Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What it takes

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
A box of lefts, left flank, into a box of rights, right flank, into a box of right 270 spin turns... I stared across the parched grass as I visualized the drill. Furrowing my eyebrows, I began to march with a running checklist in my head: horn perfectly straight, legs up, toes pointed, shoulders back, eyes forward, don't tilt my head before the flank, don't dip my horn after the flash...

I'd been working for this for over two years now. Ever since I'd been lucky enough to stand mere feet away from The Ohio State University Marching Band's majestic rendition of the Navy Hymn on the floor of Skull Session, I had to wear those crossbelts and spats someday, gripping a spotless horn with military precision. It didn't matter that I'd have to master a brass instrument in just a few years. It didn't matter that I'd never excelled at anything requiring the least bit of physical coordination. I already loved my high school marching band experience, and I knew, without a doubt, that this would be my niche in college. I was going to be in that band.

The one time my mom had made me ask my high school band director a question, I'd put it off for days. So when I actually mustered the courage to initiate a conversation with the man who petrified me to the point that I only wore white and gray shirts during marching band season (because who wants to be pointed out as "the flute in the red shirt" through a bullhorn?!), my parents knew I was serious.

I'd only ever practiced my flute enough to get by, but I worked tirelessly between my weekly private lessons to learn the mellophone. To the amusement of current veteran band members, I showed up a year early at the band's optional summer marching clinics, practically bouncing with excitement. After that whole extra summer practicing my horn flashes over and over on local school football fields, I could finally do them fluidly and quickly. Now, I loved the surge of power I felt each time I threw my head back and slammed my horn back down, returning it to its precise straight position in milliseconds.

My time was finally here, and I was ready. At the end of the summer, I would finally have the chance to make my dream come true.

Every morning, I went to my high school marching band field to march. For two hours, I made up simple and complex drills, practicing every fundamental in order. In-place movements, flanks, step-kicks and swaggers. Sloopy, Ramp, and school songs up and down the field. Two hours every day of discipline, precision, and intense concentration. Days of summer sun beating down on dry grass and well-worn yardline ruts. Weeks of pretending not to notice the curious eyes of passing pedestrians and honking motorists. Months of sweat pouring down every inch of my persistent body.

Hours, days, weeks, and months of courage and tenacity: that's what it took to put on those crossbelts for five years of glorious autumn Saturdays. And for five years, reality far surpassed that long-ago dream.
My 5th year. As Squad Leader of my row, I'm on this end.

(Our class motto this year is "Be your best self!" My students have been writing stories recalling when they've been their best selves, and this was the story I wrote alongside them. They'd love your comments too!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Piles of paperwork are heaped in my corner of the counter. Supplies are scattered across my desk as if a tiny tornado just swept across it. Embarrassing heaps of books that never got stamped wait impatiently inside cupboards, hiding until they are ready for eager hands to explore them.

Every time I cross an item off my list, I write down three more below it.

"Are you ready?" everyone asks. "No," I cheerfully reply, "but I'm excited!"

All across town, backpacks are being filled, lunches are being packed, and alarms are being set. Stomachs flutter and eyes struggle to go to sleep so early. But are they excited too?

All it takes is one little spark. (Love that I named that post last fall before I chose my OLW this year!) One little gesture to show them that you care. One little note to remind them how words can connect us. One little card to open up the world and show them that learning is fun.

Vacation postcards from Georgia ready to be mailed last week!
Over the weekend, I got this email from a student:

(Remember, I get the pleasure of having many of my students for several years!)

So yes, I actually am ready. Ready for old smiles and new connections. Ready for hugs, laughter, tears, and stories. Ready to build communities. Ready to grow and learn together.

It will be hard, but it will be worth it. Another amazing year begins tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Telling her story

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Last night, sleep wavered just out of reach.

Somehow, M. had popped into my head, and I found myself wondering about her: How's she doing? Is she still working toward a diploma equivalent? Is her daughter doing better?

Is there anything I could have done? 

Gosh, I would have loved to see her in a cap and gown.

WHY didn't anyone tell me they were going to withdraw her until it was already done?

Now I was getting more awake instead of more asleep. Back in April, I lost hours of sleep this way.


M.'s attendance had been slightly more sporadic than usual this spring, but I knew she had a lot going on. Yes, she'd sometimes give herself a little extra wiggle room to go out to breakfast or sleep in, but I couldn't imagine working two jobs and taking care of a two-year-old... AND navigating high school... in a second language. She deserved a little personal time now and then!

