Tuesday, July 23, 2013


at Two Writing Teachers!
Last year was a hard year.  I'm tempted to say the hardest yet, but I'm sure my very first year of teaching was at least equally hard.  But after all, this was my first year in a completely new job (new school, new level, new subject!), so it was like my first year all over again!

While everyone (my principals, my Central Office administrators, other teachers, and many students) insisted that I was doing a good job, there was so many parts of my teaching that I was unsatisfied with.  Sometimes I knew what I wanted to do but just didn't have enough prep time to do it well.  Sometimes I thought I had a great idea and then it flopped.  Sometimes I just didn't know what on earth I should be doing.  Mostly, I did an ok job, and there were even some great successes, but I think I can do better.

I know I can do better!

I want to do better.  I want to reach ALL of my students.  I want our time together to be more meaningful ALL of the time. I want to turn ALL of them into lifelong learners.

So, like so many of you, I'm spending most of my summer thinking about school.  I'm reading all the professional books, blogs, and tweets I can get my hands on.  I'm wrestling with old questions and thinking of new ideas in the car, on the couch, in the park.  I'm sitting up in the middle of the night with a new thought that I just have to write down on the notepad beside my bed.  In short, my brain is spinning a lot like it does during the school year, but with renewed energy and enthusiasm due to the precious gift of time.

I've always done thinking and planning over the summer, but never this much.  This summer is different because I'm still so far where I want to be in this new position.  I still have so much to learn and so far to go to reach these new, different learners in this new and different subject.  Teaching high school ELLs has been a drastic change from teaching Exploratory Spanish to middle and elementary schoolers.  More intense.  More challenging.  More real.  More heartbreaking. More rewarding.  More life-changing.

All that means my brain just can't help humming with new ways to help my students.

I was going to share some of my specific wonderings with you, but I'm not quite there yet... you'll just have to wait for another post to see exactly what ideas are buzzing around in here!

What's making your brain spin, hum, and buzz this summer?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It Could Have Been Them

at Two Writing Teachers!
A minute after the bell rings, W. saunters into my classroom with one hand tugging on his huge belt buckle to hold up a pair of jeans that are in serious danger of slouching right down to the ground.  A huge gold dollar sign swings from one of several heavy chains around his neck, and his shirt is inside out again, which means there's something ornery on the other side that already got caught.  Everyone in the room can hear the music blaring from the huge headphones that encircle the back of his head.  This is one of those days, I think, where I might cross to the other side if I met him on the street without knowing better.

But I do know better.  I know that school starts less than an hour after he finishes working the third shift at Walmart to help his mom and sister pay their bills.  I know they've had a hard couple of years since his dad passed away from cancer, shortly after they arrived in the U.S. from the Congo.  I know that he loves learning English, his fifth language, and he delights in its quirky irregularities.  I know that I have to be sure to stand on one side when I talk to him, so he can listen through his partially-deaf ear instead of his completely deaf one.  I know that he wants to graduate so badly that he spends entire school days working on the graduation tests when they are offered for re-takes in the fall, spring, and summer.  Most of all, I know that below his twisted-spiral mini-mohawk, his eyes are dancing as a sprawling smile lights up his dark face.  I know he's going to slide off the headphones, put his phone in his pocket, and declare "Good afternoon, Mrs. M!" with such enthusiasm that I just have to smile and think, I love that kid.


This Sunday, while walking through a tranquil neighborhood in the town where I teach, I couldn't help but think of him.  Our town is famous throughout Central Ohio for being one of the most affluent, most privileged suburbs of Columbus.  And on the side of the river where I grew up, it is.  When we went to dinner that evening at a small restaurant near my old neighborhood, Husband and I walked by a Lamborghini, an Aston-Martin Vantage, and a Mercedes-Benz SL-class Roadster.

After dinner, we decided to drive to a nearby neighborhood so we could feed the turtles in a certain pond.  (Husband LOVES turtles, and we discovered this pond a few years ago on a bike ride with my parents.  If you start throwing food, you'll soon be met by at least 10-15 turtles who swim to you from all over the pond!)  But this story is not really about the turtles.  It's about the neighborhoods.

