Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Adding Hours To The Day

This summer both of our older kids are working at an aluminum siding factory about forty five minutes away from our house. They carpool with some other nearby college kids and for these last couple weeks they are working mandatory over time, eleven hour days, which means a four am wake up.  Every weekday. And Saturdays.

Because they are not exactly quiet people, and because older daughter shares a room with two year old daughter and can't use an alarm, and because I  am one of those worrying mothers who wants to make sure everyone is taking enough food and water to work, I am up most mornings to see them off. It hasn't done much for sleeping, but because I tend not to go back to bed once I'm up there has been a silver lining to these early, early mornings.  Time to write.

There is the revision list for my novel that is two pages and growing. And slices, of course. And random writer's notebook ramblings that never turn into anything. Soon we'll be adding lesson plans to the mix. Soon, the early wake ups will be five am again instead of four, and it will only be our son who is getting up because daughter will be away at college.  Before I taught full time I used to get up regularly at five am to write. This summer has reminded me how much I miss it. So, as much as I grumble to myself when the alarm goes off now, I am thankful for the gift of time, even if it means falling asleep on the couch at 8:30.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What do you run on?

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I threw on my running clothes, grumbling the whole time and hating that I signed up for a team marathon next weekend.  I'm responsible for about five miles and have worked up to about four.
For me running is a lot like writing. There are times when I really enjoy the "doing" of both, but more often than I'd care to admit I enjoy "having done" these things more than anything else. Sitting down to write and getting ready to run often have me scowling to myself. With writing, the reward is a hope that this time will be a time when all synapses fire in unison and send a cocktail of "creative rush" to my brain. With running, the reward is the hope that this time will be a time when my legs feel light and my mind feels bathed in feeling good. A good write makes me feel like a good run does, but it doesn't always happen. I have to have a lot of bad runs, a lot of bad writes, to have any good ones. I think this is why I scowl a lot when it's time to get started on either of them. 

A dear friend of mine says, "Motivation doesn't really exist." In a way she's right. If you really don't want to do something, lying around waiting for motivation isn't going to conjure it. When we think of motivation in our students we come up with rewards like stickers and special privileges.  I'm thinking a lot about what motivates me lately and that I simply feel better when I'm writing, when I'm exercising, when I'm eating well. etc.  How do you teach intrinsic motivation?  This is what puzzles me lately, because in the end it is the intrinsic motivators that make us put running clothes on in the dark of the morning.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


We call it The World's Greatest Critique Group because, well, why not?
This weekend I attended an annual writing retreat with my critique group of fifteen years. We rent a big old house in quaint, artsy Saugatuck with no internet, no TV, and no other distractions except maybe each other.  We write and some of us paint, and we share and eat and laugh and eat and write some more. I always have a good time, but this year was particularly soul satisfying. Having a writing group of some kind is essential if one aspires to write professionally, but I probably wouldn't be writing much anymore at all without the continued encouragement of these marvelous creative people. They are my writing teachers, mentors, and dear friends.  I always feel inspired to keep improving after spending time with them.

          Though I'm newish to the Slice of Life writing community, I see this place in a similar light. Here we teach each other and connect together as colleagues and friends. The pursuit of putting the right words in the right order to say something with meaning can be daunting for anyone.  To write in any context, be it a blog or a book or even in a private journal, takes a certain amount of bravery. Community builds courage.  So here's to writing communities, big and small, everywhere. May they nurture the voices of poets, and change our world for the better as they always have.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Confluence

The river by my house.
Big changes and loss have challenged my family these last few years. Suffering most recently has been my husband, so we've found ourselves frequently looking for ways to cheer him up.  Some bad allergies, unresponsive to almost all medicine, have always made it difficult for me to enjoy the great outdoors, but guess where my husband feels most relaxed?  

Yes, indeed.

So I put on my big girl pants and decided we are going to spend as much time outside this summer as possible: Kayaking, hiking, biking etc. Saturday was a kayaking day. There is a river close to our house so we put in for a couple of hours, laughed a little, bumped into each other and splashed our paddles around. Husband pointed out different wildlife and oriented me relative to area landmarks. He took pictures and I looked for interesting things on shore. 

