Starry, Starry Night

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As the dogs trot down the sidewalk,

shaking off a sleepy afternoon,

my eyes scan the inky blue night.

Stars wink in varying brightness.

As a child,

I was told the more amber-colored glowing lights

were planets far, far away.

Stars, on the other hand, pinpoints,

glistening dots shining through tiny holes

in the black construction paper night sky.

Scattered amongst the star and planets

are lights growing larger and larger

as planes line up to descend from the night

to the safety of an airport runway.

The Nation’s Capital

does not close down when the city lights dim.

At last, the dogs glance up,

ready to head home.

I wonder if they ponder the stars as I do.

Yes, Worry is Part of the Job

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For many of my early students, recognizing letters and reading whole words was a challenge. These elementary school students needed visual cues and repetitive sentence structures to help build the stamina needed to tackle new words. On my way home from work or while making dinner, I found myself wondering what books might spark an interest. I often worried for the ones that judged themselves based on the performance of others.

When I graduated to working with sixth graders, the challenges were of a different sort. Yes, there were still reading struggles. But, now I watched students navigate the halls of a larger middle school. For these students, the rotating schedule, new social groups and increased workload could be exhausting.  When I was out walking the dogs or brushing my teeth, I worried about a certain student who was disengaging or another student who might be facing bullying.

When I say I worried about these students through the years, I mean I focused on the whole child.  The term “whole child” is very in vogue these days. But, I believe if we focus on the whole student, we are actually just putting that student in the context of life.  Maybe the homework wasn’t done because of a heart-rending issue at home. Perhaps the student is disengaged because he/she was excluded by “friends”.  Maybe an embarrassing moment looms large for a student.

I now teach eighth graders. My students are perched on the edge of high school. Many are consumed with budding romances or focused on the weight of schoolwork and parental pressure.

However, recently, I had a student make a very poor choice. This choice had health-threatening consequences. This choice brought lots of trouble with it. Years ago, my brother made a similar choice. In his case, the choice took his life off track and wrecked relationships.

So yes, worrying is part of my job. I want to support students when they don’t make the right choice. It is not my place to judge but rather to listen. My students should feel that I care more about them as a person than the grade on the latest paper. Teaching is a noble profession precisely because equipping students with the skills to be successful in life means so much more than teaching letters and numbers.

 

Spring

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It is in the angle of the sun,

the warmth infusing the breeze

that brushes my cheek

as I walk out the door.

Just 24 hours earlier,

a chill tinged the air and gloves

were a required accessory.

Now the dogs shed their reluctance

and bound into the sprouting green.

Robins add a note of welcome.

The taste of spring,

however brief,

reminds me warmer days

are ahead.

My soul is straining to shed

the cold tendrils of winter

in favor of the baking days

of summer.

 

 

Audiobooks: Do you have a good book in your ear?

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When my son was younger and we had a long road trip ahead, I would hunt for the best audiobooks around. Harry Potter, Summerland and The Golden Compass filled our car rides with suspenseful storytelling and creative voices.

Last year, one of my talented teaching colleagues noted she was listening to a terrific audiobook. Hmm… I hadn’t thought about audiobooks in ages. My Amazon membership provided a couple credits for Audible so I opened the catalogue. With amazement, I scrolled through the vast collection of choices. Top YA titles, biographies, history books and more were available to accompany me on my way to work.

A librarian friend extolled the virtues of Libby, the public library app, to access all the audiobooks on the digital shelves of my local public libraries. I dropped the Audible app and moved comfortably into the shelves of the Arlington and Alexandria public libraries.

Now, I have an audiobook, as well as a paper book going at all times. The Libby app allows me to wait in a cue for the most popular books while I listen to an available title.

Here are some of the best audiobooks I have heard over the last year:

Biographies

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Unfaithful Music Elvis Costello
  • In Pieces by Sally Field
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  • Bossy Pants by Tina Fey

 

Fiction

  • Beartown by Fredrik Backman
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • American Street by Ibi Zoboi
  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  • Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
  • The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
  • My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

 

Non-Fiction

  • Console Wars by Blake J. Harris
  • On Writing by Stephen King

 

 

 

Finding Community at the Farmer’s Market

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Days are busy, time is short,

so we often keep our heads down and forge ahead.

