Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Trieste, Italy and beyond

When we boarded the Croatian Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Zagreb, all these men started boarding who were quite tall, high cheek bones and narrow eyes -- just like Michael, whose grandfather came from Croatia. It was as if we had found his tribe. Cross the border into Italy and genetics takes 6-8 inches off of the men and then places them all on motorbikes with the idle set on breakneck. Trieste also had a Christmas fair, great yarn and the best cocoa that I've ever tasted. I wish we had had more time to explore. Here we are in a coffee shop with our friends Kathy and Steve. I wouldn't say that the cocoa I was drinking was thick, but you could practically stand a spoon up in it.

On our drive up to Trieste, we stopped off to see the tallest Church in Istria, the 18th century Svetog Blaza. The guidebook said that it howed a great collection of religious relics and other treasures. But mostly we stopped there for a viewing of the Vodnjan mummies, the bodies of important dead clergy, displayed in glass cases and supposedly impervious to decomposition. Surreal, but not something one encounters in Toledo. We knocked on the church doors, but no one answered. Finally, someone in the almost deserted square suggested that we try knocking on the door of the home of the priest. He assured us it would be okay, so we ventured down this narrow, cobblestone passageway (I think residents might consider it a road) and knocked. Knocked again. One of the shuttered windows swung open and as if from a coo-coo clock a head emerged. She was barely tall enough to see out the window, but as she shook one arthritic finger it was as if she were saying, "you may not see our dead today." And then she slammed closed the shutter. The priest may live at this address, but clearly she was the one in charge, so we did not see the dead.
On to lunch in Porec, a charming sea side town where we had the best lunch of the trip. Why do we put up with such inferior food in this country? Fast food isn't even worth mentioning, although an outlet exists on every corner. One step above that you have the Applebee equivalents where the food is all prepared in Kansas or somewhere and shipped to be thawed out in less than 20 minutes. And we eat this, when the alternative is food prepared with ingenuity and unimaginable variety at local small eateries. I wasn't once tempted to order a chicken Caesar salad as the lesser of all evils and even though we ate well, I actually lost weight while abroad. We need to get our groceries in order.
I regret not having pasta in Italy, which means I have to go back -- and soon.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pula, Croatia

Croatia does dark like West Virginia does dark. Real dark. Mountainous dark. Winding two lane roads through total blackness. Dark. So when we finally reached the outskirts of Pula after passing countless exclamation point signs and 20 (you read that right) tunnels en route from the airport in Zagreb, we really felt like we'd accomplished something. Those exclamation point signs have no explanation, by the way. They just appear beside curves and construction sites as if the road is agrees with the travelers and is screaming "Wow" as they pass.

But, then we had to connect with Kathy and Steve who were living in a no number house on a no name street. Thanks to a cell phone connection, we rounded curve after curve on what appeared to us to be a bike lane instead of a road and made one last sharp right hand turn at the church and there they were, standing beside the road wearing their best, warm but shivering Cleveland smiles.

The unfortunate thing was that the house was temporarily out of oil for hot water and this was Sunday and we were still in the same clothing we had left Cleveland in on Friday. But, hey. On vacation, right? We went to the open air fish market the next morning. Pula's main industry is fishing and tourism. Lucky for us we were not there in high tourist season, so we had more of a real life experience. Kathy had managed to master enough Croatian to negotiate our fish and vegetable purchases, so we were fat city that night for dinner. Anybody know what those green pointy thingie's are on the vegetable table?

We also made our initial acquaintance with the town of Pula, which has been a port of some renowned since ancient Roman times. Istria, the little part of Croatia where we were visiting, has alternately been part of Italy, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, but appears to best like being simply Croatia. You know how in the US if a city building is 50 years young it is labeled too old and often torn down? Not in Europe. To them, recycling is not just a recent fad. They've been conserving and reusing for centuries. We were to discover ancient churches and fortresses, narrow cobblestone streets, all still functioning very nicely without the benefit of vinyl siding or plastic window frames. By far the most amazing site was the remains of a Roman Colosseum.

I have to say something here about Adriatic Blue. We don't do blue justice in Cleveland. Lake Erie blue is too often a tinted shade of gray. This is not photoshopped in anyway, this is the blue that was. Rich as it was enriching.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"The bags never leave Paris"

That little figure in the purple fleece is me standing in front of our hotel in Franfurt, which was not intended to be a stop on our way. This was not the easy part of the trip to Croatia. This was the smelly, expensive part. In fact, Michael wanted to burn that fleece. This was the part where our flight misconnected in Newark and we were re-routed through Paris on Air France (which I later heard has the nickname Air Chance) and they lost our bags for 4 days. We had a nice night in Frankfurt compliments of the airline and meandered along an outdoor Christmas market eating schnitzel and cocoa. Turned out this would not be the only outdoor Christmas market, we encountered one in Zagreb, Croatia and Trieste, Italy among other charming towns. Sometimes tragdies aren't as tragic as they seem at the time. Except for the part about how we had to buy new connecting tickets to Croatia which put a little dent in the credit card.

Frankfurt is very visitor friendly. Europe does public transportation so well. We took a train straight into the heart of the city to find our hotel and trained back to the airport in the morning to catch the plane to Croatia. Later in the week when we visited the International School of Zagreb, as the other students were writing about conflicts in their lives, I wrote about the lost bags. It should be pointed out here that students at International Schools are often seasoned international travelers) When we all shared our writing, one student shook her head empathatically as I read my poem and said sadly, "the bags never leave Paris."

Unfortunately, she was so right. Well, not never. But 4 days is a long time to wait for your clothes while wearing the same purple fleece.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Tomorrow we leave for Croatia. I haven't been obsessing about it until today. The clothes are in the bag, housesitting arrangements in place, meeting plans and reservations confirmed. The only variable is the weather. Nothing to be done about that, so no use worrying. Right? But as I hear the wind body slamming itself against the house and shooting ice crystals like buckshot into the windows, okay, I worry.

Yesterday was such a full day, it's amazing I'm even standing today. First a 4+ hour drive to Parma, MI to meet my new little pal, Suzette. She can't actually come and join the family until closer to Christmas, but I sealed the deal with the breeder. She is a papillon and (don't tell her) a runt. Cute as a bug. Hope I can handle the puppy training. Another worry to put on the stack.

Yesterday I also talked to Birmingham, MI teachers and media specialists about poetry in preparation for my visit to their schools in April. It was a great session and it is a pleasure to be working with old friends again. Barbara Clark, the head of the media for that district, first hired me for a district visit back in 1994. I remembered as I pulled into Covington School parking lot that I was wearing the exact same leather coat I had purchased to celebrate my visit way back then. When I saw Barbara, I couldn't help telling her, "you bought me this coat." It has taken me years to develop a sense of community in this job. My community is supportive and strong, if somewhat far flung.

Today was all about packing and getting the house ready. I wonder if houses miss us when we are gone. There will be someone here, but not the same throb and jive of the daily familiness. The refrigerator is down to bare wire, fruit basket empty. My bathtub will miss me, I'm certain. We like to relax together, bonded by transient, fickle steamy water. Maybe we should share a little goodbye soak. Always a good way to ward off the worries.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What a difference a syllable makes

"Mankind will need to venture far beyond planet Earth to ensure the long-term survival of our species, according to the world's best known scientist, Professor Stephen Hawking. " And how did he say this, exactly? He hasn't been able to speak for years. He said it by twitching the muscle under his right eye and activating a voice simulator. Here is a man that is literally all brain. I guess I always kind of knew that, that he was all brain, but I stumbled over his professional title when I read today's article about him. He is a cosmologist.

Do you realize that he is one syllable away from hair foils and pedicures? A rather puny degree of separation there. cosmologist -- cosmotologist.

Today wasn't as productive as I would have liked. Yesterday I managed to get a new YA manuscript into the mail and today I took a good long walk and just about got blown away. Not by the power of my thoughts, by the wind which let us know it has had entirely enough of this mild weather business and it has come to take over. It crossed my mind to just sit down and blow the entire day off except that I kept thinking of Hawking and while he didn't necessarily inspire me to board a rocket to another dimension, he did motivate me to get out of my desk chair and face the winds of change.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Saluda Trail Middle School, Rock Hill SC

I had the best time visiting Saluda Trail Middle School. Please Please if you read this click on the school name above and hyperlink to the site where the kids have posted their poems. I don't even want to think about how long it took to put up this grand site, but I can tell you it is very cool.

