Saturday, May 29, 2021

Reading Update

Book #42 of this year was Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I'd read two books by this author before; one was a retelling of Pride and Prejudice that I liked (I wrote a bit about it here). The other was Prep, which I wrote about here. I really disliked that one; I used the word "excruciating." My daughter asked me why on earth I had chosen to read alternative reality fan-fiction about Hillary Clinton by an author I hadn't really loved in the past. I'm not sure why. And while it's fascinating to consider, as the author does, what might have happened to Hillary if she hadn't married Bill Clinton, it felt a little uncomfortable to read about all these real people (who are still alive) doing fictional things. Especially when you're not quite sure where the fiction begins and ends. If you're a public person, does that mean authors can just write whatever they want about what you might have done in a different situation? (Sort of the same kind of argument you could make about the TV series "The Crown.") I don't know - all I can say is I kept reading to the end. 

Book #43 was The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare, which I was teaching to my sixth graders. I read this book when I was their age, and I still like it now. 

Book #44 was Dark Tides, by Philippa Gregory, the second book in the Fairmile Series (I wrote about the first one here). Gregory has written, about this series, "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." This one was fascinating and fun to read. I especially enjoyed the character who had left England and gone to the New World. With a lot of Gregory's books, I was reading about history I know well (in the case of the Tudor stories). The Plantagenet history was less well-known to me, but still, since I was reading about real characters, there was a certain inevitability about what was going to happen to them. With these fictional characters, though, absolutely anything could happen. I can't wait to read the next book; Gregory gives some idea in an interview at the end of the book about what might be coming. And it sounds like this series is going to be one of those endless sagas - yay!


Book #45 was a book of poetry, Alive Together, by Lisel Mueller. I got it for my birthday back in February, and managed to stretch it out this long by reading just a couple of poems at a time. Wonderful stuff! Now I get to go back and read it again.


Book #46 was In Broken Places, by Michèle Phoenix. This is the story of Shelby, who grew up with her brother Trey in an unstable, violent home. After suddenly becoming a single mom, she decides to move to Germany to teach at a school for missionaries' children. I enjoyed reading this, and watching Shelby start to find healing for her past. My favorite part was her relationship with Trey.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Poetry Friday: Carrying Stuff and an Ekphrastic Poem

During National Poetry Month, I got a poem in my email from Knopf Poetry called "Flowers," by Cynthia Zarin. It ended like this:


It seemed especially important

not to spill the coffee as I usually

do, as I turned up the stairs,


inside the whorl of the house as if

I were walking up inside the lilies.

I do not know how to hold all


the beauty and sorrow of my life.


You can read the whole poem here.


It's true; holding all the beauty and sorrow of life is never easy, and this week was a doozy. So that's a bit about where my mind was as I worked on the prompt for May from the Poetry Peeps, which I read about here. It involves writing an ekphrastic poem using a photo you've taken at a museum. I have so many of that kind of photo, from so many museum visits through the years. I picked out several, and I think I'll go on writing them for a while, but here's one I wrote this week.


I took this photo in 2014 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The photo is blurry - I took it with my iPod - but I like it better than the much better photo you can see here at the Cleveland Museum of Art's website, because their photo doesn't have my kids in it.  In addition to looking at their website, I watched a video you'll find at that link, called "On My Mind: Monet's Water Lilies," in which Heather Lemonedes Brown talks about how much the painting means for her as she's isolating at home.

So here's the poem, or at least a first draft of it:

Water Lilies, Cleveland Museum of Art

Sit here
for a moment.
Look at the
water lilies.

The world
doesn’t go away
while you look at
water lilies.
It’s still there,
right outside the garden.

At Giverny,
Monet could hear the guns from the front
as war raged.

But he kept painting
water lilies.

Kept thinking of a future
when all these
water lilies
would be in one room
for people to stare at,

surrounded by
pure color,

not fighting,

sit here
for a moment.
at the
water lilies.

Michelle Kogan has this week's roundup.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Poetry Friday: Mary Lee Edition

Today's Poetry Friday is dedicated to Mary Lee Hahn, who is retiring after 37 years of teaching. As well as being an amazing teacher and an inspiration to all of us, Mary Lee is also a fabulous Poetry Friday participant and organizer. She's a wonderful poet. So we're celebrating with #PoemsForMaryLee! 



My contributions are both golden shovel poems that I wrote for Mary Lee's birthday back in December. For both of them, the strike lines are from Mary Lee's own work. The first strike line comes from a haiku she posted here, and the second is from her poem "Spiral Glide," published in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School.


