Happy 75th, Mom!

This morning, my brother, Chet, reminded me it was Mom's birthday with a post online and he mentioned how Mom used to rearrange furniture. I wrote this essay a while back, but thought I'd share it in honor of her birthday today. Miss you, Mom!

Moving Furniture

For as long as I can remember, my mom rearranged the furniture. As a kid, I’d come home from school and find the couches and end tables on opposite sides of the room; the tv pulled out from the corner and pushed up against the wall, picture frames rehung where there had been white space before.

Weeks later, I’d find another formation, or maybe things would be moved back into their original spots. Sometimes Mom would flip flop the living room and dining room and, if I didn’t get used to them, I’d find myself running into a coffee table as I made my way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Eventually, I would get used to the new arrangement just in time for Mom to change it once again. 
Summer of 1992: photo credit Elayne or Robert Logan-Currie

As an adult, nearly every time I visited my parents’ home, Mom would have moved things around. Maybe Mom bought a new side table or lamp and this new piece would inspire a new version of the living room, dining room, or sitting room. I’d notice, and offer a compliment: “It looks so much bigger now,” or “I love how I can see the plum tree when I sit here,” or “I like the new chair.” But I never got too attached. Even if I liked a room’s set up, I knew this too would pass.

Mom’s furniture moving always kept me on my toes, but I didn’t inherit this trait. In every space where I’ve lived, the furniture has found its place and stayed there for the duration. If something didn’t fit, I got rid of it. If a space needed something new, it was purchased and put in it’s new home. Even as a mother, my kids’ room has had two arrangements: one when there was just one, and another when the second came along. Maybe this trait skipped a generation. My siblings don’t seem to have it, but my sister says my niece rearranges her bedroom every few months. Maybe my little ones will rearrange when they get older.

I never asked Mom why she moved furniture all of the time. I don’t know if there was a pattern or a cause. Did she rearrange things on days when she was unhappy, or feeling restless, or bored? Mom was rarely satisfied with the status quo. She craved constant change and was always searching for ways to make her life different and better. Shifting the furniture could make a room open up, or feel more spacious, or cozy. This could become a perfect spot to watch tv, read the paper, nap, or have a conversation. Maybe if the furniture was just right, she would be satisfied. Moving furniture might have given Mom a feeling of control over her world. She moved it to remind herself that even if she couldn’t make the church, or her husband, or her children do exactly what she wanted, she could make us sit where she wanted.

I wonder how many times Mom would have shifted the furniture in the two years since she’s been gone. I never thought it would be something I’d miss, but when I visit Dad now, the house looks pretty much the same as it did the visit before; stuck in Mom’s final arrangement. I’m sure, wherever she is, she’s ready for change, and I imagine she’s watching us and thinking about just how she would like to move things around.


2016 Year in Books

2016 was a wonderful year for reading for me. I read 15 books, (well, many, many more if you count children's books or student novels) parts of another 2, and I'm including 5 of my favorite children's books  (although my favorites aren't always my kids' favorites). Here they are, in the order I read them.

Paper Towns by John Green

I don’t like John Green. I hate his use of the term ninja in this book. I don’t like his depiction of the young girl in the book. I don’t like the token Black character or the misogynist. But the thing is, I kept reading. I finished it, and I love how he works in allusions, but this book confirmed what I thought after reading Looking for Alaska. I don’t like John Green.

Between Me and the World by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Loved this beautiful letter to Coates’ son about what it is to grow up Black in America. It echoes back to James Baldwin's "Letter to my Nephew" in A Fire Next Time. The questions about the vulnerability of the body set up a wonderful premise to help put into context, for Coates’ teen son and the rest of America, what it is like to be so separate from the American dream. This is required reading.

Room by Emma Donahough

What a devastating book. Told from a five-year-old boy’s point of view, this was not an easy read, but once the pair begin to plot their escape, I couldn’t leave them in their room. The way this mother creates a "normal" world for her son within a nightmare exposes both the triumph and tragedy of the human condition.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I have never read a book that is similar to our family in its racial make-up and in its silence. This is the story of a dead girl told from the shifting third person povs of her parents and siblings. The sentences are lovely. The plot, compelling. But what set this book apart was the mixed-race marriage and the children who tell about their small town life. There aren’t many stories like this out there and this one sings.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

A novel set in the sea of grief that Lennie finds herself drowning in after her sister, Bailey, dies. An absent mother, a present grandmother and uncle, a patient best friend, and two handsome love interests help pull Lennie out of the water and back amongst the living. This YA book by the author of I’ll Give You the Sun is a study in grief and the lessons death can teach to help us keep living.

