Slice of Life Challenge day 15 #sol17

Something my daughter said yesterday struck a chord…

Title: “Weird”

I remember a time when ‘weird’ was one of my favorite words as a kid. “Weird, weird, weird.”  I said it all the time.  Perhaps it’s one of those words that helps define us.  Kind of like, “I’m not that, I’m this.” One of my favorite authors once wrote about how stars are only bright due to the darkness that surrounds them. Something like that.

As I turned the car on to snowy Highway 341 toward Kent, I glanced in the rearview mirror.  “You girls must be excited to spend some of your Spring Break with your friends today?” I spoke to the mirror.

“I can’t wait until Spring Break is over!” chirped my kindergartener.  Always the unexpected with this one.

“Oh yeah, why is that, honey?” I queried.

“When I get back to school we’re getting a new person in our class!” Lexi’s face was alight with joy, and I detected a marked lack of sarcasm in her voice.  These sentiments were absolutely, 100 percent sincere.

“Do you know her name?” I recalled discussing this once before and was fairly certain the new arrival in her class would be a girl.

In the mirror, I watched Lexi shake her head.  Then suddenly my second grader, Livi, piped up from Lexi’s right, “I heard there was a new girl in the school named ‘Joshi.’ Joshi! That name is so weird!” An innocent giggle escaped Livi’s lips, her eyes aglow with amusement.  Although not a trace of malice or malintent was present in Livi’s words, I frowned.  She’d struck a chord.

“Honey, there are no ‘weird’ names,” I calmly stated.  “Only names we’re not used to.” Wait, where did that line come from?  I must admit, I kind of shocked myself when I said it. Perhaps growing up with a ‘weird’ or unusual name had helped grow an internal sensitivity and defensiveness when hearing such words.  Lord knows I had heard versions of that backhanded insult of ‘weirdness’ aimed at me a few times over my lifetime.  Or maybe Livi’s comment had struck the built-in ‘raise-your-kids-to-be-kind’ mechanism that triggers my instant parental correction button.

Whatever the reason for my response, my mind suddenly flashed back to the classrooms in which I used to teach.  I superimposed the sentiment I had just voiced aloud on some of the behaviors I witnessed in my classrooms many years ago…what if those behaviors weren’t ‘weird,’ but just ones I just wasn’t used to?

Reflecting back on this little slice of my life yesterday, I believe my message to my children had been to remain open.  Be accepting.  We are all different.  And being ‘different’ doesn’t make us ‘weird.’ It makes us human.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 14 #sol17

Eternal Winter

by Lanny Ball

Storm warning

Again

Eugene approaches

White blankets will fall

Winter roaring its terrible roar

Gnashing its terrible teeth

Chilling breath bearing down

Not to be denied

Rudely shoving June

Further into summer’s courtyard

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Accumulation out my front window 7:15 a.m. on March 14th. Notice the top of the planter on the bottom left…just getting started.

* To all in the Northeast and everywhere, stay warm and safe!

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Slice of Life Challenge day 13 #sol17

I need to be careful not to focus on ‘getting it right’ so much of the time…

Title: “Don’t lose the joy”

“Let’s do it one more time.” The voice came loud and clear through the monitor speakers.  It was Frank, our lead guitarist.  We had just finished our second take of his original tune, “Diggin’ Mr. Fox,” a funky blues tune with a killer unison riff at the top.  It had been a productive day so far, with one tune already ‘in the can’ (as they say in the music industry).

My bandmates and I were now about to lay down the tracks for a third take of “Mr. Fox,” and I felt the nerves fluttering down into my fingers, as they hovered over the keyboard. Within the interior of my stomach, a bevy of butterflies had suddenly taken circular flight.  Although I had practiced my solo for this song about 37 times the night before, trying to play it live with everybody- not to mention with the Record button depressed- was completely different than jamming it alone in my basement.  I took a huge breath and exhaled. “Don’t mess this up,” I told myself.

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Suddenly I heard the click of the drumsticks. Okay, it’s go time.  I leaned over the keys and prepared to play.

And it was then that I remembered- wait a minute… this is fun.  This. Is. Fun!

Yes, all the hours of practice and lessons, rehearsals and performances, arpeggios and scales – all of these had led me to this recording studio moment not so that it could be ‘perfect,’ but so it could be fun.  Many of us, perhaps, forget… when we focus so much on getting it ‘right,’ we sometimes allow all the joy to trickle out.

As the song progressed and my solo approached, I felt myself connect with the spirit of this music.  And gradually, the recording became more about delighting in this experience and allowing a creative spirit to flow than nailing a flawless musical execution.  Here came the hits into the break- it was my turn…and you know what? I let that spirit flow.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 12 #sol17

Choosing your ‘battles’ is tricky business…

Title: “Fruit roll-ups”

“I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to go in…” the chorus of dissent was growing in the back seat. Pulling the car up near the front door of the walk-in clinic, I looked at my wife. This was one of those moments when we both understood what was happening, but that still didn’t make it any easier.  Appropriate decorum for this moment would have been that we all escort my wife into the waiting room of the clinic.  In doing so, we would all be conveying our sympathy and caring support for a member of our family who was currently suffering from a mysterious sore throat, congestion, and general misery.  Instead, it was a barrage of complaints and requests about not wanting to leave the car nor go in with Mama.

