Leadership Is a Journey

Professional organizations—oh, I have been so lucky to belong to mine. College education: the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, Bard College, University of New Hampshire…can you tell I believe in learning?

But, my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN), my state affiliate in New Jersey (NJCTE), and now that I’m home in Oregon OCTE enrich my professional life. How I found NCTE is its own story, not for today.

Today belongs to my shift from full-time teacher-member to OCTE board member and now executive committee member, and OCTE’s decision to sponsor my attendance at NCTE’s first in-person gathering last weekend in Louisville: Homecoming. I attended the Affiliate Leaders Meeting. Truthfully, I didn’t even know what that would entail, but I figured it out on Friday afternoon when NCTE President Emily Kirkpatrick welcomed us.

Affiliate Regions (map courtesy of the Standing Committee of Affiliates)

Oregon was the only representative from Region 7. That in itself says a lot about the state of post-pandemic local organizations. I felt OREGON STRONG and proud! Fortunately so many other amazing, committed affiliate leaders attended, financially supported by their organizations and NCTE, “the mothership,” as Kirkpatrick said. And we supported each other, and learned from each other, and shared our challenges, too.

One of the presenters was Chris Bronke, head of the Conference on English Leadership (CEL), yet another from the list of NCTE sub-groups that supports all of us involved in English education. Chris has now joined the chorus of “voices in my head.”

When I was completing my Masters degree at Rutgers, Michael Smith coined that phrase. It’s funny, though, how the solos have changed since my responsibilities have shifted to leadership. This trip brought new voices into the spotlight: Bronke, Kirkpatrick; and, foremost, fellow affiliate leaders, members of this chorus. These fellow volunteers are engaged in the challenging work of supporting teachers just like themselves.

Of course my familiar choral partners remain: Michael Smith, Jim Burke, Linda Rief, Tom Romano, and Linda Christensen. I return to them, my underpinning melody line. But new soloists are being added, a shift in movement: Bronke, Kirkpatrick; and, foremost, fellow affiliate leaders, featured members of my chorus.

I’ve already written here about OCTE’s amazing President, Laurie Dougherty. With her base line, “A good leader has to teach others to be leaders,” and her unfailing example of that, she has become a consistent voice. I always await her next brilliant notes and am never disappointed.

When an organization like OCTE supports its volunteer board members by helping to finance leadership training, it underscores the message: This matters; you matter.

My applause—and respect—only swells for OCTE.

“Since feeling is first” ee cummings (photo courtesy of NCTE/ALM)

For the Love of Pets

When the phone rings—“rings” hardly describes what phones do now—I see who it is and answer,”Hi Jim, Joann, whichever one of you, so glad you called.”

“It’s Joann.” These neighbors of ours for decades, whether I was living in the family beach house or not, have become near and dear since we relocated to the West Coast. She’s calling with a request.

These are friends who count, a couple in our close-knit group of six. We share meals and patio events, drinks and philosophies, neighborhood green space, and love, for each other and for our pets.

We have been through a lot, and that continues. Now we are all aging together. We have all lost pets, had to say goodbye ready-or-not. And this call asks me to show up tomorrow morning, that’s today, to stay with Jesse, their ailing senior rescue beagle. J & J are well-aware of the nature of their attachment to Jesse, acknowledging that he is their baby, and unapologetic.

They lost their lab several years ago, the chocolate member of this mutt-and-Jeff duo that frolicked and lazed in the easement between our two houses: Sprig and Jesse. Our dog and sundry friends’ canines joined them in a happy tumble of paws and chewed tennis balls.

Jesse remains, bi-weekly chemo treatments for cancer notwithstanding. And here we are together on this glorious Tuesday, his sonorous breathing background music to my drafting.

He has finally settled because—his beloved are not here. When they left for a doctor’s appointment that will take hours, he seemed sanguine, unfazed. Then he realized they were actually…gone, as in, not anywhere in this house.

Then he followed me around as I narrated and reassured, “I’m making another cup of coffee; I’m getting ice water. It’ll be okay, Jesse. They’ll be back soon. Get comfortable, little guy.“ Disbelieving, he perched at the top of the stairs pointing balefully with his gray muzzle.

