Saturday, May 26, 2012

It Only Takes a Spark

So, in my last post, I told you about the most beautiful book riot I'd ever seen.  Well, it's the only book riot I've ever seen, and it happened to be beautiful.  Wondrously so.

I've been writing this blog for just around two years, and that post is, by far, my most popular with almost 95 pageviews in just under a week (It doesn't sound like much, but, believe me... it's huge.).  This is funny to me as each time I read over it before publishing, it just didn't feel right.  I didn't feel as though I'd perfectly captured the moment.  I'm not sure, however, that any number of words ever could.  But somehow, it struck a nerve. 

Actually, I don't think it was the post at all.  I think the Book Giveaway in itself struck a nerve.  A great nerve.  A friend of mine reposted it on Facebook (thanks, Debbie Schmidt), and someone I don't know at all decided to give away books on her next trip.  Our school's lovely theatre arts teacher and her boyfriend picked up and went to Half-Price books so that she could purchase books for students to choose as their end-of-year gift.  Other teachers, from other schools, in districts far away filed the idea for next year.  Throughout our school, teachers and principals alike have been astounded to see our Mustangs with their new books.  The kids have shown them off proudly, compared with one another, and then promptly stuck their noses between the pages.  One of my fellow English teachers witnessed a child's heartbreak over not getting his copy of The Hunger Games and relayed the story to her college-age son who promptly told his mother that they'd just go get him a copy at Wal-Mart.  You wouldn't believe the smile that $6.95 can buy.  Another of my fellow English teachers saw a student not choose a book (a student that we debated over whether he'd buy in or not, really), and when another young lady found out, she traded a bag of Takis for him to go choose a title that she'd wanted but couldn't get because she was only allowed one choice.  A bag of Takis buys a pretty good smile, too.

It was a huge risk -- that Giveaway -- and I had steeled myself for "The Look" many times leading up to it.  You know... that "what-would-I-need-with-a-stupid-book" face.   But it never showed, even from those few that didn't choose a book.  No eyerolling.  No exasperated sighs.  Just smiles.  And isn't that the only look that truly matters?

It certainly matters to my shopping list.  I'll give you one guess what you're all getting for Christmas.  Or your birthday.  Or next Wednesday.  I'm prepared to risk "The Look" from now on because this week, I saw a hundred more smiles than I could have ever wished for.

Thank you all for reading and sharing in the joy my students and school have had this week.  I pray that this small reading revolution will grow and continue for a long time after this school year has ended.  But my truest wish is that my sweet little rioters have given you some hope or some laughter and possibly even sparked an inspiration for you to spread the love of reading to all those children hungering for it. 

Pootie recommends Scat by Carl Hiassen. 
Maggie the Cat (in the background) is clearly finished with her selection.

UPDATE:  That lovely theatre arts teacher, Angela Stidham, just sent me this message:

".....and after a long, hot, joyous day at the zoo Friday- those students of ours that couldn't afford a yearbook, ran around the gym asking their friends & teachers to sign their new book. Oh yes they did! :-D You know that long after they've finished reading that novel our school so generously gave them, they'll still keep it forever now because it's filled with the signatures of their classmates from 2012: the year they were given the gift of reading. I thought that was pretty cool."

More than just pretty cool.  It's the beginning of a wildfire on the horizon.  I feel it. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Most Beautiful Riot...

Last year, I gave an assignment which required kids to classify the books in their homes.  I went numb as I saw kids turn in pages with the names of only 2 or 3 books listed.  When I questioned them, they explained that these were the only books in their homes.  Many had none.  Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.  I'd estimate that 30-40% of my kids had fewer than 10 books, and most of those books belonged to their parents or younger siblings.  I have plenty of kids show up to my classroom, hungry for food, and it makes me ache.  I was just as heartbroken by their hunger for words.

I have 7 books in my school bag right now.  I have 2 stacks of books, begging to be read, waiting for me on my bedside table.  I have a tiny bookshelf, overflowing with books that I've read but cannot bear to part with.  When I think of their faces, I am embarrassed by my literary riches.  Embarrassed, but thankful beyond belief.

