Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Unexpected Love

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
What does he want this time? 

Two minutes of my planning period remain before the bell rings to signal the start of the weekend. H. who is in one of my morning classes but has a class in my room during this period, is hovering a few steps away from the corner of my desk.

When he did this a few days after joining my class, it was to tell me he thought our class was too hard. (I reassured him that meant that he was now in the right place, as we'd switched him out of a class that was too easy for him.) A week later, it was to campaign for a break and ask why we have to work so hard all the time. (I took this a compliment, pointed to the big cut-out word "relentless" on the wall, and told him that I want him to graduate... and reassured him that we do have fun, too!) Does he need something? Is he going to complain about something again?

I "fix my face" a la Maya Angelou*, making sure my eyes sparkle with a real smile for him when I look up from my laptop. "What's up, H.?"

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and half-smiles. "You know how much I love you?"

??? I'm not sure how to answer this question from a male teenage student. Is he serious? "Yeah?" I answer-ask in what I hope is a joking tone.

"A LOT!" The half-smile blooms into a full one that spreads across his face. "I didn't know what to think of your class at first, and I didn't really like it..." His words are picking up speed and he's standing more firmly on his feet. "But now I really love it. I love being in your class!" His eyes beam joy right into mine.

I let out the breath I didn't realize I was holding and relax my shoulders. "Aw, thanks, H! I love having you in my class!" What high school boy actually says that to his teacher? And at the end of the day on Friday? "Seriously, thanks so much for saying that. It means a lot!"

The bell rings, he waves, and the boisterous bustle of a high school at 2:42 on a Friday erupts in the hallway. I'm frozen in my desk chair, wrapped in the same kind of surreal delight that happens when I finish a really remarkable book and I just have to sit for a minute, feeling its weight in my hands.

* "You must remember, the very first thing a child sees, the first thing they notice when they see you, is you seeing them. They look carefully to see what your face looks like as you lay eyes upon their face. When you see a child, no matter what,  remember to fix your face."  
-- Maya Angelou

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Family Reunion

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Do you want to stand and play beside Daddy?" Husband's marching spot for this year's annual TBDBITL reunion was absolutely perfect: the last person in the last row of the block.
After all, when she "played" her toy horn during the warm-up for a parade and for a song in an empty seat behind me at an alumni band concert, Sweetie really thought she was part of the band. On the ride to campus earlier, she'd declared "I can be in the 'hio State Marching Band someday!" in between bursts of enthusiastic horn-blowing.

Clutching that toy horn, she scampered up beside him, blonde ponytail swinging. Errrnt! Errrnt! The little hums of her plastic horn mixed with the resounding tones of nearly 700 real alumni instruments booming out "Buckeye Battle Cry", and her little feet pumped alongside the generations of legs marking time during the slow step.
As the pickup notes to the faster chorus approached, I knew the band would take off down the field and figured she'd stay standing there, but she had other plans. Suddenly, that bright blonde ponytail was whipping back and forth as those little legs flailed down the field, scurrying to catch up to Daddy!

As practice went on, she worked hard to pick up her feet, hold up her horn, and even listen to the director. "24 counts!" she'd repeat. "What's 24 counts mean?"

Reunion weekend always brings a reminder that this band is truly a family, but there's definitely something special about bringing your family to the band, too! This year, the 100-year-old i-Dotter stole the show in the stadium, but our 3-year-old marcher stole plenty of hearts at practice!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How the best band built the best version of me

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
What if the kids are bored? What if the other staff members don't like it? What if I don't do a good job? What if nobody wants to come back? What if... I take a deep breath and glance back at the awesome picture I put on my title slide. It's one of my favorites, with me as squad leader in the middle of a proud hats-off during my last year in the OSU Marching Band. I glance out across our club members, half-glad there aren't too many and half-wishing there were more today. I think back to my colleague's encouraging reply after I'd sent him my slides yesterday. Okay. Go.