Since we don't live around there, we parked at a local church and walked through the neighborhood to the park with the turtle pond.  On the way to and from the park, we passed other adults and children out for walks, and they smiled and nodded at us. That's when I thought about W. and my other students... because every single one of the people we passed was white.  Even though Husband and I don't live in that neighborhood, those friendly people didn't question if we belonged there, because we looked like them.  We are two dorky young white people from the suburbs who look like we just got out of college.  We are definitely not Trayvon Martin.  But my students could be.

The school where I currently teach is on the other side of the river.  Many of my students receive free and reduced lunch and live in modest apartments with Columbus addresses that fall within our school district's boundaries.  Nestled between strip malls that burst with halal markets and taquerías, those precious apartments allow them to attend one of the highest-achieving districts in the state, and their families work extremely hard to pay the rent so they can stay there.  On that side of the river, nobody looks twice at W. Loud chattering in Spanish from my Mexican students doesn't turn heads.  Hijabs are just a normal part of the vibrant scene.

But what happens when my students go to the other side of the river?  How would people react if they decided to eat at the restaurant where Husband and I enjoyed a delicious dinner on Sunday?  What if they parked at that church and walked through that neighborhood to feed the turtles?  Somehow, I don't think the neighbors would smile and say hello. But they'd be missing out, because my students are some of the sweetest, friendliest, most hardworking young people you could ever meet... and they have some amazing stories to tell.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

a smattering of slices

at Two Writing Teachers!
It's been a whirlwind of a summer so far.  The day after school ended, I attended two days of "tech talks" run by my district.  I had the weekend and two more days to prepare my archeological dig of my writing life for the Columbus Area Writing Project before we embarked on our three-day retreat.  The next two weeks were filled with such intense writing, learning and bonding that we might not have remembered to breathe if Kevin hadn't kept reminding us!

After all that, I guess last week was a break... except that it certainly wasn't the restful kind!  Instead of just telling you about everything we did, I thought it would be more fun to let you experience it with some images and imagery:

We marched in a local 4th of July parade with the Alumni Band and were dazzled by two straight nights of fireworks and a concert by Chicago!

dazzling fireworks crash
hearts soar with familiar songs
rejoicing as one

Seeing Chicago perform right in my high school's football stadium was incredible!  Husband's high school marching band did a Chicago show, and the OSUMB Chicago show from my rookie year was one of my all-time favorites from my five years in TBDBITL, so we both had special memories come alive as we danced in front of their stage.
The view from our table -- WOW!
Even though all we wanted to do the next morning was sleep, we headed up to Lake Erie for a friend's wedding, where we enjoyed seeing old marching band friends and celebrating the power of love.

snippets of laughter
smiles invite: "Remember when?"
united by love

There was a lot of time between the wedding and reception, so we decided to spend it exploring a secluded nature preserve near our hotel.

We walked alongside a docile deer who was content to keep nibbling, certain that we were harmless visitors...

listened to rippling waves lap leisurely, beating out sweet summer songs,

watched graceful herons and egrets soar in circles, become stately statues casting quiet reflections, and dart forward to come back with flipping flashes in their beaks,

and discovered timid turtles paddling hidden in serene wetlands, exploring worlds beyond our reach.
There's not just the one turtle here, although he certainly posed for us!
We counted at least 35+ in this pond!  See if you can spot some more little turtle heads!
The next day, we braved the rollicking roller coasters of Cedar Point... and some thunderstorms too! 

flying and twisting
barreling through rushing wind
laughing together

No wonder I'm ready for a relaxing week at home!

(side note: Originally, I had a completely different idea for today's slice, and then this came out instead! Isn't it funny where writing can take us?)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I write to remember and reflect (dig pt.2)

at Two Writing Teachers!
For the past few weeks, I was immersed in writing, learning, and building relationships at the Columbus Area Writing Project.  It was exhausting and rejuvenating, routine and inspiring, solitary and collaborative.  We were students and teachers, writers and educators, strangers and friends.

