About Leah Slawson

I write and I teach AP Language and Composition at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL.

“Don’t Let Me Hurt Them”

It’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’m not completely end-of-May-exasperated on the first full day of school.  Though I readily admit to this very thought shouting in my consciousness at year’s end, it also floats into my mind at the school year’s beginning.  In August, it has a completely different context.  It’s one of my breath prayers – those one-liners you say on the run or in desperate moments.

Help me. 

Here I am. 

Show me what to do.

I’m listening. 

Add to that list:  Don’t let me hurt them.  I know the power of the tongue.  I’m a wordsmith, a writer and an English teacher.  Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power.  That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell.   They can bless and curse;  expand life or diminish it.  They wound and they heal;  they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. They empower and enthuse; they also reject and refuse.

When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil. In the course of the day with my students, I can instruct and encourage, comfort and cast vision, or I can confuse, unnerve, embarrass or demoralize.   Just writing those last four words frightens me.  The rate at which I run my mouth, often before my brain is engaged (as my father used to say) is dangerous.   Teenagers can be snarky and sarcastic and funny.  They complain and speak about things of which they are ill-informed. The tendency sometimes is to want to get in there with them.

But I can’t.   There is not a balance of power.  I’m the adult. They are “not quite yet”.  I’m the teacher, the giver of the grade; they are students who have to do what I assign.  The temptation to become one of them in conversation or to get a laugh at another’s expense is one I must not give in to.  The opportunity to teach them the high road in civil discourse and in personal relationships is mine. So is the chance to comfort the hidden hurting ones who walk through my door every day, whether they tell me those hurts or not.  My minister often says, “There’s pain in every pew.”  So it is in my classroom – in every desk.  I pray I am never the instrument which inflicts more.

I know the power of words, get drunk on it at times,  have run away with those words without thinking of the consequences. I’ve lost count of the times in my life I’ve had to ask forgiveness for using them carelessly.  So I’ll begin this new school year the same way I do every year, with this simple prayer, “Don’t let me hurt them.” 


Awards Day and Sleeping Babies

Yesterday was Awards Day for the Upper School. The seniors processed in to “Pomp and Circumstance” and I was glad my daughter’s graduation is now two years behind me so I wouldn’t cry. I glanced at my colleague whose daughter is a senior this year. At that moment, she was holding up fine. My students reading this won’t understand this metaphor but parents and teachers will: Attending the awards ceremony and watching a toddler sleep are one and the same.

In that stage of life where all your cabinet doors have to have safety latches and nothing ever stays put away in your home and vegetables appear as mortal enemies on a spoon, a parent’s work can be exhausting. If your toddler is fighting the transition from crib to big bed, as in staying in the big bed now that he knows he isn’t caged in, or throwing a tantrum because he is two years old and can’t communicate frustrations in a mature fashion, it’s hard to keep a cool head. Finally night comes, the little one is tucked in and sound asleep and you go in and stand over that bed. Your heart fills up once again. You love that child so immensely. You can’t imagine life without him.

These were my thoughts yesterday as I watched students I had taught march in. Gangly ninth grade boys who I wouldn’t have bet could safely reach adulthood were streaming in, broad-shouldered in suits and ties; they are men. Girls who knew nothing but boys and drama as freshmen are receiving awards today for academic subject areas in which they have excelled. Volunteerism and community service awards, DAR Good Citizenship, set design, painting and dance awards, theatre arts – a myriad of talents and skills was recognized. Even more important that talents and skills though, we were celebrating perseverance.

Having taught the current seniors as ninth graders, I knew all but just a handful who transferred into the school later. In ninth grade, I could only see potential, a little sprout capable of producing fruit, but by no means bloomed yet into who he or she is going to be. Some days those little sprouts can just about make a teacher crazy with all their newness. They are physically and emotionally all over the place at that age; hormones, rather than common sense, driving the body’s train. Their decisions socially and academically are critical and yet they don’t have the maturity to realize it. Sometimes it’s tempting to write them off as young scholars and think of them as young nuisances.

This time of year- the first of May- teachers and students are worn out. We are all like small children who’ve played outside all day long and are now tired, dirty, hungry and grumpy. Somebody needs to feed us, bathe us, and put us to bed.

I heard the announcement of scholarship recipients, one after the other. Over half of the senior class received academic scholarships to college. I found out one of my current students has maintained a 100 average in AP Chemistry – that while taking my class (AP Lang) and APUSH and who knows what else. I realized another student choreographed dances for our school’s ensemble. I’m standing there watching my toddler sleep. I love them. I’m so proud of them. They did soak up some knowledge. They did discover their gifts, learn how to apply themselves and persevere.

Writing Is an Act of Faith

Writing is an act of faith. You don’t know where it is going when you start.

My students have just finished writing researched argument, which is a way of saying “a research paper”, but I was trying not to call it that, to spare them paralyzing fear and help them see the value of the assignment in connection to their AP Language and Composition exam where they will write rhetorical analysis, argument and synthesis essays.

I gave them the assignment, carefully explaining the steps to the research process and writing about it, and then they began by reading a non-fiction book that makes an argument, researching that topic to see what other writers discovered, analyzing and synthesizing that information, forming their own thesis, then writing about it.

Funny thing happened at step two. Many of them had chosen books about controversial subjects that interested them, thinking at the outset they agreed with the author. By the end of the reading, they were fully convinced. Then they started reading other research and frustration set in: I thought I agreed with Malcom Gladwell but now I don’t know.
I’m confused because I thought Deborah Tannen was right but this writer totally disagrees with her. I’ve completely changed my mind; can I change my thesis? These were the comments I was hearing one morning in class and I began to smile, even laugh. I cheered! That frustrated them even more.

