Category Archives: Slice of Life

Slice of Life: Twinning

This week is our Winter Carnival Week, which is much like spirit week in some other schools. Each day has a different theme, and we can “dress down” as long as we are adhering to the theme. Today’s theme was “Duo Day.”

This morning, I walked into our History/Social Science Department office to pick up a few items, and I noted that two of the history teachers were wearing gray sweaters, just like me. “Oh, I see you got the gray sweater memo,” I said, and one of my colleagues replied, “I wish we would have planned to be duos today so I could have dressed down.”

Cathy and Dana
Cathy and Dana

It’s bizarre how when you work with people for a while, you start dressing like them. A few months ago, my colleague Cathy and I showed up to work dressed alike nearly head to toe. Except for our shoes, we were identical.

Years ago, I had a colleague who had the same denim dress and a similar green flowered skirt, and we invariably wound up wearing our “twin” outfits on the same day.

Why is it that this happens?It never seems to be planned, or at least it’s not in my case. What psychological impulses or weird twists of fate cause us to reach for the same outfits as our colleagues on the same day?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: Maker Space

Oat and Maple Bread

My kitchen is a maker space. If you have been reading my blog for a while or know me in person, you might know I make soap. I haven’t made it as often over the last year—mostly just for my family and me. One of the beautiful things about making something like soap yourself is that you can control everything that goes into it. I also make lotion, and if you knew how cheap and easy it is to make, you’d never buy expensive lotion at the store again.

Over the last six months or so, my new favorite thing to make is bread. I have long been intimidated by baking bread because I have zero skills coaxing recipes that need special attention. I can’t do kneading or rolling things out (don’t ask me about my attempts at pie crust). I ran into a great no-knead recipe, and I was sold. I’ve been baking bread ever since, and nothing beats homemade bread. The picture above is my flour mixture and oats for an oatmeal maple bread that happens to be my favorite one to bake… and eat.

So why am I writing about this on my education blog?

I’m on winter break, which means I have time to bake Christmas cookies and bread and whatever else strikes my fancy. Teaching is such an exhausting profession. When I come home from work, most of the time all I want to do is read. I try not to bring work home.  And honestly, I try not to give a lot of pointless homework. Preparation for class in the form of reading and writing is pretty much the extent. Occasionally, students study for quizzes in my class. Over the two weeks that they are on vacation, I have asked them to read what they choose. I have explicitly told them not to work on revising their essays. The only work I want them to do for me is to read… and to read what they want to read. Maybe they’ll make a few things, too, with the time they have. I hope they do.

My friend Jared says in his Statement of Teaching Philosophy that if you “ask [his] sophomores ‘How many of you are painters?’ there might be a few hands raised in a class.” On the other hand, he adds, if you ask young children the same question “a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically.” So what gives? As Jared asks, “What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go?”

We all need an artistic outlet. I never felt like a very confident artist. I have been a pretty good musician (though very out of practice). For the past five years or so making soap and then learning to bake have been artistic outlets for me. With all the buzz in education about maker spaces, one thing we seem to forget is that elementary school classrooms are tremendous maker spaces, or at least mine was. We need to figure out how to give students the time and the space to continue to be creative. My answer to Jared’s question is that over time, we devalue creative projects in school. I know English teachers, for example, who think I waste time with creative writing in my classes. I don’t care what they think because I feel in my gut that they are wrong.

A good case in point: my last AP Lit class right before winter break. I didn’t have high hopes. They meet at the very end of the day. Some of the students likely wouldn’t be there or would leave early as the dorms closed at 5:00. We would wrap up our short unit on Love and Relationships after a great discussion about “Brokeback Mountain” the previous day. But I pulled out a great lesson idea from writer Jason Reynolds from NCTE 2016. I gave students Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and asked them to rewrite it in the idiom of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I brought them homemade gingerbread using Emily Dickinson’s own recipe. Wishing I had Jason Reynolds’s mentor text from that session, I plunged ahead anyway. I wrote with the students (I chose 1980’s Valley Girl slang). One student asked, “Is it okay if I cuss in my poem?” I grimaced and said, “Sure.” Another student asked, “Is it okay if I curse a lot?” Why not? In for a penny…

With around 20 minutes left, the students said it was time for everyone to share. We had poems in the voices of a robot, a pirate, a resident of Southie, and a more modern take. Honestly, I knew they understood it perfectly when I overheard one student reading the first line to another: “When bae swears that she ain’t lying…”

I asked the students what they got out of the exercise, and one student said, “I understood the poem a lot better because I had to in order to rewrite it.” No, she wasn’t a paid shill, I promise.

The students were still in the room at 3:30 at the end of the period. I practically had to kick them out. On Friday right before break. In senior year, no less. I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of fun creating together that day.

