Thank you, Harper Lee

I’ve been wanting to write something about this for a while now, mostly so I’d have it to remember and make me smile later, but suddenly it feels appropriate right now.

I don’t want to give personal details here, so I’m just going to say that a student you’d never expect, surprised me several weeks ago. He’s never been a reader, but he informed me that we were starting a (very small) book club. He and his friend would be coming to my classroom twice a week during lunch, and we’d be listening to the audiobook version of To Kill A Mockingbird. My job was to provide the audiobook and press the play button.

You can’t say no to that!

to kill a mockingbird
Photo Credit: Pickersgill Reef via Compfight cc

I have no idea where he got the idea to read TKAM. He heard about it somewhere though, and according to plan, he’s dragged his friend along twice a week to eat lunch in my room and listen to the book. They sit mostly in silence, occasionally asking me to hit the pause button so we can discuss part of the story.

I can’t emphasize enough–this wasn’t my idea! I didn’t do this. I’ve made a lot of efforts to encourage my kids to fall in love with reading, but I never suggested this book, and I never suggested lunchtime book club. In fact, I’m probably the least engaged member of the club. While they’re listening to the book, I’m usually working on other stuff and only kinda-sorta paying attention. When they want to stop and discuss, I’m leaning heavily on my memory of reading the book way back in high school, and seeing the movie several years ago. Zero effort is going into teaching this novel.

I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me. Book club completely warms my teacher heart. Watching two kids giving up their free time to voluntarily enjoy a classic novel–it’s the dream. And not just any two kids, but kids that I originally met as total non-readers.

We do all kinds of language activities in my ELD classes of course, but my favorite, and the kids’ favorite, is when we read a novel together. Yes, I make them do academic work to go with it. But sometimes I wish we could just sit around, reading and discussing novels, every single day. Drop the structure and accountability and grading and everything else. Just savor good books and discussion. The kids wouldn’t complain!

Harper Lee passed away yesterday. And I’m remembering that quote somebody said on Twitter during the celebrity death streak last month–“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them; we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” The quote struck a chord with me, but as I’m thinking of it now in relation to Lee and other writers, I want to add to it–artists help us know ourselves, and help us know outside of ourselves.

When our book club started chapter one of To Kill A Mockingbird, the kids were asking questions like, “Does this take place before or after 9/11?” (If I’d been actually teaching the novel in class, I would have provided some background before jumping into the book. But since this was so informal and student-led, I hadn’t done that.) I paused the book and we all took a step back to discuss the setting and some historical context.

The conversation felt a little bit like this:

“We’re in the 1930s… Great Depression… ”

“So, slavery?”

“After that.”

“Martin Luther King?”

“Before that–well, actually, he would have been a little kid at this point.”

Through conversation, but mostly through Harper Lee’s words, the kids and I are being transported back to rural Alabama in the 30s. For the students, this is their first journey, and they’re learning the language and flavors and background of a new-to-them time and place in our country’s history. For me, it’s a comfortable return to a place I’ve visited before–but only via literature. I’d read plenty of historical fiction and had lots of relevant background knowledge the first time I read Mockingbird in sophomore English class, but the novel still shines brighter in my memory than so many others I’ve read. Lee’s stories, characters, and words never really leave you.

Book club hasn’t gotten into much of the heavy stuff yet. We’re still romping around, bugging Boo Radley. The kids are charmed by the small town, entertained by Dill (who can read!), unimpressed with Scout’s experiences with public education, and intrigued by the elusive Radley. They’ve been shocked by some of the racial language, casually used, that they know is unacceptable today. I have no doubt that the discussion will be rich as they meet Tom Robinson and get into the court battle. Their sense of justice, equity, and right/wrong is strong, and they’re going to have thoughts and feelings about this one! I can’t wait.

They’re learning about the world beyond their own experience. And they’re also learning about who they are, and who they want to be. Because who can read about Atticus Finch, without internalizing some desire to be that person?

For right now, I’m happy to let them stick with the Mockingbird version of Atticus. It’s developmentally appropriate. They need to believe in a world where good guys stand up against injustice, fight racism head on, and win their battles. They need to learn and believe the lessons Mockingbird Atticus has to teach–lessons about what courage really is, about listening to your conscience, about understanding other people. Correction: we all need Mockingbird Atticus.

And someday, when they’re older, I hope my students return to Maycomb and get to know Go Set A Watchman’s Atticus. That story and that Atticus are harder to swallow, but we need to grapple with them. One day my students will have to understand that racism doesn’t just belong to the bad guys. It’s embedded into the very structure of our society, and its insidious traces can be seen even in people we love and respect. They’ll learn that good guys and bad guys rarely appear outside of the comic books–most of us are just humans, products of our environment, doing the best we can with the knowledge and experience we have. Just like Jean Louise and her Watchman Atticus, my kids will see their own heroes slip off pedestals, and their own ideals fail them. Hopefully Watchman Atticus will help them learn that a person’s heroism doesn’t make them immune to wrongdoing, but their shortcomings also don’t cancel out the good they offer the world. Watchman Atticus can help them learn to live with some cognitive dissonance, and think critically with their heads and their hearts.

Mockingbird Atticus will help my kids want to change the world, and Watchman Atticus will give them the smarts to do it.

Thank you, Harper Lee.

What’s My Age Again?

It’s amazing how quickly one can get old anymore. I remember accepting that my childhood, and my teenage years, were already relics of a distant past. That overalls and puka shells were to be used for throwback costume purposes only, and that the holographic, platform-inspired, periwinkle Sketchers I once treasured now looked like they came from another planet. But that’s what happens, right? Middle and high school were a long time ago. Circle of life, or whatever.

TMNT overallsperiwinkle shoes

College, however, just happened. Not that long ago. Because I’m still young. Stuff I did in college was just a few years ago, right? Right…?

Maybe not right.

It hit, and hit hard, when I was doing some planning in my classroom recently. I was researching some iPad apps, figuring out what could be useful in my classes, how I could best use it, how to manage the logistics with the kids. I spend a lot of time this way, and that day I felt a wave of irritation that the technology class in my teaching program at BYU didn’t teach my any of this stuff. Why didn’t we spend any time learning about iPad apps that would be useful in education? Tips for managing a class set of these devices? Why didn’t we learn about navigating Chromebooks, or even using Google Docs with students?

