Slice of Life Challenge day 25 #sol17

  • “Story is the basic unit of human understanding.”  On Saturday, March 18th, Drew Dudley, the keynote speaker for the Teachers College Saturday Reunion, made this profound statement.  And for me, listening to that speech has been the type of experience that has become a lens through which I currently view the world.  Yesterday, I had the good fortune to hear a story of how one person can unknowingly make a profound difference for another.

One of my colleagues has shared with me that her husband now lives with a mental disability that affects his short-term memory.  However, despite this impediment, he still enjoys coaching middle school sports (alongside a head coach), particularly soccer and softball.  The problem is, sometimes he is unable to remember to come to practice each day.  Last fall, one of his athletes, who shall be known as “Andrea” here, took it upon herself to call him each day to remind him about soccer practice.  And each day, he would thank her, get in his car, and drive to practice.

But that’s not the story.

Many months later, my colleague, amidst another hectic day of middle school, was rushing down the hall to a meeting.  Suddenly, she heard a voice from the cafeteria.  It was a parent’s voice.  A quick exchange ensued.  “I’m sorry,” my colleague explained, “I can’t really talk right now.  I must get to a meeting.”  The parent in the cafeteria waved her on, understanding completely.

The meeting ended before scheduled, and upon her return to her classroom, my colleague decided to stop in at the cafeteria…just to see if maybe that parent might still be there.  She was.  Entering the cafe, my colleague engaged the parent, letting her know her meeting had ended and she had a few minutes.  “We wanted you to know something,” the parent began.  It was Andrea’s mother.  “Interacting with you and your husband last fall has changed Andrea’s life,” she explained.

Somewhat taken aback, my colleague felt a bit shocked by this news.  Andrea’s mom continued. “Allowing her to call him every day and work with him as a coach has sparked something inside her. She not only loves him dearly, but now wants to learn more about people with disabilities, how to work them and help them. It’s just amazing. It’s changed the trajectory of her life.” The parent looked my colleague in the eye.  “It really has changed her life. And we want to thank you and your husband for this.”

Drew Dudley, in his keynote address, discussed a second fundamental truth: You never know how your story, your actions, will affect others.  “Do people smile at the mere mention of your name?” he asked.  For Andrea, the mere mention of my colleague’s husband’s name certainly does.




Slice of Life Challenge day 24 #sol17

A sweet slice about a young reader in my life…

Title: “Reader”

I arrived home late last night.  My day had been consumed by participation on an interview committee, and it had pushed my usual return to our snowy driveway well into a foreign hour, around 6 p.m.  Leaving my empty coffee cup and laptop bag in the car, I hurried to the front door, hoping all was well with my family.  It was the ‘witching hour’, and I silently hoped my children had not transformed themselves into little ghouls and tied my wife to the piano.  I exaggerate.  They’re wonderful, all of them. But all parents know how stressful this hour can be.  So I was a little worried. It had been a long day for my wife, and I knew that.

However, upon opening the door, two little kindergartener feet scurried up to me for a warm, hug-filled greeting.  Lifting my second daughter, Lexi, up off her feet, I squeezed her and looked at her face.  All smiles.  No ghoul.  There she was.  Then she was back down, rushing away and mumbling something I couldn’t quite make out.  It sounded maybe like, “…show you something,” but I wasn’t quite positive.  She disappeared into the house.

As I entered the kitchen, aromas of black beans and rice swirled about in the air.  My wife had started cooking.  We began to exchange details of our respective days. Suddenly, Lexi padded in.  “Papa, I want to show you something!  I’m reading this book.  But… what’s this word?”  She held up our tattered copy of Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge: Sparkle Days, and pointed to the word ‘winter.’


In my best reading-specialist-as-parent voice, I gently instructed, “Well, can we try sounding it out?”

Lexi pointed to the word.  “Win…”  Pause.  “Win…turr.  Winter!”

