Candid Camera

(photo from pxfuel, royalty-free)

When I finish helping a student, I look out the open classroom doorway to make sure my roaming photographers haven’t strayed too far. Standing there with a bemused expression, is one of the school counseling staff. Her daughter has just left the room, in fact, but I never worry about her. She’s one I trust. Her quiet way is not to mask deceit; she’s an observer, a kind one.

Her mother and I have never really spoken beyond the smiles as we pass in the hallway, and even then, she is less emotionally transparent than I: like mother, like daughter. But there she stands, nods, and as I approach says,” I have something to share. I hope you won’t take offense.”

My curiosity piqued, I assure her, “I really doubt it.”

She goes on with a disclaimer, allowing that kids are not supposed to be using their phones in the classroom—she knows that, but continues.”My daughter took a picture of you last Friday in yearbook and sent it to my mom, her grandmother.”

“Oh gosh,” I’m thinking,” I have had a bad experience with this already.” One child snapped a photo of me last year when I was teaching and posted it on Instagram saying how mean I am and illuminating why so many people consider cell phones a classroom catastrophe.

However, this woman’s eyes are almost dancing as she quickly adds,”I know she’s not supposed to, but it’s the sweetest thing.” Turns out her daughter then texted the clandestine photo to her grandmother saying, “This is my favorite teacher. She reminds me of you.” She only found out because her mom, the grandmother, called to let her know and said she had to let “that teacher” know.

Now I do—and I am smiling, not yet a grandmother but thinking, “Maybe someday…”


Old frames, we’re collecting them now as we commit toward an eclectic gallery wall in our living room. This random approach follows an earlier leaning toward uniformity, but in addition to being expensive, it’s not nearly as interesting. Now my husband and I keep our eyes open—not for the art necessarily— but for the frame.

“Trish, look what I found,” my husband said, holding an aged piece of paper. It was typed, not processed, the impressions faintly visible on the back as he held it to read. “It came from behind the cardboard in that frame from ReStore, just fell out when I took it apart!”

Today’s post could go in so many different directions, couldn’t it?

If I were teaching my middle schoolers in ELA, I’d bring this artifact in as an investigative activity.I still may later this month, because it poses a challenge doesn’t it?

I’d probably start with what we know—someone’s retiring; someone else gave a speech at a luncheon. What else? She worked in Public Works in Milwaukie—I’m assuming Oregon, because we found the frame here, but a Google search says: (the spelling of target isn’t the only error! Oregon!)

She loved to “thrift,” and her name was (should I use “is”?) Judy. She could spell, she could quell Lyle to a “cat’s purr.” Steve could get sidetracked, but Judy led him back around. She added her tenor to the Christmas choir and her ghostly appearance on Halloween. She had (has?) a husband Sam and sons, and over the years has developed a certain self-protective assertiveness.

But the questions we could generate, the stories we could tell, those of us reading this? There are many.

Judy was (is? I hope) loved, and remembered, and still enjoying retirement. Perhaps she’s missed her essential role in finance and gone back to school to become an accountant. Perhaps she’s opened a day care, spurred by those grandchildren the sons of hers have had. Perhaps she curates someone else’s discards at a St. Vincent de Paul. What do you think?

And what about the author of this letter? I think he’s a male, lumped in as a bad speller with Lyle and Paul as these words reveal, but my husband thinks a woman delivered this farewell. Hmm…I wonder what the students will make of it, what they will find in this voice from the past that lives on because…

…we found a frame?


(I have been motivated by so many writers during the Challenge. Today, in the spirit of rich lists, I used flagged emails still lingering in my inbox to get me going. Thanks, Everyone.)

Your package has shipped: What I’m awaiting: college paraphernalia—my first ever college sweatshirt. I figure it’s my 50th year as an alum; I may not get another chance.

A most amazing graphic novel, Little Monarchs, by genius-on-the-page Oregon Coast writer/illustrator Jonathan Case. It is a gift for my great-nephews-in-law to be hand delivered this weekend if the USPS is timely in this first leg.

Your package has arrived: It was a big delivery day yesterday. The dog’s auto-shipment of Chewy hit the doorstep. (Have you seen the ads? They are not exaggerating…much.)

Lush bar shampoo, an extravagance? Maybe, but I have yet to find any equal for my chlorine-zapped hair, and in my rural community, options are limited.

