Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sister Conversation, Shared References, Shared History

I'm rereading On the Banks of Plum Creek, fourth in the Little House on the Prairie series. It came up on the child lit listserv as a good example of... something, so I put it on hold at the library, and by the time I picked it up, I'd forgotten what was supposed to be so interesting about it. This is what usually happens; I put books on hold at the library because they're mentioned on child lit as an example of something interesting--a specific type of voice, POV, setting, relationship between characters--but by the time I get them I forget what it was I'd wanted to examine. The good part is I generally just appreciate them anyway.

So I've been rereading On the Banks of Plum Creek as I'm in Seattle with my sister for Christmas, and one or both of us has remembered every major incident: the dugout ceiling caving in when the ox runs across it, the leeches in Plum Creek, Nellie Oleson being insanely unbearable from the moment of her first appearance. I think it's interesting that neither of us remembered how beautiful the prose was. My parents read the whole series out loud to each of us--so I got to hear them twice--and now I can see how that must have been such a pleasure for them in so many ways. I know some of the books in the series have some problematic Indians, but not this one (at least 200 pages in). (That may be why it got mentioned on child lit, in fact.)

Last night, reading in bed, my sister and I had an awesome moment. As I've been reading, we've been talking about both the books and the TV show, and last night Nellie Oleson showed up for the first time, when Mary and Laura go to school. So I was like, "Em! Nellie Oleson! And she's already awful!" I read her the following:

Nellie Oleson was very pretty. Her yellow hair hung in long curls, with two big blue ribbon bows on top. Her dress was thin white lawn, with little blue flowers scattered over it, and she wore shoes. [Laura and Mary walk the two and a half miles from their farm, barefoot.]

She looked at Laura and she looked at Mary, and she wrinkled up her nose.

"Hm!" she said. "Country girls!"

We harumphed about that, but talked about how Laura always got Nellie back, in that way that you do when the character you're discussing is part of your family and really part of you, too.

On a related subject, I said, "So Laura was a dyke--I mean--"

My sister says, "No--not Laura, her sister, but in real life." She starts laughing.

"Yeah, Darlene!" I say. I start laughing.

Em says again, "Except in real life."

It cracked us both up so hard for so long. I love that sister.

We spent a while laughing, then we outlined the unsaid: on the TV show Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls is played by the actress Melissa Gilbert. Later, Melissa Gilbert's sister Sara Gilbert played Darlene on Roseanne, another show my family watched religiously. (Well, me and my sister and father. My mother hated it.) Sara Gilbert is an out lesbian.

Then my sister and I discussed Michael Landon and John Goodman for a while, before falling asleep.

Postscript: I also just learned that Sara and Melissa Gilbert's brother Jonathan was also on Little House! He played Nellie Oleson's nasty brother Willie! Gotta love Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A perfect thing

The brain tumor came up last night in a good group of people, people I'd known anywhere from fifteen years to about an hour. Kellie started talking about this video, and how it had made her cry, and I should watch it. I was dubious--I don't really need to do any extra crying about brain tumors--but she tried to explain how it made her cry, then she just forwarded the link. Shark Bite Luv Fog, by Alex Mitchell. I was curious. I watched it. And yeah, I cried, but in that "You're awesome, man, you nailed it" kind of way.

I think this is the ziniest video I've ever seen. It's also beautifully composed, and I love the way Alex illustrates his story. He lays it out so well, image and word and the way it's told: scariness and changes and people and all the distances and the way something like this leaves your old self underneath but makes you into someone else at the same time.

[It makes me think about YouTube in a new way--as a DIY gallery for art. I guess lots of people have already figured that out, but it took this video for me to clinch it. This is the first I've watched that feels like deliberate and complex art, rather than cheap humor or accidental art. Those both have their place, especially on the internet, but--yeah. Impressed and happy.]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More than one home

From One Hundred Years of Solitude:

["...the wise Catalan had auctioned off his bookstore and returned to the Mediterranean village where he had been born, overcome by a learning for a lasting springtime." He leaves Macondo, goes home, and from there, writes letters to his friends left behind.]

One winter night while the soup was boiling in the fireplace, he missed the heat of the back of his store, the buzzing of the sun on the dusty almond trees, the whistle of the train during the lethargy of siesta time, just as in Macondo he had missed the winter soup in the fireplace, the cries of the coffee vendor, and the fleeting larks of springtime. Upset by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his marvelous sense of unreality and he ended up recommending to all of them that they leave Macondo, that they forget everything he had taught them about the world and the human heart, that they shit on Horace, and that wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mount Hood is Your Hood

A guy at red e today was wearing an awesome hoodie that said "Mount Hood is Your Hood," and I coveted it. I asked him where he got it, and he showed me how it was part of a fundraiser by Bark, a non-profit whose mission, according to their website, "is to transform Mt. Hood National Forest into a place where natural processes prevail, where wildlife thrives and where local communities have a social, cultural, and economic investment in its restoration and preservation." His sweatshirt came from an art auction whose contributors suggest that this is one well-connected nonprofit. As I was browsing their website, I saw that they must also have some really creative development people. How brilliant an idea is this?

[Photo source:]

Prove that you have human feelings/ Ere you proudly question ours!

I have a book from 1825 in my collection of old textbooks: The Historical Reader, Designed for the Use of Schools and Families. On a New Plan. Written by Rev. J.L. Blake, A.M., Minister of St. Matthew's Church, and Principal of a Literary Seminary, Boston. Because I've moved around so much, and especially since I started teaching, I've gotten much better at culling my books, but I mostly seem to cull useful ones that have served their purpose, and I keep the etiquette guides, the shorthand manuals, the children's biography of Richard Nixon published in 1970, after he was elected and before Watergate. I have too many old textbooks, among them The American Nation Yesterday and Today, For Seventh and Eighth Graders as outlined by the New York State Syllabus (1930); Here is New York City (1962); Foods for Home and School (1949); Citizenship Readers Good Citizens Club (1930); A Book of Americans (1933); The Girl Next Door (1948); Human Body and Health: Advanced (1908); Healthy Living, Book One (1918), and Historical Reader (1825).

I don't have many English textbooks, since the Dick & Jane type books really only interest me for their illustrations. I love health textbooks and history textbooks, always fascinated by any erroneous information presented as fact, because it was, then, and curious about what is emphasized and what is not mentioned. Also interested in what is the same, and what is different. I also like the rare literature text that isn't Dick & Jane or McGuffey* because the literature recommended for students fascinates me.

The other day, browsing through my books, curious about what I have that I don't know of, I flipped The Historical Reader open to "The Negro's Complaint." There was no author included by the publisher of the book, but someone had written in Wm. Cowper, using a fountain pen and black ink that had probably faded to gray over a hundred years ago. Googling the poem, I found this , and followed the link to John Newton, whose "horror stories of the Middle Passage play a part in Cowper's poem." There I learned that John Newton wrote "Amazing Grace," but he once was lost, and before he was found, he was a slave trader! This is an excerpt from his account of those voyages.

Later that day, my iPod shuffled up Sam Cooke and the Soul Singers' version of "Amazing Grace." I heard it in a different way from how I'd ever heard it before.

Postscript: Looking through Expressive Reading (1907), I found a very old fern between pages 22 and 23. The "Gettysburg Address" is a "gem of high literary value" recommended for eighth graders.

*Though I did just read the Wikipedia entry on McGuffey and I'm now very curious to look at an 1830's McGuffey Reader and compare it to the 1879 version. Other interesting stuff in there too, if you're curious--worth checking out.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The 21st century: Was-bands

I was not-really-on-purpose eavesdropping on a woman at Red E this morning, and I had to ask her: "Excuse me, but did you just say you're taking your wasband to the airport?"

She laughed. "Yeah. As in, was my husband. But not my ex-husband, he's not exed out of my life. He's my was-band."

She told me about how he's still so important in her life, they've been separated for about two years and are getting divorced, but they still have a joint checking account, they talk every day--and yeah, she's the one taking him to the airport. People who know her have warned her to be careful, he's her ex, she shouldn't talk to him, should just break it all off, he'll hurt her, she'll get hurt--but she said how it just isn't like that between them, it never has been and it's not going to be like that now. She said she loves him and he's a part of her, part of her life, and she wouldn't want it to be otherwise.

I said how I'd been curious because divorce is just such a part of our world now, it seems like we have to figure out other ways of relating to exes, especially when there are children involved. I know so many divorced or divorcing people with kids--friends, friends of friends, parents of students--and they're co-parenting, but the ground rules of their own relationship have changed, which affects everything. But I know at least one person with a sort of a was-band, a friend who recently went on vacation with her ex-husband and their son, plus my friend's girlfriend and the wasband's girlfriend. The woman with the was-band--whose name I never got--liked that story a lot.

