My Children Will Never Know

When I was in junior high, my mom saw a bunch of boys that I was friends with buying Trojans in the local grocery store. Even though many of those pimply faced teens would never get the chance to use those condoms until long after they had expired, my mother panicked.

Deductive reasoning told her that if the boys in my grade were purchasing rubbers, then…

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We hadn’t had “The Talk” yet, and so, like a mad woman, she raced home to find me, only I wasn’t there.

As any bored thirteen-year-old would do on a Saturday afternoon, I had hopped on my bike and pedaled to a friend’s house. I’m sure I left a note of some kind, albeit one that didn’t reveal my destination since I often didn’t have an exact end in mind, but these were the days before cell phones, the days when it wasn’t unusual for kids to spend whole afternoons in the fresh air. Yet seeing how I didn’t live in a neighborhood so much as in the middle of a potato farm, my boundaries were less-defined. My mother could yell for me till the cows came home, and cows might literally show up before I would.

In this instance, my mother had only two choices: to wait for me to return (mind racing, envisioning worst-case scenarios) or to track me down like a bounty hunter.

With the determination and paranormal instinct that only a mother can possess, she got in her car.

I was a whole town over when she pulled up alongside me. By the time she had stopped and rolled down the window, my mother had worked herself up from a low simmer to a full boil.

“Get. In. The. Car.”

I’d heard that tone many a time: I was in dangerous territory.

“But my bike.”

I didn’t know what I had done, but I reasoned if I could ride back home, I’d buy myself some time. Hopefully, it would allow for my mother to calm down enough to realize that killing me wouldn’t benefit either one of us; instead she popped the trunk.

I struggled to fit my ten-speed in the back while she waited inside the vehicle, and once I had buckled up, it didn’t take long before she broke the silence.

“I saw those boys you’re friends with buying condoms at the store today. Condoms! What were they buying condoms for, Sara?!”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Mom, I’m not having sex if that’s what you think.”

“I know you’re not having sex. You know how I know? Because I’m your mother. I know everything.”

“The Talk” ended up being fairly short– the gist of it being that I was never, EVER, to have sex with those boys. I was able to reassure my mother of my virtuous ways (“Ew, Mom, gross!”), and seeing as how she didn’t really want to have “The Talk” any more than I did, we dropped the whole conversation, that is, until my sister came home later that evening and I got to retell the story over dinner in a dramatic rendering that left us both laughing. (Mom did not find my reenactment all that funny.)

Still, this is more than just a story about my mother’s psychic abilities, which I still believe she possesses today. Rather, this is a story about an experience that defined my adolescence.

Last year, my oldest daughter began sex-Ed in school. She was traumatized by some of what she learned, refusing to play with the boys at afternoon recess that day because, as she put it, “It’s just weird now, it’s like, I know their secrets.”  After she came home, and in the weeks that followed, there were lots of questions. I guess, in many ways, we’ve already begun “The Talk.” Still, if they are fortunate enough, my children will never know what it is like to have me hunt them down and find them with only sheer will, maternal instinct, and a little bit of luck.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the experiences that today’s children will never have.

Fewer and fewer kids are making mud pies or playing outside till the streetlights come on. When my children start roaming farther from home and I want to know where they are, I’ll probably just send a text. And by tracking their phones, I could know exactly where they are, letting a GPS take me there turn by turn, a thought that terrifies the teenager I used to be.

On the flip side though, my children will also be able to text me when they need a ride. They won’t sit outside the dentist’s office for hours plucking at the grass and wondering when their mom will finally remember she was supposed to get them. They won’t wait outside after play rehearsal watching one by one as their friends leave, the occasional mom or dad calling out from a minivan, “Do you need a ride?” They won’t hoof it home after swimming at a friend’s house, walking for miles in damp jean shorts that chafe the inside of their thighs, turning them an angry red. No. With phones at everyone’s fingertips, my children will probably Uber before they’ll scrounge for a ride.