Oh. Right.

Because none of those things existed when I was in college… I graduated from my teaching program in 2007. The first iPad was introduced in 2010. Even the first iPhone came out a few weeks after I walked across the stage in my cap and gown. Google was still mostly just a search engine, although we felt cool for having Gmail addresses, and Chromebooks wouldn’t exist until 2011.

chromebooks1-e
Don’t let the ancient CD player in the background ruin your enjoyment of this modern tech cart.

Literally all of the technology that I base my teaching around now, didn’t exist when I was in college. The more high-tech professors were still getting students to pay big bucks for “clickers” so they could respond instantly to questions in class. Nowadays, I can name half a dozen websites off the top of my head that let my students do the same thing for free.

How is that possible? How can college be so long ago, that it’s essentially another era? Have I really been teaching that long? Was graduation that long ago?

When I stop and think about it, though, I guess a lot has changed. Sure, I had a cell phone in college, and it had a camera and texting… But the photos were terrible, like no megapixels, and most of us were still paying per text. We generally still used our phones for actual phone calls. We left voicemails. We played Snake. And that’s about it.

spiderman 3
Look how pixely my roommate and I were when Spiderman 3 came out!

It was easy to be cool when I started teaching. I could T9 text faster than any of the kids—under the table, without taking my eyes off the person presenting at a meeting. And I had a Facebook profile. (Which I had to log onto an actual computer to look at.) That’s all it really took to be relevant. But now you need accounts on a million different social network platforms, with a new one popping up every time I turn around, and you have to check/update all of them constantly.

The Gilmore Guys have also been making me feel old. I went through college with Rory Gilmore, and looked forward to the show every week. I specifically remember being fidgety in one of my ESL Ed classes on Tuesday evenings, just wanting it to end so I could get home and watch Gilmore Girls…. But now I listen to Kevin and Demi analyzing every episode of the show, and constantly referring to how “It was a different time.” Was it? Was it really? Was Gilmore Girls on the air that long ago?

Yeah, I guess it was.

tumblr_mk1p9xqhhJ1rp52spo1_500
Remember when only the gillies knew about Melissa McCarthy?

I guess it has been a while since I’ve worn a corduroy jacket over a t-shirt declaring in rhinestones that I’m a “princess,” “cute,” or “sassy.” And I can’t remember the last time I logged into AIM. Nobody quotes Homestar Runner or Charlie the Unicorn anymore, and the last time I dropped a Napoleon Dynamite reference, only one 8th grader got it.

So… I guess it’s been a minute since college happened. How does the world change so quickly??

Gilmore Geek

I love that we live in an age where it’s socially acceptable to be an out-and-proud nerd about our favorite things. I couldn’t care less about anime, or Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek Wars (Did I just eliminate my entire audience?), but I’m so glad the people who do care, and care a lot, have entire communities where they can come together, dress up in costumes (excuse me, cosplay…), and just geek out together.

Top of my own geek-out-about-it list? No contest–Gilmore Girls! For years, I haven’t even known how to answer when people ask about my favorite tv show, because it seems wrong to name a show that hasn’t been on since 2007. (And that last year barely even counts, amirite, gillies?) But it would be dishonest to put any other show above my Gilmores! I’m not usually a rewatch person. With so many movies, shows, and books that I haven’t experienced yet, I rarely go back to old favorites. But I never get tired of watching GG episodes again and again! To me, the characters are all real people, and Stars Hollow is a real place. The way everyone talks in super fast-paced, witty dialogue, peppered with cultural references that span all of history? That’s my dream. I don’t care that people don’t actually talk that way; I wish they did.

As Rory and I grew up together (She was one year younger than me, but I spent 5 years in college, so we ended up graduating at the same time.), I made a life rule for myself. If I were ever to meet a random celebrity, I wouldn’t be annoying and go interrupt their day…..unless it were a Gilmore Girls cast member. Then, all bets off, I’d absolutely go say hello, get a photo, probably make a fool of myself, but have my moment. Yes, it’s an oddly specific life rule, but it always felt right.

everystockphoto-13213703-o
Thank you, Netflix, for saving me from needing a stack like this.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/23412868@N03/5341066529/

Around the time Netflix made us freshly gaga for Gilmore all over again, a wonderful phenomenon was born–introducing, The Gilmore Guys. Their podcast analyzes every episode of GG in great depth, including the f-f-f-fashion, pop!-goes-the-culture, ….is-that-homophobic?, say-yes-to-the-Jess, etc. Kevin is a lifelong gilly (a term that I’m pretty sure he coined); Demi is watching the show for the first time, and they’re both very funny, entertaining guys. Since becoming a big thing, the Guys have been able to do special Gilmore Gab episodes with cast members, writers, casting directors, etc. And I love every second of it!

It takes way too much exposition to get to the main event, but here it finally is…. Since the podcast became so huge, they started doing live shows around the country. And last week they came to Portland!! Nothing was going to keep me from that show, and it took zero arm-twisting to convince my fellow gilly friend, Heather, to come with me. (This isn’t my first friendship that’s at least half-based in Gilmore love…. Hi, Samantha!)

Wheelchair perk: Since the tickets were all general admission, no assigned seating, they let wheelchair users come in first to beat the crowd and get settled. Well, if you insist… front row it is, then!

IMG_5644
Do you see that? I was at a town meeting! Practically like being in Miss Patty’s barn!

I know that you normal people (Are there any still reading?) don’t understand why it’s so cool to sit this close to a couple random guys who put a thing on iTunes… But, A) they’re hilarious and I love them, and, B) I figured this was the closest I’d ever get to my lifelong dream of meeting any GG characters.

While waiting for the show to start, we bought the obligatory and adorable t-shirts. We rocked out to the soundtrack of every song they’ve ever played on the podcast. We discussed the rumor that Michael Winters (Taylor Doose) was going to show up, since he allegedly lives in Oregon and performs Shakespeare in Ashland. And we thought the Asian lady who walked past us looked uncannily like Keiko Agena (Lane Kim).

