Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

“I Feel Like a Real Writer” – Guest Post

May 24, 2021

Friends, I’m so excited to tell you that I am now a contributing author on the Two Writing Teachers website. This community has helped me grow so much as a writer, a teacher and as a person. Honestly, I could gush for quite a while about how transformative the experience has been. Suffice it to say, I’m humbled and honored to be a part of it.

So, here’s a teaser for my first article:

Teaching writing to gifted students isn’t the smooth, easy path some might suppose. Gifted kids often present a range of academic and affective needs. How can we encourage joyful and confident writing in this special population?

Want to read the rest? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers. Enjoy, and keep on visiting that site. There’s a lot to learn, and amazing folks to learn from!

Sunday Sitdown #15: Sugarland, and Regrets

May 23, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.


My first teaching job. Sugarland Elementary, Sterling Virginia.

I got the job maybe a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, when the district opened up a new classroom. There was nothing in my classroom. No paper. No paper clips. No chalk. No erasers. No nothing. Luckily my newfound colleagues helped me scrabble together enough to start the school year with my loveys.

Sugarland School served a working-class neighborhood which, in turn, was home to a large population of students of color.

There’s a lot that my liberal education, my lived experiences with folks who were different from me, and my coursework in multicultural studies prepared me for. I knew to value and celebrate our differences, to provide books, resources and activities that reflect a multitude of faces and life stories. I knew that I needed to expect big things out of ALL my students no matter what.

But there are things that I didn’t know, things that I wish I recognized. Maybe it was the oblivion of youth that clouded my vision. Maybe I wasn’t as evolved in my understandings as I am now. Had I had today’s wisdom, I would have done better with the kid who made himself dinner each night because his dad worked four jobs to support him. I would have found better ways to support the child who missed kindergarten in his native El Salvador. I would have made the classroom safer for the kid who drew pictures of himself dying so that he could come back as an American. And somehow, all of these kids managed to turn out OK despite the mistakes I made.

But when I think of the damage that schools do to children of color, particularly Black girls, I cannot help but think of Essence.

Essence, whose mom struggled with addiction.
Essence, whose grandma raised her.
Essence, who came each day brimming with the turbulence of life.
Essence, with whom I engaged in regular power struggles.
Essence, who ended her academic year with me labeled.
Essence, who lost her own difficult struggle in 2016.

And in my young teacher’s mind, I was holding her to high expectations. I was treating her with love and compassion. I was doing for her what I hoped to do for all my students: inspire them to be the best versions of themselves.

But oh. In my moments of clarity and honesty, I know that I did damage. I did not provide this child with the room and space to feel truly safe. I did not support her and her family in a way that was culturally responsive, and I didn’t take into account her immense lived trauma.

I’m not looking to have folks respond with, “but you’re a great teacher! you HAVE made a difference.”

I would say an awkward “thank you” in response. Yes, I will acknowledge my deep connection with many kids. But the purpose of this post – the purpose of this series – is to recount my experiences with race, and to claim those moments and choices I wish I could take back. My time with Essence is one of them.

And Essence, had I been your teacher now, I can only hope that I’ve developed enough wisdom and perspective to give you the support, the validation and the true compassion you so deeply deserved.

Assigned Writing: A Poem

May 21, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: Write a poem.
(I’m not going to lie. I may have juggled things today so I could use it as an excuse for poetry writing.)


You know,

On days when you are adrift
in the sea
with nothing
but that horizon-perfect circle

you might catch
out of the corner of your eye
bobbing out there in the waves
a leaf,
a stem
with a timid bloom on top

and you wonder
what on earth
is a flower doing
way out here in the ocean
but you pick it anyway
and it gives you something to hold on to
in the middle of all this nothing

and then the current turns you around
and look there,
another leaf
another stem
another flower
was it there before?
and how did i ever miss it?

and the more flowers you pick
the more flowers you find
and the more stems you gather

until you realize

you are not in the ocean at all
but standing, planted
in a garden
of your own creation.


