Standing Up: Slice of Life

There are things in life we like and things we don’t. That’s how it goes. But there are some things we care about enough to stand up.

(Three generations of Q’s standing up)

I’ve been hesitant to attend a protest because when I think of protest, I think of large, angry crowds. Occasionally you see footage of a crowd gone bad, and as a somewhat cautious mom, that’s been enough to keep me safely at home. I proposed attending a march not so long ago and my high school son would have none of it.

“Mom, that’s not a good place to be. You never know what’s going to happen. Someone’s going to get triggered and throw a brick through a window. You could get crushed…or arrested.”

When I suggested he go with me, he just gave me the look. I sat that one out.

But for Earth Day another March was scheduled.

All the men in my life have a stake in this one. My dad is the one who taught me to be fascinated by science. At work he dealt with sensors, salinity and pH, with a patent or two for instruments to measure them. In his spare time he studies dragonflies and ants with wonder and astonishment. His father was an inventor who racked up many patents related to plastics. My husband is a trained chemist with interest and expertise in biofuels, though his professional life has taken a different turn. Both my boys enjoy science with Pepere and Daniel’s science teachers have been among his favorites for years now.

This time we would stand up together.

Saturday morning we made our posters and boarded the commuter rail to Boston. Arriving at the Common early gave us an interesting perspective on the rally. We meandered across sparsely populated lawns and chatted with volunteers setting up tables of exhibits and information in the family section. My father stopped to thank many of the officers for their service ahead of the crowds. We strolled through the Boston Public Garden across from the Common and saw a mix of people with signs tucked under their arms (which often elicited a nod of mutual recognition) and some just out for their Saturday walk with dogs of all sizes. I introduced Daniel and my Dad to the Make Way for Ducklings statues for the first time, and eventually we filtered back to the rally.

We found a place atop the hill and watched as people streamed onto the Common from multiple entrances. The open spaces filled in thickly with people. The walking paths were rivers of motion. Where once there had been an expectant pause, now there was kinetic energy. The first raindrops fell and the crowd swelled as if watered instead of deterred. The rain intensified and the marchers pressed closer together.  Rivulets of water ran down faces and posters, but still they persisted. The jazzy marching band played on.

As the event ramped up and throughout much of the afternoon, we milled around from the top of the hill overlooking the stage, down through the now-crowded walkways and lawns toward the front, back along the main thoroughfare past the kids’ stage and looping back around. Wherever we went it was the same.

I was struck by it. It wasn’t so much a protest as a groundswell of people who came together to stand up for something they believed in strongly.  Their primary personal reasons differed…some were scientists or doctors, other students of science, but I saw several signs that showed that we non-science folks like reading teachers and English teachers also care, as did families who value their children’s health and the vaccinations that protect it, the grandparents who want to preserve a planet for their grandkids. The overall tone was positive and supportive.

Clearly people had concerns–they felt the need to march through the rain.

But there was hope and determination.

And frankly, I am moved by the outpouring in Boston and around the world. Because of it, I too have hope to buoy my determination.



It’s Monday What Are You Reading? (Better late than never!)

This weekend between lacrosse and the Science March in Boston I started reading Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson. I’d been driving for hours, then stayed up for the Bruins double overtime miracle. I was exhausted and truly I was only going to read a few pages. Not until my eyelids drooped and betrayed me did I put it down.

When I woke up ridiculously few hours after I’d fallen asleep…the first thing I reached for was the book. If you liked Because of Mr. Terrupt I think you’ll like this one. If you liked Fish in a Tree I think you’ll like this one.

In fact, I think I’m going to love it. (As soon as I catch up on enough sleep to see straight.)

Decidedly Functional: Status of the Writer

Not so long ago I was immersed in Lena’s fictional world, fascinated by Cookie Joe and his long, eventful life. Mesmerized by the intricate connections between Lena and her neighbors, though she doesn’t know them yet. I populated an imaginary cork board with images of Lena’s house, Joe’s circular driveway, the layout of the neighborhood, and the symbolically empty house under renovation next door. I dreamed the rhythm of life there in the afternoons, and the soundscape.

But since then I’ve been stuck in far more prosaic, functional writing.

This week I revised one kindergarten writing unit and sketched out the shape of a 5th grade reading unit. I crafted Like-Try-Why displays as models for our New Book Crew about one way to promote books to the reading community. I’m working on another letter of recommendation. And I wrote two versions of a proposal to lead an inquiry project with some of our Reading Ambassadors starting with @thelivbits and exploring how to amplify our voices as readers and ambassadors of reading. If I added up the pages, it would be an impressive quantity of text.

