Gathering the Light

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle”. Walt Whitman

I love dressing up my house for Christmas. In fact, it may just be my most favorite part of this crazy season. Sure I love seeing people, and finding the perfect gifts and the season of giving and all of that, but there is nothing more creatively satisfying then just being alone in my home and making it merry and bright.

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This year I am obsessed with little lights. I have spent more money on lights than anything else…yet. (I haven’t actually even started my shopping yet!) There is something about lighting up every room with twinkling lights that make it feel…dare I say, like sacred space. Lighting up each room combats the shortness of light we get this time of year.

If you have never lived in New England then it is hard to imagine these days, as they grow shorter and shorter. Your every fiber craves sunshine and warmth.  Your hibernation switch turns on and you have to make yourself leave your warm cave.

But this year I seem to be better at embracing these dark days and seeing them as an opportunity to create. I find great comfort on my couch next to the sparkling Christmas tree. There is peace here. There is nothing I “have” to do, other than work.  The spirit of the empty nest has taken over and I find myself incredibly peaceful in that I don’t have to think about anyone or anything else other than myself. I don’t know if I have ever experienced this before and while I am sure that I must have in my youth, this feels very different. It is liberating and while I love and miss my kids, I am also settling into a space of my own where I am not constantly worrying and trying to fix things as much as I trust them to make their ways in the world. How cool is that?

Trust is something I have been thinking a lot about. There is so little trust in this crazy world it seems. We have to “prove” everything beyond the shadow of a doubt with numbers and statistics. My yoga helps remind me every day of how incredibly simple life could be if only we trusted that things will be the way they are to be. They just are and it is not up to us to try to “fix” everything.

This incessant “fixing” has taken over our schools and in that need to always fix, fix, fix we miss what is working. We miss those faces staring up at us from their desks, little sponges ready and waiting and all we are doing is running around trying to identify their deficits and thus putting out the little lights that are within each of them. It is a dark time in education. I really believe this to be true. It is dark because it is rampant with fear, high stakes and lack of humanity, but perhaps it will be in this time of darkness that greatness will emerge. “Out of darkness comes light…”

Recently I have even heard myself saying that I am not long for this work. This work that I love because of the heavy shadows that seems to hide in every corner, and then I have a class with a group of bright people who give me hope and help me to hang on…

I pulled out of the parking lot and into a glow of gorgeous pinks, oranges and hues of blues. The kind of sky you only wish you could capture in some way, but words and watercolors fall short of the miracle of what it is. And so I savor it as I drive home, breathing in every changing landscape bathed in such a beautiful sunset, trumpeting out this day in a glorious celebration of light dancing with light.

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I smile at the sky and at the conversation left behind minutes earlier and wonder how did I get so lucky to do this “work”? Work isn’t even a good word for it because I love it so much. Work implies that it is grueling and hard, but for me it is just a natural flow of who I am, a better extension of myself than I am or ever could be in my ordinary life.

And in this darkness I find light. In my teachers, in their students, in the fact that they want to be there to discuss, to explore, to learn, to converse, to connect, to find support, to be together on a dark afternoon in December to look beyond the darkness and into the light in each other’s eyes. They light up my life.

Light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Opposites that are always living side by side. Without one we would not have the other and so in the spirit of the season I choose to see the light, the good and the right knowing their counterparts are right there alongside them allowing us the gift of seeing the grey in between because in the end it is both. It is always both and everything in between.   Who or what is the light in your life?

“All is calm, all is bright.”

Mother and Daughter and Leukemia: Writing Heals…

I have been talking about a writing project with my daughter Emma for years now about our experience with leukemia.  Today she sent me this piece and instantly I thought about  piece I had written and submitted to the This I Believe website.  My idea is to put our writing together matching our stories as seen through each other’s eyes.  The reason we haven’t done this is because I am reticent to open up my vault of pages to her.  I always protected her from whatever I could and yet she will be 21 in June.   We both have done so much healing through our writing and our audience would be other families experiencing illness.

These pieces also make me think about what the world would be like if we saw each other as others see us.

Love, Laugher and Leukemia

By Mother

I believe in the power of change. I believe in going with the flow and embracing flexibility, fear, not knowing and inspiration through the process of change. I believe we cannot wait to do what is best because all we may have is today. I believe in passion and inspiration and impulsivity. I believe in intuition and improvisation as we work each moment to make it matter. I believe we have one life and one life only. This is not a dress rehearsal and so we must strive for every moment to count. I believe in joy, laughter and fun. I believe we can have all of these things as we embrace the process of life that is forever changing whether we like it or not. I believe there is so much in life that we cannot control that we should strive to make the very best of the things that we can! I believe that life is hard, but stories and laughter and connections with others make it worthwhile. And even though I believe all of these things and more, I still have to make an effort to do all of these things myself whether it is in each day, each hour or each moment. I believe we are here not to forget, but to work to always remember how lucky we really are. And that, my dear friends, is not always easy.

January 20, 1997, Emma was diagnosed with leukemia at the tender age of three and a half. This was the day I was redefined in ways I would never be able to comprehend. That day I left my class of 5th graders and never returned to the classroom as a full-time teacher. That day I was no longer a “normal” mom attending story hour. Playgrounds and swings were replaced with hospital hallways and medical procedures. Play dates and monkey bars were replaced with visiting hours and IV poles. That day leukemia moved into our lives and refused to leave. It set its big ass right down on the couch, cracked open a beer and settled in for the long haul. You could feel his presence when you walked in the door. He was there and whatever I tried to do I could not get him to leave fast enough. It was out of my control. There were days I never showered, days I thought I could not bear the suffering of my curly red-haired, pudgy handed baby and the absence of my 8 month old Zachary. But I did. I just did.

