Posted in Poetry, Teaching

Listen Louder Than You Sing

It’s hard to believe that just two and a half months ago I was still substitute teaching. I feel so at home in my new classroom and so involved in the lives and lessons of my seventh graders that I sometimes forget I didn’t start the year with them. They feel like mine now. My kids. And that feels really good.

The truth, though, is that ten short weeks ago I was still spending my days with other people’s kids, and I was reminded of that today when I found something in one of my notebooks.

Subbing can be a hard job. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone. But it can also be a really fun job, a really inspiring job. There are so many amazing teachers in Austin, and once in a while, as a sub, you get to see those teachers in action.

On September 2nd, I “subbed” a girls’ choir class at Bowie High School in south Austin. I put the word in quotes because sitting in a chair and listening to beautiful music for an hour and a half does not count as work. The class I was in was co-taught, so, as the sub for one teacher, I just had to sit by and watch while the other teacher– Randy Cantu— flawlessly and fearlessly taught/encouraged/conducted/coached 50+ high school singers.

I was mesmerized.

The girls were so talented, the class flowed so smoothly, and Mr. Cantu worked so hard every minute to make them better singers, better students, better people.

For an hour and a half, I listened, and I wrote what I heard. Words, phrases, advice, small admonishments, questions, answers, lyrics, and laughs. I filled my page and then some with the language of the lesson. Later that day, I sat down with my notes and wrote a found poem from the list.

I’m so grateful that I had the pleasure of watching this teacher do his job. His enthusiasm and work ethic and joy has stayed with me and, I hope, carried into my own classroom.

Here’s the poem I wrote from the words of Mr. Cantu and his students:

Listen Louder Than You Sing

1, 2, 3, ready and
so fa me fa
let me hear the la
big beautiful brave sound
tall vowels, lots of space
make sure you travel
sing what you see
la ti la so la me re do
tone, posture, contour
now we are here

ma meh me mo mu
think about that for 30 seconds
ma meh me mo mu
sing it in your head
ma meh me mo mu

Do it again from the same place
so me re me do
it gets more complicated
it’s breathy, uncomfortable
don’t give up
this business—it’ll get better over time
keep singing
from the beginning
starting from scratch and it’s ok
1, 2, 3, ready, be brave

– Carie Juettner

[found poem composed of phrases heard while observing Randy Cantu’s choir class at Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, on September 2, 2016]


(Take a moment this week and thank a teacher!)



Posted in Life, Random, Reading

Podcasts & Coloring Books


I select a purple Sharpie from my mug of markers and hit play on my laptop. The first smooth line of ink coincides with the first notes of music. Then I take a deep breath and color in a teardrop-shaped leaf in this wilderness design, as Aaron Mahnke’s voice fills my ears. The page beneath my pen is from Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, and the story in my speakers is “A Devil on the Roof,” Episode 9 of Lore, a podcast about the facts behind some of our culture’s scariest stories. This is how I’m spending my evening.

Podcasts are new to me. Coloring is not. I loved coloring books as a child, even up into middle school. I still have some of my favorites—The Little Mermaid and She-Ra among them. Coloring was such a peaceful past time. I’ve always been a stay-in-the-lines kind of person (my creativity comes out in other ways) and sitting down at a table with an open coloring book and a box of crayons was such a relaxing experience. We used to keep our assortment of Crayolas in an old metal cookie tin, and I can still remember the smell when I pried open the lid—wax and paper and dust and metal and childhood.

When I got older, I sought that sense of serenity from my youth and sat down with an old coloring book and a box of crayons, hoping to recapture it. But, sadly, it didn’t work. She-Ra was still awesome, but the blocks of space were so large, too open to capture my stress, too simple to keep my attention anymore. I wandered away before the picture was finished.

Instead, I made my own designs. In high school and college, most of my doodles were stick figures and silly cartoons or just stars everywhere in the margins of my notes. But when I became a teacher and had to distract my brain during endless hours of staff development, my doodles changed into shapes I could fill in with patterns and blocks of color. Sometimes, a picture emerged or at least an inkblot-esque form in which I saw meaning. When that happened, I named the doodle.