An email in my inbox yesterday stopped me short

and reminded me to look up from my life.

My favorite farmer’s market vendor — Twin Springs Farm —

sends a chatty, enticing message each week sharing

the latest news on harvests, both fruit and vegetable.

But, this week’s newsletter is a bit different.

Following the regular farm news, the owners of Twin Springs

dedicate two pages in tribute to a farmer’s market neighbor.

“Bill Preston was a fellow vendor…a couple of decades ago he set up next to me

with buckets and buckets of gorgeous cut flowers.”

Bill “stopped raising cut flowers and planted an orchard”,

focusing on persimmons.

The lovely tribute continued to share details,

both simple and extraordinary.

The message from Twin Springs Farm

reminded me that while our days may be busy,

it is the relationships with others in community

that are the true measure.

When I go to the Farmer’s Market on Sunday,

I will thank the folks of Twin Springs for the news

Next, I will thank them for the gorgeous red, crisp apples

and vibrant green kale and arugula.

There are stories everywhere and we miss them

when we keep our heads down,

buried in our own concerns.

This week, I will keep my head up

to greet my neighbors and

partake of the news all around me.

 

Thank you, Linda Rief

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Linda Rief’s recent The Quickwrite Handbook is filled with 100 mentor texts to spur creativity in writers young and old. When I got the book this summer, I started each morning for two weeks with one of her prompts. I continue to experiment with her mentor texts. Here is my response to her “The First Part Last”:

The First Part Last

 So here’s a good day,

We’ll call it a favorite day.

The sound of birds out the window

wake me in the early morning hours.

My sister is still asleep

in the matching twin bed

as I slowly tiptoe out of the room.

My grandmother stands in the small kitchen

Mixing a fresh pot of iced tea.

She uses the white china pot,

covered in lovely red cabbage roses,

to prepare the hot tea before pouring the brew

over ice cubes that crackle and dissolve.

A few mint springs and lemon

will make the tea perfect for the warming day.

My grandfather sits on the screened porch.

Long before I was born,

My uncle and grandfather built that porch –-

everyone’s favorite room in the house.

Time alone with my grandparents,

before siblings and cousins arose,

was a rarity I inhaled like the

first breath taken when breaking through

the surface of a pool after a deep dive.

 

 

 

Can We Just Read?

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As the day goes on, many students drag themselves down the hall and into the classroom with the weight of resignation that comes from a tightly, packed middle school schedule. The luster of these bright, inquisitive souls is, at times, dimmed by exhaustion.

“Can we just read?” is the question that repeats throughout the day.

“Yes, we will be reading today. Find a cozy spot and dive into your books.”

“Just reading?” I am asked again.

I smile when I repeat my affirmation.

I watch student after student visibly exhale. Shoulders relax and a bounce is detectable in most steps. Of course, I do have some students for whom reading is not the first choice. But, given space and time, and a pile of books constructed just for them, these students settle into the task with more attention each time.

There is nothing better than looking around at students curled in cozy chairs, spread out on the rug or leaning with a pillow against the wall.

But, the question, “can we just read?” digs in like a burr.

Reading is at once an incredibly complex task and a great escape. In her groundbreaking book, Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf states, “human beings were never born to read.” She continues, “We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill….Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design.”

In other words, every single time a student picks up a book and learns new vocabulary or creates connections between previously learned information and the text in front of him/her, that student  is undertaking an extraordinary task.

I believe if my students were given an hour to read every school day, their curiosity would be sparked, their empathy would increase, and their academic performance would rise. Reading time is precious and we do not give it enough stock.

But, more importantly, reading is a new frontier and as Wolf adds, “…when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.”

Reading is the most noble task we can give our students.

