People of Clay

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My next door neighbor is a clay, tile and pipe cleaner artist and one of my writing desk windows looks out to his backyard filled with bushes, trees and life size sculptures.  In June Ted Fullwood participated in our neighborhood open studio.  I had been looking at this 3 foot tall cookie cutter man, a piece unlike anything else Ted has done.  I bought it and placed “Henry” as Ted dubbed in my backyard by the garden.  He has overseen the chrysanthemums blooming out and the heritage tomato produce masterpieces.

I have been puzzled by the magnetic quality of this piece, a bit surprised I bought a clay sculpture. I finally realized I like to draw a gesture style outlined person as the simplest of cartoons, like a moveable gingerbread man shape.

Sunday was the monthly writing group, No Bad Sundays, and, thinking about it on Saturday, I knew what I want to explore.  I voice recorded a memo to the effect that I want to make a graphic novel that is memoir, except that the main character will be this clay shape kind of drawing, very simplistic and fluid.  And what is most important will be writing and drawing without reference to gender, race, age, nationality…possibly not time references…even though I am drawing on events, some poignant, from my own checkered history.  If the reader begins to suspect, or figure out it is me, that’s fine.

I drew a quick sketch in the group on Sunday and then wrote the memory for half and hour.  I learned, as I read it aloud that I’ll need to draw, write, and then draw more frequently because a who chunk of memory poured out and, while it bore the pain and loneliness of those events, it was confusing to my listeners when I read it aloud.

Then a clay artist who writes talked to me after and suggested I used one of those wood armatures to sketch my clay person in various poses, which I thought about as I drove home.  Then the idea came to make a cookie cutter shaped person of fabric and cover the wooden armature, so that I can get fluent with this character in sketches.  A flat thing has to look like it is bending and moving in 3-D.

Writing without reference to gender was difficult, yet I think it necessary.  I want the reader to co-create the character fully with me.  And, the drawing acts as kind of a mask, a safe place to write from, as some of my experience, like every one of us, includes some suffering and some novel twists and turns.

So, here I am writing about writing.  And, this idea is taking hold, maybe because it has come out of the roots of some time in the making.  I know that a blog is not the format for this work.  I will continue to post something here, at least on Tuesdays.  Mini-stories from school and slices of my life as an interventionist.




My Proclamation

I am fired up! So I am going to write it and not think twice when I hit publish!!!

I have felt the tightening in my stomach during the staff breakfast pot lucks, as I scooted about the school, feeling too new and as if I still had not yet penetrated the walls to be able to join in the merry conversation and sweet treats of a shared breakfast. But I did not let that stop me and I kept my presence in the school, smiling and saying hello to everyone.

I have had teachers tell me that they learned nothing from the time we spent together (five days). Time spent planning lessons, time spent debriefing, time spent observing, time spent reflecting and it had all come to nothing, according to these individuals. But instead of calling it quits and burying my head in the dirt, I woke up the next day, apologized to the teacher and asked if for the following month they could sign up for another coaching cycle so that I could try again to support their work.

I have had days when everything went wrong: I left realia at home and this realia was a crucial piece of my demo lesson. I didn’t bring a spoon so that I could enjoy my yogurt. I didn’t have time to plan my debrief, so I walked empty handed into a lion’s den. I deleted a key email and now I didn’t have a template that I promised to give a teacher. I wore the wrong shoes and my feet squished and compressed, are screaming. I couldn’t find the right handout for the PD session and then went 10 minutes over the time. But instead of seeking employment at an Oreo factory and fulfilling my dream, I stuffed a bag of realia in my trunk along with a pair of kicks, set a pad of large post it notes on my clipboard, and shoved a box of plastic cutlery into my desk drawer. I relived that day and made a decision that I would not let awful days ruin my spirit. That I would decide when my day would be bad and that I would not let it fade my smile.

