Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Language to Object: Reading "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" by Emily Dickinson in the Aftermath #SOL17

In the aftermath of yet another uniquely American trope, a mass shooting, I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson's poem #754, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--." The poem's words haunt me, especially the last two lines:

For I have but the power to kill, 
Without--the power to die--

In one of the most poignant critiques of Dickinson's #754, the poet Adrianne Rich contends, "The poet experiences herself as a gun."

Think about that for a moment. In the Nineteenth Century Emily Dickinson, a poet most revered for the ways she redefined American poetry through her use of unusual punctuation, through her free verse structures, and through her themes of nature, love, and God, constructs an extended metaphor of herself as a gun.

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

Not only is the speaker in this poem literally a gun, she also possesses power equal to that of a gun. Again, Rich offers an interpretation I find most satisfying in her description of the poem as one "about possession" and "about the danger and risks of possession." 

In Rich's reading, we find a sensual subtext. Our speaker and the gun are one, but the hunter has the power to carry both away.

The poem progresses with this gun-woman and the hunter roaming the woods and experiencing physical awakenings that rival the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. For the hunter, the woman becomes a protector from his enemies. 

That is, the woman's power far exceeds that of the hunter. Remember, she is the gun. She makes the choices regarding its use. The final stanza clarifies this enigmatic point: 

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

In the wake of yet another mass shooting, another suicide by mass killing--for the killer almost always ends up dead, leaving men scratching their heads and pondering his motives--I'm reminded of the power of art as I read #754.

As a poet, Emily Dickinson's art lives on. Today a poem reminds me that it is our artists who own the most power. "This woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal weapon," argues Rich. 

Will we continue to allow an object, a gun, to "have the power to kill, without the power to die"? Or will we embody our power, the power of art and of women who know language is more powerful and love a superior protector. 

Emily Dickinson speaks to us from the Nineteenth Century. A gun will never die, but we can give art more power to live. A gun is nothing more than an object that once possessed has the ultimate power to kill, and in Dickinson's imagination, the gun and its possessor are one, inextricably linked in a uniquely American pattern. 






Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Tipping Points in Teaching: A Reader Response to "Purple Hibiscus" #SOL17


Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere. 

Reading the opening sentence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, transports readers to an earlier novel by another Nigerian writer; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe also resonates with common post-colonial themes in its critique of religion, language, violence, traditionalism, family life, etc. 

Nevertheless, it's the idea of tipping points within the novel's circular structure that concerns me as I write this post. As does Achebe, Adiche draws on "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats to signal readers her characters will reach a limit, and so our narrator, Kambili, a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl, returns to Adiche's opening idea that "things fall apart" near the novel's end: 

The next day was Palm Sunday, the day Jaja did not go to communion, the day Papa threw his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines. 

In the interim, readers learn that both Kambili and Jaja, as well as their mother, have endured physical abuse from their father, Eugene, for many years, but on this Palm Sunday, these characters reach a tipping point. Their lives consumed with fear and silence and secrets, "the center cannot hold." 

The novel resonates with the normalcy of abusive relationships. As one of my students noted in our discussion Monday, we expect Papa to react with violence each time Kambili or Jaja break one of his rules. We've witnessed violence beget violence. Each incident moves readers toward numbness. My student said that the normalcy causes him to begin not caring. I understand his impulse to detach from these characters. We know that abusive relationships embody cycles, and breaking the cycle poses untoward challenges for both victim and abuser. 

At some point in a novel and in life characters and people reach a tipping point, a moment when change is inevitable. This happens in Purple Hibiscus. Our narrator tells us that "things started to fall apart" that Palm Sunday, but Kambili is an unreliable narrator. Her family was on the brink of anarchy long before Palm Sunday, and readers witness Kambili's lost innocence in the ceremony of ritualistic violence.

Today I'm wondering at what point things fall apart for teachers. When do we pass through the ceremony of innocence in our careers? We experience the "turning and turning in the widening gyre," as Yeates describes the movement toward chaos, almost daily, more when we feel overwhelmed by the demands of our jobs. It's during these difficult fall days I ponder: At what point do "the best lack all conviction"?

