Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Be on the Look Out

Visit Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers
to participate in Tuesday's Slice of Life
Sometimes I play games with myself. Writing games, today. Nerdy, I know. The purpose of today's game was to help me find a topic to blog. I've got lots of ideas floating around in the deep elastic scatter of my mind, but nothing I really want to tackle today. So I told myself to read the fifth slice of life post from the comments on Two Writing Teachers' master slice. Then to pick the fifth word in the post and use that word as my topic or jumping off point. Up down, top bottom,  it's a strange charm I'm using to decide on writing topics today. I ended up at Linda Baie's Teacherdance blog.

Linda Baie's Teacherdance 

In this post, Linda describes her one little word: possibilities. I didn't count the words in her introduction. I started counting with the bold lead to her own post. The fifth word: is.

Is, a constituent of be (my one little word for this year). Be, like an infinite is. How fun that I would find my own one little word. Though it makes so much our syntax, it felt a little like magic this afternoon.

Be on the look out for possibilities. That is my take away from Linda's slice. Be on the look out for what you want to say, for what you want to write, for what matters. Things aren't always as simple as we make them out to be. Writing topics are all around us. The air literary buzzes with invisible particles--quarks!*-- that we could turn into writing ideas.

In the hunt for ideas we sometimes lose our original focus. Some blog writing (for me at least) begins as thinking and drafting, losing focus at this point in the writing is okay (I'll actually write about is and being another day). That's a lesson I want to share with students as we start talking about the March Slice of Life challenge. Do you slice with students? Will you come March?

*If you don't know Hank Green's song  Strange Charm I tinkered with ideas from it as I wrote today. Listen here or scan the lyrics here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 1/28/13

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman
Tupelo Hassman's honeyed language is haunting me this week. I first fell in love with  the cover of Girlchild. The library card, the green-gold minimizes the trailer-desert. The cover exudes the glow of a gold wash, the  patina of the gloaming time, the rubbed-richness of a polaroid emulsion transfer: art.   Poverty, neglect, hardship become poetry in the novel, Girlchild. Listen to the rhythm in this excerpt from "stucco" :
"Single-wide, double-wide, a house with a hitch. Single mom, gravel drive. Propane by the gallon, generic cigs by the carton, and solitaire round the clock. Cousins and animals multiply like cars in the front yard. Nothing around here gets fixed...Fifty-two pick up. Suicide kings and one-eyed jacks face off on orange shag. Calle girls cry uncle through clenched teeth and past his shoulder the sirens flash redneck blues across the white-stucco, nicotine-yellow ceiling" (75).
This is writing we could write toward. Color saturated. Girlchild is set on the Calle where most residents cover broken smiles and live in trailer homes, but the homes aren't nearly as important as the people, as the women. Plumbing on the Calle  is as unreliable as the men. Children aren't neglected, but the kind of attention some give them is criminal.

The Miseducation of Cameron Postby Emily Danforth
I was struck by Hassman's juxtaposition of desperation and beauty as she catalogues moments in Rory Dawn Hendrix's life.  Rory's a Girl Scout at heart. A troop of one, she's nearly memorized an old copy of the handbook a librarian gave her. More than once I was reminded that books save lives. The Girl Scout Handbook sees Rory through her darkest moments--moments that are literally blacked out as if censors blotted out Rory's memories with Sharpie marker. Simply eloquent, lyrical and image-rich, Girlchild lingers and haunts.

This week I'm reading Emily Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Entirely different in terms of style, character and premise. Cameron's parents are killed in a car accident on the very day she kisses her best friend Irene. She sees their deaths as her fault. She retreats into rented VHS films, terms it research and approaches those captured lives to learn how to think and how to feel. A swimmer, Cameron must negotiate the waters of a changing family and her own sexual identity in this coming-of-age novel. It is going to be a great addition to my classroom library.

Most of my reading this week had to do with full-thickness tears of the rotator cuff. I've read about shoulder anatomy, radiology reports, research abstracts on repair techniques and even how to deal with daily living after shoulder surgery.

This medical reading reminds me of how I am often purpose-driven as a reader. My students are too. Sometimes their schedule determines their reading for the week.Tests, projects, assignments threaten a coupe. I just have to remind them that even with several Advance Placement classes or surgery looming, there's still at least two hours in the week to read for fun.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Again and Again

I give a reflective semester exam. I love reading students' exams. Maybe it's an ego thing. You know, students tell me what they've learned or how they've changed. I write those things on my heart. I take a little credit for their lessons learned.

