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.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Dreaded "Project"

Jack came home from school the other day and handed me a large piece of white drawing paper rolled up.  Paper-clipped to it were two pieces of 8 1/2-by-11 paper.  This could only mean one thing and it wasn't good.  He had been assigned a "project."  A poetry project to be exact.  Why, oh why, was his teacher doing this to me?

I guess I should be thankful it was only a poetry project.  When my older son Jared was in 2nd grade his assignment was a book float that needed to be attached to wheels so he could pull it around the playground during the "book parade."  Cute idea, but how many 2nd graders are capable of crafting something like that on their own?  Exactly.  It wasn't Jared's homework assignment, it was mine.  I hated that project so much that as soon as Jack started kindergarten I began plotting how I could get him to skip 2nd grade just so I wouldn't have to make another book float. 

In comparison, Jack's poetry project wasn't nearly as bad.  First, he had to find a book of poetry and read ten poems aloud to a parent, recording the titles and author on one of the sheets of paper.  No problem.  We went to the library and checked out a book of Jack Prelutsky poems.  Jack (my Jack, that is) loved them.  He read the entire book on his own, then easily selected ten poems to read to me.  No complaints, no hassle, just an enjoyable afternoon of poetry reading.  Great.  So far so good.

Next, he needed to select one of the poems to memorize and present to the class.  Again, this was something Jack could easily do.  This was the kid, after all, who could sing along to just about every song on Keith Urban's Fuse CD.   Memorize one little poem?  No sweat.  The directions said that the poem had to be at least six lines long.  Okay, now it was getting a little trickier.  See, all the Prelutsky poems were longer than six lines.  Quite a bit longer.  In fact, the poem Jack selected was 10 lines longer.  I was pretty sure he could do it, but what if on the day of the presentation he blanked, like sometimes happens?  Would he be marked down for bungling the recitation, even though it was ten lines longer than the requirement?  Further complicating the situation was the fact that he's too smart for his own good and read for himself that the poem only had to be six lines long.  No way was he going to do 16 lines.  I explained that the directions said at least 6 lines; it could be more.  Nope.  Still not going to memorize 16 lines.  (Did I say "smart"?  Maybe obstinate would be a better word.) What if, I suggested, he just memorized the first stanza?  It was still two extra lines, but he agreed to the compromise.  Nervously, I said a little prayer that his teacher would agree to this compromise as well.

It was the third requirement of this lovely project that sent me over the edge.  Jack had to create a poster for his poem.  Now we were in trouble.  Neither one of my boys is particularly artistic.  They really have no interest in being artistic.  I envisioned a cute poster with colorful pictures of candy surrounding his poem.  But it was not my project. It was his. I would offer suggestions and help when he needed it, but basically it was up to him to complete his assignment.

This is the point at which I end up feeling like a lousy parent.  I've been a teacher for almost 20 years, and I know that a good number of Jack's classmates are going to walk into class tomorrow morning with the most beautiful, creative posters you have ever seen.  Some will be borderline professional.  Jack is going to walk in with a poster that looks like it was made by. . .well, an 8-year-old boy actually.  One who likes to read poems, doesn't mind memorizing one, but sure as hell doesn't want to spend hours making a poster for one.  I can't say that I blame him.  Still, doubt continues to nag at me because, unlike some parents, I didn't spend hours working on his poster with him, making his decisions for him and directing his every move.  All I did was give some suggestions, hand him a package of colored pencils, and then leave him to do his thing.  When I checked on him a few minutes ago, he was already finished.  He proudly pointed to one drawing, saying, "I made a large Hershey's to show how much I like Hershey's."  There were a couple more hastily drawn scribbles of candy, but a whole lot of white space was left.  I tried gently persuading him to add more drawings.  "No, I like it the way it is," he said. 

And this is why I hate projects assigned as homework.  It turns into a showcase of parent control and creativity rather than a showcase of genuine learning.  Not only does it set my son up to look bad because his poster isn't as good as the adult-created ones, but I feel like it reflects poorly on me as well.  Because I didn't run to Michael's to buy art supplies.  Because I didn't color, cut, and paste.  Because I put my child in charge of his own assignment.

But isn't that the way it should be? 
 See the big Hershey bar?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Make My Heart Sing

After reading my poem, "Be a Good Girl," the other day, my husband remarked that it was quite dark.  Looking back over the last couple of posts I would have to agree that indeed I have slipped into a somewhat dark place.  So, I decided to lighten up a bit today and make a list of things that make my heart sing.  No doubt it is woefully incomplete, but it's a start.