A few minutes later, blood is pounding through my body as hard as when I dove so deeply into creating my slides this weekend that several hours somehow disappeared. I can feel the rush of marching again as I explain how every incredible moment in uniform was built on innumerable hours of diligent, intense, relentless practice. How every roar of the crowd came from countless choices of intentional discomfort and sacrifice: 2-5 hours a day, every day, all summer, repeatedly executing precise fundamentals with militaristic precision. In the heat. In the rain. When I was exhausted. When I was sore. When I wanted to sleep in. Analyzing every movement with a running checklist in my brain. Starting every time with the most basic elements of posture and in-place movements, even when I could have done them in my sleep, because I didn't want to do anything on default. Woody Hayes said that "you're either getting better or you're getting worse," and I wasn't about to get worse.

I run my fingers over the now-taped-up spine of my old spiral notebook and brush its coarse, battered cover against my palm before I pass it to a student. The E-7 notebook. Covered in quotes to inspire myself on the hard days and filled with precious tidbits of feedback from the mentor who would go on to become one of my best friends. My journey to earning the spot reserved for the best marcher in my row, to make sure that I wouldn't get complacent, to keep myself truly getting better every day. Just holding it gives me shivers, 15 years later.

All those hours on the field, devouring feedback after every drill, scrawling notes before jumping back on the line and snapping back to attention for more. Conversations with my friend about hard work, courage, leadership, and life, as we built the trust that was so essential for my growth. The determination with which I cut up the descriptions from our fundamentals packet and rewrote his feedback under each section to study, memorize, and turn into a mental checklist that ran through my head every time I marched. Back straight, horn straight, eyes ahead, legs up, toes strained downward, march "to the wall", don't dip shoulder, don't flash early, relax neck, throw head back, slam back down,  tense shoulders, "hit the table", don't dip, snap leg up...

It's surreal to stand in front of a classroom now, so far removed from those days, and see colleagues and students flipping through those tattered pages. I feel like they can finally see who I am, now that they can see where I came from. This is what I mean when I say I'm hardworking. This is the culture of challenging support, trust, and accountability that I dream of recreating in my classes and in our school.

"Did you guys see what it takes to become the elite of the elite?" the colleague in charge of our club jumps in. He starts to tie my ideas to his hopes for our future discussions and gives me a fist bump, and my blood and breath begin to find their way back to a normal pace.

"I can use this with my classes, right?" As we scurry to class, one colleague excitedly waves the planning worksheet I led the group through.

"I was starting to write up something as you were talking, and then you had it made for us!" another colleague declares. "And wow, those old notes of yours... how do you even learn how to take 22 1/2 inch steps?!" We giggle as I try to explain using maximum toe point to train your muscles to hit the yardline precisely with the ball of your foot every 8 steps. "I think we should keep checking in with our plans all year!" she continues, and I feel hope floating from my toes to my curls.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Who we can be

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Go! Go! "Go, Mommy! Yay Mommy!"

A smile spreads across my face even though this running thing is darn hard. That sweet little voice. Best sound in the world.

I glance back over my shoulder and catch a swatch of neon pink over on a bench. For me to hear her from the other side of the track, she must be yelling with every ounce of love her little lungs can hold. And the next thing I know, she's on the track chasing me, her spindly legs churning, arms flailing with joy.

left pink blob: me, tiny gray & pink blob on the right: Sweetie <3
As much as I'd like to stop and see the cuteness, I'm here to run. To get strong. To clear my mind and build my muscles. To make myself proud. For me and for her.

So I swing my head back, let my eyes take in the blue sky, woods, and wetlands for a minute, and then set my sights on the next curve. I keep my legs pushing. I keep my feet pounding. Even especially when it's hard. Even especially when stopping sounds pretty tempting, especially in the heat. Even especially when my sneaky brain tries to make me doubt myself. (Nope, nice try, brain!) I can do this. I have run this distance before and I will do it again. I've come so far in the past year. I'm getting better and stronger all the time. Look at me! I furrow my eyebrows, feel the rhythm of my breath, and push my arms and legs and feet and brain to keep on.

Some corners, that sweet little voice is there to give me an extra boost. Sometimes, I look across the field and see her wiggly, bouncing, unfettered delight scampering around Husband at the other end of a straightaway.

