#SOL What we can learn–about each other and writing–from vacation stories

“Tell me about your day,” I prodded my son as I picked him up after school.

“In Spanish we just talked about our vacations.”

I nodded. I’d heard quite a few snippets of vacation stories today also. It was predictable on this first day back from break.

“Were you telling them in Spanish?” I pressed. When he confirmed it, I made a sound, more than a little impressed. “Tell me.”

He went on to relay the highlights, in English, of the story he had told for a full five minutes in class. I was on the same vacation he was. The highlights I shared today were not the ones he chose to regale his classmates with.

It made me think about the various stories I’d heard today from colleagues and even students.

-Woke up at 5, went to Florida, got this necklace I’m wearing

You’ve heard, or seen stories that go like this. It was a rambling string of seemingly minor details without development or purpose. To be fair, this one was in the tiny topic notebook of a second grader. But we’ve all heard the story that is really just a list: We went to the Louvre, walked up the Champs Elysee, ate crepes, and took the bus from the Arc du Triomphe  to the Eiffel Tower. It was great.

Ohhh Kaayyy.

I can’t really live in that story. It reads more like a to do list in past tense.

What I asked the second grader was: what about this trip is important to you? When she indicated that it was the necklace, I asked the follow up. Why? Then her story started to come together. Suddenly they got up so early because they were excited to visit her mom’s parents in Florida. And the necklace was special because it’s a gift for her birthday, today, that her grandparents brought back from Israel. Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.

My son’s abbreviated version of his story did reveal what he felt was important. While I told of witnessing 2000 years worth of history in a single afternoon leaving me with a profound sense of awe, my son chose to highlight a pigeon attack on his father (complete with dramatization), the less than ideal bathing habits we inferred from smells in Paris, and, oh yeah, a few castles and things. He chose the things that left him laughing or scratching his head…and oh yeah, the castles. Although, when we got home yesterday he found short documentaries on some of the castles we’d visited and chose to watch them before bed. I know he’s interested in the history…

Which makes me realize that the stories we tell are also curated depending on our audience. For the kids in his Spanish class he chose to share anecdotes that would get a reaction. Apparently it paid off. They laughed at the pigeon and the B.O. For his English teacher, an avid Shakespeare fan, he related the story of our visit to the Globe Theater.

It was so nice! Really just great. Can’t believe how fast it went.

Some stories leave us with a vague impression, but nothing specific. Three times this storyteller gave me clues that the trip is worth hearing more about. I’m left wondering what was so terrific that made the time go so fast.

Since this was over lunch, a third colleague, who already knew she’d gone to Disney, asked where she stayed. Then more little tidbits started to trickle out.

Now that I think back on this story through the lens of audience, I’m realizing that there were several people in the teachers’ room when she shared this overall impression of her trip, not all of them her teammates or close confidants. Perhaps it was a matter of privacy– curating her story for those of us in the room.

But maybe since she’d been there and experienced the sights and sounds, she left them out assuming that we’d already know. I think sometimes our young writers (or those of us with a bit more experience) don’t write with a reader’s eye. As readers, we recognize when an author has painted a scene as if we’re there in it also. And we can be frustrated by (or simply uninterested in) stories where authors leave out key information. But we don’t always transfer that lens to our writing brain when the pen is in our hand.

Then there are the true storytellers. The ones who seem to breath stories. Forgive my paraphrased retelling of this one.

We just went to Six Flags for the day. [As though her story wasn’t as worthy]

We had the fast pass and we’d get off one roller coaster and jog back around to ride it again. And again. And again. Until actually my neck started to hurt a little from all the jostling.

Oh, on one of the coasters my friend had the fast pass in her pocket. She tried to hand it off to her mother who wasn’t riding, but the shoulder harness was already closed and she couldn’t reach.

Her mother said, “Just keep it. It will be fine.” [Here she gave a foreshadowing look.]

We were coming to the end, but still going pretty fast when…it flew out of her pocket!  [The pregnant pause here left me wondering whether they’d gone the rest of the day without roller coasters.]

