Friday, December 28, 2007

The Globalization of Family

RAWALPINDI, PakistanEnraged crowds rioted across Pakistan and hopes for democracy hung by a thread after Benazir Bhutto was gunned down Thursday as she waved to supporters from the sunroof of her armored vehicle.

The news came just as Michael and I were in cleaning mode -- Kelly, Brian and the kids would be here any time and CNN was on in the background. The story was updated -- the last photo before she was shot displayed -- appropriate experts were consulted (Guiliani???), I believed she was pro democracy and I'm not so sure that the corporate interests that support her incumbent opponent are. After all, Pakistan is a major go-to place for cheap labor for the war profiteers.

Meantime, the van full of Weists arrives. Excited hugs, stories about what Santa brought, how long the drive from D.C. and who gets the bathroom first. In between cold drinks and family talk, the Bhutto story stays on in the background. Even after CNN is replaced by the Wii for a couple of quick bowling games, the grownups continue to talk about the former prime minister's rise in power, who was most corrupt, the failure of the incumbent to provide protection. We watch as each pundit warns of new dangers in our neighborhoods on the flip side of the world due to her assassination. In my neighborhood? The only Pakistani I know I bought milk from that very morning and he seems a most pleasant man. Recent arrival. We laughed because neither of us could figure out the price of a pack of gum and I agreed to come back later, thereby negotiating an on the spot chewing gum deferment.

What news did people greet one another with before the news was globalized? Did we only have Aunt Mildred's operation and Cousin Jack's infidelities to jabber about as the guests settled in? Seasoned of course with pinches of weather and travel times. Instant access to global news has not only impacted how we do business, it's changed the way we welcome one another, "Did you hear . . .?"

It's possible such disconnected greetings may not be all bad -- being met with "Oh, I guess you really have put on weight," as my tactless father said to me one time reaching out to pat my belly and plummeting my precarious self esteem and 8 years of therapy to that scary place in the basement populated by dragons, where the furnace growls and the water tank spits fire. It took weeks and another full year of therapy to drag myself up from that darkness. And then there was the time he arrived apparently having bragged up my haphazard housekeeping to his fiance Baby Blue Betty for the whole trip. From Florida to Ohio, that's a long damned trip. Unfortunately his final climactic revelation was to be whipping open my front door to my home's usually chaos. But this visit coincided quite nicely with my introduction to Mighty Maids.
When Dad, who was a Grand Master of I Told You So, discovered there was no evidence to back up his case (the Mighty Maids had even sorted out my silverware drawer, a final disappointment), he shrunk down into my too soft sofa, glowering, without even taking off his hat, Baby Blue sitting beside him like a cheer leader at half time and me wondering if I could still find my spoons in those neat little stacks. Dad's planned conversation starter foiled, the three of us sat staring uncomfortably at the heightened patina of the freshly excavated coffee table. An assassination might have come in handy in that case, and it's entirely possible one or more was contemplated. It was 20 years ago, who remembers these things.

But this case is different. We all like each other. I want to know everything that is happening in their world, with the stuttered, word twists unique to 2-4-8 year olds. Then we can talk about the business of the rest of the planet.
So, two things to remember: I intend to become quicker on that red button on the remote when family pulls in the drive, I also have to be conscious that family news (Thomas' latest new word, Danny's domination in video bowling and Ben's latest achievements on his basketball team) gets its due. More than equal billing with the global news. Family always deserves premium space.
And an always reminder that in the midst of any crisis -- be that a remote tragedy as today's, a health crisis, or economic crisis - - it is the store of moments of undistracted joy we absorb through family connections that will steady us all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Story of Stuff

Last night Michael and I were up at the mall (again?) and he remarked, "isn't it amazing how this season just gets people to go out and buy stuff? Look at this place." And it is. I'm a victim myself. Stuff. Lots of it. Piled in the aisles, marked up and marked down. Shoppers elbow to elbow sniffing around for bargains. Occasionally and more recently, this is really beginning to nag at me. And I admit to being a lifelong shopper, a just in case, you never know what you'll find, store cruiser. But my visceral discomfort is disrupting my natural internal browser -- I can't even look around with guilt free pleasure any more.

I wrote a poem, Don't Bury Me on Brookpark Road, sometime in 2001 after the President told us to go shopping after 9/11. Excerpt:

When I’ve punched the snooze button for the last time,
I don’t want to wind up pew-wedged between the honk and wheeze
of Mr. Donut and Mr. Muffler, across from the pawn shop,
marooned at the crossroads of more. More billboards, more tacos,
more mattresses, nail shops and temporary stops on this path to the land fill for
rental cars, wastebaskets, and girls baring a** for more.
More cat beds, more tennis racket teddy bear welcome signs,
collectible designed for ease in obsolescence.

When the non-transferable terms on my desk drawer
of lifetime warranties run out, don’t plant me beside this
hurried stream of humanity, its pace accelerating frantically
as it tapers into the purchase of today at crazy low prices, guaranteed to satisfy
(for six months or ten thousand miles whichever is lower) . . .

Which is a pathetic place to be in life -- not buried on Brookpark Road, but walking around the mall mentally quoting myself from five years ago wondering why I haven't been heeding my own words. Which reminded me of this little 20 minute video that I stumbled across, that is so succinct and precise, it is a poem in and of itself.

There are a lot of amazing observations in the video, but the one that smacked me the most firmly is how happiness goes down as advertising goes up. It is as if our entire media culture is producing generations of malcontents. I'm a poet, so I was born a malcontent, but I hate to see the rest of the planet pushed in the same direction. What fun is that?