It appears one of the continued perks of my late-in-life third pregnancy a couple years ago has been a noticeable decline in my allergy symptoms. There have been times when tooling down this  river would have sent me to bed miserable with swollen, itchy, runny eyes and nose. I was all prepared to pretend I was having a thrilling time when something else happened:

Now, floating under some weeping trees, I experience what many people do when outside in nature. Ripples and swirlies make art on the water and I smell the warm wet without the distraction of an imminent sneeze. My senses, not being preoccupied with an allergic reaction, begin to immerse in the sights and sounds and smells of this place. Something inside me unfurls like a brand new leaf. I sink into the kayak.    

I watch my husband take in the sky and water and green and think, Now, just. . .now.  Breathe in this color, breathe out my worries, submit to the earth, usher peace to my soul, and send it all to my partner. He is relaxing and I don't need to be here for that to happen, but I'm glad I am. The trees have never been more perfectly green and each leaf has been carefully cut out and folded by hand, it seems, just for him. I listen to the quiet trickle of water from my paddle, behold this misty, origami forest.

Sometimes you're walking along, living your life, wondering what it's all about and a confluence of all that we are and everything that has happened results in this. . . thing: A husband whose healing can only be found when surrounded by a wooded landscape; a loss that makes you appreciate the beauty of the world a bit differently; a reminder that all marriages end and the love story lives on in its children; the continued discovery of gifts big and small brought by an unexpected baby, and the birth of an unexpected life for us all. You're overwhelmed with all this and then, just when you least expect it, there is this beautiful river. And your partner just happens to be floating on it. With you. And you can really, really breathe.  Literally, you can.  So you do.  And just like that a falling apart story ends, and a putting back together story begins.  You know you will be different when it's over. You will be better. Yes, indeed.  
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Sharing is the Most Important Part of Workshop

The most powerful classroom events can be kind of like the Northern Lights: Rare, fleeting, and only under perfect conditions.  As I plan for next year with third graders I vow that my students will have time to share in workshop. It's the most important activity for creating these conditions I'm talking about.  The best example I might ever have comes from Josh and his classmates from three years ago:

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Josh, a small-for-his-age redhead with dyslexia, had a troubled home life and spent a lot of time pulled out for extra reading instruction.  I had him all to myself for writing workshop, though, and tried to make the most of it. The second week of school he declared to me with excited eyes, and not an ounce of typical sixth grade sarcasm, "I'm gonna do it, Mrs. Van Hoesen. I'm really gonna do it. I'm going to live like a writer."  He carried his notebook around like a talisman.  During sacred writing time he wrote frantically and I had no idea what his sanskrit-like, illegible musings were about. He never shared, I assumed because he couldn't read it himself. 

As the year went on, Josh began to act out and had almost no friends.  With his quirkiness and slight build, he was an easy target for Joe, the class bully. Joe was by turns charming and toxic, an instigator and a ringleader. I did my best to focus on the positive and provide a safe place for sharing in our classroom, but I didn't know if it was working. In general, many of the students in this class really hated school and it all felt like a steep uphill battle every day. I went home exhausted. I cried and thought perhaps I'd made the wrong choice of careers. Why did I take a 6th grade job? I thought. I'm so much better with little kids.

Then one day during sharing, Josh decided to read one of his entries.  Our practice is to sit in a circle on the floor and listen to one another intently. Actively. No clapping allowed, but two snaps of the fingers when someone finishes reading, to thank them for their courage. I never censor what the kids can write about, but I ask them to consider appropriateness when sharing with peers. Now here's Josh:

He takes a deep breath, "Whooo!"  Then, a pause. Eyes roll and I give sharp looks, but also think, Oh boy, here we go. I review my mental script for appropriate content in our sharing circle.