“Yes! Are you reading this book, honey? Wow!”  Here I must make a confession.  My children do not yet read a ton at home.  Yes, we read every night before bed.  Other than that, it is hit and miss sometimes with reading-as-a-leisure-activity around here.  But I’ve made a  conscious decision not to force my children to read. I believe forcing them to read now could have an adverse effect on them as readers in future years.  I believe they will grow up to be readers, all of them, but coercion and requisite reading time has not yet appealed to me as the route from here to there.  Yet, here was my kindergartener, independently picking up a first grade book and really giving it her all.

Breaking with tradition, my wife and I allowed Lexi to continue reading the book while we all ate dinner that night.  It seemed one of those precious moments for both growth and celebration.  And I was reminded what a miracle reading is, and how fun it is to watch kids improve as readers.  It is truly golden. I thought back to the time- not all that long ago- when Lexi was still working to learn the sounds associated with letters.  Now, here she sat, independently decoding many of the words in a beloved book she had heard many times read to her.

I leaned close to Lexi and whispered, “Are you proud of yourself, honey?”

Her blue eyes met mine.  “Yes,” she nodded.


Slice of Life Challenge day 23 #sol17

I’m just not sure I can muster this kind of faith…

TItle: “Faith”

I placed the loaf of sourdough down on the belt, right next to the pound of grass-fed ground beef, and began to fish in my pocket for my wallet.  The woman scanning the groceries, who I will call Patty, clutched the loaf and pulled it over the bar code scanner.  We both gazed longingly at the overpriced bread. And for a brief moment I felt so fortunate to be able to afford the luxury of buying such a beautiful item as this.  My daughters will be so happy, I thought to myself (they love sourdough).

Patty scanned the rest of my groceries and recited my total aloud. “Sixteen-oh-four, please,” she stated mildly.  With my credit card poised between my finger and thumb, I stood just about to pull it through the magnetic card reader. Suddenly the question came: “Would you like to donate one dollar to ‘Meals on Wheels’ today?” asked Patty, holding her finger over a button on the register.  With her other hand, she pointed to a small sign taped to the back of her register.  It looked something like this:


“Um, yes,” I responded. “I would like to donate.  I guess we’d all better donate before it gets cut from the budget.”

You see, my grandmother is a current recipient of the federal anti-poverty program for seniors known as “Meals on Wheels.”  She spent her life raising three daughters (my mom is the eldest), owning her own business (a beauty salon), and being a generally productive citizen.  She and my grandfather, who worked various agricultural jobs, were not monetarily rich.  But they were both hard-working, honest folks. They attended church on Sunday, and my grandfather sold Christmas trees in the winter. When my grandfather died in 1982, he left my grandmother a modest pension. At age 96, she is mostly able to make ends meet on her own.  Mostly.  But ‘Meals on Wheels’ helps, just that little bit.

So when I heard this program is slated to be part of a series of budget cuts by the new federal government, naturally I was angered. Angered and worried.

“Oh, I don’t think ‘Meals on Wheels’ will be cut,” offered Patty. And she was serious.

“You don’t?” I asked, incredulous. How can she say that?

“Oh no, I really don’t,” she calmly replied.  “And if it is, the states will step up and find a way to fund it.  And if the states don’t step up, then people will band together and make sure it doesn’t go away.”  And then it came: “You just have to have faith.”


I left the store that day wondering three things:  First, with all I’ve seen in our body politic lately, I’m not sure I do have faith. Not like that. Secondly, I’m not sure I should have faith…should I?  Will state governments find a way to help seniors like my grandmother if the federal government slashes all the programs designed to help poor people, like they’re currently planning to do?  Would regular folks really organize to prevent these programs from falling by the wayside?  Should I have that kind of faith?  Really?

But Patty did.  She really did.  So the third thing I wondered was…how can she have that kind of faith?


Slice of Life Challenge day 22 #sol17

Book recommendations are seldom this easy…

Weaving my way down the bustling hallway, I spied my office door.  I was getting close – finally.  I carefully stepped past the busy sixth graders kneeling at their lockers, packing and repacking tired backpacks.  With a few brief hellos to some of my colleagues standing, arms folded, almost wilting at their classroom doors (it was the last period of the day), I picked up the pace a little.  My student was likely awaiting my arrival, and I was running a bit late.  Then I heard the voice.

