Monday, February 24, 2020

Seven Books

A Facebook friend tagged me and asked me to post seven books I like. The instructions specify no comments, just photos of the jackets. I did this back in July 2018, and at that point three people had tagged me, so I posted 21 books. So this time, I decided to post seven books I read since July 2018. I'm not sure I would say these are the best books I've read in the past year and a half, but they are seven that stood out to me when I went back through my list for that time. For each jacket, I'll include a link to my review of the book.

I wrote about A Gentleman in Moscow here and here.
I wrote about The Leavers here.
I wrote about Brief Encounters with Che Guevara here.
I wrote about An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic here.
I wrote about Tool of War here.
I wrote about Circe here.
I wrote about The Most Fun We Ever Had here.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Reading Update

Book #9 of 2020 was Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos. I enjoyed this book and will read more by this author. I love reading about friendships and how they develop over time.

Book #10 was Tidelands, by Philippa Gregory. This is the first in a projected long series. Here's what Gregory says in her Author's Note: "A few years ago I realized that, though I still loved my fictionalized biographies of well-known and lesser-known women, I wanted to write a different sort of historical fiction: actually a series of books tracing the rise of a family from obscurity to prosperity. ...So many of us are exploring our family histories these days because we want to know who our ancestors were and what they did....What is interesting to me as a historian is how the fortunes of every family reflect in their small way the fortunes of the nation." If that sounds as interesting to you as it does to me, you'll like this book. It's set in the English Civil War, and explores what life is like for Alinor, a young woman whose sailor husband has disappeared, leaving her with two children to provide for, and a reputation to live down. As the book opens, she's meeting a handsome stranger. At first it appeared that Gregory had taken to writing romance novels, but no, there is something much darker and more realistic going on in this book. (There's nothing wrong with a romance novel with a happy ending, but it's just not what I've come to expect from Gregory.) I really hope the next novel comes out soon, because I am all in for this series.

Book #11 was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book. I liked parts of it, like the descriptions of the Outer Banks and its birds and wildlife. The story seemed pretty far-fetched to me, though. I didn't quite buy Kya basically growing up alone after being abandoned at a very young age by everyone who was supposed to take care of her. There were other aspects of the plot that seemed unbelievable, too.

Book #12 was The Map of Salt and Stars, by Zeyn Joukhadar. I loved this story of Syrian refugees.  "'A person can be two things at the same time,' Itto says. 'The land where your parents were born will always be in you. Words survive. Borders are nothing to words and blood.'"
Book #13 was a re-read, Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen. This has become one of my touchstone texts. I wrote about that a little bit here.

Book #14 was The Queen of Nothing, by Holly Black. This book was a good argument for waiting until a series has all been written before you start reading it. I know I would have enjoyed this book more if I had had a clearer memory of the first two. I just checked when I read them and I'm embarrassed to report that it was as recently as May 2019, so I should remember them better. I wrote about both of them here.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Poetry Friday: Warblers

Last Saturday I was sitting on my porch watching birds through my binoculars, taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count. The calabash tree in the neighbors' yard was full of bananaquits, and I was having fun watching them, as they hung upside down on the branches. And there were some Antillean mango hummingbirds. But there were other birds too, birds I couldn't identify. I knew they were warblers, but which warblers? Here are the possibilities in my area:
See what I mean? So many of them are similar, just different combinations of grey and yellow. I texted my brother the birder, saying, "Enjoying the birds even if I don't know what they are." (The warbler photos are from the Cornell Lab's free birding app, Merlin. You should download it right away if you don't have it yet.)

He sent me a voice message in response, and I listened to it and then played it for my husband and then transcribed it. I loved the way his words turned my cluelessness into almost a mystical experience. Here's what he said: “The thing with warbler songs is that because of the register that they’re in, you don’t realize that you’re hearing them at all until you get your ear tuned into them. They’re so high-pitched and kind of airy that sometimes you don’t even know that you’re hearing a bird. But once you get tuned into them, you can hear them, and that is diagnostic, because they’re all very different from each other. You can identify them with their song without ever seeing them at all. So on your app you should find the warblers that appear there and see if you can listen to their songs and then see if you can hear them. Once you get tuned into them, you’re likely to hear them a lot, I’m guessing, at this time of year.”

I turned his words into a poem.

