"The Road and the End"

My English 12 students are currently wrapping up a poetry unit. We only had a few weeks, but students used Poets.org and PoetryFoundation.org to research a poet of their choice and create a project that illustrated pivotal moments in their lives with poems using Prezi and Blogger. We squeezed in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Naomi Shihab Nye and Carl Sandburg into our class discussions and had a fabulous time reading and sharing. Students were finding and reading poems and then staying after class to discuss them--it was beautiful, truly an English teacher's dream.

Currently students are explicating one of the several poems we discussed in class---today, a student pulled the headphones from her ears and said, "Ms. Helzer have you ever read The Road and The End by Carl Sandburg?" I have read a lot of Carl Sandburg--but this is one that I had not read until today. It's a breathtaking piece that I thought I'd share:

The Road and the End

by Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg
I shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.

I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
And shoulder toward the sky.

The broken boulders by the road
Shall not commemorate my ruin.
Regret shall be the gravel under foot.
I shall watch for
Slim birds swift of wing
That go where wind and ranks of thunder
Drive the wild processionals of rain.

The dust of the traveled road
Shall touch my hands and face.


The Revolving Door of English Teachers

What a week! This is the first chance I've had in about five days to sit, think, write, and have a little down time. So tonight I'm enjoying a glass of wine and mellow music (The Decemberists, The Wailin' Jennys, Iron & Wine, etc) while I write.

Our musical opens in two weeks, the adoption paperwork is waiting to be filled out, my house is a disaster area, half-marathon training is at a standstill, our first quiz bowl match is Tuesday, and I'm struggling to keep my head above water in my own classroom. I really should be grading now, but I had to write to get a few things off my chest that have been milling around in my brain for the past five days.

After having quite a few late nights and early mornings this week, I've found myself asking (again): have I made the right career choice? I LOVE teaching. Even on the worst mornings, I walk into my first period class (who are sometimes stressful) and I feel energized. I LOVE coming up with new, innovative ways to teach and presenting students with opportunities to think critically and express themselves. But...as dedicated as I am to my career and my students, I want to be more dedicated to my faith and family. I feel so torn. I've been told many times to lower my expectations, chill-out, etc...and I feel like I have lightened up over the past three years that I've been teaching, but I don't know how much more I'll be able to lighten up. I know I'm still a new teacher, and I have a lot to learn. But I feel like I don't have many more teaching years left in me.

When I attended the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference this November, I sat in on a round-table discussion on the dilemma of English-Language Arts (ELA) teacher retention. Throughout the discussion they mentioned that the average life of an ELA teacher is about five years. Many novice ELA teachers are loaded with the lowest performing students and several extra duty assignments. In addition, the paperload of an ELA teacher is a nightmare. So how do we combat this? How do we avoid the revolving door of English teachers?

When I look at many (not all) veteran teachers in my own building I see teachers who are no longer taking classes, teachers who aren't assigned to extra duties who often teach the upper level classes---yes, they have more experience and have "done their time." But what is the field of education losing by overwhelming novice teachers enough to push them out of teaching?

Professional development is essential for many beginning teachers. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my affiliations with the National Writing Project have kept me in the classroom and have instilled in me the desire to be nothing less than a quality teacher (though many days I fall short of this goal). Nonetheless, despite my huge involvement in prof. development--I'm still feeling the pull to change careers.

So what do we do? How do we keep teachers teaching and squash the revolving door syndrome that seems to be plaguing the field of Language Arts Education?


Blogging For the NWP

This weekend teachers from the National Writing Project (NWP) are engaging in a blogging campaign to help restore funding for our program.

On March 2nd, Congress eliminated earmarks which provides funds to many educational programs including the NWP--a program proven to improve student achievement and increase teacher effectiveness. The executive director of the NWP, Sharon Washington, states:

“This decision puts in grave jeopardy a nationwide network of 70,000 teachers who, through 200 university-based Writing Project sites, provide local leadership for innovation and deliver localized, high-quality professional development to other educators across the country in all states, across subjects and grades. In the last year alone, these leaders provided services to over 3,000 school districts to raise student achievement in writing.”

I am writing as a teacher-consultant for the Nebraska Writing Project housed at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. I have been involved with the NeWP for three years taking courses and helping to organize professional development activities for teachers that have improved student performance and student learning as well as the quality of teaching in our great state.

I began my teaching career in August of 2008 at a rural high school in southwestern Nebraska. I had not yet completed my student teaching experience, but the district was in dire straights--so they hired me--a college student with no degree and no teaching experience. I jumped in head first to a load of eight preps in an eight period day: English 11, Practical English 9-12, Creative Writing, Journalism and Yearbook and was the assistant speech coach. I made it through my "student-teaching," graduated in December and was officially considered a full-time employee with the district. The school was fantastic, and the kids were just as awesome---the load was not. I resigned in March of 2009 with no job lined up. After eight short months, I was exhausted and wanted to be done with teaching. I loved it, but if this was what teaching was---I wanted out.