And when I pound down toward the finish line for the last time, she's there, swooping her little arm across her body like she's pulling me along. "Go, go, go! Go, Mommy! Yay Mommy!"
Two miles down again. Like always, everything slows down as I walk-float my cool-down lap. My ears seem to reopen to the sounds of birds chirping and my view sharpens: the leaves and branches of the trees seem etched extra clear against the vast sky. But this time, a bubbly bundle of energy scurries up to greet me, ready for a hug. I show her the finish line and we "race" 50m, open-mouthed cackling the whole way.
Too bad you can't hear the giggling!
She mimics my stretches, trying to figure out how to twist her little limbs without tumbling over.

And as we walk to the car, I get awarded my very first running prize: a clover flower she picked just for me!

I love sharing my life with her.
I love showing her who I am and helping her discover who she is.
Who I can be, and who she can be.
Who we can be:

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Every writer

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
 "I did it! I didn't think I could write a poem, and I did!" M. beams up at me, eyes twinkling under her elegant hijab.

By the time I'm halfway down her page, the hubbub of writers around me has completely faded away. It's just me and her words on this creamy notebook page. "Whoa. Your repetition and parallelism are really powerful! How did you decide to do that?" The day before, she was whining that she couldn't write a poem, and now these beautiful lines have flowed right out of her heart.

As I peer over shoulders and chat with other writers, I'm struck by two extremes. At the beginning of April, when I showed them my SOLSC reflection poem, their astonishment at the idea that a regular person could write a poem was palpable. ("Wait, how long did it take you to write that?!") Now, many of them echo M.'s transformation into proud poets as if they've breathed in our recent weeks of poem study and are now exhaling beautifully crafted lines of imagery, tone, and figurative language. 

On the other hand, some of their tortured, trapped classmates still writhe in their seats, tongue-tied. "I don't know how to do this! I can't write a poem!" Despite all the strategies I've suggested over the past few days, they are paralyzed. ("But Mrs. M, we're ELL students!" one whimpered last week, as if she hadn't just written 13 incredibly well-crafted slices of life in a month.) How can I get their lines to stream out onto the page too?

As H., my first poet who started to play with poetry at the end of March, gushes to me about how he doesn't even want to write stories anymore, just poetry, it hits me. "Hey, would you like to talk to the class about how you think as you write your poems?" Maybe they need to hear from others who have been right there, stuck, unsure, just weeks or days or moments ago. We've purposely moved on to studying former student mentor poems over the past few days, instead of published poems, and I've been working on a new poem in front of them, but H's enthusiasm and M's proud shift have reminded me how much emotion is tied up into poetry. These writers have mostly unlocked their hearts and minds enough to tell their mighty stories this year, but poetry carries a whole new level of trepidation for those who have never seen themselves as writers, let alone poets. 

We've done enough talking this year about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones that, even though speaking out in a group is still one of his most significant areas of discomfort, H. stutters his way to assent. When I nudge her, M. gulps and agrees too, and so does R., who tried a couple of poems right away in early April after seeing H.'s poem slices.

The next class, instead of another mini-lesson by me, I invite all three of them to share about how they created their poems. Every eye in the meeting area is pinned to the screen. "I started by finding the feeling I wanted to show," H. softly declares. "When I wanted to think of a picture, I closed my eyes so I could really see it..." 
(The ending of one of his March slice poems!)
The only side whispers are of thoughtful admiration. "I tried to feel like I was talking to a special friend," R. reveals. "I wanted to put my honest feelings." She gestures toward her line breaks. "I said the words out loud and tried to stop the lines where I'd slow down or finish a thought..."
(The beginning of one of hers!)
Supportive applause, nods, thoughtfully furrowed brows. "I thought it would be cool to repeat these lines to show how much my mom means to me." Her graceful abaya swishes as she shrugs and grins. "I thought I couldn't write a poem, but I did!" 
(The first 2 stanzas... isn't the repetition awesome?)
Work time goes in waves of louder-than-I'd-like-it-but-they're-really-helping-each-other and so-quiet-the-room-next-door-must-think-we-left. Poem lines are dripping through the classroom like spring raindrops. One by one, line by line, they are coming unfrozen. One by one, line by line, they're discovering that Charles Bukowski was right when he proclaimed that “everybody is a writer, and almost every writer is a poet.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Love these writers

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Flop. I can't help fiddling with the stack of coarse, creamy, cottony paper in my hands. My fingers relish the gravity and richness of the weight and texture. I love the way this paper feels. Flipping through the pages, I feel the pull of colors: the bold orange Classroom Slice of Life Challenge logo and the vivid, swift blue strokes of my signature and my principal's signature. I love the joy of honoring my students with something special. 

