Category Archives: Writing

San Francisco

My visual art brain turns on when I drive into SF. The afternoon is mostly sunny and the air crisp and clean. The light on buildings on the Embarcadero shows off elegant new architecture – Portia, curved facades set into each other filled with elegant windows. Both classic and contemporary. Car colors merge with signage and restored ferry building look rich in Mediterranean light.

A marvelous variety of people – some dressed for spring break others for business — line the streets at crosswalks.

The antique boutique hotel is shabby chic. Walking with my best friend from high school through North Beach brings back memories.

Why do we think less of a graphic novel?

Why did we have to dignify comics with the term “graphic novels?” And even picture books are not as valued as chapter books, it seems. What is this idea about academics being superior to and excluding art?

As far as writing goes, drawing is writing, and it preceded written literature.

In a world where most news is being presented live on site or by a video, wouldn’t school teachers do well to ensure their students are visually literate and can produce visual content?

The expressive ability of young students is sometimes stifled by insisting on correct sentences in paragraphs rather than using drawing with writing.

The social justice power in many current graphic novels for YA is going to be overlooked if every middle and high school English section is going to read the same text only literature.

I’m so grateful for teachers who are exploring graphic novelists.

But I’m noticing that some people still think it’s second class reading material.

The Implications of a Milkshake

In the Classroom: My feet tap nervously on the tiled floor.  My mind is on cognitive overload and I have the feeling of wanting to throw up.  I wish for an interruption; a fire drill, a phone call to the room, an announcement over the school’s speakers, a yellow slip saying I have to  go to the office because my mom is picking me up early, just ANYTHING to get me out of the current activity we are doing.

I look at the picture on my desk.  It is covered in plastic so that the teacher can torture another child with it the following year.  It is a fancy glass, curvy with white liquid.  On top is a mountain kind of looking thing, white and perfectly done with a red cherry on top.  I have already figured out that the white liquid is milk so I know it comes from a cow.  I know this because even though I may not know enough English, I have had many interactions with milk: I pour it on my cereal every morning, my mom uses it to make a delicious breakfast we call “arroz con leche” (rice with milk), my dad loves to pour it over hot yams, my brothers and I put some into coffee to make it so yummy, I always have to grab a little carton of it for lunch and the carton has the word ‘milk’ in bright red, capital letters so without anyone telling me, I already know that “leche” is milk.

I know all this, but I still don’t know what category this picture belongs to.  And soon it will be my turn to go up, in front of the entire class, and stick this thing into its food group.  But I can’t figure it out.  There are six groups up on the board, each represented with a different color.  The teacher put the names of each group on a bright label, but that is all and I don’t know all the words. I already used my Spanish to help me know that fruit is “fruta” and vegetables are “vegetales.” But the other four are a big mystery and I just can’t make sense of them.  One label says, ‘Bread, pasta, potatoes.’ I have never seen or heard those words and so far it is empty.  Another says ‘Meat, fish and alternatives,’ and it already has a picture of what looks like a naked chicken all plucked and hunkered over.  I am guessing that is the place to put things that come from animals, but I am not sure.  The yellow group says, ‘Cheese and dairy.’ A student put a picture of a block of yellow in it.  What is that? I scramble through my mind, trying to think of my family’s once a week visits to the grocery store.  Had I seen anything like that? Did we ever eat something that looked like a yellow block? I didn’t think so.  The last group was small but it had an extremely long label, ‘Fats, oils and confectionaries.’

“Lorena!” the teacher hollered my name and it threw me out of my long chain of desperate thinking.  Time was up.

With my heart hammering in my throat and my legs feeling like gelatin, I pushed away from my desk as if it was pulling me back, and slowly made my way to the board.  My sweaty, nervous hands began to tug at the picture, folding the corners.

“Don’t do that!” admonished the teacher.

His reprimand accompanied with his glare that I was getting all too familiar with, only made me feel small and to wish I could run away.  But I was stuck and my feet made their own decision to move me closer to the board.

The gaze of 20 something pairs of eyes on my back was tangible.  I couldn’t see my classmates, but I knew they were all watching.  I took another frantic look over the food groups pleading for a miracle.  None came.  No interruptions either.  With hesitant hands, I quickly jabbed the picture next to the naked chicken.  Milk came from cows and cows were an animal and this group had an animal in it.

