Category Archives: Reflection

Digital Stories 2016

Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.

I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.

Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.

I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.

I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!

As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.

Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.

Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.

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Re-Reading

books travel photo

For some reason, Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” is running through my mind after re-reading Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. My AP Lit students read and studied Mrs. Dalloway before spring break, and I asked them to read Cunningham’s book over the break. Since it had been quite some time since I read it, a re-read was in order for me, too. I remember it didn’t quite land for me when I first read it. I recognized it was well written, but I couldn’t have foreseen I’d read it again. Because I really love the idea of intertextuality, and also because I borrowed my AP book list largely from a friend and colleague, I decided I’d do Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours together.

My students empathized with Septimus Warren Smith, and they really wanted to talk about him in our discussions, though they also marveled at Virginia Woolf’s writing and tried to connect to Mrs. Dalloway as a character, too. I think they did good work. I will be curious to see how they appreciated The Hours after having read Mrs. Dalloway first, because my first reading of The Hours was years before my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and I believe I appreciated The Hours more after understanding how it is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway.

What I have really been thinking about today, however, is re-reading. I often tell students that we bring everything we are, everything we’ve read, and everything we’ve done to each book. When we re-read with a gap of time, we often find we respond differently to a book the second time because we are not the same people we were the first time we’ve read, we’ve read more books, and we’ve lived more. In the case of The Hours, my response was entirely different. I connected deeply to the characters in a way I couldn’t when I first read the book 13 years ago.

I remember having the same reaction to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I read it as a teenager and despised Holden. Who cares about some ungrateful, annoying preppie teenager roaming New York? How horrified I was when a high school friend once told me he thought all teenage boys were Holden Caulfield. Years later, I saw Holden entirely differently, but it took becoming a mother and a teacher for me to empathize with Holden. Now I love that book and count it among my favorites.

While I know that there is a popular movement in English teaching today to throw out the whole-class novel study, I do still see value in it. I know for a fact that some of the books I am asking my students to read won’t land for them, not yet. I have told them so. And yet there is still value in reading and thinking about these books, letting them rattle around in our brains, and returning to them (if we want to) years later when perhaps we are ready for them to land. At the same time, I do think students need to learn what they like to read in order to become readers, and we should offer opportunities for students to choose what they read as well. The tricky part is not ruin a book so that students have no desire ever to return to it again. Of course, I never really know if students do return to books unless they make a point of telling me, and often they are living their lives, reading other books, and doing other things, so I never know for sure if they pick up a book we studied together, look at it again with their more experienced eyes, and connect to a book in a way they didn’t when they were in my class. But they do at least have the book, somewhere in their minds, and later, perhaps the book might just take them lands away.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Music is Life

Music is Life

Not a lot of people who read this blog know this about me, but I’ve been a musician most of my life. I never pursued it in any serious way, aside from playing in band in school and learning how to play the guitar. I also noodled around on several other instruments, including my sister’s clarinet, a neighbor’s violin, and the French horn owned by my middle school. Recently, I completed an online Introduction to Guitar course offered by Berklee College of Music through Coursera. I was rusty and thought I’d benefit from going back to the beginning, and I did. The instruction was excellent, and I learned things about music theory that I didn’t know. I received an electric guitar for Christmas. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since high school. At the time, they seemed so expensive and so outside the realm of anything I would ever be able to obtain that I gave up.

My Guitar
My Guitar

You could say that music runs in my DNA. My father played drums in school, and my uncle still does. He’s been a lifelong professional musician, in fact. My grandfather played the trombone. My great-great-grandfather played the fiddle. My great-great-grandmother and her mother played the organ. Many generations back, I have an ancestor, a rifle-maker tired of paying high prices for gun locks from New York, who supposedly charmed a gun lock manufacturer out of his secrets by playing the violin. In times gone by, if you wanted music, especially on the American frontier, you needed to make it yourself. Willa Cather’s short story “A Wagner Matinee” has long been a favorite because I connect to it so deeply.

I was, of course, lucky enough to grow up in a time when access to music was ubiquitous—through the radio, through music stores, through mixtapes made for friends. It wasn’t quite like today with access to new music on various streaming sites and YouTube, but it wasn’t hard to hear about new music. I can remember trying to make requests on the radio (they were ignored). I can remember taping music off the radio. I nearly wore out my copy of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet when I was 15—until I discovered Led Zeppelin and left Bon Jovi in the dust. There was a period of time in the mid-1990’s when I listened to The Joshua Tree on a loop in my car. Around 2005, I think, I discovered Jeff Buckley. A few years later, Jack White. I can’t say I stay as current as I did when I was young, but I love discovering new artists, and still try to listen to new music. There was a time in my 30’s when I felt like I didn’t know anything about current music, and I admit it was a bit of a panic. I suddenly felt old.

