Turn the Page

Can it be the end of January? Reading bookends my month, as I struggle to recall a title that I really enjoyed—arguably far-fetched—but can summon the basic plot. I have written this in today’s morning pages:”Last day of January, hit a reading slump. I picked up a mystery, Brazen, by Loren D Estleman, tried to stay with it…almost did, skimmed the end. Hollywood’s former grandeur, its allure, is lost to me.”

But, no, that’s not really true. Wasn’t there a book I gobbled up recently that centered the golden age of Hollywood with its main character? What was that book called?

It seems like I’ve just finished it, but when I look over my book list (yes, I keep one of those with brief, or not-so-brief commentary), there it is, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, completed on… December 29th? How can that be?

My book list serves me in another way this morning as I eye the stack of books that I am returning to the library without having finished. Do you have that experience? I’ve discovered a great review, reserve the book, and find that when I actually begin to read, I am not engaged. I spend time actively looking for books: I am a reader. This morning, though, the question arises: “What if I never find another great book? What if I’ve lost my love of reading?” My reading list reminds me to keep at it.

While working with students yesterday, I traveled back in time with a book and author the teacher I was filling in for had introduced to his students, Chris Van Allsburg’s gem The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Each student had selected one of the brilliant artworks from the text and was using it to craft a story.

It is no easy task to craft fiction—it boggles me—but several of the students let the cryptic images carry them away. One in particular took Van Allsburg’s rendering of an open window and wallpaper with birds in a direction I have never before imagined. “No,” the student explained, “they are not flying away. They have come into the window from outside…to be safe.” I remember hearing Chris Van Allsburg speak once, and his words echo: “For me, story always starts with images. I know I’m not alone.”

Yesterday marked my last day of teaching in January, 2023, but it gives me hope: There will always be other stories to discover.

Under Fire

“Visit the Newly Designed SSA.gov” subject line, takes me back to last September, the day following my birthday.

I had called my older sister because she hadn’t called me on my special day—we’re big on birthdays in my family—and I was unsettled. Birthdays, as joyous as each one is, also signal passing time, its expiration date. Celebrations aside, the pandemic added a layer of concern to existence for those of us over 65.

On my 70th, my sister had called me at 5 am, positively bubbling with good cheer. That was far from the usual, and it meant that she was up at 2 am in Hawaii, so I teased her about being a party animal. She proceeded to tell me that she’d fallen, broken her femur, and was all good now recovering in rehab.

“When did you fall?”

“Five days ago. I didn’t want to call you until I was sure everything was good—after the surgery—and today I’m feeling great. And it’s your BIRTHDAY!”

Now you can understand why her silence disturbed me. When she picked up, she immediately apologized and explained, “I just didn’t want to spread my dark cloud over your special day.” She had been badgered on the phone by a caller claiming he was from the Social Security Administration and threatening exactly what the site warns are tactics of nefarious actors: compromised data, arrest regarding fraud—the stuff of nightmares.

My sister is no innocent, neither helpless nor unaware of the ways of the world. She has been a high-powered business person most of her life involved in finance and property; however, there is something that happens when one is threatened, personally invaded, when one’s identity is targeted. Reason stutters—emotion takes rein.

Which is why the SSA is so proactive in spreading the word: We will never threaten

In the wake of this assault, after consistent hang-ups and finally her refusal to answer, her day was ruined. She tried to shake it off, attribute it to the way the world works now, let it go. After all, nothing really happened, did it? Her bank information remained intact, no breaches occurred in any arena, except for the one where she is most confident, most at home: her self.

Never Say Never

The NCTE Annual Convention has been on my radar since my first conference in 2007. New York City hosted, and because I could drive a short hop from the Jersey Shore, I went. Truthfully, I only attended ALAN. Sherman Alexie was speaking, his powerful debut for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian garnering serious book-buzz.

I was an adjunct teaching freshman students remedial basic skills at a community college in my town after my daily full-time job in the middle school classroom. I embrace reading aloud for everyone, particularly my college students who had known neither reading success nor “book love” (thanks to Penny Kittle). In a getting-to-know-you survey, I had learned that almost all of the 15 hadn’t read any book since elementary school.

