Saturday, March 23, 2019

Find Those Oxygen Masks

Image result for queer eye for the straight guy season three

Oxygen masks. I mean, I hate flying anyway. While optimistic by nature, typically, my flying self is a giant pessimist. I always assume we will be crashing. As soon as the lovely folks from Southwest get up and begin going through the safety lesson, I try to focus anywhere but on what they are saying. My particular brand of anxiety means that the more I think about the worst case scenario, the more I am absolutely convinced it will happen. So, since I already know how to exit out of the plane, that the seat can be used as a flotation device, etc., I choose to think of other thoughts.

One of their lines, however, has stuck with me, even though I try and forget it. You need to put on your oxygen mask first. This truth is one that I’ve only recently applied to my own life. For years I think I put the needs of my family, my students, my colleagues, far ahead of any of my own. I wrote about this at the end of the post HERE in a post from December of 2017 and why I began reading romance books. But this is something I’ve continued to think about. See, reading romance books, writing a romance book myself, have been my own little acts of rebellion. I truly don’t think of “my book” as something others will read one day. I mean, I do plan on publishing them, but these characters live in my head. Letting them out onto the page, it’s like I’m getting to watch them act out the scenes I’ve already dreamed up. Heading to Champaign to write each day over Spring Break has felt almost selfish, it is just for me. And yet, it has been wonderful.

Today I also continued putting on my oxygen mask. In December I decided that 2019 was the year I was actually going to take care of my skin. In doing this, I started getting regular facials. I love going to see Danielle every 6-8 weeks. This is no spa-like facial, but one where I laugh for over an hour straight. She has taught me more about my skin in the last eighteen weeks than I learned in the other forty-four years. I look forward to my trips to see her more than I should, but I’m always left wishing I could record our conversation. As I told her today, she’d make an absolutely kick-ass character in one of my books, but I fear I would never do her justice.

Tonight Chris and I sat and watched the first three episodes of season three of Queer Eye on Netflix. Each episode made me tear up. The people that were starring in each were sweet, kind, giving, and hadn’t put themselves first in years, if ever. They all needed to find their oxygen masks.

I would say this is a common issue for females, mothers, teachers, etc., but I think this can be a human problem. We don’t want to be selfish and there is only so much time in the day. However, if we don’t put on our masks, who will? I’m still not great at making myself a priority, but I’ve gotten a bit better. Step by step, I’m going to find my way. Wishing you well on your journey too.

Friday, March 22, 2019

On Mary Oliver

Thursday was, apparently World Poetry Day. I had no idea there was such a thing but, thank goodness for social media, I found out just in time. As a result, I shared the Facebook post from Mary Oliver’s Facebook page of one of my favorite poems…

I have not always loved poetry. When I was a kid, I didn’t “get” it. Reading it, the meaning the teachers felt the poem was trying to convey eluded me. Writing it, forget about it. To me, there was a “right” and a “wrong” with poetry, and there was no key that allowed me into the understanding of this format of writing.

To put it plainly, poetry made me feel stupid, like I wasn’t smart enough to study it.

This wasn’t always true. As a kid in lower elementary school, Where the Sidewalk Ends was one of my favorite books. I read it cover to cover, only to close the book and start again. I’d look at Shel Silverstein’s photo on the back cover and think he was one weird dude, but he sure could write poems. I remember reading the poem Smart and thinking that it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever read.

Sometime after third grade, however, I slipped away from poetry and gave up a bit on myself. That all changed when I attended our local community college, Parkland, for a year and a half between transferring from the University of Kentucky to the University of Illinois. There, at Parkland, I had a professor for two classes where we took a deep dive into poetry. We had to analyze it, mark it up with our thinking. The first time we did, I barely wrote anything on it, I was so afraid to be wrong. I wish I remember the name of that eccentric teacher, but he yelled, raising his arms in the air, waving them around, shouting about his passion for poetry, explaining that I needed to let go of my fear.

Somehow, I did.

I fell in love with poetry that semester, and the next. I found new favorite poems, and some that weren’t for me. I talked poetry with other people in our class. I listened to our professor expound on his love of the words we shared.

I didn’t find Mary Oliver that semester. I didn’t find her for years. But one day, I stumbled upon one of her books. I soaked the poems in. I bought another book of her poems. I listened to her read her own poems. I listened to her interviews, podcasts, as I walked. Her quiet voice was a balm to my soul.