Well, apparently, not much if the commercials for antidepressants are to be believed. They are almost as scary as their warning labels. Michael point out one drug advertisement to me the other day that lists "urge to gamble" as a possible side effect.

I think we all must have this affliction -- we are all gambling wildly with our futures every time we buy more of this stuff. The other day we walked into Walgreens to get a prescription and up and down aisles of stuff that no one needs. I mean no one. Plastic flowers, flashing greeting cards, synthetic garlands, all harvested from -- where? All going where?

My new year's resolution is going to be to think harder about purchasing stuff. I'm going to write that down and tuck it in the same pocket as my credit card. We'll see if that works better than just feeling guilty.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Emerick Elementary

Not just any elementary, Emmerick is my grandson Ben's school, in fact that's his head right under the first O in Holbrook. I had a great time. First, the kids all knew my name (thanks to librarian Elizabeth and all the teachers) and a lot of ground work by the PTO, Cheryl, Marcy and my daughter Kelly. Thank you thank you.

I don't think that I was too embarrassing for Ben -- I refrained from any public displays of affection and only called him Benny once. He seemed okay with the visit.

Kelly talks to schools all over the country and arranges my school visits and book sales, but this is the first time she had ever run the book sale herself. "That's a lot of work!" was her assessment (and it always is). From now on she is going to recommend that TWO PTO moms run the book sale, particularly if they are also running car pools!

But, getting back to the great time part of the day -- what nice kids -- and responsive! It was fun to meet Ben's friends and have lunch with him. I had the opportunity to write with the fourth graders and the teachers were all very involved, writing with the kids and coaching them along. They had been working on color poems and were anxious to share some of those (lucky me).

Tomorrow I drive back to Cleveland and the weather is looking a bit threatening. Hoping that the mountains of PA treat me with as much kindness as the students and faculty of Emerick!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Holiday Wishes

This morning I played around with a photo from Kelly's new camera (above), thinking about last weekend. I had Katie's two oldest, Stephie and Scottie, on Saturday. I needed to buy a filter for the fridge at Sears and pay a bill at Penney's. You don't have to know my mall to know that these stores lay at opposite ends of the shopping maze. It's like that everywhere, and the playground for the kids is right in the middle. Talk about taking kids into a candy store -- try the mall at holiday time. "Can we build a bear, buy a Webkin, this Mickey the size of Godzilla?" How can they resist? People get advanced degrees in how to drive kids into a feeding frenzy, the goal being to turn them into credit addicts before they can multiply and divide. How early do you explain to kids that those build-a-bears were made by kids their age, kids who were denied schooling and sunshine for their pleasure. If our bright eyed kids are too tender to know this, what about the tenderness of the faceless others? Do I always have to be a wet blanket on fun? Am I just a wet blanket? I stood there in the mall holding Stephie and Scottie's hands, both of them holding slurpies in the other and just said, "no, no, no," conflict raging inside of me. How much to you tell them? When?

Years ago I wrote a Christmas poem that is entirely too sentimental to ever publish. But I'm going to put it up here as we all head into another weekend of shopping. CNN will be charting our progress on Monday, weighing it against last year's binge, a report card for all the high cost marketing degreed.

December comes.
I non-stop-shop.
To guard against a yuletide flop.
When all the gifts I give go back.
I sigh. But, hey –
who’s keeping track?
What do you give to those who have?
Computers, bikes and skates –
Enough sweaters to warm Cleveland,
DVDs and tapes.
Sneakers, games and books,
magazines and jeans.
What could Christmas bring
that’s well within my means?

What if I give you patience
the next time you get stressed?
What if I say, okay,
I know you did your best.
The next time you fall short,
what if I lend a hand?
Or if things get confused,
I help you make a plan.

The next time you act smart,
what if I try to learn.
If my gift is kindness,
would that be returned?
sara holbrook
copyright 1995 all rights reserved

Monday, December 03, 2007

Worm Food

Last July I bought an indoor worm composting system from Worm Firm. Not just any worms, mind you, red wigglers, the Rolls Royce of worms. And fat and juicy looking squirmlies they are. It quickly became apparent that we had so many kitchen scraps, we would need two bins, so I bought another. We feed the worms veggie and fruit scraps, no pasta, meat or bread. Worm Firm, I should say, is owned by Michael's ex-wife and her husband Jonnie, both Brits and much more eco-conscientious than I will ever be.

So, after 6 months, it has now come time to harvest the worms. Or really, to harvest the worm castings and save the worms to garbage down more garbage. Or really really, to harvest the worm poop, which is what a casting is. Before you run to grab a clothes pin for the nose, be aware, this process doesn't smell. I mean, I've been pawing through worm poop for the past hour (in rubber gloves, mind you). At first I was one finger at a time tentative, but before long, I just dug right in.

The harvesting process means to turn the worms out on a plastic sheet, angle a goose neck lamp down at one corner and all the worms will gravitate towards the heat. Then you scoop up the squirming worm ball and transfer it to new shredded newspaper bedding with some veggie scraps, apple cores, coffee grounds and enough of their old castings to make them feel at home. Most of the worms followed the crowd within an hour, some however obviously have ODC tendencies and were reluctant to move toward the light. The little baby worms were (naturally) rebellious and happy to be left behind to party hearty with their baby friends unsupervised.

At first I was exasperated, stupid worms. I started to transfer them one at a time. And then this kind of calm realization came over me that you just can't rush nature. That even though this task was on my to do list for today, it might take more than one day for the worms to migrate.

