Friday, August 26, 2011

Poetry Friday: Girls' Middle School Orchestra

Although Irene left us alone, it looks as if she's not going to be equally kind to the east coast of the United States. I feel almost guilty being spared, and yet after a day off on Tuesday, we end our second week of school with just ordinary problems to deal with. I overdid it in seventh grade today and left too little time at the end for kids to get their work in, and they were confused and frustrated. My son had a stomach ache and stayed home from school (though he seems fine now). The power was off for an hour this afternoon and we sweltered together in the dark classroom.

Mostly, this day was good. I graded student work and felt again how blessed I am to get to see these kids' thoughts. (A mom at our open house last night told me that her kids didn't want to show her their writing "because it gets too personal." And yet I get to read it.) I came home early to be with my son and fell asleep reading Harry Potter to him; he tiptoed away and left me to my nap. And I found this poem, which seems to me to sum up perfectly the muddling through of some days, the way something beautiful, or in this case, "almost beautiful," sometimes comes out of our efforts.

Girls’ Middle School Orchestra

By Michael Ryan

They’re all dressed up in carmine
floor-length velvet gowns, their upswirled hair
festooned with matching ribbons:
their fresh hopes and our fond hopes for them
infuse this sort-of-music as if happiness could actually be
Their hearts unscarred under quartz lights
beam through the darkness in which we sit
to show us why we endured at home
the squeaking and squawking and botched notes
that now in concert are almost beautiful...

Here's the rest.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More on Irene

We had the day off school yesterday, since Irene was predicted to bring us wind and rain. She didn't. It rained briefly a couple of times during the day, but mostly it was a normal day, if a little more overcast than usual.

We're back at school today. It's more overcast than yesterday, but still not much rain. People who live up the mountain report there was some moderately heavy wind this morning.

It's always good when things are less dreadful than forecast.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Go Away, Irene

Graphic from

This time of year, we spend a lot of time at this website, and right now the picture we're staring at is of Hurricane Irene. She's supposed to make landfall on Hispaniola tonight or tomorrow morning. Of course, we'd just as soon she skipped us completely. Some estimate that as many as half a million earthquake refugees are still living in tents around this city. And even people under more substantial shelter are at risk from mudslides, flooding caused by heavy rain, and damage from high winds.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Poetry Friday: Did I Miss Anything?

Don't you love it when students come late to school, or miss a class, and then ask you, "Did I miss anything?" How often I have been tempted to answer sarcastically. But this poem does a much better job than anything I could come up with.

Did I Miss Anything?
Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Here's the rest. (It gets even better.)

And here is today's Poetry Friday roundup.

First Draft

Here's what I wrote today while my seventh graders were writing.

It's the first day of Writer's Workshop. "What shall I write about?" the kids ask. One in the back row is talking to himself in a serious voice as though coaching himself. Several raise their hands and suggest ideas: "Can I write an acrostic?" "How about a haiku?" And, of course, the old question: "How long does it have to be?"

In time, I know these kids will write wonderful pieces. I'll read poems and stories, memoirs and essays. Some will be funny and some sad. There will be adventure and science fiction and silliness, tales of earthquakes and parties, arguments and trips to Disneyworld.

But today they're all figuring it out. "Is this enough?" "Is class almost over?" "Is this good?"

It's going to be a great year.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Radiation Sonnets

This summer I found a copy of a book of poetry by the wonderful Jane Yolen called The Radiation Sonnets. I read the book in two sittings - actually two lying downs. I read a couple of them aloud to my husband with tears running into my ears.

Yolen wrote these poems while her husband was undergoing radiation treatment. Each night she would write one sonnet, and she says in the preface:
"It was a way to sort through my emotions while holding myself to a difficult task. In fact it was the only thing in my day I seemed to have any control over. For me it was unthinkable to look straight on the possibility of Death without poetic discourse."

I have found writing poetry equally therapeutic, and I loved reading these clear-eyed, unsentimental poems. My favorites include a description of her husband, weakened, taking his seven year old granddaughter birding. Yolen says that her caregiving has made her husband feel less strong as she frets about his eating and his hair loss. By contrast, being with his granddaughter restores him. "There's nothing so strengthening than to be told/ That you are a god by a seven-year-old." I also loved the one called "Letting Go," where she writes of a day when a friend takes her husband to his radiation appointment with these beautiful lines:
Yet in this first pained time we've been apart
I sensed, my dear, an infinite rehearsal:
A gap, a hole, a pinpoint in my heart,
A space for which I fear there's no reversal.

Yolen's husband died in 2006, three years after this book was published. These poems stand as a record of suffering, pain, hope, and love. I am celebrating an anniversary of many years with my husband, and have recently said goodbye to family and friends to return to Haiti; the ideas of love and loss fill my mind these days. This book made very appropriate reading.

Here's today's roundup.