But we understood…they are five and seven.  And we were suspicious as to the fullness of their health, anyway.  I peeked over the snow-dusted, tree-topped horizon and could see the sun was preparing to set.  “I could take them to the store?” I offered.  “We could use a few things for dinner tonight.”

“That’s fine,” my wife responded, “I shouldn’t be long.”  This had not been the plan, but we went with it. She hopped out, I drove off.

Once in the supermarket, I resolved to make the most of this adjustment– buy some healthy snacks and any medicine my wife might request via text, and then head back to the clinic to pick her up.  Positioning the baby in the shopping cart, I immediately I noticed my other two girls wandering toward another aisle…away from the produce.  “Girls, let’s stay together,” I reminded them.

“But Papa, we want to show you something!”

“After we get the fruits and vegetables, okay?” I negotiated.

It turned out what they wanted to “show me” was something they had learned about at school- fruit roll-ups.  “Please, please!” they begged.  For the second time in just fifteen minutes, I found myself choosing another battle.  At the clinic it had been, “Do I force them to go inside? ” Here- do I tell them, “No, those are probably filled with high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that are not good for you!” Or do I cave? Again?

Driving home that night through the cold New England air, my wife asked, “Did you get them organic kind, at least?”  I shook my head.  I had caved.  Again.

 

Slice of Life Challenge day 11 #sol17

Listening to a few students debate reminded me of how important it is…

Title: “Debate”

“Yeah, but don’t you think all the money these companies make might be an incentive for them to do it?” Quite a shot across the bow, I thought.  Ensuing was a pretty impressive debate between two sixth graders about the appropriateness of animal testing for product safety.  Lorelei had just fired off a powerful and provocative question here.  Her partner, Samantha, smirked and looked down at her laptop.  “It says right here…” continued Lorelei, citing evidence of millions of dollars the pharmaceutical industry shells out for animal testing.

Redirecting the conversation, Samantha asserted, “Okay, but remember, they’re animals.   They’re mice.  And there are millions of mice in the world!  We are people, and this testing helps keep us safe.”  Whoa, good point, I thought.

This was just the beginning of a more independent bend of argument writing work, but already these writers were beginning to form some solid ideas around which they might organize some powerful writing.  How were they doing that?  Debate.

Debate is just so fun, so engaging.  Middle school kids probably do it all the time at home– why wouldn’t they love to do it school?  I was witnessing real engagement here, and it was awesome.

After a few minutes, the girls’ conversation quieted.  I jumped in.  “So,” I began, “who are you thinking you’ll send this writing to?”  Both girls looked at me like I had just sprouted two heads.  “You know,” I continued, “who will be your audience?”

“Well,” stammered Lorelei, “I guess the pharmaceutical companies.  But I wasn’t planning on writing for them.”

“What if you did?” I quizzed.  “How would that affect your writing, do you think?”

“Oh, well, that would kind of make it harder, I would think,” she mused.  “Probably better, though.”

Yes, probably better.

 

Slice of Life Challenge day 10 #sol17

Supporting writers at the right level is no easy job…

Title: “Support”

Settling in a chair next to Emma, I trained my eyes on the SmartBoard.  Projected on the screen were sentence frames for crafting claims for an eighth grade literary essay.  After demonstrating a way to harness the sentences frames, the teacher was now asking  students to try out one of the frames themselves to create a claim.  Turning my attention back to Emma, I watched as she put the tip of her pencil to a page in her writer’s notebook (always a glorious sight in my book) and began jotting something, her face knotted into a look of focus and concentration.

After recapping the lesson, the teacher then requested that her writers all chat with their writing partners about setting a goal for themselves for writing time.  Emma had finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I listened as she voiced her goal to her partner. She wanted to create a solid claim on which she could build an author’s craft essay.  Great.  Perfect goal. From her conversation with her partner, I could tell she wanted specifically to write about the symbolism of the mockingbird, but wasn’t quite sure how.

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“May I see what you have so far, Emma?” I asked.  I had known Emma from years before as a sixth grader.  Although I didn’t get to know her well, due to the fact I am the reading consultant for my building and not in a classroom teacher position, I knew her as a strong reader and a deep thinker.  As I leaned over to read her draft claim, I could see that she was trying to write something about the symbolism of the mockingbird, an innocent bird that is yet still hunted by society (cue the connection to the current political atmosphere).

“I want to say something about how society expects people to be a certain way,” she explained.  Pressing her lips together, she paused.  “I think in this book the author shows that society just sees people in narrow ways, and people are sort of…” she trailed off.  “I’m not sure what I want to say,” she said, returning her gaze to her notebook.