“Mr. Ball!  Mr. Ball!”  Slowing slightly, I recognized this voice. I turned my head to the right, searching through the frantic line of sixth graders desperately trying to gather the necessary belongings for the final class of the day.  Hmm…who was that?  Wait! Sure enough, there stood Julian.  I  spotted him amid his daily epic battle, a battle that raged daily between him and the evil contents of his locker.  Colorful, crumpled papers strewn about his feet, it appeared his locker was winning.  Again.

There stood Julian, awkwardly listing to his right in an effort to pull something from his backpack.  Face scrunched in concentration, glasses sagging a bit down his nose, I could tell he was working to retrieve something from this pack.  Fully aware I probably ought not be stopping- I was finally so close to my office! – I whipped a quick u-turn to circle back to Julian and his colossal skirmish.

“Hi Julian! How are you?” I greeted.

“I need a book!” he bellowed, finally pulling his hand out from his backpack. Secretly, the motion reminded me of someone who had finally, after several moments of attempting, succeeded in prying the cork off a fine bottle of wine. Pop!  Out came Maximum Ride: The Angel Adventure, by James Patterson, my personal copy.  I could tell right away that Julian had spent a lot time with this book. The quality of the creases, the slightly bent corners- every one of them- the wrinkled edge of a post-it, barely visible…yep, this book had definitely been read. But was it loved?  I wondered.

“So you finished it?” I asked. “What’d you think?”

“I loved it! But now I need a new book.  Anything you think I should read, I’ll take it.”

What did he just say? Now, this situation had just officially landed in a category I would label, ‘Unusual’.  Anything you think I should read, I’ll take it?  He’s really going to make it that easy?  My heart leapt, because I knew this book was from a popular series.  I’d recommended it for that very reason. And he had liked it. Loved it!

Ah, but then I remembered I was in a hurry.  “Um, okay, Julian…I’ll get you something.  But it may not be today,” I stammered. I wanted to sprint to the library at that very moment and grab that next book for Julian.  I really did!  But my student was waiting.

“Okay.” And he was off.

EPILOGUE: I found the next book in the Maximum Ride series the following morning.  He thanked me.  Here’s hoping he likes it as much as the first book.




Slice of Life Challenge day 21 #sol17

Today’s poem: “Quiet Celebration”


Quiet Celebration

Musical genius

Accomplished beyond measure

Hands of magnificence

His instrument sang

Its velvet tones

Arco, legato

The bass


Troubled soul

Touched by brilliance

The music was

His language

A place of peace

Resonant, doleful

My brother


Taken too soon


Special day

No balloons or fanfare

I quietly celebrate

My little brother’s



In loving memory of Sean Kelly Ball,

March 20, 1970 – February 28, 1997


Slice of Life Challenge day 20 #sol17

Something I heard on the subway the other day made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little…

Title: “Gratitude, anyone?”

“Yeah, 20 minutes in, I was like, ‘snooze time.'” It was a fairly crowded downtown subway car, but the male voice seemed unnecessarily loud.

“She was trying to be funny, but she so wasn’t,” came another voice, a female’s. Wait a minute, are they talking about TC Reunion? It was late Saturday afternoon, and following an amazing day of learning at Teachers College, I was traveling downtown Manhattan to meet up with my family. Incredulous, I turned my full attention toward the small group of what I now guessed were educators huddled on the subway car.

“Finally after, like, half an hour, she got to the topic,” sneered the male voice. The others in the group contributed a mocking chuckle.

For those unfamiar with a TC Saturday Reunion, it is a gift that Lucy Calkins, Director of the world-renowned Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and all the staff developers, office staff, writing staff, and tech staff, give to educators. There is no cost for any teacher to attend. It is a free day professional development, with sessions led by world class keynote speakers and the finest minds in literacy, all in the spirit of supporting the international cause of literacy.

