Posted in Halloween, Writing

The Ghostly Tales of Austin

In October 2015, I went on an Austin ghost tour with some fellow members of the local chapter of SCBWI. We met at the Omni Hotel, then strolled around downtown, visiting the Driskill and the Texas State Capitol and other buildings with haunted histories while our guide, Monica Ballard, regaled us with stories of sinister secrets, ghastly murders, and eerie experiences.

Austin Ghost Tour, October 28, 2015

I love the night and especially love walking around my favorite places at night, seeing them by moonlight and learning their shadows. I would’ve had a good time exploring Austin in the dark regardless of what the topic was. But add ghost stories to a late-night stroll, and I’m in my happy place. I enjoyed myself so much that, when the tour ended, I bought a copy of Haunted Austin: History and Hauntings in the Capitol City by Jeanine Plumer to read more about Austin’s ghosts. I took the book home and gobbled up all the good stories inside.

I had no idea on that night back in 2015 that six years later I would be adapting Plumer’s book for middle grade readers.

In 2020, I wrote my first book in the Spooky America series from Arcadia Publishing: The Ghostly Tales of New England. I was excited about the chance to adapt one of the Haunted America books for young readers and loved learning more about New England, an area of the country I’ve visited a few times and whose history and scenery I love. But I really wished I could write about some ghosts closer to home, so when the opportunity came along to write the haunted history of my own town, I was thrilled. The Ghostly Tales of Austin comes out on Monday, and I can’t wait to share the spooky side of my city with young readers.

I put a lot of heart into this book and learned a lot about Austin along the way. Did you know that Austin suffered a devastating flood in 1900? Or that a ghost wagon haunts Westlake? Some of the stories in this book are not for the faint of heart. For instance, I suggest you don’t read Chapter 2 about Josiah Wilbarger while you’re eating. But if you’re going to the Capitol anytime soon, you should definitely read Chapter 9 before you arrive, so can be on the lookout for the ghost of Colonel Love. And I highly recommend visiting Mount Bonnell while in Austin, but you might want to leave before sunset if you don’t want to experience anything unsettling.

I have fond memories of that ghost tour back in 2015, and I’m proud to now have a part to play in passing down the spooky history of a city that I love. Austin’s ghosts await. If you’re willing to meet them, pick up a copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin!

If you want an unsigned copy of the book, you can order it from Amazon or, better yet, from BookPeople, Austin’s own one-of-a-kind local bookstore. But if you would like a signed copy, you can order directly from me for $12. Send me a message via my contact page with your name, address, and what you want written in the book (either just a signature or a dedication). I’ll let you know how to send payment, then I’ll get to the post office ASAP, and you’ll have a personalized copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin before you can say poltergeist three times*!

*Just to be on the safe side, I do not actually recommend saying poltergeist three times.

Posted in Life, Poetry

Pandemic Painting & A Better Year Ahead

This weekend I sat down and re-read my journal entries from March through July of 2020. I wanted to re-experience those first few months of the pandemic, to see it again from a little distance. (I stopped at August because I wasn’t ready to revisit the school year again.) It was so surreal reading my thoughts in those initial days of confusion and fear. I wrote every day at first and then about every other day for many weeks. Seeing those entries again made me shiver. Here are a few excerpts that gave me pause:

* March 30, 2020:

This morning I got up before 7AM, showered, and went to HEB. It wasn’t bad. I got there about 15 minutes before they opened and lined up outside (6 feet apart, per the orange lines) with a couple dozen other people. Inside, there were reminders to stay a safe distance from others and lots of signs limiting numbers of items (4 cereals, 4 cans of chili, etc) and parts of the store were blocked off to keep people moving in an orderly direction… We have enough food to last us another couple of weeks. Now it’s just stay-at-home-stay-safe. It looks like we’ll be in this mode until the end of April.