Here's what else I've learned: Worms love watermelon and cantaloupe, they can dispose of the rinds in a matter of days. Teamwork. Avocado skins, not so much. Peanut shells, not at all. They want to make nests in the corn cobs, and if you don't pulverize the egg shells, they nest in those too. Apple peels go quickly, onions not so fast, leeks they have little taste for. And all of our kitchen scraps, piles of it, tupperware bin full every other day or so, has been reduced to maybe a bucketful of what looks like peat. Very rich peat. In the process of their munching, they produce something called "worm tea" which is the best fertilizer there is. I put that liquid gold in milk cartons for the flowers.

So, when I complete this harvesting, I'm going to put the castings outside so that the dirt can get a taste of Cleveland winter and will be ready for the garden in the spring. There are a lot of other things I suppose I could have done with my afternoon, but I have to say, playing in the dirt, smelling it, feeling it between my fingers while the icy winds were blowing outside, was not only a comfort, but a lesson in the patience of nature.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Kazakhstan Travel Plans

Kazakhstan lies in the north of the central Asian republics and is bounded by Russia in the north, China in the east, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the south, and the Caspian Sea and part of Turkmenistan in the west. It has almost 1,177 mi (1,894 km) of coastline on the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan is about four times the size of Texas. The territory is mostly steppe land with hilly plains and plateaus.

In January, Michael and I are traveling to Almaty, Kazakhstan to visit The Almaty International School and speak at a teacher's conference. Already I am impressed by the school and its philosophy which leads with an emphasis on kindness. Kindness is not a word that gets airtime in US school goals. How do you develop a standardized test for kindness? If you go to the website, be sure and check out the online student newspaper which is very informative and the little video.

Airline tickets all booked and new down coat purchased, we are ready to go to the cold cold steppes -- in January (did I mention?) The trip will be long -- what the travel agent calls an "over over." Overnight to Amsterdam, get on another plane, and overnight to Almaty. The flip side of the world.

So, naturally we are looking for some background reading material to help activate and assess our prior knowledge (which amounts to zip) of this area to help increase our comprehension. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet does not have a guide. Neither does Fodor's or Frommer's. Mmmmm.

So when we went for our visa pictures at AAA and (just thought I'd ask) I asked the travel agent there if she had any brochures or travel information for Kazakhstan, she replied, "What country is that in?" Mmmmmm.

We politely informed her that Kazakhstan IS a country -- in fact the 8th largest country in the world. Casting a suspicious eye on both of us, she informed us she only had information about Europe, which looks to be only a launch pad for this trip.

Filling out the VISA application, I notice that the word for NO (as is "have you ever visited Kazakhstan before?") is OK. OK means NO? That'll make your number two pencil turn backflips. Mmmmmm.

Our contacts at the school have been warm and inviting -- in direct contrast to online descriptions we have read about the geography in January. Lonely Planet online has this caution: If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season. Mmmmmmm.

But then there are the rich descriptions of the food, the hospitality, the friendliness -- all in direct contrast to the weather. Just now, I was back on the site looking at the buildings and the faces of the students, getting excited.

So, here's my today thought to ponder: Is January considered winter in a land when OK means NO?

Sunday, November 25, 2007


And there we are. Left to right: Scottie (aka Scooter), Stephie, Thomas, Sara Kelly, Sara Ellen, Danny, Ben. Ready -- Swing! A little unsure. Holding on. A lot to be thankful for this year.

I've read a lot of articles about people boycotting thanksgiving because of the dastardly acts the settlers committed against indigenous peoples, but I like the idea of taking a day of the year to be thankful. It's the outdated textbooks and folklore that we need to leave behind, not the extra helping of gratitude. A day to celebrate the harvest of another year. This year I'm thankful for the above, for all my extended functioning dysfunctional family, for a warm home to come home to with running water and lights. I'm truly fortunate and pausing to be grateful is important for every reason I can think of, including a way to stave off the blues that often drag in on the skirts of winter. Something to keep us all laughing and hanging on.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NCTE Middle School Mosaic

Thirteen minutes. That's the time Kylene Beers allotted for poetry during the 2.5 hour event at NCTE in NYC this year. Thirteen and a guillotine was to descend at 14. I can't explain how much I obsessed about this time limit. I made power point slides for a read along. I deleted them. I added more. Deleted. I celebrated by not sleeping the night before so that I arrived 1.5 hours early with cotton candy for brains.

I downloaded photoshop brushes. Emailed just the right font to moderator and Goddess of YA literature, Teri Lesesne. Let me just stop for a moment and say, in case you were wondering, that this is THE best read person not only in YA lit, but probably in the galaxy. I lurk on her blog occasionally, but too often and it makes me depressed that I don't read more at traffic lights. I have no idea how she reads as much as she does. Go here to fact check:

Once the mosaic began, I relaxed into listening to Christopher Paul Curtis and Pam Ryan, Jeff Wilhelm and Janet Allen and others. A whole lot of talent was packed into that hotel ballroom, much of it carried into the room in canvas bags on the weary shoulders of teachers. It was a great afternoon and those 2.5 hours flew by. When it came time for my 13 minutes, I jumped up and raced through the whole thing in 10 minutes. Zip zip. And back to enjoying hearing others talk about their passions.

I started on the performance poetry circuit (could this be?) 16 years ago and I know that people assume I am beyond being nervous. But not true. Believe it or not, I get more nervous to deliver a poem for a small audience, say a dinner table of folks, than a ballroom. That I've known forever. But now I know that I can get EXTREMELY twisted over 13 minutes, when an hour is a breeze. Who understands these things?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Things to do to avoid writing . . .

