Gratitude: Kid Birthday Parties Are Easier Than Labor

My dear friend Randy Hyde has been working on a happiness project that started with his 30 Day Experiment and has evolved into a 545 mile bike ride. He started it after seeing Shawn Anchor's TED Talk where he shares five daily tasks for finding happiness. You'll have to check out Randy's blog for all of the tasks, but one of them is identifying three things you're grateful for. This is one of the easier of the five for me, and after Kiara's second birthday I was feeling particularly grateful.

Kiara gets a kiss from Tavi, and a suburn...
#1 David and I survived the baby part.

Kiara has turned two and we have officially negotiated our first two years as new parents with varying degrees of success. Breastfeeding and sleep training are a distant memory and now it's terrible two toddler tantrums. Yep. Those are so much better than sore nipples and sleep deprivation. Grateful.

#2 Kiara is an extremely nice kid.

She played with her friends at her birthday party, and even though her mom forgot to apply sunscreen, she barely complained about her sunburn. Grateful.

Note to self:
Cupcakes means you don't need a cake.
#3 Planning a birthday party is so much better than going into labor.

Planning kid birthday parties isn't easy. There is the food and the cake and entertainment. There are the comparisons I cannot help myself from making to the wide variety of friend birthday celebrations we attend. We tried to keep it simple, but in the end it was still a lot of work. But I wouldn't trade this for labor. Nope. So much easier. Grateful.

If anyone has any hints for simple kid parties, David and I would love to hear them.


Books! Books! Books! First Ten for 2014

I'm trying to read 50 books this year and I'm a little behind, but pretty close to on pace. I'll post my thoughts every ten books so I can get some blog posts out of all this reading.

The first 5 books I read this year are by Avi, a young adult writer who visited our campus in January in conjunction with the UCLA history department. His books move quickly and have strong plots so it was a nice way to start the year. 

Something Upstairs by Avi: An interesting supernatural element based in realistic fiction/nonfiction. A fun way to explore a historical time period and suspend disbelief.  

Hard Gold by Avi: A journey west in search for gold and a lost family member drives the plot of this book. The use of primary source documents is great and it takes me back to the little time I’ve spent in Colorado. 

Crispin by Avi: This is my favorite of the Avi books. It has a compelling plot and taught me a great deal about medieval England.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi: Again, Avi succeeds with plot, but the voice of the female narrator is a bit uneven as well as his handling of her African ally.  

Nothing But the Truth by Avi: An interesting format reveals how a classroom power struggle can get out of hand and how easily the truth can be misconstrued.

Several students recommended Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and somehow it ended up in my Christmas stocking! Thanks, Mom. But I finished it last year so it didn't make this list. It did, however, lead me to another Rowell book.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Even though I like Eleanor and Park better, I love how Rowell captures the discomfort of going away to college. I could just picture Levi sitting in front of my dorm room at U of O like I sometimes found Heath, Jessica Goodwin’s friend. I'm still not sure how I feel about her handling of bipolar, but really enjoyed the sister/twin and writing musings. Fanfic has never been my thing, but she has me curious. She has an incredible website too.

I wanted to read these next two titles before their movies come out. 

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: False started this book on the Kindle preview over a year ago, then found the paperback for cheap and devoured it in a week. Strong CNF storytelling and all of life is a journey, right? It made me want to hike the PCT even though I hate to camp.  

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:  This is a page-turner. I liked it better when I was in it than when I finished it. The unlikeable characters made me want this book out of my house and made me an extremely irritable wife for the whole week while I read it.   

I feel kind of bad about counting these next two as two, but they are beautiful and I reread them cover to cover for at least two weeks and they still wait for me at my bedside to help me get in a little meditation.
Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe Part I by Yumi Sakugawa

Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe Part I and II by Yumi Sakugawa 

These little graphic novels are a perfect way for me to meditate. The illustrations are lovely and the act of turning the pages and taking in each assignment from the universe helps ground me. Her other books are lovely as well. You can find them here.

