Tick off

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When the phone rang I was in the middle of giving the “ten-minutes-till-bedtime” warning. But since it was her, I picked up. Because you can tell a real friend hello and goodbye in mere seconds if you need to. Because she doesn’t usually call at almost bedtime. Because I always like to hear what she has to say.

Well, I *usually* like to hear what she has to say. But maybe not when she says, “Hi, um, can you check your texts? I sent you some pictures.” Because, though none of my students appear to believe this, nothing good ever comes from an urgent request to look at pictures on your phone.

Sure enough, I checked my phone and yelped, “That’s a tick! Why are you sending me pictures of ticks?”

As it turns out, the tick had decided to take up residence near her daughter’s armpit.

“Um, that tick is already embedded,” I observed helpfully. Unsurprisingly, they knew that. They had actually called to see if I knew how to get it out. In theory, the answer was yes; in practice the answer was not yet

Since nobody wants to pull a tick out of their child on their own – at least not the first time – and since apparently not yet is better than not ever, they hopped in the car and headed over to my place. Meanwhile, I cleverly googled “how to remove a tick” (pro-tip: pretty much everything except “pull it out with tweezers” is an old wives’ tale) and then called my father.

Now, before you judge me for making an international phone call to a 74-year-old man to talk about a relatively common and seriously tiny creature, I should mention that my dad is an infectious disease doctor. Ok, and I should also mention that I was really just calling for moral support because he and my stepmother basically live in the woods, and I am decidedly a city girl. They have tick experience. Dad basically told me to pull the tick out with tweezers, but he added some extra things like “watch for fever for the next ten days” to make me feel like the call was worthwhile.

When my friend arrived, we left my boys downstairs, supposedly making their lunches but really listening carefully at the bottom of the stairs to hear if there was any screaming. My friend, her daughter, and I headed up to the bathroom with the good lighting to look at the tick.

It was a tick, alright. It  was also very contentedly settled in under the 10-year-old’s arm. With more bravado than bravery, I held the tweezers, her mom held her hand and I pulled the tick out. That was it.

This result seemed all-too-easy for such a dramatic situation, so we fretted for a while about whether or not we’d gotten the whole tick. Our concerns mostly led us to poke the poor child’s tick bite repeatedly with the (sanitized) tip of a safety pin. She was surprisingly patient with our ministrations, possibly because she was convinced that if we left any of the tick behind undefined but horrible things would happen, possibly because she guessed that her friends were downstairs listening for screams.

Finally, we declared her tick-free, swabbed just about everything we could reach with rubbing alcohol (because that’s what the website said to do), and headed back downstairs. The boys pretended that they had spent the whole time packing their lunches, the girl grabbed the dinner she had brought along (we had rudely interrupted with our concerns about her potentially imminent death-by-tick), and her mom put the bottle with the tiny tick corpse into her pocket – “just in case it has Lyme disease,” she said, though I’m not sure how having the tick body will help. We hugged, they left, and just like that the drama was over.

New definition of friendship: will remove a tick from your child’s body, during dinner and/or at bedtime.

Celebrate Book Love!

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Today I bought my class pizza. They were delighted – and so was I. This year I have fully committed to daily free reading in my Grade 10 English class. I am teaching the “lower” track English class, and not all of my students see themselves as readers. (To be fair, some do – some read a lot – but others do not read at all.) I am determined to give them enough reading time that they have a chance to experience what reading is like. I am determined to meet them where they are without judgment and to guide them forward with joy.

Now, I’ve tried choice reading before, but I never quite figured out how to make it work. Usually some kids loved it and some kids hated it, and eventually we gave it up. This year, I came to class full of ideas and strategies from Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher. Book Love and 180 Days are my inspiration (even though – full disclosure – I haven’t yet finished all of 180 Days yet.) I don’t have a real classroom, so no classroom library, but I gained an ally in our school librarian and we have free reign on a daily basis. And I’m really working to find the right book for each kid.