Technology has made it so my children will never know what it is like to go to 7-11 in order to find out where the party’s at. When the parking lot of Sevs was empty, we didn’t get FOMO. We got Big Gulps. Then, we got back in our cars and drove from beach to beach trying to find the party for ourselves.

When I was a teen, we didn’t have group messages, we had three-way calling. If you were lucky, your family had a portable phone. If you weren’t, you stretched the cord from the kitchen to the bathroom to talk in privacy until your mother picked up the other line and told you to hang up.

We weren’t drug dealers or doctors, but nevertheless, we carried beepers and sent our boyfriends the first numeric text message: 143. And when our best friend stayed home sick, we took a quarter to the pay phone in school and dialed one of the many numbers we knew by heart to find out how she was.

We waited all night for the radio to play the perfect song to record on the mixed tape we were making for our Boo, and waited all week for our pictures to get developed at Genovese Drug Store. Out of an entire roll, we were lucky to get two or three good ones, pictures that wouldn’t go on Instagram, but ended up in our scrapbook next to collages we had made from Seventeen magazine. That was our #aesthetic.

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My children will never spend the first week of school making covers for their textbooks from brown shopping bags. They’ll never know card catalogues or what it’s like to find information without Google. They’ll never peck out their first papers on a typewriter, feeling the agony of every mistake. While I would much rather write a research paper today than when I sat at a microfiche machine, there are some things I experienced growing up that I hope will remain the same.

……………………..

I hope my children will know what it’s like to have someone ask them out face-to-face. I hope they will know what it feels like to hold a sweaty hand in a darkened movie theater, wondering if tonight will be their first kiss.

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{via Gifer.com}

And even though I work in a public high school and vomit a little in my mouth each time I witness a make-out session in the halls, I hope they will have someone who waits at their locker and walks them to class someday. They don’t need an elaborate promposal, a grotesque gesture designed to get the most likes on social media, but a simple, heartfelt request that makes their cheeks blush and their heart flutter before they answer yes.

I want my children to see their friends’ faces illuminated by bonfires, not screens. I want them to know what it feels like to spend hours on the phone talking with a loved one. I want their relationships to take place in real life, but fewer and fewer these days do.

Still, when I recently chaperoned the homecoming dance at the high school where I teach, I realized, as more and more kids showed up to dance the night away, that it hasn’t all changed. As I watched the awkward encounters of boys and girls and listened to the shouts as the DJ played a favorite song, their movements becoming more frenetic, the gymnasium hotter, the air less sweet, my friend yelled over the music to me, “I’m glad they still do this. I’m glad that technology hasn’t taken away everything.”

Looking out at the sea of bodies on the dance floor, I thought about my oldest daughter who in four short years would be here, singing along with her friends to the song that marks the end of every dance. As the students swayed, belting out the lyrics of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, I couldn’t agree more.

 

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If You Teach Writing, You’ll Want to Read This…

I love when I stumble upon a great book. I equally love when I discover an amazing lesson to use in my classroom. Often an idea for a lesson will be pieced together from something I discovered on the internet, something I read in a book, something a colleague shared with me, or it will simply come as a result of quiet contemplation (usually found whilst standing in a hot shower). When I have that Ah-ha moment, the result is instant elation and the urge to return to my classroom as soon as possible to try it out.

It’s like getting a new recipe where all the ingredients sound delicious, you can almost taste it, but until you get in the kitchen and make it, you can’t decide if it will be a keeper, a dish that you’ll put in the rotation for years to come.

Cooking—and teaching—require a bit of trial and error. The first time you attempt a new recipe, you follow it to the T, but then you decide that next time you make it, you’ll add shallots, or perhaps decrease the amount of cayenne, you’ll substitute chicken for beef, or double the amount of sauce it calls for. Eventually the recipe becomes your own, suited best to the tastes of your family.