Meanwhile, Josh begins, his eyes tracking across the page in his notebook, "I found out last night that my parents are getting a divorce.  It's tearing me up right now and I cry all night thinking about it. Things are already bad at my house.  My little brother just went in the hospital again because he has cancer and we don't know if he's going to live. When I think about life without him  it makes me wonder if I want to keep going at all if he doesn't make it. My parents are worried all the time. They fight a lot, and no one has time for my problems. I know I'm not dying, but sometimes it feels like it, and no one cares. No one has time. My heart feels messed up. . . ."

Tears roll down his freckled cheeks. He rubs them away and sighs deeply.
Our circle has gone silent, and there is an almost visible energy in the center. The hairs on my neck stand in reverence as I recognize this rare event. Josh can't read anything without constant stopping to carefully decode. He has just read with the fluent expressiveness and charisma of a radio announcer. As my throat burns my teacher hat is still on, assessing and noting some fascination with this context for a student like Josh. You never know what you'll learn in the sharing circle.  

Josh's head drops to his chest and he cries softly for a few seconds, then lifts his face a little and wipes his nose on his sleeve.  He doesn't look at anybody, and we all look in our laps. What can I do with a crying middle school student in front of his peers?  I make eye contact with Josh and put a hand on my heart. You can hear a pin drop. My eyes move over to meet Joe's, and the bully instinctively puts his hand on his heart, too. Like it's natural. Because right now the conditions are perfect, the curtains of light have appeared. Anything is possible. Right now.

We've all just stepped into uncharted territory and expectations have left the building. Hell, maybe we've all left the building because this certainly isn't school. Next to him another hand goes to a heart, and another and another around this circle, like the wave at a Tiger's game but like church it's so sacred.  Josh's eyes follow this until it comes back to him. He puts his own hand on his chest, taps his fingers, smiles, nods. The light is beautiful here.

I lean over to look at Josh's notebook.  "You read so well!" I whisper to him.

He beams, and I look closer.

It is completely illegible. Full of backwards letters and spellings that sometimes approach phonetic. No matter. Josh is a writer because he is living like one, just like he said he'd do. And when you live like a writer you think differently about your world, you think differently about people.

Josh's difficult behaviors didn't completely go away, he still sometimes had trouble with bullies. But he was changed in some small authentic way. Our classroom became a place where the conditions were set for frequent light storms.  It was a place where you could put your hand on your heart and no one would call you a pansy. We knew better because we had shared our stories with one another. A community grew. With each year I teach I'm more convinced sharing is what makes these conditions where light thrives and learning is rich across the curriculum. It's a rare and powerful thing but if we share often, if we provide the conditions, the light will come, and come.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pie Perfection is Over-Rated

This slice is like the first piece out of the pie: Kind of a mess. The piece the server keeps for themselves so they can give everyone else something pretty. It's a who-do-I-think-I-am-obsessing-over-every-little-thing slice. It's a looking-for-my-own-flickering-light kind of slice.
One slice
is not the whole pie, though. It is not.
Not even close.
And who said a triangle was the definition of beauty?
So, on second thought, here it is. A rustic slice, for what it's worth, in all its crumbled, messy glory. You don't need the whole story. Just eat.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pomp and Circumstance

She wore pigtails.  I see her on the front stoop in a purple shirt sprayed with daisies and wearing a backpack almost as big as she is. This, before posing for a picture and climbing into the van to head to a place called "Sunshine House Preschool."  If you picture a place called Sunshine House and think about the kind of people that might work at such an establishment, you would understand the excitement of little pigtailed girl.

My excitement, while fed by the quality of the program at Sunshine House, was mostly due to the impending birth of a foreign-to-me concept for the previous five years--Time To Myself.  Time to write, time to grocery shop in peace, time to ponder life without interruption, time to go to the bathroom in solitude, time to wander through any store of my choice without the worry of little hands touching or little feet doing wandering of their own. Did I mention Time To Write?
I was Giddy. We couldn't get in the car fast enough.

