Friday, September 30, 2016

Poetry Friday: Healing

Today it's two weeks since I had surgery, and I am mostly back to normal.  Not everything was normal when I had the surgery (which is why I had the surgery), so normal is an improvement over the last couple of months.

It always amazes me to watch my body heal.  I remember the only other surgery I ever had, almost twenty years ago now.  At a post-op doctor visit, I complimented the surgeon on the great job he'd done on the incision.  He shrugged and said, "It's not me; you're just a good healer." Now that scar is almost invisible; you really have to know what you're looking for.

Am I a good healer?  Physically, yes, it seems so.  I bounce back pretty fast.  (And I'm so grateful for my normally great health.)  But emotionally, I think I'm kind of a slow healer.  Here's an example: I lost a friend a few years ago, over something that wasn't my fault, and I grieved hard for her, for her family, for our friendship, for about five years.  But now that scar is almost invisible, too.

The other day, I was walking to my classroom, and I saw a crack in the cement beside one of the school buildings.  There was grass growing out of the crack.  These words came to my mind: "I am the grass; let me work."

I can't make healing happen, physically or emotionally, any more than I can make grass grow.  But healing wants to happen, just like grass wants to push through the crack in the concrete, just like life wants to go on.  If I rest and eat right and take my vitamins and let healing come, that mysterious force takes over: healing.  Until the scar is almost invisible.


Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

 I posted this poem before back in 2008. (I read it a little differently back then.)

Here's today's roundup.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Reflections on Teaching Without a Voice

I have mostly recovered from the surgery I had a couple of weeks ago, but this week I developed a cold and lost my voice.  It's challenging to teach without a voice, but I have managed to make it to Thursday.  In the process, I came to the following conclusions:

1.  I have excellent students.  It's amazing to me how cooperative they have been.  One seventh grader offered to teach the class, and while I didn't take her up on that, I appreciated her concern for me.  I have been putting up slides with instructions to save my voice, and they have, for the most part, rolled with it.  Last year I had an unusually great crop of kids, too, so sometimes I forget this is not always the case.  In fact, there's something about me being quiet that occasionally caused them to be quieter than usual this week, but that didn't work all the time.  (If it did, I'd just whisper from here on out.)

2.  I have done a good job in training my kids on the classroom routines.  My classes have some predictable things, things we do every day.  Sometimes I find myself reminding kids of procedures in April, but this year the students really seem to know what to expect.  They won't let me skip the Word of the Day, at least not without pointing out my mistake to me.  And it feels as though the class momentum keeps moving even when I'm not at my best.

3.  I am not the star in my classroom.  The kids are.  It's not at all a bad thing to hear less of my voice and more of theirs.  They need me to guide, but not to get there for them.  They learn to read by reading, and to write by writing.  Yes, my students need pointers and help from me, an experienced reader and writer, but there are plenty of days when I talk entirely too much.  This week I couldn't do that!

(Here are some of my students doing silent reading today.  I have some much better pictures of the ones who were lying on the floor and reading in comfort, but those show the students' faces, which I don't want to do on the internet without their knowledge and permission.)

4.  On the other hand, I really miss reading aloud.  It's one of my favorite things to do, and I always have a read-aloud going in both 7th and 8th grade.  (Right now we're reading Gary D. Schmidt at both levels: The Wednesday Wars in 7th and Trouble in 8th.)  I'm looking forward to getting back to the books, and judging by the kids' comments this week, so are they!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Poetry Friday: Atlas

This poem seems appropriate for the rotten week I've had.  People try to help, and do help, but there are some things you just have to carry yourself.  Next week will be better...

by Kay Ryan

Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can’t
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

I found this at the Poetry Foundation website, and here are more Ryan pieces they have over there.

Here's today's roundup.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading Update

Book #110 of 2016 was The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.  This is a brilliantly done book, with not a single appealing character in it.  It's about murder; you find that out on the first page, and then spend the rest of the book learning the details.  Shudder.  I somehow couldn't put it down.

