Shimmer of being alive poem

Late September

across the street
the first few spots
of yellow dot the lush green
abundance of trees
despite the searing blueness of sky
and bathwater-saturated
Carolina air

lingering summer

yet in it I feel a tinge
the tiniest tinge
an almost imperceptible
coolness

deep in the wooded shadows
from a sun-patched limb, no doubt,
a lone cicada takes up his rattle
crescendo, decrescendo


they were late arriving this year
but still here

driving to work
along the winding backroads
a darting from the left
two gray squirrels, 
scampering in tandem
right in front of me
on the double yellow lines

I stop for them 
they stop for me

after a moment
of squirrel contemplation
one continues on across
but the other, the other
turns back
with something in its mouth

not an acorn, something hanging
pale-colored
I’ve never seen the likes
but instinctively know:
that’s a baby squirrel

and on I drive, thinking
of the old squirrel twins book
my grandmother read to me
so long ago

and of how I shall read it
to my own granddaughter
arriving in a few short weeks

the morning September sun shimmers
rose-gold in my rearview mirror
like promises steeped in time

I no longer dream of dying
like I did when I was nine
now, in my first tinge of autumn
I dream of new babies born
every night

*******

with thanks to Sarah Donovan at Ethical ELA for the inspiration to write poetry
around moments of knowing “I am alive.”

Question (of literacy) poem

On behalf of children, on Day Twenty-Three of National Poetry Month

Speaking Points (Do They?)

Glowing screen split into
graphs, trendlines, colors
a virtual sea of data
and faces of colleagues floating
with the question:
“You are the literacy person—
what do you think?”

What I think is that
there’s no secret code
or formula
or magic bullet
or any infallible translation
of impersonal little dots
scattered like breadcrumbs
leading to ponderous conclusions
about the beating heart
of a living, breathing child
and so I say,
“I don’t know what I think
until I hear this child read.”

For while the thunder of uncertainty rumbles
and pedagogies rise and fall
like generations
on billowing waves,
I cannot imagine the whole
of my own existence
crammed into little dots
for others to interpret
the magnitude of my story
or divining and defining
the scope of my future
without ever hearing
my voice

Child’s hands at the window. Nenad Stojkovic. CC BY

*******

with thanks to teacher-poet Angie Braaten for the suggestion of writing around “an important question you’ve been asked,” using this format:

Stanza 1: Question

Stanza 2: Answer

Stanza 3: Reflection

Why I Write 2018

Fossil - Aurora

Pterorhytis conradi fossil murex snail shell, Croatan Formation, Lower Pleistocene. James St. JohnCC BY

It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences (B.J. Neblett).

Our experiences are our story. Who we are. And why.

We are, therefore, our stories.

I write to tell mine.

I write because stories lie buried within me. I write to dig them out, to examine them, to find their value.

I write because ideas continually deposit themselves on top of one another like fine sediment in my mind. I am always sifting, sifting, finding the bits with meaning, determining how these random pieces connect to one another, for they surely and always do.

I write because my words will remain when I do not, imprints of my time on Earth. In the summers of my childhood, I walked little country roads covered with rejects from a local phosphate mine, gravel of shell and coral skeleton from epochs as old as Time itself. As my shoes crunched over this gravel I sometimes discovered primeval treasures—sharks’ teeth, whale ear bones, vertebrae—remnants of life gone before, lying there in my own shadow.

I write because I also walk upon all the books, all the words I’ve read in my lifetime. Within these layers upon layers of ever-deepening strata, too, lie treasures: phrases, emotions, images—again, remnants of life gone before, stowed away in the depths of my mind like the fossil bits in my childhood pockets. I carry with me always the impressions of other writers, the echo of their voices.

I write because I hear the echo of shoes scurrying in hallways, young voices calling my name: When I stop and turn, the children are there, eyes bright, faces glowing, asking a breathless question: “When are you coming to write with us again?”

I write to help them find their own treasures within, because their voices, their experiences, their stories matter; their existence matters, and they need to know it.

I write to preserve. To leave a record of those I’ve loved who’ve gone before, to celebrate those living and loving now. To share little fragments of hope, of peace, of pressing on, of rising above. My stories are my fossils, with or without value to the few who find them. No matter. They have immense value to me while I live them. They are my writing identity. My human identity.