When Eugene exacts his most violent act against Kambili she curls onto herself: 

I closed my eyes and slipped away into silence.

Silence permeates Purple Hibiscus. Kambili struggles to find her voice. I see this silence in my colleagues. I sense a tipping point when a colleague shares: "I feel like it's never enough." 

Indeed, our profession demands more than expertise in our curriculum and knowledge of pedagogy. We must be all things to all students. Sometimes we're asked the same for and from colleagues.

We talked about efficacy in our most recent PD, but our discussion did not center on what I deem the most important element of efficacy: mastery. Instead, we focused on the cause du jour. Later I learned a colleague had also marked mastery on the handout we'd been asked to read and discuss. During both exchanges--the one during PD and the one with my colleague--I thought about Kambili's silence. I thought about the consequences of silence, both in literature and in our collective teaching life. 

There was so much I wanted to say and so much I did not want to say.  

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Teaching Argument Refutation Using the Twitter Thread [Lesson Plan: Part 1]

As part of the dual credit Communication 1101 class I teach, students must construct refutation for two of their three speeches. Idaho State University, our partner in the Early College Program, requires students to follow a tightly structure method of refutation. 

This 4-Step Refutative Method poses significant struggle for some students. First, they have little experience addressing positions in opposition to their own. Second, they often get confused about the format of their refutation and the necessity of identifying the methods they use to respond to counter-arguments. Finally, students sometimes think their job is to build an argument agains their own position rather than reconstruct their own argument. 

In my early days of teaching the course, ISU required four speeches of students. I wrote about the refutative speech in an earlier post.  This is a common approach to teaching refutation, as an online guide from the University of Pittsburgh shows.

I use a couple of activities to teach refutation, including an improvisational game; however, recently I've notices an uptick in Twitter threads that incorporate not only the characteristics of good argument but that also embody almost all the characteristics of refutation I require of students. 

To see what I mean, let's first take a look at the 4-Step Refutative Method my students use in their speeches. Since students use a traditional outlining structure, I'll stick to that here. Refutation is part of the third contention in the outline:

III. Statement of opposing argument.
      A. Method of response to the opposing argument.
      B. Research supporting the student's position and that clashes w/ the opposition. 
      C. Impact statement. 

Sometimes students name the position they're refuting in the transition leading to their response. The outline may take on a slightly different structure when students take this approach. This is fine as long as students have all four parts and construct their speeches in such a way that the audience can follow their reasoning. 

Twitter threads also follow the 4-Step Refutative Method when the write of the thread seeks to construct a cogent response to a position s/he wishes to refute. Adam Khan used this method in his response to Sean Hannity's tweet Saturday about the bogus Russian uranium deal. Here's Hannity: 

Guess;Mueller and Media working hand in hand Media to be tipped off. Mueller was FBI Director Who knew of Russian crimes before Uranium one


I've typed Hannity's tweet exactly as he constructed it. As Twitter users know, to respond to a tweet, either when agreeing or disagreeing, one retweets and comments. That results in the response appearing on top of the first tweet, making the original tweet take on a form of hanging indentation. 

A thread will appear in reverse order in its original form. When a Twitter user wants to construct a thread, s/he generally numbers the tweets to aide others in seeing the chronology. This is important because it's common for a thread to be interrupted by others chiming in. Fortunately, this did not happen with Khan's thread.

Khan's response to Hannity does not give his refutative method, but I'd call this initial response denial of Hannity's claim. This is the first tweet in the thread.

But Khan hasn't finished building his response. His second tweet reads:

2. Obama locked down the contract-didn't give Russia a Nuclear Export license-so Putin just can't take the uranium, which is of poor grade. 

Khan implies something important in this tweet: Claims that we sold uranium to Russia are overblown in their impact. He minimizes Hannity's claim, and her offers supporting evidence to support his contention. I particularly like the use of Forbes here because it's a publication that tends to lean a little conservative in its stance. 

Here are screen shots of this and the rest of the thread, which contains eight tweets, and my analysis of each:

I'd characterize the third tweet as an impact statement. That is, why does Khan's response to Hannity matter? What's the ultimate consequence? 

3. The work Mueller and Comey put into nailing Mikerin mean that any Russian attempts to bribe officials will be met with consequences.

