storytelling using mentor texts

Inevitably, every break brings time for reflection and renewal for teaching. What’s going well? What’s hurting the team? Over winter break, I found myself desperate for a reset in my classroom. Students didn’t even know each other’s names, much less stories; I was the bad guy without enough of the connection that grounds those high expectations; I was so busy trying to collaborate in an overwhelming amount of configurations that I lost my authentic teacher compass; I was buried in systematic behavior expectations that did not align with who I am…and that didn’t work. I felt like a failure…worst, I was uninspired and uninspiring.

Last semester, my colleague and friend started talking about the writing approach which consists of copying mentor texts. She’s all up in this book and talking about it all over the place. (You know, authentic and real PD…not the forced kind; rather the kind that evolves from dialogue and mutual eagerness to grow in our craft.) We implemented mentor texts with our juniors as a way to create real-life writing experiences: reviews.

Slowly these two bodies of reflection met and bowed to each other on the dance floor of my mind: how can I provide students the opportunity to share their stories and improve their writing with mentor texts? How can I create an opportunity for reset while encouraging students to write beyond the traditional (and boring) academic scope (read 5 paragraph essay).

And those two ideas danced. Beautifully and wonderfully, beyond my expectations. Here is how I approached it (some steps are modified for how I wish I would have done it):

  1. I decided on two mentor texts: Maus and Night. This would give students the ultimate choice: story-telling via prose or story-telling via art.
  2. Then I combed both texts looking for engaging prompts and mentor text sections that would elicit stories that matter from my students, the kinds of stories that bond at the heart level. Here are those prompts for Maus and Night.
  3. To begin all this, and to deepen my own connections with students, I also modeled the process, as did my student teacher. I chose for my brain dump a piece about my Mom I had published on this blog a while back. Then I altered it to mimic the mentor text. I also walked through breaking down the mentor text into moves I could mimic.
  4. Next students picked their genre and prompt followed by a rough draft. This draft is not based on the structure or style of the mentor text, but merely is a brain dump to get their stories onto the paper.
  5. Then began the analysis of the mentor texts’ approaches. This was a chance for students to be independently taught writing craft by the mentor text they selected. They were guided through this process using extensive graphic organizers. Here those are for Maus and NightOf course I shouldn’t have been surprised at how this organically produced the close and deep independent reading I’ve been trying to manufacture all year long. But that is exactly what happened. Three cheers for favorable instructional accidents!
  6. After the analysis portion, students transitioned to the remaking of their drafts into the style of their chosen genre. For some, this meant adding dialogue. For others, they rearranged paragraphs. For the artsy, they drew and divided into panels with shading and captions. No matter what, each student was nose deep in a text, looking for how to mimic it. It took a bit for them to get the hang of it, but they did!
  7. At this point, we did some peer workshopping. Secretly, the real point here was the sharing of their stories in partners to prepare them for a larger production. After all, in my head, this IS the reason for this entire writing project: community connections. All the academic benefits are bonuses. (Oops, did I say that out loud?)
  8. Then, the wondrous glory of storytelling: the sharing. I asked for feedback from students regarding which peers they felt most comfortable and uncomfortable sharing with, and then I used that data to place students into a variety of small groups. In those groups, I gave very specific directions to 1, read his/her story out loud and 2, each student was to write a note of encouragement/thank-you letter to the author after he/she shared. I provided sentence frames and colored cards. To me, these are the kinds of days I live for as a teacher. Students huddled together in small groups, sharing secrets of the heart, spinning webs of connection that are strong and trustworthy, a web upon which we build more learning and more connection. A web which catches the light.
  9. Finally, students self-graded using a narrative rubric based on CCSS. In the future, I will do a better job explicitly teaching these elements, because though they were inherent in the works the students produced, the students themselves did not have the language to self-evaluate with specifics.