And after four and half years of living in fear, the unthinkable happened. Yes, the unthinkable does happen. Emma was 6 months to being declared “cured” when she relapsed. Yes six lousy months away from freedom and we found ourselves again put in the shackles of a diseased life. It was unbearable. Any ground we had made was gone, forgotten, as new protocols, names of chemotherapies, and the new idea of radiation to her head and spine were thrown at me I could not dodge them as I lodged myself into a corner in of a dark room at Mass General hospital and I just cried, rocking myself back and forth, back and forth knowing that I could not, would not be able to do this again. This and more. I could not do it. I knew it. But I did. I had no choice.

And for every platitude that was thrown at me in the name of comfort I can only reply. God DOES give people more than they can handle…trust me…this was too much. I am NOT a better person for having experienced this. I liked myself just fine thank you before this all happened. I am just a different person. We all have shit. It just comes in different forms. What we don’t have is control. It is not in our power. And as much as we want and yearn to think we have control the truth is that we just don’t. What we do have is the power to embrace each moment for what it is. In the same way we must treasure each individual for who they are and not who we want them to be. We must have our eyes open at all times so that we don’t miss the beauty that resides within the shit.

I can still see my beautiful bald baby sitting in the oversized hospital bed wearing her blue and white silk panda bear pajamas smiling over at me and telling me our new favorite show was on. I would laugh and settle in next to her as we watched those chosen ones run through the aisles of a mock grocery store and try to find items faster than their opponents. The show was as ridiculous as our lives had become, but being with her in that moment was a reality I was comfortable with. I had to accept that I myself could not control the cancer, but I could try to have some control of making it a better journey, to roll with her emotions, to laugh together, cry together, play cards for hours on end, do crafts, read and anything else you can imagine doing. And eventually…very eventually we settled onto the couch and pushed leukemia over and made room for ourselves on that couch too. It was not easy. But we did it.

And so this story that has been written. This story that defined me for so long, for so many years, it not my story any longer… It is a part of my history. It has been written. It is done. And so we move forward to the next story that is unwritten and the one after that knowing that we are all going to die. It is just a fact and looking death square in the blue eyes of my Emma I know this to be true. So we might as well laugh, create new stories, cry, go with the flow, take risks, be free, love, live and try to accept what life has to offer…if even for just a moment.

Emma, 8 years old with Dr. Weinstein and Patricia.

Emma, 8 years old with Dr. Weinstein and Patricia.

Luxury, Laughter and Leukemia

by Daughter, Emma

“Don’t tell Daddy,” I whispered, leaning forward to slip the words in her ear. The plump red strawberry was clasped between pudgy fingers like a jewel. I brought it to my lips, and the juice squelched as I bit down, slightly sour, but mostly sweet. Strawberry bliss in fluffy white heaven. My temporary heaven: an oversized bucket of cool-whip fresh for the dipping. Mom smiled, and I giggled, giddy. It was the first thing that tasted right in days. The container of ripe red strawberries lay entangled in the hospital sheets beside us. I licked my hands, sticky and pink, destroying the evidence. We were all alone in the white-walled hospital room on the seventeenth floor, the beeping pagers and shuffling rush of the doctors shut out by the thick wooden door. I leaned in close to her, ignoring the tug of the IV in my chest, and whispered, “Don’t tell Daddy!” At three years old, my mom was already my best friend.

We are “freakishly close.” My mother and I. I tell her everything, which I realize is odd for someone my age. We like to call ourselves the Gilmore Girls. It’s us against the world. Sure we don’t have the hundred- mile-an-hour banter down pat yet, and I still haven’t acquired a taste for coffee, but there’s no doubt there are similarities. I am the over-achieving, school-obsessed Rory, and she is my totally-awesome, life-loving Lorelei. We treasure our cozy pizza and movie nights, and dream of seeing the world together.

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Crunch. Crunch. Crrrunch! The snow beneath my feet is unpredictable, supporting my weight in some places, and in others collapsing completely. Our mission: to cross the tundra that is the Exeter soccer field. It is slow going. With every other step, I find myself up to my knees in snow. Even our golden retriever, Ruby, isn’t enjoying her walk as much as usual. She plods behind in our footsteps, leaving the difficult work to us. Deceivingly steady footfalls give way to sinking collapses. Step by step, side by side, we start out on our expedition.

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At three and a half years old, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I underwent chemotherapy and went into remission, where I remained for nearly five years. I relapsed the summer after second grade. To completely eradicate the mutilated cells from my body, I had multiple surgeries, weeks of radiation, and barrels of Gatorade-colored chemo injected into me. I spent countless hours at Mass General Hospital, and for almost every one of those hours Mom was at my side. Like I said. Me and her. Against the world.

As long as she was there, and as long as the visits didn’t involve the “dizzy medicine” or too many unexpected tests, the overnight hospital stays weren’t that bad. I remember telling Mom this once before chemo treatment. She looked at me quizzically. “Really? Why?”

“Because, I feel like, when I’m there, everyone sort of treats me like I’m a princess,” I replied.   And it was true. My favorite nurses, the child life specialist who worked in the playroom, even one of the cooks that frequently delivered my meals and snuck us extra desserts. But most of all, Mom made my experience in the hospital better than bearable, special even. We lived there for much of the time, and she turned it into strange home, splattering the room with color. Those overnight stays were almost like secret getaways where I got exclusive time with my favorite person.

I guarded this time together fiercely. My dad constantly offered to stay with me in the hospital so that my mom could spend more time with my baby brother and sleep in her own bed. But, I was stubborn. She was my knight, jester and beloved queen. She knew the drill. And we had secret traditions to uphold.

Mass General closed-circuit TV only had about ten channels, half of which were news. In the morning, cartoons were on PBS, but at night the options were much more limited. Mom and I learned to love the most absurd shows, such as Supermarket Sweep. Late at night, after Dad and Zach had left, along with the majority of doctors and nurses, Mom would curl up next to me in the dark, and we’d watch fools race around grocery stores for money. It was just one of the little luxuries of life stuck in the hospital that we discovered, just the two of us.

