Tuesday, January 2, 2018


My armpits are sweaty, ya'll. I just taught a hard class. In my juniors level methods class, we just watched the beautiful piece "Danger of Silence" by Clint Smith.

In this piece, Smith talks about all kinds of ways we silence ourselves and the price we pay for that silence. He talked about empowering students. He spoke poetically about unlocking his voice, about being an amplifier.

I should have known then that they were not ready for what I'd brought this day.

After a discussion, in which several students said that sometimes it's better to be polite than to speak out -- has ever a more privileged sentence been uttered? -- we read the blog post 10 Things White Teachers Should Know When Talking About Race. 

They were not having it. Ya'll. So many of them were not ready for this text.

My class of 20 white kids, all from various economic backgrounds, were uncomfortable. More than that, they were angry. More than that, they were offended. They took issue with the author's definition of racism. "You can't just change definitions," they said, pointing to the one on google dictionary that clearly states it's possible for black people to be racist. I could see their own experiences of being the subjects of bias and prejudice brimming behind their eyes. They all had a "well, one time..." story to share.

Folks. I am not sure I was the right teacher for this today. But I'm the one who showed up. So as they sat in groups of three, wrestling with the text and with each other, I hustled around the room, listening, trying to make my face void of judgement, trying to create a space where we can wrestle with these ideas together.

And then we ran out of time. Damnit. Why does that class go so fast?

At the end of class, I faced them and said, "Folks, we'll continue these conversations on Thursday. But remember that this is a space where we're learning together. Where we're going to have hard conversations and feel a little uncomfortable. And that's okay. Where sometimes we won't agree. And that's okay. But we're going to keep talking about these things."

I don't know if it's the right thing. But it's the next thing.

Friday, November 17, 2017

To Our Students, the Ones Who Matter The Most: A Reminder from Jason Reynolds

yes, I took a paparazzi photo
of Jason Reynolds. Wouldn't you?
Jason Reynolds has swagger. He's charming, handsome and charismatic. He has cool hair, nerdy-chic clothes, and an aloofness that's appealing (yes, I have a nerd crush. Get over it).

But what really stands out about Jason Reynolds is that he tells the truth.

During a round-table discussion at the Nerdy Book Club gathering during the NCTE Annual Conference, Jason spent 12 minutes talking to teachers (and four high school boys who were sitting at our table) about how to empower students. He was funny and smart. He talked about how important it is for teachers to connect with students and to tell the truth.

At the end of the 12 minutes, as Jason got up to move to the next round-table round, one of the high school boys leaned in. "Were you a good student?" he asked around a smile.

"Nope," Jason said; he didn't even hesitate. "Are you?"

"Nope." The kid laughed, a blush creeping across his face. "I feel like I'm a lot like you."

"I wasn't a good student. But I could have been," Jason stopped moving and looked right at the kid. "So I'm not going to let you off the hook. Because you can be great too." The young man nodded as Jason started to move away from our table. Jason continued: "Excellence is a habit."

And then he was gone, off to talk to the next set of teachers.

For the next 30 minutes I watched this young man track Jason around the huge ballroom. He leaned in to hear Jason's words when Jason was nearby. At one point, he covered one ear to block out the noise and he tilted his head to hear as much as he could from Reynolds. He soaked up his words.

At the end of the session, I watched Jason carve out space for these young men. As teachers lined up to meet Jason, he homed in on the kids, taking pictures, shaking their hands, making eye contact.

During our round table, Jason had issued a challenge to teachers. He reminded us to be humble, to find ways to connect with kids. He told us that his books are really thank you notes to kids, to all they bring to life. He nudged us to tell the truth and to really see our students.

And then he showed us how to do this. He told the truth. And in return, the kids in the room, the ones who matter the most, responded.

I'm so grateful to have witnessed this powerful transaction and to be reminded of why we teach. I'm tucking this moment into my teacher heart, to carry it back to our classrooms and to our students, to the ones who matter the most.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Go Play!

I banished the kids outside on Saturday. They'd been on their tablets for too long, faces stuck in Youtube. As soon as they unplugged, the complaining started.

Mom? I'm bored.
Mom? What should I do?
Mom? I don't know what to play.

I closed the sliding door in their face and told them, "Go. Play."

