Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I Learned in September

We go back to school in August - early August - but it's really in September that things get into full swing. The honeymoon is over; nobody's on best behavior any more. We've started to get the routines down, and to irritate each other (students and teachers; students and other students; teachers and other teachers, even, sometimes), and, yes, to learn. I'm sending notes to parents and carrying home kids' writing and grading notebooks in huge stacks and doing the endless logic puzzle that is the ongoing attempt at a perfect seating chart.

So much gets learned in September: habits for the whole year of how to turn in your work and what to expect from a class discussion and what I will and won't tolerate in my classroom, my queendom. I learned everyone's names back in August, but now I'm learning their handwriting, their particular writing struggles, the kind of books they like to read. I'm learning the kids who will push and push and push me in class, ignoring my instructions and apparently not listening to me at all, but then turn in an amazing piece of writing, full of voice. I'm learning the ones who are full of ideas, but then don't follow through with the actual words on paper. I'm working on figuring out the personality of each kid, and also the group personality of each class.

In September I played with my camera. It's a pretty fancy one, and there's a lot I don't yet know how to do with it. I read an article a while back that suggested treating your camera as though you're a toddler - pressing buttons, trying things out. I'm thinking whoever said that hasn't had a toddler recently, and I'm a lot more careful with my camera than a toddler would be, but I've been trying to be less afraid of it, and to read about photography and try more new things.  In September I learned how to do manual focus, and what white balance is, and some new things about shutter speed. 

In September, Addie Zierman asked her readers to think about the expression "Let Go and Let God."  Sort of like playing with my camera when I don't really know what I'm doing, letting go isn't easy for me. Holding on comes much more naturally: to my routines, to my ideas, and, especially, to the people I love. I have written about this topic at great length over the last few years, here and elsewhere, and I intended to write something for Addie's link-up about it too, but I was too busy doing the holding on and gaining control of the first full month of school.  That's quite a balance in middle school: when to hold on and when to let go. That's quite a balance in life, too.

In September I read a Rick Riordan book for the first time after a student of mine, an eighth grader, walked over to the library and checked out The Lightning Thief for me in his own name.  He pressed it into my hands, saying, "Miss, you've just got to read this." After that, how could I not? I heard Rick Riordan speak back in 2013 on why mythology is especially appropriate for middle schoolers, and had always intended to read these books which are so perennially popular with my kids, but I just hadn't done it yet. I enjoyed this book immensely, actually much more than I had expected to based on the opinions of other adults that I'd heard. I was able to return the book my student had checked out because I had the title on my Kindle; I'd bought it in 2011 for my son. Now I'm reading the second one, The Sea of Monsters.  

I'm sure I learned many other things in September, too, but as usual my list was sparse when I came to write my post. I'll try to do a better job of keeping track of what I learn in October.  

Here's what I learned in January, February, March, April, and May.  And here's what I learned in the summer.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Poetry Friday: Sea Grapes

I spent last weekend at the beach. The ocean is timeless, even though we've warmed it up and filled it with plastic. The ocean helps give me a long-term perspective, a helpful gift in the middle of the news these days. This poem by Derek Walcott, a Caribbean neighbor, addresses both the timelessness and its limits.

Sea Grapes
by Derek Walcott

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband's

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa's name
in every gull's outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant's boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

Here's the poem, and you can read others by Walcott here as well.
Here's today's roundup.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Poetry Friday: Gerard Manley Hopkins

My Own Heart let me more have Pity on

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather - as skies
Betweenpie mountains - lights a lovely mile.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I shared this before back in 2015.

This week's roundup is here

Friday, September 14, 2018

Poetry Friday: Hurricane, Again

Problems with Hurricanes
Victor Hernández Cruz

A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it's not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I'll tell you he said:
it's the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.

Here the rest of the poem (including a killer last line), written by a poet from Puerto Rico, where they know about hurricanes.  This particular hurricane isn't threatening us, and let's hope we can say that about all the hurricanes this whole season, but we do pray for those in its path, having been in that place many times ourselves.  I shared this poem back in 2012, when I believe the storm in question was Sandy, but I've also written here about Irma and Isaac and Matthew and countless others.

Stay safe and dry, everyone.

Amy has the roundup today.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Reading Update

Book #61 of 2018 was a reread: Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, by Brian McLaren.  You can read my review from the first time I read it here. "How much higher and wider and deeper and richer our lives become," writes McLaren, "when we awaken to the presence of the real, wild, mysterious, living God, who is bigger than our tame concepts of God."