My friend stuck her arm up, like this, and grabbed it. But she couldn’t hold on and bobbled it. It landed on the part of the car where you stand to get in and out. Meanwhile the ride was still moving.

I was sitting two rows behind and I saw it, but I was so surprised I couldn’t react. I could only shout, “That’s our fast pass!”

The person riding in front of me reached out and snatched it from outside the car.

Can you imagine what would have happened if it hit someone?!

Phew!

She had me worried. And relieved. I could see the critical moments as characters moved about trying to save the fast pass. And the reactions of all those who witnessed it.

This was the story of one time. I could see it, feel it, and I knew why to care about it.

She had another great story about painting closet doors.

Small moment stories about intense moments of action and conflict , or about adventures to far off places, can be tremendously powerful and effective but so can stories of otherwise mundane chores…when we storytell instead of summarizing or glossing over the details.

I learned a little bit about my colleagues today. I reflected a little bit on writing. And now I’m feeling the urge to get my vacation stories down as more than just a past tense to do list or highlights reel.

How was your vacation?

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Opportunity Knocks…at the most unexpected times

Sometimes you’re minding your own business when opportunity jumps up and hits you over the head.

Or whispers in your ear.

Or quietly waves from across the room.

Do you remember The Sound of Music when Maria is sent away from the abbey to be nanny to motherless children? She consoles herself with the thought that “When one door closes, another opens.” Or maybe it was a window.

In any case, it seems that sometimes a window opens before another has closed. We can find ourselves momentarily caught in the cross-draft wondering which one to shut.

…………….

I received an email out of the blue. It was short: “This made me think of you.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Please understand, I’m happy in my career. I like my role and my school. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful principal. I feel like I’ve grown into my role, but not that I’ve grown out of it. While I feel very capable, there’s always room to grow. For me that’s a must have. I need to feel that I have room to stretch myself, to continue learning.

I have quiet, someday dreams for myself, but I haven’t been actively pursuing them. They were going to be for after…after my boys graduated, after I had time to pursue another certification, maybe after I tackled a PhD (another quiet, someday dream).

Then, out of the ether, came those six words.

I read them and my heart skipped several beats. My breath caught in my chest. My thoughts whirled.

All of my ‘grown up’ jobs have come this way. At the very beginning of my road to being a teacher I applied to be a substitute. The assistant principal called and asked me if I’d like to be their intern instead. He thought I’d be a good fit, and wouldn’t I like to know I’d be there every day? (Umm, yes.) From that middle school, I was invited to student teach at the high school in town. The assistant principal there brought me on board and connected me with her friend as my mentor. After I had my second son and took time away from teaching, I received a phone call from that mentor. Lorrie was the principal of another middle school now and she was looking for a reading teacher, would I be interested? (Again, yes I would.) Lorrie hired me. Two years into that role she encouraged me to pursue my reading degree. So I did. No matter that I had two small children, not yet in school themselves. And not long after Lorrie moved on to become principal of my current district, she reached out to me again. One of the elementary schools was looking for a reading consultant and she thought it might be a great fit for me. Would I like the contact information for that school? (Indubitably.) She hired (or recommended) me for all three of the schools where I’ve taught. She nudged me to become the literacy professional that I am.

So when this latest email arrived, I thought of Lorrie (recently named superintendent of my very first district). I thought of Nicole, my mentor. It’s not her this time, but another former colleague who reached out. I thought of the unexpected ways that the people we know and work alongside can shape our paths in ways we might not expect. Even long after our paths have diverged.

When I was young I felt adamantly that I never wanted to get something because of who I knew. At this point in my life I’ve come to realize that sometimes opportunities arise because of who knows us–our character, our principles, our work ethic and way of being in the world. And if someone knows who I am and feels that I  just might be the kind of someone who would be a good fit, well, maybe that’s an opportunity worth considering. It’s an opportunity earned because I’m me.

Just as I hadn’t known I was ready to return to teaching, to pursue a sixth year degree, or shift from the classroom to a coaching role, I hadn’t thought my quiet, someday dream would happen for years.

But here it is. Closer and more achievable than I’d imagined.