As I cleaned the kitchen, I happened to glance out the window into our backyard. My ten-year-old twins Jacob and Emma were lying in the hammock. With notebooks and pencils! They were talking and writing and talking some more.

Well, you know this English teacher mama was just so pleased. I imagined the stories they were creating. Probably making heart maps, right? Or maybe they were writing poems about the neighbor's dog, or, you know, Nature. Or maybe they were sketching, and then they were going to write about those sketches later.

I smiled to myself, so proud that getting them to unplug had led to this development. About 15 minutes later they migrated to the back porch. I headed out there with my book and peeked over Emma's shoulder to see what was in the notebook.

What I saw had me rolling my eyes.

It said: Ideas for U Tube Vids

Ugh. What?  That is it. We're getting rid of the tablets. I'm putting them into Luddite training. They are so addicted to those screens. 

While this internal rant was happening, I had an ear cocked to their conversation. Suddenly, I realized that my inner monologue needed to shut up and listen. Because they were being smart. Smarter than I gave them credit for.

"Oh, we should do one of those videos where we tell people they can ask us questions in the comments. Those are always funny," Emma said, adding it to her list in her notebook.

Jacob nodded, adding "But nothing too personal." He wrote the idea in his notebook too. They had a handful of possibilities on their list, many based on things they enjoyed watching.

On the next page, they were generating a list of the things they didn't like about Youtube. Here they were noting features of Youtube, and limitations that annoy them. They were doing such a close reading of Youtube as a genre, and that list was informing how they might make their own channel and generate content.

As I watched them write ideas in their notebooks I realized that this is what I hope for our writers, for the creators in our classrooms. My kids were immersed in mentor texts, considering audience and purpose and tone. They were making choices about form and content and purpose.

They were creating. On their own.

I was embarrassed to think about how my first instinct when watching them out of the window was to ascribe to them the kind of writing I like to do, the writing I'm good at. I was disappointed that I'd been so quick to dismiss their ideas when I first heard them talking.

I realized too that my kids first chafed at the idea of having to figure something out on their own. They wanted me to give them the answers, to direct their thinking. But what they ended coming up with was so much more genuine and engaging than anything I could have thought of.

And as I reflected on my reactions as a parent, I shifted to think about myself as a teacher. How often do I do this in my own classrooms?

As I move into a new school year, this is my goal. I'm a literacy coach now and in this role I'm supporting other teachers reflect and plan and grow. I want to get students doing more of this in our classrooms, not just in backyards and playgrounds and maker-spaces. I want to give kids time to mess around. To think about the world they live in and consider ways in which they can contribute to the conversations they're already a part of. I want students to make choices about topics, about genre, about craft, about delivery. I want to empower them to see themselves not just as consumers, but also creators.

And then I want us to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Love Letter to OWP

I'm sitting in my soon-to-be-someone-else's office today working while my 10-year old twins are at Youth Writing Camp. That feels like a full-circle kind of thing, since I started working at the Ohio Writing Project right after those big kids were born, when I needed still to be connected to education.

And so I came home, back to the place where I learned how to be a teacher. To the place where really, I grew up. To where I learned to see myself as an Educator, a Writer, a Collaborator, a Researcher. Back to the place that taught me to take risks, and honored my voice and path.

I came back to OWP. And now, as I take a step away from my role here to try something new, I can't help but think of all the ways this house has built me.

OWP: Where We're From

We are from the first day of class, pulling desks into U-shapes,
making name tags and introductions,
pulling out Writer's Notebooks, waiting to be filled.

We are from writing beside students, reading with them,
making our learning visible,
unpacking what we do every step of the way.

We are from exit slips and one-word notecards,
from Heart Maps and quickwrites,
from finding our querencia and taking Writer's Dates.

We are from Mary Fuller and Max Morenberg,
visionaries, lighthouses, nudgers,
whose long gone voices I hear echoing through us all.

We are from the teachers who led the way --
Romano and Daiker, Holly and Jean,
Linda and Beth and Helane,
We are from Monica: the heartbeat of it all.

We are from Anderson and Kittle,
from Marchetti and Heard,
Lyon, Lane and Glover.
From Fletcher and Wilhelm,
all who came to our home, filling our toolboxes.