That semester we were experiencing Alexie’s Flight. Each class period, my students begged for more. When I told them I was going to hear Alexie speak, they were eager to draft letters to him, and my plan was to deliver them personally. I knew nothing about how the actual ALAN experience worked, but I did stand in a long line in front of Alexie’s table to get my copy signed—and deliver the letters.

Next year my colleague and I traveled to San Antonio. Thus began my long, devoted convention-relationship with NCTE and ALAN.

This year after an arguably transcendent return to in-person NCTE in Anaheim, I learned that my partner-in-creation at these events was not going to attend next November. I considered what that would mean for me, the loss of collegial synergy. And, to be totally honest, Columbus was not a site that inspired. Coming from Oregon, it’s a long haul without a direct flight. I successfully rationalized my decision to forgo and had decided “NO.”

Then this weekend brought an opportunity. NCTE had placed its last call for proposals. One of my colleagues sent me an email knowing about my passion for uniting ELA and climate concerns. The email invited me to submit work I’d done with middle schoolers on this topic. A decision I had made with near-certainty needed revisiting.

This morning I expressed my interest in participating in a roundtable session. Time will tell whether I’ll be in Columbus come November.

Essential Questions

Have you ever attended an unconference? Do you know what it is? It was probably 15 years ago when I showed up at this type of event sponsored by EdCamp. Does EdCamp still exist? I was attending as a grad student exploring technology integration—not as an organizer, and my memory is…hazy.

This spring, April 8th to be exact, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) is offering an unconference on Zoom as its spring professional development opportunity. However, it’s not going to be a traditional unconference because it will begin with a presentation by Molly Josephs and one of her collaborative teen partners from the podcast, This Teenage Life.

I’ve blogged about the synergy in connecting with Molly at NCTE already, but truthfully, a traditional unconference boasts no speakers at all. So OCTE’s version will be a hybrid experience. The theme “Let’s Talk” though? That is the perfect umbrella to shelter both This TeenageLife and the decentralized ethos of an unconference.

An article in Forbes about sponsoring an unconference sees “…the sum of the expertise of the attendees as greater than the sum of presenters,” and that the “ideaspace” fosters mutually beneficial conversations, that attendees propose topics and develop the breakout room agenda as their interests dictate.

After parsing many explanations, I went to ChatGPT. Have you heard of it? There’s a truly essential question. Just yesterday I read an article that urged all teachers to try it—if only to understand what the world of AI affords our students.

I know what it afforded me—clarity, a removal of distracting, obfuscating noise, the hubbub of uncertainty. First I asked, “What are successful steps to mount an unconference?” And the numbered list of seven steps prioritized what I already had discovered…boom!

Could I have gotten there alone? No doubt. Did I need to spend more time and energy doing that? No! (I have a conference to organize, right?)

Then I asked, “How can I use Zoom to mediate effectively?” I had to hone my inquiry, a critical skill. The revised list of seven appeared, modified to an online format.

When I wrote Molly yesterday, I explained what we were doing, our adaptation of an unconference—and asked: Does this make sense?

“Absolutely,” she replied.

Presto! One successful unconference coming up—is that what I’m thinking? NO! Now the real work begins, but I do have a new tool to leverage.

Did I cheat? Hmmm…so many questions arrive with every new technological development.

These are our essential questions.

One Word

I appreciate the fleeting colors announcing a new day out my back window.

I appreciate the sun graphic that pops up center screen in gray alongside the words: this folder is empty, the aol way to say all emails have been read.

I appreciate this cat curled like a cinnamon bun in my lap making those warm sounds better than even the soft white-icing fur on his back.

I appreciate the first face of the calendar, January’s squares not yet filled, the attempt to keep plans unobtrusive, small tracks in snow, with delicate ink lines.

I appreciate that I have the morning before I go to a month-long commitment of afternoons as a substitute—and that my drive there is under 10 minutes.

I appreciate that my community has an active commitment to composting especially after reading an article yesterday about the effects of massive food waste on our environment. I appreciate that raising public awareness can reap great rewards and that often it is children who have been learning about this in school who lead their parents.

I appreciate that my family is nearby and I can see them more often than I have in the past.

I appreciate that I didn’t have to fly, didn’t have to drive great distances, didn’t have to travel at all over the holidays—that my happy place is where I am, and I got to nestle in.

I appreciate that I have the potential of a year in front of me to grow, learn and laugh.

Can you guess what I chose as my One Little Word (and it’s not little at all)?