She said, "Thank you for saying something, thank you for asking."

I told her I was glad I did.

Friday, November 13, 2009

After Tupac

I just finished Jacqueline Woodson's After Tupac and D Foster, and I loved it so much. I was too cool (or at least too "alternative") for 2Pac when he was alive, when I was in high school and then college. I don't remember hearing anything at all about his death--but he died less than two months after my father committed suicide, so it makes sense that it wouldn't have registered. Very little registered at that point.

As my music taste evolved, I did buy a Tupac compilation bootleg CD in downtown Brooklyn, and I've worn that thing out. But it's only got eighteen of his 393 songs (that's according to iTunes, and includes remixes and all that stuff--but he had a lot of songs) so after reading After Tupac and D Foster I especially had to go track down "Brenda's Got a Baby."

I didn't realize how intense a song this was while I was reading the book--I was assuming it was just coming across as so intense because the main characters in the book are twelve years old, and I thought "Father Figure" was intense when I was twelve. But--damn.

The main character talks a lot about how beautiful Tupac's eyes are: "He had the prettiest eyes of any rapper--they were all big and sad-looking and he had dark eyebrows that were so thick, they made you think about soft things." I can see what she means. She describes him singing in "Brenda's Got a Baby": "His eyes looked sad like he was really singing about the truth and somebody he knew real good."

"Dear Mama" is also really important in After Tupac and D Foster, and if I'd listened to it at twelve I would've probably loved it too--but coming to it in my 30's it feels sorta power ballad mushy. (This one was on my bootleg CD, so I knew it, but--yeah.) Of course, the video still made me cry watching it just now, right after reading After Tupac and D Foster. I knew it would.

I do love how much respect he shows to women in his music. This is probably my favorite Tupac song from my bootleg CD:

There's also a lot of talk about his trial in the book. The main character's mama says, "They say the judge didn't like the tattoo--didn't think it was something a person should have written on themselves. That's that boy's own body. ... It's not the judge's business. ... First Amendment says people got a right to freedom of expression without government interfering--everybody knows that. Judge doesn't like the way he looks, didn't like the way he was in the world, what he talks about, what's on his stomach...that's the crime here." The narrator says, "Mama wasn't a big Tupac fan, but she was a big fan of justice." ("The tattoo" was THUG LIFE--click on the image to see it bigger.)


Another girl in the book, D, says, "It's like he sees stuff, you know? And he knows stuff. And he be thinking stuff that only somebody who knows that kinda living deep and true could know and think."

Tupac was 25 when he died. That's eight years younger than I am right now.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I am grading my students' projects that they completed after reading their independent reading books (of their own choice). One of their options was a vocabulary project: "Keep a list of words you don't know while you're reading your book. When you finish, pick 15 of these words. You must define them and use each in a sentence with context cues. Then create some kind of vocabulary activity that would help fellow students learn your words (a crossword puzzle, word find, fill in the blank using your sentences, etc.). Include an answer key."

I don't know how to grade these fairly, especially when the student's first language is not English, so that their only exposure to these words is probably through books.

GRIM: Harsh, forbidding.
"I'm so harsh with my brother, im grim all the time"

SACRILEGE: An act of disrespect or violence.
"Stop acting sacrilege to your brothe, so violent"

RIBALD: vulgar lewd humor.
"Your so funny, so ribald."

LITHE: easily bent or flexed.
"Metal can be very lithe while heated."

MANGY: affected with or resulting from mange. Example, chicken pox the holes from chicken pox.
"I have mangy skin due to the sun's rays."

I do know that I obviously need to point out that if they don't know the words in the definition for their vocabulary word, they have to look those up, or they aren't going to know what the word means! Also that they need to be careful about the spelling and punctuation of all the words they use, not just the vocabulary words. But beyond that, I'm at a bit of a loss. Suggestions?

I do really like this one, in spite of the "from" which I think is just a typo:
USURP (no definition given)
"I usurp my neighbor's land, to get back at him from using my lawn for a garage sale."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loss, Grief, Growing Up

I have a pain-in-the-butt kid in my pain-in-the-butt advisory. Advisory is just generally a pain in the butt--it's not a "real" class and there's no curriculum for two of the three days in the week. The day that does have curriculum consists of lessons discussing our academic goals, important qualities for being a good student, and really stupid videos on these and related topics. The kids make fun of the videos and talk through them, and I am reminded of how lucky I am that for the most part I am in control of my own curriculum and don't have to teach stuff that I can't get behind. Anyway, of the other two days, we're supposed to use one as a study hall, and the other day is a pep rally once in a while, and the rest of the time it's just a pointless half hour almost at the end of a Friday afternoon. I tried to play games with them once on a Friday early on, but they were way too cool--I might try again now that they know me better and we're a little more united. But mostly we just do a little homework and then hang out on Fridays.

Anyway this one pain-in-the-butt kid, D., might be my favorite kid in advisory, though I have several I like in there--they've been growing on me. D. wasn't in advisory on Tuesday or Thursday, though, and I was vaguely annoyed because I assumed he was skipping. I make my kids work during advisory study hall--I'll give them an assignment of my own if they don't have anything to work on. They fought me at first but apparently I'm a hardass teacher and now they know to at least just pretend to be working. They also know that if they are quiet and work for a while, I'll give them free time at the end. Even the Caitlins don't skip as much as they had been, and when they're there they don't give me quite so much attitude as before (there are three Caitlins total in my advisory of twelve students, but two of them are a united force of rebel, and the other one is mellow and separate).

But D. He's failing a bunch of his classes but is way too cool to work on anything during study hall, so I pulled him aside and worked one-on-one with him some, got in touch with Mrs. Matz, the teacher who works with kids with behavioral problems and specific academic needs and who knows D. very well, emailed a couple of his teachers, and got him actually finishing and turning some stuff in. Apparently he told Mrs. Matz that nobody ever tried to help him with anything in advisory, but Ms. Nelson actually cares about him. This was good to hear, since what he was saying to me in advisory was "They're not working! How come you're not saying anything to them? You're picking on me. I'm the only Mexican kid in here. How come you're not talking to them? They don't do work in here." My response, over and over, was some variation on "You're not passing. You could be passing. You're totally smart enough to do this, I know sometimes you just need some help getting focused. We don't have anything better to do in here, why not get your work done?" Plus I would point out when the other kids were doing work, and make a point of calling them out and reminding D. that he wasn't the only one who had to work. So he'd come sometimes and fight me, refuse to work and just talk to everybody; come sometimes and actually get some stuff done; and skip sometimes.

Yesterday he came in just as the late bell rang and he said, "Look, I can't be in here today. I can't be in here right now. I have to leave. I just have to go."

Something on his face, something in his voice, made me say simply, "Okay. If that's what you need. Okay." But he got halfway to the door and I said, "But wait, hang on, D.--" I went over to him--"Where are you going?"

"I'm just gonna sit on a chair in the hall. I'm just going to take a chair out. I just, I just can't be in here."

I was kind of surprised. He just wanted to sit in the hall? "That's fine. You go ahead."

A counselor came in to pull out another student and I chatted with him a little... I graded some of the eighteen thousand projects that students are turning in this week and next week, before the end of the quarter... and then I remembered D., sitting out in the hall. I grabbed a book off the classroom bookshelf--D.'s not a reader, he's told me a bunch of times how much he hates reading, but he was sitting out there with nothing at all. I brought out Yes Yes Y'all; Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade, which has been popular with many a non-reader since I bought it. It's one of those books I bought for myself but realized would be worth more in the classroom library than on my shelf at home, though it would stay in much better shape at home and would be much less likely to disappear forever. I think about the books I stole from school libraries as a kid and how I still have many of them: Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (which I stole from the library long before I ever heard of the Cure or the song by the same name)--those are three that come immediately to mind without even consulting my bookshelves. I'm not checking any more big expensive graffiti art books out of the public library and loaning them to students, but my own books and books bought for my classroom will probably keep disappearing. I just imagine that they're disappearing because someone wants to have it, wants it near them at all times, which is why I stole books--not just because they're lost under someone's bed, or thrown out a school bus window. Plus sometimes they don't disappear, they get read and returned and then the same kid will ask me for another book because I actually gave them a book they liked for once.

Anyway. The book was also just an excuse to go out there.