Books were one of the few things which were never denied in my childhood home.  Raising two avid readers, willing to entertain themselves with a story and a quiet corner, my mother was happy to indulge this behavior whenever possible.  And while I adored the library and used it vigorously, the first time I realized that a book was mine -- all mine -- was a delirious and delightful moment.  My brother now has an entire room dedicated to his book and comic book collections, and I am furiously jealous of it.  For me, there is nothing like the possession of a story, of characters living upon my shelf, of plotlines untwisting before my eyes.

I've spent every day since that failed assignment trying to feed my students with words.  It turned out, I wasn't the only heartbroken one in my school.  At a literacy summit in April, one of our 8th grade teachers talked about how her church sets up book-laden tables on street corners for strangers to come collect their knowledge.  The passion she felt for those few days, giving away what she loved so dearly, gave all of us an idea.

So, today, instead of collecting fines or scavenging textbooks out of lockers filled with gym socks and week old lunch bags, we gave away books.

You heard me.  For the first time ever, we stopped clutching our text with suspicious hands and just let them go.  In fact, we ordered them all with the hopes that no grown-up hands would ever touch them save to unpack the boxes.   Brand new books.  Gave 'em away.   No cost.   No strings.  No test or required reading.  Every 7th grade student at my school will travel home with one book of his very own this summer.  That's 450+ books leaving our doors to live upon the bedsides and bookshelves of these homes.  The idea of it leaves me breathless.

My 2nd period went first, and as it's primarily a group of rowdy and wildly inattentive boys, I tried hard not to set my hopes too high.  We'd talked about the 18 available titles yesterday.  They appeared disinterested and rather sleepy as I described each one, so I worried that I'd be picking up titles up all along the hallways as soon as the 3:55 bell rang.  I worried that I'd have to beg and plead just to get them out of their chairs to walk to Mrs. Hines's room.  I shouldn't have worried at all.

Have you ever seen a video of piranhas attacking?  Because that's exactly what it was like.  They picked that book table clean. 

When we returned to the room, I gave the students the opportunity to spend some time reading their new books.  After about 10 minutes, one of my boys announced to all the other kids, "This book goes HARD!  I'm serious!  I don't even like to read, but this book goes HARD!"

My first instinct was that he was joking, mocking my excitement over a dumb book until I realized that he was talking to no one and everyone in particular.  And please understand that this is a child that literally could not read at the beginning of the school year and visited that lovely Mrs. Hines, our instructional facilitator, 3 times per week for tutoring.  Today, he read 16 pages.  I have never seen him read 16 words in front of anyone else.  Ever.  I'm glad he was enthralled with his book so that he didn't see me pick up my jaw off the desk.  In case a child asks you why reading is important, please feel free to let him know that it's because, as E. would say, "Books go hard."  It's the most rousing endorsement of reading that I've ever had in 2nd period.

And it continued on like that all day.  Sure, there were a couple of kids who didn't want to pick a book.  There were a few who picked a book only to turn around and give it to my classroom bookshelf.  That was hard for me, but I reminded myself that there will always be those people who exercise their choice by simply choosing to not choose.  Of 123 book shoppers today, they were in the almost extinct minority. 

In 5th period, my first of two 29+ classes, I walked in after the bell to catch my two smallest boys talking in hushed and conspiratorial tones. 

I asked, "What are y'all talking about?"

"Strategy," they whispered with a wise nod, as I bit back a giggle.

It seems that they had been the only kids listening the day before when I warned that there'd be just a few copies of each book... that not everyone would be able to get their first, or even second, choice.  So as soon as I called the class to line up, they were right behind me, leading the way, and claiming the closest space to "The Hunger Games" and "The Lost Hero".  Quickly thereafter, I walked in behind my last student to see a mass of sweaty and anxious 13 year-old bodies crowded around a single table, anticipating the shout of "3...2...1" to make their grab.  And, sure enough, quick as a cat, my two smallest slipped out of the crowd with the most coveted bounty of the day. 

I overheard one exclaim, "It's like a riot in there!"

And the other replied, in complete shock, "I know!  Over a book!" As if they hadn't been plotting their attacks only moments before.

They were correct.  It was a near-riot.  Over books. 