And then, this wonderful moment happened….

IMG_5643

The episode of the night was 6.08, the one where Jess comes back and talks some sense into Rory-the-Yale-dropout. I remember losing my mind when it aired in 2005, but turns out that was only a foreshadowing of the heart palpitations I’d have when these two came out singing “Let’s Talk About Jess” (thanks, Salt-N-Pepa), with a slideshow of sexy Jess/Milo photos happening behind them!! My eyes didn’t know where to focus! Should I be watching the Guys, or my guy in the photos? I don’t know! It didn’t matter! It was wonderful!

As Heather put it afterward, sitting in the front row made it very tempting to invite ourselves into the conversation the entire time. And it was beautiful to be surrounded by people who don’t think it’s weird to spend over two hours listening to people discuss a one hour episode of a WB show that aired ten years. Just look at all those gillies!

IMG_5642
Sometimes inside show-jokes are a lil’ bit creepy.

We had the privilege of witnessing a historic moment. Kevin is known as the crier. Not like the town crier who makes public announcements on the street corner. (Although doesn’t it seem like Stars Hollow would have one of those?) No, he’s the crier who tears up at every emotional moment, and/or every time Emily Gilmore is on the screen. Typically, the crying happens during his private viewings of the show, then he shamelessly admits to it on air. However, for what seems to be the first time, Kevin shed some tears right there on stage. What inspired this public outpouring of emotion? The scene where sick Paul Anka spends the night on Rory’s bed. Yes, I’m serious.

IMG_5646.jpg
It’s ok, Kevin, go ahead and feel all the feels.

(By the way, the la-la-la-la special guest in the middle is local comedian and gilly, Caitlin Weierhauser.)

After watching the clip together, and crying about it, we still weren’t done with the Paul Anka bit. Then it was necessary to rework the scene, with Kevin playing Lorelei and Demi as Paul Anka.

IMG_5635.jpg
You know that Paul Anka is actually a dog in Gilmore land, right? Right.

I would like to say that this next photo is Demi’s cool guy way of covering up his own Gilmore tears… But I’d be lying. Demi is a robot who will live forever. Instead, this photo may or may not be during one of the half a dozen reenactments we saw of Jess in his bookbinding job… I realize that doesn’t sound worthy of a half dozen repetitions, but does it paint a better picture if I mention that Ginuwine was playing? No, that doesn’t make sense either? Ok, well, I tried.

IMG_5647.jpg
Note that Caitlin has fled the stage at this point. Traumatized.

Toward the end of the show, my face was hurting from nonstop smiling, laughs, and gilly-chucks. Then just when it seems like things might eventually settle down with some pretty typical audience Q&A, Kevin fake-stumbled upon this notable audience member… In the microphone, she shyly stuttered and that her name was Christine and Lane Kim was her favorite character. But look! Look! Look!!!

IMG_5636.jpg
Fun fact: I looked on Wikipedia later, and Christine wasn’t just a randomly chosen pseudonym. It’s actually Keiko’s real first name! For Spanish speakers, Lane Kim is my tocaya!!

Turns out we weren’t just being racists at the beginning of the show, thinking all Asian women look like Lane. It really was Keiko Agena!!

I can’t even express the fireworks that were going off in my head at this point. I was in the same room as a Gilmore girl! I could barely stay in my seat! Keiko has memorized word-perfect pages of Amy Sherman Palladino scripts. She’s spit out “this band meets that band meets this other band” lines at the speed of light. She’s eaten Luke’s fries and crashed on Lorelei’s couch. She’s drummed in Hep Alien. And she was right there!!!

We did manage to refocus long enough to wrap up the show and all sing the theme song together. There’s nothing like an entire theater full of people standing to sing and dance to Carole King’s “Where You Lead.” Nothing like it.

And then! Then I got the chance to finally live out the good half of my “don’t be a fool in front of celebs, unless Gilmore” rule. Because I’d been true to my word up until then! When I spent some magical time with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, I kept my cool. The universe owed me this!

When it was our turn to meet and greet, I shamelessly and awkwardly babbled about my life rule and the “exception clause for residents of Stars Hollow.” No regrets. Keiko graciously agreed that it was a very good rule to live by. And then took this photo with us.

734995_10102387275258219_2183158311048758174_n
I think Heather and I should be Lane’s very own Madeline and Louise. Yes? Also, how much do you love Heather’s hoodie? Almost as much as you love Keiko/Lane looking like our bestie?

And obviously this photo also had to happen. How cute are Demi and Kevin? I love the Gilmore Guys more than ever! It’s crazy that their show is such a success, and I’m so glad that it is!

12512575_10102388368836679_2484949990420003001_n.jpg

Just quick note of f-f-f-fashion…. Yes, I’m wearing the wrong t-shirt. I sadly had nothing Gilmore to wear, so I decided to go with another dated tv show that’s about to have a revival. Also, I realized that’s the rainbow sweater I also wore when hanging out with 105.1 The Buzz’s Daria, Mitch, and Ted. It’s officially my meet-cool-people sweater.

166083_10151472944019506_509559929_n.jpg

And I’m going to finally end this entry by giving a shout-out (or, in Kevin’s words, a Stars Holla!) to someone named Lisa Santucci Schvach for creating the Spotify playlist of Gilmore Girls music, which kept me in the mood to write all this.

#ILikeThatSong

A Case Against Colorblindness

A little light, fluffy, no big deal topic to kick off your Monday morning….

Ok, maybe not, but it’s been floating around my mind lately, so I’m putting it here to flicker through a few other minds.

 *****

I grew up in the “colorblind” generation. We talked about race once a year, when we celebrated Martin Luther King for ending racism. We were taught that everyone is equal, the same, period, the end. They taught us not to see race, so we didn’t.

martir luther king 3
He might not approve of our approach…

If asked to describe the demographics of my schools k-12, I’d say “White and Asian.” There were other groups represented of course, but hardly enough to register on the pie charts. Still, “few” is more than “zero,” and I can remember the names and faces of a handful of Black students too. (And others, but I’m focusing here.)