The day started with a teacher workshop because it was a delayed start for the kids. The teachers were great and tried their hands at writing poetry all across, over and around the curriculum. Congrats to them for working outside their comfort zones. Then I performed two assemblies, but that wasn't the best part. The best part was reading the poetry written by Saluda Trail students and seeing them perform. I don't think I have EVER been to a school that was more pumped up by their own writing and performance. I came home with a DVD of their voices, pictures of their bulletin boards, a T shirt and some of the warmest, bestest memories any visitor could hope for. And on their website you can read energy poems from science class, poetry from Spanish class, percetage poems and even poetry from (get this!) computer class! The poetry was everywhere.

Actually, what I always hope for is that my visit inspires kids to express themselves through their own writing and performance. What was especially cool at Saluda Trail is that not only had the kids been inspired to write, but the teachers got them stoked before I got there so I could see the results of their work. Lucky me.

I came home to the birth of the grandbaby and then NCTE followed closely by Thanksgiving company so I am late posting this, but that does not diminish my excitement one single bit. Thank you so much to Carolyn Moore for making the connection. Wow.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sara Kelly Lufkin

Born November 11, 2006 at 4:59 pm. Weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz. (tiny baby!). She joins mom and dad (Katie and Doug) and her big sister Steph and brother Scott (aka Scooter).

She was anxious to make her arrival and check-in several weeks early, but Sara Kelly is eating and breathing at the same time and I'm sure, dancing in place.

I say I am sure because although she is living and breathing a mere few miles from here, I HAVE YET TO SEE HER AND HOLD HER! This is a minor tragedy for me, but a good thing for her as I have been sick sick for over a week and no granana would go and breathe germs on such a precious little bundle. I will undoubtedly make up for lost time as soon as it is safe for her to camp out in my arms.

Lights blue-bright, I squint
and hear a familiar voice.
This is life outside.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Warm Up Joy

You have to give respect to get it!
Be the best you can be!
Play by the rules, be a winner!
Giraffe heroes stick their necks out for the common good!

The gymnasium at Rockcave Elementary School is papered with inspiring banners, all ending in ballooning exclamation points. I was particularly drawn to the talking giraffe urging kids to stick their necks out for the "common good," which was kind of quaint in our "me first" society. Cool. Continuing to browse the banners, waiting for the kids to arrive and the assembly to start, I noticed a white board with hand written directions. Reading from the bottom up, it said
10 sprints
coffee grinders
and the first line, which I read (from across the room) to say, "Warm up Joy."

I wasn't sure what a coffee grinder was but I know a sprint and a windmill is pretty self explanatory -- but what about this "warm up joy?" How cool is that? Not only has this school NOT followed the current trend to cancel gym class for phonics drills, but they are encouraging JOY.

Joy! Just the word lifted my spirit through the gym roof.

It didn't even bother me too much when I realized I had misread the white board and what it actually said was "Warm up Jog." Didn't matter, the subliminal message stuck.

If I did not go into elementary schools, if I did not talk to elementary school children and hear their writing and see their pride and excitement, if I just read and believed the reports on children that I read in the newspapers, the reports from the greedy testing companies with feeder, scripted programs sold to schools to support their tests and the published achievement (or lack of achievement) numbers, I would believe those reports and never experience the daily, private, joy of kids learning together.

So, here's the question -- how do we slip more uplifting subliminal messages into our stressed out, over-tested, underfunded schools?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why Education is Useless

“Tradition encourages us to think that those who are book smart are lacking in street smarts. We are inclined to think that even if [intellectuals] hearts[s] are in the right place, their heads are in the clouds.” Daniel Cottom

I was researching and wandering the aisles at the library downtown Cleveland Public Library Branch on yet another cold, rainy Saturday afternoon when a homeless man at a nearby table woke from his nap with a start. “Where am I?” he asked, looking around.

I doubt that he viewed that as an existential question, but if he had looked at me he might have seen through my reading glasses a precise reflection of the same emotion, lost as I was in a forest of pedagogy. In fact, we might have engaged in some discourse around the topic of “where am I” except his head promptly dropped back into the cave of his arms, sound asleep. I know this posture, I’ve seen it in many classrooms.

Shelves of books on learning and teaching strategies boasting advanced degrees on their spines inhabit this well-lit library. I say inhabit because frankly, they don’t get out much. From the Idiot’s Guide to Home Schooling (doesn’t one preclude the other?) to graphs and scientific studies written by the well-educated and well-intentioned, it appears that the paths between and around student desks are well-traveled, mapped by educators dating back to Aristotle.

I looked from the shelves back to the homeless man and thought, what do all these high-minded words have to do with the reality of that man’s life? Beyond that, with the reality of the lives of the grocery store clerks, police officers, parents and gum popping teenagers of the world? Some of these authors are icons of their field, famous among teachers, but unknown to the (can I say it?) real world. These educators are never on MTV, the cover of People Magazine or My Space. As Frank McCourt pointed out during an appearance on Leno, he never would have been invited to the Tonight Show when he was just a teacher. Teachers don’t get that much media attention unless they behave in a manner that forces their districts to urge them to seek other career opportunities. Not only do most regular folks not know these pedagogical pundits, they are frankly suspicious of them. Bunch of “effete intellectual snobs,” to quote former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

My eyes scanned the shelves in my own practiced brand of researching that I call, Random Meandering, the most evident characteristic of which is its inefficiency, and I picked up a book titled Why Education is Useless, by some college professor named Daniel Cotton. I don’t know him, but he is a university type, therefore I’m suspicious. I sat down with the book expecting him to be pompous and me to be bored. How’s that for prejudice? I mention this to show how pervasive the hostility toward the educated really is. I felt it and I’m an educator. Good grief.

But I have to say, the Introduction of Why Education is Useless is worth checking out at your own library. It provides a classic example of motivation through opposing argument and is helpful if you have ever lifted your head up to look around and wondered (bellowed?) “Where am I?”

It is also very quotable and well-documented -- an excellent research find. It is just this kind of random success that encourages me to keep wandering aisles. Not sure if that is good or bad, but it is certainly more rewarding AND time consuming than shopping databases.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Keystone State Reading Association

Lots of old friends at this meeting -- but not as many new faces. I have no hard numbers to back this up, but like many reading conferences lately, this one seemed smaller and more sparsely attended. Is it the economy? Is it that schools are too tied in knots over NCLB that there is no time for letting teachers go hear about new ideas? Is it because NCLB not only mandates what kinds of classroom materials teachers can use and curriculum specialists can buy but how professional development money is spent (must be on "scientifically" proven methods?) More and more teachers must pay their own ways to conferences in addition to paying for their own subs. That's rough in this tight economy.

In every spare minute, I'm chipping away at my new manuscript with Allan Wolf. This is going to be a fun one. At least I'm having a lot of fun working on it.

SNOW on the way home from PA -- real snow rounding the curbs and tree limbs and slushing up the streets. Amazing.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


I thought this test was a joke when I first heard about it -- but it is far from funny. Dr. Goodman has approved this article for sharing -- seen here in part. Since the article's first publication, the investigation of the committee that sanctioned this test has concluded that those who were to profit directly from this test's sale to thousands of schools were in fact the very same people who approved its use.

Read an article from the Washington Post entitled "Billions for an Inside Game on Reading"

Read entire article by Ken Goodman http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2006-January/000382.html

Exerpt from an article by Ken Goodman on DIBELS --

"There are many things wrong with DIBELS.

It turns reading into a set of abstract decontextualized tasks that can be measured in one minute. It makes little children race with a stop watch.

It values speed over thoughtful responses.

It takes over the curriculum leaving no time for science, social studies, writing, not to mention art music and play.

It ignores and even penalizes children for the knowledge and reading ability they may have already achieved.

Reading is ultimately the ability to make sense of print and no part of DIBELS tests that in any way. In DIBELS the whole is clearly the sum of the parts and comprehension will somehow emerge from the fragments being tested.

On top of that the sub-tests are poorly executed- the authors do badly what they say they are doing. Furthermore the testers must judge accuracy, mark a score sheet and watch a stop watch all at the same time. And, to be fair, testers must listen carefully to children who at this age often lack front teeth, have soft voices, and
speak a range of dialects as well languages other than English.

Consistency in scoring is highly unlikely among so many testers and each tester is likely to be inconsistent.

And lets add that DIBELS encourages cheating. There is a thin line between practicing the "skills" that are tested and being drilled on the actual test items, all of which are on-line to be downloaded.. With so much at stake why wouldn't there be cheating?

In summary DIBELS, The Perfect Literacy Test, is a mixed bag of silly little tests. If it weren't causing so much grief to children and teachers it would be laughable. It's hard to believe that it could have passed the review of professional committees state laws require for adoption of texts and tests . And in fact it has not passed such reviews. There is strong evidence of coercion from those with the power to approve funding of state NCLB proposals and blatant conflicts of interest for those who profit from the test and also have the power to force its use. A ongressional investigation is now underway into these conflicts of interest.

