Writing teacher rhapsody

Globe with gold suspended in water

Writing time.

Expectancy painted on their faces.

They know something’s coming,

just not what, yet.

But something.

Ideas.

Their own.

In this moment

I’m just the crossing guard

from the unit 

to the universe.

Ever expanding.

They do not know, yet,

that they’re made 

of the same stuff as the stars.

That the stuff without

is always calling

to the stuff within.

They are children

but not too young to discover

they’re oceans

containing more than simply

water 

and salt.

But I know 

there’s millions of pounds of gold

infinitesimally dispersed

throughout the oceans.

Here is where

those priceless grains 

rise to the surface

take shape

become substance.

Now is when they start spilling

onto the page

to shine

with a light of their own.

The whole of my task

is to stir

release

and be swept away.

A boy and his secret

boy & puppy

Boy and Dog, Adigrat, Ethiopia (cropped). Rod WaddingtonCC BY-SA

One day when I was off campus, the school psychologist sent me a text about a student:

He’s looking for you. He has a secret he wants to tell you.

—Gracious.

I texted back: Tell him I’ll see him first thing tomorrow morning.

The student is my tiny friend who came to our school from another country several years ago. He landed in first grade with no English and a lot of frustration. When I met him that year, he was wearing a Superman T-shirt. I pointed to it and said, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

He smiled.

That’s how our friendship began.

I’ve written before about his perceptiveness, such as how he explained, after his bleak performance on a mandatory reading assessment, that he had Big Spanish while I have Big English. His English continues growing “bigger,” just as he’s growing in stature with each passing year. Although he remains physically small for his age, it’s hard to encapsulate or convey the power of his personality. He has enormous presence. He’s a dynamo. Strong-willed, yet a charmer. Witty.  His thoughts are like quicksilver—always moving, fascinating, alive. He’s a keen observer; when he didn’t understand directions in class, he’d watch what other students did and quickly followed suit.

He tells his teachers: “Mrs. Haley is my friend.” He usually greets me by flying faster than a speeding bullet to throw his arms around me with a joyous cry: “Mrs. Haley!”

Then he asks if we can read or write.

That’s alchemy. When the gold finally appears.

So, as to this big secret he had for me . . .

I’m waiting for him when he gets off the bus. He barrels right to me, face beaming:

“I been looking for you! I have a secret!”

Extricating my midsection from his hug, I bend down. “That’s what I hear! So tell, me, what IS this big secret?”

“Shhh!” he says, in overly dramatic fashion, looking around. What a wonderful stage actor he’d be. He’s larger than life. He beckons me to lean in closer. He whispers: “I got a dog!”

I can’t imagine why this needs to be secretive, but, okay, I’ll honor it. “You did? That’s great! I LOVE dogs. What’s his name?”

He looks me dead in the eye. “Her,” he says. “It’s a girl.”

He has no idea what he’s just done. It’s profound. A sign of how well he’s mastering the language, for pronouns are often terribly challenging for English learners. I want to bask in it indefinitely, but I can’t stall now, I have to respond. Blinking, I stammer: “Oh, um—sorry! What’s her name?”

He looks around to be sure no one can hear, and whispers into my ear:

“Mrs. Haley.”

And then he skips away, grinning from ear to ear, this bit of quicksilver, bright as the blinding winter-white sun above us.

I can barely see for the tears welling in my eyes as he blends into the throng of students going to breakfast. I cannot verify that the story is true—that there’s really a dog, that he really named it after me—but this doesn’t matter. The story is his, either way. Born from his heart.

And he shared it.

A gift of pure gold.

That I’ll carry with me, always.

*******

Previous posts about my inspiring young friend:

Big English

Like Superman

A word for 2019

A friend gave me a treasure box of gifts for Christmas.

One of the items in it was this gilded 2019 planner.