"It's time for the 2018 Slice of Life Awards!" All around the meeting area, eager eyes meet mine and bodies lean forward. "I had so much fun this weekend looking at the results of your voting! And just like A. suggested, this year's certificates are signed by our principal, and he was really excited about your writing!"

My mind flits back to the several days last week we spent submitting award nominations and the final voting on Friday. The sweet silence of engaged readers carefully considering their classmates' writing, broken periodically by whispers (and sometimes not-so-whispers) of "I didn't know you wrote about Omar Mokhtar!" or "Psst, read 'My First Pet'!"
Category checklist on the nomination form. We dedicate a couple of class days at the beginning of April just for visiting classmates' posts, leaving comments, and nominating. Each time they want to make a nomination, students submit this quick form with post title, author, as many of these boxes as they want to select, and a short justification for why that post deserves to win an award. (I have my own ideas of which posts should be up for voting too, but they usually nominate almost all of those, plus some I might not have thought of!)

Some of the explanations in their responses. Very thoughtful, right?
On final voting day, excited whispers and focused silence were also broken by occasional shrieks of "Someone put MY post on there!" and "How am I supposed to choose?!"
Part of the final voting form, made by linking the best 3-5 nominations in each category. We spend one day of class on this final voting, where students must pick one response per category. 
Final results for a couple of categories. Google Forms make it so easy! :-)
I hop a little as the certificates strain to jump out of my hands. "There were so many incredible posts that I know many of you had trouble choosing, and some categories came out quite close. There were even a couple ties! Our first category was "Most Entertaining Post, and I know we all had a lot of fun reading M.'s story about getting stuck on the Space Mountain roller coaster!"

M.'s eyes widen and he sits up straight in his seat. He beams as 22 pairs of hands clap thunderously and I hand him the certificate.

"And of course, we were all laughing as we imagined little A. driving his family's car without permission!"

Giggles all around as A.'s mouth hangs open. "I won?!" His fingers brush the smooth certificate. "Thanks for getting the principal to sign them!"

His reluctance to apply writing strategies has frustrated me all year, and this story was one of his only attempts to truly incorporate a variety of techniques we've learned. I'm so glad his classmates recognized it, and I hope this gives him momentum!

"G.'s strong vocabulary and unique descriptions really helped us feeling how traveling can change our lives... We were all astounded by C's bravery and use of contrast to create strong emotions in his post about his dad... Z. constantly pushed himself to try new things, from poetry to embedding videos..." Goosebumps sprout on my skin as we relive this poignant, powerful month of growth and community.
So much to celebrate! (I forgot to take pictures of the real ones, so here are screenshots!)
Smiles, shining eyes, knowing nods, and real, enthusiastic applause.

My heart wants to float out of my body. I love this day. I love the March Challenge. 
I love these writers. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Just right challenge

It's Day 31 at TWT!
I used to think
it wouldn't be worth it
if I wasn't perfect.

Wasn't that the point?

To write

To post 31 slices in 31 days?

To live as a writer

To push myself,
to make room for writing,
to jump in over my head,
to tackle a daunting challenge
and win?

But when I wasn't perfect
I still grew.

Some writing
is better
than none.

If it pushes you,
it's a challenge.

Other people are not you.
Their measuring stick is not your measuring stick.
If it's truly everything you can do right now,
the best version of you is only compared to you.

I tell my kids to read "just right" books.
I tell them to shoot for attainable goals.
I'm not giving up on running
just because I'll never run a marathon or a 4-minute mile.

If it pushes you,
it's a challenge.

4 days a week.
20 posts in 31 days.

Carving out every possible slice
between teaching, running, reading,
friendship, faith, love,
toddler songs, stickers, swinging, sliding, climbing,
and responding to slices of my students' incredible lives.

Widening my view and narrowing my focus,
sparking ideas and spinning words
preserving precious moments
and exploring churning thoughts.
Grounding myself in the truths I know
and reaching to rise in new ways.

Pushing the balance
without tipping too far.

If it pushes you,
it's a challenge.

4 days a week.
20 posts in 31 days:
my "just-right" challenge
for this year,
for this me,