Get a snack. This is a long list.
Starting with: Get a snack. Walk the dog. Stare out the window. Play solitaire. Knit something that is destined to fit no one. Crochet a cover to fit a tennis ball. Mend socks. Swim. Read a magazine about something you already know or don't care about. Feed the dogs, the family, the worms (another story), the plants, yourself (nothing healthy, see above). Clean off desk by putting everything in neat stacks and then shuffle the papers up again. Do taxes (only works once a year, but provides weeks of obsessive hand wringing). Answer email. Read the news anxiously as if reading can change the world and as if in not reading every little announcement, you have abandoned the world and in its last final gasp, everyone will blame you. Write blog entries. Sweep under the dining room table without moving the chairs, no use overdoing it. Get to the airport too early or too late, both are distractions, but the late option messes with your blood pressure longer. Reboot. Run a virus check on the computer. Call the kids so you can say, well, that's it, I really didn't have anything to say. Check the time on the clock on the kitchen stove, the one in the office isn't good enough. More solitaire. File nails. Search for just the right pen. Take a finger shriveling bath long enough to knock off a Tolstoy or a couple of Shakespeares. Count the pores in your nose. Remove a kitchen wall (deadlines require extreme measures). Walk the beach and collect glass. Put the dogs out in the backyard, it's been hours (days) since walking them last. Clean out that little catch basin in the car where three pennies are fused to the plastic by a month old coffee spill. Plan a trip. A long trip. A trip requiring visas and multiple calls to travel agents and visits to cranky websites. Read other people's books that have been sent to you and marvel at how they ever got them done. Wow. Watch a rerun and to see if it turns out the same way it did the last time. Rewash the load of laundry you left in the machine a couple days ago and is beginning to smell like sauerkraut. Satisfy your desperate need to go by vitamins to make you think clearer. While you are out, go to Home Depot and buy any project that requires installation and tools you can't find. Gather up last seasons clothes and put them in tubs all over the bedroom. Belly crawl under the bed looking for stray socks. Attempt to learn photoshop. Do this without classes or a book that would make the process go smoothly. Use hours, days, weeks wandering art sites on line and downloading brushes.
In fact, if you really get into the photoshop thing --just hand the dog a leash and tell him/her to take a hike, because Photoshop will eat your entire day, days on end. No problem. Photoshop is the best time sucker there is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Democracy: the votes are in

Carolyn Bucey finished off her slimy opponent Bill Snow with a knock out punch of truth and we won. Not only that council seat, but two others, also. It was a sweep of local proportions.

A commenter on my last post suggested I name names, so here we go. Our neighborhood was unhappy with our councilman Bill Snow for failing to stand up for us against the over development of a former school property by Junior Properties, ltd. Junior's daddy, the Big Shot, Osborne, gave a pile of money to the financially crippled school district, earmarked solely for the football stadium. Period. No books, no AP teachers hired back, no computers or classroom remodels. Football. In exchange for this "contribution" he was gifted Center Street Elementary School and surrounding properties for development by good ol' Junior, who has proposed squeezing in 50-60-70 (depends what day you ask) condos onto the former playground.

Why is our council representative so important? It is council who will decide how many units go onto that land. In our minds, rubber stampers need not apply. And rubber stampers who have a whole lot of unexplained cash in their election campaign accounts should get lost.

Most people think the Osbornes bought Center Street School for the fire sale price of $700,000, but that's unclear. Nothing was ever recorded. Did the district gave it to them as swag for the gift to the football team? Who knows. Very fishy. And Mr. Snow and the rest of council just kept smiling and rubber stamping approvals. Keep in mind that this neighborhood is still reeling from 2003 when 63% of the town voted to stop developers from plugging a different development (Newell Creek) into our limited green space. The developers took the case to court and a judge OVERTURNED the popular vote. To say the neighborhood is a little skeptical of sincerity of developers is an understatement.

And now this new Junior Properties development at Center Street School threatens to overwhelm our ancient sewers, threaten our trees, and increase our population density and traffic flow at one of the busiest intersections in town beyond the point of safety. We've already sacrificed the playground I used to walk to with my grandkids and the ball diamond that throbbed with T ballers on any given summer evening. And guess what? Osborn also owns the bank that is doing the financing and owns the gas company which is also drilling (with council approval) at more and more sites in this semi-urban neighborhood. Could it be that Osborn rhymes with Halliburton?

Carolyn Bucey was party to a lawsuit against the Newell Creek developers and in fact she and her husband received a small settlement for loss of value to their home due to the Newell Creek development. So, wasn't it a surprise to all when a glossy, four color copy of her confidential settlement check was mailed first class to the entire Ward along with an implication that she was taking payoffs? How did Snow get a copy of that check? Who paid for the expense of mailing? Who would want such a person as Mr. Snow to represent them after he did such a thing?

Well, guess what. The majority of voters do NOT trust Mr. Snow to represent them anymore. Here's the best part about grass roots efforts, Bucey's committee was able to xerox a simple letter explaining that the copy of the check was obtained underhandedly, that the check was NOT a payoff but a perfectly legal settlement, and get that info hand delivered to the entire ward, 1/4 of Mentor inside of two days. The majority of voters decided.

And that is what democracy looks like.