"Hey," I said. "Brought you a book, something to look at--you're just sitting out here." He had his phone out, maybe he had been texting or playing some game, but even so, he really was just sitting, mostly. D.'s an active, loud, gregarious kid too. And he looked so sad. He had way more of his feelings on his face than I'd ever seen. Way more than you usually see on a high school kid, especially a boy.

"What's going on?" I asked him. I put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't respond to the touch, and I took my hand away. He was too tight inside himself for that.

He told me the whole story. His aunt died. She'd been sick, then she was feeling better, then all of a sudden she was really sick and then she was dead. His mom's only sister, forty-four years old, and D. spent every weekend at her house, all weekend, just hanging out with her and her son, D.'s cousin, who is like his brother. "She was like my other mom," he said. He told me that's why he hadn't been in school all week.

I said some stuff. Maybe it helped. He reminded me so much of me and my sister and how wrecked we were after my dad died. Too awful, too sudden, but totally real and there's nothing you can do, it's done.

I don't remember what I said, except I remember saying, "Try to have some fun this weekend. But you won't." I got half a grin, not amused but recognizing the truth of it, and a nod. I said something about how I lost my dad and I know how hard that can be, how much it can hurt. I wish I would have told him to do something that makes him feel good about who he is, something that means something to him. I don't know if I would have lived through losing my dad (yeah, I would've, you do, you just do, but you know what I mean) if I hadn't had my journal. Writing is that out for me. I wish I would've told him just to play video games, go shoot hoops, to watch his favorite movie and call out his favorite lines along with the characters, listen to his favorite music really loud. Let his brain and his heart have something else to hold onto a little bit and stop working full speed at being overwhelmed and horrified and heart-broken, let the grief step back for a moment and something that feels good move forward, even just for a second. But I didn't think of it then. I thought of it after school, on my drive home. I did think to talk to the counselor at the end of the day before I left and I asked him to meet with D. on Monday. If I see D. Monday maybe I'll try to tell him something about trying to do things you love so you don't totally sink into the loss so that it's all you are for a while, even though it will probably be all you are for a while even if you try not to sink. Even just the effort of trying not to sink can help a little bit, maybe. (I hope I can figure out a way to say it that might make some sense to him.)

So I am thinking about that tough kid and how much he's hurting. Grateful that he could tell me what was going on. Wishing I could do something to fix it but of course I can't, nothing can fix it. Time, sort of. But even that only sort of. A book about hip hop and graffiti maybe a little bit for a little while. A few things for a little while, and the whiles will get a little longer, eventually, and the rough spots will get further apart. I was proud of him for letting himself hurt, at least. That more than anything might get him through it the best.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Student Wisdom some more

Told my fourth period class that my sub on Monday, Kathleen, left me a note that said, “These guys are Rockstars! They worked so hard you could hear a pin drop in this class!”

Alan said, “Actually, that’s not how rock stars would act.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Standardized tests, editing inappropriate materials...

At parent/teacher conferences last night, the parents of one of my Junior English students mentioned that they felt an article I had read in class with my students was inappropriate. The article was a New York Times editorial about how standardized tests are graded, and who is grading them, written by a former test grader, Todd Farley. I thought the article made a lot of good points about the subjectivity of these tests, and I gave it to my students for several reasons: I think it's a great example of an editorial, it's extremely relevant to them and their experiences, and I thought it would make for good discussion. We read mostly fiction in my classes, so I try to bring in current non-fiction whenever possible to vary things and to help those students who don't like to read fiction connect with my curriculum. (I am also really sick of students deciding they are "bad writers" or "can't write" or just generally are stupid on the basis of their standardized test scores.)

The parents' primary problem with the editorial was that one of the examples the author gives of a subjective decision test-graders are forced to make is that of how to grade the movie review of a ninth-grade student who chooses to review Debbie Does Dallas. The parents told me it just wasn't appropriate, that it would give a teenage boy ideas, that maybe if the article didn't name a movie specifically it would be okay, but to say Debbie Does Dallas! Maybe if it just said "an inappropriate movie," they suggested--I said, "or a pornographic movie?" and they nodded as if maybe that would be okay, and told me that I should have changed it. The dad said, "Because it was printed in an adult newspaper, the New York Times is for adult readers, and they're teenagers, so not everything is going to be appropriate for them."

He also told me that since these tests are so important, maybe it wasn't appropriate for them to read something so critical of the tests, and at the very least, if I was going to have students reading something like this, they should read something giving the other side too. I said that we discussed the article at length in class, and students came up with those points on their own--I didn't want to give them both sides because I wanted them to think it through, and they did. I told the parents that we had a very good discussion of the article, talking about the tests, and testing, and who should grade them, and how these problems could be fixed. We talked about what was good about the author's opinions, and what wasn't.

I was proud of myself for how I handled this. I didn't argue, I nodded a lot, I addressed their concerns, and when they left I said, "Thank you for sharing your opinion, I can see where you're coming from on this, and I appreciate you letting me know. I'm sorry you felt it was inappropriate." They smiled and nodded and walked away.


I wrote my students a letter at the beginning of the school year, and their first assignment was to write me a letter in response. I asked them to tell me a few specific things about themselves--what was easiest for them in English class, what was hardest, that kind of thing--and to tell me anything else they wanted me to know. One of my junior girls wrote that she wanted me to know that she had a beautiful two-year-old baby boy, and she was "ready to have another one." I referred her to counseling, not sure whether this meant she was pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

She's visibly showing now.

I was talking with another teacher about this today. I said, "I just want to put a bowl of condoms on my desk. Some of the kids would blow them up and bounce them around the room, or shoot them at each other, but I don't know if I even care."

I said, "Obviously abstinence-based sex education is not working. They should be able to get the pill from the school nurse if they want it."

We talked about how nobody's addressing the fact that some of these girls are getting pregnant because they want a baby. The student mentioned above? Her two-year-old isn't a baby anymore. Condoms on my desk wouldn't make a difference for her, if she wants that baby.

So much more to say about this and nothing more to say.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What Jamie Saw

I just finished Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw, a short novel (126 small, wide-margin, large-print pages) about a third-grade boy, Jamie, who sees his mother's boyfriend, Van, take his infant sister (Van's daughter) out of her crib and throw her across the room in anger. Jamie's mom catches her, and they pack up and leave Van right then.

This is also a novel featuring an amazing teacher, Jamie's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Desrochers. Jamie likes her, and third grade is much better than second grade, "when he had had Mrs. Gimber and everything felt stale and hard and what he knew best was how much he wasn't very good at."

Mrs. Desrochers comes to the trailer that Jamie and his mom and little sister eventually move to after they leave Van. She shows up after Jamie hasn't come to school in a couple of weeks, and Jamie's mom, Patty, lets her in, but "Jamie knew she was hating it as much as he was--and he even liked Mrs. Desrochers. He was remembering that just then, that he actually liked her, the way she didn't make him feel stupid. She just wasn't supposed to be there."


"You visit all the kids in your class who get sick?" Patty said. She sounded to Jamie like she was trying to pick a fight.

"No," Mrs. Desrochers told her. "I don't. Just the missing in action."

"Listen," Patty told her, "this is a good place for us, we don't need any help. Jamie's safe here."

"I believe you," Mrs. Desrochers said, and after she said it, it was like there was nothing Patty could say back. The fight Patty was trying to pick was a fire that couldn't get started, and Jamie didn't know what would happen next. "He's safe with me too," his teacher said.


Jamie is sent to watch TV while they talk, but "He knew how Mrs. Desrochers talked to people, how she didn't say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it. She was going to talk that way to Patty--she already was--and Patty would go over to her. Jamie knew that." Jamie is right, of course. Eventually he hears his teacher say, "Jamie needs to be in school if I'm going to find a way in... I believe there's a way in or I wouldn't teach. But I need my kids to show up."

When she leaves, Patty tells Jamie he has to go back to school, and says that Mrs. Desrochers is "all right. She'll help us."

"Help us what?" Jamie wanted to know. Did they need help?

"Oh, Jamie," his mother said. "You know. Just help, give us a hand."


This is one of those chapter books for kids that I think everyone should read, especially those of us who spend lots of time with kids; never hurts to be reminded that kids appreciate people who don't "say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it." It's beautifully written, with details drawn so clearly--the kind of details most of us don't notice, or leave out.

