2018, 2019

I was at a conference a few weeks ago (VSTE), and one of the speakers talked about how blogging helped her be a better educator–kept her conscious of her choices, gave her an opportunity to reflect, and helped her connect with other educators. So, here I am, with a goal for 2019 of reviving this space!

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View from my hotel at VSTE conference

2018 was a crazy year, as they all are, I guess.

We lost both Malcolm and Lucky (beloved cats), which was (and is) rough. Malcolm had been ill for several years, and his passing was as calm and gentle as it could have been, but Lucky’s death came as a huge shock. We miss them both and their sweet natures. We did, however, gain two new kittens, Chicken and Gracie, and they are both incredibly sweet and gentle and fun. We have been extremely lucky in the cat ownership department.

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Malcolm
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The kittens

I had the best summer I’ve ever had–didn’t do any camps, so I had a lot of time to read and rest and write and do therapeutic work that is difficult to do during the school year. I started exercising regularly and eating slightly healthier, and while the last month has seen that all slide away, I think I can pick it back up in the new year. It felt good to be taking better care of myself.

Dan and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in May. !!! We had a fun night out on the town, playing pool at a cool little place and spending the night away from home. Dan has been my rock since pretty much the day I met him. His humor and thoughtfulness are a light.

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Paintings on the wall of the nifty pool bar

 

I read a fair amount this year. Goodreads tells me I read 74 books in 2018, but that includes a number of graphic novels and middle grade books, so isn’t as impressive as it might sound. These were my top titles (ones I gave 4 or 5 stars and that stuck with me; the starred ones are the ones that I liked the most):

Books for adults:

*There There by Tommy Orange. I learned a lot from this book, on top of being blown away by the writing. I want to re-read it at some point because I know I missed things.

*Heavy by Kiese Laymon. Such a brave story, so well written. Laymon’s honesty and vulnerability in writing this book are a model for me with my own writing.

Fight No More by Lydia Millet

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Books for kids/YA:

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. This is just a really fun read!

Sanity and Tallulah by Molly Brooks

Emergency Contact by Mary Choi

Beavers by Rachel Poliquin

*Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka. So well done, and so moving and real. Captures the complexity of family life.

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. This is a bizarre book that I resisted at first but ended up being totally enamored with.

*The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis. I want this one to win all the awards. Curtis is a masterful writer, and I just can’t even express how much I loved this book.

 

Work has been good. My days start at 7:30 a.m. with a pile of kids waiting at the door because they want to use the Makerspace or get books first thing, and I just haven’t gotten immune to it. I’m moved every time I see that crew waiting, and often the day just flows from there. I’m happiest when I’ve got a lot of classes coming and the library is humming with activity and just a touch of chaos.

I feel like I’m in transition, or the library is in transition, as the curriculum changes in the English department and I’m trying to find the best way for the library to support and integrate with the new curriculum. I’m also trying to better integrate visible thinking routines into research instruction, which I think I am making harder than it needs to be. To a great extent, I feel like I am getting in my own way sometimes by wanting to perfect things in my mind before trying them out, when I know that the only way to make progress is to just get out there and try things. When we come back from break, we are starting a new unit with 5th grade that will be a chance to try out some of these ideas on a large scale, and I’m hopeful about how it will go. Part of my goal to blog again is because it’s a motivator for me to try new things–it gives me something to write about and reflect on!

On the home front, we have a senior in the house, which is so bizarre! An adult! The college process was easy–one advantage of a stubborn kid? She applied to two schools, got into both, got scholarship from her second choice (U of South Carolina), and is going to go there. Fairly simple. Paying for it will be less simple, but we’ll work it out. This last year has been challenging for the kid in a lot of ways, but she continues to make us laugh pretty much daily, she’s got a great group of pals, and she is making her own way in the world. I used to think I had a clear sense of what she’ll be like as an adult, but now I think I have no idea. It’s an adventure, parenting this strange creature who is so much like me in many ways and yet so incredibly NOT like me in many others.