Every Day by David Levithan

The premise of this book is that a mysterious soul wakes up every day in a different body. It’s weird and makes for interesting challenges in terms of telling a story over time from this POV.

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Told in part using screenplay forms, I loved how engaging this narrator is.  The friendship between Greg and Earl is far more interesting than the one between Greg and Rachel. The book ending is so much better than the movie, and I don’t even know why the movie did the book so wrong.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult

This YA novel about a school shooting kept me turning pages. I didn’t care too much for the writing style, but the plot moved and although none of the characters were completely likeable, they were compelling to read about.

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

I love the magical realism and setting of this novel. He writes male and female characters with compassion and depth. His modern take on Indian life humanizes so many Native American stereotypes.

Language Lesson by Ashaki Jackson

Jackson’s poems of grief stick heavy in your throat and force you to sit with discomfort of loss. Her responses to her grandmother’s passing show there is no one way to grieve. We are all counting our losses, some more quietly than others.

Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba

This poet had me rolling when I heard her perform this past summer. She isn’t afraid to shock, or make you laugh, or offend. I love her unapologetic style.

Booked by Kwame Alexander 

This novel in verse is by the same author as The Crossover. The protagonist is a young soccer player struggling with his parents’ separation, and balancing school, competitive soccer, bullies, friends, and a potential girlfriend. Although the ending left many questions unanswered, I loved the vocabulary development and unique characterization.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This thriller explores a missing woman from several different narrative voices. All are women and the primary narrator’s reliability is called into question by everyone around her (including herself). I liked this much better than Gone Girl, which it is often compared to, and look forward to seeing the film version.

*Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkaway

*OK, I didn’t finish it. I was enjoying it. It’s a nonfiction account of the coach of ditch-swimming kids in Hawaii and their unlikely success.  I might go back and complete it. The topic intrigues me, but I was not in the place or brain space to finish.

*Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

I fell upon Ada Limón’s poem, “Before” during April during National Poetry Month. My writing partner, Hazel, passed on this collection where it appears and Limón's poems humble me. The language is simple, as are the forms, but her poems shine with quiet brilliance and make me want to try to write poems with such care. *Still haven’t finished reading this collection.

The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

I really enjoy how this author allows the protagonist to evolve over the course of this novel. Margot straddles private school social elites, her family in the Bronx, old friendships, and a new love interest with varying degrees of success until things come together at a party in the Hamptons. Definitely kept me turning the pages and wondering how Margot would navigate a complicated intersectional world. You'll have to preorder this one though. It won't be released until February. 

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

I may have found a new favorite YA author. This novel takes place in the space of a day and all of the multi-universes attached. The two primary narrators are Natasha and Daniel, but the author also dips into peripheral characters, humanizing every character. This is a book that will make you believe in love and science while exploring multiracial/cultural experiences.

5 Favorite Children’s Books

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

This book had me in tears as I read it to Kiara. The illustrations are lovely and it gets to the heart of what we teach our kids with the decisions we make everyday.

The Snow Rabbit by Camille Garoche

This is such a beautiful book, and the depiction of this little girl in a wheelchair makes it even sweeter. The visuals and story are magical.

Thunder Boy Junior by Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales

This book beautifully addresses struggles with naming and helps kids understand the unique names many indigenous Americans possess.

Lucha Libre by Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein

This bilingual series is so fun to read with titles like Zapata: Colors/Colores, Counting with/Contando Con Frida, Un Elefante: Numbers/Numeros, but Lucha Libre: Anatomy/Anatomia is my favorite. We happened to meet the author’s at Children’s Book World so we even have signed editions!        

When the Beat Was Born by Laban Carrick Hill and Theodore Taylor

We gifted this book and I keep wishing I’d held on to it. With beautiful depictions of urban New York, we get one version of the story of how hip hop was born. 


2016 Blog Round-Up

The reason I teach: Sharpies. 
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been focusing these past few months on submitting my work out into the world. This has been an excellent challenge for me, but it means I have published fewer words here. Still, I managed to post 20 times this year. Although this is quite a bit less than last year's 33, if I'd gotten ambitious and finished the year with 12 posts for Christmas, I would have been close to the same. I didn't do that, and that's okay. Twenty posts for the year it is.

My third most read post this year was the last of my 10 posts to start the school year: Why I Keep Teaching. It's about Sharpies, and teaching, and why I keep doing this impossible work in an urban public school. Almost 200 people read this blog, and that's about the number of students I interact with every school day, so I appreciate this symmetry, and I enjoyed taking some time to write about my teaching practice.
One of my favorite books from 2015. 

