Category Archives: Q1 — fixed answers vs aliveness

(365) Breathe It In

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A year ago I visited the beach after reading Parker Palmer’s Five Questions. I had this idea to write a blog based on the Five Questions, and I went to the beach for discernment. It was there I felt the move to do the blog.

This past week I have been looking forward to getting this done. But then today, coming on to the site, going to click “Add Post,” I was overcome with sadness. It is the end.

There are many things I will miss about writing here every day. It was hard at first to be “out there,” but I have gotten used to it. I have appreciated my followers and the comments I have received. I have loved that this was a place I could struggle with the issues of aliveness-vs-fixed answers; what it means to dare to be human; the moments of human and natural beauty; looking forward to what to love next; and to uncover and discover and explore what creations are waiting to be birthed. The Five Questions will continue to travel with me, as they have become a part of me now.

WordPress sent me a review of my year. Here are some stats from them:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,000 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

There were 625 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 433 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was December 19th with 86 views. The most popular post that day was(353) Best Day Ever.

The stats don’t tell the full story, of course. Besides what I have learned from the Five Questions, I have learned a lot about what it takes to write every single day. For those thinking of starting your own daily blog, here are some insights:

  1. Don’t be afraid to write short.  At first I thought it all had to be long. It is impossible on a daily blog to write long all the time unless it is your only job. Don’t even try.
  2. You will feel like giving up.
  3. When you feel like giving up, keep going.
  4. Create categories to fall back on.  For example, I had my Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Parallels, Tributes, Lyric Series, and Micro Memoirs. These can help be having a frame to fill when you aren’t feeling particularly inspired.
  5. Know that whatever you decide to do with your daily blog, it is leading you somewhere you weren’t aware you were going. Words are a river that carry us. Your blog will carry you to unseen territory. Relish the journey. Know when to end, and gratefully disembark to a new destination.

This project has been extremely fulfilling to me as a writer, a teacher, a friend, and a human being. I have considered all kinds of directions from here.  I am committing myself to my music on a more structured basis. Just like with my writing, I’ve diddled around a long time not getting serious about music. Now that I have this fine year of blogging behind me, I can move forward on making music. And, as already discussed with my music teacher, I can use blog posts as fodder for songwriting. Win-win!!!

For some reason today, the song “Beautiful Like You” popped into my head.  I feel it is a good send-off for my blog. I will miss coming here and writing for the 2-100 of you who happen upon my blog. At the same time, I am looking forward to putting my time and mental energies into other areas. Meanwhile, remember to breathe and take time to look and listen to the world around you. It will reflect all the beauty you need in the moment.

I know. I’ve learned it through the Five Questions.

If you could only just stop, stop, stop running
If you could only take a second to breathe it in
Everything that you know would be beautiful like you

You know they’re never gonna stop, stop, stop your love
Let’s pretend that the world is waking up
Everything that we see is beautiful like you, like you

 

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(361) Unity

Today is my “U” entry for Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. I picked Unity for the subject today because it typically was a Sunday experience.

**

What It Is

Unity School of Christianity was founded on the principles that Jesus’s ministry was one of healing. It takes a metaphysical, rather than literal meaning, to the bible and teachings of Jesus, opening up new ways of seeing and applying to our own lives.

I am not exactly sure how I started to attend Unity of Greater Cleveland. I think it was because I was already studying A Course in Miracles, and Unity had a study group. The minister, Joan Gattuso, had been raised Catholic like I was, so her experiences mirrored mine in many ways.

Although Unity Worldwide is based on Christian teachings in general, the Unity ministers have a lot of flexibility. This allowed Joan to teach from Buddhism, Taoism, A Course in Miracles, even Judaism as it fit the overall message.

My sister also attended Unity with me, as well as A Course in Miracles study group. It was a comfortable place to be on Sunday morning. What I learned to love best is that it was multi-cultural and inter-religious. People from all backgrounds could feel welcome at Unity, and there was something there for everyone.

