What counts? #SOL22 26/31

I slept in a little and was rather pleased with myself. Downstairs, I made toast and tea, did some puzzles, checked the news. I baked banana bread and washed the dishes, started the laundry and went for a walk with my spouse. We agreed on another attempt to limit screen time in our household. I met with friends to talk pedagogy, instruction and life. Afterwards, I cleaned out the fridge and warmed up some lunch. I tried to convince the teenager that the new screen time rules would not, in fact, be a disaster for him, then sent him off to a birthday party. I bathed, checked on a friend sick with Covid, cycled the laundry, and responded to emails. I repotted three plants, rooted some succulents, and set up for seedlings. I swept the floor. I gathered the kids and dropped them at a friends’ house, then gathered the moms and went to a fundraiser. (Because of Covid, we took our food to one house, leaving the kids to enjoy their pizza at another.) We caught up as we ate.

What did you do today? we asked and each, in turn, we responded nothing much.

None of us are sleeping well. We are weary.

Now, having rearranged moms and kids and homes, now finally sitting down to write, my thoughts cycle through the endless list of things left undone: more laundry, tidying, grading essays, planning lessons, baking a birthday cake, reading…

What did you do today? Nothing much.

What counts as something?

The cool sweetness of blackberry jam, a counterpoint to the toast’s warm crunch
The quick delight of the last numbers falling into place as I solve the grid
The slight tug of the fork as the banana mixture thickens; the smell of brown sugar and chocolate permeates the house
The wet crumble of dirt and the earthy promise of life
The unending tumble of children
The warmth of clothes pulled from the dryer, the slow warmth of soup in ceramic bowls, the warmth of friends who understand weariness

What did you do today? Enough. I did enough.



Fill the gaps #SOL22 24/31

Curtain rises on a workshop. A person wearing a suit is fiddling with a mannequin that looks like a young teenager. The mannequin is holding an open book in its hands. The manager moves various parts of the mannequin, leans in as if to listen, and shakes their head.

MGR: Hey, Potts! I’ve got another one for you!

POTTS enters stage left. She looks a little harried.

MGR: Oh, good. There you are. I’ve got another one with a glitch. Doesn’t seem to be reading properly. Gonna need you to fill the gaps.

POTTS looks at the mannequin a little sadly.

POTTS: Oh. Ok. Um…. do you know where the gaps are?

MGR: No, but there are definitely gaps.

POTTS: Do we have baseline data?

MGR, scoffing: No.

POTTS, almost timidly: I don’t suppose we can do any testing to see what might be causing the glitch?

MGR laughs loudly.

MGR: You’re a riot – you always ask that. You know we don’t have the money or the personnel for testing. Just fill the gaps. That’s all – nothing to it.

POTTS looks doubtful.

MGR: Oh, and I’m going to need you to fill the gaps and get this model working no later than June. That’s when we report and we’ll need to move this one along. (He pats the mannequin.)

POTTS: June? That’s three months from now. These gaps might have been growing for years. And we don’t know what’s causing them. And most of my training is about improving working models, not…

MGR interrupts: You’ve got a good reputation, Potts. I’m sure you can do it. And guess what? I’ve got a surprise for you.

POTTS eyes the manager warily.

MGR: Look, here’s a tool that’s designed for gap-filling. (MRG hands POTTS an all-purpose tool. She accepts it dubiously.) Just put this one (he pats the mannequin again) near the tool, and the they’ll practically fix themselves. (The MGR pauses and looks at POTTS appraisingly.) Speaking of “them” – this tool is the latest thing – loads of research, so we went ahead and bought a few. The idea is…

MGR trails off because POTTS is shaking her head. Then, MGR barges ahead.

MGR: … so, like I said, it’s the latest thing. It’ll really improve your efficiency, which is good because we’ve found a bunch of these guys who aren’t working quite right. Now the idea is you just use this tool and they’ll fill their own gaps. Should work like a charm – makes it as easy for you to fix ten as one. We’ll bring the others around in a minute.

POTTS: But… I… I just use the tool and the gaps fill? So why am I here? And what if it doesn’t work?

MGR: Oh, it’ll work. You’re here to make sure it works. By June – don’t forget – you need to fill all the gaps by June – but don’t worry, we’ve given you everything you’ll need…

MGR exits as he’s talking, leaving POTTS alone on stage with the mannequin.

Once the MGR is off-stage, POTTS lets her face fall. She approaches the mannequin.

POTTS (hides the tool behind her back): Hi there. It’s nice to meet you. I’d love to get to know you a little. Let’s see who you are before we think about gaps.