I read her poem I Worried
And wondered how she could speak right to my heart.

I read her poem The Summer’s Day

And wondered if I could get the last line tattooed on my body somewhere.

Mary Oliver’s poems spoke to me. Again, and again, and again.

We lost Oliver this year at the age of eighty-three, which seems like an event that should have made the world fall silent for at least a minute or two. I love her quiet way of noticing what many of us do not. I love her appreciation for the small. I love the way she questions.

I will miss her voice. I will miss her poetry. We needed her wisdom, now more than ever.

If you’d like to check out the podcast I mentioned above, you can find it HERE. It’s just shy of an hour, but it’s an hour well spent.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Growing from Books

For the past twenty months I have read a crazy amount of books, but ninety percent of those books have been romance books written for adults. I think this is a direct response to my concern for the world, a world that makes me increasingly anxious. In turning to romance books I have found myself to be happier, less anxious, and more creative - hence the desire to write my own.

This new found reading genre, however, does not mean that I’ve turned my back on books for kids. I would say that, overall, I’ve worked to find more balance. Where five years ago all of the reading and writing I did outside of the classroom was still for my job, now only some of it is. I still read a crazy amount of picture books. They’re quick reads and I’m constantly looking for new ones to add to my classroom for Classroom Book-A-Day. Two I’ve enjoyed recently are Under my Hijab because my students are not familiar with the hijab. This book allowed the seventh graders in my classrooms to learn about it, have discussions, and grow as a result. Also, a book I just purchased over break is Lubna and Pebble. This is one I cannot wait to share when we return. My students know about the refugee crisis we’re facing on a global scale, but this brings it down to the story of two children, a story of friendship in the hardest of times.

I also read a lot of graphic novels. I still have those kids who gravitate towards this format of storytelling and I’m always looking for new books to share with them. Gareth Hinds The Iliad is one I added to our room a few weeks ago. Students love his version of The Odyssey, so this one was sure to be a hit. The Breakaways is one I just got over Spring Break, but it already has a waiting list in the room.

And then there are two books that I don’t know how to talk to you about. I don’t know how to talk to anyone about them without simply breaking down.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those touchstone texts for me. I read it years ago and I still remember finishing it, knowing Melinda’s story, my heart breaking for her, and closing the book with tears streaming down, wishing the world could all come together and talk about it.

Laurie has just released Shout and I feel that even stronger. Here we have Laurie’s memoir, essentially, told through free verse poems, starting in her early childhood and ending in the present. However, the entire memoir is held together with the story of assault, violence against women (and men), the beauty of empowerment, the danger of silence. I closed the book this afternoon sitting on the couch in my kitchen, my dogs by my side. I felt strong, but battered. War-weary, in a way. This book feels necessary for us all.

Another book that I’ve just finished is Internment by Samira Ahmed. My direct response to this book was to order three more because I want Chris, Luke, and Liam to read this as soon as possible so we can discuss it.

This book made me ill, my anxiety increased, I felt a sense of despair, but I think that’s the point.

Don’t get me wrong, there is triumph. There is hope. However, this was hard. I couldn’t read this and not consider the loss of life in Christchurch, New Zealand just days ago. I couldn’t read this and not think about Chris’s wonderful stepmom and how she and her family lived in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

This book made my heart hurt.

So why would I buy three more? Why would I want my family to read it? Ahmed talks in the back matter about learning from history. Chris’s family knows that history, and yet we are currently repeating that history. We have to talk about these issues. We have to have hard conversations. We have to take political parties, political affiliations, out of our automatic reaction to the news and look at the state of the world on a human level.

We have to.

Because here’s the thing. I can go back to reading romance, and I will. I love those books after all. But I also need to be present. I need to learn from people I agree with. I need to have conversations with folks I might not see eye to eye with. I need to stretch. I need to grow. I need to read about people that look like me. I need to read about people who don’t.

I need to love. I need to be kind. I need to empathize.

That’s what I get from books. Some of them break my heart. Some of them break me for a bit. Some of them make me laugh. Most of them bring me joy. Through books I change. Through books I become a better person. Through books I grow.