Colleagues in poetry
We meet every Friday
Gatherings digital,
Faceless, and virtual.
Only our words interact, and still
The moments are magical.

Poetry Friday: digital, virtual, still magical.



Teaching Like a Hawk (from the point of view of one of Ms. Hahn’s students)

Ms. Hahn in fifth grade is not
The type of teacher given to flapping.
She provides me space for my
Own choices, lets me spread my wings.
Her decisions are just.
In her class we are leaning
On each other and turning
Our struggles into motivation to keep on rising.

Not flapping my wings, just leaning, turning, rising. 

Happy retirement, Mary Lee! 

Check out what everyone else is posting for Mary Lee this week here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Fête Drapeau/Fèt Drapo

 Happy Haitian Flag Day! Here is some history of the Haitian flag.


I did an hour of leisurely birding this morning on my front porch with a cup of tea. I will catch up on my grading today. It's supposed to get up to 93 degrees.

I am happy to have a day off. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Reading Update

I just posted an update on my reading the other day, but here's a brief one on the two books I finished this week.

Book #40 of the year was Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To, by David G. Lanoue. I really enjoyed this look at the haiku of Issa, who lived in the eighteenth century. Illustrated with haiku by Issa and by many modern writers who aspire to write like him, this book gives six inspiring lessons from Issa's life and work. 


And, finally, Book #41! I've been reading The Far Pavilions, by M. M. Kaye, aloud to my husband for months and months. It's 1200 pages long, but we finally finished it this morning. For me it was at least the third time through, but he hadn't read it before. We both enjoyed it immensely.


Our edition was a bit the worse for wear, and it got worse as we went along. Just before we finished it, I suddenly realized I had lost track of the last page! I posted on Facebook and asked friends who owned it to send me a photo of the last page, and two friends did. But then I found the paper version again, so we were able to read every last word.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Poetry Friday: Ted Kooser

Recently, a conversation with a new friend about Ted Kooser sent me on a Kooser binge. I have one book of his poetry (I wrote about it here), but I hadn't read much beyond that. Here are three of his poems that I particularly enjoyed.


In "Daddy Longlegs," he tries to imagine what a passing bug might be thinking, and succeeds in thinking what he might be thinking if he were that bug. All that in three sentences! I'll quote the first, and link you to the second and third.

Daddy Longlegs

by Ted Kooser

Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,

a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill

that skims along over the basement floor

wrapped up in a simple obsession.

Here's the rest.



In "Abandoned Farmhouse," he uses the clues in that farmhouse to imagine what kind of lives were lived there.


Abandoned Farmhouse

by Ted Kooser


He was a big man, says the size of his shoes 

on a pile of broken dishes by the house;

a tall man too, says the length of the bed

in an upstairs room, and a good, God-fearing man,

says the Bible with a broken back

(Intrigued? I sure was. Here's the rest.)



The third one is about a kitchen, and a grandmother.


A Room in the Past

by Ted Kooser


It's a kitchen. Its curtains fill

with a morning light so bright 

you can't see beyond its windows

into the afternoon. Here's the rest.


I'm thinking about acquiring another book of Kooser's work, because I sure did enjoy that deep dive into his poetry that's available online. 

Irene has this week's roundup.



Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Of Standardized Testing and Birding


We're doing standardized testing this week. It's been a long time since we've done any, because last year the pandemic began right before we would normally have done it. I'm sure many schools are in the same boat right now. The kids can't remember how it works to sit still and fill in bubbles with number 2 pencils, and maybe aren't too thrilled to learn about that now.

I recognize the benefits of having some data to track kids through their years in our school, and also to see how we're doing in our instruction, but I also remember very well that this time last year, many were saying that skipping testing was the best thing that could have happened to all of us. Do you remember that? Or was I just thinking those things in my head? 

The other thing I wanted to write about this week was birding, because Saturday was Global Big Day, which takes place every year in the second weekend in May. Birders around the world go out and see what they can see, keeping track of how many species they can find in 24 hours. It's a particularly good time to do this because it's at the peak of spring migration (in the northern hemisphere). And as I thought about these two topics, standardized testing and birding, I started to see some connections.

Our kids aren't standardized, not at all. Each one of them is unique and different. So comparing them to each other, or to kids across many schools, is of only limited value. What if, when I was looking at birds on Saturday, I had compared them to each other? What if I had decided that some were more valuable than others, or more skillful, or just plain better? What if I had placed each in a percentile, a chain of being in which, say, a Mourning Dove didn't get quite as many points because there are plenty of them around, or a White-necked Crow got marked down because of how very noisy it is? 

