From a hotel window

I scribbled a poem in Vegas last week..as I typed it out tonight, I hemmed and hawed about posting it here on such a public space. I don't know why I feel reservations to share my poetry but I don't feel nervous about sharing details about infertility or other intimate topics. Perhaps it's because poetry really is the most intimate of art forms. It's a window to a person's soul. At any rate, after checking out a few of my former students' blogs and reading some of their poetry, I decided to take the plunge and post the poem. I'm still playing with line breaks, and I think I might even add another stanza or two at a later time. I haven't written a poem in a long while, so it was nice to return to the genre again. 

From a hotel window

I’m watching the clouds roll over the mountains,
surrounding the peaks,
making even their outline hard to see.  

And I’m thinking of what it would be like
to be on those mountains now.
Would the clouds wrap around me
like my mother’s arms?
Or would they just linger overhead
like our fears sometimes do?

I’d want to try and grasp the grayness,
or perhaps I’d stick out my tongue
to catch a sliver and see what gray tastes like.
I’m certain it would taste sweet at first, but
subtle, like an old movie.
Then the gray would burn as it slid down my throat
because, as calming as the color gray is,
there’s a sting to it that reminds me of
loves forgotten.

If I were on that mountaintop now
surrounded by those clouds,
I would most definitely hold my arms out
in surrender
welcoming whatever sensation
those gray clouds may bring.


Conference musings

It's day three of my NWP/NCTE conference adventure. This morning I woke up and felt completely exhausted and achey. I couldn't breathe and had a splitting headache. I'm thinking I have officially come down with a sinus infection. This afternoon I had to sneak away for cold medicine and a thirty minute nap, but I'm still kicking.

So far I've attended sessions on youth writing programs in National Writing Project sites, teaching argument in a variety of ways, an amazing keynote delivered by the hilarious and insightful Sir Ken Robinson about the importance of creativity in education, how to start and maintain a high school writing center (part of this presentation was delivered by a high school student who started a writing center at his high school!), Pecha Kucha presentations, connecting community to literature, research in social justice and the implications it has for English education, and igniting discussion in the LA classroom. This afternoon I'm planning on attending a session about moving composition beyond the classroom, and tomorrow morning I'll attend a breakfast for state affiliates before I fly back.

Currently I'm sitting outside of the MGM conference center enjoying the 71 degree weather. I'm surrounded by palm trees and lots of tired looking English teachers. I had a mentoring session I marked down to attend during this time, but I feel like I needed time to digest more than I needed another session. The downfall of national conferences like this is that it's three to four days of non-stop sessions with no time to process the information. I could've cooped myself up in the hotel room each evening, but I found myself, instead, hanging out with teachers into the wee hours of the night, which is way more fun. But I need time to think, and I know that the minute I step on the plane tomorrow, I'll be working like crazy trying to grade papers and lesson plan for the week ahead. Tonight I'm vowing to stay in and just write.

Today I sat in on an incredible session that was a round table discussion about research in social justice and what teachers are doing with it. One of the facilitators shared about a high school in his Missouri town that was reestablishing itself on the premise of social justice concepts in order to teach the whole child. The school sounded amazing. He shared a few beliefs of the administrator of the school that are profound:

First, this administrator asks her teachers throughout the year, "What kind of heart are you bringing to the students?" The discussion facilitator explained that this administrator wants her teachers to be filled and complete and in the "right place" before they come to the classroom because the work of a good teacher is difficult. It reminded me that I need to slow down a bit. I can't be an effective teacher if I don't have my own life in order, and if I'm not filled first (ironically, my own administrator told me this only a few weeks ago). This administrator also believes in "reaching in to reach out." Essentially, she believes that teachers must have time to develop themselves as teachers before they should let someone else develop them. This made me stop and think a bit because I feel like I've been shaped as a teacher by my professional development opportunities  But the difference is, I choose to participate in these opportunities. I wasn't forced or encouraged to participate in them by an administrator. Unfortunately, many districts approach professional development with the latter view in mind. And while I think PD is good for teachers, I do know that teachers can and do become resentful when PD is imposed from the top-down. Teachers can grow even more bitter when the administrators themselves don't take part in this PD.