It was the most beautiful riot I've ever seen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Brooklyn Claire,

Exactly one year ago, your momma called me on the phone.  She told me, "No false alarm this time.  When can you get here?"  I told her 15 minutes, and I prayed for no traffic on I-35.  You were not the only miracle granted that day; I made it to your doorstep in only 11 minutes.  After some quick instructions on how to manage your big brother who I was charged with keeping and some frantic hustling of your parents out the door, the race to the hospital was on.  The third miracle?  Your father's lead foot. 

And then... there was you, with your chubby bunny cheeks and deep blue eyes.  This is the first picture I snapped, you with your mother's hands and your father's mouth, already wondering what all the fuss was about.

It's a long, strange journey into the world...

I've thought a great deal about that number today.  One.  One year.  One word.  How could I describe you in one simple word?  Which would I choose?


























Yes.  That's the one I think I'd choose of the millions available -- the one we'd all choose.  Perfect.

Happy 1st Birthday, Brook-Brook. You make the number 1 mean so many incredible things.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

For My Mom...


All my life, you have considered me to be a Daddy's Girl.  He was the one to coax a smile, share a laugh, say "yes" when everyone else said 'no".  He was the one charged with teaching me, the most stubborn student, the unteachable things... to ride a bike, to drive a stickshift, to change a tire.  I still don't know how to change a tire though.  I considered him to be the essence of strength and compassion while you delivered the rules and consequences.  All my little girl life, I was a Daddy's Girl.

But I'm not a little girl anymore. 

Now, as a grown-up, I see the world so differently than I did before.  Now, it is you I share most of my laughter with, and I treasure those moments.  Laughter doesn't come as easily as it once did, so its value is limitless.  It was you, knowing my stubborn streak, who let me learn in my own time, make my own mistakes, and comforted me in the fall-out.  You taught me so many things, mostly while I didn't realize I was learning.  You taught me to listen to my instincts, that when a person reveals his true self, I should believe it, and that sometimes, you have to let go of the people and places holding you back.  I learned to trust a first impression, to see others for who they are, and to forgive them when they earn it.  I studied you at the make-up mirror applying eyeshadow and the card table shuffling cards and the stovetop while you made cream gravy.  I'm good at make-up and cards, but I still don't know all the secrets of gravy though.  Yes, you were the bearer of rules and consequence, but I have never once not known where I stood with you in both the bad moments as well as the good.

And now, when someone tells me I'm strong -- when you tell me I'm strong -- I know that this strength isn't from one source alone.  The strength of the mother lives within the daughter, and it flows like a river through life, cutting rock and carving majesty, leaving its imprint on this world.  And what I've come to know about strength is that it is not without weakness and trial.  It is only through the most vicious wind that the strongest trees still stand, and we're still standing, you and I.

So, yes, I am a Daddy's Girl.  But I'm a Momma's Girl too.  And I'm pretty proud of that fact.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Truth and Consequences

School will end for me on June 1st.  Camp will officially begin on June 2nd.

Camp, for me, will end on July 27th.  School will begin on August 1st.

Within that time span of summer vacation, I will spend 42 days and 35 nights away from the comfort of my own bed.  My days will begin at 7:00 AM and end anywhere between 12:00 - 3:00 AM.  I will be hot, sweaty, and filthy.  I will plunge toilets and make schedules and start unstartable fires.  I will possibly fill out CPS reports and call parents and send at least one kid home and maybe even a staff member.  I will endure both homesick tears and at least one vomiting episode.  I will cry and question my choices at least weekly if not daily.  I will work harder than I feel capable of, and I will still not be the hardest working staff member on the property.  Not by a long shot.

Most people think that I must be crazy to leave one world of teaching for another with only hours to spare in the transition.  But here's what they don't realize: I will also laugh harder than I have ever laughed.  I will sing silly songs.  I will watch someone grow up in "just a week" or "just a summer".  I will go to free swim, hang out with the camp dog, and maybe hit a bullseye at archery.  I will have a s'more (or ten).  I will sit on the rooftop and find the meaning of my world with my friends and then whisper it on to anyone who will hear me.  I will work harder than I feel capable of, and I will witness so many others doing the same.  And hundreds of kids will stay for every one that doesn't.  But here's the real secret why I trade one world for the other:

Because, in the other, the kids are happy to be there.

