Living literacy

Every year, my school hosts Literacy Lunch.

It is a time for families to come share in the love of reading, writing, and learning in classrooms, followed by a meal together in our cafeteria.

Literacy Lunch has sometimes been a vehicle for explaining English Language Arts curriculum, and shifts in standards, to parents. Mostly it’s a time for students and their families to collaborate on literacy activities. We’ve had poetry slams, writing cafés, and a “Step Write Up” carnival. We’ve invited families to SWiRL (speak, write, read, listen) and we’ve gone “wild” about reading (with the school decorated like a rainforest). 

Even though it’s hosted in the middle of the day, Literacy Lunch remains one of our school’s best-attended events. Three days are designated: One for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third, one for fourth and fifth. Some families come all three days to spend time with their children in different grade levels.

The comment we receive most often from parents: Thank you for this time with my child.

It tugs on the heartstrings, for a parent to tell you this.

When it came time to think of a theme for Literacy Lunch this year, part of my mind kept latching onto the idea of celebrating families themselves. They are, after all, the fabric of our school community, the thing that makes it unique. They are our greatest resource.

Then, in February, Two Writing Teachers ran a blog series on “Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens.” Co-author Kelsey Corter penned “A School Can Be the Change”, a breathtaking post on identity, culture, heritage, power, action, and the vital importance of honoring each other by sharing our stories. It was based on her school’s work and the book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed.

I read these introductory lines of Kelsey’s over and over:

More than something we do, school can be the place where literacy is a way of living; a means for understanding the world and our place in it, that which shapes perceptions and molds identities.

The words turned round and round in my head:

Where literacy is a way of living

Literacy . . . living

—Living literacy.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced to my colleagues. “That’s my vote for the theme of this year’s Literacy Lunch.”

For, in truth, while the children  are growing as readers and writers, their stories, all of our stories, are unfolding each day that we live; our families are a fundamental part of that. Every one is unique, every one valuable.

And so it was agreed upon, and the children got to work on Living Literacy: Celebrating Me in Pictures and Words.

It began with them tracing their hands to make flowers, one for each homeroom—a whole garden of beautiful, diverse flowers.

In our lobby and cafeteria, every homeroom was represented by a flower made from students’ traced and decorated hands. Many students artistically conveyed their personal interests – such as hobbies or a favorite book, like Amal Unbound, seen here. Some students across grade levels decorated their hands with flags from their native countries. 

Teachers and grade levels planned identity-related activities for students to share with families:

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Student bios with 3D photos hang from the ceiling of a first-grade classroom.

Many families helped compose student name acronyms. 

In an “All About Me” book, a first grader describes herself.

A kindergarten class asked parents, teachers, and peers for words to describe students. They created camera snapshot posters for a “Picture Me Successful” display (“Drinks a lot of water” may be my favorite descriptor of all! Talk about being observers!).

In third grade, students made booklets of various types of poems and collaborated with families in writing some.

One first grade class published a book of their animal research, with a back section recounting highlights of their year together. These books were presented to families at Literacy Lunch.

Even our tabletop flowers in the lobby and cafeteria were handmade by students.

Second grade families collaborating on “I Am From” poems. 

Fourth grade families collaborated on a “Books are windows and mirrors” activity – analyzing book characters, seeing others, seeing self.

Fourth grade’s hallway display: “My ideas can change the world.”

Fifth graders show families how to create name/identity word clouds in new Chromebooks.

This photo, to me, captures the “Living Literacy” theme almost more than others: Parents recording second graders as they perform a song and dance demonstrating their learning from the study of butterfly life cycles (they also integrated math and visual art). I look at this and I think: WE are living literacy. 

At tables in the cafeteria, families were encouraged to write notes to each other. 

We write when it’s meaningful to us (I hope Mommy is okay, too).

A few notes of feedback from parents

They came. They celebrated. Another Literacy Lunch has drawn to its close – this seemed to be the best note on which to end.

Many thanks to my colleagues for this annual collaborative effort. 

To our families: THANK YOU for coming, for sharing, for being a vital part of the story we live each day. Be happy. Hug. Have fun. Inspire. Love. Sing.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for the ever-flowing wellspring of inspiration, from which I drew the idea for this year’s theme.

My cup runneth over.

The journey

I write this final post of The Slice of Life Story Challenge from the passenger seat of my son’s car as we return home from an impromptu vacation.

This weekend’s weather forecast: Sunny skies, upper seventies—how could spring fever NOT strike?

“Let’s go to Busch Gardens,” said my son. “It would be good to get away and just have fun for a while.”

He didn’t have to say it twice.

Off to Williamsburg we went.

