Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Eleven and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I haven't written about every book I've read this year, so I'm going to stop trying to count. I did read two good ones over the summer, though, that I wanted to share. Both were books I randomly picked up in Half Price Books with no prior knowledge of them.

First, Eleven by Mark Watson. This is the story of one man who leaves his entire life behind because he cannot get over something awful he was involved in. He moves to London, where he makes the same regular, everyday choices that you and I make all the time. However, the book follows the impact that one of his choices has on eleven other people in London. One tiny thing sets in motion life changing events for others. It was fascinating to me. Also, I read it in three days while on a beach in Mexico, so it's a quick, easy, sometimes funny, entertaining read.

Next, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simpson. I bought this book when I couldn't find another one I was looking for. If you're a fan of Downton Abbey, I think you would enjoy this book as much as I did. The main characters maintain the highest level of decorum, even in romance, much like Downton.

It's the story of a widower who befriends the Muslim widow who runs the town shop. He is a man of honor and tradition, and she values the same things. He is an upper class white male, and she is considered "less than" in the community because of her religion and heritage, although everyone seems to treat her well. The book addresses elitist ideas and classism, but that's not really what it's mainly about. It's about a man in his 60s understanding that he is never finished learning and making decisions about what it is that he really values.  It was outstanding.

Monday, August 25, 2014

At least I didn't puke...

This is my second post in the last couple of months that involves puking. Perhaps I need new topics.

Oh, well.

Some awesome ladies and I are doing a sprint triathlon next month. I think we signed up for it way back in January, knowing that it would be good motivation for us to stay in shape (or get there in the first place, in my case). I've also been toying around with the idea of 40 things to do before I turn 40 in three years, like this list my friend Erin wrote a while ago. If I had made that list, then participating in some sort of race would have been on it.

Sprint tri: 300 meter swim, 10 mile bike ride, 2 mile run. Sounds hard, but not that hard, right?

Last spring my sporty, in-great-shape friend April came over to go bike riding with me since I hadn't ridden a bike for practical purposes since I was like 11. There was an old bike in our garage that I came to own through someone else's nefarious means, so I figured I was good to go. The saying is "like riding a bike" isn't it?

April has a crazy pimped out bike where her shoes actually clip into the pedals. Have you ever heard of such a thing?  She also had gears and a helmet and all of the cool accouterments of a cyclist. I had a rusty, creaky old bike.

And I couldn't ride it to the end of the street. For real. I could not do it.

April and Keaton were fast bike friends, though, so she played sporty mom in my weakness and they had a great time.

Of course I blamed the bike for my inability.

A little later I borrowed a friend's fancy bike (with gears and a helmet and all), and I found that I could ride to the end of the street and then some. Even better, I was having fun! Riding bikes is fun! So fun, in fact, that I bought myself a relatively fancy bike and have been riding regularly. I've ridden 2-4 times a week, anywhere from 5-9 miles.

Basically, I think I'm good. Like ready for the Tour de France good.

Then yesterday happened.

I was looking for a friend to ride with and April volunteered. I hadn't ridden with her since the rusty bike incident because she's a world traveler and has been mostly out of town, so I was kind of excited about actually being able to ride with her instead of wimping out before the end of the street. We met at Lick Creek Park and planned to bike from there to highway 6 and back. She and our friend Britina "love" that route and estimated it to be about 10 miles.

They are crazy.

This seems like an appropriate time to mention the temperature. My arms weren't working when I realized I needed this, so I made Trey screen shot it and email it to me so I could have it for this post.

The screen shot you just looked at is a lie. It was actually eleventy billion degrees and 110% humidity.

About two miles in, I remembered to tell April that I like to take a lot of breaks. I did this in one word increments because I could not catch my breath enough to say more than one word at a time. It went something like this:

"I (suck in air) like (suck in air) to (suck in air) take (suck in air) breaks."

I don't think April heard me because she was talking like we were sitting on a couch or something. I kind of wanted to punch her, but then I remembered that I love her and I didn't.