Book #62 was Son, by Lois Lowry. Though I had read the other three books in this series, billed as The Giver Quartet, I hadn't yet read this one, largely because the reviews had convinced me it wasn't much good. That will show me to listen to the reviews. I loved this one, which revisits some of the scenes and characters of the first book. I particularly loved that this was mythic in all the best ways, just like The Giver.

Book #63 was Mozart's Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. I found it while browsing through the e-books at the library, a practice which will never be the same as browsing the actual books on an actual shelf, but which sometimes leads to picking up a surprising new find. This was one example.  Did you know that Mozart had a starling?  I didn't. That was just the beginning of things in this book that I didn't know, from all about starlings, how they are pests but also beautiful and lovable, to all about Mozart, in his complexity as a son, a husband, a musician. Highly recommended.

Book #64 was A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carré. I find Le Carré's books a mixed bag. I wrote a little more about that in this post. This book was sort of an in-between one; I didn't find it completely impossible to follow, as I do with some, but I also didn't love it.

Book #65 was Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, by Hugh Halter. I started reading this a long time ago, but was put off by Halter's use of the Haiti earthquake to make one of his points.

Book #66 was Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life, by Gretchen Rubin. I really liked this concept for a biography, and would love to read others in the same vein. Rubin takes various questions about Churchill's life and then answers them, from the evidence, in more than one way.  Was Churchill's depression a major influence on him, or was it not?  Was he a good leader or not? Was he a good father or not?  I loved how this led to a complex portrait of this great man. Just like people we know personally, he was not one thing or the other.

Book #67 was Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf. Wolf divides her fascinating study of reading and the brain into three parts. The first part is entitled: "How the Brain Learned to Read."  In this section, Wolf discusses the way reading and writing developed and how human brains formed new pathways, never needed before in a culture which was largely based on hearing and oral learning.  She explains the reference to Proust in the title with a detailed examination of a description of a reading childhood in one of Proust's books, as she develops the description of how the human race became literate into a study of how individual children learn to read in part II, "How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time." Here she writes about each stage of literacy development, from being read to in the "beloved lap" of a parent or caregiver from infancy, to the formal stages of instruction. Most fascinating to me was Wolf's explanation of how Socrates believed that learning through reading was far inferior to learning through the oral method.  He thought that reading left too much to the individual, and to interpretation.  "I came to see," she writes, "that Socrates' worries about the transition from an oral culture to a literate one and the risks it posed, especially to young people, mirrored my own concerns about the immersion of our children into a digital world."  She goes on to explore how students today must form new pathways in their brains as they process information and knowledge differently using digital media.  Part III is called "When the Brain Can't Learn to Read."  Wolf, the mother of a dyslexic child in addition to being an expert on reading and the brain, discusses dyslexia: its possible causes, its adaptive elements, and how teachers can respond to it when they meet it in students.  The squid in the title refers to the way scientists have used squids to study the brain.  This book goes into a lot of detail about the brain and how it works - really, more than my own brain is equipped to comprehend in much depth.  One thing I learned is how plastic the brain is, and how we are designed to figure things out.  "We are," Wolf writes, "it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs."  How encouraging for a teacher!  I was further encouraged by Wolf's explanations of how reading, study of the morphology of words, and discussion can help students. This, like book #63, was one I found while browsing ebooks at the library, and was another great find.

Book #68 was The Other Family, by Joanna Trollope. This is the story of a musician who dies and leaves his two families scrambling to decide how they are going to continue their lives. His first wife and their son form one of the families, and the other is made up of his second wife (who turns out not to have been his wife at all in a legal sense) and their three daughters. I always enjoy Trollope's clear-eyed looks at complicated emotions and personalities.

Book #69 was The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny.  This was the tenth in the Inspector Gamache series. I can't say I love these books, but I put the eleventh one on hold at the library anyway.

