Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dogs are people, too

I am a dog lover through and through. If you don't like dogs, there's a good chance I probably won't like you. I'm of course being hyperbolic here, but there's a teensy weensy bit of truth to that statement.

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram or are friends with me on Facebook, the first sentence of this post is not news. I post pictures of my dogs what seems like every day. Since I have no human Frank and Guenterchildren (other than my students), my two pugs, Frank and Guenter, have become my babies.

But I've recently become very aware that my babies are no longer babies anymore. Their muzzles are graying and they move more slowly than they used to. But I think what has really heightened my awareness of their mortality is buying dog food. Now that they are over eight years old, they have moved into senior dog food, and for toy breeds, there is not a big bag of senior dog food available on the shelf. At first my husband was frustrated by this and wanted to see if there are bigger bags we can order. But it suddenly hit me: the bags are small because they're SENIOR dogs. If you buy a big 20 lb bag of food, you might not make it through the whole thing. So every time I buy dog food now, I find myself faced with their impending mortality.

Frank and Guenter
Both my dogs turn ten this year and while they are currently in fairly good health, I've come to realize I don't have many more years left with them. So I find myself kissing the tops of their heads a little more frequently, and snuggling with them a little more often. I look in their big, pleading eyes and decide to turn off the computer and take them for a walk more often than I used to -- short ones of course. They don't have the stamina for long ones anymore.

It is my firm belief that dogs just make life better. They remind me what loyalty and unconditional love really look like. When I'm having a bad day, they remind me that there's something worth smiling about. I recently read the cartoon collection Dogs are People, Too by Dave Coverly, and while a comical title, there's a wee bit a truth to that sentiment. To me a house is just not a home without a dog.

Now if you'll pardon me, I need to turn my computer off and take my boys for a walk.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Celebrate Past, Present, and Future

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a very special celebration. It was for the 25th anniversary of my former piano teacher's school of music. And I was one of her original students from way back in 1990.

To say that her guidance impacted the course of my life would be an understatement. She is such a kind, passionate musician, but more importantly, she understands her students. She knew that I needed music in my life as an emotional outlet for all of the joy, pain, and frustrations of growing up. She knew I didn't care about scales and proper fingering (though she gently but firmly made me learn those things) and if I didn't love a piece of music she suggested for me, she knew I wouldn't practice it. So for more than ten years, she let me navigate, while she steered me in the right direction.

And because Tracey was such a gracious, giving teacher, students who performed at her recitals and local music competitions never felt like rivals. We had a camaraderie of support for each other. And it was because of that camaraderie that a fellow student introduced me to the man who is now my husband. So not only did Tracey's teachings impact the person I am today, but every day I continue to see how being a part of her music school altered the course of my life. The frequent sentiment that many current and former students expressed yesterday was that Tracey was/is more than a teacher; she also felt like part of your family. I'm so grateful that Tracey was and is a part of mine.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Promise of a Blank Notebook

I started a new notebook last week while I was on my EMWP Gone Rogue writing marathon, and this poem was my first entry. 

The Mess is Greater Than The Sum of its Parts

New notebooks
Two new notebooks ready to be filled with The Mess
There's a dirty little secret
among English teachers
that we don't like to share
with the world.
OK, maybe that's not true.
It's not so dirty and we
share it all the time.

We love notebooks.
We have excessive amounts of them.
More than we could possibly fill
in one lifetime.

But we prefer them

instead of
lived in.

A blank notebook represents
promise and potential --
of all the brilliant thoughts
just waiting to pour forth
from our ample minds.

But a written-in notebook represents
&*@# ups
They shout at us,

And so
we tend to like
the idea
of a filling a notebook
but not
the execution of it.

Writing in a notebook
is an act of
faith and bravery.
It is a place where we must
face our inadequacies
head on
and then challenge them.
It is a place for
discomfort and discombobulation.

And so we admire our blank notebooks
sitting in our closets
with no intention of actually
filling them with our
messy ramblings.
Even though we force
our students to write in one

So dear teachers,
just remember this:
When you
struggle and agonize
over the words you
put on the page,
question your own abilities
and make excuses that
you're just too busy
to write today --
just imagine
what your students
must be feeling.


Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Celebrate going rogue

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Anyone who has ever done a National Writing Project summer institute knows what a life-changing, career-sustaining experience it is. I was lucky enough to do the summer institute last year and it was one of the best things I've ever done for my career, but also just for myself as a person.

So I, along with many of my fellow Eastern Michigan Writing Project alumni, were devastated to find out that the summer institute had to be canceled this year due to lack of enrollment.

To try to ease some of the sadness of not having another group of teachers introduced to the virtues of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, Kevin English and I decided to plan a few meetings with EMWP alumni to write and share our teaching practices with each other. We decided to call it EMWP Gone Rogue.

Yesterday we hosted a writing marathon in Ann Arbor, and we were delighted that 11 EMWP alumni showed up. We met at a bookstore, planned our destinations, dispersed, wrote, had lunch at Zingerman's Bakehouse, wrote some more, and then ended our marathon at a favorite local watering hole in Ypsilanti, The Corner Brewery, where we ate, drank, and were merry. But most important of all, we shared our writing.

The weather gods were smiling down upon us yesterday. It was sunny and in the mid 70s. Perfect weather for a summer writing marathon. Every location we stopped at, with the exception of our bookstore meeting place, was outside.

My favorite place where we wrote was the Ann Arbor Airport. It is a tiny airport, but that's what makes it so fascinating. You can go there, park your car, sit on a picnic table or in the grass, and watch the planes take off and land. There was so much to see, hear, and observe.
Writing at the airport. So many sights, sounds, and metaphors to explore!