In the class for which I was proctoring on Monday morning, there were all kinds of kids. There was a cartoonist. There were several skilled soccer players. There were some excellent gamers. There were some great readers, and some other kids who have trouble sitting still long enough to read anything, but who have other strengths. Maybe they don't know about those strengths yet, or maybe they know perfectly well, but haven't revealed them to their teachers yet. Many of the students in that room were taking the test in their third language. All have been through a couple of extremely challenging years, living here in Haiti through a time of political, security, and medical crisis. Ranking them wouldn't make any more sense than ranking the beautiful birds I peered at through my binoculars on Saturday. 

There's nothing wrong with testing students, as long as we realize that evaluation is only one of our goals. Maybe we should also take some time to just appreciate them, in all their variety. Maybe that kid who couldn't seem to focus his attention on his test booklet won't do brilliantly on this particular test, but there is still something to appreciate about him. The testing may help me learn how to teach him better, but I also need to remember that the results are only one aspect of the humanity of this child. 

One of the things that's so great about birding is discovering the variety of birds that exist. The more differences we see, the happier we are. We stop, and stand still, and look, and say "Wow." We let the birds teach us about themselves as we stay quiet and observe. Let's do that with our students, too.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Reading Update

Book #34 of the year was The Overstory, by Richard Powers. This is a novel about trees and people who love them. There was a lot in this book that I loved, but there was also just a lot in this book. Ultimately I think some of the characters and some of the events could have been cut out without the book losing much. I don't mind books being enormously long, but I like everything there to feel as though it needs to be there. I did enjoy the writing about trees.


Book #35 was Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt. I have been waiting for this book for a long time. My family and I, and several years of seventh grade classes, really enjoyed Schmidt's book The Wednesday Wars, about a seventh grade class, and specifically a kid in the class called Holling Hoodhood, in the 1967-68 school year. The sequel to that book, Okay for Now, is about another kid in the class, Doug Swieteck, who moves to a new town at the end of seventh grade. Several years ago I read in an interview with Schmidt that he was going to write another novel about a girl in the class, Meryl Lee. This is that book. I loved many things about this book, but I didn't love it as much as I had hoped. Maybe I had built it up too much in my mind. For one thing, I could hardly get over the revelation in the first chapter, and I don't know if I've forgiven Schmidt for it yet. (Sorry, I'm not going to tell you what it is.) For another, it seemed as though this was two separate books. (That insight comes from my daughter, and she's absolutely right.) It's definitely not as perfectly crafted as Holling's and Doug's books, but I do love Meryl Lee. 

Book #36 was Lovely War, by Julie Berry. A friend recommended this in the context of Iliad/Odyssey retellings. This isn't exactly that, but it is a story of World War I told by a group of Greek gods, each admitting his or her part in the plot development. Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Hades talk about how love, war, music, and death work together in the lives of the characters. There are interesting themes like racism in the military at this period, USO performers, and PTSD. I did enjoy this one.


Book #37 was a reread, Fire, by Kristin Cashore. I think I enjoyed this book just as much as the first time I read it, described here.


Book #38 was The Wright Sister, by Patty Dann. It's the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright's sister, Katharine. While this is based on true events, it's not really an effort to be accurate to the historical truth. The author read about Katharine getting married in her fifties, and that after her marriage, her brother Orville never spoke to her again. While I really enjoyed the book and found it convincing, I was disappointed to learn at the end that the author hadn't done much research at all on the actual story. I really do want to know more about Katharine. 


Book #39 was a verse novel, Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo. It's set partly in the Dominican Republic (the neighboring country to Haiti, where I live) and partly in New York City. The title comes from the fact that Dominicans clap when a plane lands at the airport in their country. Haitians do, too, so this detail really grabbed my attention. There's also an important Haitian character in the story, and I enjoyed that, too. The book is about a plane crash. A Dominican man who dies in the crash has two daughters, one in DR and one in New York. The girls don't know about each other. This story completely drew me in and did a great job of exploring the differences in the lives of these two girls, based solely on where they were born and the circumstances of those different geographical places.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Poetry Friday: The Poet Laureate Writes

In April as Americans were celebrating National Poetry Month, the British had another poetic occasion: the death of their 99 year old Prince Consort. Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was celebrated in many ways after his death on April 9th. One of the ways was by having a poem written by the official Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Simon Armitage. 

