My Declaration of Independence

Things I have learned by living on my own.

This year, I struck out on my own. I am now living in an apartment for the first time in my life. Having never rented an apartment, the experiences I have had this year have been terrifying and empowering simultaneously.

The photos to follow show an apartment that needs some loving. I hope to get permission to do some work on it, but for now, I have to live with what I have. I love this place.

I can put stuff together.

A friend gave me the dining set in the first picture. I summoned the courage to put it together. It took three hours or so, but it was finally built, and now it still sits in this spot in my kitchen. (My kitchen… that still sounds weird to me.)

Although you cannot see it, the bed frame that supports my bed is one I had to build. It took a while, but when it was done, I was very proud of myself.

When the TV stand came, courtesy of another friend, I was certain that when I put it together, the TV was a “goner.” However, it’s still standing, and I am grateful for that. I was quite nervous.

Next to the TV stand in the third picture is the DSL modem. When it arrived, I had to figure out how to install it. Finally, I had to call Verizon to help, and it turned out the issues I was having were not my fault. I celebrated! The technician came out, made a few changes at the network interface, and I was connected. (As an aside, I use Sling TV instead of cable, and I love it.)

When the lawn mower in the fourth picture arrived, I was dismayed to find I had to put it together. I envisioned cutting my hand off with the blade. However, it was assembled in half an hour, and off I went to cut the lawn.

Finally, just yesterday, I installed the apartment-dweller’s screen door in the last picture. Since I cannot install a proper screen door, I decided to put up this magnetic screen door. That took about 15 minutes, and now there is the potential for a cross breeze in this odd place I call home that will not allow buggies to enter. (Please ignore the towels hanging in the background. The door to the deck leads directly into my laundry area.)

I don’t have to live with torn screens… or much else.

When I first opened the windows in my apartment, I noticed the screens needed repair. Well, instead of waiting for someone to repair them, I purchased the replacement screens, as shown in this picture. They are working well.

The screens represent one of the first decisions I made to not simply live with something I found unpleasant because I thought I wasn’t worth the expense. Since then, I have made frugal yet practical decisions to improve my living conditions. I am worth it.

Putting an air conditioner in the window isn’t as scary as I thought.

Last week, there was a heat wave. I was forced to put the air conditioner in the window. I was afraid it was going to fall out of the window, onto the porch roof below, and do some serious damage, but it didn’t. So far, it’s still in place. Gorilla tape has become my best friend. Yes, it looks a little odd framed in black tape. I don’t care. I will have to paint the woodwork and use Goof Off to get the adhesive off, but I don’t care about that either. I will do that.

You may be wondering: “Are those clothespins holding up the curtains?” Yes, indeed they are. As part of my attempt to conquer the heat wave, I went to Walmart and purchased curtain rods that were the wrong size, along with other items. Well, I can use them in the loft, since the windows are smaller, but I did not want to spend more money on curtain rods. So I took the clothespins I use for laundry and hung the room darkening curtains I purchased.

Yesterday, the heat wave had passed, and I wanted to pull back the curtains. So, I took 3M hooks and shower curtain rings I had on hand to create makeshift “pullbacks” for the curtains. For right now, they will do.


Each time I figure something out, I send a photo to my family and caption it with “In today’s episode of #makedo…” I have been trying to use things I already have, or that are not that expensive. So, the picture of the curtains came with the following caption:

In today’s episode of #makedo, what do you do when you don’t want to spend more money on curtain rods, don’t want to climb on a chair again, and want light to come in on a nice day? You use shower curtain rings and 3M hooks you have on standby as makeshift pullbacks.

It’s been fun to figure things out and send photos with #makedo captions. I think the family likes them. My mother says I am channeling my grandmother. Grandmom, thank you.

Doing laundry is an act of affirmation and empowerment.

When I first moved into my little apartment, I went to the laundromat for the first time in my life. I liked it there, but realized I could spend my time wisely if I invested in a washer and dryer. The expense was (and still is) out of the question, so I purchased a portable washer instead.

My favorite appliance is my portable washer.

The washer arrived while I was visiting my mother, so we drove back from her house to get it from the neighbor’s front porch and into the apartment. Since then, I have done at least one load of laundry daily.

It’s an act of empowerment. It reaffirms my independence. I won’t go into why, so please just believe me.

Using the washer required a few adjustments. I purchased a short garden hose to hook up to the spigot in this room, and an attachment to keep that from leaking. That is because the hose that came with it does not fit the spigot, which is common. Additionally, I have to drain into a bucket, which then goes into the sink in the kitchen. That isn’t a big deal either. Each time I lift the bucket, I fill my vessel with positive, empowering energy. For an hour, I’m not thinking about much aside from doing the laundry. It’s like laundry yoga.

I also had to learn about using the right amount of detergent. This portable washer requires much less detergent than a regular washer. If I use too much, I have to clean out the suds, and that is not fun.

Oh, and if you have never tried cleaning vinegar, I highly recommend it. It softens the laundry, and no, your laundry does not smell like vinegar.