It is difficult to explain to someone who's never done the Writing Project just what's so special about it. It's something you just have to feel and experience for yourself. Sitting at the Corner Brewery, listening to my fellow colleagues (some I had only met just yesterday) share their writing made me feel like I was part of something bigger and more important than myself. It's the feeling of support and safety you get from a group of people who are going through many of the same struggles and posing the same questions you are as a teacher. We don't always agree though. That was made clearly evident yesterday when the group of us debated on some advice we were giving a fellow writer about a novel she is currently writing.  But even when we don't agree, we are all coming from a place of mutual respect and a desire to get it right for our students and our practice. Because we know that getting it right doesn't and shouldn't involve everyone taking the same path. A belief that some people in educational leadership these days may see as "going rogue."

Eat, drink, and be merry: ending our writing marathon with sharing, conversation, and conviviality

After I posted the above picture of our final stop on our writing marathon on Facebook yesterday, this small conversation perfectly summed up the day:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The complexities of the human condition

Like so many of us, I have been fascinated with the Rachel Dolezal story. I just finished watching the Today Show interview with Matt Lauer and as I watched, all I could think was no matter what your opinion of her, this whole situation feels like a racial tipping point for our country. No longer can we sweep difficult discussion about race under the rug because they are "uncomfortable." Now we have an impetus to start having the conversations that our white privilege has afforded us the luxury of ignoring.

While Dolezal has been painted as a deceptive villain in recent days, what struck me about her interview is how complex humans really are. Rachel is not all bad or all good. There are facets of her behavior that we can feel compassion for and others where we can clearly question her motives.

It's easy for us to try to paint a person as one thing. As teachers, we have a tendency to do this with our students: the bully, the bookworm, the slacker. But in reality, our students are complex and lead rich lives beyond our classroom walls. The same is true for all of us, even those we publicly shame on social media.

Once the public feelings of outrage and schadenfreude along with the sensationalistic media fallout has subsided, what is left behind I think will perhaps be a milestone for race relations in the U.S. As much as I've been perplexed, on occasion outraged, and even a tad amused as this story has unfolded, what I keep coming back to is that Ms. Dolezal is no one thing; she is many things. As are we all. And despite the fact that all of this is happening at her expense, I think she may have inadvertently solidified a cultural practice that will usher in an era when everyone can openly discuss race and matters of identity without it being considered verboten. If some good can come from this, that is my hope.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ladies who lunch

It's hard to believe that I knew all of these ladies (Sarah Andersen, Cheryl Mizerny, Lindsay Grady, and Jessica Crawford) through Twitter before we were friends in real life. I love getting to spend time with these phenomenal women and teachers (and baby Jack too, of course). And I especially love that this picture is taken on a Tuesday at noon on a beautiful sunny day during summer vacation! :)
Ladies who lunch

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

An English teacher poses a math problem

We all have issues that are close to our hearts and important to who we are as people. The way teachers are treated in this country with such disregard and disdain is something I want to try to change. The work we do goes way beyond school hours, yet people like Chris Christie seem to think teaching is a part-time job.

As an English teacher, I tend to shy away from math, but here's a simple math problem for you: If a high school English teacher has 150 students, and must grade student writing on a regular basis, how many hours will it take her to grade 150 essays if she spends only 5 minutes on each one?

Let's elaborate on this some more:
If she has to grade AT LEAST four essays a quarter, how many hours total has she spent just grading essays? In a school year? In a 30-year career?

Don't worry, I won't make you show your work. Just compute all of that in your head or use your smartphone calculator, I don't mind.

The above math problem is only factoring in essay grading. Add to this other formative assessments, communications with parents outside the school day, staff meetings, lesson planning, and other bureaucratic & superfluous tasks, and we've already lost count at how many hours in a week teachers are working. 

The fact of the matter is, Governor Christie et. al., the work we do is NEVER done. Yet you seem to think we sit around doing nothing for 4-5 months during the year. Just take a gander at my friend Sarah Mulhern Gross's list of things she will be doing with her "summer off." Join teachers on Twitter on June 21 for #nctechat to see what teachers REALLY do in June, July, and August. Better yet, personally come to #nErDcampMI July 6-7 for two days of literacy learning where teachers are using their "time off" to travel from all over the country (and even internationally!) to the small town of Parma, Michigan to share, learn, and hone their craft.

I also invite anyone who thinks teaching is a part-time job to spend a typical week with a teacher. Follow her around. Try grading a stack of papers (let her make photocopies first because you haven't actually gone to school to be a teacher, after all). Interview her family to see how much quality time she actually gets to spend with them. Then come back here and complain that the teachers' unions are destroying Western Civilization as we know it.

Funnily enough, I actually did work part-time this year. At least it was part-time on paper. I taught 3 sections of 8th grade English, 51 students total. And do you know what? that part-time status (and paycheck) actually felt like a reasonable full-time load. I was able to get to know my students, felt less stressed about meeting with and communicating with parents, and my paper load was manageable. Even with that, I spent a great deal of my evenings grading papers and weekends planning lessons. While my school day was shorter due to fewer classes, the time I spent actually working was a full-time workweek.

So please, policymakers, I beg of you, start talking to real teachers and not just the people who lobby for teachers' unions. See what real teachers do when the cameras aren't around and you're not trying to make a good photo op for your campaign. This country needs teachers to function. It is the "vocation of vocations, a calling that shepherds a multitude of other callings" as William Ayers says. So I don't understand why a democratic society that needs this profession to create knowledgeable, responsible citizens demeans and demoralizes teachers so fiercely. As Sarah Mulhern Gross says at the end of her blog post linked above, "What will you do when no one wants to teach anymore?"