Snyders Sourdough Pretzels, six boxes. See above. What is it with the lack of chunky pretzels in this town? I bought a case of six boxes. (They will last awhile.)

Rethinking Traditional Grading: Susan Barber’s Sunday emails usually get the flag. I am hardly ever ready to parse all the great thoughts she sparks at the time I read it. I hate to stash it in a folder, so I “Keep as New” and return often. By the time another Sunday rolls around, I’m ready to file under “Barber Gems,” and move on to her next iteration of inspiration.

“I Can Buy Myself Flowers”: Do you know Wendy Mac (MacNaughton)? I subscribe to her Grown-Ups Table (GUT) substack, found her by sheer accident during the pandemic, and encourage anyone who wants practical drawing tips—this is a dream for me, not a practice…yet to check her out. She has just opened up a FREE social emotional learning set of videos and resources for educators. Check them out here. She has done, and continues to do, engaging work for kids—and the kid in each of us!

What Compels Us: I’ve written about Pádraig Ó Tuama and his poetry podcast Poetry Unbound (if you’re hankering for a soft and sweet poetry meet…), but subscribing to his free substack to carry me through until the next season begins has added a layer of mindfulness and joy to my weekend. He, too, sits flagged in my inbox until the next wisdom arrives.

Global Read-Aloud Choices: Pernille Ripp has unveiled this year’s Global Read-Aloud options with a lovely explanation of her rationale, the responsibility she feels as its originator and coordinator, this mammoth enterprise that is a game-changer and saved me during the opening weeks of my online pandemic teaching.

I’m sure today will bring a few more flags. What’s in your inbox?

Ready, Set, Go…

Morning moments:

I had a teaching job scheduled for today from a week ago. At about 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I received a text from the school secretary letting me know that she’d gotten the date wrong, that it was on May 15th, not March. (Oh, those pesky “M” months—and her job finding substitutes? don’t envy that one bit.) I text her back, “No problem. May 15 fine.” Cross the appointment off my calendar. Awake to a free day, until… I receive a notification that one of the other two schools where I’ve narrowed my subbing boundaries needs someone. Take it.(Love the school, the people, to be useful, and—I had planned to work, after all.) Remind myself: the ability to pivot matters.

Before work, I check out the website on a postcard we’ve received sent to “POSTAL CUSTOMER” asking community members to respond with opinions, “…on housing issues impacting the community and steps it can take to address them.” I am a “stakeholder;” I know the problem is a thorny one and that this community is not alone, but the factors that complicate housing in our rural, coastal, tourist-heavy area need to be addressed. There is no silver bullet. I add my input. This is what democracy looks like.

On my way to shower and get ready to go, I check my phone, realize I missed a text before bed and find this:

Beer-Can Chicken Success!

My daughter in law has executed her first beer-can chicken (doesn’t it look like a headless monarch?) after getting my recipe. Note that she is still in her jacket, so maybe my son put the bird in the over before she got home. Or did the heat go out?! I’m thinking the potatoes are a nice touch, and despite it having been more than a decade since I’ve eaten meat, red or white, I’m wearing a big smile.

Good Morning, World! It’s a new day.

Eye of the Beholder

Paper airplanes are whizzing in all directions, some missile-like in their trajectories from one edge of the cafeteria to the other, some swooping and colliding with the empty tables. It’s a Friday, period 6 at the end of a long week subbing for the STEAM teacher; the students are closing it out with “Airplane Physics.”

I am standing watch, an air traffic controller of sorts. Since the morning when the field was dry and windless, conditions have changed, so we’re flying inside. The digital media students are also out of their class, brandishing their iPads, capturing images. One sidles up to me, shows me what he’s got so far, proudly sharing his understanding of the word “canted,” one of the types he’s supposed to visually represent.

He’s a familiar face, smiling and willing to engage in that adolescent way—and I know I should know him, his name, at least, but I encounter so many students in so many contexts that I’m at a loss. So I do what I do—I smile and chat and nod my approval, his name, our past connection hazy.

It’s only when I’m at my desk the next morning and lift my eyes to scan the poetry and sundry “moments” taped to the space before me that I see it. Instantly his name comes to me and the situation that had eluded me the day before.

During a class I had taught a few weeks ago, I passed his desk and saw this block print sitting on the edge. It spoke to me, so I asked him about it. He said, “Ms. Emerson, I’ll sell it to you.”

