Writing in front of them

It’s not like I hadn’t planned my lesson. I had. 15 minutes of reading – while I conferenced quietly with students – followed by a quickwrite about memories from school. Then I would “write in front of them” to show them how to start crafting a scene. I’d chosen Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a mentor text and brainstormed some memories the night before. I had a few in mind and was ready to go.

Only here I was, sitting in front of 25 Grade 12 students and my writing was terrible. I had modeled how to find a moment – I thought of early memories and jotted them down but rejected them as too vague – then landed on a high school memory of an encounter with my daunting freshman English teacher.

I’d known before the class that I would probably end up writing about her, so I had details in mind. But they didn’t come together. At all. I started a sentence and abandoned it, explaining why. I narrated as I re-thought my entry point and pushed through the lurching prose to at least get a full idea down. I talked about trying to add some detail, but every detail felt forced and flat. I paused and acknowledged my problem out loud: “So I’m stuck and this doesn’t feel good to me. I think I’ll back up and think about what I might be trying to show with this scene. Why am I writing this?”

And suddenly, I was mortified. Not only could I not get this scene on paper but I realized I was wrestling with my own understanding of who I was in high school. I felt naked in front of my students’ curious eyes: Was I the nerd who studied for hours? The kind of kid who got sick on the day of the test? Who spoke up to teachers? Who stood up for her friends? This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, and certainly not as people watched me.

Defeated, I stopped. “I can’t make it work,” I admitted. “I’m realizing that I don’t know what I’m trying to do in this scene. I don’t know who I was in that moment, and I feel like I’m revealing way more of myself to you than I meant to – I mean, was I really this nerdy and this outspoken and this dumb? It’s unsettling – I’m unsettled. Why don’t you start your scenes while I see what I can do here?”

As students opened their notebooks, I stared at my own work, distressed. So much for “writing in front of them.” So much for “teacher as model.” I heaved a sigh and looked up. One girl – front and center, whip smart and unabashedly vocal – looked back and smiled ruefully at me. Then she dove into her notebook, pen moving unwaveringly across the paper. 

And I went back to writing, too.

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What we did on our vacation

I was working on a post for my on-line class when I heard someone pounding on the backdoor. I ran through the apartment to open it, and my 11 year old plowed in. “Hi Mom! We’re home!” He threw his backpack on the floor and started prying off his boots.

Just then, the front door was assaulted. BANG! BANG! BANG! Back I ran, through the apartment, and flung open the door for the 9 year old. “Hi Mom!”

They were returning from a three-day trip to Toronto with another family, Dad and an exchange student. I had stayed home because I had both work and classwork.  Once I corralled both children into the same room, I asked, “How was the trip?”

They had a lot to say, interrupting each other, talking so fast I could hardly keep up:
It was trash. The back of the car was SO HOT. And completely crowded. And on the way down, the windshield squirter broke and it took forever to fix. And they wouldn’t turn on the air conditioning even though we said we were hot. 

It is February in Canada. Their Southern mother cannot imagine wanting air conditioning. I was with the adults on this one.

“But, how was Toronto?” I probed. “Tell me about the vacation part.”

P has a girlfriend. Her name is Emma. She likes the same things we like. Well, I mean, some of them. Like the same shows. We got to talk to her. She’s nice. And he met her on Tinder. And he was like, It’s the last thing I expected, meeting someone here. And we were like, we knew you’d have a girlfriend. But she’s really nice. And she doesn’t even go to his school.

“Whoa! Wait. What? Was she with you in Toronto?”

No, we Skyped with her every night. He talks to her a lot. Oh! And someone got shot. There was a fight. It was right outside our hotel. And then the guy who got shot came into the lobby. But we were asleep. And they took him to the hospital. And there were LOADS of people in the lobby.

I closed my eyes for a minute and took a deep breath. “So, did you actually do anything in Toronto?”

Oh. Yeah. We went to the aquarium.

I looked from one to the other, waiting.

Finally the older one piped up, “Oh yeah, Mom, how was your weekend?”