The spinner on this washer does a brilliant job. The laundry is practically dry when it comes out of the spinner. I hang items on the drying rack in the kitchen using the clothespins mentioned earlier. When I launder the sheets, I have taken to hanging them outside. I have never hung laundry outside before. It’s a pleasant experience.

As this home evolves, it reflects upon my emergence from a dark place.

The progression from a place to live, to a safe place in which I am happy, reflects on my development as a human being who wants to not only live, but thrive. When I moved into this apartment, I was in a self-imposed darkness, a cave I had found and crawled into. I wanted the world to leave me alone. I was afraid of everything, especially finding myself destitute and homeless.

A friend said to me that I should – and eventually would – realize that time in my life was not only an ending, but a beginning. Intellectually, I understood that. Emotionally and psychologically, it took time. As the seasons changed, I learned how to live in the moment; be good to those who want me around; be grateful for my family, friends, and guides; and to let the past guide me toward a better future, not to cling to it to further my self-imposed and well-cultivated misery.

What I have done to make this place a home is my declaration of independence.

Happy Independence Day to the United States of America.

Let Them Write!

It occurs to me that one way for students to better understand poetry is to write it. I had this epiphany this morning as I scribbled “Irrelevant.” As I was scribbling, I noticed a rhyme scheme and a pattern emerging, and they changed my thought process.

Yes, I know; it shocked me too.

I wondered to myself, post-scribbling, if what I experienced was like what “real poets” experience as they are writing a poem. What did I learn about the writing process by writing? What can my students learn about literature by writing?

In AP Literature and Composition, we spend so much time reading and analyzing literature in search of nuggets of wisdom regarding the human condition. I’ve been missing an important piece of that exploration, however: Creation. Therefore, next year, we will spend more time exploring the creation of literature and creating some ourselves. Perhaps creating texts will help the students (and me) better analyze and tease from the texts those important messages that can help us live our best lives.

How Might This Be Implemented?

Good question! These are my nascent thoughts.

Take a Basic Project Management Approach

In my previous life, I was a team lead for an internal training team. I tried a basic project management approach to initiatives, following an acronym I came up with after taking a college class in project management.

  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Analyze
  • React

The Project

For literature study, we could implement the project with these steps (I think).

  • Prepare: Read several texts and about their historical context, their authors, and their authors’ writing process; students choose an author to focus on, one who speaks most to them.
    • Review key questions after each text, and write paragraphs to answer those questions.
    • Create one-pagers about the historical context.
    • Create charts about the author and author’s writing process for each text.
    • Choose an author to focus on.
  • Evaluate the author’s process: subject choice; themes; drafting, revision, and editing; response to the world.
    • Create a one-pager about the author’s process.
  • Author: Students create a text after choosing a subject and theme; students draft, revise, and edit their text; students respond to constructive feedback from peers.
  • React: Students evaluate their writing process and whether knowing something about the writing process for literary writers helped them as they created their text; students re-evaluate the texts we read during the “Prepare” phase for greater understanding.
    • Sentence stems for the first part could include:
      • As I was writing, I noticed I stopped when…, and this is like / different from what I read of _____’s experience.
      • As I was creating ____, I noticed…, and this is like / different from…
      • My [setting/character/language/structure/theme] reminds me of…
      • I read about ____’s writing process. While I was writing, I noticed [similarity/difference] in my writing process.
      • ______ used [his/her] experiences with ______ to create _____. Similarly, I used my experience with ______ to create _____.
    • Return to the texts and write about how the interpretation or understanding has changed in light of the personal writing process.

This project is best served by reading texts like short stories and poetry. It would be difficult, for example, to consume several novels and then dive in. Additionally, texts from authors who have either written or spoken about their writing process are better choices. Writers from The Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance immediately come to mind.

In AP Lit, standards and key questions exist for short stories, poetry, and longer fiction; these standards and key questions should be aligned to a creation project like this. The twist occurs when the students synthesize their experience with what they know of the author they studied. Did they notice anything while they were creating that was similar to the author or diverged from the author’s experience?

Culminating Activity

I think the most important piece of this is to write about whether creation helped interpret other texts, if the act of entering a writing community provided a key to unlocking the mysteries of great literature.

Another question, one that is central to the course: “How did this exercise help you better determine how a text speaks about the human condition?”

Reimagining the Study of Literature

I am sure that there are literature teachers out there who already do this type of project. In other words, this idea is probably not new. However, I like to share instances in which I stumble upon ideas because it is important to be part of the conversation. In this post, I am starting to reimagine the study of literature for myself. My goal: to make learning as meaningful and useful as possible.

In a previous post, I wrote about “Writing to Learn.” My goal then was the same as it is now. If you look back at posts I’ve written over the years, you will notice that I strive to answer the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” The best way, I think, to answer that question is to bring the students closer to the concept, skill, text, or whatever it is. Bring them into the community. Welcome them. Assure them. Let them write.

Thank you for reading this post.


If you are interested in learning more about a poet’s writing process, this interview with Billy Collins is helpful.

Writing to Learn

In my research on writing-to-learn, I found the following explanation from Colorado State University. 

