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Archive for July, 2011

A New Role

I walked into their house
as I’ve done so many times.
A house with infinite memories.
Echoes of laughing cousins
playing in the basement,
traces of hobo dinners, garage gatherings,
and music from acoustic guitars linger in the air.
I walked into their house
with a new role.

A smiling white-haired face
did not come to greet me at the door.
Instead, I walked in to my grandparents
sitting in their chairs in silence.
I did not wake to the sounds
of my grandma in the kitchen at the crack of dawn,
a place she could always be found.
There were no smells of Polish sausage
wafting through the house.
I did not chit chat with my grandma about
the specific way she cooks our usual family breakfast
while we drank coffee in the kitchen.
Instead, I had to coax my grandma out of bed.
When she got confused and put her bra on upside down,
I helped her put on her clothes.

I did not hear booms of carefree laughter
ringing through the house.
Instead, I listened to my grandma
fretting about who was going to make them dinner.
I listened to my grandpa’s fear
of his wife’s deteriorating mind
turn into lashes of the tongue.
I could hear the exhaustion
in my aunt and uncle’s voices.
I could hear the quiet frustration
of how merciless aging can be.

I walked into their house
with a new role.
I dispensed medication into the palms
of those that once lovingly patted my cheeks.
I administered eye drops into small clouded brown eyes
with sparse white eyelashes sprinkled on the eyelid.
I helped them out of their seats
and made sure they did not fall.
I watched carefully as their feet shuffled along,
their hands grasping their walkers.
I made them breakfast and
served them their coffee, 6
teaspoons of milk for grandma.
I asked my grandma if she was finished
eating, so she could take her pills.
I did the laundry and washed the dishes.

I walked out their house
feeling older, feeling more aware
of how swiftly life moves.
Remembering all those times they
cared for me, it was my turn
to care for them.
I walked out of their house
feeling grateful for all the
memories they have given me
allowing me to willingly accept
my new role.

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I’ve been chewed up and spit out, but not by my students.
Sure, they frustrate me, and make me want to shake my fist at them like
I am 70 years old and they keep traipsing across my lawn.
It’s not the students who chew us up and spit us out.

It’s not meeting those precious gains on the standardized test.
It’s the accusatory questions from the powers that be,
“How long have you been teaching?”
It’s the never ending changes~
this new gimmick will save us all!
It’s the members of the good ‘ol boys club who are lining their pockets.

You are sucking the joy out of teaching.
It’s not the students, it’s you.
Legislation, congress, the public scrutiny, all of those powers that be.
It’s you, ruining education.
You are stifling my love for what I do best.

I smile when students walk into my room and say,
“It smells like coffee in here.”
I delight in sharing books with them, and hearing about their dreams.
I listen when they tell me about their weekend.
I laugh at their funny middle school comments.
These kids who need us to care about who they are.
These kids who are dealing with more than I ever had to at their age.
Our kids who need to feel as if they have something to say,
and we want to hear it.

I keep teaching because
I am in awe of their strength
I feel at home with their humor
I revel in their hard work and
I believe their effort and creativity
will lead us to greatness.
I teach for them.
Year after year, we come back
for them, for our students, our kids.
They need us to guide them and open their eyes
to the world they are a part of.
We teach because we find joy in being with them, watching them grow,
day in and day out.

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Because Writing Matters was full of information, however, it did not flow as easily as other books I have read during this Institute. I enjoyed reading about how much the NWP is helping teachers and students as writers. Many of the ideas presented in this book made me feel validated. “Learning to write requires frequent, supportive practice. Evidence shows that writing performance improves when a student writes often and across the content areas” (p. 12). This simple fact sometimes feels so hard to justify to administration, of whom I still view as believing that if you are not in front of the room directly instructing the class, then they are not learning. Worry sets in when an administrator walks in my room when my students, and myself, are quietly writing (or reading for that matter). But the research and evidence is in this book if they ever question my practice. One section of this book that I found particularly helpful was the part discussing what makes an effective writing assignment. “An effective writing assignment does more than ask students to write about what they have read or experienced. It engages students in a series of cognitive processes, such as reflection, analysis, and synthesis, so that they are required to transform the information from the reading material in order to complete the writing assignment” (p. 47). Keeping this in mind as I further develop my unit plans and assessments will help to improve my assignments. I tend to focus more on reflection than anything else, so I need to include more comparisons and analyzing.  Modeling these tasks for my students first will be they key.