Mostly, I feel blessed. I have interesting, fun, and supportive friends and family. I have a job I love that continues to provide challenge and room for growth. My health is good. I have love in my life. My country is falling apart around me, and that can’t be ignored or minimized, but my corner of the world is a blessed corner. For today, that is what I will focus on.

Goals for 2019:

  1. Push myself to take more risks (in my writing, at work, in therapy).
  2. Figure out the financial picture in light of college expenses.
  3. Be more generous.
  4. Listen and think before speaking.
  5. Assume best intentions before reacting.
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Some Thoughts

Anything I have to say about Charlottesville will have been said better by someone else already. I’ve been reading various responses and arguments and reflections, and I feel angry and sad and overwhelmed and inadequate.

What I need to write about, if only for my own processing, is being an educator right now. This shit is hard, people, when you have to remain calm and neutral in the face of what is, at best, ignorance, and at worst, evil.

Something I have struggled with for pretty much all of my career in school librarianship (12 years!) is the fact that our young students, primarily white and privileged, are growing up in what they see as a post-racial society. I may be totally wrong about this, so maybe “fact” is the wrong word, but it definitely seems that way to me. They can talk about racism, but they talk about it as a historical event. “Way back in the 1800s, there was racism!” “During World War II, there was racism!” I think I wrote about it before, how powerful it was when one of my 6th graders came out and said, “Guys, this stuff still happens today,” during a conversation about racism. She knew that our society is still messed up because she had experienced it herself, and her voice did more to educate her peers than any textbook or lesson.

There is a chapter of the KKK in my city.

This is not historical. This is now.

I do think that things are shifting in terms of awareness. Black Lives Matter is on our radar, and their voice is clear. Responses to Charlottesville are all over the place, loud and clear.

But then there’s the whole “both sides were wrong” argument, which I can sort of maybe wrap my mind around intellectually but cannot even come close to grasping emotionally.

It’s defense vs. offense. The counter-protestors were only there because the protestors were there first.  BLM only exists because our society says again and again that black lives don’t matter. The evidence is there, all over the place.  The KKK exists because some people can’t handle the idea that lives other than white lives matter.  Defense vs. offense.

I don’t condone violence. I do choose love. But if you are going to speak out against a bunch of white supremacists carrying guns and torches and sticks, then I can’t argue against you being able to defend yourself.

And I DO think it’s important for people to speak out.  Just meeting bigotry with silence is not going to work. Letting these people walk through a public university without any protest is not going to work. Silence just sends a message that we don’t care about the people being harmed. And if you think people aren’t harmed, you are dead wrong. This is not just an isolated little group. This is a movement, and it’s scary, and it can’t just be ignored in the hopes that it will go away.

So what do we do as educators? Seriously, this is my question. I don’t have an answer. I know that as a librarian, I can buy and promote books that educate kids about these realities. I can model empathy and inclusion and kindness and respectful discourse.

But I feel overwhelmed right now. And scared for my friends and students who are targeted by these idiots. I want to help make things better, but damn, we have a long way to go, people. If the last several years of news coverage haven’t shown you that, then probably nothing will.

Reading/Living Without Walls

In my reading classes last week and today, I’ve been introducing Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge. In short, the challenge encourages kids to read books outside their comfort zones–read about someone whose life is different from yours, or about a topic you wouldn’t normally read about, or a book in a format you don’t typically read.

Like most lessons, this one has sometimes been successful, with kids talking about a wide range of books and really tapping into the concept of empathy gained from reading, and sometimes a bit flat. Although I think the kids have all appreciated the Comfort Zone comic, which is brilliant!

In one class, the conversation veered away from books and really became more about living without walls. The boys wanted to talk about people they had met who they hadn’t understood at first. After one kid said something about someone seeming ordinary, another kid said, “There’s no such thing as ordinary.” (I love it when statements like that come from the kids!) We talked about books, and we talked about people. We talked about autism, gender identity, criminal behavior, disabilities, survival–all through the lens of empathy and trying to understand others by putting ourselves in their shoes.