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When I tell people that I had cancer, I feel as if I am just asking for their pity. And yes, it was horrible much of the time. Needles, surgeries, nausea, radiation, head rushes, losing my hair, feeling weak, being unable to walk, extremely high fevers. But, I know that I would not be nearly as close to my mother as I am today if we hadn’t gone through those experiences together. No matter how hard I try, I can’t fathom a life without her by my side.

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“So, I don’t think you’re allowed to leave me next year,” Mom exclaims. Our march through the tundra isn’t getting any easier. The vast white plains seem to extend for miles ahead. “This means I’m going to have to live alone with just boys!” She looks over at me, pausing to give me a disgusted ‘they-have-cooties’ face. I chuckle.

“Yep” I reply. “I feel bad for you.” My foot plunges through the top layer of icy snow to yet another unseen hole in the ground. We are following the paths of two previous explorers, thinking it must be easier to follow in their footprints.   The trails run parallel behind us, but out ahead they begin to diverge slightly.

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I am not my mother. So many people after meeting us insist that we look exactly alike. But I don’t see myself as my Mom. Whereas I fantasize about fame, glam, and changing the world in one fell swoop, she is happy pleasing herself and the people around her, helping one person at a time. I prefer fantasy and sci-fi, and dreaming up new worlds, while she prefers memoirs and realistic fiction. However, she sparked my love of books and writing to begin with. She taught me that I have a voice worth hearing.

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One night when all four of us were home together, our parents put me and my brother to bed. Feeling better than normal, I was bouncing around the bathroom and in the hallway with Zach before Mom and Dad made us retreat to our own rooms. It was the usual routine. Dad would lie with Zach while he fell asleep, and Mom would rub my back, usually until she fell asleep. She sang to me. Jonathan Edwards and Carole King were my lullabies. Her words would fade to whispers as she drifted into dream world.

On this night, before she turned off the lights, I rolled over and looked straight into her soft, blue eyes. “Mumma?” I asked. “Am I going to die?” The question had just occurred to me for the first time, and surprisingly, it didn’t scare me. But I wanted to know, and, no older than four, I looked for her guidance as I had with everything else. I knew she would have the answer, just like she had the answers to all the rest.

“Do you think you’re going to die?” She looked right back at me, never flinching or looking away.   Her voice was tender, inquiring, soothing. She was asking me, I realized. And suddenly, the power had shifted over to me. My opinion mattered, in this moment, more than anything else. I had the last say, and my reply truly was the right answer.

“No.” And I didn’t.

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I was absent for most of third grade, worn out from treatment, infections and trips to Boston. Even when I did make it in, I hardly ever stayed for the entire day. When I was home, I lived on the green woolen couch in our wine-colored living room. I watched endless hours of mindless television, too tired and queasy even to read my favorite books. Nancy Drew and Harry Potter – the mysteries remained unsolved.

The pile of schoolwork next to me grew higher and higher. I looked at it with disgust, as if I was staring at my own weakness. Used to being one of the smartest in the class, I had no idea what any of those handouts and worksheets were about. Dad encouraged me on the days when I didn’t go to school to try and make a dent in the pile, and I tried. But the lessons in the books were impenetrable, and my endurance never lasted long. Everything was different in my world. I was losing control. Even my room seemed like a distant memory. Dolls left untouched, and toys left unorganized. One time I crawled to the top of the stairs and cried. I was helpless and worn and everything in my own home seemed foreign, every task like work.

“Listen to your body.” Mom would say. I knew best what I could do, and therefore I had the last say. She gave me the power to stand up and speak for myself. I let the pile grow; resting was the first priority.

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Throwing down my hundred-pound backpack, I made the house shake. Mom asked how my weekend looked, and I replied with the usual complaints and a long list of things to do. It’s the first week of winter term, but it feels like I never left. So much to do. So little time.

She looked at the backpack, bulging at the seams on the floor, and then up at my worn face. “I dare you, at some point before you graduate, to get a bad grade in a class.” Then she said, “Let’s take the dog for a walk in the snow.”

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My mother is a free spirit. As my dad says, when he first met her she was a “granola.” Long, frizzy, dirty-blonde hair and baggy, earthy-toned clothes. She’s known since she was a toddler she wanted to be a teacher, and her passions have always been literature and writing.  Although her hair is shorter now, and her clothes blend in a little better, my mother is still pretty much a hippie. Our house is filled with words: books, framed poetry, and wall hangings that say “believe,”“hope,” and “intend.” Peace signs and angel cards, heart-shaped rocks collected from the beach, and cairns. She is powerful and very opinionated.   She isn’t afraid to share, argue and defend her claims before eventually agreeing to disagree. She believes in the power of intention; that if we just believe in something enough, it will happen.

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“They’re slobs! And they’re going to drive me crazy! Who am I going to complain to once you’re gone?” Her voice is shrill, and slips even higher at the end as she pulls her foot out of a particularly deep footprint.

“I know, right?” Part of my sarcasm is lost as I call back to her. Her face has turned red from the effort. Our different routes have spread several feet apart now, and up ahead the crusty powder is almost untouched. The paths already trodden have all but disappeared. It’s up to us now to pave our own ways.

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The hospital was an unanticipated safe-haven for us. Mom was less worried about something going wrong, and for me, the contrasts between sick and healthy became less apparent. When I was there, I could concentrate on getting better. I didn’t have to compare myself to my former self, or to others around me. In the hospital I was still weak, but no one saw it. Within those walls, I was normal, or better than normal, a princess.

I hated food. Another one of the glorious effects of chemotherapy is that it changes your taste buds. I lost half of by body weight. My favorite foods, pizza included, tasted simply wrong, and time after time, I struck out. I would have sudden epiphanies, when random meals or snacks would become obsessions. That one thing I hadn’t tried – it just might be the one thing that still tasted the same. Pasta with cheese and butter, goldfish (which my uncle went on a wild goose chase to find in Boston), chicken pot pie, and humus replaced pizza, grilled cheese, and peanut butter and jelly. Mom did whatever it took to get me to eat. Even if it meant strawberries and cool whip for lunch. I was the princess.

