(355)Miracle

It was a winter day in early 1992. I was driving my Buick Regal to a meeting across town. I was taking a two lane road that cut through a valley, which entailed going down a hill. Unfortunately, it had just begun to snow–the wet, slippery kind of snow. Salt trucks had not made it out yet, as they were quite good about getting the hill salted quickly in these kinds of circumstances.

When I got to the hill, I found myself in a line of traffic. Immediately I felt my car slip a bit, so I began to pump the brake. This is the recommended procedure. But it didn’t help. My car continued to slip and slide as I descended the hill. And then I realized my steering was not working. I found myself in the opposite lane heading for a collision with a pick-up truck. I was unable to do a thing. I was pumping the brakes like mad, to no result. Steering still was not working. I found myself suddenly back in my own lane (miracle!) and that is when I decided just to let it all go. I had this moment where I just gave it up to the Angels. If I plow into the guard rail, so be it.

Then I found myself at the bottom of the hill. My steering was reinstated. I had not crashed. I pulled over into the feed store parking lot, shaking profusely. I called Jim on my car phone (yes, I had one of those!) and related what happened. Neither of us could figure out how my steering had disengaged.  I felt the Angels had protected me.

About a year later, we visited a car show. My lease was going to be up, and I was shopping for a new brand. The big selling point for the cars was a thing called “anti-lock brakes.”  We spoke with a saleswoman at the Infinity dealership, and asked, “What’s the big deal with anti-lock brakes.” She explained that in unstable conditions, the brakes will lock up causing the steering to go out. Bingo!  That is exactly what had happened to me on that hill. The brakes and the steering were useless to me. When I stopped trying to steer and pump the brakes, my car was able to make use of those mechanics once again.

So, perhaps the entire event had nothing to do with angels, and more to do with technology. Still, I recall that moment of just giving it over, knowing anything could happen, and not having any attachment to the outcome as one of the most important moments of my life. I opened the door to a miracle. And I received.

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(354)The Unspoken

42nd bday
My 42nd birthday, the last I would share with my father. I bought my first guitar about a month later.

Every Sunday I look forward to checking out the poem that is printed in the New York Times Magazine, because it often prompts a poem of my own.  I’ve gone several weeks now without being inspired, but then today I read a poem by Geffrey Davis called “What I Mean When I Say Chinook Salmon” (read it here) and I immediately wrote this poem:

What I Mean When I Say I Love Music

My father held the unspoken version

of how to be a musician. This is how we practice.

This is how we improvise when it’s our turn. He would

stand and play the solo and everyone would applaud.

We knew that sound already, having heard it after dinner,

over and over coming from his bedroom, his practice spot,

 

a memory of melodies, the tenor of the tenor saxophone,

as it revisits me at times, like at the end of Diana Krall’s version

of “Why Should I Care,” or at a Hall and Oates concert when the

sax player steps forward. I absorbed from my father the knowing

that to be a musician is to have music in your heart, it is collaboration

and occasional solos, it is standing on the shoulders of those who

came before and taught you all you need to know, and mostly

 

about not being distracted or displaced, but to know that the

only place the music truly resides is in you.

 

(353) Best Day Ever

I went to school yesterday with apprehension. Typically when we have a day where the schedule is askew and/or is right before a holiday break, it is extremely tough to deal with students.  Given that they also are eating way too much sugar on these types of days..well, it has often been a recipe for disaster.  I’ve seen even the best kids off their game.

But yesterday was different.  It began when former student, Isabella,  stopped by and gave me a box of chocolates, a “Best Teacher” ornament, and a huge hug.

Then I went into my room and found the following note on my computer keyboard:

image

This is from a student who is really too old to be in 7th grade, but has been held back because of missing a lot of school. He often has to stay home to take care of younger brothers and sisters. He wrote me the note/poem because he is moving and is still unsure on whether he will be coming back to our school after break.  I cannot even begin to describe how it breaks my heart to see this intelligent boy reduced by his circumstances over and over again, living with such uncertainty, yet applying himself day after day. I truly hope he does return.

My students are almost all with my double blocks, so the plan was to spend some time outdoors letting the kids play; rain set in making it impossible. I quickly pulled together a game of “What Am I?” After we did Author’s Chair, where several students and myself read our personification poems to the class, the kids played the game.  It was so wonderful to see them all engaged and having a good time, trying to figure out, through questions only, what each person was.

Because of our winter concert assembly, our schedule was discombobulated, bringing my 3rd period to me with the promise of them returning later when it was finally 4th period. All week we had worked these kids, promising them recess during 4th if they completed all their work. This is the same class that has caused me to cry twice in the last month, I mean really cry, like for hours. They put up every resistance they can, are fairly cruel to each other and to their teachers, and simply will not comply with the simplest instruction — such as “get in a quiet line to walk to lunch.”  Even into December it is still a daily battle with this class. They have flummoxed me, my co-teacher, other teachers, and even the administration.

