Well-Taught

Screenshot, 3/5/22

She was always special, you know those students when you have them, earnest yet joyful, engaged and interested, smart and kind. A colleague of mine once said, “The truth about Brigit, and students like her, is that they really don’t need us; we need them.”And I have never forgotten that. A middle-school miracle among my eighth grade charges, shining on those around her, and making them shine, too.

And that glow of knowing continued growing. In her senior year as a student at a selective high school, she chose to complete her senior project with me. She committed to four days a week, four hours each morning, working with my latest crop of eighth graders on a technology integration project. But she did so much more than that! I was to be her mentor; in fact, the learning was reciprocal.

She became a working member of our teaching team, and the kids loved her. We were participating in the National Writing Project’s collaboration with Google in their “Letters to the President.” The enterprise demanded a lot of preparation and conferring while students worked as writers with a true purpose and audience. Naturally Brigit added to our technology knowledge, but more than that, she engaged with these student writers, and students who once eschewed writing, changed. She nudged them gently toward expertise.

On her final day with us, the project successfully completed and her time with us over, we met on the rug for cake and conversation, a parting “chalk talk,” and she invited them to ask questions. “So are you going to college to be a teacher?”

“Oh, no, ” Brigit replied. “I’m not going to be a teacher.”

Puzzled the young man continued, “Then why did you come here to be with us for your school project?”

“I learned to write in this room. That’s why I came,” she replied without hesitation.

She didn’t look up at me; her eyes remained on the student—it was a matter-of-fact statement, and one that is hardly the truth—but if she had have, she’d have seen a light there that has burned brightly ever since.

This is not my only Brigit story. New stories arise as she, a now-thirty-year old, continues to include me in her life. Today she and her husband(!) and I are hiking during their visit from New Jersey to Oregon. Maybe I’ll have a new chapter to share next Tuesday.

Reading the Room

What I see in front of me:

My embosser, a gift from a student, who loved my book talks—and my extensive classroom library. She never let me forget that day in class.

You almost have to have seen my Language Arts classroom to understand. The 20-or-so desks for the eighth graders were arranged in a myriad of ways, depending on the day and what we were doing. As I told them, desks have legs for a reason—you can move them. And move them they did, but to be fair, the space was limited, bounded by our books, books on shelves, and in crates, books everywhere!

Students found the rug in the front where we’d conduct “chalk talks” a likely spot for collaboration, the rug flanked by shelves, poetry and memoir. Some of them would try to escape detection behind the wall of double-sided shelves standing on the other side of the room. But I was a roamer by nature, so books didn’t provide that kind of successful escape for long.

On this day, the kids were observing that they could really use some more space, space to spread out when I denied them hall access (seldom, but…hard to monitor the hall and classroom; they had to earn it!). It’s true, they were bounded by books.

“You know,” Jack began, “if you got rid of some of these books…” He cast the bait and waited.

You know, Jack, ” I countered, “I’d rather get rid of some of you than any one of these books! They are my babies.”

I jest, but seriously, eighth graders? There were days…Everyone laughed.

A few months later, Shannon brought me a smallish box that had surprising heft. “Ms. Emerson, I got you the perfect gift,” she said, beaming. “Open it now!”

She grabbed a book (they’re everywhere, remember?), took a gold seal, inserted it inside the round mouth and pressed. What emerged?

“It’ll look like an award-winner,” Shannon pronounced.

My embosser, with seals of gold and blue (our school colors). She was right: the perfect gift.

Just Say No

Newport Aquatic Center

I am not a poet, and not sure I agree with Billy Collins’ self-effacing comment that, when you spend most of your time writing poems, you find the poems come almost unbidden.

What I know is I just read “Say What You Want” by Sherri blogging @edifiedlistener. That is poetry, and powerful. She uses the repetitive phrase, to great effect: What I want to say.

What I want to say is no, and not have it hurt you, not to have you upset with me, who cannot be you hearing my refusal. How will it land? What I struggle to say is no.

When you asked me to teach swimming lessons with you this summer—just like in the old days when we were just fresh from college and days at the public pool with those tadpoles and sharks were followed by nights on the town—I was caught up in the enthusiasm that you bring to every new adventure. Life is an adventure, always has been for you, and that speaks to me. Your river of reasons swept me away.

Today, though, I’m standing on the shore watching, out of that current, and I’m saying no. I have yet to tell you, so I’m shivering a bit…the chill, the loss of sparkle as a cloud obscures the reflective surface.