Top row left to right: Dizzy Somersault, Aristocratic Snail, Whale Dance / Bottom row left to right: Drowning in a Fish Bowl, Plumbing Surprise

When coloring books for adults became popular, I jumped on board immediately. Here was just what I’d been looking for—the serenity of childhood with enough complexity to keep my brain happy. Unlike with my own doodles, the outlines were already done for me, and they were so much cooler than anything I’d scribbled on the back of a fire safety handout.

While the art of coloring is something I’ve always understood, the art of listening is new to me. I mean, I know how to listen. In high school and college, I usually got A’s on tests, even if I doodled in the margins of all of my notes, and when I was a teacher, I knew how to escort my students out of the building in an emergency, despite the elaborate designs on the back of my evacuation map. But that’s when I was a captive audience. Put me in my office or my living room at home and give me words to listen to with no visual, and you won’t be able to recite a Shel Silverstein poem before I’m lost in a book, or writing a story of my own, or traipsing off to do some spontaneous laundry, or snoring on my couch. Left to my own devices, I just can’t seem to focus my ears unless my hands and eyes are also busy.

That’s why I listen to audio books in my car. With my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road and no urge (thank goodness) to fall asleep, I can drive to work, run errands, or sit in traffic with a smile as I check another title off my Goodreads list. Right now, my car companion is Dracula. But due to the age of my car and the battery life of my phone, it’s not easy to listen to digital files while driving, so the podcast bandwagon passed me by. The ones I heard about sounded interesting, but I couldn’t fathom how/where/when to listen.

Then I got two new coloring books for my birthday, and suddenly everything clicked.


Podcasts and coloring books—it’s a match made in heaven. Like Abbott and Costello, or peanut butter and jelly, or holiday decorating while watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, it just works. My hands and eyes are busy creating something simple but beautiful, while my ears are engaged with stories and interviews and ideas.

I’ve tried a few different ones—Dinner Party Download, NPR’s Invisibilia, Nature Podcast. (Of course, I’m biased about that one.) But so far, my favorite is Lore. In just twenty minutes, Aaron Mahnke transports me to another time and place, tells me a creepy story that I constantly doubt, believe, and doubt again, and leaves me feeling both shivery and inspired. The history he shares behind famous hauntings and unexplained phenomena is great fodder for my own horror writing. In Episode #9, “A Devil on the Roof,” he tells the story of the Jersey Devil, a creature with wings, a horse’s head, and two deer-like legs, who was sighted multiple times over the course of a century.

I still read, of course. I still watch TV and interact with other human beings from time to time. But lately, on cold autumn nights, you’re likely to find me sitting by the fireplace with my laptop, a coloring book, and a glass of wine. Tonight it’s another page of Enchanted Forest, a glass of Cabernet, and Episode #10 of Lore, which is about the spirits that haunt the Stanley Hotel. If you’re interested in such things, you should grab a handful of markers and join me.

What’s your favorite podcast? When and where do you listen to it? Share in the comments!

* * *

[Don’t forget—If you comment on my blog posts between now and December 31, 2015, you’ll be entered in my book giveaway!]

Posted in Reading

Listen Up! Some Thoughts on Audio Books


I just recently discovered audio books.

Until now, my only experience with them had been in the classroom when I let the CD (or tapes back in the day) read to my students when I either had a sub or a sore throat. I’d never considered them for myself because A) I’m a paper book, feel the pages beneath my fingers, underline a sentence kind of girl and B) I’m easily distracted when it come to auditory things. I’ve tried listening to podcasts at home, and it goes something like this:

Hmm, this is really interesting… Ooo, look at that funny picture of a cat… Hey good for me, I cleaned out my whole closet! Um, what is that voice coming from my computer? Oh yeah…

Then, a few months ago, I went to the library to check out Pat Barker’s Regeneration for one of my book clubs, and the print copy was in use, but the audio copy was available, so I thought, what the heck. I put the first disc into my car’s CD player and hit play. Since then, I have listened to five audio books, pretty much back-to-back. I’m going to the library tomorrow to get another one.