The Five Unity Principles:

  • 1. God is the source and creator of all. There is no other enduring power. God is good and present everywhere.
  • 2. We are spiritual beings, created in God’s image. The spirit of God lives within each person; therefore, all people are inherently good.
  • 3. We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.
  • 4. There is power in affirmative prayer, which we believe increases our awareness of God.
  • 5. Knowledge of these spiritual principles is not enough. We must live them.

My Experience

I began attending the services in fall  of 1991. In the spring of 1995, I received the church’s newsletter in the mail. I saw that they were looking for a new youth sponsor for the teen group Youth of Unity. I heard a “calling” at that moment. I tried hard to ignore it.  I tried to talk myself out of it privately, then talked to Jim and my friend Iris about it.  Instead of talking me out of it, they both urged me to pursue it.

The next day, I told my minister and within a month I was on a plane to Unity Village in Missouri with a couple of teens from our Y.O.U. group ready for the annual conference. I was scared out of my mind. This was the big event of the year, and I barely knew these kids, let alone anyone else. It was crazy.

But, oh, so wonderful.  A week in a beautiful setting, with the right focus, the right people, and the right lessons.  I was assigned to an all adult “family” where we learned the curriculum for the Sunday classes and also got to do some writing with a published poet.  It was pretty awesome. The music, the energy, and the things I learned — simply out of this world.

Relationships

The Y.O.U. gathering in Missouri brought me one of my dearest friends — Kate. Her son was in a Y.O.U. group from the other side of town, and she was the sponsor. She became my guide throughout the week. Kate helped me immensely with all things Y.O.U., and at the same time became a friend and confidante in many parts of my life. I simply cannot imagine life without her.

YOUKate
At the Y.O.U. Conference, Unity Village, July 1995

The best part, however, was the relationships I built with the young people who were in the Y.O.U. during the years I was a sponsor. I am on Facebook now with many of them, all who have grown into wonderfully principled people, pursuing their dreams, having families…it is wondrous to me when I think of who they were then, and who they are now.

Where It Led

I made the decision to stop being a sponsor about as quickly as I made the decision to become one. It was sometime in the spring of 1998 I decided to call it quits, allowing a few months time for them to find a new sponsor. (I knew at the time that my life would be going in a different direction, as I was going to pursue going to college.) What was weird was that my last day of being a sponsor we had the Wings Ceremony for three of the girls who were graduating and moving on to college. When I left Unity that day, I never returned. I never made a firm decision to leave Unity — I somehow just never went back. My friend Kate, always the wise one, said that Unity is a school and sometimes we graduate. I guess that is what happened.

I am convinced I would have never had the nerve to pursue teaching if it had not been for my time working with youth in this way. My commitment to Unity obviously was about that part of my journey. I grew in countless ways, found excellent principles to live my life, and can see the continuity with what transpired there in my every day life. I would venture to say that every day I have some memory related to my time with Unity. It was a wonderful foundation in which to build the second half of my life.

YOUcamp
My first and last camping trip ever was with Y.O.U. at Punderson State Park, July 1995
YOUreport
There were two rallies a year, besides the conference. The spring rally was held in Holland, Michigan at Hope College. Every chapter had to give their report. Zander is shown here giving ours. According to the back of the picture, he told the audience, “We wanted to go to Mexico, but went to Chi-Chi’s instead.”  June 1996
YOURally97
Rally at Hope College, June 1997.  Our group had grown!

(346) Running from Language

“The best thing we can do for those we love is to help them escape from us.”

Baron von Hugel.

This week I was going over an article about the value of video games with my 7th graders. We had identified part of the text to use as evidence of the benefits, and we were beginning to categorize the chosen pieces of text. One of them had to do with the thinking skills developed through video games.

“The category should be thinking skills,” said Alfonso.

“Well, what about ‘education’ as a category? Thinking skills are part of education,” I offered.

“No they aren’t. Thinking skills have nothing to do with school.”