Monday, November 05, 2007

This is what democracy looks like

It's people meeting at one house in the neighborhood at 9:00AM on a Saturday morning to pass out literature. The smell of coffee from one of those 30 cup stainless towers. A plate of coffee cake cut in 2 inch squares. It's pulling your scarf up over your mouth and snugging on a hat and gloves because the morning frost has finally caught up with the calendar. It's talking to your neighbors about the polls, the rumors, the fact that the republican party has paid for a first class mailing, a glossy, four color smear campaign (all untrue) and robo calls, over $20,000 for a measly, supposedly non-partisan city council seat in a mid-sized suburb. Why? Whose corporate interests are they protecting this time? Is it the SOB (son of a big shot) who is trying to overdevelop the neighborhood? Are they planning to develop the wild lagoon wetlands again? This council seat only pays a few thousand a year; who in their right minds would spend that kind of money on such a campaign?

It's shaking your head and reaching for a stack of literature and a list of addresses to hit the streets. It's mentioning that you will be out of town for the election and having your neighbors take the literature out of your hand and telling you to get your number 2 pencil to the board of elections and vote early because (new policy) they are open on Saturday for early voters and this election is SO small that every vote, every single pencil mark, counts. There will always be more little guys than big guys in this country, but we have to make our marks.

And the best part about voting early, we actually were able to make a mark on a paper rather than a touch screen that swallows votes and doesn't spit them out again, which is an whole other issue.

Too many of us are inclined to complain about a loss of democratic rights and not actively involved in the democratic rites -- like standing on street corners and passing out literature, trying to engage neighbors in real conversation. I'm just as bad. I'm spotty in my involvement in this mud-wrestling match called democracy. But every time I put myself up out of my chair and away from my computer and TV where pundits shout their opinions, every time I get around to expressing mine by jumping into the process, this time only by showing up at my neighbor's house to be sent away to vote early, I am grateful for the experience. It all seems so reasonable. It makes me hopeful.

Neighbors actually talking to one another. It's a great concept.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A First in Performance Poetry

Stephie is Katie's daughter and like her mother, she likes being first. She likes to walk first when we go to the woods or the beach. She likes to cartwheel the fastest and swing the highest. Stephie loves first grade.

Her teacher has a great plan for helping kids with reading -- every week the children are assigned a poem to read, re-read and then perform. Then the kids take the poem home and perform it for parents who record their written applause in a response journal. It's about the funnest approach to homework I've ever heard of. AND a true assessment of her knowledge of word mastery. Stephie is great at this and reads with intense drama and expression.

I will have to ask Stephie's teacher if there is a source I should cite for that classroom idea, but it is a fabulous one for primary kids.

And oh so much better of a way of assessing her reading fluency than taking a stop watch to her reading nonsense syllables, where reading with expression and drama only slows a reader down. And how much drama can a reader put into sounds with nothing attached to them? No bugs, no pumpkins, no mystery, no enchantment? Just sounds. Where the only skill being tested is speed, as if speed could ever equate to interpreting the real meaning of words. This testing practice is inflicted on her, a political mandate by the federal government, every other week so that there is a score to write next to her name, so that people in suits can brag that her building's scores are up. Not the children's reading, not their happiness, not their love of learning. Their scores.

Ask yourself sometime: what motivated you to read? What excited you? What made you want to learn new words. Now ask yourself -- was it a stopwatch, a list of nonsense syllables and a stranger keeping score? Was it you sweating it out every other week to read sounds with no meaning faster and faster? This is DIBELS, "the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards," according to P.David Pearson in Ken Goodman's book, What's the Matter with DIBELS. (Heinemann, 2007). Yesterday I was reading this book with my lunch and it gave me an upset stomach. Seriously, I couldn't finish my salad.

Thankfully, Stephie's teacher has not allowed this test to totally dictate her methods of instruction. Thankfully, Stephie wound up in a class with an experienced teacher, not a newby who was trained to believe that this bogus assessment plan has any impact on actually teaching kids to read. Thankfully, Stephie's teacher is countering this testing madness by leading a group of "firsts" in performance poetry.

Now there's a medium that can really get kids jazzed about reading!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Travel dreams

It was a big event in my life when the National Geographic came every month. I can't recall ever seeing my mother reading one, or my dad. I suppose they did, or maybe the subscription was just something they did for the kids. I didn't come home from school to video games or online chats. I came home to snack on pretzels and apples, maybe some peanut butter spread on whatever was handy (just the tip of a knife if mom wasn't looking) and avoid my homework by either making up dance routines involving chairs and stools in the living room to the accompaniment of Rogers and Hammerstein or reading my mail. How much mail could a 10 year old kid get beyond the $5 card from granny on my birthday? Let me tell you -- boxes. I got mail almost everyday.

On the one day a month when the National Geographic came I'd snatch it up immediately. I'm sure I gleaned some educational benefit from the magazine. I looked at the pictures of the volcanoes and hummingbirds, the camels with flies on their eyes and oh yes, the naked indigenous people. It was there that I read about the space shots which lead me on a wild goose chase to find space food at the grocery store. That was before you could find your wildest desire on the Internet and Kroger's had yet to stock food in flavor saving pouches.

After a quick flip through, I would get down to studying the last few pages in the magazine where there were columns of 1 x 2" ads for countries all over the world beckoning American tourist dollars. They wanted those dollars so bad that they offered travel brochures, maps, coupons and other enticements to anyone for (get this) FREE.

Free was just what I could afford. Some of the poorer countries asked for a self addressed stamped envelope, but stamps were only a nickle and I could sneak one of those out of the middle drawer of the desk easily enough. I'd spread out my clipped coupons from the back of the magazine on my bed and slip them into envelops, guaranteeing a continual stream of mail. I dreamed of traveling to all those places.

