Mid Year Report

Ok, I am clearly behind on my blog posts, but here's where I stand on my yearly goals so far:

I started the year with an ambitious set of goals and the year is halfway over! How am I doing?

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

Progress: Still drafting the high school memoir: 37,500 words. I'm using July as a Camp NaNoWriMo to get this done. Then I'll I need to finish drafting Rice Paper Superheroes.

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

Progress: I'm still behind. I have 19 finished and a bunch of these were long, non-YA titles so I'm ok with being a little behind. Americanah and A Tale for the Time Being were worth the extra weeks I took to read them. I still have a solid month of summer to catch up. That means 10 books this month which is ambitious, but doable.

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

Progress: I suck at submitting. I don't know what I need to do to get going on this. Any suggestions? As for blog posts this is number 19 so I'm just a little behind.

Fitness: Run 500 miles in the year.

Progress: Yes! I'm ahead on this one. Granted, I'm walking most of these, but still I'm getting the miles in with 261 miles through June.

All of the goals are still within reach. Just have to keep putting in work!


Leaving it all behind

I'm a creature of habit. I love schedules and routines.
I thrive in them.
Maybe it's all of those years growing up Catholic: the repetition of mass: the sitting, kneeling, and standing, the prayers that became a chant, a childhood meditation.

Whatever the reason, it's tough for me to toss my everyday away.
Sometimes that is what life requires.
Sometimes you have to drop everything, buy a plane ticket, and leave it all behind.
Even when you want to stay, you have to leave.

I board my flight and the weightlessness makes me nauseous.
I wish I could be at school to end another year,
to share in the long goodbyes and the ceremony of graduation.
The Pomp and Circumstance.
The speeches and the reading of names.
The hugs and proud families and photos snapped
of girls dressed like young women and boys dressed like young men.
The huge smiles stuck on sweaty faces and the smear of makeup from a sloppy hug.

This year I'll miss all of it.

I am a creature of habit. I love schedules and routines,
but this year will end with my heart frayed by this awkward farewell.


Ten Things I Hope My Students Will Remember

This time of year is always a challenge for me. After all the hours I've spent working with my students, the end is suddenly upon us. I love my job, but what’s hard for me as a writer is only getting to read the opening chapters of my students’ stories. It’s like reading the Amazon preview but I can’t buy the whole book yet. We reach the end of the year together, but they are at the beginning of high school and the beginning of their young lives. They are like the opening week of NaNoWriMo, the faltering start to poems at the beginning of NaPoWriMo, the first few lines and scenes in a book. They are full of promise and expectation.

It’s exhilarating to be young. The future is an exciting and frightening unknown. My students have not yet written what will come, but they are finding their legs in this world and walking along a path unique to them. As they head off into a world that can be both beautiful and tragic, I want them to remember so much. But I know they can hardly remember to take their backpacks on their way out the door, so I better write these things down. Here are 10 things I hope my eighth graders will remember.

1) Keep writing. Maybe it’s a journal, or the beginning of a novel each November, or a few poems when you feel like the world doesn’t understand you. Maybe it’s a blog or a tumblr or tweets, but keep writing. You have a story to tell and the world needs more stories like yours. Your story might just save someone. Writing your story might save you.

2) Keep reading. Ok, for some of you this may be start reading, but hopefully you will read and read often. I hope you will read to learn, to work your brain, and to escape. Read new books and reread favorites. Read books that challenge your thinking and make you see the world differently. Talk with friends about books. Set goals for your reading and plan what books you want to read. Then, keep a list of the books you’ve read so you can say, yes, I did that.

3) Keep questioning. Think critically but not cynically. Think about the validity of your sources whether that source be an author, a teacher, a professor, a friend, a girl/boyfriend. Try to understand where people are coming from, but also decide if you agree with them. Use your critical thinking skills and establish your own independent thoughts.

4) Stay organized. Write down homework and projects and assignments every. single. day.  Clean out your binder, your backpack, your desk, your room, your closet and your mind. Keep the things you really need, but my rule is: if I haven’t used it or worn it in the past two years, it’s gone. Also, leave some space for quiet in your life so you can hear your thoughts. Close your eyes to the screens and sounds of the world and just be.

5) Keep believing. Believe in yourself and your abilities. Believe that if you work hard, you can do anything. Believe in the best version of who you are and strive for competitive greatness which Coach Wooden describes as “performing at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.”

6) Keep following your dreams. It is brave to hold on to the dreams of your childhood, but hold on to your dreams and make plans to get you there. If your dream is to make it to the NBA, do something every single day to help you get there. If your dream is to go to UCLA, make a plan to help you get there which might mean extra study sessions, finding a tutor or sacrificing something fun to get that school project done. Find people who can help you and continue to pursue your dream.