Book #111 was Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes.  I had heard a lot about this book, and the movie based on it, so I wanted to read it and see what I thought.  It reads as though it was written to be made into a movie.  Sort of a rom-com with euthanasia.  I didn't really like it, but I also found it pretty forgettable, and a few weeks after finishing it, I'm not able to summon many details about it.

Book #112 was a reread, one of my favorite books ever: The Peacock Spring, by Rumer Godden.  I read this as a teenager and loved the anguished cross-cultural dynamics of it.  I recommended it to my daughter this summer, and after she read it, I reread it, for the first time in many years.  I still love it.

Book #113 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler.  This was an amazing book, written by the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, which I liked well enough but which was very conventional.  This book, though, was so wildly inventive and unconventional.  The plot is such that you can hardly say anything about it without giving away the story, so I'll just say that it's about love, attachment, siblings, and loss.  It's written in a nonlinear and extremely clever way.  It grabbed my heart and pulled me in completely.  I think it's best read knowing only that much.

Book #114 was Have Mother, Will Travel, by Claire and Mia Fontaine.  This is the true story of a pseudonymous, privileged, psychologically aware mother and daughter and the trips they take together.

Book #115 was Beachcombers, by Nancy Thayer.  It's a story of sisters on Nantucket and their widower father.  Light and airy.

Book #116 was the third of the Passage Trilogy, The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin.  I'm really not sure why I liked this trilogy, since it's so very much not my kind of book - post-apocalyptic vampire fiction? - but I did like it. 

Book #117 was The Course of Love, by Alain de Botton.  This is the story of a marriage.  The narrator tells us that in fiction, and in real life, we focus too much on the beginning of a relationship, when the actual story is everything that comes after the beginning.  Although the text I read was borrowed on my Kindle from the library, I found myself underlining passages.  Here's one.  The two people, we are told, "feel a giddy loyalty to what they have built up together: their disputatious, fractious, laughter-filled, silly, beautiful marriage that they love because it is so distinctly and painfully their own."   Here's another: "Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn't be its precondition."  This is a really fascinating book, and someday I'd like to read it again, but right now it's due back at the library. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Poetry Thursday: For My Sub

I am having some surgery tomorrow, and any teacher knows that being out of the classroom is always more trouble than it's worth, with all the list of things you have to set in place for while you're gone.  I've prepared the quizzes and the sub plans and I'm lining up details, and one of the things on my list was to put up a Poetry Friday post early.  This, which I first posted back in 2013, seemed appropriate.

Sonnet for my Sub

 I'm writing down the mysteries of my class
All that I do, and why and how and when
The intricacies of a bathroom pass
Which students you can trust (but even then
You must be on your guard, and watch your back),
And here is the procedure for the roll
And don't let those kids get you off the track,
Make sure you let them think you're in control.

Sub, I've tried to give you foolproof lessons,
Easy instructions, here's how to be me,
And yet I'm (this is such a lame confession)
Not thrilled by interchangeability.

I wish my absence filled the world with sorrow
But failing that, please teach my class tomorrow.

Ruth, from

Here's the roundup.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Poetry Friday: This Week in my Classroom

This was a great week for poetry in my classroom.  In eighth grade, we're reading The Language Inside, by Holly Thompson.  I really enjoy reading this book with my students; there are so many things they can relate to.  The protagonist, Emma, goes through an earthquake, adapting to a new culture, her mother's breast cancer, a confusing relationship with a boy.  She also reads, writes and shares poetry.  For our daily poems this week we read some of Emma's choices: "Introduction to Poetry," by Billy Collins ; "Otherwise," by Jane Kenyon ; "The Legend", by Garrett Hongo ; and "Mermaid Song," by Kim Addonizio.  (In the text of the novel, these poems are referred to but not reproduced in full.)  Such wonderful stuff!