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu, or otherwise informal, and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, consider writing-to-learn, for the purposes of this article, as a longer, sustained process by which a writer probes the mind in the dark and musty places to gain insight about the human condition and the self.

Philosophical Ramblings

Elsewhere, I have written, “Writers are drawn to writing to explore their lives and their world view, but accessing the part of the mind that makes it possible to explore to the depths of one’s soul is often just too much.” That is true, and that is why so much writing falls flat.

Writing is hard. Writing-to-learn is harder. It requires the writer to acknowledge something: cognitive dissonance, conflict, mistakes made, pain – and committed writers are often depressed as a result. From those acknowledgements, themes emerge, as does greater understanding, but sometimes at a considerable cost. Going deep to discover what you believe and think can be brutal.

Look, we are not born with a tabula rasa – a mind that is a clean slate. That’s my opinion. Instead, the generations of evolution that have taken place are present within us. We cannot articulate them at first, but it’s my opinion that we are born with understanding. Then nurture takes over and tramples certain aspects of understanding, while leaving others intact. Nurture – tradition, culture, history – teaches us to view the world in ways that might be counterintuitive to nature.

There comes a point in one’s life during which we question how we were raised, and our nature begs us to reconsider certain truths. That’s when we experience depression or angst.

So, if we are all born with this understanding, probably more evolved than what nurture offers us, why aren’t the nurturers of the same mind as us? I figure it’s because traditions are long-standing and humans are loath to change.

Think about “movements” in our collective history. They are called movements because they are instigating change, overcoming cultural inertia. They get push-back because humans hate change. Meanwhile, evolution – by definition change – marches on.

It is within that space between stasis and definitive change that we as individuals often find ourselves as we confront nurture with nature for the first time. It’s exhausting, especially after years of conditioning, to assert thoughts and opinions that diverge from common knowledge.

And yet, this is what we must do. We must confront common knowledge and either accept it or reject it. Sometimes, rejection is received by the community without question, and the community marches on, declaring the individual different, but not a “problem.” Sometimes, the individual is declared unworthy of inclusion. Sometimes, the individual is declared outright dangerous.

In all cases, people need to question the status quo. It’s in our biology, even if society wants to maintain stasis. I question why that is.

  • Why can’t we question without push-back?
  • Why can’t we be Socratic? Why did Socrates have to drink the hemlock?
  • Why don’t we learn from history?
  • Why are philosophers and writers considered dangerous, and teachers not treated professionally?
  • Why do some submit to the collective will, even when they know the collective is wrong?
  • Why do some persist, even when it endangers them?
  • Why does it take so long to bring about change?

Writing-to-Learn Activity: Exploring Banned Books

Through writing-to-learn activities, we can address these questions. While these activities are important for any subject, I’m an English teacher, so my ideas are informed by my experiences in the ELA classroom. I welcome you to contribute your ideas for other content areas.

WtL: Literary Analysis and Response

Great literature beckons us to question everything about it: characters, setting, language, style, theme… We explore our prior knowledge within its context. We find evidence in the text to help us interpret what the author is expressing about its themes. We build knowledge in this process and bounce it off what we knew before. We then either know something new or reject the author’s premise; this decision-making process is a sign of maturity.

Although younger readers might need time with the canon of “accepted” literature, more mature readers should learn about books that make society uneasy. Just as they are starting to question their nurturing, they should be allowed to read texts that help them question. As a teacher, I think it’s my job to curate those texts and present them to my students. My gift to them is an opportunity to experience the discomfort that comes with exposure to inconvenient truth.

Why Discuss Banned Books?

Books are banned because their authors dared to raise certain questions in “unacceptable” ways. Themes emerge from those texts that are anathema to society. Those books, however, hold the keys to human evolution. Where is society hiding the keys? Some may be in a dusty library closet, probably, or a corner of a professor’s office.

As humans develop cognitively, they may find the keys; it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” game with themes. There are clues left by those who disagree with banning books, for example. They are there, and we need to identify them to find them.

At the very least, there should be a discussion about banned books. The American Library Association helps us with “Banned Books Week” each year. The association is promoting the freedom to read. Indeed, reading and freedom do go hand in hand. Consider the audacity of Martin Luther to suggest that ordinary people could – and should – read the Bible! My word! What was he thinking? (That was meant to be sarcastic.)

On this page, you will find the Top 10 Most Challeged Books each year from 2001 – 2020. It is truly amazing to me that last year Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made the list. In other years, I noticed titles that shocked me as well.

The reasons for banning books also saddened me, especially those LGBTQ-themed books. At a time in which society needs to understand LGBTQ perspectives, to ban the books that express them indicates that society considers the community dangerous.

“Anti-police” books are banned because society doesn’t want to have the conversation we so desperately need to have about police reform. One book that falls into that category, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, allegedly addressed topics that were too “sensitive” to consider “right now.”

Not now, honey, we’ll discuss it later.

Unfortunately, tomorrow never comes.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 26 – October 2. I plan to address this issue with all my classes that week, and to ask them to write-to-learn about their reaction to banning books. We will also read and react to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because that book addresses the notion of banned and destroyed books as the destruction of knowledge itself. We will write-to-learn about our reaction to this theme, whether we agree with it or not.

