Sometimes Things Go Well

November 8, 2019

Sometimes I just need to take a moment.

There are sometimes days when lesson after lesson goes haywire, when I don’t have the materials I need at the school I need them. Or when technology throws a wrench in my best-laid plans. Or when all of these things work, but the kids just. Aren’t. Feeling it.

Today was different.

Today went better than I had expected or imagined, and I owe it to myself to enjoy it.

It started with last year’s third grade mythology unit. I wasn’t happy with it. The kids read stories, and they liked them, but missed the overarching idea that myths help us examine and answer the really big questions in life. I needed a different approach.

So this year, I waited to start reading the myths, and started right out of the gate with big questions. Where did we come from? Why do bad things happen? Why are humans so different from other animal forms around us? Kids wrote their own stories to explain these phenomena.

That’s when I knew that I could push them in a new direction. We could talk about how across time, and across cultures, people have ALWAYS wondered about big, important questions. And how across time, and across cultures, people have ALWAYS come up with answers.

Myth.

I then read aloud from (my very favorite!) D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, starting from page one.

Oh, I wish you could have been there.
I wish you could have heard the kids as they realized how very many big questions these stories answered.
I wish you could have felt the excitement as they leapt from idea to idea. From question to question.

Next week, I’ll get to teach this same lesson to my loveys at another school. It’s possible that they will greet these ideas with the same love and enthusiasm. It’s also possible that this lesson will crash and burn. (It’s been known to happen.)

For now, though, I’ll take a moment to appreciate how things can sometimes go well, and call it a win.

On Gathering Moss

August 20, 2019

Elementary teachers have a solid reputation as pack rats. And for good reason. The sheer amount of STUFF it takes to teach elementary school is mind-boggling. Here’s the tip of the iceberg:
-books for reading
-curricular materials
-office supplies
-student supplies
-teacher files
-games, puzzles, activities, art supplies, writing supplies, room decor…

…and that’s only for one grade level. Those of us who have bounced around from grade to grade are well aware that the unit on earthquakes isn’t what our kids need NOW, but may be next year when we have to take on a completely different assignment.

This year, I begin my twenty-fifth year of teaching. It surprises me to say it, and it REALLY surprised my mom to hear it (no, she hasn’t gotten any older since I left college – why do you ask?).

Just imagine the incredible amount of teacher stuff I’ve amassed in the last two and a half decades. Just take a peek:

…not quite what you expected? I figured. To be fair, this is exactly half of my stuff. I have a duplicate set of these materials at my second school. But no. I don’t have much stuff.

Perhaps it would help you to know that this year, in my twenty-fifth year of education, I will have tallied more instructional spaces than I have years of teaching.

Which means that I’ve moved. A lot. So now I’m trained. Each August and June signals my twice-yearly ritual to de-clutter, to lighten my load so that my footprint remains small.

Some of my spaces have been generous, open, well-lit, welcoming. Others have been glorified closets, or hallways, or hastily-devised spaces, or meeting spaces, or repurposed storage areas that were never meant to be places for instruction.

I generally don’t mind moving, sharing space, or being asked to foster learning and development in the strangest of places. Ten years ago? I took it personally. Now? I don’t mind as much. And I think it’s because getting lean with my belongings has taught me:

-It’s not me. It’s easy to equate space with power, or priority.* It’s easy to think that I’m pushed out of one spot or another because I – or even worse, my students! – am not valued. But that’s generally not the case.
-Community is community. It doesn’t matter what’s on the walls. Or where I keep my books. As long as my loveys have the space and the materials they truly need, we can create a place where they can explore and thrive. And that’s what matters.

Granted, if you came to me with a space that’s generous, open, well-lit or welcoming, I would take it in a heartbeat. But now I also know that that’s not everything. I’m happy to be where I am. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Now if you need me, I’ll be packing. Or unpacking. Or maybe packing again…

*Ahhh….the power dynamic within elementary schools. This is a BIG idea. One I should explore in a future blog post. Stay tuned.

©Lainie Levin, 2019

Steering My Craft: Short Sentences, Revisited

August 15, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: I’ll get real here. I wasn’t a huge fan of how things turned out for my short sentence experiment. I went back to the Ursula Le Guin text, and she suggested trying to change voice for a new attempt. So, if the writing was originally narrative, change it up to something more directive. So I gathered my notebook, my water bottle and sunglasses, and sat out on the porch to give this exercise another go.