So when they arrived 3rd period, and it was raining, and the forecast still said it would be raining when they returned later for 4th, I knew we needed a miracle. I asked them if they believed in magic?  Some said they did. So I pulled out a “magic” technique I had witnessed work at a conference one year.  We went out on the bus ramp and we used our fingers as scissors to “cut away” the clouds. While some cut away, others danced a “reverse rain dance” in the sprinkling rain, asking the clouds to go away for 4th period.

We came back in the room and some of the kids performed their poems, which were more like raps and were a lot of fun. Then we sent them on their way until later.

My 8th graders came in, and we revisited an idea I had brought them from the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference. I suggested we put together a book of our own personal “Top 10” lists, which was something done at SIWC to celebrate the 10 year anniversary.  We brainstormed all the ways they could do their lists, put our resident artist to the task of creating the cover, put on some Christmas music (with permission of the Jewish and Muslim students in the room), and projected a fireplace fire video onto the smart board. This was the quietest I have ever heard these students work when they are still allowed to talk! They were deep into creating their top Ten lists, among them the 10 best EDM music genres, 10 best restaurants to get chicken dinners, and 10 pieces of advice for surviving middle school.

top 10

We went to lunch late in the period, and after that played the “Who Am I” game, which ended up involving this one girl who usually is pretty checked out and doesn’t say much. It was fun to see her personality shining through as we played the game.

Then the 4th period students returned. It was still cloudy outside, but the sprinkling rain had stopped. This was a special day in this class because it was the last day for one student, Prentice, who is moving to Houston.

My co-teacher, Shannon Richardson, took most of them outside, and a couple of girls stayed behind. I put them to work cleaning my white boards so they would be fresh and ready for the new year. Soon, some of the other students started trickling back into the room, and they proceeded to write on the freshly-cleaned white board. I looked to see what they were doing and lo and behold! I was surprised — they were writing some very sweet “good-bye” messages to Prentice.  A girl named E’Nazhae was running the show, and everyone was doing their part. We put a student on “watch” for Prentice to return, and when we saw him and the other boys coming, E’nazhae snapped them all into a line.  Miracle upon miracle!  They DO know how to form a line. (I’m being sarcastic, I know, but really…I had never seen this phenomenon before.)  They yelled “Surprise” when Prentice walked in. We took some pictures. He was totally overwhelmed with love and affection.

prentice

When I told Shannon about E’nazhae getting them to line up straight, she said, “Maybe we should just have her do that from now on.”  It’s a thought.

By now I was totally in love with all my students again. I had some time during 7th to finalize all my preparations for when we return.  I’m never this “on it.”  I knew when I walked out at 4:00 that I was totally ready for break.

My 8th period students came in — this is a small class with many English Language Learners. They had a blast playing the “Who Are You?” game. I got to see them in action in new and different ways. One boy that had been really struggling has taken a leap in his engagement and ability to answer questions. We went to the concert and they gave me a million hugs before they left. My heart was glowing like E.T.’s after this day, I swear.

And I’ve learned something, too. I went with my gut a lot yesterday. I rolled with whatever was thrown at me. I persisted a little where I thought it was important. I gave choices. In other words, I did all the best things teachers can do. It can be so difficult when constantly barraged with mandates and hammering of standards to take this approach. I got to see again how truly effective it can be when students can have some time and space. I saw love, connection, engagement, empathy, connection, and downright FUN.  This is why I say it was the best day ever!

 

 

(352) Angel

It was the summer of 1997, the month I was told I might have ovarian cancer. My friends and I had tickets for Lilith Fair, the first year, and nothing was going to stop me from being there. I recall Sara MacLachlan, Paula Cole, and Mary Chapin Carpenter were on the bill.  I don’t remember who else.

I was in the throes of getting several tests before my scheduled surgery, and the day after the concert I was to have a procedure.  I needed to be cleaned out for this procedure, so had to bring a huge plastic jug of stuff to drink while at the concert, in order to maintain the proper timeline. I was fortunate they let me into Blossom Music Center with the jug, as they were being very picky about what was being allowed into this outdoor venue.

At one point of the concert I left our seats and made one of many treks to the bathroom. I decided it would be better to park myself on the hilly grass rather than keep going back into the pavilion. The moon was out and Sara was singing. I didn’t know her music that well at this point. I rested on the grass, looking at the moon, and realized she was singing about an angel.

In the arms of the angel

Fly away from here…

You are pulled from the wreckage

Of your silent reverie.

You’re in the arms of the angel

May you find some comfort there.

This was the first time I would hear her soon to be hit “Angel.” There, alone in my own reverie, future uncertain, I heard these words for the first time. And yes, I “found some comfort there.”