What Jamie Saw also made me think about audience, because it seems to me to be a book that would be very difficult for most children this age, especially if they were reading it to themselves on their own. It could be a great read-aloud, but I could see it being a very controversial read-aloud choice for a classroom teacher. I'm not sure an older child would choose it on their own, though it might be best for an older elementary student. And, as a huge fan of children's literature myself, it's a novel I only ever ran across when I posted to a children's lit listserv asking for suggestions of novels "for middle-grade readers, maybe fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, talking about an abusive relationship between a mom and a dad? Doesn't have to be central to the story at all, just present or even referenced" even though it's a Newbery Honor Book.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Public Performance

A while ago, walking through Laurelhurst Park, I noticed a group of people getting ready for some kind of performance. I asked one of them, "What's this about?"

He said, "It's a Hamlet."

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Between classes I see Leandro and one of my Yasmins walking through the hall, and I say, "What are you troublemakers doing?" They are not troublemakers at all. Leandro is holding a pass.

Yasmin smiles at me. Leandro says, "Don't you see my--" and he gestures to his head.

"Your halo?"

"My halo. There is my halo, and there is the little angel on my shoulder."

"Halo!" says Yasmin. "Is that what it's called? So that's why the Beyonce song--'Halo'. That's what she's talking about when she says 'I can feel your halo.'" Yasmin is so excited to have figured this out, made this connection.

The song barely makes sense if you do know what a halo is. But this is how to teach vocabulary: link it in with student interests, with relevant vocabulary in their lives. I wish it could always be like that.

(Lyrics here if you've managed to avoid the song and don't want to watch the video linked above.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wandering around on the internets

From the Wikipedia profile of actress Teresa Wright, who was in the stage production of Life With Father and then had a long screen career, including Bette Davis' little sister in The Little Foxes, this quote from her Hollywood contract:

"The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow."

How awesome is that? Heh.

(I was writing, then needed to figure out what the fall play was that my main character's best friend's new love interest was in, so suddenly I'm online looking up Life With Father, and that's how we don't get our writing done, Ms. Nelson. But we do learn some interesting things.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Another Moment

I got this email from a student today: "my dad shot him self today, so i wont be in class. can u e mail me the hw?" After a couple hours of panic and waiting to hear more, then some further investigation (which included asking her sort of boyfriend if he knew anything, and him promptly texting her) I discovered that her dad did in fact shoot himself today--in the hand. So they spent the day in the ER. (She would have had to go along because her family takes care of her two month old baby.)

Those Moments

So I am going to Holocene tonight for this, so decided to go to Floyd's and hang out until I met up with Megan, rather than go home first. Then I remembered that it's Thursday and I love the farm market at 20th and Salmon, which is Thursday evenings! So I swung by--and no one there. I knew maybe it would be closed already--my local one was supposed to end last week, and they extended it through October, but how lucky can one girl get? (I know, I know--I'm alive, etc. I'm lucky. I'm so damn lucky. But yeah.)

No one there except two women pulled up next to the parking lot where it's held, one in the driver's seat with the door open, the other hopping around in the street next to the car saying, "No! No! No!" very plaintively. The one in the car is holding a vase of flowers.

I say, "No farm market this week, huh?"

The woman in the street says, "No, last week was the last week."

"That's what you were here for?"

"No," they say. "Memorial service." (The farm market parking lot is next door to a church.)

"Oh, I'm sorry!" I say.

The woman hopping in the street says, "Also, I'm doing that Weight Watchers, and I didn't lose enough. I have to go weigh myself now! Argh!"

I say, "Well, I can add one more. I totaled my car on the Fremont Bridge yesterday. This is a rental."

We commiserate for a moment, they tell me how fortunate I am, and the two women discuss giving me the vase of flowers, how maybe I need them. I say, "No, no, I'm fine. Thanks so much. Bye now, take care. And you, Ms. Weight Watchers, you look fabulous." I drive away in the rental car leaving them both laughing really hard.

Monday, August 31, 2009

discovering new (to me) writers, yay

There is a sonnet in the 10th grade anthology that I really like. It's by Jack Agueros, whose work I don't know at all, so I googled him and found this great essay by Martin Espada about him, which includes Agueros' poem "Psalm for Distribution." The essay is excellent, but the poem might have made my day, and it was a pretty good day. The poem follows.

on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
in Greenwich Village
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.

You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.

--Jack Agueros

Thursday, August 27, 2009


This morning's revelation went like this:

me to self: If I ever wrote a lit thesis, maybe I'd do it on Octavia Butler.
me in response: Yeah, but you are never going to write a lit thesis.
me: No, I guess not, huh?!
me: Hell no!

And then we were at rest.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Representing Race: Update

Updating a previous post about the cover of Justine Larbalestier's young adult novel Liar, Larbalestier has just posted on her blog about her publisher, Bloomsbury, rejacketing Liar with an image more appropriate to the book.


Molly visited and we did lots of book-shopping. I didn't need to buy books. But--yeah. I did. So now currently reading "Short Talks" by Anne Carson, which I'm loving, and a library book that I put on hold and just picked up: "Shop Class as Soulcraft," by Matt Crawford. I first read about it in the NYT, but on googling "new york times shop class as soulcraft" I can't figure out which of the three links I'd read:

The somewhat negative review:
The exceedingly positive review:
The essay adapted from the book:

Anyway. More on these later, perhaps. Though school starts soon, so maybe not. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jim Crace on optimism

From an interview with Jim Crace, 2001:

I've said this so many times before, but I think that the Hollywood view of the world, and the Christian view of the world, which tells glorious stories about an afterlife and stories about this life in which virtue and good looks are one and the same, that we're going to live forever in a honey-soaked heaven, I think those are deeply cynical views of the world. For me, optimism is taken from the fact that when you look really closely into the dark corners of the world and know that death is final, when you accept that most of the people you know are blemished and you're blemished yourself, and nevertheless out of that find a reason to be optimistic, that for me is a triumph.

I think I'm the most optimistic writer that you could ever encounter, but many of my critics think I'm just impossible.


I just finished Crace's Quarantine, which my Facebook friend Amy Holman mentioned in her "note" titled "Literary Geeks." Question 9: If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be? Amy's answer was Quarantine, and when I looked it up it sounded fascinating. Amazon's blurb begins: "The story of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness is surely among the most celebrated and widely diffused narratives in Western culture. Why, then, would Jim Crace choose to retell it in strictly naturalistic, non-miraculous terms? The obvious answer would be that the godless novelist is trying to debunk divinity--to take the entire New Testament down a notch."

I am fascinated by novels that take on biblical stories from different perspectives. This is a flawed novel, I think, but so thoroughly worth reading and living in.

I don't want to write a whole review of it. I mostly just wanted to post the quote. I love his words on optimism. I look forward to reading more of Crace's work--this was the first book I'd read by him.


I'm not going to post Amy's "Literary Geeks" list, but I will post my own, in case anyone is curious. It was fun to put together.


Literary Geeks
Friday, July 3, 2009

1) What author do you own the most books by?
Horatio Alger, Jr. After him, James Baldwin, August Wilson, and Lynda Barry all tie.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
The Little Prince (4)

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
I don't know. The Virgin Mary? Leda?

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
The Little Prince, or Ragged Dick, or Tattered Tom? Or maybe Huck Finn. I've also read Harriet the Spy a lot of times, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Tattered Tom, or the Chronicles of Narnia? I also loved A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E.L. Konigsburg. Among a zillion others.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
I read all these teen romance novels by Sharon Shinn. They weren't so good, but they were fun.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
maybe The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
besides The Little Prince? maybe Kindred, by Octavia Butler

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Alice Munro

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
I don't usually like it when books are made into movies.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
I liked the movie for Coraline, so... miracles are possible.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I think I had some amazing Little House on the Prairie dreams when I was a kid, but beyond that...?

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
I read more lowbrow than highbrow. or at least more YA than adult. I guess those aren't the same thing. most lowbrow book for adults... maybe "Passing for Black," which was sort of urban fiction, which I guess makes it lowbrow?

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
W.G. Sebald keeps kicking my ass.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
I don't know what counts as most obscure... but I remember seeing Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V at the Guthrie. (

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
Don't know either as well as I should.

18) Roth or Updike?
none of the above.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Shakespeare, but I don't know Milton at all, and I'm lazy about Chaucer.

21) Austen or Eliot?
Austen, I guess--I don't really know Eliot.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
there are so many books! maybe the Russians. I'm not really that embarrassed, though.

23) What is your favorite novel?
just one? The BFG, by Roald Dahl. today. tomorrow, maybe Giovanni's Room, by Baldwin. or The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

24) Play?
The Piano Lesson, by August Wilson. today. sometimes Under Milkwood, and sometimes Euripides translated by Anne Carson.

