Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When paths cross

Pam was a regular 14-year-old when she entered my freshman English class - a little nervous, a little unsure of herself and her abilities, and yet full of desire to find herself and to conquer high school. She was passionate about the environment, specifically marine life, which she researched for a project in my class. She scheduled extra conferences with me during that assignment so that she could write a great paper. Writing did not come easy to her, but she worked hard. She was proud of her product. I was proud of her.

I watched Pam blossom over the next three years, and we grew closer through brief conversations in the hall and before school when she would sneak into my classroom. "Mrs. Turrrrnerrr!" she'd call from across a crowded hall. She always made me smile. 

By junior year she would sneak away from lunch to chat with me on my hall duty. She'd talk about her struggles in school; she'd unload social distresses; she'd share successes and dreams of the future. She had blossomed into a vibrant young woman. At Christmas that year, she shyly slid by my desk at hall duty, dropping me a gift and scurrying away before I could react. The note she included was incredibly heartfelt; the gift was by far the best I have ever received from a student.

In the fall of her senior year, Pam collapsed on the track at school. When my supervisor called to tell me that she had died, I was heartbroken. I went to my home office and pulled out that note she had written, stared at the slate on my wall. I didn't understand how a girl so vibrant had been taken. The weeks following her death affected everyone in the school community.

Today the slate that Pam gave me hangs in my office at work, prominently displayed so that I see it every time I open the door. When I entered for the first time this semester, I read the words and reminded myself of the reason I teach. I thought of Pam and realized that this year was the tenth anniversary of her death. At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to write a note to her parents - to let them know that I still thought of Pam regularly, that I am still inspired by her.

I had no idea how to contact them; I could not remember their first names, and their last name is one of the most common in the northeast. I tucked the notion of writing to them away and continued to think of Pam each day as I entered the office.

Through a series of ironic coincidences, last week I ended up at a holiday party in the town where I taught Pam. My husband and I arrived separately, and as I stepped out of the car, he asked me if I had trouble finding the place. 

A man in the parking lot said, "I live in this town, and I couldn't find it!" 

I laughed and said, "I used to work across the street, and I couldn't find it!"

We started chatting about my former life as a teacher there - and his life as a parent of children who attended the school. "What's your name?" I asked, wondering if I had taught his children.

He told me his name, and as soon as he said the last name, I knew. He was Pam's father.

I told him the story that I wrote here about wanting to write him a note and not knowing where to send it. He told me the heartbreaking tale of the 10-year mass held in Pam's honor, as well as a few other trials his family has been dealing with these last few weeks.

We chatted about Pam, my memories of her, and before we parted he said, " I just love hearing these stories." He gave me a bear hug, which I returned in earnest, and I knew that our paths were meant to cross that night. 

Teaching is a work of heart. Pam reminds me of that every day.  I'm glad I had the chance to tell her family that even a decade later, she makes me smile on a regular basis.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Deserving of an Exclamation Point

I bought my kids their first journals when they were 3.  At the time they were starting to write letters, and my daughter in particular loved to draw.  I wanted to document their writing development and introduce journal writing as a practice in our lives.  Each night I would scribe for them something "good" about the day and something "not so good."  Sometimes, they would take the pen to draw or write themselves.

My son, the pleaser, dutifully participated, but it was not a routine that he relished.  My daughter, on the other hand, often took the pen - tracing her hand and coloring it, drawing rainbows and people, and writing her name, the one word she could spell with confidence.  She added stickers to each page of her journal, and she asked regularly if we could "write tonight" rather than read.  She was a budding writer.

And then she went to school.

As a kindergartner, my daughter did not like to write in school.  "Reading" and "writing" were her least favorite subjects, and she abandoned her journaling at home.  No matter how I tried, I couldn't help her to see that the freedom she loved in drawing her pictures and writing with me in her journal were also things she could do on the lined paper at school.  She didn't draw.  She didn't "stretch her words," as her teacher encouraged.  She didn't write.

At the same that she abandoned the journal and writing in general, her creativity blossomed.   With music in her heart, she would create tunes, add lyrics, and dance - everywhere.  She danced and sang her way around the house, down the aisles of the grocery store, and even through the park on our family trip to Disney.  She was composing - but she still wasn't writing.

Her resistance was so strong that I asked her kindergarten teacher to allow her to "write her songs," during writing workshop.  Though my daughter appeared excited about the prospect, she did not write her songs at school, and my attempts to get her to write them at home were futile.  Rather than push her, I backed off.  We left the half-filled journals on her nightstand, and I hoped that, one day, she would return to writing.

