empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

reading life

I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s Beloved…lingering over the language, pausing to absorb the weight, walking away when the truth (atrocity) overwhelms me (knowing that is a weakness), standing in awe of the craft and construction of this text–a text that knows itself, doesn’t oversell, over word, or over extend itself. I have adored this rereading more than any other reading of this book for some reason. I am not sure why, but something inside of me was ready to understand it differently (and I am not entirely sure that isn’t simply because I’ve been writing more and that impacts my perspective).

But I’m conflicted.

I am rereading the book because I recently took over a class for a colleague who had assigned Beloved to AP juniors. So, this time I’m reading the book to teach it. Working through literature with teenagers is honestly one of the best parts of my job. Inevitably, my students reveal insight through their analysis and questioning that is profound and reflects a perspective I might not have considered. This is particularly prone to occur when I allow them to lead the way in discussion and response. When I allow them to define what is important and to determine what is worthy of study, their engagement with the text deepens. When I allow the text to belong to them too and I grant them agency as readers and thinkers, the work is suddenly far more than a school assignment.

Yet despite my love for facilitating discussions about and analytical work with literature, I’m struggling with this one. I really just want to read the book. I just want to enjoy that reading and with all that I am, I sort of just want to keep it to myself. I don’t want to have to mar the solemnity of the read or intrude into my interaction with Morrison’s words and images in order to create lesson plans. Selfishly, I want to consider and consume the book in solitude…to make sense of it on my own and not to have to share that with anyone else. And in the midst of the whining I’ve been partaking in because of this, I realized something else.

My students feel this way all of the time. Sometimes they just want to read a book without school sort of wrecking it.

We (as teachers) talk all of the time about the importance of independent reading. And then we attach regulations and projects and logs and assessments to what we are calling “independent” and in doing so we have stripped the independence clean away. When we micromanage the reading lives of our students, we in no way stoke a joy of reading…if anything, we stifle it. As an avid reader, I really just want to read books I will enjoy (and sometimes I want to read them more than once…and sometimes they are beneath my reading level but they feed my brain in a different way…I’m looking at you Crazy Rich Asians) and then I want to talk to someone else about them. My 10 year old would agree with this philosophy. He is pretty clear on knowing that if  a book project is required, he doesn’t really want to involve a book he loves…because that kind of work destroys the read for him. I think it is time that we really consider the work we attach to independent reading and then consider what those assignments are doing to heighten the reading experience, to strengthen reading skills, and maybe we also need to consider what those assignments are doing to the reading lives of our kids. And then, from that place of understanding, we need to take some action.

So, as I plan structures that will allow my students to share their understanding of Beloved, I am working hard to maintain my personal reading life and also to help my students develop theirs. This book isn’t part of their independent reading…it was assigned to the whole class…but maybe there is a way for them to own it as though they chose it themselves…and maybe I can help make that happen.

(Day 39!)

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

need

I’ve written a good bit this week about where I turn for healing and rest: gratitude, exercise, poetry. My heart is heavy today though, in spite of all of this. Life is tumultuous, you know, and right now the upheaval is pervasive, weakening my spirit, dulling my optimism. I tend to describe this feeling as “heart-achey”…which really just signifies a moment or several where my metaphorical heart (the one that holds the weight of this empathic life), feels as though the stitching is coming loose and that it is about to empty itself. I’m not a meltdown kind of girl. I endure in the face of gale force tempestuous winds. But today, my guard is down and I need a powerful healer.

