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.

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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My Hair

Today was the first day of the Slice of Life March blogging challenge that I felt at a loss as to what to write about. I peeked over at their idea suggestion page, and I had to laugh out loud at this line: “Does the thought of writing 31 slices in a row scare anyone? If it doesn’t now, about day 13 it will.” Yep. That’s about right. Day 13, and I was stuck.

One reason I think I was feeling especially uninspired is that I just finished reading an inspiring book, and all I want to do right now is process it and tell everyone to read it. I wrote a review already, and I know that Slice of Life is not about reviews, so that’s all I will say about it.

One item on the 31 Slices to Inspire word cloud on the suggestion page jumped out at me in particular. Hair. My friend Glenda has already written about her decision to go gray. I thought to myself, perhaps I should write about my hair.

Prematurely gray hair must be hereditary in my family because my mom says my dad had gray in his sideburns when they met each other at the age of 19. I found my first gray hairs when I was 18. I can’t say where they came from, though, because in pictures, my grandfather’s hair was black except for some gray at the temples, until he passed away in his 70’s. My grandmother’s hair was gray, but I can’t say when her hair might have started turning gray, as she colored it most of her life. My dad’s hair is now a beautiful shade of white. Our hair is exactly alike, so I know in twenty years exactly what color mine will be. For right now, though, this is a pretty recent picture.

Alison BechdelSome people think it’s actually platinum blond until they see me in person. A friend of mine once argued with me about my hair. It was a walnut brown before it turned gray. I was there. I know it was. My friend insisted it had to have been blond because it didn’t look like it had been brown. You’re not going to win an argument like that. Still, I was there, and I remember.

It was the French horn player who sat behind me in band (I played flute) who first noticed gray hairs in the back of my head. Inexplicably, she pulled them out whenever she saw them. Why I didn’t give her a black eye, I’m not sure. I think at one point I did tell her to keep her hands off my hair.

I dyed my hair a variety of shades of brown and red in the 1990’s. Nothing I tried looked right, and it was horrible for my hair. I never did use a salon, so perhaps the results would have been different if a professional had colored it. When I was pregnant with Maggie (who just turned 15), I think I must have read that you shouldn’t color your hair. My hair looked pretty bad, I guess, while it was growing out. I can’t remember anymore. I fully intended to color it again once I gave birth, but my husband said he liked it. It was, at that time, more of a slate gray. So I left the hair alone.

I am really low-maintenance when it comes to hair. If a style requires more than blowing it dry, I don’t want the hassle. I found that the hair recovered from those years of coloring it. It felt better. Still, I was worried that I looked old before my time. I was in my early 30’s. I was in the hair color aisle at Wal-Mart one day looking at different colors and trying to select one. Two women stood nearby, and I could hear them whispering. Finally, one of them called down the aisle to me, “Don’t do it! See, I’m trying to convince her,” she said pointing at her friend, “that her hair can look like yours if she grows it out.”

I think I must have thanked her and left. Then, at Panera, a younger man complimented my hair. What you have to understand is this was years before gray hair and the granny look came in style. Hairdressers were always trying to convince me to color it. I was the only woman I knew—well, certainly the only one my age—who was not fighting the gray hair.

Eventually, it just sort of started turning silver. Then, lo and behold, young women started dying their hair gray. I was asked at Kenyon last year why I had chosen to color my hair gray (it was clear from the context and the way it was asked that the person liked it). I said I didn’t choose. It was natural. She said, “I like it even better, then.” From what I understand, the process of dyeing your hair gray is time-consuming and difficult.

Photo courtesy Glenda Funk

I am not someone who has always felt comfortable in my skin. When I was young, I was teased for being skinny. Having three babies made short work of that. Like many women, I often looked in the mirror and focused on all my perceived faults. But my hair? I admit it didn’t take long before I really enjoyed rocking the gray hair, even before others did, and even when others told me I should color it.

I could not have guessed I’d feel that way. I remember seeing Emmylou Harris on television when I was young and wondering why she didn’t color her hair. But at some point, even though it was something that made me stand out, I decided to just let it happen. My headmaster admitted to me a few weeks ago he was quite curious about it when we met, but couldn’t ask me anything about it during the interview process because it’s not legal. One former colleague said it’s “superhero hair.” I think someone said silver hair is the new blond. Whatever. I’ll take it. One time in my life I was actually ahead of the trends.