Now my daughter is in first grade, and something has shifted.  A few weeks ago I noticed that she was carrying a small notebook everywhere she went.  At the kitchen table she asked me to help her think of "categories."  In the car she asked the family to give her words and to help her spell them.  She hid the notebook in her backpack to take to school and to share on the bus.  She filled page after page with pictures and words, and she asked me to get her more notebooks when she filled the one she carried.  A few nights ago I reminded her of the journals on her bedside table, and we looked through some of the stories she had created when she was younger.  "I was little then," she laughed as we read a silly story about her friend Isabelle.

Last night she asked me if we could "write instead of read tonight."  She had the journal and a pen in hand as she sat on the bed.  She turned to the first empty page and began drawing. She chatted as she developed her art, and she held on to the pen as she wrote her own words, rather than having me scribe her story.  "One day Princess Megan went walking," she wrote.   Her pen flew over the second page, and an elaborate castle appeared.  "Princess Megan went back to the castle."

She turned the page.

"And now the problem," she explained as a new version of the castle appeared on the page.  "The problem?" I asked, impressed that she knew that a story needs a conflict.  "Yes, every story needs a problem," she explained.  I smiled, hearing the echo of a teacher's voice in her words.

"But...," she wrote.  She paused for a moment before adding an exclamation point.  "BUT!" she exclaimed, and continued to write, "the drawbridge wouldn't open."  She added a second exclamation point.

She read the page three times, as if she knew that the punctuation was wrong.  However, as she loudly and emotionally pronounced "BUT!!!", it was clear to both of us that the punctuation was absolutely correct.

It's a fine line between correction and encouragement.  Writers need both, but without a desire to write, there will be little to correct.  My daughter is a developing writer, and I love that she loves to create, and I am happy that she has taken her composing back to the page.  I love that she knows that a story has a problem, and I love that she is learning to write stories both at home and at school.

My colleague recently posted about the importance of narrative.  My daughter is a living example of the power of narrative in a young writer's life.  AND!  I am excited that she has been inspired by her work at school to pick up the pen at home!

Friday, September 27, 2013


My colleague and co-author Troy Hicks has been documenting his digital reading practices in a series of blog posts.   Together he and I have been thinking about what it means to read digitally, and we have started our inquiry with our own habits.  I continue to learn from Troy how to be a better curator in the digital age, but I do have routines that I follow in order to manage the abundance of information that comes to me each day.  

I usually start with an email triage, attending to both professional and personal emails that need immediate response.  Then I move to social media, to sift through articles that may have relevance to my life or my work.  Today during that social media sweep, I noticed a post by George Takei, which had also been reposted by one of my favorite pastors.  When George Takei and that pastor both choose to share, I pay attention.

Here was Takei's post:


I played his game.  I didn't cheat.

I closed my eyes, though I already had the person in my head.  Closing my eyes, however, brought a clear picture of her face.  My mom.  I smiled because in my mind, she smiled.

I wrote a few sentences.

"My mom provided me with the inspiration, guidance, and clear path for becoming who I am today.  Even more, though, she provided me with a role model for being a "working mom" and for loving unconditionally and selflessly.  She supported, taught, and loved me from start to (not yet) finish, and those are the lessons I cherish most in my own role as mom."

I watched the video and decided, as Takei challenged, to follow their lead.  But since my mom also taught me how to write , I thought it might make us both happier to publish her influence to the world.

Even though blogging was not on the docket for today, I wanted to write this one for my mom.  Thanks for being the single most influential person in my life.  There's no question that you are standing first in line of the Five People I will Meet in Heaven.*

*The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom is one of the most influential books I have read.  It has made me think constantly about the people that cross my path - and the paths I cross - and it helps me to remember how we are all connected and that our actions affect so much more than we consciously know.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Split Decision

Teacher letters came today.  This day is one of anticipation for students and parents in my town, and it has been discussed animatedly for the last few days on the group Facebook page.  I waited with patient anticipation for the mailman, who was running late (probably due to all of the letters he had to deliver on a Saturday).  When I heard him, I sent the kids to the mailbox to get the news.

Like most parents around town, I was excited to see "who we got."  Unlike many parents, I opened the letters with twinmom acceptance.  I knew that two different teacher names would stare up at me from the page.  I had requested that the kids be in separate classes this year.  And I knew that reading the letters from the teachers would be my first introduction to managing that separation.