This is powerful stuff, friends, when you hear it coming out of the mouths of children. It’s messy sometimes–they might say something that makes you gasp a bit in shock as they try to articulate something that is, at its heart, an attempt to figure out this whole humanity thing, but oh wow, it’s not there yet. They might laugh at something you wish they would cry at. They are fumbling their way along. What they are doing, as 5th and 6th graders, is really starting to see that the world they experience is just a tiny sliver of all that is out there. They are curious about the rest of it, but also a bit scared. Who wouldn’t be?  There is some crazy stuff out there.

And so what a gift books are!  They can show us that wider world while we are safe in our homes and schools. Wake us up to different experiences, and hopefully awaken our empathy and our ability to be a positive force for change.

 

 

2/21/17: Birthday

So, I kind of don’t like birthdays. At least not my own.  It highlights for me the fact that I am disconnected from much of my family of origin, which isn’t a bad thing and has been my own choice, but can still be a tender spot. I don’t mind at all getting older–I’m pretty much loving my 40s to pieces–but the day itself is something I do not look forward to. However!  In spite of my eternal resistance and dread, I tend to end up enjoying my birthday every year. Because I’m surrounded by a lot of good people who send love my way and let me know they are glad I was born. Who doesn’t like to be told that people are glad they were born?  Plus cake! By the time evening comes (which is when I’m writing this), I have typically gotten over myself and come to appreciate all the wonderful things I do have, the family that has always been there for me, plus the one I’ve created with Dan and Claire and my friends. I am deeply lucky and blessed.

Coincidentally, today was also the day my kiddo passed her driving test. Big milestone for any kid, but for a family that lives 45 minutes away from the kid’s school, this is HUGE. She’s not getting a car, but she’ll have the use of one of ours on the weekends, and words cannot express how lovely that will be for everyone! I’m sure I’ll have minor heart attacks for a while every time she pulls out of the driveway on her own, but WHEW, we made it!

Today was fairly quiet in the library, so I made some stuff–some little LED robots made with hot glue and a snack bag.

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Snack bag that is actually more like a pencil pouch

Cotton laminate is wonderful, but was too thick for my machine/needle once I was doing more than two layers, so I had to switch to hand sewing to pull it together. The snack bag was a prototype for a service project, and unfortunately wasn’t easy enough to work as a mass student project, but we’ll keep tweaking and try a bigger needle in the machine to see what we can come up with. I by mistake bought a TON of cotton laminate fabric (ordered online, had no clue how long the bolts were; I got a great deal!), so I’ve got to figure out something that the kids can do with it.

Making stuff feels good. I’ve been writing some, doing some rewarding lessons on media bias, and now, today, making stuff again. When this old world starts getting me down, I need to go back to the things I can count on to lift my spirits.

If my 48th year on this earth is as rewarding as my 47th, I will be able to handle that. Maybe at some point I’ll even stop dreading my birthday.

2/12/2017: Writing

Sitting in Barnes and Noble today, killing time while the kid was working on a science project with a friend, I was struck by a bit of energy and inspiration. I’ve been thinking about digging up the old young adult novel I wrote years ago (15 years ago, maybe? a long time ago) and trying to revise it. I have read so much YA in the interim, and also grown so much as a human being and learned so much about kids through working with them and living with one. I know that what I’ve learned will likely translate to being able to do a nice revision of that book. But I hadn’t even looked at it in at least 10 years, probably more. When it got rejected twice, after two promising responses, I just stuck it in a drawer (metaphorically) and stopped thinking about it.

But today, sitting there in the bookstore, I decided to try to find the file. It wasn’t on my laptop, so I texted Dan to see if he could find it on our old desktop. And he did! Found it and sent it to me.

So, I’ve read the first four chapters. What I see: the bones are good. The writing is good (I think). There are some big gaps in the emotional development of the main character that reflect the gaps I had in my own development when I was writing that draft. There’s too much anger and not enough love. But it’s real, righteous anger that is the heart of that early part of the book, so I don’t want to squash it. I just want to balance it some.

What struck me reading it, after all this time, was that I still felt that connection with the characters, like they were part of me. I feel like I cheated them some, didn’t give them enough space to be their full selves, but now, in a revision, I can do that, or at least try to.

This could be fun.

Or a total disaster.

I’m going to go with fun!