I write because humans think and remember in story, because humanity is defined and connected by story. The sum total of our shared experience.

I am a storyteller.

And so I write.

*******

Another writing celebration: This is my 200th post published on Lit Bits and Pieces.

 

Stone speaks

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Author Nic Stone shares her passion and insight with teachers.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could while Nic Stone spoke to the gathering of teachers yesterday.

Stone is the author of the young adult novel Dear Martin. She’s straightforward, funny, warm, and passionate about reading and writing. The teachers are K-12 cross-curricular educators from across my district who’ve chosen to attend our second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute—an entire week dedicated to growing as writers and teachers of writing. As a co-facilitator of this event, I sat in the back of the room for the panoramic view: The writing guru, seated comfortably on a tabletop, delivering her wisdom to the crowd who eagerly awaited.

Here are my favorite words of Stone:

“Literacy is about collaboration. Reading and writing are collaborative efforts. We have to be able to talk to each other.”

“I wanted to write from an early age but it took me until age twenty-eight to really try . . .  finding your voice is validating yourself and what you think and feel . . . READ what makes you think and feel.”

“Write for yourself first.”

“The beauty of writing is that it is always in your head.”

“You don’t have to write every day, but you have to develop the habit of writing.”

“Writing is solitary. Storytelling is collaborative.”

“Schools with the highest reading and writing successes are those where students have freedom to choose what they want to read and write about. Kids see each other doing it.”

“These are conversations you should be having in your buildings: Why do standards exist? What does it mean to be literate?”

“That you keep on doing the work without answers . . . that shows your amazing strength.”

“There’s no room for being wrong in American schools. Kids need to know it’s okay to fumble; it’s how they learn  . . . they need a soft place to land.”

“Reading and writing can unpack fears.”

“There’s no better way to help students find their power, their agency, their validity as human beings, than in the beauty of books, in words, in writing.”

“The thing about research is how one thing leads you to another. Everything connects. Reading and writing are all about connecting. Our connecting to the world around us, our connecting to each other.”

“Emphasize the fun in research.”

“For authentic writing, voice is more important than grammar. Let students drop commas, play with punctuation, write run-ons, fragments . . . tell them they have to know the rules before they’re allowed to break them.”

“All first drafts are garbage. They’re supposed to be.”

“Do yourself and the kids a favor: Don’t grade first drafts. Assign a date to have students finish them. They’ll have a sense of accomplishment in just finishing. Then after a couple of days, have them go back and revise.”

“I finish writing a draft before I revise, or I’d never finish.”

“Do what’s best for you to get your work on the page . . . it’s just not in the first draft.”

“Your writing doesn’t have to be be good to get an agent. It has to be good to get an editor.

“Always be working on something else. Always.”

“I’m amazed at the compassion I’ve developed just from writing books.”

“Writing is my life. I can’t not do it.”

Stone opened and closed our time together with three-minute timed free writes; the closing prompt: Now that this mess is over, I feel . . . 

My final lines in response, in my journal: I feel validated in so many ways, as teacher, writer, human spirit.

For all of these connect.

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Kindred spirits: My co-facilitators and I with Nic Stone.

*******

See my post Write me for more background on the Summer Teacher Writing Institute and the value of teachers as writers.

Snow day GIF documentary

If you work in education—in central North Carolina, anyway— you know that the merest rumor of snowflakes sends people into a frenzy. Mostly because 1) We must go buy bread and water in vast quantities, or at least the necessary ingredients to make big pots of chili; and 2) We want to be home quickly, because we really don’t know how to drive in this stuff.

Just to be safe, systems dismiss early, sometimes before any flakes fall.

Such was the case yesterday. The masses went home to stay glued to weather reports and social media, all the while asking: When will the snow start? How much will we get?

And the question of all questions: WILL SCHOOL BE CANCELED TOMORROW?

So, as a few flakes dropped in various areas, but not in others, as the evening wore on, the waiting intensified.

I amused myself by reading tweets to the school district about when a decision would be made about school closings. Many had GIFS such as these:

Dumbledore.gif

tenor.gif

Those, by the way, were sent by staff. Not students!

Then the announcement came: There were, in fact, enough snowflakes to cancel school today!