I cannot wait to see what I learn from next. How about you? Do you have something you’ve read recently that you have loved? Please share, I’m always adding to my to read list.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Penny Kittle - Writing Wednesdays

In 2011 I attended my first NCTE in Chicago, Illinois. At some point over the weekend I went to see Linda Darling-Hammond. I was taking graduate courses at night and Linda’s books had been required reading. I went to that session with Donalyn Miller, an online friend who had written a pivotal book for my teaching career, The Book Whisperer. As we took our seats towards the front, someone else came in to sit down. She knew Donalyn, so she joined us, sitting on my other side. It was Penny Kittle.

To say it was a bit of an out of body experience would be an understatement. Just to be in the session to learn from Linda was enough. Donalyn’s words had transformed my teaching, but I knew her pretty well by then, so I had held myself together. But Penny? Her books: Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time (2003), The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching (2005), and Write Beside Them (2008), they had spoken to my heart. I sobbed over her books. They broke me down, but in the best of ways. They made me want to be a better teacher, a better human. I’ve told Donalyn often that both she and Penny make me cry when I read their professional books, which is not your typical reaction to reading about teaching.

But maybe it should be.

Penny’s books had, over the years, reached across the miles and told me I wasn't alone. They remind me to see every kid in my classroom, to see the best in them. And they encouraged me, reminding me that what we’re doing here, it matters. Even when no one else tells us it does, we just need to look at the kids.

So yeah, that November day, I freaked out a bit inside. When Penny gave me a piece of gum, I kept the wrapper and put it in my journal. I showed my husband later and he laughed, asking if that was a bit stalker like. I said it was just there to remind me of the teacher I wanted to be. And seven years later, I still knew exactly where it was when I sat down to write this post.

Just a week ago I messaged Penny and explained that I’d love to know more about her writing life. She immediately agreed, sending the document back shortly after I shared it with her. And once again, just reading her words was like balm to my tortured writing soul. I needed her words, I needed the one and only Don Murry’s words. It’s been a rough writing week and I had no idea that reading her response would get me back on track. And on that note, please welcome Penny Kittle to Read, Write, Reflect.

Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?

I write in my notebook at my desk in my office almost every morning. When I am traveling for work I write in my notebook propped up in my hotel bed most of the time. I start in my notebook because it helps me clear my head. I make a list on  one side of a page of all the things I need to do that day--this helps me clear my mind so I can work. I put my phone in the kitchen so it won’t distract me. I sit and stare out the windows to the woods that surround my house and write.

Sometimes I reread entries from the last few days before I start working. If I can’t get started, I describe the weather--what I see out my window, and then start listing the things I’ve been thinking about. I have found that getting an idea about what to write comes from getting my pen moving. As I write, ideas come to me that are unrelated to what I am writing, but the action of forming letters into words activates my mind and  brings ideas and images to the surface.

This is a picture of my daughter sitting at my desk.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I almost never write fiction. I write about people I know, and when I’m telling the story and shaping it, I use the person’s name. Sometimes I change them later to protect the privacy of the person. Since I write what has happened, the setting is real, so I just close my eyes and try to image every detail of it.

What was your journey into writing?

I’ve always written. I have writing notebooks from elementary school. I started writing stories I wanted to publish while teaching because I was trying to understand the process of writing what I asked my students to write. That led me to my first two books which are stories about teaching.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?

I have always been a reader. I started reading at 4 and I even remember the night I learned how to make sense of the words on the page… I remember holding the book and one word at a time I could suddenly hear what Mom had been reading to me. I went to the library every week with my mom in elementary and middle school and checked out my limit (8 books) which I read and reread until the next week. I also bought lots of paperbacks from the Scholastic book order and found favorites like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy.

I remember only writing school work in middle school, but I kept a notebook and once in awhile wrote my own stories.

What was your publishing journey like?

I wrote first for journals for teachers. When I found out my work would be published in my favorite one, Voices from the MIddle, I went dancing and screaming all over the house. It was thrilling. I was encouraged to send my writing to an editor at Heinemann, who has published all of my books. My first editor was a true cheerleader and she helped me believe in my work and to continue to shape it so that it could be published.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

From my friend, Don Murray: “15 minutes a day, Kittle. Just 15 minutes a day and you’ll have a book in a year.” That advice told me to just try--just dedicate regular time to the practice of writing and I would be able to reach my goals. It also told me that I didn’t need to dedicate hours and hours to it--although I certainly have. I needed advice to get me started and to move away from excuses like, “I don’t have time to write.”

What is some writing advice you’d like to give either to my students or to other aspiring writers?