I feel honored to be thought of for this opportunity. While there are reasons not to dive head first through this door, I would always wonder, “what if?” if I didn’t at least push this window open a little wider and peek through. It may not lead anywhere. Or…

 

To all the colleagues and mentors who have shaped me, nudged me, framed my thinking or encouraged me to dip a toe into another pool–Lorrie, Nicole, Lynn, Karen, Theresa, Sarah, Joann, Lanny, Lydia, Lauren, Susan, Annie, Cathy, Kristen, Alison, Bianca and on–Thank you for thinking with me and of me.

#SOL Back in the Saddle…of Writing

“Wait, what day is it?!”

A week off from posting following the Slice of Life Challenge in March, and some wacky schedules at school…including yet another snow day…threw me for a loop. I found myself last Tuesday night with no post, no easy idea, and no energy.

Could I have drafted a post on Monday–the snow day?

Well, technically, yes. But (as I’ve posted before) something about posting less frequently seems to raise the stakes. If you’re only going to see one thing from me, I really want it to be good. To top that, sometime during the March Challenge I read a post about branding blogs. The post suggested that for maximum impact a blog should have a single, relatively narrow, focus. On reflection, many of the blogs I enjoy do have that kind of focus. Mine tends to be rather more eclectic–books, writing, coaching, cute kid moments at school, my own kids, etc. Again the pressure seemed to mount.

The result? No post.

I imagine the writing malaise might have lasted longer had I not received an invitation. For two years I’ve been working with the Connecticut Reading Association’s (CRA) conference committee. As a result of connections I’ve made through CRA and my (somewhat erratic and eclectic) blog, I was invited to write a monthly blog for one of the local CRA chapters. This past Saturday we met over coffee to brainstorm the vision for that blog. In an hour we’d branded the new venture and generated ideas for a year’s worth of posts. Granted, some of those may never come to print and others may overtake them, but the pump has been primed. In the past three days I’ve drafted three posts.

I’m back in the saddle, as it were. Refreshed by the break, reinvigorated with fresh purpose and a guaranteed audience, as well as responsible to a firm deadline for sharing a complete draft with my collaborator, I’m armed with three of the most significant weapons in the arsenal of a writer–audience, purpose & a deadline.

Granted, this new opportunity is more high stakes than a weekly post. Only once before have I had to submit my writing for approval (aside from casually writing for my college newspaper). And we’re hoping to build an audience that includes literacy professionals across Connecticut. We hope the blog will help teachers to feel connected to CRA throughout the year and not only for the annual conference. Like other blogs have done, we’re hoping to grow a digital PLN.

This leaves me thinking about what we ask of students with regard to writing. Are we ramping up the pressure or taking it down a notch through the formats and frequency with which we ask them to write? Do we do them a disservice by giving them only a single chance at a type of writing? (Hey kids, write your best speech, how-to, literary essay… Ready? Go!…Oh and you can only try it once. Good luck!) Do we leave room for voice and choice? Yet do we also help them beyond the dreaded blank page? Do we offer students a guaranteed or potential audience (beyond ourselves)? And is there a genuine purpose for their writing?

All of these factors were critical in returning me to the craft and practice of writing. How much more so must they be for young writers who may not (yet) feel like real writers? Or for whom writing is done only for someone else (the teacher)?

Let’s invite our writers in. Let’s give them purpose to fuel their (perhaps nascent) passion. Let’s figure out how to provide genuine audiences for that endorphin rush from feedback. Let’s give them enough opportunities to write that one (or six) bad drafts aren’t devastating, but just part of the process.

………………………..

If you’re interested, be on the lookout for monthly blogs about literacy at betruetoyourselflifeofliteracy.wordpress.com starting May 1 and on the first of every month.

*See? Now you know the plan and I’m responsible to you & my collaborator. Can’t back out now. <Yikes!>

 

#IMWAYR When’s the last time you were totally hooked?

I’m a little bleary eyed at the computer this morning. I’ve pumped up my caffeine intake to try to compensate.

