Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Picture Books for POTUS #SOL17 #PictureBooks4POTUS

Last year an early lesson in my AP Lit and Comp class involved reading picture books and finding themes by raising universal questions, such as 

What motivates one person to take from another? 
How can kindness heal wounds from the past? 
Does money and material possessions make someone happier than those without? 
How can I serve others? 

Students liked the lesson, and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild found a new home with two students after they fell in love with the book, so I revisited the lesson last week. 

One group chose EXTRA YARN by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Jon Klassen as their book.

The story centers on Annabelle and a box of colorful yarn she finds. She knits herself a sweater and uses the extra to knit one for her dog, Mars. As Annabelle gives her sweaters away, the yarn magically replenishes itself, enabling Annabelle to knit sweaters and hats for many people. When the archduke offers a million dollars for the yarn, Annabelle refuses to sell it, so the archduke hires three thugs to steal the box of yarn. To his surprise, the box is empty. 

After class I stuck EXTRA YARN in my bag and carried it home. I've read and contemplated its theme that our lives are enriched through what we give and barren when we act selfishly and in our own interests. 

I'm struggling this year. I've fought the urge to quit, to curl up in a corner with my bag of teacher toys and never share again. I am wounded, and a wounded person must fight these baser instincts. My husband reminds me that I must focus on the reason I teach: students. And so I do. I shared with a colleague that having his son in class helps motivate me because I want to do right by my colleagues' children. This trimester I'm teaching two colleagues' children. 

I feel guilty for having a pity party as I watch friends in Houston gather strength to recover from Harvey.

I fight the overwhelming urge to hate Donald Trump as he brings our country closer to the brink of war and works daily to destroy the lives of DREAMERS by ending DACA. I don't know how to cope with his inelegant, inarticulate, depraved rhetoric.

Donald Trump needs art. He needs stories. He needs the power of picture books, poetry, and novels to see the lives of those whose reflection does not stare back in his mirror. He needs these stories to see himself in the archduke in EXTRA YARN. 

I need stories to temper my disgust with President Trump, and I need to share these stories, which is why I'm going to start Tweeting titles of picture books and other literature to the president using the hashtag #PicureBooks4Potus. I'm also sending him a copy of EXTRA YARN with a note suggesting he read it to his grandchildren. 

Of course, there's more work to do. The knitting of stories doesn't begin or end with one little thread. 
You'll find more stories each Tuesday in the Slice of Life Story Challenge.
Head over to Two Writing Teachers for your "Once upon a time" moment.
Thank you TWT for your commitment to stories and teaching.
*Please suggest titles for my project in the comment section. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"Storm Warnings" #SOL17

As I listened to the devastating news about Hurricane Harvey all weekend, Adrianne Rich's "Storm Warnings" spoke to me. Rich's layered lyric to an approaching storm parallels life's emotional storms. 

Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come onRegardless of prediction.



Radar image of Hurricane Harvey

I wanted my students to have a personal sense of both Harvey's impact as they recalled their own life storms. Often these national events feel far away, as does an approaching storm that suddenly slams our lives. The past few weeks, I've experienced and written about these emotional deluges. Only those who have lived through a natural disaster can begin to understand the challenges that confront Houston. 

Time in the hand is not control of time,...

I have friends in Houston. My college friend Susan has been sharing her experiences and personal history as a third generation Houstonian. My friend Erica embodies resilience as she fought the flooding of her home and worked to salvage cherished family heirlooms. She has ripped up carpeting and set up a FB page for guiding others in their classroom efforts to aide Harvey's victims.

My friend Ann, who retired a few years ago as our school media specialist and who now lives in Florida, is in Houston visiting her daughter Katy. I message Katy who has lived in Houston since 2008. My friend Dennis, whom I met virtually but with whom I've found a kindred spirit in our love of Shakespeare and political bent, has personal challenges as a caregiver that complicated riding out the storm.

As I checked in on my friends throughout Sunday, I remembered that my sister-in-law Lani has been working in Houston and traveling home to Oklahoma on the weekends. I texted my brother to see if Lani was in Houston during the storm and learned her apartment is in downtown Houston but that she is home in Broken Arrow.

Between foreseeing and averting change 
Lies all the mastery of elements 

My students often live day-to-day with little knowledge of current events, so I was not surprised when I learned most students had not heard about Harvey. I don't understand the self-imposed isolation that results in this "flat world" worldview, but I do know I can take the "teachable moment" and help fill in the gaps. This is why my AP Lit and Comp students and I read and discussed Storm Warnings" Monday afternoon.

