Thursday, August 31, 2017

Poetry Friday: Dark Brown is the River

What could be more dispiriting than a flood?  Nothing that's been under it will be the same, ever, even when the waters recede and the land is dry again.  People aren't the same either, after a flood, or any disaster.

But there's still life to be lived.  I think of children flying kites in the tent camps in Haiti after the earthquake.  I think of smiling boys out for a walk with their dad in waist-high water in Mumbai, a photo I saw in this NPR story about south Asia, where floods have killed over a thousand this summer.  And I think of little girls I saw in a photo from Texas, catching tadpoles in the water Hurricane Harvey left behind. 

For some reason the flood photos kept making me think of this Stevenson poem I loved as a child and can still almost recite from memory.  The dark brown rivers are now running down highways, where they aren't supposed to be, and another disaster becomes part of the memories of children.

Dark brown is the river.   
  Golden is the sand.   
It flows along for ever,   
  With trees on either hand.   
Green leaves a-floating,        
  Castles of the foam,   
Boats of mine a-boating—   
  Where will all come home?   
On goes the river   
  And out past the mill,   
Away down the valley,   
  Away down the hill.   
Away down the river,   
  A hundred miles or more,   
Other little children   
  Shall bring my boats ashore.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Here's this week's roundup.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Poetry Friday: What Hurts

This morning, thinking of this day, and of the Open House at the end of it, I read this essay, about how poet Jill Bialosky started writing.  She writes: "our professor-poet tells us to write poems about what we know and what hurts." 

At this point in the school year, everything is still new, and we're figuring it all out.  Part of being a teacher is keeping it new, year after year.  I've read ten thousand poems about having a crush, but for every kid who writes one, the feeling is new, and overwhelming.  I've also read ten thousand poems from kids who think, "I know!  I'll write about how I have nothing to write about!"  Each kid thinks this clever idea is brand new.  And to each kid, it is. 

Here's to teaching, and to meeting a new set of parents, and to reading what our students write, year after year, their bathroom humor, and their tales of trips and first communions and the births of siblings, and yes, their explorations of what hurts. 

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Poetry Friday: This is the Stuff

We're finishing up our first week of school.  I have a fresh batch of seventh graders.  Ah, seventh graders.  I always forget, from year to year, how much training they need at the beginning.  I also have last year's batch back, in eighth grade now, with several new kids.

And, like everyone else, I've been watching the horror that is the news.

It's easy to feel caught up in the events of history, and as though there's very little you can do about the awful things going on.  But there is one place where I can make a difference, and that's in my classroom.  I can't do great things, as Mother Theresa put it, but I can do "small things with great love."

Seven years ago this week, I was back in my classroom for the first time after six months in the States after the Haiti earthquake.  I was reveling in the ordinariness of my days.  In this post I talked about how those ordinary things are what life is made of, and I shared the song lyrics below.  This year this whole concept seems important to me again.  Maybe treating my students with love and dignity will help prevent them from growing up into people who perpetuate attitudes like we're seeing in the news.  Maybe small things are the most important things I can do right now.

This is the Stuff
by Carolyn Arends

Riding along on a big yellow school bus
Elmer's glue and a brand new lunch box
Writing my name for the very first time
With a pencil that was bigger than me
From jumping rope and skipping school
To doing things that grown-ups do
Life goes by like that big old bus
If you miss it, it's history

Paper dolls and paperweights
Scraped up knees and hearts that break
Dreams to dream and plans to make
Love to give and love to take

This is the stuff
The smallest moments
This is the stuff
I need to notice
This is the stuff life is made of

Walking along as my life unravels
Looking back at the road I've traveled
All the things that matter most
Have caught me by surprise
Misty eyes and silent prayers
Promises and secrets shared
Friends that keep you up all night
Laughing till you cry

Life's made up of little things
Ties that bind and apron strings
New beginnings, old routines
Love and heartache in between...

In my post seven years ago, I included someone's home video that had this song in the background.  You can listen to it here.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Back to School and a QWP Update

Last week I was working in my classroom when someone brought in a new student to introduce to me.  We bonded over the fact that I had a few Diary of a Wimpy Kid books on my shelf, and within minutes he was signing one out to take home to read over the weekend.  As he got ready to write the first entry for the year on the yellow legal pad that serves as my library record, he turned to me and said, "Wait, what's my name?"

I laughed and said, "You're asking me your name?  I just met you!"

It turns out that this student, like many of the kids I teach, has more than one name.  Sure enough, when I checked my class list, the first name he's been using at the school he's been attending in the States isn't the same one I've been given.  That's OK; I assured him that I would call him whichever name he preferred and that I can keep track of both of them.  He went away happy with something to read (I love it when I help people find something to read).