What struck me in that moment was the level of sophistication, task persistence, and deep thinking this girl was grasping for.  My thoughts instantly began to coalesce around an important consideration: what level of support ought I provide? I knew she was struggling, and yet I also knew with the right level of support she could craft the claim she really wanted.  “Emma, may I show you how another writer wrote about symbolism?” I offered. Emma leaned over her desk, as I brought out another student’s essay.  We studied a mentor essay I had brought with me, and she was able to see that sometimes writers can show how one concept, like ‘hope’ or ‘innocence’, is brought to light through different craft moves.  “Oh, I see,” she said.  After a moment of silent thinking, her pencil was down again, moving swiftly across the snowy white paper.

Her next attempt proved a little better, but again, I was unsure of the next step in this conference.

I want to stress here that this writing conference was hard for me.  I struggled.  What was the right level of support for this advanced writer and thinker? I kept asking myself. How do I teach this writer and not just “fix” her writing?

Eventually, she settled on a draft claim she felt pretty good about, and the bell rang.  I walked away with two thoughts that day.  One: how often are teachers able to devote energy to kids like Emma?  When the standardized testing culture dictates that each student jump over this bar, do kids like Emma lose out?  After all, she’s over the bar.  Way over.  So for us, it is easy to just let those kids fend for themselves, right?  She’ll be fine…won’t she?  Two:  providing the best and most appropriate level of support is a tricky process that never seems to fit neatly into any one box.  How did I do with Emma?  I don’t know, honestly.  But she did thank me.  Perhaps she learned something.  I know I did.

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Slice of Life Challenge day 9 #sol17

Heroism can spring forth in unlikely places…

Title: “Heroism”

I spoke with my mom Tuesday night.  She’s a teacher in a fairly large community college in Oregon.  Her students are immigrants, all women, many of them mothers, working hard to earn credentials in Early Childhood Education so that they can one day play a prominent role in the lives of children here in the U.S.  My mother speaks of them often, about their dedication, their work ethic.  And about the new fear they feel in our country.

She told me a few nights ago she exited the classroom briefly to run a few copies in a room down the hall.  While running the copies, she suddenly overheard shouting.  It was a man’s voice, unfamiliar, and it seem to be emanating from her classroom. “That’s strange,” she thought.  She didn’t recognize the voice.

Attuning her ears, she began to make out words and phrases like, “Go back to Mexico!  You know, they’re over at the grocery store right now rounding up people like you and deporting them!  You should be over there, our country doesn’t need you!”  Horrified, my mother quickly left the copy room and hurried back to class.

Entering the room, she looked around.  The owner of the vile voice had slipped out and was no longer there.  Her students all sat like statues, some visibly shaken.  “What is going on?” my mom asked the statues.  Silence. No response.  As her eyes scanned the room, the fear in their eyes was plain, stark.  No one spoke.  “Remember, I promised you I am someone you can trust,” my mom reassured the students softly, probably holding her anger in check– for now.  “What happened?” she repeated.  At that point, a few of them began to slowly explain that a man had entered the room shortly after my mom had left for the copy room.  Upon entering, he suddenly began unleashing an unsolicited verbal assault, some of which is recounted above.

“We’re going next door,” my mom announced.  “Let’s go.”  Taking the lead, my mother stalked out of the room, into the hall, and knocked on the classroom door adjacent to hers,  her students reluctantly in tow.  The instructor next door was reluctant to allow her entrance, citing how ‘busy her class was presently.’  “This can’t wait,” my mom insisted.  And so she and her students were all allowed entrance into the room.  With the help of her immigrant students, my mom identified a man sitting in the front row.  White.  Male.  Mid-forties, most likely.  Maybe 50.  “Do you have any idea what you have just caused?” my mother seethed.

The following moments ensued with my mother insisting her students share how his words had made them feel.  Right to his face.  She reports that he then mumbled something during the pause where an apology would have been appropriate- but she didn’t think it was an apology.  Upon returning to their own class, it was agreed to keep the door of my mom’s room locked from now on.  There would be a secret knock for entrance. This must never happen again.

Later, an incident report was filed.  And Thursday the college is hosting a “Rights of Immigrants” forum.  And the dean emailed my mom, thanking her for “protecting her students.” And… yeah…what will change?  Now that this type of behavior is modeled, condoned, and championed from the highest ranks of our republic, what will matter when it comes to curbing impulsive, hateful behavior like this?

But that day, my mother was a hero.  She stood for the rights and decency of all humanity, and for the promise of this country.  She committed an act of social justice.  In the face of bigotry, she said no.  She stood up for those welcomed here by the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and all our ancestors.  She stood up for immigrants.  And it is likely that those hard-working and lovely students in her class feel, perhaps, a little less fearful now. At the very least, they know someone cares about them.

I’m so proud of my mom today.