First Day of School 2021

As I slid desks across the shiny, clean floors in anticipation for another school year, I was more nervous and anxious than I've been in years. There is still the exciting promise of a fresh start and the tension of meeting a new group of students, but this year hits a little differently. I struggled to see how I could maintain social distancing for 34 students, and I kept coming across relics from the past: file folders and assignments from the last students from my students in the before times, way back in the spring of 2020. 

I'm trying to stay optimistic. After all, I'm sending my own unvaccinated elementary school students to their first and fourth grade teachers tomorrow. We are all hoping that universal masking is enough. We hope this variant can be kept in check. We hope we can keep our kids healthy. 

But after 18 months of weighing every decision about what to do and what risks to take, it is the letting go that is hardest right now. And maybe letting go isn't the right thing. Maybe instead we have to hold on to the things most important to us. 

We've learned the importance of our physical and mental health over these past months, so we will be vigilant about masking and about holding space for both the trauma and joy our students will carry into our classrooms. We are aware of the attacks on our public schools, our elected public officials, and our medical professionals, so we will continue to teach and show up for our students. We can see the world shaking in Haiti, hear of the political upheaval here and abroad, and smell the smoke from global fires, so we must wake up in the morning and continue to fight in our small ways. 

The isolation of this past year has caused me to lose so faith in so much, but after sliding those desks around, I was able to arrange my room in order to maintain 3-feet distance. When new sixth and seventh graders came in for orientation, they were full of nervous anticipation as well, and we are all feeling so much. I'm certain my students this year will once again restore me to some kind of faith. The do this every year. So as I start back, carrying all of my own trauma and joy, I look forward to the restorative healing a new school year can provide.

For other back to school blogs, click here!


This Year's Speech for the Class of 2021

How do you let go of something that you never held to begin with? That's how I feel about this year. Still, tomorrow is the Emerson Middle School culmination and here is my speech for our eighth graders. I am so proud of them. They got through the eighth grade during a global pandemic. Wow. 

Class of 2021, 

This past August, we opened the school year like no other. Instead of opening my classroom door, I opened a Zoom and instead of meeting you all in person, I met you through these screens. It was the first day of eighth grade, and I worried you might not come. But you logged on, and you said hi when I called your names. And then, to my surprise, you kept coming. On Zoom. Day after long day.

Back in August, we were still feeling our way through this pandemic. We were hoping for the best and we learned not to look too far ahead. It was too hard to think about the possibility of disappointment, so I didn’t allow myself to think about today, your graduation day. 

But now it is June, and time has a funny way of just carrying on. 

This past November we took time to write novels and it seems like so long ago. Fast forward to April, we paused to write poems in little four-minute increments. Minutes, class periods, days, weeks, months. A school year. 

The musical Rent asks how we measure time: “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife. In 525,600 minutes - how do you measure a year in the life? Seasons of love,”

Last summer, we stayed home to try to keep our city safe. In fall there was an election and then in winter an insurrection as cases in LA surged, I learned not to ask too many questions of you. Students and families were dealing with COVID, and so many of us were grieving loss.

It has been a long year, four long seasons, but spring is here and the waves of vaccines have begun. Doors have started to crack open again and we have continued to show up in little fits and spurts, to learn, and to be together in these strange learning communities. We made it through this year together, and in ways that are completely unique to this class of 2021.

And now, it’s over. A few of you have come back in person, but most stayed home, and as we reflect on this wild, wild, year, I hope you all measure this year by all you have learned. Maybe your English hasn’t developed the way it might have had we been in school in person, maybe your math feels a little shaky and your science lab skills uncertain, maybe you feel a little soft from no PE running days, but you have made it through a year we will never forget, even though we might like to.

What your learning reflects is a deep compassion. You seem to really understand that the struggle is real and everyone single one of us is struggling through. You know if someone’s camera is off, they probably have a good reason, and that even though someone else's struggle isn’t your own, you can still empathize with their circumstances. 