The pieces the students turned in were breathtaking both in craft and content. Were there grammar errors? Of course…but honestly, who cared when I was seeing some of the best writing I’ve seen from students in my decade of teaching. The pieces were original and unique and authentic and individual and unfettered with the formulaic chains we so often think at-risk students need. The pieces were heart-wrenching with students exposing the dangerous truths of their lives: from gang violence to domestic abuse to homelessness to murder to drugs to suicide to anxiety to sexual assault to the grief of too many orphaned children. I was not reading papers; I was reading souls.

But THE most beautiful moment in this project came the day we shared our stories in small groups. Throughout the day, I roamed to different groups to pop in on students’ stories and leave them a note from my heart to theirs. In one group of two boys and two girls, one of my most difficult and often disengaged boys began sharing his story. As he worked his way through it, it was evident his exterior was cracking. His pace slowed; his face tightened; his eyes moistened; his words chocked. He collapsed into himself, a heaving pile of grief, shattered by bullets past. Literally. His peer, the other boy in the group, silently got up from his seat, walked around the table, knelt beside him, rubbed his back, and just stayed…a steady, silent, comforting rock. It was a moment so beautiful, so raw, I nearly lost my breath.

Who am I kidding? I did.

And things have been better with that student. Not perfect. Not a miracle. But a shaky bridge has been solidified.

And that is just the kind of story I want to write with penstrokes of my career.

 

brazilian wax poetic

I remember it very clearly. I was sitting in front of the computer while Dave sat on our blue leather couch. With my approaching December graduation date from North Central, we were discussing what comes next. What do I do as a teacher who graduates in December? It’s awkward. It’s unfavorable. It’s ill-timed.

And so, I uttered two dangerous words of adventure: what if?

What if we move to Colorado?

What if we work at a ski resort for the season?

What if we just spend a few months playing?

Those two words changed our lives. We moved to Colorado with everything we owned in a jeep. Found careers that we loved and that loved us back. Made new friends and new memories with old friends. Hosted family for holidays and vacations. Embraced the land and the lifestyle of the mountains. Became runners and yogis and cyclists. Experienced new dimensions of the Divine and new nuances of ourselves.

For the last eleven years, we have lived blessed and beautiful lives. Thank you God.

And now: what if?

Dave and I have been revisiting these very two dangerous words for a while now. Adventure calls.

What if we move?

What if it’s far?

What if it’s overseas?

What if it’s completely foreign and unlike any life we’ve ever lived?

Those two very dangerous words of what if have tumbled into two other words: I accept.

This past weekend I attended an international job fair in Boston, at which I found Graded. Before we went, I made a list of what I wanted in an overseas teaching gig: financially, personally and professionally. I pursued schools who met those criteria with a singular devotion. But in the end, or perhaps in the beginning, Graded found me.

And so, Dave and I will be taking this… freak show… circus… adventure on the road starting July 2017, at which time we will move to Sao Paulo, Brazil for a two-year contract. There are a million things to do and a million goodbyes to cry and a million freak-outs to stifle and a million questions to answer…but for now, I’ll settle into the wild-eyed lap of what if.


For those of you interested in the details of our adventure, I’ll be starting a new blog by the title of this post. Stay tuned!

img33455-city-at-night-sao-paulo

meditations on the sea

It is vast against the horizon. So much so…it IS the horizon. It shifts the sand beneath my cold toes, and still further dizzies my eyes with its periphery-dancing. Yet the sea does not dread the distances, calculating arrivals and departures, lost in the abyss of so-whats and then-whats.

It is buoyant despite emotional spasms. At one rock outcropping–battered knuckles of stone rising against the blue–there is anger. Foam churns, one million crashes in a busy liquid intersection. It is violent, destructive. Just five rock-knuckles down, small children and grown men laugh in the surf, their bodies caressed by the gentle tide. Here, there is joy: a playground for the young at heart. Yet, the sea does not worry about its vacillating waves of ups and downs, giggles and groans.

