Tuesday, March 28, 2017

SLICE #28- Manhood stalled

Son #2.
Physically built.
Athletically talented.

And really struggling right now.

He gets up about ten.
Plays video games.
Waits for his brother to get home.
Indulges in his favorite Colorado habit.
Plays more video games.
Goes to bed.

He's had I don't know how many different jobs.
And usually lasts about a week.
He's tried two different junior colleges.
And motorcycle mechanic classes.
He says he is going to the military.
But they haven't called him back.
Or responded to his emails.

I've tried talking to him.
I have threatened eviction.

I do not know how to parent this 21-year-old child
who does not seem
to be taking any steps
toward manhood.

Monday, March 27, 2017

SLICE OF LIFE #27-A Book to Grow Hearts

I teach at a school that is approximately 95% Hispanic. Some of our kids were born in the United States. Some of our kids were born in other countries- mostly Mexico, but also El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and others. Some are legal immigrants. Some are not. 

The kids at my school have been a mess since November. They are terrified. Many have family members that have gone back to Mexico, or that are living in fear of being deported. Kids regularly tell me that they are afraid they will go home from school, and that their families will be gone. 

This is where the power of books becomes real to me. I read, a lot, because I love words and because I love stories. However, I also read because reading reminds me that I am not alone. Reading exposes me to people that are brave and stand up for others and do the right thing. Reading helps me to be the person that I want to be.

I work really hard to expose kids to books that teach them those important life lessons. I read aloud lots of biographies, historical fiction, and narrative nonfiction. I came across one of those books last week and shared it with my intermediate graders and middle schoolers at my school. 

STAND UP AND SING: PETE SEEGER, FOLK MUSIC, AND THE PATH TO JUSTICE is a terrific new picture book biography by Susanna Reich. Reich follows Seeger from the beginning of his life to the end- his adolescent interest in Native Americans, how he learned to play the banjo, the difficulties of the Great Depression, playing his banjo at union meetings and strikes, meeting Woody Guthrie, getting married, being blacklisted, working with Martin Luther King, Jr., protesting the Vietnam War, and finally, building the Clearwater.

I loved this book, mostly because of the life lessons kids can learn from Pete Seeger.

• Pete Seeger teaches kids to use the talents they have been given. 
"That night Pete saw that music could fill a room with peace and harmony- even if he still couldn't figure out how to sing and play banjo at the same time" 
• Pete Seeger teaches kids about taking care of others. 
 "He read about Native Americans and loved the idea that in some tribes, everything was shared. 'I decided that was the way  to live: no rich, no poor. If there was food, everyone ate; if there was no food, everyone went hungry.'"
 • Pete Seeger teaches kids that sometimes it's hard to stand up for what you believe. 
"On tour, the Almanacs slept on people's couches or in cheap hotels, including one with enormous cockroaches in every room. The following winter in New York City, they couldn't afford heat in their apartment. Pete didn't mind the cold. It felt good to be making a difference in the world."  

• Pete Seeger teaches kids to have integrity. 
In 1955, Pete was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to take the Fifth Amendment, but also refused to share names or rat on his friends and colleagues. These choices came at great personal cost- for over a decade Seeger was blacklisted and was not allowed to appear on commercial shows.

• Pete Seeger teaches kids to be brave.
At one point in his life, Pete and the African American singer, Paul Robeson, were in an concert near Peekskill, New York. Some people were angry that whites and blacks were performing together. After the concert, they followed Pete and his family, and threw rocks at the car. Every window was shattered.
"Later  Pete found two rocks inside the car and cemented them into his fireplace. They always reminded him how important it was to stand up for his beliefs." 
STAND UP AND SING: PETE SEEGER, FOLK MUSIC, AND THE PATH TO JUSTICE is illustrated by Adam Gustavson (if you are familiar with Reich's work, he also illustrated FAB FOUR FRIENDS, about the Beatles). Each two-page spread includes a large full color oil painting; many also have a pencil sketch. The book begins with a foreword by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. End notes include an author's note, as well as an extensive list of additional sources.

In these very difficult times, it's important to be able to give kids models of people who had integrity, stood up for what they believed, and did something to make the world a better place. STAND UP AND SING: PETE SEEGER, FOLK MUSIC, AND THE PATH TO JUSTICE is definitely a resource you can use. I recommend it highly.

 Pete Seeger at Obama's inauguration. 

An interview with Pete Seeger

Sunday, March 26, 2017


I haven't seen David since he moved out around the first of the year.
(I wrote about him here, and you might remember it, if you have been reading my blog).

And I've missed him. I've missed seeing him on his bike, with its rainbow lit pedals.

I've missed coming home to find him working on surprise yard projects.

I've missed his checking in to see if I'm okay, and his "I got you, baby."

He finally rode by last night. Actually, he came to see his buddy, Kenny, who lives in his mother's garage, two houses north of me. I was walking my dog, and saw him out in the alley.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"Not bad, for someone homeless," he said.

"Homeless? I thought you had an apartment at Colorado and 17th."