So my next ten will have more writers of color. I realized after looking at my list that I'm solid when it comes to reading women, but right now my 2014 is pretty white. I plan to make my next ten more diverse.



First Quarter Progress Report for 2014

A while back, poet Kima Jones asked on twitter about those new year's resolutions. She was calling me out. That woman is all about accountability and she gets it done. I needed to come clean. I started the year with an ambitious set of goals but now, as the first quarter closes I'm ready to check in with those goals and my progress.

Writing: Finish high school memoir draft (50,000 words) and revise YA novel: Rice Paper Superheroes.

Progress: Still drafting the high school memoir: 23,000 words. Not quite halfway there. I need to write, people

Reading: Read and write short annotations for 50 books in the year.

Progress: Doing ok on this one although I was ahead of the game at the start of March and am now behind. Still, I've finished 10 and am halfway through two more. I should be at 12  by now. Spring break should help me catch up.

Publishing: Submit work at least once a month and publish one blog post per week.

Progress: Only submitted one piece to CNF, close on the blogs. One, maybe two weeks behind. I need to get my work out there. This is the scary one for me, always, but it is one of those risks I have to make myself take.

Fitness: Run 500 miles in the year.

Progress: Just over 100 miles. I should be at 125.

So, my conclusion here at my quarterly progress report is this: I'm behind but I can still reach my goals.

I can do this.

Here we go.


Testing Season Is Upon Us! But it Doesn't Have to Be...

It's that time of year. Day light's saving is here. Early warm days remind us that spring is around the corner. Glorious summer awaits. But first... first things first. It's testing season.

I've already been asked to take my students to the computer lab to help prepare them for the new Smarter Balanced Field Test which is all online. Proponents of these assessments like to say, "Look, no more silly bubbling! Now you are challenged by questions which really show what you know!"
Kiara has had enough of this testing injustice. We're opting out!

But to that I say, please. This test, just like the SAT, will be an excellent indicator of family income levels. Students who read online, have their own computers, and use the technology they have for reading and schoolwork are at a huge advantage on this test. And guess what. There are still multiple choice questions. And the short answer English questions, well, I'm curious who will score them and how many of my students will actually complete them within the time frame given. And if early field tests from New York are any indicator, our students will do poorly. Not only will they struggle to read lengthy passages followed by just a couple of questions, not only will they battle with questions that require them to think "the Common Core" way, but their scores will tell them they are not proficient, their teachers are failing, their schools are failing, and any small bit of confidence remaining in our public schools will erode away to nothing. Awesome. Sounds like a great way to evaluate students, teachers, and schools.

Want to read more to debunk myths about Smarter Balanced Assesments? Here's a great start.

But I took my classes to the computer lab. I helped my students get an early preview of the materials and I will again for two days next week.

I complain to colleagues, tell them what a waste it is. "Well, I don't see it going away," one answered back.

But it could.

And next month, all of my students will spend eight hours taking this test. It is a "Field Test," not a real test at all. And the prep I've been doing in the computer lab? Practice. Practice for the practice. Not a real test. Practice. Allen Iverson has a few things to say about this.

The thing is, NONE of my students HAVE to take it. I wish I could tell them all this, but I'm not allowed to inform students or their parents that it is within their rights to opt out. Seriously. I cannot tell my students or their families or I could be removed from my position. I thought about doing it anyway. Let's test the district and see if they really would go after me, but after a conversation with my husband, we decided I should keep my mouth shut.

But it's so hard for me. I believe the right thing to do would be to talk with parents about the changes happening in education and the roles we all play. I want to tell them our students and our schools are not just data points on a district map. I want them to know about their right to opt out. I want them to know that if they exercise this right they will be taking a stand for our students, our teachers, and our schools.

There is a simple opt out form, but it could be more challenging than just submitting a form.
Read this post from a parent who opted out.

But I would love to find out what would happen if parents at my school, and schools all over our city, state, and country did the same. Imagine if we took our schools back. Just imagine.

Spring could be a glorious season once more. 