What I knew and they didn’t (yet) know was that the process was doing its work. This is the point! I told them. You don’t really know what you think until you begin to write. As the students researched and learned, they began to change their minds, or sharpen an existing opinion, they experienced the thinking and writing process just as I want them to – as an open-ended act of faith. You begin without knowing the end. You start with a question and maybe you find an answer, or maybe you have to write new questions .

Writing is thinking and discovery. You have to stay open. One must follow the question, even if the answer means you change your mind.

Write your way out of a hole. I’ve said this over and over as my students struggle with a prompt or timed essay question. Just start. Write something. Turn the flow on. You may discard the first paragraph or first page, but just start the pen moving. Believe writing will come if you just start.

I’ve preached this for years and yet I don’t always practice it myself. At times I am faithless. I don’t write. I think I have nothing to say or believe that I don’t know what I think. Yet, like faith, the process has never failed me, when I trusted it. When I began – to write something- there is always something to say, even if it’s a list of questions. Even those tell me what I am thinking, wondering, and wanting to know.

One word, phrase, sentence or question at a time, I build a ladder of language to get myself out of the hole. I do know what I think- if only I practice faith and begin to write.

The Illusion of Necessity

One of the hardest things about leadership, whether parenting, teaching, or mentoring, is letting go of the illusion of the necessity of yourself.   I recently got to practice this surrender yet again, as I became ill the weekend before semester exams, which is also the week before Christmas.  There is never a good time for a mom or a teacher to be sick, but there is a worst time and this is it.

My Christmas shopping was incomplete.  The tree was in the living room in its stand, but without a single light or ornament adorning it.  Preparations for having family visit at Christmas had not even begun and my usual custom to delivering bread to close friends still lay ahead. My college-age children were headed  home that weekend and I needed groceries in the house.  A younger woman I mentor had a tough week and needed to talk a few things over with me.  As for school, I had one teaching day left to review my students for their exam and was in the midst of grading a writing project they had turned in that consisted of six essays for each of them  – a total of about 3,500 words per student, delightful, but time-consuming reading.

That’s when I got sick.  My husband came down with it first, and while I tried to be a good nurse to him, I couldn’t resist reminding him that I’d taken the flu shot and he should have too. He probably should have used one of his favorite lines on me, “Never miss a good chance to shut up,”  but he was either too sick or too gracious to say it.

My pride came before my fall. It strutted around the house for a couple of days, enjoying decent health and smug about having taken my flu shot,  and then I awoke at 4:30 in the morning the week of exams running a high fever.  The bones in my face hurt from the congestion.  I coughed until my muscles were sore and I couldn’t keep food or water down.  When my husband improved slightly, he had to drive me to the doctor, who diagnosed the flu, a sinus infection, and bronchitis. (Am I an overachiever or a glutton?)   Apparently this year’s flu shot was not a good match.  Again, a good opportunity to say, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”  But he didn’t.

I seem to have lost much of that week. Five days just disappeared.  I remember lying in bed in the dark, hearing my adult children in the living room laughing while they decorated the tree, wishing I could drag myself in there to be with them. My daughter would poke her head in my bedroom door  occasionally  to see if I wanted her to cook me an egg or bring me some water, or if she caught me awake during the day would make a list of errands I needed her to run or gifts to buy and wrap.   I know I texted colleagues at school with the details of what to do with my classes and how to administer my exams, but I can’t actually remember doing it.  At some point I notified my church choir director that my singing a solo the following Sunday at church was in jeopardy.

When I finally emerged from the blurry mix of those days, this is what I found.  The Christmas tree had lights and ornaments. My family had fed themselves. My daughter is a good personal shopper. My younger friend told me that because I was too sick to talk, she went straight to God in prayer instead.   My colleagues in the English department stepped up and covered my classes and gave my exam, and my students performed just fine without me there to answer their questions. Another singer took my solo at church on four days notice.

The lesson for me:  I am not needed to run the universe, even my small part of it.  Ours is a privilege of participation, but we are not needed.  Whether family, friends, colleagues, or strangers, there’s a community out there who can step up with their own gifts and keep things going. I love taking care of my family and my students and colleagues are a source of joy to me.  I learn constantly from being in a mentor role with a younger woman, and value her friendship immensely. But a few days of darkness reminded me that I am not the one who keeps the lights on in my corner of the world.  That might just be the best present I got this Christmas.

This Is What Revision Looks Like





This is What Revision looks Like –

I glanced across my classroom today and this is what I saw. About five weeks ago, we started the Modes Project (a great idea from my APSI instructor Valerie Stevenson). This part, the writer’s workshop, in which students meet in ‘expert’ groups to critique each other’s papers was the part I dreaded most. Frankly, in my previous years teaching ninth graders, I’d felt like most group revision was not very helpful, that might students didn’t know enough to truly help each other revise. At best, they were proofreading and editing. This year in this project, with my AP Lang students, I was pleasantly surprised.

I’d had my students read an essay in each of seven modes all centered around the same general topic of language. I then had them read two essays on any subject of their choice in each of those seven modes. For each of those they had to write a rhetorical précis, which is a highly structured four-sentence paragraph blending summary and analysis. Finally, the students had to choose a topic of their own and write an essay on the topic in each of the seven modes.

Our days have been filled with reading, writing précis, getting feedback, and writing essays. Today we are to the revision stage. As I watch my students work in these groups and eavesdrop on their conversations, I hear things like, “If you think metaphorically, you can take this paper from here (the speaker’s hand is waist high) to up here” ( her hand is now over her head). Another group member agrees, “If you stomp through the woods long enough, you’ll get a dead deer! Your paper is really about perseverance.” This narrative essay from a deer hunter was being revised to more than he thought he had written.