I actually do get a lot of comments on my hair. One of the most recent from a woman cutting my hair, and for the first time, a hairdresser was not telling me I should color it. I learned to love my natural hair before it was cool. My hair is now such a part of my identity and who I am that I can’t imagine it being any other color. Me at the Folger Library


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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In my classes this week I tried out two ways of distilling the text. The first is what’s known as a Literary 3X3, which is a technique I hadn’t heard of until a few weeks ago. The Literary 3X3 asks students to write three sentences of three words each that capture the essence of a text. There are rules. Students should try to use abstract nouns, no proper nouns, no “to be” verbs, no articles, no repeated words, no pronouns, no cliches.

We wrote one about Septimus Warren Smith’s story in Mrs. Dalloway.

Septimus Warren Smith 3X3

Isn’t it great? They wrote the second line first, then the last line. I suggested they back up and write about what came before the other two lines and write a first line. They were so happy with their first line they clapped after they were finished.

One student said, “It’s like a poem!” Another added, “Yeah, like a haiku, but… not.” Man, my students make me laugh.

Another way we distilled a text this week was an adaptation of a Text Rendering Protocol.  We had read Margaret Atwood’s poem “Half-Hanged Mary” after finishing The Crucible. Students shared the line that they felt captured something essential about the poem. Then I asked each student to give me one word from the poem that captured something essential. As they shared, I typed their responses into Wordle. Here is what my D period American Lit came up with:

Half-Hanged MaryThe students said “Woah!” I asked, “What do you think? Does this capture what the poem is about?” They agreed that it did.

Here is what my F period American Lit class (smaller group) came up with:

Half-Hanged Mary

What I love about these activities is that it’s actually quite hard to reduce a text down to three sentences or down to a single word, and yet, the results were great.

As my D period students were filing out the door, one of them asked me about the Wordle: “Did you PLAN that?”

I loved that question. I had to admit truthfully that they could have said different words, but that yes, the idea is that these sorts of activities will yield results like this. Still, I love it that he has an idea I’m totally messing with their minds.

Spring break starts.
Exhausted teacher relaxes.
June watches nearby.

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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Happy Birthday, Maggie

MaggieIt’s this funky girl’s birthday, today! My middle child, Maggie, turned fifteen today. I can’t believe she’s old enough to be a student of mine. I can’t even believe she’s a teenager. The last fifteen years have flown right by.

The first things we noticed about Maggie were her shock of red hair, dimpled chin, and one pointed ear (either a Vulcan ear or elf ear, depending on which family member you ask). She was just about born talking, and she was the kind of kid who was so interested in what was going on that she quit taking naps at 18 months.

As you can probably tell from the picture, she’s an artist. In fact, she would like to go into animation. Check out this self-portrait she had in an art show in 8th grade.

Maggie Self-PortraitMaggie has always been the kind of person who doesn’t put up with nonsense. She sticks up for herself, and she’s a very strong person. She just doesn’t care what others think. In some ways, I really wish I could be like her, and I look up to her. She’s a brave person.

She is a genuinely funny person. And she has my number. Not too long ago, she was making her lunch for school, and she was taking her sweet time about it. I made a remark to the effect that she was not making her lunch very fast, and she said, “You don’t do anything very fast.” If you ask around, you will find that’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. I couldn’t even be mad.

Maggie has very strong opinions. She’s willing to listen to reason, but don’t get her going on things like Minions, Donald Trump, or most modern popular music. She is definitely the kind of person you want to have in your corner, but you don’t want to cross her.

She’s a loving child, and she’s kind to her little brother. Since he started middle school, they’ve been riding the same bus in the morning, and she looks out for him while keeping her distance. Lately, the two of them have been having lots of discussions about the presidential race.

I feel very lucky to be her mom. Happy birthday, Maggie!

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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Five Question Challenge

top five photo
Photo by quapan

The other day, I saw this challenge posted on Sally’s blog. It looked like fun.