The Schools Our Communities Deserve

After a long day at school, I make my way to a local middle school where our district superintendent approved a co-location (more than one school shares one school site) without consulting with the school community. This new "pilot school" has financial backing from Green Dot, and will serve a select group of 6-12 graders (read "local white students") taking space on an already successful middle school campus and competing for the same students.

Needless to say, the local parents, teachers, and community are enraged, but the district really doesn't care. Unfortunately, this has become the norm. This is how large district administrators "deal" with their schools. Decisions are made and changes occur. Deal with it. Here is a charter school and you need to share your school site. Work it out. Here are the Common Core Standards and this is how you will be evaluated and evaluate. Make it work. We are closing your school. Deal with it. It's a tough time to serve in our public schools.

But despite the mess coming from district leadership and the ed deform movement attacking public education and its teachers at the district, state, and federal levels, good things continue to happen. Students read and perform Midsummer Night's Dream. They write essays about Fredrick Douglass' thinking about slavery and the complexities of pluralism. They debate the historical legacy of President Andrew Jackson: hero or villain and that's just in the last few weeks at my school. 

I continue to work for the public schools our communities deserve alongside teachers, our union, and parents who are committed to do the same. But we are up against a well-funded enemy (The Gates Foundation, The Waltons of Walmart) and it requires some digging to understand what is really happening in public education today.

If you want to support your local schools, here are a couple of resources you might want to check out. And the one thing I ask that you do, is don't believe the hype. Schools haven't changed as much as people would like to say they have (for good or bad) but if they are going to continue to exist, we need your help. We need everyone's help.

American Education professor Diane Ravitch's blog provides great links and analysis of ed policy teachers and their impact on our schools, teachers, students, and their families.

The Network for Public Education advocates for a strong public education system because it is essential to democracy.


Running from the Dark

Tonight I go for a run. Even though it’s already dark. Even though I’m tired. I have to.

The dark started seeping in around the holidays. Now it’s February. It’s been a few months. It hasn’t been persistent, but it has been enough for me to notice.

So I change my clothes, and after the baby is safely to bed, I lace up my shoes and head out into the night.

I’ve been running from the dark since I was a kid. I told my mom, “Why do I always have to be the happy one? Maybe sometimes I’m just not happy.”

I’ve been running from the dark ever since the summer when my brother didn’t sleep. He started hearing voices and talked too fast and ended up in the hospital.

I’ve been running from the dark ever since the winter my sister didn’t sleep. She started hearing voices and talked too fast and ended up in the hospital.

They both made it. They made their way out of the dark. I’m still running.

I’m about a mile in. It’s a cool night and the first half of this run is uphill. The second half will be easier.

In college, the dark seeped in with the rain. It was the rainiest year on record in the Pacific Northwest. I blamed the rain. So, after college I moved to Los Angeles. I thought the sunshine might help. But the monotony of blue skies got to me. I started to see a therapist and I kept running.

I’m halfway through my run, but I’m behind. I need to pick up the pace. It’s getting late.

After my daughter was born I paid very close attention to the darkness. I wasn’t sleeping. I worried about the whole post-partum bit. I could see the darkness around the edges, when the exhaustion felt like too much and when I was up alone in the middle of night. I kept moving though, and as soon as I could, I started to run.

It’s mostly downhill for this last half-mile. The palm trees are silhouettes against the night sky. The moon is hidden behind the clouds.

When I tore my Achilles tendon, I couldn’t walk or run for months. That’s how I know things are bad because it’s darker now then it was a year ago. Nothing has changed except how I feel, and I can run again.

I stop at a light, a few blocks from home. In just a few seconds, I’ll be home. When I get there the lights will be on and I'll head inside where it’s bright.


A morning inspired by Pete Seeger

On this morning of Obama’s State of the Union address, I hear that Pete Seeger has died. I immediately hear a banjo in my mind.

I think of Bruce Springsteen. I remember Pete leading the country, along with Bruce, at the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s inaugural concert. I was so proud of our country, so filled with optimism about the direction this anti-war, progressive president might take our country.