In training sessions for DIBELS, teachers are not permitted to raise questions and are made to feel that there is a scientific base to the test they lack the ompetence to understand. It is, after all, The Perfect Literacy Test."

Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus
Language, Reading and Culture,

Saturday, October 21, 2006

St. Thomas Aquinas Literacy Storytelling Festival

Stories are the bridge between who we are and who we used to be. Listening to the other presenter's stories, I'm drawn to cross those bridges with the teller, to put my trust in the teller's hand as he/she reminds me of who I once was, other crossings flashing by on fast forward.

I'm still stuck thinking of the tragedy in Lancaster. Of how the Amish community just said no to the media circus, to revenge and retaliation and what a contrast that is to the rest of the worldview. How can we build more of that attitude in our kids? Our collective memory bank is jammed with aftermarket stories of hatefulness and revenge from movies, videos and TV, the everyday drug of choice. The gridlock is so honking loud, it is hard to give ear to REAL stories, stories that most often hum with gentle compassion. I worry we are paying the price for this in our society, of the piles and piles of violent drama. Smarter people than I have done studies on this. But still we tune into murder and mayhem to (get this) relax.

I am grateful for a life that interrupts the broadcasted purple stream of vengefulness with real stories and poems. The kid who said, the teacher who made a difference, the librarian who took time. These are the kinds of stories that coax me out of bed in the morning and tuck me in, turning off the TV, saying everything will be okay.

Thanks to Michael Shaw for inviting me to this beautiful place and giving me the time to remember the power of story.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wattsburg Elementary , Erie PA

This is a happening place, students were active in a common area making little literacy bags to hold their books and their journals and pencils. NO DIBELS at this school, hooray! Toward the end of the day, at the beginning of a writing workshop with the second grade, one girl looked at me and said, "You look tired."
"I am sweetie, I guess I better put my lipstick on."
A second girl responded reassuringly, "You'll be okay if you comb your hair."
I've been laughing about it ever since.

Also, I received a fun poem from a second grade teacher, Stacey Mattocks -- no, she was NOT grading papers during the assembly (highly discouraged) -- she began shaping a poem (very much encouraged). Michael wanted to know where I was stashing the cash if it was true that I make her entire salary working a few days a month. I wish! I also sometimes wish for a retirement program and health insurance, but that's another story. Here's Stacey's poem, which I was honored and delighted to receive.

We had an author come to our school today.
I hit my knees and just had to pray --

Cuz I've sat through these dry, agonizing assemblies before.
I guess I'm prepared to endure one more.

Had to drag my class to the auditorium and find each child a seat --
Waiting for this Sara Holbrook whom we were supposed to meet.

She came out on stage with a microphone in hand,
To my surprise she wasn't even that stuffy, boring or bland.

Soon I felt a tiny giggle start to bubble within
Then a real live laugh, a few snorts and then a big grin.

Her enthusiasm for poetry was so inspiring,
I started to play with some words on a page and it wasn't even that tiring.

She probably only has to work a few days a month -- golly gee
To make my whole year's salary.

Now I'm convinced!! A poet I'll be . . .
No more lesson plans or paper correcting for me . . .

After all, I'm a Sara Holbrook want to be!!!

Watch out for me, I'll be signing books too,
After all, I found out today that poets are really cool.

by Stacey Mattocks
2nd grade teacher

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Southeast IRA

Breakfast with Poets -- Brod Bagert and me. Many in the audience were more familiar with Brod than with me, so I did a little overview of how I got started writing and the theme of each of my books, along with a few exercises for writing across the curriculum. It was an exercise in speed talking to squeeze all that into 30 minutes. Then Brod entertained and showed why he is good at tricking kids into reading. Thanks to the teachers from Baton Rouge who drove me in the driving rain to the convention center! The audience was warm and generous. We then went on to chat with teachers and sign books. I was like a zombie by this point with 2 hours of restless sleep and Brod took me out to lunch to introduce me to rice and beans and Popeye chicken.

The area is still trying to find footing after Katrina. As Brod and I were in line at the chicken joint, he struck up a conversation with a local. In two sentences they determined that Brod was from New Orleans and the conversation became "where were you when the storm hit, how bad was it in Mobile, flooding or wind damage, how long were the waters up, were you on the eastern or western side of the swirl?" I could tell it was a well-practiced conversation of questions as the two survivors retold their stories to one another. I suspect this is an important part of healing, the telling and retelling. How many years will it take for the sharp edges to fall away? Most stories take on jokes after a year, but not this one. The tragedy is too heavy.

At the end of the day I was loaded into a teacher's car for the drive to the airport. In the front seat was Eloise Greenfield. Ms. Greenfield is like the Louis Armstrong of children's poetry, which is to say, she is an icon. Her work is played with enthusiasm in schools everywhere. Other poets "cover" her poems as models of how to do it right. Did I make dazzled or dazzling conversation with her? Did I tell her how much I loved her work and gush over her shoulder? No. The car was warm from the southern sun, was running on empty and immediately fell asleep in the back seat. All I can hope is that she has no idea who that sleeping poet, probably smelling faintly of fried chicken, was in the back seat. Arugh.

Circling for a landing

This post is for all the people who have ever said: You get to travel, that must be so much fun!

Monday I left Cleveland for Mobile via Houston at 9:30 AM EST a little late -- 30 minute delay. Big deal. But we went into a holding pattern due to storms, and we circled until we needed gas (about 2 in the afternoon) which we took on in New Orleans. Back in the air, we circled Houston and wandered south for a while, finally putting down at 4:30 Central time (5:30 EST) after having been in the air 8 hours for a 2 hour flight. The Houston airport looked like a disaster relief station with travelers sleeping all over the floor. Due to pure luck, I had called and gotten my flight changed to the only uncancelled remaining flight to Mobile. At 7:30 PM they loaded us onto the plane where we sat idling on the runway for two more hours, finally landing in Mobile at 11:45. After I finished filing my missing luggage report, I went to look for a cab at 12:30. Cabs stop running in Mobile at midnight, so the airport security cop called and awakened a cabbie (filipina with a y'all southern drawl) who took me and four other weary travelers to our different hotels. Well, first she took me to an all night Walmart so I could buy some clothes and toiletries for my 7AM breakfast speech, arriving at my hotel at 3AM. By 3:30 I was in bed, wake up call set for 5:30AM.

I didn't want to mix this account with my VERY positive experience at Southeast IRA, so I am making separate entries. Road warriors all have travel nightmare stories and frankly get tired of telling them and hearing them. I'd put this one in my top 10, but not frightening or at any time dangerous (like stupidly driving through the night, which I have done a couple of times). Still, it was nice to return home on Tuesday without a hitch.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Freedom of Dress

Last night on Bill Mauer, he said that he didn’t think he should have to talk to women who were wearing a burqa, it is so fourteenth century and basically they are doing it only because men want them to. First of all, he meant abaya (black with headscarf) not a burqa (blue, total cover). Does he not talk to nuns who wear habits because it is so previous century? How about Amish, Mormon or Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair? Some sects of Muslim women wear artistic silk scarves that frame their faces beautifully. Does he find that offensive, too?

Maybe he shouldn’t talk to women who have bare midriffs and wear navel rings and push up bras – they look like belly dancers (how fourteenth century is that?). Let's face it, they only do it to please men. God knows, no woman ever put on a push up bra for comfort or convenience.

Is “freedom” then defined as being free to please men however we want to? And if we don't please them with our dress, they won't talk to us? Yish.

I don't care if Mauer really felt that way or if he was trying to provoke a response from his hostile panel. Whichever. Shame on him for such a prejudicial remark.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I admire librarians for their self-motivation. Often working solo, they quietly keep the shelves current and in order so that the rest of us can paw through the stacks and then they put it all back together again. At the annual meeting of the Ohio school librarians I ran into an old friend, Kay Wise. She was a teaching librarian for enough years to retire, then she went back to another school library and finally retired for a second time. And there she was at the meeting, attending sessions and learning what's new. Now, that's self-motivation.

I need a little self motivation. Maybe if I hang out with enough librarians it'll rub off.

