half-way

Today, I was mentioning to my students that I was at the half-way mark of my blog-a-day writing journey.

Their response?

“Oh my gosh!! You are only half-way?! It seems like you have been doing this forever!”

(there was also this… “How have you not eaten any king cake yet?!?!” Which, honestly, I have no idea how I have not given in!)

I’m not going to lie, I feel like I have been blogging everyday forever at this point as well. The difference between my students and I here exists in the fact that some of them sort of grimaced at the thought of having so many more blogs to go, while I relish it. What was once a duty brought on by the creation of this challenge to myself, has become habit…has become the discipline that I was hoping for. I’m not really writing for king cake anymore (though don’t get me wrong, I will be indulging on Mardi Gras day), I am writing for myself and because the more I write, the more I understand who it is I am as a writer. It’s not always easy, I do not always want to sit down to write, and sometimes, once I do, I sort of hate what I have written. Some nights I argue with myself for a good fifteen minutes before finally succumbing to the will to write instead of falling prey to the desire to sleep. Some nights, I have no idea how I will find the time. Work and family garner my attention and dedication first and some nights that means I don’t have time to write until later than I care to be awake. But somehow (and with the encouragement of my husband), a moment opens up, invites me in, and the writing finds its way onto the page. The creative act is all at once intimidating and exhilarating and I enjoy facing that challenge every evening, if for no other reason than out of curiosity for what will come of it.

And I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer and writing in general through these 32 days:

  1.  I don’t have to like what I write; I just have to write.
  2. Despite being an avid and proud morning person, I can in fact write at night, while tired, and with a headache.
  3. The more I write, the faster I write. My process has always been methodical, slow, intentional. I have always sort of loved that. And it works–when there is time. But my process should not create an impediment to a regular writing habit. Sure with more care and more time, each of these blogs would have been improved…but with more time, most of them would never have seen completion or publication (and I require that accountability).
  4. This project is a far better use of my time in the evenings than staring at my phone!
  5. I am better spoken than perhaps I was before…or at least it feels that way. Because I have dedicated time with just me and my words everyday and because my composition skills feel sharper and swifter, my conversational skills feel the same (which is saying a great deal– since the inner ear malfunction, my brain hasn’t always been friendly to my ability to converse with ease).
  6. Writing teachers need to be writing. ( I’ve always known this, but I understand it far more deeply now than before this project began)
  7. Writing teachers need to be sharing their writing journey with their students (because honestly, that has been one of the best parts of this whole affair. And I don’t mean just the stiff, teacherly “Let me share my process with you.” That is helpful and important of course, but there is more to it than that, right? It is important to share the moments that aren’t so carefully crafted to be teachable–the human moments that are more instructive than we give them credit for. My students and I have this whole writing thing in common now and if nothing else, they know that I am with them…that I get it…that I am doing the work too…and that sometimes it is difficult for me just as it is for them…and that we can all persevere through that. And also, they have come to realize that writing is not just about assignments in school, it is a way of life.)
  8. 32 days is not enough time to persuade my dog that this project, which has placed a computer in the lap she prefers to sit in, is a good idea.
  9. King cake is a good motivator, but clicking publish is a better one.
  10. The support of my family–the knowledge that they recognize how important this is to me–heightens my desire to persevere, to continue writing.

(32 days!! My sister told me I should post a pic of myself longingly looking at king cake today. I totally failed there…but it’ll happen eventually.)

And also, because this poem makes me think about the creative act of putting words to the blank page…“The Storm” by Mary Oliver

in defense (part one)

I have had to learn not to be surprised by the audacity of judgement on my choice of not just teaching high school students, but also judgment because I love doing so. I have so many answers for these cleverly disguised insults so frequently slung my way. But the essence of my argument centers around the fact that high school kids possess an energy and a light and a potential for goodness that is simply waiting to be identified and shaped…simply waiting for an opportunity to express itself in the world in some meaningful way. The ability to mask this goodness in attitude and impetuous actions seems to be a trademark of the teenage population. It is the teacher’s job to see through this facade straight to the truth that sometimes the kid herself is blind to. It is the teacher’s job to encourage the student to recognize and harness their potential, to be a guide along the way, and to stand back in awe as the kid takes flight. I gladly shoulder the responsibility of forming part of the village who will shape these young people. I take that duty on as a bit of a sacred act because I know with faulty steering, the ship will lose its way, be drawn off course. And that sometimes, even the most precise guidance and mapping isn’t enough. But the opportunity to try…the opportunity to make that difference blesses me each and every day that I get up and go to work.

My job isn’t an easy one. But even in its most frustrating moments, it brings me inordinate joy.

I guess my main question is…who wouldn’t want to have this kind of impact?

(Day 30!!! That seems amazing to me!)

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)

ask

So, I’ve spent the weekend with teachers from around the country talking about and considering the importance of inquiry and literacy for kids. Even though we have all come from different places, it just so happens that this institute is being held in my home town, New Orleans. However, despite being in my actual hometown, I have found myself confronted and surrounded by more thoughtless stereotypes about this city that I love and about what it could mean to be from here than at any other point in my life–which has also heightened my realization that the number of people who buy into these over generalizations and the number of people who label the residents of this city based on those assumptions is far larger than I might have originally thought.