The hardest part of being a teacher is to realize that sometimes -- many times -- my students don't want to be at school.  And after a day like today, I get it.  I didn't want to be there either. 

That's hard for me to say out loud.  Really hard.  For me, school was never a difficult place; it was a second home.  Yes.  I am a school nerd.  I like to read.  I love to write.  I want to learn.  I love it, and I always have.  Even as a teacher, I feel comfortable at school, and I feel as though I have been called to work at my school.  Called.  Like by a Higher Power.  And I don't always know how I feel about that Higher Power, but I know that I didn't wind up here by accident. 

But I have to tell you a little secret.  I am a shitty disciplinarian.  This is probably because I never really had to be disciplined as a child.  Purely motivated by guilt or shame or fear of failure, I obeyed the rules pretty well, and I typically spent my time with other kids who did the same.  Here's another secret.  I don't think I'm alone in this. 

Sure, teenagers are mentally wired to push boundaries and piss adults off.  It releases endorphins or something probably.  Yet, most kids -- most, not all -- generally want to do the right thing.  I truly believe this.  No matter who they are or how they were raised or what friends they have, they want to do well.  It feels, however, as if the majority of conversations with my peers are all about discipline.  And I'm guilty of it too.  Lately, here are the things out of my mouth.

"What are the consequences?"

"What are we gonna do?"

"When are they going to learn?"

"How will they/you/I be held accountable?"

"ISS.  Tardies.  Shirttails.  ID's."

"That group is a cancer."  I'm quite ashamed of that one.  That one disturbs me.

On and on and on and on.  I'm not proud.  I'm just being real.  And I'm not the only one which bothers me.

I work with some pretty amazing people.  I really and truly do.  If anyone ever asks you who it is doing God's work, you tell them this, "Junior High teachers, that's who." 

But I feel like I've lost my purpose.  Maybe we've lost our purpose.  Do we spend so much of our time wondering how to deter bad behavior that we forget to encourage the good?  I mean, look at society.  I don't think that any meth addict thought, "You know what?  Today, I'm going to smoke some starter fluid/battery acid/Sudafed combo so that my teeth rot out of my head, I lose all my money, emaciate myself, and possibly wind up in jail."  Show a picture of a meth head to anyone and ask them if this is what they want.  They will all, invariably give you a big HELL no.  Yet they do it.  Not because they're unafraid of what will happen as a consequence but because they are so unhappy where they are, they'll do anything -- risk everything -- to be somewhere else.  Jail?  They have shower rape in jail.  And if shower rape isn't a deterrent, I don't know what is.  Yet think of how many of them will go back. 

I know it seems like a drastic jump... untucked shirts and ID badges to meth and jail, but I guess I'm trying to prove a point or scratchy an itchy thought inside my brain.  I spent an hour and a half  today with people I love trying to decide what would best deter kids from breaking rules and only about 15 minutes solving the logistics of how to encourage great behavior.  I hate the imbalance of that statement, but I really don't know how to solve it.  I don't think ignoring bad behavior is acceptable, and I also don't believe that the whole world should be or can be full of fun and games with me at the head of the classroom doing a soft shoe to entertain otherwise bored students.  Don't get me wrong.  Every day, however, I feel as though I see more and more negativity creeping into this world, into our schools, into our hearts and the hearts of my kids.  And I don't know how to beat it back.  I don't know how to get a little camp excitement into the drudgery of school.  If you do... I really want to know.  Seriously.  Leave a comment, shoot me an email, send a carrier pigeon.  Anything.  Something.  I want to know what makes/made/could make school a place kids want to be.  Or at least a place they're more willing to be.

All wasn't lost though.  Don't fear.  Here's what I did decide today.  I am a shitty disciplinarian.  It's true, and sometimes the truth is an ugly thing to face.  Everything others count as "good", I am not.  But I'm okay with being a shitty disciplinarian because, tomorrow, I have a chance to be a better teacher.  To face the truth about what's good so I can keep doing it and what's not so I can change it.  And I'd rather be a good teacher because I just don't believe those two things are the same.

In the meantime, I have 18 days to end this year on a good note, and 18.5 to ready myself to start again.