The class burst into laughter.  Did they think I was being funny?  Or was this like all those other times when they laughed AT me, thinking, ‘jeez this girl knows NOTHING!’  I swallowed the hard lump of my heart in my throat, snatched the picture back and slapped it on the bottom group: Bread, pasta, potatoes.  More laughter, uncontrollable this time.  The teacher immediately stepped in, but first he shot me another glare.

Teaching Implications: No child, not even language learners or children of a different race, are empty vessels.  They come to the classroom having had experiences AND language that they can use to make sense of what is happening within the classroom walls.  We need to know our students, all of them, so we are familiar with who they are because they are people too. Let’s tap into their experiences, their knowledge, and most of all their language instead of thinking they know nothing.

Develop a community where students support and learn from each other.  We are not the only teachers in the room.  And our behavior is used by students as a model of how they should respond to each other.  Glare at a child and the students will take your cue as a sign of how this student deserves to be treated.  So they pick up on your glares and other body language and begin to treat the student in a similar fashion, often in worse ways.

Allow students to talk.  Establish your expectations for partner talk routines and group work.  What would have happened had I just been allowed to talk to one of my classmates about the picture in my hands?

We take for granted how much we teach with words, spoken words.  It doesn’t take too much time (especially now when we can easily search with Google images) to get visuals and incorporate them into lessons.  We can even make quick sketches in the moment to support new vocabulary.

Lifelong Implications: I am certain we all have nuggets of memories from our early school days.  There are many different reasons of why we cling to those memories.

This memory tugs at me quite often.  Because of it, I now see how in the preceding years of school I put my efforts towards fading into the classroom walls and becoming invisible.  I was not the student with a hand raised or the student who wanted to be table monitor much less line leader.  And if ever I was called on by the teacher, my face would first turn bright red and it always made my stomach go upside down and then I would barely mumble something out.  This still happens.

I was suddenly embarrassed by my family and our culture.  I had witnessed firsthand how everything I knew and was familiar with was not validated in school.  So what if we had milk in our house? The way we used it didn’t count in school.  Apparently all our visits to the grocery store didn’t matter because we didn’t buy yellow cheese in yellow blocks (ours was white and came in a wheel shape and we crumbled it over enchiladas, beans, and lots of over foods).  And our language wasn’t helpful.  Actually my first language got in the way of me learning.  All of this came to my realization from that milkshake.  And it has taken many years (honestly I am still working on it) to undo the damage and embrace who I am (Mexican culture and all) and to see how beautiful Spanish is and that it is a language worthy of knowing.

Lastly, I am so afraid of getting up in front of people.  After that moment, I recall almost dying every time I had to do a presentation or a report or a speech or whatever other confounded project teachers made up to get students to show their learning. I remember many sleepless nights as I lay worrying in bed.  Would they laugh at me, would they think I was dumb?

Just Forget It

The New Year is well underway, so make sure to get off on the right foot by forgetting about these items.  Just forget it!

10.  All the people that you slept with (or not) last year

9. The amount of times that you did not blog in 2017

8. The time you overpaid for some thing at the grocery store, by the way, toss the receipt

7. All previous attempts to lose weight

6. The evenings when you concluded a healthy salad dinner with a big slice of (insert flavor here) _____ cake with ice cream, whip cream, chocolate drizzle, cherry, banana on top while downing it with a (insert flavor here) ____ milkshake

5. Any and all cashiers who never ask about your day or you or how it’s going

4. The series of days you committed to watching an HBO series that went nowhere (the main character wasn’t ever dead and the mom was the real mom all along)

3. All mornings when you woke up crying…because you didn’t want to go to work!

2. Promises, promises, promises – do you EVEN remember what you promised? It’s to your benefit to forget them

1. Your 2018 New Year’s Resolutions

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I am in the middle of preparing sweet potatoes and recalling why I stopped eating them.  They are hella hard to slice and dice.  Seriously, you need an electric drill to cut one up – or could it be that all my knives are dull?

With the sweet potatoes in the oven and the smell of the bell peppers that I mixed in with the potatoes infusing the air, I thought back to Laura’s words.  “Finding your voice.” How lucky that children get to hear that phrase for a writing class.  Even though I am an adult, may I attend?  You see, no one told me as a child that I should find my voice, well no one even told me that I had one to start with. Here’s what I did have:

I sit at a desk, the kind very like the ones in the Peanuts cartoon.  The wooden seat is connected to the desk and the top of the desk opens so you can sneak all kinds of non-school stuff into the space beneath.  There is a little cradle for my yellow pencil and a crisp, white sheet of binder paper is in front of me.  The teacher is talking.  I hear his voice, but I don’t know enough English to know what exactly he is saying.