I was floored by the vignette about the principal who has his staff write during staff meetings! So awesome! Many of my colleagues who truly are good teachers, do not value the importance of writing. This is something I hope to try, slowly, to change. Another idea mentioned in Because Writing Matters that struck a cord with me are the importance of portfolios and how they improve student writing scores. I really did not do a good job with my students’ portfolios this year. I started folders of their work, and then forgot about it until the end of the year. This is something I plan on doing a better job at next school year. My favorite quote in this book is “writing is never learned once and for all” (p.14). This is how I have always felt about writing, but have never quite known how to articulate it to others, even though it is so simple. Teachers and students need to embrace this idea and be patient with ourselves in order to become successful writers. It is a process and it is hard work to finish the product.

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Because I skimmed the last part of Teaching for Joy and Justice, I decided to also read an article on the same topic. This article, later turned into a book, was suggested to me by Sara Gregory. “To claim that literature on its own is going to change reality would be an act of madness or arrogance. It seems to me no less foolish to deny that it can aid in making this change” (Singer & Ruth, p. 318 as cited by E. Galeano, in Espada, 2000, p. 9). This quote sums it up for me. Why can’t reading and writing change the social injustices of our world? How can I open my students’ eyes to the world around them? These were my guiding questions as I continued on my quest for critical literacy. I again had to take this article with a grain of salt and remember that I will not be able to implement all of the ideas. However, I did discover some wonderful things I am going to try to incorporate into my classroom next school year. Singer’s students read a variety of texts on global literature around the theme of social activism. Her students read autobiographies and memoirs about groups of people that are traditionally marginalized such as Melba Beal’s Warriors Don’t Cry. Singer’s students also choose their own activist to study, read, and write an essay about which then leads up to a social activism project at the end of the year. The projects could be any media the students chose, they had to share their issue with others and offer ideas to make change. Singer and Shagoury’s article included several book lists about social issues and activists that are suitable for adolescents.

How am I going to use this article in my classroom? First, I am going to get my hands on a few of these books, read them myself, and then share them with my students. Second, I would like to have my students choose their own issue or activist to study as a research project. I will probably have my students write a traditional expository essay/research paper to meet some of my objectives. However, I would also encourage them to use other forms of media to show their passion for a particular social issue and come up with ways to make change. This may end up being a collaborative assignment; I will have to see how it goes. I also would like to get the entire book of Singer’s, Stirring Up Justice. As I read both this article and Christensen’s book, Teaching for Joy and Justice, I was knocked over with how many wonderful ways there are for students to examine the social injustices of the world that they are passionate about. Even if all I end up doing is exposing them to some of these books and activists, and they end up using these injustices as a catalyst for their writing, I will be satisfied. It will take some time for me to create a well-developed social justice curriculum, so I need to take baby steps.

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I began reading Teaching for Joy and Justice in search of more ideas to promote critical literacy in my classroom, and those I did find.  This book is a Rethinking Schools publication.  I became aware of Rethinking Schools during the graduate class that turned me on to critical literacy so the connection just made sense.  I also subscribe to the Rethinking Schools magazine so I was pretty confident I would enjoy this book.  That being said, I had to also remember that sometimes the authors seem to live or talk about an ideal world, and I cannot always truly connect with them.  Linda Christensen describes in detail  her units that address inequalities and injustices in the world.  She discusses how she does this through units of poetry, essays, narratives, history through literature, and the power of language.  She even includes the pieces she used to teach her students and some of the pieces they wrote.  It is clear that Christensen is passionate about showing students how enjoyable and powerful reading and writing can be, and she gives several helpful ideas of how we too can study social issues through reading and writing.  However, Christensen is clear to point out that this endeavor, teaching for joy and justice, cannot be a solo one.

As I was reading this book, I realized how true her statement is.  I cannot use all of her units because I do not have access to most of the literature she references, so I was relieved that she acknowledged this daunting task of teaching social issues and justice in a classroom.  Christensen suggests that there must be a curriculum shift to truly teach a joy and justice pedagogy in a classroom.  Although I will not be able to completely change my curriculum, I can include social issue themed texts or writing assignments to meet the mandatory objectives.  There are a few ideas of hers that I plan on adapting for use in my classroom.  Christensen uses poetry to build relationships and community with her students.  She uses a poem called “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis that asks students to look at their family and/or environment to show their classmates who they are.   She also uses the poem “For My People” by Margaret Walker to have them look deeper into their race, ethnicity, and/or ancestry to further express themselves.  This is a great way to create a trusting and safe atmosphere in a classroom.  Rather than doing the usual, ‘All About Me Essay’, I think I will try starting the year with poetry, and using it throughout the year, instead of just having my end of year poetry unit.  Speaking of essays, Christensen also offers a great idea on how ease students into essay writing by creating a profile essay.  Students choose someone to write a profile about choosing a thesis and using anecdotes and details to support their thesis.  This would be an interesting way of working on choosing and supporting a thesis with my students.  Christensen suggests using sports articles and obituaries as places to find profiles; she also provided several  of her students’ essays in her book that I could use in my classroom.