As I quietly sat and listened to the conversation devoted to cutting down a staff developer, a person by the way who had just donated her entire Saturday to play her part in bestowing an invaluable gift upon any teacher who showed up, I began to seethe a little. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up a little bit.  But I knew the next stop on the subway was mine, so I resolved to let it go for that moment.  However, the audacity of some people! It was a disgrace, I thought.

It is my hope that in this blog post I am able to make clear not only my appreciation, but the collective gratitude for Lucy and all of the TC staff for the gift of Saturday’s Reunion. It truly was a golden bestowal upon the education community.

Perhaps the group on the subway that afternoon had some reason that would explain their abhorrent behavior, I don’t know.  But I was reminded of the importance of gratitude, and recognizing how working to understand perspectives other than our own is such important work. For all of us.


Slice of Life Challenge day 19 #sol17

Filing into the majestic Riverside Church among the mass of educators, I veered right to locate my usual seat right behind the TC Staff Developers reserved section. Although I’ve been in this church several times to attend TC events, the ancient, awe-inspiring architecture never ceases to amaze and cause me to catch my breath. After a few gratifying hellos to former TC friends (miss them all so much), I settled in with a colleague for the keynote speaker, Drew Dudley. Now, I had never heard of Drew Dudley, but the promotion of his talk today promised a memorable experience. And boy, did he deliver.

In his talk today, which happened to be devoted to the topic of leadership, Drew began with a survey. Mind you, the church, located on the upper west side of Manhattan, was filled with roughly 800 teachers. The survey went something like this: “Raise your hand if you consider yourself a leader, and you are 100% certain that’s true.”


Looking around, I don’t think I saw a hand raised. Maybe one. Drew went on to politely express his amazement, amazement that a group of teachers, a group this size, would respond so resoundingly in the negative. “How can that be?” he wondered aloud.  “There is no more important job on this planet that plays a bigger role in shaping our future.”  Quickly grabbing my phone, I tweeted that phrase.  This is going to be good.

Drew went on to make several more salient points that morning.  Summarizing here, I am hoping I can do them justice.

  1.  Story is the basic unit of understanding.  Drew recounted the story of a young, seven-year old girl he met on a train once.  This little girl taught him something of the power of story.  “You have no idea how your story will impact other people,” he asserted.  For me, this resonated powerfully.  And it reminded me of Dr. Thomas Newkirk’s writings about narrative writing, and its misassigned place in the common core state standards.  Newkirk contends that labeling narrative writing as a “type” of writing is actually a category error.  For narrative writing is at the base of all good writing.  And without it, we as humans are (a) not interested, (b) not able to learn, and (c) not convinced.
  2. What is the Secret to Unhappiness?– nope, that’s not a typo.  “The secret to unhappiness,” Drew began, “is allowing a gap to form between who you know yourself to be- how you conceive of yourself- and the way you are behaving.”  Now, when Drew said this, I could almost feel a palpable pause, as 800+ teachers inhaled in order to muster as much internal reflective energy as humanly possible.  I was no exception.  Is there a gap between the conception I hold of myself and my behavior?  Good question.
  3. Are you living a life that makes people smile at the mere mention of your name?  Drew told a beautiful story about his somewhat recent visit to his old high school.  While waiting for the principal to fetch the Scotch from her bottom drawer, Drew ran into his old custodian. Seizing a rare opportunity, Drew gushed at the incredible difference this man, Mr. Kiff, had made in his life.  Right to his face. Mr. Kiff’s kindness, his subtle non-judgemental manner, his humility-all of this had made such a difference. And Mr. Kiff’s response? “Meh. I’m just a janitor.” 

Just a janitor? Drew proceeded to tell us that when we use the word ‘just’ to describe what we do, we give people permission to think less of us. Don’t do that, he instructed. Don’t do it.

I left Riverside Church moved, touched, and inspired.  And like most people, I love that feeling. It’s like a good book: when you’re done, you think how will I live differently now that I read that? This day was no different.