Posted in Halloween, Life, Teaching, Writing

Reasons to Celebrate

Life is still weird, and some days are hard, so it’s especially nice when you find a few reasons to celebrate. September has gifted me with some good ones.

Reason to Celebrate #1: FALL

The official start of fall is still a few days away, but last week the Texas summer took its leave. The temperatures dropped, the oppressive humidity blew away, and we even had a few days of hard rain and thunderstorms. There’s nothing quite like that first burst of cool weather after the long, hot months. I was so happy, I went out and bought my first pumpkin. It won’t be lonely for long.

Reason to Celebrate #2: A SMOOTH-ISH START TO THE SCHOOL YEAR

The drop in temperature coincided with the first day of school for my district. On Tuesday, September 8th, we began online teaching. Despite thunderstorms and power failures and zoom fatigue and even a mass internet outage that affected most of our school’s neighborhoods one day, it was still a successful start to the year. The students arrived ready to learn, and the teachers welcomed them with smiles and reassurances and well-planned virtual lessons.

It’s hard though. The amount of work that goes in behind the scenes to make that smoothness possible is too large for most people who don’t work in education to truly understand, and it means that sometimes dinner looks like this:

But we did it, and we’re still doing it, and we’ll keep doing it to the best of our ability. I’m very proud of my campus and my coworkers and my community. This morning, while walking the trail in my neighborhood, I saw this painted rock, and it felt like such a gift. I’m sending it out to all my fellow teachers.

Reason to Celebrate #3: GHOST STORIES

October is just a few short weeks away, which means ghost story season is almost upon us, so I’m excited that my new book, The Ghostly Tales of New England, is now available! This slim, but spooky volume includes twenty-two true stories of historical haunts in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, and it’s the perfect companion to a cup of hot chocolate and a campfire.

A friend of mine read some the stories to her six-year-old daughter, and now she’s writing a scary story of her own! It’s called “The Bodiless Foot,” and it comes with some wicked illustrations.

I think we have a new horror author in the making.

Speaking of writing inspiration, I’m doubly excited because Austin Bat Cave has asked me to teach an online Ghost Stories Workshop on October 17th. If you know a 5th-8th grader with a love of writing and a flair for the macabre, consider signing them up. Space is limited, so reserve your spot soon.

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I’m grateful for these reasons to celebrate, and I’m always on the lookout for more. Let me know if you find any.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching

Vision+Voice 2019 / Why Poetry Matters

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice reception this year.

Teaching all day + Writing Club + grading + trying to perfect that PowerPoint for Monday, and suddenly it was 6:30PM, and I was still in my classroom, and the Vision+Voice reception was starting across town in half an hour. For a quarter of a second, I considered not going. Then I dropped everything and jumped in the car.

Traffic was not in my favor as I made my way from south Austin to the ACC Highland campus. Once, my uninformed GPS even routed me through a construction zone. (Hello, men in hard hats! Sorry! Don’t mind me!) By the time I arrived at the community college, my shoulders were stiff, and I was calculating what time I might finally be home. 9:00PM? 9:30? 10:00? I felt the weight of my day bearing down on me as I walked across the parking lot.

Then I stepped inside, and all my stress lifted away. I couldn’t believe I considered missing this event for even a quarter of a second.

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Vision+Voice is everything I love in one place. It’s students, dressed up and looking happy and nervous at the same time. It’s families, beaming and hugging and taking pictures. It’s teachers, nodding and saying how proud they are. It’s music, art, and good food. And it’s poetry.

The program was launched by Austin Community College in 2013. It’s an annual contest for students in Austin to submit poetry on any topic, in any language. ACC Creative Writing students and published poets judge the poems. One winner and a number of honorable mentions are selected from every grade level. The poems are published in a beautiful anthology, and the poets are invited to record a video reading their poems at KLRU. In addition, the first place poems are paired with a piece of art created by an ACC student and made into posters to be displayed in homes, schools, and libraries across the city.

This year, my school was honored to have three young poets recognized for their poems: Harper J (sixth grade honorable mention), Noah L (seventh grade winner), and Hadley S (seventh grade honorable mention). Hadley wrote a tritina poem called “Shooting Stars” during our class’s poetry unit. Noah wrote “Cactus Poem” (about cacti who need a break from posing for pictures all the time) based on another student’s creative writing prompt during our school’s Writing Club. And Harper, who also recently joined the Writing Club, wrote a poem called “Love Letter” which reads the same forward and backward. So cool.

I walked in to the beautifully decorated atrium where the reception was being held. I met my students’ families and congratulated the poets. I got some food, sat down, listened to speeches, watched videos of young poets reading their words, and didn’t stop smiling for the next two hours.

Seeing these young writers, ages 5 to 18, stand in front of a camera with their poems in their hands, sharing their creativity with the world brought tears to my eyes. They were articulate and vulnerable and proud and passionate and confident and true and beautiful. They give me hope for our future.

A few of my favorite lines and moments…

The second grade winner, Maple W, wrote a song called “I am still me.” It begins, “I am a monster in my tomb/ singing with the tune,” and it ends, “be nice to me,/ because I am still me.”

The beginning of fifth grader Beatrix L’s poem “The Sapling” gave me shivers:

“The spirit inside the tree
Is full of unrest.
She thinks I have come
To take away her host.”

