Equinox

This year there was a harvest moon on Friday the 13th. Someone knew that in one of my classes, but no one was really sure what a harvest moon was. There were a lot of theories – when there are two full moons in one month? when the moon looks really big? or maybe orange? or maybe that’s the sun? Once the guesses got wilder, I suggested we look it up.

A harvest moon, it turns out, is the full moon that occurs nearest to the Autumn Equinox. Everyone knew what autumn meant, but equinox presented another conundrum. (Groans.”Stop with the big words, Miss. If you mean problem then say problem.” I mentally added conundrum to our list.) Equinox is when day and night are equal. (Ok, it’s technically the instant of time when the sun crosses the equator, but we stuck with the equinox/equal idea.)

The autumnal equinox this year occurred at 3:50 am on Monday, September 23. I’m not sure if that means that day and night were equal on Sunday or Monday, but Sunday was my equinox. I spent the weekend at a cottage with friends. On Saturday, we spent the morning floating on the lake and laughing. Sunday morning was different. I woke up early and tiptoed out of the house in my pajamas. From the tiny dock – really just a few pieces of wood and a narrow ladder – I watched the sun rise. A loon called, long and lonely. I expected the sun to bring warmth, but instead a breeze came, insistent. I could imagine that the trees across the lake, backlit by the sun and mostly dark, were deeply green, but the trees near me revealed the truth: their leaves were already showing gold and red. I relished the moment between morning and day, the last bit of vacation that reminded me that the school year was well underway. It felt like a moment of balance.

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Then I remembered my tea was waiting, probably already cool. I tried to memorize the moment, to catch what was already behind me, really, then I went inside to read.

On Monday I asked “Who remembers equinox?” Most of them raised their hands.

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Kale and other conversations

If you’ve seen the movie Bull Durham, you probably remember the scene on the pitcher’s mound where catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes out to talk to pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) on the mound. Eventually most of the team is there and it turns out that there’s a lot going on… just not much about baseball. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Bull Durham, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, Robert Wuhl

On Friday, my little grade 10 English class felt a lot like that pitcher’s mound. As I walked in, one student came over and asked for a hug. (I know, I know… some of you will worry; but trust me on this one. This child needs hugs.) Their guardian’s partner had gone into the ICU for multiple organ failure. The student had independently made their way into school but was understandably anxious. They asked if I would make them a cup of tea, and I readily agreed.

While I was turning on the water, another student stepped out of the classroom. “Relationship problems,” whispered my peer tutor when I returned, “you know.” I don’t know, actually, because I wasn’t aware that this child was in a relationship, but I can imagine. She made her way back a few minutes later, eyes a little red.

I tried to start class, but a third student just couldn’t get her head off the table. She was so tired. “There’s a demon in my bedroom.” Say what? I started to chuckle, but she glared at me so hard that I choked it off. “For real,” she mumbled. “It’s been there for two days. I can’t sleep.” Culturally possible, I realized as she put her head back down. I decided not to push.

I tasked the peer tutor with tea-making, took a deep breath and started the class: vocabulary review – after all, exams start in three school days. When everyone is tense, I love using something concrete as a review; all too often my students throw in the towel as they approach an English exam. “You can’t study for English!” they moan. “You can,” I insist. As their nerves fray, there’s nothing like a good game with vocabulary to remind them that they do, in fact, know more than they think they do – and much more than they did when the semester began. Usually this perks everyone right up.

Yesterday, however, the vocabulary game swerved into a discussion of kale. These things happen. Most of my students have never tried kale, as it turns out. Or brussel sprouts.  Just last week our class had bagels a) because several of the newcomers thought that bagels were “just bread with a hole in it” and b) because we were celebrating Eid and four upcoming birthdays. Are kale and brussel sprouts cultural? They will probably be less of a hit, but I am seriously contemplating bringing tastes of both on Monday.

Somehow the kale conversation ended and suddenly one of the boys said, “Miss, I have some advice for you. Don’t ever check your kids’ browser history.” Hmmm. I told him that I probably would not follow his advice. “It will just make you unhappy,” he countered. Do tell. He did and suddenly we were talking about pornography.

At this point we were supposed to be starting our 20 minutes of reading, but there was the ICU and the relationship and the demon. And one student was just generally unhappy because of stress. And maybe because she forgot part of her dance piece during her performance yesterday? Unclear. And I’d already hugged someone and made tea and tried to describe kale. Somehow talking about pornography in English class three days before exams didn’t seem that odd. I gave them 5 minutes and told them *I* was in charge of the discussion. It was far tamer than you’re imagining. They are really good kids.

And then, the bell rang. Two of them took their tea with them, promising to return the mugs at lunch; the rest left them behind. I waited in our room for the moment of silence that comes once they are all gone and then let out the breath I’d been holding throughout the class. It wasn’t what I expected, this final Friday, but it was a gift. One of these students left the classroom in angry tears a few months ago. One was barely speaking to me at one point. Two of them, unbeknownst to me, had been harbouring a long-standing grudge against one another until last week. One was suspended for three days just two weeks ago. And yet on Friday, three days before the end, we were safe in our little room. Safe to talk about guardians and relationships and demons and kale and pornography. Safe to drink tea and study. Safe to tie vocabulary to personal stories. Safe to be who we are.

It took us all semester to get here and, oh boy, I’m going to miss this group.