The New York Times’ article, “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” by Perri Klaus, M.D., ends with a perfect reasoning for allowing your child to read banned books.

As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you for reading this post.

“How do I teach now?” – Lessons from the Classroom after an Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, I was working with a student during office hours when my husband came into the dining room to tell me that people had stormed the U.S. Capitol. My mouth dropped open. My student’s mouth dropped open. After my husband apologized for interrupting the meeting, he went back downstairs to his office to watch the incident unfold live. Once my schoolday was finished, I joined him. I missed about an hour of what was happening, but I have since watched many videos that frighten me sufficiently.

Later that evening, I checked Facebook. A fellow teacher had posted, “How do we teach now?”

The responses indicated the resilience and commitment of teachers across this country. Lesson plan after lesson plan was posted by hundreds of teachers. Each focused on truthful and/or positive aspects of this country; none had a focus on violence or rebellion. I chose to do the following with two of my classes.

AP® Lit: “America” by Claude McKay

Thank you, Poetry Foundation

In AP® Literature and Composition, the plan was to write an essay on a sonnet “For That He Looked Not Upon Her,” by George Gascoigne. With what happened the day before, on 1/7, the plan changed to feature Claude McKay’s sonnet, “America.”

I explained to the students: “Yesterday, something happened in the U.S. Capitol that rocked me to the core. We were going to work with a sonnet written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, but now we are going to use a sonnet written about America. Any objections?”

Hearing none, we proceeded.

I chose this poem to illustrate the complicated and complex feelings that many have about this country, this “cultured hell.” It gave me a chance to talk about the Harlem Renaissance, too, and how the artists, musicians, and writers of that movement demonstrated to everyone that Americans are resilient, beautiful, brilliant, and determined.

The turn of the sonnet describes how the speaker assures the reader that although the nation has fed him “bread of bitterness,” sunk “her tiger’s tooth” into his neck, and overwhelmed him with her power, he is not afraid. He stands up to her “cultured hell” as a rebel would face a king. The turn shows us that the speaker is a persistent individual with foresight, one who knows truth.

The last four lines, however, were those I hoped the students would pick up on. My interpretation: If we continue – as a country – along the path we are on, we are in big trouble. The sonnet was written almost 100 years ago, but the message resonates today: We must be vigilant, protect the American Experiment, strive toward improvement of life for all, and not be fearful of those who would prefer the United States fail, even those within our borders.

The students’ responses blew me away. I’m so proud.

Creative Writing: Langston and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Creative Writing, I developed a final project for which students create a story from a poem. As a sample, I created a draft using “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes as its foundation. A line from this poem provided the title for the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I had been working on with another English class. Therefore, the poem was on my mind. We had just finished reading “I Have a Dream” in that other class, so it just seemed natural to me to have Langston pay MLK a visit in August, 1963, before the March on Washington.

On 1/7, I introduced the students to their final project. I presented my draft to them and read a bit of it. This time, I did not tell the students that 1/6 rocked me to the core. Instead, I focused on the Civil Rights Movement and, again, the Harlem Renaissance. Several of the poems I provided for the students to pick from were from diverse voices, too, and the students have gravitated toward them, especially “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate.

My message: Our nation is beautiful. Our nation is resilient. Our citizens are brilliant. We will overcome challenges to the American Experiment.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Other Classes

I have a few other classes, and they wanted to talk about 1/6. I did my best to explain how I, as a citizen and an American, had thought I was witnessing the end of our country while I watched “priceless treasures” manhandled and listened to chants threatening the lives of long-time public servants. Until such time as the Capitol was cleared and secured, I worried that Congress would be overrun. I was mourning those who had died in the insurrection, also.

They were somber conversations, but also truly focused on the feelings we have about 1/6 as Americans. Forget partisanship, put aside differences of opinion, and think about how close we came to not having a country anymore.

My Secret Hope

Well, it won’t be much of a secret when this is published, but my secret hope is that these future leaders will reaffirm their commitment to a nation once a beacon of hope and a leader among those who espoused or aspired to democracy. There needs to be, just as every sonnet needs a turn, a turn toward something brighter and beautiful. We need a Renaissance.

Will my “kids” lead us there?

What a Semester!

Semester One of 2020–2021 is either over or almost over. How are you feeling?

Back in September, I created a post asking when we would get used to this new normal. When I wrote it, I thought that surely, by December, our new routines would no longer be strange, and we would all feel better about this way of teaching and learning. At the time, I was teaching in a hybrid scenario. Today marks day 22 of fully-remote learning, round two. It still does not feel comfortable.

It’s Not All Bad

It is better in some ways. For example, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded robotic camera because I am not in school. That is a plus! Next time around, I would recommend making a better investment: Buy every student a printer, ink, and a couple of reams of paper. If students could print materials, they could take their eyes off the screen for a while, which would help many students who — like their teachers — are suffering from eye strain.

The iPad that comes with the dreaded robotic camera could be useful, but I felt odd taking it home without a protective case, so it stayed in school.