I turned on NPR for the classical music I always listened to since I had heard about the "Mozart Effect."  My mind wandered as I drove, listening to a peppy violin concerto while the pigtailed one babbled, "Violins! Violins! Violins!" in the backseat.  She loved listening to violins, which eventually led to violin lessons and that's a slice for another day.
As I fantasized about all the different things I might do after dropping her off, the pull of the bookstore won out. Definitely, the book store.  That's what I'd do.  Oh, the glory of uninterrupted book shopping!
The monotone of the NPR announcer, explaining the history of the piece we'd just been listening to faded to the background of my consciousness. I was far, far away in my new old land of myself, of motherly independence. Of sweet freedom. And then, in an unexpected way, I was jerked back to reality. It wasn't a fender bender or a child throwing up in the backseat.  It wasn't something in the scenery on our drive or a passing ambulance.

Music. "Here's a little Pomp and Circumstance for your morning," the announcer intoned.  Immediately the car filled with the opening notes of the familiar graduation march. My first thought was the last time I'd heard it, when I walked in my own graduation at Michigan State University less than a decade before. My second thought came upon looking in the rear view mirror at the pigtails in the backseat.  She was looking out the window, listening and swaying a little to the music.  Today was the first day of "The School Years."  A journey that would end with Pomp and Circumstance.  I pictured her, processing with a cap and gown, years down the road, and I filled with a knowing that these school years would fly.  The excitement of my new found freedom would ebb, and someday I would grieve a bit for all the interruptions of which I was currently celebrating a welcome disappearance.  I wiped tears away, laughing at myself, feeling bittersweet already about an event to happen fifteen years in the future.

This month we will listen once again to Pomp and Circumstance as that daughter processes to receive her high school diploma. Sunshine House Preschool recently closed its doors due to low enrollment. So many school districts offer preschool now and times have changed. Only a couple of years ago did I get rid of that backpack.  And little did I know then that I'd be toting another almost preschooler to her big sister's high school graduation in 2015.  We'll be back at our old stomping grounds of nearby Michigan State as she walks, smiling in anticipation of her sweet freedom and not fully knowing the burden of such things or able to see the golden glow of a childhood in the rear view mirror. It will just be our girl, caught up in a moment of her own Pomp. Her own Circumstances. And that's as it should be.  
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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Breaking down the Door. . . .

I love reading about how different books shape people's reading lives.  A couple of my favorite literacy autobiographies are Anna Quindlen's book, How Reading Changed My Life and Sherman Alexie's powerful essay, "Superman and Me,".  Currently, I'm reading Pat Conroy's, My Reading Life. At the end of the year my sixth graders write literacy autobiographies that document their life in books so far.  This year has been different, though, because of a few students who claim they truly hate books and try to be quite vocal about it. 

At Nerdcamp last summer, honing our door-knocking skills.
I can hear these kids now. "Whatever. My literacy autobiography? It's a BLANK PAGE."

I continue to build my classroom library and offer self-selected, independent reading time. I share my own love of the printed word, do book talks/commercials and continue to hone the skill of powerful conferring. We've had a few successes, which is wonderful, and I have some theories about the failures. Considering where I've gone wrong is humbling and necessary. Accepting that I can't reach everyone is humbling, and necessary. 

It is, of course, important to give focus to the successes. There's the girl who still talks about how much she loved The Night Gardener she read last October.  There's the girl who couldn't stick with a book at all until she read The One and Only Ivan and discovered animal books and verse are her go to (Will someone please write more animal books in verse?).  There's the boy who exited special education in December who has continued to improve his reading ability all year. Yay! 

When a student doesn't know what kind of books they like I usually ask what television programs and movies and video games they enjoy. This has prompted the opening up of the literacy autobiography assignment.  I've decided to make it a more inclusive media autobiography about stories my students have experienced as a film watcher, gamer, viewer of YouTubes etc. Hopefully this will lead more students to a mention of a book or two that meant something to them, too. And even if it doesn't, the exercise might finally connect story to their lives in a way they had not previously imagined.