There is no room for regret for what this year might have been, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson says “It is about your outlook towards life. You can either regret or rejoice.”

With this next season and in all the seasons to come, you get to choose: regret or rejoice. Thank you for teaching me how to see and feel regret and to still choose joy. Today it’s your day. And as Charles Bukowski says, 

“Your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.”


A Quiet 2020 Blog Review

It's almost here, the end of 2020 which once held the optimism of this whole new decade, right? But what... what in the world happened? 

a group of multiracial people celebrate 2020
When 2020 held so much promise.

To be honest, 2020 feels like a decade all on it's own. I haven't written much here or elsewhere during the past twelve months, but it is what it is. 2020 has helped remind me to let go of things I can't control, and I control very little. 

I'm also done using capitalistic measures to quantify success. Instead of thinking that growth and profit are required indicators of success, I'm more interested in sustainability measures. So rather than looking at reads and site visits as indicators of accomplishment, I also want to consider writing I feel proud of or that helped build community. I know my words are reaching people, so I'm calling this year sustainably successful. 

I posted to this blog six times, but a few post from before this year continue to generate significant traffic, so I'll take some time to revisit those as well in this year review:

A few days ago I shared my publications for 2020. I appreciated the communities that developed around anthologies and was so honored to have CNF, poetry, and fiction anthologized this year. This post also has links to videos of my work and these are a first for me. Reading in public is not my favorite so creating recordings and participating in virtual readings and discussions were huge areas of growth for me. 

I also shared my year of reading which includes many great titles. I'll choose a favorite from each genre just for fun, and if you need more to read, check out last year's list of favorites

Fiction: Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead
Nonfiction: Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson
Poetry: OBIT by Victoria Change
Graphic Novel: Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
YA: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leicht Smith

My annual culmination addresses still get visits and the addresses from 2017, 2018, and 2019 garnered reads this year, but the 2020 address got the most reads of all my posts this year. 

At the start of this year, I wrote about the one-year anniversary of our UTLA Strike for the schools our students deserve and about the night before the strike. The actions we took two years ago have kept teachers, students, and families safe during this year. Even though we are all anxious to get back to school in-person, our decision to stay home has saved lives. In case you still weren't sure: strikes work. 

In the face of white supremacy in 2017, I asked for help in this post and many readers returned to it in the face of white supremacy in 2020. 

At the start of the school year, I wrote again about the first day of school, and how this year would be the same and also very different. 

But my top post this year was originally published here in 2017 and captures the Nakada experience with incarceration during World War II. Seeing this as the top post for the year serves as motivation to keep revising Rice Paper Superheroes, my young adult novel about the Nakamura family's wartime experience. 

That's it. Thanks for reading along and wish y'all a safe, healthy, and happy new year. 


2020: the year in books

I thought I was going to read so much during the lockdown, but to my surprise, the stacks and stacks of books to read kept growing higher and higher. Still, I read and these are the books that got me through 2020. I recommend them all.

pre-pandemic reads: 

In the early days of 2020, I read Jami Attenberg's novel, All This Could Be Yours. It is the story of the Tuchman family during the last days of the patriarch's life. Layers of the Tuchman story are revealed in shifting narrative chapters, and it was nice to escape into a different family's upsetting problems for a while. 

My niece recommended Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, and moving forward I will use this book in my classroom instead of To Kill A Mockingbird to discuss race and justice in America. With a variety of cases, Stephenson gives face to those hidden from us, incarcerated for being poor, Black, young, female, and vulnerable. His knowledge and use of the law to change the system inspires us all to end the death penalty and find redemption for ourselves and for those behind bars. 

Internment by Samira Ahmed is a young adult book set in a not-so-distant future when Muslims are incarcerated in camps like the Japanese Americans were during World War II. The plot is strong and for young people unfamiliar with our nation's history of internment, this is a good place to start. 