  1. What has been your one biggest struggle this year?
    My absolute biggest struggle this year is not one I feel comfortable airing in public, but suffice it to say it’s a personnel issue.
  2. Share two accomplishments you are proud of this school year.
    I am really excited and happy that my department is beginning to plan a humanities curriculum with the history department. They are a fantastic bunch of teachers, and they have some great ideas. I’m also really excited that our department will be featured in an upcoming alumni magazine as part of an issue devoted to the school’s writing program.
  3. What are three things you wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?
    I want to figure out a way to become more involved with our local NCTE affiliate, NEATE. In fact, I’ve already reached out to my friend Kim, the NEATE President, and we have begun that conversation. I want to buy a new car. We are overdue, and I’ve written about the issue before. We are close. Actually, we could probably do it right now, but we are trying to preserve some savings. Finally, I would like to help my daughter find a book. My son, thankfully, has discovered Lloyd Alexander. After he finishes Time Cat, he is planning to read The Book of Three.
  4. Give four reasons you stay in education today despite the current rough culture.
    The students are always the main reason. My job is never boring, and they are the most important part of everything I do. I also enjoy the mental stimulation. I never really do the same thing every year, and thinking of new ways to teach material is a challenge. I think it’s an important job, too. Helping students learn to understand their world through literature and to communicate well will take them far, and I take my job very seriously. Finally, I have had the pleasure to work with some great people in my career, and I have made many other friends through teaching. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience, even with the hardships.
  5. Which five people do you hope will take this challenge?
    This might be a cop-out, but I am just hoping anyone who needs the inspiration some day during the Slice of Life Challenge will take up this challenge.

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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Why I Love Wuthering Heights

wuthering heights photo
Photo by Dan Scurtu

Most people don’t have to defend their favorite books. At least, that’s my perception. Most people name their favorite books, and in reply, they might receive a sage nod. As in, “Yes, I could see that. I understand why that book might be someone’s favorite.” Or they might receive enthusiastic support. “Oh, I love that book!” When I name my favorite book, I usually get some variation on the question, “Why?” As in, “Why on Earth, would that book be your favorite?” I wrote the other day about how much I love the Harry Potter books, and I could make a strong case for their being my favorite books, but I find it hard to separate them. They tell one larger story, and they tell that story over seven volumes. If I am pressed to pick one book, however, I usually say my favorite book is Wuthering Heights.

I can hear you asking the question as you read this. I can see the look on your face. I can’t tell if you’re confused or disgusted, though. Believe it or not, I have met other people who love this book, too, and it is recognized as a classic—I think we can agree books don’t stand the test of time for absolutely no reason, right?

One question that usually follows my declaration of love for this book is how I can like the characters. They’re all horrible! Yes, I agree. They are. I have actually come to wonder if Nelly Dean might not be the most villainous character of them all. Lockwood seems bumbling and clueless with very little self-awareness. Heathcliff and Catherine are awful. Hindley is awful. Even Hareton and young Cathy can be pretty awful until the end. The minor characters, too, are unsympathetic at best and horrible at worst. So yes, I agree with folks who have trouble enjoying the book because of the characters. In spite of the fact that I don’t think I’d want to hang out at either Thrushcross Grange or Wuthering Heights, I do find the closeness with which the characters live to be intriguing. What I mean by “closeness” is that they seem to be existing right at the elemental level. They are all passion. I am not saying I hold with those who see Heathcliff as a romantic lead. I think anyone who views Heathcliff as some ideal boyfriend probably hasn’t read the book. He’s tormented, obsessive, controlling, and just plain mean. Why would you want to date that? Still, a book with characters who are absolutely impossible to connect to makes for a hard slog, so as horrible as they are, I supposed I see something intriguing in those characters.

So if even I don’t find the characters all that likable, what do I like about the book? Actually, I find the setting entrancing. I absolutely love the descriptions of the two houses and the moors over which Heathcliff and Catherine run. I have a clear picture in mind of this place. It’s forbidding, windy, mostly barren. It’s as if nature itself wants to break the people who live on this land. And they fight against it, yes, they do, but in the end, they aren’t broken. There is something of the indomitable spirit about the people who live in Gimmerton. Even old Joseph has it—tough, craggy, mean-spirited Joseph. This book uncovers something uncomfortable about human nature: that its possible to love what you hate and hate what you love.

Ultimately, I don’t really know why I love this book. I think about the answer to that question a lot, and the best conclusion I can draw is that the writing draws me in, though the world I inhabit while I’m in the pages of the book may be “a mighty stranger.” Wuthering Heights as it exists today is probably a ruin, much like Top Withens, which may have inspired it. Thrushcross Grange probably no longer exists. If you look closely, though, I’ll bet you can see the ghosts of those people who lived there, and something is alive in the crumbling brick of Wuthering Heights, just waiting to be uncovered. And somehow, each time I open that book to read it again, that whole world comes back to life, stark, beautiful, and turbulent as ever. The book surprises me all over again each time I read it.

Also, how can you not love a book that inspired something like this:

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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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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