This week was a doozie. I felt adrift in many directions.

And then a colleague brought me some cake. And friends, I know that food doesn’t solve problems. I know that cake doesn’t make everything better.

But it does make SOME things better, sometimes. And on that rough morning, those bites of sweetness were a simple reminder that the love we put into the world sometimes does, indeed, come back in our direction.

And then a former parent reached out to me to tell me what her grown-up kid was up to (once a lovey, always a lovey).

And then my irises, sent to me by my dad, emerged to bring me a yearly reminder of him.

And then I sat with some friends for bubble tea and validation.

And then someone thought of me at the grocery store.

And then I got to see reluctant third graders roll their pride into a ball and play puppets like no one was watching.

And all of a sudden, I had a whole bouquet of wonderful, right there in my hands. More than I can even count.

Strange, isn’t it, how life works.

Assigned Work: Impressions

May 18, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing. (It’s also Tuesday, which means I’m posting as part of the Slice of Life challenge!)

Today’s assignment: How is your vision of yourself different from others’ vision of you?


Wow.

Another bear.

Life: One big fractured fairy tale

I’ve circled around and around on this one. My gut keeps pulling me back to my latest “one little word:” dissonance. That’s where I’ve been living lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still scanning the Classifieds for more comfortable digs. I’m hoping to pack my bags and move on, but Life has signed an extended lease on the property.

Dissonance best describes how my self-concept differs from the way others see me. I don’t think I can ever be accurate in my knowledge of how I appear to others. There will always be separate, and sometimes conflicting, points of view.

We all try to find our balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement. And in that effort at being a better person, well…it’s hard to say what others perceive.

I’m a perfectionist. I set high standards for myself, and I’m a tough judge. When things take a wrong turn, my first inclination is to look within myself for my part in things. So when I consider how others see me, I’m more likely to bias toward the negative, imagining that others grow tired of or impatient with my shortcomings. In some ways, it’s self-protective. If I see and label my faults before others do, I can beat them to the punch and shield myself from that discouragement. That way, when other people express concerns or complaints with me, I’m also prepared to own it. Yeah, I know I’m not great at that. It’s something I’m working on…

Luckily, I have a small group of people around me who insist on seeing the best within me. They’re the folks who remind me of my idealism and potential and love and compassion. They’re the ones who recognize when that dissonance is at play in unhealthy ways. They’re the ones I call my “mental chiropractors,” as they give me much-needed attitude adjustments when the situation demands it.

Have you ever seen yourself on video or heard your voice recorded, and thought, “Is THAT how I look?” “Is THAT how I sound? Yikes!”

Of course you have. We all have.

But here’s the thing. I never think that about anyone I see on video or audio. They all sound normal to me. And yet, every. Single. One of us. Looks at ourselves on that same clip and shudders.

That’s dissonance, friends. It blurs our vision. Most of the time we live deeply within our own narrative structures, our own egos. We spend most of our time on ourselves as the protagonist of our own stories, seldom stopping to consider that we’re supporting characters to others and, in some cases, background extras. We are all forging ahead on our own paths, making our way through forests and deserts and across oceans. We are all figuring out this world and our place in it.

So. What’s the difference between my vision of myself, and others’ vision of me?

At the heart of it, I suppose, is the question of how much others’ vision of us matters. And how much of that we will allow to define our self-worth.

Let me know when you figure that out, folks. You can sell it for a billion bucks.

Assigned Work: Literary Essay

May 12, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: Write a literary essay about the story The Disobedient Son.

I’ll say this. This was a BEAR. Mostly because there was a lot I didn’t understand about this story. What I came to is the idea that I have some learning to do about other cultures. There are differences in how we tell and appreciate stories, and it’s quite possible that my original resistance to this story is because I don’t have enough cultural understanding.