I was in college when grunge was popular. Nirvana broke my sophomore year. Pearl Jam even came to my university and gave a free or cheap concert (I can’t remember now). I didn’t go. Can you believe that? Big regret of mine. At the time, I didn’t think I liked them, really. In fact, if I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t go see as much live music as I should have. I saw some; I just didn’t take advantage of opportunities I had to see more. There really isn’t anything quite like seeing music live. I listened to so much music in high school and college that there are certain songs and albums I can hear that will take me right back to that time. I listened to a lot of things—hard rock, classical, big band swing, blues. Later on, I developed a fondness for old school country.

One of my friends recently posted this question on Facebook: “Imagine you’ve met someone who has been severely cut off from the world, and you get to introduce this person to music. What would be the first recorded song you would play?”

This is a fraught question for me. I like music so much that picking a favorite song is difficult, and I’m not sure I could do it. I also feel like this is one of those questions that says a lot about a person. Even picking one song that represents each genre I like would be too hard. It’s the kind of question that stops me cold in a quandary over how to answer. With all those caveats in mind, including the one that no such list could ever possibly be comprehensive or representative, I would suggest this person check out the following:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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The Empty Garden

Granna and Papa

These are my grandparents. I spent seven years of my childhood living near them in Aurora, Colorado. They mean a great deal to me. I am sure they are the reason that I consider Aurora “home” even though I didn’t live there the longest, and even though I have not lived there since I was 14, and even though I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited Aurora since I moved.

My grandfather was a tremendous gardener, and his lawn was always beautiful when I was a kid. He isn’t really able to keep a garden now. I remember going with them to Dardano’s Flowerland in Denver to buy marigolds and other flowers. In the front yard, right in front of the front door, they grew marigolds with large, bulbous orange and yellow heads, almost too perfect and too similar to one another to look real. Around the corner from the front door, on the side of the house they grew roses. In the backyard, way in the corner of the yard, they planted purple irises. The power lines hung low over their backyard, and I can never hear doves cooing today without being once again in the back yard.

The other two gardens were devoted mainly to experiments. Granna usually had some zucchini going, but we tried watermelon with some success, and one year she let me pick out some seeds, and I grew some pretty little flowers that looked like closed mouths. I could squeeze right under the bud and make the mouths look like they were talking. The grass was thick and green and cool under my bare feet in the summer. We used to lie under the bean tree in her front yard at night and look up into the sky filled with stars and almost feel like we were falling into the sky.

I knew how much work went into cultivating this yard. Every year we went to Dardano’s Flowerland for the big spring trip. We circled around the greenhouses for what felt like hours as mt grandparents puttered, inspecting and selecting plants. I tried to do anything to relieve the boredom. I looked for rocks with green moss growing on them under the wet flower trays. I touched all the plants. It seemed like the yard was transformed as if by magic almost overnight somehow into a wonderland of plants and trees and flowers. The sprinkler ran every other day; Papa never tried to cheat the water restrictions that I knew of, but his lawn was always verdant and lush.

I was sad to learn from a quick Google search just now that Dardano’s is closed. I can’t really say I enjoyed the trips to the greenhouses at Dardano’s because all I really recall is boredom. Strange that I recall that boredom with so much fondness. I can feel the humid air in the greenhouses. I can smell the flowers. I can hear the trickles of water running. I don’t know much about the history of the place, but I gather it was one of those Mom and Pop businesses that had been around for over 60 years. It’s such a weighty history, and it won’t be too long before people forget it ever existed. Their URL is up for grabs. Their last tweets were posted in 2012. People have moved on and buy their flowers from another nursery, I’m sure. This place was an institution in my childhood, though.

Dardano's
Photo by Dardano’s

I visited Aurora almost two years ago. It was wonderful to see my grandparents. But there was so much about the town that I didn’t recognize. To be fair, much was the same, too. The plains are still flat out there east of the Rockies, and the sky still goes all the way to the ground. But there is a University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and Children’s Hospital on Colfax Ave. now, and it looks completely different with all the new buildings in the huge medical complex.