It is storied. An infinite amount of narratives are surrounded by its borders. There is no place on earth not footnoted by its boundaries. Beneath its surface another language exists: tall tales of ferocious hunters and tiny fables of minuscule plants. Yet, the sea is at peace in its own identity, authentic and brave and beautiful.

It is inconstant. The only thing that stays the same is that it changes. Fluid, flexible and fluctuating because nothing is in its control; it bows to the moods of the moon and the pollution of the people. Always unsure of who it was or who it will be, the sea just is.

It is frightening. Dangers lurk beneath it and above it and beside it. Fear multiplies like grains of sand: storms and tsunamis and sharks and stings and sunburn; currents and cancer and career changes and crashes. Yet, though drowning in a million anxieties, the sea is not anxious.


 

 

tidings of comfort

When I think of God, I think of Love.

When I think of Love, I think of Comfort.

And when I think of Comfort, I think of the holidays.

In the past year, we’ve lost both our pets. Our Christmas tree sits undisturbed in the corner of our living room, the sun through the windows its only companion. We don’t come home and play the game we so loved to be annoyed by: six ornaments rolling around on the ground, one broken, moving them further and further up the tree in some Jenga strategy to protect them from wagging hazards and pawing attacks.

Comfort.

Tomorrow marks the 5th anniversary of my Dad’s passing. My Dad loved Christmas music. He would sing along to it, or whistle along to it, from the deepest places of joy in his heart. To this day, I can’t hear “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bell Rock” without hearing his voice from some secret distance.

Comfort.

Two years later, my Mom joined my Dad. I miss her Christmasness. Peanut butter balls, fudge, all on a plate saran-wrapped, sitting cold on the porch. The buffets of food and a family packed around a festive tablecloth in an ivy-wallpapered kitchen. Mom, sitting near a frosty window cracked open so her cigarette smoke could escape.

Comfort.

And still we celebrate. There is joy in the holiday season. We are surrounded by those who love us and those whom we love. We live lives dripping with reasons to be grateful.

But there is also a sadness. An indescribable and inexplicable and inapproachable loneliness wraps around our heart like a scarf against the cold. A narrative of Christmas pasts of bonding and fighting reflects back at us from the twinkling lights. A deep ache to pick up the phone and hear that voice, that laugh, just once more burns as a candle on the windowsill. A longing for all the lost Christmases that will never be had drops in the belly, heavy like too many cookies.

Grief multiplies like frost on a window, intricate and beautiful and shattering lines of connection that disappear with the touch of a warm finger on lifeless glass.

Comfort.

I write this for me.

But, I write this for you, too: Jennifer and Jenny and Jen. Pam and Jo Ann. Mark and Regina. Cheryl. Erica. Fernanda. Heather. Doyle and Laina. Kathryn. Brandon. Dad and Mom. Juli. Jan. My family. Mel. Chris. Cara. Hilary. Melissa. Those of you not named, but nonetheless with me in sorrow during this season.

We stand together in the snow, icicles of crystal tears, and we hold each other up. Like wreaths, we circle in love and welcome those weights that break us and make us. We look for the light in the Bethlehems of each others’ hearts. We huddle together around the fire of comfort.

Comfort. For you. For me.


 

 

 

election day metta prayer

For the self:

May I loosen in surrender

May I linger in light

May I laugh in joy

May I luxuriate in love

May I  live in peace.

 

For the other:

May you loosen in surrender

May you linger in light

May you laugh in joy

May you luxuriate in love

May you live in peace.

 

For the community:

May we loosen in surrender

May we linger in light

May we laugh in joy

May we luxuriate in love

May we live in peace.

 

 

to see the light, be the light: shifting perspective

Transitioning back into the classroom full time at a new school has been so. stinking. hard. To the point where I feel caught in a web spun by a mid-life-career-crisis-spider. (More on that to come later.)