Today I need music.

~~~“I Am In Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop~~~

In this poem, Bishop writes, “Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,/ Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,/A song to fall like water on my head,/And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!” This is what I need today. The overwhelming harmonious rush of sound washing over me, renewing me in the baptism of its waters and bringing me new life. I need the escape offered in each measure, the fulfillment of the attention my senses have been longing for as they are too frequently muted in the mundane actions of day to day life–dulled by my distraction.

Tonight, I will sit in a church full of people, and musicians will work their alchemy and transform the ache in my heart into the beat of perseverance and the light of hope–their craft, a sustaining force. Tonight, I will allow myself to be engulfed in the beauty of the work of these artists; I will allow myself to escape the world outside that sanctuary (what a perfect word) to be transported elsewhere. I will share this experience with pews full of strangers and friends and we will become a community in that communion…we will become one.

Tonight, I will be intentional. I will close my eyes and feel myself breathe in the joy carried in the air–a gift of the music in the room. And as I exhale, I will release the exhaustion and frustration. And if only for a few minutes, I will be healed.

The respite is going to be spectacular.

(Day 21–three whole weeks!!! This one is short but I like it anyway:) And also, it has been  busy day–just glad I had the time for this!)

today

Today is a day where I am ever more mindful that speaking out for justice is always necessary, even and especially when it is not easy. Today is a day where I am ever more aware that speaking out for justice is always going to be easier and safer for me than it has been and continues to be for so many others. Today is a day where I am reminded that speaking out for justice runs far deeper than simply posting a quote from a famous(ly assassinated) civil rights leader on social media. Today is a day where I refuse to believe that civil discourse is dead when I have the ability to teach young people just what it looks like and why it is important every day of the school year–the discussions will be difficult but they don’t have to be hateful–they can and should be an opportunity to ask, to listen, to grow. Today is a day where I understand the weight of the world that my privilege allows me to ignore so much of the time, that for others is the absolute heaviness of their constant reality. Today is a day where I call myself into question for nestling into that comfort instead of calling attention to the voices that deserve amplification, instead of fighting every single day. Today is a day where I refuse to be hopeless in a world that seems tilted past repair. Today is a day where I decide that while peace is part of the answer, I cannot wait for it to arrive; I have to live into it loudly and demand it for those who still await its presence (because, quite honestly, what is my peace worth if it is a singular entity, if it is not shared broadly and widely by all–because all deserve the freedom it brings). Today is a day where I am ever more certain that the freedom that allows us to feel triumphant in the world isn’t really freedom until every single one of us is allowed to stand under the protection of its umbrella. Today is a day where I turn my gaze inward with an honest eye to understand  my own bias, to understand my role in recognizing it and in pushing past it because even though that honesty will bring uncomfortable moments, my discomfort pales in the comparison. Today is a day where I recognize the truth of what it means to love my neighbor…to love others because they are a creation of God and because they are human (just like me)…that love is always deserved.

Today is a day where I remember (who I am called to be). Today is a call to action.

(I found this sonnet recently by James Weldon Johnson–I’ve spent some time with it today so I figured I would include it.)

(Day 16 of the king cake season blog a day challenge! This one is short but today was a lot about internal work. This blog speaks to the nature of it–more to write in response in the days to come)

#readinggoals

Since we returned from winter break, my AP Lit seniors have been working to set individual reading goals and then to select a book that will challenge them as they work toward achieving the goals they have set. Some are tackling longer books than they have read before in order to build stamina (and maybe to prove something to themselves); others are selecting texts that reside in a genre they wouldn’t normally visit, an attempt to extend their reach as readers; and still others are hoping to slow themselves down and really think their way through their reading rather than simply speeding through a story for the fun of it. There are no restrictions on the books selected as long as the student can justify how their choice helps them meet their goals in a meaningful way. They do write reflections weekly, but these aren’t your typical readers response. In these reflections, students do respond and react to the text they’re reading, but they also respond and react to how they are growing and changing as readers as they are working to meet their goals. In this way, they aren’t just unwittingly becoming better readers. They are fully aware of what the challenges are and how they are actively working to meet them.

Because my kids are setting their own challenges, their enthusiasm for their selected books and for their growth as readers has become contagious. One student in particular selected And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts because at over 600 pages, finishing the book felt like an insurmountable task–and she wanted the push to do it. However, she also picked it because it is nonfiction and she is not typically drawn to nonfiction. Today in class, she was beaming as she explained that not only was she around 200 pages into the text, but she was thoroughly enjoying it. She didn’t realize she would be able to read a book like this so fast. She didn’t realize she would enjoy it as much as she has been. She didn’t realize that this challenge could offer so much to her as an individual.

I feel strongly that without choice in this situation, engagement would almost certainly drop out, if it existed at all…and without engagement, true growth of the reader is stunted. If I assumed a singular challenge for the class as a whole and then assigned the same book to each kid to be studied in the same way with the same questions and the same assignments, I really don’t believe their investment would have become so rich and so rewarding. Sure, every now and then in this class we work with a shared text and the kids learn and they grow in intentional and measured ways as readers, but opportunities like this challenge book assignment are more present than they used to be in my space because after witnessing the impact I would be negligent to act in any other way.

The energy charging this student’s voice as she shared her excitement about the challenge and about the book was palpable and entirely beyond the simple satisfaction of having completed an assignment. She had chosen goals that she felt were impossible or at the very least, improbable, to meet, she pushed herself to meet them in a way and with a text that she determined best and as a result, every achievement over the course of this assignment is hers and hers alone.

As a teacher, it just doesn’t get better than that!

(Day 11…done…this one had the potential to be much longer but this has been a rather chaotic night and organizing it would have been too much. The challenge book work will go on for some time in my classroom, so I will simply write on this again another time.)

unison

It began with a solitary voice.

She stood in front of the congregation, no music, no accompaniment…just a lone voice singing out, filling the silence.

“As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/ And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!” 

Then suddenly two more voices joined hers and there were three voices singing together, filling the silence. Two by two, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, walked up and joined each other standing side by side singing. As more members of the choir and other church goers joined in and the sound of those beautiful voices singing in unison crescendoed, I found myself overwhelmed, tears welling.

I am easily moved, so tears like this aren’t uncommon. But today was different. Today, it wasn’t the words or even the beautiful voices. Today was a realization.