Great meeting. Friday the 13th turned out to be not so bad afterall. Well, my books didn't arrive at the meeting, which was sad. Snowed on the way down to Columbus, though. Brrrrr.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Lancaster, PA

The day was sunny and 80 degrees, the smell of cut grass. At precisely 10:45AM, one week from the tragic shooting at the small Amish school in that town, the principal at the modern high school came on the loudspeaker to remind us to pause in remembrance. It was so impressive how the Amish community came together to support the family of the shooter, a milkman, a quiet family man, who apparently lost his mind. In so doing, they gave us all a lesson in anti-anger. So often it seems as if we live in an enraged society. It's as if there is no such thing as "mildly annoyed" any more, everyone is screaming mad. And as any movie or TV watcher knows, there is only one legitimate response to preserving one's dignity when screaming mad -- Die Hard-AK 47-viedo-game-blood-splatter-road-rage vengefulness.

If there is ever a case that would justify really becoming "screaming mad," it would be gunshots to the heads of innocent young girls. But the Amish don't watch that much TV and vengefulness is not the Amish way. Surely they must have felt some anger along with their grief, but they willed their faith and their sense of reason to prevail. In so doing, they shut down the media circus and took care of one another, comforting the spiritually and physically wounded instead of losing themselves in angry screaming and revenge.

As a result, no talking head on cable was suggesting that all milkmen get arrested and locked up at Gitmo without charges. No one invaded the milkman's home and shot his wife and kids in revenge. There were no bombs dropped on his neighbors because of their religious affiliations. The community came together to lay to rest the dead and then razed the building. But no more lives were ruined, compounding the tragedy.

There were some calls for increased school safety, but as a frequenter of many schools, I will say that I get buzzed in through expensive security all the time. Why? Because I don't look threatening, I suppose. I was at one school in Western PA once where there had been a shooting just prior to my visit. When I asked about the plywood-for-windows decorating theme, the teacher told me the story of a man entering the building and shooting wildly and missing everyone (thankfully).

"But you have such modern, sophisticated security systems here," I said.
"Oh, yes," she agreed. "But it was the secretary's husband. We knew him, so we let him in."

And, except for the case of the tragedy of the Chetchnian rebels, the fact is the shooters are always known to the victims. Had there been a security system at that little one room school, I'm certain they would have let the shooter in. He was their milkman.

What is the proper response to the actions of madmen? Raze the site, start fresh, and comfort one another as human beings. Yes, check out the security systems, but realize all the locks and buzzers in the world can't always protect us from insanity. Hope lies in our sense of community, for in that we find support to begin each new day knowing that the world, it's weather and inhabitants, is for the most part ungovernable.

And take a lesson from the old ways of the Amish -- a little less media, a little more faith, a lot less vengeful anger and more forgiveness does not add up to weakness -- it is strength and true dignity.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


My word for the day. On pretty much of a whim, Michael and I just booked a trip to Croatia in December. We will be visiting Steven and Kathy Smith, artist/poet friends of ours who sold everything and moved to Europe. We are more friends in spirit than friends who got together frequently, but you can't help catching their spirit of adventure. Check out their blog http://www.walkingthinice.com/. Anyway, other poets have lent them a house in Pula, Croatia for three months and we are traveling to visit for a few days. On the shelf is a Croatian dictionary from a trip we had to cancel at the time of the Iraq invasion. I am going to try and learn a few words of Croatian and my first is "voda." Means "water." I'm thinking about putting little signs up around the house as I have seen in classrooms to help kids associate words with images.

I'm also in the process of breaking in a new computer. It's like making a new acquaintance -- I have to tell it everything, from my favorite fonts to my mother's maiden name. I have to feed the history of my life in poems into the databank and hang all my family photos in the picture gallery. And at this point in life, when I've been over all these stories so many times, you would think that I wouldn't forget things, but I do and I have and I keep going back to the old computer to yank the fillings to imbed in the cavities of this new voracious monster.

So, when we go overseas to meet up with Kathy and Steven we will do so in a home with no phone, no high speed connection, no television. Very little information pre-installed. We will be navigating the new software of friendship and have to (be blessed to?) create each day from scratch, no pre-designed templates.

It will be good to leave the machines behind, I'm thinking. Yes, it will be good. Dobar. Tomorrow's word.

Saturday, September 30, 2006


I'm at the Cleveland Public Library, it is the color of cold, wet steel outside. Ample windows are letting in only a dusky light and the whole place has the ambiance of a tomb. I'm researching (well, really, I'm off task, but I CAME here to research) a new book on performance learning. It is the perfect day to do library research, it's too dank and depressing to do about anything else unless one is a bird discussing travel plans. Browsing the shelves I found (could it be?) The Idiot's Guide to Homeschooling. right next to Homeschooling for Dummies.

I'm not against homeschooling, not at all. But it might not be the best course of action for idiots (do ya think?). First they define "unschooling," which is taking a stand against dry texts. Next the guide recommends filling the home with books. Let the kid fix his own breakfast. Viola, the kid just had an hour in home ec. Then the kid can spend the morning playing with Legos, a lesson in engineering.

Okay, these truly are books for dummies. No joke. And pretty effective, I might guess, at unschooling youth, if anyone were so idiotic as to attempt to put them into practice.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Beware of grandmothers with glue sticks

Quote from writer/educator Donald Graves: "Too much of my life is spent in routine activities: get up, shave, dress, stagger down for my cup of coffee, write, eat, write some more, pile up my correspondence and teaching necessities in my canvas LLBean bag, drive unseeing to work, wonder about where I might be lucky enough to find a parking spot, walk into the office to check phone calls and correspondence . . . If someone were to ask me to write about my day at this point I would be forced to say, "There hasn't been anything new to it yet, no whys, just a kind of survival, like wading through a marsh. Sometimes I have a whole day like that, or a string of days with the edges of living knocked off. If someone were to suggest that I write about those days, I might have two reactions: nothing happened so why bother or it was too painful to revisit: "I'd just as soon forget it."

Donald Graves Discover your own literacy, The Reading/Writing Teacher's CompanionHeinemann)

Boy, ain't that the truth. Some days are so annoying they can block you up for an entire week! Take last Tuesday (please) when I checked into my flight with my lip gloss NOT in a plastic bag.
"But it is here in my hand, you can see it."
"Has to be in a plastic bag."
Some traveling Good Samaritan donated a plastic bag to my efforts to get through security, but I had to go out and around and through security a second time, lip gloss secure in a handibag. Only this time the vigilant screener found a glue stick in my rolling briefcase that she had missed the first time, thereby subjecting me to a wanding and total swipe down of all my goods for traces of explosives.

In fact all traces of explosives were inside of me at that point and about to detinate, but I held the fireworks securly behind pursed lips. I was about to miss my flight having been tagged guilty of suspicious activity.

Be it known here, Cleveland Hopkins Airport has a zero tolerance policy for grandmothers carrying glue sticks.

Now, don't you feel safer?

More from Graves: "But literate people don't want to forget anything; pain, sadness, joy, anger. They want to tell stories about these experiences to themselves and to friends, to write about them in a diary, a journal, or a short essay. Writing allows us to look at an experience from two angles: at the moment it occurs and and the moment we write about it."

Yeah. Well. Maybe. But just thinking about it now, three days still tweaks my latent explosive tendencies. However, now that I have told the story, maybe maybe I'll be able to see it from a different angle.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Here's the sentence: "She was a woman to admire and to desire, but the message in her eye and her bearing was unmistakable: offend or disesteem her at your peril." I'm still reading Shantaram, written by Aussie Gregory David Roberts -- it's nine hundred pages and I'm not traveling with long stretches on airplanes and waiting areas to read. In fact, I think this is the longest stretch I have had in my writing career without travel. Ah, yes, travel. The part of the writing life that Annie Dilliard skipped over in her book. The part that for many of us keeps our computers and cars updated and our dogs in kibble. Well, anyway, I've been home and home means that the laundry calls out to me and the sun and the sidewalk, not to mention the dogs who are as I write this pulling at my chair leg and rolling around like animals, desperate to sniff their way around the block on the end of a leash. But, extra time on my hands also means that while I don't have as much time to read without interruption, I do have more time to contemplate what I'm reading, even to think about select words, like disesteem.

Not the same as disrespect. Not a loss of esteem, low esteem or lack of esteem. I love a good word choice! I was writing to someone a couple weeks ago and she used the word wretched in an email. This is a word more familiar than disesteem, but not really common in usage anymore. I decided that week I was in love with the word wretched. I don't feel wretched nor is my life wretched, I just like the word. Disesteem is more rare, its existence too wretched to earn a space in spell check, although it does own its own place in the dictionary. (Then again, how can anyone trust a spell check that wants to replace Annie Dilliard with Dullard.)

Choosing words is like shopping at the grocery. When you are in a hurry, you just run in and grab what you have always bought and race to the checkout line. But when you have extra time, you can read the packages, check the new products section, and taste the samples. Words like wretched and disesteem don't hang out with the hamburger, they are in the gourmet section of the dictionary. The area that takes some time to prepare, to present, and ultimately, to savor.