Last night I spent some time with a college composition professor and a high school principal (one of the youngest high school principals I've ever met) from Louisville, KY, and our chats along with the aforementioned social justice session got me thinking about this question: What do I really want as a teacher? I talked with the principal for awhile about wanting to be involved in educational leadership. I want to impact change in Nebraska schools. I want to help teachers become the best they can be for our students, and I want to help change the climate of education to be more student centered. But, I told the principal about my hesitation to commit to working on an administrative degree because they are known in our part of the country as being watered down and unintellectual. And frankly, I don't want to waste my time taking classes where I'm not challenged. The principal shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yeah, but it's a means to an end." Insightful, right? So simple, but I hadn't thought of it that way. I also realize now how arrogant I probably sounded last night..like I was above "those" programs and couldn't learn anything from them.

At any rate, I'm enjoying my time here in Vegas despite Vegas (I really don't like this city...but that's another post for another day). It's encouraging to be in the presence of passionate and committed teachers. I'm thankful for the learning opportunities I've had this week in the sessions and in networking with other teachers.


Narrative as Trouble

It's day 2 of my conference adventures...I'm fighting a sinus infection and am running on about four hours of sleep and lots of coffee. Vegas is incredibly over-stimulating...the lights, the smoke, the crowds of people, the close quarters--it's all a bit too much for this girl. So I grabbed lunch to go today and headed to my room for a little think time with some mellow Iron and Wine tunes. This post is fragmented, but it's been milling around in the gray matter for the last five hours, and I just had to get it out. 

This morning's plenary featured three authors that have a series of books that came out on teaching narrative and argument. One of the speakers, Jim Fredricksen, said a few things about narrative that really resonated with me (all paraphrased from his speech, by the way) but the
one that stuck with me the most was: "Narrative is about trouble and how people respond to it." 

This quote has many implications for the teaching of writing. He went on to mention that when our students engage in writing, they face trouble. As a teacher of writing, I've seen kids freeze after writing one line. I've endured student blow-ups after I've asked them to write. I've coached kids through anxiety and nervousness towards the task. I've calmed down kids who have burst into tears because I've asked them to write. This reaction has caused me to stop and evaluate the way I approach writing in my classroom. I don't think these reactions have come from the tasks I've asked them to do, or the way I've instructed them. Rather, I'm learning that many kids have a fear of writing that is almost crippling. I've also helped kids navigate broken homes, run-ins with the law, helped them cope with break-ups, and have helped them struggle through life and make important self-discoveries all through writing. Jim mentioned that when we look at narrative as trouble, our work will often feel uncertain, and it might even feel like we're failing. This resonates with me because in helping students navigate these unmarked roads, I'll be the first to admit that I often feel like I don't know what I'm doing (despite being well-schooled in the art of teaching writing), and this isn't a fun place to be. 

But this work we do of teaching writing "matters because kids need to walk away from our classes believing they can change" (Fredricksen). Many of my former and current students would diagnose themselves as "horrid writers" or would boldly declare with disdain their hatred for writing. But it's our job as writing teachers to help them overcome these stigmas and help heal those "writing wounds" so they can grow as writers because I believe if we can get them to grow as writers, then we can get them to grow as people. 


Thank you

Note: I'm spending the last part of this week in Las Vegas learning at the NCTE/NWP annual convention. So the next few posts will likely be musings related to teaching :)

It sounds like rain pelting a tin roof as I listen to 600 teachers take a seven minute break from the morning plenary session at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting to, of course, write. Tanya Baker Harris, of the NWP, has asked us to write thank-you letters to our teacher mentors from the network.

There are so many people from the network I could thank: Robert, Bill, Paula, Diana, Dan, Marni, Susan, Rob, Amy, Jeff, Tyler, Katrina, Ann, Jenny...I could go on for ages. Some of these people have become friends while others are people I’ve only met once or twice. No matter, these people and many others in the Nebraska/National Writing Project have developed me into a critical teacher and a better leader and advocate for education. This organization, however, has done more than just made me a more effective writing teacher. One of the national directors said today in her opening speech that the NWP has made her a better person. However cheesy or overly sentimental the comment seems, I do have to agree with it. I came to the Nebraska Writing Project haggard and  on the verge of throwing in the towel after just one year. And I left the summer institute refreshed to start anew in my both my career and in my life.

