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

          ---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 cry.


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. 


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. 


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." 


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. 


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 


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. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Eye Lie: Telling My Truth; Making It Matter #SOL17

The offending glasses w/ me, left; my brother
Steve, center; my sister Gaylene, right.
Standing on the brink of Niagara Falls with my brother Steve, I confessed the second lie I told my father more than forty years earlier. The lie had nested undisturbed and unawakened more than four decades but now begged release as though seeking freedom in Canada. 

I told my father two lies before his death in 1975. The second lie was about a dance and the first about how I broke my glasses. 

I hated those white, cat-eye glasses. I hated the yellow that coated the plastic with age, making the frame look like a smoker's fingertips. I hated the safety chain my stepmother insisted I wear to avoid breaking them. 

"You know how clumsy you are, Sis," she'd say. 

That chain grazed the side of my cheeks, aging me far beyond my pre-pubescent ten year-old self. 

Most of all I hated the crease that bisected the middle of the lenses to form a bifocal, giving strangers a window into my brown eyes. Old ladies approached me on the street, squinted, and tapped their pointy fingers on the lenses as though peeking through an abandoned house. 

"What's that on your glasses?"

"They're my bifocals," I'd snivel. 

"What are you doing wearing bifocals? You're too young for bifocals." I could smell the garlic and stale cigarettes on their breath. 

I hated the bifocals more than I hated the nausea and churning stomach and pounding headache I suffered for weeks after I donned those ugly glasses. 

From the moment I left Dr. Snyder's office and squinted my way to the car, the glasses shrouded my life, blanketing me in shame. For days I skipped recess and rested my head on my desk instead of playing four-square or climbing monkey bars. My stomach leaped into my throat each time I put the heavy globes on my face. 

"I can't see with these things," I complained to my dad and stepmom. 

"You'll get use to them. Dr. Snyder says it will take a little time," my stepmother said. 

So when the glasses broke. That is, when I broke the glasses, I felt no remorse. I panicked. No way could I admit the "how" of breaking my glasses. Even the "why" needed framed. 

"Dear Jesus, please make these glasses break," had been my fervent prayer every Sunday morning and night. During Wednesday night prayer meeting, I silently pleaded with Southern Baptist God to release me from those librarian eyes and gift me new spectacles. But Southern Baptist God must have been attending to the needs of Pentecostal "holy-rollers," so I spent two years slipping in and out of my ugly cat eyes. 

Then they broke. 

Correction: I broke my glasses. I broke them while walking home from Mark Twain Elementary in Webb City, Missouri to 1018 W. Daugherty. 

My friend whose name I've long forgotten but who was walking with me kept asking, "When are you going to get new glasses?"

"I don't know." That response I'd repeated at least 666 times. "My mom says I can't have new frames until these break." 

I continued explaining my problem. "I've dropped my glasses many times, but they never break." And because I believe in offering evidence for all claims I make, I offered to demonstrate. 

"I'll show you what I mean." I stopped in the middle of the block under a tall oak that's roots were pushing the concrete sidewalk into a peak I'd tripped over many times as I followed the path to and from school. 

I removed my glasses, pulling the chain past my hair. Stretching out my right arm, I dangled the glasses over the concrete and released them. Our gazes followed the white to the gray sidewalk. 

"See," I said as I bent and picked up my glasses. "They didn't break." 

I love theatre, so I offered an encore performance.

This time, the glasses broke. 

Tears streamed down my face. I could see the blur of home kitty-corner in the distance. Snot trickled onto my upper lip. "What am I going to do?" I wailed. "I can't tell my father I broke my glasses showing you my glasses won't break." 

"Tell your mom and dad a lie," my friend said. 

There was an idea I hadn't considered, at least not seriously. 

My sister Gaylene and I had been feeding our left over bologna sandwiches and mayonnaise cake to neighborhood dogs on the way home from school to avoid getting spanked for not eating our lunch for years. It's not that we lied about the fate of our brown bag contents; we'd simply not offered information about our eating habits, choosing to allow our parents' natural assumptions to guide our disclosures. 

Was the idea of lying really THAT foreign to me? 