A few years ago, I heard about a book called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I can’t recall exactly where I stumbled upon it, but I believe it was mentioned in one of the many teaching texts I’ve read by Kelly Gallagher. When it comes to educational philosophy, that guy would be one of my main gurus. For as long as I’ve been teaching writing, I have been on the mentor-text train. I love when students have a published text that they get to use as a model for their own writing. If you aren’t familiar with Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, it is essentially a non-fiction, memoir-style text told through a series of humorous vignettes that are categorized alphabetically. In addition to the vignettes, Rosenthal includes other text features like charts, graphs, pictures, and see also footnotes.

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I immediately started using Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life as a writing assignment in my creative writing class. After thoroughly examining the book with my students (a document camera is great for this), each student picks two letters of the alphabet at random. From the two, I allow them to choose one they will use for their Encyclopedia entries. The assignment is to write five vignettes for that letter and to model their writing after Rosenthal’s style. My students love this assignment for many reasons: the shorter entries, the fun and quirky writing style, the abandonment of the rules, and the challenge of working with a single letter.

As a teacher, you know a book is good if it gets stolen.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is one of those books I’ve had to replace. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth checking out, and not just for its teaching potential.

Over the summer, I was on one of my favorite websites: Amazon.com. Scrolling through the recommended items based on my purchasing history, I came across Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. At first, I didn’t want to order it as it was only available in hard copy. Being cheap, I thought I could wait and buy it when it was in paperback.

I could not wait. I tried, I really did. (#NerdGirlProblems)

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal got devoured. I read it, I loved it, and I got not one, not two, but THREE lesson ideas from it. Like Thanksgiving turkey leftovers that provide you with ammunition for a week’s worth of delicious meals, I had hit the jackpot.

Lesson idea one is similar to the idea from Encyclopedia. Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is categorized by subjects rather than alphabetically: social studies, geography, music, language arts. Many of the text features are the same as Encyclopedia, but some are new. Textbook uses an interactive texting feature that is so much fun. It also includes a pre-assessment, midterm, and final exam. My creative writing students were able to pick this year whether they would complete the Encyclopedia assignment or the Textbook assignment. We brainstormed different subject categories like Psychology, Mythology, and even P.E. Students were still writing five vignettes, but if they chose to take on Textbook, I allowed them to select the subject matter.

One student decided to use Culinary Arts as her category. She wrote a vignette inspired by each of her friends and the food that she associates with him or her, including their recipes. For one recipe she says it calls for two cloves of garlic, but then adds, “Let’s be honest, you know you’ll add more.” In another recipe, she incorporates watching a favorite movie as part of the cooking directions, while in another, one fat, loving cat gets added to a pile of catnip during the creation of Mac n’ Cheese. And that was just one student’s assignment. Each was unique, a pleasure to read and grade. (That’s right, I enjoyed grading them.)

In Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, you are invited to text your idea for an “Amy Rental.” Rosenthal suggests that she has always wanted to have a reason to run to her room, pack a suitcase, and jump on a plane. So if you, the reader, would like her to come to where you live, say to help you host a dinner party, you can text your idea for how you might utilize her and see if it gets her packing. As my students know, I regularly invite authors into my classroom to speak to them about writing. One of my students came over to my desk with Textbook in his hand. “Did you see this?” he asked me. “You should text her and see if she’ll come to our class.”

We’re still waiting to find out if she picks us.

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Lesson idea number two came from Textbook’s Science section. Rosenthal includes “The Short, Collective Biography Experiment.” The idea behind this experiment is that people gather around a table and come up with statements that are collectively true for all members. One person acts as the note-taker and in the end, a short, collective biography is written.

It seems so simple, I wonder why I never thought of it. Since we were in the beginning of the school year, my students were still getting to know each other. I have my desks arranged in six groups of six, but I allowed students to pick their own seats initially, so of course, students sat by people they knew. With five feeder middle schools, many of the students do not know one another. The first thing I did was number students off and mix up the groups. Then I told them to introduce themselves and determine a note-taker. Once that was done, I explained they needed to converse and find collective truths for their group, trying to be as specific and narrow as possible. “Don’t just say we all have a sibling. See if you all have an older sibling, a sister, a younger brother, or a sibling who annoys you.” Avoid the obvious: We are all in fifth period honors English. They talked; I circulated the room and pointed out places they had written something lame.