A Field Guide to Warblers

These birds you cannot see or hear
Are everywhere this time of year.
Visitors from further north
Flitting softly back and forth
In the branches of the trees.
Was that a bird, or just a breeze?
Little birds you cannot see,
Known for invisibility.
Glimpsed for a moment, then they’ve flown.
Which one was that? Answer: unknown.
Voices that you cannot hear
Until you’ve learned to tune your ear.
Each has a voice, quiet and mellow.
Lots are a mix of grey and yellow.
You may think they’re all the same,
But each, unique, has its own name.
The zebra stripey black and white,
A mix of shadow and of light,
Is easy to identify,
But for the rest, just try and try.
The birds you do not know are there
Are singing, silent in the air.
Listen, look, don’t move a muscle,
Do you hear the branches rustle?
These birds you cannot see or hear
Are everywhere this time of year.

Ruth, from

Cheriee has today's roundup.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Poetry Friday: Valentine's Day and Breakfast

Recently, Modern Mrs. Darcy reposted an essay she wrote in 2015 called "What's Your Unfair Advantage?" and when I thought about it, I decided my unfair advantage is my husband. He has taken care of me so well for so long.
My husband shows his love in many ways. One of them is making food; for most of our marriage, he has been the one who has made almost all the meals. For his Valentine this year, I wrote him a poem about breakfast. I wish I had thirty years of breakfast photos to illustrate with, but these are just from the last few months. 

Love Breakfast

“Here’s your love breakfast,”
you say each morning,
putting down my tray
on the bed in front of me.

Such a variety of love breakfasts:
eggs (scrambled, fried, omelets, frittatas, boiled),
bread (toast, bagels, rolls, biscuits),
pancakes or waffles,
fruit (bananas, mangoes, avocados, tangerines),
tea (hot, with milk and sugar),
cereal (hot or cold, homemade granola),
extras (bacon, sausage, potatoes).

Thirty years of love breakfasts:
breakfast in front of a tent (prepared on a camp stove),
breakfast in one of many little apartments,
breakfast holding a baby,
breakfast with a toddler in a high chair,
breakfast rushing school kids because we’re going to be late,
breakfast before work,
breakfast on vacation.

So many ordinary mornings,
starting the day with your loving care.
Light coming in the windows,
birds singing outside,
you bringing me breakfast
one more time.

Valentine’s Day, 2020
Ruth, from

Linda has today's Valentine's Day roundup.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Poetry Friday: Love

Friends, you have to read this love poem. It blew me away when it showed up as the poem of the day from one Wednesday in January. It's called "Foley Catheter," and it's by Kimberly Johnson. I don't know how to excerpt it because it all goes together. Johnson said in a note that it's about caring for her husband when he had cancer.

As I was writing this post, I got a text from a dear friend who moved away. She wrote that she misses me. Then she texted again that she misses my living room. She said she might just show up (she probably won't, because she lives in another country now - but stranger things have happened). I told her to come, and I'll put the kettle on.

As I read my friend's texts, I thought, There are so many kinds of love. And I'm blessed to have so much love in my life.  Johnson's poem refers to the "for worse" that she's living, and when friends move away, that stinks (though obviously less than cancer!), but even when love hurts, it's a gift. A gift worthy of poems, even if they are sometimes sad ones. 

Laura has today's roundup.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday: A Season for Everything

This month's host, Carol Varsalona, chose the theme "Seasonal Bliss," and asked us to reflect on this verse: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

I wrote a bit here in April about the seasons in this supposedly seasonless tropical place where I live. We don't have four clearly delineated seasons, but we do definitely have rhythms to our year, times that repeat fairly predictably.

Unfortunately, one of the seasons that repeats quite a bit here is the season of political unrest. We have just come through a particularly difficult one of those. The national mood was one of discouragement as we struggled to see how things would be resolved. We stayed home for weeks as businesses and schools were closed and the streets were filled with protests.

And now...the season has changed. The political issues are not resolved, but life is back to near-normal. I'm back at work, loving teaching my students in my classroom instead of online. A couple of weeks ago I suddenly realized that I felt like myself again, for the first time in a while. It felt good to be excited about doing my job, enjoying life, going out into nature.