“Okay…how much?”

“$1.00.” And he grinned.

“Done.” Transaction complete, he shook his head and gave me the tiny gem. “When you’re famous, ” I explained, “I’ll have an original, but until then, I have art that I love.”

At the end of class, he came up to me and returned the dollar, said he just wanted me to have it. “No one else thought is was anything special.”

But I did. I still do.

Join the Club

Photo from Pixabay

Club Day! That’s what our local middle school, grades 6-8, has implemented on Fridays as incentive for the students who have completed all their work during the week and managed to avoid behavior infractions.

In the past I’ve been assigned to be in the “Catch-Up” rooms as a substitute; I’ve never handled a club before—and they run the gamut: gardening; movies; cartoonists; D & D (Dungeons and Dragons); photography; digital design; travel… For my maiden voyage, I will be leading the Outdoor Club. I look at the attendance sheet and see almost 50 kids listed, but so many of them will not show up; they have missing work.

When S—, a seventh grader I have worked with in several classes before, enters, I am happy to see him. He is bright, sensitive, engaged and quirky, my favorite kind of kid. He also stands apart from the crowd, marches to his own drummer. He gives me a big smile and comes right over to say hi as the room fills.

He tells me that he’s just been over at the nearby primary school, housing grades k-2, for a field trip, explains that he goes over there to read to the kindergarteners as part of his program. Pride, that’s what I hear, and delight, the joy that comes from doing something purposeful, helpful.

“Ms. Emerson, I was reading this picture book to them, and we were talking about it. The kids kept getting closer, scooching until they were touching my feet. They were into it. And a little bit later…” At this he pauses, rummages through his papers, and extracts a small pink piece of paper. Upon closer examination, he holds the heart of a five-year old, with jaggedy edges, its shape barely discernible. “I’m keeping this,” he announces. “Isn’t it great?”

I think of the shoebox full of “hearts” in various forms that I saved to move with me across the country. I realize that this is the best education has to offer: a feeling of capability, of purpose, of connection with others in pursuit of understanding.

This should be the work, not what so many are missing.

Just Some Letters, After All

SCUBA and RADAR, these are familiar and they are called …? “What’s that word again for letters use to identify something, the abbreviation? BIPOC, for example?”

“An acronym.” I answer my husband confidently. And rattle off both the pronunciation and the combination of words that Black Indigenous People of Color represents.

“Maybe if I look it up, I’ll actually remember it,” as he begins tapping on the keyboard. Then he clarifies: “Actually an acronym is truly an acronym when it creates a word that is sounded like a word. If it’s just a combination of letters for something, then it’s technically an initialism.”

“So OCTE (Oregon Council of Teachers of English) isn’t really an acronym? We never say Ok-Tee, so…”

It is true that acronym is often used to identify both, but this specificity is new to me—and arcane though it may be, I love the knowing!

Yesterday during class, the students were working on a program in called “Dance Party.” As I’m circulating to see their progress, I stop to chat with two who are adding code to create dancers for their project. One has decided on sharks, the other moose. I say “moose” because our discussion begins with the question, “Ms. Emerson, do you say moose or mooses?”

“Moose is like deer,” I answer instinctively. “It’s both singular and plural.” One of the two, like my husband, taps away and confirms it. Then he asks, “So not like mouse and mice, then?” I have to laugh; I see the transfer.

And now we’re off in another direction. “Do we call lots of computer mouses ‘mice’? I don’t think that’s right.”

I ask him to look it up, and he finds an entry at the top of Google search that claims MOUSE is an acronym for Manually Operated User Selection Equipment, but it doesn’t stop there. Because, while some people believe that to be the acronym, it is not true. Mouse is not an acronym! (“But I found it on the internet—in multiple places, too!”)

Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the mouse, when asked about the name, said,”‘No one can remember. It just looked like a mouse with a tail, and we all called it that.’ The wire “tail” originally came out under the user’s wrist.”( The MOUSE acronym is a creation, not a truth.

Why all this about something as small and insignificant as a mouse? Who cares? Does it matter?

I don’t know, but knowing what’s true, even if the “alternative facts” might be more interesting, matters to me. Maybe you feel the same?

Turning It Around

As soon as I turn left at the stop sign, my course is clear. I have opted for a trip to the library rather than heading straight home from a day of substitute teaching. It is also a measure of optimism. A day I had faced with some trepidation went well. Same kids, different outcome: middle school.