Then I stopped them and I read to them the example from Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I told them they would be writing their own collective biography and that they should use the example for inspiration. Now they started to get more creative.  

I distributed copies of the example for each group and they began drafting their collective biographies. In the end, they did recite them, in unison, as Rosenthal suggests imagining she and her cohorts doing.

Let me just list a few of the things this lesson does: addresses speaking, listening, and writing standards; requires very few resources; engages all students; includes elements of social and emotional learning; builds classroom community; tricks students into learning while simultaneously having fun; and teaches them that they have more in common with one another than they might initially think.

As a teacher, I love eavesdropping on kids when they are in groups, especially when they are so engrossed that they don’t realize you are there. I would have shot milk out of my nose had I been drinking it when I heard one boy ask his group, “Have you all been hit by your mom with an object?” Or the one boy who had been grouped with all girls and as I looked at their list I saw, “we have all worn tights.” Later on, I heard him telling them that while he would agree to having tights on the list because, well, football… he was not going to admit to EVER having watched Hannah Montana.

Meanwhile, another girl asked me, “Wait, are we going to read these together to the class?” When I told her yes, she said, “I’m so excited for this!” (Me too.)

Lesson number three is for a poem and it’s found at the end of Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. While I’ve not done this yet, I intend to. Throughout the poem, Rosenthal uses last lines from a variety of texts—including her own—and cites them via footnotes. For example, she includes the ending of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (“I was here, you see. I was”) as well as ending lines from Our Town, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (among others). These last lines are woven throughout her poem much in the same way song lyrics are incorporated into a lullaby weave (another awesome writing assignment that teens really enjoy).

Wouldn’t it be fun to ask students to log the last lines of the books that they read throughout the year and then use this as a culminating writing assignment come May or June? Or the last lines from their all-time favorite books throughout their lives? Or ask each student to contribute the last line of the independent book that they are reading at that time to a “last-line bank” and then let students pull from them as they write their own individual poems? Think how engaging it would be to see how different students used the same line in various contexts. What if a last line could inspire a student to check out a book they hadn’t previously considered reading? (Hey, one can dream, right?)

Whether you teach elementary, middle, or high school—you could adapt these lesson ideas and use them in your classroom. Make the recipe your own, and then share with me how it went.

Happy Teaching and Bon Appétit!

 

And We’re Off…

The 2016-2017 school year has officially begun. The students are present, the bells are ringing, and the emails are finding their way to my inbox.

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Every year I require my students to read books independently outside of what I assign them to read. I pick our class novels and other literature that we study; they pick their books for independent reading. This is where students get to read more high-interest books that will hopefully turn them into life-long readers.

Even teaching honors students, many of them still don’t like to read. Every year I wrestle with the independent reading requirement and work to find the magic recipe that will make it less of a struggle. I’ve had years where students had to read a certain number of pages, years where they earned points based on the quality and length of book they selected, and years where students had to read one book a month. There were years where students had to complete projects for their books, years where they did a combination of projects and presentations, and last year, where they simply had to conference with me about their books.

I actually liked conferencing with my students. It was nice to have face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with them about books. The problem is that I had to have ten conferences per student throughout the year. I had over 120 freshmen honors students last year. Go ahead, do the math. These book talks would not take more than five minutes, but that’s still 6000 minutes or 100 hours outside of class time talking about the books they read. Granted, not all of my students read their ten books, but I still spent hours upon hours in conferences. Add in the fact that high school students often wait till the very last minute and what I would get the week of a deadline was a line of students snaking out of my classroom door beginning at seven in the morning, all through my half-hour “duty-free” lunch, and again after school.

