Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 19 #sol19

“No, Papa, I don’t want to go.  It’s going to be cold.”  Looking over my oldest daughter’s shoulder through the sliding glass door behind her, I watched as sunlight beamed over a still somewhat snowy ground outside.

“Oh come on, honey,” I gently rebuffed.  “It’s a beautiful day!  It’s almost spring, and besides you’ll end up having fun. Don’t worry!”  I chirped.

About a mile from our house is a boardwalk built around the edge of a small body of water.  Earlier that morning, while brainstorming possible activities for the day, my wife and I had decided that it might do everyone some good to take in a little fresh air.  Maybe a walk on the boardwalk would be just the ticket to lift everyone’s spirits?

Arriving at the trailhead optimistically wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers, and my green Red Sox baseball hat, I climbed out of my Honda to help my three daughters out of the car.  As I did so, a frigid gust of wind immediately hit me.   Brrr.  After putting our three year-old in a stroller, all of us started down a half snowy, half muddy trail toward the boardwalk.  Immediately I wished I’d worn my boots.  My oldest reminded me that it was my idea we all wear sneakers.

Closer to the boardwalk, the ground became a virtual ice rink, with all of us straining to maintain our balance.  And the wind.  I felt my cheeks beginning to freeze.  I watched as my oldest daughter, dutifully it seemed, silently trudged forward, looking straight ahead.

Finally we arrived at the boardwalk.  Pushing the stroller up onto the raised path, I thought about the gloves I had left behind.  Frivolously, I tried tucking my hands into my sweatshirt.  I noticed my wife had covered the baby’s head with a sweatshirt, since neither of us had packed a hat for her.  Suddenly, another icy wind bathed all of us in a reminder: it was not yet spring.

By the end of our boardwalk stroll, I could barely feel my fingers, and the ice formations in the water had become far less interesting.  Shoes now muddy and bodies now shivering, my three girls, wife and I finally arrived back at the car.  The baby cried loudly, as I started the engine.  No one spoke on the ride home, as we all listened to my three year-old sob from her carseat.

Walking in the front door, I heard the muttering of my oldest, “No one listens to me.”

I did apologize later.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 18 #sol19

I felt my heart skip a beat as I looked around the room.  Faces of eager but nervous seventh graders, all holding notecards, gazed back at me, now all gathered at the center of the library.  Behind them, a group of adults, holding clipboards and pencils.  The time to commence had arrived, and all eyes now rested on me to set things in motion.  I began,  “Welcome to our Global Issues Symposium, everyone! We are honored by your presence today. This morning is an opportunity for many things: if you’re a student writer, today is a chance for you to present your views on a topic that really matters to you. If you are here as a guest, let me explain a little about today.”

At that point, I explained that some of the topics that would be addressed by our student writers might make some feel uncomfortable.  Some may not agree with the views presented, I said. But, I explained, we know that in a civil society, a free exchange of ideas is foundational.  I respectfully requested that any feedback adults chose to give be respectful and diplomatic. I reminded them that our student writers worked from a different level of world knowledge than adults.  “But they’ve studied the topic,” I continued, “weighed the evidence, and today they will present a considered argument. We request all audience members feel free to ask a few questions at the end of each student’s talk. And if you’re willing, provide a little written feedback.”

My colleague Shannon then joined me at the front as we projected a seating assignment, followed by the bustling movement of 34 seventh graders proceeding to their assigned area in the library.  Students had been organized into panels of 3-6, broadly grouped by topic.  Issues ranged from the value of college education to medical marijuana, from school uniforms to gun control.  I grabbed my clipboard and made my way to a low table located near the checkout counter.  Six faces were already there, awaiting my cue.  “Good morning everyone,” I greeted them excitedly. “Who’d like to go first?”

What took place that morning (and later in the afternoon) was nothing short of impressive.  Broadly speaking, students came well-prepared: Across the library, they presented claims, reasons, and evidence that widely impressed the adults who had gathered to listen.  Although not many students invited listeners from outside our school community, some did.  A state representative had joined to listen to a student argue about the minimum wage.  The president of a local animal shelter came to listen to a student discuss her views on the treatment of animals.  A few parents came to support their students by listening to presentations.  And many colleagues from my school joined to bear witness to student writers as they presented their positions.

As the students filed out of the library at the end of the symposium, one of the teachers approached me.  “I’m so proud of them,” she said.  “They really stepped up their game.”  I nodded in agreement, thinking to myself about the importance that authentic audience plays in the writing process.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 17 #sol19

No Saturday Reunion for me…

“Would you grab the thermometer?” asked my wife.  I’d just arrived home from work.  Friday afternoons usually had a way of projecting excitement and anticipation, but not this one.  I set down my laptop bag and surveyed the living room.  Two girls on the couch, one on the armchair.  This is isn’t good.

I stepped just to the inside of the kitchen and pulled open the drawer.  “Let’s go ahead and check all of them,” my wife suggested.  I grabbed the no-touch infrared digital forehead thermometer and gently pushed the drawer closed.  Now wielding the digital truth-teller, I approached my oldest daughter draped wearily in the armchair with her Harry Potter book.

100.9.

Next, I tiptoed through the colored blocks and miniature Scooby Doo figurines over to the couch to the second daughter.

99.9.

Sighing, now it was time to check the baby.

100.3.

