Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rigel and the lost wallet

For a year in grad school, I shared an apartment with a Dutch rabbit named Rigel. I didn't set out to have a pet rabbit, though I had wanted one. Rigel was originally my friend Kate's rabbit. The summer after my first year, I moved out for dorms and into one of the apartments in Kate's building. She left for Naval Officer Candidate School, and I took over caring for Rigel until I, too, left Wyoming.

Rigel literally had been saved from the stew pot, or so the story goes, by Kate and her former roommate a year before I ever met her. Kate and her roommate were looking for an apartment-friendly pet and called a local rabbit breeder. The breeder didn't really breed for pets, but she had a young rabbit who she was willing to let them adopt. Rigel had a genetic defect that would prevent him from being showable. It was the kind of defect only a breeder would care about: his eyes weren't a uniform color.

After Kate's roommate moved out, Kate cared for Rigel. I loved coming over to Kate's place, which was far more comfortable than my small dorm room. Rigel made it even more homey for me. Kate often let him have free reign when she was home. I could have spent hours watching Rigel wander around the apartment. He would explore, then touch base with us, often nudging us for a scratch between the ears. Rigel accepted me as part of the family, dancing around and sometimes even circling me.

Rigel was a sweet, wonderful little guy, but he also had a streak of mischief. When he wanted to play chase, or when he wanted something he knew he shouldn't have (like a paper I was working on), Rigel would try to be stealthy. Instead of approaching the thing directly, he'd wander around, making a circuitous, but inevitable path toward the object of his desire. Kate and I jokingly called it the "lost wallet" technique because it seemed like Rigel was trying to convince us he was looking for SOMETHING ELSE. But, even though he appeared to be uninterested in the paper or other bit of stuff he wanted, he'd get closer and closer. Soon, he'd snatch the desired object and tear across the living room as if his life depended on it. One of us would give chase, and the game was on. When Rigel tired of the game, he'd drop whatever it was he'd grabbed, and flop over, letting us have our possession back and getting his favorite between-the-eyes scratches.

Today, as I folded laundry, did dishes, and tried to complete other more domestic projects during break, I realized that these were my own version of the lost wallet. Often, when I have a task that troubles me like writing letters of recommendation or reflecting on what I'm reading or teaching, I will engage in completely unrelated tasks as if I didn't have looming deadlines or self-created goals. Then, suddenly, I'll start whatever I was supposed to be doing and I'll tear through it, completing it much faster than thought I would.

Sometimes, it's avoidance. But sometimes, like today when I was having trouble forming a coherent response for an online discussion of Penny Kittle's Book Love, I need to take a more roundabout path toward my destination. My thoughts still haven't quite come together. But remembering Rigel and the sheer joy of the chase when he finally got his teeth into what he wanted, I'm ok looking around for my lost wallet for a little while longer.

Friday, November 30, 2012

YA Love

For the past 8 years, I have taught high school English. I became a high school English teacher in my early 30s and my initial enthusiasm for YA can be credited to Dr. Linda Hanrahan. Dr. Hanrahan, who is now Associate Professor and Chair Graduate Program at Ithaca College, was my English methods course professor at George Mason when I was seeking my initial teaching license.

I have always been surrounded by books, but didn't spend a lot of time with YA. Though I had read voraciously as a young adult myself, I gravitated toward adult fantasy and some science fiction. Sure, I had devoured A Wrinkle in Time as a young girl. I had spent time with Menoly of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong, too. But I hadn't really read anything that might be considered YA since the early 1980s because I had my brothers and my mom as reading mentors, and they were reading the "adult" stuff.

I preferred those other worlds to the realistic fiction and classics of the classroom, though I dutifully read or tried to read those, too. I was a strong enough reader I could do well in English, which allowed me the opportunities to read my own choices while others struggled through their work. Rarely, even in high school, was I not reading something beyond the assigned texts. Because I was good at the school stuff, my teachers mostly looked the other way when i pulled out my own paperbacks during down time. but they never really asked me about my reading or ma any links between my books and theirs.