But when you’re a writer, what counts as writing?

Does it only count when I’m working on the narrative project I set for myself? And then, does it only count when I’m writing actual pages for the book, or do birdwalks into the lives of minor characters (who may become more significant) count?

Can it count when I try out an element of craft in a blog post that I hope to carry over into my narrative work?

Does my own voice as a reader and writer, more broadly, count as writing? Twitter? A blog? My communications with other teachers or literacy colleagues?

I carefully lined up a focus for each day to keep me writing and blogging across the week. Status of the Writer sounded simple when I added it as a recurring event on my calendar. But as I sat down to write the first Status of the Writer post, I found I didn’t know how to quantify or even qualify it.

This time I’ll ponder. Next time, maybe I’ll set goals–that’ll give me something to look back and reflect on down the road.

Fellow writers, how do you take stock of your writerly lives? What counts? What’s worth reflecting on? What milestones or gateways do you celebrate along the way?

The Perpetually Uncoached :Coaching Reflection

I was having a discussion with a teacher yesterday reflecting on his reading lesson. The conversation rolled around to his plans for today. He pulled up his SMARTboard notebook to show me the lesson, and commented that he was worried about it. The lesson was so complex, he said. He wasn’t sure it was going to work, let alone trying to shorten the time the kids were on the carpet as we discussed. I started to offer to take a stab at teaching that lesson, hoping I could model how to get to the heart of the lesson and keep it streamlined, when he said he wasn’t going to be in school today–it would end up being a lesson for the sub. Noting the complexity of his slides, I hurriedly assured him, I’d handle the lesson. (He’s getting married today, so the least I could do was to take a tricky lesson off his plate.)

I stopped by the classroom before school to let the sub know that I’d be coming in after lunch to do the reading lesson. I like to roll up my sleeves and try out the tricky lessons myself, I told her, so that I can have real conversations with teachers about how to do the hard work of teaching brand new units in the workshop. She stood up and hugged me. She had been reading his slides, too.

I appeared after lunch, multiple mentor texts in hand, to fire up the hover cam and get situated before the class walked in from the cafeteria. (How grateful am I that I have the luxury of gathering my thoughts and materials instead of walking around the building to pick up students?!) I didn’t use his slides. I thought that I had simplified and condensed the lesson down to its heart. I used all the management strategies in my deep toolbelt.

The lesson was complex. It was not my best lesson. I was secretly relieved that I hadn’t recorded it, like I’d considered doing, so I could show the teacher later how I’d managed to modify the lesson for success. I was relieved not to have any witnesses.

And then the sub walked over to me and thanked me.

“Thank you! It was so great to watch you do the lesson. Wow.”

“Oh, thanks, but I kind of bombed it.” I started to note things that hadn’t gone according to plan.

“You don’t understand,” she explained. “As a sub, I never get to see another teacher doing a lesson. And you usually don’t come when I’m in the class, unless you need to take a student, because the teacher isn’t here.”

This woman is in our building almost every single day. She’s deeply committed to our school community. Sometimes she’ll come in on a day she’s not working to help a teacher. She’s done everything from kindergarten to 5th grade, from PE to math.

So in addition to reflecting on how I could have better adapted the lesson, or better managed a class full of strong personalities and learned behaviors, I’ve been thinking about those ever present but perpetually uncoached members of our school communities.

Substitutes, especially the ones who are frequent contributors.

Tutors who deliver interventions.


Our intern.

These people work alongside students every single day, sometimes in small or individualized settings. Their potential impact is tremendous.

This lesson was not one that anyone should have left for a substitute. If it’s hard for us as experts with professional support networks like a team, a literacy coach, and professional development throughout the year, how can we expect someone to walk in cold and deliver it with finesse? And yet, on those occasions (like midweek weddings) when we can’t help being out of our classrooms, we hate to leave a throwaway lesson. Time is precious. And let’s face it, skilled teaching involves preparation, yes. But it involves more on your toes thinking and adjustment than we can easily explain. You can’t leave plans for that.

And more than that…

If we, as a school, are committed to doing everything in our power to benefit students and maximize the potential for learning, then we need to build the capacity of all our team members.

What’s left is to figure out how.

I’m certainly willing and able to invite them to any professional development sessions when students aren’t in the building. However, I’m not the decision-maker when it comes to figuring out if they can be paid for that time. That would require a district commitment.

And professional meeting time can be valuable, but nothing replaces being in the classroom with students and a coach. How do we relieve the people who usually relieve us to make these kinds of experiences possible?

