My front row seat

I’m a big fan of school (especially ZLO!).  It’s no secret.  I love the heft of a textbook and all the backpacks, papers and pencils.  Better than that are the kids who are interesting, friendly and funny.   And even better — is watching them learn.  Usually, this happens in subtle increments but on precious days, I get to be witness to some huge leaps and then it’s awesome!!  Some, well most, people don’t get it but if you could see what I see, you might get just as jazzed about it as I do.

Most recently, I had the pleasure of listening to my freshman class give informational speeches.  Simply put, they were phenomenal.  My role is to listen, critique, give encouragement and feedback, but I found myself just being a comfortable audience member, taking in their knowledge and able to relax as they had the time well under control.  What a pleasure to not only hear their speeches but also to be assured that we have some fabulous adults on the way to our community.  They’re articulate, caring people who have a keen eye on the world.  Sharp and smart, these kids give me enormous confidence and I trust them completely – not only in my classroom but in their future roles.

In other classes we’re reading novels and I see their wheels actively turning.  My 8th graders thought they had a pretty good idea of what went on during WWII in Europe, but as we read, layers upon layers of stories are just waiting to be discovered.  They often begin with, “You mean they…?” when hearing about mistreatment of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and learning about the lengths Hitler and his ilk went to dominate the world.  I can see their mental appetites whet and they eagerly go home to research other heroes who took a stand against evil.  In Sophomore English we just finished The Grapes of Wrath.  At the beginning of our reading I told them, “You might love this book; you might hate it, but you certainly won’t forget it.”  We found ourselves experiencing both emotions while reading it but oh, have we learned!  Beyond the story is always something more (and more and more) and with a little poking, I heard their insights just yesterday.  One student put his finger right on the pulse of the novel when he made connections that many adults wouldn’t have.  With delight, I praised him.  Yes!  For years I’ve been reading with these kids and slowly showing them how to read fiction with their Christian eyeballs and to hear their insights as we sifted through a truly sad story, was heart-warming.  (See what you’re missing?!?)

Then there are those moments when I get to learn from them. I had the pleasure to see kindness in action when a student was feeling overwhelmed with a new concept.  Before I could reach her, the girl sitting next to her gently said, “It’s okay, you’ll get it.  Here, let me show you.”  Some days, an astute student will ask me a question that makes me re-think how I’m presenting something and I’m so thankful.   I must teach for how they learn, not necessarily in the way that I think will be more effective, but in a way that will actually help them grasp the concept.  Thankfully, they’re patient with me.

Beyond that are invitations to games, goodbye waves before they leave for the day, a hearty laugh at one of my puns…life is good. So I gladly sit in the front row, facing them, but also taking in all the goodness that sits in front of me.  Kids who are capable learners in so many ways…but more than that, they’re really cool people!

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Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Moms know best

It was too quiet.  Usually her pencil flew across the page, eager to write with me.  Today, however, was different.  She sat morosely, sniffing, pencil frozen.  I tried my hand at light-heartedness -silence; I showed her my poem in progress – silence; I nudged her with an idea – silence.  15 minutes later, the situation hadn’t improved.  Time to text mom: “Please come now.”  We waited under a heavy blanket of awkwardness.  All smiles, mom came in and daughter burst into tears.  She didn’t want to do poetry and listed the reasons why it was too much to surmount.  Wise and patient, I was privileged to watch this mom calm her daughter, listen to her, empathize with her and then to tell her that she WAS going to do it.  I was surprised, but pleasantly so.  Willing to forgo a lesson that was pushing too many buttons, I set it aside as this mom insisted that her daughter push through her fears and uncomfortable perceptions and work harder.  I was impressed.

So often, I see how we parents are too quick to give our kids a pass on something that the child deems too hard.  In actuality, it is my firm belief that our kids are much stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for.  This mom knew that.  Happily, she’s not the only one.  A few years ago, Terri knew that her son needed one-on-one instruction.  She was right.  Schooled that way, he blossomed and covered two year’s content in one year (and the next and the next).  Pam knew that her son needed a boost, someone to encourage him and hold him accountable.  Laura knew that after a year of single instruction, her son needed a peer group.  Bethany knew that though her son felt he couldn’t work at a certain level, she put him where he’d be challenged and now he’s so proud of the work he is capable of doing.

These moms knew best!  What I value about them is that they know their children.  They know when to push and when to back off; when to wait and when to nudge.  Allowing your child to make some of their educational decisions is considerate; but making the tough ones for them based on what is seen in them is wise.

My own son is a little smarty-pants and a fantastic reader (I burst with pride) but he won’t sign up for a challenge.  So, I created one for him.  It was as simple as handing him a fat book with a “Here.  Read this.  I give you a month.”  His eyes gaped at Roots – the most obese book on our shelves.  Other adults, feeling sorry for this kid’s poor predicament, lamented that even they, great readers that they are, hadn’t read that book.  I toyed with the idea of letting him off the hook, especially since it was paired with his lack of verve.  But I remembered these moms I admire and kept the expectation that he would finish it.  Wouldn’t you know it?  He did.  And now I hear him referencing it proudly.  And as for my student who cried over writing poetry?  She dug deep and found that not only could she do it, but she did it so well that her peers admired her for her skill.

