What surprises me

socks

What surprises me when I see her 6 weeks later

Not the mock shyness as she stands in my doorway, eyeing me.
She asked to see me.
Not the slender length of her limbs.
She’s four; she might have grown.
Not the wild flare of her colorful skirt as she twirls around.
She is still all energy.
Not the hand-knitted heavy socks defying August heat in blue plastic shoes.
She has her own style.
Not the shameless request for food as her mother sighs, “I just tried to feed her.”
She knows where I hide the treats.
Not even the soft scratchiness of her newly-shaved hair.
I have seen the pictures.

What surprises me is the heat of her head as she tucks her whole body into my embrace;
What surprises me is the sheer hot truth of her.

 

Today, after nearly 6 weeks away, I got to see my friend’s child for the first time since she started chemo. She is doing well & the chemo is doing its job. There is a long journey ahead, to be sure, but right now it is marked by optimism. Much of our visit was the same as always; much of it was not. When they left, I couldn’t stop thinking of her and chose to write this.

slice of life_individual

Listening for thunder

I’m sitting on the dock at the lake watching my children swim and listening for thunder in the clouds I can see rolling our direction. It’s surprisingly hard to tell the difference between the low rumble of distant thunder and the thud of the dog running across the dock, the grind and clang of metal ladder as it thumps against the wood while the kids clamber up, or even the occasional dive-muffled yell as they tumble back in. Listening requires attention, an immersion in the moment.

Evenings here, storms roll in from the northeast. We can see them coming from miles away and they don’t always reach us, so we linger in the lake for as long as possible. Sometimes a gray haze of rain connects the distant clouds to the green forest roof. Sometimes there’s thunder. Every now and then there’s lightning, which means everyone out of the lake, even if the storm is visibly far away. Tonight, we are hoping for no lightning, no thunder. We’re hoping to wallow in the warm water, play on the sandbar, maybe even get in one more boat ride.

Ah, the neighbor is out for her evening swim with her three dogs. She strokes out to the sandbar buoy and back. Her dogs swim over to play with the kids as my parents’ dog – not a water dog – whines, paces and barks from near my feet. In the near distance a speed boat slowly pulls a new wake-boarder who struggles for balance; the humid air carries the sound of their motor and music trails in their wake. Is that thunder? No, I don’t think so.

We leave here the day after tomorrow after nearly 6 weeks of vacation. I am ready to go home, but I’m not quite tired of this yet. My school year doesn’t start for another 3 1/2 weeks, but I feel as though summer is coming to an end. Online, I’m surrounded by talk of back to school – teachers are setting up classrooms, attending PD, planning lessons. Here in South Carolina, back to school sales abound.  I tell myself that I have plenty of time –  so much of summer remains! – and still, I feel the tug of September, I sense the ending.

The great blue heron flies by and this evening she does not stop to perch on the sandbar buoy; she skims the surface of the water on her way to wherever it is she rests. The boat passes again, no wakeboarder now, heading home. And…I think I hear thunder.

Early August brings a barely perceptible increase in pressure, an almost gentle sense of melancholy: I have things I want to do, things I wanted to get done. Time is running short, or at least shorter. September is there, looming. It’s like I’m sitting on the dock at the lake, watching my children swim and listening for thunder in the clouds I can see rolling my direction.

img_6167

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

I don’t want to write

It’s storming outside and quiet inside and I don’t want to write.

I don’t want to write because it means I have to get up and get my computer. I’m comfortable on the couch. Everything is quiet and I don’t want to move.

I don’t want to write because I don’t want to open my computer. I want to be technology-free. Stupid technology.

I don’t want to write because I’m reading and I just want to keep reading. Maybe forever. And fiction. I want to read fiction forever. No more non-fiction for me. Harumph.

I don’t want to write because I haven’t written at all this week and I’m embarrassed about it. Who am I to call myself a writer? Better to just give up now.

I don’t want to write because my brain is nicely blank and my thoughts are comfortably amorphous. Writing will give those thoughts shape, then pin them down and examine them. See? Look at that! A judgment here, a grump over there. I knew it. Not nearly as nice as I was hoping when they were just swirling in my head. Wait! a random delight! Well, I’m glad for that at least.

Maybe if I keep writing I can find more of those… Grr… but I really don’t want to write.