'Course the writer of this book was incarcerated during its writing, so presumably he had some time on his hands to shop for just the right word to describe this woman pulled from the shelf of his memory in his fictionalized autobiography (aren't all of our autobiographies, even the unpublished recollections, fictionalized? Really? Although it was responsible of him to make note). Incarceration of an adventurer may well be why the book is 900 pages and rich with detailed observations, painting a panoramic picture of India that no reader could possibly view with disesteem.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Under the cover of darkness

I swear, they do it at night. I'm not sure who THEY are, but for sure THEY don't want to be confronted by those of us enjoying our fall walks, watching the leaves take on attitude before they dry and take flight and listening to the birds discussing travel plans. Those of us who are scuttling between sun spots in sweatshirts do NOT want to be reminded of what is coming by THEM. But sure enough, right about the time the Christmas decorations show up at Drug Mart (about now) up go the posts.

People who live in the south or as I did for many innocent years, outside of the infamous northern Ohio snowbelt, (it could be worse, it could be Buffalo) don't know about these metal warning flags. These are the four foot metal bars that THEY attach to the fire hydrants so that the things can be found in the deep snow. These posts are associates of wind chill factors and lake effect snow. Like undercover spies, they invade the neighborhood. Of course the locals recognize them immediately and know that the rest of the crew is amassing over the hill like an invading brigade, sending us into a flurry of yard, gutter, and window preparations.

Last weekend, I noticed the subtle intrusion, which is always the way it is. You never see these defiant little posts being installed, just one day, the posts are well. . . posted, putting us all on notice.

An inner alarm trumpets, "Life is temporal. Fall is fleeting. Winter's coming." Bony little know-it-alls.

No wonder THEY do this under the cover of darkness, whoever THEY are.

Monday, September 18, 2006

To the woman in the blue dress

To the woman in the blue dress walking in front of the empty strip center store on Route 20 who did not tie back her auburn hair letting it fly behind her like a lacy cape -- to the woman who led with her chin and whose smile was reflected in the way she swung her canvas bag timed perfectly with each stride -- to the woman who chose to defy the gray sky with a dress the color the sky could if it were Greece or Italy or some place besides Cleveland -- to the woman in the hip grazing, long blue dress with stars bursting from the cotton, in the dress that was slit to the knee but no further -- to the woman with crinkles in the corners of her eyes who did not require footnotes, who gave today's potential a slight-handed, encouraging nudge without even looking -- to the woman in the blue dress -- thank you.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

My hood Posted by Picasa

My Hood

The neighbors in my hood had a celebratory potluck tonight. The developer, whose family in the past has performed surgery on this old village with the delicacy of a bulldozer, burying the old grist mill to put up a Kinko's and erecting stripmalls with spreading lawns of asphalt from one end of town to the other, has compromised on our old school site.

On the ballot in November will be a zoning change -- not to the 10 units per acre he was proposing (code R-10) but to a new zoning designation, OV for Old Village, that will put restraints on him and help preserve what little is left of the old village (Kinkos not withstanding). He will have to play nice, not put in dense housing and preserve the integrity of the local architecture.

This was a major victory for grass roots organization and neighborhood solidarity. So tonight we celebrated with fried chicken, salads in our finest tupperware and fudge brownies. Modern neighborhoods are populated with commuters who try not to run into one another in the street rather than stopping to chat. We were no different -- but we are now.

What a gift that developer gave us, really. He may have taken away the playground, but he gave us more of a neighborhood.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Techno Trauma

My phone stopped taking a charge. I know this feeling, understand it in my core. When the sun is perky and I am too comfortable under the comforter. When no amount of caffeine starts my engine. The time I fell asleep at the only professional football game I ever attended, crowds around me calling for blood. The times I've dragged my feet in the face of deadlines. Filed extensions. Just said, no to hysteria. Failed to take the charge. So understandable on a human level -- so absolutely intolerable in a machine. How dare that Motorola turn it's back on me!

So, I did what every good electronics consumer does, I tossed the old and bought new. Not the same model, the new improved model with windows, excel and 2 gigs of memory. Keep in mind that my first computer had a mere 4 megabytes of ram. Then I upgraded to 8, 16, skipped 32 and went straight to 64 because the computer salesman told me that was all I'd ever need. Wonder where he is now and if his beard ever came in?

I now have a phone that is more powerful than what NASA used to launch the first man into space. I have synchronized my life into this little machine. But like the columnist (Anna Quinlen?) who once commented that she was afraid if they put the whole of world knowledge on an IPod, she would be sure to lose it in her purse, I am not certain I am competent or capable to handle this thing, let alone make a phone call with it.

Also awaiting the arrival of my new computer. Stay tuned, I hear it has dual exhausts. I probably won't know how to drive that thing either. Sigh.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"the smell of hope -- the opposite of hate"

I've been feeling depressed lately about the state of the world. News articles and television conspiring to remind us daily about the vulnerabilities of mother earth and all her minions -- human, fish, reptile and fowl. From polar bears to tropical frogs to children in Afghanistan and green space in Ohio, it seems so much and many are in a persistent state of peril.

Yesterday I spent at the Lake County Farm Park with my daughter Katie and her children Stephie (5) and Scotty (almost 3). There is something about small hands reaching out to pet the knees and necks of the unbridled kindness of workhorses -- an act of mutual trust -- that seems hopeful. Like the walk through the corn maze, each stalk holding but one or two ears, reaching with pride to heights of nine feet. Young kids nursing from their mothers and sheep dogs that can control their universe with a look, no technology required. So much of what we have we do not need and so much of what the world needs they do not have. To go to the farm park is like looking the word "balance" up in the dictionary. Just for a reminder.

Started a new book yesterday, a recommendation from my dear friend Bonnie Campbell Hill. Shantaram. On page 4, the author Gregory David Roberts observes when exiting the airport in Bombay, that it smells of "the sweet smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love." That phrase has followed me everywhere since I read it.

And that line followed me to the farm park where I caught a whiff of what Roberts was talking about. And (gratefully) it has followed me back home.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

"way back when, in '67"

Name that song. If you can name Steely Dan, you were probably alive and musically aware in the 70s, as was most of the audience at the outdoor concert last night. Gray ponytails and speading foundations filled the lawn at Blossom. The temperature was in freefall, but Hurricane Ernesto's leftovers didn't reach the Northcoast until this AM. I think if someone had taken the loudspeaker and asked everyone wearing denim to leave, there would have been 8 people left. So much for us free thinking boomers.

It is bizarre for me to think that 1967 is as far back for kids today as the roaring twenties was for me as a kid. Has the world changed that much in 40 years? Musically, yes. Rap was invented replacing soul train. But I don't remember as the Beach Boys were rocking and the Beatles were on the upswing, before the Stones qualified for AARP covers, anyone still listening to Al Jolson. The modern world has so many more options, and every year we drag more cultural baggage to pass to the next generation, who can't wait to drop it and step up to the running board on the next SUV. But more remains each year, celebrated by the oldies but goodies.

Except blue jeans. This movement has real staying power. I wonder what people wore before we all dressed alike? I guess I need to talk to someone who can still remember -- when? The forties?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

just a Wednesday

No rushing, no deadlines. The cats are out, the dogs are in. Summer is slowing down to turn the corner into fall. School is open, the pool is closed. My neighborhood is far from peaceful.

Mentor's school district is in financial crisis and decided to sell our neighborhood school at the firesale price of 700,000. Last week the backstops for the ball park came down, so sad. A developer has purchased it and wants to put an unbelievable 127 units on the property. This is a very old neighborhood, doesn't even have storm sewers. In order to have storm sewers, all of our ancient trees lining the streets would have to go. 127 cars added to the busiest intersection in town during rush hours. Quiet streets disrupted. www.mentorvillage.org

While others turn to lawyers and engineers, I turned to Wendell Berry who asks, "where's the benefit to the community?" Indeed. There will be a benefit to the developer, to the people who own the adjacent property who are selling their land to him, but to the rest of our community and to Mentor as a whole? Where's the benefit?

The odd thing is, the only thing council seems concerned about is Rick Osborne's right to make a profit. The entire discussion revolves around, how can we enable him to make a profit with fewer units. Naturally, the council people take plenty of money for their campaigns from this developer and his wealthy family. It is a microcosm of American politics.

With a 7.5 month housing sales lag in the Cleveland area, we hardly need new condos. Want and need. Who benefits? Global questions on a local scale.