This year, I was given a fifth section of honors English and I knew that there would be no way I could strictly conference. I also know that research supports that assignment tied to independent reading are counter-intuitive to instilling a genuine love for reading, but if I just “trust” that they will read, we both know what will happen.

Last year’s students said that a book a month (ten for the year) was too much. The result: drop the requirement to two books per quarter (eight for the year) and give them four ways to “prove” they’ve read the books.

The first is still the conference with me. Like I said, I enjoyed talking to my students about books. Not only did I get to know them better and build relationships, but I also got some great book recommendations for myself and to share with the rest of my classes. Yet by making them only conference with me on two of the eight books for the year, I should only be putting in about 28 hours of my time outside of class.

Another thing they will do is present two of their books to the class. They get to create any type of presentation they want—a video, a Prezi, a PowerPoint, or even a book trailer. They can read passages from their book or simply convince their audience why they should or should not read the book.

Twice they will need to write a letter to me or a friend sharing their thoughts on their book. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And then twice, I have asked my students to talk about their book with their mom or dad. (GASP!) I know, I know…I am requiring teenagers to speak to their parents. Since I am not there to witness these conversations, I have asked both student and parents to write a brief response about their discussion. I suggested a half-page of writing.

Then I sent home the requirements along with a slip of paper for parents to sign saying that they were informed of the independent reading expectation in my class, and I went home to bed thinking I had it all figured out.

What I hadn’t planned on was defending the purpose behind asking parents to write a response.

Educators are asked, heck-evaluated even-on how we build partnerships with families. We have school statements that affirm things like: we believe parents are an integral part in their child’s education. We are asked to find ways to involve parents in our classrooms, something that becomes harder and harder to do at the high school level.

Visit an elementary school on Back-to-School night and see the halls swarming with parents; visit a high school and you may get as many as five parents in a class of 35 who actually show up. Parents love to volunteer in elementary classrooms. In sixteen years of teaching, I’ve never once had a parent offer to volunteer in my class. When I have an assignment that involves parents in what we are doing in my class, I see it as a win-win.

When we study Romeo and Juliet, I ask my students to interview their parents on “the perfect mate.” It’s always an animated class discussion when students compare the type of partner their parents would choose for them versus the kind of partner they would choose for themselves. I envisioned a similar outcome for this assignment.

Just the other night, I sat at my own daughter’s Back-to-School night and listened as her teacher said, “I don’t know how you all feel about this, but the third grade teachers have decided not to give homework packets this year.” That’s not to say that the kids don’t have homework. They are expected to read nightly and they will do math practice on the computer, but the third grade teachers won’t be sending home the traditional homework folders that my daughter grew accustomed to in first and second grade. They came home on Monday and went back on Thursday and every night she completed a worksheet or two.

Sitting there I thought: Oh, ok…How do I feel about this? And then I immediately thought, I trust my daughter’s teacher to know what’s going to be the best approach to educating my child. Because that’s her job. My job is to be the parent, and her job is to teach my kid. If she, and all the other teachers of that grade, think this is best, then it probably is. I will support her however I can. If that means buying extra Kleenex for the class, I will. If that means helping my daughter memorize her multiplication tables this year, I will. And if that means that I simply trust in the decisions she is making in the classroom, I will.

You see, we teachers really do plan and reflect and revise in an effort to get it a little bit more right each year.

I can only hope that the parents of my students will also trust me as their child’s teacher. But I also secretly hope that they will participate in these book talks with their children and have really nice conversations, ones that don’t center around emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dogs, ones that don’t involve discipline or disappointment, ones where maybe they gain an insight into their children that they didn’t have before. Because these kids grow up and change so fast.

Lately, the eight-year old version of my daughter has a totally different mind than the one I knew a few months ago. I’m awestruck each time I talk to her these days. And these days, she still wants to talk to me. When she’s fourteen or fifteen, I don’t know if that will still be the case. So when she is, if her teacher makes her talk to me, the only thing I might communicate is my sincerest thanks.