As a result of Dr. Hanrahan's intro methods course, I understood more teachers were using choice and sustained silent reading (never an option given to me as a student) to help kids love literature and improve their reading skills. I realized the genres I love wouldn't necessarily be the ones my students would love, so I thought it would be a good idea to explore what YA was to find books to hook all of my students.

During the summer of 2004, Dr. Hanrahan taught EDCI 597: Young Adult Literature in Multicultural Settings. Some of my classmates from methods (many of whom were already classroom teachers) had signed up, so I had a feel for what the class dynamic might be. Then I discovered that most of the course was online, with only 6 face to face meetings. I got to read and I didn't have to spend my entire summer in night classes while still working my corporate job? i was sold.

At the core of the class were book group discussion board posts that reviewed each of the 20-25 books each group member chose to read that summer. While I revisited Madeline L'Engle, I also added new author friends like Jerry Spinelli, Linda Oatman High, Rodrick Philbin, Gary Paulsen, and Sonya Sones (how delighted I was to watch her twirl and perform at ALAN this year!). Through the 21 books I flew through between June and August and the postings of my book group's reviews, theme studies, and author studies, I began to see what I had been missing by not reading YA. These weren't simplistic characters of teens enduring the sting of peer pressure and puppy love in saccharine, teen magazine fashion. The YA books we read and shared not only reflected the complexity of contemporary teens and elevated their stories beyond mere stereotype, they spanned genres from poetry to historical fiction, and even non-fiction. My own theme study of gender and sexual identity in YA revealed a broadening array of gay, lesbian, questioning, and even transgendered characters, thanks to works by Julie Ann Peters, Alex Sanchez, and Nancy Garden. These books were nothing like those "children's" books I expected.

Even though it has taken me quite a while to begin the explore the balance between choice and whole class reading, the foundation of and love for young adult literature I developed in Dr. Hanrahan's summer class continues. From the first day I finally entered the classroom in January 2005, I had those authors and stories with me to help match kids and books. While I'm still working on getting the breadth of book knowledge held by my choice reading heroes (readers and lead learners like Donalyn Miller, Paul Hankins, Penny Kittle and Teri Lesesne), I have added 114 ya books to my GoodReads YA shelf since I started more seriously tracking and logging my reading in 2010.

My class library now occupies almost 3 full-sized book shelves, books I bought, gathered, or was given. Works I acquired at, and are finally arriving in the mail from, the 2012 NCTE Annual Conference and the Assembly on Adolescent Literature-NCTE (ALAN) workshop will likely fill 3-4 more shelves. I know I have many to replace because they have walked off with readers over the years, and for as long as I teach, I will replace and buy many more. But I will continue to spend my energy, time, and money to seek advanced reader copies, talk books with my online and in person friends, comb thrift stores and bargain sales, and develop relationships with booksellers to have even more choices for the young readers in my classroom.

Why? Because YA makes reading contagious and easy to pass to kids who don't see themselves as readers. Reading and falling in love with YA gives me and my students a chance to look into ourselves and slip into the lives of others. As along the way, we become better students, better citizens, and better readers.

Thanks, Linda, for starting me on this path.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

NCTE and ALAN 2012, part I.

This year's NCTE took place in Las Vegas. I thought I'd be smart and go to work on Thursday, catch a flight there, and be ready to go to the Friday morning general session. If I was 20 years younger, that would have worked.

As it was, I realized I was approaching 23 hours without sleep when I arrived at my hotel near 11:30 p.m. local time, as it was 2:30 a.m. on the East Coast. So, I missed Sir Ken Robinson's 8 a.m. keynote, which many are citing as highlight of the conference.

Still, this conference drove home for me that it's not really about the names, though I did see some of the rock stars of the English teaching world. It's about the connections and thoughtful reflections. Oh, and the books. It's always about the books. But, more on that in another post.

So, Friday was a fairly light day for me.

I made it to two fascinating presentations that forced my jetlagged brain to consider what I hadn't before. Probably the most thought-provoking for me for both Friday and the entire conference was "Teaching Adolescents As If They Already Knew What They were Doing," a panel chaired by Randy Bomer that featured presentations by Katherine Bomer, Deb Kelt, and Allison Skerritt.