But I’m going to. I’m going to find three sentences about three things and then I’m going to post this slice JUST LIKE THIS.

  1. I have just realized that I am worried about a lot of things. Well, no wonder I don’t want to write. I’ll just ignore the truth that writing often soothes the worry.
  2. I love watching my children play on the sandbar in the lake. I love the way they get completely absorbed in whatever game they make up and how they traipse about half-in half-out of the murky water, finding rocks, playing with the red mud, diving, swimming, hiding in the bits of bushes sticking out of the water. I wish for them as many sandbar hours as they can get for as long as they can get them.

  3. I feel inadequate because I cannot bring myself to read the professional books I brought with me this summer. I love fiction. I really really love it. But I *should* be reading some of these other books, right? I may need to hide the horrible pd stack so that it stops glaring at me from the corner because I have a couple of really good novels hidden behind a pillow on the couch.

Harumph. I still don’t really want to write. So I’m stopping. For now. Because now that I’ve started I have a feeling that I might need to keep going. Later. Once the storm is over. Or maybe at the end of the next chapter.

Writing. Hmph.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm
Read more slices like this one (though probably less grumpy) at twowritingteachers.org

Bayou Song in Kansas

A few months ago I became a regular reader of Margaret Simon’s blog, Reflections on the Teche, and I almost immediately fell in love. Sometime in March, she posted yet another of her beautiful pictures of the Bayou Teche and I pretty well just asked to come visit her. She was gracious in her reply (for example, she did not say, “I don’t even know you!”), and I hope she understood what I was trying to say: her descriptions of the place around her came alive in a way that made me want to be there. I haven’t visited yet, but Margaret’s awareness of the Bayou that surrounds her infuses much of her writing, so I was delighted to learn about her new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018).

The book is a wonderful mix of elements: Margaret provides poetry and short, informative descriptions of various flora and fauna found on the Bayou Teche,  Anna Amelia Cantrell offers whimsical illustrations and Henry Cancienne adds gorgeous photographs. These work together to create mini-sections: a photograph or two, some information, a poem and an illustration. But wait, there’s more! After all that, in each section readers are offered two entry points to add their own ideas to the book: a writing prompt and a sketch/drawing prompt.

I loved it – and I had a feeling my students would love it, too, but… it’s summer. No students at hand. So I turned to my favourite stand-in students: my children. I told myself that I just wanted to know if they would find the format as compelling as I did, that I was not actually forcing them to do school work during the summer… and then, I got a clever idea. You see, we’ve been on the road for a while now. First, we drove from Ontario to South Carolina to visit my family. After a ten day visit, we hopped back in the car for a series of adventures – an overnight in a cave in Tennessee, a trip to a waterpark, a drive through multiple states and, finally, a visit to my sister’s family in Kansas.

In terms of landscape, it’s safe to say that Kansas is not much like Ontario. As we drove along, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills and the sky and the farms and, well, all of it. My darling children were more engrossed in their tablets than the landscape and, even though they humored me by tearing their eyes from the screens when I called out “Look at the ________!”,  their lack of interest was driving me crazy – until I realized I might have a solution at my fingertips: Bayou Song. I knew Margaret had written this book with kids in mind. In fact, I asked her about the audience she envisioned as she wrote.

“I absolutely envisioned my audience as my students.  I’ve taught them poetry every year and have come to be known as the poetry teacher.  I love this.  My heroes are teachers like Amy VanDerwater, Laura Shovan, Irene Latham, and Laura Purdie Salas.  I turn to their work over and over for teaching and writing inspiration. I also wrote it for teachers!  I want teachers to find a way to enter into poetry with kids that is not intimidating but inspiring and fun.”

I had a feeling my kids and their cousins (all boys, ages 7, 9, 9, and 10) might, indeed, be inspired and have fun if I could get them to read even a bit of Bayou Song. So one morning, as we drove to the Milford Nature Center, I challenged them to observe the plants and animals around them. They were suspicious but I played up the fun and the challenge and they became champion lookers. My nephews are from Kansas while my boys are first time visitors, so their observations built on each other as we explored.