And thus the conversation went on, with other students weighing in. There wasn’t anyone who spoke up who believed thinking skills were developed in school.

Alfonso stated it plain: “We just do what they show us to do, like in math, and then we just do that.”

Later in the day when we got to the same juncture in the lesson, my 8th graders put “thinking skills” in the category of education. I felt a secret relief. So I told them, “You know, my 7th graders didn’t believe thinking had anything to do with education.”

At first my 8th graders laughed at that. But it didn’t stop there. I went on to explain they said that school is just being told what to do. Education happens outside of school, like with video games.

“Well,” one of my most gifted students said, “they do have a point. We just do whatever it takes to get the grade. The point of most classes is to get the grade. Learning isn’t involved.” There was general agreement around the room on this point.

I moved on, but it definitely gave me pause to think. Once again I was confronted with what I’ve known for a long time: most of the time school really has nothing to do with thinking.

**

On Thursday we had a whole school meeting regarding literacy. We talked about the need to increase reading and writing skills across the school. We talked about the barriers and the need for buy-in on the part of the student. We brainstormed ideas. It had already been decided there will be a new focus on close reading. Although I know that, very often, close reading ends up killing the love of text, I felt that this was at least a conversation worth having. It is better than where we have been, as evidenced by what my students had to tell me on Tuesday.

**

I think too often teachers fall back on the things they did in school as a way to do things. For example, just because we may have memorized definitions does not mean that is the best way to learn new words.

As a Language Arts teacher, my job is to help my students learn to love language. It is a tough sell, especially for those for whom reading and writing is agony – and it is for many of them. Something went awry many years ago and it is hard to undo the sad patterns that developed.

But we must not give up. It is clearly recognized now that hip-hop artists and rappers use more words in their lyrics than any other form of music. This alone can be a motivator for young people to know more words. Kids are writing more than ever – just not in the ways we think of as writing. Complex text comes in many forms, and often does not have to be leveled down if we teach enough about the form of language, the sounds that enhance meaning. There is more to language than just a definition.

This is why I thought our focus on literacy at my school might actually be productive. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but at least it appeared to be a chosen direction that we could grapple with as a faculty.

Then Friday came.

I got an email from my tech department that software was being pushed through to our laptops. Then we were sent an email explaining that we had a passcode to sign into these two new software applications: Co-Writer and Snap and Read.

When I had a chance, I decided to check these two new programs out. After all, here we were embarking on this new literacy focus. What had they found to enhance it?

Short answer: nothing. In fact, the full answer is that these “assistive programs” for “personalized learning” will set our cause back quite a bit.

Co-Writer is a program that will pop up several ideas for the “next word” when a student is writing. As a writing teacher I am highly offended by this. My first thought – here it is again, what Alfonso had clearly stated: Just show them what to do so they can get through it. If the goal is to get any old paragraph written, then Co–Writer can definitely comply.

But what about learning how to use language? What about the nuances? Connotations? What about finding voice through our word choices? After all, the thing that makes good writing is diction. Sure, if I am the science teacher and I want a paragraph written about volcanoes, it can get done easily. But as a writing teacher, I know this sets my cause back. It undoes every damn thing I work for throughout the year – helping my students find their voice, to put their thinking on paper, to show some creative effort, to organize and focus and elaborate.

Do I know that perhaps this type of program is useful for English Language Learners? Yes, it may be – I have some of those as well. But guess what? They’ve been writing in my class. They’ve been getting through. Will this set them back in what they already know?

Then there is Snap and Read. This is a nifty application that can take any text and READ it to the student. Not only that, it can level it for them with a click of a button. The video for this program showed the leveling of the Prologue for Romeo and Juliet — one of the best pieces of Shakespeare’s writing to engage students. I’ve had several instances of choral reading the Prologue and having the students get the meaning quite easily. It doesn’t have to be “leveled.”