Gaylene had already moved on to seventh grade and moved in with my mother in Pitcher, Oklahoma. Her sudden departure had given me a sense of abandonment and independence from her watchful gaze. Now I didn't have to worry about her tattle-telling ass ratting me out. 

I was free to lie.

I picked up the pieces of my shattered frames and slowly walked the last block. Pulling open the screen door I said, "My glasses broke" to the air, hoping it would carry the lie to my stepmother. 

"How'd they break?" The question lingered between us. But only for a nanosecond. A believable lie depends on timing. 

"I tripped and fell." A plausible lie depends on believability. That I had numerous scars from tripping and falling guaranteed my lie's certitude. 

I hadn't considered the lie's potential for growth. I hadn't factored having to REPEAT that lie over and over. 

My stepmother assisted the lie's longevity. She told my father. My father told my relatives who then wanted to hear my version of the story. I told the lie in Sunday school, guaranteeing Southern Baptist Jesus's hearing it. 

To protect the lie, I had to tell a version of it to all my friends and to my teacher. 

I repeated the tale of tripping many times, but I never tripped over the central truth of the lie. 

I spent years regretting the lie. I contemplated confessing it numerous times, but I feared disappointing my father. His own vision was being threatened by bursting blood vessels in the back of his head. Soon he'd no longer be able to see me, but he'd always see my lie. 

How could I add to his pain? How could I tell the painful truth? I rationalized. I believed my own lies about the lie. 

I nurtured and protected my precious lie. I snuggled it into the hidden recess of my mind. I hid the lie from the world but not from myself. Not from Southern Baptist Jesus. 

Sometimes confession is not good for the soul. Sometimes telling the truth serves only the confessor. Sometimes telling the truth twists a relationship inside out. 

And so I lied and lied some more and kept lying until long after I had no reason to lie. 

My father took my lie to his grave. September 27, 1975. 
SOL Story Challenge happens each Tuesday
on the Two Writing Teachers blog. Hop
over for more slices. 
*Today's #SOL is based on a prompt from Beth Kephart's Tell the Truth: Make It Matter. You can find a review and opportunity for winning a copy of Beth's book here.  Also, there is a link to the activity on which I've based today's slice at the end of my review. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

"Tell the Truth: Make It Matter" by Beth Kephart: Review w/ Resources and a Giveaway

The story of your life is the story of a truth. --Beth Kephart

Since Socrates posited that "the unexamined life is not worth living," writers have been pondering the nature of human existence. This is the role of the memoirist: to examine one's own life, and in that examination, peel back the layers that hide truth. 

Jane Friedman examined the rise in popularity of memoir in a 2012 article: "Why is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing?" The popularity of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, some argue, sparked the age of memoir in which we find ourselves. As I read McCourt's account of his mother years ago, I laughed and cried and recalled my own mother, to whom Angela bears a striking resemblance. 

As I've read other memoirs and contemplated the lives storytellers share about their lives, I return to my own memories and think about how to give the stories that populate my memory form and function. 

Now, National Book Award nominee for nonfiction Beth Kephart offers those wishing to examine their lives through memoir a practical and evocative resource for telling our truths. 

Tell the Truth: Make It Matter guides readers through a series of exercises Kephart has designed to help readers rediscover their memories, and in rediscovering their lives,  writers acknowledge universal truths.

True stories are life stories, artfully (and honestly) resurrected. They are one person's story--with an eye toward universal consequences. It is the writer speaking not just of himself but of the human condition.

This idea of sharing universal truths through our stories resonates with me as I consider teaching the personal memoir (narrative) and teaching literature during the upcoming school year. Toward the end of the workbook, Kephart returns to this idea after guiding readers through numerous writing responses. In a chapter aptly titled "It's Not (Just) About You," she directs us to 

focus on themes--go beyond the anecdotes and facts themselves so as to discover binding notions about what it is to be alive.

Kephart likens memoir to a quest--a search for answers to guiding questions. Reading the list of questions she offers, my mind wandered to the universal themes handout I give students in AP Lit and Comp at the beginning of the year. These universal themes we teach students to consider when reading a novel or short story or poem parallel those memoirists explore through their own lives. 