This early experience with a complicated poem left my students silent, the way the eye of a hurricane offers false calm before unleashing its destructive forces. Similarly, my students felt the force of Rich's words, but they will need time to recover the poem's full meaning. 

This is our sole defense against the season; 
These are the things we have learned to do 
Who live in troubled regions.

We ned poetry to steel our souls against the onslaught of 

Storm Warnings

*The poem in its entirety follows: 


Storm Warnings
-Adrienne Rich

The glass has been falling all the afternoon, 

And knowing better than the instrument
What winds are walking overhead, what zone
Of grey unrest is moving across the land,
I leave the book upon a pillowed chair
And walk from window to closed window, watching
Boughs strain against the sky


And think again, as often when the air
Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,
How with a single purpose time has traveled
By secret currents of the undiscerned
Into this polar realm. Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come on
Regardless of prediction.


Between foreseeing and averting change 

Lies all the mastery of elements 
Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter. 
Time in the hand is not control of time, 
Nor shattered fragments of an instrument 
A proof against the wind; the wind will rise, 
We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black 
And set a match to candles sheathed in glass 
Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine 
Of weather through the unsealed aperture. 
This is our sole defense against the season; 
These are the things we have learned to do 
Who live in troubled regions.

Each Tuesday the Slice of Life story challenge
happens on the Two Writing Teachers blog. Thank you, TWT, forsponsoring this writing life that is my lifeline. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Waiting #SOL17

Our view of the #Eclipse17
At times I am a character in Samuel Beckett's existential tragicomedy Waiting for Godot. The play opens with Estragon telling Vladimir there is 

Nothing to be done.

Vladimir replies: 

I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't tried everything. And I resumed the struggle...

I haven't read Waiting for Godot in many years, yet its existential theme of life's meaninglessness speaks to me as I enter year 37 of my career. I've spent 28 years in my current school. 

The play revolves around Estragon and Vladimir sitting under a tree awaiting the arrival of Godot. Essentially, these two await something that never happens. They await someone who never arrives. Through their waiting, they realize the futility of their own existence, the wastefulness of waiting. 

The play includes levity and sadness. 

The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.

My experiences these past 28 years speak to the tragicomic, with the emphasis often on the tragic. I endured teaching under two really awful principals during much of my tenure. I've treasured a phone call I received the night in 1991 when I learned about who would take the place of a beloved principal whose brother died unexpectedly. This death prompted my principal, Bob Gould, to retire, and his retirement altered my life in ways I've never recovered from. I went from being the teacher who "saved our debate program" to a target of my new boss. In short, I suffered. Yet the voice on the phone reminded me that others who had suffered under this man were "dancing in the street" upon receiving the news of his departure. That an administrator, the parent of one of my students, shared this information with me became a life-raft for more than a decade. Knowing his reputation help me survive. 

I grapple with knowing how to write about these struggles without sounding bitter. These difficult times have motivated me to create a professional life outside my building. 

The story of teaching in repressive conditions is something I've not discussed publicly. I've focused on my students during my teaching storms and anchored my hope in them. Indeed, the departure of the second tyrant changed my circumstances significantly. For that I'm grateful, but I am still waiting. In the words of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti,

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting... 
for the Age of Anxiety 
to drop dead...
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
....
and I am waiting for my number to be called
.....
and I am waiting 
for the storms of life 
to be over
and I am waiting 
to set sail for happiness
....
I am waiting for the day 
that maketh all things clear...
and I am waiting 
for Alice in Wonderland 
to retransmit to me 
her total dream of innocence...
...
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again 
youth's dumb green fields come back again
....
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever 
a renaissance of wonder.

Yet I can't shake the idea that time is waning and that I'll always be waiting. Beckett characterizes this waiting as awful. It is. There is something unsettling, something awful, about nearing the end of a long teaching journey awakening to the cruelty that these years of waiting will be for naught, to realize I'll never have that carpe diem moment for which I long. It's as though something important has died yet continues to live. 

Vladimir and Estragon wonder: 

What are we doing here, that is the question. 

Yet they assure themselves they know:

And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense confusion one thing is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come--

Through my career of waiting, there are those moments apart from my job that offer wonder. Monday, I only needed to look to the heavens for such a moment. My husband, granddaughter, and a brother watched the eclipse with me. We were close to the path of totality but not quite there. 