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The princess sometimes had to leave the tower.   Unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth floors that had become familiar and which were filled with smiling faces waiting to please me, the waiting and pre-surgery rooms on the lower floors of the hospital were scary. None of my little comforts were allowed in this cold, swift-moving wing. The moment we got there we were swept into a changing room where I had to strip off all of my own clothes and replace them with a stiff hospital gown that left me cold and exposed. My parents had to wear alienating blue scrubs and masks. The room down the hall was filled with machines, and abnormally tall hospital beds. Once I was placed on top of one, I was trapped. And everyone and everything whizzed along around me. The colorful bears and balloons painted on the walls were more creepy than comforting. A preschool gone wrong. Mom’s concerned eyes and liquid voice were my only consolations.

I despised the anesthesia and the entire prepping process. I was hysterical in my fear. I knew what was coming and I never got used to it. An alien doctor pulled up a stool and a syringe and ejected fluid into my IV that sent my head spinning. The medicine immediately vibrated the insides of my brains. Mom’s voice and firm hand in mine began to fade as I squeezed my eyes shut and struggled to remain conscious. I was leaving her, and there was nothing I could do about it. Washing away, it was all I could do to keep her there. I called out to her, begging for her to help me, to come to my rescue like always as I slipped away. “I’m diiiizzzzyyyyyy….!!!!”

I would awake from those artificial slumbers in a completely different place. The nurses once again were smiley and eager to provide ginger ale and saltine crackers. The happy bears were gone, and the world was no longer in a hurry to send me away. Post-op was filled with new faces, new setup, and new wallpaper. But she was still there by my side. I always came back, and she was always there waiting. Her tired face flush with relief. Her soft fingers laced with mine. When the groggy left my head, we started talking about the shopping trips that we would take after. Wherever I wanted to go. The Christmas Tree Shop was my reward.

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I had a lot of nightmares when I was sick. I would wake up in my room at home, and have visions of giant alien monsters coming to get me. Sweaty, my heart pounding, and frozen with fear, I would scream and scream down the stairs, calling out for my Mommy, my savior. Enclosed in her arms, nothing could go wrong. I was safe from all the nightmares and from harsh reality as well. Vanquishing the monsters and returning to peace.

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“Wanna Gee-Gee?” is a common question in our house. We own all the seasons, and have watched them all the way through multiple times. We plop down on the couch, and snuggle up under a blanket, our toes still cold from the walk. I switch on the DVD player, and we start belting out the theme song. “If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold…” She shivers as she takes a sip of hot tea, and we both smirk as we catch each other’s eyes.

It still hasn’t hit me yet that I am a senior. Although I am definitely beginning to understand senioritis, I haven’t really started thinking that much about leaving next year. I guess I am in denial. Although I spend the majority of my time on campus when school is in session, I am still a day student, and in many ways a homebody. I have left home before, for summer camp, and I know that I can make it on my own. I know I can carry the huge backpack around day after day. She has taught me to be strong. Still, I am afraid to leave her, to venture into the white unknown alone. My consolation is knowing that when I return, she will always be there, waiting. “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all I’ve got to do is call, and she’ll be there.”

 

Emma and I on her 16th birthday.

Emma and I on her 16th birthday.

You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Bad Raps: In Poetry, Social Media and Of Course, The Common Core

Poetry and Social Media have both had their share of bad raps.

The poetry of our (collective) past was often presented as something that was only available to those chosen few who may or may not find the many levels of hidden meanings tucked in between the lines.  Every time I bring poetry to my teachers, there is a group squirm in the room as everyone shifts in their seats and falls back into their past experiences with poetry.

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You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.
– Joseph Joubert

Poetry was not available and many hold fast to the belief that it still isn’t.  But thanks to modern day poets such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and even those of old such as e.e. cummings, poetry can be accessible to all.  With a little patience and practice some even come to enjoy poetry.

We just need to shift out of our old habit of thinking we “won’t get it” and realize that what we take from the poem is enough.  It may just be the sound of the words or how they are arranged; it may be a line that strikes the soul, or an adverse reaction to an image.  Whatever it is, it is for us.  Poetry can move people to their own “edges” if you will, asking them to work and think a little bit more and little bit harder, what does that mean?

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”  Khalil Gibran

Social Media has also gotten a bad rap, especially when we are having conversations about our youth.  And while we might be concerned about the growing evolutionary thumbs of this next generation and their inability to communicate face to face without a device are worthy concerns, there is the upside to this wonderful world of technology.

One is the meeting of poetry and social media I encountered these past couple of weeks as poetry swept it’s way onto Facebook and flooded my feed with fabulous poets and poetry.  The way it worked was simple.  Read a poem posted by a friend and if you liked that poem they would send you a poet and you in turn posted a poem by that assigned poet.

I can only wonder how many hits poetry.org and other such sites got this poetry month.  It was a treat to go onto Facebook wondering what poem or poet you would see next.  It was also interesting to see what new poets might come up.  And even if the poem was one I knew, it was nice to be revisited by old favorites.  Some even went so far as to research their assigned poet, posting photos and biographical information as well as a poem.    There were side conversations about how many poets some knew and how thrilled others were to be introduced to new poets.  Others felt “out of their league” but quickly immersed themselves in  finding the perfect poem.  Some began the process of identification as one who likes and dare I even say might consider writing poetry.

I can’t tell you how many poems I added to my poetry folder for future teaching!  There was  a crazy wonderful poetry community created through social media with people across the country that never would have been possible without social media.  It was, if I may say so myself, pretty damn cool!