Throughout the world, folk tales teach values and morals. Stories across time and place show the benefits of being good and the consequences of being bad. The South American folk tale “The Disobedient Son” features a child learning the importance of listening to adults. This folk tale has many elements and themes as other familiar stories, but the ending is surprising and different.

The structure of “The Disobedient Son” follows many of the plot elements as stories in other cultures. The story begins with a familiar problem: “There was once a boy who was rude and wouldn’t obey his mother.” In tales like these, one can predict the boy either learns obedience or suffers consequences for his behavior. Once the problem has been established, there is a predictable response. Here, the boy’s mother sends him to work with his godfather, the priest of the town. “You’re a priest, and you can counsel and discipline this godson of yours; I can’t do anything with him…Let him come to stay here with you to see if he will learn to behave.” The mother thinks the boy would behave better with the priest.

“The Disobedient Son” also follows the pattern of a turning point and a test for the protagonist. In this story, the boy immediately changes his actions when he comes to live with his godfather. “All right, godfather, I’m going to work. I’m going to do whatever you tell me to do; everything you tell me, I will do, godfather.” The boy pledges to complete his tasks, and he holds true throughout the story. The priest also tests the boy, putting a skeleton in the bell tower to scare him away from the task of ringing the bell. The boy still obeys orders, telling the skeleton: “I’m coming to ring the bell…Get out of my way, for my godfather sent me to ring the bell.” In this humorous scene, the boy smashes the skeleton thinking it is a real person, rings the bell, and goes to his godfather.

It is at this point that “The Disobedient Son” departs from other folk tales. Usually, a scene like the one with the skeleton is used for humor, to show the reader how foolish a character is. They fall for a trick, and it is clear that another character has gotten the better of them. In this story, however, the priest uses the skeleton as a test of obedience rather than intelligence. Furthermore, most folk tales end with a statement about the lesson learned or consequence suffered. This story leaves the reader with the boy’s mistaken idea: “I pushed him and he fell and broke into pieces on the floor.” The end brings us proof that the boy has been obedient. However, the reader does not know if the boy has been punished or rewarded.

At first glance, a reader could dismiss this story as dissatisfying. It does not come to a customary and familiar end. Knowing that it is a tale from another culture, however, raises questions. Is it possible that the story was not translated well to English? Is this a culture that tells stories in different ways? What other, more important, values have I not considered? An American reader might expect a lesson learned, but perhaps this story simply exists to let people to laugh at the foolishness of a boy taken up entirely with his desire to show obedience. Or perhaps American readers do not have enough knowledge of the source culture to fully understand the interactions between characters.

“The Disobedient Son” follows many of the same structures and themes that other folk tales have. There is a a problem, action taken to solve the problem, a turning point, and a test. Beyond those similarities, the story differs from other folk tales. Whether this story is meant to be humorous, or whether key ideas have been lost in translation, it is clear that stories defy expectations from time to time. It is important to keep an open mind and to take surprises as an invitation to learn more.

Assigned Work: One (Big) Word

May 11, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing. Today is also the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life challenge. Check ’em out!

Today’s assignment: What is the most important word?


So wait. I’m a lover of words, a depender-onner of words, a clinger-with-a-white-knuckled-grasper of words, and I’m supposed to choose…ONE?

This strikes me as an assignment similar to choosing “One Little Word” for the Slice of Life challenge. I chose one word in January, and yet another in February. (I’m still living that second one, waiting patiently for a transition.)

But the most important word?

I guess I’d have to think about what’s important to me, and the first word that comes to mind is love. It’s my north star, my moral compass. I try and lead with love in everything I do. I fall short, and often. Still, I try.

And yet, I feel like “love” doesn’t always sum up what I’m getting at. It’s not just that feeling of love, it’s a desire to understand. So perhaps…compassion? That gets a little bit closer. Love is a start. Compassion requires us to meet people where they are, to show empathy, to say over and over to the people around us in ways big and small that they – that none of us – are alone.

