Monthly Archives: January 2015

Nine Years Ago


This week’s celebration is easy. Thank you Ruth Ayers for holding a space for our celebrations of all sorts.

Nine years ago today, at 43 years of age, I sat in a medical office and heard Dr. David Chan tell me I had breast cancer, and it was going to be a long and difficult year, and I would most likely make it out on the other side, okay.

All I heard was the word CANCER. I thought I was going to die. I was sort of prepared– I had felt something that was not there the month before. And the radiologist the week before was pretty obviously looking at something really ugly inside my breast with her ultrasound wand. And the biopsy was pretty frightening too. But hearing the actual words, well– it freaked me out. “Can someone get me some water?”

“This is not the time to panic,” he said. He was sort of stern with me, geez. I knew immediately that he was the doc for me, and I asked the nurse/counselor/hand-holder if she could arrange to get me channeled to his office. She would try. A week later I was in his office, hearing the plan.

I remember walking down the hall to his office. A young and bald woman was standing in the appointment line, and we locked eyes. Her gaze was a bit defiant, a bit sympathetic, and a bit of “I look like you will soon…”

I lost every single hair on my body. Yep, every single one.

I slept a lot.

My colleagues made dinner for me and my family.

I taught second grade every day except when I had chemo on Fridays.

I learned that I was deeply loved.

My friends held me close. They cried a lot too.

My family held me closer.

When I told my nine year old daughter that one of the things that was going to happen to me was I was going to have surgery to remove my left breast, she gasped and asked me if I had told dad yet. I assured her he would be okay, and that he was more of a butt man anyway.

I learned that I was really strong.

People prayed for me.

People knitted hats for me (do you know how cold your head gets without hair?)

I gave thanks for Western medicine and also gratefully experienced Reiki and visualization, yoga, and support groups.

I met some of the finest and strongest human beings I have ever known.

I lost a boob.

I gained an understanding of the fragility of life. And thus the beauty and value of each moment.

I recognize the bravery and honesty with which every person with cancer lives.

I am still here.

I hope it never comes back.



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A Good Week


Thank you Ruth Ayers for your reminder this week about how important it is to celebrate. For me it helps me find my way to gratitude, which is always the best place for me to be. You can read what she and others are celebrating here.

Six things to celebrate from this first week back after winter break:

1. My students agreed to recommit to reading with depth and purpose and energy. We talked about reading preferences, what gets in our way, why we don’t read, and what leads up to those perfect moments of AHA! understandings. I agreed to bring more variety into our classroom library, and to keep it fresh. (Thus I am going in today to reorganize the library!)

2. On Sunday morning I found my way to the Palos Verdes Library book sale, and picked up about eighty almost new books for fifty-one dollars. I was anticipating #1.

3. I participated in a union meeting where we agreed to move three million dollars out of the strike-crisis fund into our general fund so that we can prepare for a strike, should it become necessary. I don’t want to strike. I really don’t. It changes everything- I remember from the 1989 strike when I was a brand new teacher. But I REALLY don’t think it is in any way fair for a district that has received large increases, > 7%,  in funding for the past few years to offer their teachers a 2 % raise after seven years of no raises. (Not to mention the furlough days/pay cuts.) Right before the meeting on Wednesday they upped it to 4%. Closer, but not enough. Clearly, they will not do the right thing unless we push back. As much as I would like to sit in my classroom and ignore the noise, this is social justice for me. Children cannot be taught well by demoralized and financially struggling adults.

4. My daughter made some strong moves towards choosing a major, applying for it, and adjusting to her college life. Big mom smile.

5. I tried some new work with science notebooking this week. It was amazing. Keri Porter is a brilliant science teacher and she shared with my students and I how understanding art techniques can lead to powerful and accurate observations in science. We were all excited to continue this work. It was the boost my science class needed. (That is an understatement.)

6. It is a three day weekend. Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


I am trying to figure out how these six things come together. They don’t really need to, but I need a title. And I want to go for a walk, so I need to finish this… hmmm…my passions are here: my daughter, social justice, books, reading, teaching… and that makes it seem to me that it was a good week indeed. Lucky me.


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A Grief Narrative


Here is a slice of life from me, you can read other slices here. I haven’t sliced in a while, it is good to be back. A warning: this is a little raw.


The other day I was walking on a trail near my home. I found this large dead branch of a tree on the side of the path. It stood out because the rest of the area was green with sprouts from the recent Los Angeles rains. Usually this would all be brown, but it was a vivid green, alive and fresh. So the branch stood out. It didn’t block the path, it was off to the side. It made me think of my grief over the death of my father. It has been blocking my path. I want to move it to the side. I want to walk on without its heavy burden.


“When loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died.” On Sunday morning, these words reached out and wiped my tears as I read them. Thank you Patrick O’Malley, for your beautiful article in Sunday’s NYTimes. “Getting Grief Right” is what I have been trying to do for the past year and a half. My father died in May of 2013. I feel badly because I am still grieving. I can’t shake it. O’Malley talks about his work with grieving people. He thinks of the depth of one’s grief as a measure of the depth of love and relationship that was lost.