The weird thing is, I mostly remember them from my classes in elementary and middle school. They all kind of disappeared in high school, as far as I could tell, if I’d ever thought about it. (I didn’t.)

My high school had at least as many African American students as my previous schools, of course. I saw them in the halls, or sometimes in an elective class. But high school is a segregation machine, and I was one of those kids taking all the honors and AP classes…. It took these last two days of stretching my memory, before I finally came up with one person in one class who had dark skin–I think she was African American, but I couldn’t swear it. That’s it. Just one, and she’s a “maybe.” That doesn’t mean no other Black students ever took an advanced class in my school, and I’m sure my classmates will tell me who I’m forgetting… But the fact that I can’t remember any in my own classes seems significant. I never noticed at the time though. It didn’t occur to me until years later, as an adult going into education, when I learned about underrepresentation in some places and overrepresentation in others.

I was taught not to see color, so I didn’t. I didn’t notice when one color disappeared from our happy little rainbow.

*****

Those students that I wasn’t seeing, did speak up during my junior year, requesting that the school start a Black Student Union. Now, I realize that many schools have had a BSU for a long time, but for some reason, this was a subject of great debate and controversy at our school.

The good news is that I wasn’t one of those people arguing that “BSU’s are racist! What if we tried to have a White Student Union? What would people say then?” Thank goodness, even in my most naive days, I was never that ignorant… No, I was one of the kids who felt very enlightened and egalitarian when arguing, “Why don’t we start a Multicultural Club instead? It would be a club for everyone!” The way I remember it, there was an absurd number of discussions before a decision was ever made. And I wasn’t involved in student council or anything; it just seemed to come up in every class. (Also of note: since I can’t remember any Black faces in those classes, that also means I don’t remember hearing any Black voices in those debates.)

Eventually, a decision was made, and the Multicultural Club was born. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a Multicultural Club; I’m sure it’s a good club that does good things. (It still exists; I looked it up.) But looking back, I’m so ashamed of that entire debate and my own stance in it. We were wrong. A very small minority of our student body banded together and expressed a need, and the oppressive majority shut them down. I don’t know who the Black students were that originally made the proposal, but I can’t imagine the feeling when they were told, “No, the White kids voted, and they decided this other thing would be better for you.”

I wish I could tell those students that I’m sorry.

We were taught not to see color, so we didn’t. And when color demanded to be seen and heard, we shut it up.

*****

Two of my best friends from high school–the kind of best friends that last no matter how much time has gone by–are Vietnamese-American. I knew that I couldn’t pronounce their middle names no matter how much I tried, and I knew that [insert Asian stereotype here] was stupid and offensive…. And that’s about all I knew. Race didn’t matter. We were all the same. We went to the same school, ate the same french fries from the cafeteria, complained about the same homework, watched the same movies… I guess I did end up owning more Sanrio paraphernalia than the average White girl, but other than that, race wasn’t really a factor.

iron kids
Why were we posing under the Iron Kids sign? No idea. The better question is, why don’t we have any more recent photos? This is pre-pixie hair… I think we just enjoy our scarce time together too much, and forget to photo-document it. 🙂

Let me insert a #WheelchairProblems bit here…. Nobody’s house is ever wheelchair accessible. Like, ever. I almost never get to hang out in other people’s homes. My high school friends were no exception. We hung out at school, at my house, or “out” somewhere. If we went anywhere together, my parents drove, because accessible van. That meant that my friends knew my family and the vibe in our house, but I never really knew theirs.

That’s bothered me my entire life, but it really came into focus when my friend got married several years ago. The wedding was beautiful. She was radiant. I had so much fun, and the biggest meal I’ve eaten to date. I don’t want it to sound like a bad thing when I say that I felt out of place, surrounded by so much Vietnamese culture and tradition and language and people. That’s actually a situation I quite enjoy, being immersed in something new.

But it shouldn’t have felt so different and new, and that’s the part that bothered me. Two of my best friends were Vietnamese, and I felt like I was finally noticing it for the first time. I knew so little about their culture. I didn’t know what it meant for them and their families. (I couldn’t pick their parents out of a crowd.) I don’t think I even knew that either of them spoke as much Vietnamese as I heard that day. What kind of friend was I? How could I miss an entire dimension of some of my closest friends?

My other friend (not the one who got married that day) and I talked about this later, after we’d both grown into adults with a passion for social justice. We talked about race, and what it meant for us, and about why we hadn’t talked about it before. All those years, I hadn’t even known that wall was there, but it felt so good to knock it down.

I was taught not to see color, so I didn’t. I was taught that we are all the same, so I believed it. And I missed so much.

I don’t know if “colorblindness” is a goal we should have for a future generation, but if so, it’s a distant future. For right now, I don’t want it. I tried it, and it kept me from seeing too many things, as blindness* tends to do.

 

*I say that in the literary sense, not the disability sense, but hesitate as I’m writing it. So I want to clarify that when I say “blind,” I’m referring to people choosing to walk around with their eyes shut. That’s very different from an actual blind person who’s alert and aware of their environment.

They Don’t Teach This Stuff In Teacher School

A couple weeks ago I shared one of my great secrets to teaching. One of those things they didn’t teach me in teacher school. Today, out of the goodness of my heart, I’d like to share another. Please don’t underestimate the value of this gesture! Some people go into a lot of debt to study the art and the science of teaching. But here I am, just giving away my secrets like they’re AOL CDs in the 90s. (If I make a reference like that in the classroom, it gets me blank stares, so you’re going to have to humor me.)

I used to struggle a little with how to handle swearing in the classroom. Obviously it’s important to establish a professional atmosphere where the kids learn to express themselves appropriately. At the same time, I don’t feel like it’s usually an offense worth making into too big a deal. It’s a tough balance. Also, I don’t feel like all swears are created equal. Different words have different intensity, and different people would rank and categorize swear words differently. And there’s a difference between a minor swear slipping out of your mouth when you’re frustrated or hit your funny bone, and directly cussing somebody out. But middle school kids are a fairness police force to be reckoned with, and just try explaining the ambiguity and nuance to them, when they’re incensed over “this kid got a detention, but that one two months ago didn’t!”