* April 2, 2020:

Headlines this morning include:
“US braces for ‘horrific’ weeks as deaths top 5,100”
“Cruises with sick, dead passengers awaiting approval to dock”
“Coronaviras pandemic alters life as we know it”

* May 10, 2020:

I want to remember this… When the world goes back to normal, I want to remember these long ambling walks through my neighborhood, how hours went by without me checking my watch or making a list in my head of all I needed to do when I got back home. I want to remember how my feet felt on the pavement, how I knew every sidewalk scratch and screech owl by heart and watched the chalk art evolve from fresh and bright to faded and rain-streaked. When I’m late to work, stopped at the light at Slaughter Lane, when I’m collapsing on the couch after school, when I’m standing in line at HEB looking at Facebook on my phone, I want to remember the sound my ball made as I bounced it lazily while listening to my audio book and strolling the same streets at 5AM, noon, 8PM, midnight– how it felt when the ball landed perfectly in my palm with a *smack*.

Reading these journals makes me want to reach back in time to that version of myself and give her a hug. But then I’d be tempted to give her the truth, too, about what else was coming and how long this was really going to last, and that just seems mean.

But good things came out of those months, as well. For instance, I found some new creative outlets.

In June of 2020, I randomly started painting. I already had some old acrylic paints and brushes. I ordered a few more and some small canvases online and made myself an “easel” by propping flattened cardboard boxes on the windowsill in my office. I grabbed a button-down tunic shirt that I’d never worn but couldn’t make myself give way and made that my painting frock. Then I tossed a pillow on the floor to sit on, got a paper plate for my palette, filled a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q plastic cup with water, turned on some music, and started painting.

On July 18, 2020, I wrote in my journal:

I’ve been painting. I’m not great. I’ve had no training except for a few “Painting with a Twist” sessions and watching my dad draw, but I find that I can make things look mostly how I want them to look, and I’m learning as I go along—how to mix paints for subtler shades and how to turn the brush on its edge for a finer stroke or use a thick bristly brush when I want more texture. Mostly though, I just like putting paint on a canvas. It’s so relaxing. Sometimes I sit for hours and paint, until my back aches and my legs are tingly from falling asleep.

I’m still at it, and I think my paintings are improving, but honestly, I don’t care that much. I just paint for fun. It’s something to play with, and the freedom of it is what makes it so enjoyable.

My dad’s cat, Spunkie. I almost forgot to paint her whiskers!

I also enjoy playing with words—collage art, found poetry, book title poems—and the pandemic offered more time for that, too. This pastime is even messier than painting and often encompasses much of the house. If I’m making collages, there are little bits of paper everywhere and no fans or pets allowed in the area. To make book title poems, I end up taking dozens of books off my shelves, stacking them and restacking them in precarious piles and rearranging them over and over again until I’m satisfied with the result.

Book title poems in progress

I love making book title poems and have shared several of them here over the years, but this summer I decided to create something more tangible with them. I chose twelve of my favorites and made 2022 calendars.

Most people agree that 2020 was, in general, a terrible year, and there are many who say 2021 isn’t much better. But I have high hopes for 2022 (don’t you?), so I’m getting ready early.

I made three sizes of calendars: an 8×4 desk calendar, an 8.5×11 wall calendar, and a 12×12 wall calendar, but they all include the same poems. I’m selling them on my Esty store, so if you know a book-lover or a poet who would enjoy having a unique calendar next year, consider getting your shopping done early and buy them one of these! If you order by July 31, you can get 10% off by using the coupon code: NEWYEARINJULY

For me, summer is a season of creativity because I’m off work and can indulge in my hobbies. This summer, I’m grateful to be vaccinated and feel comfortable enough to venture out into the world again. There isn’t any part of me that wants to be that confused, stressed woman of last summer who was stuck at home feeling trapped and scared, but I’m thankful that she used her shelter-at-home time to try some new things and make some art.

Posted in Teaching

A Year Like No Other

This school year was truly like no other. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to write about it, what to say. Sometimes I wonder if I need to say anything at all. I mean, we know. We all know what a disaster this year has been. I’m tired of talking about the pandemic. Tired of asking, “Pfizer or Moderna?” Tired of answering, “Yeah, we’re starting to go out again but still taking it slow.” Tired of nodding and agreeing and commiserating and rehashing. We all need some new conversation topics. But I also feel like I have to say something about this school year, reflect on it as a whole, for myself if no one else. But how? How to sum up? It can’t be summed up.