Meanwhile, the Spanish teacher across the hall urged me to apply for the Nebraska Writing Project's Summer Institute. I completed my first Summer Institute in June of 2009.

That four-week course equipped and energized me to return to the classroom. It provided me a network of the best K-16 teachers in our state who are dedicated to education reform, researching and implementing best practice and equipping students to become writers and learners. Without this course, I would not still be teaching.

This is my second year teaching high school English with Ogallala Public Schools, and I have had the chance to reach over 200 students. Recently my English 9 students at Ogallala High School were featured in our local paper, on the local radio station, and on our local news channel for completing social action projects for a class project that made a difference in our own community. Two of my students raised $835 for a local resident battling cancer. Without support and training from the NWP, I would not have been able to tackle a project like this and consequently, my students would not have had this wonderful opportunity to become catalysts for social change.

Without funding for the NWP, our country may lose an invaluable partner in education for students and teachers alike; we would not be able to provide the quality professional development that truly keeps teachers teaching.

The Word That Is A Prayer

This week a friend of mine sent me this poem. I read it once, rather quickly, and didn't really think anything of it. But when I revisited the piece a few days later when I had more time, I was moved--almost to tears. It reminds me so much of how I've felt over the past three years as we've gone through the gamut of emotions associated with infertility and adoption. It's such a powerful piece...enjoy!

The Word That Is a Prayer

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

--Ellery Akers


Musings From the River Market Writing Marathon

On Friday I went on the River Market Writing Marathon in downtown Little Rock. Basically I wondered around the River Market area, pausing to write here and there. Then after two hours, we all met up and read portions of our work from the marathon. It's a pretty cool process. Here are some very raw tid-bits from the event:

Outside the River Market area in downtown Little Rock
A pad of paper--nothing fancy. A smooth pen, good food, and pleasant people are the ingredients for a writing marathon.

On my drive to Denver yesterday I wondered about unwritten love songs. The ones we sing in the silent hours on long drives through miles of uninhabited land. I wondered about the songs we sing and poems we compose for forbidden lovers. And I wondered how many people keep these songs locked tight, deep in their bones, not a word breathed to anyone. It seems if we let out these songs that our bones would ache less--our shoulders not so tense--our minds clearer. But on second thought, what chaos is unleashed by the simple act of releasing these songs?

Facing the Arkansas River
What a great, serene space. The act of writing is so simple; not much is needed to make writing happen. But place seems to have an effect on writing--well, it does on my writing. A busy street teeming with life--a cozy coffee shop with folk music crying from the speakers--an outdoor landscape---all give me the itch to write, to compose, to spill my guts out on paper. And places like where I'm at now make me dream. I once wanted a life in a city--Chicago or New York--someplace I could make art. And in my 17 year old mind--these were the only two places one could make art. I wanted a place where I could thrive creatively, and in a sense--I think I still want that. I think I will always want that. But I wonder, with a hint of fear, if I'll ever be content with where I'm at. Am I a grass is always greener on the other side type of person? Now that I'm a little older and wiser, I know that art can be made anywhere. It's not the location that matters. It's the passion within that makes all the difference.


Leaving on a jet plane...

In about 35 minutes I'll be boarding a plane headed to Little Rock, Arkansas. Currently I'm at DIA fighting the urge to fall asleep! I drove to Denver from Ogallala this morning---took a few wrong turns (I have no sense of direction)---and finally arrived at DIA. I'm headed to the National Writing Project's Rural Sites Network Conference, and though it sounds nerdy--I'm stoked. I'm a geek at heart. Here is what my schedule looks like for the next few days:

Tour of Central High School Museum
Writing Marathon at the River Market
Social and banquet

Sessions all day (I present at 2:15)

Back to Ogallala

I'm ready to learn a lot and experience a little piece of Arkansas!


Aimless Love

As I mentioned in a previous post, tonight I read through a few poems written by Billy Collins. He's one of my all-time favorite poets--I first read his work during my Writing Poetry class with Dr. Charles Fort. Collins was buried in a $90 anthology I bought for the class, but I read over and over his poems and tried (with failure!) to mimic his style. Later on in my undergraduate career, Billy Collins's work as our Poet Laureate became the foundations for a research project a professor and I worked on. I have wonderful memories of losing myself for hours in Billy Collins poems at the Coffee House in Lincoln.