The struggle was real when one particular student had a strong swearing habit. He wasn’t intentionally being defiant, and he wasn’t generally expressing any strong emotion when he swore. That was just how he talked. Each word was usually followed by a cringing, “Oh! Sorry!!” That class was a pretty tight group; most of us had been together for a couple years by then. So we eventually started joking about how we wished we had a nickel for every swear….

Then I did what any reasonable person would do, and I got a class swear jar. Here, I’ll show you a picture.

swear jar
Ta-da! Another secret to teaching revealed.

You see it there, right? Resting on the table? That’s my invisible swear jar. And any time I hear a student swear, they have to put an invisible coin in the invisible swear jar.

Yes, I’m serious.

It’s the greatest thing. And my kids are the greatest people. They go along with this shenanigan wholeheartedly.

When a student mutters “%$@#,” I stop what I’m doing, and mime lifting the jar off a nearby table. (If I pick it up from a different surface than where I last left it, the kids call me out on it!) Sometimes I complain about how it’s getting heavy. Then I hold it in front of the offender, and wait for them to make their contribution. The kid generally makes a show of reluctantly reaching into their pocket and fishing around, lots of dramatic sighs, and finally throwing an invisible coin in. Sometimes they claim to be short, and ask a neighbor if they can borrow an invisible coin. A few big spenders offer an invisible dollar.

When the kids ask what I’m going to spend the invisible coins on, I assure them there’s a plan. “Invisible computers. We can always use more technology in the classroom.”

But the greatest part is that nobody has ever refused to go along with this entire charade. (I just jinxed it by saying that on the internet.) An invisible coin always makes its way into the jar. Sometimes I’m busy and ask someone else to fetch the swear jar; they do. I might pass it off to another student and ask them to carry it back to the table; they do.

My favorite was the time a kid brushed up against the counter, then jumped back and admitted that she had just knocked the swear jar on the floor. “Then you’re not leaving this room until every coin is picked up. They’re everywhere!” I said in the exact same tone of voice I would have used for a visible mess on my floor. “I’ll help!” another kid offered. Soon, half the class was busily gathering stray invisible coins and returning them to the invisible jar. “You missed one, right there, next to your shoe,” I’d direct.

In the middle of this, a couple kids came in from the hallway to meet their friend. I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me. But the look on their faces was priceless as they watched us all acting out this scene with completely straight faces. It was like we all could see something they couldn’t….. We did all exchange secret smiles after we finally agreed that every coin had been returned to the jar.

Our school’s drama teacher is pretty fantastic. But, I don’t know… I’m not sure even he could get an entire class to improv a scene with the level of buy-in that we’ve achieved in ELD.

I can’t prove it with data, but I actually do believe it reduces the amount of swearing in my class too. They really try to avoid having to donate invisible coins to the jar. For most minor swearing offenses, it’s just enough accountability without requiring some big punishment.

(In between the nonsense, learning really does happen in my class! I swear it does.)

Art Appreciation

I want to tell you about the background art on my blog. It’s one of my favorite things–if I were Oprah, you’d all be going home with a copy. This is the full image…

wheelchair art cropped

This beautiful piece happened in June 2011. My art teacher friend and I had been talking all year (at least) about how much fun it would be to create some “wheelchair art.” We must have been inspired by some muddy tire tracks or something. Finally, we decided to make it happen on the last day of classes, with my Beginning ELD (English Language Development) class.

You guys, Beginning ELD classes are like nothing else. There’s magic. You get these kids together from all over the world, and they couldn’t be more different. But they’re all figuring out this new language and culture together, and also sharing their home languages and cultures with each other. They spend equal amounts of time bickering, and helping each other, until before we know it, we’ve become a crazy, quirky little family. My favorite days are the ones when my lesson plans get shoved aside  because the kids have more interesting stories to share. I don’t even feel guilty about it–they’re telling stories in English, and isn’t that the goal?

So by the end of that 2010/11 school year, like always, the beginners had transformed from quiet, scared individuals, to a chatty, expressive team that shared inside jokes and memories that still make us smile when we see each other in 2016. What better way to celebrate our community than by creating some art together?

Art Teacher Friend had a canvas tucked away that we decided would be perfect for the project. She came with materials, and we pushed the furniture to the back of the room. I’d told the kids there was going to be a surprise on the last day of classes, but they had no idea why they were putting on aprons and filling dishes with paint… When we put sponge brushes in their hands, and told them to start painting my wheelchair tires, the looks on their faces were priceless! They all hesitated for a bit, clearly wondering if they’d understood the directions. But soon enough, they each had chosen a color and claimed their space on a tire.

Once the four wheels were sufficiently rainbowed, I rolled across the canvass until we needed to repaint. We repeated the process a few times, with the kids suggesting which parts needed more color, and which direction I should drive in.

It looked…. ok, until one kid suggested, “Ms. Napper, you should do a… a… um… how you say… like Homer Simpson eat?”

“A doughnut!” Excellent idea. We refilled the paint once more, and I spun in a circle this time. He was so right. That’s exactly what it needed.

At some point, we noticed a wheelchair-using student passing by in the hall, so we invited him in to see what we were doing. His jaw dropped. “My mom would KILL me!!”

I assured him that, “So would mine… don’t tell her!”

Before we were finished, the kids all painted the bottom of their shoes, and paraded around the canvass. It’s hard to see in the photo, but you can see in real life that their footprints are intermixed with the tire tracks.

(The shoes were easy to clean afterward… The tires were a beast. There were traces of paint left for months, but I kind of loved it.)

The finished product makes me all kinds of happy! I’m usually one of those people who don’t “get” abstract art. But somewhere in those colors and patterns, I see a ridiculously accurate depiction of my classroom. That’s exactly what my kids and I look like, and what a day in my job feels like. When I look at it, I remember the specific kids who helped in its creation, but it reflects all my other classes too.

ms napper n lucy
Lucy is my chair’s name. Some kid apparently thought both our names should be on the board. 🙂

Some less socially skilled individuals have asked, and others have wondered silently, “Can you really be a teacher with a wheelchair? Do the kids actually respect you?”