On we went, stopping every 3 miles or so (it was really every mile and half) for me to catch my breath. During one break, I texted to Trey to tell him I needed an inhaler even though I've never actually taken an inhaler or been diagnosed with anything that requires one. I think I just needed him to know I was suffering. See, I try to act really tough, but I think I might be a baby.

Notice the weather screen shot sent later. 

Now this seems like an appropriate time for a confession. (Close your ears, Mom.) Sometimes, in my head, I have a potty mouth. I know this is inappropriate and I work very hard to make sure it stays only in my head, but it's there. There were times when I was an English teacher that I would go into a friend's classroom, close the door, and literally say "BAD WORDS!" "PROFANITIES!" and they would know exactly where my brain was.

Back to the story.

First, I wanted to cry. Every time we rounded a corner, there was a hill. I really, really wanted to cry every time I saw a new hill. The whole time I was thinking that until we turned around, I wasn't even half way there. And I wanted to cry.

Finally I told April I didn't think I would make it to the highway and that we should turn around at the top of the hill in front of us. Dangit if we didn't get to the top of that hill and see the stupid highway. I couldn't quit with the goal in view, so on we went. I took a rather long break at the highway while April rode lazily, happily around in circles. I did not commit violence against her, mostly because it seemed like it required too much effort. Then we started back.

That's when my brain started shouting bad words and profanities. They didn't come out of my mouth, though, because I have self control like that. Also, I couldn't breathe so talking was impossible.

The few drops of water I had left were boiling hot. We rode. I rested. We rode. I rested. I actually sat down on the side of the road in the grass and considered just staying there to let the crows pick apart my dry bones. I really, really wanted to puke. I thought I was going to, but I didn't. That's a win, right?

Near the end of the ride, April was telling me a story of one of her travels, and I (after the largest inhale I could manage) rudely interrupted her to say, "Please tell me we're almost there."

Thankfully we were.

I loaded my bike in the truck, and it was at this point that I think even April became concerned. She asked if I was okay to drive myself home and advised me to get some sugar -- like fruit -- ASAP. Turns out it had been more than seven hours since I'd had anything to eat and that seemed like a bit of a problem.

I got home, left all of my stuff in the truck, and collapsed onto the floor in my room under the fan. Then I made Trey screenshot the temperature because I needed backup for this story. When I regained the ability to think, I started checking my GPS app to justify my exhaustion.

This is the part where you act impressed.

I found that the gain on this 12 mile ride is 318 feet. (Yes, I rounded up on the distance. It was traumatic. Humor me.)  The gain on the triathlon course's ten miles is only 226 feet. I'm new to this, but I think that means the hills are a little less overall. Either way, I'll choose to believe it. If I'm wrong, please don't tell me.

My immediate next thought?

Yes, I know I also have to swim and run. Let's be honest, though, I'm probably going to walk the "run" part.

Swimming? I've been working on that, too, but that's a whole other post.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Power of Poetry Writing Retreat

As I take on the role of principal of an elementary school, I've made a few commitments to myself and my future staff and students. One of those is to continue and expand my knowledge in all curricular areas. One question that came up when I left my English teaching position at the high school and moved to be an elementary administrator was about credibility. How would I, someone who never taught elementary school, have enough credibility to successfully lead an elementary campus? The answer is two-fold: 1) I believe that good teaching is good teaching no matter how old the kids are 2) Work. Never stop learning.

I know that my spring semester will be filled with staffing and ordering and checking and double checking the wonderful minutiae of opening a school. I also know I've been away from elementary curriculum in my district for a year, and by the time my school opens it could be two years unless I do something about it. So I've committed to attending any staff development, trainings, and meetings I can this fall. 

And so I spent the last two days attending Katherine Bomer's retreat on the Power of Poetry for grades K-12. 