My no comes from this truth, which is honest but maybe not complete: the water, swimming, has become something I do for me. I make time for it apart from my life as a substitute, because those laps, that ritual, is all mine. If I take up teaching once again, it becomes different. As enticing as the vision of us in tandem teaching again is, it will become work…and I do love my work. But I do not want to surrender my time in the pool to it, not now.

So what I want to say is no. And when the day beckons, wide awake, I will.

Sidewalk Stories

I don’t know how long I’ve followed Steve McCurry’s work, and maybe this is a “Hey, it’s Sunday, Day 20 of March and the #SOL22 Challenge, and I’m not sure what to write,” but such a treasure is worth sharing.

Steve’s photographs have inspired my students in so many ways. One year we used his work as a mentor text for a photo essay and played with the idea: Quotes first or photos? How does that affect the creator? It led to Steve’s use of various themes, and the quotes he chose to represent those themes. All great writing talk and idea generation.

Of course I’ve used single photos with them, and for me, too, to get us/me going on those I-don’t-know-what-to-write-about days. They have engaged in different ways, lost in images, in different possibilities, is perspective explorations that made me see in new ways. Yesterday when I saw this collection based on the brilliant, simple theme of sidewalks, I knew I had to share. (How many times have you thought about sidewalks and the role they play in our lives?)

I recall that last year, at some point after I’d had a successful session writing with my students from his art, I wrote a comment thanking him. I wanted him to know how important he has been to me, to us, and hoped that it was okay that I used his photographs in this way.

He replied, thanking me for bringing his work to my students and went on to say how his sister had taught middle school, too. He was grateful for me! I was reminded that appreciation, attention, is love—and I do love this. (I hope you do, too.)

Steve McCurry Curated

Philippines, 2014

“On pavements and the bark of trees I have found whole worlds.”
– Mark Tobey

Myanmar/Burma, 1994

“There is no end to the beauty for the person who is aware. Even the cracks between the sidewalk contain geometric patterns of amazing beauty.”
Matthew Fox

South Africa, 1996

“You could start at a path leading nowhere more fantastic than from your own front steps to the sidewalk, and from there you could go… well, anywhere at all.”
– Stephen King

Brazil, 2012

Kashmir, 1998

“The first sidewalks made their appearance around 2000 BCE in what is now Turkey,  and there is evidence that both the ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated roadside pedestrian footpaths in their cities.”
– Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

USA/Mexico Border, 2016

“The sidewalks were long where I grew up.
They were as veined as the backs
Of my Grandma’s hands…”

– Colleen J. McElroy

Afghanistan, 1992

“The…

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Water from the Well

Learning with Linda Rief, one joy of UNH

What brings you JOY? Learning does it for me. The UNH Summer Institute brochure would practically vibrate in my hand when I drew it from the mailbox every spring. What to choose? I wanted to take each and every offering. As much as the work with unparalleled leaders in the literacy field it was the interactions with my peers, colleagues who, like me traveled some distance to come together to learn, to share, to laugh, to grow that galvanized me.

Several fellow bloggers have taken writing inspiration from Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook, and when I go there to look this morning, I get swept away at the wealth of ideas…so much to write about, too much to write about. Nothing from the brainstormed list in my notebook appeals to me. Does that ever happen to you—that once you write an idea down, it loses its intrigue?

I was enriched two different summers when I took classes with Linda, someone who wraps you in kindness and expertise, no pretension, nothing but generosity. One of them was the year I focused on adding drawing to the repertoire of skills in my teachers’ toolbox. Oh, it was a challenge, but I emerged thinking that I could actually render some recognizable figures, I could work at this aspect of expression and become…better.

I returned to my classes that year committed to give my struggle to my students as evidence of what we now call “growth mindset,” and we drew together; it drew us together.

Another summer session focused more on developing the writer’s notebook, more within my comfort zone. We were crafting a piece throughout our time together. I thought of that yesterday when I came into the ELL (English Language Learners) classroom where I was subbing to hear one of the teachers working with a student. They were reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Bed in Summer.”

At those familiar lines, “In winter I get up at night/and dress by yellow candlelight/ In summer quite the other way/I have to go to bed by day…” I stopped and listened and traveled back in time, first to the place where that poem had played a significant role in my young life, and then to the place—and the person—who had led me to write about it: Linda Rief.