Short answer: Um, yes…

Longer answer: I could talk all day about the ways Lucy (my chair) makes me a better teacher than I’d be without her. Let’s list a few…

  • There’s nothing like living with disability to make you a creative problem-solver. This point really deserves its own blog post, but for now I’ll just say that I love helping students discover creative ways to use their strengths (which they’re usually not too aware of) to get past their weaknesses (which they’re usually very aware of).
  • My students learn to get outside of their own heads and offer help so naturally, that it’s almost eery. I’ve had classes where all I have to do is think, “I wish somebody would…” and before I can finish the thought, somebody is already doing it. They learn to think about and help the people around them, and that there’s no shame in asking for help when they need it.
  • It’s ELD–pretty much all of my kids have experienced feeling marginalized, put down by society. I can relate. I may be part of the racial and linguistic majority, but I can absolutely relate. The kids and I can talk about the tough stuff on a level that really matters.

It’s a crazy dance of rainbows being splattered in every direction…. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Dear Grammar Nazis,

Dear Grammar Nazis*,

I get it. I’ve been one of you. As an English teacher by profession, people assume I still am, more than ever. Because let’s be honest, it’s kind of fun to roll your eyes every time somebody misuses there/their/they’re. It strokes your ego when you can feel superior to someone who can’t distinguish good and well. And it’s easy to disregard somebody’s entire argument when they mix up it’s and its. Also, when you notice these English language infractions, you can’t be expected to keep them to yourself. The world needs to know that you know a grammar error occurred!

assorted stationary
When you want to take a red pen to somebody’s speech…
Photo Credit: Shek’s Aperture via Compfight cc

But here’s the thing. I’m not one of you anymore. I’ve changed. I’ve evolved. The funny thing is, it’s my years as an ESL teacher, along with being a Spanish learner, that have me convinced–grammar just isn’t that important. Yes, it’s important. But not nearly as important as I once believed.

Let me tell you about my Spanish learning journey.

When I entered college, I was the first in my immediate family to do so, which meant I didn’t have a lot of guidance on how to do things, like sign up for classes. The ginormous course catalog gave me anxiety. I knew I wanted to keep taking Spanish, but I had no idea which class to sign up for. Luckily, there was a handy placement test you could take online.

I took the test, which was multiple choice, mostly grammar questions. For some people, that would be a nightmare, but I was a good test taker. I didn’t always understand the vocabulary in a given question, but I knew the answer demanded an imperfect subjunctive verb. When the test score popped up, it said I should register for a 300-level class. Not really understanding what that meant, so I just did what the test told me to do.

Fast forward to my first day of classes–BIG mistake. I wasn’t in the room for five minutes before I knew I did not belong there. I couldn’t understand a word the teacher was saying. The other students were conversing easily en español, and I couldn’t begin to follow. I wanted to run from the room immediately, but I also didn’t want to draw that attention to myself. It was a long hour of hoping nobody spoke to me, and trying not to cry. (Have I mentioned what a cool kid I still was at 18?:))

As soon as class was over, I dropped the class, and picked up a 200-level one it its place. Much better! I’d already learned all the grammar in the 200-level classes, so the textbook exercises were easy. But I had no fluency. I needed time to pick up more vocabulary, acclimate my ear and tongue to the language, soak in the patterns so that the grammar became an invisible structure, not a list of rules in my head. When I returned to 300-level Spanish a year later, it was still challenging, but I was ready this time. I came in armed with more than just grammar rules.

It wasn’t smooth sailing after that, though. I never really grasped that being a good student, and being good at learning a language, are two different sets of skills. I sat quietly in class, took notes, did my homework, and got good grades on my tests. But learning a language requires talking! Lots of talking! I was too scared of opening my mouth and making a mistake. Before saying anything out loud, I’d practice it in my head, thinking through all the different grammar points. Most of the time, I’d end up not saying anything. By the time I graduated, I’d gotten good grades in tons of Spanish classes, but still didn’t feel like I spoke the language.

FullSizeRender-4
Desde que puse la bandera mexicana en mi silla, hago más amigos hispanohablantes. 🙂

Progress finally started happening when I became an ESL teacher in a school that had many Spanish-speaking students and, at the time, few Spanish-speaking teachers. Suddenly, I found myself regularly in situations miles from my comfort zone, speaking to students and/or their parents, sometimes interpreting when a more qualified interpreter wasn’t available. There wasn’t time for me to analyze all the grammar in my head. I just had to open my mouth and hope something intelligible came out.

I don’t actually know if my grammar has gotten better or worse since college. Many patterns and conjugations and things have become second nature, so I don’t have to think about them anymore. But I’m pretty sure an enormous number of errors have crept in too. That’s ok. I’m actually communicating now, which I wasn’t doing before, and isn’t that the point?

On the other hand, I’ve seen some great examples of the other side of the coin.

I’ve met many English language learners–my students, but also my peers, and other professionals–who navigate the English-speaking world daily with imperfect grammar, and it doesn’t get in their way. They understand, and they’re understood. They might not conjugate every verb correctly, and they might use the wrong preposition now and then, but so what? They’re expressing complex thoughts, and small grammar errors aren’t keeping anyone from easily understanding them. Wouldn’t you rather listen to the person who’s speaking with depth and sharing complicated ideas, even if they make a few syntax mistakes, than the person who’s playing it safe and only saying the simple sentences they’ve practiced and know they can say error-free? In an engaging conversation, how long does it take before you stop even noticing small grammar stuff?

As an English teacher, I’ll keep teaching grammar, and correcting my kids’ mistakes. Grammar does matter. It gives structure to our language, so we can understand each other. And, unfortunately, it influences how we’re perceived. People judge you as more intelligent and capable when you speak according to a certain standard.

But, my grammar nazi friends, don’t be those people. If you’re as enlightened as you like to consider yourself, then you must realize there’s no correlation between a person’s grammar and their intelligence, abilities, or value. We all have our strengths. If somebody can’t figure out apostrophes, it doesn’t mean they don’t have great stuff to say! It just makes us look pretentious when we have to point out mistakes.