For four weeks I was surrounded by intelligent, inquisitive, passionate people who lived out their passion both in the classroom and in their communities. What strikes me about many of the people involved with the writing project (on both our state and national level) is their drive, their fire for life. These teachers have pushed me to think, to question, and to engage. I’m much more aware of my surroundings. I think about things like recycling, energy conservation, the implications of where I shop, and just overall, how to be a better human. One might argue that these changes are due to the aging process, but I think it has more to do with the influence of so many genuine people. These people teach me simply by the way they live. I’m grateful for the people I’ve learned from in the National Writing Project, and I look forward to more opportunities to connect with and learn from other genuine people in this network.


Watching a Legend

Because I'm a music fanatic, every concert I attend is an emotional experience for me. But Saturday's Bob Dylan concert was off the charts in terms of emotions. First, I was accompanied by an old pal of mine from high school, Hannah. She was my first friend when I moved from Crete to Columbus in 7th grade. We have many memories involving music. Once during our senior year we drove to Omaha to spend the weekend with some of our friends who had graduated the year prior. Of course we stopped at Homer's music in the Old Market. That's when I picked up my first Rilo Kiley album. We drove home that trip with the music seeping out of my crappy 1983 Acura's car speakers; it was silent most of the trip home as we took in Jenny Lewis's amazing lyrics. On another trip to Lincoln, we again stopped at Homer's in the Haymarket, and because we were both broke, we split the cost of Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits album. It was a two disc collection, and we just shared it. Eventually I think Hannah burned me a copy of the CD. I think Hannah understood me better than most people, and I think part of this stemmed from our connection through music. So when I read that Dylan would be in Omaha, Hannah was the first person I thought of.

When Dylan started playing with his band, a lump formed in my throat. He didn't have a flashy, magical moment where he made a big deal of coming on stage...they just started playing. I couldn't believe I was watching a legend like Dylan, now 71. I wish I could say I've listened to Dylan all my life, but I haven't. In fact, I heard my first Bob Dylan song during my first year of college at UNK when I haphazardly signed up for Dr. Benzel's literature of Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan class. I loved Whitman, and I had heard of Dylan and knew he was cool. I think the first Dylan song I ever heard was "All Along the Watchtower," and I wasn't impressed with his nasally tone and slurred words. But after I heard Dr. Benzel talk about these songs with this glazed over look in her eyes and compare them to Whitman and Sandburg's poems, I wanted more. I was drawn to her obsession with Dylan. Throughout the course we listened to and studied many of Dylan's songs (and Woody Guthrie's songs!). The ones I remember the most are "Man on the Street," "Who Killed Davey Moore," "He Was a Friend of Mine," "Only a Hobo," and "The Death of Emmett Till." I was intrigued by such activism. Needless to say, Dylan is about all I listened to that semester. I was hooked after that. The entire concert was like this for me: floods of memories with every tune.

I wasn't particularly blown away with his performance; I texted a fellow music nerd that I needed some sort of app to be able to use in order to decipher Dylan's mumbling. But it didn't matter...I still loved every minute. He played many of his newer tunes that I'm not as familiar with, but he did play some oldies: "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Highway 61 Revisited " Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watchtower," and he ended with an encore--"Blowing in the Wind." The last song was awesome. There were so many middle-aged adults in Chuck Taylor shoes and earth toned sweaters waving lighters around for it. Each time Dylan played the harmonica, the crowd leaned forward to listen in a bit. It wasn't a particularly rowdy crowd, but there was a sort of reverence present for the legend on stage.

I should mention that his opening act, Mark Knopfler (lead singer of Dire Straits), was amazing. What an incredible musician. His set ranged from rock, to jazz, to blues, to celtic. I hadn't heard much of his music before, but I have been listening to him quite a bit since Saturday.

Unfortunately I don't have pictures to remember the event as cameras were banned from the auditorium (they seriously confiscated batteries from the devices!). But, I think it's fitting that all I have to remember the concert are memories and words.  All in all, the concert was cathartic and worth the money.