Senses Working Overtime

Essay grading. Exam grading. Comment writing. Advisor letter writing. Curriculum mapping. Commencement. Week-long training workshop in another city. Starting a new summer job that will last for five weeks.

When just writing it out makes you start to feel panicked, you know you’ve got a case of the Overloads on your hands.

The end of the year is always a hectic time, of course, but this year I can’t look ahead to a stretch of time where I’ll get to decompress. Instead, I’ll be scrambling to make sure Lucy gets to all her ballet recital final rehearsals, and then halfway through her second show, I’ll be on a plane for some professional development. Once I return, I’ll be diving into my summer gig with the Center for Talented Youth, which will keep me busy Monday through Friday well into July. I had to forgo the Library of Congress workshop this year in order to take advantage of the closest possible CTY opening. As much as I hated to defer it, now that I think about the summer, I’m glad to only be shifting between two intense experiences, instead of three!

I’ve never given up this much of my summer before–yes, I hear all you office-bound professionals snickering–and I think knowing I won’t really be able to relax for about seven more weeks is contributing to me not dealing so well with my current stress levels. I’m not quite tearing my hair out, but I’m feeling much more anxious than I usually do in early June, and I know I’ve dropped a few balls lately as a result. I’ve missed the gym for the past few weeks after injuring my back, and I find my mind racing at bedtime, difficult to calm down. Throw in some tween moodiness and the usual dinner/laundry/housework cycle, and you’ve got quite a mess. Well, you might not, but I do.

I’m confronted once again with the fact that in times when we need self-care the most, it can often feel the most impossible to actually achieve. I’m headed back to the gym today, hoping for some afternoon pool time tomorrow, and step by step, moving forward into the sunlight.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Aside from creating one of the bestselling series of books, ever, that millions have enjoyed around the world, J.K. Rowling is also to be commended for her…..pluck? Gumption? Whatever you would call the quality that has led her to keep pumping out the novels she wants to write, even as the world clamors for more in the series she has vowed is finished.

Her first post-HP novel, The Casual Vacancy, was not a huge hit with the critics, or with her most diehard HP fans. Although I found a fair amount of value and substance in reading the book, it was definitely bleak–an entire novel set in the world of the Dursleys, with casually vacant denizens of the kind of town that gives towns/suburbs (people) a bad name. Definitely a bold career move for someone who made her mark in such a magical way.

Perhaps as a result of the backlash to her first effort, or just to escape some of the ridiculous effects of being who she is, Rowling published her next novel under a nom de plume, and The Cuckoo’s Calling received excellent reviews but did not garner many sales–until her mask was revealed, against her will, and booksellers raced to put a “written by J.K. Rowling” sticker on the cover.

Cuckoo is a detective novel, clearly the first in a series, about Cormoran Strike, an ex-military down-on-his-luck private investigator who stumbles into a mystery surrounding a glamorous fashion model’s controversial death. Aided by Robin, an extremely competent temporary secretary who clearly will be sticking around for the next book, Strike manages to solve the case, but not win back his volatile fiancee. Formulaic? Maybe, if you’re a connoisseur of the genre (which I am not). Beach book? I would say certainly so, entertaining and absorbing without being too bleak. Rowling-esque? Absolutely, if you consider the tightly knit intricate plotting of the Potter series, which also featured puzzles nested inside mysteries. I don’t think I would have picked it up without the Rowling name on it, but I’m glad I did, and look forward to the next book in the series–as long as Robin gets to develop into the wonderful investigator she obviously could be.

Proud of a Newly Published Poet

Right in the midst of exam-week frenzy, I’ve gotten a piece of exciting news that reminds me how fulfilling my job is, and how lucky I am to do what I do.

Back in April, my students participated in the Poet-to-Poet project from the Academy of American Poets, one of their many wonderful initiatives for National Poetry Month. The classes I spent on this project were fun and energizing, and I knew my students’ creative sides had been engaged by the task of writing their own poems inspired by what they heard and read. Having the poets recorded reading and discussing their own work is such a genius touch, and I thought it was a great addition to my regular poetry unit.

The Academy received over one thousand poems from students all over the country and have published a selection of them on their website. I’m thrilled and proud that one of those published student poems is a student of mine! Charlotte’s poem, Things That I Hide/Are Hidden, is beautiful, and I’m honored to have been a tiny part of its genesis.