So now I have an assignment that everyone can do, and that should make me feel better. But I can't get Sherman Alexie's essay out of my mind. It's about him being a young Indian reservation boy and reading, literally, to save his life. Now, he visits schools and teaches writing to Native American kids.  Many are eager to learn from him, and others are similar to quite a few of my students this year. He writes, "They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. 'Books,' I say to them. 'Books,' I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. . .I am trying to save our lives." (Alexie, 1998)  

The school year isn't over yet, but there are still too many doors holding tight. I will continue to throw my weight against them until June, and admit to hoping next year's are a little more saloon swinging, a little less Fort Knox bolted. In the meantime, I open my own door wider still, and throw open every window. Miracles can happen, even in the waning days of May. 

What is your secret to staying positive during the last leg of the school year?  

Alexie, S. (1998, April 19). Superman and Me. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from http://articles.latimes.com/1998/apr/19/books/bk-42979/2

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Plugging into Things that Matter

My Happiness Coach
Recently I watched a Ted Talk on "positive psychology" and it caused me to reflect on the role of happiness in my classroom. I told my students about it and put the following quote on the board, "People with many interests live, not only longest, but happiest." by George Matthew Allen.

I told them how Shawn Achor, the psychologist presenting the talk, explained that when someone is experiencing happiness, all of their learning centers essentially open wide for business. I said, "This made me wonder if the most important teaching I can do is make sure I show you the ways to be happiest, for life and for your learning.  This quote is our first lesson. People with many interests are happier than people with few to none.  So, let's write about what interests us."  I modeled my own first and then let them go.

I found we needed to discuss the difference between an "interest" and a "preference." (tacos=preference;  cooking, Mexican cuisine, nutrition, history of the taco=interest) I teach social studies to four groups of students throughout the day and did this exercise with all of them.  Many are not aware of their own interests, to the point they don't really know what an interest is.  Eye-opening. Not surprisingly, the students who had no trouble identifying their many and varied interests are some of my best students and among the happiest kids I know. They also mostly have home lives that allow for them to have interests beyond survival

A new curriculum is born: Happiness 101. That day I realized lessons in joy must continue, and maybe the most essential question of all is, "How can we be happy right now in this learning?" Happiness is hard won, in sixth grade and everywhere. In a time where negativity travels faster than you can say TTYL, it seems only natural that my first job is to connect kids back into contentment somehow.  Here's to plugging into things that matter.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Prose Poem for Poetry Month


I've never loved the water but I step in and the river rises until I am a half-girl, gliding across the surface.  Leaning back, the water closes a window over my face and I don't know what I want. A spirit guide? A wide awakening? I've read about these things. Through the window I see broken sunshine and imagine it's my own enlightenment. The window shatters, river runs off my body, and I look around wondering about the work of the trees and the calling of water. The sun does its job of drying my skin and I'm thinking maybe this river is Holy, or just warm, or perhaps it's the ghost of Moses reassuring me of his mastery of the Water Arts because I swear the river parts like a book opening. A page turns in my mind. I had never thought of it like that.  This book. I leap in and make myself busy with the current, behave like the swimmer I'm not.  Limb over limb I decide to keep going because the current is a teacher, and maybe I will be able to read this rocky river bottom with my feet. Some things require learning to read all over again. Some things you can't learn from a book.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Because it's Poetry Month

Painting by Ruth McNally Barshaw
Her baby hands burst open like spring buds.

You invited me to that movie in college where
I put my head on your shoulder
and you took my hand,
roots penetrated, surrounded,
fed us.

She studies both sides
and the introduction is awkward.

We leafed in the darkened theater
in the light of the projector.
You took my hand and
I thought I would never be lonely again.

It seems almost accidental when it finally happens:
Hands find each other,
Neurons fire.
She lights the room
and squeals at this sparkling thing.

We held onto each other,
opened like flowers;

Hemispheres converge
and we watch it all
from half a world away
until time collapses
in a refulgence of light and longing
to capture a childhood, a love.