The area is home to me. I grew up going to this park, am still a diehard roller coaster fan. I expected just to have fun spending time with my youngest in the glorious, inviting weather.

—While trying to think of TWO MORE POSTS to write in this thirty-one day challenge.

We arrived Friday evening and decided to walk colonial Williamsburg in the dark. Mostly because we never have before, so why not?

Naturally one thinks of ghosts. In fact, several ghost tours seemed to be in progress. Guides carried lanterns, told stories in hushed tones to huddled groups of tourists. Once or twice, as my son and I passed the little closed shops with their wordless, pictorial trade signs hanging out front, or little wooden gates slightly ajar, with paths leading through herb and flower gardens, or caught a pretty strong whiff of horse and stable in spots, it seemed we were eerily straddling Time. One foot in Now, the other in centuries past. A shivery, delicious feeling.

And those lanterns carried by the guides—Reminds me of Pa-Pa’s lantern. I just wrote about it.

Eventually my boy and I checked into our hotel room where the decor was, of course, in keeping with the colonial theme. On the wall by my bed hung this picture:

—The Continental Army! I have just been writing about them.

I felt a slight prickling on the back of my neck, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I crawled into the high colonial bed and typed the whole of yesterday’s post—on memory and being present in now and writing and my father—on my phone, before falling fast asleep.

I woke this morning to a day tailor-made for adventure, exploring, celebrating. As beautiful as a day can get. My son and I made our roller coaster circuit at the park, where flowers were riotous beds of color by the walkways and the sweet fragrance of fresh mulch stirred in me, as always, some nameless desire. I do not know what or why. Something so organic, clean, nurturing . . . .

My son asked at lunch: “What are you going to write after this March post challenge is over?”

I told him my ideas, many ideas. He listened with rapt attention.

“Do it, Mom. Do all of it.”

We finished our lunch, began another round of rides, when I caught sight of this:

“I JUST WROTE ABOUT SEEING AN EAGLE!” I exclaimed.

Passersby looked at me oddly.

My son laughed. “I know. The one by the road that flew away before you could get a picture. Well—now you can.”

There’s something in all this, I think, as I get my eagle photo. I don’t know what, but something.

We leave the park with one last stop to make.

My son wants to visit his grandparents’ graves.

Both sides are buried in the same veterans’ cemetery. We spend a few moments at each.

The last, my father.

Wrote about you last night, Daddy. Remember when I broke my arm in fourth grade and you brought my old doll to the orthopedist’s office? I could see it all like it just happened yesterday.

It occurs to me then that I’ve also just written about my house finches returning, generation after generation, to build their nest again on my front door wreath, a post I called “The Homecoming.” Like the finches, the next generation and I have just returned to the place where those before us carved out and sustained life. Where they now rest from all their labors.

—The baby finches, I should add, that my son and I named Brian, Dennis, and Carl after the Beach Boys, my musical son’s current passion. On this trip we’ve listened to their songs all the way up and all the way back, and as I write these very words, what should be playing in the background but “Sloop John B”:

Let me go home, let me go home
I want to go home, let me go home

“You know,” I say to my son, as daylight fades into night with just a few more miles until we really are at home, “this was a great tripI am almost finished with the last post and can’t help thinking how these two days were like some weird recap of all I’ve written this month.  Almost like that old, old, TV show, This Is Your Life—except that it would be called This Is Your Writing Life.” 

“That’s how life is, Mom. So weird, sometimes.”

“Well, that’s basically why I write in the first place. To interpret life.”

I think for a moment, then add: “And because I am deeply grateful for it.”

—We are home. I need to check on Brian, Dennis, and Carl before going to bed:

—All snug. Goodnight, little songbirds. 

They will be here so short a time; soon they’ll fly—OH!

I failed to mention that I got a “Happy Blog Anniversary” notification from WordPress that thanked me for “flying with them.”

Lit Bits and Pieces is three years old.

Three happens to be a number signifying completeness. Interesting to contemplate as the daily Slice of Life Story Challenge ends with this post.

I think of my fellow Slice bloggers, friends, fellow sojourners, how we all gathered at Two Writing Teachers for just a little while each day.

Now we fly on.

But that’s only the end of this journey. The end of a thing is only the beginning of another.

—Write on, writers. Keep tasting life, exploring the meaning of your days.

Keep spreading your wings.

Fly high.

And far.

Blanket

I am more tired than I realized.

I wake up early every day, around 3:30. Not intentionally; I just do. Instead of lying awake or drowsing for another couple of hours, I get up and write. It’s the perfect time, before my menfolk and canines begin to stir.

My early mornings are a logical reason to be tired.