Last week marked 5 weeks of school, 1/4 of the semester – and it also marked the day we reached our first class goal of 10 books read. TEN. They thought I was crazy when I first suggested that. And today we hit 11 – and two are nearly done with another book apiece! This is practically a miracle. First of all, until last week we only ten students were attending class (an eleventh has joined us now). Second, when I surveyed my students at the beginning of the year, I found out that most of them read either one book (for English, and not entirely on their own) or none last year. Now some of my students are on their second or even third book. Our revised goal is 40 books, and the students are excited.

So today I ordered pizza to arrive during the last 15 minutes of class, and we celebrated. Because reading is joyous and milestones are worth noting. I let you know when we hit 40 – bet we get there faster than they think we will.

Let’s celebrate!

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I do believe… I do. I do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“The word ‘believe’ is rooted in an old English word meaning to hold dear, esteem, trust; it has the same origins as the word ‘love.’ To ‘believe’ is not to agree with particular ideas or concepts, but it is make a commitment of the heart.” – Rev. Bryant Oskvig

 

Last year, I overheard a colleague complain that “everyone” has autism these days. My first reaction was disgust – how could they!? – but my second was compassion. After all, haven’t we all had times when we didn’t believe?

I was teaching 7th grade math. Math! Of all things. And middle school. I had wanted to teach either 3rd grade or high school English – middle school was on my “never will I ever” list. But here I was, in an oddly-shaped room with creaky wooden floors in an old house in downtown Washington, D.C. The school had as much  personality as its location and the students, well, they matched their surroundings.

To be fair, the teachers were equally unconventional. I was one of the few teachers with any formal education credentials, and all of us were impossibly young and unmistakably dedicated to teaching well. We used to joke that we should just put beds in our offices and move in: it would save us the charade of having a life. I was trying to learn the craft of teaching, but 7th grade math in a quirky little school was a far cry from anything I had studied or practiced in grad school. So I was reading a lot about teaching and doing a whole lot of thinking on my feet.

My classroom was full of squirrelly 12-year-olds, and I was full of crazy ideas. We kept math journals, created math skits, and learned statistics with M&Ms. My fellow teachers and I shared successes and failures daily. We dissected education trends and talked about various ideas for hands-on learning. And we complained. Not a lot, but plenty. Often we complained about how “all the kids” had “some diagnosis” that prevented us from using our fancy, researched techniques.

One of our favorite targets was ADHD (though it was ADD at the time). We were virtually all single 20-somethings, but that didn’t stop us from harrumphing about “kids these days” and speaking knowledgeably about parenting trends and over-medication. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I firmly believed that ADHD was a fad and that most medication was just to settle down normally active children.

In my classroom, students sat in a semi-circle. That is, when they sat. Memory tells me that “a bunch” of them were boys, but I can’t vouch for that. I can say that they lacked a certain focus every day after lunch. They were sweaty, talking, moving, tapping, crazy creatures who occasionally learned some math almost as if by accident. And then there was Alex.

Alex was in constant motion. He talked a mile a minute and had incredible eyelashes that framed big hazel eyes. He could make me laugh in about half a second, and I was pretty sure that he actually wanted to learn math. That said, he had physically fallen out of his desk more than once… Oh, and he “supposedly” had ADHD. He was pretty much always in some sort of trouble.

For a while, I had tried putting students who misbehaved into the center of the semi-circle. Only belatedly did I realize that a) I was shaming them, and b) many of the boys took complete advantage of having all eyes on them. I needed a new plan. One of my books suggested a “three-strikes and you’re out” policy. I went with it.

I’ve forgotten the lesson that day, but I know it was a fun one. I know this for sure because Alex really wanted to take part. He was leaning forward in his desk, straining and stretching, tilting the whole thing at alarming angles. He had mentioned that he hadn’t taken his meds that morning, but since I didn’t really believe he had ADHD, I didn’t take much notice. I gave him his first warning about 5 minutes into class.

He looked chagrined. “Sorry. I just can’t focus.”

I gave my best stern look, “Well, give it a little more effort.”

He did. I could see he was trying to watch only me. But he just couldn’t. He was trying to watch everyone in the whole class at exactly the same time. Sure enough, minutes later I gave him his second warning and sent him to cool down in the hallway.

He came back in quickly. He was so excited to be in the room. He sat on his hands. He held his beautiful eyes wide open. He squirmed and he wiggled. And he fell out of his desk. Somehow, this time, I knew it had been an accident. But the whole class was laughing, and I had this three strikes policy.