I think I've accepted it, 
tangled roots and all,
until she turns, smiling
and reaches
for us.
Outside snow piles.

Inside it is spring.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bumpin' down the road in my Station Wagon

From my writer's notebook
The week before spring break in sixth grade sometimes feels a little like this:

            My students and I are packed into a wood paneled station wagon, bumping down a dirt road in Learning Land.  It's raining. I'm in the driver's seat trying to facilitate a discussion of the five themes of geography and, in the back, boys and girls are arguing loudly about who is the most hungry, the most tired.  One is silently looking out the window, following raindrops as they snake down the glass. Everyone has to go to the bathroom, including me.  As I am trying to review the difference between relative and absolute location, I notice there's a boy trying to exit the vehicle.  I flip the child locks to secure him in.

            The window watcher begins to cry.  Another girl is complaining someone called her a name. Could I talk to them about this??  Meanwhile, a quiet voice from the back is explaining the difference between absolute and relative location.  I can barely hear her but I try to make eye contact in the rear view mirror and smile.  The girl next to her reaches over and puts a hand over her mouth.  They begin to poke each other in the eye.  I reach back and gently touch a shoulder, give a precision request for their kind attention.  I mentally cross out Five Themes on my lesson plan, shift gears and turn up NPR on the radio.  At least it's educational. 

            More arguing over who farted and someone has organized a betting pool over who's going to win the manly man leg wrestling contest in the hatchback.  The eye poking has now transitioned to hair pulling. "Stop NOW," I say. Another students yells, "Girl Fiiiiight!!" Yet another who has been silently connected to ear buds the whole trip now decides to take inspiration from  Katy Perry and lets out a thunderous, ROOOOOOOAR.

            That's it. "I WILL PULL THIS CAR OVER!!!"
            As if on cue. The station wagon sputters to a standstill.
            A helpful voice from the back says, "I think it's your alternator."
            It's still raining and I can't get the radio.  I tell everyone to take out the book they were supposed to have brought with them. Two people do. "This is stupid." Someone says.
             A clap of thunder shakes the vehicle and it begins to rain harder.  
            "I'm starving," says someone.  I unwrap a granola bar and split it twenty-seven ways.
            One piece gets tossed out the window. "I don't like raisins."
            "This is $%#," says someone else.
            I put my head down on the steering wheel and try to imagine myself on spring break, lying on a beach with my book, a palm tree, maybe a shot of vodka. I've never had vodka but begin to consider I might be missing out. Maybe I'm too conservative. I should have pursued my childhood dream of being a television journalist. I start mentally updating my resume.  

            The car goes silent. 
            Eventually I hear the rustling of eleven and twelve year olds angling toward me. "Is she okay?" One says.
            "I don't know."
            "Poke her."
            "Is she dead?"
            "I don't know!"
            Sirens.  A knock from a uniformed officer of the law.  I roll down the window.  He leans in and smiles, proceeds to write me a ticket for being in a no parking zone.

            I burst into a hysterical, hyena-like cackle that sends tears down my cheeks.
            The raindrops on the windshield begin to sparkle in a splash of sunlight peeking from behind a cloud. The beauty of it catches my eye.  Is this what going crazy feels like?
            "Did you know your tabs are expired?" The officer mentions.
            I barely hear him. We're all watching the glass slowly dry as the sun comes fully out.  One of our more whimsical girls whispers, "It's a raindrop resurrection."  She goes for a pad of paper and a pencil as we exchange that look, you know, kindred spirits.
            Another says, "Why does the rain look like little water bags dragging down the glass? And why does it go so slow, and then fast?"
            "It's surface tension. We learned about it in science," says another.
            "How many raindrops do you figure make up that puddle?"
            "How long was it raining?"
            "How wide is the puddle?"
            And on.
            "You know, there aren't enough seat belts for every passenger in this car."
            Is he still here?
            We get out. The kids jump into the mud and splash their teacher before proceeding to complain about their clothes getting "nasty."  They all look at me, expectantly.
            I smile back, my mud freckles displayed like tiny badges of honor, because I love them all.
            Even the one hiding underneath the car because he's secretly afraid, perhaps with good reason, the officer of the law is really there for him.