And then we come to the Common Core where poetry is not mentioned, named or listed in any categories in the entire document.  And while the intent was not to eliminate poetry, that is the interpretation of many.  Schools are reading this document as a curriculum even when it clearly states that it is NOT!  But the subtle, or not so subtle message underlying the omission of poetry is that what is not listed will not be tested; therefore precious time will not be wasted teaching it.  Schools without Shel Silvserstien, Prelutsky, Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne, and Sharon Creech will be very sad places.

While I realize you have all heard me rant and rave on about the CCSS nation wide hold on education, I do not believe I have given it’s history justice and so I direct you here to a link where Diane Ravitch lays out the history of the Common Core and it’s daunting predecessors.

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Diane Ravitch

I believe this history gives context to why we are where we are and how incredibly insipid it is.  I believe anyone who has any stock in the public educational system needs to read this.  I would like to see this article go viral.  The more we know the more we can begin to understand what is at stake.

And so I leave you with my assigned poet (by the fabulous Children’s poet, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, who you must check out at this link) and the words of ee cummings:  enjoy, savor and just take it in for what it is, let it linger on your tongue for the sweetness that it is and nothing more or less.

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e.e. cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

I Will Wade Out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

And as the world goes, I read this post to my daughter, Emma and she reminded me that her choir in High School sang this poem as composed by Eric Whitacre.  Love the connections!  And while we don’t have a recording of her choir, here is a youtube link to another choir singing it.  Glorious!

I Will Wade Out

Learning as a Deeply Personal Experience: On Teaching Readers and Writers

The buzz of Mentor Texts has been around for quite a while now and while I like this idea, what I don’t like is that our young writers are often instructed to use a particular mentor text for a given time as assignments.  Using a particular structure to do this, instead of exposing them to a variety of ideas and texts and then helping and guiding our students to figure out what would work best for them, the writers.

What would happen if we asked our young writers to first think about what it was they wanted to say, to write about, to read about, to discover and then come up with the best way to express this?

When my daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia I kept a journal and wrote down every single little detail of our experience.  It was exhausting to get onto those pages all that I felt I needed to.  Her every reaction to every drug, the times she received the doses, the different emotions experienced, missing my 8 month old at home.   I quickly fell behind and was angry that I was missing so much of what I thought I needed to get down, in the name of control.

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Book of Poetry by Dan Rothermel

 And then one day someone brought me this small book called, Sweet Dreams, Robyn written by Dan Rothermel.  It is a collection of poems he wrote about his daughter with cancer.  This book transformed my writing life.  Suddenly, I had the permission and allowed myself to write in poetry finding it easier to get down all that I wanted to without getting muddled in all of the pros it took.  In the words of my Dad, “less is more” in writing.

With the death of my father I had this same experience as I was meandering through the blog world I found a blog that just spoke to me.  She writes a fictional piece about the death of her mother and says,

“It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.”

Her mentor  Wallace Stevens gave her what she needed to capture what she wanted to write in fiction and I instantly knew that this too would be the perfect way for me to capture and process my father dying.  Snippets of strong images that I needed to get down on paper and so her blog became my mentor text.  It was more than perfect.

You can find her blog at  http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/

So here is my version, based on the ideas I stole from her that she stole from Wallace Stevens. 

13 Ways of Looking at Death Just Before, During and After

I

I called him on the phone, his voice weak and wavering as his hand fought to keep the phone still.   “Hey Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Bad.  This is Bad.  What I have is really bad.”  I cringe, as I know he knows it is bad.  Sepsis.  Blood infection on top of pneumonia not to mention his COPD, heart disease and diabetes…

He has never said it was bad before.  He always said,  “It is getting better.

It is bad.

 

II

His oxygen cord lies on the dirty floor as it takes her a moment to realize there are no lines crossing his face, lines of plastic jewelry tubes that have become as permanent as his glasses.  He is not getting any air.

And she wonders…just how long has he been without oxygen?

She calls the nurse and insists he gets a new one.  Nurse never responds to the absence of his air or how long he has been without it.

Idiots.

 

III 

She is alone with him, Red Sox images flashing in the dark room, sound blaring while she simultaneously plays Candy Crush.    He wakes, peers over and says, ”You are still here?  I really appreciate that.”

I smile. 

And we go on like that for hours.

The Sox won.

Won the AL East Title.  He is not aware.

She hoped it was a good sign.

She is always looking for signs.

 

IV

Today is a good day.  He is out of bed, sitting up in the hospital chair as she enters.  He starts talking, “You know I sat up all night trying to remember the kids names.”

She thinks it must be all of the grandkids that he is forgetting…he continues…

“I know I have 3 kids.  2 daughters and a son.”

“Yes that is right” she replies, as he looks up at her and says, “The first daughter is Lisa.” 

“Yes Dad, Lisa is your first daughter.”

“Then there is another one, you, what is your name?”

Her 10-year-old self emerges and screams inside, YOU named me Dad!! Don’t you remember?  I have the coolest name in the world because YOU made it up. 

That’s enough of this name game.

We gotta get him the hell out of this hospital.

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Me, My Dad and Lisa

 

V

My once virile father sits perched on the kitchen island pursing for air.  How did he get in the house so quickly?  My brother in law carried him in, like a baby in his arms, but he was amazed at just how heavy he really was, all  filled up with 9 days of hospital IV fluids so he had to stop to rest.

We still laugh at the absurdity of my Dad sitting with his feet swinging on the kitchen counter.  Who says you don’t go backwards?

He then carries him the next leg into the bed where he will remain until he dies.

 

VI

Each breath is a struggle and you can tell it actually hurts.  Never mind when he coughs.  He just wants to feel better, but he doesn’t really as he tries to negotiate in his head that he is now home and how he thought being home would make him feel better…but he doesn’t.  Now what?  You can see it coursing across his forehead like the GMA banner in Times Square.  Now what?  Now what?  Now what?

 

VII

Doctor came to the house.  Yes, in 2013 a Doctor actually came to meet the needs of his patient.   There is a God.  (See previous post on Systems)

Dad chose hospice.  Visions of nurses, social workers and support at our side danced her head as she wondered…does he really know what he is choosing?