I refuse to let others tamper with my desire to better education. I will not succumb to petty trifles as forgetting objects or not having enough handouts. My work is much more important than that. I am relentless and this perseverance matters much more than talent or intelligence. Because this ensures that I will not stay down. I will not let anyone or anything keep me from the things that I know are right and good for children. My effort matters more than anything because it is what will make me a better person, a brighter person prepared for anything, and a person to fear because I…will not…stop!

This Morning

It’s the second day of meetings and trainings at my school district.  It’s also day 2 of Whole 30 for me, a food cleanse.  I was out for my 2 mile walk-with-intermittent-moderate-running mixed in.  As I came up the side street near my house a neighbor was pulling up to intersection in her little blue VW bug.  Laura rolled down the window.

“Are you retired?” she asked. She’s a teacher, too, but at a different school district.  At first I was surprised, then I realized it was the likely explanation for me not being in my car, usually a bit earlier than her.

“Oh! No, I’m on my way to a training this morning.  Kids start next week.”

And we bid each other good luck.  And I was a teensy bit late for that training this morning which is very out of character for me.  I reset my departure time for tomorrow.

Year before last I engaged in the fantasy that I was retired, but was just showing up for my day gig because I value my work life.  “Yeah, how’s that working out for you?” my sarcastic friends and colleagues wanted to know.  I think it helped.  A lot.

Last year I didn’t have a master plan…except survive a new principal and try to have a life.

Well, this school year, as I really am closer to retirement, I think I have the mantra.  It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that

1) I’ll never be young and pretty again

2) nor will I be slim,but

3) I want to be fit.  That much I can do.

I think my tactic with school this year is to not buy into the numbing  and stay fit and alert.  Many of us teachers know the numbing with food, complaining, booze, etc. that we think helps us cope with the sheer exhaustion of teaching.

Yes, I have drawings on my desk and healthy reminders of vacation to prompt me to not obsess over my job.

So I am putting more energy into exercise expecting it to give back.  Wow, if I put my 10 minutes of meditating in there, too, without getting up at 3:00 a.m. I’d be cooking.  So far, except for moments of feeling a bit weak and shaky in the afternoon, I feel great eating whole foods and avoiding the processed flour, sugar, alcohol, etc. that’s on the NO list.  The yes list has so many things I really like.

So, no I’m not retired.  I’m not living like I’m retired.  I am working on fitness.  And showing up for those meetings and contributing where I can.


A Lesson from Childhood

Today served as a reminder of something I experienced when I was about ten years old.

My mother caved in to my longing for a cat. And one day soon after my birthday, in the heat of July temperatures that can easily hit 110, we drove to one of her friend’s homes. She led us to the backyard where there was a small storage shed. There, prancing and hopping beneath its cool shade was a group of little kittens. They chased and bit and pawed at each other. Bright eyes looking everywhere. I instantly knew which one I wanted. It was all white except for some spots of different shades of brown mixed with black. I would later learn that this type of cat was called a Calico. I took it home and my mom christened it Polkas.

A year later Polkas got really fat. It looked like she had swallowed a football. Her large, overblown stomach swung from side to side as she walked. I was too scared to touch her during those days, but still spent countless hours watching her lick the overgrown mass.

We were watching TV, cartoons shown in the afternoon, when we heard tiny screeches and little meows. We stared at each other, our open mouths revealing what we each knew was happening. Kittens! Polkas! We rushed to the sounds and found Polkas on my brother’s bed, pinkish blood staining his sheets as a wet kitten emerged. Polkas licked it vigorously and then lay her head down again. We watched. We said nothing. Life was coming into the world in front of us. Finally the last kitten came out, Polkas gave it three exhausted licks and lay down, closing her eyes, surrounded by that wet mass.