This split comes on the heels of a summer where the kids played beautifully together - creating stories with toys, making games in the pool, building elaborate lego sets.  Even as I write this post, they are upstairs, engrossed in their collaboration.  They had been there for over 2 hours, undisturbed and somewhat perturbed when I finally called them to lunch.  "We are putting on a lego show," they told me.  Their teamwork, their absolute trust in each other, their "in-synch-ness" - these have developed this summer in a way that reveals their twinness.  In two weeks, their time to foster that close relationship will be cut to virtually none.

I know that they will be "fine" when they are separated, and I know that socially, emotionally, and academically it is the right decision for them.  But it is still a major change for our family - one that I began to manage as I read the letters from the teachers today.  Both were warm, and from the tone and content of the letters, I can already tell that both are a good match for the child assigned to them.  Both were filled with excitement and energy that all parents hope to see in their children's teachers.  And, of course, both shared expectations for the school year, including lists of "what to bring."  These lists were different, and I've already forgotten who needs a pencil box and who needs a water bottle because there is no fountain in the classroom.

Managing two sets of teacher expectations in routines and homework, 34 new friends and their parents, and independent twins is something I am ready for.  I've done it before.  It will be an adjustment and a challenge and an exciting new year.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yay, I won a t-shirt (or why we need teachers)

We were 45 minutes into our 5 hour car ride when I pulled out my phone to check messages. As I scrolled through Facebook, I noticed that my town had posted a "Sunday trivia contest" question a few minutes before. "Cute," I thought, and I read the question, which asked for the family name and business location of two entrepreneurs who lived in my town in 1857.

Noticing that no one had yet posted an answer (a free t-shirt went to the first correct response), I navigated to my web app, typed four words that were in the question, and immediately found the answer. I switched back to Facebook and posted my response. The entire process - from reading the question to posting the correct answer - took me less than 30 seconds.  The Sunday contest was over in 5 minutes, and I am now own a new t-shirt.

Later a post announced that I had won and congratulated me on my "knowledge" of my town.  But do I deserve that congratulations?

For the last two weeks I have been immersed in an institute that focused on re-imagining teaching and learning for contemporary times.  As the lead-off speaker for that event, Will Richardson (educational author) asked us to consider the purpose of school.  "If the purpose of school is to pass a standardized test that requires recalled facts, why do we need teachers?" he prompted. The room full of teachers grew silent as he explained that "facts" are ubiquitous.  Knowledge can be gained independently through plenty of online sources like Khan Academy - or even an effective use of keywords in a Google search.  I kind of proved his point by ending the town contest in less than 5 minutes.

But do I deserve congratulations for that task? Was it an accomplishment?  I told my husband that the task was too easy.  They should have given the prize to the first person to post a picture of themselves in front of the building.  That task would have required the factual knowledge, persistence, and facility with digital tools.  Had I won under those circumstances (unlikely because I was trapped in a car on the NY Thruway), perhaps, I would deserve the congratulations.

And this is why we need teachers.  We need teachers to help students develop meaningful questions, to learn how to explore those questions, and to create new solutions.  We need them to guide students through multiple failures in order to achieve success.  Another of our institute speakers, Jonathan Rochelle (Product Manager at Google), says failure is the key to innovation.  Traditionally, failing in school has bad connotations.  Traditionally, failing in schools means a student cannot recall facts on tests.  But to innovate, failure is just part of the process.

Teachers are expert learners.  As such, they model how to try, how to fail, and how to learn.  And this is why we need them even when "knowledge" is just a Google search away.

Even though I followed the rules of the contest, I'm not sure I really deserve that t-shirt.  In fact, I feel a little guilty accepting it - because the task was so easy.  Classrooms shouldn't be easy, and they shouldn't be just about "knowledge attainment."  Maybe I will give that t-shirt to a teacher who posts a response in the comments here, telling me how her/his students have failed and learned.  That task would require more than a Google search.

Monday, June 3, 2013

My Summer Challenge

I am two weeks into my life as a tenured professor.  For the last two weeks I have been consumed by professional tasks - planning an institute, writing syllabi, visiting classrooms and guest teaching for the research I am doing, and writing an accreditation report.  As I told my chair the other day, I am working harder now during the summer "break" than I did during the regular semester.