2/8/2017: The kid

Dan posted this poem on facebook the other day, in honor of Thomas Lux’s death.

A Little Tooth

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

* * *
“A Little Tooth” from Drowned River by Thomas Lux. Copyright © 1990 by Thomas Lux.
 

No cretins or dolts or smooth talkers yet, and she’s a committed vegetarian-turning-vegan, but YES, this poem. YES, this experience of it going by too fast, this person who once was entirely dependent suddenly (it seems sudden! it’s not, but it seems it!) mostly managing her own life and making her own decisions and basically just walking around like an almost-adult.

So different from me, this kid. So different from her dad. So much like us in some ways, but mostly different. Extroverted where we are both introverted. Fierce in ways we aren’t and sensitive in ways we are. Strong and tender. Thoughtful and thoughtless. Sometimes so maddeningly typically teenagery, but as a person who wasn’t that, I take secret comfort in it. When she asks for advice, I’m mostly lost. My world has never looked like hers does.

Being a parent is kind of terrifying. You do the best you can, but you screw up, and every time you do screw up, it feels so much different from work screwups or other relationship screwups. It weighs more. But then they get older, and your chances to either screw up or not are quickly diminishing, because you just aren’t all that important anymore. You love them, and they love you, and you hope that you are always the safe place to land if they need it, but it’s different. When they fall on their face, it’s partly because you have given them enough space that they can fall. And then they get up! On their own! You’re just there watching on the sidelines, cheering and cringing and maybe providing a shoulder to cry on or a hug or just a set of ears that will listen to the ranting, but it’s not your life.  It used to feel like it was, but more and more, it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t.

Tonight that feels both beautiful and painful. As it should.

 

2/7/2017: Look Away

The temptation to look away is strong today.

DeVos.

Dakota Access Pipeline.

“Travel ban” possibly reinstated later today, but I’m writing early enough that I don’t know yet about that one.

This is just today’s headlines. I haven’t even gone the virtual equivalent of below the fold.

Friends, I am so weary. And angry. And sad.

Someone said to me recently, with very pure intentions, that none of this is really going to have a significant effect on me or my family. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I see where they are coming from. But THAT IS NOT THE POINT.  That DOES NOT MATTER. If we live our lives and cast our votes based only on what is going to happen in our little corner of the world, then aren’t we just casting away the very thing (empathy) that makes us human?

It’s impossible to hold in one’s head all the things going wrong and being mishandled in this world. This is not a partisan statement and is not even remotely limited to the last few weeks. I was just reading about Flint, Michigan’s continuing water crisis, and that sure as hell predates the current administration. And you only have to dip your pinky toe into the waters of either history or the present day to find a host of horrors committed by people of all kinds against other people of all kinds. Which isn’t to say that everyone is equally guilty, because I don’t believe that, but just that fear (which is where I think most hateful and harmful behavior originates) and ignorance (the other biggie in terms of causation) are not limited to any single group of people.

Recently, I overheard some kids saying cruddy things about another (not present) kid. They seemed sincerely baffled by my insistence that this was not okay, because the victim wasn’t present to hear their comments. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right? (And have I done the same thing?  Yes, of course I have.) If I don’t read the news, I can stay in my bubble, right? If I close my eyes and ears tight enough, and keep my arms close to my sides, I can ride this puppy out and it won’t even touch me.

It’s important to keep laughing. (Thank you, Melissa McCarthy.) It’s important to keep living in the present moment and the present surroundings. It’s important to keep hoping and keep loving and keep hoping that the loving matters. Of course it matters. Let’s just try to push it farther than we’re used to.

I’ll be honest that I am nervous. Not about love, but about being active and being a force for change.  These are tricky times for educators, because it’s like all the rules are being broken or changed. I had a 5th grade kid ask me the other day whether news articles are reliable sources, and I choked out some inadequate, confusing response. The question, once so simple (and still simple for the kid asking it–she had found a news article about her non-controversial research topic and wanted to know if it was reliable, nothing more or less), now feels like a complex, fragile creature.

I’m not feeling especially proud of myself today. I can’t and will never be perfect, but I can do better than this.