I ended up skimming the remaining chapters of this book as I began to realize I cannot do all of this.  To keep myself sane, I am going to pick and choose focusing on Christensen’s poetry and essay units.  Teaching for Joy and Justice is a book I could read several times and learn something new every time.  It is packed full of wonderful ideas of how to incorporate social issues in your classroom, but it can also become very overwhelming.  I need to take it for what it is, a great resource from which I can glean a few ideas and lessons.

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Is it just boys that tend to gravitate toward butt and fart jokes? Or do little girls do this too? Or is it not a gender thing at all but a product of their environment? And if that is the case, what does that say about me as a mom?

My son recently learned the word buttocks from his grandpa, my father. Now he can creatively incorporate this word into any conversation. “Want to see my buttocks?” “It landed on his buttocks” or whatever the case may be. Sometimes he even has motions with these statements, bending over and sticking out his buttocks, just in case you weren’t sure what it was that he was speaking about.

Of course if the word does not cease to be said, I officially declare if I hear that word again it will result in a time out. That is when the creativity really kicks in. Instead of saying the word in its entirety he just says the ‘b-uh’ sound, then pauses just long enough for me to forget he was communicating anything, and then finishes the ‘tocks’, usually as I am in the midst of doing something else. That way I am too preoccupied to even notice that he really did say the word, just in two separate chunks. Once it dawns on me that he did in fact say this banned word, part of me wants to punish him as I had previously stated, but a bigger part of me is pretty dang proud of his creativity. So I let it go.

I know, I know, I am not going to be nominated for Parent of the Year. That is okay with me. For now, I am going to revel in these crazy little moments of my son trying to say buttocks inconspicuously. I am going turn and hide my smile of delight when he makes a valid point that counters my original argument or rule. It is just too brilliant to punish. Don’t worry, he doesn’t walk all over me and get away with everything. I just pick my battles.

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I crept down the basement steps, inching toward the darkness below. The first three steps were easy. They led to a small platform. I stopped on this platform and looked at the cave that loomed before me. I craned my neck to look at the right side of the staircase that gaped open toward the rest the of the basement. I could see part of the painting, my youngest uncle’s painting that hung in the center of the wall separating his bedroom from the rest of the basement. I stepped forward making a commitment to complete the rest of my voyage down the stairs. I could hear the laughter of the rest of the family who easily glided down to the party below. Each step I took brought me closer to that painting. Suddenly I was standing directly in front of it. A faded wood frame with a sad clown in the center of a plain black background stared back at me. My eight year old self was in a trance of disturbing curiosity disrupted only by the shrieking laughter of younger cousins as they raced down the stairs and ran around the corner. Broken from my strange seduction, I ran after them and entered a brightly lit room of food and family.

I was in my grandparent’s house. A small older home in Rogers City that they lived in for just the early part of my childhood. I enjoyed my time with cousins and delicious eats during our festivities that day avoiding the painting at all costs. But then it was bedtime.

The large plush mattress enveloped me. I snuggled deeply into the pastel yellow comforter on my grandparent’s bed. I was lulled to sleep by the muffled voices of the adults still living it up below me.

It felt as if only I had slept for only minutes when I woke to the loud clinking of glass. My eyes shot open. The room was a hazy green color. The two dressers against the wall were shaking causing my grandma’s perfume bottles to rattle. I pulled the covers up to my eyes, but did not cover them. I looked around the room waiting to wake up. The lights began to flicker intensifying the green glow. Above the sounds of my heart beating in my ears, I could hear low growling noises. The furniture continued to shake, even the bed was moving now. I couldn’t close my eyes. I didn’t move. I just waited to wake up. My gaze moved toward the ceiling just in time for me to see a monstrous hand pop out of the headboard inches above my head. It was mud-green, covered in wart-like bumps with sparse hairs sticking out of them. The hand had long brown fingernails that came to a sharp point. I yanked the covers over my head and waited. Waited for it to stop.

I must have fallen back asleep because I later woke to the sound of my grandma coming into the room for her nightgown. I pretended as if I was still asleep while trying to sneak glimpses of the room. It looked normal, no green glow, no noises. Just my grandma pulling her nightgown out of the dresser and tip toeing out of the room so she didn’t disturb my peaceful sleep.

To this day I am convinced that house is haunted.

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