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Friday, March 22, 2019

SLICE #22- A LESSON IN GRATITUDE

It is 4:30 on Friday afternoon. We are 90 minutes into Spring Vacation and the building is pretty much empty. My teammate supervised locker clean out this morning, and when I arrived at noon, there were almost one hundred books waiting on a table, ready to be reshelved. I am slowly working my way through the pile.

One of my students, E, is helping me. E stays for tutoring almost every day after school. His mom works nights, cleaning restaurants, and sleeps during the day. Most days, she doesn't pick E up until almost 5. I told him yesterday that he was all caught up and didn't need to stay today. Even so, he arrives at 2:58, as regular as clockwork.

About 4:45, E's cell phone buzzes. His mom has arrived. I think E will be leaving, but that's not the case at all. She has brought pizza to say thank you for helping her son. She wants E to come down and let her into the building. Soon she, and E's younger sister and brother arrive in my room with two large pizzas. I call my one remaining teammate, and the six of us have a pizza party.

At first, the party is silly. The pizza has champioñes/mushrooms. E's little brother and sister do not like champioñes. I tell them that's my favorite and so they carefully pick the mushrooms off their pizza and place them on my slice. E's mom is embarrassed, but I laugh and eat the pizza. I am an old lady, and a few fingers in my pizza are the least of my worries.

Soon the conversation becomes more serious. E's mom was a teacher in Mexico, and very much wants to teach again. She is waiting for her papers to clear, so she get a Social Security number, and have a real job. She would like to go back to school. Maybe be a police detective some day. We talk about how hard it is to learn a new language, single parenting, the cost of rent/property in Denver, medical insurance, the house E's mom lost when she and his father divorced. The conversation is rapid fire, in Spanish, and I only get a little more than half of what is said between her and my teammate. Even so, it is enough for me to understand that her life is very, very hard, and she is tired and a little lonely.

E's mom stays more than an hour. It is 5:45 before I get back to my book sorting. Even so, I am so glad she came. She has taught me so much. All day, I have been a little down. It's spring break, and all day, I have been hearing my colleagues' plans for exotic vacations-- Florida, Cancun, New Orleans, San Diego. And I have been feeling sorry for myself because my most exciting plans include doing my taxes and getting dog's toenails clipped.

And then E's mom arrives. And she has so little. A menial job. Three kids. Who all got new tennis shoes yesterday. She is alone. Far from her family and her home. And yet she brings pizza. Makes a party for her children. Says thank you.

She has taught me much today.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

SLICE #21- Watering seed dreams

D is a fifth grader, new to our school, when I meet her. I am a literacy coach, recruited to teach fifth grade for a month or so, while we wait for our new hire's paperwork to clear. The second day, I am standing in my appointed spot in the front hall, clipboard in hand, waiting to direct any family who might be lost, or anyone who might need assistance.

D wraps her arms around my waist. Not the "I'm glad to see you" kind of hug, but rather the "I'm drowning, and you're my life preserver" kind of hug. She was smart and sweet and shy and totally overwhelmed by a new school, not to mention a recently blended family, with two adults and six children living in a two bedroom apartment. Even so, the work she produced, day after day after day was absolutely brilliant. She was meticulous to a fault, and often asked to come in for extra work time at lunch recess.

D and I have been book buddies for the last two years. A year or so ago, I took her to the Tattered Cover to see one of her favorite authors. It turned out that she had never been to a book store before and we did it up right- giant cookies and hot chocolate with whipped cream, autographed books, a crazy book-related scavenger hunt afterward. She said it was one of the best days of her life

Two weeks ago, I got an email that she would be doing a presentation this morning. She had just completed a mentorship program with a medical student, and as a part of the program she was required to present her learning.

When I got to the auditorium, D was sitting on the floor in front of a huge presentation board. A young woman sat beside her. D's voice trembled a little as they rehearsed. Her dad, a construction worker, probably on his lunch break, came through the door, and after a quick respite for a fire drill (gotta love that timing!), D was ready to begin her presentation. Approximately twenty kids, from third grade to eighth, sat on the floor in front of her. D took a deep breathe, then another, and another. And then she began.

She talked for twenty minutes about using an electron microscope, about melanoma, about staining cells, about a case study where she watched medical students diagnose appendicitis. At first, she was clearly nervous, but the longer she talked, the more confident she became. I was floored, as I listened to her, by her medical knowledge and her use of highly technical vocabulary. Afterwards, she answered questions and posed for pictures.