Besides, she was usually at school in time for my class, and she was doing wonderful work! She'd really found herself as a writer this year, and I always looked forward to her rich, wrenching descriptions.

I knew she was really having trouble in math, but she was working so hard to catch up...


That first Friday in April, one of the guidance counselors caught me in the office. "I think something's going to happen with M."

The exhilaration of the incredible field trip we'd just taken turned to stone in my stomach. School and district administration had threatened to withdraw her all year if her attendance didn't improve, but threats seem like bluffs when they go on too long. They weren't actually going to do it now, were they?

I tore around the corner to find my principal, but he was gone. That's ok, I'll catch him on Monday, I thought as I settled down to check emails, but returned to full panic mode when I saw the attendance list. A little note beside M.'s name said "Will be withdrawn."


Did they know everything that was going on with her? She was at a doctor's appointment today, and so many other days lately! Oh, why couldn't she just play the game and bring excusal notes?! We'd told her so many times...

Why hadn't they talked to me? They couldn't know everything that was going on with her. Did they know about her mom's stroke and her uncle's sudden death last year, her other uncle's death from cancer this fall, her daughter's recent hospitalization? Did they know she'd recently started going to a professional counselor? Had she even told her school counselor everything? Had they involved her counselor in the discussion? Had she fought for her?

Why now, with so little time left in the school year? She wasn't a troublemaker.

I know that compulsory education ends at 18. I checked her grades and saw an abysmal, unsalvageable percentage in math and other Fs due to incomplete work. I knew (with results pending) that she still needed to pass three sections of our state graduation test. But why not see if she could work with some of those other teachers to master those concepts? Why not let her earn her English credit and keep becoming a better reader and writer? Why not let her learn all she could for another month and a half? 


That Monday morning, I walked up to my principal breathlessly and just said M's name. "I just had to pull the plug," he replied. "She had to show me she was trying a little, you know?"

I sputtered and stammered something about how I knew she should have played by the rules more, but she had so much to deal with. I was practically speechless. I wanted to scream "try a little?! I think there's a picture of her in the dictionary next to 'hard work'!" but, this being only my second year in this building, I wasn't quite at the screaming stage, or even the hissing stage. I was just in shock.

You see, my principal is awesome at supporting struggling students. He is an incredible role model and advocate for kids that are just barely hanging on. He sees himself in our toughest young African-American men, and he thinks outside the box and cares for them like a father. That's why I was stunned speechless.

I didn't realize that kids could still fall through the cracks in our building. It didn't occur to me that he might not know all of our students' stories, because he knows so many. I didn't know that he might not look for a bigger story behind yet-another-Hispanic-teen-mom-with-poor-attendance-and-skimpy-clothes.


Two weeks later, I was supposed to hug her on stage at our special awards ceremony while another teacher read my nomination of her:
The whole auditorium was supposed to have filled with thunderous applause in recognition of her perseverance. Instead, she wasn't there, and neither was I.


We were supposed to keep supporting her, to find a way to help her make it. She was supposed to keep reading, writing, learning, and growing. Even if she didn't graduate on time, she was supposed to get there. She would have kept striving. Every reflective letter she'd ever written me was filled with determination to graduate. It wasn't supposed to end like this.

I don't think my principal meant to exclude her from his determination to save our toughest kids. I think, I hope, that he just didn't really know her. I guess we (I?) didn't tell her story soon enough. Or well enough. Or both.

That's why I'm telling it now. Where does an immigrant ELL teen mom who works two jobs and carries deep sorrow fit into a high school? If she doesn't quite fit into a structure that wasn't made with her in mind, does that nullify our responsibility to help her make her dreams come true?


When graduation test results came in May, she'd passed two of her three remaining sections. Just one more to go. I think she could have made it. I hope she somehow does.

Actually, I know she will. No matter what pieces of paper she's able or not able to eventually attain, she'll build a good life for herself and her daughter. She won't consider any other possibility.

I just wish we could have helped her a little more along the way. I wish I would have told her story louder, sooner. Next time I will.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Corazón de campeón

at Latinaish!
No soy española, pero en el plano de mi corazón serpentean los callejones de Madrid. Busco las paz en las plazas llenas de historia y los parques tranquilos y soleados. Las piedras antiguas me fortalecen.