I listened to Colson Whitehead's Nickle Boys by while marathon training and the abuse and racism of this place left me squirming. A fictionalized account of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida where young men picked up for nothing are brought to their knees by a system designed to kill them. These haunting stories stayed with me much like the ones in Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

Then, in March, we went into lockdown and these were the books of the spring. 

Attendance by Rocio Carlos and Rachel McLeod are poems and journals reminding me to stay paying attention to the world. Poems of women and of the day to day life of writers. 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
by T Kira Madden is a beautiful, haunting memoir from Florida in the 80s and 90s and then brought into the 2000s. Her coming of age in a family, multiracial like myself, but ravaged by addiction and secrets is how I’ll remember April of 2020. 

Kiara demanded to read Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen after I sent her and her brother to their rooms one evening. “It’s about feelings. I think you might like it,” she said, and I did. The illustrations are beautiful and the magical realism of this girl stumbling upon a fairy-creature in the woods allowed Kiara and I to have rich conversations about feelings of love and loss. 

Obit by Victoria Chang   These beautiful narrow columns of poem reframe grief and loss. There are so many exquisite lines and new ways of thinking about our parents and letting go of them. Then there are these small poems, little reprieves, sips that allow a break from loss but still sit right next to the grief.  

Pride by Ibi Zoboi is a Bushwick retelling of Pride and Prejudice examining race, class, and re-gentrification. It stays true to the Austen classic in that it is a love story, but also a commentary on what young women experience as they determine their futures in America.

The vignettes in Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House unfold over time like a complicated piece of origami with careful creases made across many years. The author looks back on a relationship brimming with abuse, and hopes to smooth the paper and examine how each fold brought her to the end and to find love again. 

Linked short stories in Once Removed by Colette Sartor capture moments in women's lives filled with

texture and tension. Sartor deftly drops us into the lives of fully-rendered characters and asks us to hang out. We spend a few days with women seeking solutions within themselves and from the world. I haven't read a story collection that kept me this engaged in a very long time.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is a letter to the narrator's mother. It travels from Vietnam, flashes back to wartime and then forward through the narrator’s (Little Dog) young adult life. There are so many beautiful sentences and haunting moments but my favorite is: “Again and again, I write to you regretting my tongue.” It’s amazing how well he captures the inadequacies of language.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas was such a good YA book to read post as we grappled with the role of police in our schools and in our world. Thomas captures a young woman coming of age struggling with her identity and artistry within a climate that is so harsh toward her as a Black girl.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitch Smith is another YA novel narrated by a young Native woman, new to her Kansas suburb and exploring who she is as a partner, a writer, and a Native woman. I learned about Frank Baum’s racist anti-Native stances which further complicates the idea of there being no place like home.

These are the poetry collections/chapbooks I read as part of the Seeley Challenge this year. I vow to spend even more time with poetry in 2021:

bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
be/trouble by Bridgette Bianca
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Love, Love by Victoria Chang
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
How to Exterminate a Black Woman by Monica Prince
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Solange
The Long Clot of Love by Lituo Huang
Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff by Sara Borjas 
Death By Sex Machine by Franny Choi
The Blvd. by Jenise Miller
HOMIE by Danez Smith

If I thought the beginning of the pandemic was tough on reads, the end of 2020 brought my reading to a near halt. 

Never Look Back
by Liliam Rivera is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the Bronx. I love these characters and the ways Rivera blends love and politics and the ancient and the modern. 

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson Ok, listening to this epic work of nonfiction over the last few months of quarantine should maybe count as more than one book. I learned so much about the great migration across decades from south to the rest of the US. What a triumph of research and narrative. Mom wanted me to read this. It was one of her last recommendations to me and I’m so glad I finally got to it. 

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay This is another book, a little like Attendance that started the year, that I'm reading in sips for a long while. Another great reminder of how to stay aware of the ways we're seeing the world. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling Reading these again but this time with the kid. 