So compassion brings me closer to that guiding principle of that most important word. Still, though, I can’t help but think it falls short. Because a “most important word” to me needs to be universal. Sure, compassion is at the heart of my relationships with other people.

But what about nature?
What about this earth?
What about our universe, and our place within it?

I need something bigger.

And where I think I’m landing is connection to the beauty and wonder and awe everywhere around me.

Compassion, I think, is built on connection. It’s an acknowledgement of beauty and awe within people. Connection is even bigger, even deeper. It extends beyond human relationships and roots me, grounds me.

Connection is spring grass on my bare feet.
It’s stroking the fur of a dog that’s finally plopped down to rest.
It’s a recipe passed down through generations.
It’s the wonder of looking into a starry sky.
It’s the feel of your father’s watch on your wrist.
It’s a text message that says nothing but a heart emoji.
It’s the power of a strong, solid hug.
It’s the smell of earth after a rain.

Will I think on this some more? Probably.

Might I further whittle this idea down to a sharper point? Stranger things have happened.

But for now, it’s where I’ve landed.

And you? What do YOU suppose is the most important word?

Assigned Work: Growing Up

May 10, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: What does it mean to grow up?


What does it mean to grow up? Of course, I could joke around about the answer to this question and simply remark, “I never have!”

But I have grown up. Despite wanting to stay child-like in my awe and idealism, I have officially become a grown-up. And I have a few things to say about being a grown-up: we can pinpoint moments of transition, there are things we lose in being a grown-up, and there are things we gain.

First, I can pinpoint moments when I had to transition into grown-up-ness. All of them, unfortunately, circle around times of grief and loss. There was the time I had to go with my mom to tell my grandmother that my grandpa had just passed away. That’s a moment kids are shielded from, ordinarily. Being a part of that moment was the first time I realized I was no longer a kid. I’ve also experienced the loss of my brother, my father, my niece, a friend. All of these losses gave me a different understanding and wisdom about this world that I can only describe as a growing-up.

Growing up also means that there are things from childhood that I lose. Being a kid means getting to jump full-on into play and creativity. As much as I love to create and play, there is now a certain part of me that doesn’t let it happen with reckless abandon. I have one foot planted in joy and fun, and one foot planted in the idea that I’m going to have to stop at some point because I’ve got stuff to do. I also miss the deep feelings and thoughts I had as a kid. Being a kid is really hard sometimes. As a kid, you take a lot of hurt and pain and you have to figure out what to do with it, and there isn’t always someone to tell you how. And I remember how hard that was, and I remember the memories of those feelings, but it isn’t the same as experiencing them in real time. I can empathize, but I no longer feel and experience things in the same way. I can’t completely identify or understand any more, even though I would love to.

Growing up doesn’t mean that you’re all of a sudden better at organizing things, at making friends, or paying attention, or managing difficult feelings, or cleaning your room, or eating better, or doing homework, or staying out of trouble, or that you like doing chores. But it does mean that you’re coming to things with a deeper perspective, a bit more patience, and a LOT more experience (often gotten the hard way). Growing up means giving up some things, but it’s possible to hold on to a strong moral compass, a love of creativity, a sense of awe and wonder. Growing up means forgetting some of the feelings of childhood, but having more wisdom, more compassion, more patience. I don’t think, at this point in my life, that I’d trade any of it back.

Assigned Work: Cat Fiction

May 6, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: Write a fiction dialogue about cats.

Okay, I’m wondering. Is this a full fiction story about cats INCLUDING dialogue, or a story TOLD through dialogue? Guess I’ll trust myself as a writer! I know I need to work on narration, so I’m going with the first one.


“Hey! Lydia! Quit hogging the climbing post,” snapped Goldie.

“Nah, I’m not feelin’ it,” replied Lydia from inside the carpeted hideaway. “I’ve finally got this spot warm, and I’m not in a mood to move anytime soon.” She yawned, licked her paw and gave her ear a quick smooth-down.