I've been here before, in this post-trauma season, this time of relishing the simple things in life because of the recent reminder that they can be quickly taken away. There's a sense of urgency in making the most of each day; there's gratitude for each face-to-face conversation. It's so wonderful to collect funny student stories again, to go to meetings, to eat school lunch. I know this season doesn't last forever, but while it does, it's great. I don't really have anything profound to say about it beyond that. It's a season to enjoy, knowing it's fleeting. And you could really say that about all the seasons. They don't last forever; we find whatever we can to appreciate about them and take each day as a gift from God's hand.

Be sure to visit Carol's roundup to see what kind of season everyone else is going through.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Writing from Photos

I read Ralph Fletcher's latest book, Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing during our recent lockdown period. (There's a brief review at this link.) Because I wasn't teaching in my classroom at the time, but doing what we were calling "Distance Learning" (shudder), I wasn't able to try out Fletcher's suggestions immediately, but they have been percolating in my mind and I've been carrying his book around in my book bag. The other day I tried my first lesson directly influenced by it. Here's a little on how it went.

Although we're back doing traditional school (Hallelujah!), we are trying to keep using Google Classroom regularly. The reasons for this are multiple. One, it's good for students to get used to having a digital component to their classes because that's what they are likely to encounter in future education. Two, you never know when we might need to do distance learning again, and if students are in the habit of using Google Classroom, the adjustment will be less difficult; teachers who were already using it were the ones who had the easiest time making the shift before. Three, it's just always good to have assignments and information posted in several different places, especially when middle schoolers are the target audience; saying something a hundred times is the norm, and each time, someone in the room will be hearing the announcement for the first time.

I recognize the reasons for this, and am fully on board, but it's not second nature to me to use Google Classroom. I have to remind myself constantly to post material there. I'm loving having all of us present in the actual, physical classroom. But I wanted to teach a lesson on writing from photos, and this seemed a good way to handle it. So I asked my students to upload a photo from their own phones, or, if they preferred, from somewhere online. 

Most of our students have phones, and it seems to me that we have a constant struggle between claiming we are trying to teach them to use technology, and fighting to get them not to use technology. I recognize how distracting phones can be, but at the same time, when you have in your pocket so many powerful tools, it's a shame not to use them at all. Fletcher thinks similarly. He says: "When we observe a boy taking pictures, we may tend to think: He's fooling around with his cell phone. What if we thought instead: He's composing. He's constructing an argument, thinking hard about how best to persuade his viewers. He's creating a story."

Asking the students to upload the photo, rather than just bring it with them to class, either in a paper copy or on their phones, had the advantage of making them think about it ahead of time. They wouldn't just be picking something at random in class. Also, I had access to all the photos to show the day we did the exercise (I warned the kids ahead of time to pick a photo they wouldn't mind classmates seeing).

On the day we did the exercise in class, I put one of my own photos up on the screen. I told the students when I had taken it, talked about the circumstances, and shared with them that I was using it as inspiration for a poem I was writing for a friend's birthday. Then I scrolled through some of the photos the kids had uploaded. People were getting fired up to write. I set the timer for ten minutes, and we all wrote about our photos. I asked them to do theirs in their notebooks, for me to find later to give them credit, but I also said that these might become drafts they'd like to turn in for feedback.

When the timer rang, I showed my students my writing. I didn't read it to them; it wasn't ready for anybody to read. Instead I just held it up, so they could see that it was mostly notes, individual lines, with a lot of crossing out. It wasn't even a first draft, I told them, more notes leading to a first draft. "Brainstorming," one kid called out, and I agreed that was a good word for it.

After this very low-key lesson, we moved into one of our regular writing times. But for the next few days, I saw how fruitful this had been. I had many drafts turned in, some haiku capturing a moment, other longer pieces delving into thoughts the photo had brought up. And after a lot more work, the poem I had been writing ended up in a form that somewhat satisfied me.

Fletcher's book recommends not pushing this. "Demonstrate? Definitely. Assign? Sparingly. By their very nature, assignments limit choice....When it comes to writing from photographs, why not find out what students are already doing in this regard, go with their energy, and see if we might redirect their flow?" I saw this exercise as more of an opportunity to show them that using their photos was an option (I had said it before, but this gave them a chance to try it out). Instead of putting a photo in front of them and having everyone write about the same one (though I have done that in the past, and it's not a bad thing to do), they got to pick the image. And I let them choose what they did with it. If they wanted to keep it in their notebook and never look at it again, that was fine. If they wanted to turn it in, that also was up to them.

I will definitely do this again, and I will also be using Fletcher's book in many other ways. I highly recommend it to writing teachers.