This makes sense to me. Of course one of the people I loved most and longest in my life would leave a ginormous crater behind when he left.  O’Malley sees grief not so much as a series of stages, but as a narrative. Three chapters of narrative. The first is the connection between the relationship with the person who is gone and the intensity of the grief. For me – this is understanding that the story of my life is one that reflects everything my father did for me, everything he made possible, the depth and intensity of his love for me. He was a role model, an amazing teacher. He loved children and loved being a part of their lives. He loved having fun, being silly. But he was serious, stern, even rigid at times. Yet there was always a twinkle in his eye, a bending of the rule when necessary. Like the time the stray dog ended up on our porch. Nope, we couldn’t keep it. Yet it remained for a few nights, and hadn’t wandered off like Dad said it would, for it was Dad who had been feeding him. It was time for a family dog.

He always made me feel safe. Loved. Cherished. The chapter of my life up until right before he was gone. And now my chapters don’t include him. That first chapter is big, long and heavy. But it is one of unconditional love. A beautiful chapter.

Chapter Two is the death. And his leaving was difficult. I have been thinking of this a lot lately. Reliving those last days, that last month. Cancer is not a pretty way to die. But it gives you time to say goodbye. Drugs took most of his pain away. They took most of his anxiety over dying away. But not all of it. He did not want to die. He was great at living. Not so great at letting his life go. It was painful and confusing and difficult to know how to help him. On the afternoon before he slipped into that deep sleep of his last days, he was agitated and angry. I hugged him and told him everything would be okay. It would be okay because he was not going to be alone, we would all stand by him. I looked him in the eyes and told him how much I loved him. He looked at me. We both knew I was speaking truth, but that it wasn’t enough. I could see it in his eyes. It was not going to be okay. He was leaving. It was scary.

Hospice is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t make it perfect. It just makes it possible. He got to die in his home, surrounded by music and family and pictures of his life on the wall next to his bed. But he still died. And his last breath, while beautiful because my sister, brother and mom were there, and we all said goodbye, and held his hands, was still his last breath. Gone. I remember the mortuary guys rolling him in a sheet. I can’t get that image out of my head. I hope by writing that partof the chapter down, it loses some of its power over me.

Chapter three is what comes after the world stops grieving with you. After the “appropriate” time. Still being written. Right now. Living my life as it is. Cherishing the people I love, just like he taught me. Loving the work I do, just like he did. Celebrating traditions and holiday rituals, just like he enjoyed doing. This third chapter is what I make it.
Thank you for reading it. And helping me write it down.

I am moving the grief to the side of the path. It is still there, but the story is still being written.



Love you dad.teardrophike


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celebrate-image-1Today I celebrate a surprise in December. And you can read more celebrations here

It was one of those moments I dread. A small group of my students were sitting patiently, waiting for me to tell them what I thought. Waiting for my judgement. I knew I had to make a decision, but I didn’t want to make it. I didn’t want to disappoint or discourage anyone. Yeah, that is a part of life, but why do I have to be the one to teach that lesson?

We were holding auditions to find our MC for our Traditional Literature Awards Ceremony. Six of my students had stayed in at recess, given it their best shot, and were looking to me for the results. Suddenly it hit me, it flew out of my mouth before I thought it through. “You guys saw the performances, you decide! Think it over for a moment, and then we will share what we think.”

I knew there was a clear “winner”, and wondered if they would agree. They did. They all smiled and said J’s name first. They shook their heads in disbelief, as if they couldn’t believe how obvious that had been. We decided to let him be the lead, and he would give the others a spot to announce some of the awards. Everyone wins. I was impressed with how they solved the problem, and came to a solution, and made everyone a winner… all without me.

That was an eye-opener to be sure, although it has started to be the norm in my classroom this year–all without me– so the surprise factor should be tuning down for me. The best surprise, however, was who came out in the lead. This child is one I am concerned about. He misses a lot of school. His parents worry that he doesn’t easily make friends. But here he was, on fire, as a masterful, improvisational master of ceremonies! It did not escape me that if I hadn’t given them a chance to audition, and just went on what I thought I knew, this wouldn’t have happened.

During the ceremony his mom came to me, she had shivers she said. “This is what we see at home, this is the J we know! I am so thankful he had a chance to shine at school. Thank you!”

Surprise! Here is to more surprises this year. My number one goal this year is to BALANCE (my OLW) my classroom so that my students have chances to surprise me and themselves at anytime. I need to teach carefully, but I also need to step back and let things go the way they will. Follow the energy. Get ready for the surprises.


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Happily Ever After

‘Twas three weeks before Christmas

and all through the classes

not many were reading

I wanted to shout, “Get off of your…!”

But I knew that wasn’t the answer. Cursing, yelling, bullying… not the tools of my trade. Although at that time of year, well, the patience and grace of a teacher before the winter break is a saintly and holy thing indeed.