I already have a (rather large) daily planner for mapping out my workdays—I write in pencil because, as I accommodate the teachers I support, the course of each day shifts constantly, and I make lots of notes. Part of living the coachly life. I’ve learned to embrace it.

So I look at this beautiful planner and think: How shall I use it?

I could give it away, except that don’t want to, it was given to me with love, and I have come to understand that things come to us for a reason. There’s a purpose for this little planner.

I look at it, shimmery and new, just like the year itself, lying before me.

Beckoning, almost.

I will use it for something personal, then.

Maybe for my writing. To map out a timeline, to hold myself accountable for completing things. Or perhaps as a bit of a notebook, recording new thoughts and ideas before they get away, before I have the chance to play with them and flesh them out. I could capture images until I have time to explore why they struck me and what they mean. I frequently use the notes app in my phone for this but the planner has more “space” for movement, for expression. Not to mention sketching. I could carry it with me, keep it by my bedside.

Or I might even be able to use the planner as a sort of manuscript style sheet. For I’ve lots of things that need to be written, rewritten, or simply finished.

However I slice it, then, the planner invites me to plan.

And to write.

And there’s my word for 2019.

It’s something I already do, that already defines me, so it seems superfluous, but it’s the word, the action, that calls to me most. With the greatest sense of urgency, tinged with excitement.

—WRITE.

Here’s to your own unique adventure as the golden cover of 2019 opens.

Take it, live it, to the next level.

Treasures await.

And one of them is your story.

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

Atmosphere

By the worktables in the art room at my school is a window, and above that window is a message from the art teacher to her students:

You are my why!

The words draw your eyes as soon as you walk into the room. They convey more than a greeting; they impart a sense of importance, of being wanted, of being cared about. They are a word-hug of welcome, of belonging, of mattering.

I think about how little is in teachers’ control these days, how the art of teaching is increasingly straightjacketed, hijacked. Expectations on top of expectations, a precariously unwieldy, wobbling mountain, stones heaped one by one, Greek thlipsis until a person’s spirit is crushed rather than one’s actual body. I see, hear, and feel this incremental adding of weight in every day interactions with colleagues. Opening lines from the old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind, when the angels, appearing as stars in the cosmos, are talking:

FRANKLIN: A man down on Earth needs our help.

CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?

FRANKLIN: No, worse. He’s discouraged.

—Truth.

A gallery of teacher faces appears in my mind.

Then I see these words on the wall and I think, that’s the breathing room. 

The beginning of atmosphere.

Before learning, before discovering, before creating, before engagement, empowerment, objectives or standards, before all the materials and tools are ever distributed, there’s atmosphere. 

It’s both bigger and smaller than the what of climate and the how of culture. Atmosphere in a classroom still lies wholly within the power of the teacher. It starts as small as the heartbeat of the teacher that keeps showing up to say You are my why.

The heartbeat, the breath, that keeps the entire organism alive.

Today

 

Bubble in reeds

Today … a bubble in the reeds. Claudia DeaCC BY

Today held some rare things.

A teacher said, “Come sit with me while I do my reading groups. I don’t learn by watching but by doing.  Just be there with me and jump in when you see a way I can make them better.”

A third-grader read me his rough draft about experiencing an eclipse, relating his understanding of the science behind it, yet conveying real fear at watching the sun go dark. I sat, listening, in awe of his inspiration, his words.

Another third-grader read her narrative draft to me. How she helps her grandmother to dress and brush her teeth, but not wanting to, wanting instead to go outside and play or watch TV . . . . I sat blinking back tears as she spoke her truths recorded there on the page. She has no idea how powerful this is. How powerful she is. And she’s eight.

I walked down an empty hallway and suddenly heard song—a student coming up the stairs, walking back to class, singing to herself in a vibrato that almost sounded trained. I turned around to see her moving her arms and hands in time with the words. Sign language. I didn’t know she could sing. Or sign.

Had I somehow fallen into a parallel universe, a facet of paradise, maybe, where beauty is multiplied exponentially? Somewhere over the rainbow?