Trips outside to scout, woebegone, accusatory looks when the effort to find his “peeps” failed, and finally sleep, because what else is left?

What I know for sure is that he is not alone in feeling that a part of him is missing. His parents are surely experiencing the same absence. Soon, though, the family will be together again.

Then I will walk my own dog on the beach, thankful to be welcomed home.

Where are they?
Escape to Dreamland

Serendipity, Again

Nuance is everything!

Last night the time that no clock can name came rushing in. Earlier in the day I had committed to giving a presentation at my professional organization’s upcoming conference next October. After two years online, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) goes live and in-person. As the Fall Conference Co-Chair, I felt an obligation.

Earlier in the week, I had been sharing my concern with the OCTE President—proposals had stopped trickling in. We’d already had to extend the deadline. Then I read a quote in the latest Rethinking Schools from the editorial, “No More Normal.” “When one of our colleagues, a stellar teacher, was asked to lead an in-service workshop she said, ‘You couldn’t pay me enough to add something else to my to-do list…'” There it was—indisputable.

But by yesterday, the deadline, we had the 12 necessary to forge ahead, or we would as soon as I tendered mine. Reviewing the topics and grade levels represented, I decided on POETRY! Even online my students and I had been at our best when we used poetry to communicate, and we used it often, (a win-win in wacky world). So much of what we’d done before, in the face-to-face world, the writing, the reading, was poetry; poetry transcends boundaries.

I have taught for most of my life, and when I wasn’t teaching, I was learning about teaching. Playing school was my favorite rainy-day activity, and it rains a lot in Portland, much to my playmates’ dismay. But presenting to my colleagues is daunting. I try to do too much; I want to share it all.

At this point, I have taught so many lessons, read so many professional texts, and attended so many professional development events that I’m not sure anymore what ideas, what practices, are mine: I am a creation (perhaps Frankenstein-ish) of my passion, my curiosity, my endless quest to grow. Thinking about how to narrow my focus, I carom from one possibility to another. So —up in the muddy middle of night.

My proposal title, a neon sign, announces “Transformation: The Power of Poetry,” and the description,”Poetry encourages student voice, their personal expression, in a way no other genre can. In this session, we will explore specific scaffolds for poetry—particularly using personification and metaphor. A variety of mentor texts will invite and support students’ own creativity.”

I believe in the transformative experience of poetry play, of pushing figurative language into the spotlight. We’ve been so successful together, my students and I, taking this approach. When I wake up, so I must’ve fallen asleep at some point, I remember who led me in this direction—or at least one name: Sara Holbrook.

I search her. Scholastic pops up. This :

Good Morning!

Scholastic is promoting their book, not High Definition, the one that started me on my figurative language campaign, but a new(er) one: From Striving to Thriving Writers. Along with it, materials to support me, my security blanket, my scaffold.

And I buy their book because—there are always new things to learn. But I have my focus. I am back at the beginning of my breadcrumb trail, and I can breathe. Fingers-crossed, I’ll also be able to sleep.

The Return

Poetry Unbound, the podcast, is back, and though I missed it yesterday, this morning with the gift of time, I let Pádraig Ó Tuama carry me into the world of “the best words, in the best order”(Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Today offers a poem from Rita Doves’ most wonderful, written-during-the-pandemic collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse.

“Eurydice Turning” and the opening line, benign:

“Each evening I call home and my brother answers” quickly becomes something else, the moment of loss so profound it brings me to tears. I, too, lost my mother to dementia long before her last breath. And with this invasion, her world, her self , our relationship, changed irrefutably.

In her poem, Dove marvels at the optimism of her brother, their mother’s caretaker. She sees her young mother, “younger than my daughter now,” and recognizes the disappearance of that mom forever. A bittersweet stream courses beneath this exchange between family members. She and her brother “…keep talking: weather, gossip, news.”

Now in my seventh decade, I have done the math, calculating backward from the first trip home with my three-year old son when I knew we would have to begin planning for a more stable living situation for our mother. Her story began in 1912, truly those years with her beloved brother and family were the last to disappear. She is 79 when we find a geriatric foster care placement that we, the six of her offspring, can accept as her home.