She is sent up to the Local Colonial Pharmacy to get the “hospice kit”.  A box filled with drugs and lots of other things medical that you don’t want to know about never mind even think about using.

She is the chosen one to give her father his first dose of comfort packaged in a needless syringe to be administered orally.  Flashbacks of shoving chemo filled syringes disguised in chocolate pudding to her 3 and a half-year-old smack her in the face. 

Click…she re-enters that mode and just does what she has to do.  She has been here before and she just does it.  Nurse Ratched is back in the house. 

VIII

My brother arrives a few minutes after giving my Dad the morphine. 

The pill that he was begging for. 

The morphine that I was afraid of. 

The morphine that came without the nurses and the social workers and the volunteers to help us through this process.  

Where in the hell were those hospice people she had heard so many wonderful stories about? 

All they got was hospice in a box that had to be refrigerated.

 It was just My Mom and I with my Dad yelling at us, “Will you just give it to me for God’s sake, I don’t  care if it is the wrong dose.”

 He begged for relief as we became more and more agitated and unsteady in the moment, dropping syringes, reading and rereading the prescription and even calling the pharmacist. 

And finally I  just gave it to him as he gasped for air and I suddenly realized we too had been as negligent as the hospital.

His oxygen tank had run out.  No wonder he was desperate for something.  How many ways are there to torture a man?

And they left the room when her brother arrived. 

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Jamie and Dad

IX

Morphine overdose.  Her brother horrified that we left him alone with a his father who was fine and talking with him one minute and then was suddenly hallucinating and trying to get out of bed.  His strength mammoth as my mother got in bed behind him to restrain him.  He could not walk on those big boats of feet filled with fluid. 

I call the VNA.  I reach out for those hospice people who were supposed to be there and tell him we need help ASAP!!!!! 

He responds that giving morphine is an “art” and not that you gave him too much but that if he had been there he would have started with a lower dose.  After telling her this for the 4th time she wants to reach out and punch him through the phone…then why the HELL would you hand it over to an amateur?

He arrives at the house and starts talking about the “art” of dosing morphine again!!!  She sees red and runs from him to avoid physically clobbering him.

Next Time…I give him ¼ of the recommended dose. 

Thank you, Honorary Dr. Brother James. It says you can give it every 30 minutes.  One quarter of a dose lasted him 12 hours. 

Insanity.

 

X

He lays in bed and sleeps, or so it seems, soundly for days on end.

The question dancing through the house…”when will it happen?”

The family has their own form of hospice in a “Come to Jesus” kind of scene from a bad Lifetime Movie.  We all give him permission to go, hands on, tears flying.  Sister Lisa actually seems to be cheering him up to the pearly gates.  Everybody says their peace and then we all continue to sit with big red puffy eyes, exhausted and we wait.

He doesn’t go.

When will he go?

He doesn’t go.

From the background Cousin Anne tells us, “He isn’t going to go right now, it doesn’t happen like that.” And snaps us out of our delusions that we can will him to go in that moment.

XI

The sleepless nights wear on as brother and sister get up at different times to peek in to see my mother sleeping next to my yes, still breathing, father.

Exhaustion settles into the house and takes a seat on the couch alongside us.

Maybe he is not going anywhere.  Maybe he will live forever.

Meals are delivered.  They are all amazed at how they just show up and are so thankful because eating and food have not been on their radar.

Dad has not really eaten or had anything to drink for over 12 days.

Unless you count 4 little bird bites here and there.  I fed him his last scrambled egg from Lisa’s chickens a couple days ago.  No solid food since eating 5 bites of that egg.  No water.  Nothing.

How does the human body beat on?  Especially one we all thought was so fragile?

His Hands don’t even look like his anymore they are so filled up with fluid,  boxers hands.

Every moment stretches on as you wonder…when will his last breath be?  Who will be with him?  She wonders all of these things as she crawls into bed with him and rubs his back and quietly cries for her Daddy while the Red Sox blare on the radio from the bedside table next to us.  

“How can something so natural be so unnatural?”  son James wonders.

XII

She wakes at 8.  Walks downstairs past her sleeping brother and sees her mother making the bed around her father’s still body.   His breathing has changed.  It is short.  Very short.  She says, get the morphine.

I know I must give him him the rest of the syringe…the same dose I administered 5 days earlier…it was what he needed.  He was hardly breathing.

Mom is on his right.  She is on his left. 

He opens his eyes for the first time since the morphine began.  The biggest widest eyes you have ever seen and he looked over at my Mom and she said, “Look at those big beautiful brown eyes.  I love those eyes.  They have not been that open in years.  I wonder why none of you got those eyes?  I am the dominant one.”

“I always wished I had gotten those brown eyes I respond as his eyes then slowly trail to find me on the left.  He stares right at me for a moment and then it is as if he is looking to something beyond me.  He holds that gaze for what seems like forever before he moves his sights straight ahead and opens them even wider.  He was seeing the light.  He liked it.  He felt peaceful as he took one long deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Is that it?”  Mom and I looked at each other.  It seemed to be.  No pulse. 

And then out of nowhere one last little breath just to mess with us as we laughed. 

Dad died.

8:15 am on Sunday, September 29th, 2013.

It was beautiful.

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Dad and Mom taking flight on Chappy

 

XIII

She misses him.  They all miss him.  She is not sure what to do so she talks about him.  She remembers him.  She reads.  She writes about him.  She laughs at his Donald Duck impression stored away on her computer.  She shuffles through years of pictures and marvels at how great he looked for so long regardless of his health issues.  She thanks her Mom for keeping him so healthy for so long.  She misses him.  Every day.

He was a great man.

He had 9 lives. 

He lived every one of them fully.

He was her Dad.

 

 

I love this piece because for me it captures all that I want to remember and all that was there during this incredibly intense, scary, weird time.  I feel better after reading about others experiences and then writing my own.  