Last night Micheal reports that once again I was dreaming of travel -- spouting numbers in my sleep. We have three big trips in various stages of planning: Kazakhstan in Jan., Jakarta in Feb., and Istanbul in March. Figures and itineraries were dancing in my brain all night.

One thing I never dreamed when I sat down at the kitchen table to write poems for Katie and Kelly was that those poems would take me to places like Vietnam, China, Italy, Croatia, Sumatra, Vancouver, Toronto, Bahrain and Tell City, Indiana -- to name a few.

All I know is that this travel dream has been with me since I memorized every word to South Pacific. I just never dreamed it would come true. And I NEVER dreamed that the coupon that would get me there would be a poem.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

jack kerouac's words turn 50

I never liked the man. Personally, I think the beat poets were a self-absorbed lot both in their writing and their lives. Pumped on drugs, alcohol, and their own selfishness -- the myth surrounding the beats collective genius still makes it hard for a sober female to be taken seriously. These words are spoken with tongue firmly planted in cheek and squinty eyes -- half serious because to be otherwise is to invite an avalanche of are-you-freaking-kidding-mes from all those who have been inspired by Kerouac and the rest of the beats to write, explore, and at least dream about casually abusing the emotions and intellect of women. Substitute broad and dame for B* and ho and Jack is the misogynistic rapper of the 50s.

Maybe it's because I never studied him in high school in my formative years when the natural instinct to go on the road yearns in the adolescent soul -- to leave all responsibility behind -- when it is a comfort to read affirmations of self-centeredness. I'm not sure I EVER would have identified with his relentless pursuit of women, but I can see how many an adolescent male has. Instead, I was introduced to Kerouac in a modern literature class in college during the decomposition of my parents marriage due to the anguish of my mother's alcoholism and drug abuse and in the midst of my own struggles to shed that pain and become a responsible adult. When the professor popped the top on ol' Jack's writing, I took one whiff and fled. Rendering humor out of drinking, drugging, and ridiculing the ones left behind to clean up the puke and keep the lights on was not my idea of a good read.

So, my rejection of Kerouac is personal. I know he influenced a generation, that his writing style spoke for a literary time period and went on to influence the next. And let's face it, literary icons are often people you would never want to ask to dinner -- Hemingway would have torn the place up and insulted everyone before using the table cloth as a bull fighter's cape, Dorothy Parker would have passed out in the powder room, and Byron slept with his sister -- I've read and enjoyed all of them. I was in a bad place when Kerouac and I were introduced, like meeting someone when you are a little cranky -- we just made a bad impression on one another.

Which is all to say, I went to two events this weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road expecting to be, well not really expecting to be anything. So many people spoke of how Kerouac had touched their lives. Cavana said he read him in HS and asked himself, "could poetry be like this?" Ray has spent residency time at the Kerouac house and spoke in jazz rhythms of the vibe. Kisha never read the man before and gave an appropriately sardonic interpretation. Nina Gibbons lived in San Fransisco in the 50s and was THERE for readings at the City Lights Bookstore. Salinger alternately growled and blasted through 35 sentences from the text that contained the word "window" in his very best Burroughs impersonation. I was thoroughly entertained. And maybe (maybe) a little tempted to see if perhaps time has enabled me to acquire a taste for vintage Kerouac.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Take my mike -- PLEASE

Ah, the bold, the reluctant, the hesitant, the seventh grade poets take turns at the mike at Oakwood Middle and Glenwood Middle in Canton. We wrote, we projected, we loosened our minds and our voices and finally the few, the brave, the wordsmiths came to the mike to read their poems of personal conflict. This poet, after bravely reading his newly written piece into the mike, couldn't wait to get rid of that thing. But you know what? I think he'll be back.

I wish I had more pictures from the day, but the fact is I bought a new camera and experienced as I am with my old PhD (press here dummy) camera, this one actually has a manual (yet unread) and comes with a class (yet untaken). Obviously, I had the wrong setting on because this photo was not photoshopped, that's the way it came out. But I love the action of it. You can almost read the "OMG what was I thinking" in his eyes.

After visiting both schools, I spoke at a reading at the HS which houses the public library (now there's a concept!). A woman came up to me and asked if I could remember her. Like the poet in the picture above, I could read her eyes, but she had to remind me of her name . . . Cindy Horne is retired now, but she is one of the very first educators that took a chance on a self-published poet and invited me to her school (we estimated) in 1991 and then was kind enough to pass my name along to others. She graciously accepted a thank you hug oh these many years later. How often do we get a chance to thank someone who really made a difference in our lives?

Big thanks to the friends of the community library for sponsoring my visit and for all the writers and performers in Canton. Great day.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Up North -- The Upper Peninsula Reading Association

Traveling from Florida to the Upper Peninsula is like going from the nation's left ankle to its eyebrow. When I was a kid growing up outside of Deeetroit, we used to call everything above Flint, "up north." But this trip took me REALLY up north, about as north as you can go without taking a dip in Lake Superior. In between the airport and the car, I got my first whiff of winter. Believe it or not, it smelled pretty good.

But inside was all was warm and cozy. Loved listing to Marc Brown and his tales of Arthur and the gang -- most interesting was his story of tangling with Bill O'Reilly who misrepresented and detonated an episode of his PBS series on tolerance in which one of the characters came from a home with two mommies. The entire right wing media machine came down on his head, funding dried up and perhaps most frightening -- 5 large envelops arrived in his mailbox from the IRS. He and all of his companies were being audited.