In second, with just one more read, was my first post of the year: The Only Three Books I Loved This Year. My book blog for 2016 is forthcoming, but this was a much better reading year than last. This might have been because I engaged in a #ReadDiverseLit challenge, although I only wrote about three such books (even though I read more), I loved just about every book I read. Maybe my brain is finally recovering from baby-rearing, or maybe I just like books about marginalized people better than others.

But my most read blog, the post that actually ran on Shannon Colleary's popular blog The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful, and on The Huffington Post, is my Culmination Address to the Class of 2016. I wrote this after the UCLA shooting that claimed the life of a professor on campus, and kept all of my eighth grade students and teachers in a lock-down on campus. It was the toughest day in my teaching career, and a day I will always remember. And delivering a culmination address was something I'd never had the opportunity to do before, so I thank Lily Parker, our Speech and Debate coach, for pushing me into this uncomfortable space.

Ah, the Class of 2016... a good one. 
I also wrote about my experience during Black History Month, which taught me so much about privilege and being an ally, and if I added the reads to this series together, it would have made my list, but then again so would my #ReadDiverseLit posts if I added those together, so I will leave it at that.

I have lots more to say. I'm not sure if I will say it all here this year. I think I will be posting quite a bit to start off 2017, but for now, 2016 is in the books.

It has not been an easy year, but I keep hearing the words of author Colson Whitehead, the National Book Award winning author of The Underground Railroad, in my head. This has been my mantra for the last few months and I will carry them, probably, forever.

"Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power." 

Yes. That is what I intend to do. Thanks for reading along with me, y'all, and happy New Year!


Shifting Focus Because Real Artists Ship

I haven't been here much since August. Correction. I haven't been here at all since August. Once the school year started, as happens most years, the weekday hours were spent at school teaching, grading, prepping lessons, and recovering. The weekends are full with the parenting of two kids, so even though I made some tough choices and stopped coaching this year, my writing took a hit. I was still getting up early most mornings to get the words on the page, but over the summer my focus shifted from producing new work to revising, editing, and submitting work into the world.
art by Stately Type 

This has been a long time coming. It's embarrassing to have so many files, drafts, excerpts, collections, selections, poems, essays, novels, and memoirs gathering digital dust, so I set a goal over the summer to submit to 50 small presses, contests, or journals before the end of the year. This push came from the consistent urging of Women Who Submit, a community that inspires women to submit their work by posting resources and hosting submission parties. A particularly inspiring essay by Xochitl-Julissa Burmejo on "Building Up to Emerging," helped me set this goal, and my writing partner, Hazel Kight Witham, joined me on this crazy submission blitz.

I'm at 37 submissions as of right now, and I wish I could say the acceptances poured in, but I have gotten fairly used to receiving passes. I try not to take any of them too personally, and I'm learning as I go.

I have a few new publishing credits: two poems at The Rising Phoenix Review: "Resistance" and "What Were You Doing." I have an essay forthcoming from Meridian. Hazel has also found success with credits at The Rising Phoenix Review, Flash Flash Click, and Binary Review. I've also posted fewer blogs, the third installment of the memoir, Notes from a High School Feminist, continues to gather digital dust. I haven't read as much either, but it has been very good for me to get used to putting my work out there. After all, "Real Artists Ship." ~Steve Jobs

And I still have a few more weeks to hit fifty.


Ten Blogs Posts to Start the School Year: Why I Keep Teaching

This is not a paid advertisement. 
I love school supplies. All of them. New notebooks, pens, highlighters, glue sticks, dividers, little erasers, and colored pencils. I love all of that stuff, but what I love most of all are Sharpies. I love black ones and all the colors that have come out over the past few years. The thick ones are great, the regular-size, and the fine-tip. There is a job for all of these sizes, and I use them throughout every school year. They write so crisply, so cleanly. They don’t fade over time. I can watercolor over them, so they’re great for projects. They are bold and brilliant. And of all of these Sharpies, the Sharpies I love most are the metallic ones. They have gold and silver so I can write on colored notebooks or black surfaces and those Sharpies pop.

My students love them too. They really are the best for some of the projects we do, and I have all the cool colors and the thick and thin ones so my students ask to use them all the time. I say yes, but every year I have to buy new ones. Somehow these Sharpies manage to walk out of the room. The thing is, students aren’t supposed to have Sharpies on campus. Some kids tag with them, although these days my school doesn’t have any real taggers, so the stolen Sharpies probably head home in a backpack to be used on some future assignment, or for doodling, or for hawking autographs at some YouTuber’s event. Or, worst-case scenario, a student uses it to draw a penis in a bathroom stall somewhere. And the metallic ones? They are guaranteed to disappear.