25) Poem?
poems about Leda (by Yeats and Clifton, mostly--curious if people know of others). that's a long standing passion. or interest. or something. sometimes "The Song of Solomon," sometimes other stuff.

26) Essay?
Baldwin's "A Talk to Teachers," and other Baldwin. Didion on place and history and America. C.S. Lewis on grief. Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library." So many.

27) Short story?
Why did I think I could answer these questions?
Maybe "Revelation," by Flannery O'Connor. I mean, "Revelation" for sure, plus lots of others.

28) Work of nonfiction?
Maybe Eva Hoffman's "Lost in Translation."

29) Who is your favorite writer?
Flannery O'Connor usually, consistently, for a long time.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
Dave Eggers.

31) What is your desert island book?
the Bible, probably.

32) And... what are you reading right now?
The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano. finally. [I gave up on it shortly after making this list.]

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Another Month of Coffee Shop Art in Portland

Overheard at Albina Press (on Albina):

"Debbie took these pictures! It shouldn't be hard to figure out which one is your butt."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Corner of Ainsworth and MLK

Today is HOT. Around 4:30, I noticed a guy riding his bike across MLK--he took his baseball cap off and filled it with water from the "Benson Bubbler" on the corner there. I'd never noticed that one before. But this guy was appreciating it.

Monday, July 27, 2009


At Albina Press on Hawthorne, I noticed a guy with two heads tattooed on his calf. They looked like drawings of busts. I had to ask him about them: "Can I ask you who the two guys on your leg are?"

He said, "Actually, there are four." He showed me the inside of the same leg. Sure enough, another two guys' heads. "They're four great Russian writers." He identified each one for me when I didn't go away.

I remember he had Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and I forget who one of them was--maybe Turgenev?--and then he had Gogol, which I thought was interesting. I don't think of him as one of the Mount Rushmore of great Russian writers. I don't know who I'd exchange Gogol for--but thinking about it later, I was surprised he didn't include Chekov. And then there's Babel, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Gorky, so many more I know nothing about.

Rachel and I spent the rest of the day thinking of various groups of four people one could have tattooed on one's leg. None of them were really anything I could live with, but then I'm not much for tattoos. Plus you'd have to explain it all the damn time. I already have one of those. Curious to hear other people's ideas though. Also, if you're suggesting the Beatles or some other group of four that evolved, I'm curious what era of the Beatles you'd get tattooed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Representing Race

Just read an interesting blog post by writer Justine Larbalestier about a recent battle she got into with her publisher over the cover of her most recent book, Liar. The cover features a long-haired white girl hiding behind her hair; Larbalestier describes the main character as "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."

I don't have much to say about this, but think it's worth sharing and thinking about.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Walking to a coffee shop yesterday morning, I passed a little old lady fiercely spraying weedkiller on all the little wildflowers popping up in the cracks in her sidewalk. Her lawn is green, unlike most in Portland right now, and she has bunches of yellow fake flowers "planted" in her front yard.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Blog

I started another blog:

It's all haiku.

Explanation here:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A sad story about my tattoo

I'm waiting for my food at Pine State Biscuits and a girl next to me says, "Your tattoo's from that one book--The Little Prince."

"Yeah," I say.

"I knew this one guy. I knew him for a night, I guess I knew him. He had that same tattoo, in the same place. And he thought it was like the greatest thing ever. He went on and on about it, how great it was." She rolls her eyes. She says to the guy next to her, the guy she's with, "I met him at a party. I went home with him. He had to show me the gun he built."

"He had a gun?" the guy says.

"He built his own gun," she says.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The time to extend

One of the nuns from my high school wrote a great essay about her father that was printed on the NYT website June 19. Find it here:

I liked this, which feels so relevant with all the health stuff I'm dealing with right now:

“Of all the things Dad taught me, the most important is this: now is not the time to retreat, but to extend. When the waters rise, row in and help out. The oxygen you provide others just might save your life.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

epitome, umlaut, metamorphosis, grandiose

The title is a few of the more pretentious impressive words I remember learning as a kid, always through books. I never had any idea how to say them, nor did I really have much occasion to, so mostly they just stayed in my head. Sometimes I managed to include them in my writing. Though sometimes, I assumed the pronunciation was obvious, and embarrassed myself. (Thanks, mom, for remembering e-pi-tome.)

I have a post-it note in my planner that I just like having there. I wrote down one of these words that one of my eighth grade students used earlier this year. He has Asperger's Syndrome and is incredibly bright--so he often uses those words that I wouldn't have used, because I was too shy and concerned with what other people would think. I already got teased for always having a book with me, but that was just something I had to deal with--I was not about to leave the books behind.

I don't remember the context of my student using this word--though I wish I did. But I only wrote down the word. And predictably, when he used it, everyone rolled their eyes, there was some groaning, and at least one person said something along the lines of, "Why does he talk like that?" or "What the hell is he talking about?" or "Who cares?" He appeared not to notice, pleased with his observation and his use of a new word. His classmates weren't making fun of how he said the word. They were making fun of him for using it, for knowing it. No one else had any idea what it meant, or if they did, they were not about to admit it.

The word was posthumously. He said it the same way I said it the first time I tried it out--probably not until the end of high school, or maybe college. I wrote it down how he said it: post humously, like postal, and like humorously. That's what it looks like!

I didn't correct him. Maybe I should have. It's always hard, as a teacher, to know what will normalize a situation and what will make it even more awkward and potentially painful.

I couldn't catch him after class, either, because he leaves five minutes before the bell, so he won't get harassed by the other kids in the hallway.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Brains, doctors

Laurel went with me yesterday to see my oncologist. We learned that the dose of the chemo that I'm starting with this month--today, in fact--will be the dose I'll continue with over the next two years, if I take the Temodar that long. So if I am going to have any side effects, they'll kick in this time. Which is good to know.

But the most interesting thing he had to say was when we asked him a question my acupuncturist asked me to ask: Can I take herbs while I'm on the Temodar? Can she prescribe traditional Chinese medicine to supplement the chemo? His answer was what I thought it would be: It depends on the herbs. However, I was impressed by how enthusiastic he was about me combining the chemo with acupuncture, and I said so.

He told us that when he'd been a resident, he'd worked with an ER doctor who had a brain tumor "like yours," he said. "A glioma." And this doctor was using acupuncture as an alternative treatment. It was working for him--so well that he quit western medicine, went to China to study acupuncture, and then became an acupuncturist himself.

"He's still alive and doing well," my doctor said. "Of course, it wasn't exactly like your tumor, every tumor is different and responds differently to treatment..." and he went on like that so I wouldn't sue him if acupuncture didn't heal me.

Regardless, hearing that story made my day.

Yeah, hope is a good thing. Hope and acupuncture. And friends who go to the oncologist with you. Thanks to Laurel, Megan, and Andy, who have all filled this position on this go-round. Thanks to Laurice, Claudia, Lauren, and everybody else who's accompanied me to all these appointments over the years. Nick who's met me at the emergency room, Rana who's taken me home from the hospital not once but several times... Yeah, this brain tumor is a pain in the butt. But I'm a lucky person.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Songs in Your Head

Some of us always have a soundtrack playing in our heads. I'm curious what songs are on your soundtrack. I discovered yesterday that "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan" (Magnetic Fields) is one of Megan's default soundtrack-in-her-head songs. "Papa Was a Rodeo" (also MF) is one of mine. My main default music, though--what I call up to to get other songs out of my head--is the medley of songs on the second side of Abbey Road, from "You Never Give Me Your Money" through the end of the record. (It's an album I grew up listening to on vinyl, dancing to in the living room, carefully, so it wouldn't jump--so it doesn't feel wholly pretentious, just feels right to refer to the second side of it.)

Billy Joel's "Allentown" shows up remarkably frequently, unsummoned. I have to think about it some more to identify the other major players.

Please post yours as a comment? Thanks.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

I never posted the Anne Blythe (née Shirley) quotes I'd dog-eared. But here they are. Two of them.

In Anne of Avonlea, 16-year-old schoolmarm Anne has a favorite student, another kindred spirit. Paul Irving, who lives with his grandmother, "the old Mrs. Irving," has an inner life that keeps him going, just as Anne's got her through her childhood--and keeps getting her through her life, even now when things are generally happier than before she went to live with -- and Matthew. Paul has special friends... Anne asks him, "'If I were to go to the shore some night with you do you think I could see your rock people too?'

"Paul shook his head gravely.

"'No, I don't think you could see my rock people. I'm the only person who can see them. But you could see rock people of your own. You're one of the kind that can. We're both that kind. You know, teacher,' he added, squeezing her hand chummily. 'Isn't it splendid to be that kind, teacher?'