I’d written the acronym RIP on the board just before my students began their group revision. “It stands for Rest in Peace,” I said, as this was the first time in weeks they didn’t have assigned homework or a deadline for my class hanging over their heads. We would be back in the groups the next few days in class. “It also reminds you to RIP those papers up,” I said, reminding them of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We have created a safe community in these classes this semester. The students know and trust each other. They are highly motivated and want to succeed as well as see their peers do so. I suggested they think of themselves as doctors: diagnose the problem with these paper and cut out the diseased parts before they come to me for summative assessment. “You can even think of me as the coroner. You don’t want your paper to be pronounced Dead on Arrival, so don’t be shy, do for your peers what you want them to do for you—-tell them the truth and help them write their best essay in the mode you are an expert in.

As I watched and listened and heard them caring enough and trusting enough to tell the truth and receive the truth, I realized these revision groups are working a lot like what a friend of mine calls “a pit crew”. Not exactly the NASCAR kind, though she does borrow the image from them. We all need a few people in our lives who are brave enough to tell us the truth, to help us be our best selves, to not let us get away with bad behaviors. We need people who push us farther than we want to go – for our own good, and who call out the bad and tell us to get rid of it. Like a pit crew in a NASCAR race, they make us perform more efficiently and become more capable of finishing the race we are called to run.

This is what is fun about teaching. My students become my teachers. Just watching and eavesdropping in class today reminded me to give thanks for those “pit crew” people in my life who love me enough to clean my windshield, change my tires, and keep me fueled for the race.

Bolt or Trust? Art, Writing, Frustration, Learning – Part 2

My teacher gave me homework to do. “Make a color chart,” she said. While I practiced my strokes on my canvas, she meticulously cut painter’s tape and made a grid on a white board. She then labeled several paint colors and told me how to mix them to see how the colors blend. I was to move down the chart adding varying amounts of white and across the chart mixing each subsequent color with the first which was Sap Green. She squeezed out paint samples on a board, covered them in Saran Wrap, and sent me home to mix color.

A fews days later after dinner one night when I was too tired but didn’t realize it, I sat down to mix color. I worked diligently mixing each one with white and putting them into the squares on my chart. I then mixed each color with Sap Green, not realizing until I was almost finished the entire chart that I had been mixing cumulatively across the chart, so instead of Sap Green and Cad Yellow, then Sap Green with Lemon Yellow, then Sap Green with Barium Red, I had been mixing Sap Green with every color across the chart at the same time. No wonder I wasn’t finding a color I liked. Suddenly, it was late at night; my kitchen table was a big mess, I had deprived myself of sleep to do this and it was all for naught. I wanted to cry. I had done it all wrong.

I cleaned up and went to bed. My first waking thought the next morning was how I had messed up this whole chart that my teacher spent so much time making and used up all the paint she had given me and had done it completely wrong. I felt about five years old. Really. “I must not have listened to her directions well,” I chastised myself. Later in the day I sent her a picture and a text and told her what I had done. She was ever encouraging and told me to bring what I had to the next lesson, assuring me we could use it and all was not lost. I didn’t believe her. I’d looked at the colors again in the daylight and I didn’t like any of them. They weren’t real colors; they were mixtures of things that shouldn’t go together.

A day or two later I took myself to Hobby Lobby. I decided to buy a few tubes of paint and make my own chart before I went back. At first I got all excited being in the art supplies’ section, the way I used to feel in my parents’ office supply store picking out new school supplies at the beginning of a school year. I loved new notebooks, fresh paper, and new pens. Still do. But my excitement quickly faded and an anxious feeling set in. I didn’t know which paints to buy, or what kind of board to use. And there were so many different kinds of supplies, brushes, cleaners, canvases, tools —a whole new vocabulary to a hobby that I’d have to get acquainted with if I kept pursuing this art thing. Again, the “bolt” feeling came. I almost walked out without a single tube of paint. A voice in my head said, “Don’t start another new thing when you have so many things unfinished at home.” Visions of photographs yet to be put in books, music to practice, gardens to weed, and writing projects stalled in the drafting stage filled my head, along with lesson plans, laundry, dusting, and cleaning out closets.

Art won. Experimentation won. In the paint aisle at Hobby Lobby, I made a decision to continue my experiment in learning about process, to press into the newness and unknown field, to get comfortable with messes and failures as part of learning, to put myself in a practice of doing something out of my comfort zone. I bought the paint and I came home and started over.

My empathy for my students grows with every attempt at mixing color or putting it on canvas. What seems easy to me – putting words on paper- feels to some of them like my moment in Hobby Lobby. They’d rather just bolt from that blank page. Only they can’t because this is school and I am going to give them a grade. So despite feeling inadequate or overwhelmed or frustrated, they dig in and do what I ask and trust me that they can do it even when they don’t see it happening.

This is particularly impressive and inspiring to me as I think I should be the stronger and more capable among us. My art experiment is proving otherwise. I’ve had my canvas painted. At fifty-one years old, I have several layers of life’s color and texture by now. At seventeen, most of my students still have significant white space on their canvas. Whole swaths of their lives haven’t been experienced yet. So I’m learning from them, and their trust inspires me, and I’m going back for another art lesson.

Art, Writing, Frustration, and Learning – an experiment: Part 1

I had the idea to take an art lesson. Just one. I thought maybe I could learn something about my writing practice and process by seeing how someone works in another discipline. I called a good friend who is a working artist and also teaches and she happily agreed for me to come to her studio the next day. It was a whim; I tell you.