A taste of the comments left on my introduction!
Before the Summer Institute started, we each had to make an "archeological dig" of our writing lives.  Throughout the three days of our retreat, we got to spend time diving into each other's artifacts and narratives, leaving behind sticky-note tracks so each writer could see our thoughts.  It was such a fun way to get to know each other as people and as writers, and it, along with other retreat activities, brought our diverse group of strangers together into an authentic community of writers.  I only wished we would have had more time to explore these delightful displays in order to truly honor each writer's unique work!

My "dig" filled 5 binders!
When I posted my introduction a few weeks ago, many of you wanted to explore my dig too!  I wanted to share other pieces of my CAWP experience while it was happening, but now that it's over, I'm excited to dive back into my dig and show you what I discovered!  After spending hours at my parents' house submerged in boxes and piles of my childhood writing, I was able to pick out a few of the best samples... and narrow them down to a mere 5 binders!  Instead of dividing my writing chronologically, I split it into five purposes for writing.  In addition to the overview narrative I shared as my introduction, I wrote an introductory page for each binder to highlight why each artifact is special.

Today, I'd like to share the central part of my writing life: writing to remember and reflect. For me, the primary function of writing has always been personal.  I write to express my emotions, develop my thinking, and capture memorable moments.  When I dug through my past writing, many of the artifacts reflected this... and I knew there were others that I couldn't even find!

Here are some of the highlights from this section:
  • early childhood: I found LOTS of biographical labeled drawings with short text.  This one is actually a pretty accurate map of where we usually walked when visiting my grandparents in Marietta, OH!
  • kindergarten journals: I loved the journals we wrote in kindergarten so much that my mom helped me make my own booklets to continue journaling that summer!  (The top one is ours from class and the bottom one is my homemade summer journal.)  One of my CAWP colleagues commented that I "seemed like a happy child who loved many things", which captures the feelings of these journals perfectly!
translation of the bottom page:
"i made a parrot piñata it was
fun and it was grate it has
a beak and wings a tail feather
i drew the eyes with a crayon
it is cute i love it a lot."
  • First grade journal: In first grade, I started to write a lot of stories (more on those in another post!), so my journal entries were formatted as "real stories", with title & author still listed.
translation: "My trip to Purdue a real story by Jennifer
i went to the Indianapolis Children's Museum.
There was 5 floors on it There was a
Mastadon skeleton and a merry-go-round.
i got to ride the merry-go-round i
rode a horse with beads on it. it
went up and down a lot I had fun.
  • Fourth grade journal: This is actually a "book" that I made from football game stories from my journal.  I was starting to add even more specific details (later in this entry, I listed stats for all my favorite players and the names of all the seniors!), while also attempting to develop a more unique voice.  

  • middle school & high school journals: I started pasting bits of realia from my life to enhance my journal entries in middle and high school.  Unlike the previous journals, these were never school activities: they lived under my bed at home, with most of the writing done by flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep!  I wrote in these spiral notebooks consistently from seventh grade through the end of high school.
I still have the OSU Marching Band keychain (a beanie OSU band member) mentioned here!  I keep it on my horn case to remind myself of how my horn teacher believed in me -- and she was right!  (Her writing on the tag says "Jennifer -- This will be you someday!") I'll never forget the power her words had!
  • travel journals: I usually kept travel journals on big trips, and when I studied abroad in Spain, I started keeping one in Spanish with lots of realia pasted in.  I added to it again last summer when my husband and I vacationed in Spain!
a page from my Spanish journal during my semester abroad
In college, I started keeping a Xanga online journal (as did my boyfriend - now husband - and several other friends) instead of writing in notebooks.  Now, most of my remember-and-reflect writing takes place here every Tuesday, as well as in my five-year journal and my Gratitude app.

I'll continue sharing other parts of the dig soon. What would you uncover if you dug through your writing life?