Clear blue skies

Winding mountain roads
Rhythmic crash of waves
Birds soaring free
Little boy giggles
"I love you, Mama"
Brothers holding hands

Opening car doors
Jokes that make no sense
And ones that do

Quiet mornings
Hot cups of coffee
Quick weekend getaways
Book stores
Musty old antique shops

The smell of rain
Singing with the radio and made-up songs
Childhood memories

Crackling fires
Crystalline lakes
Cold mountain mornings infused with pine

Romantic dinners
Candlelight and wine
Flowers, just because
Keith Urban
Good books
Nights out with friends
Nighttime rituals
Hugs and kisses
Child hands in mine

Little things
That make my heart sing
And give meaning to my life

Friday, March 20, 2015

Some Days Just Call for PB&J

Ever have one of those days where it feels like your world is on the verge of exploding all around you?  A day where, not just one thing goes horribly wrong, but everything seems to be falling apart at once?  Yesterday was one of those days for me.

Realizing this,  I did what any sane person in that situation would do.  I went to the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  (It was all I had in the way of comfort food.)

As I gnawed on my sandwich, I couldn't help but think of Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts' Falling in Love with Close Reading.  (I know that seems odd, but stick with me here.)   In their book they talk about closely reading our own lives.  This totally makes sense because, after all, meaning is found within the details of a story, including the story of your own life.  If you never examine your life, then chances are you're not living a very meaningful one, and you have doomed yourself to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Which I do.  Make the same mistakes.  Over and over and over.

I have come to the conclusion that we humans (or at least this human) have an overdeveloped ability to see only what we want to see.  If acknowledging the existence of certain details would force change upon our lives, that ability can slam into hyper-drive, thus allowing us to ignore what would be only too obvious to someone without a vested interest.  Blindly we go on, attempting to convince ourselves that everything is just fine and we should be grateful for what we have.

Which is kind of what I have been doing.  Only half-convinced, though, it has left me waffling back and forth, wrestling with big decisions.  The waffling has allowed me to stay rooted firmly in place, and while there has been some security in that, there has been a whole lot of discontent.  No doubt, no matter how much I have tried to hide it and keep it carefully concealed, it has seeped out, contaminating other aspects of my life.  

Tired of the indecision, I recently began to actively search for signs, or the text evidence if you will, that would help me decide what to do.  Patiently I have gathered them up, and as Lehman and Roberts suggest, I have analyzed them carefully for patterns that might point me toward a new understanding.  Not so surprisingly, perhaps, the evidence has piled up, confirming what my gut had been telling me for quite some time.  Are there still doubts?  Definitely.  Some of those doubts continued to wear at me to such an extent that I was almost ready to change my mind.  Then, the final piece of evidence fell into place.  Doubts be damned, it is time to move on.

Truth be told, the signs were there for quite some time.  I just wasn't ready to see them.  Even when I did, there was still this inner-voice arguing against the conclusion I had drawn.   I suspect this is the case for most of us whenever we are confronted by potentially life-altering decisions.  Sometimes all you need is a nudge to get you moving in a new direction.  Sometimes you need a shove.  In my case, I needed one last shove to convince me I had made the right decision.  And even though it left me a bit shaken and bruised, I can't help but be thankful that it came when it did.  It helped to finally quiet that nagging inner-voice that just would not shut up. 

Of course, it's entirely possible the peanut butter and jelly sandwich helped, too.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Be a Good Girl

Hide your tears
Hold your tongue
No one wants to hear
Be a good girl

Hurt feelings
Angry words
Must be kept inside
Be a good girl

Hopes and dreams
Ambitions run wild
No one cares about that
Be a good girl

Fake, saccharine smiles
Hollow laughter
Play the part
Be a good girl

Maybe if you do
They will decide
You are worth their time
Be a good girl

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Easter Past and Present

Floral dresses.  Black patent leather shoes.  Hard-boiled eggs dyed blue, green, and yellow.  Brightly-colored baskets filled with shredded cellophane grass and chocolate bunnies.  These are the things of Easters Past.