Another Plus: A Chance to Reinvent My Delivery

Instead of using that little iPad, I use my iPad Pro as a digital document camera. I can share my iPad to the Google Meet, and with an app called Good Notes, I can bring images and PDFs to the iPad and annotate them live. That has been very helpful. My son showed me how he was using his iPad to annotate the lecture notes his professors shared with him, and that was all I needed to give it a try.

I had forgotten how much the very acts of doodling, circling words and phrases, and annotating texts support my thinking process. Reflecting on my metacognitive strategies, I can say that this addition to my teaching toolbox is significant.

Writing Newsletters Again

When I was in the corporate space, training adults to use software, I wrote newsletters to the staff with announcements, words of encouragement, and “Did you know?” sections. It was quite enjoyable. Now, I write newsletters for students and families.

Included in the newsletters are sections that instruct students and families on how to use our LMS to check their grades, send messages, and monitor their calendars for assignments — among other things. The meeting codes for conferences have featured prominently, as well as the high school bell schedule. I also offer words of encouragement and emphasize communication.

Finally, I usually embed an Easter egg in the newsletter that links to a Google form. Lately, this form has included a quiz they can take to receive extra credit points based on their score. It’s like sending a gift each time I do it.

For me, the newsletters have helped with lesson and unit planning as well. It’s a chance to reflect on what has been and what’s to come. Yet another metacognitive moment! Nice.

Still Needed: New Ways to Communicate in Real-Time

Students at the secondary level had little experience being self-directed before we ended up here. Therefore, they may not know how to plan, and they may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Many give up due to being overwhelmed. Trying to reach them seems near impossible.

The other day, a student sent me a photo of her screen so I could “diagnose” an issue she had with a site we have to use for career exploration. I saw her unread email count: 191. Holy moly. Talk about being overwhelmed.

In the business world, whole seminars are devoted to controlling email. Although we aren’t in the business world, this is a crossover topic that we should consider spending time on (a newsletter topic!). How many emails are students receiving a day? With seven classes, possibly eight, there could be up to 10 emails a day.

How else do we communicate with them, though? If we teachers were to call each student every time we needed to share information with them, we would never get off the phone. Should we ask them to install another app like Remind on their phone? What about those students who do not have a phone?

Because my district is a 1:1 district, I’m back to email. (You know, this happens a lot: I write myself into a new topic. Yet again, I am reminded of my metacognitive processes. Hooray!)

Happy Holidays to You and Yours

I hope everyone has a joyful, marvelous holiday. I hope you have a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy one another. Happy holidays.

Image Credit: Photo by Artem Podrez on

NaNoWriMo Is Coming and This Year I Will Write My Heart Out Because My Message Matters

From and created by Tyrell Waiters

I participated in this awesome contest for many years before taking a break, but I believe this year, with all the confusion and disorientation many of us are experiencing, it is critical we do what we love. For more information, please visit

It was a late September morning, the day after the demons blasted a hole through the wall of the high school to get their latest fix, that Paul — a demon himself — found his best friend Aidan lying in his California King bed with his feet still dangling and a white sheet covering him from head to toe. Paul stood in the doorway, hands on his hips, smiling. The smile faded as his brows furrowed, and he shook his head in disapproval.

“What the hell is this?” Paul asked the sheet. Aidan groaned and told him to go away. Since confrontation was part of Paul’s nature and he found it useful, so he didn’t fight it, he dismissed his friend’s request with a snort. He went over to the bed and sat down. Then, he bounced on it. Aidan growled, which made Paul laugh. It was a derisive cackle, really.

“Would you please go away?” Aidan said in his deepest voice.

“No,” Paul said. “Listen, this is ridiculous. As much fun as it might be to see you in existential agony, your time of self-pity is up. Get up and let’s figure out what to do.”

Aidan pushed the sheet back, allowing his friend to see his ancient, beautiful face streaked with blood tears. His white hair had been stained with blood in places as well. “To do?” he asked.

“Yes! You never give up. In a thousand years, you’ve never given up! Why the hell are you being so stupid now?” Paul was slapping Aidan’s thigh as he spoke. He knew it wouldn’t hurt, but figured it might emit some reaction at least. Aidan did not move.

“They won. There was nothing I could do to stop them. Now, hundreds are gone.”

“And more remain! Besides, they aren’t really gone. Their minds are gone for now. They’ll be back. Yeah, some died from the blast,” Paul said, shrugging his shoulders. “But more survived it. You can help them, and you must.”

Dear Reader, if you ever tell Paul or Aidan they are best friends, they’ll deny it. Trust me, though, they are.

At this moment, Aidan grew furious. He raised his head, growled, and showed his teeth. His pale blue eyes flashed. Paul cackled again. It had been years since that display made any difference to him. Aidan backed off, as usual. He slammed his head down on the pillow.

Aidan cried into the pillow, “What?! How am I supposed to help them?! Do you think I can cast a spell to return their wits to them? We can’t even find most of them! They’ve run off somewhere…”

“So you’ve wasted time laying here under a flag of surrender while the kids are out there? You’re a coward.” Paul said this in a menacing voice that made Aidan sit up. Finally, he thought.