Again, Khan offers evidence to support his claim. This time he turns to the Department of Justice for official word on the Mikerin sentencing to emphasize the hardline stance the Obama White House took on this issue. 

But Khan hasn't finished with Hannity, although he could have ended his twitter response after the third tweet since it offers a sufficient counter to Hannity's conspiracy theory. Instead, Khan drives his point home by employing one of my favorite methods of refutation. He turns the tables on Hannity.

4. Mueller's extensive experience with Russian schemes to influence U.S. NatSec is precisely why he was picked to lead this Russia probe.


It isn't clear what source Khan uses here, but it's probably the Forbes article. 

The next two tweets pre-empt a possible Hannity response: 

5. Did Mueller alert CFIUS members reviewing UraniumOne deal about Mikerin? Based on how the contract is structured, it would appear he has.

6. If Mueller didn't alert CFIUS officials, it's possibly because he wanted to quietly trap anyone he suspected of involvement with bribery


Khan recognizes the short attention span Twitter users have as they quickly scroll through their feeds, so he does something every teacher does and something every high school debater does: He reminds us of an earlier tweet and his evidence by retweeting his second tweet in the thread. Again, we see what looks like hanging indentation. 

7. UraniumOne deal happened during US-Russia "reset"-if Putin had any larger plans, contract's language thwarts that

This reminder of the language of his earlier tweet is something I want my students to do in their speeches. That is, I want them to remind students of their logic and reasoning. I want them to use language to connect the dots, so to speak. Often they refer to ideas in their classmates speeches to reenforce their own arguments. That's when I know authentic learning is happening.

To end his twitter rant with a real impact, Khan reminds his followers of the need to attend to our dealings with China as well as Russia. This final tweet signals followers to pay attention to Russia but also to notice what's happening in the Donald Trump White House. 

8. If anything is begging to be looked at more closely, it's why Trump nixed TPP, giving China regional supremacy.

That retweet of himself is from August, but it's a potent reminder to follow the money. And that's how to flip an argument on Twitter and in the classroom.

CLASSROOM APPLICATION

To reteach the 4-Step Refutative Method, I'll give students a handout with the twitter thread. Next, I'll ask students to turn-and-talk to a partner about the methods of refutation Khan employes. We'll then discuss these methods, as well as the evidence to see if it says what Khan says it says. This is important. Finally, we'll talk about Khan's sources since I expect students to use quality sources of information. 

Since Khan's thread obviously leans left, it's important to give students a chance to talk about how Hannity might respond. The Russia uranium deal reappeared last Sunday when The Hill published a lengthy news article on it. Since that time, the issue has become a favorite diversionary talking point in Trump's tweets and on right-wing talk radio and news shows, such has Sean Hannity's.

As a final classroom talking point, I'll emphasize to my students Khan's retweeting Hannity's claim. I'll draw their attention to this as the only acknowledgment of Hannity's position. This matters because some students think refutation is about offering lots of evidence in response to the opposing position. 

TWITTER MATTERS

As a baby-boomer, I recognize the clipped nature of a tweet. I acknowledge its inherent limitations as a platform for constructing essays and fully-fleshed arguments. However, my students use Twitter. It is a ubiquitous part of their days. They read the claims of many and give little thought to whether or not the tweet passes the CRAAP test. As a twenty-first century educator, I must find ways to use the tools students love while also teaching them how to construct academic rhetoric that echoes Aristotle's use of ethos, pathos, and logos. 

Wish me luck. I'll let you know how it goes in my next blog post and, of course, in a tweet! 


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Because Nice Matters #SOL17

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In our often unkind world, a gentle reminder that small acts of kindness matter can make all the difference in the lives of both students and teachers. Our student government chose BECAUSE NICE MATTERS as the all-school theme this year. 

During our student advisory time Monday, we were tasked with showing a short video created by student government and introducing their peers to this week's focus on the theme. We'll have three week-long theme focuses this year, one each trimester. 

At the end of the video, students were given a "kindness" task to complete. Today's directive asked students to introduce themselves to someone they don't know. In a school of over 1,500 students, this should be an easy task. However, new students often struggle to find a niche in our school. This reality makes me sad, but it is a reality. 

