Editing: a Lenten Practice

It reveals me to myself.“ I wrote this line in my last blog as I described this liturgical planner with which I’ve entered a complicated relationship.

I also wrote “It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.”

Well, Lent has arrived.in-640516_960_720Wednesday I went to a noon service and received the imposition of the ashes on my forehead. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the priest said to me. Over and over I heard that phrase spoken to every kneeling soul at the altar. It echoed in the sanctuary of wood and stone and now it echoes in my mind and heart.   You are finite, it says. You are one of many; only human, who you are and what you can do and how long you will last are all limited.

That voice seems to be in chorus with the planner. As I struggle with using it, seeing it merge my digital calendar and reflective journal, facing its forcing me out of my denial about who I write in my journal that I want to be and what I actually do every day, I feel the truth bearing down upon me.

I didn’t mean to start this liturgical theme in my blog, but advent brought an anxious waiting, Christmas retold a story, and epiphany began a journey toward something to behold.

It seems a Mystery beyond me is being lived in my story. A wheel-shaped diagram on the inside cover of the book represents the liturgical year of the church. My own story seems to be a wheel within the wheel.

I set myself up last week when I wrote this line…

An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way. 

 This made for a nice ending, only I wasn’t thinking particularly about the ‘some way’ in which I would respond. Then came Lent.

Some of theme words on the opening page describing Lent in the Sacred Ordinary Days Planner are self-examine, discipline, prepare, empty, fast, quiet, contemplation, and reflection.

It’s a fitting beginning for Lent: Response. I read yesterday that to ask oneself, “What do I give up for Lent? “ is to shortchange oneself. The better question is what practice will I add to my life, in place of the something I might need to let go, in order to better become who I was created to be.

Oddly, the word ‘edit’ comes to mind. Is that a spiritual practice? It certainly speaks to getting rid of things. The final stage in the writing process, I tell my students, is to re-read your work, to cut out all superfluous words. Where many words are, sin abounds, the Proverbs say. While I know this is true of those of us who talk too much and too often, I’m not sure it applies to essays of AP Lang students, though after reading five or six wordy ones in a row, I’m inclined to think loquaciousness deserves punishment and needs absolution.

Say it as tightly as you can – economy of word – I tell them. The fewer words, the more important the choice of each becomes and the more power each one holds. Editing is both eliminating words and choosing better ones; sometimes it’s putting the words in a different order.

I think about the pages of my life, represented by my journal, my planner and my calendar. Are ‘choice, fewer, and powerful’ the descriptions of the life recorded there? Is the order of things what it should be?  I’m not sure. I fear it lacks power because there are not enough pauses, silences, blank spaces, and careful choices.   Yes, editing is a spiritual practice. A Lenten practice of giving up and replacing, editing the filled spaces and times on that calendar to gain the fewer, deliberative and powerful moments that are born in space and silence.

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Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.

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My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

A Mom and a Teacher’s Response to Fear and Terror

I was out taking a walk Friday afternoon when a friend’s text asked me if I was watching the news?  “Multiple terrorist bombs in Paris,” it read.

My daughter is studying abroad this semester in London, only she doesn’t stay in London much on weekends. She doesn’t have Friday classes so she’s been to eight countries in the last twelve weeks. Paris, France was one of those destinations just a few weeks ago.   My friends know she is somewhere abroad and immediately became concerned.  Numerous texts begin to come in and I was glad to report that my child was safe in London this weekend.  At least in the moment I felt gladness and safety.  When we think about the randomness of what happened in Paris, does anybody feel safe anywhere?

I did send her a message to make her aware of what was going on across the channel.  It had flashed through my mind that it could easily be London or New York, or anywhere else within moments or months.  She had seven friends in the city of Paris that night.  Eventually we learned they were all safe; but I couldn’t help but fear for them and empathize with what those parents, stateside like me, must be feeling in the first few hours after the news broke.

As the hours passed and the tragedy unfolded on my TV screen, my body became increasingly wound up on the  inside while being fatigued at the same time outwardly.  I noticed an unsettled feeling in my stomach, a weakness in my legs, almost a magnetic pull toward something that I couldn’t locate.  I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath in or swallow very well.  Finally I recognized the sensations as being  familiar in a “been here before” kind of way.  My body remembered something.   When else had I felt like this, I asked myself.

And then it hit me. In 1991.  My husband was a navy flyer, stationed in the Red Sea during the 1991 Gulf War.  When the first bombs were dropped, I was driving home to Virginia Beach from my job in Norfolk, listening on the radio. CNN was covering it live, Bernard Shaw reporting from under a desk.