Most of this, unfortunately, goes back to expecting students to do a lot of this reading on their own. But as most of us who’ve been in the education game for a while know, the students who will read it on their own will make their way through it. Those who cannot read on their own, or who have no support at home, will not do it anyway – leveled or not. Snap and Read insultingly promotes “data” on how many words the student has read. What can they possibly mean “have read?” First of all, the program is reading it to them. Secondly, if the data becomes the object (which it very well could) who’s to say the student is even sitting there when the text is reading itself out loud? This entire thing deeply disturbed me. I knew, once again, I was going to be facing more barriers in my classroom if teachers in my school use this program on a regular basis.

**

Needless to say, my naïve excitement at the prospect of moving forward as a school into actually focusing on THINKING and LEARNING has been totally squashed. I tried all day today to not write this essay. I can see where this is heading, and I know that I will have to continue to fight the power of poor educational ideas put forth to make money for someone else.

Meanwhile, our students will continue to suffer as they use programs that will do all the work for them. They will never have to struggle with complex text. They will never have to think through a piece of writing. Woe to us if we expect them to.

We as educators should not be running away from language just because we are afraid of the deficits we see. We need to find creative ways to engage and move the thinking skills to deeper and deeper areas, always using right use of language as a means to teach young people how to communicate as speakers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, dramatists, historians, and writers. It is our job to create the next class of adults who know how to think critically and creatively, as well as communicate effectively. Thinking skills need to be a vital part of the educational life of a student. It shouldn’t just be reserved for the world of video games.

 

 

(338) Teach to Reach

I had that moment yesterday

when I saw typically unengaged students

working together, writing, talking about their writing.

I want to teach to reach.

Had another meeting  where we were told

this is what you have to do,

and this as well.

All getting in the way of teaching to reach.

I sit here this morning, looking at all the have-to’s,

thinking about what could work,

watching the time shrink to

teach to reach.

And I come in here to write

nothing creative on my mind;

instead, my students — the ones who in a month

forgot what I had taught them before,

because I was following the mandates.

Over and over, we need time for the real work,

but what we get are demands for data-gathering

wrapped with the ribbon of “You’re a cohesive team, you can do this.”

And, “Thanks for doing what is best for kids.”

What is best?

Not these mandates.

What is best?

Teaching to reach.

(336)Washing Dishes

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my teachers. I still remember reading Being Peace back in 1992. It was one life-changing book I have revisited many times.

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I had another super busy day. Things are far from perfect. I haven’t gotten to my guitar once this week. I’m barely keeping up with what I need to do at school.

Yet, there are worse things. Much worse. Like San Bernadino. (I am so weary of the term “mass shooting.) People I know dealing with sick relatives or grief of losing someone. A near suicide in a friend’s family.

I had all of this in mind as I pondered what to write about in this tiny segment of time I have before dinner is ready. And then these words came across my feed, reminding me that none of these things I just reported are outside of me. I have to keep looking to see myself in them. I will not “get it” all of the time. My job is just to try when I think of it, so that in ordinary moments I will remember. All is one. Nothing is separate from me.

Thay’s quote:

“Continue until you see yourself in the cruelest person on Earth, in the child starving, in the political prisoner. Practice until you recognize yourself in everyone in the supermarket, on the street corner, in a concentration camp, on a leaf, in a dewdrop. Meditate until you see yourself in a speck of dust in a distant galaxy. See and listen with the whole of your being. If you are fully present, the rain of the Dharma will water the deepest seeds in your store consciousness, and tomorrow, while you are washing the dishes or looking at the blue sky, that seed will spring forth, and love and understanding will appear as a beautiful flower.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘Teachings on Love’

(329) Stand

My energy has returned over the past few weeks.  Even with a few blips in the classroom that were tough to take, in general things are going much better.

It has taken me until late afternoon to get to this blog because I have been busy. A couple of weeks ago, I came across an idea that I think is a good foundation for a unit for the 7th graders, one I think will really speak to them. I have been eagerly waiting the day I can begin, which will be the day we return from break.