7) Be resilient. The world is going to tell you “No.” “You can’t.” People will doubt you and question your commitment and desire. Sometimes even those who support you will not understand or know how to help. Don’t give up. Keep pushing and pressing for what you want until life says, “Yes.”

8) Work hard. Coach Wooden says, “There is no substitute for hard work. None. Worthwhile things come only from hard work.” Some things come easier for some people. When things look easy for others, it’s often because they have spent hours working to make it appear easy. Life is not easy. Take pride in putting in work.

9) Find what you love to do and do it. Pursue it with enthusiasm and joy. 

10) Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Learn from them and keep moving forward. Be kind to those around you. Don’t judge others too harshly because if the struggle is real, everyone is in it. Be kind. 


Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

A poem for you, Mom, on Mother’s Day 2014
after Sandra Cisneros’ “Abuelito Who”

Mom who is far away
and wants me to call everyday
who is pain and worry and naps at noon
whose hair has gone gray
who tells me visit soon
who moves furniture around the room
who is hungry
is chocolate cake
is hamburger and fries
is full of sighs
who tells me never lie
who says question what you believe
who will never, ever leave. 


Forty is Starting to Look Pretty Amazing...

It's a few days away: my fortieth birthday. I've had a year, well, really 40 years to get used to the idea, but turning forty feels big. And, well, it feels old.

This is what 40 looks like.
But I love birthdays and I want to commemorate my forth decade somehow. I was really close to signing
up for the Pole, Pedal, Paddle. Ever since I was a little girl watching athletes ski, bike, paddle and run from the mountain into my home town, I've thought about doing this race. But this year, with winter barely touching Southern California and a two-year-old attached to my leg most days, I decided this wasn't my time. I thought about a trip to the desert with the girls, or a day at the spa, a pub crawl, or a party. And although all of these sounded fun, I just didn't want any of them enough to make them happen.

Then Gloria Steinem turned 80 last month and this article helped me see not only what 40 looks like, but what 80 looks like as a feminist. And hey, it looks pretty good. So many friends are marking this 40th year and you know what, we all look pretty damn good!

So, as David and I celebrated early in Portland over spring break I decided that instead of one big bash, I'd try to work in forty different celebrations. They could be small moments: an ice cream cone, a cupcake, a bowl of kettle corn, a cocktail or bigger treats that might fall in my lap (tickets to a Dodger suite). I'm fortunate to have lots of friends and family and a couple hundred students to help me celebrate, and if I need to I can count Facebook wishes or even book sales (so if you have been thinking about picking up a copy or two of Through Eyes Like Mine or Overdue Apologies this would be a lovely gift for the author). So here they are, my forty fortieth birthday celebrations so far:

1) Salt & Straw ice cream in Portland
2) Birthday dinner with the family in Portland
3) Dinner date at Toro Bravo in Portland
4) Breakfast at Mother's in Portland
5) Breakfast at O'Groats with Hazel
6) Dinner and drinks at Mexico City
7) Dinner from Mao's Kitchen with Parissa and Jeyson
8) Easter/birthday celebration with family in LA
9) Dodger Stadium suite night one
10) Dodger Stadium suite night two
11) Birthday Blog Post
12) Responses to birthday blog post :)
13) Book sales from birthday blog post :)
14) Friday family night birthday celebration
15) Lunch date at Tripel
16) Banana cream pie at Tripel
17) Breakfast at Bru's Wiffle
18) Dodger game #3
19) Dinner and drinks at Mexico City post Dodger game
20) Finishing that chocolate cake from Pit Fire...
21) Birthday morning with Kiara
22) Morning writing at The Grind with Hazel
23) Birthday banner from ESA :)
24) Birthday lunch from Poquito Mas with Mr. Gantt
25) Happy birthday from my fifth period
26) Gustavo's birthday poem for me :)
27) Birthday run on a beautiful day in LA
28) Birthday present from Soaptopia from Kiara
29) Birthday dinner at A-Frame round 1
30) Birthday dinner at A-Frame round 2
31) Birthday gift of new kicks from David
32) Facebook conversations like a big birthday party and getting to give everyone a hug :)
33) Mariah bringing me a cupcake from HotCakes
34) A visit from my parents and oldest brother and sister
35) Super cute Salt & Straw shirt from big sister
36) Surprise birthday party at Louis with friends and family
37) La Paloma from Louis, or their Grapefruit Ricky with tequila instead of gin
38) The salted caramel bread pudding from Louis
39) Surprise birthday gifts from surprise birthday party (I have uh-mazing friends)
40) Teacher appreciation week recognition I'm going to count as birthday gifts

Thanks, everyone who helped make this such a happy birthday, virtually or otherwise. What an amazing way to kick off the next decade. And if you believe, like I do, that you can never do too much birthday, I highly recommend a birthday celebration per year. You deserve it!


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.