."  Although with all the technology I am learning about and incorporating into my classroom and the Common Core Standards that I address on a daily basis, I don't feel like I am fighting modernization.  Perhaps I just have a better understanding of the complexity of teaching real students in the modern world.  Students who laugh, cry, think, and feel.  Students who have needs beyond a set of standards.  Students who have challenges that they strive to overcome every day.  

The very students who seem to be conspicuously missing from Matt Bai's article.  

His parting shot is this: "Shouldn't we teach to the parents at least as much as we teach to the test?"  Perhaps.  But most teachers I know are teaching the kids.