Someone tweeted this as the parent reaction across the district:

John Ritter.gif

Poor parents! And poor John Ritter, for that matter . . . is anyone else out there astonished that this will make fifteen years since he died?

By and large, however, there were hundreds of celebratory tweets from students with variations of GIFs such as this:

Peanuts

Many of those tweets said something like: “THANK YOU! You saved me and my grades!”

Okay . . . that really begs more investigation as to exactly how one snow day can save a GPA . . . and why grades are the whole emphasis of education . . .

Then there was this cheery admonishment from the school system: “Everyone stay safe! Kids, don’t forget to read!”

Truly warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Except for a long thread of student responses like this:

“Don’t expect us to read, though.”

Reading that sentiment was, to me, like being impaled by a jagged icicle. My reaction:

Why.gif

Why do the kids hate reading so much? When they say “reading,” what do they actually mean? After all, they text constantly, they’re a huge presence in social media, and their choices of graphics to communicate feelings are both entertaining and dead-on. Today’s average student is quite literate, digitally.

I think—I shiver as I say this—that the aversion is to reading books. Whether it’s actual books or those on a screen is a moot point. My question is: How have we, educators, failed on such an epic scale to promote a love of reading, to the point that our students, especially those who NEED to read more, view it as such a hateful chore? As long as they feel this way, when will our students ever, hopefully, pick up a book that they simply want to read?

The year is young; there’s no time like the present. Snow days are ideal for thinking of ways to revamp instruction to help the kids get excited about books and develop a love—or at least a very strong like—of reading. Will they all? Truthfully, probably not. But that’s no excuse for not striving for something far better on their behalf:

Books are great.gif

Harry Potter and the Banned Books

Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will all tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in cultures such as ours, is that story, in whatever form, is meant to instruct and change us.

-John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s been appearing on banned book lists for as long, regularly condemned for promoting witchcraft and satanism. I knew of the controversy long before I read the series – to be honest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a fifth-grade classroom for the first time about fifteen years ago, read the first couple of pages, and wasn’t especially gripped either way. Not until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was about to be released did I take the real plunge. I had attended a conference with a group of children’s lit MFA candidates, who described the coming of the final book and their anticipation of it with eyes gleaming like those of beatified saints:

“I ordered it and when it’s delivered, I am going to lock myself in the bedroom – I told my family not to bother me, I am going to be reading this book, and I need to be left alone.”

I swear I saw tears shimmering in their wide eyes.

So, with a just month to go before the release date, I read all six preceding books, even went to Barnes and Noble to get my own copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight on the release date.

In short: The books are magical, all right, but not in the sense of spells, wands, sorcery. These appear in the books but aren’t the real draw, are not what the books are really about. The draw – the thing that puts the gleam in the diehard fan’s eye – is caring about the characters, the needing to know what’s going to happen to them. The age-old theme of good versus evil, making choices to preserve life or to destroy it. The big umbrella from which the stories hang is love – think of why Voldemort really cannot win in the end.

What we take away from the Potter books is that as long as as there is love, there’s hope. A young boy with a lot of hard knocks in his early life is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. He’s successful, and because he is, in his not-exactly-perfect-hero example, we know we can be, too. After all, he’s just a child.

The books don’t entice children to practice magic; they entice readers to be their better selves, to strive, to overcome darkness within and without.

I was an avid reader ever since I can remember. Every summer when I stayed with my grandmother in the far, coastal reaches of North Carolina, she took me to the tiny, dusty county library. I checked out stacks of books, more than I could carry by myself – Grandma had to help. One year I saw a title that compelled me. I had heard about the movie,  that people at my church said it was really bad; I knew people were afraid of it. Naturally, it piqued my interest. I put the book in my stack and, wonder of wonders, Grandma didn’t notice, or I surely wouldn’t have been allowed to have it.

That book was The Exorcist.

It was well beyond my developmental level, to say the least, and it was the first cover I opened when I got back to Grandma’s house. After maybe four minutes of attempting to decode words with multisyllabic chunking, before I even knew that was a real strategy, I was horrified by the images I could and did glean. I closed the cover and hid the book from my sight, fervently wishing I could just leave it outside until the return trip to the library.

I was maybe ten years old.

What I learned at that young age is that you have to be your own judge.

This is something that Harry does exceedingly well.