“I am no coward. I dinna know what to do!” Aidan’s Scots accent was prominent now, which always came out when he was in crisis. Paul decided to push because that’s what Paul does.

“You ARE a coward,” Paul declared, emphasizing his opinion with a stab of his finger into Aidan’s chest with each word. “You are acting like a helpless human instead of what you are. Stop it.”

Aidan, Paul, and the other characters to come have been in my head for years. That might sound crazy, but I’m sure you can confirm with any writer at any level that characters do that. I’m not a good writer, but I have the need to tell a story. These characters fit the story I need to tell. It’s their story, but the themes are mine.

My first theme has grown out of our current health and economic crises. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If all you do is complain without having a suggestion for how to make things better, how is that helpful? If you pull the flag of surrender over your head, how is that helpful?

My second theme is that part of growing up is finding your why. You might find it odd that I’m talking about growing up in the context of ancient beings, but we can experience growth at any time in our lives. Stick with me.

  • We can feel small and insignificant, or we can feel integral and necessary. 
  • We can bring our gifts to the situation, or we can keep them to ourselves. 
  • We can risk ridicule and failure while we try to make a difference, or we can avoid feeling less significant than others by doing nothing.

But can we live with ourselves if we do nothing when we know we can do something? That’s why I want to be part of the conversation.

If we teachers support the notion that failure is an opportunity to learn when it comes to our students, can’t we support that for ourselves as well?

In a world where no one believes in demons, as almost no human does in my story, to blame the behavior on demons seems nutty in itself. And so, these poor humans, the ones that Aidan allowed to escape by diving under the sheet, live through years of trying to rebuild their lives and reputations because no one believes the catalyst for their actions was a supernatural creature. 

Outwardly, they look the same. Inwardly, they are a hot mess. Some don’t make it.

In my story, the demons are the beings that siphon the fear out of humans. They live off of fear, encourage it to come forth before sucking it out of you, leaving you unhinged, not happy. Instead of being sufficiently afraid, which we all need to be, these people become bold and brazen and start doing dangerous things they would never have done if they had their wits about them. These humans declare their allegiance to absurd ideas or people. They become sycophants to tyranny and autocracy. Eventually, the levels of fear even out again, but it’s after they have displayed risky behavior for a sustained period, ruining their reputations, relationships, and lives.

Putting the demon aspect aside, think about current events. Messages delivered by important people matter. The messages being sent these days — whether good or bad — have emboldened people to behave in ways they would not have before. My fear is that those who support ideas that hurt others, because these messengers have validated them, are going to regret what they are doing someday and experience intense and crippling remorse. A bigger fear is they won’t.

So, yes, in my opinion, my story matters. It might be convoluted and sound silly. It might not be good writing. It still matters. I’m trying to be a messenger, to send helpful messages that support the solution seekers, not the troublemakers. That’s why I’m going back to NaNoWriMo this year. Writing is part of my why, even if I’m not going to win any awards. I must. I will.

(Yes, NaNoWriMo, I do plan to make sure I write 50,000 words in November, but I had to start writing now.)

Thank you for reading.

Schools Are Not Businesses. Why Do We Treat Them Like They Are?

“We really have a great product,” I have heard superintendents say. “We have several offerings for the students,” others have said. What is this? A car lot? A factory?
assembly line by Marie Van den Broeck from the Noun Project

For all the talk about differentiation, personalized learning, SAMR (a model for integrating tech into the classroom), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), UbD (Understanding by Design), the LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) and a whole host of other acronyms for education’s alphabet soup, we are still being urged to use standardized testing and pacing in our classrooms. Why are we still using the assembly line approach?

My First Guess: It’s Easier

It’s easier to use the one-size-fits-all approach, just like it’s easier and possibly more cost effective to push out nightgowns that are one-size-fits-all. No need to re-tool that sewing machine assembly line for different sizes, right?

It’s possibly construed to be more equitable, too, since everyone is tested on the same anchors and eligible content. But have people of all sizes photograph themselves in the nightgown and send the photos to you. Do you really see the same fit for people of all sizes? Or is it only that the fabric covers their bodies, that there is enough coverage?

Coverage and Pacing

We talk about coverage in education as well. “Here’s a textbook,” you are told. Get through Chapters 1-10 and you have covered all you’re expected to cover during a certain time period. Groan… be still my student-centered heart.

That coverage is king is exactly why many of us do not use textbooks. A second reason is that most printed textbooks are not worth the paper they are printed on after they roll off the presses (another assembly line). A third reason: Textbooks are the epitome of “one-size-fits-all” thinking.

Digital versions are better, to a degree. At least authors can update the books with new information, which flows freely thanks to technology. Still, they are standardized, no matter what teaching tips they include. Why? Well, the authors can’t possibly predict what group of kids you will have in front of you!

Pacing is the other problem. I was a long-term substitute in a school that used a reading program I will not name. The idea was that there were levels to the program that did not necessarily correspond to a student’s grade level. Students were placed into a reading class after the diagnostic results came through. That sounded promising.

Once they were in their “appropriate” reading class, however, they “learned” at the same pace as everyone else in their class. The truth is that some kids were still left behind. They did not learn at the same pace as their classmates. They were afraid to ask questions.