"'Splendid,' Anne agreed, gray shining eyes looking down into blue shining ones. [And here Ms. Montgomery goes off into one of her poetic bits.] Anne and Paul both knew

How fair the realm
Imagination opens to the view,

and both knew the way to that happy land. There the rose of joy bloomed immortal by dale and stream; clouds never darkened the sunny sky; sweet bells never jangled out of tune; and kindred spirits abounded. The knowledge of that land's geography . . . 'east o' the sun, west o' the moon' . . . is priceless lore, not to be bought in any market place. It must be the gift of the good fairies at birth and the years can never deface it or take it away. It is better to possess it, living in a garret, than to be the inhabitant of palaces without it."


From Anne of Ingleside, published 1939

Diana: “Now, Jack is crazy to be a soldier when he grows up . . . a soldier! Just fancy!”

Anne: “I wouldn’t worry over that. He’ll forget about it when another fancy seizes him. War is a thing of the past.”


There was also a lot of incredible, tedious description. Which I skimmed, as a child.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Life Events, Still. Continued. Ongoing.

I've been through round one of chemo now, five days of Temodar, a pill each night before bed. My hair didn't fall out, I didn't barf, I took a couple days off and laid around but am still not sure I needed to. Maybe there was some fatigue, but it could have also been just ("just") end-of-school-year-eighth-grader-madness and almost-time-to-close-on-my-first-house-and-move and mother-visiting-to-"help" and hoping-I-have-a-job-next-year-through-the-recession (found out yesterday that I do! confirmed!), as much as chemo side effects. Always hard to isolate any factor.

I wrote this last week but didn't post it: "I am continuing to think about mortality in a very different way... but I am also thinking that if I can't be Alice Munro, it would be just fine to be Flannery O'Connor, minus the moving home to live with mom, and minus the peacocks. Also minus the Catholicism. And minus the lupus. Really just the dying younger than Alice Munro part might be something I can deal with--Flannery was 39."

I continued, "This is morbid. I don't mean it that way. Point was supposed to be, you do what you can with what you have. Which doesn't even sound morbid, just cliche."

I didn't post it because of the cliche-ness, and also because it's not really true. I am not at all resigned to the idea of dying any younger than... I don't know. Than Alice Munro, I suppose. Because she's still alive. I don't want to not die. But I am nowhere near ready. I don't even want it to be something I need to think about, something that is part of my daily life. I have to figure out how to just live past it, without it being too present. Also, 39 is less than seven years away. Fuck that. I have too much to do.

But I'm here, now, so. I'll keep living till I don't. SHRINK, tumor, SHRINK! (Join me in a rousing chorus, please! Those of you who pray, I'd appreciate some prayers in this direction.)


[I still don't know how I feel about this entry. It kind of makes me wish I did still make zines. Maybe it's time for another one. & yeah, it wouldn't be altogether inappropriate to call it Hope, now would it.]

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More insights from the students

From a student essay, one of a number of author study essays about Rachel Cohn and David Levithan:

In the book “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”, another stereotype about homosexuals is taken away. That stereotype is that all homosexuals are the same—Shy and quiet. Well in this book the lead singer in Nick’s band, Dev, is really out going and the farthest thing from shy. Oh yeah and did I mention that he’s gay? Despite being a party animal he was able to give Nick really good advice in order to help him “Get the girl” so to speak based on the Beatles first hit single “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. Another funny thing about Dev is that he is a major flirt and has had a lot of boyfriends. Dev is very different from Tohm (he added the H) who is not quite as outgoing and has one steady boyfriend. Therefore this disposes of both stereotypes that I stated earlier.


I am curious about, fascinated by my eighth grade students' stereotypes about gay people. Well, some of them. The stereotypes belonging to the girls who are reading Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.

Friday, May 29, 2009


On a side street near Belmont and the Sunnyside school, there is a very carefully bubble-lettered and elaborately colored sign on the left door on the porch of a duplex. It says SYLVIA AND DAD'S WORLD.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Office Work, Other Jobs

I just finished reading Matthew B. Crawford's essay "The Case for Working With Your Hands" in this week's NYT Magazine, adapted from his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work which comes out from Penguin this week.

As far as I can tell, the book--or at least the essay--is about Crawford accumulating too many degrees and feeling that he had to put them to use, then realizing that he preferred working on motorcycles, and starting his own repair shop. It's so much about the value and relevance of our jobs, and the impact that value and relevance or lack thereof can have on our lives.

"As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun."

"There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process."

"In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules."

He talks about metacognition, and examining your own thinking processes. I do this all the time as a teacher, and probably should do it much more often. It's one of the things I love about teaching: my students force me to think about my thinking, sometimes about a text we're reading, and often about the way I relate to them. Mine is an essentially, intrinsically social job.

"With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer."

"A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this."

I want to say more about each of these statements. But for now, here they are, with a link to the essay. I look forward to reading his book.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Oh, the Students

Today Jamie said, "Ms. Nelson, did you get a haircut?"

I said, "Yeah."

She said, "I could tell."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Editorial: Pro-Choice, sort of?

“Sure people might say the baby is God’s child but an expensive one.” (why abortion should be legal, obviously—ELL student)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I love my tattoo

Yesterday, I got to watch a mom get really excited about my tattoo, telling her kids (1 1/2, 4, and 9?) how it's from her favorite book ever--and her children were so confused, staring at the boa constrictor who swallowed an elephant on my arm. Mom and I smiled big at each other.

This morning, Andy and I were waiting for brunch at the Screen Door, playing Scrabble out front on the sidewalk, and a guy was watching us, beaming. I said, "Scrabble fan?" He said, "Not that." He unbuttoned his collared shirt and pulled up the arm of his undershirt, showing me his tattoo: the Little Prince on his right arm, in the same place as my hat.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More brilliance and a bumper sticker

Students have filled the halls with their election posters for next year’s student officers. Emilio’s slogan—one of them—is: EMILIO IS THE DEALIO

Emilio is fabulous for lots of reasons, including that his nickname is Emo. Everyone calls him that. It's pretty cute.

* * *

I was behind a car with a terrible bumper sticker today. I care much more about the grammatical error than anything else: "I Pray—Get use to it"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Student Brilliance

A powerful line from a student editorial: “Abortion is one of the worst things you can do to a child during pregnancy.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Life Events

There will be more to say about this. But something to say now: Maybe don't ask, "So how long do I have?"

Or maybe you should. Maybe I should have, too, though I wonder now if I should have. Except what good does it do to know? But I asked. It wasn't a premeditated question, either. Just what came out.

Dr. Gore said they estimate three to five years--but he said it doesn't apply to me, because I've already been living with this brain tumor since 2003. (I'm curious if Dr. Gore agrees or disagrees with Dr. Murali's assessment that the tumor probably developed when I was in utero, and has simply been growing very slowly ever since. There are always the questions you forget to ask, think of later, start a list of for next time...)

Laurel said, "So finish your novel."

I said, "I will--I'm going to anyway, soon--but I wanted to be Alice Munro."

We all laughed at that, sort of.

Laurel suggested I get the longest mortgage term possible. Me and Megan laughed really hard at that.


I say, knowing it's true, "Any of us could go at any time." But now I'm knowing it in another way. Ugh.

I miss Eve. She would have been very helpful right about now. She understood this mortality stuff.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Today one of my Xaviers said, "Did you get a haircut?"

"Yeah, last weekend," I said.

"You should grow your hair out," he said.

"Nah," I said. "You should grow your hair out," I said.

"No," he said, shaking his head.

"Afro!" yelled Vincent. "Do it!"

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Old Zine Friends, Writing, Temping

I like Bill Tuomala's essay Slumming Through Cubicles from his latest Exiled on Main Street, a zine I've been reading since he started it. But yeah--growing up. Taking jobs that matter and that you are invested in. Reminiscing about those shitty jobs you didn't like much, but that left you emotional and mental space for your own creative work. How to be a writer and also be a grown-up. (Grown-up is my word, not his.)


Behind a truck today. Another landscaping company, with the rakes and mower and shovels in the back. But best name ever: PARADISE RESTORED.

Completely unrelated. Some of my girls have been wearing a headband with a side ponytail. So 1986, and simultaneously cutting edge. This fashion cycle has been amazing to me for the past ten years at least--longer, really; I appreciated it in high school when I was wearing house dresses that horrified my mother. Frumpy on old ladies, cute on me at 16...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1950-yesterday.