My 2020-2021 Teaching Timeline: (Click to enlarge)

* Note: I just realized I left off the two weeks during the second semester when my coworker had to be out unexpectedly to take care of her sick mother, and I had to take on one of her classes. Those were the weeks when I had over 50 students in my 3rd period Zoom classes.

They say the devil is in the details, and it is true of this year. The hardship wasn’t in the accumulation of months; it was in the weekly changes, the daily obstacles, the nightly eye strain, the hourly stress. It was in every minute spent waiting for an invisible student to respond to me in a Zoom breakout room, every second my eyes flitted between my in-person kids, my Zoom camera, my gradebook, my attendance sheet, my inbox, my audio settings, my online grammar workbook, my online monitoring software, my chat, my other chat, my lesson on the shared screen, and back again. It was in the 19 times a day I sanitized my hands and the 29 times I reminded kids to do so. It was in every moment that I smiled extra big at something a student was saying, in hopes that my encouragement would show in my eyes, beyond my mask, through my screen. It was in the times I had to console a crying student via Zoom while speaking quietly and not saying their name to prevent my in-person kids from overhearing our private conversation.

Instructions for Taking Attendance This Year: (Simple, right?)

Like I said, it can’t really be summed up. I think this school year is best told in moments. Here are a few from the past year.

* Haiku Composed During the STAAR Writing Test on April 27th: *

caged children suffer
from lack of fresh air and sun
the answer is D

As difficult as this year was, and as glad as I am to see it come to an end, there were good things about it too. I learned SO many new skills, both technological and socio-emotional. I loved my students, especially the ones I got to meet and the ones who stayed home all year but allowed me to meet them by showing up on Zoom and engaging with me.

While I dealt with more missing work this year than ever before, some of the work that was turned in was outstanding. We read novels in verse and wrote poetry and essays. We shared our post-pandemic hopes and plans. Around spring break when I suddenly had over a dozen people in my classroom for the first time in a year, I rediscovered the joy of having to ask a class to be quiet. Noise. Beautiful noise. I had been missing it. During the last six weeks, I was able to share S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders with my classes again, and some of the projects they turned in about the book were amazing.

Even though there were days/weeks/months when I felt like a terrible teacher, many of my students didn’t see it that way. They were sweet and complimentary in their end-of-year surveys, acknowledging the challenges teachers faced, appreciating what they learned, and thanking me for my support. Some of their messages brought tears to my eyes.

Comments from my end-of-year survey:

  • “I appreciate how understandable Ms. Juettner is especially with how difficult the last year has been. I also enjoyed Ms. Juettners humor and her funny stories.”
  • “I would like to say thank you for an amazing year. Even with covid and the difficult year, you made it easier for us and you were very empathetic towards us.”
  • “I appreciated that she understood how hard it was to learn on zoom and she was always so helpful.”
  • “I enjoyed just joining zoom and Mrs. Juettner always taking about something. She always was super happy and ready to teach it kind of made me more intrigued on what our lesson would be that day.”
  • “One of the main things that I appreciate about Ms. Juettner is that she is very understanding and she has created a safe and friendly evironment in her classroom. Ms. Juettner is always quick to reply to emails and to help you out and she is extremely patient and empathetic.”
  • “Just that I would like you to know we all respect you and the other teachers for powering through this year and somehow teaching zoom kids and people in person at the same time, I recognize that is very difficult to do and I personally think ya’ll did a marvelous job.”

My End-of-Year Letter to My Students: (Click to enlarge)

This school year cannot be summed up, and this post doesn’t come close to truly describing the highs and lows of the past few months. I don’t even know how many people will read it. It’s ok if you don’t. It’s ok if you’re too tired of talking about the pandemic to read about anyone else’s experience. It’s ok if you’re a teacher whose school year ended a month ago, and you’re deep into summer relaxation and don’t want to have a flashback. And if you’re a teacher whose year has not yet ended, I am sending you a big hug. You can do this. I was where you are last week. I made it, and you will, too. So it’s ok if you don’t read this. The point is, I needed to post it, to document—in some messy, unfinished format—what this year was like for me.

And now, I’m ready to move on from it.

Bring on summer.