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.


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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?"

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

I never stop thinking about literacy... even when vacation planing

For the past couple days I have been in planning mode for our Costa Rica trip a month from now. My husband and I tend to enjoy the planning the trip almost as much as the vacation itself. We go to the library and check out a giant stack of guidebooks to get an overall feel for a place. We check out DVDs at the library or watch videos on YouTube to actually see the place in real life, not just in our minds. Finally, once we have purchased our tickets, we scour TripAdvisor to find just the right hotels and activities.
Step one of trip planning: check out a ridiculous amount of guidebooks at the library
When I read through reviews on TripAdvisor, I have a system. I am incredibly dubious of superlative and overly negative reviews, due to fear of business paying people to write glowing reviews (or rival businesses paying for poor reviews). Just do a Google search of "TripAdvisor fake reviews" and see all the articles that pop up about being able to tell whether a review is fake. What I look for instead are reviews that offer practical advice that aren't steeped in hyperbole.

For example, I was reading through reviews of the Mystica Lodge and Retreats, which looks stunning. On the surface, this appears to be a place I would love to stay. But after reading one user's review that said despite the lovely setting, it was 1.5-2 hours away from any activities near the Arenal volcano and the hotel doesn't organize tours, I immediately knew this wasn't the place for us, at least not for the kind of vacation my husband and I like, which is to always be seeing and doing things. We figure we can lounge around at home all we want. On vacation we want to see the world, not sit around on a beach and have someone bring us drinks. So once I subtracted the emotion out of the user review, I looked at the practical advice the reviewer gave and made a decision to keep looking. 

As I have been processing this information today, I started to think about the inordinate amount of time and energy secondary English teachers spend in class teaching literary analysis, which is a helpful and sophisticated skill, don't get me wrong, but given the fact that literary analysis is what American students seem to spend most of their time doing in English class, it makes me wonder how many practical literacy skills we are failing to provide for our students in the name of the "because that's the way we've always done it" model of education.

Learning to decipher reviews on any kind of user-generated website, be it TripAdvisor, Yelp, or even Amazon, is a literacy skill that I don't think many teachers have even considered as something to teach, but given how much time humans now spend in online spaces, this is something we need to consider over the traditional model of high school English, which is: read a book, listen to the teacher's interpretation of what it means, then regurgitate some stuff she said in class, and finally turn it into an "analysis" essay.

But as I continue to seek out a hotel that will provide my husband and me with just the right amount of adventure opportunities in a great location near the Arenal volcano, I am also thinking about ways to take this learning and translate it into the classroom. Because contrary to popular belief, we don't turn off our teacher brains in June, July, and August. If anything, this is a time for us to reflect and reprocess, to figure out all the things we can change and do better for next year. So even though I'm only a few days into summer vacation, I'm still and constantly thinking of my students. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

5 Things I'm Celebrating Today

I'm currently writing this post in the car on my way to Traverse City. (Don't worry! I'm not driving!) I thought I'd stretch myself and try writing a blog post on my phone since I've never done that before.

Here are the things that make me happy on this fine Saturday in June:

1) It's summer vacation!

2) My husband and I celebrate our anniversary tomorrow. 12 years! 

3) Hatching plans with friends and colleagues to improve our practice, because even though we have summers off, we are always thinking about our students and classrooms. We don't turn that off in June, July, and August. 

4) Blue hair (See #1)

5) The ability and means to travel and see the world. In July we are going to Costa Rica for the first time and I am so excited! 

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The universe honors love

I've been thinking a lot lately about the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Back in April I read the book Love Will See You Through where MLK's niece writes about his six guiding beliefs. The one that really stuck with me the most was

The universe honors love.

As much as I love social media, it's really difficult to avoid all the vitriolic hate speech that pervades this medium. Whether it's the media feeding frenzy of Bruce Jenner's transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner, people proclaiming that all Muslims are terrorists, or the lambasting of teachers as failures because they can't fight the systemic chains of poverty and racism to raise our nation's test scores, the messages that hurt my heart the most are the ones that not only imply, but seem to proclaim that in this world, it's every man for himself.

It's so easy to turn a blind eye, to spew uninformed, hateful words, and to distance ourselves from otherness.

Every man for himself? That's EASY.

What's hard is to actually look someone in the eye, listen to their story, and to see their humanity rather than hide behind a political agenda.

The universe honors love. 