I am one week into my life without a babysitter and additional help around the house.  A few weeks ago my babysitter informed me that she had been offered a job that would help build her resume for a career in the criminal justice system.  (I guess it's a good thing that taking care of my children hasn't really given her any practical experience for working with criminals.)  Given this crossroads heading into my kids' summer vacation, I had a decision to make - hire a summer sitter or wait until the fall to find someone new.  I opted for the challenge of balancing work, house and childcare without the help of a regular sitter this summer.

For the first time in nearly 6 years, I don't have help with the kids' laundry, meals, and dishes.  I don't have someone to run them to activities while I squeeze in a few extra hours of work in the afternoon.

All of the tasks that I delegated out so that I could focus on my career and still find a few moments now and then for "me" are now my responsibility.

The balance I recently achieved is seriously threatened.

This past week went reasonably well in terms of adjusting schedules and reconceptualizing tasks at home.  I'm developing a routine that involves the kids in chores and involves me in more playtime with them.  It will be a challenge as we move forward and I return to regular commuting into the city for my summer classes, but it is a manageable challenge.

To manage it, however, the balance must shift, and I am most afraid that the piece I will lose is the time for "me."  All of my childcare time for the next three months must necessarily coincide with my work and writing time.  I can no longer run errands, make appointments, and meet friends for lunch while the kids are in school/camp.  I'm not sure where or how I will be able to carve out the time that I cherish for my rejuvenation, time that makes me a better wife, mother, friend, and educator.

But this is my summer challenge, and I will meet it with a willingness to learn and grow in this new phase of life.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

College Search Criteria (or I need a transporter)

I am serving as head faculty marshal for the GSE today at graduation. Given the unknowns in travel in the NYC area and the fact I have responsibilities this morning, I allowed plenty of travel time. Today the trip went smoothly so I find myself sitting on a bench, listening to birds as the sun peeks through the trees, waiting for the line of march to start to form. 

As I walked through the seats of parents on my way to pick up the verge, I admired those who had staked claim to aisle seats nearly 3 hours before the ceremony. I daydreamed and looked two decades into the future, wondering if I would be that parent. After all, college graduation is a big deal, and to see your child in the line of march, up close, would be worth it.

But these thoughts always lead to a bit of sadness because it is likely that I will miss one of my kids' graduations. Many colleges hold graduation the same weekend, and it's entirely possible that one will be on the East coast and one the West coast on the same day.

I'm really hoping my brother figures out transporter physics before then. Or perhaps I'll need to add an additional criteria when my kids start the college search: Must have graduation date so that Mama sees me march!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Growing up twin

Seeing my children play as best friends makes twin parenting worth the trials of twinfancy. Because they have each other, I can sit and watch sometimes, rather than playing the other side of the catch. I love how they interact, defying gender roles, yet somehow still playing them out. 

Of course, sometimes it all goes downhill rapidly when the boy in him loses all control.

But my little girl already knows not to take his crap. She marched away, leaving him calling her name to the wind. 

I was so proud. :)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Feeling Zen

Sometimes forces align in the universe to focus my reflection.  A little over a year ago, I dealt with a brick on the head that made me re-evaluate my health and my work-life balance, and I made drastic changes that have led me to this moment of reflection.  Recently, the universe has aligned again, helping me to appreciate, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, a feeling of nearly perfect balance.

My Sunday school class is currently discussing the book Practicing Balance, and I've noted each week that the people present, who span various stages of life, share stresses that I feel.  Work.  Children.  Relationships.  I've also noticed, however, that I am not really feeling the stresses at the moment.  I am still extremely busy with more deadlines in my near future than I have ever before had, but I do not feel guilt about what I should be doing in each area of my life.  I've achieved acceptance (at least for now) of where I am and where I am going, and I trust that I will get where I need to be - wherever that is.

Perhaps this balance has surfaced because of the changes I have made in the past year, or perhaps it is because I submitted my tenure box a few months ago.   Perhaps, still, it is because I have been taking more time to  just "be."

My daughter has ballet every Tuesday after school, and typically, when I am working from home, my son plays quietly at home while I work in my office, and my sitter takes her to the class.  Last week, he ran into my office, straight off the bus, and asked, "Will you play baseball with me?"  I looked at my computer.  I looked at the sun streaming through the window, and without hesitation, I said, "sure."

This weekday moment was followed by a weekend retreat, where I practiced yoga, breathing, and letting go in an attempt to "just be."  When I returned from the retreat, I felt a calmness, a stillness that resonated for days.  I did not snap at my husband.  I did not become impatient with my children.  I easily pushed aside angst that arose at work.  As I told everyone, "I'm feeling zen."