I must have had some unconscious awareness of how much I was going to feel like a four-year-old as I took with me one of my husband’s old shirts as my ‘smock’. Consciously, I thought I would probably sketch with charcoal or paint with water colors for an hour or two, pick up a tidbit or two that parallels with writing, and come home and write about it. That is not how it is working out. Notice the verb tense there—My friend won’t let me quit with one lesson and be past tense; —it is present progressive; though I’m not sure how much I am progressing yet.

As soon as I got my smock on and sat down, my artist friend began talking about the picture I was going to paint in oil, but first we would practice on something smaller in acrylic. What? I’m just here for today, I reminded her. She was having none of it. She had a multi-step plan.

We looked through some photographs on my phone and chose a few pictures I liked. One was a landscape, a view of the lake from my back deck, and the other a desert flower from this summer’s vacation. The lake scene would become my oil painting, she said. The first thing she had me do was paint the entire canvas green.

We then turned our attention to a smaller piece of paper and the desert flower picture. She showed me how to put the shapes and lines in first. Then she painted the same image along with me and following her lead, step by step, I began to create my first painting. This smaller picture we were using as practice, to learn to stroke with the brush, not ‘feather’ as I kept tending toward, to learn how to mix the paint and to hold the palette knife. I kept wanting to use it like a spatula in cake icing. The technique is not the same, nor can you lick it clean. I kept forgetting steps in the mixing process and ending up with colors that didn’t even look like good dirt. I began to feel my ineptness. I didn’t expect myself to be good at mixing color or painting on the first day, but neither did I anticipate just how ignorant and awkward I would feel. I wanted to bolt a few times.

I tell my students all the time that frustration is the beginning of learning, that they must have a growth mindset; yet here I am again, encountering something new and foreign, feeling like a child who can’t quite hold her peas on her fork and getting frustrated and embarrassed. But I’d brought myself here of my own volition, and regardless of how bad I was at holding a palette knife, mixing color or making proper strokes with a brush, I mustered my determination to learn something about writing through my experiment with painting.

The flower picture was finally complete, and though one can tell what it is, I doubt it will ever make it to display, even on my refrigerator. My teacher praised my efforts and obviously sees something I don’t or just knows how to be an encouraging coach. Her kind words were water to me. She then had me turn back to my green canvas.

I then painted in the lines and shapes and values in brown. This is underpainting and it will be my guide, she said. Eventually no one will see it. But I will always know it’s there. I liked this idea. It reminds me of varied syntax and paragraphing; no one notices it until it’s absent. It also reminds me of the journeys we all make, teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, all of us traveling guided paths that we sometimes can’t see even as we are walking them.

I’m going back to another art lesson, trusting a teacher and her process and a path I can’t see, hoping my students will, in turn, trust me.

What is their water?

I wrote my way in the last blog post to this sentence, “I will be writing somewhere…because for me, this is water,” referencing David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech which my students were studying for its rhetorical effects. Wallace begins the speech with a story of two young fish swimming along. They are met by an older fish swimming the other way who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The younger fish swim on a ways and finally ones looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

I recently had a former student contact me to ask what I was writing lately. His email became the catalyst for me to write the first entry this year. He actually reads my blog, apparently, and had missed it. I’d written plenty, filled a Moleskin journal since April, but nothing was out there for public consumption. It occurred to me, when answering his question about my writing, that though I’d written thousands of words, that wasn’t obvious to my students.

I had been taught in my college days to always write with my students. I believe in that. The best writing teachers are those who write themselves. But actually writing WITH my students, in class, at the same time…it’s harder than you think. They have questions for me; I have papers to grade and lessons to plan. Something always seems more urgent than writing while they write. 

But maybe that isn’t the essential part. Maybe knowing I write and seeing my writing is what matters. Knowing that I, too, have to wrestle against the blank page, have to re-order, cut and paste, and hit the delete key often is what is important to them. I suspect they need to know that I don’t know all the answers and I struggle with ordering my world too and writing is a means to do that. It’s probably good for them to know that ‘first drafts’ in my Moleskin journal are never what the public sees. And while I’m confessing, they should probably know that much of what I write there isn’t good writing or interesting reading.

Writing is essential to me, a ritual as necessary to living as water to swimming. I’m thinking on paper. I often quote Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.”

I have to process things in language, either spoken or written. The writing saves my husband, children, parents and friends from having to listen to more than their share. It probably saves on prescription medication and therapy too. It’s a means of discovery, problem-solving, and remembering. It’s an act of worship.

The student who sent the email – I suspect writing is his water too, though he’s multi-talented with painting, photography, drawing and music. He may have multiple waters. As a college freshmen, he is emailing his high-school English teacher that he misses reading and writing this semester. He’s editing friend’s papers for free to get his fix. That’s a man who loves words and is desperate for them! Thinking of him prompts me to think of other students – what is their water?

I don’t mean passion. First of all, that word is so overused in high school and college now it is rendered meaningless, at least to me. Sometimes I don’t feel passion at all toward writing. I resist it. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to do it. I’d have more time for easier, more fun, more entertaining things. My writing life is not passionate as in “I love it and always want it and want it above all else at all cost”. No, water is not passion.

Water, according to Wallace’s fish anecdote, is the necessary medium for swimming. What is my students’ water and can I help them discover it? What is essential to them? Is it hands-on experience? adventure? nature, sketching? solitude? music? movement? competition? I have no idea how to go about doing that and maybe it’s not even my role, but I have a starting point for answering my question. When my students are stuck on an essay question, I tell them, “Write your way out of a hole”.