I suppose I sort of insulate myself–wrap myself in the belief that surely people know there is something more to the fabric of this richly historic town, something more to its culture and to the people who cling to it fervently than just raucous drunkenness. More than just a Southern drawl (that actually doesn’t even exist here). More than the sort of grotesque caricature shown in film and on television that is fun to imagine but denies the complexity of reality.

I just assumed that people would know better. I felt like if nothing else, the resilience and spirit the people of this city displayed in the aftermath of Katrina should have helped to erase some of the broad brush strokes. People weren’t just clinging to a city in those days; they were clinging to their home. But time has passed and I suppose those images have become blurry, maybe a little forgotten.

So, as I attempt to absorb and understand the nature of these predispositions, as I attempt to inform without sounding too defensive, I recognize that as frustrating as this bias has been, I don’t have to face it everyday. On any given day, I am mostly surrounded by native Louisianians. But, there are far too many people in this world who have been walled in by stereotypical expectations and who live every single day of their lives trying to break free from that prison of sorts. I have come to realize that just as teachers at this institute  have been breaking away from their assumptions by working through an inquiry process, through a question asking process to uncover some truths about this city and its people, we need to be conducting inquiry every single day of the week in every week of every year to uncover the truth of those around us. We need to take the time to ask the questions that will scratch past the facade we have created with our simplistic assumptions.  We need to ask questions that show interest in actually understanding rather than gathering ammunition to further judgement. We need to ask questions so that we can listen and consider the information and then reconsider our original thoughts. We need to ask questions without fear of having to admit we were wrong–because that admission is where the change begins.

I’ve lived in or near this city my whole life and felt like I didn’t really need this inquiry group study. Except in asking questions on our topic, I realized there was still more to uncover. I was reminded that my story and understanding of this city is just one of many and that I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to some of the threads that make the fabric of this town so rich, so vibrant. In acting as though we know the truth of a person or community or faith or country without ever asking or seeking to know more, without ever hearing the narrative of the person or people living the reality, we will live our lives ignorant of the vibrance of the whole story. And that loss is profound. That loss is dangerous.

Ask.

(Day 15 of the king cake season writing challenge–this could have easily been about the Saints playoff game instead…figured I would channel that energy here instead…can’t win them all I suppose…)

 

inquiry

This weekend, I’m attending a Heinemann Professional Learning Institute in New Orleans on Curiosity across the Curriculum with teachers from across the country and I’m totally geeking out over the opportunity to sit and wonder and have my thinking pushed to the far reaches. I think that is something that so many of us as teachers–wait, what am I talking about…this is universal…I will rephrase–I think that is something that so many of us as humans are afraid of these days. We cocoon ourselves in the thinking that feels comfortable and safe in order to shield and protect ourselves from ideas and questions that might challenge what we are currently doing, feeling, or believing. I think this is part of what has led to the deterioration of discourse. It is, after all, easier to hide from or to yell over new ideas rather than to listen and consider them.

This institute is not only putting adults of varying backgrounds and viewpoints in a room together and asking them to question, consider and wonder, but the presenters are asking the teachers in attendance to help our students do the same thing. To allow students entry into their own education. To grant students permission to hear not just the teacher’s opinions on what is most important to know and how to learn it, but also permission to voice their own opinions and wonderings about the world…to invite students to be heard and to be seen in this moment as they are for who they are. If we preach acceptance of others to our kids, then we have to start living into that and that means accepting the kids in front of us too.

Instead of denying their thinking (and its validity/quality) and their curiosity because it doesn’t fit the curriculum, let’s start listening with ears that build bridges between their thinking and that mandated curriculum instead of with ears that only hear the disconnect. The concern that the curriculum offers no place, no time for wonder and for student driven inquiry is a valid one because often times it does not. So, we have to be creative and push ourselves to think beyond what has been handed to us in order to see further possibilities. We need to consider how much deeper the learning will be when the kids have taken ownership of it and are invested in a very real way. Make that concern your next wonder, your next curiosity and let it drive your next personal inquiry. If we are the lead learners in the room, we also have to be the lead wonderers. So, dig in, ask the questions, tell your kids about them and then figure out a means to experiment and play around with how to enact this in your classroom. And by all means don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what you have always done. That is, after all, what we ask kids to do every single day that they enter our space to learn!

At some point today, I realized that I hear all of this as a mom as well. It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day actions and jobs of taking the boys to school, carting them to activities, ensuring homework and studying are completed, feeding everyone, and so on that I lose sight sometimes of asking them what is on their minds…and then also really listening when they share that with me. It is easy to get caught up in the need to clean rooms and to be on time and to ask the questions that I want to know the answers to that I forget to find out what questions are brewing in their brains. And I am certain there must be a zillion of them. It is so easy for me to pontificate on what to do in the classroom with other people’s kids when it comes to wonder and curiosity but when I consider if I have actually enacted that in my own home, well, I’m pretty guilty of not always being able to find the time. So, there’s that…

As I sit and listen this weekend…as I sit and enact an inquiry project, I am not only thinking about how this applies in my classroom but also in the world at large and in my home with my own family. Always important to remember that out of the cocoon, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Hoping to break out of my cocoon of comfort this weekend and spread my newfound wings as I reach for new understanding and begin to live it out.

(Day 14…this might be more of a rant than anything, but it just kind of flowed naturally so I let it happen instead of stopping to craft and edit along the way…a fun change. Many thanks to Sara Ahmed, Smokey Daniels, Steph Harvey, Nancy Steineke, and Kristin Ziemke for pushing my thinking this weekend! You guys are amazing!!)