“Calm,” I said, “Very calm.”

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Recycling

The two untouched photocopies in the recycling bin make me sigh out loud. I handed them out to my grade 12 class last period and asked the students to glue them into their notebook then annotate the text. Rather than circulate, I had worked alongside them: using a document camera to model “reading like a writer”, marking up the text with my observations, questions and notes. I really thought the students were doing this, too.

I’ll admit it: this class isn’t starting like many other English classes they’ve taken. Heck, it’s not even starting like the other English classes I’ve taught. I’ve reconsidered my reading instruction over the past few years, and now most of our reading is independent, choice reading. Every class starts with 15 minutes of reading. Every student reads a minimum of five books in a semester (though I’ll negotiate for really thick or complicated books). Since I started this, my students’ reading volume has increased dramatically; many read far more than five books, and they are better prepared to approach the complex texts that we work on as a class. 

But… it still feels weird. I mean, doesn’t every high school English teacher start with short stories while the class list gets finalized? Shouldn’t I be telling them how to think about literature? Isn’t that my job? It’s unsettling to use new methods.

To make class even more odd, this semester I’ve committed to having students write daily. After all, I say, “You can’t get better at something you don’t practice.” I’ve only had this group for a week, and I suspect they are already sick of hearing me say this.

So, you know, we read, then we write, we study a short text. We move around and share. We edit our own work… it’s workshop-y.  And, ahem, I haven’t graded a thing. Not. One. Thing. I haven’t even given feedback yet – shh! There is method to my madness: I really really want these soon-to-be graduates to remember that reading and writing are things that we do because they make us whole. These are things we do for our lives, not just for a teacher. “When was the last time you read for fun?” I ask. Some of them can’t remember. “When did you last write something that wasn’t for school?” Some of them say never.

But those papers in the recycle bin make me think I’m not doing a very good job with my new-fangled methods. I worry that my goal-oriented students feel adrift, that they are waiting for me to tell them how many paragraphs they must write and how many pages they must read. Or maybe the students don’t take me seriously; maybe they think the class is too easy and that they can just coast. 

I close my eyes for a second and try to visualize the class: the students seemed engaged. When I looked up from my annotations, they were (mostly) writing away. When they stood up to share, they looked like they were reading from their notebooks. 

Those untouched papers laugh at me: this isn’t working.

I fish them out and flatten them, putting them into my own notebook to give to….oh wait!… to give to THE TWO STUDENTS WHO WERE ABSENT TODAY!

Oh my. Papers firmly in hand, I sit back down at my desk to map out the writing and craft moves I want to accompany Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book This is the Rope tomorrow. At least with a picture book there will be no copies for anyone to recycle.
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Payoff

Last semester was a tough one for me. I’ve been doing lots of thinking and writing about it, but so far there’s nothing I’m willing to share. Still, when the new semester started Monday I was excited and nervous in a way I haven’t been for a while. I laid my clothes out the night before and still forgot my lunch in the flurry of leaving.

Moment one: I am teaching a grade 12 English class for the first time in a few years. I love teaching grade 12 and my mind is awash in possibilities, especially since I have completely revamped my reading and writing instruction since I last taught this level. Also, years of teaching students who benefit from explicit and concrete beginnings have changed my understanding of learning. I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks.

I get these senior students up on their feet and have them move about the room as they consider and acknowledge their own attitudes towards English, reading, writing, group work, presentations and more. They can see that they are not alone in their experiences and views. When I ask them how many books they read last semester, over half the class clusters into the corner for “exactly what was assigned.” I squint my eyes at them, start to laugh and ask how many are lying – because research tells me that a lot of them fake read those books. They are relaxed enough that several of them grin and move themselves over to zero. “No worries,” I tell them, “we’ll find you something.” Our class is off to a great start.