One month later, I came home from school and eagerly searched the floor of my room. I found Polkas and what remained of her brood beneath the rocking chair. It seemed that she could not find the best spot for her young family as each day I came home, I would find her in a different place. I examined the kittens from afar and saw the tiny black one laying at Polkas’ feet. It looked very weak. Each of the previous few days I had come home to find a dead kitten. One was dying every day and it looked as if this one might be next. Wanting to help, I gently moved it closer to Polkas’ belly. The tiny thing just raised its head and opened its mouth in an effort to meow, but no sound came out. I lifted its little head, but it did not go near the nipple. I tried to angle his mouth and put his face into the belly, but the kitten would not respond. Desperate, I shoved one of the other fatter kittens away. It meowed in protest and Polkas glared at me, but I didn’t care. This kitten was going to make it and I was going to do whatever it took to keep it alive. I held his head, practically shoving it into the nipple and did not let him go for quite some time. All I wanted was to help. To help keep this little life on Earth. Help. Help. Help.

The next day, as soon as I came home from school, I ran to my room. I found Polkas beneath my bed with three kittens. I slowly stood up and searched the rest of the room. The tiny black body was in a corner of the closet. Lifeless. Cold.

I learned a lot from this life lesson. A lot about life and a lot about me too. The way I coped with this pain was that I didn’t have another pet. Years later, my older brother gave me a kitten, again for my birthday. But, knowing what would eventually come, I let my other brother take care of it and it became his cat. This way I didn’t have to carry as much emotional pain when it got hit by a car and died during the night, alone in his cardboard home. I am not cold or emotionless, but sometimes it is just what has to be done.

We All Have a Shadow

Post WWII times found intellectuals and artists seeking to deepen their understanding of human nature to find ways to avert the devastation of another world war.  Carl Jung articulated a theory of archetypes and work in psychiatry since has confirmed that Jung’s understanding of human consciousness, of the mind and soul as peopled with various energies and intents, has proven true.  The main point he made is that everyone has a dark side.  Even Mother Theresa.  He was not promulgating the Western Christian idea of being basically hopelessly sinful, but bringing our view in line with what other civilizations recognized already.  We have a shadow.

So, as I write in my lime green journal, trying to find the thread of thinking that would make what I view as extreme cultural polarization in my country make sense, I’m wondering how to get the disaffected whites who are rapidly becoming the minority, the immorally super rich who live insulated from the effect of their extreme luxury on the rest of the citizenry, the angry black people who are asserting their lives matter more than my white trash life does, and the fundamentalists who don’t think deeply about what Trump is saying but like that someone is defying the status quo — how do I get these people into a real conversation, into hearing one another, and having some empathy?

The polarization has a great deal of heat in it. Why the passion of the liberal writer who mocks the right wingers?  Why the redneck defiance that would rather shut down the damn government than give in to the dehumanizing sell-off that has been accomplished economically on the watch of the past several administrations?

I revert to questions.  Why has our country been put on auction?  How did it happen with educated, prosperous people who supposedly didn’t want another world war?

I think that the Dunning Kreuger effect may play into some of my well-intentioned liberal sentiments:  there’s a high correlation between exuberent confidence with a lack of knowledge, with low cognitive ability.  We just think we’re great, think our system is good, when it isn’t at all.  If the right are pessimists, then we liberals are optimists.

Economically the USA is closer to feudalism than I’d really like to think.  The health care scam and the continual dehumanization of weaker groups are bits of evidence that democracy, as I learned it in school, is seriously broken. (Or never existed?)

A deeper question underneath this public display of inhumanity and disrespect toward any other person or people group who doesn’t agree with our politics, is how do our beliefs allow us to forget our humanity?  Just because another person’s position is “wrong” how do I get to be indecent in my speaking or actions? Hateful, shaming and hurtful, even?