My Gypsy Life

Pulling my cart out of the room where I taught first period this morning, the phrase My Gypsy Life popped into my mind. I thought again about this blog. It has begun to nag me: the question of whether I’m going to write here this school year. I have not just been on an extended summer vacation from writing, although my initial break started as that. My focus here for the last year has been a window into school, primarily writing about my perspective on the beginning year of high school with my ninth graders, and what little bit I learned about parenting teenagers by making my own mistakes on my two children when they were that age. Teaching freshmen for five years, I seemed to have plenty of fodder.

If I keep the blog, I might should rename it. This year, I made a change. I am now teaching AP Language and Composition to juniors. Even more drastic from moving up two grades and into AP, I have become a part-time teacher. This was a move of my choosing to make room for other things in my life, one of which was writing. Oddly, the thing I was making room for hasn’t quite moved in.

For one thing, a part time teacher is ‘homeless’ at school, meaning, understandably of course, I don’t have my own classroom anymore. In some ways that is liberating. I’ve always hated doing bulletin boards. I don’t have to dust my desk. I no longer compare my room to the cool history teacher’s classroom whose every inch of wall space is covered with colorful posters and art.

But learning to teach homeless has been a new experience. I have a cart. Fortunately, I travel between two other English teachers’ rooms, so the distance isn’t far and the classrooms are familiar. Julius Caesar and Chaucer decorate the walls, not chemical chains or periodic tables. Still, finding a place to land when I am working at school but not teaching has posed some challenges. I tried the copy room, which has two nice club chairs and an ottoman, but it adjoins the faculty rest room, which besides the copy machine is a big draw for traffic. Besides, there was no room for my cart inside.

The teacher’s lounge is just that – a place to lounge – and thanks to generous parents, a place to raise one’s cholesterol and get fat.

The first month of school, I seemed to be in a constant state of flux – my reading glasses in a cabinet in one teacher’s room, my textbook in another, my copies left on the machine yesterday, and my computer cord plugged in the classroom where I taught last hour. I would need a pencil only to have red pens on my cart. It’s taken me two months to establish new habits, find new ways to store things, and see how lightly I can travel.

A colleague with an extra desk in an office adjoining his room offered me desk space, and I happily accepted. I now have a place to land before and after classes and a desk to clutter with papers. I am beginning to feel at home teaching in my gypsy life.

Only seconds after the phrase, My Gypsy Life, crossed my mind, my water bottle turned over on my cart. Apparently the top wasn’t secure, and water went everywhere, soaking papers and smearing ink. Ironically, atop my cart was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water” which I would assign to my students the very next day.

Among the many good points in that speech is that we get to choose how we see things, and that sometimes the most important things are like water to a fish, so obvious and essential that we miss them.

Whether or not I have anything to say here about juniors and AP Lang and part-time teaching remains to be seen, but I will be writing somewhere because for me…this is water.

Teacher as Student: The Growth Mindset- Learning Empathy and Humility

I’ve been in Atlanta all week attending an AP Institute. This training is for a new class I am teaching next year, and the subject- Language and Composition – is my favorite strand of the English curriculum. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a few months and I expected it to be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It was.

It was also challenging and humbling. I walked into a roomful of strangers Monday morning at 8:00, many of whom had more education and teaching experience than I, though they are younger people. At noon, four hours into knowing these people, we headed to the cafeteria on the campus where our training was held. I thought of my freshman students who every year write about the social terrors of the lunchroom the first week of high school. As I filled my water glass while trying to balance my plate, I wondered where I was going to sit, which table would have a space for me. I felt my freshmen’s pain.

Without realizing initially what was happening to me, I was being put through the paces my students go through each time they start a new class at a new level. Our instructor, Valerie Stevenson of San Diego, CA, a master teacher, wasn’t about to just show us course material and how to construct a syllabus for this class. Oh no! She had us taking the sample multiple choice test, writing a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument. If that wasn’t enough, she handed us sample student papers, instructed us in the scoring guide, and told us to score them “the AP way.” My first attempt at that was unnerving. Let’s just say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and it showed the next morning when I brought my homework to class.

When I whispered to her during the break that I had given the “9” paper a “5” and that I felt I might not be cut out for this work, she laughed. “So you are not good at it yet,” she said. She and I had previously discussed Carol Dweck’s  The Growth Mindset, required summer reading for teachers at my school and on Valerie’s recommended resources list. I’d read that book last fall thinking about all the parents I knew who should rear their children to have this ‘growth mindset’ instead of instantly thinking they should make A’s in everything from the beginning of a course. I’d read that book with my nose in the air, never once seeing myself as that student. “I bet you were that student who was usually good at things the first time and when you hit something hard, you lost confidence and backed away,” Valerie said. Bingo! Ouch! Was this woman a psychologist, too?

“It’s the growth mindset,” she said. “You’ll get better with practice. Can you see, now that I have explained it, why it was a 9?” I answered ‘Yes’. “Then you are going to be fine,” she said, “If you are seeing, then you are learning.” She was so breezily confident in me and unworried about my future in her profession that I decided maybe I was taking myself and my performance in the moment entirely too seriously. Then she went on to confess that she made a “D” in seventh grade English. This woman, this master teacher who has made a name for herself across the country as an English teacher and AP Consultant, made a D in seventh grade English. Another teacher standing nearby, a seasoned AP teacher attending her second institute as a refresher course, confessed to failing Freshman Comp as a college freshman. Carol Dweck’s book was standing in front of me.

I’d bought into Dweck’s arguments when I read it, but I hadn’t really experienced it personally in recent memory. I’d used the concepts with my students, ninth graders beginning high school, repeatedly telling them it was OK not to be good at something the first time you try. I had not put myself into a situation where that was possible.