I work at least 60 hours a week. I am tired. I am overwhelmed. I never feel good enough. I feel unsuccessful at doing all those things I have written about for so long on this blog–the things that matter most. I am insecure in who I am as a teacher. It has been five years since I’ve had a caseload of 150 students. How do I connect with them all on a meaningful level on a daily basis? The answer is I don’t. I’m not. And it’s killing me (softly with his song).

All of this sob story is old news and has been since early September. What’s burning in my heart currently is an experience I had at a grade level meeting. The facilitator started off the meeting asking for anyone to share good news.

And. I. froze.

Good news…

Hmm…

Let me think…

Ugh…

There’s gotta be something…

O.U.C.H.

I have become that person I don’t want to be: Dramatic. Stuck in the muck of negativity. Drowning in cynicism. Devoid of hope. Lost in the dark.

No. Just no.

I saw this growing up. I love my Mom, and I miss her deeply, and from her I have gained so many strengths and wonderful characteristics. But one thing I do not want to emulate from her was her inability to celebrate good things without attaching a “but.” And because of this, I think more woe came to her.

Because for so much of her life  (pre-cancer), that’s what she saw: woe.

We become what we see. We attract that which is our focus. We reap what we sow. On what we dwell, we cultivate.

I am guilty of ADD: Attentive to Deficit Disorder.

And because I am consumed with them, deficits abound. Because they are at the forefront of my mind, problems manifest regularly.

Time to turn on the light.

  • L. has spent the first few months of school refusing to write. Anything. “I am a reader, but I can’t write. I have never passed an English class, just look at my record.” Just yesterday, at Saturday school, he wrote an entire full page essay, typed.
  • I. and I do not get along. She is constantly defiant and disruptive. But for a brief moment, she was turning in work. Good work. Quality work. At my desk in a conference, I told her: “You hide behind this mask of being a ‘bad girl,’ but I don’t think that’s who you are.” Her eyes glittered.
  • G. was there when I was gently corrected by another adult for an error I made. It was all good. But he looked at me and said, “Miss, you want me to square up for you?”
  • H. wrote: “I appreciate your high expectations. You don’t let us get away with less than our best.”
  • T. complained yesterday at Saturday school about how the work was too hard. I provided him another resource. Soon enough, he is quietly settled into both resources to accomplish the task. Independently. Successfully.

We become what we see. We attract that which is our focus. We reap what we sow. On what we dwell, we cultivate.

Time to see the light.

Time to be the light.

 

 

welcome home to b261

The first day is everything.

My students spent their summer inundated with news reports about senseless, merciless and unjust killings of people who look just like them. They are afraid.

My students spent their summer working multiple jobs just to keep food on their families’ tables. They are hungry and tired.

My students spent their summer wondering which of their teachers from May would still be there in August. They are insecure.

My students spent their summer listening to a white man’s rhetoric about how they don’t belong in this country, how they’ll be shipped back to a place that is no longer home to them, only to have their vision of this country’s promise cut off by a wall. They are worried.

My students spent their summer surrounded by terror attacks of extremists who (reportedly) worship the same god they do. They are disheartened.

So, yes, the first day is everything.

When they walk into my classroom–into our classroom–they don’t just need a safe place. They don’t just need a restorative place. They don’t just need a grounded place. They don’t just need a comfortable place. They don’t just need a welcoming place.

They need a home where they belong.

  • Home is where the door is open and inviting. It is important that the minute students see our classroom, they know it is for them. I do this with welcoming signs and clear communication.img_8376
  • Home is a place that is tidy and organized. I bought a carpet to ensure the auditory and aesthetic quality of my room was on point. I have bins for students to store their stuff. All of the previous day’s handouts have a place to be with clear labeling. I have minimal decorations as this will arise collaboratively with students’ contributions and academic anchor charts throughout the year.
  • Home is a place where resources abound. My first year student teaching, my mentor had the students bring community supplies for extra credit. I have copied this every year since. We have bad days or forgetful days; when that happens, my students always have what they need in the classroom to be successful–partly because they provide those resources for each other. IMG_8421
  • Home is a place where students are known. I do not want students’ first day to be going over a syllabus.