But no, these were only moments in a regular day. Wondrous bubbles against the usual backdrop. Shining, ethereal, iridescent.

And all I really did was show up and listen.

Craftsmanship

When I was growing up, the dessert everyone wanted at holiday gatherings was my mother’s carrot cake.

I used to sit at the table watching her make it, hoping for scrapings of the batter bowl or to sneak a fingerful of icing. The process took forever. Finally the two layer pans went into the oven, and as the cake baked, the fragrance of cinnamon filled the house—an indescribably delicious smell.

Now I make the cake. Over time I’ve come to think mine is almost—almost—as good as hers.

But as much as I love the cake and want to make it, and as much as it stirs the ghost of my childhood self on holidays past, I find myself sighing and almost reluctant as I prepare for it.

Making this cake is a lot of work.

I make it the way my mother did. Peeling the carrots, grating them on the finest side of the grater so that they become a smooth orange pulp, for no carrot bits should be discernible in the cake batter. I know people who use processors or even baby food carrots, and that may work for them . . . but this is where I appreciate the craftsmanship of my mother’s cake.

That word has been in my mind since a recent meeting when facilitators asked fellow educators a guiding question: “What makes high-quality work?” The answers were plentiful: originality or authenticity, clarity of expression or thought, meeting or exceeding a standard or learning goal . . . and craftsmanship.

It takes time to produce something high-quality. There aren’t shortcuts. I think about writing (because I always think about writing). As with making mother’s carrot cake, writing well is a lot of work, hard work. Refining, refining, grating those danged carrots to a pulp so that they’re not even evident in the outcome, yet they’re the foundation of it. Words worked and reworked and restrung until they finally blend into a seamless, cohesive whole. Without hunks of stuff that trips up readers. To become skilled at anything is to work and work and keep working, all the while knowing how these parts and pieces should come together and that in the end, the effort pays off. Craftsmanship means a serious investment of time, effort, and patience.

There’s an aesthetic feature to craftsmanship. The artist labors long for the effect and beauty of the work. The aesthetics of my mother’s carrot cake are its exceptional flavors and textures, the sensory experience of eating it, for on the surface it looks pretty humble. In middle school I had a French teacher native to Greece (another story for another day, trust me) who told the class that Greek desserts look very plain but are incredibly rich and sweet; when she first came to America and saw our wedding cakes, she couldn’t even imagine what such gorgeous things would taste like. “Then I tried one,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Bah! Like cardboard!” Aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, then, allowing for personal preference, but I can say this after having read hundreds of student papers across grade levels: When I find one of high quality, from the first sentence all the way through, it “sings.” It stands out. Not perfect, but flowing, clear, and beautiful. I know time and effort have gone into it, and that the author cared about the work.

And this, I believe, lies at the heart of craftsmanship. Caring. With every carrot I grate, I think about how my family will enjoy this cake, the same way I always have. Their enjoyment, more than my own, keeps me at the task. I even make the frosting like my mother did, blending cream cheese, Blue Bonnet margarine, and powdered sugar. That’s tedious, too. Like with writing, I get tired of it all long before I’m through. But I keep at it, not just to be done, but to do as well as I can, because it’s not only for me. It’s something deeply meaningful to me that I am sharing; I need for it to be as good as I can make it. The only concession I allow myself with the cake is buying chopped pecans for the frosting. When I was a child, I helped my mother crack, shell, and chop the pecans. They came from Granddaddy’s pecan tree.

But that tree is gone, as are so many people I loved long ago. The holidays come round and round again with their particular darkness—less and less daylight, the shadows of memory—but there’s a strength gained in expending strength on behalf of others. Caring means giving. Love means sacrifice. There’s a holiness in such work, a healing . . .

My son walks through the kitchen, puts his empty plate in the sink. He sighs. “That is the best cake.”

—Every carrot worth it.

 

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.