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,

Friday, March 30, 2018

Esperando sin saber

Day 30 of 31 at TWT! 
Mucha gente en la calle. El aire pulsando con una mezcla rara de paz, claridad, y anticipación. Las rayas brillantes de un puesto del sol maravilloso convirtiéndose en un anochecer azul-gris.

Mis padres y yo, extranjeros en más que una manera. Estadounidenses en España. Protestantes en un país de católicos. Mis padres siguiendo a su hija, sin poder hablar el idioma alrededor de nosotros ni caminar por las calles estrechas y serpenteantes de mi segunda ciudad sin un mapa, dejándome interpretar las conversaciones tanto como el camino. Nosotros tres, esperando con emoción sin saber exactamente qué nos esperamos.

La Plaza de la Villa, Madrid, antes de la procesión en 2005
Con suerte, encontramos un espacio en la muchedumbre cerca de la cuerda marcando la ruta de la procesión, casi en una esquina de la plaza. Tuvimos la sensación de esperar un desfile o evento especial en los E.E.U., pero con más gravedad. Entre la gente apretada, escuchamos a varios niños riéndose y jugando, pero la mayoría de la gente eran personas de edad mayor, esperando con seriedad.

-- He visto varias películas sobre las procesiones de Semana Santa de Sevilla, pero no sé si las de Madrid van a ser iguales o no. -- comenté. -- Pero espero que podamos ver bien la procesión cruzando la plaza de este punto de vista. --

El cielo incierto del crepúsculo se convirtió en una oscuridad definida, y las lámparas del ayuntamiento madrileño crearon ángulos de luz y sombra en los ladrillos antiguos de la plaza. De repente, oímos un ruido distante de tambores y flautas solemnes. Cesaron las voces que resonaban por la plaza, y la anticipación aumentó.

Primero, aparecieron los nazarenos, un espectáculo bastante escalofriante para cualquier estadounidense con conocimiento de la KKK, aunque ya sabía que los capirotes de los penitentes no tiene nada que ver con este grupo desagradable.
Cada procesión viene de una iglesia cierta, y los colores de cada cofradía son distintas. Vimos la procesión del Santísimo Cristo de los Alabarderos
Detrás de los penitentes marcharon lo más impresionante: La Guardia Real acompañando a los costaleros. Encima de sus hombros, la imagen del Santísimo Cristo de la Fé osciló ligeramente con el ritmo de sus pasos sombríos.
"Era ya como la hora sexta, cuando descendieron tinieblas sobre la tierra hasta la hora novena al eclipsarse el sol. El velo del templo se rasgó en dos. Y Jesús, clamando a gran voz, dijo: -- Padre, en tus manos encomiendo mi espiritu. -- Y habiendo dicho esto, expiró." (Lucas 23:44-46)
Y detrás de ellos, las flautas y tambores de la Guardia Real seguidos por varias mujeres en mantillas y ropa de luto tradicional, para recordarnos que el tema principal del Viernes Santo es, después de todo, la muerte de Jesús.

No hay mejor manera de contemplar el Viernes Santo que una procesión española. Ese día de 2005, no sabía qué me esperaba, pero agradezco que hice el intento. Cada Viernes Santo, los recuerdos de mi experiencia me conmuevan otra vez más, aunque ya han pasado 13 años.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Wrestling with writing

Day 28 of 31 at TWT!
I didn't feel like writing tonight.

Part of the beauty and necessity of writing when you are a teacher of writers is grappling with that feeling and realizing what it means to overcome it. I love writing. I may struggle with other parts of my identity, but I'm undoubtably a writer.

And if I, a writer, sometimes don't feel like writing, how much stronger and more frequent must that feeling be for students who don't see themselves as writers? If I, a writer, must sometimes dig deep, battle the voice that just wants to read or watch tv, and drag myself onto the blank screen to wrestle with writing as work (instead of joyful word play or an inspired flow of ideas), how much deeper must they have to dig? How much harder is their battle? How much more like work does it seem to them?

In my class, we do so much work with reflection and goal-setting. At this point in the year, my students have set goals, imagined outcomes, anticipated obstacles, made plans to overcome them, and reflected on their progress so often that those routines practically run themselves, especially with the help of my squad leaders. (In fact, we could be in danger of losing meaningfulness to monotony, but I hope those ideas become habits they internalize and use throughout their lives.) But that emotional battle of choosing discipline over default, of making yourself do the work even especially when you don't feel like it, of taking the conscious step to stare your obstacles in the face and force yourself to use one of your plans... that's the real key. There's nothing that I could possibly teach them that could be more important than how to chase their dreams with the relentless ferocity required to beat back the voice in each of our heads that tempts us to give up, give in, or just take the easy way out.

Usually, when I don't feel like writing, it's because I'm overly tired or "out of ideas". Tonight, I'm worn out but I have plenty of ideas... I just don't feel like writing about any of them! Squads in my class? I have 3 separate drafts already started about that, but I don't feel like diving into that on Spring Break. Running? I've been writing about that a lot lately. Sweetie? Ditto. Way too much. The hard stories? Nope. Not those. Not ready yet. Maybe not ever. Certainly not on Spring Break. Friendship? Two drafts sitting about that too, but I'm just not feeling the one, and the other is for farther down the road, if ever. 

Increasingly discouraged, I scroll through my list of slicing ideas. Everyday moments, special memories, a post based on a mentor post I've saved? Ehhhhhh.

I could write about not wanting to write... Been there, done that. But it could be fun... But I've done it. More than once! But I could put a different twist on it! And really, it's so good to reflect on that feeling for my kids! Maybe. It IS the biggest thing I'm feeling right now...

I start to go through my blogging routine: open a draft, go to the call for slices, drop the image in, add the tags I know I'm going to use. These familiar motions are like stretches before running. My brain is warming up to the idea of writing. I could focus on the teacher perspective. Ooh, and I could tie it into R-Factor! I could link to those old posts about this feeling...

I dive into my "writing" tag, looking for a couple of old posts I know I wrote a few years ago. My brain snaps awake as I realize there are more than I thought: an inner battle from not being prepared, a reflection on persistence, my two conflicting voices, and writing even when it's tough. And sprinkled in between, so many joy-filled posts celebrating the power of writing and how much I love it. Aw, I forgot about that! I almost get lost down a wormhole of rediscovering pieces of myself that I'd forgotten, and end up just closing the tab with the tag before I end up past bedtime with a half-finished post.

Over an hour later, I realize that I've somehow found my way to the writing zone: adding and revising sections, using the thesaurus, playing with formatting, body tense and eyebrows furrowed as my fingers try to keep up with my flying thoughts. How did I get here? By talking myself into sitting down to write. By reminding myself what I'd gain if I did. By choosing not to listen to the easy way out. By starting to go through the motions that would lead to writing. By doing the work.

I want my students to wrestle and win, too. With writing, with schoolwork, with life. This is why I write, why I teach, and why I open myself up as an example to them.