I didn't know Eve very well. She was my friend Claudia's professor at CUNY, and Claudia became good friends with Eve and her partner Hal. But when I got diagnosed with a brain tumor, Claudia brought us together, and Eve was so generous toward me, sharing her own experiences with radiation and her breast cancer, knowing that I didn't have anyone else in my life who knew what that was like. She was generous and peaceful and wise, sympathetic and distracting and such a survivor. Which is why I'm sure that of anyone I've ever met, if she believes there will be a next life, then there will be a next life. (See her friend Cathy's note here.)

So she's one that you can't really be sad about for her sake. It sounds like the end was rough in a lot of ways, and I keep wanting to be happy for her that she's out of the pain. But I'm sad for me and everyone left behind without her. So yeah. I keep wanting to say, "See you in the next life, Eve." I look forward to meeting her again.


Sometimes writing just can't capture what you feel. But you do your best.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More about censorship.

The School Library Journal recently featured an interesting article on self-censorship in libraries, including the results of a recent survey they conducted on the subject.

I found these through a great article about gay content in young adult books at

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Midwest

I'm reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and loved this:

Then we were back in Wisconsin, a place that in late summer is thrillingly beautiful. When I was young, this was knowledge shared by everyone around me; as an adult, I've never stopped being surprised by how few of the people with whom I interact have any true sense of the states between Pennsylvania and Colorado. Some of these people have even spent weeks or months working in such states, but unless they're midwesterners, too, to them the region is nothing but polling numbers and caucuses, towns or cities where they stay in hotels whose bedspreads are glossy maroon and brown on the outside and pilly on the inside, whose continental breakfasts are packaged doughnuts and cereal from a dispenser, whose fitness centers are a single stationary bike and a broken treadmill. These people eat dinner at Perkins, and then they complain about the quality of the restaurants.

Admittedly, the area possesses a dowdiness I personally have always found comforting, but to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land. The lushness of the grass and trees in August, the roll of the hills (far less of the Midwest is flat than outsiders seem to imagine), that rich smell of soil, the evening sunset over a field of wheat, or the crickets chirping at dusk on a residential street: All of it, it has always made me feel at peace. There is room to breathe, there is a realness of place. The seasons are extreme, but they pass and return, pass and return, and the world seems far steadier than it does from the vantage point of a coastal city.

Certainly picturesque towns can be found in New England or California or the Pacific Northwest, but I can't shake the sense that they're too picturesque. . . . But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on. It is the place I am calmest and most myself.

* * *

Driving cross-country from New York to Portland last summer, I remembered how amazingly beautiful Wisconsin is, and how nobody seems to know about that--or maybe they just don't give a shit, since it's Wisconsin. But I wrote here that the forests and hills in Minnesota and Wisconsin, also western Oregon (and I guess western Washington too) are my favorite landscape in this country. (What I've seen of it, anyway, which is a lot, but not everything.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Teaching Censorship

My principal got a second phone call about my censorship unit. Interesting teaching at a school with more involved parents than my previous school. The first call was: "Why are they talking about gay penguins in Language Arts?" This one was: "Why are Ms. Nelson's students reading about necrophilia in Language Arts?"

I explained the gay penguins to my principal's satisfaction. I'd read my students the picture book And Tango Makes Three, the most banned and challenged book of 2007, the true story of Roy and Silo, two gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo. I explained how it fit into the unit and my principal said, "Oh, okay, that makes sense. That's appropriate."

And I explained the necrophilia reference. I was trying to present a pro-censorship angle, so we read excerpts from the terrible Parents Against Bad Books in Schools website. This is the paragraph that prompted the phone call:

"In some of the books there are vividly described scenes of oral sex, brutal rapes, gang rapes, two men raping a woman at once, pedophilia, masturbation, extremely graphic violence, torture, linking of sexual excitement with violence, homosexuality, urinating on holy books, necrophilia, obscenities, vulgar language, and on and on and on. To us some of it is pornography weakly disguised as literature. Unbelievably foul stuff. With all the books available, why do teachers select these? The types of books we are concerned with are far beyond Harry Potter type stuff."

I explained to my principal that the article was representing an extreme pro-censorship point of view, and that we were using it to discuss the strategies and arguments people presented for why censorship is good. He cringed reading it--it's a terrible paragraph--but he backed me up. He did say, "Just don't let them get you off topic," and told a story about a teacher he'd had, an ex-Marine, who'd just go on and on about the War if they got him started. I told him we just read that paragraph and if a student asked me to define any of the words I would, then we moved on.

The same parent apparently also asked why we were discussing Censorship in Language Arts, and how it fit into the Language Arts curriculum. My principal gave her a great explanation (Language Arts is reading, writing, and critical thinking, and students can read, write, and think about any number of topics). He told me he also told the parent how popular this unit has been with the kids--which is so much of why I love teaching it. (I had another parent come to me and say "What book did you give Connell? All he did yesterday was read! No TV, no video games!" [It was Deadline, by Chris Crutcher.] This is why I have the job I have.) Before my principal left my classroom, he did say, "Just don't be reading sexually explicit stories. We have some very conservative families." and I had a moment of worry, thinking back over the syllabus--but in fact, we haven't. I gave a library copy of Forever to one of my girls, and it's making the rounds, and many Chris Crutcher books with sex in them are also being read outside of class (yay!), but in class we've read:

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
The first chapter of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
"The Pin," by Chris Crutcher
Judy Blume's excellent introduction to her anthology Places I Never Meant to Be
"July Saturday," by Jacqueline Woodson (story from Blume's anthology)
"You Come Too, A-ron," by Harry Mazer (also from the anthology)
The Stupids Die, by Harry Allard

We've also read editorials, reviews, interviews, and other articles about these writers and others, and looked at a lot of the material from the ALA website, including the most challenged books and authors lists and the "Banned Books Week Basics" information.

Our censorship debates were awesome. And now, spring break. After spring break, most of my eighth graders will be reading Nothing But the Truth by Avi, and a few will be reading Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. It's going to be a lot of work and so much fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

censorship: vocab quiz

4. Give three reasons why someone might think a book is immoral.

· Someone might think a book is immoral because there are swear words
· Also, it might have sex, before someone is married
· And someone might talk/do drugs


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Coffee shop, Sunday morning

A dad on his computer, his daughter reading a comic book at the table with him. She’s young to be sitting and reading quietly while dad works—maybe five, definitely no older. At the table behind them another dad and another little girl sit down. He’s really grizzly and cute, with shoulder length hair. His daughter is maybe three. The other little girl turns around in her chair, is explaining the details of her comic book to the other dad and the other little girl in intense detail, page by page. Her own dad glances up time to time, smiles, but he’s still on his computer.

* * *

Addendum: Now the other dad is sort of studying, trying to study, and both little girls are sitting with the dad who'd been on his computer, who is now coloring with the kids.

They're all so young. We're all so young. Is this divorced dad morning? Funny, I feel like in Portland I see more couples who are together. In NYC on the weekends divorced dads alone with their kids were everywhere, but I don't notice that as much here. Of course, I don't ride nearly as much mass transit as I did, which is where I would notice it the most, where it stood out to me.

* * *

Addendum the second: Now one dad is working at one table, the other dad is working at another table, and the two little girls are set up with markers and paper at a third table, between them.

* * *

Addendum the third: A slightly older boy and his little sister walk up to the girls coloring. The boy says, deadpan, "Wow. Nice marker station." All three littler girls look at him, just look at him. He walks away and his little sister follows.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Poetry and Metaphor in the Age of NCLB

From a student poem:

Tests are sometimes like poems
They confuse you
into picking the wrong answer.

By Misael

Saturday, February 28, 2009


Playing Taboo last night with Kat and Megan on one team, me and Rick on the other, Rick's clues for me are "very hot, fast... San Francisco... peanut oil..."

The word, of course, was "wok."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Poetry Projects

I am grading student poetry projects. My eighth graders had to choose three of the poems they've written over the course of this poetry unit, revise them, get two classmates and/or family members to edit their revised drafts, then revise them again. The kids who actually went through the revision process created some amazing stuff. They could choose which poems they wanted to include, except that they had to use one poem that started with the 20 Little Poetry Projects assignment (read the assignment here). One student wrote a 20 L.P.P. about her older sister, a "fabulous senior." This is my favorite part of her great poem:

"Don't be weird," we tell her.
But she's not weird.
Actually Tammy is quite normal.
If being in band, basketball, work, and track is normal.
But, with all these activities to do,
She is still a big calendar of organization.