Book #70 was Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer's Notebook, by Ralph Fletcher. This one was from my shelf at school. There's a lot of emphasis in recent books for writing teachers on the teacher as writer. Because I myself write, I am able to give my students ideas and strategies that wouldn't be as clear to me if I didn't have that experience. This book is in that vein; it explores the idea of the writer's notebook and gives many suggestions and models for using it more effectively.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Poetry Friday: Unimportantly Beautiful

I'm writing this Poetry Friday post on Thursday, my second day this week staying home with a bad cold.  I croaked my way through my teaching day on Tuesday, drinking lots of water and sucking down cough drops, until at some point during the twelve or fifteen minutes of 8th grade Silent Reading, my voice gave out completely.  I tried to speak up to dismiss the kids to their next class, and there was just no sound at all.  I wrote "Folders" on the whiteboard, and pointed to the drawer where the students by now know to put them, and waved goodbye. 

Tuesday's photo prompt (here's some more information about my daily photo habit) was "With Manual Focus," and, after looking up how to focus my camera manually, I took the above photo With Manual Focus.  It depicts a straw angel which I bought in a shop in Jacmel.  I bought it because the owner of the shop said the proceeds would benefit a program for nursing mothers, and also because I love it.  It sits on a shelf in my bedroom in front of a row of poetry books.  As I looked at the photo appreciatively this morning, my eye was drawn to that Derek Walcott book right behind the angel.  Her wing hides the end of his name.  I decided that this morning was the perfect time to take the book down and read some Derek Walcott, since someone else is dealing with my students at this moment, and I am here in the quiet of my room. 
Here's something to share, from "The Prodigal," a book-length poem of which only a few excerpts are included in my book.  Walcott wrote about his travels around the world, away from his Caribbean island of St Lucia.  He always felt he was somehow being unfaithful to his home by traveling the world and seeing other sights.

In this poem from part 4 of "The Prodigal," Walcott is visiting Italy.

I wanted to be able to write: "There is nothing like it,
to walk down the Via Veneto before sunrise."
And now, you think: he is going to describe it.
I am going to describe the benediction of June,
the grey cool spring air, its ages at prima luce,
too early for coffee from the hotel
and from the locked grids of last night's cafés....

He's up so early because of jet-lag, and he's taking advantage of the morning to walk and observe, reflecting on the similarities of the scene with his home village, Gros Islet, when he himself gets observed.

...a man came out and examined me
as I copied the name down, a bald young man
in an orange windbreaker who scowled
because of my colour and the terrorists,
and because my village was unimportantly beautiful
unlike his city and the Via Veneto.
I lived in two villages: Greenwich and Gros Islet,
and loved both almost equally.  One had the sea,
grey morning light along the waking water,
the other a great river, and if they asked
what country I was from I'd say, "The light
of that tree-lined sunrise down the Via Veneto."

I love the way Walcott has captured the combination of feelings: delight in his surroundings, a sense of not belonging, insecurity about where he comes from (so unimportantly beautiful, his Gros Islet), and complete assurance that he does belong.  That light of that morning is his own country, whether his passport would acknowledge it or not. 

Imagine if you asked someone what country he was from, and he launched into a description of the "tree-lined sunrise" as though writing an impromptu "Where I'm From" poem.  I can't decide if that would be irritating or endearing.  But I do know that I enjoyed reading Walcott in my "unimportantly beautiful" room, with sunlight streaming in my windows, and the calm assurance that my students were all right with a sub.  Perhaps there was a slight leftover of my nighttime cold medication adding to the sense of peace; there was definitely the fuzzy brain of a cold.  Tomorrow I will deal with the inevitable pile of papers I'll have to read when I head back to school.  For today, I'm from the light of my room on this goat-lined street of Port-au-Prince, with the fans droning and the stack of tissues by my bed and a book of poetry clutched in my hot little hands.

Carol has this week's roundup.

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: My Path

When I read the email from Donna giving the topic for this month, "My Path," the first thing I thought of was the verse from Psalm 119: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path."

You can tell that this comes from early in my life, because I memorized it in the King James Version with all the thees and thous.  This verse is also a song, which ensured its place in my memory.

I remember being taught as a child that the lamps referred to in this verse were little clay ones, casting a small amount of light just adequate for a few steps.  They were not spotlights or floodlights or even flashlights.  They illuminated the next tiny portion of the path, and not the entirety of the freeway.  The link under the lamp photo explains the substance of what I was taught. 

Of course, there are times when our journey is dramatic and leads us across windswept vistas.  Such journeys are best undertaken in daylight, and a camera crew would be a big plus.  This verse is talking about stumbling around at home, in the place you know best, where it's easiest to step on a Lego and get mad at whoever left it there.  I don't know about you, but the majority of my spiritual issues are the ones on that path: irritation with the people in my life, jealousy of the people in my life, lack of love for the people in my life.  A predictable path where perhaps I'd prefer the unpredictable one, populated with camel trains and exciting tasks and romantic strangers.