Randy Bomer began the session with a story of a former student, Craig, who was also an assistant manager at a local Pizza Hut.  Craig came alive when talking about his work, but became defeated when faced with typical literacy tasks in the classroom. Bomer began to wonder how he could bridge the gap between Craig the defeated student, and Craig the animated manager. Thus, it was Craig who began to illustrate for Bomer the difference between appreciative and deficiency stances toward literacy practices. Really, Craig already had many of the skills he needed to be a successful student, though some weren't fully developed. But, instead of focusing on what kids like Craig already know and can do, we tend to focus on what he can't do now or must do in the future. Instead of treating education like an apprenticeship that buildings on existing structures, we tend to focus on filling kids up with the requisite knowledge and skills.

The rest of the panel built on Bomer's ideas.
  • Katherine Bomer brought up Stephen Colbert's interview technique, an improvisational rule called "Yes, and..." that posits the work of the classroom as building a scene together. To build a scene in improv, everyone has to accept what's going on, pay attention, (Yes) and build the scene together (and...).
  • This is the second time this year that the idea of using improvisation-based thinking as a way to build skills has come up. The first time was at the Journalism Education Association's Adviser's Institute last summer. Mark Newton led a session called "Yes, and..." which focused on using improv techniques to get student media leaders to establishing a community of trust and creativity.
  • Allison Skerritt shared how much she learned by giving students cameras to document their literacy practices. By opening up literacy as something more inclusive than simply reading and writing in class, Skerritt invited students to share their interests and expertise. This became the foundation of class practice.
  • Deb Kelt, a 9th and 10th grade teacher who works with the lowest achieving students in her building, also shared practices geared toward appreciative thinking. She used texting as a way to discuss inference skills with kids. Kids GET inference with texting, but panic with books. By using texting as a way in, she was able to let them know they already had the skills they needed to succeed as students.
Honestly, this idea of deficit thinking versus appreciative thinking got to me.  I watched Katherine's writing conference accept and celebrate student interests and strengths; I saw how Allison Skerritt students' demonstrated their literacy practices in a way that allowed them to express their cultural identities; and I heard Deb Kelt's story of a student who told another to hang his dreams right over his head in the classroom so he could always reach for his dreams. This session made me realize I need to seriously consider "Yes, and..." as a philosophical approach. Sure, I've read Penny Kittle's work on writing, and I subscribe to a significant place for choice reading. But, how much more can I do if I assume that although I'm the lead learner, I'm not the expert? Isn't that what "yes, and..." is? What do I exclude in my focus to get students to a specific place or a specific skill? How many students have I closed off with a "No, but" instead of opening up with a "Yes, and..."

And that was just the first session of the day...

Then I got to see the rock stars: Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Tom Newkirk. As I expected, each challenged me and the session seemed to have been designed to build on the discussion I had just left.

  • Kelly emphasized reflection as a writing territory that's vital to kids understanding of themselves and extending that understanding to the world; again, we start where kids are. Our classroom literacy becomes an imaginative rehearsal space for the world (with credit to Kenneth Burke). We, as the lead leaders, guide discussions where we read, analyze, and emulate writing. We do, I do, you do, you reflect. Really, how much more straightforward can that be? And why am I not doing it all of the time?
  • Penny Kittle described a research writing elective where students used story as a springboard to in-depth research. Again, she started with student interests and allowed them to build text sets of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, informational writitng, charts, graphs, tables, infographics--a wide variety of media--to begin to write from data. I loved her idea that writing becomes a duet of you and your sources! Kids need to be able to tell the story of the data rather than just regurgitate it, and that story becomes the duet.
  •  Finally Tom Newkirk talked about the idea of narrative writing as being at the core of all other forms. Newkirk, who I'd read but never seen before, had us laughing at his stories and thinking as he discussed how we are hardwired to see the world in causal terms.Stories help us form the patterns we need to make the abstract concrete. To hold information and to expand our range of sympathies, we need stories.  He specifically mentioned Kristoff's op-eds in the New York Times, which made the horror of the sex trade real for readers by bringing to light individual stories of girls sold into prostitution. Also, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address gave listeners a narrative on which to base the reconcilliation of a nation. But what really had us rolling with laughter was Newkirk's inclusion of an example of how narrative brings informational writing to life. He displayed at read the opening from "The Big Heat," a New Yorker commentary on the drought of 2012 by Elizabeth Kolbert. If Kolbert's description of corn sex doesn't make you see pollination in a more vivid way, I'm not sure anything I can say can impress upon you the power of story to help us make sense of our world.
Honestly, by the end of these two presentations, I was ready to connect with some of my Twitter friends. I ran into Jen Ansbach and together, we spent the next 3 hours cruising around the exhibit hall, gathering ideas, buying books, and getting advanced reader copies of upcoming titles. I left the hall $30 poorer (it would be much more than that by Sunday), but richer for the conversations I had with Jen, Gary Anderson, Tony Romano, and several others who I met along the way.