Every book that we read changes us; we take away some learning, some new thinking, some depth of emotion. Agreeing or disagreeing with the content, our given tastes in that regard, are not primary considerations – our freedom to decide is. We must be careful of what we are advocating – for, if a book containing stories of magic, sorcery, and evil acts should be banned, then that includes the Bible itself.

 

 

 

Big English

Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. – J.K. Rowling

He finishes his reading assessment and peers over at my screen where all the words are marked red.

I had to tell him every one of them.

He’s only been in this country for a year.

He is tiny, but his dark eyes are bright, intense. They catch and perceive everything. I can tell.

He considers all the red on the screen, then turns those knowing eyes on me.

Before I can say, “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll learn,” he reaches over to pat my arm.

“You,” he says. “You have big English.”

He pats his own chest. “Me, little English. I have big Spanish.”

I point to myself, to finish his thought: “Me, I have poco Spanish.”

He grins at me, and I smile back.

We understand each other in a way beyond words. We are okay, in perfect company, because of this wordless knowing between us. No assessment invented by man can capture the height, the depth, the strength of the human spirit. There is no real reason why trust should suddenly be born in such a moment, but it clearly has been.

“I tell you what,” I say to my tiny new friend, for that is what he is now, “I will help you with English and you can help me with Spanish.”

His grin broadens. His eyes shine.

I hold up my hand: “Deal?”

He laughs, slaps my hand with his own. “Deal.”

And he vacates the chair beside me, going off for the rest of his school day in a sea of Big English. Like a salmon, he has a hard battle, upstream all the way.

I expect he’ll swim, rise, leap – I see it in his eyes, sense it in his spirit.

I wonder what the future holds for him. Something of great importance, great value – I can feel it tugging.

Whatever part I can play, let me play it.

Let the magic begin.

Lit happens

Lit happens

I saw the T-shirt on display behind the register of my local indie bookstore, as I succumbed, yet again, to rampant bibliophilia.

Lit happens. 

Had to have it.

Oh yes, there was one in my size, in blue. The store owner smiled as she added it to my total. “I can order it in red for you, too. I tell people the color stands for being well-read.”

Irresistible.

As I returned to the store to pick up the red Lit happens T-shirt, I thought about literary people being well-read. Bibliophiles. Bookworms. I thought about the shirt my aunt made for me decades ago, with iron-on letters spelling Bookworm: “Because you always have your nose in a book,” she’d grinned.

I turned the the idea of lit happens around in my mind, from being well-read to learning how to read: Literacy happens.

How?

How does literacy really happen?

Research immediately tried to crowd my head, for a big part of my bibliophilia is professional. My shelves at school and at home are lined, overflowing, in fact, with books on growing readers and writers – how to teach, assess, reinforce. Every bit of it is powerful.

But I pushed the research back for a little breathing room, to think about my own path to literacy. How did I become literate?

It’s anything but strategic or elaborate.

Sure, my grandmother read to me from the time I can remember – the same books, over and over, until I could anticipate and recite the words before she read them aloud. I didn’t ever think of my parents as readers – they were big TV watchers – but I do have a memory of my mother reading “Sleeping Beauty” aloud to me, deliberately changing the name to “Beeping Sleauty.”

“No no no!” I am laughing hard. “Her name is SLEEPING BEAUTY.”

“Oh, that’s right,” says my mother, turning the page. “Let’s see if the prince uses his sword to cut through the thorns to find Beeping Sleauty.”

The sound of the transposed name is hilarious; I dissolve with laughter. My mother begins giggling, which means we will be laughing for a while – her cackling is utterly infectious.

It was wordplay, not word work – not intentional, just being silly.

So much fun.

My parents had one bookshelf in the living room, containing a set of encyclopedias, (including, oddly, medical encyclopedias, maybe thrown in with the purchase of the standard set), old dictionaries, high school yearbooks, an avocado green Living Bible, and a set of children’s literature anthologies, Through Golden Windows, by Grolier. The book titles: Mostly Magic, Fun and Fantasy, Wonderful Things Happen, Adventures Here and There, Good Times Together, Children Everywhere, Stories of Early America, American Backgrounds, Wide, Wonderful World, Man and His World. 