“Alex,” I said, “you have to go to the office.”

“I know,” he replied, and his little head hung low. His whole skinny little body was the picture of despair. “But I was trying to be good.”

My heart broke as I asked the question: “But were you good?”

“No,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him. He looked up through his long lashes as tears started to fall. And he went to the office.

Because, you see, he had ADHD. And he hadn’t taken his medication. So he couldn’t focus, and the whole exciting classroom was one giant distraction for him. I knew it in that moment as surely as I knew anything.

I wanted to shout after him, “Wait! No! I was wrong! I believe!” But I didn’t. And since I wasn’t the only non-believing teacher, that wasn’t his only trip to the office. Happily, we had an incredibly kind principal and a deeply connected community. I taught Alex again, and I was privileged to watch him grow up. Today, I see him on Facebook and I marvel at the compassion he has for his own students. He was an outdoor education instructor and now he teaches science. He seems to be a fantastic teacher, but I could be a little biased.

And I believe. I believe in ADHD and autism and so much more. I worry sometimes about labels, and I know that these things are complicated. But mostly, I look at the children who come into my room and I think, “I believe you. I believe in you.” And I wish for my non-believing colleagues a moment that helps them believe, too.

 

Let’s talk about the tornado

The first student to arrive had her earbuds in, but the volume was low enough for her to hear my question: “What happened to you during the tornado?” Without hesitating, she took her earbuds out and started talking.

She was still talking when the next student came in. I was listening while writing advance organizers on the board. Soon, the second student started sharing her stories from the chaotic weekend. “It was really scary!” As I watched the energy between the two girls, I went back to the top of the plan for the day and put a question mark next to the first planned activity, “Read.”

The next students arrived as a group, found seats around the circle and joined right in. “My mother saw it from her window!”
“We didn’t have power for TWO DAYS!”
Everyone saw that video!”

By the time the last student arrived, wheeling his chair up to the spot we save for him, we were deep in conversation. My students, sometimes reluctant to discuss anything, were sharing story after story. After a few minutes of free-for-all, someone suggested we should make sure to hear from everyone. Around the circle we went. Next I asked them to share something hard or not-so-good that happened. Finally, I asked about things that were unexpectedly good as a result of the tornado.

Our class was lucky: neither of the two tornadoes that touched down in Ottawa on Friday caused serious harm to them or their families. Nevertheless, one of electrical substations that provides power to Ottawa sustained a direct hit, so the whole city has been affected in one way or another. We were even off of school yesterday, the first time school has been cancelled in the 11 years I’ve taught here. We were close enough to danger to heighten the students’ attention but no one had experienced trauma, and I took total advantage of it.

Our class has been reading news stories daily as a way to increase the context we have for reading in general. We talk about the stories and study how they are written. We gather vocabulary words and learn how to ask questions. Slowly, we’re learning to write news articles. We’ve got a list of what makes something a news article, and that has become our success criteria. This unit takes a few weeks, but it’s worth it. My students will need this exact skill for standardized testing this year, and writing the news helps them understand perspective taking, narrative voice and sticking to one story. Some will even begin to take audience into account as they write, which is always fun.

Today, we talked about how the story of the tornadoes unfolded in the news, from the first emergency alert to the discussion of the aftermath (new vocab word!) in today’s paper. We looked at some pictures and thought about why the papers might have chosen to publish these images and whether or not they reflected our experience. Finally, everyone chose an image and wrote a news story about the tornadoes.

The students were completely engaged – success criteria in front of them (oh, how I love those lists!), pencils moving, keys tapping. Some bit their lips as they thought, two asked each other to check something, and most wrote until I stopped them… with just enough time left in class to reveal the shocking follow-up on a story we’ve been following. (The police arrested a second woman!) When the bell rang, we were all pretty energized.

I left the classroom musing about what made this day work so well. We never did get to our 20 minutes of reading – and I’m usually pretty insistent on that – but giving the students time and space to talk, think, and write about the thing that was actually on their mind made today’s class stand out. 

These kids have things to say. Today is a reminder that my job is to help them say it.