And that was just day 1 before dinner...

Is there any question why I spend my own money and take personal time to travel half way across the country?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Confessions of an erratic blogger

I don't suppose I have much to confess; the archive to the right says about all that needs saying. The urge to blog comes and goes, which ensures I won't have much of a following here. But, I still think there's good in reflecting in my blog.

I'm still trying to process NCTE and ALAN this year. I've already written 3 reviews for books I acquired as a result.

Perhaps I need a challenge, like I've seen so many others undertake.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

#TeachersWrite and the Day 2 Quickwrite

This week, one of the wonderful writers and educators I follow on Twitter, Kate Messner, just started a summer writing challenge for teachers called Teachers Write. Kate originally envisioned this as a small group of teachers working together to make the time to write and to support one another. But @KateMessner didn't count on the resonance such an idea would have with her more than 7,000 followers on Twitter and her Facebook friends, many of whom retweeted or linked to her challenge. Kate had more than 700 people, including me, sign up to participate in her challenge.

Day 1's Monday minilesson was on making time to write and the challenge is to come up with a writing plan for the summer. I'm up to my eyeballs trying to finish the school year about a week early so I can fly out to the A.P. English Language and Composition reading this Friday, so I haven't made the time to make a plan I know I'll stick to. Still, I felt it was important to carve out 20 minutes or so to blog here and start the semi-weekly 6/5 quickwrite. So, here's my zero draft writing in response to Kate's prompt: Write for two minutes to describe a very specific place. If you’re just free-writing, it can be a place that you love, or have visited, or a place that frightens you.

Zero draft--The Bee Yard

At the side of our house is a little enclosure my husband and I built for our bees. It started as a simple idea: build a lattice work privacy screen to keep people from stumbling through our open side yard to where we planned to keep our bee hives. Early in the spring on 2010, we would get our first two hives installed. The unfenced side yard gave them plenty of sun and we had very little planted there that we loved. We paid a guy a few hundred bucks to take down the Eastern Red Cedar trees that lined the sidewalk. We'd wanted to take those down for years, but the damage done to them by the previous winter's snows and the decision to have beehives near by that would be damaged if the trees took snow damage in the next winter finally spurred us to action.

Once the trees were removed, we put in two 4x4 wooden posts into the ground so that an 8-foot panel would be parallel to the sidewalk and about 15 feet or so away from it. Then we place another two posts about 4 feet farther into the yard at roughly a 45% angle from the back panel posts. This way, the lattice panels formed an open-sided trapezoid, with the open end facing away from the street. Inside that, we made a 4x8 frame and poured in river rocks. Some friends helped us pound the rocks solidly into the frame to make a base for the hives. Then we put in cinder blocks to serve as a base for the hive. Because we had two hives, we placed the hives at each end of the stone pad. On one end, there was a green hive and on the other, closer to the house, one we'd painted light brown.