What would have happened had I been in a student in class and I was asked to write a recipe or a persuasive essay from one character in my assigned book to another when all I could think about was my Dad?  Do we consider the lives of our writers, where they are and what they have to say and what they are interested in reading about?

I would argue that right now we teach the writing and not the writers.  We teach the reading and not the readers.  We think about checking things off. Persuasive Essay, check, Informational Reading, check, Memoir, check, Close Reading, Check.

What would happen if we trusted and guided readers and writers to know, to figure out what it was they wanted to know more about, what they wanted to say and then focused on helping them discover the best way or ways to read about it and say it?  If we gave them the time to read others and think to themselves, “Hey, I could write something like that!”

Reading and Writing are my “go to’s” when I am trying to figure something out, process emotions, inform, wonder, preach, question, express, persuade, create, think, communicate, get lost and so many other things.  What if the goal of every reading and writing curriculum was to help our readers and writers see reading and writing as a “go to” and not just a series of assignments to be completed, but tools for life?

And while this all may seem incredibly personal for a blog on education, I believe I am finally finding my stride in that a real and true education is deeply personal. 

And I wonder…are we  afraid of this authenticity?  These truths? 

And even as I consider posting this, putting it out into the world, I question myself.  Do we want to hear or read these truths?  Why do I put it out there?  And while I know none of these answers I only know that I will…

 

Follow the link below to read my Dad’s obituary beautifully written by my sister, Lisa.

http://www.chadwickfuneralservice.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2263261&fh_id=12966 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Is…Totally NOT School!

As the days grow shorter I find myself reflecting on my summer work at UNH and for sure, the Writer’s Academy is always a highlight.  It is that one time in the year where I have a group of students for more than just an hour or two.  They are with me and my co-teacher and for an entire week and in that week we get to focus on just one subject, writing.  As a teacher this is a form of nirvana.  No grades, no homework, no behavior problems…just a bunch of shy, crazy, outgoing, creative, interesting, motivated, goofy, enthusiastic and yes sometimes even awkward writers coming together to write.  Or as defined by one 6th grader when asked to sum up their week in 3 words wrote on his poster “totally not school.”

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Giggling girls writing.

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Writing in nature’s classroom

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Writing Rocks!

Writing is a passion for all of us, instructors included and our camaraderie is palpable as we talk about what we tried at lunch and laugh at the different events of the morning and we share these stories while the kids gather to eat and get to know each other and make friends.

The kids who show up  are writers, they want to write, they want to improve their writing, they are giving up a week of summer and dedicating it to their craft and because of this a community of writers is quickly formed.

This year in thinking about these young writers, from 5th grade through High School, I wondered how they saw writing or would define writing in their own words.  So I stole an idea from an amazing artist and friend, Laura Gaffke who created a similar public art installation that focused on the idea of beauty. (You can find her on Facebook as well as on her blog, http://lauratwotina.com/)  I decided I would create our own version and ask students or anyone walking by to write to the idea of “writing is…”

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Our Public Art Installation. Writing Is…

My co-teacher, Karen Atherton provided the materials for my vision as she lugged in a 20 pound crock with sand in it to keep the tree up that she had her husband cut down from her back yard.  She also showed up complete with lights for the tree and these were no ordinary lights, no, they were pink flamingoes and green palm tree lights.  So we set it up in the hallway and asked that all of the different groups at one point add to the installation.  Tags and markers were left by the tree for anyone to write to at their own convenience.

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And while our installation was not quite as pretty as Laura’s, it was quite interesting in it’s own right. Reading through all of the tags after they were removed it seemed as though there were 3 distinct categories that these definitions fell within.  There was the “one word” club where writing was summed up in one word including writing is…art, powerful, cathartic, individuality, fun, history, truth, freedom, understanding, translation, happy, love and supermegafoxyswesomehot!  Writing is…Life!

ImageThen there was the therapeutic genre where many students poured their hearts out about what writing was to them in terms of healing, expressing emotions, revealing secrets and discovering self- awareness.  Some of these are hauntingly beautiful including,

“Writing is a therapeutic; a way to escape one’s own mind.  It is creating your own little world where you get to be in control.  Writing is awesome”

“Writing is a discovery of yourself.”

“Writing is putting your mind on paper.”

“Writing is how I stay alive.  If my thoughts stayed in my mind they would overrun the senses and I would think too much and then I would be gone.”

“Writing is a way to…release the feeling I hold in that my friends wouldn’t understand about.”

“Writing is a way to create a deeper self.”

“Writing is the most intimate for of self-expression.”

“Writing is a way to cope with pain/problems for me.  Everything leaves my mind, and stains the paper instead of me.  And that’s why I’ve grown so close to writing.”

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Writers gather around guest author, Lisa Luedeke

The third category was more about how it was an act of creative expression and use of imagination, imagery, poetry and voice.  Here are some of these:

“Writing is indescribable.  An experience.  An image painted with words.”

“Writing is a struggle against silence.”

“Writing is the way the moonlight touches the silky ocean in the middle of twilight.”

“Writing is the spouse of music.”

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“Writing is a way to entwine souls, so we can touch each other through distance and time and language.”

“Writing is your own adventure.  Your own world.  A place were you have freedom to do whatever you want and make anything happen.”

 I end with this one intentionally because I believe on many levels this also defines the writer’s academy in general.  We recently received a letter from a former student who wrote us to let us know what the writer’s academy was to her.  Here are her words.

My name is Kimberley and I am writing to thank you for a particular summer of the Writers Academy.  Nine years ago, in 2004, I met a classroom of middle schoolers like me, who would rather write stories and keep journals than play wiffle ball in the middle of July. In this class, I met fellow student Haley, and we instantly became friends.  We continued attending Writers Academy every summer until we were too old, going to the Dairy Bar and people-watching in the MUB and inventing their ludicrous backstories.  