At the end of the presentation, the woman in charge of arranging mentorships asked D what she wanted to do with what she had learned. She said she wants to learn more about cells, and maybe be a cancer researcher some day.

And all day I have been thinking about this little seed dream. The seed is planted in such hard soil- the family is beyond poor, no one has ever attended college, there's not money for food or clothes, let alone extra experiences, or visits to museums, or anything like that.

And what an incredible privilege it is to be invited to water those seed dreams…

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

SLICE- #20- BEYOND QUIET



She is so very quiet.

So very sweet.

Such a good girl.

She rarely talks.

She asks so little.

I work hard to let her know

I see her every day.

Once or twice a week

 she sneaks upstairs at lunchtime.

Somehow sliding past the cafeteria monitors

And the parents at the welcome center.

I am always surprised

when I hear her soft voice,

"Miss, can I help you?"

I wonder on those days

if the noise in the cafeteria,

the meanness of some girls,

is just too much.

for her soft, sweet spirit. 

She stays ten or fifteen minutes

wipes the board

sharpens pencils,

straightens books,

then heads outside.

Today we are citing evidence.

Less than two weeks from the state test

And I am stunned to realize

Oh my gosh, she doesn't get it.

And I wonder how many other things

She has missed

Because she was too shy

and too sweet

to advocate for herself.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SLICE #19- THE POWER OF A STORY

I'm a huge believer in the power of story.

Stories help us to understand each other.

Stories help us to connect.

Every once in a while,

a story hits me in the gut.

Like this morning, for instance.

I live in Colorado.

Colorado is right next door to Nebraska.

For the past week, I have been hearing and reading about the flooding in Nebraska.

And to be honest,

I have not paid all that much attention.

It hasn't really hit home.

And then this morning, I was driving to work.

Listening to the radio, like I do pretty much every morning.

A man called in asking for prayer.

He is a fourth generation cattle farmer from Nebraska.

Right now, his land  and his cows are under 18 feet of water.

The water will probably not recede until Saturday.

His cattle,

one hundred years of hard work,

and planning,

and dreaming,

are almost certainly gone.

His voice broke as he said,

"But they are more than just cows.

They are part of my family."

and I imagined him milking them,

and rubbing their heads,

and calling them by name,

and now they are gone.

And all day, I have been thinking

about those cows

under eighteen feet of water

and that man who loves them so much.

Monday, March 18, 2019

SLICE #18- THE WORLD WE LIVE IN

On Monday nights, I go to a Community Bible Study.
It's held at a giant church about five miles south of my house. 
The church is a beautiful facility.
It's used by several different congregations.
I regularly hear about concerts 
and lectures 
and special events
that are happening there

There's a gym so big 
that there are bleachers on one side
every week I stop to watch the basketball teams practice
and long for the day when basketball mom 
was one of my jobs. 
People use the building 
seemingly 24/7.

Tonight, our Bible Study leader
announced that because of the Christchurch shooting
there is a change in policy

effective immediately
the doors will be locked

all the time

if anyone arrives late for Bible Study
they will need to ring a doorbell
and someone will come
and let them in. 

Tonight my heart aches
that people

cannot even worship

in peace.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

SLICE #17- A HEART FULL OF STORIES

I inherited my love of stories, I think, from my mom.

She's an avid reader, and I spent many nights, snuggled up in her bed, reading. At 85, she still reads three or four books a week, and belongs to two book clubs.

She and I also love the theater.  For the past several years, we have had season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

About once a month, I drive 65 miles south and pick up my mom. We drive back to Denver and check into a hotel. We go out for dinner, and then we go to the theater

Well, actually, it's not quite that simple. We drive to the theater parking garage. My mom uses a walker, so she has a handicapped parking pass, but there are almost never any handicapped spaces, even though we usually get there over an hour early. The parking lot, and the sidewalks, and the entryways to the theater are always really uneven, and I am always terrified that my mom will fall. She always does fine, but I always worry.

Last night we parked on the top level, but not too far from the elevator. We rode an elevator to the theater level, walked up a bumpy ramp, and went through security, then walked another half block back the same way we had just come, went down a level on the elevator and found our seats.