Last night, well, if I’m being truthful it was this morning, I stayed up way too late. I huddled next to the lamp on my nightstand. When I climbed into bed I still had about half an inch of pages left. I’d started it Friday after school and churned quickly through the first half an inch. I can’t even remember, now, if it was Friday or Saturday night that I first read into the dark.

I just couldn’t stop. Even when my neck started to feel the strain and I shifted positions again and again to get comfortable, I could barely blink. I felt like a kid with a flashlight as I peeked ahead at the number of pages remaining and did the story math in my head about what still needed to happen before the end. How could I sleep before I knew if she’d find him. If he’d escape. If he’d live. If she could save her family or withstand the consequences of not. How could I put it down?

So with a delightfully guilty conscience…I didn’t.

I read through the night and into the wee smalls of this morning, in spite of a quick glance at the time which guaranteed I’d get no more than four hours of sleep.

And it was so worth it.

When was the last time you felt so utterly compelled by a story? When you couldn’t bear to tear yourself from the pages of a book? It had been a while for me. Sure, I’ve read things, good things even. But I hadn’t had the all consuming need to devour a story in quite some time.

And that got me thinking about students. Not even the reluctant or striving readers–though this is likely doubly true for them. I thought about most students. When is the last time that they felt this connected to a character or story? Had they, ever?

Recently, a teacher new to our team explained to me that she would simply have to put reading logs in place for accountability of home reading. Not having a relationship established, yet, I tread carefully. But in my minds eye flashed movies of children bursting off the couch or away from the dining room table as soon as the timer ended for their nightly 20 minutes, dutifully recording the pages and having a parent sign the formal document…then walking away from the book without a backward glance.

Then I played mental movies of the nights I went to tuck in my middle school son. I’d gently intrude on his far away look to alert him to the time. I’d sit quietly watching as his eyes continued to slide down the page, sometimes turning another one or two before he slid a finger in his page and folded the cover shut to look up. I’d smile that he was lost in his story and letting the tale tell him where to pause rather than the clock.

As teachers (and parents) do we foster the conditions that lead to that deeply immersed reading? Do we offer children books that hook them to the bone and demand to be read? Do we hold reading up as a joy and even at times a guilty pleasure? Do we gently turn out the lights and wish them good dreams…knowing that we’ve replaced the flashlight batteries and that their books are within reach from the pillow?

I hope so. I wouldn’t miss this experience for all the world, even though I’ll be tired after lunch and possibly irritable by dinner.

It was worth it!

…………….

If you’re wondering, I was reading Torch Against the Night, the second in the Ember in the Ashes quartet by Sabaa Tahir. It’s a YA tale of torn loyalties, life and death struggle, political intrigue, and love. I won’t be handing it to any of my K-5 readers, so it was entirely a guilty pleasure. I’d gotten the first in the series two years ago, where it kept me up into the small hours at ILA Boston. Then this February I bumped into this gem at The Strand bookstore in NYC. It’s been sitting by my bed waiting for a vacation…but crept higher and higher up the TBR pile. Vacation won’t start until next weekend, but this little escape was fantastical.

#SOL18 Complete but Not Farewell

The timer ticks down the  minutes until these concoctions need to come out of the oven.

The boys are long since in bed. I might have been, too, if I’d counted the eggs right yesterday afternoon. But 45 matzo balls and last minute hard boiled eggs meant a trip to the store tonight when I discovered I was 10 eggs short.

Its been an overlapping blur of whisking, blending and simmering since I returned.

15:00 minutes left on the timer.

One last post for the challenge.

Thank you to all the Two Writing Teachers for hosting this challenge and building a community that makes it both possible and rewarding. Thanks to those of you who have read and responded to my posts. As a late night slicer through most of March, it was delightful to wake up to your words of encouragement or camaraderie first thing in the mornings.

I couldn’t have managed to get both the lemon bars and creme  brûlée ready for the oven simultaneously without a little help in the kitchen. And I couldn’t have juggled school, home, tournaments…and slicing this month without all of you.

Just as I eagerly anticipate eating these desserts tomorrow, I look forward to reading many more slices from you in the year ahead.

Happy Passover. Happy Easter. And Happy Writing!