We live in frightening times. But as long as we keep speaking out -- the poets, the kind hearted aardvarks on PBS, and all the teachers spreading peace and tolerance, there is hope that calmer, more just philosophies will prevail. That's what all this testing is about if you ask me -- it's putting restrictions on teachers so that kids can't find independent voices -- so that they are trained to reiterate only limited information, and in the case of the dasterdly DIBELS, nonsense syllables. More on that topic later. Anyway, all of this drilling threatens to murder a kid's natural sense of curiosity and love of learning -- the tests loom over their heads like a relentless continum of IRS audits.

But Up North I met a lot of teachers and student teachers dedicated to helping kids find their own voices. A group of U-ppers are studying my book, helping kids develop their own poems in response to learning across the curriculum. Thank you thank you to Mandy, Sandy, Lucy and all the teachers who are putting my meager poems and ideas to Superior use. And this picture, with all the post-its sent me through the roof!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fern Creek Elementary

This picture was taken at the end of the school day. Notice who is looking tired and who is looking bright as sunshine.

I LOVE visiting the classrooms of my friends (that goes for Katie aka Mrs. Lufkin, too). You know someone in a certain setting. You can see him/her as a person who empties the dishwasher or drives a car or likes to order steak. You may even know how that person likes the steak. But nothing prepares you for watching how that individual steers a classroom of kids toward learning. It is like trying to organize lint in the bathtub -- every kid comes in with a separate agenda. How a single teacher gathers the group and gets them focused is like watching a magician -- the polar opposite of how I felt when I once saw my algebra teacher at the movies with a date -- OMG, she had another life outside of school!

I loved visiting Steve Czerniejewski's fifth grade classroom. I have known Steve for 12 years as part of the traveling troop of teachers working with the Janet Allen Literacy Institutes. As a group, we've hiked in Alaska, picnicked in Arizona, sweated in Baltimore, swatted mosquitoes in Florida, watched the sunset in San Diego, toured in D.C., sucked down lobster rolls in Maine and gotten lost in more cities than we can count. But, I'd never been to where he does his teaching thing. As soon as I arrived, I knew it was going to be good.

The kids all checked themselves in, committed themselves to learning by moving a clothes pin on a chart and set to work solving a math problem on the board that had me stumped. Okay, here it is:

What number is a multiple of 80 and 100.
It is a square number.
It is less than 500 and more than 100.

Solve that, and you are officially as smart as a fifth grader. The kids worked independently and then discussed the possibilities, solving the problem and setting the stage for a successful day.

Decorating the widows were poetic reflections -- pictures and textual responses to my poems where the kids used crayons and words to make connections. They were ALL great -- much better than my ability to take pictures into the light -- here are just a couple that came out clear enough to see. Click on the pictures to see them up close.

Extra bonus: I got to meet Steve's gorgeous, charming, smart family. I always thought he was just flashing around the pictures that came with his wallet -- but Kim and Carissa are real and they are really wonderful.
To Kim, Carissa, Mr. CZ and all of his students -- xxoo

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Atlantic High School, Daytona, FL

Two photos -- both taken by teacher Meg Roa who was kind enough to invite me to her school. Although this is common place in Southern climes, it still seems odd to me that the school hallways are on the outside of the buildings, the classroom doors opening to the elements like Motel 6. Atlantic HS circles its classrooms like Conestogas. Within the inside courtyard students lounge on planters and gather in clusters, same as in Cleveland -- except with a whole lot more sunshine. So when we began to write our poems of conflict and an "almost fight," I had to ask, "What do you call that area where you pass between classes?" Answer: They call it the hallway. A remnant of the old days -- kind of like calling an ITunes release an "album" when hardly any kids around have ever laid their hands on one of those giant CDs.

Great visit, great writers. Wish I had had more time to hear more of the poems. Time goes so quickly. Whoosh. We wrote some, performed some. Hope some more poems are loosened up by the exercise. Hope hope hope.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

IUP -- which is not in Indiana

This is Dr. Lynne Alvine's adolescent lit class at IUP (that's Indiana University of PA) where I had the privilege of speaking on Thursday. Not only were they patient enough to sit through my poetry, they even sat through readings from unpublished manuscripts and in one case a rejected manuscript. On Friday night at Dr. Lynne's house one student teacher asked me if I had any advice for her as a new teacher and my answer was YES. YOU HAVE TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF! Believe in your own intellect and abilities no matter what. It's a tough time in teaching today, but happily new, dedicated teachers are still following their hearts into the profession.

The next day on Friday IUP played host to 17 local high schools who sent students there for a day of writing and learning. It was fabulous. I spoke in the morning with some help from Michael and he hosted a sharing session at the end of the day where students shared their writing. In between they were treated to break out sessions on everything from Diary writing to poetry to Harry Potter fantasy -- and stacks -- I MEAN STACKS of pizzas.

Thank you to my dear friend and inspirational mentor Dr. Lynne and to Sue Johnson and the Northwest PA Writing Project for all their hard work and dedication to making this a terrific day.

I can't imagine having an opportunity like this when I was in HS. Had I, perhaps I wouldn't have waited until I was 40 to launch a writing career. There really are so many opportunities for kids these days, but too many don't even know the opportunities are out there. A day like this widens horizons beyond the cafeteria table and the bank of lockers in the hall. Truly valuable.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ben turns 8

Ben had his 8th birthday today.

He is the oldest of Kelly's three sons, a sportsman, football player, soccer player, basketball player who has electric guitar dreams and a GREAT imagination for stories. I love Ben's stories and for his part, he is patient with mine. He seems to take my idol worship in stride and just goes about the important business of second grade.