Later, I was thinking about this incident, and I wondered how many of my students are thinking about who they're going to be this year - not what name they are going to use, necessarily, but what kind of person they'll be.  Are they wondering whether I'm remembering trouble they got into last year, or in the case of kids I haven't taught before, whether I've talked to their teachers from last year to get an idea of what to expect from them?  Are they fretting over a new appearance that suddenly happened over the summer?  Are they worrying about friendship situations that festered last year or maybe have developed in the class group chats since school let out in June?

We all want to be seen and known, and loved for who we are.  We want to look at the people in our lives and say, "What's my name?" and have them answer accurately, lovingly, as though our names, our identities, our personalities, are safe with them.

I want my students to know that they get a fresh start tomorrow when school starts.  I don't know many of the seventh graders, and I'm assuming the best about them.  I do know most of the eighth graders, and I'm assuming the best about them, too.  Goofy behavior from seventh grade is in the past.  But they don't just get a fresh start tomorrow.  They get a fresh start every Monday.  They get a fresh start every day.  They get a fresh start every time they come into my classroom, every time I ask to speak to them privately in the hallway about their behavior, every time I find them dawdling back from the bathroom or crying or trying to get into their locker or whatever.

You know what?  They give me a fresh start, too.  I can't tell you how many times I've ended a day discouraged and defeated, mad at myself because I spoke harshly or handled a situation badly, and then the next morning the kid in question has come in as though nothing has happened, saying, "Hi, Mrs. H."  Sometimes it doesn't happen that fast; sometimes there are meetings and conversations and apologies on both sides.  But in general I find my students treat me with remarkable grace.  I try to do the same for them.

We're all still growing.  I'm not growing physically any more, but in some ways I feel as though I'm changing these days as dramatically as my middle schoolers.  There's always room to learn and gain maturity.  They teach me as much as I teach them.

And speaking of learning and growing, I've been working on my Quinquagenarian Writing Project (QWP).  I figured I needed a little head start, since I'm about to go back into a season of constant grading.  I have three first drafts in my QWP folder, and I'm nearly finished with a fourth.

I can't wait to see my kids tomorrow, to start finding out who they are right now. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Poetry Friday: Goodbye

I had to say goodbye to my daughter yesterday as she went back to college.  This made me think of a poem I wrote back in 2012 and posted here.  It refers to the advice my parents were given when dropping me off at boarding school as a young child. 


"Goodbyes cause problems," said the Matron at boarding school.
"It's really better if you just slip away.
If you must say it, make sure it's not prolonged.
You may not drop in for a visit," she added.
"The children's routine is disturbed.
They are more homesick after you leave again."

The parents, feeling vaguely guilty for being so disruptive,
Waved cheerily and didn't fuss.
They wished for their children an orderly universe, untroubled by messy emotions.
Wouldn't it be simpler, they wondered, to avoid goodbyes entirely,
Since they made everyone so sad?

But the children grew up to favor lengthy goodbyes
Rituals of leave-taking that went on for weeks before departure.
They dreaded the end of visits before those visits even began.
They hated for anyone to leave them,
But if someone must go away, a farewell party was obligatory,
With speeches and tearful sharing of memories.

Their motto was "Make a fuss."
They sobbed and wailed,
Grieved extravagantly, soaked handkerchiefs at airports.
They mourned separation and disconnectedness,
Experienced heartbreak to its fullest extent,
Longed for Gondwanaland and Heaven.
They knew that it wasn't goodbyes that had unsettled them as children,
So much as, simply, love.

Ruth, from

Love is disruptive.  But life without love wouldn't be much worth living, would it?

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Poetry Friday: Flowers and Poems

Sonnets from the Portuguese 44
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers 
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through 
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew 
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers, 
So, in the like name of that love of ours, 
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too, 
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew 
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers 
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue, 
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine, 
Here’s ivy!— take them, as I used to do 
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine. 
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true, 
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.

February: Thinking of Flowers
by Jane Kenyon

Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white--the air, the light;
only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide.

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me. . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily. 
Wishing you beautiful flowers today and plenty of memories of them in February!   Here's today's roundup.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Reading Update

Book #56 of 2017 was Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor.  I seem to be drawn to these mother/daughter travel narratives, perhaps because I like traveling with my kids.  This one gives some background to Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees, since the trips took place while she was writing it.  I could definitely relate to some of the concerns of a woman about to turn fifty hanging out with her daughter in her early twenties, and I love spiritual journeys and Greek mythology, but I can't go all the way with these ladies in their explorations of the sacred feminine.