HOW TO START A DAY: PRIMER FOR A WORKING MAMA

Your alarm buzzes you awake. It’s too late. Your bladder already signals. Take a moment. Inhale your day. Try not to feel its weight. Exhale. Stretch your muscles. Feel your joints. Decide which one is sorest.
Shuffle to the bathroom. Try not to look in the mirror. There are better times. Glare askance at the scale. It is not your friend.
Start the shower. Step in. Let a moment wash over you. Wander into loose thought. Realize you’ve stood still four minutes. It might be a record. Snap back. There is soaping to do.
The bar slips. You quickly calculate. Better to let it fall. No need for heroics. There is dignity in that move.
You pick up again. You begin once more. Your mind tallies up obligations. Better stop now. You don’t want to take all day. You’d run out of water.
Decide it is time to move on. Heave a sigh. Grab a towel. Make it two. You need any coverage you can get.
Pick up your clothes. You laid them out last night. Commend yourself for your foresight. Now open the closet. Put on something different. It’s not much better.
It will do. It will have to do. It will all have to do.

Reflection: This was a fun one! I’m glad I took some time to go back and attempt this exercise with a different tone. Granted, it doesn’t paint a terribly rosy picture of life as a working parent, but I find it pretty accurate.

I also had fun layering on meanings through word play – like “stood still four (for) minutes” – or “the bar slides downward.” Ohh, yes. The bar is ALWAYS sliding downward in life, isn’t it? It’s the only way to stay sane sometimes. The soap passage also reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago with the same theme. Guessing the overworked, overwhelmed parent trope still holds a lot of mileage for me. Figuring it will for the foreseeable future.

Steering My Craft: Long Sentences

August 6, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a passage (up to 350 words) within a single sentence. Punctuation and complex clauses are welcome!

She thought of July as the time that unfurled its way ahead of her with the summer that lay spread out like an overstretched weekend – these many weeks being a delightful lazy Saturday, on which day a teacher can slough off the Friday weight of the fall, the winter, the spring; on which day she may sleep in, take untimed bathroom breaks, enjoy meals unpunctuated by bells and whistles; on which day a teacher can fully inhale; on which day she may take walks – long rambles with no clear plan, objective, goal, agenda, benchmark, or attempt at measuring mastery; on which day endless streams of questions and requests and situations give way to chirping birds, rustling leaves and the drone of cicadas; on which day the endless grind of preparing and implementing the precise logistics of obligations comes to a virtual standstill; she knows Sunday is coming, and she knows that although Sunday, with its accompanying rise in pressure, anxiety, and (from time to time) dread my crouch around the corner, today is a different day.

Reflection: Well, this passage is definite proof that I often write from my own experience! I often notice a theme of protagonists overwhelmed or weighted down by obligation. Can’t imagine how that would come to be.

I did have fun, though, with extending this outsized sentence with a full tool belt of punctuation at the ready. I felt much better about this exercise than the one that required me to forgo ALL punctuation other than the ending mark. I might find a way to try and share this one with my colleagues somehow…

Steering My Craft: Short Sentences

August 2, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a paragraph using short sentences (maximum 7 words each). No sentence fragments are allowed!

FIRST ATTEMPT
Among it all, I sit. Sunlight lulls my eyes closed. I offer a moment of meditation. Sweat descends down my neck. The breeze lifts it away. A fly lands on my arm. It breaks my trance. Steady hums of cicadas pull me back. I store these days for February.

Mini-Reflection: This is a nice slice of life, but it’s also much shorter than the 100 or so words Ursula Le Guin called for. This writing feels more like a cop-out. I pushed myself towards another attempt.

NEXT ATTEMPT
Time to get up. She sniffs, scratches, stretches. Ambles over to the bed. An arm hangs over the side. She huffs, then nudges. The arm stays limp. She huffs, nudges, then growls. Fingers wiggle. She nudges, then grumbles again. A hand scrunches fur, then absently strokes. She wags, then she licks. She licks some more. She keeps licking until her human wakes. He sniffs, scratches, stretches. Time to get up.

Reflection: I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the writing I did for either of these passages. I’m glad I was able to create a couple of vivid moments. For me, the biggest challenge was avoiding sentence fragments. As a poet, I like being able to play with language in that way, and it’s kind of a bummer that I had my hands tied with that one.

Steering My Craft: Am I Saramago

August 1, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer, and to strengthen my practice as a writing teacher. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Craft a passage using NO punctuation. Gulp. Here was my go:

He tied his shoes yes all by himself found his way to the garage and his bike and pedal pedal pedaled himself all the way down the block and around the corner past the mean old people house and across the street to the far park with the tall slide and the not creaky swings and the circling circling sickening circling merry go round but what he was looking for and what he really came for was just ahead of him in the sandbox and all he had to do was cross to the scratchy diggy crane but as he almost sat a hand grabbed his shoulder and a voice said WHERE IS YOUR MOTHER YOUNG MAN and he tried to speak or squeak but he must have dropped his voice in the sand so he got back on his bike and pedal pedal pedaled across the street past the mean old people house around the corner and up the block before leaving his bike his shoes his courage at the doorstep.

Reflection: No punctuation at ALL? That was tricky, having to toss aside not just commas and periods, but hyphens, ellipses, parentheses. Maybe I’m whining, but it’s hard to set a piece of writing out into the world with no help for my readers on how to hear those words in their heads.

