Friday, February 5, 2016


I've spent my entire career in urban settings.
The school where I work now is 98% Hispanic.
More than half of my students spoke Spanish before they spoke English.
Our free lunch rate hovers right around 90%. 
My students' parents work two jobs.
They build your homes
and serve your meals in restaurants.
Many work two jobs. 

And I have these two big guys living at my house.
Well actually, one just moved, 
and is living in Phoenix, 
one thousand miles away.
Trying to figure out how to be a dad, 
even though he never had one of his own. 
And both guys grew up in the school system 
where I teach, and graduated, 
supposedly "college and career ready"
but they really aren't,
and I've spent the last decade or so
trying to explain injustice
and protecting them from 
the people who are supposed to keep them safe. 

And I'm watching the presidential elections unfold
with a mix of sick-hearted fascination
moral outrage,
and mostly enormous sadness. 
This week, Langston Hughes' poem, 
"Let America be America Again,"
which I think I last read in high school
came across my desk. 
And it seemed worth sharing. 
I'm including two different youtube versions,
one with a series of paintings and photographs,
the other read by Nikki Giovanni. 
I can't figure out which parts to leave out,
so I'm including the whole thing. 

"Let America Be America Again"

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again! 

Here is a slightly different version of the poem, published as an essay. 

Tricia, at the Miss Rumphius Effect, is hosting Poetry Friday today.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


So this parenting stuff?
I'm gonna admit it up front.
I just don't quite have the hang of it.
Last week, for example, I became a grandmother.
Actually, I officially became a grandmother on November 30, 2014.

But I didn't meet my granddaughter, Esveidy, until last weekend.

Maybe I should back up just a little.
In Spring, 2014, my son, who was 18, called from college in Arizona to tell me that his girlfriend, who I had never met, might be pregnant. We had, as I remember, one of those "typical" sounds like you just made your life a whole lot harder conversations.

And then a few weeks later, there was another conversation.
She wasn't pregnant.
There was a really confusing phone call from the girl, who I still hadn't met, that summer.
And then in November, there was a baby.
But my son's name was allegedly not on the birth certificate.
The mother didn't want anything to do with him.
And then this summer he was going to go down to Arizona.
But then he didn't.

And then in December, he asked if I would buy a plane ticket.
I did, as an early birthday present.
On Christmas Day, he flew down to meet his daughter.
This is the first picture I received.

He stayed two weeks, then came home. At one point, the plan had been that he would get a job and resume his education at Denver Community College, with hopes of attending another college that had a basketball team next fall. But then he decided he didn't want to do that. Instead, he wanted to go back to Arizona to be closer to his girlfriend and baby.

So last week we got the car tuned up. On Saturday morning, he and I got in the car, and drove the 13 hours to Phoenix. On Sunday, we went grocery shopping, then went back to the apartment, so I could meet C and Esveidy. And of course, I am totally smitten with the world's cutest little punkin, and ready to pick up and move down there immediately.

I have to admit, I'm more than a little worried. My son doesn't have any idea what he wants to be when he "grows up." He only has about a year of college. He doesn't have a job yet, has never done anything more significant than flipping burgers and making doughnuts.

And maybe more importantly, he's never had a dad. He doesn't know how dads are supposed to behave, not even the simple stuff like how to put the baby in the car seat, let alone how to support a daughter emotionally. And although he has had at least one long term girlfriend and lots of shorter ones, I'm not sure he knows much about relationships, at least not healthy ones. But he's trying.

And so a new chapter in life begins.


I sure wish there was a book I could read.

Friday, January 29, 2016


How To Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

Catherine, at Reading to the Core, is hosting Poetry Friday this week. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


I have always told my boys
that your family
are the people that love you
and take care of your heart.

I have worked hard to help my boys find those people.
Team moms
and grandparents
and friends.
Those are their family.
The people who love them
and take care of their hearts.

And now I am having to take that advice myself.
This weekend life kicked me in the teeth hard.
Really hard.
The kind of hard
where you lay awake all night
then go to work the next morning
and try to function
but your eyes tear up
and your voice breaks
when least expect it.

Those kick in the teeth times are hard
when they come from people you don't know.
Who are not supposed to love you.
or care if they hurt your feelings
or break your heart.

But they are even harder
when they come from people you know.
The people you are supposed to love.
The people who are supposed to love you back
The people you are supposed to be able to trust.

And then you have to go to your real "family."
To the people who love you
and take care of your heart
to have the pieces put back together again.

Tonight I have book club.
And I will be with the people
who really are my family
The people
who love me
and take care of my heart.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Almost a month later, I'm still wrapping up my CYBILS reviews. Today's book is another novel in verse.

RED BUTTERFLY, the debut novel of author A.L. Sonnichsen, is the story of Kara, an eleven-year-old girl in China.  Kara has a limb deformity, a malformed hand, that caused her birth parents to abandon her.  She lives with an elderly American woman, whose visa expired long ago. The Chinese government will not let the only mother Kara has even known adopt, because of her age, and so the two live a secret life, closeted away in a tiny apartment. The woman's husband and adult, Jody, live worlds away in Montana, and Kara wonders why they cannot visit or move there.