Book #57 was Where She Went, by Gayle Forman.  This is the sequel to If I Stay, which I reviewed in this post.  This one is from the point of view of Adam, the rock musician boyfriend we met in the first book.  Since the end of that one, Adam's life has pretty much fallen apart (not surprisingly).  I don't want to say much more than that in order to avoid spoilers.

Book #58 was Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain.  I read and enjoyed her book, The Paris Wife, back at the end of 2015 (but didn't review it).  This is the story of Beryl Markham, well-known for her flying and her book West with the Night.  These two things were all I knew about her before I read Circling the Sun.  Like me, Markham grew up in Kenya, but she lived from 1902 to 1986.  Her life was full of difficult loss, and, not coincidentally, also great scandal.  The settler community in the early years of Kenya is famous for its cheerful spouse-swapping, and Markham participated in this behavior, though you can see from her story that this kind of stuff doesn't make for happiness.  She was friendly with many of the people whose names I have heard all my life, including the people I met in the movie (and later the book) Out of Africa.  The movie was made while I was living in Kenya, and I even applied to be an extra in it (and didn't get to).  It's always been one of my favorites because of the scenery and the story.  Yes, it's about infidelity (and I think I've shocked some people by liking it so much), and yes, it's a prime example of the White People in Africa genre, but it's also about how much we can (and mostly, can't) own or control the people we love, how far we can and should sacrifice who we are for those people, and how we can live well in a country that isn't our own (characters do this with varying levels of success).  I've watched it at several important points in my life and seen it differently each time.  I think maybe Felicity in the movie is based at least a bit on Beryl.  I found this book fascinating, and was glad to learn more about Beryl.  Like Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Dinesen), Beryl Markham is a White Person in Africa, and in spite of her lifelong friendship with the boy Kibii who becomes the moran (warrior) Ruta, Beryl is way more interested in herself and her own problems than she is in the development of the country she is living in.  This may annoy you.  

Book #59 was the third edition of In the Middle, by Nancie Atwell.  This is the third summer I have set out to read this book, and the first time I actually completed it.  That shouldn't be taken to mean that it isn't a good book - it is a fantastic book.  I've read the first two editions, also, and I would say that of all the books I've read on teaching, Nancie Atwell's are the most influential on the way I do things.  It's just that professional reading in the summer sometimes takes a back seat to other things.  I got through all six hundred plus pages this time, though, and I have a page full of notes of things I plan to change this coming semester as a result.  I've reviewed lots of Atwell's other writing on this blog in the past.  If you teach middle schoolers, I highly recommend her work.  

Book #60 was Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford.  My daughter wanted me to read this, and she checked out a copy from her college library to bring me during her visit.  Spufford is English, foul-mouthed, and an amazing writer.  He begins with a preface written for the U.S. edition, explaining the way Christianity in England is different from the way it is in the United States.  Then he proceeds to explain how Christianity makes sense, given that in England he can't assume anything about how much people know or understand about it.  (He says the main emotion experienced by the British with regard to religion is embarrassment.) The biggest problem faced by people is, he tells us, "the HPtFtU," or the "human propensity to f--- things up."  He goes on to explain how Christianity offers a response to the HPtFtU.  I kept trying to pick out a little section to quote to give you an idea of how he writes, and the problem is finding a place to stop.  Here's a little taste:

"Unlimited love having once entered into limited us, it's here for good, apparent to us or invisible depending on the light, depending on our willingness to see.  Humanity glimmers with God's presence.

And he is most specifically of all here, we believe, when we follow the instructions he gave at dinner the night before he died.  Every Sunday morning, in all the church's human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once I believe on the moon, we hold again a stylized version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem.  There is bread, there is wine.  We bless them using one of the Passover prayers.  We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup.  We repeat Jesus's words from the story.  This is my body.  This is my blood.  And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different.  There has been a change in their meaning.  For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it.  Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence.  For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now.  Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine.  ...

We're celebrating the love-feast.  Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other.  We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us.  That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognize: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority."

I left out loads of great stuff from that, and there are many other sections I'd like to quote, but what will really stick with me from this book is the repeated phrase, "Far more can be mended than you know."  The last lines of the book are Spufford's paraphrase of what he says God says to us: "Don't be careful.  Don't be surprised by any human cruelty.  But don't be afraid.  Far more can be mended than you know."   

This post is linked to the August Quick Lit post at Modern Mrs. Darcy.