“You have a story to tell that no one can tell but you.” Don Graves told me that. He encouraged so many teachers to write and that’s what I now tell people I talk to… write your life. And share.

Best thing about being a writer?

I love to write. I like imagining a student and then working to tell her story and then reading it and thinking, that’s what I wanted to say. I like rewriting and fiddling with words and listening to the sounds of sentences that work together well. I love the blank page, knowing that I can’t know what will happen as I begin to fill it with words. The surprise of writing brings me back every time.
Hardest part of being a writer?

Deadlines--and letting something go to a publisher that feels not quite right. What I’ve learned is that I am never satisfied and that nothing has ever felt ready to be published, but I’ve let it go anyway. My friend Don Murray told me to send it out into the world to do its work and get to work on the next thing. That’s the advice I follow, but it is hard. I always want to revise my books when I reread them.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

I move my pen across the page. Sometimes I sketch. Sometimes I list, sometimes I write one stupid sentence after another and stop judging them, I just stack them up and look for joy and purpose in one line and another. And some days I do not find either. I get up the next day and try again.

Do you have an “inner editor” voice that is unkind?

Yes. I am my worst critic and I don’t like a lot of what I write.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?

So many things! Poetry and fiction and books on how to be a better leader. I am reading a lot of Andrea Davis Pinkney work to study how she writes and rereading Harry Potter to look at how she writes what so many of us love.

Finally, do you want to share the inspiration for your most recent project?

When I moved to college teaching I made a list of the four essential writing experiences that most of my students were missing that I believe are critically important for all high school writers. I am now shaping those into units with Kelly Gallagher, my co-author on my last project.

Did you all get as excited as I did when you saw that sentence above? I’m beyond thrilled that Penny and Kelly are collaborating again. If you haven’t seen their last book, 180 DAYS: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, check it out NOW. Kelly’s Readicide is one of my all time favorite reads, but all of his books are amazing. I can’t wait to see what this new book becomes.

Thanks again to the amazing Penny Kittle for giving of her time to share her thoughts with us. If you'd like to find Penny online, here are some links:

Website →

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Inner Editors - Helga

Helga is back.

I’m not sure she ever left, to be honest.

If you don’t know Helga, please allow me to introduce the two of you. I first wrote about Helga HERE. She’s my negative inner voice as I write, my inner editor. She’s present other times, to be certain. Anytime I am working to do anything that is out of my comfort zone, trying to stretch myself in a new direction, Helga appears.

She is the voice of doubt, the voice of fear. She gives the concern over not measuring up power, and it can be paralyzing.

In the last thirteen months as I’ve worked to writing these books, Helga has been sitting there, right beside me, pointing out everything I’m doing wrong. I first started telling my students about her in May of last year, how her words made me stumble, made me want to stop writing, made me want to just do what I’ve always done and not try to try something new.

These seventh graders nodded their heads with understanding.

They have Helgas too.

This year I began the year telling my students that I’m trying to write. Telling them that it scared me. Telling them that I fear I will never measure up to these authors I love and read all of the time. Telling them that although I’m afraid, I’m doing it anyway.

One of my students has come in at least once a month to write with me on Wednesdays over our lunch period. One day he looked at me and said that we needed to write no matter what the voices said, that it was time to be brave.

I’ve thought of him over the last four days. I’ve written daily, trying to get Maggie and Sully’s story on the page as it is in my head. I’ve looked at my words, then gone at night to read the words of Kate Canterbary, Robyn Carr, Jill Shalvis, Penny Reid, Kristen Ashley. I dissolve into worry and comparison.

Comparison is the thief of joy, Teddy Roosevelt once said.

This morning I sat at Starbucks, ready to write. I opened my document and immediately began to reread what I had written yesterday. My heart sped up. I imagined publishing this one day in the future. I imagined people reading this. Would they like it? Would they think it was too boring? Would they grow to care about the characters as I did? Would the small town turn them off? Would they think it was too similar to my town? Not similar enough? Would they be turned off by the “romance” scenes? Would they think there weren’t enough of those scenes?

The questions of these unnamed critics swirled in my brain and I’m certain that Helga was right there, giving voice to all of those fears.

And then, good old Teddy came back with my favorite quote of all.

So Helga might stay, but I have Teddy and my student Jeremy to fight her back. And I’ll keep sharing with my students about my battles with her because they have their own Helgas too and, as we all know, it is good to know we’re not alone.

Take that, Helga. I’m still writing.