And spring break is still a week away. The last mile is always the hardest . . . .

And I am twenty-five days into a thirty-one day writing streak, the Slice of Life Story Challenge, which requires an extreme level of thought-immersion and attention to the minutiae around me (everything is a writable moment). My receptors must be wide-open all the time. This, however, is a good kind of tired. Even though I am mentally composing while I’m sleeping.

And I am fighting an allergy or a cold; I feel it lurking around my edges. My boys, when they were small, used to say, “I am catching up to a cold.”

And it’s been a long winter. There may be a few snowflakes tonight. Spring hasn’t fully sprung. There’s still a lot of darkness.

And my family marks a year of losing loved ones, young and old, sudden and by inches with dementia. My husband, his sister, and I need to finish cleaning out their mother’s house.

The dogs, knowing I’m the mom of everything, trail my every step. Henry wriggles like a worm, with an insatiable need for pats, for attention, and even poor old Nikolaus, his eyes like clear marbles full of misty clouds, is still able to scamper behind me in hopes of a treat.

And so, I’m tired.

Yesterday, being Saturday, I did something I almost never do:

I finished my post and went back to bed.

My husband, who’s now been up for a short while, reading in the study, comes looking. “Oh, you’re back in bed?”

“Just for a little while,” I say.

“Okay.” He closes the door.

I pull the blankets up to my chin. So cozy. I drowse. I hear bits of blog posts echoing in my brain.

The door opens. Older son. Henry’s so-called “dad.”

“Are you sick, Mom?”

“No. Just resting.”

“Oh, okay.” He goes to fix his breakfast. He loves a big breakfast. His brother won’t eat until lunchtime.

Snuffling outside the door. Henry. He usually begins to grumble-half-whine to come in and snuggle to me, or to sleep on my bed if I am getting ready for work. Today he must sense something. He goes away. Unusual.

Distant clanking in the kitchen. Muffled voices. Footsteps in the hallway.

The door opens. Younger son, Cadillac Man.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Just resting.”

“Okay. Lowees.” This is how he first said ‘I love you’ when he was a baby. Lowees. It immediately became part of the family lexicon. We all say it to each other. His father reminds me again and again that Cadillac Baby said it to him first.

“Lowees,” I say.

I can’t stay here long. None of them will be able to take it. There’s too much to do, anyway. There are places to be.

But I pull the covers partway over my head, sinking into the warmth, the softness, savoring the moment, grateful for the web of words knitting itself from random scraps in my mind, for the abiding blanket of love wrapped over and around my life.

Cadillac man shares his writing!

A few days ago, I wrote about my son, the Cadillac man. I call him this for his lifelong love of the brand, especially his grandfather’s 1989 Sedan de Ville, which was bequeathed to him. I wrote how the Cadillac man hates writing and only did what was necessary all through school, to my despair.

Sometimes the smallest things shift the universe in mighty ways. During my month-long daily Slice of Life Story Challenge, Cadillac man read my blog post from our dog Henry’s perspective and was inspired, for the first time in his twenty years, to write a story.

“I wonder,” he said, “if I can write a post from Nik’s perspective. To see if I can actually do it.” 

He DID do it.

Then he said, of his own volition (wonders never cease!), “Mom, you can put it on your blog if you want to.”

Here’s what you need to know: Nik is our very old dachshund. We got him as a puppy when Cadillac man was only four. The old man in this story is my husband (“WHAT?” my husband howls with laughter—he’s loud, all right—”Old man? Really?”). The boys are Cadillac man and his big brother. Then there’s me.

Note the recurrence of Darkness. Cadillac man says to tell you that for Nik, “the Darkness” is being confined to a crate, the worst thing of all to him. The “something wrong” is my husband’s diagnosis of ocular melanoma two years ago, resulting in the loss of his eye. 

Today, I celebrate my son’s writing. Again I say: When you finally show up for the writing, the writing shows up for you, and gets you through. 

Published with permission from Cadillac man:

Nik’s Perspective

“Nikolaus, get back on your bed!”

The old man was screaming again. This was nothing unusual. He always seemed to be screaming at something. Whether it was at the people in the glowing window, or in the box he holds to his head, he screamed at everything. I don’t even think he’s angry most of the time; he just seems to be perpetually screaming.

The difference now is that I can barely hear it.

In January, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. Sixteen years of life, celebrated in one short day.

When I was born, the first Human I had was an elderly lady, not much older than me in human years now. I don’t remember much about her, but I remember the Darkness. The closed-in Darkness that haunts me to this day. I still have to endure it occasionally, but it’s nothing like it was. The Darkness was always there; it enveloped me and I couldn’t leave it until the mesh door was opened, and back then it was only open for eats.