I used to walk down the street to Hoffman Park to play, and as early as the 1990’s, all the playground equipment had been replaced—I’m sure the playground equipment we used was unsafe. A lot of the places I used to walk or ride my bike to are closed. The library was probably the first casualty—the old library on 13th Street, where I used to check out books and get hot chocolate from a machine on cold fall days. Dolly Madison’s ice cream and dairy—that was an old-fashioned soda fountain place. Hatch’s Gifts. The Munchen Shop, a German deli. Hancock’s Fabrics, where my grandmother spent hours. The art supply store where I used to buy posterboard for my projects. The large number of empty storefronts, pawn shops, and check cashing and cash advance places tell a story of the kind of place the old shopping center has become. And yet, there is still a donut shop where old Winchell’s Donuts used to be. The large grocery store is still there. It’s hard to explain. Enough of it is similar that its recognizable, but it’s changed enough that in many ways, it’s completely different. Those places are new, and they don’t remember me anymore.

I guess, in that way, it’s kind of like all of us. Parts of us are the same, but we change enough that those we knew in our youth might not recognize the people we’ve become.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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How I Decided to be a Teacher

Playing School, William Hahn
Playing School, William Hahn

Teaching was the first career I ever considered, and I actually do remember making that decision. I was in first grade. My experience with education was not that expansive at that point. I couldn’t possibly have had any idea exactly what age group or which subjects I would teach when I grew up. I don’t think I had even considered high school. I’m not sure I even knew the subject of English existed. But I was pretty set on teaching. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, awakened my curiosity about dinosaurs and books. Aside from an incident when she embarrassed me in the midst of scolding me for talking with a neighbor, I remember her fondly and remember wanting to be like her.

I remember putting my stuffed animals and dolls in circles and lines and giving them assignments to complete. I remember reading to my sister. My best friend in elementary school swears that I used to go over the material we were studying in school with her. I wish I could remember that.

I thought briefly about being a lawyer in seventh grade after doing a project in which I played the role of a lawyer, but I think my understanding of what lawyers did was quite narrow. I assumed, based on what I had seen in TV and movies and read in books that all lawyers were trial lawyers, and being a trial lawyer didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t long before I was back to my original plan.

In middle school, I fell in love with French class. I thought I might teach French. I took French in high school, where my teachers were admittedly a lot less inspiring than my middle school teachers (with the exception of one teacher in my upper level French classes). I thought I might one day teach French. I can’t remember if I was told I should also study Spanish, or if I assumed I should, because many of the world language teachers I knew taught both languages, and I just didn’t have any interest in teaching Spanish.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when I decided to teach English. My middle school English teachers were good. I loved reading and writing in their classes, and I have fond memories of projects I did. That changed once I was in high school. I started out in Honors English classes, which were fine, but not all that interesting. I found the ideas shared by the other students intriguing, but I felt they were smarter than me. I understand now that they were just faster and more extroverted. I took regular-level English classes the rest of high school. My tenth grade English teacher was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had. I learned so little in her class, and it was incredibly boring. All I really remember was doing exercises out of Warriner’s grammar books at my desk.

I had a decent first semester eleventh grade teacher, but I remember feeling desperate at that stage that I was missing something. I asked her for a reading list, and she brought me a box of books. I don’t think anyone had ever asked for such a thing from her before. At any rate, I wasn’t in her class long before I moved, and my new English teacher in Georgia was my favorite. The class quickly became my favorite class. I absolutely loved her. I still do, as a matter of fact, because we have remained friends. I was lucky enough to be in her class again senior year, too, though not for first semester. I had a miserable experience in that class with a teacher who did not reward my hard and honest work on a research paper and gave my then boyfriend a good grade on a paper on which he had made up sources and which didn’t meet the assignment requirements. It was so unfair. It still rankles. I am not saying my paper was amazing. It probably wasn’t. But it was the honest work of weeks spent in the library reading Robert Frost’s poems and conducting research.

If not for my second semester junior/senior English teacher, it’s tough to say if I would be teaching English. In some ways, I learned what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be from the other teachers. It is a shame when a kid who loved to read and write as much as I did couldn’t enjoy high school English classes, though. I have tried to do better with my own teaching. I believe I have.