He’s old, white tufts of hair poke out of his head.  His large, thick glasses give him the appearance of an owl, but they don’t hide his eyes that often glare at me.  He’s wearing what he always seems to wear: plaid shirt in boring colors of brown, red, black and brown slacks with brown shoes that have little laces.  Because I’m lost in examining this aged man and looking over the details of his clothing, trying to imagine what he is like outside of the classroom, I miss the directions.  It wouldn’t have helped me to pay attention anyway.  The words would have just floated over my head. Without any images, I grasped nothing.  Without having the chance to talk to a classmate, I understood nothing.

As I move my eyes away from the brown shoes with the little laces tied neatly, I see that all the students are furiously writing on their sheets of paper.  I can almost hear the soft scratching of the lead on the page.  I see Emily, the girl with the longest blond hair in class, scrawling on her paper, her face intense, her skinny legs crossed in the way that she always did when she was in absolute concentration. Or maybe she just really had to use the bathroom.

Panic! I see everyone writing, but about what?  In a useless attempt that I know won’t work, I try to peer over Sam’s hunched back to get a glimpse of his paper, to see what he is doing. His back is too big and I can’t even see his arms.  More panic.  I want to be a good student, I try to follow directions, I want to please the teacher and make him smile the way I see he smiles when Emily talks.  My efforts have only gifted me glares and snickers so far.

I focus back on my sheet of paper.  I have to write something.  I start by slowing etching out the letters in my name.  Then I take three minutes to lay out the letters of my last name.  Five more minutes to write the date as neat as I have ever written it.  I glance around, hoping that something has changed, but the room is still silent with all the students hunkered over their papers, their hands flying over the page. I look at everyone, all in the same position.  I notice the obvious that I noticed on the first day I walked into the room: everyone has a backpack tucked into the bowl that is beneath the wooden seat.   Backpacks of beautiful colors, yellow, bright red, sky blue, pink. I look under my seat.  It is empty. My family can’t afford a backpack for me.

The beeping oven brings me to the present.  Aaahhh, the smell of bell peppers.  I take the tray out of the oven and poke the sweet potatoes.  Perfectly soft. I know they are violently hot, but I can’t resist.  I stab one with a fork and bring it to my mouth.  Yup super hell hot.    But even through the heat, I savor the mix of the sweet with the tang of the bell pepper.  So good.

Story Telling Advice

Notes from Anne Lamott’s workshop, these on story telling, which is advice from her friend Terri Tate.  Book Passages, Corte Madera last Saturday May 13, 2017.

From my new lime green notebook, a Fabriano with tiny grey dot grids on every page, I’m sharing Anne’s lead in on story telling.  If I shared all the notes I took during the almost three hours Anne talked, this blog would go on and on.  If I boil down all her writing advice to what I really HEARD this time I attend her workshop, it would come down to get a habit.  Writing, like your diet, your exercise, your health, your teaching runs on routines…make it a 5-day a week daily habit and stick to it.

So, my reader might see why I’d rather focus on advice for storytelling.  Making another good habit stick in my day is challenging, and that’s not an excuse not to do it.  Another thought about storytelling is that I see how kids long to tell and hear stories and less and less time is allowed for that.  Thanks to David Coleman and other trolls, narrative is considered baby stuff that has to be tolerated in primary age children, but otherwise ignored.  Writing to learn is where it’s at.  Ugh, the boring stepchild of close reading. (Real close reading does not confine one to the four corners of the page,) And, don’t get me started on his weird triangulation of the text types, two of which are purposes, not even genres.

Story Telling

  1. Trust that you’re loaded with stories waiting to be told
  2. Don’t think the story onto the page — let it flow.
  3. Blocked?  That’s KFuck Radio (or The Vile Bitch Upstairs).  Do what you can to clear the blockage. Like, give your inner critic something to do – for example, “Go sort those photos, please” and then get back to your story.
  4. Start IN the story.  Don’t start with “I’m going to tell you” and don’t explain why.  Jump in.
  5. Don’t force humor.  If you are honest and descriptive it’ll probably be humorous, but you annoy your reader if you are Trying.
  6. Even heartbreak in a story, if it is told with sensory detail, can carry humor.
  7. Sometimes you’re too close to a story to tell it yet.  Get some distance.