The role of Poet Laureate is a time-honored one in Great Britain. It has been held by many famous men (and one woman) since 1668: to name just some, Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hughes, and Carol Ann Duffy. It used to be that the Poet Laureate was required to write about all the royal occasions, but now there is no official job description. (You can read about that, and various other FAQ, here.) So Armitage wasn't required to write about Philip's death, but he chose to, anyway.


Writing about royal events is a bit more of a tricky proposition than it used to be. There are mixed feelings about royalty in the United Kingdom these days. I read several articles during the funeral period about how the BBC had received many complaints about their coverage being too long and extensive. But of course, there are others who couldn't possibly get enough royal coverage.


I thought Simon Armitage hit a nice compromise with his poem, in which he eulogized (or eulogised, as they spell it in England) not just Philip, but his generation. The poem begins this way:


The Patriarchs - An Elegy

by Simon Armitage


The weather in the window this morning

is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,

a slow winter's final shiver. On such an occasion

to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up

for a whole generation - that crew whose survival 

was always the stuff of minor miracle,

who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,

fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea

with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.


You can read the rest here. And/or, you can listen to it as you watch this video released by the Royal Family, including photos of Philip from throughout his long life.

Of course, many towns and cities and countries and other bodies have Poet Laureates, too. Who's your favorite Poet Laureate of the past or present? And do you think you'd like a job where you're supposed to write poems for official events? Would you thrive with all those built-in poetry prompts, or would it give you writer's block?


You can see this week's roundup here.

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Blossoms of Joy


This month's host, Carol Varsalona, has asked that we reflect on Blossoms of Joy. (You can see everyone else's posts at that link.) I have already been reflecting on blossoms, because at this time of year, our flamboyant trees (poinciana) are starting to be in bloom here in Haiti. They aren't anywhere near as bright and beautiful as they will be in a month or so, but they are starting.  This past week I took a picture of the first flowers on our campus and wrote a haiku to go along with it.

You can see pictures of the flamboyant in more dramatic colors, as well as a poem I wrote about these gorgeous trees, here


I really do see these blossoms as a gift from God each year.  And the blue air mail paper, in my childhood, was a joyous thing, as I spent so much time in a different country from people I loved. Those blue air mail letters appearing in the mail were always welcome. It's something my own children haven't even experienced, not because they aren't in a different country from people they love (they are), but because air mail letters seem to be a thing of the past. They are much more likely to do an online chat instead.

Flowering trees are a wonderful thing no matter where you live; probably every location has some that are particularly treasured. In Tokyo, it's the sakura (cherry blossoms). I reveled in the beautiful photos again this year, some in the news, and some taken by people I know who live there. But I also got a little bit of a shiver when I read that they were early this year. Not just early - the earliest ever. And lest you think that means the earliest in some weatherperson's life, no. They have been keeping records for twelve hundred years. When they say it's the earliest ever, they mean it. (Here's an article about that.)

Sakura blooms pink

Festival dates changed this year

Spring warmth came early.

The blossoms still brought joy. We can feel more than one thing at a time.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Graduation Speeches

Any teacher knows that there's a lot going on at this time of year, as we head into the last few weeks of school. This weird 2020-21 school year is no exception, and I've been thinking about and working on ways to end with just the right mix of normal and festive. 

The other day, our Head of School stepped into my classroom and added something else to my to-do list. Had I been thinking about the 8th grade promotion, he wondered? Usually, my 8th graders end the year with a speech unit, in which the culminating activity is to write and deliver a graduation speech. Then the kids vote on the best speeches, the ones they'd like to be part of their class promotion to high school. (None of this is my idea; I shamelessly stole it from the wonderful Nancie Atwell.) 

This year, everything is different. We have a whole different curriculum we're using, chosen by our administrators to accommodate the hybrid style in which we began the year. I have half as long each day with my 8th graders as I did last year. Almost all of the ways I usually do my teaching have been jettisoned (and while some great new ways have emerged from this, and I'm proud of how I've made the best of it, in general, I yearn for how it all used to work). 

So I was pretty happy when my administrator told me he'd like the 8th graders to write and deliver speeches for their promotion, as usual. He called the kids' work a highlight of past years and said that he can always tell I've worked hard with them. That made me feel great, and encouraged me to incorporate getting ready to start working on the speeches into this week's lesson plans. Already I've been enjoying what I always love about this assignment as the kids have been brainstorming things they remember from their years at our school. Their whole middle school time has been strange, since Haiti had lockdowns (for political reasons) before the rest of the world joined in when the pandemic started.

It's great to get to showcase the students' work and to celebrate what they've achieved so far in their academic careers as we get ready to say goodbye to them and send them upstairs to high school. And I'm excited that speeches from my class will be part of it.