The mannequin, who is, of course, a real child, begins to soften and move as though they want to speak with POTTS but as POTTS starts to talk to the child, a line of similar-aged children begins to come on stage. Each one holds a book, like the first child. They form a single file line from the first child to the wings of the stage. POTTS looks at the child, at the children and then at the “miracle” tool she is holding. She starts to cry.

Curtain.

Notes: I hope it is obvious that I in no way think that children are mannequins. And the manager is not based on a particular person. I’m just musing about what it means to try to “close literacy gaps” for a group of students I do not know by using a (research-based) computer program. I find myself swinging between extremely hopeful – what if this works! – and despairing – I’m pretty sure there’s no quick fix for students who struggle with reading as they enter high school, especially when we don’t know what’s causing the problems and I’m not familiar with the program itself. SIGH. I guess I’ll be familiar with it soon enough. Here’s hoping that it works.

Who’s right? #SOL22 22/31

For the past few semesters, influenced by Kittle & Gallagher, most of my English classes have started either with short memoir or flash fiction. One of the minor miracles about doing this type of writing at the beginning of the semester is that students often invest in their stories in ways that elude them if we start with expository or analytical writing. Short pieces allow us to get into the nitty gritty of craft without getting overwhelmed by, as one student said, “all the things.”

These assignments also allow plenty of time for feedback and revision. Students begin to ask for feedback from peers and, in turn, to offer comments beyond, “it’s good” and “I think this is a run-on?” As they tweak their imagery, diction, rhythm and structure, I can offer plenty of feedback via quick conferences, voice notes, and written comments on drafts in progress. In the end, the best part is that these stories emphatically theirs. Most students finish with a well-written narrative that they actually like.

Once I had this assignment as part of my repertoire, I started to focus on improving my feedback because feedback is part of what creates the magic of these assignments. (I wrote about commenting on student work once here. More recently, Melanie and Heidi (and Joel in the comments), have addressed feedback in their posts.) If we just grade for grammar or comment on what is not working, our students will stop writing. Growth happens when we highlight what is working in a piece. So I’ve learned to share my reactions as a reader, explain what I see students doing, and ask a lot of questions.

This semester, one student used identical phrasing at the beginning and the end of a short memoir. I didn’t love it, so in my comments I asked what effect they were hoping to create. I was thinking of this essay on picturing narrative structure, and particularly of the visual about coming full circle, where the author writes, “For… (the) conclusion to feel truly satisfying, however, it must mimic life, which is never completely complete… So the best conclusions open up a bit at the end, suggesting the presence of the future.” I thought the story would be better if it were a little more open.

A visual of coming nearly full circle, then opening up

Then, the most amazing thing happened. In the classroom, the student called me over and told me that they didn’t agree with me. They liked their closed loop. As soon as they finished speaking, they took a deep breath and looked away, astonished, I think, at their own boldness. Are students allowed to tell teachers no?

Disagreeing with teachers isn’t an everyday occurrence in schools. Too often, even when teachers try to demonstrate openness or give effective feedback, students just nod and do what we ask. After all, we have all the power. If we don’t like what they write, they get lower grades. For kids who’ve learned to play the game of school, disagreement about how to do an assignment can be nearly unthinkable. After all, they explain, being right doesn’t get you into university; doing what the teacher tells you to does.

When this student told me she didn’t want to change her work, she was telling me that her story mattered more than the grade. THAT IS INCREDIBLE. So I told her the truth,

“Look, I’m only one reader. I’m not your only audience, and I might not even be your target audience.”

She looked dubious. I told more truth: I admitted that I sometimes don’t like books that have won awards. I told her about reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-admired novel The Corrections and hating it so much that my spouse begged me to stop. (I read to the last word so no one could ever say, “Oh, but the ending was so good” thus making me go back and reread.) It won the National Book Award, so obviously lots of people really liked it; just not me.

I asked who the student imagined enjoying this story. “My friends.”

“So, show it to your friends. Shop it around. Tell them that you like this and that I would change it. Ask what they think and why. Come back and tell me about the effect it has on your audience.”

It took them a few minutes to turn to a peer and share their story, but once they started, they gathered opinions from around the classroom. They made some changes based on what they heard, but they kept that circular structure exactly as written.

I still don’t like it, but they earned an A.

Best laid plans #SOL22 22/31

I had a plan for today’s post. I don’t always have a plan – ok, I almost never have a plan – but today I did, so today’s writing was supposed to be easy.