I’m really concerned for the co-opting and squashing of voices that are not going along with this polarized culture.  It is like reverse (inverse?) racism.  People who say “all lives matter” are publicly shamed and bow to the agenda, “black lives matter.”  Why?  Well because white people are privileged.  There is absolutely no historical mention or present understanding of the hardship that the poor white, the trash as it is acceptable to refer to them, have endured to survive. (Can you imagine referring to blacks as “trash” nowadays?)  Whites, Scots in particular, were enslaved before or at the moment of their arrival in this grand country.  If they lived beyond the Revolutionary War, legally they were freed.  But free to follow Boone into wilderness, or strike out onto the prairie to squat, but they did not have lives anyone by any stretch could call privilege.  Not for generations did some of these people do more than eek out an existence, enslaved by the Industrial Revolution and then spat out by the Dust Bowl and Depression.  And not only the Scots of course.  We don’t talk about the history of struggle we just look at the privilege they now enjoy.  Well, as a white woman who grew up poor, I have had a few breaks, but now I’m the enemy?  Really?  All races are being economically oppressed right now in the USA.  How dare we divide and call each other the damned?

What we can’t talk about is the oppressiveness of immoral power in the hands of the super rich. This is economics of power, not race, people.   What we can’t do is realize that there are a raft of people groups — the majority who are not benefiting from modern corporate and governmental deals — and that we are really all in the same boat.

No, when we get our fundamental Christian system going in our head, then there are the damned. The liberals.  And the liberals vilify the conservatives in the Bible belt just the same.  All these citizens really believe, or fear, that they are surrounded with the damned.  Just my social group is saved.  Just my club.

We all think we are on the side of good.  And we’ve seen two public candidates trying to articulate an anger, a fed up-ness with this shiny, rich country which is not nurturing it’s people, but lurching off into feudalism at an appalling pace.  There are problems we don’t really want to hear about.  Well, not on the media, controlled by four corporate entities.

How does the position of being ultra wealthy lessen the moral weight of our responsibility?  How can people in the valley where I live own two million dollars worth of cars and not care that child poverty has grown rapidly in our county?  It is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, then, isn’t it?

Well, the poor are the damned in the minds of some.  Poverty is shaming.  Power is saving.  The dark side of the fundamentalists is a violent self-righteousness.  The dark side of liberalism is a doctrine of inclusion and diversity that promotes inverse racism. It is a do-gooding acquiescence to the “rigged” system because we have paychecks.

I am rather worried that the tone of much of our public life has become rude and egotistical.  I was shocked that at the Olympics last night one of “ours” insulted a Russian with name calling, who was clean and clear to participate.  The stupidity of the reporters who made hay of that little act of snobbery was the most appalling.  It was like a teenage girl. The anchor was  playing it up rather than ignoring it. That hints at a new wave of Russia hating that is not good.  And mainly really poor sportsmanship.  Like in the political campaigning being aired.  The whole idea of the Olympics was to bring together nations to compete in excellence and forget their historic grudges.

So, now there’s old people hating.  And hating white people whether they are rich or struggling to make ends meet in some hick town, and there’s hating the immigrants, even when many of the Latinos who get the heat are citizens…and fear.  There’s fear underlying this behavior.

Whatever group you identify with — I’m an educator watching my almost middle class status evaporate — watching my job be co-opted by huge testing companies and an over-developed administrative structure –and  I have to remember my dark side.  Teachers often do more shaming and harm to the creativity of growing children than we want to face.  Teacher unions back the wrong leaders and muddle the political machinery.  Teachers buy into the idea that our job is to create manpower for a corrupt business system — depersonalizing it by calling it the feared “global economy.”  Are we really creating a literate, thinking public?

Like other Americans, we just get tired and want to do our jobs efficiently and go home with something left over.  It is taxing and tiring to read deeply and think what the real issues are.

I still do not understand the cultural war in my country, which has been apparent for a generation now, at least.  I only have questions.  Why the heat?  Why the anger?  Why mock the voices of discontent?

We are not going to get big money out of politics with this polarization.  We are not even really going to talk about or face the issues of violence and economic immorality — the real problems with our nation — because we’ve got two sides who think they are perfect and living in the light.  Two sides spinning their wheels to go after the other, both believing they are saved and the other damned.  And that works fine for the big bosses and those who have sold our country down the river.  Nobody is going to notice what they are up to.