My first vivid memory was when I met them. The loud old man, the (then) teenager, the (then) toddler, and her. Oh, how I loved her. She always filled my bowl just right, she always gave the treats I loved, and she was the warmest lap to nap on. She was also the one who took me to the white place, which was almost as bad as the Darkness. The white place was where these humans poked and prodded me and gave me the needle. But if I was a good boy, which I always was, she, the teenager, or the toddler would give me a treat.

Most of my time was spent with the two He’s, the teenager and the toddler. I vividly remember nights spent curled up in their arms. Those were the warmest places. I felt safe there. I’ve seen the teenager grow into a man, leave the home, make a life for himself, and come back. And I saw the toddler grow into his 20s. I saw him through every hardship, every death, every break-up, and every victory. I remember his long sleepless nights as he stayed awake holding me for warmth, as I am a very warm dog. I remember the sudden screaming at night that would scare me to death at first, but I got used to it and eventually learned how to wake him up when it happened.

I remember all the other associates I had over the years. Some left to find other families, and some left when their time down here was no more. There was Duke, the tough yellow one with whom I worked the first six years of my life, until heartworms took him way too soon. There was Toby, who came after Duke, who was a bit older than me. He was a great partner until he just didn’t wake up one morning. There was Phoebe, Godiva, Tex (I’m not convinced he was even a real creature of this earth). There was Natalie, whose tenure here was ended after an altercation left me with a bloody nose.

Then came the dark day. I don’t understand exactly what it was; perhaps I never will. All I remember was the loud old man coming home, looking defeated and unsure. I remember being in the big room with the glowing window, which wasn’t glowing at that time. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but suddenly the whole room fell completely dark, like the Darkness had gotten control of the Humans. I knew there had to be something wrong with the old man. I had never really liked him. He was loud and scary. But I knew I had to do the right thing. I spent that whole day curled up next to him, which I rarely did. He seemed so calm and so quiet that it worried me.

The old man is back to his old self again, with the exception that I don’t think he can see very well anymore. But for that matter, neither can I.

My only way of finding out where I am or who I’m with is by smelling. I can’t find my bowl on my own anymore, but every morning they still fill it just right, and I eat every bite. I can’t walk up the steps to the room where I sleep, but the toddler-now-20-year-old still carries me up there every night. There are two other associates who do most of the comfort and protection work for me. There’s Banjo, the loud boisterous one who stays outside and protects from intruders, and Henry, who stays inside with me and tries his best to make me stay in my bed, even if it gets on my nerves. They both will carry my torch of comfort and protection long after I’m gone, I have no doubt. The Humans are in good hands with these two.

These humans were my life. I spent years as their comforter, their walking partner, their protector, and their friend. They saved me from the Darkness that could’ve endured my entire life. And as I sit here, just waiting, all I can hope for is that I saved them from their Darkness, too.

-Nikolaus Haley, expert red dachshund

March (writing) madness

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I’ve just noticed how much the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life badge resembles a basketball.

I find this coincidence captivating, as today kicks off a special season of challenge for both: a month-long daily writing commitment and March Madness.

Bracket predictions are not my thing, but writing is, so I am fondly dubbing these thirty-one days March Writing Madness.

Truthfully, it’s almost madness for me to write a blog post every single day in March. A quality post, that is. I can’t share something until I feel I’ve hammered it into the best possible shape, and in a normal week, that comes to just a post or two. This daily venture is daunting. It’s expensive. I know what the Slice of Life commitment is going to cost me in time and energy. Sacrifices will be required.

But, oh, the payoff . . .

First things first: I started Lit Bits and Pieces in March 2016 as a means of stretching myself as a writer. As much as I enjoy teaching writing and coaching teachers of writing, I recognized the hypocrisy of encouraging others to write consistently if I wasn’t doing so myself. I needed to walk the walk . . . and so this blog was born. I set only two goals in the beginning: To write about whatever comes to mind and to make it uplifting to readers.

In the two years since, the blog has become a life-library for me.

I’ve relived childhood moments; I’ve explored the mysterious; I’ve turned events and things around in my mind, finding connections and analyzing meanings; I’ve tinkered with poetry, flirted with fiction, and captured precious, priceless experiences with students, colleagues, family members, and friends.

I knew when I signed up for last year’s Slice of Life Challenge—my first—that I would be pushing myself even harder, further, as writer. That was expected, desired.

The unexpected, greater payoff: My fellow Slicers. People whose powerful words kept my momentum going when I was almost out of steam, who valued what I wrote, who encouraged me to a degree that I can’t adequately convey. People to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and the honor of encouraging in return . . .