In some ways, I think the fact that I decided to teach long before I decided on who and what to teach contributed to the way I teach. I could easily have taken a different path in terms of subject matter or age group. As a matter of fact, I have taught pre-K and every grade from 6-12. In my role as a tech integrator, I’ve also taught adults. As a result, I don’t have ideas that work of literature X simply must be read at a certain age, but I do believe we should scaffold and build skills in reading and writing.

I was always going to be a teacher, even if I didn’t know the particulars in first grade when decided on that path. There was a period of time about four years into my career when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching. It lasted a few months before I was back in a classroom again. Being a teacher is such a part of my identity that I can’t imagine doing something else.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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What I Make

Autumn Fig Harvest SoapSomething many visitors to this blog might not know about me is that I make soap. I have been making soap for almost four years now. One of the reasons I started is that I fell in love with the homemade soap sold at my local farmer’s market back when I lived in Georgia. I did some research, thinking that once we moved to Massachusetts, I might take it up as a hobby. I looked at websites, saved money for supplies, and read books. I made my first batch of soap within a few weeks of moving. I didn’t want to start a new hobby as we were attempting to move, especially as it would mean packing those supplies I had purchased. It seemed better to do research and wait until we moved.

Over time, I learned to develop my own recipes for soaps, and I’ve learned my own techniques for design. It has become a creative outlet—a form of art. It’s conveniently a useful art, as well, but not any less creative for all of that.

In the years since I started making soap, I have had some spectacular failures. The first time I made soap using coffee, I forgot one of my oils, so my soap had too much lye in it, and it was not usable. There are ways you can salvage batches like that, but I didn’t want to because my design had been ruined. The first time I used honey and goat milk together in soap, my soap overheated and had very interesting-looking caves running through it.

Honey and Goat MilkFragrances can sometimes be difficult to work with. Sometimes they contain ingredients that cause soap to darken (which is cosmetic, but some people don’t like the way it looks). This is usually because of a high content of vanillin, but other ingredients can discolor soap.

Cedar & SaffronSome fragrances speed up the exothermic chemical reaction between oils and lye that results in soap, making it difficult to work with the soap batter. This problem is known as speeding up trace (when it’s mild) or seizing (when it’s severe). Soap batter is a mixture of oils and/or fats and lye. “Trace” is a term given to soap batter when it’s thick enough to leave little traces or trails on the soap batter.  You can just see it if you look at this image of soap batter.

Soap at TraceOnce a soap reaches “trace,” it’s ready to pour into the mold. If a fragrance causes a soap to reach trace faster, it might be more difficult to pour into a mold because it’s thicker. This can sometimes leave gaps or holes in the bars, but is usually not a problem aside from cosmetic issues. I do work with some fragrances that cause my soap batter to thicken more quickly, so I have learned to compensate for this issue by mixing the oils and lye at a lower temperature and/or not mixing them as long as I typically might.

Lilac SoapYou can see the holes caused by soap made with a fragrance that thickened up really quickly. I had to glop it into the mold, and it left holes like the ones near the bottom of the bar. After I learned how to work with difficult fragrances, I learned produce soaps like this one, even with fragrances that thickened the soap batter.

Hobbit's GardenNo holes or gaps!

I have only had soap batches “seize” on me a few times, and it’s always been because the fragrance caused it. Seized soap starts to solidify before you can even get it into a mold, and it often heats up at the same time. If a fragrance causes my soap to seize, I just don’t use it ever again because you can’t really work around that issue. The best you can do is glop the soap in a mold and hope it doesn’t look too terrible, but it nearly always does.

Soap in the MoldI have learned to enjoy the process of making soap. It’s calming. I usually listen to audio books while I work. I love experimenting with different colors, designs, and scents. I like trying things like infusing my soaping oils with herbs, like chamomile and calendula.

I have developed a favorite recipe that makes a really nice lather. It’s a go-to recipe for me, but I still try different combinations of oils sometimes. The fun, for me, is discovering something new—a design technique I have never tried, or a color combination that looks gorgeous. I have learned a great deal about art through making soap.

I’ve also learned resilience in the face of failure. It took me several tries to make a good goat milk soap. Working with milk in soap is hard for beginners. It also took me several tries to learn how to make swirls in my soap. This was my first successful swirl.

Coconut Lime VerbenaI’ve also learned the value of experimentation. I have ruined some batches of soap, resulting in loss of materials, but each time I had problems, I learned from them, and learning what NOT to do next time is probably more valuable than doing everything right the first time every time. It’s disappointing to have a ruined batch of soap, but I always learn from it when it happens. And it still occasionally happens.