Así que, en el verano de 2006, con los recuerdos de un semestre en Madrid hace un año todavía nítidos en la mente, encendí la tele de nuestro apartamento universitario y me dirigí a Univisión. No era aficionada del fútbol, pero quería ver este "juego bonito", tan querido en lo que ahora llamaba "mi otro país". Me gustaba escuchar los comentaristas en español, y los partidos me parecieron bastante interesantes (me encantan casi todos los deportes), pero no entendía mucho de lo pasó, salvo los goles. Perdí interés después de que perdieron los Estados Unidos y luego España, y no volví a pensar en el fútbol por varios años.

El verano de 2010 fue mi segundo verano como maestra del inglés para hablantes de otros idiomas, y yo buscaba un tema que nos podría guiar para el curso del verano. Sabía que la mayoría de mis estudiantes eran aficionados del fútbol, y pensé que la Copa del Mundo daría una sensación emocionante de solidaridad a estos jóvenes de diversos países.

Entonces busqué artículos y libros del fútbol, del Mundial, y de Sudáfrica. Mis estudiantes mejoraron sus habilidades de leer, escribir, escuchar, y hablar en inglés... y yo empecé a conocer el fútbol. Estudiábamos y aprendíamos. Marcábamos los resultados de los partidos en la pared, y siempre me alegré cuando ganaron los Estados Unidos o España. Después de clases, me apuré a casa para ver toda la programación de Univision mientras planeaba las actividades para el día siguiente.

España seguía ganando.

Las clases terminaron y ahora podía ver más partidos. ¡Y España seguía ganando!

Conocí a David Villa por sus goles (y por llevar mi número favorito) y a Iker por su magia al poste (y su sonrisa encantadora). Estos jóvenes de la Roja me parecían buena gente, con este compañerismo excepcional que se puede convertir un buen equipo en un equipo singular. (Ya conocía el poder de un equipo así, pero ésta es otra historia.)

Conocí a un pulpo pronóstico.

Al final, conocí a Iniesta por su gol inolvidable, por su camiseta en memoria de su compañero fallecido, y por el relato que contaron los comentaristas de su abuelo, mirando a su nieto por la tele en algún pueblito desconocido de España. (¡Y más tarde, por tener su cumpleaños cinco días después de lo mío, en el mismo año!)

Viví la celebración en vivo con los madrileños a través del Internet. Los campeones, mis campeones, festejando en las calles estrechas, mis calles queridas.

photo credit: Rachel E. Chapman via photopin cc
Y dos años más tarde, la viví otra vez, en una camiseta estrellada, después de pegarme a la tele por varias semanas durante la Eurocopa entera, como cualquiera aficionada del fútbol.

Ahora, después de las derrotas recientes, lo que más recuerdo es la manera en que los jugadores, mis jugadores, seguían luchando. No se dieron por vencidos, ni en el último momento. Éste es lo que merece una estrella. Éste es lo que significa tener corazón de campeón.

Lo que más me siento cuando pienso en la Selección Española no es la tristeza, sino un latido fuerte de cariño. Recuerdo los goles, las sonrisas, los ojos chispeantes de 2010 y 2012. Recuerdo las manos agarrando las copas y los brazos abrazándose. Recuerdo este sentido de solidaridad, palpable aún a través de la tele. Y recuerdo el verano en que mi convertí en aficionada del fútbol.

Mi camisa favorita, comprada cuando viajé a Madrid en 2012.
Gracias, Selección Española, por enseñarme la belleza del juego bonito.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
"Are you enjoying your time off?" As soon as the calendar flips to June, every teacher is bombarded with this inevitable question from friends, family, acquaintances, and those random people you just met in line at the grocery store.

I think every teacher has a different response.

Some practically shout a resounding "YES!" while letting go of the worries of the school year. Some gush over increased family time and exciting vacations. Others smile with a quick "Yes, but..." and then attempt to patiently explain a few of the myriad ways teachers hone our craft over the summer.

Depending on my mood, I think I've been known to do all three, but as the political climate has shifted, I've tried to do more of the last choice. Since I've been getting more questions prefaced with "I know teachers work a lot over the summer, but...", I'll take a wild guess that many of you have been doing the same!

So, to everyone wondering if I'm enjoying my time "off": Yes, I am, but I'm really enjoying a blend of recovery, rejuvenation, and preparation!