As so often happens, today the coach became the learner. Anyone out there available to coach the coach?

Monday Night at the Symphony

If you’re a teacher…or a parent…you may be thinking: What? On a school night?

We discovered a few days ago that the UCONN Symphonic Band would be giving a free concert at the Palace Theater just a few minutes from us. As a band family we considered making it a family outing. But it was a school night. Our youngest had lacrosse practice. Our oldest had math homework. So thanks to a carpool (and one son we headed to the symphony as a date.

We’re a little out of practice at dates. My husband sometimes still holds the car door for me. Last night we were all about efficiency.  We managed to arrive at the concert with only ten minutes to spare after dropping Qaiden off at practice. We sometimes hold hands. Last night he asked me to hold the keys…because moms carry things I guess. We did share a soda.

As we sank into our seats in the center and near the front of a mostly empty theater we turned and smiled at one another.

This school night date was uncharted territory.

How do you capture the sounds of an orchestra? This was NOT a middle school concert. I know, now, how much my parents loved me. They came to every single one of my school concerts and Saturday night band competitions. As a mom of musicians, I’ve been to the elementary and middle school concerts. 125 recorders squeaking out similar, but not quite the same, notes. Young percussionists not quite on the beat. Honking clarinets. I’ve gushed over my boys and taken an Advil afterwards.

So as I sat listening to this concert with no child to cheer for, I found myself listening differently–and sometimes not so differently.

Daniel plays tuba and is fascinated by the lowest possible sounds he can produce. So as I  heard “The Lion and the Mouse” I found myself tuning in to the low roaring brass and wishing I could peer over the top of the orchestra into the back rows. I could barely see the tops of the huge brass horns. My sons are both small for their age. Daniel is the smallest member of his band, playing the biggest instrument. In middle school it was such a joke that you couldn’t see the little ones in the back rows, that his band director used to have each row stand so their parents could spot them once before they started to play.

As the orchestra played “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” I was mesmerized by the flute solo with trills impossibly fast.  The clarinets played such a smooth sound behind the solo, it barely sounded like the instrument I thought I knew. I thought back to the concerts and dance performances I reviewed for my college newspaper. I used to have the words to evoke the sounds I heard. On this date night I found myself drinking in the music wordlessly…and occasionally parrying my husband’s whispered jokes.

The concert was over before we knew it. And even though it had been delightful, our parent brains were relieved that we’d be home just in time to tuck the boys in for the night. A contented quiet filled the car for the few short minutes between the theater and home.



We turned into the driveway to find the boys and their hockey net illuminated by our headlights. They most certainly were not ready for bed. Oh well. This was a sneak peek at school night dates of the (possibly still distant) future.

It’s Monday What Are You Reading? #IMWAYR

Spring break just ended so there was time for a few books.

I just finished reading The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer. I wanted to like it. I sort of liked it, which is to say I liked the premise of the series. It’s a twisted fairy tale and two ordinary tweens fall through a storybook into the fairy tale kingdoms of the stories they love. But I found myself aware of the writing. I’ve heard from middle grade students who enjoyed it. I can see why; there are some engaging plot twists. I probably won’t go looking for the sequels though.

Before that I read Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban about Japanese internment during World War II. I very much enjoyed this story of Menami, a young girl struck speechless by the traumatic move from her peaceful island home to the desert camp. This book handles the internment more gently than Farewell to Manzanar. Overall, Menami’s family adjusts better to life in the camp than in the classic. Based on the description of waves of Japanese Americans arriving at the camp, I surmise the adjustment may have been easier for those who arrived earlier and were able to find jobs in camp, giving their days structure and a sense of normalcy. The book hints at issues that an astute young reader might pursue further. I will definitely add it to our historical fiction collection.

My favorite book of vacation was The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski. Fantasy and historical fiction are my favorite genres and this, although it leaned more heavily to fantasy, blended both. In this alternate universe in the Europe of the World Wars era, there are some people with magical talents. One such craftsman is a metal worker who makes mechanical creatures who come to life, and an extraordinary clock with a dangerous power. After he is returned home without his eyes, his daughter vows to recover them from the prince who stole them. Against all odds she finds friends and allies on her mission which expands from merely retrieving her father’s eyes to ensuring a dangerous weapon will never work. Petra has great spunk and her pet mechanical spider is endearing.