I ache for Rita Dove, for her brother, for their loss. I wonder if the specter of genetics ever haunts them as I selfishly acknowledge it does me. All this floods my morning thoughts with the first episode of Poetry Unbound. I am not glad, but I find comfort in loss shared with such love—and the wonder of poetry.

To Be a Leader

OCTE Website Home Page

When I am asked to accept the nomination as President-Elect of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) by the current President, I am gobsmacked. I joined my state’s professional development organization within the first week of landing here from New Jersey almost five years ago. (It was only recently that I stopped receiving updates from the New Jersey Council.)

I would never have agreed except that our current President is a force of nature, and a remarkable human—a kind dynamo, a one-of-a-kind dynamo! At my first in-person Oregon Conference, my husband and I arranged accommodations and drove the almost-five-hour trip from Newport to Ashland, an adventure, and an opportunity to introduce him to another part of our outstanding new home state.

Upon arriving at the conference site from our Airbnb, all bravado fell away. I knew no one here. Gone were the familiar faces and warm hugs from my colleagues in New Jersey. The banner announcing the OCTE event stretched across a brick wall at the school where it would be held. Thoughts raced and nerves pinged as I stepped inside. Smiles reigned—a good, reassuring thing, but one person actually approached me, put out her hand, introduced herself, welcomed me: I had met Laurie.

In the course of the conference I watched her calm attention, nothing harried, as she leaned in to listen and spoke in gentle words to address concerns, competent not blustery. I noticed how others deferred to her, how quick her smile, how busy she was without seeming so. I recognized real leadership.

Today I receive an email telling me that our virtual Spring Conference registration is live and Laurie has registered without a problem. I follow suit. As president-elect, I have tried to shadow Laurie through whatever challenges have come her way as OCTE’s leader—and there have been many: all in-person opportunities have been shifted to Zoom. Our organization’s finances are suffering as a result, but Laurie remains steadfast—and with good humor. Did I mention kind?

Often when we text, she’s en route to the food bank to volunteer, or walking her dog at the beach, or planning professional development for her staff, or in a meeting mentoring a new teacher. As I said: dynamo. In the last year, she has added traveling to babysit her beloved grandson on one of her out-of-the-office Mondays; the distance is over an hour each way. Her family depends on her, but her joy in it shines through.

She has gently reminded me that good leaders designate; they do not just do it themselves, rendering others clueless and unable to assume responsibility—”If you ask them, they will do,” a variation on the Field of Dreams theme. It is a lesson I struggle with, but in an all-volunteer organization, and in life, it is imperative. Laurie empowers others—leadership 101.

So when she asked me to undertake the role, I knew I would be a pale replacement. Some restive nights accompanied my decision.

But now, here I am. I have had the best possible example in front of me; I am learning from a master. A bit more time under her tutelage remains, thank goodness. And because she shares my appreciation of professional collegiality, I know she’ll remain a beacon for me.

My goal: Be more like Laurie, big smile, extended hand, sincere welcome. It will all work out.

One Word: Listen

I’m a talker, no introvert me, no lean-in necessary; I have no dearth of verbiage, so when I consider what one word will serve as a reminder to myself at the beginning of 2022, LISTEN speaks. I know it will be a challenge to cultivate better listening, but I am all-too-aware of how I need to work on this aspect of my personality.

After a few weeks, the word LISTEN floats in the back of my mind, it accompanies me, and I am actually tempering my natural inclination to chime in. On a Sunday morning, I open the weekly email from a blogger I’ve been following for quite some time. Maybe you know him? Ian O’Byrne publishes the weekly “Digitally Literate” newsletter. It’s an eclectic assortment of his digital (and other) encounters during the prior week, and he is always enlightening.

Last Sunday among his offerings is a “Watch on YouTube: What you discover when you really listen.” O’Byrne introduces me to a TED Talk by Hrishikesh Hirway. I watch—and LISTEN—spellbound, for 15 minutes. The anecdotes and insights about his listening resonate. So there are at least two of us working to listen better! While his talk is peppered with wisdom, and I do not even think about interrupting because…it’s a TED Talk, after all, I finally understand exactly what I am doing when I think I’m being engaged with another.