On Losing Maya Angelou

Each year, I offer my students many gifts in the form of literature.

I offer them Holden Caulfield and his battered heart, his sense of confusion and loneliness in the world. I offer them the fierce lunacy of Lady Macbeth, a woman trapped by her society and broken by her own frustrated ambition. I offer them words to express their own dreams and rage, and I offer them the tools to make those words heard and understood by others.

Each spring, I slip Still I Rise into a packet of poems and ask one girl to read the poem aloud. The first time I did this, I chose a girl new to our school, a girl still deciding whether she would find a place in our community, a girl with inner treasures she had not yet discovered. Did she read that poem? She read that poem, her voice gathering power with each repeated line, instinctively hitting the words like piano keys and bringing forth her own melody from the music of the poem. When she finished, we all sat there, and then the students began clapping.

I’ve taught “Still I Rise” ever since, and each year, I see it unfold itself for the students, the lyrical quality woven through it like a golden thread, the frank and confident sexuality and power that this woman feels. Each year, girls are struck by the sense of actually understanding a poem, seeing the power in it and feeling their own powers enhanced by it. Each year, I watch them discover it, and I feel enriched all over again by what Maya Angelou has achieved in this beautiful piece.

Today we lost a great voice, a powerful member of the choir of African-America, one of the many writing a new history, truly reconstructing what it means to be American, to be a woman, to be the descendent of slaves. Today we cannot lose what she offered us, the value of her story, and the wisdom she embodied and espoused.

Review: The Monuments Men

As much as I’ve read and watched about World War II, there seems to still be so many stories I haven’t heard, dark corners of the battles yet to be illuminated. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the book upon which the recent film is based, tells the saga of preserving artwork and architecture in the midst of the bloodiest war the world had ever known.

We travel from Normandy to Hitler’s bunker, great underground salt mines stacked with Renaissance masterworks to Eisenhower’s office at Versailles, following the Monument Men themselves as they struggle to identify landmark buildings and important paintings and save them from destruction by either side. I really enjoyed this book and the guiding principle that this cultural and artistic legacy embodied the very civilizations the soldiers were fighting to protect. If you know a dad who’s a WWII buff, this would be a great Father’s Day gift!

Look Fear in the Face

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

–Eleanor Roosevelt

Say Yes

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.””

–Stephen Colbert

Sandstorm

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that has nothing to do with you, This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up the sky like pulverized bones.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Twelve

I don’t know when it happened, but sometime recently, my girls left childhood behind and stepped lightly, tentatively, across the threshold of young womanhood.

Spending time with them lately, telling them silly jokes just to hear them laugh, trading book recommendations, sharing a bowl of ice cream, makes me see in practice just how tricky it can be to do what I’ve been reminding parents to do for years: treat your children like your children, with appropriate boundaries, and don’t try to be their best friends. Parents are sometimes reluctant to enforce rules they know their kids will hate, or enact consequences, because they know their kids will be unhappy with them. As a teacher, I know this is often the right path to take, to model and teach how our choices have ripple effects.

As a parent? I love being around my sweet girls, watching Pitch Perfect or singing Since U Been Gone together in the car on our way to school. I love seeing them take risks and challenge themselves, and I’m so proud of all they have accomplished as sixth graders this school year. I’ve had some tastes recently of how quickly tween-girl emotions can shift and swirl, and I’ve been surprised at how much it catches my heart, even though I know intellectually what’s going on.

But most of all, I’m so proud that they are smart, funny, kind girls that brighten my days and enrich my life.

#nctechat

I participated in my first #nctechat on Twitter this Sunday evening, and it was so much fun!

Since setting up a public Twitter account, I’ve been looking forward to participating in this kind of fun professional exchange, and this chat on summer reading certainly delivered. Donalyn Miller and Kelly Gallagher were our hosts, prompting us with questions and offering from their own rich teaching experiences. As they tossed out questions, they joined teachers from all over the country in answering, sharing titles, strategies, feedback and commiserating over the challenges of encouraging summer reading without making it yet one more hurdle between our students and the joy literature can bring them.

If you teach English, I’d highly recommend getting yourself a Twitter account and following NCTE so you can be in the loop for the next Twitter chat–you can also skim through archived chats on topics like valuing poetry in the Common Core era. Keep an eye on the third Sunday of each month for a fast-paced hour full of professional development, all without leaving the house!