But no, my path is so often the same from one day to the next, facing the same temptations and the same challenges, needing the flashes of light that will give me just enough guidance for that moment, if I will pay attention.

Check out Donna's blog to see what everyone else had to say about this topic. 

Saturday, September 01, 2018

What I Learned this Summer

Since January, I have been imitating some of the blogs I read by posting a monthly summary of some things I've been learning. At least, I produced such a post in January, February, March, April, and May. When June came, somehow I wasn't able to summon the energy to write one, perhaps because I was recovering from school, getting ready to travel, and then traveling. The travel spilled over into July, and I got home, jumped back into my life, and then started school at the beginning of August. I did have a list on my desktop, however, and a few times I added to it.  So here goes, my attempt to share some of What I Learned this Summer.

This summer I learned more about immigration and asylum-seeking.  I listened to reporters and experts talk about the mess at the Mexican border, and I grieved for those people who had walked hundreds of miles with children in tow, seeking a better life, and then had those children taken away from them as soon as they reached the promised land for which they had longed every day of their journey. I learned facts and figures, pros and cons, laws and statutes, but I kept coming back to that shocked, grieving surprise in parents' eyes: the people I thought were good guys really aren't. My daughter would come back from work to find me obsessively clicking on video after video, article after article. "Mom," she said, "I try not to watch the news all the time like that. It's too much." It is too much. I turned it off and enjoyed precious time with her.

I learned that on a Sunday morning in a small midwestern town, before most people are up for church, and when you're walking to an early service, the level of quiet and emptiness of the streets suggests that an apocalypse just happened. It was a gentle apocalypse, leaving all the buildings intact.  It was a recent apocalypse, and none of the grass has had the time to grow a micrometer past the perfect length required for a gorgeously manicured lawn. But an apocalypse it must be, for how else to explain the total lack of human beings other than my daughter and myself, strolling down the street?  At home in Haiti, the road wouldn't be this quiet and deserted even at four in the morning. Everything is lovely, so exquisitely kept, the flowers I have to stop and photograph, the play equipment, the shiny cars, the homes just right there without high walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass, without gates.  And yet, there is a slight edge of creepiness, too. Where is everyone? Get up! It's a beautiful day!

I learned more about the delights of having a grown-up daughter, with her own wisdom and routines, her own delicious recipes, her own books (some of which, admittedly, used to be on my shelves at home), her own apartment, oh my goodness, when did this happen? My baby is right there in front of me, and yet she's a beautiful woman with a whole life of her own. She slept on the floor on a mattress her landlady had let her borrow, and I slept in her bed. The first morning I was there, she climbed up into bed with me and went right back to sleep, and I hugged her and went back to sleep too, and I guess it probably isn't possible to feel any happier than I felt right then.

I learned more about riots, as Haiti had some early in July when I was still far away from home. Trust me when I say it's more complicated than it seems.  And that is all I'm going to say right now. (Here are some thoughts from a Haitian friend.)

I learned again about how much I rely on glasses, when a riptide knocked me down and took mine while I was beachgoing with my parents. I wrote a poem about the whole adventure that you can read here.  I also learned more about riptides, and how dangerous they can be.  I'm thankful all I lost was my glasses, and I'm thankful that I was able to get new ones quickly. And I'm beyond thankful that I have worn glasses since I was nine years old, because without them I would be effectively disabled by my poor vision. I think often of how many others in this world do not have the opportunities I have had in many areas, and this is one.

I learned to identify a bananaquit, and I wrote about that here.  I am trying to learn more about the flora and fauna around me. I want to know what every tree and flower is called in English and French and Kreyol, to identify every bird. I ask people, and I try Google, and every once in a while I learn a new one to add to my store.  Being able to put specific words to things makes my life feel richer, as though I own them without possessing them, as though they are mine and yet I won't exploit them or do anything to them except take a picture and love them from a distance.

I learned, once again, as I've learned every year of my life, that "summer's lease hath all too short a date." I came home from my trip with photos and thoughts and memories to last me all year, and I spent hours and hours with my at-home family, and I read a big pile of books, and then suddenly it was over, and I was back at work. 

What did you learn this summer? Share it with me, so I can learn it too.