    Rather, I give a survey the first day so that I can gather important information about who my kiddos are…in school and as a human. While they are taking the survey, I walk around and introduce myself to each of them individually with a handshake. Such a first day procedure ensures that the priceless first impression that our time together will not be about rules, but about them.

  • Home is a place where I as the teacher am known. This was my first year at my current school, so the reputation that in the past had always done so much prework for me was void. So, I brought my reputation to them…alongside my heart. Students walked into the classroom to find this letter.
  • Home is a place where students see themselves. Our first activity as a class was to watch and discuss this video about “what’s your WHY?” I shared with students that there will be times this year where it will be hard and discouraging, and that’s exactly why they need to know why they’re showing up and persevering. Some of their whys (more still to come from students throughout the year) now are on display at the front of the room as a visual reminder to them that this is not about a grade, but about a heart matter.
  • Home is a place where students honor connection. The day after I introduced the why concept, we had circle. In this time, with the passing of a talking piece, students shared who or what their why is and told a story about their why. It was tender and special and bonding. It was a beautiful way to establish the kind of feel we will have in our classroom.img_8387

Just as the circle, I end where I started. The first day is everything. For I know that for there to be great learning in my class, there must be great risk.

And everyone feels more comfortable risking when they feel at home.


For more of my thoughts on how to establish a sense of home where students belong in the classroom, check out:

 

 

 

 

 

the tree next door

***This post is in response to The Privilege Tree.***

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful forest that grew on the right side of the tracks. Sunlight danced in and out of the curves of branches; butterflies flitted from sunflower to sunflower; fairies sparkled and dropped tiny packages of blessings here and there and everywhere.

Under the canopy of trees, little white boys frolicked and played as boys do. And when the boys wandered too far from the tree and too close to danger, they each retreated quickly to the cool shade of their privilege trees.

Just miles away on the wrong side of the tracks grew another forest. Trees withered and cracked in the oppressive sun; bees and bugs feasted on young innocent skin; brown leaves littered the rocky ground.

A young boy grew a special relationship with one of those trees. He said to the tree, “You are the father I never had.” And after hugging the tree, he pulled away with splinters the color of his own skin. He gathered those splinters and crafted a toy gun. He went to show off to his homies this precious gift from his father. While running along the concrete path, waving in joy his sense of belonging, he was gunned down by police who mistook that gift for a Beretta 92FS. He now lies buried under his special tree.

Just three trees to the left in the same forest, another boy sat under a different rotting tree and organized his school supplies. He looked up at the tree and said, “Don’t worry tree; I’m going to be strong and tall and intimidating like you are.” In class that day, he spoke out of turn because that’s how the trees talk: moved by the wind. When his teacher called him out on being disrespectful, he got scared and wondered what his tree would think of him. And so he argued with her and hit his desk in frustration. She immediately sent him to the dean, who sent him to another dean, and three years later he’s in juvenile detention. He wonders if the branches he sees from his concrete jungle’s window can send a message to his tree. “Tell her I’m sorry.”

In the far back corner of the same forest, another taller boy sat under his decrepit tree. He was shivering deeply from the ice-box-air and ice-cold-culture. With a hungry stomach, he pulled his hood up and set off to the local convenience store. Having asked the tree “What would you like today?” without a response, he thought he’d bring back some sunflower seeds so the birds would be drawn to them both. As he debated to himself about his tree’s favorite flavor, he was shot down by a self-proclaimed security guard. His hoodie now hangs from his tree’s branches, shredded by the gusts.

Not long later, the boys from the other side of the tracks, upon adventuring through, saw the potential in the land beneath the degraded forest. They called their friends who called their lawyers who called their banks who called their architects who called their builders who called their businesses who called their lumberjacks to cut down the aging and ancient trees, and now, what once was the scary forest next door is the newest hip neighborhood: Gentrified Woods.