It is important to fight on a local level -- maybe there will be trickle up benefits if we win in our resistance move. Hope springs eternal.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


The book is at the printer. There are hardly better words an author can hear. It means all the work that the writer can do is done. Books start out in pieces, ideas, outlines, proposals, chapters, rewrites upon rewrites and then they come back in pieces, galleys, designs, finally, a printed cover. Then there are calls from friends, "hey, I saw your new book advertised." Thursday we received an extra piece, a copy of the DVD of Michael working with his kids at Playhouse Square and going to the Youth Slam in NYC. The DVD will be included in the book and its production has actually delayed the production of the book by a month or so, but now seeing the DVD, the delay is so worth it. I only have a blip of a non-speaking role in the DVD. The most powerful moments in it are the interviews with the kids. I know there are lots of DVDs about slam floating around, but most of them are geared to adults and spoken in VERY adult language, what my grandmother used to call "sailor talk." But this DVD gets the fun and teamwork message of slam across in classroom ready form. The kids are soooo great. It made me cry.

Three more weeks they are saying and we will have the finished book and the DVD all packaged together in one piece. In our hands. With other projects now in pieces, it's important to take a minute to just sigh and feel satisfied.

Oh. And wait for the reviews. Yish.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Home is where the washing machine is

Outgoing suitcases are a study in organization. Socks in this pocket, folded jeans, t shirt rolls framed by shoes turned business side out. Incoming suitcases on the other hand look as if they have been gathered from trees, bushel basket dumped then stir fried. Unappetizing at best -- and after a day of serving as an open-mouthed cat bed, they wander sheepishly, piecemeal into the laundry room trailing loose hair. And even though I know the answer, I just want to hiss through a curled lip, "where have you BEEN?"

Still, I'm okay with that. It's what is at the bottom of the suitcase that drives me nuts. The receipts that need to be sorted, wrappers, loose brochures and business cards, ubiquitous lotions and pens that all need to find homes. Even if that home is the trash, it all seems too tedious to sort through.

Called Continental to complain about the bigot in Austin. They were polite, told me he needed more training, knew exactly who had checked us in at exactly what time (a little spooky) and gave me a case number. 2967727.

Today we did banking and grocery errands on bikes -- no check-in needed. Sure is nice to be home.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

It's official.

I could never be a migrant. First of all, my intestines tend to over-dramatize ingestions of bad food. Second, after a couple of days of that drama, I almost threw up with dehydration and heat exhaustion on a 2.5 mile hike on the desert trails. In order to hike from Nogales to Tucson, I would have to make it 60-90 miles to a pick up point.

Michael and I spent one afternoon in Nogales this past week handing out burritos, water and directions to shelters to deportees. Their stories will break your heart, families left all over the place, separated. (Please note, Michael ate all the same food I did, but he can scrape food off the ground and chew it like gum and it doesn't bother his insides. A really annoying characteristic in a partner).

Ed was our tour guide on another day. With his GPS and knowledge of the back trails we hiked around Arivaca, AZ. Ed knows everything. He is the former dean of arts and sciences at the University of AZ and a geologist. He knows it all, but is not a know-it-all; the perfect wilderness companion.

He also explained how corporations load politicians coffers so that they will not clamp down on the companies for hiring illegal workers at less than minimum wage, force those companies to pay for health care benefits or retirement, while simultaneously promising US citizens that they will work to protect the borders by building walls to keep out the workers the companies want. Caught in the middle are a whole lot of folks desperate to feed their families, willing to risk their lives for even low wages (upon which they DO pay taxes, but are unable to collect any benefits since they are not citizens). One has to only try and walk the terrain of the desert for a couple of hours to realize what desperation really is.

Did you know that there is no LEGAL way for a Mexican to apply to work in the US? I wonder why that is not discussed by the news people who want to put all the blame on the immigrants rather than those corporations, builders, cleaning companies, landscapers, manufacturers, which are really just trying to get cheap labor and bust unions?

Anyway. I tried it. The trails. I couldn't make it. It's official.

"And some go both ways" to quote the scarecrow. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Word needed

If an anti-semite is one who hates, disrespects, discriminates against Jews, what's the word for one who hates Muslims? We need a word for that, a shaming, Mel Gibson condemning, horrifying word.

As Michael and I were traveling from Austin to Tucson, we had an ugly encounter with a Continental ticket agent named Russ (we think) in Austin. We were chuckling with him about the new security procedures when he said, "You know what everyone is saying, this could all be eliminated if we did one thing."

I'm thinking, what -- give grandmothers and poets a free pass? We both asked him "what" at the same time.

"Eliminate a religion," was his shocking reply. He was smug. Efficient. Snapping staplers and drawing out adhesive luggage strips.

Michael and I looked at each other, knowing that this bigot stood between us and our destination. I opted to not say anything to him, but go over his head and write to Continental (which I'm doing next with a link to this post.) I hope they find a way to eliminate his job. Not him, just him in that position of authority.

We need to find a way to live in this world without the need to eliminate anyone. What's word for that? I think it is Peace.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

National Poetry Slam

I entered the world of Slam poetry after some motivator told me that I couldn't, that it simply was not something that "middle-aged white women from the suburbs" did. I ran right out and signed up after that. Now, 11 years later, I went back to the National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX. This is the same location where Michael and I were on the finals stage in 1998. It was a hoot and a holler, as Austin always is. Instead of being competitors, Michael worked behind the scenes (a lot) as did I (a little). However we were both featured in a "Legends" showcase.


It was great to see old friends and hear some amazing new voices. Also really enjoyed hearing Whammo's band, the Asylum Street Spankers and their parody of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'round the old Oak Tree" only it is "Put Magentic Stickers on your SUV." I downloaded it from their website, it was my first musical download.

Okay, I'm a bit behind the technology on cybertunes. But, hey, I'm a legend, whadayaexpect?

Monday, July 24, 2006


Four days of learning and fun in rural Wisconsin. No cheesy jokes about WI needed, it was just plain fun. Did some workshops, danced my feet off and sang (badly). Was introduced to two new books that are exciting:
From Disability to Possibility by Patrick Swartz. He is a dynamite speaker and specialist in special education and the inspirtation for my (still unsold) picture book about "My Cousin Nick Zay." (note to self, get that back in the mail).
Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males by Alfred Tatum. Also a great speaker and full of no-nonsense advice for hooking reluctant readers by understanding and meeting their cultural needs.

Thanks to Smokey Daniels and all the Heinemann crew who work so hard to make this work every year. More info at http://www.walloon.com/.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Hamline University

THIS is why I am always on a diet. People treat me too well. Who knew that Minneapolis has such good Italian food? Who could say no? Not me.

Teacher after teacher came up to me at the literacy conference at Hamline and told me that this is a conference that they look forward to every year and as a speaker I could feel the responsiveness of the audience as they flowed into the theater. Most of the participants were from the Minnesota area and I got a first hand sampling of "Minnesota nice." Everyone was friendly, even when the projector and overhead decided they wanted to talk over one another during my break out session. I loved everything about this conference, a genuine learning place.

Did I mention the food?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the heat

The heat is everywhere this week. In the sock drawer, the cabinet in the bathroom, seeping out from under the fridge and toasting my toes. It's straining at the windows and blaring through the skylight. Cleveland does heat in a very wet way, hair adhering to the neck, shoes stuck on the feet, sweat running downstream along ever appendage. Tomorrow I go to Minneapolis, maybe it will be cooler. Rain is predicted. Ah, cool mist in the face.

I haven't had to bring out the suitcases for two whole weeks. It's almost okay, but still . . . After next week in Wisconsin, I will be basically off duty until October. I have a couple of projects going, now all I have to do is clean my office so I have a clear surface to work. Looking in my office door at a clear surface would feel like a cool mist in the face. Writing is my business, clutter is a side job and (sadly) I'm good at it. Amassing that is, not managing. Sigh.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

How does your garden grow?

It's almost trite for a poet to have a garden, the seed being the original metaphor and all. I don't grow anything practical. I used to grow tomatoes until I battled with a fungus of some kind and lost three years in a row. I grow flowers. Two, now three beds of perennials. It is 8:30 and now is the best time to put in new plants, when the sun is still stretching and the temperature is low. I don't like sweating in the high heat hours, but I have to confess that I like the feeling of the warm dirt on my knees. It is more comforting than flannel sheets, as soothing as a backrub.

Kelly started a blog last night. I read it and it made me cry and served as a reminder of how important it is to jot down memories before they go the way of the morning dew.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tshirts say: We put the fun back in Dysfunctional Posted by Picasa

holes in my blog

The problem with letting a blog go into a holding pattern for a while is that life doesn't have a hold button and so many astonishing things happen, it's hard to know where to start to catch up.