Tonight I revisited his book Nine Horses. I thumbed through and read five or six poems and came across one that I had dog-eared several years ago called Aimless Love. Tonight I fell in love with the poem...again. Enjoy.

Aimless Love

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door -
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor -
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

- Billy Collins -

My Sunday

It's been a lovely Sunday. This morning I woke early for no particular reason. I rubbed the sand out of my eyes, started a pot of coffee, turned on music, and opened to 2 Samuel. I've been reading through 2 Samuel for a few weeks now, and every bit of David's story intrigues me. As I ate a bowl of oatmeal and pondered over David's story, my mind drifted to my two best friends, both back in our hometown. I checked my email and realized it had been a month since we last emailed--you see, we've had one email thread going for nearly three years now. The subject line reads: Employed! and the first email is Celeste's news of her newly acquired job as a middle school choir teacher in our hometown. The emails have gone far beyond employment. Marriage plans, road trips, pictures of first homes, marriage hardships, pregnancy news, song titles, pieces of scripture, words of encouragement, death announcements, job lamentations, triumphs, infertility woes, book suggestions, and so much more have dotted hundreds of emails sent over 259 miles.

I felt refreshed after sending that short, three paragraph email. My morning went on working away on presentations, grades, applications and emails...and I never grew weary. 3:00 rolled around and I found myself singing with a few friends. Care free and relaxed, we sang, played, and talked. Once home, I made chicken and dumplings---my own new recipe, ingredients haphazardly thrown into a large pot and then hunkered down to read a few Billy Collins poems.

The day has been busy yet peaceful. Now I find myself preparing to crawl in bed and pull the blankets tight to my chin, just the way I like them, to say good-bye to this beautiful day--ready to begin a new one.


Half-Marathon Training: Week 6

This will be our second year running the Lincoln Half Marathon, and this year my sister in-law, Amy, is joining us! We all started our running journey at about the same time--in the spring of 2008 all three of us, plus Nate's cousin Kecia, ran the Fun 5K at UNK. It was our first road race; I was pretty freaked out by the thought of running 3.1 miles.

Since then we've upped the stakes by running many 5k's, a few 10k's and the half last year. My goal is to run the Lincoln Half Marathon (May 1st), the Bolder-Boulder (10k on Memorial Day weekend), the Havelock Charity Run (10k in June) and the Bill Seymour Half Marathon in Grand Island (September). If you would've asked me five years ago if I'd be running this much, I would've laughed in your face. But...I can't help it...it's a sick addiction.

Today we logged 6.3 miles in 55:30. When we left, I dreaded the run and thought it was going to be miserable; but my NPR podcasts (Tom Waits: A Raspy Voice Heads to the Hall of Fame and Op-Ed: Rage Simmering Among American Teachers), my Garmin to help me keep a steady pace and the cloudy, 50 degree weather made the conditions perfect.

Training next week will be interesting--Nate has concerts on Monday and Tuesday night and I will be in Arkansas Thursday-Sunday....not an ideal schedule for half marathon training!


Education Cuts & Teacher Bashing

It's maddening to hear all the teacher bashing going on in the media and to read about new cuts in quality educational programs day after day. A colleague showed my husband these clips from Monday's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and I think they are hilarious. The first is a bit vulgar--so if you have a sensitivity to foul language, skip to the second video. I'm posting both because I think the issues raised are extremely important and should not be ignored. Enjoy....


Conference Presentation

Today I took a personal day so I could work on my presentation that I'll be giving at the National Writing Project's Rural Sites Network conference in Little Rock, Arkansas next week. I've been a bit overwhelmed with the whole presentation---I'm actually co-presenting with a doctoral student from Michigan, so we're working on it together using Google Docs. She is amazing. I went to two of her presentations this fall, one at NCTE and the other at the National Writing Project Annual Conference. She is active with her local Writing Project and is on the National Tech. Leadership Board through the National Writing Project. She's presenting at something like three other national conferences this month---I'd end up in the wrong state at the wrong time if that were my schedule!

This conference thing has been a source of anxiety for me. I have felt completely inadequate and frankly, not smart enough--it's a humbling experience, so it's taken me awhile to even get started. But, I always tell my students that they won't fully grow if they remain comfortable. I am definitely learning a lot through this. It's pushing me to think outside of the box to connect two seemingly opposite ideas, dig deep into theories on digital philosophies and consider a variety of backgrounds while creating a presentation for an audience I virtually know nothing about. I'm still waiting to receive feedback from our coach (someone from the National Writing Project who is working with us to develop and hone our ideas) on what I've accomplished today. Let's hope I receive at least one thumb up!

This week the program for the conference was mailed out to us and I got to see my name and our presentation write-up. It seems completely insignificant, but I was really pumped to see it!