Growing up, Easter always meant a new dress and new shoes.  Mom would take us girls to church, while my dad stayed home and hid the eggs we had dyed the day before.  We would come home, have an Easter egg hunt (after a few years we knew where all the hiding places were), then waited for the rest of the family to come over.  Mom prepared a big dinner that included ham, potato salad, deviled eggs, and hot cross buns that we would sit down to enjoy mid-day.  The room would fill with the smells of good food and the joyful sound of conversation and laughter.

This year, Easter is quickly approaching, and if I had my way, it would pass by without a sound.  The whole month of April could vanish from the calendar and I would breathe a sigh of relief.  

I guess I don't deal well with change.

Change has been the underlying theme of my life lately, which feels strange and uncomfortable for a girl who grew up in a family steeped in tradition.  There wasn't a holiday that I didn't know where I would be, what time I'd be there, what I would be doing, and what I would be eating.  And I liked it that way.   When I met my husband, I was confounded by the fact that his family seemed to always be making last minute plans if they made plans at all.  Don't they have any sense of tradition? I wondered.  Now I wonder if maybe they didn't have it right after all.

Because now everything has changed.

Last year, I didn't make it home for Easter.  (Funny how, after all these years, I still refer to the place where I grew up as "home.")  I awoke Easter morning with a scratchy throat and worried that I might be coming down with a cold.  (It turned out to only be allergies.)  My dad was turning 87 that day and had been living with emphysema for 13 years.  We had almost lost him two years before after he caught a cold right after Thanksgiving.  I just couldn't take any chances.  With a heavy heart, I called my parents and told them we weren't going to make it.  My dad was disappointed but understood.  I didn't know at the time that it would be my last chance to spend Easter with my dad.  Just three months later he was gone.

So, of course, Easter will not be the same this year.  It will never be the same again.  

I called my mom the other day and told her I wasn't sure we were going to spend Easter with the family this year.  Not only will my father not be there, but it won't even be at my childhood home.  My brother and his wife are hosting this year, which is really nice, but it's not the same.  They're barbequing hamburgers and hot dogs, so there won't even be ham.  I know it's completely silly, but it all seems more than I can bear.  It's bad enough that Dad won't be sitting at the head of the table, but now we won't even be at the table, enjoying the foods he loved, enjoying the tradition he was a part of for all my life.  Following the traditions of my childhood offers me comfort and connects me to the past and the people I loved but who are no longer with us.  I don't want to lose that connection.

My mom reminded me that being with family was the truly important aspect of the holiday.  If she could have it her way, she would once again be fixing that big meal and my dad would be there with her.  But of course that's not possible.

After I got off the phone, I emailed my sister-in-law and told her that we would be there.  

I will still dye Easter eggs with my boys, and we will have an Easter egg hunt before we drive the 2 1/2 hours to go back home, where the air is bound to be filled with the smell of good food and the joyful sound of conversation and laughter.  Somewhere in my closet there's a grown-up version of black patent leather shoes.  Maybe I'll go buy a floral dress to go with them.

Maybe everything hasn't changed after all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Searching for a Story to Tell

Day 17 and I have discovered something about my "writer" self.  Night is not my writing time.

It's not that I don't have anything to say.  Words are all jumbled in my brain, clumping together when I try to shake them out.  What I want to write about -- the ideas that have been sticking with me the last few days -- seem too important to blurt out in a haphazard mess in order to simply meet a deadline.

Sitting at dinner tonight my husband asked me if I knew what I was going to write about. 

"I'm not sure," I told him.

"You could write about traditions," he said.

I could. They have been heavy on my mind lately, and tonight I was reminded of how important tradition is to me when I walked through the front door and was greeted with the aroma of corned beef cooking in the Crock-Pot.  How many St. Patrick's Days have I eaten corned beef and cabbage?  It's not St. Patrick's Day without it because that is the way it has always been.  It is just one of many traditions that connect me to my family and to the past. 

"Okay, boys, everyone suggest something Mommy could write about," my husband encouraged the kids.

"Write about Jared and me," Jack answered enthusiastically.

"Yeah. No!" said Jared.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because you write about the good stuff, but you write about the bad stuff, too," he said.

Kid does have a point.

"I have another Safeway story," my husband said.

He proceeded to tell us about an elderly customer who walks to the store every day because she can no longer drive.  She has to make the trip daily because she carries her groceries home, thereby limiting the amount she can buy.  As a result of these daily excursions, her feet were hurting her.  One of Dan's employees decided to buy this woman a rolling basket that she could use for transporting her groceries.  She now will be able to buy more and will no longer need to walk there everyday.  (Though part of me wonders if she enjoys having somewhere to go and people to talk to.)