“You KNOW this is my favorite spot, now get off!” Goldie’s hackles began to raise as her ears went back.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” retorted Lydia.

“What on earth does that MEAN?”

“I don’t know. I hear The Weird-Os say it all the time when they fight over stuff. I thought it might work.”

“UGH!” said Goldie, stalking off to her less-than-ideal alternative spot behind the couch. Goldie could have chosen the reclining chair, the spot in the sunshine by the window, or even the nubby blanket on the ottoman.

All of those places are perfectly wonderful for a cat, thought Goldie. But not a smart cat. Not in this household.

Smart cats in certain households know the only way to true happiness is to stay out of the way of certain humans. Smart cats in certain households know it’s better to stay hidden as a rule, and only come out for exceptions: catnip, canned food, feather toys, and humans who actually know how to pet a cat.

Whenever she thought about the Weird-Os, Goldie had to stop herself from growling. Those two humans have no business being in a cat household, she told herself.

Granted, Goldie was more than happy to be IN a home. She and her sister Lydia shared a kennel at the pet store until the Weird-Os’ parents came to an adoption fair, fell head over heels in love, and brought the two of them home.

Home.

Home to comfy blankets.

Home to food that tastes like food.

Home to windows with ample sunshine.

Home to a litter box in a WHOLE OTHER ROOM.

It was bliss.

Lydia and Goldie shared their home with two grown-up humans who had nothing to do but buy cat toys and treats, offer a warm lap for sitting, and keep the catnip coming.

Until.

Until the Weird-Os blew home one May day in a minivan packed to the gills with all kinds of junk. Before they knew it, the house was littered with dirty socks, backpacks, college wear and the undeniably ripe smell of humans in their late teen years.

“You know, the one with the earring and longer hair isn’t so bad, Goldie. He knows the best way to become friends is to stay away until we decide we want something to do with him.”

“Unfortunately,” mused Goldie, “he stinks so badly that nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with him. And the short-haired one with the blue jeans?”

“Don’t get me started!” said Lydia. “She’s a problem. I think she missed that memo about waiting for us to decide when to be friends.”

“I know, right? She’s always dragging us from under the couch or the bed. Like, if I wanted you to pet me, don’t you think I’d be purring in your lap by now?”

“And who’d want her to pet them?” said Lydia. “There’s a reason why our fur goes in a given direction on our bodies.”

“It’s like she’s trying to squeeze a purr out of us.”

“Well she can keep squeezing. I ain’t purring. Not for her.”

“Amen to that,” agreed Goldie.

So Goldie and Lydia kept themselves hidden in the cracks and crevices of their home, only coming out when their older humans had a treat or a lap to offer. They snuck their meals only after determining the coast was clear. When the Weird-Os entered the kitchen, Lydia and Goldie would streak back to the nearest hiding place.

One August morning, there was an uncommon amount of hubbub in the house. The Weird-Os circled the house searching for their stuff. Socks and shoes on the floor gave way to boxes, to suitcases, to backpacks stuffed full to bursting. And just when it seemed every square inch of the floor was taken by STUFF, the human family took it all out and packed their minivan to the gills once again.

They heard the car rumble to a start and move down the street.

The house was quiet once again.

After a time, the older humans came back.

Alone.

“Hey! Lydia! The Weird-Os are gone. Do you think they’re really gone, or is it a trick?”

“I don’t know,” replied Lydia. “The minivan came back without their stuff.”

“Well, I think we should just keep hiding for a little while until we know for sure,” said Goldie.

Sure enough, the house remained quiet and calm. The only humans were the older ones – the ones who knew how to talk to and treat a cat. Lydia and Goldie slowly made their way from the shadows to return to their laps, their recliner chair, their sunny spots by the windows.

Until the next May…


The original Lydia, our cat during and after college.
The original Goldie, our cat when I was a kid

Assigned Work: Video Game Writing

May 5, 2021

So. I committed myself to writing student-assigned topics throughout the month of May. To tell you the truth, I could extend LONG beyond May. The kids had a great time (perhaps TOO good of a time?) coming up with topics they thought I should write, topics they themselves had a tricky time with. Of course, some of them were just having some fun with me.