Empathy and humility. Who doesn’t want to have those virtues? Yet acquiring them is another thing entirely. We don’t just ‘muster up’ humility or empathize by an act of our wills. Rather, these qualities are worked into us as human beings by the circumstances of our lives. At every turn, though, we will unconsciously avoid the very situations designed to make us humble and empathetic creatures because the situations are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

My ‘going back to school’ this week met my expectations as interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun. It exceeded my expectations by being challenging, and humbling. I’m practicing to become a good AP Lang teacher and grader and more importantly, an empathetic teacher and human being. I can see it; but as Valerie said, “Not yet.”



I recently had to be out of school for several days for health reasons. My students were left in capable hands with a substitute teacher during their study of poetry and short stories.  We had already read several poems in the days before I was out and my students were learning to understand and analyze poetry better with each class period. 

I left detailed notes and plans for my substitute, as well as assignments that would load for them each morning on our online networking application.  I assured my students that after a few days, I would be an email away if they had questions. I didn’t get any emails. I assume I left very clear assignments and instructions. 

I returned to the usual complaints that the substitute didn’t do things exactly the way I did and reminded the students that flexibility and adaptability were life skills they’d been given the opportunity to practice. Then came this zinger: 

“Are you going to go over all of the stuff we did while the substitute was here because I didn’t understand any of it?” 

I had to compose myself, silently reminding myself of professional conduct, before I could answer the question.   The girl asking the question is quite bright; in fact, she has an A average in my class.   I mustered a smile and said, “I bet that is not true.  You have an A in my class. I find it hard to believe you didn’t understand ANY of what the substitute teacher said and I need to repeat ALL of it. If I quizzed you, I bet you’d remember at least some of it.”    

She smiled knowing it was true. She is very capable, one of those students whose reading ability and work ethic would enable her to thrive in most any educational environment regardless of the quality of the teaching.   Then I launched into a lesson on being impeccable with our words. I couldn’t help myself.  The soapbox was there and I stepped up on it. 

One of the few education courses I found really useful in my secondary education curriculum was a counseling class in which we had to role play and practice dialoging with another person.  Among the things I remember from that class thirty years ago was being taught not to use words like ANY, ALL NEVER and NONE when one has to confront another.   Those words become inflammatory.    Rarely can we really say someone NEVER does something or ALWAYS acts a certain way.  Those words simply are not true when it comes to human beings.  Working with teenagers everyday reminds me constantly  that we are complex mixtures of good and bad, capable of our best but sometimes at our worst.  

That kid that drives me crazy most days makes me laugh occasionally or tugs at my heart’s strings.  The student who usually gets it right in class has an off day, shows a flash of anger, or disappoints himself or me with the work we are doing.  It just isn’t an ALL or NEVER world. 

So I took my chance to teach my kids:  Stop yourself when you find those words coming out of your mouth.  Is it really true?  Be fair; be honest, be impeccable with your word. 


Leave Margins in Your Life

I’ve had this blog title for months on the list of things I want to write about and now realize I  have been subconsciously resisting it. Anyone who has lived with me or worked closely with me already knows why. I’m writing today about my own weakness.  I tend to fill up the margins of my books and my life. I overcommit and I over schedule.   One of the hardest things in parenting is seeing your own flaws showing up in the lives of your children.  I have quoted my grandmother here before but it bears repeating, “More is caught than taught.”  At least one of my children ‘caught’ this malady from me.

I used to say, “If life is a cow, I want to milk every udder.”  It’s not a bad philosophy in the sense that it says embrace life, be adventurous, you can never have too many friends,  try new things, keep learning, gain all you can from each experience, be completely honest, feel things – bad or good.   It is a bad philosophy in the sense that one cannot and should not milk a cow constantly.  Just ask my mom who did it every day before school. There’s more to living a life than getting milk.

I wrote earlier this year about the importance of reflection before resolution. Some amount of time must be devoted to thinking, pondering, wondering, especially if we ever expect to make changes or create anything new.  I ran into an artist friend  yesterday who recently lost a loved one and this is what she said, “I had my first creative thought this morning in seven weeks.”  Why is that?  Because for the last seven weeks she has been doing the hard work of grieving. And it is work. Grieving takes time and space.

So here is what I wish I had learned earlier and modeled better for my own children. You cannot fill every moment of the day with people and activity, even when it is all good.  Teenagers need sleep, outdoors, family time, and church in adddition to the schoolwork, sports, extra curriculars and social lives they are living.  That means saying ‘No’ to some things.  (That was the word I couldn’t seem to say for so long in my life.)  With so many ways to stay connected to each other through social media, today’s young people have even more ‘chatter’ competing for their attention than we did.

I read a good book this summer, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazero.  In it he says, “One of the great task of parenting and leadership is to help othesr accept their limits.”   I don’t often want to talk about limits with teenagers in the sense of academics or interests as they still are exploring and figuring what they like and who they are going to be.  I’m a big believer in a liberal arts education for this reason and told both of my children, “You’ll figure out a major once you get to college and start studying a few subjects.”  Who really knows in high school what they want to be doing when they are forty years old?  But these are not the kinds of limits I’m talking about here.

What I’m still trying to conquer and teach my adult children (perhaps a little late) is about leaving margins in our lives. We must leave time for the unexpected. (It will happen)  Have you ever felt a cold coming on and thought, “I don’t have time to be sick!”  We must leave space to think, to wonder, to serve someone in need, to be a good friend, a good son or daughter.  We need to leave space to fix mistakes (They will happen).  We need space to recover from traumas, to grieve, to do the quotidian tasks of living. I’m definitely a proactive person, and yet things happen everyday to which I must react.  Do I have a margin for that?   One of my fears for my children as they left the nest was that they might not have a realistic picture of the time it takes to wash their clothes, get their own meals, run their own errands  – all those things that moms do when teenagers schedules are busy.