After my surgery, this was the first song I would have my friend play for me in my hospital room. I had brought my CD player with me specifically to listen to certain music that I believed was helping me heal that summer: James Taylor’s Hourglass, Sara’s Surfacing, and Gabrielle Roth’s Ritual.

Less than a year later, I would hear the song at a significant time. I had just left my father’s hospital room and was heading toward the parking garage. I had this thought that my prayer for him was to be in the arms of the angels, perhaps because the last prayer we had prayed together was the Guardian Angel Prayer. I heard “Angel” as I was getting on the highway.  Not long after I got home, I would get the call that he had made his transition.

Sadly, I feel “Angel” got overplayed, and it is really hard for me to hear it with any of the feelings I used to associate with it. Regardless, it is still a lovely song, and it helped me tremendously through a difficult time.

Here is a beautiful version with Emmylou Harris.

 

(350) Where the Light Shines Through

I took a lesson off the Writing Fix.com website that uses Run-DMC’s song “My Adidas” as a writing lesson on personification. My students have been writing poems based on the lesson. This morning I finally wrote mine to share at our Read Around Friday.

image

Where the Light Shines Through

I went looking for you on a rainy day, June

in North Carolina.

You were easy to find, perfect oval shape,

and deep color and graceful setting.

More than I ever dreamed.

You had a place in the back for the light to shine through,

for spiritual courage to find me.

My stone, my heart, my strength.

 

You have been with me, a partner,

through my many journeys.

After surgery, you were gently placed

back around my neck.

You held me through my father’s funeral.

You calmed me through our move from Ohio to Florida.

You were in every college class I took,

reflecting to me all I could be.

You encouraged me in those early days of my teaching career,

heart-wrenching and stressful and bewildering.

My stone, my heart, my strength.

 

Then November of 2014

I realized you were gone.

It was a time of anxiety and illness, and you went missing.

Hiding from me, unexpectedly.

I searched far and wide, asked around.

Yet somehow I knew, through the long months

you were gone, that you were still somehow nearby.

My stone, my heart, my strength.

 

I never doubted. I just didn’t

know when I’d see you again.

 

And then the magical day

You reappeared to my husband,

Who left you on the counter for me to find.

Joy filled me that day,

as you were mine again,

reunited to pursue more dreams together.

My heart.

My stone.

My strength.

 

(349) Time and Distance

In 2007, I participated in National Novel Writing Month. I produced a draft of a book, much of it set in Athens, Ohio. The problem was I hadn’t been to Athens since 1978.  I was going from pure memory.

My plan was to work on revising the novel, so when I made a trip to Ohio in 2008 I enlisted my niece Cheryl to be my tour guide around Athens. She graduated Ohio University in 2006, so had recent memories of the place.

On a beautiful late July day, we drove to Athens. Cheryl has a degree in Journalism and works as a writer, so she was the perfect companion to assist me in my writing project. We spent the day at the University and around the town. The locations of certain places were quite different than my memory had allowed, and Cheryl also introduced me to some places I wasn’t familiar with, like the unmarked graves of the patients of a former mental hospital, and the other graveyard with the angel statue that is said to cry real tears. All great stuff for my book.  I insisted we go to Stroud’s Run, a park that I recall going to for cook-outs when my boyfriend went to school at OU.

On the way home, we stopped in Columbus to catch up with her sisters Emily and Kim. All in all it was a great day.

And the novel — hasn’t been touched since. By the time I got home in early August school was starting once again. I did do some more planning work around the book, and I have my notes.  Not sure if or when I will ever get back to it.

Perhaps my inspiration is near.  I just found out that Cheryl will be in Florida next week, and we have plans to get together. As an active and paid writer in our family, she remains a kind of muse to me. Let’s see what happens once we get together again. I know that part of the process of writing involves time and distance, so I don’t feel bad about not pursuing the revision.  But now, as I sit and write this, I am thinking that perhaps there is more here for me to think about. So I will. Promise.

(348) My Personal Favorites 2015

All the lists of top books, songs, albums, etc. are permeating the media right now, so I thought I’d weigh in on some of mine.

Favorite Concert: Smokey Robinson at Barbara B Mann in April.

It is hard to choose when having been to Nashville for some shows, but Smokey’s concert was a real standout in my mind. His smooth vocals and dynamic stage presence marked me for life!

Runner Up: Grand Ole Opry  with Vince Gill, Chris Janson, and Bobby Osborne

Favorite Museum: The Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Tennessee.

A totally engaging experience for the five senses.

Runner Up: The B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi.

Favorite Historical Site: Dockery Farms in Sunflower, Mississippi.

The land, the buildings, and the very sky are soaked with the sound of the blues.

Runner Up: Robert Johnson’s grave, along Money Road north of Greenwood, Mississippi

A place where fans of the blues pay their respects to the enigma.