Quotes from PacLit16

Narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing.  ~ Thomas Newkirk

Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head. ~ Malcom Gladwell

You don’t make reading more rigorous by making it harder. Rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text (not in the text itself).  ~ Bob Probst

Reading requires an element of tentativeness…   ~ Bob Probst

Do writing to find writing.   ~ Don Murray

Tell me what surprised you.  ~ Kylene Beers

Nonfiction comes into our world and tells us a purported truth.  Fiction invites us intot he author’s world.    ~ Kylene Beers

We have to write — if we want kids to be excited about writing.    ~ Kwame Alexander

Notes – books

Some of my notes on the Hyatt pads from the PacLit16 conference are books to read, ones I meant to read and some I had not heard of but the commercial stuck.  Other notes are to myself for how to start up my Leveled Literacy teaching, at least with the elementary students.  I think the primary are a whole different ball game.

Culling through these notes I am posting the list of books I want to read…

Books:  Boys in the Boat, Shrill by Linda West, Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tora Bailey, And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engels, Far From the Truth by Andrew Solomon, Night John by Gary Paulsen, Played by Dana Davidson.

And, Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon   Every Last Word Tahara Ireland Stone (books for kids with OCD and anxiety disorders)

Winger, by Andrew Scott.

Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart – Jaw-droppingly beautiful book.

The War that Saved my Life Kimerly Brubaker Bradley

Maybe a Fox, Katwi Applet and Alison McGhee

The Serpent King Jeff Zentner  father in jail, boy and mother trying to make it on his own

Highly Illogical Behavior John Corey Whaley (Self-isolated boy.)

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway ~ historical fiction

From I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson “It’s okay to be addicted to beauty…”

Ordinary Grace, by William Ken Crewett

(well, that ought to keep me busy)



How to Live

A 3 minute quick write off a line from Charles Harper Webb (see title)

“stay strong and lean”

I forgot how to live as a dancer

the rigor of ballet and jazz

I forgot how to win a twist contest

with a sweet guy in eighth grade.

I forgot how to mark out the pillings

of a Scottish Country dance.

And I forgot the roll of a salsa rueda

Afro Cuban music and great calling.

For that matter, I forgot how to bounce

springing on my tippy-toes

As a toddler and well into elementary.

I forgot how.



Behold! The FIVE Paragraph Essay!

Beware readers that the following was a response written to a piece about the importance of teaching the five paragraph essay to students. This writer could not restrain herself from writing the essay below and hopes that you take it with the amusement that overcame her in writing it.

Have you ever thought about how badly students need structure in their writing? Well, I have and I am going to tell you about it. Students need instruction on how to write an essay and you need to teach them.

First of all, students never have anything to write about because they don’t do anything and they don’t ever think anything either. So you need to tell them what to write about. For example, the students only write about non academic topics such as skateboarding and friends. There is nothing there that is interesting or of higher level thinking, so assign them the topic. Giving assignments like finding the theme or main idea, is more academic. Furthermore, assigning them that topic is really going to help them so that the next time they have to write, that teacher will have to assign them the topic too, proving that students don’t have a brain of their own. This paragraph was all about students never having anything to write about.

Next, when students write, it is all out of order. It is messy and hard to read. As you know, English teachers know all about what makes good writing so if they can’t make sense of it, it is an utter failure. For example, when I write and don’t follow the five paragraph structure, it doesn’t make any sense and no one gets my point because I didn’t put it in the first paragraph. Also, students should not be writing if they don’t know what a paragraph is. I learned about a paragraph in third grade with colors. The colors were green, yellow and pink. If you had a lot of pink, it meant that you had a lot of details. I bet there is a lot of pink in this paragraph. This paragraph was all about students not having writing in the right order.