But it felt like cheating. Since I still have some pretty big projects at Consol, there is kind of a large quantity of work on my desk. Large. Not lots of jobs, but a couple of them are pretty big. And I was off writing and having fun. I was also crying, drafting, revising, crying some more, scratching out, revising again. It was the emotional process of writing experienced through the incredibly well-crafted teaching of Ms. Bomer. I got to be the student.    

When I entered the room and took a seat next to two friends and colleagues, Ms. Bomer came over and said she'd heard about me (probably because she has trained so often in CSISD). "You're a writer," she said. 

"Whoa. I don't know if I'd go that far," I quickly, uncomfortably replied. 

And by simply opening my mouth I learned my first lesson. 

We want our kids to say it, loud and proud, "I am a writer!" But I wasn't even comfortable saying it myself. I taught writing for eight years to over 1,000 students and have published 330 posts on this site since May of 2008. I have a folder on my computer called "unpublishable" because it contains things that are too personal or stories that don't really belong to me even though I told them. And I can't call myself a writer?  Then how do we get kids who are just learning to spell to call themselves writers?  Angsty preteens?  Anyone but Langston Hughes?

Lesson two was for me as a mother and for my son. Ms. Bomer read a poem aloud called "Talk" (I didn't write down the author's name and I didn't find it easily googleable, so I can't share it here). The narrator was a black man remembering a moment from childhood. He was in the locker room with a friend and teammate, and the friend used the "n" word. He didn't react, and as an adult he reflected on what that meant about him and his friend and what they became. It moved everyone in the room. We discussed, kind of argued, and shared about what this meant and why it was powerful. I shared that it made me think of my own son and his best friend. "I know that he knows not to use that word. I would be horrified if he did. But does he know," I asked the group, "that it's never okay? That he will never be friends enough with someone to make it okay because it shouldn't be?" It was the first time I felt my eyes swell.

This poem burdened me. Over lunch, I picked Tucker up from football camp and explained about the poem we had studied. I asked him if knew that the word was never okay. "Mom," he said matter-of-factly, "that word is racial. No one should say it. Ever." And I was proud of him.

And that's what literature should do. Teach us how to be better people. Remind us of the things we should talk about so that the bad part of history doesn't repeat itself. An appropriate level of discomfort is healthy and *gasp* educational.

I also learned a great deal about writer's notebooks, even though I've read about them and looked through other people's notebooks for years. I learned because I got one of my own. When I entered the training, I was offered my choice of wide or college rule (I chose college rule), and throughout the next two days I filled half of the notebook. HALF!  It's almost unfathomable because I wasn't even trying. We talked about listening like poets. Making the effort to write down things people say and lines in poems that catch our attention.  Alone they are sparks - the beginnings of what may die out and never leave the page or what may be a wildfire of creativity and ideas. This wasn't a result of hours of teaching, but of heart-felt modeling and guided practice (to use an educational term).

Some things I wrote down:
"But, of course, we were all lying."
"half tipsy with the wonder of being alive"

Aren't those lines fantastic!

We read and read and read poems, but there was no pressure to read them all or get to certain ones. My teacher made me feel perfectly comfortable judging a poem in its first few lines and choosing to put it down and pick another. We were encouraged to take pictures of the ones we liked best so that we could use them as our mentor texts. Then we re-read our chosen poems over and again and made notes in our writer's notebook about the images the poem conjured, the structure, whatever it was that made us pick it.

One of my mentor texts was  "Great Things Have Happened" by Alden Nowlan. It reminded me of a bike ride I took on Sunday evening with a friend. I jotted some notes about that and moved on to find other mentor texts that spoke to me. This quick note ended up being one of my poems I took to the publishing stage.

We also did many "try- its" - 4-5 minute exercises to try that may generate ideas for poems. One of these was a persona poem (the author takes on the persona of someone else). I found this to be very difficult, and in discussing it with my group later I called it presumptuous to pretend you know enough about what another person goes through to take on their perspective. I stared into space for a good three minutes, then began to begrudgingly write. Surprisingly (to me at least), I also worked this poem into final draft form.