What’s so great about audio books?

For me, the best thing about audio books is how much they improve every commute, errand, and solo road trip. Although I have trouble paying attention to stories when I’m at home in a room full of distractions, in the car my hands and eyes are occupied. Forced to be still, I can listen. And once I start listening, I really enjoy it.

Now, I look forward to getting in the car. I talk on the phone while driving much less than I used to. And I can easily balance two books at a time because they don’t overlap. One is for home, the other is for driving—there is never a choice to make about which one to read.

Have you heard anything good lately?

Of course, there are drawbacks. One is simply how to talk about them. I tell people that I “read” Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, though it feels a little counterfeit to use that verb. Then again, saying I heard  it or listened to it doesn’t feel quite right either. It gives me the same sensation as hearing someone say they’re going out to see some music or watch a speech.

"Listen... do you smell something?"
“Listen… do you smell something?”

Another problem is not all audio books are not created equal.

For instance, Ann Patchett read Truth and Beauty herself, and it was wonderful. It was nice hearing a memoir in the author’s own voice. The rest of the novels were performed by other people. Jeff Woodman, who read John Green’s Looking For Alaska did an amazing job. Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, both by Pat Barker, were read by Peter Firth, and while he had a great voice, he often emphasized different words in the dialogue than I would have, causing me to have to hear the book twice, as if I were translating it in my head. (When we discussed those novels in my book club, I found that I had a completely different impression of some of the characters than the readers of the print version did.)

That’s not my complaint though. Obviously there is going to be some subjectivity in any reading. What bothered me was the variety of ways in which the CDs were produced.

In Regeneration, every track is roughly three minutes long;, resulting in 16-20 tracks per CD. In Truth and Beauty, there are only four to five long tracks per CD, which makes rewinding difficult. In Looking for Alaska, there are ninety-nine tracks per CD, which is kind of overkill. In Regeneration, the first and last track on each CD is an informative “This ends disc four” type of thing. But Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke do not have those informative tracks. The CD simply starts over at the beginning, which can be very confusing. I’d be driving along thinking, Wait, they’re back in Scotland again? and then realize I was listening to a chapter I’d already heard. Looking for Alaska’s method of dealing with the CD switch is even more bizarre. This weird elevator music starts playing for the last thirty seconds of the CD, and it plays over the words. There are some pretty intense scenes in Looking For Alaska, and some of them do NOT lend themselves to upbeat background music.

I sat in my driveway for fifteen minutes with the car running to hear the end of Looking for Alaska.
I sat in my driveway for fifteen minutes with the car running to hear the end of Looking for Alaska.

So, having become a recent self-proclaimed authority on the subject, I have some advice for audio book producers.

5 Tips for Not Annoying Your Reader/Listener:

  1. Keep tracks to three minutes or less. It makes it much easier for us to get back on track (no pun intended) when we accidentally zone out.
  2. Include a conclusion track at the end of each CD, politely telling us to change the disc.
  3. When a new disc begins, repeat the last sentence or two of the previous disc to help us ease back into the moment.
  4. Ask all performers to read the books exactly the way I would read them. I’m sure that won’t be a problem. They can call me for advice if they need to.
  5. Go ahead and give James Earl Jones, Susan Sarandon, Scarlett Johansson, and Zach Braff a heads up that I’ll be needing their services when I finish my novels because I’m pretty sure no one wants to hear my voice for eight hours.

Of course, the last tip I have about audio books is that you have to choose them carefully. I am still a paper book, feel the pages beneath my fingers, underline a sentence kind of girl at heart, and I do not recommend scribbling notes in journals while driving. When it comes to audio books, choose stories you want to read but don’t want to study. Choose books that will make your commute a pleasurable experience but which will not engross you so much that you zone out and end up twenty miles past your destination. There are books that can do that to you, trust me.