 

Now I’ve gotten to read through all those notes I took last Saturday.  Anne is so quotable.  Honest and witty.  And I have to believe that I have stories, bunches of stories inside me, all wanting and waiting to be told.

 

 

 

Guilt

Did I tell you about the time when I ran away from my father?  I was at a casino with my mom, visiting her for the weekend and mom just loves to feast on the casino buffet, so I took one for the team and accompanied her.

On our way out, she suddenly exclaimed, “There’s your dad!”

And sure enough there he was.  Seated at a slot machine, alone, staring into the screen.  His back was to me, but the dirty old baseball cap and dark gray hooded sweater gave him away.  Seconds went by and I didn’t know what to do.  I found my legs walking the other way, moving back.

“You have to say hi to him, ” my mother hissed.

My legs didn’t want to say hi. They took me in the other direction. Dad would not be happy with me visiting mom and not even telling him I would be in town.  I could already see his angry face, deep frown, harsh cold words spewing forth, “you should tell me when you come…look at you, you’re here and you didn’t even tell me…”  I swallowed and headed out the door, my mom racing to keep up with me.

And then the guilt.  Had he seen me?  Maybe my bright sweater gave me away and he saw my reflection on the screen.  Maybe he had turned in time to see me racing out the door.  How would he feel?  Why didn’t I just say hi?

Oh and then it really started pouring.  Pouring guilt, GUILT.  I could see my day of reckoning and the sky would be a television playing all the awful things I had ever done and there would be the image of my poor dad playing a slot machine and my cruel self running away from him.  And he would be seated next to me, seeing the same things I was seeing.  He would witness how I scampered away, away from my own father.  Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilteeeeeeeeee.

The next day as soon as I left work I called him.  I told him how much I thought of him and that no matter how busy I was, that I always thought of him and I wanted him to know that he was always on my mind.  And then for bonus points I told him I would send him money, that I just wanted to make sure I still had the correct address.  I mailed him a fat check and slept really well that night.

Several days later I called him again. Robot voice telling me he had not set up his message service. Great.  Typical dad thing to do.  I called again 30 minutes later. Same robot voice.  Not able to leave a message.  I called again in an hour.  Same. I texted my brother and asked if he had visited him.

“Dad’s in Mexico, he took off Friday.” BAM! The pieces came together.  Dad cashed my check and without a word to me, left the country.  Not even a warning that he would be out traveling, simply took the money and sent himself on a trip.

Hmmmmm did he get a glimpse of me that day at the casino and played me like a violin to get money?

I gave guilt a fat kick out the door.

Life

Every time I drive home and it’s dark enough to see inside people’s lit homes, I sneak a peek.  Doesn’t everyone do that?  The lights are on and you can see what is happening inside the home.  I can’t help it.  I try to imagine what the people inside are doing, what their day was like, what their talking about.  I want to know their story.

Sitting in the passenger seat today, heading home, I gazed out the car window into the house windows.  I saw the same in each.  Soft light.  A lamp.  The kitchen.  TV glowing.  And I could imagine a person or people seated on the sofa nearby, watching, losing themselves in the TV show.

And I wondered if this is how they wanted to live.  They worked 8 hour jobs, came home, ate, and then surrendered themselves to the TV.  Relief.  Fantasy.  Not reality. Maybe they needed the TV to forget the torture of the real life they were living.  Maybe it was a distraction so that they wouldn’t overthink life and create an uprising of sorts.

And then I thought, isn’t this such a weird way to live?  Everyone inside their boxes, looking at  a screen…day after day after day?  What about the real life that is here?  What about the real life that is passing by each and every day?  Life doesn’t just happen on the weekends, but on Monday and on Wednesday and Thursday even!

I don’t want to live my life in a TV show.  I want to feel every moment, every breath so that when I am 80 and about to finally kick the bucket I can say that I felt life, that I was present in every second of it.  And sometimes this thought overwhelms me because this is all we have, we won’t get a do over, there is no encore, there are not repeat performances here.  It is final clearance, everything must go.

And then it brings me to ask, is this how we want to live?  The more I think about this question, the more I see that I don’t want to live with an 8 hour commitment that doesn’t make me happy, I don’t want to go home and lose myself in other lives because my own is too painful, I don’t want to just look forward to the weekend (“Good morning!” “Happy Wednesday!” “Yeah, one day closer to the weekend!”).

I want to know that when it is my time to go, that I didn’t live life, but rather lived.