When I came back from lunch, I had a flash of memory from one day this summer when I helped a very dear friend pack her house to move. I thought of one phrase "limoncello and prosecco and raspberries and tears." I wrote that down quickly while listening to Ms. Bomer share poems and moved on.

The afternoon went by quickly. We wrote, we read poems, we had mini lessons about revision. I wrote down tips for revising that I hadn't thought of before. My teacher came over to confer with me about the poem I had been working on, and I think she was surprised to learn that I had been working on three. She asked me to choose one to celebrate at the end of the day, and I, of course, started to cry.

First I narrowed it down to the only one I thought I could read without choking up. Then she encouraged me to think through my choice. Ultimately, I chose the one that I found the most difficult to write. We talked it through. She very gently called my poem abstract and wondered if anyone would even know what it's about!  I didn't think to be offended by this criticism because she was absolutely right.  Then she drew on her experiences and gave me some suggestions on how to provide clarification. She referenced other authors who wrote in the abstract and talked aloud about how they made their text more accessible. I made notes. She went on to confer with someone else. My poem got better.

And so on these two days where it felt like I cheated work by going to a poetry retreat, I learned how to be better be an instructional leader on my campus. I decided to make a numbered list because I like those:
1) Teachers need to experience good, quality teaching. They know what it looks like, but they need regular opportunities to remember of what it feels like on the other side. Even the best teacher will grow. This means that professional development must be good. Really good.
2) The best teaching is short instruction and lots of time to work and wrestle with material. Frankly, I didn't even know it was happening until it was over. She talked. I listened. Made notes. Worked. It was powerful and meaningful and seemed effortless. (Workshop, anyone?)
3) I knew I and my work would get the teacher's undivided attention at some point during the day. I was one of the last people she conferred with but I very quickly understood that she would get to me. I had a few questions I thought of asking or things I wanted to share, but I was happy to keep them until she got to me because I knew she was coming.
4) As educators, we must be readers and writers and mathematicians and explorers and scientists. We must be it and we must claim it. We cannot expect this of our students if we're not willing to risk it ourselves.

And so, since I'm a writer, I'm now going to share my poems from today. Because I'm a writer. I don't normally write poetry, but writing is risky and writers are brave and they take risks. And I'm a writer. Here goes.

Sometimes (inspired by my try-it on the persona poem)
It's not personal.
Well, not anymore.
Sometimes people learn the hard way
Giving with nothing in return gets old fast -- 
or slow, in my case. 

I'm not angry.
Well, not anymore.
I only wanted a chance.
You had one to give --
but you didn't.

You have to make the hard choice -- 
or the easy one
when it's all said and done.

Is it cliche to say,
"Take care of yourself before you can care for others"
like oxygen masks in an airplane?
I guess it's time I found out.

A Bike Ride Through Campus with a Friend on a Summer Sunday (inspired by a mentor text)
Familiar trees tent familiar sidewalks as a one hundred year old breeze dries our sweat;
The smell of our youth, dusty and old, wafts from around every turn;
We went looking long ago
And found ourselves here.

Architecture of the beginning, no longer scary and inaccessible.
Fear of looming failure, of being "unqualified" creeps toward me,
But there is no lump in my throat now.
No hastening of breath.

We race and laugh at our ownership of this place.
Warning of obstacles ahead,
Heeding the calls of friends too long silent,
Each avoided crash a reminder
of what began here.

Moving (inspired by life, yes I bleeped the bad word, it really was the title of the cookbook)

It was limoncello and prosecco
with ice and raspberries,
And tears,
And boxes,
And a garage sale pile.

It was a cookbook
(called something about b***hes and husbands),
And Traveling Pants,
And laughter.

It was old country music
blaring, singing along,
And more boxes,
And store-trips for bubble wrap.

It was staging,
And potential buyers,
And dusting unnoticed places.

It was packing a life into a box
to be opened
somewhere else.

It was the end,
but also the beginning.