My kids aren’t old enough quite yet to realize how their mom has them figured out.  True, they surprise me sometimes, but I want to be the first one to say “You can do this.”  Sometimes we need to give them the mercy of bowing out of something, but more often then not, when all that seemed too hard is said and done, when they’ve listened to their moms, they’ll see that mom was right.

Can you sum up your life in 6 words?

i can’t help it, I’m always on the prowl.  Magazines, flyers, books, sites, the backs of cereal boxes, for pity’s sakes… you name it, if it has words on it, I want to read it.   I scour, wander, search and I find.  Besides my own edification, I want to find an interesting writing assignments for my students, and to that end,  I stumbled across a book on six-word memoirs.  I tore through it, wishing I could know some of these people who so succinctly summed up and shared their lives in this form.

 

How do you even begin to start when asked to state your life in a mere six words?  Were it me, I could go in a number of different directions.  My health? How about Need replacement body; this one’s broken.  My family? Married kind, gentle, guy; never fight.  Or, Won kid lottery, have three winners.  My career: Best job: teens plus writing, reading.  My hobbies: Chocolate: bake, frost, share, slice, savor.

Here are my favorites:

Optimistic:

Curly haired sad kid chose fun.

Tragic childhood can lead to wisdom.

I live the perfect imperfect life.

Working with what God gave me.

 

Sweet:

Sweet wife, good sons; I’m rich.

Polio gave me a happy life.

We were each other’s favorite person.
There’s an interesting story behind these:

Almost a victim of my family.

Thought I would have more impact.

I fell far from the tree.

It was embarrassing so don’t ask.

 

Funny:

Without me, it is just aweso.

It’s pretty high, you go first.

Overjoyed I’m not like my sister.

Well, I thought it was funny.

Now it’s your turn.  I know I have readers who don’t post a comment but I’d love to see your six-word memoir. If you can sum up your life in six words, please do!

 

 

Meet Chuck

Two weeks ago I sat across from a 17 year old guy who slouched in his desk, waiting for my writing lesson.  He listened politely enough but when asked to write a sentence, he said matter-of-factly, “I can’t.”  The others filled me in:  he always says that. They didn’t encourage or expect him to do anything.   Unoffended, he confirmed that, in his own words, he “can’t do much.”  With a shrug, he looked at me blandly as I stared at him, incredulously.  Can this kid be serious?  I perceived no attitude, no defiance… just a simple statement of fact – from his point of view, that is.  Apparently, from the reaction of his peers, everyone just took his inability as the way it is.  Ha! Challenge accepted, kid.

I wish I could have introduced him to Chuck.  In case you didn’t know, Chuck Close is a world famous artist and I stumbled upon his work this week.  I was drawn to his concept of only using faces as his subjects but as I read more, I was more and more impressed; not with his work as much as with him.  His book tells of his growing up as an artist which is quite predictable, I guess, but what grabbed me is that this man graduated from high school not being able to add, subtract or multiply.  To say he had learning challenges is an understatement.  Yet, he graduated from three colleges, the last being Yale.

After finding much success with his art, marrying and raising daughters, he suffered a medical emergency which left him a quadriplegic.  Many would find it reasonable that his art career would be over but not this guy.  His assistants Velcro the brushes to his hands and he’s fashioned special chairs and lifts so he can work on his super-large paintings.  Impressed yet?  I am!  So I think back to this kid who told me he can’t write a simple sentence.  He was perfectly healthy and academically capable but his attitude was awful.  Actually, I’ve seen lots and lots of negative attitude but this guy was indifferent, which some would say is worse.

I’m happy to report that at the end of our time together, this young man found some inspiration and wrote two pages for me.  I ribbed him before I left, “Couldn’t even write a sentence, huh?  Look at you now.”  He seemed pleased and not a little surprised.  I hope that’s all it took to shake him from his complacency and realize that he has so much more ability that he thought he did.  I hope even more that he finds himself meeting people who let him know just how capable he is.  Even if he were to lose the use of all his limbs, he is STILL able to do so much.  After all, look at Chuck!

Teen titles every parent should read

It was so much fun to be the guest speaker recently for a school celebrating the joy of reading.  What better person to talk about it than a local lady who has been known to hug a few books and generally get quite excited about them?   I alternate my reading between adult and teen books, always on the prowl for a good one.  The teen authors have much to offer, if you can weed through the dark themes that seem to dominate the industry.  Thankfully, there are authors out there who write good stories that are well-told.  I shared these titles with the group and so many moms wanted the list that here it is.