~~~

We live in a world where voices seem more often to scream out in discord rather than to join together harmoniously. Lone voices would rather be correct than work together to uncover what light and goodness might come from that union. Barriers go up so fast and they are built so solidly that it becomes impossible to even make sense of what is being said on the other side–we don’t hear the song, we just hear the noise…and the noise is loud. It feels unknown and unfamiliar and uncomfortable and what we don’t know frightens us so we fortify the barriers instead of asking questions, instead of seeking to understand. Our barriers are decorated carefully with words, phrases, posts and reposts so others will view them with reverence and maybe even fear. In their reinforcement, our barriers make us feel important. They make us feel right. They convince us that we don’t all have to live in this world together, that we really can separate ourselves and not interact, let alone interact civilly.

~~~ poetic interlude care of Robert Frost~~~

My students are currently conducting a little study on sonnets. One of the greatest common factors in the earliest sonnets is a diligent rhyme scheme. My kids tend to  love this quality because to many of them, rhyming poems feel like “real poems”…don’t get me started on this… Those rhymes echoing the same sound as the end of the line before, adding emphasis, adding rhythm also add a bit of comfort for my students who sometimes find themselves disconcerted by free verse. The earliest poems and stories we come to know in life rhyme, the first poems we write and are praised for often rhyme and so the rhyme in these sonnets brings on nostalgia for what was once deemed proper and correct. Breaking free from this concept that all poetry rhymes kind of terrifies some kids. It calls them to venture into territory they aren’t certain of, begs them to tear down barriers, requires them not to rely on the echo, on the creature comfort, but to create something that resonates with those around them for other reasons–meaningful reasons they must consider and craft. That is difficult work.