She has been one of my inspirations as a teacher, and as a person. It’s good to remember that.

Worlds to Discover

Baker, Oregon (courtesy of flickr)

Their first field trip in two years, and a day that I am called to substitute for the eighth grade Language Arts teacher—my first time in her room. I am not accompanying the students as a chaperone, though. I am staying with those “left behind” with students who, for what ever reason, will not be attending a local theater company’s performance of Tarzan.

The day has a carnival-feel, “organized chaos” as the amazing school secretary describes it—a lot of moving parts, the wheels on the bus, the kids on the bus, the bell schedule. Flexibility is the name of the game, and the Oregon Coast offers us a beauty of a day. I get permission to take the kids outside. Wonderful for us all.

It’s in the next period following that respite that the seventh graders from yearbook, students who have already seen the play in the morning, come to class. I have been told that, even on a regular day, they have great freedom, so phones can be out, and snacks, and goofy behavior. I know the seventh graders, have subbed the most for them this year thus far.

When I ask a generic, “Does anyone have any plans for Spring Break?” one girl I know by sight comes over and begins: “We’re going to my uncle’s ranch in eastern Oregon to help him. It’s calving season.” She describes the different requirements of “helping him out.” Her entire family will be involved in the process—the branding, the vaccinating, the birthing. “It’s a busy time on the ranch, and my cousins are still too little to be of real help—but they’re there, too, because real soon, they’ll be out riding herd like me.”

The teacher in me asks, “Do you ever write about this?” She tips her head, looks at me, and considers, “Not really, not much.” She continues, tells me about taming her mustang, and her involvement in 4-H raising her own calf that she hopes to show in the county fair in August.

While school has been central to my learning, my life, she makes it clear: School is not the only place to learn, but today, once again, it offered me a wider world, a lesson in living.

Secondary Education

“What’s a Karen?” I ask my seventh grade advanced Language Arts class yesterday. Their teacher —I, the substitute, am there as a “guest”—has posted a daily warm-up question on Google Classroom: “With what talent or useless skill could you win a gold medal?”

This class is a lively one, bright, engaged and 30-large. They want to share their responses aloud, but when the second “I can do a mean impression of Karen as a …” surfaces, I have to come clean. I have no idea what a “Karen” is. Do you know?

I admit that I’m ignorant about “Karen.” And oh, they are quick to guffaw, then educate me. On Chromebook screens, eager kids share definition and photos. “Ms. Emerson, here is Karen.”

” This is what a Karen is.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t know.” The meme culture strikes again.

To write this, I investigated Karen a bit more and found that she’s been around since 2020, but obviously I haven’t. Remember the pandemic? I resist memes in general; the word, overused as it is, gives me the creeps. Why? I have no idea, but the substance of the slang does interest me, and the kids’ interest in it does, too. Dare I hope that by mocking the behavior, the behavior will disappear?

I honestly thank the kids for enlightening me, realize that I can never keep up, nor do I want to. But, boy, do I love when they get to teach me!

Case Closed

When Covid comes for me, it’s the Omicron variety. I have been vaccinated, boosted, and vigilant in every way possible. I wear my mask, I wash my hands, I try to stay at least six feet away from people. But I have started living my life. And that means returning to the classroom.

I have taken jobs as a substitute teacher once again for a few reasons, not the least of which is, for all those days where I question why I’m inviting the stress and uncertainty of entering another’s domain and the undeniable fact that so often substitutes receive the worst kids have to offer, when the magic of working with kids manifests, it’s incomparable. I love it!

And none of us is unaware of the substitute shortage. For a time during the worst of the Omicron surge, the company that manages the substitute pool was adding incentives like Amazon gift cards if one were to work at least four days a week. I wanted to help.

It is clear, as I spend a few weeks with one class, that absence is everywhere. Kids are here, then not. One of them disappears after my first day, then returns in week three.

“Hey, Randy. It’s good to have you back. We missed you.”

“Yeah. I got the Covid.” When he says these words, my mind pings. Covid is a reality in this middle school—and I have placed myself in the middle of it.

It wouldn’t matter so much except that my husband and I have planned a trip to Mexico for a friend’s wedding after much debate. The wedding has been postponed twice, and these are dearest friends, so we’ve decided to travel.