One way AP Lit and Comp teachers can fuse our study of literature with personal writing is with these universal themes. Kephart offers a way in a series of exercises culminating in one called MAKE A SCENE:
One of the most beneficial uses teachers will notice in using Kephart's workbook is in her teasing out revisions that result in multiple drafts of a common assignment: the personal narrative. Consider, for example, several exercises focused on doors. 

An early exercises directs us to "write the story of the door to your bedroom." In a twist, Kephart instructs us to personify the door. To assist writers, she offers suggestions that prick our memory. This initial writing resurrected a memory of my doorless bedroom in the room I occupied from seventh grade through my senior year in high school. 

From there, I found myself thinking about other doors: the door my Aunt Fern propped against the kitchen wall as a decoration and memo board; the door to Aunt Nellie's house, a neighbor with whom I spent many hours but who wasn't really a relative; the front door that I watched as I awaited my absent mother, a mother who rarely arrived for her scheduled visits; the back door my stepmother used to quietly stroll to the back alley where she met the man my father later suspected of being her boyfriend and whom he later asked me about. So many doors, both literal and figurative shutter my life. 

A few exercises later, Kephart asks us to return to the door and use it 

to unlock some measure of the past.
This exercise also speaks to me about the literature I've read and taught. In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, a door symbolizes Nora's quest for freedom from patriarchy. The door's iconic status resonates throughout literature and is frequently referenced in feminist studies. 

An article in Quirk tells us that doors embody magic in literature. From Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter books, to doors in classic children's and YA books, to doors in literary classics, these gateways to stories invite us to explore the significant doors that represent universal truths in our own lives. I have a vision of a "door" for a lesson I'll teach prior to my AP Lit and Comp students reading of A Doll's House this fall. 

Tell the Truth: Make It Matter has me rethinking the literature I teach in ways that will offer students new ways of seeing their stories in those of iconic texts from the cannon. Behind the cover of this valuable resource I see opportunities for my students to write their truths, opportunities for staff PD that focuses on our shared stories and struggles in the classroom, and an invitation for families to write together as we share family photos and see through the poses to the truths beyond the lens. 

Why is there a surge in memoir? To answer: Our stories matter, especially in these perplexing times, and as we write our stories, we can remember what happened and make it matter as we seek to make sense of our world and our truths.

*DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of Tell the Truth: Make It Matter as a gift from Beth Kephart. Beth sent the workbook to me without expectation of a review or endorsement. She simply asked for my address. 

**RESOURCES: On her blog, Beth offers three pages from the book's interior for download. Additional pages are on the Juncture Workshop site Beth and her husband run here. 

***GIVEAWAY: I'd like to pay-it-forward and send a copy of Tell the Truth: Make It Matter to someone who comments on this post. Be sure to leave your unpublished contact info or a twitter handle in the comments so I can contact the randomly chosen winner. I'll draw a winner August 13, 2017.

****Update to include link to additional resources at 9:43 MST Sunday, August 6.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Searching for Silence: Myself Being Myself #SOL17

Montserrat in Catalina, Spain
The monks built a monastery here
that houses a black Madonna.

The world's cacophony exhausts me. Still, I often struggle to turn from the sounding brass and tinkling symbols of the myriad distractions that steal quiet and inner peace. 

I struggle.
I struggle daily. 
I struggle daily to find quiet. 

Even when I'm alone with only my dogs, the noise seeps into my life. We all know the ways:


I'm on a journey to find quiet. I'm learning to find quiet. 

I think about quiet and contemplate it. I'm aware that my own talking hides my inner silences. I talk to mask what I'm not saying. I use talk as a distraction. Don't we all? 

Recently, I've begun practicing yoga and meditation, the quietest of exercises. They help quiet the world.

I found yoga inadvertently. Last summer I stumbled into a yoga class. I thought I was attending a different class. I stayed. I cried all the way through that class. Nevertheless, I returned. 

For over a year now I've practiced yoga intermittently. 

I like the way yoga feels. It helps my chronic pain, something I don't talk about much. 

I am not an accomplished yogi. 

I can't do the simplest balance poses. Even my crow pose won't crow. That bird can't stay on the wire.