And there, the boys lived happily ever after in their privileged homes, cut and crafted from the guardians of the oppressed, while their privilege trees applaud.

 

 

 

THIS.

https://crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/let-them-know-love/

one reflection

Charged rhetoric. Resegregation. Terror Attacks. Cop funerals. Black lives that don’t matter enough.

I weep for our world.

And as tears roll down my face and pool in my heart, I see the mirrored reflection of my humanity. Of our humanity.

Staring back at me is mi abuelo y abuela. Not mine by birth, but by my sister’s marriage. Growing up I remember their parties. Loud laughter; welcoming hugs; lively discussions; late night dancing under hanging lights; endless bowls of arroz con pollo y homemade mole. More than their parties was their presence: no matter what my brother-in-law and sister went through, they were there. They were there for Dave and I too, gifting us with a suite for our wedding night (espero que ustedes están leyendo esto porque quiero darle las gracias: gracias Abuelo y Abuela). And they were there in our home too. Mexican skin and tongue brought together by holiday family fests–the only translator needed was Mom’s chicken spaghetti or sweet potatoes. Brown Mom and White Mom were assaulted equally by breast cancer, and they quilted the tapestry of their hands together to comfort each other’s pain and fear. I, white, am them, Mexican; and they are me.

Staring back at me is the predominantly black fellowship that cultivated my formative years. Singing “black and yellow, red and white, they are precious in his sight” carried more potency when I held all those colors of hands and merged into all those colors of voices and hugged all those colors of bodies. I prayed with them. I ate with them. I served with them. I drove through ghettos with them to play volleyball. I dated them. I lived with them. And the rhythms of their souls and the swagger of their hips and the passion of their hearts became my own. I, white, am them, black; and they are me.

Staring back at me are the Muslim girls for whom I was a camp counselor. I greeted them with Allahu Akbar. I found reverence for their careful attention to cleaning rituals before meals. I saw the Divine in their five calls daily to prayer. I learned respect for their self-governed choices to cover their heads. I enjoyed the beautiful way they let go when they felt completely free. I, Christian, am them, Muslim; and they are me.

Staring back at me is the multitude of students who are at-risk in this world that should be guarding them. Their color and race does not matter, for they are united by the bedrock of poverty upon which others’ American dreams are built. They don’t go to the doctor when they are sick because it is too expensive. They are sequestered to schools where their success–and failure–is reduced to numbers. They hide in closets during territorial shootings outside their doors. They care for their mothers who have been beaten by abusive spouses. They work jobs at night instead of doing homework in order to keep their family together. They are pushed out of their neighborhoods by the oozing white tentacles of gentrification. They hide in drugs or gangs or sex because they have no other way to cope with the dark reality of their lives. And everyday I show up to educate them, but end up instead being taught by them. I, privileged and safe, am them, disadvantaged and poor; and they are me.

Staring back at me is my nephew-in-law. Day after day for years he has pursued a variety of assignments in his local police vicinity: first security detail, then cop, now detective. With a heart of integrity, he serves his community to build trust and security and prosperity for all parties involved. On his social media feed, he likes his black best friend’s white wife’s post of an image of their mixed son with the hashtag #mysonisnotahashtag. Meanwhile less than 800 miles away from his home, three cops left their wives and children in the morning never to return. He is not the enemy. They are not the enemy. There is no he or they. I, civilian, am him, officer; and he is me.

Staring back at me is the weight of my white privilege. To write a statement like “I am … and … is me” is something that I, a white woman, can get away with. I have a position of power that I recognize. But I also refuse to let it cloud my vision and steal my light.

I am done with lines and borders and binaries that cut bloody scars across communities.

Black/white. Legal/illegal. Cop/civilian. Muslim/Christian. Republican/Democrat. Poor/rich. Them/us. You/me.

They are us. We are them.

I am you. You are me.

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