Six years and a full election cycle later I’m proud of our president’s Health Care initiative, but I’m mostly disappointed. I imagine Mr. Seeger is too for President Obama’s drone strikes, continued militarism, corporate bailouts, and privatization of our public schools.

Twitter asks what I hope to hear from our President tonight. I’ve learned from five previous State of the Union speeches that high hopes will lead to great disappointment. It’s not like it was during Bush when every sentence brought offense. No, with this POTUS I have to listen carefully because it is the subtext I need to decipher, particularly in the education section of his speech. He will surely address accountability in our schools which really means disempowering our unions and rewarding teachers based on test scores. He might say we must not teach to the test, but he will likely emphasize just how these crucial these tests are.

So, before I head to work in my union red this morning, I listen to Pete Seeger, and I’m reminded why I write, why I’m a union activist, why I teach in a pubic school, and why I’m compelled stand up for what I believe, even when it gets lonely. 


Building Your Writing Community

I am lucky enough to spend the holiday weekend with dear friends I met in my MFA program at Antioch University over a decade ago. We fly, then drive from cities and small towns, wind down long, steep roads and gather in a house overlooking the Coast to celebrate a milestone birthday. But as we reconnect, it's obvious there is so much more to recognize: sobriety, a couple of books, a baby, a marriage, a law degree, an engagement, a successful blog launch and subsequent book proposal request, and our friendship.

Ten years after meeting my writing family, despite all the time we've spent apart and even though we live in different cities and write different genres from different perspectives, we still strive to tell our stories. In our conversations we weave narratives. We introduce new characters, construct settings, pile on conflicts, and seek out resolution. We gaze out at the Pacific for hours, each of us searching for the story that will set us free.

But we are writers. We will never truly be loose of the stories we are compelled to tell. That is why it is so critical that we stick together.

Writers have to find other writers, because this can be isolating business.

I soak in three days with my writing family and then I make the long trip home, thousands of miles from this creative community. I arrive at my coffee shop the next morning. I check-in with another writing friend, my local-writing-family, and then, with the momentum of writers everywhere sitting pen in hand or before a glowing screen, I put down the words.

They are what keep us going,
keep me going,
keep going.


Another Poetry Post: Amiri Baraka

We lost American poet Amiri Baraka this week, and if I'd still been posting a poem a week, I would have found one of his poems to honor him. If I learned anything from my year of poems, it's that there are so many poets to appreciate, I should not pass on an opportunity to explore one. So, here is a bio from the New York Times which begins to explore some of the complexity that is Amiri Baraka and here is a poem (or a preface) which leaves me breathless.

From Poet Seers' bio of Amiri Baraka
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
By Amiri Baraka

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands


2013 Year in Review

This picture has nothing to do with this post. It's just a funny shot of
Kiara reading Goodnight Bush and making a face about Dick Cheney.

Well, 2013 has been my most prolific year as a blogger with this being my 51st post. The 52 poems project definitely kept me going. I loved returning to a few of my favorite poets: Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, and Lucille Clifton, but I also discovered how much I love other poets like Seamus Heaney, Richard Blanco, and Naomi Shihab Nye. My poetry posts were not so widely read, though. I don't know how much these stats really tell me. I mean, as of now, my Dukes of Hazzard excerpt is my all-time most read which just shows the power of the label in a search engine. Apparently more people search for 80s tv shows than for poems about forgetting and remembering life.

Still, these were the three posts which got the most hits in 2013. Thanks for reading along and here's to another year of reading, writing, blogging, and living.

The third most visited post was titled Conception after a poem in Reflections of Motherhood. I decided to share this after we decided to try to grow our family again. No luck yet, but we're still hopeful!

The next most-read post was about the new year's wishes my students made and some wishes of my own. It surprises me that this was so widely read, but I'm glad for it and I do plan on writing more about my teaching and the state of public education this coming year.

But for 2013, the posts which resonated most was Love that Dog about our family's decision to re-home our dog. I still tear up reading it and still miss Scout. It was tough not hanging her stocking this holiday season and if anyone is in need of a dog stocking, let me know.

See you in 2014!