And that is my year in books: 


Publications in 2020: A Year of Anthologies and Virtual Readings

This year has been many things, but for me as a writer, it's been a year of anthologies and recorded readings. 

First is the ACCOLADES: A Women Who Submit Anthology which included my poem, "Camp Stories," originally published in Kartika. This anthology launched at AWP in San Antonio in March. I had my flight and housing booked, was ready to go, but with the news of COVID accelerating, I cancelled my plans to go. The anthology launched beautifully in my absence and I even recorded an IG reading of the poem. 

Next up was Mom Egg Review's "Home" edition which took on new meaning as we spent so much time around the house this year. This essay, "At Home in America" is actually about a trip to Oregon and driving around in circles in Sunriver and thinking about what Bend means to me, my family, and the next generation. I read this one for MER's virtual reading as well. 

A short story and my only fiction publication this year was "Infamy" for Made In LA: Volume III: The Art of Transformation. This community came together in ZOOM spaces several times in 2020 during a launch party and a discussion of book stores and beaches with Small World Books in Venice. 

Wrapping up my 2020 year of anthologies was my poem "Instructions for Surviving a Modern Pandemic" which appears this beautiful Alternative Field publication In Isolation: an anthology

I had a couple of essays come out this year as well. "California" an essay excerpted from Through Eyes Like Mine, was published by Nasiona for their section on being mixed race. "Vegas Indulgences," as essay about proportion and sexual assault in a place where the scale of everything is off appeared this spring in Lady Liberty Lit

As the pandemic kept us all home, the other essays I published this year involved the passage of time, our evolving communities, and writing through hard times. "A Meditation On Time" and "Writing Through Despair" appeared in Women Who Submit's Breathe and Push column and "Community in the Time of COVID" was published in Cultural Weekly. 

I had the opportunity to participate in the Deschutes Public Libraries' Know Us series by. speaking about growing up multiracial in Central Oregon. You can view my conversation with Liz Goodrich on youtube. 

Other poems published this year include: "How Do We Count Our Dead?" in Bitter Melon Poetry's Stay Home Diary, and "Meditation on the Morning Spent at the Soccer Field" and "Family Haiku" both in Tiger Moth Review's Issue 4

Thanks to all the readers, editors, and publishers who worked hard to continue to bring art forward during such trying times. I am so honored to share my thoughts and stories with you all. 


The First Day of School 2020

Y'all, I've been writing first-day-of-school blogs for a long time. 

I almost didn't write one this year because nothing seems to matter, but then I watched Michelle Obama speak, and I felt something I haven't felt in such a long time, something these Obamas seem to be able to provide for us precisely when we need it. She gave me hope. 

So I'm here, on the night before the first day of school, the first day when I will see so many of my students and although this year feels so different from so many others, it still holds is hope. 

There is so much promise in a new school year, and I just want to do my students and this moment justice. My students and their families deserve schools that truly invest in them and their education. We can take this pandemic and make sure the education we provide is better. We can make certain our concern is more rooted in people and how they are doing and what they need and how we can help. We can amplify voices from our country's history and present who demand to be heard. We have so much work to do. 

My kids both have their first days of school tomorrow as well, and during this unique time, I will get to see them through it. So many of my other kids, my former students are wading through their first days and it isn't what any of us imagined. 

It will still be hot in Los Angeles. There will be people getting sick and dying. There are so many worrying about power, and access, and food, and housing, and exposure, and we will show up in these little boxes on networks that spread across the city in ways that keep us from being in closed spaces together.

Your names will be called and you will answer and be marked present. We will consider who we are and the stories we have to tell. We will breathe through the first-day uncertainties and have our first day of school.

Look for some light around the edges: a smile, a kind gesture, a promise. Keep your eyes open. It might be hard to find, but I'll be looking for them all day long. Hold them all up, small or grand. Lift up all the signs of  hope. 