Though my tendency is still to milk every udder to the last drop, my life is teaching me that constant milking is not healthy.  We need blank spaces; we need margins in our lives.

Honors and AP Classes: Why and Why Not?

Spring is almost here and the time of the year has come for students to plan their schedules for next year.  The course offerings are available in print and online, the meetings at school with the guidance counselor are on the calendar, and soon students will be making decisions about where they will sit each hour of the school day next fall. Among the course offerings will be classes designated Honors and AP.  Every year these offerings cause some angst in both parents and students alike.

Having talked to parents every year about reasons why their child should or should not take an honors class or maybe why they did not qualify to take one, and having dealt with both a son and a daughter navigating their way through these decisions in high school, I offer in today’s post some reasons for and against honors and AP classes in high school.

5 Reasons to Take Honors and AP:

  1.  Desire and Motivation:  As a teacher, this is the unmeasurable component in students that makes my job fun.  The student who barely meets a numerical benchmark but is intellectually curious and has a good work ethic is often the ‘dark horse’ of the class and is delightful to teach.  Make sure your student WANTS to take the class.
  2. Ability:  Honors and AP classes have grade requirements and standardized test score limits for good reasons; they have proven themselves to be good predictors of whether a student can be successful in a course. (Success, by the way, is not necessarily defined as an A.) Over the years teaching numbers of students, we can see that a certain score on the ACT or PSAT in a subject area or a certain grade in a previous class correlates to the student’s final performance on an AP exam.
  3. Acceptance:  Accelerated courses present challenges in volume and complexity of material as well as in pacing.  While these are excellent stretching areas for students, they must be able to handle emotionally that they may make lower grades, especially initially in the course.  I liken it to playing up in tennis. A 3.0 player will initially lose matches at the 3.5 level until she plays at that level for a time and brings her game up. Patience and flexibility, a strong sense of self, and a focus on learning rather than grades are needed fo thrive in these classes.
  4. Rigor:  AP courses in particular are designed to meet college requirements and may well prove to earn a student college credit.  Many Honors classes are designed as pre-AP in the sense that they prepare a student for an AP class.  The work load is heavier and harder, but the rewards are great. My own daughter says repeatedly nothing prepared her to handle college work like the AP classes she took in high school.
  5.  Recommendation:  If a teacher or administrator approaches your child and suggest taking a certain class, that’s a pretty strong indicator that he is capable and ready to handle the work.  I have had a few over the years who initially didn’t sign up for a class, but when I saw their inquisitiveness, work ethic, and abilities, I would then suggest to them taking an Honors or AP class up the line. I wouldn’t dare suggest such to a student  unless I had full confidence in him.

5  Reasons NOT to take Honors and AP:

  1. The parent wants it; the student does not.  Sometimes we as parents think a challenge is what our student needs in order to get motivated; yet challenge without interest is not motivating at all. Rather, it is discouraging. Moreover, our parental pride sometimes gets in the way.  Whether consciously or not, we compare our children to to others and fear they are somehow ‘getting behind’ if not taking the top levels in every subject if they are academically capable of doing so.
  2.  Extra-curricular activities or other accelerated courses:  At our school, the entire curriculum is college-preparatory.  The lowest level of the program is quite sufficient to prepare a student for college work.  How many honors classes is the student considering?  How many after-school activities or sports is the student involved in?  Rare is the student who can take all AP classes offered by the school their junior and senior year unless he or she has very few or no outside activities.  For some, artistic endeavors, athletics, and leadership opportunities are just as important as one more AP course.
  3. Grades:  A’s are extremely important to the student or parent.  For the student who is going to stress out over a B, please don’t sign up.  Honors and AP courses are weighted for this very reason: they are harder.  “B” is an AP class is weighted as 4.0 for a reason.  A student taking a combination of Honors and AP classes may well make some B’s and a few C’s and still may graduate with a 4.0 GPA.  Colleges are impressed with students who accept the challenge of a rigorous curriculum; however, some students simply cannot handle less than an A.  AP classes, in particular, are taught at the college-level. If a student makes a certain score on the final exam, most colleges will grant credit for the class.  The rigor cannot be compromised by the instructor to accommodate students and parents who stress over an 89 average.
  4. Ability or previous performance doesn’t meet requirements:  Students grow and change, so this is not to say that past performance alone should dictate whether a student takes these classes; however, nothing is more frustrating than being in a class where one feels lost and overwhelmed most of the time.  Learning does begin at the point of frustration, but class should also should be engaging, supportive, and communal. Every day should not be frustrating.
  5. Leadership and/or competition is important to the student:  Closely related to #4, the idea here is that some students are highly competitive and simply want to be at the top of the class. In an accelerated class, that position is harder to earn. Likewise, some enjoy being in the position of leadership and developing  their skills by helping other learners. They thrive as individuals when they can be peer mentors in a subject.  For that student, an Honors or AP class might not provide that opportunity as well as a college-prep class.

Above all, the student should own the decision. In my honors class, I have instituted the ‘no complaining’ rule.  I tell my students on the first day, “You chose to be here. You have to take English, but you don’t have to take Honors English, so you can’t destroy community in our class by complaining.” Encourage them to talk to teachers who teach courses they are considering, to talk with guidance counselors who can help them interpret test scores and previous performance, to  talk to other students who have taken those classes as well as other students who juggle similar work loads and extra curricular activities.  Ultimately, the student is  spending an hour a day for nine  months in that class and he should be well-informed and vested in the decision.