Jody comes to visit and suffers a medical emergency, which causes the family to be discovered. In the second section of the book, titled "Dissolve," Mama is deported and Kara ends up in an orphanage, where she is befriended by a physical therapist (whose name I failed to include in my notes- sorry!). Most of the children in the orphanage have much more intensive physical challenges, such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, and Kara ends up helping, and befriends several of the children.

Kara's Montana family is not allowed to adopt her, because of their age. Eventually, she  is adopted by a family in Florida, who has several other children adopted from China. Kara has difficulty adjusting to her new life, away from the only mother she has ever known, and I love that this book does not sugar coat how hard that adjustment period really is.

Upper elementary and middle school kids will enjoy this story, as will adoptive families. I know I did!

Friday, January 22, 2016


Not quite a month ago, I wrapped up a stint as a first round judge for the CYBILS poetry category. This year, for the first time, novels in verse were included under poetry, and there were a lot of great ones, I think around 15. Today's offering, 5 to 1, by Holly Bodger, a dystopian story, is told in two voices, part novel in verse, and part prose. 

The year is 2054. In India, where gender selection has gone on for many years, there are now 5 men for every one woman. A group of women, tired of the inequality, have somehow managed to wall off an entire city and create their own country, Koyanager. Men in this city/country exist for one purpose-- to serve women.

"Boys are taught only useful things. Things that will help them serve the women in Koyanagar." 

Woman in Koyangar select their husband through a special process, that feels, to me, a little like THE HUNGER GAMES. Five men are involved in a series of contests. The winner of these contests becomes the lucky husband. Losers are sent away to serve as wall guards for Koyanagar. 

Sudasa, whose story is told in verse, is an unusual young woman. She does not want to select a husband this way.

I should be thankful.
Thankful my sex
guarantees me the life of a bird
A home?
Feels more like a cage.

She is even less pleased to learn that somehow, her contest has been fixed, and a cousin that she doesn't even like,  is included in her five choices, intended to be her husband. 

Kiran, another one of Sudasa's five choices, whose story is told in prose, is also more than a little unusual. 
When I was about to turn fifteen, I got up extra early so I could finish my chores and then listen to every minute of the tests. But after a few months, they all sounded the same. Different girl, different boys, but the rest: same same same. And still, the people here today have swarmed like flies to a rotting corpse. Someone should tell them they’re a bit early. The corpses come after the tests.
Kiran has plotted with his father to lose the contest, and then somehow escape from Koyangar. 

I thought the ending of the book would be predictable. I expected Sudasa to defy her family, and select Kiran. The two would then fall in love and live happily ever after. It seemed a given. 

You will have read the book yourself to see whether that really happens. 

"No, we cannot change

the mistakes we’ve left behind.
But there’s one thing we can do—
one thing I must do—
we can choose not
to repeat them."

This book seems perfect to hand off to THE HUNGER GAMES/TWILIGHT crowd. 

Tara, at A Teaching Life,  is hosting Poetry Friday today. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


So I'm kind of wondering if I might be losing my teaching mind???

I have always thought of myself as someone who demanded, and got, a lot out of kids, but lately I'm really beginning to wonder. It has to do with this thing we are calling "rigor."

Because I'm kind of feeling like there is a fine line between rigor and ridiculous.

And somehow, I think we have crossed it.

 I look at the kids I teach. They are seven or eight or thirteen or fourteen. They read-- picture books and chapter books and graphic novels and poetry and social media and text books-- all the time. They seem to be developing as readers.

But then I look at the texts/passages we are asking kids to read on tests. And mostly, they seem ridiculously hard. Two or three or four years above what I would expect kids that age to read and understand. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

And I look at the questions kids are being asked to answer. Minutiae. Teeny, teeny twists in language that separate the correct answer from the closest distractor. And I think of the English Language Learners I teach. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

And I look at what we are asking kids to write. Forget personal narrative, or response to text. Kids are presented with at least two relatively long passages. Asked to compare point of view, or character change over time, or literary techniques. Often in a 45 minute time frame.  And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

I watch our third graders, who have only just learned to keyboard. Watch their faces scrunch as they think. Watch their hands stretch as they attempt to type. And I question whether this is really developmentally appropriate, really necessary.

I look at the way some of the test questions are constructed. And I wonder whether they are really measuring kids' reading and writing abilities, or their computer savvy. And whether we can really count one or two or three questions as an accurate measure of a child's mastery of a standard. And I question whether this is really necessary.

I wonder about all of this, but when I open my mouth to ask questions, people look at me like I'm a heretic. Like I don't expect enough out of kids. And I feel like the child who is pointing out that the emperor is wearing new clothes.

So I'm kind of wondering if I might be losing my teaching mind???