I had time to write today’s post. I don’t always have time – ok, I almost never actually have time – but today I did, so it was going to be easy.

I had everything I needed to write today – but you know where this is going: I just couldn’t.

I woke up this morning with a sore shoulder and, despite my ministrations, it migrated. By lunch my sore shoulder was morphing into a headache. I took some ibuprofen, because lunch is in no way the end of the day, and migrating muscle pain doesn’t usually get better on its own.

My now painful head laughed at the ibuprofen then dared me to keep working. I tried – I really did. I made it through the school day. I took my daily walk. I even went to knit night. As I did each activity, I told myself I would feel better and then just, you know, use my fancy plan and have a blog post in no time.

This did not happen. My head hurts. My shoulder still hurts (which just seems unfair, honestly. If pain is going to migrate, should it not leave the place it began?). My poor brain is completely unwilling to tell any story except this one, and I’m not even 100% sure this one makes sense.

So I guess now I have a plan for tomorrow’s post; tonight’s plan has become “go to bed.”

Book choice #SOL22 21/31

Sometimes during reading conferences I ask students “How do you choose your next book? How do you decide what to read?” My goal is to determine – and help them determine for themselves – if they are independent readers, people likely to read outside of the classroom. In my experience, people who identify themselves as readers may not know exactly where they get book ideas from, but they can usually answer “what will you read next?” with some ease. If they can’t, they can pretty much always tell me where they’ll get ideas.

While I occasionally go through dry spells, I rarely lack for ideas for my next book – this month’s Slice of Life Challenge alone has already yielded more titles than I could possibly read – though this impossibility won’t stop me from trying. As to how I decide what to read next, the truth is that my next book is often determined by what has come in at the library where my on hold list and my checked out list are in a constant battle for supremacy; I watch, bemused, from a distance as each list grows and shrinks, occasionally cheering on one book or another. Sometimes I let one go in disgust or despair. One way or another, what comes in is often what I read.

Letting the library decide on my next book has its downsides. For example, before March Break, two books came in from my holds list AND a friend loaned me two books. During March Break, I chose my reading poorly: the first book began so slowly that I took all week to finish it. Then, today, the first day after break, three more books came in. And now, I’m staring down this stack of books:

So many books, so little time

Which to choose? One came in remarkably early despite a *long* wait list – and I wasn’t near the top, so this is clearly luck. I won’t be able to renew it, so maybe start there? Or maybe start with the one that I checked out first since it’s due first? Or maybe buck the stifling due date system and read the one that is calling my name for no particular reason?

I have a feeling I know where I’ll go – but just in case I change my mind, I’ll probably need to keep these next to my bed. And then, if someone asks what I’m going to read next, I can pretend that I’m just working my way through the stack.

Deported #SOL22 20/31

Look, you need to understand that no matter how I tell this, Erin and Tanya are going to say that I got parts of it wrong. For example, Erin insists that those guns were serious; I maintain that they were more show than threat. And the last time we talked about it, Tanya was a little embarrassed about the tears in the translation part of the story, though when I get to that part, I can never quite suppress a smile. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us have a completely clear picture of what happened because there were a lot of languages involved. And emotions. And those guns.

And I might as well tell you right now that we were young. Stupid young, really, which is the only way to be young if you happen to be studying abroad in Europe for your junior year. Which we were. As a result, we thought we were worldly, but of course we weren’t because we were 20 and studying abroad. And if you’re paying any attention at all, by now you already know that we were ridiculously stunning because we were 20 and studying abroad and that’s how that goes.

One more thing: this is a Spring Break story – the kind that meant adventure and freedom, not minivans and visiting relatives – because of course it’s a Spring Break story. So, let’s recap: This is a hotly contested junior-year-abroad Spring Break story about three pretty 20-year-old girls traveling through Europe. And yes, there are guns and tears and beer.

Our trouble started not long after the train crossed the border into Czechoslovakia (that’s how old this story is). We were chattering away in our compartment when the money-changing guy came in. As we decided how much of one currency to change into the next, a handsome young Czech border guard appeared and asked for our passports. We handed them over and continued to change our money. The guard looked at our passports and returned both mine and Erin’s. He flipped through Tanya’s a second time, then left with it. Suddenly, we were on alert.

Moments later, the first guard returned with others, including an older man who seemed to be in charge. They said something, presumably in Czech. We couldn’t respond. They tried again in German. Between us, Erin, Tanya and I spoke four languages, but only Tanya spoke German even remotely fluently, and it was her passport they were holding.