Most of today was spent organizing and adding to the unit. This is me at my creative best. I have struggled the last few years to really indulge in a deep unit — one driven by writing activities and texts of my choosing.  One that includes all the things I love to teach. This unit is based on Linda Christensen’s “Can’t Buy Me Love: Clothing, Class, and Consumerism” in her book Teaching for Joy and Justice. Her unit slides into one on injustice — I’m connecting them together, and making a unit that will probably last well into third quarter.

So besides what Linda has in her unit, I’m pulling from all my favorite sources: classroom activities from Teaching Tolerance.org; writing activities from Writing Fix.com and Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics. I have videos, poetry, songs, short stories, art, quotes, the novel The Outsiders and the film Holes. Sylvia Plath to Common, Gwendolyn Brooks to Gary Soto. Langston Hughes to Sandra Cisneros.

At the heart of this is social emotional learning — what my 7th graders need the most. We will be doing many forms of writing — beyond just essays, but some of those as well. They will learn the importance of thinking through a plan before writing. My main goal is to improve their communication with each other. The heart of the unit is the Read Around (from Linda Christensen) and Disagreeing with Grace (from Teaching Tolerance). I plan on taking it slow and easy, because I know these kids: some of this will NOT be easy.

Even though I spent nearly the entire day planning, I feel energetic and alive. And it is because  I am finally taking a stand for my students. In fact, I have two songs picked out from Sly and the Family Stone that go with the unit: “Everyday People” and “Stand.”

Stand
In the end you’ll still be you
One that’s done all the things you set out to do
Stand
I am beginning to feel more like ME. The exhaustion that has had me down since August is gone. November has turned it all around — transformed everything. Hooking in to what I need to do and making up my mind to do it makes the words of this song resonate deeply within me.
Stand
For the things you know are right
It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
Stand
All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal
Stand stand stand
This song says everything I want to say…everything I believe in my heart of hearts. I write this blog to confirm my feelings and to stand strong in the face of any questions or adversity I may face because I’m going off the program (the textbook.) But funny — when I look at my plan in light of the academic plan, it shines brightly — every learning target hit dead smack on.
Stand
They will try to make you crawl
And they know what you’re saying makes sense and all
Stand
Don’t you know that you are free
Well at least in your mind if you want to be
Stand
I cannot wait to introduce this song to my students!

(319) Pen Song

This is today’s mentor poem, found in the New York Times Magazine:

Fall Song  by Joy Harjo
It is a dark fall day.
The earth is slightly damp with rain.
I hear a jay.
The cry is blue.
I have found you in the story again.
Is there another word for ‘‘divine’’?
I need a song that will keep sky open in my mind.
If I think behind me, I might break.
If I think forward, I lose now.
Forever will be a day like this
Strung perfectly on the necklace of days.
Slightly overcast
Yellow leaves
Your jacket hanging in the hallway
Next to mine.

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I wanted mine to be switched up a bit — not follow the same nature to domestic reality pattern. At first I called it “Blog Song,” but soon my pen took over.

Pen Song  by Helen Sadler

It is another writing day

My pen glides smoothly across the page

I hear my words

They cry “Dull!”

I am seeking a story again.

Is there another word for “bewildered”?

I need a song that will keep the sky open in my mind.

If I think of the past, I yawn.

If I think of the future, I idealize.

Forever will be a Sunday

Never quite being what I want it to be.

Gray. Just gray.

Declining water line.

My pen slowly running out of ink

and patience with me.

(316) Top Ten Important Lessons for Writers from Edwidge Danticat

One of the themes at the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference was that it was the 10th Anniversary, so a booklet of Top Ten Lists was put together. I purchased the book (for $10, of course), and it has inspired me to bring this project to my students.  We will be making class books of Top Tens.

In delivering her keynote last Saturday night, Danticat gave us her Top 10 Most Important Lessons About Being a Writer.