I am waiting for my tenure letter to arrive this week.  Though that letter will reveal the result of years of focus and work, it comes at an appropriate time - for I am feeling balanced; I am feeling zen; and I will get where I need to be - wherever that is.

So how did I get here?

Throughout our discussions about work-life balance on Sunday mornings, my classmates and I agreed that balance is not an end-point.  Inherently, balance involves stretching, movement, and, sometimes, missteps.  It involves knowing where you are, evaluating your time, energy, and happiness, and making adjustments to get you where you want to be.

This past week, we documented our "time" in pie charts and considered how we would like our time to shift.  The leader gave us  a list of possible strategies to help us work toward balance.   The list offers great ideas - and many I have implemented in my own life over the last year.  Perhaps that is why my "today" pie chart looked identical to my "December 2013" chart.  My goal is to continue the quiet shifting that will keep me in balance.  And to take moments that will help me to keep feeling zen.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Full of Happiness

The school was abuzz with activity.  “What’s going on in the hall,” a student asked the principal as he walked toward his office.  “A senior project that you should be lucky to attend later today,” he replied.  "Cool,"said the student.  And I couldn't agree more.

I visited this NYC school yesterday to see "A Celebration of Language, Culture, and Community" that was inspired by the students' reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Two weeks ago their teacher had challenged them with a task: to design, construct, and run a pop-up store that would sell intangible goods.  Their ultimate goal was to celebrate their own language, culture, and community as Hurston does in the novel.  The teacher's goal was to have them explore themes in the book, apply their knowledge of design and construction (the focus of their school), and practice public speaking and other professional skills.  As I walked into the building and was greeted with a handshake from two students, who explained the physical path, as well as the overall project, I knew her goals had been achieved.  I was not disappointed by the rest of my visit.

Three groups of seniors were selling non-tangible items in their stores, which had been elaborately constructed out of cardboard.  One group sold answers to questions in celebration of their individual cultures.  I had been given $10 in play money at the door.  I paid $2 to find out if the young man representing “street culture” liked to read.  (He didn’t.)   I followed the path around the corner, where another young man greeted me with a smile and invited me to his store.  One of his classmates swooped by me and stamped my hand with a smiley face.

For $1 I bought two compliments at this store.

Farther down the hall a group sold words, “vernacular” and “formal.”  After being welcomed by two students who explained the difference between these forms of language - one of them acting out an "interview" in vernacular language for effect - I bought the words “slippin,” “hold it down,” “jackin,” and “YOLO.”  I felt a little more street-wise after the fact.

As I prepared to leave the building, the bell rang for third period, and the teacher in charge coached her students about the next round of visitors.  Other students loitered in the hallway well past the bell, curious about the event and hopeful that their own teachers would bring their classes later in the day.

I share this story because it shows the best of education.  It shows students engaged - even non-readers like the "street culture" boy from store 1.  It shows that kids can create.  They can think.  They can achieve.  I left their celebration full of happiness.

I haven't been happy much about the state of education lately.  But stories like this one give me hope.  Then today two more stories appeared back-to-back on my newsfeed.  The first, Is Organic Better?  Ask a Fruit Fly, discussed a science experiment that was begun by a middle school student who wanted to solve an argument between her parents, who had been discussing the merits of organic food.  Three years later this student (now 16) has been published in a scientific journal.  Inquiry drove her.  She achieved.  She added knowledge to the world.

What if school were like this?

Unfortunately, it's not always, as is evident in the second story that appeared on my feed today.  However, the article Eighth Grader Designs Standardized Test That Slams Standardized Tests again shows what kids can do.  This 13-year-old, tired of the culture of testing, designed an eighth grade reading test that pokes fun at standardized testing.  It's brilliant.  After seeing her work I want to advocate for making "test writing satire" a required genre in schools.  I'm pretty sure students would get more out of it than prepping for THE TEST and taking it.

In less than 24 hours I have seen first-hand and in print the amazing things kids can do - when we let them.  And it makes me full of happiness.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Create the Pasture, not the Scale

I do not remember the name of the speaker at my doctoral graduation ceremony, but I do remember his message.  He said, "You cannot make a cow fatter by weighing it."  Perhaps because I grew up in farmland, his analogy for standardized testing, which had taken hold of the public school system as part of No Child Left Behind, resonated with me.  "You cannot make children smarter by testing them."  The statement, to me, is self-evident.