Even though we've changed the beeyard and expanded it since then, I still love to go into it on a cool spring afternoon, just to see the bees at work. Sometimes, I like to pull a chair out into the yard, ignoring the cars and people passing only 20 feet away, and watch the bees come and go. Early in the season, while the nectar flows readily, the bees ignore me and I can sit 3-4 feet away for a close view. That puts me almost into the flight path and I hear them, and can sometimes even feel the air move, as the dive past me to bring the hive their secret loads of nectar or the garrulously-colored pollen they carry on their legs like puffy pants. I tune out the afternoon traffic on our busy residential street and focus on the hum of healthy hives, a sound created in part by the coming and going of the bees as they whirl up and away from or dive straight back into the entrances and in part by the bees who stand just outside those entrances, fanning their wings to cool the hive and to send the scent of home winging toward their foraging sisters. The watching the flights, listening to the sound of the living hive, and breathing that unique scent of honey, wax, and something that I can only describe as bee smell puts me at ease. I can lose minutes without noticing. In the beeyard, I'm not the center of activity, nor am I even a significant part of the scene; I'm just a minor flight path diversion.

Author's note: I will admit that I took much longer than 2 minutes on this. I thought about it and looked at pictures and ended up telling more of a story than I intended. But it still qualifies as what Anne Lamott would call a "shitty first draft." I'm going to leave it raw like this in hopes that I come back to it for inspiration later. That's the point, right?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Work to the Rule actions and midnight math

I originally wrote this on Facebook, where my friends have been linking to articles about the budget in a  neighboring county and a grass-roots work action taking place there. I realized it was a blog post in disguise, and I've been remiss in posting here. So, here's my midnight math, so named because these are the kinds of things I think about when I wake up in the middle of the night.


Some of my friends in Prince William County are participating in a work to the rule action ( That means they work only their 7 contract hours.

Some of the less sophisticated comments on the local media website make the same bogus claim that teachers get paid for the summer, when they don't work. I took a look at the salary scales on because I was curious.

Let's go with a hypothetical teacher and see if the numbers play out. New Teacher at Step 1 with a BA earns $43,612 salary on a 7-hour a day, 195 day contract. That's 1365 compensated work hours at a rate of about $31.95. That looks pretty good for an hourly rate, I'll admit. But, when I was doing bids on proposals, we calculated a full time equivalent at 2080 hours. which is 52 40-hour weeks per year, not 1365 hours, which would be 34.125 40-hour weeks per year. If New Teacher were really being paid for 12 months at her hourly rate, she'd be making $66456 per year. So, New Teacher clearly isn't getting paid for a year's work, nor are the teachers in Prince William County asking to be compensated for work they don't do.

The salary scales and contracts pay for a 195 day contract, 7 hours/day. But contract hours aren't realistic. Honestly, most teachers put in at least an extra hour each day at school and many work 4-5 hours extra per week on grading, planning, emails, etc. So, that 7-hour contract day is in reality more like a 9-hour work day for many. That drops the hourly rate to $24.85, if one were to figure in the uncompensated time. That's a whole lot of uncompensated time and a whole lot of money gone. Sure, teaching isn't just about the money, but wouldn't most people want to demonstrate how much work goes uncompensated when the numbers are that dramatic?

Some commenter have mentioned low police and fire pay, and I agree that our first responders are often undercompensated. But, even that's an apples to oranges comparison as first responders are compensated for overtime hours worked (and again, rightly so). Teachers aren't.

Additionally, while that $43612 looks good, the cost of living in Prince William County is not significantly lower than in DC. Fair market rent for an efficiency apartment for FY2012 is $1,166 (Those can be found at  So, 32% of New Teacher's gross income is spend on housing. According to HUD, "Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care." ( Sure, she's just out of college as a 1st year teacher. But she's probably going to have to find another job to make ends meet.

And that's not going to change for the next 4 years, according to PWCS ( The school system anticipates a salary freeze through 2015. Will her rent go down in that time? Probably not. That same little apartment she's renting this year was $1,131 last year, $1,156 in FY2010, and $1,002 in FY2009. It's probably only going to get tougher to make ends meet.

And none of that figures in the pension ramifications of the pay freeze for New Teacher, which would be a whole other set of calculations.

It's not too tough to see why my Prince William colleagues are upset.