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Level 1

“Place your hands firmly against the wall, middle fingers pointing up, fingers well spread. Place your feet under your hips. Find your distance. Using the pressure of your hands on the wall, turn the inside of your forearms downward while at the same time spinning your triceps in. Open your elbows.

“Now, maintaining that action, stretch back through your hips. Elongate your spine and make your back straight.”

Suddenly the teacher’s voice changes. The zen is gone; it’s time to get serious: “Ok. Hold that. I’m coming around with a stick to let you feel how straight your back is – or isn’t.”

I hold and breathe. In and out. In and out. Spin here, stretch there, stay straight, hold…

I have been practicing yoga for 15 years or so. There have been times that I couldn’t get myself to classes regularly but still practiced at home (hello, year in France) , and others where I couldn’t even practice at home regularly (I’m looking at you, baby #2), but I still count about 15 years.

I love yoga. I find both peace and challenge in my classes, some space that I can’t create when I’m not stretching my body and concentrating on my breath. Yoga is one of my mainstays.

And yet, second semester last year, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was tired and stressed out and my body ached. These are all the reasons a person SHOULD go to yoga, but I ended up not going, and I was the worse for it.  this year I decided to recommit. I hired a girl down the street to pick the kids up after school on Wednesdays and enlisted my husband to get home a little earlier.

Excited, I went online to sign up for my class. The scheduled loaded and I was suddenly paralyzed: My class is level 2/3 at 7:30, but at 5:45 there was a level 1 class.

Yoga teachers often talk about going back to the basics, about how there really is no level 2 or 3. There are just the poses, our body and our breath. Teachers remind us that even an experienced practitioner can learn from a level 1 class. After all, despite appearances, the challenge in yoga is mostly internal. Still, level 1 after 15 years? What would I learn? Was I just looking for the easy way out? I stared at the schedule for a long moment, and I signed up for level 1.

The first two classes have been both freeing and challenging. Even the simplest of instructions have nuances, and now I hear the teacher’s instructions anew. Concentrating on the foundation of poses I’ve been doing for years is helping me make changes that I never dared to in my other classes. I don’t cut corners to get into complex poses because I’m busy working on all the tiny complexities of the basic poses. Plus, in level 1, cheating shows. My teacher might not comment on a lifted heel when every other bit of me is twisted into a new space, but there’s nowhere to hide when I’m working on Uttihita Trikonasa (Triangle Pose) or Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2). 

Level 1 means I’m letting go of expectations about what I should or shouldn’t be able to do and accepting what my body can actually do. It means admitting that there are things I’ve been faking for years. It means practicing concentrating on myself and not others. (I stink at this, in case you’re wondering). As it turns out, level 1 is hard. 

So I breathe in, I breathe out, and I grow. And I’m ready for the next class.3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

 

We have a reader!

He’s reading! He’s really reading. Just look at this picture – reading at the breakfast table this morning, ignoring his pancake.

img_6443I actually had to tell him to put the book away. And I’ve had to add “make sure he’s turned the light out” to our bedtime routine. I can’t quite believe it.

Eric has dyslexia. We knew something was not quite right by the end of Grade 1, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. He was in the highest reading group in class, but he regularly “read” without looking at the pages. He learned many things quickly and easily, but he didn’t like school and he just couldn’t seem to get along with his teacher. This made no sense: she was experienced and beloved by many; he was funny and eager. They hit an impasse and, bless her, she just kept saying “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t right.” Finally, despite my misgivings about testing young children, we took Eric for an assessment. And it turned out he was reading at the 3rd percentile for his age. THE THIRD. He was fake reading all over the place.

We are incredibly lucky that we figured this out early. I learned about dyslexia and found a tutor who uses a researched method with proven outcomes (The Barton method – Orton Gillingham based). She’s amazing and Eric, the trooper, has rarely complained about two hours of tutoring a week. Still, frankly, the progress has been slow. I know that the tutoring is not simply supposed to teach him to read but rather to actually rewire his brain so that reading becomes easier, and I know that takes time, but knowing something and believing it are two different things. In grade 2, he read dutifully with me every evening but nothing else. This summer he basically avoided reading altogether. I was beginning to despair.