I struggle to attend classes regularly because of scheduling conflicts. Timing gets in the way.

As summer approached, I contemplated how to spend my time. Ultimately, apart from a couple of road trips and required one and two-day conferences, I chose to hole up at home. 

Most days I awaken and read before going to the gym. Once home, I continue reading and napping. I've napped a lot this summer. 

Still, the noise has often sabotaged my summer respite. I am still exhausted. I needed to find a way to abate the noise.

A week and a half ago I decided to do a Facebook detox. I've spent a lot of time on FB in the past couple years. Too much time. I've spent approximately an hour on FB the past 12 days and have avoided it completely three days. I've only posted twice since beginning my detox. Once was to share my blog.

For the most part, I don't miss FB, and it doesn't miss me. No one has inquired about my absence. I am not an indispensable entity on any social networking platform.

Granted, I have spent more time on Twitter and Instagram, but neither of these platforms pose the temptation FB does. That is, I can control my time there better, but I do recognize the risks in substituting one social network platform for another. 

To aide my yoga practice, I purchased some CDs. I like classes better. 

Recently, I discovered Body Flow, a Les Mills class at Gold's gym. I like it, although it doesn't have the meditative focus of yoga. 

I've had conversations with yoga instructors and others about the meditative qualities of yoga and the need for mindfulness. 

I downloaded the Headspace and Insight Timer apps. Headspace offers ten free sessions, but Insight Timer is free. 

Last night I used a sleep meditation, followed by ocean sounds from Insight Timer. I fell asleep to the latter and stayed asleep until 6:00 a.m. It's the best sleep I've had all summer. 

This morning I used a lying yoga practice from the Insight Timer app. I plan to attend a yoga class later today. 

As a child I spent a lot of time with quiet and my cat and my thoughts. I thought I had to push that natural way of being away, and even though many think I talk a lot, there is a silent me I'm learning to honor. I'll still talk, mostly in writing, but I like quiet, too. This summer it's the companion I prefer.

The world remains a cacophonous place, and its noise is not something I can silence completely, but for now I'm hibernating and feasting on the quiet. 

I like Virginia Wolf's thoughts about silence: 

How much better is silence: the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

It's Tuesday and time to slice with the TWT
Writing Community. Join other slicers for more stories and insights.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Driving to Minnetonka Cave: A Sunday Excursion #SOL17

"Did I ever tell you about the first time I've ever been outside the state of Georgia?" Hoke asks Miss Daisy early in Driving Miss Daisy.

"No, when was that?" Miss Daisy says.

"Oh, a few minutes ago." 

So it is that within our own worlds many never venture beyond a small geographic bubble, and for all the traveling I've done, I still haven't visited many iconic sites close to my own backyard. 

Thus, my husband and I took a little road trip Sunday to Minnetonka Cave. Nestled in the Cache National Forest, Minnetonka Cave is a little over two hours from our home and a short drive from Bear Lake and its turquoise waters reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea. 
A view of Bear Lake from the Utah side heading into Logan Canyon.
We headed south on I-15 and took the U.S. 30 exit east toward Lave Hot Springs and its comforting mineral water pools, another gem of the gem state. 

Once past Montpelier, we turned south for the eleven mile drive through national forests. 

Once we arrived at the cave, we awaited our guided tour. My stomach churned with familiar queasiness as I thought about the 444 stairs into and back out of the cave. I chatted with a lovely woman who shared her anxiety both about the stairs and confined spaces. 

Our guide Holly greeted us and shared the cave's history during the tour. As Holly talked about the cave's discovery and its history as part of the WPA during the New Deal program of FDR, I wondered about all the "what ifs" that could have changed had Roosevelt not had a vision of preserving and making accessible this and other natural wonders. 
"Kevin" Bacon, in the middle, is a common
formation in Minnetonka Cave
I held the rails other visitors to the cave have stroked since the 1930s. I thought about the work of scientists and naturalists working to protect the bats in Minnetonka Cave from White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that has invaded caves and sickened bats in nearly every state east of the rockies but has spared Idaho. To protect the bat population, visitors must sign an affidavit attesting that they are not wearing clothing they've worn into any other cave. 