Last of all, students need to be taught how to write an essay because there is only one way to do it. We live in a five paragraph essay world where everything we read is in five paragraphs, with a catchy introduction and thesis statement in the first paragraph. If I don’t learn how to do this, I won’t be able to apply for college and I won’t do so good. Furthermore, English Learners have to learn this kind of writing and as you know their writing is awful and really hard to read because of all the spelling mistakes. If you teach them how to organize it with this five paragraph model, it will be a little bit better. They might not be thinking of other ways to organize the writing that might be more interesting, but they shouldn’t be thinking anyway. Students need to be taught how to write a five paragraph essay to get to college.

All in all, I love the five paragraph essay, don’t you? Some of you might be thinking that there are other ways to write, but you need to remember, students can’t pick their own topics, their writing is messy and there’s only one way to write an essay. The next time you are assigned an essay, think about the five paragraph model.

Message on My Mind

Response to Chapter 5, Writing Without Teachers

Walking 4.2 miles with my girlfriend in Westgate Shopping Center one night last week was exercise with the benefit of air conditioning and fun talk. She’s one of those friends Elbow refers to — “that’s why it’s so magical when you have a friend who actually understands much of what you are trying to say. It makes you want to say things you never thought you had in you.” [pg 122] We really do get each other. And we were laughing and talking up a storm, in our typical style with five or six open incomplete threads, sentences that would be picked up after other anecdotes or comments.

For me, this was an art tour of the high-end handbags in various name brand stores, partly because my friend had just attended a graduation where her ex was invited. For some reason, her way of making him “eat his heart out” was for her to be dressed super fashionably with all the right labels. I surmised he’d always required that kind of class of her. Now she was my docent.

My theme was trying to articulate why one purse got my attention or some repelled me. We were in yet another a store, both having agreed that the best handbag was an unusually textured Ives St. Laurent. My friend K. wanted to know the price, so an obliging saleswoman opened it and found a card.

My friend realized that, in my inattentiveness, I hadn’t gotten it. To help it register, she said “nine grand” in an aside with teeth in her words. Just to let me know. Which was maybe information for her, but I went on mute. Underwater, into the fog. Something I couldn’t articulate, and wouldn’t expect K. to understand. I could do some math: ten times less expensive would still be $900. Who would spend that on a purse? And ten times less again would put it down to $90, a lot for one at Marshalls.

Recent national events have been roiling pictures in my mind I cannot reconcile, on the one hand seeing extreme luxury — the local reality of people living in dream homes, driving super cars and buying small islands for get-away — people from banking and investing who are so ultra wealthy that I don’t get it. Someone has to lean in and put teeth into the nine figure sums like I don’t speak English.

And on the other hand, seeing deprivation and poverty — the pictures I’d seen all day of poor people downtown, and people online who had been shot or man-handled, and I read things that made me envision so many more in small towns scraping out a living. I couldn’t stop feeling the weariness of people ground down with overwork and fines, and betrayals from landlords and layoffs for downsizing that upsized somebody’s pocket.

After that Ives St. Laurent registered with me, I couldn’t shake a dull feeling. Over the next few days, I’d remember the moment, looking up at the carefully lit plate glass the handbag sat upon. Glittering light around a very sleek finish. It was no longer just a handbag. This underwater mute feeling.

I tried to put those divergent people in the same room in my mind. I wanted them to have a look at each other and maybe talk. One criminalized for his skin color and hustling CD’s. Another selling cigarettes because a prison record handicapped an able body from work. And another, a corporate CEO whose pay increased 148% over the past three years, standing with an elegantly dressed lobbyist who knows the ways of Washington. Paid per hour what would sustain a poor household for a week.

Some may have honestly and accidentally risen to this luxury, as happens in history. As happens to some who fall on hard times. Yet, lately I apprehend some of these men and women as the profiteers who have done covert, criminal things for their wealth. I don’t mean the Mafia. I mean out in the open, on Wall Street, in committee hearings, in corporate deals unhampered by the laws that apply to me. They don’t get shot. Never have a hand slapped. This court fines you three Ives St. Laurent handbags for raping our economy and compromising the federal legislature with bribes.

Laura & Lorena: Inspiring Teachers to Write


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