Summer has been incredible. Vacation to Oak Island, NC with the whole family, I mean the entire lot. Pictured here is my partner Michael, his two sons, Max and Frank, Max's girlfriend Adelle, my daughters Katie,husband Doug, kids Stephie and Scotty, Kelly and Brian, Ben, Danny, Thomas and my ex-husband Tom, his wife Ro and her daughter Darcy, husband Doug and son Nick. Is it any wonder that Tom had T shirts made for us all that said "We put the fun back in dysfunctional?" Katie and Doug wore their T shirts to the market one day and people kept stopping them to say, "my family needs those shirts."

I have had a few weeks at home and am enjoying it so much that last week the telephone was on the fritz and I didn't even call the repairman. Michael was out of town for almost a week and I went into full recluse mode. Ahhhhh.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Dodge Learning at the Fairgrounds

Perry, Georgia is about a 1.5 hour drive south from Atlanta. I've been to Perry before to visit schools and love the quaint downtown area. But this conference wasn't downtown -- it was at the fairgrounds. I know what county fairgrounds are about -- this is where the prize winning apple pies and pumpkins meet the 4H club fattened cattle. A place for a literacy conference? I was skeptical.

But the high ceilinged rooms and covered walkways were free from hay and pre-service hot dogs and a perfect place to gather for lit talk. And listen to who was talking -- Steph Harvey, Tim Rasinski, Georgia Heard, JoAnne Portelupi, Jim Burke, Jack Gantos and I can't remember who all. It was fabulous.

Many thanks to Al and Iris Dodge for including me. It was a book and reading extravaganza.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's the use in love poems?

After the sixth grade assembly a boy came up to me and asked, "Why do poets always write about love? Never did ME any good."
"How old are you?"
"Well, give it another chance, you've got time."
"Love is just a kick in the crotch." And he walked off before I could get any more senseless words out of my stunned mouth.

A teacher from NY wrote to me tonight and asked me to talk about my time in middle school -- how was it really? I honestly told her that I have spent the rest of my life trying to get over middle school. The best I could say about it is that it didn't last forever.

But how to you convince love weary 11 year olds that the sun is shining on the other side of 6th grade? Cheer up, kid just doesn't cut through his skeptical squint.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Memorial Junior High and beyond

It is rare that I visit a school and get to come home for lunch, but Memorial is right down the road from my house. I had a great time with the writing club and with an honors English class writing. In the afternoon, the two assemblies went well. But in between, I visited a social studies classroom where I am friends with the teacher (she is my aerobics instructor). They were beginning a unit on ancient China. So, when I came home for lunch, I took back a book I have of 1000-2000 year old Chinese poetry to share with the kids. I love old poems because they are first person accounts from folks who were really their, letters from the past, like reading someone else's journal with permission. The poems lead to a discussion of my recent trip to China and the Middle East, including talking about meeting the dedicated teachers from Afghanistan.

"They teach the street children in 2 hour shifts, arranging school around the kids' work schedules."
"What kinds of jobs do they do?"
"Various things, some work in rug factories making rugs for Americans to buy at Sam's Club."
One student looked at me very seriously, "I'm never buying a rug again."

Of course we all buy products that are made overseas, many of them by children. How does one know if buying such a rug or pair of jeans keeps those children in poverty or actually is their only means of eating? While work may be a fact of life for kids in some places, no one wants to see their lives limited by that work so that they never learn to read or a trade that would enable them to have a better life. Which got me to thinking . . .

While I was at TARA, I met an incredible educator named Anna, who taught in Kabul in more peaceful times. She is now working to help raise money and gather supplies for teaching street children and women to read and learn a craft in war weary Afghanistan. I decided to write to her to see if there is anything I can do. If anyone wants to read more about her efforts, here is a link to her blog: annakuchi.blogspot.com.

I'm not sure what I can do, but it would seem to me that with a few friends, we might be able to make a slight difference in the lives of some of these women and children. School supplies? Blankets? I'll be waiting to hear from Anna. Watch for more postings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Perseus House Charter School of Excellence

I drove home from a great visit to Perseus in Erie, PA today only to sit down to watch another expose about yet another teacher engaged in appropriate conduct with a student. Purportedly.

How come the teachers I met today in Erie never make the news? The ones who attend conferences on their own dime to learn new ideas to share with their students, write grants, negotiate and cajole for supplies and motivations for kids because they really love them? Love hardly seems newsworthy. I found a lot of love at Perseus today, a school populated by kids who have not found success in school in the past, but who are working toward graduation because there are a few teachers and administrators who have not given up on them.

A car I passed on I90 on the way home had a sign in the back window that said, "I support teachers." Homemade. I don't think I've seen any of those pre-printed anywhere. I need one of those.

Thanks to Bill and his wife and the administration at Perseus for their kind invitation.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Between a rock and a melting place

Ajax (the special needs dog) is eating a pencil under my desk. I'm dressed for the gym but stalled here at the computer. I read the news -- or most of it. I'm afraid to look at the article about the melting polar cap and disappearing glaciers. I already struggled through the article about how Arkansas teachers are being forced to not mention the word "evolution" and are not allowed to state the ages of rocks. http://www.arktimes.com/Articles/ArticleViewer.aspx?ArticleID=e7a0f0e1-ecfd-4fc8-bca4-b9997c912a91. Says the teacher, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

What? How are those students going to compete and maintain in a world that is melting?

Some days the news is just too discouraging. What I have to fight against is not becoming so mired down in it that I stop doing positive things. Like take in a few laps at the gym.

I take the pencil out of Ajax's clench. At least he won't die of lead poisoning. Today. Okay, I'm in motion.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Don't know how to feel about this

Let's say some school district, a big district, is putting together scripted lesson plans for the third grade, a program that is destined to grow up through all the grades. It is organized into 10 minute segments so that every teacher in the district can be at the same point at the same time -- or within a day or so of one another. The stated reason for this is that there is a high percentage of transfers within the district every year, so this would allow students to transfer schools more easily.

Let's also say that the plan is being put together by caring, local teachers, not some big corporate entity in (just say) Texas. But, the end result will be a script for each teacher with mandated compliance, leaving very little room for teacher creativity.

Now, let's say, this big district comes to an arts organization and through them to a couple of poets and asks them to help in the drafting of an isolated poetry unit to be taught in April.

Say the poet in question is violently opposed to scripted anything, believes in teaching poetry across the year, curriculum and all content areas, and doesn't approve of teaching poetry in isolated units. If the poet says, no, I won't help script your lessons because I don't like how you are doing this, does that benefit the kids? If the poet agrees to work within a system she doesn't agree with philosophically, is that a betrayal of her own ideals?

How does one best work to keep poetry alive in schools as they become more and more systematized? Art is all about improvising -- do we as artists improvise our way around the system or turn our backs? What if the result of turning our backs is that the kids are strapped into a curriculum with no room for improvisation?

What is the best benefit to the kids? We can't meet them all outside of school, so we must work within the schools. But . . .

Parkside Elementary School, Goshen, IN

Goshen is in prairie country, flat and windswept. Tuesday morning dawned clear and cold -- extra cold. The reception at school however was warm and welcoming. The students from Parkside are camping out at a school called (appropriately) Praire Elementary while their own school is undergoing an extreme makeover. But before my visit the kids had been busy doing a makeover of their own -- decorating the halls and display cases with their own writing. Very impressive! At the end of the day the school hosted a poetry night for parents -- and what a turn-out! The families spilled over from the chairs set up in the middle of the gym and into the bleachers. And the event wasn't even at the neighborhood school, it was across town at Prairie, but there they were, all these parents supporting literacy by turning out and (no doubt) cruising the hallways to see their students' writing.

Many thanks to teacher Matt Cooper and the rest of the staff for all their hard work in preparing for my visit. Very cool day -- and I ain't just talkin' weather.

Poem the poem -- Parkside teacher Matt Cooper had his fifth graders rewrite some of my poems, to "poem the poem," as he describes it. Here one student rewrote "Which Way to the Dragon" as Which Way to my Teddy Bear." Posted by Picasa

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Universal peace signs and lots of smiles. Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 17, 2006

Illegal migrants -- not an issue confined to USA

In China, rules are in place that require a visa to move from one province (like a state) to another. If a family moves without this visa to find work, say from a farming community to the growing city of Shanghai, they become illegal immigrants and thus are not able to enroll their children in state supported Chinese schools.

Rather than see these children grow up uneducated, a dedicated group of teachers are working with these children under very basic circumstances to teach them basic skills. At the migrant school by the Pu Dong campus of Shanghai American School, students attend classrooms such as the one pictured. There are 50 students to a classroom, including pre-school. They students sit at their little tables and learn most of their lessons orally by recitation. The fifth graders and third graders are learning English along with their lessons and every year each class memorizes a number of classic Chinese poems. The pre-school students were in a class with not a single toy, they too were seated at tables. But, I noticed on the board that they were learning their math facts -- 5-2=3. Oral lessons.