Students are so smart, wise really.  I save the gems. I mark them with a star in the margin and then star the front of the exam so that students know to give it back to me to photocopy. I drop starred papers in a file folder all year. That way I have them when I'm ready to write.

I tweet the gems too.  Then I can find them later online when I need reminding. Those gems remind me to listen. They remind me to stay the course and to do what's right in the classroom. it's easy to cave to the pressure-- teach to a test, teach how your colleagues teach, teach the same novel--you know what sort of pressures I'm talking about. When students reflect authentically they amaze me.

Take Wilmer for instance. In response to a question asking him about a lesson he learned from a text the class had studied together, he wrote: "Well, I learned from Touching Spirit Bear that everybody can change. I've also learned that if somebody is getting bullied then stand up for them."

Wow. When did you learn that everyone can change? Have you accepted that even "bad" people can change? Have you opened your heart to the idea that even the students in your room who have seemingly shut you out and shut down can change? There's a lot in Wilmer's two sentences. He sees that even bullies can change. He is part of a community. He will stand up for others.

As a parent, as a citizen of your community, what would you pay for that lesson? Students need to learn these lessons or see them in literature and in the world over and over again in order for the very ideas to become part and parcel of who they are as teachers.

Go, breathe that sort of life into your teaching today. Inspire your students with good stories. You can be the change you want to see in their lives.

Semester Reflection 2013
Year End Self Evaluation

PS: I just had to include Wilmer's comments on his reading life. He started ninth grade as a non-reader. Now? He knows what he likes. It made me grin (and think about what series books I can put in front of him next).

Monday, January 21, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 1-21-13

Visit Kellee and Jen at Teach Mentor Texts
for more about the It's Monday! What Are You
Reading? Meme
Last week was the last week of the semester for my students. We did not end our semester before the winter holidays. I wish we did. We used to, but the school year calendar is not as student friendly as it once was.

So, we had a week of review after vacation and then last week,  a short week,exams.

My consumption of text falls under many influences: school, family, health, life, even the dog. Busy weeks remind me that my students' reading lives are also determined in large part by their schedules. While I brook no time excuses, I do know that I myself read less when I have a lot on my plate. I cannot grade reflective essay exams and read a book for pleasure at the same time. I cannot cook meals and read (though I've heard rumors that others can do that). I cannot read while listening to my son and talking to him about his day or his science project. I do read every day. Morning and night and some afternoons, but I also exercise and grocery shop and lesson plan. Some weeks I'll read one book, some I'll read five. It's not a competition--not in my heart nor in my classroom. I have to make that clear to students because we're different. We are different when we run (I'm the slowest) and when we read (I might be the fastest in my room).

So this week, I only read one book. While I did go to the library to watch An Evening of Awesome, I did not manage to squeeze in picture book reading time which is high on my to-do list.

This week's book,  Just One Day by Gayle Forman, was the perfect book to follow Why We Broke Up. Whimsy and heartbreak, devotion and rebellion, Allyson "Lulu" Healey personifies the contrasts and extremes teens live. She has a magical day in Paris at the end of an almost obligatory European tour. That day re-defines her very self and she embarks on a transformative process wrought with difficulty, depression and hard conversations. A breezy read, it would be perfect for a beach day or afternoon by the pool sort of read. I'm bringing it to school tomorrow to book talk. I know just the girls who need to read it.

Up Next

I'm finishing up the sequel to Monument 14 (an ARC I brought home from NCTE and ALAN). Then I've got two professional books in the pile Poetry Mentor Texts by Lynne Dorman and Rose Cappelli and the second edition of Debbie Miller's Reading with Meaning.  I think my son's kindergarden teacher will love Miller's book, so I'm being careful not to write in it.  For fun I'm going to read Tupelo Hassman's Girlchild and Emily Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The latter of which reminds me (from the book blurb) of Harmon's Last Exit to Normal. I'll see how it compares.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Encouraging Words

Can I get a show of hands? How many of you have ever felt lost? Ever felt yourself drowning  in number two pencils and bubble sheets?   Lost in your lesson plans or lost in your unit goals or lost staring into the filing cabinet like it's a refrigerator and you're starving?

Lost. Disheartened. Defeated. I've had those days. All of us who teach have had them. We question ourselves, our work, our purpose. We question whether we matter.

Angela Meirs would tells us: You Matter. And you do. I do too. We all do. We matter every single day we get up and do our best by the students we teach. Even when our best means we're still learning, we're still figuring it out.