It was a touching story, one to restore your faith in mankind and to set a good example for my young sons sitting at the table, absorbing every word.  Jared was impressed by the compassion of his father's employee and her willingness to spend her own money to help out a customer. 

As I sat there, quietly taking in the conversation around me, it struck me how in-the-moment and connected we were.  Too often we seem to be in our own little worlds, pursuing individual interests, almost unaware of those around us.   But in that moment, the four of us were completely connected, united by the search for a story that I could share on my blog.  Turns out we weren't just telling stories; we were writing one.  And stories, just like traditions, are what bind us together.

Monday, March 16, 2015

When's Dinner?

I have come to the conclusion that I am a complete failure as a stereotypical woman.  

Two days ago I wrote about my less-than-stellar cleaning habits.  (In case you missed it, you can read about that here.)  Tonight I confess that I am not much of a cook.

Let me be clear.  I do cook.  Just about every night.  It's just not something I am particularly good at, and I am certainly no June Cleaver greeting my husband at the door every night wearing pearls and high heels, holding a steaming casserole dish in one hand and a cocktail in the other.  Me in the kitchen is a sight to see, but not for any of the right reasons.

Tonight was a perfect example.  I have been trying to prepare healthier meals, avoiding processed foods as much as possible.  I have discovered that doing so requires a lot more dollars spent at the grocery store and a lot more hours spent in the kitchen.  Still, I have felt it was worth it. Pinterest has become my best friend, providing me with numerous recipes.  I have been wanting to try one recipe, Baked Ziti with Creamy Kale and Sausage, for quite some time and I decided tonight was the night.

Tonight should not have been the night.  First of all, I did not have all the ingredients, which meant I had to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work.  My husband had taken the boys to their martial arts class, so I was going to go home and start dinner before they got home at 6:45.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, I did not read the recipe very carefully ahead of time.  There were like a million steps that required a million different pots.  Okay, it was only three pots, but to me that's a lot.  I prefer to throw a bunch of ingredients into one pot, cook it, and be done.  This recipe had me doing things like slowly whisking in three cups of milk.  How do you slowly whisk in three cups of milk?  Why would I even want to?  It seems like it would make so much more sense to just dump it all in and stir.  But, whatever.

I really do try to do just what recipes say, but sometimes it just doesn't make sense.  And sometimes I just get hungry and too impatient.  Recipe says it will take 45 minutes and an hour and a half later I'm still whisking.

Finally I reached the step where I got to combine all the ingredients from the three different pots into one and mix it all up.  Which meant, of course, that I ended up flinging part of it out of the pot and all over the stove.  But wait.  I'm still not done.  The next step was to put the combined mixture into a 9x13 pan, sprinkle it with some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (which cost a fortune, by the way) and bake it at 350 for 15-18 minutes.  When it's done, it needs to rest for 10 minutes.  It needs to rest?  I'm the one who's been doing all the work!  

It's now 8:20 p.m. and we still haven't eaten.

All I can say is, this pasta better be good.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

If You Read My Lines

Black scratches across a white plane
Weave in and out
Dancing messages across time and space.

Do you hear what they are saying?

They speak of sunrises and sunsets
And thousands of moments in between.
They carry the sound of laughter
And the taste of tears.
They sing of triumphs and heartbreaks
And countless ordinary occasions
That add up to 
Extraordinary lives.

Thoughts and memories
And fantasies too
They are all there
Held tight by words,
Ink spilled upon the page.

If you read my lines
You will know what is on my mind.
If you read in between,
you will uncover my soul.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

But This Is Soooo Boring!

You know that kid who just doesn't want to do something so he moans and groans about it endlessly, making himself, and you, increasingly miserable by the minute?  You start off trying to encourage him, spouting words of wisdom in a cheerful, sing-song voice such as, "The sooner you get started, the sooner you'll finish," and "It's not that bad.  Really."  After a while, however, you realize a person can only take so much "But it's soooo boring," and "I don't wanna do it" before reaching the boiling-over point, and you find yourself quoting Nike ("Just do it!") in a somewhat less cheerful, sing-song voice.  Today I realized something.

I am that kid.