We walked through the nature center and watched the rescued bobcats, turkey vulture, kestrel, bald eagle, prairie dogs, snakes, and owls… we peered into the stream and saw the water bugs, minnows, frogs, herons… we chased down butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles as we wandered down the trail… we heard the cicadas, the bees, the birds, the water…. we found the tracks of deer, raccoon, herons, humans… In short, we immersed ourselves in the landscape for several hours.

When we got home, we turned to Bayou Song to see how our observations helped us. Margaret is a great believer in poetry for kids and asked her own students about parts of this book. Here’s what she says:

“I write poetry with my students all year long.  When I was editing these poems, I asked for their advice a few times and stole some of their ideas.  The one that comes to mind is ‘Things to Do if You’re a Snapping Turtle.’  My student Lynzee came up with the last line.  She said, ‘Don’t leave home.’  I re-envisioned the line as ‘Don’t leave your room’ thinking about how a room is a special, safe place for a child.”

So, I followed Margaret’s lead. I asked for the kids advice: is this a good book to use in a classroom? We opened the book and the boys were immediately drawn to the Legend of Bayou Teche.

Legend of Bayou Teche

Long ago, in the days when Native American tribes lived
in harmony with the land, there lived a huge venomous
snake. The snake’s body stretched for miles and miles.
The Chitimacha tribe warriors gathered together to
conquer this enemy snake. To kill a hundred-mile-long
snake was no easy task, so it took days for the snake
to die. As the snake fought to survive, it twisted and
turned and created a great gorge in the soil, eventually
dying and decomposing, leaving behind Bayou Teche.

“Creepy,” said one. “Cool,” said another. “Turn the page!” said the third. I did, and we saw this:

© Anna Cantrell, 2018

“LOOK! It’s a snake and a tree!” “And it’s a river!” “There are birds.” We read the poem. The boys nodded a lot and got into a debate about creepy vs cool. Then we read the prompts:

Write it: Choose a place in nature (an ocean, a tree, a flower, an animal)
to write about. If you use personification (as in “I am a Beckoning Brown
Bayou”), you become the thing you are writing about. How would an ocean,
tree, flower, or animal feel, act, hear, smell, or see?

Sketch it: What is a waterway near you? Does it have a shape? Does the shape
match its name? Draw the waterway so that it matches its name.

We repeated this process for the first few sections – one boy lingered over the “non-fiction,” another liked the drawings, two had me read poems out loud repeatedly – until one of the kids looked at me and said, “When do we get to write?” Um, in mid-July a bunch of kids just asked me if they could write and respond to poetry. “How about now?” I suggested. I already had the paper, pens and colored pencils. The kids dove into drawing, writing, and sharing their ideas with each other. They talked about what we had seen. They thought about things in new ways – like leaves as hair or trees as rivers. All four boys were intensely focused as they worked. Here’s a peek into their creations:

img_5768-collage1 Thomas was inspired by both prompts for “Legend of Bayou Teche”.
img_5713-collage1 Eric liked the photographs and drew a prairie dog playing a guitar in response to “What is your favorite musical instrument? Draw a picture of the instrument being played by an animal.”
26c040e1-7343-4f6a-b49f-e35515d650b9-collage1 Philip lives near a military base. He loved the prompt “Think of something in nature that reminds you of something else. How is a tree like a soldier, for example? Write a three-lined poem.”

(The fourth boy was also inspired, but creating his grand vision – the Kansas River and several complicated elements of animals and trees – required more stillness than he could muster in one July sitting, and he asked me not to share his unfinished product.)

Clearly, Bayou Song is an open invitation to children and adults (because, I can’t lie, I wrote a little something, too) to experience their environment and respond to it in ways that are simultaneously thoughtful and playful. When we went canoeing yesterday, the boy in my canoe was still imagining himself as various animals and noticing things as we floated by. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for more. As a teacher, I can’t wait to use it as a mentor text and as an inspiration in my classroom next year.

Would you like to know more about Bayou Song? Continue your tour at these blogs, where you’ll find more poems and illustrations from the book, interviews with Margaret Gibson Simon, and other surprises.

Friday, June 22: Michelle Kogan
Tuesday, June 26: Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
Friday, July 6: Kimberly Hutmacher at Kimberly Hutmacher Writes
Friday, July 13: Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise
Tuesday, July 17: Laura Shovan 
Tuesday, July 24 Amanda Potts at Persistence and Pedagogy
Friday, July 27: Carol Varsalona at Beyond LiteracyLink
Monday, July 30 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
Friday, Aug. 3 Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work that Matters

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Whisky sour, please

As I navigated the cobbled streets on the way to the hotel, I hoped that would be less awkward than I had been at 13. I was 20, on my way to meet a charming British gentleman at his hotel in Strasbourg, France.