Outside the school is state of the art playground equipment donated by SAS which has been working to help their meger circumstances. Everyone at the migrant school was anxious for me to know that theirs is not a typical Chinese school.

By the way, the reason these kids are all bundled up is not because they are ready for recess. This school has no heat. It was in the low forties the day we visited, note the rosy cheeks.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Children at the Chinese Migrant School recite poetry by heart. Then I taught them a poem in English -- my shortest poem. Everyone laughed and laughed.  Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jammers from Puxi perform a poem for four voices. Missing in the student poetry are poems about street crime (as so many are in the USA). Maybe because there is virtually no street crime in Shanghai beyond a pick pocket here and there and even that is rare compared to other large cities. Posted by Picasa

Shanghai American School Puxi

You wouldn't believe this campus. It is like a luxury community college state side. The staff and kids are all very dedicated to learning, you get that feeling just walking through the halls. A big highlight from my four day visit there was the poetry jam hosted by the middle school where the kids performed their own poems -- one silly poem about broccoli, a poem for two voices where the sun and moon were talking to one another and a very touching poem written by a student who was close to a classmate who died -- she wrote about how she could still hear the strains of her friend's viola.

Speaking of violas -- I was privileged to hear a three piece concert by the middle school stringed symphony and I'm here to tell you, any community orchestra would have been envious of their precision and ambitious music.

Shanghai is being developed under a 100 year plan, something unheard of in this country. But I suspect one can't survive in a city of 20million people without patience. Looking out at the sky scrapers of Shanghai is like looking out over the peaks of the Rockies -- the peaks disappear into the clouds and the vista is endless.

We had so many wonderful meals, great conversations and good socializing, it is hard to even single things out. Michael and I made thank you notes to send to teachers and staff and the stack was formidable. Particular thanks to librarians Ellen, Peggy, Colleen, and Mike for all their hard work in getting us there.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Poetry Jammers from the International School at Tianjin. After they finished performing my poetry, I asked them if they knew what the next step was. "Why, you need to write and perform your own poems." And I know they will.
 Posted by Picasa

Monday, March 13, 2006

Shanghai American School, Pu Dong

A normal school day. Or so it would seem. Up at 6AM, shower, eat breakfast as fast as possible and catch the bus. Looking out the window however (at everything except the traffic, see previous post) not much seems normal to me. First of all, it's cold, Fahrenheit or Celsius, however you measure it and folks everywhere are riding bicycles to work. People are walking to work, doing marketing and picking up their breakfasts at small open air shops. (Did I mention it was cold AND raining?) The bus takes us through a small village and on to the school campus. This is a campus that is growing at an amazing rate -- 300 students last year -- 600 this year and 900 predicted for next year. The students are a mixture of many cultures, American, European, Korean, and many Chinese nationals all taking their studies in English. Just about everyone is at least bi-lingual, many have mastered three or more languages by middle school. Joining us at the school are a group of poetry jammers who have been flown in from Tenjeng for the assembly. I sat and listened to their lively performance of poems I wrote for my children a world away. It made me cry.

And get this -- at SAS Pu Dong, it is cool to be smart. Like most middle schools, I have to do a little sales talk on the importance of poetry. But here it is because the students are so serious about their other studies they may question if they can take time out for poetry. Another magical day.

Arriving in China

Imagine a city with the population of the State of Ohio. Forget it. You can't imagine it. Even when you see it, you can't imagine it. Now that I am home, I have trouble believing all that I saw. But you know what came through amazingly clear? The people are not all angry. I'm sure some are, human nature being what it is. But Shanghai is not like it's little brother New York where all the cabbies are swearing at each other and people are pounding their fists on car hoods. Shanghai just flows in and out of itself like water sloshing in a mason jar, one incoming wave moving aside when pushed by the next.

On our first day in Shanghai we were taken on a mini tour by Shanghai American School parent Cyndy O. In four short hours we visited one of the tallest buildings in the world (out of the top ten Shanghai has at least 5), the fabric market where vendors in small, open air booths custom make everything from suits to cashmere coats to silk dresses and bridal gowns. From there we went to the knock off market home of rolex watches and all kinds of impressive brand names attached to copied merchandise. And then we went to a temple surrounded by (you guessed it) more shopping. Shanghai has really taken to this free commerce thing in a big way.

I picked up one good habit I would highly recommend for anyone visiting there -- do NOT watch the traffic. Put yourself in the hands of a reliable driver, look at the buildings, the people on bicycles, the hand pushed garbage trucks, the lush vegetable markets -- but DO NOT look into traffic. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A construction wall appropriate since all of Shanghai seems to be under construction! Posted by Picasa

"Evil travels in a straight line" Ancient Chinese saying -- which is why the bridges are arched and the path leading to this ancient home is zig zagged. Love that phrase, evil travels in a straight line. Boy, does it. Posted by Picasa

Dedicated teachers from Afghanistan. Posted by Picasa

News from Afghanistan

The TARA conference sponsored two teachers from Afghanistan to attend. The challenges they described were overwhelming. Lack of electricity, working facilities and low funding all caused by continuing wars in the region. The limited number of trained teachers are working to instruct "trainers" who in turn instruct "mentors" who are the ones actually doing classroom instruction. Girls are welcome under the new education system, but many children go to school in 2 hour increments because of their work schedules. Not the teachers -- the kids' work schedules. In a land where so many of the men have been killed and the mothers were unable to get training under the Taliban regime, the children are working to help support their families. Hamaira (pictured) works in a women's center, providing much needed support to women and children trying to cope with challenges unimaginable to most of us.

Ride 'em cowboy

Chasing camels in the desert in a hotel minivan hardly qualifies as adventure in the National Geographic sense. However, when it leads to actually petting one and exchanging smiles with his handler, that's pretty adventurous for a poet from Cleveland.

A visit to the Oil museum shows that this barren area was grass covered when the oil developers first arrived from England. Still in bloom, however is the Tree of Life. This spreading monster tree that has no apparent water source.

Over the shoulder of the camel notice the presence of tanks and the tents of an army installation. They were not too keen on having us take pictures and we were keen to eventually leave the desert, so naturally we complied.

Many thanks to Bridget Doogan and Dot for helping us on our tour of the desert. And thanks to Dr. Seith, our liguist/doctor companion who proclaimed it "A Magical Day." And it was.

One patient camel. Posted by Picasa

Tree of Life Posted by Picasa

Friday, March 03, 2006


I am in Shanghai, woefully behind in chronically my trip. The weird thing is, I can post from China, but I cannot read my blog. It is blocked. So, forgive me for any typos.

I had such a fulfilling experience at the Arabian Reading Association meeting. Again, I was struck by the commonalities. So many teachers wishing to improve their ability to teach children to read. Teachers from all over the middle east, some dressed in black and veiled, some in colorful (gorgeous) head scarves and some in blue jeans. But all with the same purpose.

We talked about writing across the curriculum -- but what was amazing to me was that we were writing across cultures and the geography of the entire world at the same time. I made friends I will never forget.

Commonalities: A desire to learn Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 27, 2006

Student freestyling at Bayan School. Posted by Picasa

Bayan students singing the Japanese national anthem. Posted by Picasa

Bayan student reading poem. Posted by Picasa

Bayan School Bahrain

I have so many images in my head from our visit to Bahrain, it is difficult to get them all down. First, the plane flew directly over Baghdad on our way south from London. The night was totally clear and I studied the lights to see if I could see the airport where Brian's brother is stationed, but it was hard to tell. The plane proceeded on to sunny Bahrain.

The first day there, Michael and I visited the Bayan School. It is a throbbing place, a bi-lingual school. Our introduction was watching the lower school practice the Japanese anthem for an exchange program that they are participating in. The song lifted and soared sending peaceful messages into the universe.

Next Michael and I both visited classrooms and at the end of the day, students read their poems aloud in a poetry jam to loads of applause and nodding admiration from their teachers and peers. Below are some images from our visit.

We were so struck by the fact that we never see images of students from the middle east on television in the US unless they they are doing hateful things. I felt honored to be welcomed into classrooms in Bahrain and to meet the bright, friendly and respectful students there. I think many of the world's problems could be lessened by more classroom exchanges where we view one another in terms of commonalities instead of differences.

For instance: The words "kids, please take out a piece of paper," is a discussion starter in any language and students everywhere like to express themselves through poetry and exchange their thoughts with one another. I will never forget my time at the Bayan School.