Disappearing metallic Sharpies. 
But I keep letting my students use them and every year I keep buying them. Why? Well, they aren’t that expensive, and they make me happy, and they make my students happy, and you know what, my students deserve them. They deserve the good stuff. Their schools are dirty. The food we serve in the cafeteria is gross. Their class sizes are huge and they don’t get to have enough fun at school, in general.

My students are like those Sharpies. They are brilliant and resilient. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Every year they show up, ready to work. So, as long as I’m here, as long as I still love what I do, I’ll keep getting new Sharpies.

Some days the blinds feel like bars. 
Every once in a while, I feel trapped in my job. I think, maybe I should do something else, something that won’t leave me feeling so wrecked at the end of the day. But I can’t imagine how bored I would be at some office job or working around adults all day. So, I keep coming back. I'm reminded of what a wise former principal ones told me: You don't work for me, or the district. You work for these kids and their families. When I think of it like that, I have to keep going. I'm like a permanent marker that just won’t quit.

And the thing is, I love middle school. I love my middle school and my students and my school feeds me. This work energizes me, keeps me young, and demands I continue learning. Teaching brings me joy like a brand new pack of Sharpies, and it would break my heart to leave it behind.

~ This concludes my ten blog posts to start the year. Thanks for reading along, and hopefully, Geneal, I answered your questions. 



Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How I ACTUALLY Teach~ Routine

I learned early on in my career that what I need, and what students appreciate in a classroom, is routine and predictability. It helps with classroom discipline and planning. It helps us get more work done. So, most of my school days look like this.

My day starts with the Emerson Sports Academy, a program a couple of colleagues and I started eight years ago. Our student-athletes follow a weekly routine of reading and note-taking for two days and three days of sport skill building.

In my English class, students start the day by writing down the agenda in their planners. It’s boring. It’s predictable. It takes no real skill (although it does help me see who needs glasses) and it helps students stay organized.

While I take attendance, a student reads the blog. This is a student’s digital account of the previous day. It helps remind students what we did, allows absent students to see the activities and homework, and gives families and other teachers the opportunity to follow along. Our blog also provides a primary source record of our class and gives every student the chance to present their work in front of the class several times during the school year. We also review grammar here, because inevitably there will be mistakes in the blog that allow us all to review misplaced modifiers, homophones, capitalization and comma rules, etc.

After the blog, we get to work. Students share their homework (reading a summary of the assigned chapter or a book of their choice). I do a quick check to see who is reading, who is not, and to discuss the book with small groups. Then, one or two students share their summaries and we discuss specifics from the book.

Then we get to work in our English notebooks. We take notes answering text-based questions or analyzing plot or character. This would also be the time for a mini-lesson about figurative language or the use of allusion or whatever else we might be examining. If it’s a reader’s workshop day, we might look at a reading strategy or read an article or poem.

For the last 15-20 minutes of class, students start writer’s workshop or reader’s workshop, depending on the day. Students work on assigned writing or free-choice writing, read assigned texts or books of their choice.

We end the day reviewing homework and cleaning up our spaces and that is the basic routine we stick with. In a classroom, of course, things change every day, so no two class periods or days are ever the same. The more I think about it, the more I think routine might actually be why I've taught for so long. It's the structure that keeps me going. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: How I ACTUALLY Teach

As I’ve alluded to in these first seven blog posts, I prepare for each school year emotionally because my teaching philosophy depends on connecting with students. I’ve written about how my teaching has evolved over the years so that even though I try to be THE TEACHER for every student, I also know this is impossible. My philosophy is about connecting and building community, activism and nature. It’s about processing a challenging world with my students and learning their names. But I think when my friend asked about how I teach, she was asking more about specifics.

The book that informed my teaching the most is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. She’s an award-winning middle school English teacher in Maine, and even though she teaches much smaller classes at a tiny independent school with students who have a much smaller range of needs, her reader’s and writer’s workshops still guide what I do. I’ve adapted much of it, mostly because I can’t keep up with weekly letters and her version of written feedback to every paper, but my students still read and discuss books the same way I discuss books with friends. I use mini-lessons in my writer’s workshop and respond with an editor submission form to address individual student needs. I focus on revision and student ownership over their throughout the revising process.

My other guiding influence has been the writing project from UCLA. Their summer institute got me doing classroom blogs (which you can follow daily to read about what we do in class every. single. day) and writing with my students. Part of the professional development philosophy of the UCLA Writing Project is that in order to grow as a writer and teacher, you must write with your students, side-by-side. So, from essays to poems, I write with my students. I share my work with them. I revise, edit, and publish right alongside them. This helps provide a model for every assignment and it also helps me understand how easy, challenging, and time-consuming a writing task is.