Here's what I'm enjoying this summer:
  • playing with new technology and envisioning how it will transform my students' learning
  • cleaning and organizing my classroom, which always falls by the wayside
  • creating new materials, from digital activities to classroom learning aids
  • collaborating with colleagues across my district and outside of it
  • sparking new ideas, from nudges to blog posts to presentations
  • digging into standards and reflecting on my core philosophies
  • pushing my thinking through professional reading, conferences, & workshops
  • planning innovative activities and refining past practices
  • continuing to encourage students through Goodreads and our blog
  • curling up with books and notebooks
  • exploring this wonderful world with eager eyes and an open heart
  • savoring sweet time with my husband and parents
  • and, of course, resting and relaxing, with beautiful treats like this:
Lunch at my favorite summer spot! So much to enjoy with a view like this!
It's been a busy couple weeks of end-of-school craziness, but just writing this post makes me so excited and grateful for all I have to enjoy!

What will you enjoy in your time "off"?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Love those kids

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Before all the last-day hugs and photos, my students spent several weeks analyzing, reflecting on, and celebrating their learning this year. (More posts are brewing!)

Reading through their reflections, I nodded and smiled as my heart grew so full it seemed ready to leap from my body and fly onto their pages. So many kids now hold different identities, and they know it! So many kids became readers who connect to books and writers who write for real purposes and audiences. So many kids now inhabit a world where words have real power, and they are confident of their ability to participate in that world. I hope they always hold onto that.

I had so many ideas today of ways to reflect on my own year, but none of them seemed quite right. All of a sudden, Sharon Creech's Love that Dog popped into my head, and I knew that was it! I love those kids. I scrambled to find Walter Dean Myers' original poem, "Love that Boy"... and this is where it took me:

Love those kids
like a daisy loves the sun
I said, love those kids
like a daisy loves the sun
Love to call them in the morning,
"It's a great day, everyone!"

They curl in chairs
and dive into books.
I said, they curl in chairs
and dive into books.
They know that words can carry them
as close or far as they dream of.

They write their lives,
making words dance and sing.
I said, they write their lives,
making words dance and sing.
They recognize the power
their very own stories bring.

They walk with strength and courage,
reaching out and standing tall.
I said, they walk with strength and courage,
reaching out and standing tall.
They'll find their places in this world
with their words to keep them strong.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Giggles echoed through the parking lot as little boys with shiny mohawks ran circles around girls with bright barrettes. Through the open doors, cheerful rhythms of corridos and cumbia drifted on the warm breeze.

"My first quince!" I scampered ahead, pulling Husband along. "Too bad Amit's wedding ran so late, or we could have been here for more of it!"

It was just before 9, and we hadn't been home since 10 a.m. From C.'s quinceañera mass to several fascinating stages of our college friend's Hindu wedding, and now back to catch part of the reception for the quince... we were running on pure adrenaline.

"Thank goodness!" As soon as we walked into the reception hall, we could tell that C. and her chambelanes (honor court boys) were getting ready to start their carefully choreographed dances. "We made it just in time!"

Relief turned to frozen apprehension as we turned to look for seats. Feeling like the new kid in an overcrowded cafeteria, I dizzily gazed out onto a vast expanse of unfamiliar Hispanic faces. Carefree kids dodged tables, chairs, and outstretched arms. Aunts, uncles, and neighbors chattered as they sipped their drinks. Where were the guidance counselor and social worker who were supposed to be here? Were those chairs open, or just waiting for someone who was in the restroom? Umm, I saw those people at mass this morning... they got there almost as early as we did! They seemed nice...

 Perdón... I started rehearsing in my head... ¿Alguien se sienta aquí? Was that even how someone would actually say it? Everyone was going to wonder what on earth we were doing there!

"Mrs. M!" Suddenly, one of my students was bounding up to us.
"Hi, D!" How nice of him to come up and say hi! He's one of my more timid kids.

"Um, do you want to sit with us?!" His grin seemed to light up the whole room.
"Thanks, D! We'd love to!" It was all I could do not to let out an audible sigh of relief as the high-school-cafeteria-feeling evaporated. We wove through tables behind him, melting into the crowd and settling into a table of students right beside the dance floor.

"Mrs. M, guess what!" M. leaned over as soon as we sat down. "Me and D. are dating now!" D. grinned sheepishly and they both chattered away as we waited for the dancing to start. "When did you and Mr. M start dating?" "How many quinces have you been to?" "Do you want something to drink?" (Even though we said we were fine, M. grabbed a bottle of water for each of us, shooting us nearly-maternal "I'm taking care of you" looks.)

Sitting back, we marveled at the graceful twirls and careful steps of C. and her chambelanes. White gloves and her purple dress swirled elegantly like echoes from another time, and I breathed in the privilege of being welcome at such a special night.