More excerpts to follow, I am sure. I've got about 130 of these to grade.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

100 Days of Dancing

Yumi posted a link to Ely Kim's "Boombox" as her Facebook status update today, and it totally made me joyous:

BOOMBOX from Ely Kim on Vimeo.

Yumi says she wants the soundtrack. I don't. But it's incredible. That I know immediately that it’s Janet, “Miss You Much”--I knew so many of the songs before I knew them. And wow, all the songs you know without having to hear the words… I kept thinking how yeah, this guy is of my era, of my generation.

The locations are so odd and great, lots of bathrooms and nondescript office spaces and basements and apartments and outdoor spaces that look vaguely familiar, lots of campuses. And day 100's location is so so perfect.

There are so many great details, all through: that cat shirt! the daschund!

I wanna go watch it again.

Here's the song list. The Fader, where I originally watched it, suggests you watch it first then check the list. I think that's smart.

Ely Kim
100 Dances / 100 Songs

001. Heart of Glass / Blondie
002. Jimmy / M.I.A.
003. Deceptacon / Le Tigre
004. Im on Fire / 5000 Volts
005. Je Veux Te Voir / YELLE
006. The Way I Are / Timbaland
007. Too Young / Phoenix
008. Over And Over / Hot Chip
009. Stick It To The Pimp / Peaches
010. Say My Name / Destiny's Child
011. Pin / Yeah Yeah Yeahs
012. Geremia / Bonde Do Role
013. Let Me Clear My Throat / DJ Kool
014. Point Of No Return / Expose
015. Bubble Sex / The Seebach Band
016. Pump Up the Jam / Technotronic
017. Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above / CSS
018. Hella Nervous / Gravy Train
019. Me Plus One / Annie
020. Don't Go / Yaz
021. Bootylicious / Destiny's Child
022. Electric Feel / MGMT
023. Boys Don't Cry / The Cure
024. Lose Control / Missy Elliott
025. Ride The Lightning / Evans And Eagles
026. Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough / Michael Jackson
027. Hearts On Fire / Cut Copy
028. Tainted Love / Soft Cell
029. Between Us & Them / Moving Units
030. It Feels Good / Tony Toni Tone
031. Polaris (Club Mix) / Cyber People
032. You Never Can Tell / Chuck Berry
033. Huddle Formation / The Go! Team
034. Pump That / FannyPack
035. My Love / Justin Timberlake
036. Hung Up / Madonna
037. Justice - D.A.N.C.E (MSTRKRFT Remix) / Justice
038. Cybernetic Love / Casco
039. Creep / TLC
040. When I Hear Music / Debbie Deb
041. B.O.B. / Outkast
042. Bubble Pop Electric / Gwen Stefani
043. Miss You Much / Janet Jackson
044. You Spin Me Round / Dead Or Alive
045. Slide In / Goldfrapp
046. Kelly / Van She
047. Mine Fore Life / The Sounds
048. Disco Heat / Calvin Harris
049. Nighttiming / Coconut Records
050. Club Action / Yo Majesty
051. Pogo / Digitalism
052. Lip Gloss / Lil Mama
053. Heartbeats / The Knife
054. Enola Gay / OMD
055. Goodbye Girls / Broadcast
056. Kids In America / Kim Wilde
057. Kiss / Prince
058. Tenderness / General Public
059. Push It / Salt N Pepa
060. Circle, Square, Triangle / Test Icicles
061. Day 'N' Nite (Crookers Remix) / Kid Cudi
062. Shadows / Midnight Juggernauts
063. Paris (Aeroplane Remix) / Friendly Fires
064. Out At The Pictures / Hot Chip
065. Me Myself and I / De La Soul
066. AudioTrack 10 / Diplo
067. Girls & Boys / Blur
068. Heater / Samim
069. I Wanna Dance With Somebody / Whitney Houston
070. Hands In The Air / Girl Talk
071. Limited Edition OJ Slammer / Cadence Weapon
072. Meeting In The Ladys Room / Mary Jane Girls
073. NY Lipps / Soulwax
074. Lex / Ratatat
075. Gravity's Rainbow (Soulwax Remix) / Steve Aoki
076. Once In A Lifetime / Talking Heads
077. Leave It Alone / Operator Please
078. Half Mast / Empire Of The Sun
079. Hardcore Girls / Count and Sinden feat. Rye Rye
080. Dance, Dance, Dance / Lykke Li
081. Never Gonna Get It / En Vogue
082. Blue Monday / New Order
083. Crazy In Love (Featuring Jay-Z) / Beyoncé
084. 10 Dollar / M.I.A.
085. Love To Love You Baby / Donna Summer
086. Steppin' Out / Lo-Fi-Fnk
087. Karle Pyar Karle / Asha Bhosle
088. Love Will Tear Us Apart / Joy Division
089. Straight Up / Paula Abdul
090. My Drive Thru / Santogold, Casablancas, NERD
091. Like A Prayer / Madonna
092. Freedom 90 / George Michael
093. Black & Gold / Sam Sparro
094. B-O-O-T-A-Y / Spank Rock and Benny Blanco
095. Great Dj / The Ting Tings
096. In A Dream / Rockell
097. Don't Stop the Music / Rihanna
098. Hong Kong Garden / Siouxsie & The Banshees
099. It's Tricky / D.M.C.
100. Bizarre Love Triangle / New Order

Monday, February 16, 2009

Another toddler

Mom, dad, kid come into Coffeehouse 5 (Albina and Killingsworth) so mom can get coffee. Kid takes off for the door while mom is ordering, dad chases kid down, brings him back. Kid takes off again but doesn't go anywhere; dad holds kid’s arm firmly. Kid gives up, stops bearing his own weight, swings from dad’s arm, suspended just above the ground.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Coraline: Movie and Book

Movies made from books are hard. I loved Matilda, and was surprised to love it. Usually I just avoid movies made from books I love. I still think the Lord of the Rings books are better; I only ever saw the first movie. Only ever needed to see one. But Coraline was pretty great, although it was strange to see a movie of a book I have read aloud so many times, having taught it to several classes of sixth graders. I realized, as I was watching the movie and recognizing which lines of dialogue came straight from the book, that I know Coraline better than just about any book ever. I've read it out loud multiple times, and discussed it in depth with so many engaged readers. I loved it before teaching it, and had no idea how much more I'd love it after teaching it. My students loved it, connected with it, made these great associations and came up with their own amazing interpretations that hugely deepened my appreciation of it.

I am sad, now, that next time I teach Coraline, many of my students will probably not have the images they create in their heads as they listen and the illustrations by Dave Mckean as their first associations when they think of the characters. It might not be entirely a bad thing that instead of remembering my voice reading it, they'll remember the actors' voices, but it's such a book that leaves space for the reader to fill in the world. There is so much there that is left to the imagination for the reader to complete, making it his or her own book. The movie doesn't entirely take that away, but...

I'm also thinking that it could be fun to read the book with students and then show them the movie--I've done that with Miracle's Boys, and of course showing and discussing different film versions are an intrinsic part of how I teach Romeo and Juliet. But Romeo and Juliet is a play. Plays are meant to be seen and heard. I've used the miniseries of Miracle's Boys in part to talk about what's different, what works and what doesn't. I could do this with Coraline too. But I don't know--part of me wants Coraline just to be its own thing. Its own book.

I am still thinking about this, I can't articulate it well because it's not entirely articulated in my head.


I just finished the first book in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, A Wizard of Earthsea. I read till I fell asleep last night, then got up and read till the end. Then I put the next three in the series on hold at the library.

Laurel and I had been talking about them and race, and she'd said that she thought there were a few very subtle hints--so of course watching for them, I found them less subtle. Some are matter-of fact: When our hero, Ged, meets Vetch, another student who becomes a close friend, Vetch is described as "very dark of skin, not red-brown like Ged and Jasper and most folk of the Archepelago, but black-brown." He is also described as "plain, and his manners were not polished," but since Ged has just been dealing with Jasper, a "polite disdainful youth" who is the son of a Lord, while Ged himself is "a mountain villager who had never been among the sons of rich merchants and noblemen," Vetch's manners and appearance are clearly positive attributes.

& I thought this characterization was pretty awesome and not terribly subtle: "Before nightfall he saw away off on his left hand the long, faint shoreline of a great land, which must be Karego-At. He was in the very sea-roads of those white barbaric folk."

Not related to race, and seeming in one sense to be the sort of cliched wisdom one expects to find in fantasy novels, I thought this advice from the Master Summoner to Ged is actually extremely true and relevant to more than just those of us who are studying to be Wizards: "You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do...." [Italics and ellipsis in the original.]