"I was staying with someone, and it didn't work out, she kicked me out. I've been homeless for about a month now. You got a room? I can pay rent. I can pay $500 or $600 a month."

"I don't have a room, David. Both the boys are still there. I don't have an extra room. I wish I did." I'm actually not sure that would be a smart thing, given David's ongoing issues with alcohol, but he is a friend, and I hate knowing that he's homeless.

"You know anyone who has a room? I can pay $500 or $600 a month."

I try to think of someone who might have a room. I don't know anyone.

"So where are you staying right now?"

"Mostly downtown."

I think he must mean the Denver Rescue Mission. "You mean at the shelter?"

"Yeah. You gotta be tough, baby. You gotta be tough. I'll get through this."

"You will," I say. "You will."

I know he lived with his mother for many years in the house on the corner. "Where's your mom?"

"She's in assisted living out in Aurora."

"And you can't stay with her?"

"Nah," he says.

There were a lot of other people who seemed to come and go from the house. I wonder where all of them have gone. "What about all of those other people?"

"Nah," he says. "I don't want to go around them. None of them have places."

He tries one more time. "What about your garage? We could clean out your garage and I could live there. I could pay you."

This conversation is breaking my heart. "You don't want to live in my garage, David. There's no heat, and no bathroom. And it will get really hot in summer."

"I got my name on some waiting lists," he says. "About six right now. I want to have my name on twenty lists. But they are anywhere from a few weeks to three years."

"I'll keep thinking," I say, running once again through every connected I might have for someone who is homeless.

By now, the dog is getting antsy. "I gotta go," I say.

"I'll come by and see you," he says. "Maybe I can do some work in your yard."

"Yeah," I say. "I need to do some serious yard work this week. Come by and help me."

"I will," he says. "I'll come this week."

"You can leave your mower and stuff in my yard if you want."

I turn and walk away.

I hate knowing my friend is homeless.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I have been a teacher for 36 years.  A long, long time.

And I have loved it. Pretty much every minute.

But now I am wondering whether it's time to go.

Life at my school has changed dramatically. The principal who hired me retired a few weeks ago, very unexpectedly. The district has adopted a new model of teacher leadership. Each school is required to have teacher leaders who coach and evaluate. The job is somewhat similar to what I do, with one major exception. I don't evaluate teachers. Nor have I ever really wanted to. For me, the evaluation piece changes the trust I have worked hard to establish with teachers.

I went back and forth on whether I would apply for the teacher leader position. I really love my school. I love my colleagues. I love the kids. I loved my principal. I decided that I would apply so I could stay there. I would just have to do the best I could to use the evaluation system in a way that honored teachers' hard work and growth.

I applied. I interviewed. I wasn't chosen.

And I'm wondering whether it's time to go. I think I'm probably too old, at 58, to be a viable candidate for other positions.

So I'm wondering whether it's time to retire.

And I really don't know.

I don't know what you do when you retire. I have talked to several people about it- one woman, who was a total stranger I met at a meeting, looked at me like I was crazy when I asked what she did every day. Another friend told me she is making plans by volunteering with several different organizations.

I'm still not sure what that means for me.

I have always loved teaching. And it's been a huge part of my life. Before I adopted the boys, I spent a lot of time, pretty much every waking hour, on my job. Since the boys have been grown, I've pretty much resorted to that again. I work a lot. It doesn't feel like work, because I truly love it.

But I don't have lot of outside interests right now. I don't volunteer anywhere, except for stuff that's school or work related, e.g. the state literacy association. I'm hate cooking or and I'm not good at gardening or art. I like to travel, but almost all of my friends are married or in serious relationships and they travel with their husbands. My sons don't want anything to do with me right now.

I don't know what I would do if I retired.

But right now,  I'm wondering if it's time to go…

Friday, March 24, 2017


I have a paper that was due on Tuesday. I still haven't turned it in. I'm wondering if I will get any credit. I'm sad about that. But I have learned a lot about writing from this paper.

1) I haven't turned it in because the topic is huge. We had to choose a topic related to English Learners (EL's) and assessment, and read two articles about that topic, preferably with opposing points of view. Then we had to summarize and critique the articles, then connect them to the other articles we have read in the class. And do it in 2200 words. I have written and written and written for the last ten days, trying to include all of the different components. I thought I was almost done, until I did a word count. I had 3800 words. I'm down to 2700, but I haven't done a good job connecting to previous readings. I still need to work on that a little more, then probably cut another thousand words. That's a lot of words.