Then comes the moment that blows me away. I ask them to write about their interests. THEY ALL HAVE PENS OR PENCILS. Every. Single. One. They pull out paper and write. Just like that, like it’s no big deal. I don’t know how long it has been since I taught a class where everyone is actually ready to learn. When the bell rings and they leave, chatting and laughing, I am bubbling with excitement. What might we accomplish this semester if we all have pencils? The possibilities are endless.

Moment two: My grade 10s come into the classroom with significantly less enthusiasm. This class is half the size of the other, but reading and writing are a much bigger challenge for these students. They have all made it to class on time, though, and we celebrate our successes in here. We do the same activities as the grade 12 class, and things are pretty low-key until we get to that question about how many books students read last semester.

Here’s where I should mention that five of these students had me for grade 9 English last semester. They are trying to catch up to where the system says they are “supposed” to be, so they’re with me again. They know my ways, and when I ask students to move to a corner to show how many books they have read, my former/current students move proudly to the areas that are well beyond “exactly what was assigned.” I don’t say much – these kids don’t always want to stand out academically – but I watch their peers notice that these students have been reading.

Then, magic occurs. After a few book talks, I gesture towards my classroom library. It’s a complete jumble because I had to switch rooms this morning: books are everywhere and in no discernible order. “Go ahead and explore the books to find something that might be of interest to you. Take your time; have a look.” And my five, my students who know me, find books, sit down and start to read. Just like that.

As they settle in, their peers follow suit. Before I know it, I have 12 reluctant readers sitting with books and reading quietly on day one of the semester. As far as I can tell, only one is fake reading. I’m heading over to chat with him, using this time to get to know him, when an EA comes in and shakes his head with astonishment. I shrug back, my eyes wide. I didn’t ask them to read: enough of them had books that they were actually interested in that they just did it. Because independent reading matters. Because time matters. Because routine matters.

Now, all we have to do is this, 90ish more times. Semester 2, here we come!

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Pause

My favourite parking spaces are occupied, so I drop the boys off and start round two of the hunt. All the usual spots are inexplicably taken. It’s snowing a little, but the temperature hovers obstinately above freezing and the streets are deep in slushy puddles. The going is tough. The city is behind on snow removal, parking spots are scarce, and plenty of cars are taking up an awful lot of the pavement. My mirror nearly touches theirs as I slowly slide my car down the streets.

img_1970I sigh and turn down another side street. Grr! The red and white no parking signs that indicate snow removal is imminent taunt me from atop the snow banks. No wonder I can’t find a space. I do a quick check of my rear view mirror, touch my brakes and pause. Deep breath. Snow removal is good, I remind myself. Yes, I will likely spend a lot of time trying to find parking tonight, but tomorrow and the days that follow will be much easier. 

10 long minutes later, I find a spot. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough for tonight.

**********************

I’m reading Gregor the Overlander out loud while my older son draws. He’s sketching another manga character, and he’s not happy with the result. As I turn a page he snarls, “I hate this! It’s terrible!” He’s about to crumple the drawing, but my hand catches his before his fingers close around the paper.

“Hey,” I say quietly, “give it a second. What’s wrong with your picture?”

“It looks awful.” He’s looking away from his picture, not at it.

“Mmm. Can you tell me about it?”

He hates it all. I suggest if it’s that bad then it would make a really great place to experiment – just try a few new things. On second thought, he hates a few particular parts. Then he just really hates… wait, maybe he could…

He goes back to drawing; I continue to read.

*************************

The first week back to school after the winter break, I couldn’t bring myself to publish a blog post; I couldn’t find anything that rang true. Every word I wrote seemed to leave out another. I didn’t think it was awful, exactly, but I couldn’t find Hemingway’s one true sentence (even though, I’m just putting this out there, I really don’t like Hemingway). I wrote and deleted, wrote and threw away. I struggled, then I gave up in a huff.

The next week I paid attention and by Monday I had plenty of observations to choose from. To avoid writer’s block, I decided to write by hand first. I got as far as the date. 

I had to pause. I didn’t have much choice: I clearly wasn’t going to write a slice of life by beating myself up. 