The conversation was terse. Erin and I were American; Tanya was Canadian. Did she have a visa? No, she didn’t. Our guidebook – she pulled it out – said she didn’t need one. They shook their heads. There had been a change last week and now travelers from the Commonwealth needed a visa. She would have to go back to Vienna to get one.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer, eyes wide, very slowly counted out bills.

Tanya translated everything. She was going to have to get off the train at the next stop. We were upset, but calm-ish. We started to gather our belongings. The guards stopped us; only Tanya was being deported. Erin and I should go on to Prague.

Maybe it was because we were, in fact, not worldly, or maybe because we were 20, or maybe simply because we were stubborn, but that was not our plan. At some point after being told she had to return alone, Tanya had started crying, but she was still the only one of us who really spoke German. Thus the translation fiasco began.

“Tell them we’re coming with you.”

Tanya turned to the guards and explained. They replied. The tears continued. She turned back to us and translated: “You can’t come with me. Your passports have already been stamped.” Then she added, “You don’t have to go back. We can meet up later.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re staying with you. Tell them we’re not leaving you.”

More tears – hers and ours – as she translated for the guards, who were looking quite uneasy possibly because of all the crying. Unsettled, the guards conferred in Czech. Then they spoke to Tanya in German then she spoke to us in English then we spoke in English and she explained to them in German and they spoke in Czech. This continued for quite a while. Our tears continued unabated.

In the corner of the compartment, the money changer watched.

We never wavered. Tanya would not be deported alone. I think I spoke directly to the captain at one point. We didn’t speak the same languages, but he knew what I meant, tears or no tears. The guards were unhappy, but eventually they gave up. We could stay together.

The money changer left the compartment and armed men took up their post outside our door. Soon enough, the train slowed to a stop, and border patrol herded us out onto the quai. Curious passengers poked their heads out of the windows and watched as the guards installed us on a bench and surrounded us. This was clearly not a passenger stop: aside from the empty quai with our one little bench, the tiny train station had only one room with several tables and a bar. Our bravado gone, the three of us huddled together with our backpacks at our feet.

The minute the train was out of sight, the guards relaxed and started chatting. Suddenly, they were handsome young men, not gun-toting soldiers. As they headed inside to the bar, one of them gestured to us. Did we want to come in?

Shocked, we exchanged glances. We were being deported. By them. And they had GUNS. We couldn’t go into the bar with them. Since she spoke German and was technically the one being deported, we deferred to Tanya. She declined their invitation. They shrugged and went inside for a beer.

Outside, we huddled. We whispered. We tried to be scared. Heck, we were scared, but we were also young. And the guards were having a really good time inside. Minutes passed. We huddled. Finally, Tanya said, “What are we doing?” We left our backpacks and went inside.

The table of guards erupted in cheers as guards raised their mugs. Huzzah! They were delighted. Suddenly brash, Tanya announced she was buying everyone a round – after all, what else was she going to do with that Czech money? – and they cheered us again. The total for all of us came to $7. We sat down and enormous steins of beer appeared. With that, we became what we truly were: a group of young people eager to know more about each other and the world. It wasn’t long before the men were laughing, we were laughing. We muddled through conversations in English, German and French. Questions flew; stories were told.

Some time later, the train back to Vienna finally arrived. The guards gathered themselves and us. They solemnly escorted us onto the train and into first class. They stationed two men outside of our door and appeared very serious all the way back to Austria. After we crossed the border, they turned and waved goodbye, then they left us. Minutes later, the Austrian ticket inspector came in. Obviously we had no tickets and we had to explain what we were doing in first class. As we talked, his face lit up, “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you” he smile, and he left us in the first class compartment.

When we finally got back to Vienna, it was late – even by our standards – so we used Erin’s father’s emergency credit card. We stayed in a nice hotel and slept deeply. The next morning, Tanya went directly to the embassy and got a visa for entry into Czechoslovakia. That afternoon, we boarded the train to Prague for a second time.

Just as we were settling in, we saw an Australian girl who we had met at the hostel before leaving the first time. She got on the train, and we proceeded to practically shove her off once we found out that she didn’t have a visa. “Trust us! Go to the embassy!” And the train left the station.

This time, when the train stopped at the border, we stuck our heads out the window and waved to “our” squadron of guards. The captain came over to chat.

“You have your visa?” Tanya assured him she did. “Good! You’ll have fun in Prague.”