So I decided to try a short-term project. I knew I wanted to do a unit on traditional literature sometime this year. In the past, that unit had started with a tidy little chart I made about the various types and definitions of traditional literature. Then we read lots of stories, talked about them, and sometimes I put up large lists of the types of stories and had students put the stories they read into the “proper” category, along with reasons why they fit in that category. To be fair, this was a decent assignment that met the former standards for California – students had to be able to identify the type of story they were reading.

But CCSS does not require the low level skill of lableling. It asks for comparisons and analysis. And I knew there could be more to this unit. Fresh still from NCTE- the word AUTHENTIC was still echoing– no, really clanging around incessantly, in my head, and I wanted to make this unit feel real and meaningful. I also wanted to avoid being the reading police for the next few weeks, and I wanted engagement to increase.

So I went in on a Sunday and unloaded all of my traditional lit books out of storage. I plopped them onto the desks. And the next morning, I began by telling them I had all of these books that most people call traditional literature, but I needed help organizing them into manageable groups of books. They had some ideas – they had done some work in this genre before– and they agreed to try. I asked them to put post-its in the stories with notes about what they were thinking, to share with the other group of fourth graders who would also be helping with this project. They read and wrote back and forth to each other for a few days. I asked them if they had noticed any patterns, if we could start coming up with names for the types of stories we were reading. I purposely did not impose my “official” terms onto their noticings. I let it go where they took it. I figured at some point in the future I could say something like, “By the way, some people call these types of stories…”

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This was fun for most of the first week, but I knew we had to take it up a notch. What that would look like was not clear to me. I asked them to help. I shared with them that I was intrigued with this idea I had read about on some teacher blogs about projects where kids were doing their own Newberry awards. I asked them if that could work for us. Immediately they jumped in. There was lots of energy. One of my guiding principles this year has been one I heard from Kathy Collins this fall: “Go where the kids’ energy goes- follow it.”

We decided to call our awards the TL Awards. We would create the categories together, nominate stories for those categories, vote, tally, and hold an awards ceremony on the last day before break. They were excited, but in a way that was different. Now maybe that is just because I was looking for it, with my newfound “authentic project creator” swagger. I was pretty proud of myself. But really, they were 100% engaged. I did very little cajoling. I was really just managing, and observing, and having interesting conversations.

I asked everyone to nominate at least three books/characters, and I asked for one page of writing about one story they read each week. I pulled small groups based on what I noticed people were trying but not quite doing, and I coached kids for fluency work. The rest of our reading work (chapter books and info books) was independent. I let them pick partners for this part of the work. This work took up both readers and writers workshop time for the remainder of those three weeks. We still did a little notebooking, but just a little. I decided to sit back and watch.

Here is what I saw:


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Children who I had worried about all year started reading and writing like crazy. Students who barely talked about reading were engaged in real conversations. Stamina was off the charts. Because the books included Tall Tales, fairy tales, myths, anthologies from many different cultures, and many other types of stories, there was something for everyone. Because I allowed them to whisper-read the stories together with their partner, they helped each other through the rough spots. The only thing I required was for the nomination form to be checked by two other students. I wanted them to apply the skills we had learned in writers workshop, and I didn’t want to put stuff up on the wall that was not representative of our better work. And I knew they wouldn’t be able to read each others’ writing if I didn’t force legibility, basic grammar, and word wall spelling.

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The last week of the project found us mostly reading the nomination wall (it took up an entire wall of cabinets) and the stories that people had nominated, but we had not yet read. We did some work around writing about reading, and broadened it to drawing about reading- opening up our minds to different ways to respond to what what we were reading. Stamina increased again. I had plenty of quiet time to meet with students who needed extra time with me.

Then we had another meeting to determine our next steps. I helped them backwards plan from where we wanted to be on Friday to where we were that day. We made a list of next steps. The kids who wanted to be MCs audtioned for each other. The “winners” were obvious to them and surprising to me. In fact, the boy who was clearly suited for the work is usually quiet and shy and rarely speaks. This was a hidden talent of his. His mother came up to me during the ceremony with tears in her eyes and said she was so glad he had a chance to shine, and how he struggled to be himself in school. She thanked me for the chance I had given him. It wasn’t me! But I smiled and said thank you anyway.

A small group of students stepped up to compile a list of titles and characters from the nomination wall. I gave them a quick lesson on Excel and they used our five classroom computers to create the ballot. Then we printed the ballots, voted, and another group of students asked to tally them. They gave me the results and I put them in the envelopes.

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Awards day found us with both of my classes stuffed into my classroom, snacks were served, parents were invited in, and we began. I let them run with it. They had a blast. As each winner was announced, they high-fived each other, and they cheered as if it were real, as if they had won something, as if it really mattered. Well, it did – they did– yes!

At the end of the awards announcement, a few students had volunteered to read some of the winning stories (or excerpts from them) aloud to us if there was time. Thankfully there was. It was magical. Happily ever after magic.



And I heard them exclaim

as they went on their way

that didn’t feel like work,

it felt much more like play!

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