I do think that my protagonist and his stream-of-consciousness thought made for a good match for this type of writing. Still, at some point, as the book advises, I may go back and toy with this one to see how adding punctuation changes the power of the piece.

Steering My Craft: Sound of Words Part 2

July 31, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: Write a(nother) passage that wants to be read aloud, this one dealing with a particular action, feeling, or emotion. Here’s where I landed:

Yes.
Please.
Thank you.
Tight words, terse voice, hunched shoulders, a tightrope walk of everyday actions and interactions carefully strung together: brow set, breath held, until-

Until alone, when the pin pricks begin, poking, pulling, needling, loosening, then unraveling the grief that has wrapped, spooled, tangled and knotted itself in and around her heart. She senses a slackening, and before she can catch the strings they have spun out and away, leaving her naked, open, in a shuddering, deepening darkness.

It is there she sits until she is ready to gather threads, knit herself back together and back into the world.

My Reflection: Grief always seems to follow me, nosing its way into my writing. Even though the topic itself is a weighty one, I had fun with this exercise, and I like how the imagery of knitting came up as I was working.

Steering My Craft: Exercise 1-The Sound of Words

July 28, 2019

This blog post is part of an effort to refine my own work as a writer. For each exercise, I’ll provide the directions, my effort, and a short reflection.

The Assignment: To craft a short passage that asks to be read aloud. The object is to have fun playing with words and their sounds. Here’s what I came up with:

She stepped off the ship and drank of the air. Not the polite, genteel sips of a carefully-poured glass of wine, but the deep, full-thirsted gulps of clear, teeth-chilling water. Filling her lungs full, fuller, fuller, she began to wonder when she had last truly breathed, or if she had truly breathed, or when her lungs had last known how joyous it was to quench their thirst. Or…had they ever?

My Reflection: I enjoyed this exercise, and I think I crafted a passage that uses the sound of language well. At least, I know that I can hear the words when I write them, and I do enjoy reading it aloud. Did I go so far as to play with words? Mmmm…I’m thinking I may have stopped short there. Perhaps I’ll revisit this one with more of a playful eye – and ear.

Steering my Craft: Ground Rules

July 26, 2019

I’m excited to spend time working on my own writing over the next several weeks in the hope of becoming a stronger writer. But I won’t lie. The task is daunting, and I’ll have to face my demons.

Perfectionism: I get so caught up in my ideal vision that I either won’t begin, or I’ll mire myself too deeply in self-doubt and revision. That, or I’ll chicken out before sharing because my inner voice is a jerk. C’mon. Nobody wants to read that stuff.

Shiny Toy Syndrome: When I was a Campfire Girl, I had to recite the Bluebird Pledge. The hardest promise? “To remember to finish what I begin.” It’s easy to get on a kick, but it’s harder to maintain the discipline to see it through, especially when things get tough.

Self-Worth: As a mom, teacher and grad student, it’s easy to let other roles and obligations overshadow my own personal development. So when I do have time and mental space, it’s easy to sit back with a book, or to catch up on dumb TV, or scroll through a Twitter feed because I’m not obligated to anyone. Trick is, that leaves me. I need to honor my obligation to me.

So, as I begin, here’s how I’m going battle these demons. My plan:
1. Write something every day. Even if I don’t like what I write.
2. Complete exercises from the book at least 2 times a week.
3. Avoid revising the exercises, unless it’s called for. (This one will be difficult. I’ve already revised this post four times.)
4. Share all of my exercises, even if I don’t like what I wrote.

<<inhales>>
<<exhales>>
<<dips toe into water>>
<<shivers>>
<<shrugs>>
<<holds breath>>
<<leaps>>

Steering My Craft

July 24, 2019

I’ve long had a resistance to writing fiction. I’m not quite sure what it is, but perhaps it’s because it’s like art in many ways. I might see a horse in my head, but I can’t get myself to produce what I see. Similarly, I can’t get myself to create fiction that matches the movie I see in my head.

As a writing teacher, I carry a lot of guilt about this. I’ve been trying to write alongside of my students, to go through the process that they do. It helps me understand the magnitude of what I’d really asking them to do. Plus, I’m not going to lie. It gives me a bit of street cred when they see I can write too.

It’s so easy when we’re working on personal narrative or poetry. And I can pre-write fiction with the best of them. But when my kids launch full-on into their stories? They leave me in the dust, marveling at their fearlessness.

I’m determined to make this the year that I draw upon my students’ courage and challenge myself more fully as a writer. It’s time to get brave.

This summer, I’ve committed to improving my own writing through the exercises set forth in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. * I’ll be posting my experiments in this blog, and I’ll hopefully use my learning with my students.

I welcome any feedback. And, if you’re up for writing along with me, send me a link to your work. I’d love to read it!

Bon Voyage.

©Lainie Levin, 2019

*Thanks, storyteller extraordinaire Sue Black, for the original inspiration to take up this challenge.