What a difference a month and a writing community make.

While the March Madness basketball tournament is about eliminating the competition (hence those NCAA bracketeers), the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge is about cheering each other on to the very end, so that all are victorious.

Today, as I take my place in the line-up, I celebrate you, Slicers, extraordinary individuals that you are, every one of you a champion, in this arena where the joy you get is also the joy you give.

That’s the buzzer, friends . . . time to write like mad.

 

Three cheers

Candles

Three is a magic number. Alan LevineCC BY

I love the sound of chimes.

I always have.

There’s something magic in those ethereal tones, something stirring, uplifting, echoing the fairy world, whispering of good things and better yet to come, hinting at happily-ever-afters. Perhaps this is why chimes sometimes play at the end of weddings, their light, airy sound signifying the beginning of a new, hope-filled chapter, the turning of a page.

Come to think of it, when I was little I had read-along books with audiotapes that chimed when it was time to turn the page.

The telephone on the kitchen wall of my childhood home was avocado green with a six-foot cord, and instead of ringing, it chimed. Visitors always said, “There’s the doorbell,” and we always responded, “No, that’s the phone.”

I never knew of anyone else’s phone that chimed like mine.

As a teenager my pulsed quickened at the sound, because I was sure the chiming meant someone was calling for me. It often was. I stretched that cord at least another two to three feet, enough for me to sit on the bed in my room and talk with the door closed. Yes, on the cord.

My smartphone is set to chimes now. When it rings, the melodic tones are like strings of tiny silver plates in the wind.

Perhaps no chime has given me as much pleasure as that of my WordPress app, however.

For me, that’s truly the sound of celebration.

I’ve heard this chime so often in the past month, denoting likes and comments on Lit Bits and Pieces during the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. The chime has come to represent the warmth of this community, the connection of minds, hearts, and kindred spirits, reiterating the power, the magic, of words. I am a first-time slicer and the words of others have borne me far in the completion of thirty-one posts in thirty-one days.

This is the thirty-first post. With it, I cross the finish line – my first cheer.

The WordPress chime also proclaimed two other milestones, two days ago:

Lit Bits 50

I hit the 50-post mark. My second cheer.

Lit Bits Anniversary

Lit Bits and Pieces turned one year old on March 29th, along with my first post. Cheer number three.

When I started Lit Bits and Pieces a year ago, I asked a friend to give me feedback. The friend said: “Hmmm. What’s your niche? Your target audience?”

I said, “I don’t really have a target audience in mind. I just want to write whatever I want to write.”

The friend looked skeptical.

I added, “It’s for human beings.”

To you, Dear Reader, I leave three parting thoughts on this Lit Bits and Pieces celebratory post. Chimes play for you, somewhere in the wind – I hope you hear them as you read:

  • Do, or do not. There is no try. -Yoda
  • Inspire. That means be a life-breather of ideas, tiny notions of stories. – Avi
  • Write.

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Around the bend

white-peacock

Rezervatia de zimbrii Dragos Voda. Cristian Bortes. CC-BY 2.0 

I live in the country.

Long before daybreak, a rooster crows for all he’s worth, a passionate, guttural cry signifying that the dark night is ending.

My kitchen bay window faces east, catching the first glimmers of pink in the sky.

A short drive on the winding road by my home carries me past weathered stables and tobacco barns, abandoned unpainted houses from a bygone era, and fields where farmers still make their living.

There’s a horse or two in the pastures, innumerable goats, and the occasional delightful donkey, silvery-gray and calm. I have learned that donkeys keep coyotes away – how extraordinary.

One day, along a bend in the road, beside an old gate overgrown with brambles, a peacock strutted, the morning light electrifying the brilliant blue of his body. I slowed down, wishing I could see the long green train of his feathers fan out, but the peacock was skittish and went back through the gate via some hidden hole. Surely he should not have been out by the road, although the sight of him made me grateful to be alive. From then on, I looked for him.

Until the day I rounded that same curve and there, in the middle of the road, stood a white peacock.

I could not believe my eyes – I never knew such a thing existed.

But there he was, gleaming like some divine messenger, standing right on the double yellow lines. I slowed to a stop. He looked at me through the windshield; I hardly dared to breathe. He took his time heading back to the lush bank by the brambly gate, as if he owned this road, maybe this entire world, his long white tail feathers dragging behind him like a bridal train or a king’s ermine robe.

I watched him go, oblivious of everything around me except the sheer splendor of his presence.

I have learned, then, that every day is new, that there are unexpected wonders waiting just around the bend. In the middle of the familiar and mundane might be something rare, glorious, breathtaking.

Be watching.

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