I have so few truly bad experiences, days where class after class goes badly, in my small town school where I sub often and know so many of the students. I become, not a regular teacher but at least, a regular feature. When I taught full-time those horrible, no-good, very bad days could be put in perspective and in the context of on-going relationship building; equanimity was easier.

Yesterday marked the beginning of a four-day stint with one class, and was the first to follow a rotten day from the previous week. But it went well. I happily avoided being with the exact same configurations of young people that had been disastrous, and it was a different day. I was able to reason with, even laugh with, my challenging charges, to enjoy the connections I was deepening with these adolescents. Our day one? A good start!

My turn toward the library to pick up books on hold was proof positive: I was looking ahead with optimism rather than behind with regret. Our local library is the best take-out joint in town. It provides food for growth of all kinds. It is on my list of most-visited happy places.

I easily find a parking space in the lot, grab the book I am returning from the back seat, and head toward the side door. A mother and her daughter are heading my way. I take note but don’t really attend until we are facing each other in the crosswalk. The girl pauses, tilts her head, smiles and bubbles, “You were my music teacher!” There is nothing but joy in her recognition. Her mom has stopped a bit ahead of her and is looking back at us. She, too, is grinning.

“Yes. I’m the one,” I answer. “I’m so happy to see you here—at the library!” We share big smiles, small waves, and continue on our way. My left turn was the right one, of that I am positive.

Graphic Readers

Graphic readers are a format of a book,  just like an audio or digital book. If your child wants to read a book that is a graphic reader please let them do so.  It is real reading!  Graphic novels have all the elements of a story: characters, plot, conflict, and solution.   The reader is required […]

Graphic Readers

I have made it, everyone, a full year of Tuesdays and looking at another March Challenge as I write this final-Tuesday post. It was not a decision taken lightly to commit to writing each and every Tuesday on the heels of March 31, 2022.

I am an all-or-nothing girl. When I commit, I commit. My husband jokes that that is what has gotten through these past 38 years together, that and the fact that I never want to admit I’m wrong.

Today I had an array of thoughts to explore here on this momentous day, but I decided to review drafts stored in the “Posts” on my site since the beginning. I found this from March 2019 and picked, a spin-the-bottle choice.

The Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) runs a book club twice a year. We use a classroom-ready text in winter, last year it was Kim Johnson’s This Is My America for example, when everyone could use lighter fare. This year we selected graphic literature, two examples, for our four-week long exploration: Displacement by Kiku Hughes; and Victory! Stand.Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes and Dawud Anyabwile.

We have had a difficult time enlisting a crew of adult readers to be honest, but those few of us who’ve engaged with these graphic texts have benefited greatly. Initially, I was not a fan of the graphic format. To be honest, I don’t think I knew how to read them well. It was a student, a wonderful, quirky eighth grader who set me straight.

I sidled up to Taylor for a reading conference about a decade ago and opened with my standard, “So, how’s it going?” He was reading one of Brian Selznick’s stunning novels, Wonderstruck. Do you know it? Kids were inhaling Selznick after the movie of The Invention of Hugo Cabret came out.

He began telling me about what he loved, focusing on the art rather than the words. I tried to deter him, directing him towards the text. Then he asked, “Ms. Emerson, don’t you read the pictures? You need to slow down.” There was no malice in those word, words I have heard so often in so many contexts, just sheer appreciation for the power of slow, an understanding that reading layers is essential when reading a graphic format.

So…slow. I have devised my reading protocol for graphic reading, and I share it with any student who’s interested; it’s my process. Interestingly, it is the strategy used by several of the adults in this OCTE book club. I gobble the text first, my habit and the way I was taught, and then I go back and read the art. (It takes longer!) I have learned how to read and appreciate the affordances of this literature format.

Within the format lies a wealth of genres, opportunities for exploring fiction and non-fiction, from memoir to dystopia to fantasy. Craft moves, mentor text moments abound. The two we’ve been plumbing lean toward the memoir while Hughes’ has an element of fantasy that is deftly handled to bring the history and emotional impact of Japanese internment to readers of all ages. Tommie Smith’s story is worthwhile for anyone and everyone.

I hope that I am not alone in my awakening; I hope Taylor’s words echo for everyone. I finally get the bigger picture: WE WANT READERS and THINKERS.

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.