I was studying abroad and my aunt’s father-in-law was attending a meeting not far from my temporary home. My aunt, always interested in strengthening the ties between the people she loves, had insisted that we get together. So here I was, teetering precariously through the ancient streets on brand new heels to meet a man I barely knew.

The last time I had seen Bill – the only time, in fact – was at my aunt’s wedding 7 years earlier. I had been an awkward 13 who fell hard for a handsome blond British boy who’d flown in for the wedding. He was one of my very first crushes. We had spent a lot of time gazing and each other and dancing. There is a distressing amount of photographic evidence of this. Bill, the bride’s father and the 15-year-old’s great uncle (I think), apparently found me charming, though looking back I did not recollect feeling charming in anyway. ‘Self-conscious’ would have been my choice of description.

I was definitely self-conscious now, as I walked into the lobby of a fancy hotel on the River Ill and glanced around for a man who was 44 years my senior. Ah, there he was, crossing the room with a welcoming smile. I can’t remember if he kissed me on my cheek or placed a comfortable hand over mine, but I’d bet he did both. He embodies graciousness, and his kind presence calmed me as we said hello.

He immediately suggested an aperitif, and naturally I agreed, but as we walked across the lobby to the elegant bar, I was suddenly aware that I had no idea how to order a drink. Of course I had been on dates before, and I’d been to college bars, but I wasn’t a big drinker, and since I wasn’t of legal drinking age at home, I’d never ordered a drink in a fancy restaurant. What was I going to do?

We sat down, and my increasing panic must have shown. A glass of wine? Surely not a beer? I didn’t even know the names of most cocktails. My eyes darted to the bar as the waiter approached. Then, quietly but with a sparkle in his eyes, Bill leaned towards me and said, “If I may. I suggest a whisky sour. In my experience, the ladies enjoy the sweetness and the men are always impressed by the whisky.”

I ordered my first whisky sour that evening, and I kept ordering them for years. Bill was right: I impressed many a date with a confident, “whisky sour, please.” Their sweetness accompanied by the complex undertones of the whisky always brought the echo of a lovely evening in Strasbourg, France with a charming older gentleman who saw me as I could be.

Bill turned 90 this week – my aunt, still connecting us all these years later, has been sending me pictures of the celebrations –  and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him a few more times in the quarter century since that evening. To me, he is the epitome of graciousness. So today, I raise my glass to Bill, and to his clever recommendation and simple kindness to a young woman he barely knew in a restaurant in a foreign country 25 years ago. I’ll have a whisky sour, please.

All we need is a miracle

Update, July 10, 2018: My friend, her daughter (and the rest of the family) are in for a long, grueling year or more, but the doctors say that they have every reason to believe she will live. I’ll take it. THANK YOU for all the support you shared when I was in my deepest grief.

My father is a not-quite-retired infectious disease doctor. He chose this path in the late 60s when infectious disease was a research-based kind of medicine, a good fit for my logical, thorough, bookish dad. He liked identifying symptoms, looking them up in the library and finding the best diagnostic fit; disease was a puzzle to solve and he’s good at puzzles. He also liked talking to the patients, but from the stories he tells, I think that was a skill he developed over the years.

He does tell a good story, and by the time I was 10 he was a teaching doctor who was often invited to give lectures in other cities. Sometimes he would take one of us with him, and as I got older sometimes I actually listened to what he told these doctors: corny jokes, technical details that were of no interest to me, and a few stories that marked me deeply.

My favourite story was when my dad talked about a patient he treated in the early days of CT scans. The young man came in complaining of severe headaches. They checked him out and finally ran a CT scan. The diagnosis was devastating: he had brain cancer. The young man was a youth pastor and had a long-planned church retreat scheduled for that weekend. He asked if he could put off treatment for a few days and attend this final retreat. The doctors agreed. When he returned, after a weekend where his whole church prayed for him and took care of him, his headaches were gone and he felt much better. His surgery was scheduled but the doctors decided to do one more scan because the technology was new & they just wanted a clear image to be sure about what they were dealing with. The image came back – no tumor. It was just gone. They had the previous scan: tumor. They had the new one: nothing. A third scan confirmed it: no tumor. What happened? Did they make a mistake the first time? Did the prayers work? My logical father could only say, “Sometimes in medicine you have to believe in miracles.”