So I ask you:
  • Do you think all Muslims are women-hating terrorists? Have you actually tried to get to know anyone from that faith?
  • Do you think all people on welfare are lazy and trying to cheat the system? Who do you personally know on welfare besides the sensationalistic stories you hear on cable news?
  • Do you clutch your purse a little tighter when a black man walks by you on the street? Have you actually talked to someone about race frankly and with an open heart? Or do you just continue to perpetuate your own fear and ignorance?
  • Do you look at a person with brown skin speaking Spanish with disdain and immediately assume they're taking jobs from Americans and are mooching resources because they're here illegally? Do you actually talk to anyone in the Hispanic community and try to understand their dreams and struggles? 
  • Do you think gay people don't deserve to marry the person they love because the Bible says their lifestyle is wrong? Do you only talk about gay people from afar without actually sitting down and getting to know them beyond their sexuality?

I used to be the same way. I had strong opinions on what I was taught to believe about religion, homosexuality, and race, but the more I read and come to understand other people's struggles, the more I realize that everyone has a story that deserves to be heard. We are all made of stories and we should be allowed to tell them in our own way, on our own terms.

I think about the blog post I wrote for NCTE back in December where I talk about the importance of one story to give value and credence to the story of many. I absolutely believe that is true. If you don't have any personal connections to a community of people in which you are speaking about, then I challenge you to get to know someone from that community before you condemn them. It's so much easier to be hateful when you don't have to look a person in the eye. What a difference it would make if instead of looking at someone and seeing their otherness, you honored their humanity by asking them to tell their story.

Since I read Love Will See You Through back in April, I have continued to wonder what would happen if we all lived by the guiding belief that the universe honors love. I know I'm going to try really hard to do so in my own life and in my own classroom. I will look at these children as people with hopes dreams, and struggles and not just as students who are in my room 50 minutes of the school day. More importantly though, I will look each of them in the eye and get to know their stories. I challenge you to do the same.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

As the school year ends, advocacy is on my mind

It's over! Year 8 as a middle school English teacher is in the books.

So as any good teacher would do whenever something ends, be it a project, semester, or school year, it's time for a little reflection.

While there are certain aspects of my situation that frustrated me, overall I am extremely happy with how my first year went teaching part-time at my alma mater. Teaching part-time taught me a few things though, mainly that part-time is really what I would consider a reasonable full-time load. I had three classes, 51 students total, and even then, occasionally, the amount of grading overwhelmed me. But only occasionally. I can deal with that. What I can't deal with is a never-ending sense of dread I used to often feel because the paper load consumed me when I was teaching full-time.

I think about the loads that full-time teachers are frequently given: sometimes close to 200 students a day, and I wonder how any teacher could POSSIBLY be reaching every student with that many papers to grade, report cards to comment on, souls to touch.

Having the luxury of a light load this year (though the word luxury is not what I would use to describe my paycheck), I've been able to reflect on how powerful it would be if every teacher had the opportunity to teach fewer classes with fewer students.

Did you know that the National Council of Teachers of English has held a firm position since 1960 that teachers should have no more than 100 students per day? If you did know that, are you sharing that with administrators and politicians? If you didn't, are you going to now?

I go back to the words of Ernest Morrell in his 2014 NCTE presidential address when he said,

It's not about making the case for advocacy. It's about making the case for you as advocates.

We as teachers need to start seeing ourselves as advocates for our profession. Rather than waiting for someone else to make the necessary changes to see that smaller class loads and class sizes along with fewer standardized tests make for happier, more productive, more effective teachers and students, we the people doing the hard work of educating the children need to start making that case to the people who need to hear it.

Read more about what you can do to take action on NCTE's website.
Also check out the advocacy posts on the NCTE blog.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wherever you go, there you are

Last night I attended the 8th grade graduation of my last 6th grade class at my previous school. Getting hugs from former students, colleagues, and parents helped remind me how lucky I am to have had the privilege of teaching there for seven years.

And while I loved being back there for that brief moment, I was also thinking how I don't miss it either. When I made the decision to leave, I knew it was time. And being back there last night reminded me that each place we are at in our lives leads us to the next place, which is where I'm meant to be. So while I celebrated with my former students and was honored to be part of the pomp and circumstance, I was glad to see that they still thought of me fondly, but just as they are moving onto the next phase of their lives, I realized that being there last night was the closure I needed to show everyone else and myself that I had moved on to the next phase of mine.
These kids are ready to move on to high school!

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