The "organ" in the Wedding Chapel.
The Wedding Chapel, the final room in the cave, is home to a "bride" and "groom" awaiting one another. Eventually, their patience will be rewarded as they meet to form a column, united for eternity after their long courtship.
On the ceiling the bride reachers for her groom,
the stalagmite looking up at her.
Sadly, the Minnetonka Cave faces threats--man-made threats. The gray and black on the image below shows how human touch can kill natural wonders. This stalagmite is dead because people touched it. 
Dead stalagmite in Minnetonka Cave
As a living organism in constant evolution, cave formations must be protected from invasive species, including people. 

Leaving the cave, we emerged into the hot summer sun. We decided to take the long road home through Logan Canyon, stopping in Logan, Utah on our drive home. 

During her drive with Hoke, at one point Miss Daisy says, "I taught some of the stupidist children God ever put on the face of the earth and all of them could read well enough to find a name on a tombstone."

We don't have to be like Miss Daisy's students when it comes to our relationship with nature and the natural wonders entrusted to our care. We can read, and as readers, we can protect the earth's beauty from the forces that threaten it if we choose to take the journey. 
Tuesday means time to slice with the TWT team. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Brown Bag Book Grab: A Gift of Book Love #SOL17 #APLit

AP Lit and Comp students pose with their books
One week ago AP Literature and Compositions learned their student scores and began the process of reflecting on the past year's successes and challenges. 

This mid-summer interruption to our beach reading and napping causes stress when we desire rest. The announcement from the College Board that the 2017 AP Lit and Comp scores are the lowest this decade calls for reflection on why we teach imaginative literature. In her slim volume How Reading Saved My Life, Anna Quindlen writes: 

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home....In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.

In AP Literature and Composition, my students and I build a home, a sanctuary for exploring our lives and world as well as worlds beyond our geographic and cultural frame of reference. We imagine the lives of others and in doing so learn about our own lives. 

The most important gift I want to impart to my students is a love of literature. I want them to see books as safe places. Most students arrive in my classroom fearful of poetry and often proclaiming they don't like poetry, I strive to cultivate a love of verse in their lives. 

It is in this spirit of loving reading that for our end-of-year celebration we partied with what I call a "Brown Bag Book Grab." If you've ever attended a White Elephant gift exchange, you have a sense of how the book grab works. 

I gathered up books of all genres and grade levels that I thought would appeal to my students. Some of these I owned, but others I ordered for the event. I kept the cost down by gifting books I'd already read, such as Textbook: Amy Kraus Rosenthal and by setting a budget for other books. 

Next, I put the books in brown paper bags I had stored in the pantry. I used a few other bags I had laying around the house, too, as I did not want to waste money on wrapping paper. Then I lined the bags up in the front of my classroom the day of the event. 

As the kids entered  the classroom, I numbered them. That way the first to arrive chose first. Just as "stealing" happens in a White Elephant exchange, so too did students "steal" from one another. However, we limited the number of times a book could be stolen. 

Since we began the year by analyzing theme in picture books, and since Mr. Tiger Goes Wild was the most popular picture book in September, I included some picture books in the selection. 

Debunk It proved he most popular book, based on the number of "steals." All the debaters in the class wanted that book. It's a book I've owned for a year but had not read yet; I became reacquainted with its thesis after listening to three episodes on the You Are Not So Smart podcast. 

A few books had not arrived in the mail in time for the event, so I put copies of their covers and descriptions as place holders in the bags. I also didn't want students to be disappointed in their books, so I allowed them to exchange among themselves at the end of class, and I had a few extra titles set aside for those who wanted to exchange their books. 

While I included picture books and some poetry collections, I omitted novels for the most part. Instead, I included books that promote creativity and writing, such as Big Magic, which went to an artist in the class.

I plan to repeat the activity next year and will begin collecting books early in the year so that I can tailor the selections even more to my students. 

I'd love to hear titles I should include for the next Brown Bag Book Grab. 
Each Tuesday the phenomenal team
at Two Writing Teachers hosts the
Slice of Life blogging challenge. Head over to
TWT for more story slices.