Unfortunately, since my graduation day, the field has gotten worse, not better.  Testing permeates education, and students' performance on one-shot, high-stakes exams is now tied both to school funding and to teacher pay.  Testing takes away from opportunities for creativity, and it causes stress for children, their families and their teachers.  Though I am a fan of diagnostic assessment, where teachers determine what an individual child knows and considers how to help the child reach instructional goals, as I've written before, I do not like the current environment that over-inflates the usefulness of tests.  In fact, I applaud my colleague and fellow New Jerseyan, Will Richardson, for choosing to opt his son out of state testing.

Though there are many issues, part of the problem with tying school and teacher performance to scores on standardized tests lies in the fact that schools (and teachers) are not the only influences on a child's education.    Education involves parents, and unless we work diligently to fix societal issues that contribute to a child's success or failure, no education reform will succeed in its goals.

However, legislation that would tie student performance to welfare benefits, as proposed in Tennessee, is surely not the answer.  We cannot make cows fatter by weighing them.  We cannot make children smarter by testing them.  And we cannot make families succeed through carrot and stick measures.  Daniel Pink suggests that motivations are complex - and the research that he cites demonstrates that carrots and sticks do not work well for motivating creativity and critical thinking.  His arguments have helped me to articulate why merit pay for teachers might not be effective, and the same is true for this new wave of reform that would attempt to hold parents (those who receive welfare) accountable for school performance.

It isn't clear to me what "school performance" entails in this case, but given the current environment  I do not doubt that standardized test scores will be the dominant factor.  Unfortunately, the logic is off.  How can children do well in school when they are hungry?  How can they perform better on tests when their home life is disrupted?  How can a single mother who is trying to survive find more time to support her children and still be able to work in an attempt to overcome the need for welfare?

As is mentioned in the article, opponents of the bill in Tennessee explain that the legislation unfairly targets those struggling the most.  And it is this inequality that lies at the heart of the problems in public education.  The answers to the problem are complex, and I don't pretend to have a grand solution.  I do know, however, that weighing the cows doesn't work.  We need to provide the pasture that feeds them well.  Creating that pasture is the real issue to be tackled.  If only politicians would realize it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Writing at Age 5 or 15

I learned to ski when I was 18 years old.  Because I started as an adult, I never gained the fearlessness that is needed to be a good skier.  I always knew I could crash and that pain or injury could disable me.  For nearly two decades my husband, who started skiing as a child and now attacks moguls for fun, has tried to convince me that it's all in my head.  He tells everyone, including my daughter's kindergarten teacher during our recent parent-teacher conference, that I am a better skier than I think I am.  I just need confidence.

My daughter is a lot like me.  She wants to do things right, and she wants to do things well, and she is keenly aware when she is not "good" at something.  At age 5, she is learning to read and write, yet she knows that she is not quite a "reader" or a "writer," at least in a standardized, school sense.  She will bring us books, asking us to read, and when we sit with her, she can actually read the majority of words herself.  She is better than she thinks she is, but she doesn't have much confidence in herself.

During parent-teacher conferences, I saw evidence of her struggle in her writer's workshop folder.    She had incomplete stories, empty art boxes, and many places where she needed to "stretch" her words.  Her work confused me.  She is an artist who writes, draws, paints, and creates constantly at home.  She is a songwriter who regularly composes lyrics for her favorite tunes and new tunes where old ones won't do.  The blank pages, which seemed to invite her creativity, stared back at me even as my husband told her teacher about my "ski mentality."  I knew at once he had correctly diagnosed the problem, and from my experience as a teacher of writing, I also knew that no amount of "practice" would motivate my little girl to "stretch" her words.

I asked the teacher, "Would it be okay if she wrote down some of the lyrics to her songs during writing workshop or some other time in school?"  I thought the topic might inspire her.  Her teacher agreed, and that night, I shared with my daughter the possibility.  She was excited, and the next morning at breakfast, she laid out her plan to write her lyrics so that she and I could sing them together.

Later in the week, I invited her to my computer, where she composed a message to her uncle.  She worked diligently on my lap for 15 minutes, finding and typing letters, sounding out words, and learning the form and function of an email message.

