This Bears Repeating

Today Jenn Gonzalez posted a guest blog written by Sherri Spelic—Sherri also acknowledges the role that the Slice of Life blogging community fostered and shepherded by Two Writing Teachers plays, important to developing as a writer within any community—entitled “Noticing the Good Stuff.”  The writing is clear and specific and provides terrific ideas for honoring the positive in any classroom and school culture.  Having been retired for almost a full year now, I can say without qualification, that what Sherri advises is 100% true!

It also strikes me that very few educators will actually heed her advice or incorporate her ideas into classroom practice because, well, we are not a very kind-to-ourselves population.  The opening chapter of Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray starts with self-compassion as well.  Now that I have an excess of time, I work on this idea, but I know that when I was in the classroom, I did too little of it, as if the practice of noticing joy in the everyday was self-indulgent.

I hope anyone reading this, will read Sherri’s post, and think about how many of her suggestions are grounded in sound pedagogy.  If real learning is about relationships, as much research supports, then the “silver bullet” has been fired.  For example:

  • “When a student gives you a compliment, listen carefully. Which compliments do you hear from students most often? What do your students love about you?”

The idea of assessing patterns and analyzing metadata may be as simple as this.  If a teacher values and invites meta-cognitive practice, self-reflection among students, then looking for what works with students by their admission is a terrific place to start.  Their criticisms are also worth noticing, particularly in the aggregate, but compliments are where the gold is buried.

  • “When you examine student work, notice evidence of growth. List all the things, large and small, that you accomplished, helped along, kept in check, turned around, made happen in the process….”

To feel that you have created something improved is sometimes all it takes to keep going.  No matter what remains to be conquered, writing is always evolving, as are most skills, so celebrate the growth.  This suggestion honors both the writer and the writing mentor.  (Man, I wish I had done more of this!  It is only the best young writers who can slog ahead when all they receive is deficit feedback.  I think about how many times I tried to “fix” writing rather than reveling in the attempt of a writer to challenge herself.)  Writing more for myself now, I thoroughly realize the truth of this.  Someone commenting specifically on a turn of phrase or observation in a blog post makes my day, inspires me to work toward that effect again.  And my appreciation is contagious, I’m thinking, building confidence and engagement in my audience.  Kathleen Bomer, author of Hidden Gems, led a passionate session at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) heralding the same.  I didn’t listen hard enough then, but I wish I had.

When I return to the classroom, this is the one practice I will cultivate.  Perhaps our trying to do too much is at the heart of teaching; there is always so much to do.  But honoring the growth, the good we all are doing as learners together, seems like the foundation of it all.

**I’m adding this today, Tuesday, the actual day for SOL, because I have just completed HACK #4 in Stockman and Gray’s most thought-provoking book  .  Bill Ferriter, author of the blog The Tempered Radical, is quoted in this chapter focusing on equity, our “response ability.”   “‘When I start the day deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated….I’m far more tolerant when the wheels fall off the bus during the course of the day'” (64).


Sweet Dreams

Are you safe where you sleep?  This dominates my thinking when I scroll through the prompts for yet another writing challenge—this time 100 Days of Summer Writing .  The first photo I encounter that comes from James Mollison’s book, Where Children Sleep, captures Alex, 9, from Rio de Janeiro offering his wide, green-eyed stare, serious countenance, and tousled shorn curls to the camera, full-faced and beautiful.  Next to it, the place where he sleeps (I’m assuming): a holey, beaten sofa, behind it a wall built from weathered planks and behind that a sheet and perhaps a cover, pinned to a clothesline.  It’s an open space, not most people’s idea of cozy.  I pass it by, not yet moved to write.  Then I find the second from Mollison’s collection, a photo of Bikram, 9, from Melamchi, Nepal,  dark-eyed, hair neatly side-combed, shirt buttoned to the top, next to an amber-lit corner, a pallet covered with a quilted blanket, surrounded by baskets, an adobe (I think) wall, a spotted small and narrow mirror resting against it.  I think cozy; I think home.

Now I am moved.  The only thing that matters when children sleep is that they are safe, that whenever they surrender to vulnerability, they can dream protected.  When I see and pass judgment, am I not assigning a value to what is my ideal bedroom?  What does the child feel upon lying down to rest?

When I lived in Cali, Colombia, I met a talented photographer Mercedes Rasmussen, who, at the time, was working for National Geographic.  At her home she had mounted a photograph of two little kids, a boy and girl, maybe five and three, who are standing inside a wooden packing box, eating from a sleeve of cookies, crumbs dotting their smudged faces.  As they look into the camera’s eye, more than anything else, they are curious, “Why are you interrupting our game?”  is how I see them.  That’s not how my eighth graders, most from affluent homes and manicured play spaces, whose parents put them in a raft of scheduled activities to keep them safe, respond when I share the photo with a bit of background.  They begin talking about poverty and sadness; I don’t see that.

Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki Rosa” captures this societal blindspot best.  Not all the secure places shine with post-Fixer-Upper perfection (the obverse is also true); not all declare that love is wealth for the world to see.

As I write this, I worry that I’m insensitive, that I’m ignoring what might be dire.  Photos only show so much, don’t they?  And they are as subject to incomplete interpretation as is everything else.  I want to ask Jame Mollison what he thinks when he creates this collection.  Is there judgment?  Of course there is more to any frozen moment than meets the eye.  I want to know, when these boys arise, have they the peace and possibility conferred by sweet-dream suffused sleep?

Today’s News: Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!

… Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams

Were I still in the classroom teaching, today would be one of my favorites.  This is “Poem in Your Pocket Day,” a fixture in the celebration of National Poetry Month and one that our entire school community, kindergarten through eighth grade, honored.  Teachers and students alike brought a poem to share in their pockets.  During lunch or in the hallways, any time, anywhere, anyone could be asked to share his or her poem —the early choices, Silverstein, Florian, Wong, and Prelutsky giving way to Frost, Dickinson, Hughes and Roethke.  Allan Wolf, poet and human being extraordinaire, joined us once, he who carries poems in the folds of his brain each and every day, and the students shared their poems with him, a gift returned.

At the recent Oregon Council of Teachers of English spring conference held in Ashland, one of the morning sessions offered was  “Poetry in Motion.”  The workshop blurb said we’d “participate in mindful movement, walk a poetry labyrinth and find poetry in the park.”    In the afternoon session, writer and teacher Steve Jones had us explore cumulative sentences, using punctuation and the breadth of phrases and clauses to tell a story—one sentence only!  I captured my magical morning this way:

Poetry in Motion

In a small grove on a hill, perched above the sleepy-eyed Ashland downtown, I choose a bench, my place to rest, and close my eyes, breathing in and out the pine-scented air, listening to rushing water, calling birds, barking dogs, retreating voices, as the poem, “The Way It Is,” fills the space, moving in me.

What the one-sentence summary obviates is my tears, the ones I can’t stem, at this particular choice, the poem I read during my son’s bar mitzvah.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

Sam celebrates his coming-of-age in the wake of September 11th.  Neither of his grandparents are able to attend the ceremony; his grandfather will die before he ever gets to see the recording we have made of this event.  It is easy to understand my reaction, the shell that cracks when this is the chosen one.

That is the power of poetry.

If I were still scurrying through those school hallways, I’d be carrying the poem that we were given to accompany us as we walked the labyrinth tucked away downtown.  It’s now folded inside my brain, there for me to open no matter what day it is:

When Meeting the other

Given arms, the sun 
would choose to grow many.
Having many narrow arms,
the sun would—at each limb’s end— 
flare into a palm and fingers,
into the curves made for reaching.

Extremities of flame, of shine.
Hands that carry enough 
heat and light to give away.

Be that sun. One small sun.

                       —Paulann Petersen


Kindle, Mountains and Rivers Press, 2008


Shakespeare Set Free!

One of the more ambitious units I taught with my eighth grade students asked the essential question, “What is love?”  At the center of the study was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The local theater usually mounted a production of the comedy, greatly abridged from its full-run, two-hour-plus length to just over an hour.  We’d be sure to go over the rather confusing story in several ways—prose retelling, youtube animations, and an invaluable play map included in the Folger guide, Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As my teaching experience grew, I found other great resources, most of them through the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.

And to the essential question?  Eighth graders embraced it for the most part.  It’s also true that, while many began the exploration without enthusiasm, by the end almost everyone had, if not fallen head-over-heels, experienced a greater acceptance.  This happened gradually, with their increasing familiarity with the Bard’s way of expressing himself and with the comedy of it all. Now they understood that comedy meant happy endings for mostly everyone involved, and they wanted that in their version of love, too.

One of the key practices is to get the kids using his language.  Before I knew better, I bought a text set of Midsummer… that features Shakespeare’s original language on one side and a “translation” on the other.  It might have been helpful at first, but soon the kids wanted only the Shakespeare; they became enamored with the poetry of it, the inversions, the slang, the “thys” and “thous.”  They loved hurling insults—he was a master, and they aspired!

The passage all kids memorize is a speech in 2.1 given by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to her King Oberon over the Indian boy and Titania’s refusal to surrender him.  Jealousy disturbs the Fairy kingdom.  It begins:  “Set your heart at rest/The Fairyland buys not the child of me./” and continues to explain why she, Titania, will keep the “changeling” for herself.  Over several weeks the kids practice the passage, put it in their own words, talk about how it connects to the essential question.  They memorize it, and almost everyone is successful.  Each student recites the passage aloud at some point; some choose to perform with a partner, but most stand alone.  This is their first experience “owning” the words of William Shakespeare, and it is empowering!