When I awaken on Friday morning, my last day teaching before we depart, with a cold, I briefly think, “Covid?” but quickly temporize. “No, it’s just a cold. Finish this job, and there are sunny skies ahead.” So I do, but because I’m not 100%, I signal stop with my hand up to remind the kids to keep their distance. I consciously avoid sidling up to desks. I don’t want to spread this “cold.”

When I am no better on Saturday, I get tested. If we fly to Mexico and take the required reentry test to the States, we could be stuck there if I should happen to be test positive. The delay would be a costly one, more than we have bargained for. I am 90% certain it will be negative…and 100% wrong when I scan the results.No Mexico for us.

As I write this, I realize for the first time, that the embarrassment I felt about contracting Covid is less. And we are heading to Mexico later this month, fingers crossed.

CC: Parents

I am wide awake at 1:30 a.m., concerned that two of my students will not have a nonfiction selection for today’s class. All the other seventh graders had their books yesterday, actually giving me a “real” view of the covers before scurrying to hide behind their avatars.

I quickly send emails to the my two “not yets” and cc the parents, letting them know that their child’s selection is readily available on Kindle (Amazon’s ubiquity comes at a price, I know, but damn…) and that I am concerned because…yesterday.

It’s now 3:30, and I receive this in my school inbox:

Hi Ms. Emerson, No she didn’t get her book. I unfortunately did not see your email and she never told me that she needed It until last night. I was ready to run to Barnes & Noble’s at 6:30 last night when she told me unfortunately they do not have it in stock. I will look for it today or order it, however I was able to download the first 52 pages online. I hope that will suffice for today’s class. Donna

I flash back to my mother, a stay-at-home conductor or our six-piece often cacophonous orchestra, and the numerous times she had an “I need brownies for our class party,” “When?” “Tomorrow” moment. Her ability to improvise: to mend costumes, to find just the right replacement for the perfect blouse that one of us had to wear. “Did you put it down the laundry chute?” “Oops, it’s still bunched on the floor of my closet.” Oh, my mom, if only I could’ve marveled then as I do now that she’s gone.

To that point, students of mine, we couldn’t do this without your parents. We are so lucky to have them! I have always regarded this learning journey I take with middle schoolers-on-loan as a team effort; never has it been more true than during this time, when 3500 miles separate me from them. So, Donna, I thank you—and I only hope your seventh-grade daughter shares the same gratitude.

The Twice-Lived Life

“It is with a heavy heart that I share…” When an email subject line begins this way and comes from my principal, I steel myself before I open it. Yesterday was no different. Even though I no longer reside in the community where I taught for 26 years, I am still deeply a member of the community because I am teaching the students who do still live there.

Usually these missives contain news of a parent of one of my colleague’s death—and by no means do I minimize that loss—but when the death is a student’s, I am devastated. This is not the way life is supposed to go. No matter who the child, the loss is personal and universal. I have lost students before; it never gets easier. All that hopefulness…

A student from the Class of 2016, the ’15-’16 school year, whom I remember vividly, you know how some of them are, sending sparks of light into the world, a center-stage smiler, Olivia, is gone—suddenly. I sit in shock letting it sink in, all those damn questions about why, and why, and why. No. Answers.

As the day unfolds, I open another email, the one for the Slice of Life Challenge. Oh, my gosh, in all the activity lately, I’ve forgotten to register. Halfway through there is a question about having our students participate, and now that I’ve come out of retirement and have “my” students, I realize I want to resuscitate my former Edublog. I want my students to challenge themselves as “Slicers” and blog for an audience of their peers.

I open my that dormant space, not remembering the last class to truly engage with this writing medium and scan. Turns out the last class to blog from our class blog hub was 2015-16—Olivia’s class. And there’s “Olivia’s Blog” listed in the roll. And Olivia, a part of her that I was lucky to know, lives there:

“After researching and accomplishing all different kinds of unique bracelets, I have learned more about the techniques, strategy’s, and overall how to make certain intricate bracelets. So far I learned the…

  • fishtail
  • chevron
  • striped
  • heart

and there’s more to come but will be done after the project is over. ” This from her post at the end of her 20% Time Project.

And this:”Out of all the categories on the checklist, one of the highest points I exceeded above is persistence. I kept at the bracelets even when I messed up.”

As I read through the posts tracking our year together, I relive our relationship. It is a bittersweet journey, but writing, writing allows that. Olivia will always be alive on these pages. For that I’m grateful. 

(Thanks to the late Donald Murray for this title.)