Tonight, no parking spot magically appeared; my son’s drawing didn’t suddenly become excellent. Pausing didn’t solve things, but neither did it mean giving up.

So here I am, writing, pausing, and writing again.

 

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Be. Here.

It’s New Year’s Eve and we are in a plane again. This time we’ve left Grandma’s and are heading home. All around me, people are looking backward – it’s the end of the decade! – and forward – let’s make some resolutions! Me? I had a big plan to write a “Slice of Life” that wasn’t, strictly speaking, a slice of life at all, but was going to be very reflective and profound AND look forward to what comes next. I was going to include my “One Little Word” and even reference a book I just finished.

It was a good plan.

The thing is, of course, that we were on vacation. And the Santa Catalinas were right outside the window. And it rained – in the desert – so I had to get outside. And then we needed to paint and talk and read and snuggle and laugh and watch TV and hike and so much more. On one hike, our youngest insisted – spur of the moment – that we veer off our planned trail and head straight up another to the top of a mountain. We would have made it, too, if sunset hadn’t chased us back down. Our oldest remembered the neighbor who’s an astronomer/ professor/adventurer and an animated story-teller. He convinced him to take us stargazing in Sabino Canyon. And my mother-in-law cooked for us and cared for us and allowed us to settle in to just being for a while.

So I didn’t write that blog post. I’m not worried – I’ll get to it. All those ideas are still there, percolating away in the back of my head. And I didn’t get around to looking back over the past decade – or the past year – or even the past month – which was kind of my plan, what with a “last week of the decade/year/month” vacation. I didn’t get around to planning for next year – or month – or even week – either. I just texted a friend this morning to ask if I could let her know more about plans for Jan 2, well, tomorrow. Which, you might note, is Jan 1st. Ah well.

Instead, I have been busy being here. That’s my mantra during savasana at the end of yoga and what I repeat when I try to meditate. Breathe in – be; breathe out – here. I don’t know if it’s what I’m supposed to be doing at those times, but it’s what I started thinking years ago & it has stuck. And it’s what I’m doing now, at the end of this year, the end of this decade. I’m being here, on this airplane with my family on our way home,. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be. Here.

Happy New Year!

 

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Giggling grandmas

As I settle into my seat, I hear one of them say, “…a surprise visit to my grands and great-grands. I have 13 great-grandchildren and 9 grandchildren!”

“Oh my!” exclaims her seat partner, “I’ve got 13 grandchildren and…” her voice is muffled by an overhead announcement and I can’t quite hear the rest. No great-grands, yet, I think.

I turn to my children who have already buckled in and opened their ipads in the row behind me. One holds my tea while the other gazes out the window. Once I’m secured, too, I retrieve my tea and try to listen in again.

“I won’t see them until tomorrow morning. They will be so surprised. I can’t wait to see their faces!”

Her companion nods her head in delighted agreement. The flight attendant’s voice breaks in. My older boy coughs loudly. “Oh my! That was really sweet of your children… that they are in a position to do that… lucky…”

And now a family of three arrives, their seats separate. I trade with the father who trades with the mother so that we end up with two sets of boys and moms. Everyone is content.

The plane takes off and I read for a while, then knit and listen to a podcast until laughter rings through the cabin. I look up and the two grandmas have their heads together. They are, frankly, cackling or maybe giggling like grandmas. “Oooh hoo hoo hoo!” “Ah-hahaha!” Their phones are out and they are scrolling. They snort and whoop. “So cute!” one exclaims. “Would you look at that!” crows the other

Brown head leans towards blonde, then away. My own seat companion has said not a word – first immersed in his game, now asleep. Across the aisle, my boys play a game together. In front of them, the mother and son watch a movie together. And in front of me a middle-aged man snores loudly. Over and around it all, the grandmas talk and laugh. They just met today, and they may never see each other again, but they are spending this hour and a half in joyous companionship.

May we all laugh so loudly and talk so happily this holiday season. May all our travels be as fun as theirs. Happy Holidays!

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