Teachers were afraid to take questions, too, because they had to be literally on the same page as their colleagues each day. The curriculum was scripted, too. Yes, you received a script with your curriculum. You were told what to write on the board. You were told what to say. You were told when to pull a Popsicle stick from your apron and call on a student. Yes, you were given an apron to store all your props.

Needless to say, being a long-term sub who had not been formally trained in the program, I pleaded ignorance and went off-script many times. Oops.

The company made a lot of money from this program. The teachers felt better about having a program to lean on, perhaps. Some kids did benefit from it. Some did not. During the “Race to the Top” years, it made sense these programs were flourishing. After all, schools had to prove they were trying to improve, to provide evidence of improvement.

That pesky evidence…

My Second Guess: Observation of Student Engagement Is Hard

The principal and assistant principal of my school are some of the hardest working educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. I could not do their jobs. They have become human octopuses too, especially mentally. There are so many focus points: student engagement, attendance, behavior, building security, building function, staff management, faculty management, compliance, and many others. I do not know how they make it through the many hours of the day they work.

It’s no wonder that observations and evaluations are so stressful and why districts and states strive to standardize the observation process. There is not enough time in the day to understand what is going on in a classroom, with a class of unique students, and still perform all the other duties of an administrator. When faced with many classrooms and many unique groups of students… well, you understand.

Therefore, evidence-gathering has been reduced to a few formal observations, some anecdotal observations, and those pesky test scores.

You know, those test scores don’t tell us a damn thing. For example, the student could have been ill that day, not slept well, been distracted by an argument with a loved one, or been fatigued in general. Perhaps the student didn’t understand the content, but was too afraid to ask a question. Alternatively, perhaps, the teacher needed to go in-depth on a concept or skill he or she knew the students were struggling with and could not “get to” that concept or skill the student is now being tested on.

We need new ways of observing and evaluating teachers. I’m not saying anything that millions of educators don’t already know. So why hasn’t it happened?


Full Circle: Schools Are Treated Like Businesses, and Then They Aren’t

Schools are not businesses, but they are treated like they are. Funding for schools is disparate, because local tax revenues vary district to district. In that way, districts are like businesses, but businesses are in competition and raise revenue at different rates due to their products and offerings. Districts should never talk about products and offerings. Why? Because they aren’t businesses!

There should be enough money to go around to support students’ education, sports programs, and social and emotional programs that will help them contribute to their communities and become the next generation of leaders. There isn’t.

I am amazed that extracurricular programs depend on ticket sales, bake sales, and many, many fundraisers. We could blame our weight gain over the winter on all the chocolate bars we buy (and consume, of course) to support winter sports!

Has anyone considered the fact that we are asking students to go back to the same folks who do not pay much in taxes because they don’t have the same incomes and property values as folks in another district? What a burden we are putting on parents and community members already struggling to stay afloat! Why do we have to do that?

Well, that’s because the distribution of funds for education is unequal and unfair.

One of the few policies of the previous U.S. administration that I disagreed with was “Race to the Top.” It put the schools in competition with one another. It was stupid. Instead of doing that, why not make educational funding equal?

Sure, sure – the federal and state governments are not supposed to dictate the policies and procedures of local districts. Come on, people. It’s not working. We are less competitive than other educational systems in other countries all the time. It needs to stop.

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a character on The West Wing (my favorite TV show), summed up how education should be in this country a long time ago. I leave you with this quote graphic, which I found via an article written by Jeffrey Dunn on Medium in 2015.

As always, thank you for reading.

To Be or Not to Be Part of the Solution? There Is Only One Answer to That Question.

If asked to be, the answer is ”Yes.” If not asked, that is still the answer.

Isn’t it weird how Shakespeare still entwines himself into our collective consciousness through lines such as those from Hamlet? After being dead for centuries, William Shakespeare still has such a profound influence on us. We are still able to take almost any play he wrote, update clothing and props for the times in which it is performed, and make an impact. It is profound for two reasons. The first, because it demonstrates the lasting power of his arrangement of the alphabet. Second, it shows how little has really changed in the human psyche, and how much we are more alike than we are different, among nations and across time.

This year, it is difficult to find precedents for most things until we start digging a little.

We rely now on historians, with their treasure trove of information, to lead the way. We rely on authors and teachers of literature to help us make sense of things, too, as they scour works to find the right quote, plot line, character, or other element to ground this situation in the “human condition.”

Politicians with a sense of decency and who serve the public are relying on millennia of rhetoric and logic to help them navigate this narrative that seems to spin out of control, sometimes on an hourly basis.

Science relies on the past to inform the present. What worked before? Will the same process work now? What do we have in our arsenal of remedies that might help us heal others? Where is our foundation?

One historian who influenced me greatly in college was Sister Patrice Fehrer of Holy Family University (then Holy Family College). One day, as I was speaking with her, she said to me, “Heather, all of us are absolutely necessary, although none of us is indispensable.”

I have gone to that line hundreds of times since 1992 or 93. Most of the time, it comes to mind when someone declares they are the current Messiah, whether they say that, or use another term.