For the Class of 2020

For the past five years, I've written graduation speeches for my eighth graders. This year's graduation speech was a little different, mostly because the end of this year has been so different. But here it is, my model for my current eighth graders. It has me thinking so much about all of the graduates and all of the graduations worthy of celebrating. So before Obama and all of the other amazing graduation speeches get made, here is my offering. 

Class of 2020 Graduates,

You made it. You are here, but I’m not ready to let you go. 

You didn’t get all of the moments this year had in store for you; didn’t get all of those lasts: last Academy Day, last projects, last dances, last field day, last classes, last days of school. Well, we had these lasts, but we didn’t know them while we had them.

Instead, we’ve had something else. We traded in classrooms for Zooms. We learned how to connect with one another through a screen instead of face-to-face. We searched for the motivation to get up every morning to head to school without even opening the front door, and to complete assignments that you might learn from but that couldn’t hurt your grade if you chose not to complete them. You had to get used to so much change so quickly.

A graduation celebration 1992 of four racially ambiguous kids
High School Graduation: June, 1992. 
Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

You are here, and you have helped build something new.

It isn’t what we expected, but it is ours and we are here to celebrate because you have earned it. You put in two and a half long years on campus: days learning and growing, struggling with teachers and classmates, watching the clock and waiting for that 3:00 bell. And each and every one of those days in all of those classes count.

And now you’ve survived something new. For twelve weeks you have shown up in so many new ways. You found your way onto on screens and into chats. You turned in assignments, checked in with friends and teachers in new ways and adjusted to new ways of being at home with your families.

You read the news and felt anger, anxiety, fear, and loss. You witnessed tragedy from near and far. You worried about friends and classmates and endured constant change and uncertainty.

American author Maya Angelou says, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

You have done this. You have taken this unprecedented situation and learned about yourself as people and as students. You’ve learned what to do with hours upon hours upon hours at home. You have grown up in these few months and learned more than we could measure inside the halls of our schools or the walls of our classrooms.

Our school’s namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “The way to mend the bad world is to create the right world” and you, the class of 2020 are truly making your own path. You are carving out new experiences and are already shaping a new, post COVID-19 world.

I might not be ready to let you go, but you are ready. You know how quickly everything can change and your adaptability during this time has inspired me. You have brought me hope. So thank you. Thank you for sharing so many of these long-short days, your thoughts and dreams of what tomorrow might bring. 

You have helped mend the bad, and I cannot wait to see the new, right world you help create.


The UTLA Strike: One Year Later

A panoramic view of the crowd in Grand Park: downtown LA.
One day five of the UTLA strike in 2019, it finally stopped raining. We all showed up at our schools for morning picketing and although our negotiations team was still hard at work and a resolution was not yet in sight, the clear skies made the day feel different.

One reason was that at our site, NEA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz was on the line with us that morning. She has taught at Emerson for years, had served as the UTLA West Area Chair, and was a prominent leader in UTLA leadership's Union Power team. She had asked me if I wanted to speak at the downtown rally that day about class-size. I said yes, and this is the speech I was honored to present in front of City Hall and the massive crowd of educators and supporters in Grand Park. It's only 350 words; just five minutes on stage, but it is a moment of Los Angeles beauty I will never forget.

A large crowd of educators and supports at a strike rally
The view from the stage...
My name is Noriko Nakada. I’m a parent of a first grader at Grandview Elementary School and a teacher at Emerson Middle School and a proud UTLA West chapter chair.

Look at this crowd. I have been standing with you shoulder to shoulder in the rain, on the line, on the train, in our streets across this city, and all I can say is you are beautiful. 

Ten years ago, I sat in the street on Beaudry. It was 2009 and the district was handing out pink slips like sticks of gum. UTLA had to do something. We were tired of the district balancing its budget on the backs of UTLA members. We wanted smaller classes and more support services: school librarians, nurses, and counselors, so we staged a one-hour work stoppage, and a small but mighty group of UTLA members sat on the street in front of Beaudry and we were arrested. It was all we could do. It was something small and mighty.