Each Tuesday the Slice of Life story challenge
happens on the Two Writing Teachers blog. Thank you, TWT, for
sponsoring this writing life that is my lifeline. 


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Lonely Classroom

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING
          ---Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning: 
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking 
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Walking into my classroom for the first time after summer break, I'm never sure what awaits me. The detritus from upgrades and waxing loom in stacks of desks, misplaced boxes, tangled computer chords, and grease marks on furniture, residue from workers who invite themselves to lounge without considering the greasy tattoos they'll leave behind. 

I face the mess. 

Begin the arduous task of repositioning the room. 

Begin making changes to the room's layout now that the boxy old television no longer hangs from the northeast corner. Only a tan square and two small holes, the outline of the bracket that held the antiquated screen, remain. Maybe someone will paint the scar and fill the holes later. Maybe it will remain as a reminder of forgotten technology, a television considered cutting-edge in its newness years ago. 

How do teachers turn the empty classroom into a community, especially when a cocoon of isolation ensnares our profession. When systemic power structures have little regard for any sense of fairness and justice?

Years ago, after my divorce, a student asked: "Are you going to remarry?"
"I don't know?"
"How can you stand to be alone?" the student stated more than asked.
"A bad marriage is a very lonely place." 

I think about the good and bad years in my career as I unstack the desks and tug at the teacher desk in a struggle to wedge it from the floor where a veneer of wax anchors it. Last yer was good.

I'd forgotten I'd left all the bulletin boards up at the end of May until I walked into my room last week. One less task to complete. High school teachers rarely plan and execute room decor with the flair of elementary teachers. I covered the multi-colored film border in the southwest corner of the room with the new black and white polkadot border I'd purchased. I'll take the old and new down in a couple of years. I stapled poster edges and changed the border on my Nerdy Book Club bulletin board that's been up for the past two years. 

In a few days I'll stack handouts on the front table, write greetings on the white board, review new and true first-day lessons, and paste a smile on my face. I'll swim into a new school year and greet students, shaking their hands, and thanking them for being there. I am grateful for their presence in my room and in my life. We will read poetry, stories, novels together. We will ask tough questions that likely will remain unanswered. I'll say, "I don't know" often because these days I really don't know. I have no answers. I too seek both the questions and the answers and am often only given silence. These students will be my buoys, and I will try to be theirs, as I paddle into the unknown that awaits them and me. 

But if you see me waving...





Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Crying Room

West End Elementary School
Joplin, Missouri vi Wiki-images.
I.

I cry.

Often.

I realized I struggle holding back tears when I changed schools in first grade after my parents' custody fight, a fight my father won, a battle in which the court declared my mother "unfit" to raise her two daughters in 1965 America. 

I learned the news the day my stepmother Jean sat in her mother's blue '63 Corvair outside West End Elementary in Joplin, Missouri awaiting my sister and me. A shy, quiet, frightened girl, I rarely spoke at school but remember my seat partner whose blonde curls lay in perfect ringlets around her head in stark contrast to my jagged-edged short hair, the product of a home cut. 

My teacher, Mrs. Young, was finishing her last year teaching, which I did not know at the time and only learned the last day of school when she kissed me on the cheek and said her tearful goodbyes to each child. Nearing the end of my own long teaching journey, I realize both the nostalgia and regrets Mrs. Young must have experienced in that final year as she guided a room of 1st graders on their learning journey.

Throughout 1st grade I'd developed an uncomfortable normalcy with my teacher's clipped voice and regimented classroom structure. I struggled to see the board and often hid inside my own skin as I folded my shoulders into my chest and bent over my workbooks. Both in class and on the playground I struggled to fit in as often happens with children living in poverty. My lazy eye--that looked like its job was to guard the bridge of my nose rather than view the world--compounded my social awkwardness. I don't remember progress reports, but I did earn a presidential reading certificate at the end of the year. 

When my stepmother arrived that April day and said, "You'll be living with your dad and me from now on and going to school in Webb City," I cried. As uncomfortable as I was when Mrs. Young told me one day to tell my mother to buy me a toothbrush, I feared changing schools more, so I cried. 

And I did not stop crying. 

II.