I reported out these temperatures to my wife.  She nodded and coughed gently, blowing her nose quietly into a tissue.  Looks like I’m not going to Saturday Reunion, I thought.  Family comes first.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 16 #sol19

Car now placed in park, I reached up to touch the top of my head.  Yep, glasses still there.  Good.  I stepped out onto the pavement and held my wrist up to check the time.  Eight minutes early.  Okay, I sighed.  “Too early to pick up the pizza, so I may as well get it over with.”

Instead of sidling into DiFranco’s to wait for my pizza, I turned left and headed up the street.  The sun, now shining in the sky, seemed to suggest that while her intensity wouldn’t be up to the task of melting all the snow today, this would be the sun’s work over the next several days.  A work in progress.  Which is good.

Arriving at my destination, I pushed open the beautiful glass door.  With a jingle of a bell gently greeting me, I took a few steps across a yellow carpet. Then, from behind a wooden table a woman said, “Hello!  May I help you?”

“Um yes,” I stammered. “I need to, uh, schedule my annual eye check-up, or … exam?”  This whole eyes-going-bad thing has been rough on me, I’ll admit.  My whole life, my eyes have been amazing, bionic almost.  Now blurriness.

“Okay, sure,” answered the woman.  “Gosh, last time I saw you, you had just been in the hospital with the flu.”  Wow, I thought.  I only met this woman twice- once for my first eye exam, and then again to pick up my first set of reading glasses.  That was last February! How could she remember such detail?  I expressed my amazement at her comment.  A bionic memory.

Leaving the optical center that day, I realized– perhaps not for the first time– I am probably making my need-for-glasses mean more than it really does.  Perhaps it just signifies that, well, I am a work in progress.  As are we all, right?

Eyeglasses

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 15 #sol19

One by one, the musicians rolled in.  Some I’d never met, some who’d come to feel like old friends.

Introductions complete, instruments assembled, and speakers humming, the M.D. (musical director) of the project called out the tune and counted it off.  Suddenly, extraordinary music filled the room of the old remodeled Dutch barn, played by a group of people who had never previously played a single note together.  Who had never even occupied space in the same room before.  I felt the energy in the room rise, fueled by talent, years of practice, and passion.

Music still truly amazes me in this way, how it can sometimes allow total strangers to gather together and connect in an unexplainable, sonic fashion.  How it can create entirely new internal and external narratives within and outside a person.  How it can both evoke emotion and fill a room with it.  How this secret language spoken only by those who have dedicated a life to studying it can generate a conversation hued in beauty.

Not all rehearsals feel this way.  But driving home last night, with keyboards now resting in their cases in the back of my car, I knew something special had taken place.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 14 #sol19

Settling in at the sleek, black table, I opened my laptop.  Across from me sat our school librarian and media specialist, Shannon.  Behind her, large windows revealed a small courtyard, haphazardly adorned with patches of grubby snow, vestiges of a winter storm stubbornly refusing to fade away.  I could hear the roaring blowers of the heater working to fill the space of the vast library.  Gradually, Shannon and I commenced our task.

Sometime toward the end of our work that day, our conversation diverted to an article I recently read at npr.org entitled, “Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them.”  Since Shannon and I plan activities for our Read Across America celebration each year, I felt curious about her take on a central question posed in this article:  “…Should we continue to teach classic books that may be problematic, or eschew them in favor of works that more positively represent people of color?”  I also wondered what she thought about viewing Dr. Seuss as a racist?

This question raised in the article caused me to remember and repeat a claim by a book club member only last week who had said, “It’s not really fair to view history through the lens of today’s norms.”  Since she had made that statement, it has been rolling around in my mind like a marble in a jar.  On one hand, I tend to agree that in many situations it would seem inappropriate to judge the actions and words of historical figures by today’s cultural standards and mores, as those people were living within the confines of a culture informed by different standards and mores.

However, I am also able to see that on a topic like racism, the question can become much murkier, especially when it comes to a well-known and beloved author like Dr. Seuss.  And it’s interesting to think about his books being characterized in such a way as they are in the National Public Radio article, as akin to snow that stubbornly hangs around in the courtyard, refusing to go away.

And I also wonder about the possible effects on my own children?  Have I unwittingly instilled any type of misrepresentative, mono-cultural understanding of society upon them by reading Dr. Seuss to them as young children?

Shannon and I didn’t reach any hard and fast conclusions in our discussion, as I am not sure the answers are simple.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 13 #sol19

Sometimes kids surprise you.  For twenty minutes before my reading student Danielle (not her real name) arrived, I had been preparing book recommendations.  Danielle has informed me that she “did not like to read,” and yet also claims to enjoy graphic novels and fantasy books.  Interesting.  So I had traveled down to the library to grab a couple of titles in each of these genres for her, along with one more book I knew to be widely popular with our middle school readers.

Returning to my office, I slid into my desk chair and pulled up Amazon on my computer screen.  A strategy I’ve found to be successful with some of the uncommitted or unmotivated readers I work with is, after procuring a small stack of recommended books, to locate “kid reviews” for books and print them off.  This way, the books I recommend aren’t just endorsed by me– “See, kids like them, too!” I say.

Danielle has not read many books this year, a fact that sends a cold shock of urgency through my body.  I’ve got to get her reading.

With a small stack of books now prepared (a strategy based on an idea presented in Kylene Beers’ article, “Choosing Not to Read: Understanding Why Some Middle Schoolers Just Say No,”) I awaited Danielle’s arrival.

Then, pushing through the door, came the surprise.  “Mr. Ball, I know what I want to read!  It’s called Middle School, and my mom’s going to buy me the book after school!”

I smiled. “That’s great!” I replied.  Sometimes kids surprise you.