2) I haven't turned it in because I'm grappling with the topic. My topic is translanguaging. Do you know what that is? It has to do with the makeup of the bilingual brain. In the past, people used to think that the two languages were basically in two separate brains, that could be turned on or off, depending on the linguistic demands. Switching back and forth between the two languages in one conversation or one piece of writing was called code switching. Code switching was strictly frowned upon. Now, linguists believe that Emerging Bilinguals (EB's) move continuously back and forth between the two languages. Current research suggests that it's ok for students to use both languages, and that there are, in fact, circumstances where that can enhance the language of the L2. I read two articles, one about university students studying to be teachers in Costa Rica, who constantly use translanguaging in their own lives, but don't want kids to do it in their classrooms.  The other article is by two professors from CU. Their research looked at the Colorado Basic Literacy Act, now called the READ Act. Kids were placed on reading contracts based on the assessment of one of their two languages. The researchers think that this results in many misdiagnoses of primary grade readers. The topic is really interesting. My understandings are still developing. I need to talk about them. I want to talk about them. But the professor doesn't want exploratory thinking. He wants polished finished thinking and I'm not there yet.

3) I haven't turned it in because I can't get the hang of the voice. It's a research paper. Written in third person. I hardly ever write in that voice. I don't like it. And I'm having trouble doing it well. And I end up with way too many words. And sometimes it feels like it doesn't make sense.

4) I haven't turned it in because the professor is super nit picky about APA style. The last paper we wrote, I was really proud of. We had to analyze an assessment. I did mine about a new reading assessment my state is doing. It was ten pages and I worked really hard on it. I thought I had done a great job and was really proud of my work. He wrote one comment on it, and marked about a million places where I had forgotten a period or somehow incorrectly used the APA style. Now I'm super neurotic about making mistakes with the APA style.

5) I haven't turned it in because I don't think the professor likes my writing or thinking. And it's giving me writer's block. And I'm really tired. And it's hard to write well when you are tired.

As I have been struggling this week, I have been thinking about our kids, who have been taking PARCC for the last two weeks. We expected them to read difficult texts and write in a really academic voice. And get the thing typed. And not make mistakes. In a relatively short time. And then it's months and months before they hear how they did. And there is no specific feedback.

Given those conditions, and the high possibility of failure, I'm not sure I'd be willing to try all that hard.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

SLICE #23- Sometimes the stories are so hard.

Sometimes I think I cannot stand one more day.

The stories are so hard.

Today was one of those days.

I spot her first thing this morning.

Sixth grade girl.
Beyond quiet.
Oldest of three.
Gentle spirit.
Tangled reader.
Incredibly talented artist.
Hard, hard home life.

Today her head is on her desk.
Face buried in her arms.
Clearly upset.
I move toward her.
Touch her gently.
"You ok?"
Stupid question.
She is clearly not.
She does not lift her head.

Her teacher tells me
she is upset about her birthday.
It is during spring break.
She thinks no one will celebrate.
No one will acknowledge her special day.
My heart breaks.
Everyone should have a birthday.

Teachers. Administrators. Office staff scramble.
A quick run to the grocery store.
Sugar cookies.
The yummy kind
with thick yellow frosting.
A coloring book.
Sketch pad.
A huge variety pack
of colored pencils.
Birthday cards.
A two-class party.
Percy Jackson movie.
The birthday song.
Happy birthday to you, 
dear S.
Happy birthday to you. 

Her teacher asks,
"But what should I say?
Who should I tell her
the cookies are from?"

"Just tell her
that she is a precious treasure.
And the cookies
are from the people
who love her."

Sometimes the stories are so hard.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


We meet after school. The state adopted a new computerized reading assessment this year. We are required to give the assessment once a month. Students are classified as Tier One, Tier Two, or Tier Three. We are still learning to interpret the results, to know how to use the data to drive instruction.

Earlier today, I retested one of the kindergarten boys. He had tested as a Tier Three this month. His teacher wasn't sure that was accurate. We are allowed to retest if we want to. I'm a reading interventionist, and I've been trying to pull those types of kids every time I have a free minute or two.

F was delighted to come to the library to read with me. I watched as he took the test. Made notes about what he could and couldn't do. Marveled at his kindergarten brain.

And now we are meeting to discuss the data. C's partner comes over from next door. It's not a scheduled meeting. She doesn't have to come. But she does. Because she cares about kids. Because we want to understand this assessment. So we can do a better job with our kids.

We look at the numbers. I tell them a few stories about the things I noticed as F worked through the test. How he made personal connections to the stories, but then got so excited about those that he forgot to listen to the rest of the question he was supposed to answer. How he burst out into the "ch" digraph song, when a test item about digraphs came up. How he knew beginning sounds and rhyming words, but had trouble when the test alternated with these two types of questions.

And he how he had tested not as a Tier Three reader, but rather as a Tier One reader, when he worked one-one with me.

We wondered which results were accurate. Wondered whether the littlest guys would do better with iPads. Wondered how much of what the test measured was developmental. How much was about kids' familiarity with technology. We talked about how we might be able to test all of our Tier Three readers one on one to see whether they might do better in a one-one situation.

We thought about which kids were not being represented accurately by their March scores. Listed the ones we wanted to retest. Talked about what we thought we could do to solidify F's understandings of beginning sounds and rhyming.

And pretty soon, a five-minute, "Let me tell you what F did this afternoon, when I worked with him" had turned into a 30 minute conversation.

A time when real decisions about real instruction were made.

A data meeting, at its finest.