My mother-in-law is a nurse who worked for years in a cancer treatment centre. Just moments ago she told me a story about a patient of hers who was diagnosed with mesothelioma and was given mere months to live. He was distraught, naturally, and spent three days in a panic of fear and anger. Then he remembered that he was a statistician and he could understand statistics, so he pored over the numbers and realized that the odds that he could live longer than the median were in his favour. He lived for 20 more years.

I would like to request a miracle, please. The 4-year-old daughter of one of my best friends was diagnosed with cancer on Friday, and I would like a miracle now. She is such a vibrant, funny, smart, HEALTHY little thing. There is nothing wrong with her – except this cancer. Cancer. She is four. I am trying very hard to remember that sometimes we have to believe in medicine and miracles. People are praying for her in all the various ways that people pray, but I’m having a little trouble praying right at this moment. But stories, I believe in stories. So please, accept these stories as my prayers. And if you can add your own, we’ll take that, too.

 

screen-shot-2017-03-14-at-1-30-42-pm15

Report Cards

Read more slices like this every Tuesday at Two Writing Teachers

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

We got our children’s report cards today. One was wonderful. The teachers clearly know him. They wrote kind things, “His contributions to class discussions have enriched the learning experience of his peers” and precise things, “He is happy to practise throwing and catching with accuracy while playing Ethiopian dodge ball” and clear suggestions for the future, he “is still working on socializing less in the hall and in the washroom.” I feel confident that the report card is a reflection of his learning at this moment in time.

My other child’s report card was less effective. There aren’t even really any good phrases to share. Apparently in reading he “interprets context clues and uses several reading strategies.” Well. There you go. I’m an English teacher, for pity’s sake, and I’m not 100% sure what that means for grade 4. The whole report card is general phrases that were almost undoubtedly lifted and used from one child to the next. I know the teachers have a LOT to do, but this report card feels very sterile, and I have no faith that it tells me anything at all about my child.

So… what was I doing today? Writing report cards. Exam period ended this morning; report cards are due tomorrow morning.  It’s a brutal turnaround. For each student, I enter marks for 6 learning skills in addition to a numerical mark for the course and, of course, comments. For the comments, the school board provides teachers with a list of codes, organized by subject, that we are supposed to use. Each code links to a specific approved comment. Every student should have one comment from each of three categories: Strengths, Needs, Next Steps. The comments are grammatically uneven (some use second person verbs, some use third), general to the point of uselessness, and older than our curriculum (“new” in 2007). I hate them.

We are allowed to write narrative comments, but we are strongly encouraged to use the codes. Usually I split the difference, turning the codes into complete sentences, inserting student names, stringing multiple comments into one sentence. I aim for some personalization, some sense of the student on the report card. I want something better than “uses reading strategies”. This semester, for my small class of “Applied” level students, I managed personalized narrative comments, but for the large class I took over 2/3 of the way through, I’ve had to stick with the drop downs. Here’s an example:
Creates superior products
Uses creative thinking skills very effectively
Continue to explore creative ways to apply language and symbols
Continue to increase your personal reading

I know there are real limits to report cards (460 characters to be precise), but I wish I could send students off with something better than “creates superior products.” I wish my report cards could reassure the students and their parents that I really did see them, I really do know what they learned. Maybe next year I’ll get closer, but for now, here’s what I wish I could say instead:

Your child’s eyes light up when she talks about writing. She loves to try new things – once she stops being scared – and she’s learning to be confident that what she says matters. Even when she was half-asleep on her desk because school just started too early, she was still polite and she mostly managed to wake up enough to try the writing prompts. The day she cried, she had friends to comfort her. The day I needed her to step up, she did it. When she writes, she puts her whole self into it, and sometimes what she creates is breathtaking. And sometimes it isn’t, but she’s learning to handle that. There is no numerical score for “this child is doing just fine and my heart swells to think of her growing to adulthood.” Nevertheless that is her final mark.