Monday, August 08, 2011

In My Classroom

Working in my classroom today helped me to feel more excited about this school year. And not a moment too soon; school starts next Tuesday. There was something about shoving the furniture around that made me start thinking about how I want to handle things this year, what's going to be way better, what kind of behavior I will never tolerate this time around. I am such an effective teacher when there are no kids in the room.

I took some before and after pictures - before doing anything and after one day. Maybe next week I will post some, when I am completely finished with getting everything ready.

Summer Reading

I didn't read as much this summer as I usually do, but I did finish some books. Here they are:

Book #24 was Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer. My brother-in-law loaned me this book with high recommendations. I found it difficult to plow through, not because it isn't well-written and well-researched, but because of the violence and the abuse that it explores. It's a story of people who kill because they believe God wants them to, of the juxtaposition between violence and fundamentalism. I haven't read anything else by Jon Krakauer except his expose of Greg Mortenson's stretching of the truth in Three Cups of Tea, but I would like to read more of his work.

Book #25 was The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory, a sequel to The White Queen, which I read back in May. I'm not very familiar with this period of British history, the Wars of the Roses, and so many of the people have the same names, so sometimes it's hard going to keep track of the complications. But I'll definitely read the next one in the trilogy.

Book #26 was an Anita Shreve title, The Last Time They Met. The characters kept me reading, and there was a huge surprise on the very last page that I totally did not see coming and that made me want to start again and reread the whole book.

Book #27 was professional reading, Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School, by Randy Bomer. The book had great things to say about using notebooks with writing students, but I think the very best section was on teaching as craft. That chapter merits a post of its own, and I'll write one when I have the book in front of me. (I can't find it at the moment; I'm thinking it might have been one of the books that we mailed from Florida at the last minute when it became obvious that our luggage was not going to contain all the book bounty we had acquired during the summer.)

Book #28 was Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt. This is a sequel to The Wednesday Wars, about which I raved here. It's the story of Doug Swieteck, a character from the first book, who has now moved with his troubled family. I didn't like it as much as The Wednesday Wars but it was definitely worth reading. I love the way Schmidt uses names in his books, and this one is no exception; the character we knew only as "Doug Swieteck's brother," a complete troublemaker so over the top as to be a joke, here becomes someone we can have compassion for, and whose name we learn. I think Gary Schmidt is a great writer and I am hoping he will get the Newbery one of these days.

This post is linked to the August 13th Saturday Review of Books.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Home Again

I've hardly posted anything all summer except for poems, and since school is about to start again it's probably time to get back to real blogging. I had such a wonderful summer in the US, hardly thinking at all about my "real life": Haiti and my job. But on Friday we flew back, arriving with five of our eight pieces of luggage - perhaps a good metaphor for the way my heart wasn't all the way here yet. A couple of days back home have helped (and yes, the rest of the luggage arrived too), and I'm ready to start meetings tomorrow and to get my room prepared for school.

Rolling Stone Magazine published this article about the situation in Haiti right now. It's profoundly depressing reading, but sadly accurate. Next week it will be nineteen months since the earthquake. Much good work has been done, but in a piecemeal way that hasn't moved the country as a whole forward.

It feels wrong to draw in, to focus on my own little corner of the world, but that's what I end up doing because the big picture is so overwhelming. There are a few people whose lives I can help improve, and that has to be enough. I recently read this meditation, "Blessed Are Those Who Mourn," and it reminded me that even when I can't do anything about what's going on around me, there is benefit to caring about it and not shutting down. I try to find that balance. Tara put the dilemma beautifully in this post.

Meanwhile, I'm mustering up excitement about the new school year, looking at class lists, gathering up the books I bought in the US, thinking about first days. It's not glamorous, teaching twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, but this is why I'm here.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Poetry Friday

Today I traveled back home to Haiti, and I'm a little too overwhelmed by transition to do a Poetry Friday post. Here's Pablo Neruda's poem "Goodbyes," which I posted earlier this week, and here's the poetry everybody else is sharing today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


by Pablo Neruda, tr. Alastair Reid

Goodbye, goodbye, to one place or another,
to every mouth, to every sorrow,
to the insolent moon, to weeks
which wound in the days and disappeared,
goodbye to this voice and that one stained
with amaranth, and goodbye
to the usual bed and plate,
to the twilit setting of all goodbyes,
to the chair that is part of the same twilight,
to the way made by my shoes.

I spread myself, no question;
I turned over whole lives,
changed skin, lamps, and hates,
it was something I had to do,
not by law or whim,
more of a chain reaction;
each new journey enchained me;
I took pleasure in place, in all places.

And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye
with still newborn tenderness
as if the bread were to open and suddenly
flee from the world of the table.
So I left behind all languages,
repeated goodbyes like an old door,
changed cinemas, reasons, and tombs,
left everywhere for somewhere else
I went on being, and being always
half undone with joy,
a bridegroom among sadnesses,
never knowing how or when,
ready to return, never returning.

It's well known that he who returns never left,
so I traced and retraced my life,
changing clothes and planets,
growing used to the company,
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.