Last night we saw, "The Play That Goes Wrong." Neither of us knew anything about it, and truthfully, neither of us was that excited about it, but it ended up being super funny and we had a good time.

Afterwards, my mom rode the elevator and I sprinted up the stairs to meet her. Then we went back out the doors, down the bumpy ramp, and waited ten or fifteen minutes in line for an elevator to the seventh level. We found our car and made it out of the garage and back to the hotel in about 30 minutes.

This morning, we had breakfast and I took my mom back to Colorado Springs, and then came back to Denver.

With a  heart full of stories.

And full of memories of good times with my mom.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

SLICE #16: Walking the tightrope between choice and push

After a million years as a literacy coach, I'm back in the classroom this year. Actually, I'm teaching sixth grade half time, and then acting as instructional dean the other half of the time. Being back in the classroom is really hard work. Writing lesson plans. Creating materials for five kids who don't speak any English. Responding to seventy kids writing every week. Yikes! It's a lot of work. And I really love it.

One of the things I have thought a LOT about this year is independent reading. I think it's absolutely critical that kids are immersed in great books. And that they are allowed to choose what they read. I totally get the role of choice in reading. And I think it's important, maybe even critical, to let kids choose what they read. It's definitely one of the hills that I would die on.

At the same time, I think there is a really fine line between letting kids choose what they read, and pushing them out into the big wide world of reading to try new things. I'm still trying to sort out exactly what that means in my head. Here are a few examples I have confronted this year:

  • Z is a very capable reader. When she comes to me in August, she is reading #9 in the WIMPY KID series. She tells me she has spent the summer reading all of the books sequentially. She plans to finish the series. I leave her alone. 
  • X is one of my most unique readers. He has an IEP and is on the spectrum. He loves, loves, loves DOGMAN and has bought one each month, until now, in March, he owns all six. He stores them in a box in my closet. Every day he gets the box out and reads from this series. My teammate thinks we need to push him on. So far, I've left him alone. 
  • O was not a reader at the beginning of the year. None of my tried and true choices worked for him. Not graphic novels. Not WIMPY KID. Not I SURVIVED. Not CROSSOVER. Nothing. Nada. And then he came across the POKEMON series in the Scholastic catalogue. And ordered one of those. This month, he brought the book to me, and showed me two other books that were available from Scholastic. Would I order another one, he wanted to know. He even wrote down the titles on an index card. Then asked me the next day when they would be arriving. I'm not a huge fan of pop culture type books. But if they will engage a kid, I'll buy them. And leave him alone while he reads, at least for a while. 
But then there are other kids that I don't leave alone:
  • J is one of those girls that often gets overlooked. She's really quiet. She does her work, and she does a good job. But she's really, really quiet. And often gets overlooked, I think, because of that. At the beginning of the year, she was reading HARRY POTTER. But it was a little hard, and really slow going, and I didn't think she was enjoying it. I book talked a couple of realistic fiction titles, and she's taken off, reading one or two books a week. She still pulls out HARRY POTTER, and maybe she'll finish the series at some point...
  • L is new to our school this year. He's an English Language Learner, pretty quiet, a  skateboarder. For about half the year, he read pop culture and he read graphic novels. About a month ago, I ordered REFUGEE for him. Yesterday he came into class and told me that it was the best book he had ever read. He's over halfway through it. I am ready to push with other similar titles. 
  • M is one of the brightest kids in my class. Really capable and pretty much really disengaged. A FORTNITE guy.  At the beginning of the year, he was reading almost exclusively WIMPY KID. One day, I pulled him aside and asked him if he would like a suggestion. He said he might and I started him on Allen Gratz, which he totally loved. He read all of Gratz's war stories, and then went on to read BAN THIS BOOK and several of his earlier books. After that, I pushed him into other historical fiction. I make sure I'm always ready with a book talk or two. He's probably ten really challenging historical fiction novels this year, most recently THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. 
I guess, then, I would still say that I am all about choice. Absolutely. But I also think there is a really fine line between allowing kids to choose and helping them make choices that work for them. Or helping them be aware of new choices. And knowing when to push a little. Or in some cases a lot. And then there's that whole deal of me being ready and knowledgeable so that I can offer good choices.  I guess what I am saying is I think there is a whole lot more to choice than some people would lead me to believe.