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.

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.

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, 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

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?”


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.

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!”

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…

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

…and playing with this crazy girl…

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.

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.)

Disability Isn’t Voldemort

“So, the chair… can I ask?”

“So how long have you….?”

“So what exactly is your… you know….?”

“So… never mind.”

Oh my goodness, people, use your words!! This happens all the time. People want to ask me about my disability, but they can’t find the words to do it, so they string together a few generic question words, and then look at me expectantly, like I should fill in the blanks. Really? You want me to ask the question and answer it?

Nope. Not doing it. I’ll answer your question (and if I don’t want to share something, I promise to turn you down very politely), but you need to ask it yourself. I’m not doing all the work.

It’s crazy to me, watching otherwise intelligent, articulate people lose their ability to express themselves when it comes to disability. They’re thinking about it, they’re curious about it, but they don’t have the words to talk about it. They let disability become Voldemort.


(As I typed that, I had this flash of familiarity, like I’ve heard that idea somewhere and it didn’t actually come from my own head… So I googled, and sure enough, I saw it a while ago in this entry on the fabulous Mary Evelyn’s blog.)

Remember how everybody was so scared of Voldemort, that they couldn’t even say his name? I don’t appreciate when you approach my disability with Voldemort-level of fear. It’s not an unmentionable that-which-shall-not-be-named. As I say to my students when it comes up, “Disability isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing.” Value-neutral.

Photo Credit: Lisa West Photography via Compfight cc
disability symbol
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I get that these people are just trying to avoid saying something offensive. But instead, they’re not saying anything at all. Please, say something! Pick a word and use it! If you use a word that rubs me the wrong way, I’ll probably say something, and I’ll say it with a smile. That isn’t me being offended; that’s me offering you a gift of trust. I’m trusting you enough to share a piece of myself, what I think and why I think it, and trusting that you’ll care. A conversation will happen, and we’ll understand each other better. And all of that is so much better than not saying anything!

For the record, I consider silly euphemisms like “differently abled” or “handicapable” to be the equivalent of calling Voldemort “You-Know-Who.” You aren’t saying what you mean; those words don’t really mean anything. My body isn’t able to do all the things, and that’s ok, so please be ok with it. When you twist language around to make sure you’re emphasizing what I can do, it just sounds like you’re uncomfortable with what I can’t.

Harry wasn’t afraid to say Voldemort’s name. And when he did, Voldemort lost a little bit of his power. Harry’s ability to name what scared him, gave him the ability to deal with it. He could move past the cowering fear and seek out the tools and support he’d need to face Voldemort head-on.

A student once asked, loud and proudly, “Can you put some music on while we work? I have ADHD, and music helps me focus.”

He was speaking my language! (Yes, I turned some music on.) I loved that he was able to articulate his needs, the reason for his needs, and a strategy that helps. I wish more of my kids knew how to do that.

Conversely, I’ve listened to other professionals discussing a particular kid, calling him lazy, lethargic, shy, stubborn, etc. When I suggested a particular disability that I thought he may have and that I thought should be looked into, I’d get lectured about the danger of labeling kids. What? Calling a kid lazy and stubborn isn’t labeling them? I felt like the only person at the table suggesting a non-offensive label.

Choose Your Own Label!
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The fact is, we all go through life with tons of labels slapped on us. There’s no avoiding it. Imagine the kid who wanted to listen to music–what if instead of “ADHD,” the labels he’d internalized were “bad kid,” “always in trouble,” “stupid,” “hopeless”? Nobody would have to actually say these words to kids; they’ll internalize them anyway if they aren’t given a better explanation for the unique ways their minds and bodies work. In my experience, the kids who are most successful, are also the most self-aware. They know their own strengths, challenges, and tools/techniques/resources that help them. If that includes disability, they can speak intelligently about it. (For the skeptics, I’m not suggesting that we give kids an excuse. Disability isn’t about making excuses. It’s about having the information to personalize their road map to success, however that might be defined.)

My point is, disability words aren’t bad words. They’re descriptive words. They can be empowering words. I give you permission to use them!

2015: Things I Heard The Kids Saying This Year

I teach ESL, or ELD, or ELL, or whatever we’re calling it these days. (That’s only the beginning of the acronym options, but I won’t bore you.) Call it what you will, my job is to teach English to kids whose first language is something other than English.