I’ve learned a great deal about chemistry, too. I never took organic chemistry, and I had a great deal of trouble with chemistry in high school. I understand a lot more at least about the kind of chemistry involved in making soap, and it is fascinating to learn about. One of the reasons I took up this hobby in the first place is that I love to learn. I have tried my hand at many crafts over the years—making candles, cross stitching, crocheting, knitting (still learning that one), scrapbooking—and none of them has captured my imagination or given me the same kind of artistic gratification that making soap has done. I’ve also made friends that only know me through my love of this hobby—most of them fellow soapmakers.

We should all find some artistic outlet that fulfills us, teaches us, and allows us opportunities for expressing ourselves.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Harry Potter and Me

harry potter photo
Photo by halle stoutzenberger

The Freeform Channel, formerly known as ABC Family, is running a Harry Potter movie marathon today. I had already been thinking a little bit about Harry Potter for some reason when I woke up. When I logged into Facebook, the newish feature that allows you to look back on posts made on the same day in previous years informed me that two years ago today,  I posted a link to an article written by a writer who suggested that if J. K. Rowling really cared about writing, she should stop doing it and make way for others who couldn’t compete with her. The author of the article also suggested that adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter because it doesn’t “stimulate their minds.” It still makes me roll my eyes. First of all, I disagree entirely that it doesn’t stimulate my mind to read Harry Potter. Setting that argument aside, however, stimulating your mind isn’t the only reason to read. Sometimes you just love a book.

It was almost as if the universe was giving me a little nudge for today’s Slice of Life. You see, I’m pretty much a ginormous Harry Potter fan, if you didn’t know that about me. It was a thing at my previous teaching job in Georgia, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I haven’t publicized it as much in my current teaching position. There are a few reasons why, I guess, but none of them are that I’m embarrassed. I find those books to be a deep well that I can return to time again, like old friends.

I first encountered the books at a time in my life when I wasn’t very happy. I was having trouble finding a job, for one thing. I had recently had a baby and was struggling financially for the first time in my adult life. I picked up the first book in either August or September of 2001. I rapidly read through the other three books that were published at that time: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The first movie had not yet been released (but would be later that fall). After I tore through those books, it would be almost two years before I could read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the movies served to fill the void a bit. I do like the movies, though not nearly as much as the books.

Some time after the release of The Order of the Phoenix, I started reading the books to my oldest daughter, Sarah. Sarah is now 22 and in college, but at this time, she was still in elementary school. We only had one car, and we had an awful commute–over 40 minutes one way. I felt like we spent barely any time at home, and as a result, the place we slept never really felt like home to me. After school let out, it was our routine to pick up Sarah’s younger brother and sister from daycare and get something to eat. We then drove to wait for my husband’s shift at cable broadcast facility to end. It was too impractical to drive home and have to drive back out to pick him up. The time and gas we would eat up wouldn’t make it worth it. Sometimes when I think back on the crazy couple of years we spent living this life, I can’t believe we did it. I have never had such a long commute since, and it’s my goal in life never to have another one like it again.

While we sat in the car in the parking lot underneath a streetlamp, Sarah and I would read. We read all five of the books in this way. I remember before the scene when the Death Eaters come at the newly regenerated Lord Voldemort’s call that I warned Sarah it was scary and made sure she felt ready for it. She was.

Even though this was a hard time, I almost felt like those books got Sarah and I through. It was something we shared. It was something we did together. I miss those times. Those books gave us something to hang on to when times were a bit hard for us. I might as well come out and share that I had some issues with depression, and these books somehow made it better, just for a little while. How can I not be grateful for that?

Sarah’s sister Maggie and I have also read the books together. My favorite thing about Harry Potter has been sharing it with my family. My father and mother eventually became fans, and we went together to the midnight releases for the last three books. It was something we shared. It brought us together. And how can I not be grateful for that?

Over time, I did think a lot about what the books had to say about education, and I pondered the merits (or lack) of Severus Snape (who actually is my favorite character). I named my cat Bellatrix. I joined Pottermore and was relieved when I was sorted into Ravenclaw. I was even interviewed about Professor Lupin on an Irish radio show. I wish they’d called me again to discuss Professor Umbridge when the fifth movie was released. I have a lot to say about her.