I often say that we make time for the things we value. I am asked a lot how I have time to read, to bake, to make soap, to do creative activities with students when there is just so much to cover. We can’t “cover” it all, folks. Students will not learn everything we think is worth knowing in our classrooms, and that’s okay because if we stopped to think about it, we’d realize we didn’t learn everything worth knowing in a single class or even in ten classes, or maybe not even in a class at all. But if we value creativity, we need to make time to create, to allow our classrooms to be maker spaces.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: Somewhere in America

power fist photo

I learned something really interesting about myself this week at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference. Sometimes we miss out on interesting educational theory tools after we’re in the classroom (which is a pity). However, I’m not sure that’s a good excuse for me because in this case, I’m pretty sure these theories have been around for a while. Developed by Michael Stephen Schiro in his book Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns, the Curriculum Ideologies Inventory is a tool you can use to determine how you approach the curriculum. There are four different ideologies he discusses:

  • The Scholar Academic believes a “teacher’s job is to transmit information deemed to be important by the academic discipline.”
  • The Learner-Centered teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to see children as individuals and provide opportunities for them to make meaning of their own experiences.”
  • The Social Efficiency teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to prepare students with skills they will need in the future to be productive members of society.”
  • The Social Reconstructionist teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to push students to interpret the past, present, and future in order to reconstruct and create a more just world.”

This tool may not be new to you, but I hadn’t seen it before. I was a little bit surprised by my results, but not entirely. I scored highest, uniformly and without a single deviation, as a Social Reconstructionist teacher, meaning issues of social justice are at the forefront of what I do in the classroom.

I found this interesting paragraph at Oregon State’s Philosophical Perspectives in Education:

Social reconstructionism is a philosophy that emphasizes the addressing of social questions and a quest to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education. Theodore Brameld (1904-1987) was the founder of social reconstructionism, in reaction against the realities of World War II. He recognized the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion. George Counts (1889-1974) recognized that education was the means of preparing people for creating this new social order.

You can also read more about this philosophy here.

As a beginning teacher, I can’t say I had enough models of this kind of philosophy, so it took me some time to develop my approach to teaching, but if I examine which books I read in my early education courses that spoke most to me, it’s obvious I was always thinking along these lines: Dewey’s Experience & Education, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Trillin’s An Education in Georgia.

Quite possibly anyone who has examined my American literature curriculum is unsurprised by this result. My colleagues at work certainly affirmed it sounded like me. One of the reasons I threw out chronological teaching of American literature is that I wanted to focus on social justice, and all the themes and essential questions I created for that course tied back to ideas about social justice, from starting with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and reading the voices of Americans to understanding the pervasiveness of the American Dream and who gets cut out of achieving it with The Great Gatsby. If I were teaching American literature this year, you can bet my students would be writing about the NFL controversy around “Taking a Knee” in connection with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the writings of MLK and John Lewis.

Time to admit something. I haven’t actually read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet. I just ordered it. I feel ready to embrace my identity as a Social Reconstructionist now that I know I am one. Might also be time to dust off my Dewey. No wonder Henry David Thoreau is one of my most important teachers.

Which leads me to a final thought. If these young women were my students, I would have felt I had been a successful teacher.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: Visiting a Friend

On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.

Dylan walking
My son marching to the beat of his own drummer

The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.

Walden

We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.

Thoreau's Cabin Site

It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.

There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.

Thoreau's Chimney Marker

But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.

Cairn and Sign Near Thoreau's Cabin Site

It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.

Stone Cairn

There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.

Wood Path around Walden

The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.

Leaves in Walden Pond

We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.

Dylan and Thoreau

My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis.  But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.

I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”

We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.

It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.

Thoreau Family Marker

I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.

Thoreau's Grave Marker

I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.

Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.

I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.

If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Frustration Time

frustration photo
Photo by e-magic

It’s frustration time. I know this is a bit of a pattern with me, and maybe it is with most teachers, but I find I’m at my most frustrated this time of year.

I keep thinking of the things I wanted to accomplish but didn’t. I keep thinking of the students with whom I tried to establish a rapport and a relationship but failed. I keep thinking of discussions and disagreements. I focus almost exclusively on everything that went wrong. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be the kind of person who wasn’t bothered by such things. I suppose I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t, but this time of year can be agony for me until the summer arrives, and I find myself wondering if my fellow teachers commiserate.