As someone who was once new to Highland, I experienced my own challenges getting to know my colleagues. When I first started at HHS in 1989, only the men spoke to me. I felt like the student in the old film Cipher in the Snow for a long time. All but one of the women in my department refused to speak to me. Years later, I learned why: They thought I'd be one in a long line of debate coaches whom they saw as not doing what they needed to do. I had to prove myself. Only after I stopped coaching did I learn this. It was during a conversation with my department head. She apologized after confessing. 

My early experiences as a new person in my school and community have heightened my sensitivity for new students. Over the years I've tried to offer them words of encouragement and have tried to help them find their place in the school community. 

Jacqueline Woodson's Each Kindness illustrates the importance of showing kindness to new students. Woodson tells the story of a girl who found herself isolated and bullied in her new school. When the teacher demonstrates the ripple effect a small act of kindness has on the world by having students drop a pebble in a pool, the narrator realizes she has no act of kindness to share with her classmates. Her lack of kindness to the new student haunts her, and she looks for an opportunity to rectify it. That opportunity doesn't come. I reviewed the book in this space back in 2012 and return to it often as a reminder that each kindness mattes.

I read Woodson's book to my group of advisory students. One commented, "That's something she'll have to live with all her life." Yes, we have to own our failure to practice kindness. I know this is something I fail at often, and I told my students this. I shared a story from my college days when a friend called me out for it. She was right, and I admitted this to students Monday. 

These days I'm appalled by the meanness I see in the comments on social media and seeping from DT's Twitter feed. I'm appalled by the ad hominem attacks that spew from his mouth. Since the last election cycle, I've thought often about my own failure to be nice all the time, especially since I don't want to be anything like DT. Hate and vitriol also produce ripples. 

"Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world," writes Woodson. Imagine the force of those ripples when we all drop a pebble of kindness onto someone every day. 

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too: Every Woman's Story: #SOL17 #MeToo


Where do I begin to tell my "Me Too" story? 

Do I start with the boy who stood on his porch every day as I walked home from school in seventh grade so he could cat call, "You have really big boobs. You should be in Playboy"?

Maybe I'll tell about my boss at Tastee Freeze who wanted me to kiss him on my 16th birthday: "Give me a birthday kiss," he said over and over, even while his own child stood near the ice cream machine, even as my classmate, a co-worker, told me it was no big deal and she had done it. 

That story about S. D. G. climbing on me in the back seat while our friends made out in the front might be a good starting point to this narrative. I felt embarrassed walking into the dorm with blue velour threads all over my white sweater and one earring missing. I showered and cried. The phone rang. S.D.G. didn't mean it. He didn't know "no" meant "no." He wanted to make it up to me w/ dinner and a movie 30 miles away. NO!

I could start with the first story I recall. It's about a relative who liked to have children sit on his lap as he used one hand on top and the other down south. I'm not the only one who whispered, "stop." I felt embarrassed about getting caught. I thought I had done something wrong. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Until caught happened that day I lay in the bedroom napping at the relative's house and two someones walked in and chased him away as I tried pushing him away with my hands and my "NO," still a whisper. 

We so called "full-figured" women are asking for it, we're told. Maybe that's why a co-worker thought he could grab and grope. It was in the lounge. There were colleagues present. He was subtle. I walked away, a smile on my face.

On a trip to Kansas City the guy I was dating thought it was okay to persist, to hound, to cajole, to insist. I was sick with a fever. I'd driven him to K.C. for reasons I no longer remember. The rest of that memory isn't so easily dismissed. Some trips are like that.

"I don't know a woman that hasn't happened to," my gentle husband said when I read this post to him. His words made me cry. I released tears I've let build up from these memories, these "me too" moments. 

Me Too. It's a single story almost all women share, but we are not the sum of this one story. We contain multitudes of stories. Stories of strength. Stories of accomplishment. Stories of survival. These too are part of our "Me Too' moments. 