But sometimes, I get the process backwards, and I let the kids teach me the latest English. Then I can turn around and teach my own friends “what the kids are saying these days,” and we can all shake our heads and bemoan the fate of the English language like the bitter geriatrics we aspire to one day become.

So that you too can play grandma and roll your eyes at the next generation, I bring you 2015’s edition of the maybe-it-will-become-annual-but-no-promises list of Things I Heard The Kids Saying This Year.

1. twenty-one

Not an Adele reference. While I don’t plan to do the entire list in any order, it feels like the number one spot should be significant, and I seriously debated between this and the next one for which is the most annoying…. But twenty-one wins because I find it both annoying and mean.

It comes from a Vine, which I won’t link to, of somebody (presumably a teenager?) calling a little kid dumb for not being able to do math. They ask him to solve 9+10, and the kid answers “21…?”

Ever since this mean-spirited video went viral, the kids have thought it’s hilarious to say twenty-one in their whiniest, most drawn-out voice. I dread moments when I have to tell them to open a book to page 21, or answer problem 21, or anything with the number 21, because I’m guaranteed a nasally chorus of twenty-one‘s, giggles, chuckles, snickers, and snorts. Worse, there’s always one or two kids that will say it in response to any number they hear, doesn’t even have to be 21. They’ll still decide it’s an opportunity to release their comedic gold on the rest of us…

2. bruh

The etymology of this one is clear–bro turned into bruh, and occasionally breh. But the definition? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t really mean anything. It may or may not be used like bro, to refer to your buddy. But mostly, it seems to be used when you don’t feel like saying anything else. “How did you feel about that math test?” “Bruh.”

Yeah, I don’t know.

3. what are those

Soooooo ready for this one to die already… I believe it also comes from a Vine or video or something that I haven’t seen. I don’t need to see it; I already know how it goes. Person A points to Person B’s shoes, and yells, “WHAT ARE THOSE?!” I’m told the correct response is “BETTER THAN YOURS!” (Remember that, guys. Knowledge is power.) I have no idea why everyone’s running around making fun of everyone else’s shoes. But they seem to do it indiscriminately, whether or not the other person is actually wearing cool shoes, so the meanness factor seems low. It’s just annoying. Especially since I can no longer simply inquire about the identity of objects by asking, “What are those?”

4. goals

I discovered this one last spring, when we were reading a novel in class that the kids were super into. (The Unhappening of Genesis Lee) Any time the main character and her love interest (note: it’s not a love story, but it includes a love story) had any semblance of a cute moment together, the girls in class would squeal and yell, “Goals! Goals! That’s goals right there!” I eventually learned that was actually part of a sub-category known as relationship goals. There are also squad goals if you see a group of friends being cool, the way you wish you and your friends could be. I’m sure there are other classifications of goals too.

I think goals originated as an Instagram hashtag. Maybe? I don’t hate this one, though. I feel like it has its uses. I think it’s slipped out of my mouth “ironically” a time or two, which means it’s only a matter of time until I’m saying it sincerely.

5. on fleek

I feel like this one’s already gotten a lot of attention in the general knowledge bank, but it still seems like the strangest phenomenon. If it were just the newest way to tell somebody they’re on point, looking good, then fine, whatever. But on fleek is limited to complimenting somebody’s eyebrows. What? How did “nice eyebrows” merit its very own adjective??

My prediction: one of two things is going to happen. On fleek is going to die out quickly, buried in the time capsule of 2015 trivia. Or its definition is going to expand to a more general way to compliment somebody’s appearance, so shoes, lipstick, and haircuts will also have a shot at being on fleek.

6. bae

I feel like this one’s been around for a little longer than a year, but whatever, I’m including it on my list. Because I hate it. For those who haven’t been paying attention, bae is the new word for “babe.” Personally, I’ve never even liked the word “babe.” I can’t even really defend my distaste for it, but I’ll never use it. So now that’s been further cutesy-fied into bae? Ugh. No.