The topics included the functional: “write a horror story without gore,” “write ten sentences in Shakespearean English,” “write a dialogue-only poem.”

Others invited me to think on an entirely different plane: “what is your view on racism?” “what makes us human?” “how is your vision of yourself different from others’ vision of you?”

There were a couple, of course, that were downright savage: “write a 5-page realistic fiction story.” “write a story while doing push-ups (dictation allowed).”

This, my friends, is just a PARTIAL list from one class section out of four.

Today, I’ll dip my toes into the water with this prompt: “Write about a video game you’ve played – no research allowed.”

Here goes.

I still remember the setup in our back hallway. There was a tiny black-and-white TV plugged in to an Atari game system wedged in the bottom shelf of our linen closet. You’d think it was a terrible place to have it, but that placement was perfect. You see, that closet was all the way at the end of the house, at the end of the hallway with the kids’ bedrooms. My parents’ bedroom was at the opposite of the house. No way could they hear how often we were playing, or how often we fought over the games.

My brother Mike and I could play video games on that black-and-white TV absolutely any time we wanted to. And we did. There was the Grand Prix car race played on the paddle controls, there was Asteroids, and there was Pong, an early version of lots of Breakout games.

But the real star of the show? Without question, it was Space Invaders.

Space Invaders was a game where you had your rocketship-shooter on the ground that you could move from left to right. Up above you would be rows of UFOs that would march down left…right…down…down…and you’d have to shoot them all before they landed on you.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick went the UFOs as they marched. As they got fewer and fewer, closer and closer, they’d speed their march, coming towards the rocketship.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick you’d race back and forth shooting at the UFOs. Level by level you’d shoot them down. As you gained levels the UFOs would go faster, would start shooting back at your rocket ship.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick if you were lucky you’d score high enough (a whopping score of 9,999) you’d TURN THE GAME OVER! which was cause for celebrations and high-fives, and maybe a bit of resentment that *someone* was hogging the video game.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick I’d wait my turn patiently, patiently until my brother lost a game – unless he lost too early in the game and then he’d say that round didn’t count. And the rounds that DID count took forever because he turned the game over who KNOWS how many times.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick went the UFOs, faster and faster. I’d keep my fingers crossed that my brother would finally lose, because I knew he wouldn’t willingly give the game to me, knew I couldn’t tattle on him for being a game hog, knew my parents would just take the game away because we were fighting.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick I waited my turn to get control of that joystick, that Atari, that black-and-white TV in the linen closet.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick….

May Writing Challenge

May 4, 2021

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

My students are brave and inspiring and amazing – in writing AND in life.

So I’m dedicating May to them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much it takes for them to write, without complaint, WHATEVER it is we throw their way. Every genre, every challenge, every topic.

Yes, I do realize that we have things to teach them, and many of those things are important skills as a writer. Still. How does it feel when most of the writing we do isn’t actually of our choice?

That led me to think.

How would I do with assigned topics?

I’ve solicited my students for writing topics. I’ve asked them about the topics and assignments that were the most difficult, the most trying, the most frustrating.

And I’m going to write them, too.

Understand, this isn’t a knock on any of my colleagues. We have a job to do when it comes to writing instruction. Besides, several of the suggestions were assignments I had given them. I suppose I’m not always sparking joy, if I’m being honest with myself.

What it would be like if I truly walked the walk? If I made myself write whatever topic they threw my way, without complaint? How would I evolve as a writer? As a teacher of writing? As a human?

So, for the month of May, I’ll be picking up writing topics at the suggestion (direction!) of my students. It might be fun, it might be educational, it might be gray hair-inducing.

This month is for the loveys. Let’s go!

This post is for the Slice of Life Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Check ’em out!