Only then, as we chatted through the window, did we learn that they had been deporting people regularly since the new visa regulations had come into effect. In the ten days since they had started, not a single group had stayed together – not one. The captain had a daughter about our age. “I hope,” he said, “that she has friends like you.”

Sadly, our border guards weren’t scheduled to be on this train, but they told the current patrol that we were the girls they’d been talking about and to take good care of us on the way to Prague. And they did.

(With gratitude to Erin, who’s been pestering me to write this story and who answered my texts this morning when I needed to double-check bits of pieces of my memory. Potts, Jaeger & White live on!)

Waiting #SOL22 19/31

We are sitting in our car – a minivan, naturally – at a rest stop in the middle of Pennsylvania. It’s beautiful here: a large lawn, squishy from rain and melt, surrounded by trees and sheltered from the highway. Picnic tables dot the slight slope; there’s a good rock for climbing; people are walking their dogs. The weather is perfect, too: sunny with a cool breeze.

I’ve even taken a nice walk because we’ve been sitting here for an hour. Waiting. To return to Canada, we need a negative covid test. We tried to book one at Walgreens but ran into trouble. CVS has tests but not for border crossing. We had assumed that at this point in the pandemic, testing would be easy to find. Apparently, we were wrong. For a few minutes we were stumped, then, delighted with our cleverness, we booked a video test. All we would need to do was buy our own tests and someone would watch our test via video. Perfect! (Plus we got to make jokes about how one advertises for this particular job: would you like to spend the day looking up people’s nostrils? Join our team!)

But here we are. Our drive home is looong. We were on the road day all day yesterday and had planned to be home early afternoon today. We did NOT plan to spend over an hour at a rest area in Pennsylvania – even a nice rest area.

I’ve called the testing service. Their phone lines were jammed, the poor receptionist audibly harried when she said “15 or 20 minutes” about 30 minutes ago.

And so we are waiting, knowing that more time here is more time before we’re home. And I thought I was writing this to complain bitterly, but now that I’ve laid it all out, I realize that no one is grumbling or whining; no one is grumpily sniping at someone who is simply nearby; no one is even generally harrumphing. The kids have (grudgingly) taken a walk; I’ve been knitting and writing; we’ve discussed the iconography of the US one dollar bill (not sure how that happened, but here we are). I tell my students all the time that one reason to write is to straighten out our thoughts, to find out what we’re really thinking. And that is what just happened: I think I’m writing to say that if I have to wait, I’m happy to wait with these people in this space. And that waiting really isn’t the worst thing, even though we are all a little annoyed. After all, there’s the sun and the trees and these people whom I love. And that feels like a lot.

(I still hope the testing site calls soon.)

Update: call ended; all covid tests are negative. We’re on our way home!

Hey, Siri #SOL22 18/31

(This memory came to me after reading Stacey’s slice about her son and Siri.)

He is maybe three when he discovers that the phone will converse with him. “Hey, Siri!” he says, and she always responds. Within minutes, they are best friends. She will answer any question, entertain any flight of fancy. “Would you like me to call you Alien?” she asks, and I swear her electronic voice sounds dubious. “Yes!” he agrees enthusiastically, so she does. (For years, my phone will continue to call my husband “Alien” because I can’t bring myself to change it.)

Phone in hand, Eric wanders away, chatting enthusiastically with the only one who is paying him any attention at all. We adults are in the other room, reminiscing about old times. The older kids are running about, screeching. The house is full: at least one dog, a cat, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents. And it’s noisy – so noisy that no one really hears a three-year-old having a chat with his new electronic best friend. In fact, none of us really even know where he is until we decide to go out on the pontoon boat. “Have you seen Eric?” we ask. No. No. No. No one knows where he is.

Andre heads towards the back of the house, searching. As he passes through the living room, he hears an argument behind the couch. It sounds as though Siri is telling Eric he is being unreasonable. Just as Andre starts to chuckle, Siri stops playing around: “Ok,” she says, still with that dubious tone, “Dialing Emergency in three… two… one…” Andre lunges for the phone, but Siri is already dialing, and Andre manages to hang up just as the call goes through.

Disaster averted, Andre begins to talk to Eric when the phone rings. It’s the emergency operator who informs this flustered father holding an unhappy toddler that she is supposed to send help to the address of the phone call if the call is terminated. Andre explains. He explains about Siri, about the crowd, the noise, the child. It’s early days with Siri, but the operator understands. She does not send an emergency vehicle. We scoop Eric up, change him into a swim diaper and whisk him away to the boat. He barely notices that his friend is gone.

To this day, Siri is disabled on my phone.