I pulled in the driveway and was met by a neighbor who insisted I come over to their house and watch the news with them.  As the hours passed, I found myself with my legs not only crossed but twisted around each other and wound so tightly they hurt when I tried to unfold them.  I had no script for what was happening in front of my eyes.  The Navy had all kinds of protocol and I’d been through my obligatory ‘spouses’ school’ to learn about how notifications occurred, but nobody foresaw and thus trained us wives on how we should watch a war our husbands were fighting happen live on television during the dinner hour.  It would be a few days before the military and the media could get in sync on reporting downed aircraft before families were notified.

This was the familiar feeling I felt Friday night. My body recalled it before my mind did. I’m watching the news tell us during the dinner hour that college-aged adults at a rock concert in Paris are being summarily executed while my own child sits a few hundred miles away in another of the world’s major cities.  There are numerous students just like her in Paris and the other major cities of Europe.  Geraldo Rivera’s daughter, whom he talked to live on television, is one of them. Studying in Paris for the semester, she was at the soccer game when the explosion occurred.

It was just too close. Hearing him tell her that he had a plane standing by to come get her the next morning but the airspace was closed, I broke into tears.   My daughter was a first grader, six-years-old, when 9/11 happened. She processed that though the eyes of her parents, which meant that her daddy would take care of her and our family.  He was strong and brave, like most daddies of six-year-olds, and she needn’t worry.   What do we tell her now?  She is not a little girl. She’s a grown woman living temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic and we cannot shield her or protect her.

What do I tell my students, not yet to adulthood, about the world they are soon to enter?

The fact of the matter is that the control we think we have when they are with us, under our roofs, in our arms, in our classrooms, is but an illusion. None of us have the power of life and death in our hands and none of us can really ever keep our children safe, though we are designed to die trying. The challenge I find before me is how to instill courage without denying reality.  My daughter isn’t six. She is twenty. My students are seventeen.   And the world is not a safe place.

But we can’t retreat in fear and let evil have its way, so I will trust in Divine Love and I’ll give it to them, as far as I am empowered to do so. 1 John 4:8 says, “Perfect love cast out all fear.”  Words, flimsy as they feel sometimes, can communicate love.  The smallest deeds towards one another can translate love. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a place to start today. A thing to give our attention to in the midst of confusion and tragedy. Drive out fear by loving someone a little better today.

A Good Question

Where do you write?”

It was a surprising question from a guest at a party in my home.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I write. I even sometimes call myself a writer.   I’ve worked with this woman for seven years. She knows this about me, reads my blog, and owns a copy of my book. Why did her question catch me so off guard?

I proceeded to explain that if it was morning I wrote at my dining room table because I love the morning light on the golden walls of that room. If the weather is mild, I sit on a back patio by a small fountain, where the sound of the trickling water and the green walls of trees and shrubs surround me. That spot, in fact, is where I wrote my devotional book a few years ago, and I showed her the exact chair where I sat on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, pulling together the week’s worth of handwritten notes and scribbles and somehow turning then into seven devotionals a week in order to meet a tight deadline.

It took only seconds to answer her, but long after the guests were gone and the last dish put away, the question still lingered in my mind.   Though in the moment I was serving as hostess, and day-to-day this person signs my paycheck as a teacher, her question spoke identity to me. She sees me as a writer.

Where do you write does two things for me. It acknowledges my identity as a writer and my need for space and time to work. The question validates writing as work, real work that must be done in a particular space at a certain point in time. CFOs have offices; teachers have classrooms; surgeons have operating rooms. Writers have… desks, tables, laptops, coffee shops… patios?

The inward response of surprise I felt when she posed her question, along with the lightness in my spirit I felt afterwards tells me two things as well. I’ve begun to believe it myself, that I am made to write, that it is who I am; but the surprise tells me that I have yet to conceive that others see me that way. The satisfaction in having the very question posed tells me I long for that – to be seen by others as a writer.

It’s all fine and good to say one should write because she has things to express or one should write whether anyone reads it or not (there are some valid reasons for that – not everything I write is to be public) – but at the end of the day, writing, though extremely solitary in the doing, is not solitary at all. It’s a conversation. I am writing TO somebody, maybe to several “somebodies”. Writing is relational. It’s my side of the topic and I need a reader to ‘talk back’. Whether she ever literally speaks to me about what I’ve written is not the point, but I need to know that someone nods and smiles and underlines and cries and argues as she reads my words – the same way I do when I read my favorite writers who may never know I exist.