Also, if you’re the linguist you fancy yourself, then you realize that language is constantly evolving, and the “rules” are arbitrarily, unintentionally chosen by people with social status and power. There are many different dialects of English, and none of them are objectively better than another.

Please don’t expect me to follow you down the grammar nazi path. And don’t think that because I’m a teacher, I’m judging your grammar. I’ve been there, and it’s not for me anymore. These days, I focus on being a “word nerd” anyway. It’s much more fun.

 

*I’m aware that it’s controversial to use the word “nazi” lightly. I debated in my head, and decided to stick with it. I’ve heard many people own the term “grammar nazi” proudly, and I find it fitting with the elitist, intolerant attitude that it tends to accompany.

A Lil’ Bit o’ Woo-Woo

I don’t have a lot of enemies. There’s a very small number of people I’d prefer to never see again, but I still generally wish them well in that generic, goodwill-to-fellow-humans sort of a way. I don’t think I could bring myself to shake hands with Donald Trump, but that just seems like good sense.

However, I have one enemy that’s gone too far, too many times. One enemy that I’d like to destroy, take completely off the gameboard. Because they have it coming.

Mercury. The planet, not the chemical element. (Although it can poison you, so maybe it’s best to avoid M/mercury in all its forms.) Mercury’s out to get me, and probably you too;  its power shouldn’t be underestimated.

everystockphoto-nasa-space-54908-l
Thanks for the diagram, NASA!

I’ve never considered myself a believe in the woo-woo. Horoscopes are for fun, a laugh, a conversation starter, a thought provoker. Psychics are for people who have nothing better to spend money on, and/or nowhere else to turn for answers. But…

I used to work with somebody who, when life wasn’t going well, would say, “Mercury must be in retrograde.” I didn’t know what that meant. As far as I was concerned, it was just one of her quirks, and I gave it no further thought.

Apparently, even though I didn’t know what it meant, I accidentally learned to recognize situations where you’re supposed to blame Mercury. Last May, I had a couple days where the something-went-wrong moments seemed to be stacking up unusually fast. I couldn’t understand why the universe was suddenly working against me. In frustration, I heard myself channeling my colleague and moaning “Mercury must be in retrograde…”

Curiosity stirred, I wondered how you really know if Mercury’s in retrograde. So google introduced me to ismercuryinretrograde.com, where I discovered that the answer was YES, Mercury really was in retrograde! Further research confirmed that it had begun retrograde the day before–I so called it!  I also learned that during retrograde, you can expect lots of problems with communication–misunderstandings, failures to follow through, etc–and also problems with technology. All accurate.

I laughed about the coincidence of it all. Things kept going as Mercury predicted… But it was late May, and I’m a teacher. May and June are always rough.

September came, and the school year started strong. My kids were great, and so were my colleagues. I was excited about the year. Couple weeks in, there was a sudden turn south. None of “the things” were working, and I felt like I was constantly throwing my arms in the air in frustration. I looked back at the last couple days and decided, “September 17. That’s the day the world fell apart.” Then I looked it up, and sure enough, Mercury had gone into retrograde on Sep. 17.

Now it’s 2016, and the year started off rough. When I spilled water from an oops-I-guess-that-wasn’t-empty-after-all cup onto my laptop, I had the fleeting thought, “We aren’t starting another spell of Mercury again already, are we? Does it even happen this frequently?” I pushed it out of my mind, but the next few days continued to be a battle between me and the universe, nothing working out like it should. A few days later, when my work laptop completely stopped working for no reason at all, I decided it was time to look up the question again….  January 5, the day that I killed my personal computer and first had the thought, Mercury did indeed begin another round of retrograde.

Screen shot 2016-01-16 at 4.11.54 PM
http://www.astrologyzone.com/forecasts/mercury.html

That’s three consecutive Mercury-in-retrogrades that I’ve accurately predicted, within a day of it starting! I don’t want to be the person who believes the woo-woo, but sometimes you have to deal with what’s staring you in the face.

Mercury’s a problem. It has way too much power, and we all know how unchecked power corrupts. It needs to be stopped.

And it’s an election year! Why aren’t the candidates talking about this? We’re so busy defending ourselves against Central American children and Syrian refugees, that we’re not paying any attention to the real threat to international security. I say it’s time to set aside our differences and unite as fellow citizens of Earth. Nothing to bring people together like a common enemy, right? We need a commander-in-chief that will take a firm stance against Mercury, show it we won’t be pushed around like this. Now, if the candidate who will support this plan could please step forward…

Until then, hang in there. This round of Mercury’s retrograde is due to end January 25. We’re almost there.

The Mom On The Max

One time I was sitting near a young mom and her little girl on the Max (Portland’s light rail system). The daughter was probably 5ish years old, and her curious eyes were taking me in.

“Why does she have that chair?” she asked her mom.

“I don’t know, let’s ask her….” She turned to me, “Is it ok if she asks you a question?”

“Sure!”

The daughter asked, I answered, and we had a short, pleasant enough conversation.

As we were settling back into silence, the girl’s eyes still hadn’t left me. A few beats passed, and the mom told her, “Ok, now you’re staring, and it’s not polite to stare at people.” She redirected her attention elsewhere.

This might all sound like the most simple, commonplace interaction… And it was pretty simple, but definitely not common! I was so impressed with this young mom’s parenting skills, I went ahead and told her, “You’re doing such a good job as a mom! You just taught your daughter to talk to people, not about them. You taught her that it’s ok to ask questions, but not ok to stare…. I wish more people would teach their kids these things.”

I’m sharing this story because after this post, I got a few comments from moms asking for my opinions about what to do, or not do, with curious children.

FullSizeRender
My niece and nephew love wheelchair driving lessons… 😉

Please don’t teach your child that disability is something to be afraid of, too horrible to talk about. Don’t shush them, or drag them quickly away from me. And when possible, avoid making up answers about me. I liked how this mom asked my permission, acknowledging that I don’t have to answer and don’t owe anybody any information, then directed the questions to me. While different people you encounter are going to have different levels of willingness to engage with your kid, I assure you that your child is nowhere near the first to ask them about their disability. We’re all extremely used to it and have well rehearsed responses.