And then, three weeks ago, he picked up a book and read it. The whole thing. He stayed up until 10pm. I was on my way to bed when I noticed his light on – talk about a shock! He was three pages from the end and so excited when he finished that he couldn’t go to sleep. The next day he read the second book in the series.

Soon, confidence growing daily, he enlisted others. He read out loud on the couch to his brother. (Thomas was really encouraging: “Wow! That was a big word! Good job, Eric!”) He told a friend about his reading, and the friend showed up at our house with the rest 

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of the Dog Man series and a new series to start. Unbeknownst to me, Eric devised a reading plan. Dog Man => Bird and Squirrel => Bad Guys => something? => Wings of Fire. Wings of Fire is his ultimate reading goal. He watched his brother read it two years ago and, apparently, has been desperate to get to it *by himself*. He has every book in the series lined up on his bookshelf, ready to go. And until he gets there, he’s planning to read all the time. Which explains the reading at breakfast. And after school.

And here he is in the car in the driveway, reading in the backseat, refusing to get out.img_6445

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a reader! 

 

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Airing My Laundry

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photo credit: Capt. Christopher Love

Once the weather gets really nice – late spring around here, or even early summer if it’s a rainy year – I love hanging our laundry out to dry. We have two (TWO!) laundry lines off our back porch, and I find pleasure in the quiet rhythm of shaking open a wet item, reaching for the clothespins, pinning the clothing up, sending the line squeakily towards the yard, and beginning the cycle again. Hours later, as I take the laundry down, I revel in the slight stiffness of some of the dried clothes and the fresh almost non-smell as I fold them.

Laundry lines, which generations past saw as either a necessity or a drudgery, are a luxury for me. Hanging laundry means slowing time and honoring place. We live in a busy downtown where not everyone has a backyard, much less a porch or space and time for laundry. In fact, our house is bounded on one side by housing units, about 10 of which look into our backyard in some way, and on the other side by a larger house that has been divided into three apartments. Our back-door neighbors have a well-used laundry line, and next to them two other houses rise above our yards and look down into our little space. Basically, a lot of people can see our laundry dry.

This potential public combined with my children’s enthusiastic ability to grind dirt into pretty much any item of clothing they wear means that every time I hang the laundry, I end up thinking about the phrase “airing your dirty laundry.” I mean, our laundry is clean-ish, but it’s out there for everyone to see. My neighbors know what my underwear look like, just how big a hole has to be before I declare a shirt unwearable, and exactly how clean is acceptable for socks in our house (hint: not very). I’m not airing our dirty laundry, exactly, but I am surely sacrificing some of our privacy when I head out with a basket full of clothes to dry.

I keep thinking about this. Once upon a time, everyone had to hang their laundry dry. People hung clothes out tenement windows in New York, and Ma hung clothes on the Prairie with Laura and Mary and little Carrie. There was a time when it was scandalous to let your underclothes peek out, but everyone around you knew about your underclothes anyway. Privacy was different then, I imagine. Your neighbors saw your laundry and they knew your business. It must have been an oddly intimate sort of knowing in a time before the tell-all era we currently inhabit.

Today, bras show frankly under t-shirts, boxer shorts parade above saggy jeans, and panties flash below short shorts. Online, I am wildly public about some things, but oddly reticent about others. For example, I cannot for the life of me to bring myself to describe my underwear to you. I’ll hang them up for everyone in the neighborhood to look at, but no way will I write about them here, even though people who read this blog for sure know more about me than some of my neighbors.

Why my hesitation? There are companies on the internet that know more about me than any one person ever will. They know what I browse and where I pause and when I buy. They know all my numbers and statistics and Heaven only knows what else. Yet I curate my social media and consciously choose how to present myself to the world as if my life is private. It’s disconcerting. I don’t particularly like either side of this modern privacy – the curated face or the grasping attempt to monetize everything behind that face. It makes me uncomfortable, like looking at your neighbor in church and knowing that under the fancy Sunday dress are worn-out knickers.

I persist in hanging my laundry. And as I clip another dingy sock to the line, I recognize one more laundry-line luxury: no internet entity, human or otherwise, knows exactly how dirty those socks have to be before I throw them back in the washer for another round. If you want that kind of intimacy, you have to live next door.

 

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