Category Archives: Reflection

Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

socratic seminar photo
Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

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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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The First Day of School

I haven’t seen any better advice for how to introduce yourselves to your students than that of Carol Jago:

What do I plan to do on the first day?

My classes all meet for 30 minutes, which allows for teachers to give students course information and expectations, go over supplies needed, etc. I have a handout with all of that. We also have an online learning management system where students can check this information any time. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have read that students form a first impression of their teachers in about four seconds. That’s not even enough time to speak!

Instead of going over all the rules and procedures, I post essential questions for the course in a chalk talk. Each question gets its own sticky poster. I have about four or five questions total. I give students sticky notes. I ask them to think about the questions and respond with their thoughts on the sticky note. They put the sticky note on the poster. Then they move to another poster and do the same with the question on that poster. They don’t have to answer all the questions. After they have posted their answers, they go around and read others’ responses. If they see connections, they draw lines. They can comment on the answers, too.

This activity gets students thinking about what they will learn on day one. It also gets them up and moving around a bit. We follow with a class discussion, and usually it’s time to go. Of course, they get their course expectations handout on the way out, and I post it as homework to read it.

This activity reaps bonus rewards if you pull the posters out at the end of the year so students can reflect on their responses to those questions on the first day.

What do you do the first day?

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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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