 

 

The Power of Solitude

 

07hhimarshmhI just started reading Delia Owens’ book, Where the Crawdads Sing.  The book has spent weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. However, what spurred me to open the book was an interview of the author about the roots of her rich, textured setting.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the tale of a young girl growing up essentially alone in the remote marshes along the coast of North Carolina. When a handsome nearby town resident is found murdered in the marshes, Kya is the chief suspect. While the plot sounds compelling, what draws the reader in is the gorgeous descriptive language. Owens knows wilderness.

When Owens was in her twenties, she and her then-husband lived in Africa caring for wild animals. Her Ph.D in animal behavior prepared her for wildlife care. Much of the time, Owens and her then-husband were the only humans for hundreds of miles.

Owen commented the inspiration for her book came from spending everyday with lions, elephants and baboons. She said that we are not so different in our behavior from the tight female packs or the strutting male baboons.

Owens now lives in a remote corner of northern Idaho. The view out her window is of towering mountains. But, Owens lives her alone. She says she gets so lonely sometimes that it feels hard to breath. She values her solitude. Her first novel is an “ode to the outdoors” that reveals “the affect loneliness can have on a person”.

As a reader, I find what shines through in Owens’ lush landscape is the power of standing still in  middle of nature. Kya, the main character, is comforted and enveloped by her surroundings. Birds, minnows and reeds come to life in the mind of the reader thanks to Owens’ quiet attention to detail. Writers can learn much from Owens about immersing oneself to tell a worthy story.

Student Study

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He busts into the class, hood up,

eyes scanning the room.

It is hard to tell if his eyes

are searching for friends or warily

appraising what the content may have waiting.

J. has come a long way this year.

The sullen, young man

that entered in September,

has given way to a frequently gregarious,

slightly more open version of himself.

When he thinks no one is looking,

J. guides nearby classmates if they are confused.

What’s more…

J. is on time, mostly prepared and willing to participate when asked.

The maturing student in J. has started to peek out

from under his guarded exterior.

However, he refuses to give up the ghost in one area.

“I hate reading,” he says as automatically as one might say hello.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I say,

“because I just got the hottest new graphic novel title

and I was going to have you try it first.”

His eyes slide up from under the lip of his hood,

“What’s it about?”

As other students clamor to get their hands on the newest book first,

J. somewhat reluctantly accepts the title.

Later on, I see him reading in a comfortable chair.

The next day, when another student asks if he is finished with the book,

J. smiles and says not yet.

“You want me to tell you about it though?”  he offers.

J. may not realize it but he is moving from resistant student to classroom teacher.

 

 

 

CBS Sunday Morning: The Art of Storytelling

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My very favorite television show is CBS Sunday Morning. Each week, the show mixes news, human interest stories and nature to provide a perfect 90 minutes on the weekend. Since life is busy, CBS Sunday Morning often becomes “must see tv” on a weeknight after dinner.

It is rare for a week to go by when I don’t find a story or two that my students would love. In fact, I have a couple of pages in my bullet journal dedicated to mentor stories. I often weave the stories into reading and writing units.

What makes the items on CBS Sunday Morning so memorable is the storytelling craft employed. The stories: have clear arcs, offer emotional connections and use sound, sights and other sensory details to bring the “reader” in.

One of the best storytellers on the show is Steve Hartman. He took over the On the Road series made famous by Charles Kuralt. I recommend you open a few of the clips on Youtube. Hartman finds quirky, often quiet stories. His stories are a mix of interview, narration and strong imagery.

Whether relating the tale of a 95-year-old WWII navy man walking across America to raise funds to care for the last of a WWII Navy ship, meeting a whole community learning sign language to relate to a two-year-old girl, or sharing the story of three students and a community building “magic” rock, Hartman lets viewers see good in the world. Given the negative tone of discourse these days, CBS Sunday Morning is just the thing to add light to the day.

My favorite moment of each CBS Sunday Morning show is the “Moment of Nature” at the end of the show. CBS’s cameras capture nature across the country and the only sounds are those picked up by the microphones. I stop and breath deep with each moment. Try it yourself and you will be hooked.