It speaks to our interdependence. Each human needs the others. We cannot survive unless we all work together. Since we are all fallible, each of us brings to the situation a gift someone else doesn’t have.

Together, we become part of the solution. If we try to go it alone, we often become part of the problem. If we dismiss the good advice of others, we become part of the problem. If we refuse to hear others, we become part of the problem. That is how we end up on what has been called, “the wrong side of history.”

If we want to be part of the solution, we must – to paraphrase the great Maya Angelou – believe people when they reveal their character to us, embrace those who are ethical and humane, and reject those who are not. We must also recognize our interdependence and trust the trustworthy.

We need to stop giving oxygen to the words of those who consistently think they know better than anyone else and who do not act for the good of the rest of us. If someone reveals to you, time and again, that they are narcissistic, I say you need to run. One who is confident and knows his or her capabilities will help the rest of us. One who believes that only they can fix “it” should be avoided. Cult leaders should be avoided at all cost; cult leaders never serve their people, only themselves. History tells us so. Dictators gain followers by presenting their intentions falsely. Once their followers believe him or her and relinquish their power, that person can do almost anything and get away with it. We cannot let that happen.

As teachers, we need to lead the charge to lasting, sustainable change. We need to continue questioning everything and teach our kids to do the same. Look at the history of the world. Prove me wrong.

This Is What Happens When an English Teacher Has Writer’s Block

It’s not pretty.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The key to having your voice “heard” is to use it often, but this week’s post topic eludes me. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Maybe it’s this feeling that I’ve already said too much.

Still, I yearn to be part of the conversation. I want to talk about the purpose and goals of education — what they really are and what they should be. I want to scream from the rooftop that ideas such as “patriotic education” are stupid. I want to counter the argument about “patriotic education” with the idea that our history curricula are watered-down versions of the truth (and sometimes lies). We need a civics curriculum, too, but not in the way certain demagogues are imagining it.

“The factory model of education does not work!” I would scream if I could. It will not help students become 21st-century citizens! Grade levels and tracks may have worked last century, but really they didn’t. Which students really felt like they were learning much that was useful in grades K-12, in core classes? Which students felt that teachers were letting them peek behind the curtain to learn WHY something was being taught? Which students honestly felt the teachers were teaching something not only because it needed to be “covered,” but because it had value?

I must admit I was in awe of more than a few of my high school teachers. That said, only three stood out as those who added value to the content by teaching skills we could use the rest of our lives. Those teachers showed us we were capable, helped us learn to think critically, and taught us how to take notes, among many other things.

Pink Floyd performed the song “We Don’t Need No Education,” and it became an anthem. If the education system was working, would that have been the case?

Oh, sure, kids are always going to be cynical about education, you might say. But why is that, actually? We are brought into the world naturally curious and eager to learn. We go into preschool and kindergarten excited about school and all the wonderful things we will learn. And then, it seems, the curiosity, the eagerness, is sucked out of us as if it were pus. By the time kids get to my classroom, years of drainage have passed. Over the summer, each summer, they rediscover curiosity and wonder. It fills their system, and they smile as they rediscover the world. They are happy to be in school for about two days, and then the cynicism kicks in again.

They all want to ask, “Why are we learning this?” but don’t dare to ask it aloud.

I want them to ask! I’m so eager for them to ask that I tell them upfront, and I tell them I have a method to my madness. If they weren’t so tired, I think they might laugh at that.

Why is it that I feel guilty right now for assigning a novel-study portfolio that provided students a healthy list to choose from? Is it because I’m assigning them schoolwork? It’s not supposed to be just “work.” We study literature to better understand the human condition and our place within the world. Great literature is supposed to help us think, dream, and realize. It’s not busywork. It’s not a packet of worksheets. It’s inquiry-based, exploratory… it’s personal. And yet, I still feel like I am imposing.

If education really worked the way it’s supposed to, kids would be eating up the idea of diving into a novel written by an author who won the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Instead, I feel like I’m pulling their teeth.

And don’t get me started about how sports schedules are eating up students’ time outrageously. Why we even have sports happening right now is beyond me!

Ok, rant over.

I have questions.

  1. What have we learned from this experience of virtual or hybrid teaching and learning that we can use if things return to “normal”?
  2. Will we use technology to redefine and redesign educational activities? In other words, are we looking at the SAMR model to transform teaching and learning?
  3. How will we emphasize acquiring 21st-century skills, appreciating diversity, celebrating differences, acknowledging that we are all part of the human family, facing our history and ourselves, and helping each other cut through all the noise?
  4. Can we finally stop death-by-testing? Have the powers-that-be noticed that testing is uber-stressful and a waste of precious class time?
  5. Can we finally adopt more authentic forms of learning and assessment? Wouldn’t it be better if students created more, and we created less?
  6. Do education leaders recognize that ownership of learning is more valuable than playing the GPA game?
  7. Have the education leaders realized that teachers are ready to lose their minds? Are they prepared to review all the plans around the country and call out those that are insane? There are many.

Thank You!

Someday, I will end my blog posts better. For now, please accept my thanks for reading this post. It did help me to overcome my writer’s block.