  1. Your story matters.
  2. Only you can tell that story.
  3. Don’t wait for the muse.
  4. Have some discipline  — it is the center of all creative endeavors.
  5. The best time is now.
  6. You can start small, but dream big.
  7. Don’t give up.
  8. Seek fellowship wherever you can get it.
  9. Keep growing.
  10. The rule you teach yourself — this is the most important rule of all because no one can teach you. You have to teach yourself.

(313) “But what if it was…”

Up at 5:30 and out to the lanai to pray. The moon is back in its resting crescent shape, bright on the rocker bottom and outlined above. The planets and stars are brilliant today, and I even saw a shooting star.

I was thinking about the day to come: back with my students who behaved horribly in my absence, so much so the assistant principal had to be called in. I have once again had to go to my old standby — Ye Tang Che.  Give up hope. There will never be ground under my feet with these classes. I just exhaust myself hoping for change.

But the other part of giving up hope is to become fearless. I once again prayed for direction to reach my students. And I think I found something. I TRUST I found something. Looking at the moon today, I thought of that word TRUST and how it came to me yesterday while I was writing in my journal after the conference. It felt loaded. Maybe a lot of my exhaustion this year is because I simply haven’t been trusting myself to know what is best for my students, so I have been led astray.

***

There is a new comedy on television called The Grinder. It stars Rob Lowe as a former television star from a legal show called The Grinder. He was The Grinder in the show –a lawyer who did all kinds of dramatic and risky things, as only lawyers on television can do. Now that he has retired from show business, he has decided to hang out in the law firm owned by his brother and father.

In one episode, every time The Grinder came up with a plan for winning some case, his brother Stewart (played by Fred Savage) would tell him it was impossible. “But what if it wasn’t,” was The Grinder’s reply every time.

Stewart: We can’t do that. 

Grinder: But what if we could?

Stewart: That isn’t the way to do that. 

Grinder: But what if it was?

You get the idea.

***

As I sat on the lanai today, enjoying the moon and thinking about trust, I saw this fluttery purplish-pink image ripple out of the moon and disappear. I blinked, thinking it was just my eyes playing tricks on me.

But what if it wasn’t?

AngelMoon-Vintage-Pink-GraphicsFairy2I’ve decided to trust myself on this one, much like The Grinder always trusts himself. I think I saw an angel. That is what it reminded me of. I think this angel was heading out to do her angel deeds and forgot to turn off her inner light that makes her visible.

People might say angels don’t exist.

Others would say there is no way I saw one.

But what if I did?

(311) “Words have wings, words have feet”

The title today is a Haitian proverb shared during the keynote address tonight by writer Edwidge Danticat. It was the cap on another truly terrific day at the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference.

Today was lighter and did not carry the emotional transformation that happened yesterday, not just to me, but which I witnessed in other participants. Today was about singing and playfulness and love of literature. I began taking pictures early today for a photo journal.

veils
On the way to Sanibel library…piercing the veil
pathway
The walkway to writing
bridge
Proudly sporting my SIWC t-shirt, standing on the bridge to the Sanibel Library and the fun morning of singing and songwriting with Dan Bern
Dan Bern
Our guide for morning workshop, Dan Bern. We sang our names, our favorite books, lists of places we’ve gone, and created jingles for books we will write someday that will be turned into television shows. My partner Heath and I did a parody of “Get a Job” called “Gotta Write”
Amy bubble
me bubble
bubble rm1
It’s always Christmas at the Bubble Room
bubble rm2
We had lunch and relaxed with coffee and dessert

In the afternoon we attended a couple of panel discussions. One was Christina Baker Kline discussing the research she did for her best selling novel Orphan Train.  I’m sorry I forgot to get her picture.

demarchi2 DeMarchi1

Tom DeMarchi does an amazing job each year with the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference. This was the 10th year, and he was awarded a plaque by the Dean.

Finally, the beautiful keynote address by Edwidge Danticat. What a treat to be in the presence of this lovely and graceful person, who writes in ways I can never even begin to imagine coming out of my pen. I will be sharing some of her wise words later this week. All in all, one fantastic Saturday.

edwidge