Haley and I didn’t live in the same town, and attended rival high schools.  The only interaction we would have ever had is from opposite sides of the football field. Without Writers Academy, we would have never crossed paths, but I’m extremely fortunate we did.  We remain best friends to this day, and we just returned from a two week cross-country road trip, driving out to Los Angeles.  Of course, because we didn’t meet at Writers Academy for nothing, we kept meticulous journals the entire way, and are currently working on a screenplay based on our adventures. When we make it big, we’ll credit Writers Academy for bringing us together.

Thank you again for the wonderful program!

Kimberly

At the risk of sounding boastful I agree, it is a wonderful program.  One that continues to grow and thrive as more and more writers come to us, but at the same time there is a sadness that comes as well because everything I teach at the Writer’s Academy is grounded in how I teach and taught as a teacher in the public school system.  THIS WAS SCHOOL!!  Freedom, choice, adventure, passion, play and life were all part of our everyday curriculum and yet this is no longer the case.  And while it keeps us in business I still long for classrooms to honor choice, time and genuine response where learning is “totally not school.”

Honoring Space and Time

I walked out on the back deck this morning and to my horrors of horrors there were leaves strewn about. The first leaves fallen, physical evidence that slowly but surely the seasons are and will be changing.  And with that change I hear all of my teacher friends talk about going into their classrooms with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of a new year.  How will they set up their classrooms this year?  What kinds of “areas” can be created in this space where they will live with their students over this next year?

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Photo Credit: catchingreaders.com

This time of year seems to get earlier and earlier every year though.  It used to be that none of this was even contemplated until the official “end” of summer, Labor Day.  But no more.  College students are out shopping everywhere you go.  Sons and daughters with Mothers seeking out that perfect comforter and wall hangings to create their own sense of space, the home away from home.  My son, a senior, just out the door for his official soccer tryouts.  And yet…it is ONLY August 19th!  Much too early!

Space matters.  I find myself wanting to nest in my own home as I wake each morning with the urge to move furniture around and make things a new.  I stop myself though, reminding myself that it IS still summer and that my summer arrangements must stay as long as possible for it is, after all, our shortest season of all.

And this summer I found myself not writing at all.  This blog was unintentionally left to have it’s own summer vacation and that gets me thinking about what I need as a writer and one of the major things I need is space.  And while that may seem incredibly obvious, with 2 kids in the house it is quite difficult to come by.  And while I realize I could create the space and time and get up really early with the birds and get to my keyboard, the truth is that when I am up early I am out tending my gardens.  You see there is so little weather here in New Hampshire that is conducive to early mornings outside.  My routine is to water my plants and survey each garden to see what has happened over night.  And things do happen.

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Photo Credit: reelswellblog.com

I tried roses this year though.  They are tough little buggers and as soon as we got them into the ground they up and died.  Not really, but they looked as though they were dead.  And so I left them.  I pruned them here and there, gave them food and water and just waited.  Not until yesterday did I start to see 2 tiny roses on one of the plants.  Why now?  I wondered?  Perhaps they just needed time to adjust to the new soil.  Perhaps the food finally kicked in.  Perhaps they got just the right amount of sunshine and water for a few days in a row.  Who knows!  Maybe all they needed was a bit of space.

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My roses FINALLY bloom on one bush!!

How often do we hold these spaces for our students?  Our teachers?  Spaces where they can be who they are, take the time that they need and figure out how to write or grow or bloom on their own?  We talked a lot about this “holding of space” in my summer course (last entry!) on Passion, Purpose and Play:  Creating Real Readers and Writers.  EVERY day during our 2 weeks together these students, made up of teachers and interns had the time and space they needed to do their work. We devoted the last chunk of our day to “workshop”.  Time where  students could choose what it was they wanted to work on and how.  They could choose to read or write anything they wanted.  It might be reading for the next day in class, a novel or magazine they were interested in, or the writing they were working on.  They could go to the library, go outside to read and write.  They could confer in their triads, in partners or with me.  They could write in notebooks, on their laptops or even on the floor if they so chose!  They could choose to use this time to express themselves artistically with watercolors and other art supplies provided.

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Christian and Lexe during Workshop Time, Summer 2013

I loved this time every day as it gave me time to sit with individuals and confer on their processes on what was working and what was not.  IF the work, the homework, is so important, then why don’t we ever provide the time and space for that work to begin to happen in class?  It seems so obvious and yet on my evaluations there was a resounding appreciation for that time given.  Respect.  That is what happened.  There was a great respect for the work when there was a place for that work to happen.  Many left each afternoon with clearly defined goals on where they wanted to take their reading and writing that night.

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Maria reading Poetry, Summer 2013

And while the cliché of students blooming has been used ad naseum, I am going to bring this back around to those damned roses.  The ones that refused to just blossom.  The ones, that given the time and space eventually did bloom!  Next to it though, is the other rose.  You know the one.  The one that no matter what you do, it just stays the same.  No buds, no roses, no sign of color.  The scrawny little plant next to the blooming phlox that are going to bloom and shine no matter what I do or don’t do.  But it is there….and nothing I did changed that plant for the better.  In fact it looks much worse than when we brought it home.  When first planted it it had gorgeous pale yellow and pink roses and now it simply stands alone, no flowers, no color.  Lifeless.  And yet it is not.  And so I will wait and be patient and hope and try some new things and hope and wait that perhaps one day…maybe even next summer that it will again yield a beautiful bloom or two, but you just never know.

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Sad little rosebush..no buds!

And that is the imprecision of teaching and learning in a nutshell.  We can do all we can and still there may be those roses that will never bloom, at least not while you are around.  And that is ok.  Maybe it is not their time.  Maybe what is happening on the inside is more important than the product.  It is not always what we “see” that matters in the long haul.

And so we begin a new year…and I do so love the feeling of new beginnings.   It is what makes me a true New Englander.  As much as I hate the seasons I need the seasons. So little leaves on the back deck, I welcome you, but not entirely as I sweep you off and honor the space of summer as long as I can!