We are from
skype chats and twitter chats,
a library brimming with resources
with too many authors to list,
whose shoulders are broad and strong.

We are from the words on the page,
the whispers in the conferences,
the digital posts and the post-it notes.
We are from notes after every single presentation,
slips of treasure.

We are from mentor texts, grammar lessons,
and too many ideas to ever actually implement.
We are from reflection, and action research ,
from "yeah-buts" and "you should write about that".

We are from summers spent driving the long roads to Oxford,
and walks to the Duck Pond.
We are from Bachelor Hall and the VOA,
from weekend workshops and Saturday treasures.
We are from classrooms and listservs,
and tweets and hugs.

We are from being teachers,
to teachers who write,
to writers who teach.

* with many thanks to George Ella Lyon, one of my first writing mentors,
in a looooooong line of mentors I've met since 2001.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Grandma Wolford

Marge and Justin
My Grandma Wolford passed away this morning. She was 92, and lived a wonderful life, so it's an odd mixture of sadness and pain for my dad, but relief for Grandma that I feel this morning.

She was a force of nature, that Marge. She had lots of opinions and wasn't quiet about them. She was also quite charming and loved to meet new people.

Marge loved to sing and would hum the tune of anything, even the pop songs on the radio. She loved my Grandpa Justin for her whole life. Their picture still hangs on the wall of her room at the Judson Palmer home and that is how they'll look in my memory for the rest of my life. When they were young Grandma loved to go dancing and I have always loved those pictures of them cutting a rug.

Grandma Marge, Uncle Arthur, Aunt Patty
Grandma grew up in the country with her Norwegian mom, farmer dad and her two sisters and brother. When the surviving siblings and all of their off-spring are in a room together, the memories of life on a farm flow. It was a different time and it always reminds me how important it is to preserve those memories.

My favorite memories of Grandma involve swimming at her house. She and my grandpa had an awesome pool, screened in, with a slide and a volleyball net. We spent most of our early childhood swimming at that house. I learned how to swim there when my dad threw me in the deep end. Emily lost a tooth in the shallow end. We'd watch Uncle Kevin and his friends in awe as they played volleyball and were just cool.

Grandma was never a very good gift-giver (one year I got shoelaces. Another Bible stories on VHS...even though we didn't have a VCR yet). But when our baby sister Katie was born, she took Emily and I to the mall and let us pick out Cabbage Patch dolls. She also let us get our ears pierced and it was one of the most special days of my 10-year-old life.

Grandma always had a collection of books for us to read (both my grandmothers were awesome at this). She ordered the Sweet Pickles series to keep at her house and we wore those books out. There was a wooden bookshelf in the guest room and that was always the first place I would go when we visited.

Grandma also loved to read, the steamier the romance novel, the better. I remember driving to Florida with her one year when I was 12 and she had a huge bag of books in the backseat. I began to pilfer her stash and I think I might have become a woman on that trip. I definitely learned some things about heaving bosoms and ripping bodices from Grandma's stash of books.

My Aunt Tari was with Grandma when it happened. My hometown's hospital plays a lullaby chime every time a baby is born and within a few minutes of Marge slipping away, Tari heard the lullaby: a reminder of the cycle of life, in all its pain and beauty and fullness. 

I can picture Marge right now, humming that lullaby and finally dancing with Grandpa Justin.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Taking a Walk With a Sea Lion

A sea lion followed me this morning.
Or maybe I followed him.
We traveled parallel paths,
him playing in the waves,
me dipping my toes in the surf.
We moved together for half a mile,
maybe more.

I first saw him lying in the sand,
ahead of me,
as if maybe he was waiting.
As I got closer,
he scooched back into the ocean,
where he belonged.

I'm also scooching home,
back where I belong.

But, first, I'll take a walk with a sea lion.

Friday, March 31, 2017

3.31.17 #sol17

No rooms at the inns,
Still miles to go.
How did we not make a reservation?

We stock up on Mt. Dew,
Put the kids to bed in the van.
We decide to drive through the night.

We'll end the trip how we started,
At 3 am.
Yawning, cramped necks, but grateful.

So I blog on my phone (it's the last day! I can't miss!)
Then I'll get some sleep,
Readying for my shift in the drivers seat.

And tomorrow, maybe, I'll write about the adventure.