*Learn more about the origin of the #MeToo hashtag in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein Sex Scandal and the hashtag's creator, Alyssa Milano, on Know Your Meme.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Collegial Conversations through an All-Staff Read #SOL17

Every good rowing  coach, in his own way, imparts to his men the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart, and body. Which is why most ex-oarsmen will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the racing shell than in the classroom. --George Yeoman Pocock

Our principal at Highland, Brad Wallace, speaks often about grit and persistence. Brad is a reader. Brad lives and breathes the power of words. He reads more than any administrator I've known, and he wants all the teachers in my building to read with him. I get giddy thinking about this reading mission. 

Brad models reading, so I felt a tinge of pride when he called me during the summer to talk about books and get my input about the book he'd choose for our staff to read. In fact, we're reading two books: Formative Assessment and The Boys in the Boat. 

I knew some of my colleagues would not share my excitement about reading and chatting about a book that isn't specifically pedagogical. I shared this with Brad, so when he mentioned TBItB, I mentioned that my husband had read and loved the book. I also know men often prefer nonfiction.

We had our first staff discussion about Part 1 of the narrative this past Friday during our fall inservice. We gathered in the choir room as our building was hosting the state math and science conference. That meant I had to venture to a part of our cavernous building I'd rarely entered. I saw one of my colleagues try a wrong entrance as she mistook the band room for the choir room.

If Brad decides he no longer wants to occupy space in the big office, he should teach English because he knows how to facilitate a book discussion. I'm sure Brad considered the possibility that some teachers would not read. Indeed that was the case. Even so, Brad set up our discussion so that even those nonreaders among us could participate in the discussion.

Since our building growth plan centers on Individual and Collective Efficacy, Brad had us define Efficacy based on passages in the book. We broke into small groups to do this so that our conversations would be more intimate and inclusive.
Our second round moved beyond self-efficacy to collective-efficacy. We were able to examine the relevant passages in the book and fill in the gaps for those who had not caught up with the reading as we focused on the specific lines Brad chose. 

As we neared the end of the discussion, Brad asked us to read a page about developing self-confidence. Self-confidence comes from accountability, initiative, and collaboration. These ideas transported me back to ninth grade and a lesson from my speech class. My teacher, Nydia May Jenkins, taught us that self-confidence comes from learning to do things well rather than vacuous praise. I shared my memory with my group. 

I'm in my 37th year teaching, and this is the first year I've read a book that is not specific to eduction as part of an all-staff read. 

I've worked for many administrators over the years. Most articulate expectations to staff, but with Brad we have authentic conversations about student growth and staff goals, and these conversations are grounded in reading. Brad goes beyond voicing the importance of literacy, he rows with us into the book, and he's not the only one. Three of our four administrators love reading. I'll be writing about my AP Lit and Comp class's discussion of Purple Hibiscus, which our assistant principal Jena Wilcox will be reading with the class.

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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Considering "Citizen" in Response to Las Vegas #SOL17

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We have all the answers. It's the questions we do not know. --Dostoyevsky

I revisited Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric after a student suggested I write about Sunday evening's massacre in Las Vegas. 

My husband and I said "I do" to one another in Las Vegas at the Little White Chapel, and we visit LV at least once a year. The city holds a special place in our hearts. We grieve for Las Vegas and her citizens. 

This world we live in makes little sense to me these days. My fragmented thoughts can't form words, and I find myself numb. Each act of man's inhumanity to man contributes to my desensitization. That scares me. 

How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? 

Rankine poses this question as she writes about the Rodney King riots, but her inquiry points to an absence of empathy in our world. 

Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign? 

Change one word--riot--and it's easy to apply the question to the LV massacre, and before that the Arianna Grande concert killing, and before that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, and before that the Sandy Hook slaughter. Of course, these bloody events stand out for their massive carnage, yet other shootings fill the blank spaces between each.

In an unintentional ironic twist, Sunday's edition of "60 Minutes" featured an interview with Congressman Steve Scalise, the NRA supported Republican Majority Whip who was critically wounded during a baseball practice this past June in Alexandria, Virginia. 

The "60 Minutes" story was a piss-poor piece of journalism, a fluff piece that focused on Scalise's wounds and recovery. No discussion of his support for NRA policy positions. No discussion of gun violence in the U.S. and the government's failure to treat it as a health crisis. 

Before it happened, it had happened and happened, says Rankine of the riots. 