Now, in my own defense, I realized this while cleaning house, and I'm not sure moaning and groaning about housecleaning and trying to avoid it altogether should even count.  I mean, what sane person wants to spend a perfectly gorgeous Saturday cleaning house?  Not me, that's for dang sure.  Today I had to clean though.  My husband and his brother Jon signed up for a half-marathon that's taking place tomorrow, so plans were made for Jon, who lives a couple hours away, to spend the night with us.  In our house.  Which meant it had to be clean.  I can't have people thinking I'm a slob.

I can honestly say I did clean house all day today.  But I did a lot of other stuff, too.  Every time I passed by the computer, I came up with some reason to stop.  I wonder if anyone's read my blog?  Let me check.  Do I have any urgent emails that demand my attention?  What should I buy from my friend's Norwex Facebook party?  What is Norwex?  Let me Google it and see if it's really worth my money.  (I should probably point out the irony of this part.  If you are not familiar with Norwex, they sell cleaning products.  Cleaning.  The very thing I was actively avoiding.)  Ooh, someone posted something on Facebook.  I really need to read that.  And so on and so on.

Then the phone rang.



"Hi, Jon.  How are you?  Are you on your way?"

"I'm about 25 minutes away.  I just wanted to make sure someone was home."

"Yeah, we're home.  We'll see you when you get here.  Bye."

Oh crap!  25 minutes?  Suddenly I was aware of the 532 things I hadn't quite gotten to.  It was just little stuff really.  He'd be sleeping on clean sheets and the guest bathroom was clean.   That's what really matters, right?  So what if we had mail piled up on the dining room table?  Would he judge me if I had a few dirty dishes in the sink?  Actually, I knew this wasn't about my brother-in-law; it was about me.  I was raised in a very neat, tidy, and clean house.  That's the way I like my house to be.  I just don't like being the one to make it that way.

If only I hadn't wasted so much time.  I could have gotten everything done, no sweat.  Okay, maybe a little sweat.  But my house would be clean from top to bottom.  It would be done and I wouldn't have to worry about it.  Not for a few days at least.  No wonder I don't like cleaning.  Next weekend I'm going to have to do it all over again.

I think I feel another "But I don't wanna do it" coming on.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Ready for What?

Watching my son receive his advanced brown belt in martial arts last night, a thought flashed through my mind.  If schools are to prepare students to be "career and college ready," what would be the equivalent goal for martial arts?  Tournament and street-fight ready?

Perhaps that is the goal for some.  An incident during last night's ceremony, however, brought home the fact that really it serves a much higher purpose.

Before receiving their new belt, students demonstrate the skills they have been working on during the last cycle, and then they get to break a board.  That's always the flashy, exciting part of the event.  Only last night, my son had difficulty breaking his board.  He was trying to use a new kick he had learned, and he just couldn't quite get it so that the necessary force was there.  He tried and tried and tried, and yet he still couldn't get it.  He finally sank to the mat, crying in frustration.  I held my breath, silently offering words of encouragement, willing him to get back up and try again.  His instructor gave suggestions to help him, but Jack just sat there with a foot that was hurting from his repeated efforts and a pride that was drowning in defeat.  It could have ended there.  

But it didn't.  

Calling on a strength and determination that perhaps even he did not know he possessed, Jack rose to his feet and tried again.  I don't know how many times he kicked that board before he finally met with success.  All I know is in all my life I have never been so happy to hear the crack of a board and the explosion of applause that followed. 

I don't know how great Jack will ever be at martial arts.  A lot of it is hard for him, and his moves never seem to develop to the level of mastery that one might expect.  He has experienced a lot of frustration over the years because much of it doesn't come easy for him.  He is angry that his brother, who started at the same time he did, is one stripe ahead of him because a while back Jack didn't pass a test and Jared did.  There are times he says he sucks at it, and he seems to be on the verge of giving up.  But when I ask him if he wants to quit, he always says no.  (Of course, that is the answer I am hoping I will hear.)  A large part of the reason he continues has to do with his instructor, who is always positive and encouraging.  But even more importantly, I believe his experiences in martial arts over the last few years  have taught him to persevere even in the face of disappointment and discouragement.

So, no, I don't think Jack will ever be tournament or street-fight ready.  Does that mean Jack has failed?  His instructor has failed?  Not at all.  The experiences of the last three years have been preparing him for something even more important.  They have been preparing him for life.