One thing I wonder is whether I care too much. I realize that’s a loaded sentence. One never wants to be accused of caring too little unless we know it’s something we shouldn’t care too much about. For instance, I believe that as a colleague and teacher, I have earned a fair amount of respect—even some appreciation. So why do I focus on encounters in which I have felt disrespected to the exclusion of the large number of encounters in which I have felt respected and perhaps even truly appreciated? Why does the negative weigh so much more in my mind than the positive? Why is the negative so much louder than the positive? I seem to be especially vulnerable to this kind of thinking at the end of the year. Perhaps it’s because I’m clinging to the end of that frayed rope, hoping I can hold on for a few more weeks when I can decompress and get rid of the stress.

The end of the year is so stressful. I think a lot of teachers—perhaps all of them—feel it. Is it just my perception that everyone else seems so much better able to cope with the stress without being upset? Are they just hiding it really well?

I value reflection a great deal. I think it is a helpful practice to examine myself and determine how I might do better. Sometimes, it ventures into the realm of being unproductive, however, and I feel like I beat myself up more than it seems like others do. Is that just a perception? Do we all kind of beat ourselves up?

I have been bending my poor husband’s ears for two days on my end-of-year frustrations, and he’s been a great listener. I know he would like to figure out a way to help or to say something that would make me feel better, but at this stage, I feel like the only thing that will help is a break. And I know it’s coming soon enough. I know I have only a few more days with students, and then just a few more after that with colleagues. I will have some wonderful things to look forward to this summer. A trip or two with family. A U2 concert. The opportunity to study Emily Dickinson and her poetry at her home in Amherst. Most of all, time to read, learn, and relax.

I’m wondering what coping strategies other teachers have for making it through the end of the school year, especially when a pile of frustrations regarding everything from personnel issues up to angry students or parents seem overwhelming. If you’re so inclined, I would love to have a discussion here.

How are you feeling?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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On Taking Risks

risk photo
Photo by Bien Stephenson

I had a wonderful discussion with Cindy, my Dean of Faculty yesterday, and I just want to thank her one more time (this time in public) for her encouragement. As I explained to her, I am quite liberal in my politics, but I have always been conservative in my career. I stayed perhaps four years too long in my last teaching job. I loved my colleagues, but my principal was a bully, and she really tore my self-esteem apart. I am still suffering the after-effects from it—second-guessing myself, wondering if I am actually a good teacher or not, worried about losing my job—even when I feel confident my school is happy with me. Part of having anxiety is that you blow up these concerns past the point of reason, and it’s very difficult then to take risks. I am not a natural risk-taker. Even when I have evidence that some chances I took in my life paid off, I still have trouble logically applying those situations to current or future scenarios.

However, I have decided I am going to take a risk. I am going to do something that is not very conservative. I do not want to say very much about my plans at the moment. I am not leaving my current school, so colleagues who might read this blog (or students) need not worry. I don’t like to be cagey on my blog, but I have good reasons for keeping my plans relatively quiet for the moment.

There are many reasons in life to be afraid, but it doesn’t help us accomplish our goals. There are many reasons to be cautious, sometimes the best moves we make in life happen when throw caution to the winds and take a chance on a dream. What I am about to embark upon has long been a dream, and I thought it was entirely foolish and out of reach. However, everyone else I have talked to in the last week or so has thought otherwise. It must be that conservative nature of mine, I decided. I asked myself, if I were anyone else but me, what would I do? And I decided I would probably take the risk—if I were anyone else, it would be a no-brainer. In fact, if I were anyone else, I might already have done it.

It was a powerful epiphany for me. I came to the place where I had utterly rejected my idea, and then I asked myself why. Though I haven’t been seriously ruminating for a long time, this idea has been in the back of my head for probably 20 years. That’s 20 years I could have worked toward accomplishing the goal, but it’s also 20 years I really learned a lot that I could learn no other way. It’s a good time for me to try to accomplish this goal, and better late than never. I don’t want to reach the end of my life and wonder what if I had just tried it.

The biggest thing that keeps going through my mind is “I’ll bet Granna would be proud.” My grandmother, one of the most important people to me in my life, and someone who was my constant cheerleader and thought I could do anything, even when I didn’t believe it myself, passed away in November. I kept looking for her everywhere. One of the last things she said to me when I talked to her the last time was that she would be watching over me. And I tried and tried, but I couldn’t feel her watching me. All I felt was her absence. But after some time has passed, I have learned to be still and listen. And I just realized… she is watching. And nudging. She is behind this decision. I imagine a lot of people reading this won’t believe it, and that’s fine. But I feel it. She wants me to do this, and she thinks I can. So I will.

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Slice of Life #28: We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

Granna and MeI lost my grandmother this morning. She is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. She represents love to me because her love was absolutely unconditional, and it was something I knew I had with absolute certainty.