Still, that sly fox, doubt, sneaks around behind us and nips our heel.

It seems whenever that sly fox fixes his sights on me, encouragement finds me. He clears his throat to get my attention. Sometimes He is soft spoken: a shy smile, a whisper, a line in a book, a Word. If I don't hear him He gets louder. He tends to repeat himself until I get the message. He's spoken to me at school, in grocery stores,  restaurants, and parking lots.  He's speaks words or blue skies or sunrise.  I will be lost, then suddenly, I see. I  hear: "Miss! Ms. Spillane... remember me? I remember you..."

Conversations ensue. Laughter follows. Spirits lift.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such a shout of encouragement coming from the stage at Carnegie Hall. Did that really happen?

You never know what students are thinking or what they will remember or what they will one day say--in public, at a sold-out show, in front of their parents, their families, famous writers and thousands of Nerdfighters.


So, Hank Green, about whom I've written here, here and in my recent book Reading Amplified, thank you. Thank you for your encouragement last night. But I know it's really not about me. And it's not really about teachers and crushes and whatnots. The story is bigger than that.

It's a love story. They fall for the world and in the falling others are caught up. It's a story of how two brothers came to be all-in. And how two brothers are able to walk with hope and conviction into an uncertain future seeding love in a community that is changing the world.

It brings tears to my eyes, but it has a happy ending. It is absolutely joyous to see and to share in.
Thanks, Hank.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ode to These Knees

Camp Gladiator Color Run team. 

Ode to These Knees

Oh knees with your articular cartilage
ball joiner of joints complex
Oh knees with your miraculous bending ,
bearing , standing,  shifting and swiveling.

These knees are stiff knees,
worker knees squatting and standing
these knees are boot camp complainers
slapped and cajoled into sprinting and hopping.
Creaking and cracking these knees sprint yards and run miles

Who would believe these knees once swiveled and swayed with abandon:
balancing the ball of their joint between tibia and femur
just so
they  danced and dodged, cycled and rope jumped,
dug in, they locked and held their breath to play tug of war .
They delighted in tall trees, polished wood, slick ice, steep hills, manicured paths, and new concrete--
gasping at flights which threatened their very skin
on roller blades , ice skates, cross-trainers , Chucky Taylors and Jimmy Choos.

Oh these knees have known disco balls and back seats,
perfumes and lotions, ocean salts and bath bubbles.
These knees have swung from
bar stools and love seats,  counter tops and park benches, limbs and jungle gyms,.

Oh these knees seize their days!

Carry on fearless knees!
Though the battle be tough and the  Gladiator field uneven,
hold firm brave Meniscus and Honorable ACL.
Soldier on against the enemy of age and couch-comfort.
Stride straight and bear the weighty future.

 *inspired by The Color Run, Doug Reeder and Camp Gladiator Orlando and Lucille Clifton's "Homage to My Hips" Watch Clifton in this piece by Bill Moyers.

Visit Two Writing Teachers for a second Slice of Life helping-
-always on Tuesday and everyday in March.

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 1-14-13

Host by Kellee & Jen from
Teach Mentor Texts
I missed last Monday. It was back to school and packing lunches and making coffee and organizing for the week. Then once I arrived at school. Well, you can imagine! I wish I'd left my classroom a bit tidier. Wish I'd planned and planned and graded and recorded and responed during vacation. But I didn't and to be truthful, I'm glad that I didn't. I enjoyed catching up last week. There was enough. Enough time to get what needed doing done. Enough to keep me busy.

Ruth Ayres wrote a great enough piece last week on Two Writing Teachers. It's sustained me last week.  I sent it to teachers and administrators at my school. Many emailed back to say it was just what they needed.
I love those just in time, perfect reads. Be they blog posts or books.

Books I'm reading this week include Godwink Stories by Squire Rushnell and Louise Duart, Art at the Speed of Life edited by Pam Carriker and  Daniel Handler and Maria Kalman's Why We Broke Up. How I missed  the latter when it came out, I don't know. It is gorgeous. Printed on amazing, heavy-weight, gloss paper, Kalman's painting pop. Handler's writing--the description and the listing--delightful to read.

Godwink and Art at the Speed of Life are books I will be dipping into over the next few weeks. Both were gifts. Godwink Stories talks about lifes' coincidences as winks from God--little things people notice that put their hearts at ease or cheer them. The art book is chock-full of cool techniques I'm going to try as I paint my way toward summer.