Technology? Deliberate and Thoughtful


I had the pleasure of keeping a class of seniors last week while my colleague attended an in-house workshop on using Apple iBooks.  These students were mine three years ago as freshmen.  The guys now have shoulders and are shaving. The girls are pretty young women, ready to head off to college.  One young man, who barely spoke a word in ninth grade, reads Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with a vigorous, feigned foreign accent.  His twin sister, shy and reserved as a freshmen, reads her lines like a trained actress.   

They told me that another teacher had told them about the workshop several of us were attending that day.  “She said she feels sorry for us because we have so much technology,”  they told me; then asked me what I thought.  I had to think a minute about whether I agreed or not.

 I have two grown children away in other states attending college. I love being able to send and receive messages at the touch of a button, to follow Facebook or Instagram just to see pictures of them, even if they do think it’s creepy that I stalk them.  I can send the silly videos of the family dog from my phone on the spur of the moment. I’m thankful for ocassional emails and text messages between the scheduled Sunday phone call with dad and me. If they need something, with a credit card and a few mouse clicks, I can have it on the way to their college mailbox.  For a middle-aged, empty-nester mom, I’d say I am embracing technology and don’t want to part with any of mine when it comes to keeping up with them. 

 But I do agree with my colleague who said she felt sorry for them because they have so much technology.  So many things that might have been unconscious for them a few years ago now have to be choices.  They will have to become more deliberate and thoughtful people than we ever were. 

 We were forced to sit in the doctor’s waiting room and either stare at or converse with the strangers around us or pretend interest in a tired magazine;  they have a phone.  We wandered outside in the sunshine because we were bored; they have an iPad.  We threw a ball to the dog, they have computer.  We had to wonder about things beyond us, to search for knowledge on certain topics, to seek answers and wait until adults deemed us old enough to know; they have Google.  What they don’t have is forced solitude or forced community.  They can stare at their screens to avoid the present company  or they can stare at the screen to keep from feeling alone.  Neither of these is a good practice.

 Unless they make a choice to ‘unplug’, they will never have to deal with idleness, with quiet, with listening to the sound of the voice within.  What happens to our creativity when people leave no time for thinking and imagining? for going outside and connecting to nature?  for simply observing things to see with new eyes?  

 And what happens to community when we aren’t forced to talk to each other, to find common topics, to listen and try to build connections with strangers.  How do we make friends?  One doesn’t overcome awkward silence by staring at a phone. One overcomes it by learning to endure it or enjoy it with another human being.

 Yes, I feel sorry for them as a generation in terms of technology. In order to nurture their minds, souls and bodies, they will have to reflect, self-examine and become conscious of their habits. They will have to make choices to allow for imagination and creativity to flourish.   But this particular group, these thoughtful, conversing AP Literature students in Mrs. Dennis’ sixth period class, demonstrated by asking me the question and engaging in the conversation, that they are up to the challenge that might well define their generation.

It’s Reading Again

It’s Reading Again!

I gave a test recently on a novel we have been reading as a class.  We spent basically the month of January reading this book both inside and outside of class.  The students wrote about what they were reading in short assignments that involved summarizing, making commentary, and asking questions and making predictions about what was to come in the story. We had occassional quizzes to hold ourselves accountable to assigned reading.   We had discussions in class using the Socratic circle method in which students come to class having prepared notes on their reading in answer to an essential question raised by the book.   Some of the ethical delimas raised in the book were hotly debated among the ninth graders.  I was impressed with how well they framed their arguments using evidence from the text and how civil they could be once they understood the rules of Socratic dialogue.

In general, I was pleased with the amount of engagement the students displayed. I often heard comments like, “This book really isn’t that bad,” which is an acceptable way to say one likes a book that he really has been predisposed  to hate since the teacher assigned it and it is required reading.  It is schoolwork, after all.

The overwhelming majority of the students passed the culminating test with a C or higher.  Why then am I frustrated over the non-passing grades?  After all, some of those numbers represent students who just didn’t read the book.  Those are not the ones I worry about since they made that choice, rather it’s the students who did read the book, or who listened to the audio version of it, but they still didn’t perform well on the test.  Why not?  Because the test itself has to be read, understood, comprehended, and analyzed.

The same skills needed to decipher a literary work or any other complex text in a high-school or college class come into play when taking a test.  The students must be able to understand what is being asked, to choose between seemingly similar answers by making a judgement about which is best, to use reasoning skills to possibly eliminate a choice and arrive at the correct answer.  In short, if a student has difficulty reading or is not proficient (grade level or higher), then test taking is going to be difficult.  At least part of the grade for each student on my recent test  is a reflection of a student’s reading ability.  That measurement is an assessment of their entire reading lives, not just the last four weeks of what has been learned in my classroom about this particular piece of literature.

I hate to see them distressed over their grades, while claiming, “ But I read the book.”

My question then becomes, “How well did you read the book and how well  did you read my test?  There is no substitute for the importance of good reading skills in academic life.  There are strategies to becoming a good reader, and most Language Arts teachers continually try to teach and reinforce those strategies.  Reading, like any other skill, however,  gets better with practice.  That part, the student and the parent have to own.

According to http://www.greatschools.org/students/academic-skills/291-ready-for-college-reading.gs  “A recent U.S. Department of Education report noted that 70% of students who took one or more remedial reading courses in college did not attain a college degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment.”  For college-bound students, reading deficiences have to be addressed in middle and high school  or they won’t be in college for long.    So turn off the TV, put down the cell phone, and pick up the printed page – even if it’s a digital page.  Practice. Practice. Practice.