In seventh grade, we're working on memoir, and the poems we read were all about identity.  For three days we read poems from Nancie Atwell's Naming the World, including, on Wednesday, George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From," beloved of English teachers the world over.  There's not usually a writing assignment in my classes where absolutely everyone is writing the same thing at the same time, but the "Where I'm From" is an exception; everybody writes one, and I just love them.  Especially early in seventh grade, when I'm just getting to know my new students.  There are so many heart-tugging moments, such as a conversation with a student who is originally from Syria; when I asked her what she remembered about that country, she waxed lyrical about how peaceful it is, and how you can walk the streets without anybody bothering you.  (Here's the "Where I'm From" poem that I wrote back in 2006.)

Yesterday we read a poem from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School.  (If you don't have this one yet, middle school teachers, you have to get it.)  The poem was Mary Quattlebaum's "What I Want to Be."  I love how the poem plays with your expectations.  You think it's going to be about a kid's career aspirations, but the first stanza reads: "I want to be/free to eat lunch/whenever I want."  She goes on to detail exactly what she is going to eat in this far-off, longed-for adulthood.  Mostly not school food.  My students could relate to this poem so well.  I had them write in their notebooks what they were most looking forward to about adulthood, and many of their answers had to do with freedom in just the way this poem does.  My students are looking forward to watching whatever they want on TV, staying up as late as they want to, not having to go to school any more, and yes, eating whatever and whenever they want.  I told them about the time right after my husband and I were first married when we decided to eat brownies and ice cream for dinner because we were grown up and we could!  After our discussion about the poem, we finished up reading Edwidge Danticat's novel, Behind the Mountains, and talked about how adulthood isn't all fun, as we realized how hard Papa in the novel had to work to provide for his family and to bring them to the United States from Haiti. 

I love the way words buoy me up, make me laugh, touch my heart, heal me, crack me open.  I want my students to have as many of that kind of experiences as I can possibly engineer, so that words, beautiful, wonderful words, words that connect them to the lives of people in other places and other times, can do all those things for them, too, not just now, but for the rest of their lives.  That's why I teach.

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Poetry Friday: Bathtime

One day in seventh grade this week, in connection with our reading of Behind the Mountains, by Edwidge Danticat, my students were sharing family traditions.  It was a sweet discussion.  One student, whom I had seen crying earlier that week over family issues, talked about a beautiful memory that took my breath away.

As parents, we hope those happy memories outweigh the sad ones in our kids' lives.  All families have plenty of both kinds.  As I think about my own family, I realize that the ordinary everyday moments are often the happiest ones.

In eighth grade this week, we read Naomi Shihab Nye's poem "Valentine for Ernest Mann."  (You can read it here.)  It contains the words: "Poems hide."  I told the class to look around in their lives for places where poems hide, and to illustrate, I pulled up my own list on my laptop and projected it on the screen.  I started the list a few years ago, and had forgotten that one of the first things on it is my son's baby bath, a large blue washtub.  That baby son is now an eighth grader, and he was in that very class that morning.  He was embarrassed, and I quickly took down the list, but it got me thinking.

The combination of both those class discussions resulted in this poem last night.  My son didn't want me to read it to his class, but he gave his permission to post it here.  Hope you enjoy it.


When my son was a baby,
Every morning I would fill up a royal blue washtub
And set it out in the sun.
By noon it would be so hot
I’d have to add cold water to it.
I’d carry him outside and give him a bath.
Oh, we’d have splashy fun together
And then I’d towel him dry
And then nurse him to sleep,
Smelling his still-damp, fragrant head.

So many joyful gifts I didn’t have to deserve:
The tropical sun, free for the taking;
The water, saved from the rain
Or bought in trucks 3,000 gallons at a time
And stored in the cistern,
But as much as I really needed.
Best of all, that little blond boy
Who loved me so much,
So much that he would grin and grin
Until it seemed he would burst like a soap bubble
Every afternoon when I went to get him up from his nap.

Ruth, from

Here's today's roundup.