~~~a sonnet interlude care of Elizabeth Bishop~~~

I was working with a group of third through sixth graders at church one week and in the middle of a pretty lively conversation about judgments and bias and stereotypes asked them what it really means to love our neighbor. The inevitable eye roll and rote answer came my way. “Treat others the way we want to be treated.” Yes, but what does that look like? If we are truly called to love one another, what does that mean? How can we live into that? They thought for a bit and were hesitant to respond but once they did, the answers rolled in beautifully and honestly–“well, it’s hard because we are supposed to love everyone and not everyone is nice” “it means we are supposed to be kind” “it means that if someone is sitting alone at recess, I should go sit with them” And more…answers and examples unique to their daily experience came pouring in. It was a good reminder conversation with kids who have been taught this idea all of their lives. I ended the class by asking them to think about what specific actions they would really need to take in order to honor this commitment to love our neighbors. I joined in this thinking because I don’t think any of us are ever too old for this kind of intentional living, intentional loving. We all agreed that the things we thought about would be tough, but so is living in a world where people shy away from loving others just because sharing that love, sharing that grace, sharing that kindness feels like a risk. But we also agreed that it would be a risk worth taking.

~~~poetic interlude care of Naomi Shihab Nye-stick with this one, it is worth it~~~

I wasn’t even going to attend church today. I didn’t feel well last week and have so much work to do and so much that I could have gotten done during that time that would have made Monday far easier than it is going to be. But, my husband said the choir would be singing this song and it would be different so I went.

As I sat there in the crowd witnessing the growing number of voices joining in together to sing, my tears welling, I realized that there were no barriers. One lone voice singing out goodness was magnetic, and planned or not, others joined in, and like a light filling a dark room, the joy and goodness in their voices permeated hearts (or maybe just mine, but I’d like to think others felt it too). They weren’t echoing each other–Sure, they were singing together, but each voice sang out its own unique tone in its own unique way. There was no hiding in the choral unison because as voices joined in, they could be heard for who and what they were. Yet they all still made music, beautiful music together. There was love. That group of people, knowing them as I do, represented viewpoints and opinions that span the spectrum. They represented varying ages and identities, varying backgrounds and abilities and they stood together in agreement to sing a song about renewal, welcoming, and prayer. It was a visualization of what we need most in this world today, a visualization of what we could be–of what we were, if only for a moment and not just in a church but anywhere, everywhere.

And it was beautiful.

(Day 8, done. I’ve come to spend my days searching for something to write about since I’ve started this challenge instead of just waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a good process I think but today was a moment in and of itself and begged me to put words to the emotion. Always the best when that happens!)

voice

Since the surgery on my inner ear, a negative pressure has developed. What might this mean? Well, thankfully, it doesn’t make me dizzy, but I hear every inhale and exhale I take no matter how shallow. My heartbeat pounds my eardrum causing vibrations deep in my ear (we won’t even talk about the cacophony in my head when I am running–all breath and pounding). There are several more elevated internal sounds that would shake even the most serene soul, but only one feels like a burden. Every word I utter reverberates, echoing loudly inside my head. If I didn’t talk for a living, this might not be such a big deal, but I spend my days talking to teachers, kids, colleagues, parents, etc. Sometimes I can just ignore it, but other times the distraction is overwhelming and I am rendered exhausted by the effort of just attempting to hold a simple conversation. In crowded or noisy places where I really cannot trust my own sense of the volume of my speech, I think twice before talking, wondering for a moment if what I have to say is really worth the exertion.

It’s in those moments, that I am so grateful to have the outlet of writing–to know who I am as a writer, to know how to use my voice in that way, and to know I have the confidence to do so. So many young people, though, come to my classroom having been told they can’t write, will never be able to write, are failures as writers (because that is what an F translates to) and their confidence is shattered. I imagine that for these students, writing feels about as comfortable as holding a conversation does for me right now. I also imagine that mustering the courage to put the words on the page, no matter how few actually make it there, is absolutely draining.

For many of my students, their first writing goal is just to work on their confidence because so much of me knows that they will never be able to learn and to grow as writers if they believe they can’t.  But confidence, it seems, takes trust. And so, my first goal as their teacher is often to build that trust. To prove to them in my methods and in my words that I’m present and my only hope is to encourage and support, to listen and assist, and to offer opportunities for revision and growth. Trust also comes because with the choice and freedom they have to define and develop their writing, they know I respect them as thinkers, as individuals. They know I believe that who they are matters enough to allow it to shape their assignments.

It takes time, developing that trust and building confidence, and sometimes it doesn’t happen in a single school year. But, it is always worth the effort because witnessing the moment a young person finally realizes and owns their voice as a writer, is one of the greatest gifts a teacher of writers can receive. There is a vibrance that is indescribable–the words have a greater texture on the page because they’ve been imbued with authority and style and every so often, nuance and grace. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—the smile that creeps across the face of the writer whose heart and mind are finally at peace with one another. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—in the face of a kid who is finally hearing commentary that recognizes not only their skill as a writer, but more importantly, its worth…their worth.

Those are the moments I was terrified to miss when I left full time teaching to become a principal who only teaches a couple of classes. How could I walk away from such incredible moments? Well, it took me some time, but I finally realized that I actually was creating the same moment only in different context.

I am always yammering on to students (and anyone else who will listen) that three things are most important to me for our students at all times:

  1. That everyday–I mean every single day–students come to school and feel free to be themselves–exactly who they are without the mask of who they think they are supposed to be. And that they feel this freedom because they feel accepted.
  2. That at some point in their educational careers at my high school they feel truly engaged in their learning. That may not be an everyday, every class event. I understand this, but I want them seeking engagement rather than just teacher or parent pleasing…rather than just working for a grade.
  3. That my kids leave this school knowing the import and weight of their voice and knowing how to use it for good in this world–and that they have the confidence and the skills to do just that.

All of these are integral to our success as a high school and, in my opinion, to the educational and future successes of our students. School shouldn’t be about just checking off skills and courses; it shouldn’t be about just getting a diploma or into college. School should also be about learning what it means to be an effective, productive citizen in this world. And if I’m being honest, I think that has everything to do with accepting yourself, seeking engagement, and using your voice for good. And again, if I’m being honest, when I see my kids standing up and using their voices in a purposeful way, with confidence, it is just as vibrant as it was in the writing classroom…just as meaningful…just as significant.

I suppose I should start listening to my own advice when it comes to this ear situation…accept, engage, speak up anyway.

(Day 5 done! This daily writing thing has been far tougher than I expected and I suspect my dog is tired of me spending so much time on my computer at night instead of scratching behind her ears, but the challenge has me moving through the world with the eyes of a writer in a far more intentional way. Grateful.)