And finally there was The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill. This story had satisfying complexity, weaving various subplots together toward a final showdown. It reminded me in part of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or The Hunger Games in that a sad, foggy town is kept in check by an annual sacrifice. But those similarities end at the forest’s edge. Inside the treacherous forest…are starlight, moonlight, and the magic they provide. Luna’s footsteps literally fill with flowers as her magic and joy bubble over. Barnhill weaves a story that crosses locations and generations. Character motivations are sometimes complicated. Sometimes we do something bad for a good reason. This is one you’ll be able to read and reread. I suspect there’s more hiding beneath the surface.

World Building- Status of the Writer

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may know that I’m getting to know my new neighbors and this neighborhood, so different from where we used to live. You may also know that I’ve decided to write a book. I suspect I should be writing pages of the book itself, but on my walk around the neighborhood today I noticed a house.

There was something on the front door. Actually, it looked like two certificates or notices posted on the door. I’d seen something like it before when a house near ours had been foreclosed and empty. That earlier house had been vacated by the previous owners. When we arranged to see the house, it had been gutted. Every piece of molding had been stripped. The railing had been removed leaving passers by open to falling off the edge of the stairs. Even the kitchen sink had been hauled away. The notice warned of no water or electricity. It warned, sad, hollow.

But when I saw this house I didn’t think hollow. I thought–storybook. The house looked like it belonged at the heart of a story. So I decided to put it at the center of the story I’m writing. Lena will live there.

From my writer’s garret, I overlook the backyard of the house next door to us. They have a huge picnic table. The kind that belies permanence. It looks like it would fit three generations of a family. And this table is planted in front of a huge stone hearth–a cooking pit backed by a stone chimney and bounded by stone sides to hold firewood or another grill top. Early in the writing process I imagined Lena laying across that picnic table after school. And so I appropriated it. As of today that table resides behind the storybook house.

The house that truly belongs to the picnic table and hearth has been undergoing a complete remodeling for months. It remains empty and waiting for its new family. This squat green ranch has been gutted. Two large dumpsters have been filled and hauled away. Big muddy tracks have cut into the winter sick lawn like scars. Gradually the work crews have cut away the prickly cedar bushes that crept across much of the front yard. While there are stubs of trunk left behind now, there is also bare earth, ready for something more welcoming to grow. And so I imagine new flower beds laid out. Small, tentative blooms poking through. The house itself blinks through the eyes of newly replaced windows. Where an awkward entry once stood flanked by the garage on one side and the main house on the other, a new room has taken shape. With a big, friendly window to the front, I imagine a french doors to the back of the new breakfast room. I suppose the new room has made space for a piano in the front room of the original floor plan. And in the center stands a sturdy brick chimney, the kind from which homey smoke would curl. A clean, new roof in a warm brown tops the house. The siding lingered dark green and sad across the winter, with bits peeled away around the new windows. Today I’m imagining a sudden facelift as cedar shingles are applied, with cranberry shutters and window boxes, and white trim around the windows.

Little does Lena know that this evolving house next door could be symbolic of her own transition into a new house. While the changes next door are dramatically physical, her own house undergoes an emotional shift as familiar pictures and objects are unearthed, as the routine of planning the garden is undertaken, as a rope ladder is thrown across the broad lowest branch of the ancient tree behind the house allowing for an escape or a perch, a vantage point from which to watch, unnoticed.

And like with these two properties, I’ve been collecting bits and bobs of places and stories from my new neighborhood, to be woven together with fanciful inventions in the world of my story.

I sat in the sun and sketched a neighborhood in my notebook. I kept the winding and interconnected streets, but moved the bike trail closer. I wasn’t sure I wanted my middle school characters riding across a busy state road to the trail on the other side. I soaked in the soundscape and placed the sounds on the map of the invented blocks. Which dogs live where? Which birds populate the trees and sky? I watched the passersby, recalled those I’ve seen across the warm days since October, and created a rhythm and flow of movement through the invented landscape. Who will Lena see? Who could she meet? And then I sprinkled the friend I know she’ll discover just across the path and down a house or two, far enough to be out of sight, but close enough to hear her playing trumpet from her tree. And I wondered, who else will she need? Which neighbors will make an imprint on her story?

Maybe pages of the book will come next, but now I’m curious about Cookie Joe and the couple in the wind chime house at the corner. I want to hear the flavor of neighborhood exchanges when dog walkers meet basketball playing kids or pass each other around the curves of the neighborhood streets. I want to sneak a peek at the elderly shoveling gentleman…who may become Cookie Joe…when the snow is no longer coating his yard. What does he do when spring arrives? So maybe for now, I’ll wander the streets of the world I’m building and capture moments in small vignettes.