I met my new teacher, Mrs. Testament, in the front office of Mark Twain Elementary in Webb City, Missouri. Her appearance and voice frightened me. Mrs. Testament possessed a wide girth. Her ample ass raised the back of her dress so that it resembled a reverse high-low style and revealed her nylons' rolled tops. Above the hosiery I saw dimply upper thigh flesh. Thinking about Mrs. Testament's  appearance now resurrects an image of the Trunchbull from Matilda in my mind. 

I do not remember Mrs. Testament's greeting, but I sensed her annoyance. A 1st grader does not know the challenges facing a teacher forced to accept a new student in late April. Both her appearance and voice frightened me, so I cried as I followed my new teacher to her classroom. 

"Stop crying," Mrs. Testament commanded. Her anger brought more tears to my eyes. I sobbed in uncontrollable spurts and choked on my own breath. Snot streamed from my nose to my top lip. The more Mrs. Testament demanded I stop crying, the more I sobbed. I wanted to stop crying. I strove to gain control of my composure. I could not. My fear and sadness overpowered my will. I had no control over my own emotions. 

"We have a crying room for kids who won't stop crying." Mrs. Testament wrapped her hand around my upper arm and pushed me down the hall to a small room I later identified as the Health Office. "You can come back to class when you stop crying." Still, I cried. 

Alone in the Health Office slash Crying Room, I struggled to control my wails and sobs. Various school officials visited me in the Crying Room. They uttered words meant to comfort, but even these brought more tears. 

These trips to the Crying Room became a version of Groundhog Day during the next two weeks. I'd arrive at school. See Mrs. Testament. Start crying. Find myself sobbing in the Crying Room. Repeat. 

III.

At some point my father and stepmother must have had a conversation with school officials about what would work best for the remainder of my 1st grade year. Someone must have realized I could not learn locked in the Crying Room. 

I returned to West End Elementary and the familiarity of my seat partner's perfect curls and Mrs. Young's routine. She gave each girl a paper parasol on the last day. I opened mine and shielded my face under its pink flowers when I began crying when Mrs. Young kissed my cheek and said, "I love you." 

IV.

Even though I left Mrs. Testament's class, I did not escape the Crying Room. Its physical structure morphed into a type of locked-in emotional reality for me. For more than 50 years I've fought my tears. I tend to cry more when I am angry or hurt. Less when I am sad. More when I'm disappointed in someone in whom I once had faith. Less when dealing with individuals I see as self-serving and egomaniacal.

As a child, I cried when my my father spanked my sister Gaylene. As a student I cried over math. As a teacher I cry for students and for myself in moments of regret, in times I made wrong decisions. As a reader I cry when reading a sad story or poem. As a citizen, I cry for my country.

If I'm struggling as I have this past week, the mere sight of certain people pull tears from my eyes. 
For long periods I reside in my mind's Crying Room. 

V.

Looking back, I should have realized sooner the symbolic significance of those 1st grade days. I should have realized when an environment brings me to the brink of despair, I need to exit the crying room. I look around for an exit sign and see none. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Teacher Tunnel Podcast and Intentional Teaching #SOL17 #TeacherTunnel

The new logo for the Teacher Tunnel Podcast
Great literature is about telling truths through untruths. 

I'm quoting myself above and referring to my recent guest appearance on the Teacher Tunnel Podcast, hosted by Jon Belt, an Oklahoma City educator from Oklahoma Cit. Jon used my comment about literature as a lead-in to the podcast and on his blog notes from the podcast, which is #28 and titled 

LESSONS FROM A MASTER TEACHER

Jon used my participation in the NEA Better Lesson Master Teacher Project in his description of me. I'll let others decide whether or not he's right! 

A note on the podcast website offers Jon's purpose in producing TEACHER TUNNEL:  

The Teacher Tunnel Podcast is an entertaining and authentic look at the teacher leaders in education and beyond. What are their habits, routines, and strategies? As a teacher and learner, Jon Belt wants to bring great people and thinkers to the surface and share their thoughts and insights about teaching, learning, self-improvement, and education.

The old logo!
Jon and I connected via my brother Steve. Steve works for the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma school district and met Jon via professional channels. 

This was my first time as a podcast guest, and I found Jon to be a gracious host who makes me sound better than I am. He sent me a questionnaire and opened the interview with questions designed to get to know me as an individual first and then as a teacher. These questions echo the PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE I've adapted for classroom use. 

At its heart the TEACHER TUNNEL PODCAST shares stories from the lives of educators. These stories remind me of the kind of intentional teacher I strive to be and that heading back to school I'm struggling to achieve. 