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Disclaimer: This is a satirical piece and none of it really happened except for the Katy Perry ROAR which totally did.  Though it might not have been a student. . .it could have been me. I don't really remember.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Saving Laura

My copy of Little House
Lately I'm preoccupied with time management in my classroom. I want to slow down when everything around me says, "Go faster!" This afternoon as I sat at my paper strewn reading table after school, I gazed out my classroom window and indulged in stepping out onto the playground of my own mind. It's nice out here today. This is what I thought about:
When I was in third grade my teacher led a discussion of genres in literature. "So, Charlotte's Web would be fiction," she said, writing it on the chalkboard under the appropriate descriptor.  And a biography of Marie Curie would be. . ."
            "Non-fiction," the class chorused. 
            This went on for a few titles and finally she said, "Little House on the Prairie. Fiction or Non-fiction?"
            I raised my hand. "Non-fiction."
            My teacher looked over her reading glasses at me from the front of the room.  "No. Actually, Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are fiction."
            I was known as a good student, a kind girl you could sit next to the outcast in the class because I would be a friend to them.  Well-mannered.  Flexible.
            So I don't remember deciding this was my mountain to die on. It was instinctual, like protecting your Twix candy bar at lunch. I was pretty sure the teacher had only misspoken.  I took a breath and said, "You mean they are non-fiction."
            "Class?"  She turned to my peers. "When a story is made up it is called. . . .?"
            "Fiction!!" They replied enthusiastically.
            My heart jumped into my throat and I leaped up in a panic to save my precious pioneer stories from this woman's slanderous accusation.  "Those books are TRUE!!!" I said perhaps a little too loudly to be considered respectful, my voice breaking a little. I sat down quickly and covered my face.
            "The Little House on the Prairie books are fiction," she said with calm authority.  Math was more her passion and she had absolutely no idea what she had just done.   I sat, bewildered and betrayed.  I went home that night and asked my mother who responded by scolding my teacher for not better explaining the ambiguity of those books, genre-wise, and the intention with which they had been written. I went to bed staring at my ceiling and wondered why no one else seemed as bothered as they should be.
            I became the books I read, swallowed them whole and digested them into my consciousness. To question that book put my whole inner world into a tilt. It was the first time I felt let down by literature, and utterly misled by the spirit in which I had read something. Why did it matter so much to find out those books might not be one hundred percent factual?  Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were living on borrowed time. My baby sister was two and I was moving into a role of keeping certain things alive for her.  There was a bittersweet feeling about it all, but even at nine I suspected this was the way of the world and growing up.  Part of how I knew this was from reading about what I thought was Laura's real childhood. 


One of my favorite lines is from Richard Peck's Newbery Honor award winning, A Long Way From Chicago.  Grandma Dowdell is a rough around the edges, tall tale telling woman of sometimes questionable ethics. She also fiercely loves her family. Peck gets readers to buy into her sense of justice because her heart is pure gold. This character is more real than some living people I know. The book takes place in a small Illinois town where there  is "time to ponder all the different kinds of truth."  That line closes the first chapter and makes me put the book down every time. It is moving and disappointing and exquisite all at once. It reminds me that what is "real" is up to each of us. The world is full of velveteen rabbits. 

As a third grader I had yet to ponder "all the different kinds of truth," but my writing became a way to examine life through different lenses. Eventually, I understood that my teacher wasn't wrong about the  Little House books, and neither was I.  As a teacher, I take a lesson from her now.  The discussion with my mother about Wilder's books and the subsequent thinking I did that night about it all taught me so much more than knowing where to place a title in an appropriate column.  In the age of Common Core and high stakes testing it is easy to leave the teaching of thought behind. Making "time to ponder" in the classroom is important, either on paper or out aloud.  I've decided it's my mountain to die on. It is, after all, necessary to becoming a whole, real human.

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