Later they will perform scenes, fully aware that they CAN.  They have already taken their first steps.  This all happens in May well before their eighth grade trip in June.  One year when we were on the bus heading home after our overnight adventure, I told the kids that I’d give extra credit points to anyone who could still recite Titania’s speech.  I expected those teen dismissals, but that’s not what happened.  Girls and boys alike chorused:


  Set your heart at rest.
The Fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’ embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following—her womb then rich with my young squire—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die.
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
The bus rolled down the road full of kids happily spouting Shakespeare.  And that’s when I knew: this is love.

Sunday Morning Quiet

Sometimes a poem, in a soft yet urgent voice, speaks to us, and keeps speaking long after the words are uttered.  This is certainly true for the many of the selections featured in the PBS Series, The United States of Poetry (2004), a creation of Bob Holman and directed by Mark Pellington.  A sampling of them are featured on youtube, including one of my favorites “Morels” by Nashville poet Dan Powers.  The text of this poem is available in Google books.


Two years ago my friend Vantrease

said farming would not pay his bills.

He sold his milk cows and leased

the Sears catalog store in town.


Blackberry vines and sumac

crowd his unkempt pastures and the fences sag.

Last week at church, he held out his hands

soft and white for us to see and said,

“A farm is like the strength in a man’s hands.

You try hard to keep it, and you lose it.”


In the trillium beneath the hickory grove

on our ridge, my son and I find a few morels

and drop them into a brown paper bag.

Our small talk worn thin, we walk back toward the house

through the dew-wet pasture without speaking.

Here, miles from town, without his friends to see,

he reaches across our silent striding

and grasps my hand with all the strength of his ten years.

Each of us holds on.

—Dan Powers

On the Day You Were Born!


The railroad track is miles away, 
    And the day is loud with voices speaking, 
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day 
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by, 
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, 
But I see its cinders red on the sky, 
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make, 
    And better friends I'll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, 
    No matter where it's going.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This poem is in the public domain.

I first gave this poem to my good friend and colleague for her birthday several years ago after we had sojourned to distant shores.  We had already attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conventions together, so we knew the essentials.  Our schedules jibed pretty well.  I was an earlier-riser, awake by six a.m., showered, out the door, and downstairs reading or writing and drinking coffee before Dana awoke an hour or so later.  She had her morning space; I had mine.  I snored but not so much that it either kept her awake or awakened her prematurely.  (You’re not lying about that, are you, Dana?)  I could fall asleep with lights and television.  When I’m tired, I’m OUT!  I must admit, both of us were done in after the long, learning-filled days.  In truth, that’s only the hotel-room part of it, and while important, most of us can handle almost anyone for five days, especially if one is non-judgmental; that’s Dana.

The trickier thing by far is to find someone who enriches the going, buys in, opens herself up to experiences whether planned or spontaneous.  That is what Dana became for me as a travel companion, and a teaching one, too.  My conventions and my day-to-day classroom life were better because she was there beside me.

In 2016 we organized a trip with former students, traveling to Greece and Italy.  These were amazing kids, and the experience was incomparable.  Whether it was reenacting the original Olympic run on the track where once the Greeks had trod—despite temperatures nearing 100°—or climbing Mt. Vesuvius after a full day and late night, these young people, almost-sophomores, were game.  When we returned home, Dana wanted a “Discovery Tour Redux” but me…not so much.  Perfection can be daunting.  What we did realize, though, was that we could take our show on a wider road.  That has much more to do with Dana than me.  She is ever-intrepid while I wade in the shallows of “what-if” far too often.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 This summer she will once again travel with students, this time to Spain.  I know she will have another stunning travel adventure; she’ll make it happen.
When I asked Dana to read my letter to the Board of Education tendering my resignation, she said, “You’ve submitted it?”  I nodded, and for the very first time, I felt the pre-tears tingle.  Our partnership of seven years was dissolving; it was real.  Then I made reservations to travel to Oregon for the total eclipse, whether we were moving by August 21st or not, and told Dana.  She said, “Could I come?”  So on that momentous day, on the antipodal coast, she joined me.  Sharing this natural wonder eased the separation: she could imagine me where I would now be; she could “see” me.
We met up again in St. Louis at NCTE last November, and use technology whether email, text, or Hangouts, to stay connected.  I’m already planning to go to Houston this November less for the convention, more for the connection.  I remember that we, Dana and I, have taught kids to appreciate writing as a gift— it’s one of writing’s often overlooked dimensions.  I’ll send her the link to this blog post today, the day she returns from a cruise, tan and happy and full of new stories.  Hopefully I’ll hear some of them, for while our partnership may have dissolved, our friendship goes the distance.  Thanks, Dana.  Happy Birthday.

Laughter for Friday (for teachers;-)

I read this , “Funny Homework Excuses,” to begin my day, and thought, “Why not?  I haven’t leaned in the teacher-anecdote direction for a few days…and poetry can be FUNNY!”  So here is today’s offering with this caveat: being a teacher makes it funnier!

Did I Miss Anything?

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people  on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

     but it was one place

     And you weren’t here

—Tom Wayman

From Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993, 1993
Harbour Publishing

Copyright 1993 Tom Wayman.
All rights reserved.