Favorite Event: Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference

Surpassed my expectations which were pretty damn high!

Runner Up: Women’s Writing Retreat at Lover’s Key Resort

Favorite Book: Chinaberry Sidewalks by Rodney Crowell

Not a new book this year; an exceptional memoir that is hard to forget. Right up there with other favorite memoirs: Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes, and Wild.

Favorite Movie: Woman in Gold

Fine acting by Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds  as they re-enact this true story of stolen art

Runner Up: The Intern

Favorite Television Show: Catastrophe on Amazon Prime

The main characters Sharon and Ron are my new favorite couple.

Runner Up: The Grinder

Favorite Restaurant while traveling: Blue Biscuit in Indianola, Mississippi

Out of this world barbecue and beignets

image
Lunch at the Blue Biscuit in Indianola was fabulous–unbelievably good barbecue and complimentary beignets. Harlan Malone, the owner, made us feel welcome and toured us around his place he worked two years to create.

And now for the music, which was incredible this year!

#1 Favorite Album: The Blade by Ashley Monroe

Largely overlooked, but maybe finally getting some recognition with the Grammy nomination, I have not been able to stop listening to this fine collection of lyrical perfection and musical production. I continually recommend it, yet I don’t think anyone listens to me! (Hear title song below.)

#2 Cass County by Don Henley

If I’m not listening to Ashley, I am probably listening to Don. I figured his album would be good, but I had no idea it would be this good!  Lots of competition for my listening time, yet Don wins out over others time and time again.

#3 Angeleno by Sam Outlaw

Another overlooked artist.  Love the Mexican influences in the very SoCal sounding album produced by Ry Cooder.  (Hear one of his selections below.)

#4 Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves

One of my favorites back with a fine collection of her wit and cynicism and yes, even some hope.

#5 Traveller by Chris Stapleton

If you haven’t caught on by now, there’s no hope for you.

Other artists with great collections worth checking out:

Coming Home by Leon Bridges (Sam Cooke reincarnated…lots of soul. Hear him below)

Something More Than Fine by Jason Isbell (just as good as Southeastern)

25 by Adele (needs no explanation)

Daytime Turned to Nighttime by Patrick Sweaney (not even sure how I found him…Ohio boy…country blues…listen over and over)

Heartbreaker of the Year by Whitney Rose  (just discovered last week. Sweet voice, old time sound like Patsy Cline with some other influences.)

Favorites who never disappoint in no particular order:

Before This World by James Taylor

The Traveling Kind by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Hoody by Dan Bern  (Hear him below)

Django and Jimmie by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Here are some choices for your listening pleasure:

 

 

 

 

(347) Across the Borderline

My favorite Willie Nelson album came out in 1993. It was an album of covers, which many of his are, including “Graceland” and “Don’t Give Up” among them.  I’ve been listening to the CD in my car, and today the title song caught my attention: “Across the Borderline.”

 

As I listened to the words, I thought it was pretty ambiguous. Is the narrator talking about heaven or making or dreams come true?  It is all about loss and having to let go.  It talks about a “broken promised land.”

 

There’s a place where I’ve been told
Every street is paved with gold
And it’s just across the borderline
And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s a lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find

 

When you reach the broken promised land
And every dream slips through your hands
Then you’ll know that it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you’ve paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline

 

But then the lyrics take a shift, and it seems to be talking exclusively about Mexicans crossing the border:

 

Up and down the Rio Grande
A thousand footprints in the sand
Reveal a secret no one can define
The river flows on like a breath
In between our life and death
Tell me who’s the next to cross the borderline En la triste oscuridad (In the sad darkness)
Hoy tenemos que cruzar (today we have to cross)
Este río que nos llama mas alla (this river which calls us further away)

*

This took me back to my classroom of 10th graders, March 2010. They were working on an immigrant project, and as part of the project they were to do panel discussions regarding their immigrant background. The Mexican group was most compelling because of a story by one young man: David. As he told the story of crossing the river, tears streamed down his face. They had to meet up with a man and his mother lost track of the group, got swept away somehow. She ended up having to walk ten miles in the desert to find them — how she survived such an ordeal, I’ll never know. The story had every single person in the classroom in tears. I know it had a lasting impact because at the end of the year when we discussed the favorite things about the class, that day stood out to many students. They had received a huge lesson in empathy and understanding for the plights and traumas of others…something we can all use a bit more of these days.

 

But hope remains when pride is gone
And it keeps you moving on
Calling you across the borderline

When you reach the broken promised land
Every dream slips through your hands
And you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you pay the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline
Now you’re still just across the borderline
And you’re still just across the borderline

 

Songwriters: COODER, RYLAND PETER / DICKINSON, JAMES LUTHER / HIATT, JOHN ROBERT

 

 

 

(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.