The first week of class in AP Language and Composition we cover the rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, and subject. Without the audience, the triangle collapses. We can’t write into nothingness. You, the reader, must be there for us, in our mind’s eye and ear. We shape our sentences and choose our words for you.

From the first methods class in composition as an undergraduate, I was taught that a good writing teacher writes with her students. I believed it. I still believe it. How can I teach what I do not know and do? I have always found this extremely difficult, though, perhaps because I took it too literally. While my students write, the temptation is too strong to be reading the last thing they wrote or conferencing with one who needs help. The marking of papers is never done!

But I do write with my students – daily, weekly, and regularly. I struggle with blank page, the distractions, the frustrations of revisions and edits, and the balancing of more urgent things vying for my time just like they do.  I don’t write in the classroom while they write, but I do write with them – in my dining room and on my patio and in the red leather chair in the den.   It was an excellent question: Where do you write?

Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

Accepting What Is Can Set You Free

One of the parts of my job is serving as a mentor to new faculty hires in the upper school. For eighteen years I have been hanging around this place as a parent, room mother, PTO volunteer, board member and most recently, a teacher. If anyone should know the school culture, I should.; and hopefully, I help our new hires navigate the first year of working in it. As is true in any good teaching relationship, though, the learning goes both ways. My new teachers teach me while I am formally supposed to be leading them.

Last week we sat down at lunch to chat about some of the ups and downs of their first two months on the job. One of the teachers began to talk about how a certain class, who had been difficult to train under her preferred classroom style. She and I had talked earlier in the year about strategies to deal with the group, about some of their history as a class before she came to this school, and why they might be challenging her in ways her other students at another grade level were not.

Somewhere in her reporting that things were going better with this group now, she made the statement, “I think I’ve begun to accept what is.” As soon as she said it, I had the ‘lightbulb in my head” experience. Accepting what is in front of you as a teacher is the most liberating and creative-unleashing experience, even if there is initial grief in that acceptance. We all want students who are trained to attentiveness and show up prepared for our classes every day. We all want students who learned and sufficiently practiced all skills from the previous year so that they are ready for the curriculum we are prepared to lead them through. But…they are real people, and so was the teacher that had last year, and real people have problems and bad habits, and sometimes just life happening to them. And what shows up in our classroom is not always what we wish it to be.

“Accepting what is” is one of those phrases that sounds like compromise but has freedom on the other side of it. As soon as the teacher said it, I responded that this realization would carry over into her parenting, marriage, and most any other relationship in life.

We had one child for whom “time out” was not effective at all. Why? Because he is a natural introvert who loved nothing better than being alone in his room studying what made his ceiling fan turn or the light switches come on. If that got boring, he proceeded to take the back off his toilet and study the inner workings of the float valve. The other child rarely needed more than the threat of a few minutes of solitude. Gregarious and fun-loving, she would self-correct almost immediately rather than be banished from the group.

I had to rethink technique constantly in parenting as my two children, a boy and a girl, an introvert and an extrovert, were two completely different creatures. Moving from frustration to the truth -accepting what is in front of you – can set you free.

Am I saying give up or give in? Absolutely not. I’m still goal-oriented in my classroom. I train toward what I want. I keep the standards high. But I surrender the ideal – which is the theories they taught us in education courses – for the real, those flawed human beings who show up in front of me every day. They do the same for me, I hope; and then the creativity begins.

So What Happens When…You Do Hurt Them?

So what happens when…. this was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post.  I smiled. I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: …You do hurt them?   My smile was not because hurting anyone is pleasant or funny, but because of the inevitability of it.  When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.

My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school.  She assumed, like most of us  high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared.   Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues –  some processing problems,”  and now she feels “awful!”

How did I answer her?

You just do what you are doing.

Buried in her question was most of my answer.  She had already recognized what she had done.  She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional.  She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it.  To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.

Secondly, she confessed.  In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything.   Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and  share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.

Thirdly,  I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning.  Mercy is extended to us upon waking.  She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her ‘push’ wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.

Some occasions call for apologies, not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction.  But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures,  those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.

Then, I told her to let it go.  In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time and energy and emotion on the guilt.  Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.

And lastly,  don’t be surprised when you mess up again.  Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection.   If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile.  When you do, start with step one: recognition… and repeat the above process.

“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.” 

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.

This Is What Revision Looks Like

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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.

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.”