In a enthralling presentation, with a voice both soothing and compelling, Hirway, a musician and creator of the podcast and Netflix series “Song Exploder,” explains how his desire to actually understand the layers of the musician’s song creation evolved into something much deeper.

During the many interviews he conducted with notable musicians, he says that he realized there were other doors to be opened in their conversations and “…I started to wonder: Could I try listening to people the way I was listening to music? Because when someone tells you something, just like with a song, there can be all these layers within it.”

Too many jewels shine as I listen to this TED Talk again, but the crown of them all is his epiphany that you can’t turn the conversation toward yourself; you can’t make it about you in the guise of relating to another’s story. The infamous, “That reminds me of something that happened to me…” becomes the gateway to self rather than the door to understanding another. He says, “But it’s kind of like listening to half a song, then saying, ‘Oh, this part reminds me of another song’ and then turning that song off and going to put on another song.”

With these words, I pause the video, and think. This is my epiphany and where I will change my practice, a strategy I can apply toward my resolve to LISTEN better.

The best thing about one word? I can easily hear it.


The light

alerts me:

strange shadows

skitter across my pages.

“It’s a fire”

cries from outside.

There the shadow play

turns ominous.

Sooty clouds obscure

the sun’s face,

pass, are replaced.

Flames lick the blue

belly of the sky.

A homebody, walls and roof, burns.

Sirens screech red,

fill our street.

I stand at the edge

spectator of disaster.


Today I am

the girl who wishes she had a poem,

the one who discovers Jill Krementz’s photos of poets

who recognizes so many faces, friends

from Dodge Poetry Festivals,

who finds as the photos scroll to the final frame:

Adam Zagajewski died last month.

Today I am

remembering my first reading of Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

in the New Yorker, after the towers fell,

behind a stark black cover I had to study closely

to discern its secret,

and Zagajewski’s words “the light”

“gentle” —I forgot

“strays”— that, too,

but ” vanishes and returns”

echoing, echoing, echoing.

Today I am.

(Thanks to Janet Wong’s poem: “Today I Am.”)

Banking on Inspiration

When I signed up for this year’s SOL Challenge, I was already “banking” ideas, nervous about finding myself in a topic-empty vault. In one of my posts, I mentioned Ruth Ozeki’s brilliant novel, A Tale for the Time Being. My daily notebook tells me that I finished it on February 21. By that date, I had decided to accept the challenge.

My beach walk that day revealed a treasure, and I had just finished Ozeki’s tale, set in Japan, post Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear disaster in 2011. Debris and its unpredictable, far-reaching travels plays a major role in the narrative.

Then I see this bottle rooted in sand. I have committed to picking up garbage for several years now, but I am startled upon closer inspection. The writing is clearly Japanese; I take it for a sign. I bring it home thinking “possible post” and “Holy */%, North Pacific Current!”

By now I’ve looked up the type of mussels that have clearly found a home, a real bottleneck of mollusks; they are goosenecks, and my daughter-in-law, who helps me use Google Lens to pinpoint the species, and I feel like true discoverers. Later that week, she sends me this :

All of this just to say, I made my way through #SOL21 without spending this post in my “bank”—until today. Thanks to my fellow bloggers and everyone at the TWO WRITING TEACHERS site who made it possible. I am inspired more than enough by all of you!

The Golden Shovel

Many Slicers have used this poetic form, and I thank them all. I will give it a shot, dubious as I am, fully aware that I am not following the rules perfectly even as I do so. (We’re so near the end of the Challenge, and I commit to one-poem-per!)

The quote comes from “Close”by David Whyte, a stunning poem I discovered through Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, a treasure trove of inspiration.

“Close/is what we almost always are: … close to giving the whole thing up.”

Fear lies in being close.

I know what that feeling is,

no matter what

it floods us. We

find ourselves saying “almost”

to avoid saying “always.”

Those forever words, are,

what makes us close…