So, with reader’s and writer’s workshops we read and write together and learn the standards. My focus is on making them lifelong readers and writers, not great test-takers. So, even though curriculum constantly evolves, new effective strategies emerge, and required texts change, I make adaptations with these educational beliefs in mind. Even though there are days when I have to take my students to a lab for test prep, when I have to give an interim assessment, and we take a break from the "real" work, most days I manage to stay true to who I am as a writer and educator. So, I guess this is the four paragraph version of how I teach. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Knowing Your Names

Reboot that brain, Nakada. You've got names to learn!
It’s Sunday night. We are a two-teacher household. Our own kids are in bed, and our minds are prepping for the week ahead. I have papers to grade and enter in the grade book, but what I’m struggling with tonight is names. We’ve had four days of school, but I still haven't gotten all of the new names to stick.

I know most of them, probably more than half, but as I make my way through sets of papers, there are names that don’t bring a face to mind. So, that is my first order of business. I've got to get all of the names to stick. 

Because that is how I teach. Even though my class sizes are above the contract cap, even though I’ll have turnover with students leaving and new students checking in from now until the last week of school, even though my teacher-brain rolodex is already teeming with thousands of names, once you are my student, you are forever my student and I will know your name.  

How can I know who you are or what you need if I don’t know your name? How can I call on you at random or say hi to you in the halls? It’s impossible for me to teach, to build a community, or for my students to believe I care about them if I don’t know their names.

So, this is for Auzzie, Austin, Makeda, and Mariela in second period, Evelyn, Emily, Elias, and Evan in third period, Aaron, Adi, Aniyah, Athena in fourth period, Nicodemus, Norberto, Raheem, and Rhaybhe in fifth period, and my two Diamonds, two Davids, Deborah, Diana, and Daniel in sixth period. The alliterative dominance in your classes will not defeat me. I will know your names. And for Jacob (2), James, Jenesy, Jeremy, Jonathan, Jack, Jordan (2), Julie (2), Jean, Jerry, Joshua, Julissa, Jackson, Jasmine (2), Jesselly, Jonatan, Janan, Giselle, Julian, Jason, Jemieh, and Jazlynn: don't worry. I got this. 


Ten Blog Posts to Start the School Year: Nature Education and #ParkLit

I'd thought about taking the day off and posting my next five blogs for the school year next week, but then I stumbled on the twitter hashtag for #parklit. This online hashtag book festival hosted by Los Angeles writer Bronwyn Maudlin, @GuerillaReads, poses the question: what do parks and books mean to you?

Not only does this question serve as an excellent writing prompt, but some of my favorite LA writers are participating. Cheryl Klein has a blog post up and Kathy Talley-Jones is about to start an online interview I can't wait to check out.

Breathing in the Deschutes.
In the spirit of my ten blog posts this week, I thought about how parks and books have influenced my teaching. Growing up in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest, a mile away from the Deschutes River and all of the parks of Central Oregon, meant the smells of juniper and pine. River water, wet rock, and high desert scrub surrounded me. My family visited State Parks all over Oregon, and California on summer trips. I spent weeks at outdoor school and on camping trips with friends at high lakes and on desert properties. Just like books, I grew up breathing these parks every day.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted my students to have the chance to connect not only with books I loved, but also with nature. I learned that some of my students who lived inland had never been to the beach, and many of my students were unaware of the mountains surrounding our city. I began to see that I had been privileged to grow up around so much natural beauty. Many of my students had never seen a night sky splattered with more stars than they could count. Most of them had never been truly worried about being lost in the woods. They didn't know snow or lightning or thunder. These were tales of books we read, but not real experiences.

Over the past twenty years, I've tried to expose my students to nature. We've spent time at Clear Creek in Angeles Crest, Astro Camp in Idylwild, at Santa Monica Beaches, the Baldwin Hills Overlook, Runyun Canyon, and parks all over West LA, the Santa Monica and San Bernadino mountains. These spaces help remind us that even in this concrete and asphalt city, we are surrounded by beauty and nature. You just have to seek it out.

And now that I'm a Mom, I love taking my kids back to that forest and that river in Oregon, but that only happens a couple times a year. Most of our park adventures are local to the boat park or bee park by the beach. We go to the airport park or the big park. Or our vacations take us to parks like the ones in DC this paso summer.

Parks and books.

What's not to love about #parklit?