I loveyou. hao isbagz?

love megan

She took pride in her message, composed entirely by her, and as she hit the send button, she exclaimed, "Can we write someone else?  This is fun!"  Her next email was a little longer; despite the tediousness (to me) of the find and peck typing, she kept at it.  She planned what she wanted to say, sounded the words, and composed a message that was understandable - a far cry from the incomprehensible work I had seen in her writing workshop folder.

Before she had even finished the second email, my brother responded to her.

Hey Megan,

I love you too! Bugsy is doing just fine. I will let her know that you asked about her.

Uncle Matt.

She read his email independently, and I silently thanked him for demonstrating the power of an audience.

Megan was excited to receive a response from her grandparents to the second email she wrote that night, and after I shared it with her, she made a plan to practice her emailing every other night.  (She smartly decided that she needed time to play, too, so she didn't think she could manage it every night.)  

My expertise is in teaching writing to high school students, and I know that choice in topics leads to increased motivation.  I also know that real audiences have an impact on a writer.  And thanks to my daughter now I know that it's no different at age 5 than it is at age 15.  With that knowledge, perhaps, I can help her develop the confidence to be a great writer and to enjoy the process of creativity that writing invites.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Life in a Box (or 2)

There it is.  Six and a half years of work documented in two boxes.  I've been wondering whether a better representation of what I have done since I began my life on the tenure track might be the virtual box that holds my sent mail.  According to my Gmail account, I've had over 10,000 conversations in the last 6.5 years.  Of course, these messages don't include the IM, wiki, blog, text, Google, Twitter, Dropbox, and Facebook exchanges I've had with students and colleagues.  If I printed all of that documentation, how many boxes would I need to lug into the city next week when my tenure package is due?

My life in 2 boxes.  It's a little anticlimactic, probably because it's just one of several deadlines I have next week - and, of course, it's only a portion of my life.  I'm not sure I could document my roles as mom, wife, friend, daughter, or sister as neatly as I have my role as teacher educator.  Then again, I'm not sure these two boxes actually capture what I do or who I am in the world of education.

But they are done, and I will wait to see their evaluation, not idly, as I have many projects on my desk.  This work excites me, and it drives me, and it will continue to make me question the balance in my life.  These boxes, however, represent one big hurdle, a goal hopefully achieved.  And it feels good to close the lids and submit them.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Volunteering at the Intersection

I had excellent models. My mom served others daily as a teacher, tirelessly working during the school day and after hours to give to her students and her school community. When I entered public school, my working mom added to her giving as a volunteer for booster clubs, a classroom mom, and anything else where her talents were needed. Likewise, my dad coached community soccer, he built sets for the spring musicals, and he chauffeured princesses in his MG for the Homecoming parade. My parents taught me that education is a three-way intersection, where schools, parents, and students connect to make the community strong.

So of course I volunteer. Despite the fact that I work a demanding job and raise two children, I find time to give to my community - because I need it and it needs my talents. I never understood why my college sorority had "service requirements" where giving time and energy became a checklist of completion. I had a hard time accepting that some of my classmates did the bare minimum and that some did not even do that. Service is part of me, and I struggle to understand why so many people find excuses to disconnect from others.  Why don't they want to make their communities strong?

In the last few years I have watched several non-profit organizations struggle. The preschool where I volunteered as board member talked openly about lack of parental support to run events. The membership of the service organization of the Junior Woman's Club dropped dramatically even as the same core of people picked up the volunteer slack. The local sports teams send multiple requests to fill their roster of coaches. And currently I am I hearing the same discussions in the local PTO, where, as an executive board member, I participate in strategic discussions to increase volunteering.

In all of these organizations, a few are shouldering the work, and in the current dilemma of the PTO, we are wondering how we will meet our funding goals if others in our community do not contribute their time and energy to our events. We agonize over how to let parents know that our work supports educational opportunities for our kids - programs that will be cut if we do not provide the funding. I regret that we have to have these conversations, yet I know that we are not alone in our struggles.  From schools to firehouses, volunteers are hard to find.  Where are the people that want to make their communities strong?

By happenstance last night I participated in a meeting of a group's reorganization. The facilitator asked each person present to identify the talents that she brought to the table. One woman shared her creativity. Another noted her optimism. A third said, "I'm blunt. I tell it like it is." We may not all be firefighters, but we all have talents. We may not all be able to be president of the organization, but if we look hard enough, we can carve out some time and put those talents to work. Our communities need it. Our schools need it. And our kids need to see it. They need to know that life is not a one-way highway. It's an intersection where we all can meet to make our communities strong.