These anthologies contained a multitude of classic stories and authors; I read some of them over and over while eating my breakfast cereal until the covers were grimy with use, particularly Mostly Magic. In these books I first encountered Medio Pollito, the little half-chick, Little One-Eye, Little Two-Eyes, and Little Three-Eyes, Tom Sawyer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Daniel Boone, Robin Hood, and so much more.

An excerpt from the dedication page of Through Golden Windows:

What can books give to a child that is growing up in today’s curiously complicated world? Many things, we believe, although the evidence is not altogether conclusive. Facts and information, of course, about almost everything; understanding of himself and others; confidence and security; fun and laughter; friends and friendships; escape from reality at times – all these are the possible results if the right book is used with the right child in the right way.

But suppose the right book is not available? … Or suppose parents and teachers do not know the right book? Many, by their own admission, do not know children’s books well. Must the child’s values in reading be left to chance, while he struggles with everyday problems, or grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book?

That was written in the “curiously complicated world” of 1958. Well before I was born. Thirty years before the World Wide Web. Before much of the educational research lining my shelves was begun.

What strikes me are the words “grows up without feeling the full rapture of a good book.”

That, I believe, is where the path to literacy lies, in getting that first taste of rapture from a book. The right book mentioned by the Grolier editor in 1958 isn’t a “just-right” book referenced in reading education today, one that is leveled, that a child can read without too much difficulty. The right book could actually be a magazine or blog or site. The right book always was, and always will be, one in which the reader immerses so that the word “reading” doesn’t even seem to fit the process of pursuit, the wanting more, the needing to know, the absorption of the ideas and images, the stepping out of self.

Note that I didn’t mention school in my early path to literacy – for the bulk of the literate life occurs outside of school. Many of my friends and teaching colleagues say that they didn’t enjoy reading until they were grown. That’s an awfully long wait for the full rapture.

When the words become more than words, when they become the window, the gateway, to all that lies beyond what one can immediately see, arousing a driving desire to get through and drink it all in – that’s the rapture.

Lit happening.

Through Golden Windows

Fintervention 

​Last week our black goldfish, Kicker, indicated a desperate need for help.

It was pretty obvious. One day he was floating at the top of the tank, unable to swim. Still very much alive, he seemed trapped at the surface of the water. After a day or two of this, I wondered what, if anything, could be done.

I researched the condition: Swim bladder disorder. Kicker has all the symptoms.

I applied the recommended solution: Feeding him cooked, skinned green peas (I wonder who discovered this and how?).

Problems ensued. Most of the green pea chunks that I tried to feed Kicker either came apart or sank too quickly, before he could get to them; although Kicker can move, it’s limited. He has great trouble maneuvering and navigating. I watched with increasing concern – how long can a tiny, ailing fish last in this suspended state?

I did more research. One site recommended putting the green pea chunks on a toothpick.

Voila!

As you can see in the video clip, it worked.

Each day I am able to make sure Kicker eats his peas. He sees me coming and excitedly tries to meet me, paddling himself backwards, sideways, upside down, whatever way he can, to get his sustenance.

Kicker’s still kicking, but he’s not well yet.

Another layer of intervention is needed, apparently.

I can’t help but think of all the children who struggle with reading.

Very quickly, their needs become obvious – these readers cannot keep pace or go deep like their classmates. The reasons are varied and must be explored; a diagnosis must be made, an approach must be developed. Research-based strategies that worked for others can be employed, but time is of the essence – is it working or isn’t it? Is the child making progress or not? How long can a child float at the surface in such a suspended state before the condition worsens? What are the long-term ramifications? What else can be tried for the sake of the child, whose future is at stake?

To not do anything is to . . . well, in Kicker’s case, it’s to watch him die.

When I first started teaching, a well-respected teacher told me, “You can’t save them all.”

Those remain some of the most chilling words I’ve ever heard.

What if that was my child?

Would I not do everything in my power, seeking the advice of others, hunting down books on interventions and overturning every virtual stone in cyberspace, to find answers? Would I not TRY?

As I write, Kicker watches me from his tank. He’s waiting for me, for whatever help I can give him. When I go to him, he will meet me and do the best that he can. I will try another research-based strategy today, as I don’t know when his window of time will close.

We owe the children no less.

 

If you’d like to read Part One of Kicker’s saga: Flipover

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The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

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