Sixth grader Didion C’s poem “Coral” addressed environmental concerns, saying, “Fate may be inevitable/ But we can help.”

The last lines of these poets’ poems all stayed with me:

“You must ask questions of all sizes.” – Nicole P, 7th grade
“I am alive” – Andrea H, 9th grade (She was my student two years ago!)
“These streets could belong to me.” – Amy S, 12th grade

I can’t help it. I get chills when I hear these lines.

Brad Richard, the keynote speaker at the reception, gave a speech titled “Why Poetry Matters.” His words were true and inspiring and thoughtful, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were also unnecessary. I challenge anyone to listen to children read poems about life, love, nature, the earth, freedom, home, truth, and monsters without understanding—immediately and inherently—why poetry matters to our world.

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice Reception this year, but I’m SO GLAD I DID.

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Note: The poems mentioned in this post are only a few of the incredible pieces of writing in this year’s anthology. And there were so many more poems that weren’t recognized with awards, but which are also beautiful and thought-provoking. All of the poems entered this year can be found on the Vision+Voice website. I recommend getting a cup of coffee and spending an hour or so immersing yourself in them. Start with “My Home” by my student Rayaan H about his beloved Pakistan. It put a lump in my throat when he read it in front of my class earlier this year.

Links to All Poems Mentioned in This Post:

Haiku

Posted in Writing

How to Write a Journal Entry When You Have “Nothing” to Write About

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Thinking small now will have a big impact later.

A couple of years ago, I shared my 10 Tips for Keeping a Journal, and today I want to elaborate on Tip #3: Think Small.

As I said in my previous post, “If you wait until you have ‘good stuff’ to write about, your journal may stay closed for months. The truth is, there’s good stuff happening all around us almost every day. Consider this—who’s this journal for? You, right? What will YOU want to look back on in ten years? What you’ll crave are the little things. The tiny little slices of life that you’ve forgotten about. So your job when journaling is to master the mundane.”

It’s true. I’ve been rereading some of my old journals (a favorite summer habit) and want to scream at my college-age self, “Stop babbling about boy troubles, and tell me what’s in your pockets!” (Somewhere, in another universe, college-age me just had a very strange dream.) Really though, there are plenty of pages about my feelings (which are important, yes) but not enough about my world. When I look back on that time, I’m not interested in reliving all my relationship angst. I’d much rather see my former surroundings—where I spent my Thursday afternoons and which t-shirt was my favorite and what I ate for breakfast. Even after college, I still sometimes went through phases of vague melancholy or (worse) vague bliss where I described my deep feelings of unease or contentment without ever really pinpointing where they came from. That’s why I’m thrilled when I stumble upon entries like this one from February 18, 2007:

I am sitting in my purple chair wearing the new jeans I got at Buffalo Exchange tonight (that I love) with the green sweater that I rescued from the Goodwill bag (that I now really like) and the flip flops from Kelley’s wedding and a black head band wrap. I look totally funky stylin’ (in my not so fashionable opinion).

Note #1: Sweater and flip flops in Austin in February sounds about right.
Note #2: I am such a hoarder of clothes. I used to be SO BAD about putting things in a bag to take to Goodwill and then “rescuing” them a couple of days later, only to wear them once and then send them back to my closet for another year. I’ve learned my lesson. Now I take the bag to Goodwill immediately. Usually.
Note #3: I feel like I was quoting a friend when I used the phrase “funky stylin'” but I don’t remember who. Also, I hope I was being sarcastic.

Or this one from January 31, 2011:

I am sitting in my backyard writing by the light of the campfire I just made for myself (with the help of a firestarter log from HEB). My plan is to sit here and write in my journal and drink some High Life and read Lolita and enjoy the evening for as long as I like, no matter the time. I hear something barking off in the distance– maybe a coyote. Oh, and now I hear the muted but unmistakable caterwauling of Gink…

Note #1: High Life? Seriously? My guess is someone left them at my house.
Note #2: High Life and Lolita is a classy combination.
Note #3: I just Googled January 31, 2011, and it was a Monday, so I was enjoying this late-night campfire on a school night. How scandalous!
Note #4: You have no idea how loud my cat’s caterwauling can be. Someday, when he’s gone, this journal entry will remind me of the crazy sounds he used to make, and it will make me smile.

Those are the kinds of journal entries I can sink my nostalgic teeth into.

So if you’re keeping a journal, and you’re worried that nothing you write is exciting enough, fret not. Some of the most mundane tidbits today may be the lines that give you the biggest smiles ten years from now.

When in doubt, follow these simple instructions:

HOW TO WRITE A JOURNAL ENTRYDownload a PDF of this diagram here:
HOW TO WRITE A JOURNAL ENTRY.

Here’s an entry I wrote based on this format, without taking any of the optional tangents:

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See? Until the robot swung the baseball bat and uncovered the hidden scorpion, there was nothing earth-shattering about this entry, but someday I’ll be glad I mentioned how Gabby used to insist on laying in my lap, and I’ll probably laugh about how excited I was over my first Roomba when I see what the robots of the future can do.

So give it a try. Grab a favorite pen and find a comfy spot and write something that future you will enjoy reading. Most importantly, have fun.

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One last thing: Don’t ever feel like you have to fill up a whole page. Even short entries can have a lasting effect.

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Terrible handwriting aside, that’s quite a nice little nugget. 🙂