She could easily say this about mass shootings. Still, we narrate the same fiction: Guns don't kill people. This latest carnage will likely make little difference in public discourse. We'll hear the platitudes and pretend public safety depends on arming of citizens. Pretend that the only defense against a bad man with a gun is a good guy with his finger on the trigger. If the near fatal shooting of a Congressman won't change the narrative, certainly the gunning down of country and western concert-goers won't alter the story arc. 

We're told authorities have no answers for why a 64-year-old white man toted 42* guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition into a hotel and massacred Jason Aldean fans. We're told the gunman had no prior legal problems, had no ties to terrorists. These "facts" make the gunman's actions no less terrifying. What label do we stick on a man who killed 59, maybe more, revelers from the thirty-second floor of a casino if not terrorist? Does not an act of terror merit that label? Certainly lone-wolf, a euphemism, diminishes the citizen victims. 

The insidiousness of our national denial reeks. Perhaps white America will in time live the reality Rankine explores in Citizen as she describes the lived reality of black people

And where is the safest place when that place must be someplace other than in the body?...When you lay your body in the body entered as if skin and bone were public places, when you lay your body in the body entered as if you're the ground you walk on, you know no memory should live in these memories becoming the body of you. 

I wonder: Will mass violence in public places define my students' teen years? Will they recall their homecoming in conjunction with the Las Vegas massacre? Will the collage of memory form from the shrapnel of a lone gunman's final violent act against innocent citizens? 

*Last edit: 8:50 MST to reflect 42 and not 10 guns.

**Dedication: For Ashley Nicole Hitchcock and Cade Brown, Citizens of Las Vegas. Ashley is one of my favorite Highland graduates, and though I've not met Cade, I know him through Ashley's stories. 


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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Ones Who Walk Away... #SOL17

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Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

The people of Omelas, the utopian city Ursula K. Le Guin describes in her short story THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS, live idyllic lives in a picturesque city. They walk around town in an utopian stupor, unaware of their own power to effect change. With intent they walk away from the one child whose existence embodies misery, hunger, sadness, want.

This child of ten---a significant age in its biblical implications---looks much younger for "it" lives in a small room, isolated from the utopia Omelas enjoy. It knows no beauty. It experiences no joy. Yet the child's presence, its suffering, anchors the city, perhaps functions as its cornerstone, a foundation on which all that's good in the city depends on this one child.

In Le Guin's visioning, the people know the child suffers. They've made a conscious decision to allow the child's suffering. Their comfort depends on the child's discomfort:

Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery. 

On both a micro and macro level this story grows more relevant to me as I contemplate life's moments. I live comfortably. I do not want for food, clothing, transportation, medical care, housing. The "necessities" I take for granted come to me in ways I'd rather not think about too much: child labor in third-world countries provide my technology and clothing; migrant farm labor puts cheap food on my table. I have employee-provided health care and don't need insurance through the ACA.


The people of the town would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do.

Too often we react to the suffering around us as though we, too, live in Omelas. What can we do? We feel sadness when we hear about national tragedies, such as racial profiling and natural disasters, but like those in Le Guin's story, we feel anger, outrage, impotence... 


This past weekend I, along with the rest of the nation, watched as the social movement Colin Kaepernick started in 2016 exploded into a full-blown protest, one sparked by President Trump's offensive rhetoric. I see Kaepernick as a symbol in the way Le Guin's child is a symbol. As long as Kaepernick and his NFL colleagues stay in their lane, to use contemporary parlance, they merit the admiration of the fans. Those who denigrate the kneelers expect Kaepernick and those who have joined him to sit in the detritus of racism just as the Omelas leave the child in excrement.


The fans may "brood" or "mourn" or cry for a moment over Charlottesville or Ferguson or any number of white on black abuses, but little changes, especially with the current administration in power.

Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. 

At the end of Le Guin's story we're offered a glimmer of hope. Some walk away from Omelas. They walk away from the town. That's one reading. I think there's another. What if Omelas isn't simply a town? What if Omelas is the child? Does it matter? Isn't the point that some walk away? And in walking away from this vision of a utopian existence they walk into darkness.


Where will we walk when we take the next step in our national journey?



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.