Now, ten years later, there is nothing small about our mighty, mighty union!

Where we got to see some of our favorite teachers!
And guess what we are still fighting for? Smaller classes. This year my eighth grade English classes average 40 students, and that's lessrthan Ms. Shanley's math classes down the hall that have 50 students. Teachers and students, we know what 40 looks like, but for all of our parents and community members who don’t know, this is what 40 is: Abby Amy Chris David Akira Ashley Darius Eres Ethan Evelyn Grace Gabe Henry Irish Irene Isabelle Jordan Jojo Juliet Julia Jose Kailyn Karla Kiara Leslie Laila Luna Mia Marcus Maya Nicole Neve Reece Riley Sophie Seth Veronica and Zach.

And that’s just fourth period.

They are the ones we are fighting for: more of us to serve more of them, so at the end of this we can all breathe in our classrooms and be able to say 20 or 25 or 30 names a little slower and get deep into the work we do which is to TEACH.

And soon, very soon, we will be back to teaching because I believe that we will win. I believe that will we win. I believe that we will win!


A Year After the Night Before the First Day of the Strike...

This winter break, it was hard to not remember how we were feeling a year ago. We are a two-UTLA salary home, so the looming strike brought a whole lot of worry and stress along with sign-making and rain-gear gathering. All we had to say this year was, "Aren't you glad we aren't getting ready to go on strike?"

photo by ESA alumni Sophie Sanchez
And we are glad. We are proud of the gains that came from the strike: class-size caps, movement on teacher-librarians, nurses, the end to random searches, and increased charter school regulation. It was also amazing to feel supported by so many in our city and across the nation, and then to see educators in Denver, West Virginia, Oakland, Sacramento, the Carolinas, New Haven, Washington State, and Chicago using strikes to demand more for our public schools.

But this year, as I look to celebrate my parents' birthdays over the next two days, commemorate the strike, and start the second semester of the year, I'm also seeing how much remains to be done. Public education continues to be threatened by underfunding, the "reform movement" pours money into campaigns to undermine our schools, and we still need more of the public to lean back into our schools.

My students this year are wonderful, but so many of them are sad and recognize their mistreatment in this system. They deserve so much better: smaller classes so teachers can give them more, counseling services to help heal trauma, safe and clean schools where they feel loved and valued as learners and people, not as attendance dollars or test scores. And that's just what I can think of in these waning moments of winter break.

Tomorrow, I will stand at my door to welcome my students back, and the amazing thing about teaching, is they will show up ready to give so much. They give me new perspectives and insights. They remind me what is really important and give me hope.

They want a better world, and they inspire me to try to create it with them. Let's work to give them a 2020 that turns things around.


Blog Round Up: Is This the End?

Why do the kids look so little here? 
It's been a decade for the blog, and here we are 260 blog posts later...

For the year, readership, is down. Where did I go wrong? Have I forgotten what readers really want? I don't know, but this year was about the UTLA strike and those were my most read posts. The others introduced the re-release of Through Eyes Like Mine, and Overdue Apologies and the publication of I Tried.

I posted 16 times this year, and there are still a few hundred of you playing along, so here are the top posts of 2019 revisited:

My culmination speech for the Class of 2019 about our teacher strike and standing up for what you believe was my third most-read post.

In second, was my post about the start of the strike landing on my parents' birthdays: "Celebrating John and Sue's Birthdays."

And my most read post!!! "On The Eve of Spring Term" captures the anxiety before the UTLA strike and the start of the second semester.

Whew. It's been a good one, and although blogging still sometimes feels like screaming into the void, I'm not ready to shut her down just yet. Thanks for reading along with me, y'all. Let's make even more of this next decade.