I never think about her without thinking about her in her sewing room. I don’t think I realized when I was a child how unique that room was, that most houses didn’t have such a room. She would spend hours back in that room, but we children were always welcome. The tiled floors were pitted and scarred by the wheels of her rolling chair. She had at least three sewing machines set up, along with an ironing board. There was a table covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had trays with stray sewing machine feet, pins, bobbins, thimbles, scissors, and stale Freedent gum.

My mom asked me what I wanted, and the only thing I can think of is something from that sewing room. And a clock that chimes obnoxiously because whenever it marks the hour, it reminds me of spending weekends with her. I used to hear that clock late into the night when she let me stay up watching Johnny Carson or Fantasy Island. I had a pallet by her bed, but she often let me cuddle next to her. The next morning, she often took me out for breakfast and let me have a Coke, which Mom would never have done.

I had a chance to visit her in July 2014 when I was going to a digital storytelling conference in Denver. I recorded many of her and my grandfather’s stories and edited them into at least two digital stories. Here is my favorite.

I wish there were some way to capture how soft her cheeks were, like velvet, and how even though her hands shook with some sort of inherited disorder, she could always thread a needle on the first try. If she made something with her hands, it was going to be better than anything you would buy in a store.

When I was in seventh grade, I got it into my head to make her a small shelving unit. I don’t know why. I had taken woodshop the previous year in school, and I thought I could handle it. I did a terrible job. First, I found wood in the garage and didn’t ask if I could use it. I never got in trouble, but who knows what that wood had been set aside for? I couldn’t cut the wood evenly with a saw, so the two edges that would be the top were uneven. I tried to sand them down, but I couldn’t, not with the sandpaper my dad had in the garage. I tried to nail the shelves to the sides, but I couldn’t. I wound up using wood glue. I used different kinds of wood for the shelves and sides. The shelves were wider than the sides. I got a good look at that shelf for the first time in about 30 years when I visited two years ago. Every shelf is crooked. It looks terrible. And yet it has hung in her living room, in pride of place, with her collectible figurines resting in peril on each shelf. I realized that shelving unit is a metaphor for me. She cried when I gave it to her for her birthday. She immediately hung it on the wall. She loved me, with my faults, with perfect love. I doubt if she ever even saw how ugly that shelving unit was, just like she dismissed my own imperfections.

I decided to go to school today, even though my heart is broken, because I thought that I could either lie in bed all day, crying, or I could come to school and keep busy. It hasn’t worked all that well. I was teaching The Odyssey this morning, and it so happened that my students were studying Book 11—the book in which Odysseus travels to the underworld and sees the shade of his mother, not realizing she had died.

Mother, why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!—
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. (11.240-243)

Odysseus’s mother replies,

[T]his is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away… flown like a dream. (11.249-253)

Why on this day, of all days, should this passage be the one I must discuss with a room full of ninth graders who know nothing about what I’m feeling? And yet, I also just finished King Lear, and yesterday, after I had spoken with my grandmother for the very last time and shortly before she lost consciousness, my students were conducting a Socratic seminar discussion of the play along with A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and this line in particular stabbed me through the heart:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (5.3.370-371)

As blessed as I am to have had my grandmother for 45 years, and I know that I am, I can’t help but feel what Lear feels: “Stay a little” (5.3.327). Would there ever have been enough time?

It’s an accident of life that I happen to be teaching these works right now. I planned the curriculum before my grandmother’s final illness took hold.

I know that death is a part of life. But I don’t know life without his remarkable, amazing woman who loved me so much. I don’t know how to talk about her in the past tense. I don’t know how to keep going without knowing she’s there, perhaps 2,000 miles away, but there.

She told me the last time I spoke to her that she would watch over me, and that she would hold me always in her heart.

And I chanced upon this poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites, while I was looking for something, anything, that spoke to how I was feeling (Fr. 428).

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Perhaps you know this poem? It leaped off the page, and it was almost like Miss Emily was offering me the one thing I really needed to read. We grow accustomed to the dark. It is not easy. We will bump into things. We will grope, trying to find our way. But eventually, life steps almost straight. The perfect word in that line is “almost.” We are never quite the same after such a loss. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever” (Rowling 299). I suppose I draw comfort from the idea that Odysseus, Lear, and even Harry Potter know how I feel right now. They, too, have felt losses not too dissimilar from mine. And they recognize that such losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be filled.

I will always miss my grandmother. In a way, I have been saying goodbye to her since the last time I visited in July 2014. I had a feeling, somehow, that it might be the last time I might see her. She wasn’t ill at the time, but I had no way of knowing when or if I could make the trip back. The sun was setting. I knew the day wouldn’t be lasting much longer. And now, I’ll have to grow accustomed to the dark.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, Scholastic, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, New York, Washington Square Press, 2005.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #27: Organization Journaling

My Journal

I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.

Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”

I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.

I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.

So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.

And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793.  I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it.  I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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