I tend to re-read the books at least every other year. At some point, every time I read the series, I am right back under that streetlight in the dark, sitting in the front seat of the car with Sarah, reading until her stepfather’s shift ends and we can slog home late in the evening to the place where we slept at night.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Time for Spring Break, Time to Write

Bellatrix
My sleeping cat, Bellatrix, looking like I feel

I’m tired.

I think I’m ready for a break. Our spring break starts in a week. My students have been wonderful. Today, for instance, my AP Literature students presented poems through a variety of analytical lenses. They did a nice job, and in our debrief, they said that looking at the poems in this way was helpful in understanding them and also that it helped them think about others’ viewpoints and interpretations. Only one of my American Literature classes met today, but we read and discussed The Crucible. The students were particularly engaged today.

I am feeling tired, though. In some ways frustrated, too. I have a strong perfectionist streak, and as much as I wish I didn’t, I tend to internalize too many things that are out of my control. It would be nice if I were the type of person who could let that sort of thing go. Some people seem so supremely confident that they are absolutely right all the time, and I guess a lot of people would call that “arrogance.” I don’t really disagree. I think it is arrogant to feel like you are always right and others are always wrong and to refuse to see another person’s side. At the same time, sometimes I wish I had a little bit of arrogance.

In some ways, I feel very confident. In others, I second-guess myself in some pretty self-destructive ways. I’m not sure I’d be me if I didn’t have a generous helping of self-doubt, but I also admit I wish it were easier for me to set aside self-doubt when I know it’s not helping me. Sometimes, it actually does help me because I can catch myself before I make mistakes. It’s also part of being fairly reflective. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Most of the time, I think I do a pretty good job, and my intentions are certainly good. Today, though, was one of those days I allowed myself to be frustrated over a negative situation over which I don’t have a lot of control at the expense of celebrating the learning my students were displaying and some other pretty awesome things that are happening.

I’m about to say something that is probably obvious, but I actually feel a bit better getting this out. I have always thought through things on paper much better than through talking. Talking about this situation today really didn’t help and actually made me feel worse. Writing about it here helped me get some perspective. I can actually feel it leaving my shoulders.

I’ve been trying to keep a journal on mornings when I have time and space to write so that I can reflect on what I need to do and prepare for the day. I don’t write every day, and I decided I can’t give myself one more thing to be frustrated over, so I write when I feel like I can. This practice is actually helpful when I can do it, however, and perhaps what I really need to do is prioritize more time for writing so I can think. Perhaps it will help me with perspective.

Of course, yoga wouldn’t hurt either.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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My (Non)Reader

reading photo
Photo by ZapTheDingbat

One of my students is a big reader. Since we started our independent reading project in December, she has read seven books. The last book she read was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. She said the book was so good she can’t even explain it. She comes in and chats about her books, and she loves the independent reading.

One of the things I enjoy most about independent reading is putting the right books in the hands of eager readers. Students are starting to swap their own recommendations, which is really amazing. I have tried to share a book with them each time class meets, and I received a very nice thank you from one of my students for sharing so many books with them.

The truth is, as much as the independent reading seems to be working well with my students, I can’t seem to figure out how to get my daughter to read. I have tried buying books I think she would like and recommending favorites. I stay up on what teenagers are reading and what they like to read. If anyone is poised to raise a reader, I should think it would be me. I did all the right things. I read to all my children. I model a love of reading for them. I made sure they grew up surrounded by books. I’m just flummoxed.

Several years ago, I recommended Twilight to a girl I was teaching. She wasn’t a reader, but I thought she’d enjoy it. She loved it, and she talked her mother into a late evening trip to Barnes & Noble to buy the next one. Her mother was in tears of gratitude at the next parent/teacher conference because her daughter was now a reader. By senior year, she showed me she was reading a fat Alison Weir biography of Henry VIII. It was her own choice. She wasn’t reading it for class.

The year before, a student in my class discovered a love of reading after we studied The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. In his senior year, he was reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which inspired the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood. It was his own choice. He wasn’t reading it for class.

I’ve been successful convincing my students to give reading a chance. One of my most reluctant readers just finished his second book. He read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and just finished a Derek Jeter biography. He admitted at the beginning of the year that he really dislikes reading unless it’s a sports article or is on Twitter.  But now he’s read two full books of his own choosing.

I suppose partly it could be that teenagers will often listen to anyone except their parents. Perhaps my students’ parents tried to get them to read more and weren’t successful. I’m just not sure how to help my own daughter discover a love of reading, even after I’ve helped so many of my students discover the magic of books. What am I doing wrong?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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