7. though

At first, it really bothered me that though had become a slang term. (And the way the kids spell it doe still bothers me! Say no to the female deer!) Basically, it’s become a way to comment on something, without actually formulating a comment. And it seems to be tonally based. Depending on my tone, “that shirt though” could mean that I love or hate your shirt. It seems lazy. Sentences no longer need a verb or adjective to be descriptive. All you need is a noun and though. But I have to admit… I’m getting sucked into this one. I’ve definitely been known to coo over baby photos, “Those cheeks though…” I won’t admit to times I’ve used it in less kind contexts…

8. wrecked

The internet tells me it’s spelled rekt, but… really? I’ve only heard this one from boys so far, and the best I can tell, getting wrecked means something bad happened? I guess I need more data.

9. pause

My new least favorite. Pause has just popped up lately, and seems to be the new “that’s what she said.” I don’t know where it came from, but using context clues and my middle school brain, I’m feeling pretty confident that I understand the usage. When a kid starts using it in my class, I just innocently ask if they’d like to explain the term to myself or any other staff members. They decline, and immediately quit using the word. Problem solved.

Special Snowflake Delusions

First and last sentences (and paragraphs?) are my least favorite part. “They” say they’re the most important–grab the reader’s attention right away, and leave them with something to think about. Me, I’d rather skip them all together. I can write middles for days, but beginnings and endings–ugh, do I have to? (Actually, I’m the same way conversationally. I love talking with people! But I’m terrible at beginning or ending the conversation.)

Now that I’m awkwardly in my second paragraph, welcome to my “new thing” of 2016! In 2015, I had one resolution, and one “new thing.” The resolution was an utter failure, but the new thing stuck around and keeps making me all kinds of happy. Back in 2013, I learned that I actually am capable of keeping a resolution, if there’s public accountability. So in 2016, I’m starting a “new thing” with public accountability, which feels like a formula for success.

I think that says 2016… Try squinting a little.
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I never write anymore, and I miss it immensely. Without writing things down, my thoughts just bounce around haphazardly in my head and grow into unrecognizable globs of mush. Friends have been telling me for ages that I should start a blog. While it’s flattering that they believe my words are worth sharing, and I’m a sucker for flattery, two things have been holding me back…

One, I don’t know if I can keep this going consistently. (Guess we’re going to find out!)

Two, I feel like it takes some degree of narcissism to start a blog… I recognize how ridiculous that feeling is, because I don’t see narcissism in any of my favorite bloggers. I love glimpsing into the lives and thoughts of “just people.” People are fascinating.

Nobody wants to be this guy… Although his beard game is strong, and would be welcomed here in Portland.
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But what makes me think that anyone would care what I have to say? Do I even have anything to say? What makes my voice unique? Those questions kept bringing me back to my three most obvious identifiers…

  • Wheelchair user
  • Middle school teacher (ESL)
  • Mormon (and a mostly liberal Mormon to boot)

None of those things are particularly unique by themselves. But together? How many people do you know that fit all three categories? I don’t think I’ve met any… (I’m not even sure whether I’d want to. Might hurt my special snowflake delusions.) So maybe that’s reason enough to add my voice to the internet.

Full disclosure, this isn’t really my first time at the blogging rodeo. I’m more of a born-again blogging virgin. I did the LiveJournal thing when it was cool. I did Blogger or Blogspot or whatever when everybody else did. (Never had a MySpace or a Xanga. I was a shy little blog-stalker in those days.) Those were all “friends only” ventures, though, visible exclusively to those I’d included on a private friends list, and it’s been a long time since then. This is my first time writing openly for the world to see.

It’s an odd mix of confidence (narcissism?) and vulnerability that we find in this bloggy space, isn’t it?

One thing that I remember from my days of secret blogging, is the oddly uneven ground it created for my friendships. People read my blog, had some idea what was happening in my life, and felt like they were keeping in touch with me. But I never heard from them! To those friends who know me in real life, I welcome you to this space, and I ask you, please, not to let this substitute for our friendship. Readers are awesome, but I need friends more than I need readers. Call me, beep me, if you wanna reach me!

kim possible
Yeah, you remember…
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The only thing I hate more than writing first and last sentences, is writing titles. I spent ages trying to come up with a blog name, and got nowhere. Any words or phrases that I tried to play with, felt like putting myself in a box. Yes, I’m inevitably going to write about disability, and teaching, and religion… But I’m not going to write about any of those personal identifiers all the time. I didn’t want a title that tied me to any one theme or tone. So, I finally broke it down to the only thing that I can count on remaining constant through the ups and downs and evolution of my blog and my person…

My name is Kristine.