Lena is stretched across her table and watching from her tree. She’s still lonely in this new place, but not for long. It’s a fascinating world she’s living in, if only she could see it.
Writer friends, how much time do you spend sightseeing in the new worlds you create? Do your characters insist on telling their story in a gush, or do you catch pieces of it like overheard conversations? Do you wander up and down all the aisles open to possibilities, or do you shop with a mission, stopping only at the four places throughout the store where your pre-selected ingredients are shelved? Do you introduce your characters to the people you know they’ll need, or do you meet antagonists and allies as they do?

Life in a Neighborhood

A hundred little moments show we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Motley pots

I handed off the leaf blower backpack contraption to Eric. He was going to show our oldest son Daniel how to operate it, too. We were belatedly attending to fall chores with a new tool. We moved in the middle of leaf season, but the yard got lost in the general busy-ness of the transition. If things had gone differently that Tuesday afternoon, I might have stood and gawped at the DocOc awkwardness of the device. It reminded me of the flamethrower pack used by the villain in one of the Iron Man movies.

But as I stood in the driveway, rake in hand, on the springiest of spring evenings, a neighbor paused at the edge of our front yard with her dog.

She was looking at a motley assortment of pots in the middle of the lawn. I had transplanted a variety of seedlings earlier in the day and decided that at near 80 degrees, the tomatoes and cucumbers deserved the sunshine as much as I did for the day. So my boys and I hauled them out of the basement and into the light.

At first I cocked my head, waiting to see if she would continue on, still half convinced that there was an invisibility shield around me. Though, admittedly she seemed to be able to see my plants. She lingered another moment, then looked up and smiled. At me. I smiled back and strolled down the short driveway to where she stood.

“Hello. Gorgeous day isn’t it?” I offered.

“I was noticing your plants. They’re big already.”

“We started them inside a while ago with a grow lamp. Well, we staggered them. Some I just moved out of the seed pods today,” I shared. “I’m Katie. I’m not sure we’ve had a chance to meet.”

“Oh, I’ve met your middle school son a couple of times while Holly and I were walking in the mornings.” She patted Holly’s furry golden head and adjusted the leash in her hand.

And so it began.  

By the time our chat ended, I knew the story of the elderly dog lover, Cookie Jack,” who used to live next door, and about two land preserves nearby that have good trails for days like these. I knew about how Holly was rescued from Istanbul, Turkey a little more than a year ago by a Golden Retriever Relief Society. And I discovered that my neighbor used to be a teacher.

By the time our chat ended, the cyborg leaf blower had run out of fuel and been returned to the garage. Husband and sons were scattered through the house in a pre-dinner holding pattern at half-past-dinnertime.

I didn’t quite figure out where in the neighborhood she lives. Daniel’s been helping me annotate a Google Earth map of our various neighbors’ names. There are so many!

Names, you see, are a bit of a weakness of mine. I remember Holly’s name. Our friendly neighbor used it several times and it was written on her dog’s collar.  Cookie Jack might actually have been Cookie Joe, but the house is empty now, so I trust he won’t mind.

For a decade or more we lived, more or less alone, at the end of a football field long driveway, along a main-ish road. We lived across from a private high school which was convenient for playing in their fields and rinks, and which was responsible for our embarking on a hockey life, but the relationship was one-sided.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Map of Neighbors
I’m relishing found moments of connection with more neighbors than I can map. Gradually. As we all emerge from our winter seclusion. No doubt I’ll need to ask for their names again–maybe it was Carol–but perhaps a few friendships will blossom along with my summer garden.

All Slice in a Day

Is anyone else feeling like it’s harder to slice once a week than it was to slice every day?

During March there was always a story that rose to the top of the day. Occasionally there were two or three, and that was fine because I could always post them the next day.

But this is harder. What’s worthy of these few lines? Which slice can represent me for the whole week?

“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

Before if a slice was too sentimental or introspective, the next slice could balance it out. More story. Less narration. More analysis. Add dialogue. Cute kids. School. Home. Life.

In March I was comfortable sharing flash drafts with a quick, second glance. Now I feel compelled to revise a full process piece (though this one isn’t). I’ve already thrown three crumpled balls of worthless in the trash.

I wonder if our young writers feel something akin to this in school. They can write safely in their notebooks day after day, but come time to put pencil to draft paper, or on-demand lines, the words get stuck. Hard stop.

How do we make the once-in-a-while feel just as safe as everyday home?

If you know, please share.

The alternative is slicing every day.