Kathryn Erskine has written an important book here that helps us all understand those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hearing Katelyn filter her experiences through her eyes is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  She’s incredibly honest about life yet her honesty isn’t always appreciated or understood by her peers.  Meanwhile, her dad is grieving the loss of his son at a random school shooting.  In Mockingbird, Katelyn needs to navigate school and dad’s confusing (to her) grief but her school counselor and others come alongside her to teach her the nuances that other children know naturally.  A great book that makes kids sensitive to those kids who might seem ‘different’ but they don’t know why.

Bluefish is another winner because it’s simple to read but you just love the characters!  Travis lost his parents and his dog.  Velveeta has a dysfunctional mother but a sensational personality.  When she notices that quiet Travis can’t read, she sets out to help him, but both of these kids need help in other ways, too, and they find true friendship and healing in each other.  It’s sweet but not trite.  My 7th graders love this book as much as I do.

I’ve read The Outsiders more than twenty times and I never tire of it.  Sometimes parents have questioned my choice, but after they read it and their teen raves about it, their mind is changed.  This novel simply changes how we look at people. Do we judge by appearances?  We don’t like to think we do, but…we do!  I encourage my students to read it with their Christian eyeballs. Life is harder for the Greasers, but they have solid friendships and a thoughtful boy who narrates the story.  He longs for people to get along and to understand why others can treat those who are so different from them as poorly as the Socs do.  Readers ‘get’ how they also judge others and they’re inspired to see them as people, not as a stereotype.

I read Wonder in two days.  Three teens I recommended the book to read it in two days and my hubbie read it in an afternoon.  It’s not because it’s simple or brief, it’s because it’s so good!  Once you have it in your hands, you want to just keep going!  Auggie enters fifth grade as a first time public schooler because he’s had so many facial surgeries.  A number of voices tell the story of his school year and how his face might be different but his rockin’ personality totally wins people over.

The Wednesday Wars is part of my reading curriculum and I recommend it to everyone.  Holling begins 7th grade thinking his teacher hates his guts, but as the year goes on, he and she bond through a variety of experiences and she becomes just who needs to grow into a wise and thoughtful young man.  Along the way, Holling has hilarious adventures and learns not just about himself but also about his friends and family, all with their unique quirks.  This has a beautiful message but kids are so busy laughing and commiserating with Holling that they’re more than happy to read it.

Happy Reading!!  If you have a recommendation for me, please let me know!  I love to find great fiction.

 

Atticus still gets it right

My 10th graders and I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was their first read, my 7th or 8th….and it doesn’t get old.  Some say it’s a civil rights novel; others know it’s way more than that.  When a novel is written that well, you can glean out of it for years. That’s what I’m doing today.  I’m thinking of the people who could benefit from being reminded of Atticus’s advice, and that is to try walking in someone else’s shoes for awhile.  Oh how much better our interactions would be if we try to imagine what a situation is like from their point of view.

If you’ve read the book, you might remember that feisty Scout could scrap with the best of them.  The nanny/maid Calpurnia was too strict with her, her new teacher Miss Caroline was mad that she came to school already knowing how to read, her brother Jem didn’t want her hanging around him at recess and Walter Cunningham got her in trouble at school so she shoved his face in the dirt at her first opportunity.    Life is rough for a 6 year old.  So, she pours out her troubles to her wise and gentle father who listens quietly and doesn’t reproach her.

I know a few people right now who are facing a relational conflict.  I bet they wouldn’t mind a turn on that swing, getting kind advice from a man known to millions as calm-headed and wise.  Thank goodness we can be reminded of what Atticus told Scout that day – and spent the novel trying to teach his kids – if you only try to think of what the other person is experiencing, you might not be so upset.  It’s hard for us to do that.  Don’t we think we’re always right?  How could there possibly be another way to look at it, after all?

Last month I was in a crowded Aeropostle, squeezing my way through a narrow gap to get a different size shirt for my daughter.  I had been shopping too long, was too warm, felt light-headed and thanks to low blood pressure, kept having to take deep breaths.  Those breaths sound like irritated sighs apparently, b/c I heaved in a good amount of air just as I was squeezing by a mom and daughter, stroller in tow.  The older woman gave me quite an acidic, dirty look.  I so wanted to say, “Lady, don’t assume my breathing has anything to do with you. (way to assume the worst, btw!)”  But it’s not so easy to explain an odd health issue like I have, in a crowded store at Christmas time,  so I let her think what she wanted to think.

I’m not always good at this but I try to remind myself that in their shoes, things undeniably look different.  And most often, people’s responses to us have less to do with us and more to do with them.  (Glass half empty, anyone?)   My husband is particularly good at slowing down, stopping to think, giving the other the benefit of the doubt – and believing that something else might be going on that is affecting things.  I think he and Atticus would have been great friends.  Meanwhile, I still have plenty of Scout moments where people just don’t make sense, life seems unfair and I need a calm and patient listener.  Thankfully, I’m reminded again to practice walking in another’s shoes and hopefully, I can play ‘Atticus’ to someone else who’s tempted to rub someone’s face in the proverbial dirt.