Posted in Life, Teaching

You’re Going to Be Disappointed

New Year means new goals, new promises, new challenges, new you.

Some people like to choose a single word for the new year, something that embodies their focus or intention for the next twelve months. I think this is a cool thing to do, but it’s not for me. I’m a resolutions girl through and through. I like a list, even if it’s a short one. My 2020 resolutions page includes a concise seven items.

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Here are two of my resolutions. The rest are for me to know and you to wonder about.

The first is a return to an old favorite. Monitoring my “Have to’s,” “Need to’s,” and “Want to’s” is one of the best resolutions I’ve ever made and one I recommend for anyone to work on. The second is a familiar goal with a small twist. I love reading and often finish 40-60 books a year, but this year I don’t want all my reading to be for pleasure. I want to read at least a couple of books that push me in some way.  Maybe it’s a difficult text that requires constant use of a dictionary. Maybe I’ll try to learn a new skill or subject and read something that requires study and memorization. Or maybe I’ll read something that challenges my political beliefs or worldview. I don’t know how I’ll go about it yet, but I’m determined to work for at least two titles.

I like my method of goal-setting. It works for me. This year, though, it’s like the universe is trying to force the one-word trend on me.

On Saturday, all Facebook wanted to do was show me people’s 2020 words. PERSEVERANCE. PEACE. OPENHEARTED. CREATRIX (<– I love that one). These are all very cool, and there’s nothing wrong with this way of embracing the new year. It’s just not something I want to do. But, inundated with these terms—STRENGTH, PRESENCE, TRUTH– I found my mind begin to wander… “IF I were to choose a word…” until, in a spectacular bout of stubbornness, I went old school Ghostbusters on myself. “No! Don’t think! Clear your mind! Clear your mind!” I don’t know why I’m so determined NOT to have a 2020 word. I just am.

I thought I had successfully cleared my head of this parasitic inspirational intrusion. Then my metaphorical Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men started showing up.

On Sunday, I wrote a letter to my dad– a thank you note for a Christmas gift and a copy of something he asked me to send him. When I pulled a plain white envelope out of my stationery box and opened it to insert his letter, I realized the envelope was full of words cut out of magazines.

Now, this isn’t strange in itself. I like cutting words out of magazines for found poetry and art and decorating journals, and when I have words left over (you should always have words left over– never use all your words) I often keep them in an envelope. But how an unlabeled envelope of unused words got put back into my box of brand new stationery is beyond me. At the time, I pondered it for a moment, shrugged, and then sent the letter to my dad, leaving the extra words inside. (I figured he could use them for something.) It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized the implications of my discovery and, literally, gasped. The universe was trying to TRICK ME into choosing a 2020 word! Well, it didn’t work! Ha! My dad can choose one if he wants, but I deftly averted the universe’s clever ploy.

So… the universe chose a word for me.

Monday, I went back to work. [Insert sad violin music here.] The first thing I saw when I walked into my classroom on Monday morning was a small rectangle on the floor. I picked it up and turned it over. This is what I found:

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Before you start spinning myths about how that word got there, NO, I don’t possess a set of magnetic poetry in my classroom (want to buy me one?), and YES, I’m sure that magnet did not exist in my room in 2019. (I’ve been in this classroom for four years, and I am very organized.) I truly have no idea where it came from. I only know that it was sitting there, on the carpet, waiting to mock me the day I returned to work: DISAPPOINTED.

Well, the joke’s on you, Universe, because I refuse to accept your word. I am my own person! I shall not be owned by a word! I am free! FREE, I tell you!!! (But that’s not my word either. I don’t have a word.)

In conclusion, embrace the new year however you want, and don’t let anyone force any particular inspirational method on you. You be you.

Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here hiding from the universe and trying not to be disappointed. Don’t mind me.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching, Writing

Why I Love Writing Club

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Two years ago, I began assisting with my middle school’s Writing Club, and last year I took over as sponsor. It makes for a long Friday afternoon, and sometimes I need to just sit in the silence of my car for a few minutes before I drive home so I can get the ringing in my ears to stop*, but overall it’s been a very pleasurable experience.

* Ringing in your ears? It’s a Writing Club. Doesn’t that mean you spend the hour listening to the peaceful scratching of pen on paper? Um, no.