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Phone home

“Da-an’s in trouble!” A young girl’s voice echoed through the phone on my end; I could only imagine how it echoed through the house on the other end. There was a brief rustle as someone else picked up the receiver, and I overheard a muffled curse.

“Hello?” His mother’s voice was wary.

I launched into my spiel. I was so nervous that I talked without pausing until I finished with “…so that’s why I called.”

Silence. Then she muttered, “Well, thanks.” I hung up.

I was doing my student teaching. In our Classroom Management class – a label, by the way, which I dismissed as euphemistic. “Just call it ‘discipline,’” I groused. – one suggestion was the “positive phone call home.” I can’t remember if the professor suggested calling about the hard kids or if I dreamed that up, but that’s what I decided to do: I decided to find something good about the toughest kids in the class and call home. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Dan was in my French class and he had approximately zero interest in learning French. In fact, given that we were in a poor neighborhood in Portland, OR, I would guess that most of the students were in that class because Spanish didn’t fit in their timetables and the teacher was relatively new. Dan was a big, athletic kid who came to class most days sweating and heaving from his lunchtime basketball games. He could not sit still, talked constantly and was mostly a royal pain in the tuchus. On any given day, Dan could easily send the whole class sideways.

I was ridiculously young and enthusiastic, so I had made a few changes since I took over – thank you, Classroom Management class – and Dan was responding well. We’d redirected his unending comments into French and he was leading the class in actually speaking French. So, I called home.

After his mom hung up, I was stunned. That had not gone as I had planned. Chagrined, I turfed my plans to call a few more kids and reflected that not all good theories work well in practice. Boy, was I wrong.

The next day, Dan came bounding into class and gave me a big sweaty hug. “I GOT ICE CREAM!” As it turned out, no one had EVER called home to say something good about Dan. His mom had called his Dad, a trucker, on the road and had taken him and his siblings out for ice cream. He was one of my best students and a class leader right up until my student teaching ended.

And I was hooked. Since that day the “positive phone call home” has been one of my secret weapons. I use it all the time. Knowing that I want to call home and say something nice about each of my students means that I watch them differently. I actively and regularly look for what they do well. When I see it, I call. I can always find something good. Always.

Parents are regularly stunned by this call. Even parents of the best students rarely get positive feedback outside of report cards. Almost never do they get a call to tell them something kind, proactive or thoughtful that their child has done. I am regularly greeted by stunned silence, though by now I have learned to slow down while I speak. One father cried because his son – who, to be fair, was *really* struggling with all things related to school – had never heard a teacher say something nice about his child. One mother whooped and laughed, “You made my day! Heck, you’ve made my week! This is the best.” Most just say thank you.

And the kids? Well, like Dan, a few mention the call. Monday comes (because I love calling home on Fridays and making the whole weekend start well) and a quiet voice will say, “I can’t believe you called my mom. That was great.” But many – often the least engaged – never say a thing. Still, they keep coming back to class. They keep learning. And someone somewhere in their life knows that I am trying to really see their child.

We all want to be seen.

When should you call home to say something nice? Here are a few suggestions…
Call in the first few weeks.
Call when you’re upset with your class. You will remember what they do well.
Call when you see something good happen. Call that day: at lunch, right before you head out the door to go home, whenever. The calls are rarely long.
Call on a Friday. Or a Monday. Or whenever. It does not matter: just call. It might just change YOUR life.

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Slice of Life: #sol19 1/31

I am in a Starbucks somewhere on Long Island. It was bustling when I walked in, maybe 20 people in this coffee shop in a strip mall  in the middle of the morning, but now it is quieter. Calming, folksy music swirls around me, the kind of music I feel like I should be able to identify but can’t quite place. A copy of the New York Times lays, untouched, on the long table next to me. A man wearing a smart charcoal pinstriped suit just sat down, hitching up his pants and revealing black socks with large pink polka dots. The woman with the four tiny paw prints tattooed behind her left ear has already left.

I woke up at 4:10 this morning with my youngest child’s body snuggled against me. He had nightmares last night and ended up in my bed; I had to get up early, so I didn’t take the time to get up and put him back in his own. I was at the airport by 5 and touched down in Laguardia by 8. A light dusting of snow seemed to have surprised everyone, or so said the shuttle bus driver as he ferried me, alone, to the car rental.

I’ve driven for an hour and am now sitting in Starbucks, sipping tea and waiting in the gray morning to go my friend’s father’s funeral. A year ago, on March 4, I was also writing about attending a funeral of a friend’s father.

As I started to write, I expected to feel morbid or to be reflecting on mortality. I expected to feel more…sad. Instead, I feel lucky. The crowd is picking up again and now I recognize the song they’re playing. The hum and buzz of conversation, the dance of patrons coming and going, sitting with one another and alone, the knowledge that soon I will see my friend – even if only briefly… all of this combines with the slight uptick in spirits that I often feel at the beginning of a new month and the excited butterflies in my stomach knowing that I have committed to writing – and publishing! – every day for a month. I am not sad. Life is so generous, and right at this minute I am committed to soaking up all of that generosity.

In a few minutes I will leave. I know that I will, indeed, feel sorrow. Tonight, after driving an hour back to the airport and flying all the hours home, I will be exhausted. Tomorrow I may be crabby.

But right now, in this slice of my life, I feel momentarily expectant. And… it’s time to go.

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Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this inspirational month of writing

I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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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 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.

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Read more slices like this one (though probably less grumpy) at twowritingteachers.org