A highlight of my appearance, for me anyway, is our discussion of doing our part in our classrooms when so much in education is beyond our control. I also used the podcast to push myself to blog today because I certainly did not feel like posting, but the act of writing helps my soul, something I need right now. 

My hope is that my teacher story will serve others in education as they navigate both their personal and professional lives during these challenging times. 

Through the years, one of the things that helps me get through rough years, which I suspect this coming year will be, is trying to live up to some of the honors I've received. Will my colleagues hear the podcast and think it represents me and that I'm honest in my responses? Do I practice the core values and standards of the NBPTS? Am I a good representative of the NEA Master Teacher Project? 

These are questions that weigh on my mind when I struggle and want to give up, as I have the past two days. A couple of weeks ago a teacher left a comment for me on the Better Lesson website that reminds me that I have a responsibility to educators I don't know, that I have a responsibility to myself in terms of rising to my own expectations: 

I feel like you are my spirit guide. I have been perusing your lesson plans for Beowulf and The First Days of School. There are so many things I have tried and/or wanted to do but just couldn't find the perfect activity to tie it together...until now. Thank you for sharing these lessons and your creativity with other teachers. I can't wait to see how some of these ideas transform my classroom!

I'm grateful to Jon Belt for his selfless act of sharing teachers' lives. I know this and other educational podcast are labors of love and commitment to teachers and students. 

Teaching often feels like a crawl through a dark space, a virtual tunnel that frequently finds us groping and struggling to find a light. The TEACHER TUNNEL PODCAST offers many aha moments for and from educators as Jon shines his light on the lights of teachers. 

*I encourage you to subscribe via iTunes or on your Android device. 

**Winner of my recent book giveaway for a copy of Beth Kephart's Tell the Truth: Make It Matter is Susan Barber. Congratulations, Susan. Check out the AP Lit Help blog that Susan runs. It's not just for AP Lit teachers. 




Thursday, August 10, 2017

Back to School Study Resources Inspired by "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" Part 1.


This summer I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A McDaniel. The book found me last summer via Brian Sztabnik, who hosts the Talks With Teachers website and podcast and is the high school representative on the College Board for AP Literature and Composition. 

My interest in Make It Stick stems primarily from my role as an AP Lit and Comp teacher and as a dual credit instructor for Idaho State University. I teach Communication 1101, Introduction to Speech. I mention this because some of the ideas in Make It Stick push against conventional wisdom among ELA teachers. 

For example, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel argue against rereading as an effective study technique. As someone who does not like to reread books and typically only reread the texts I teach, I appreciate having my own preferences privileged and acknowledged. That is, rereading works differently in advanced high school courses and college-level courses than in early grades. High school students do not have time to reread a complete novel. Their busy lives necessitate efficient time management, something often anathema to rereading. 

Instead of rereading, the authors offer strategies students can use to enhance their understanding of challenging texts. Most of these these will sound familiar. I experienced a sense of validation both while reading the book and after finishing it as some of the suggestions reflect things I've done since elementary school. 

One such example of an effective study strategy is self-testing. This is something I teach students to do in all my classes, although I must admit inconsistency in integrating these lessons. Often I have a one-on-one with a student who struggles studying. 

This is why I've decided to create some handouts for my students to use this year. I'm offering these to my colleagues in this space and in my building. Below are links to handouts I'm giving to my students. Throughout my courses, I'll demonstrate these learning tools and remind students to try them. 

  • Self-Test
  • Spaced-Out Practice
    • Interleave Material
    • Interleave Problem Types
    • Interleave Subjects and Skills
As an English and speech teacher, I notice the impact of retrieving learning in my speech classes. This is likely because the three prepared speeches students must present rely heavily on a core formula: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. This framework dictates the foundation of all speeches, but each speech type has specific requirements. Students may struggle with the parts of the introduction, for example, at the beginning of the course: 
  • Attention step
  • Topic Justification
  • Credibility Statement
  • Preview Step 
The requirement for each step changes, but all speeches include these parts in the introduction. By the end of the course, students are so used to this that they experience mastery of the material. This way of practicing retrieval optimizes their learning. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll prepare more study materials for my students and share them in this space. In the interim, you'll find Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning a worthwhile addition to your professional library both for its theoretical grounding and its valuable tools that promote a growth mindset and a means for students to make their learning stick.