At my school’s Writing Club, the focus is on the word Club more than on the word Writing. The hour after school is as much about students gushing over their latest literary crush, arguing over which fandom is better: Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and complaining about the perils of writer’s block, as it is about writing the great teen novel. We do eventually put gel pen to journal most days, but first there are beach ball ice breaker games and a general LOUD decompressing after a long day/week. Some students come to the club with works in progress—comics, sci-fi novels, poetry—that they add to or work on. Others sit down with a blank page and see what happens. Some just come for the company. Because, most importantly, Writing Club is a place where these young writers can be among their own kind and let their inner selves out to play without judgment.

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Random gift from a Writing Club kid. It hangs on my fridge.

My favorite part is when we end with sharing time because these kids, silly or not, are killing it with their poems and stories, and they’re not afraid to put themselves on paper or take their fiction to dark, shadowy places. Last week at our first meeting of the year (yes, we started Writing Club on a full moon Friday the 13th) one girl shared a heart-wrenchingly honest poem written to her math class crush, another read a haunting piece full of dramatic imagery, and another shared a witty, rhyming poem about the latest trends that had both me and our principal in stitches, even though we didn’t get all the references. These kids always inspire me. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about Writing Club… It often gets me writing.

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Poem I wrote during Writing Club

I’ve drafted unexpected blog posts in Writing Club and written poems based on prompts, and even wrote the first page of a story about a zombie crocodile that I later turned into something I really like. The ideas that come to me in this setting are things that probably would never cross my mind elsewhere, as if I, too, can channel my inner “young writer” around all this creative youth.

I’m grateful for Writing Club, and I’m looking forward to more meetings with this year’s bunch of unique little oddballs. They are my people.

Posted in Teaching

On Fire: A Completely True and Not at All Sarcastic* Look at Differentiation in a Middle School Classroom

* ok, maybe a little sarcastic

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Imagine trying to light ten different fires while simultaneously trying to put out seven. That’s what differentiation in a classroom of thirty students feels like.

I once taught a dynamic, interactive, differentiated lesson that included modeling, group work, individual accommodations, and a reflective recap of the learning objective in front of an intern, an observer, and my inclusion teacher, and it all went near-perfectly. (Once. I said this happened ONCE. It was like seeing a unicorn standing on the back of the Loch Ness Monster.) Afterward, my inclusion teacher told me, “Wow! You were on fire!” I said, “Thanks, yeah, that’s pretty much what it felt like.” Then I collapsed into a plastic chair for a full 30 seconds before setting up to do it all again for the next period, during which neither Nessy nor the unicorn made an appearance.

Accounting for every student’s distinctive learning style, individual accommodations, unique personality, and level of stress makes direct teaching difficult and giving inspirational speeches almost impossible. It seems like I’m always pressuring my students too much or not enough. I can never find the proper balance. I don’t think it’s my fault, though. Mixed-level classes and large class sizes and the amount of variation in accommodations make it tough for one person to address an entire group the same way.

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Consider this: What if Abraham Lincoln had been required to accommodate the Gettysburg Address? What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had wanted to inspire half his audience to action while also thanking the other half for all the work they’d already done?

Abraham Lincoln:
“Four score and seven years ago (that’s 87 years) our fathers brought forth on this continent (North America), a new nation, conceived in liberty (that means formed in freedom), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (I’ll pause here for a moment while you think about that. Danny, here’s a paper copy of the speech. Yes, Betty, you may go to the restroom.)”

Martin Luther King, Jr:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. (Sally and Albert, you’ve done an excellent job exalting valleys so far this year, and Robert, you’re making good progress on straightening those crooked places. You should feel proud of yourselves.) Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. (Mississippi, I know you’ve been struggling with the whole freedom thing. You just keep applying yourself, okay?) Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…”

I’m not critiquing the practice of differentiation. It is absolutely the right way to teach and the best way to help students progress. We have come so far from the days where every lesson was a teacher-centered lecture that left bright, creative, differently-engaged students behind. My point is only that individualized instruction is difficult, especially in large classes. You need a lot of matches and a lot of damp towels to concurrently ignite and douse the coals of each individual student’s motivation to the appropriate level, and if you do it right, there will likely be smoke coming out of your ears by the end of the day.

I think that metaphor got away from me. Sorry. To clarify, don’t bring matches to school.