Please be aware of the difference between a comment that is observing, and a comment that is insulting. “Look, mommy, that lady has a wheelchair.” They’re just taking in the world around them, as kids do. I’ll probably smile, and I hope I’ll hear you say something like, “Yes, she does. It looks like it helps her get around.” Then either move on, or direct further conversation to me, not about me.

“Look, mommy, that lady looks weird.” Ok, that’s rude, and you’re the parent, so it’s your job to teach your kid manners. Please don’t make me do it for you. But also, again, please don’t make disability scary. In these moments, I hope to hear something like, “That’s not a nice thing to say, and I don’t agree. She just moves around the world in a different way than you and I do. Isn’t it cool how people are all different? The world would be so boring if we were all the same.”

If you’d like some bonus points, after your child has started a conversation and I’ve answered some of her questions, you can talk to me the same way you would anybody else. Make some small talk. Introduce yourself, ask my name, how I’m liking this weather, what I do, tell me you love my hair. (Because, you do love my hair. You can’t help it.:)) We don’t need to stretch this out into a huge conversation, because we’d both probably like to move on with our day. But since we’ve already taken a moment to show your child that differences are ok, it’s nice to also show them that I’m not that different. We probably also have things in common.

Please teach your child not to stare. I know that kids do this naturally, but it makes me really uncomfortable, and when an adult is right there and doing nothing to teach them better, I get irritated. If they aren’t taught, then they’ll continue doing it as they get older, and aren’t so forgivably cute anymore.

One more anecdote…

I have a friend who checks in with me sometimes after her daughter’s asked a disability question, to compare notes about how she handled it. A while ago, she told me that her daughter had been asking about me, and then asked, “Does it make her sad? That she has to use a wheelchair?”

I wasn’t present for the conversation, but I wish I would have been. The question melted my heart a bit, and I’d have loved to give her a very honest answer. “Sometimes. Sometimes it makes me sad, and sometimes it makes me angry, and sometimes it makes me feel lonely, like nobody understands. Some days are hard. But most of the time, no, I’m not sad. Most of the time I’m busy doing things I love with people that I love, and that makes me happy. My wheelchair makes me different, and different is cool. My wheelchair makes me who I am, and I’m happy with who I am… Plus, it’s fun when I get to drive it really fast!”

273867675_9ac10009aa_o
Because neurodiversity.
Photo Credit: Nata Luna via Compfight cc

The little girl who asked the “does it make her sad” question has autism. People think that autism means you can’t connect with other people, that you can’t understand emotions or have empathy. But clearly, people are wrong.

Playing Patient, Playing Doctor

The best part of the holidays, no contest, was holding this little cutie…

IMG_5512
My nephew learned that crying in the doctor’s office gets you a teddy bear.

…and playing with this crazy girl…

FullSizeRender
My niece thinks putting on Grandma’s shoes, then kicking them off, is HILARIOUS…. She’s right.

There’s nothing better in life. But when they both were ringing in the new year with coughs and fevers, and my own throat was starting to get scratchy, I knew perfectly well that I was going to be full-blown sick just in time for work to start again.

Every year I reaffirm my belief that the worst time to be a teacher is when you’re sick.

Taking sick days shouldn’t be sooooooo much work, but it just is. I spend those days envying people who can let the work pile up on their desk, and deal with it when they return. My classes have to go on, which means providing the substitute with plans for the day. And writing those plans inevitably takes twice as long as I think it will. I can almost never stick with what I was planning to do myself with the kids, because I want things taught a certain way; or the teaching builds on all this background the kids and I have but the sub doesn’t; or I was going to utilize some sort of technology that the sub wouldn’t have experience with/access to; or yadda yadda. I have to come up with something that can be done by a guest teacher, something that’s meaningful enough that the time isn’t wasted, but something that won’t make me crazy if it isn’t taught/managed the way I wanted… (If you tell me, “Just show a movie, the kids won’t mind,” I’ll smile… but that smile is covering all the hate rays my eyes are sending in your direction.)

I did manage to come up with a winning sick day scenario this time. The kids wrote New Years reflections. It was low-prep, easy for me and the sub, and I learned some really cool things about some of my kids from their writing. Always good for relationship building…

But after one weekend, one snow day, and one sick day, I was back at work. Because once I’m 85% better, it’s not worth all the extra work to stay home. And then I never get the last 15% better, because I can’t slow down. It’s great.

IMG_5550
Always buy the tissue with lotion. Anything else should be illegal.

I don’t get much time in my life to play patient, but I never anticipated how much time I’d spend playing doctor. I didn’t go to med school. I’m not a mom. They didn’t tell me in teacher school that I’d be playing doctor for the rest of my life.

Obviously we have a health room in the office and procedures for “real” health needs. It’s the minor ailments that I have to solve. I can’t tell you how often a kid comes up to me with something like, “my head hurts,” and then looks at me expectantly. “Do you want to lie down for a little while in the health room?” They say no, but keep standing there and looking at me like I should do something. Like I’m supposed to fix it.

I can’t just share my Ibuprofen. Fortunately, I’m an amazing doctor, and I know exactly what to do. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, this is the solution…

  1. Make a sympathetic face.
  2. Make sure they’ve eaten somewhat recently.
  3. Tell them to get a drink of water, and let me know later how they’re doing.

Aren’t they lucky to have my medical expertise? And my classroom’s magical drinking fountain? Got a stomachache? Drink some water. Your side hurts? Drink some water. There’s already a band-aid on your cut finger but it still hurts? Drink some water.

Actually, the last one’s no true. I have a different procedure for owies…. You know how with little kids, you can kiss it better? The same thing, basically, works with middle school kids. I say, “Do you want me to kiss it better?” And they say, “Ew!! No!” Magically, the complaining stops. All better!

Why do people spend so much time and money in medical school? Doctoring isn’t that hard. I’m a natural.

(*Disclaimer: Of course I keep an eye on the kids and take serious stuff seriously! But most of the time, after they get their drink of water, they get busy and distracted and forget they ever had a complaint.)