Last weekend Michael and I traveled to D.C. to babysit for Ben and his brothers Dan and Thomas while Kel and Brian went to Houston for a wedding. Thomas is potty training -- been a long time since I been there and done that! Danny is obsessed with Tom and Jerry, playing soccer and his favorite drink: chocolate milk. All the boys like a good turn on the playground equipment.

Danny is 4 and Thomas is 2.5 and both need more attention than Ben these days. He's pretty self sufficient in the food, shower, brush your teeth department. I came home wondering if he felt shortchanged while we were visiting because the younger ones (aka the diaper boys) issue a continuous stream of mandates totally appropriate for boys their ages. I wish (as I always do) that Ben and I had more time together.

Today when he arrived home from school there was a new bike in the driveway, a combination gift from grandparents and parents. A really nice bike. I can't wait to see him ride. Oh, the places he'll go.

I hope he sends back word.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Where is Suzi?

Here's a hint -- we were at Dempsey Middle School in Delaware, OH, a very happenin' place. Only insiders, however, can tell where Suzi is in this picture. For more information on Dempsey, follow the link above.

Okay, these were the best prepared students for a visit that ANY author could hope for. Here you can see the student body (and me) congratulating two of the winners of the poetry contest. Raucous applause! The judges for the contest were AP English students at Hayes High School -- how cool is that for peer review?

At a different assembly, tech students presented me with books that they had made where they chose cool graphics to go along with poems that they had written based on my work. They took the first couple lines of one of my poems and developed the poem on their own, kind of like using sour dough bread starter. The responses were creative, honest, thoughtful -- taking my poems to the next -- and more personal -- level. Here's just a sample chosen at random -- all the writings were very cool.


I'd rather starve myself
Or pay a million dollar fine,
or serve a lengthy sentence of the solitary kind.

I'd rather sky dive
or do fifty pages of homework
or get thrown out of Wal-mart
Cause my little sister bit the manager

Than to say I'm wrong


One final idea (also with an assist from the tech teacher) is displayed on the bulletin board in this final picture. Media Specialist Karen Hildebrandt is pictured here beside power point slides that the students created in computer class. Why not combine a poetry lesson with power point instruction? Now, look carefully and you will see Jesus' notebook, from Sheldon ISD outside of Houston now proudly hanging on a bulletin board in Delaware, OH. Poetry does indeed bring folks together, building bridges!

Big big thanks to Karen for all her hard work getting the kids and the staff jazzed in advance. Lots and lots of work. And thanks to all the teachers for seeing that poetry can live outside of language arts class.

But . . . but . . . but . . . where is Suzi?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

St. Thomas Aquinas/St. Phillip School Cleveland

LOVE this photo. The woman who took the picture was disappointed and took a couple more, explaining I wasn't in the first one. But this is the shot. Not only because I don't particularly like looking at myself (which I don't) but because I'm hoping this is a representation of how my poetry impacts kids -- that I am somewhere in the background, a not-quite memory, nudging them on.

Why I like the catholic schools of today: First, they all have great sound systems. They have bingo and family events and they know the importance of mortals making themselves heard to one another. They have VERY committed teachers who work for even less pay than most teachers because they really want to be there. They seem organized somehow. Usually small, they seem more manageable than some. And finally, they are not the crack-your-knuckles-with-a-ruler places made infamous on stage and screen and at dinner tables. In fact, compared to some public schools where the unintelligent-design folks have taken over, these schools seem freer to pursue education free of outside intervention, including the restrictive perils of NCLB.

None of these musings made a bit of difference to these kids, though. They were just having a good time at a poetry assembly, pushing to be in the picture. Thanks to Janie Reinhart for inviting me to meet her students and to Principal Sr. Michelle for sending me the picture below of the eighth grade girls practicing "talk to the hand."

Monday, September 17, 2007

The basecoat

"It was my Granny who taught me to sew"

That's a line out of a poem I wrote on the occasion of my grandfather's 100th birthday. Thinking back on their house, the sweet smell of bacon, whir of the manual lawnmower, rose garden, and the goodie drawer, the memory of Granny was stronger. I think Pappy, Willie Holbrook, was never quite sure what to do with his (at that time) six grandchildren, all girls. He'd raised three boys before we came along. Visits to Akron consisted of good meals followed by the men sitting in the living room discussing politics (no girls allowed) praising the U.S.military (between the four of them, they represented all branches, Pappy having been a Marine) and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company while condemning Franklin D. Roosevelt in the strongest language possible without using profanity. Well, an occasional "damn" might slip out, but only in reference to Roosevelt. They'd talk and then spontaneously jump up and go wash cars. It didn't occur to me until years later that what I perceived as Pappy not having time for his grand kids might really have been him still raising his sons, veterans trying to assimilate into a rapidly changing world. That was back when I thought being grownup meant you had it together. What did I know?

These were the post WWII Eisenhower years, prosperous and full of hope -- as long as one was a white male, which everyone in the living room was. Pappy worked 40+ years at Goodyear, only taking 2 days off -- once to get all his teeth pulled and two half days when his sons came home from war. A veteran of WWI, his life went from ox-carts and a log cabin in Hickory, KY to space shots. After his war, he never picked up a fire arm or committed an act of violence. He did his job, raised his sons, married three times, the last time at 72 when folks said it wouldn't last and was married to Lela for 23 years. Until he died at 103, he still read the newspaper, took no medication and always raged against Roosevelt. He was frugal in a way that is considered un-American these days -- he wasted not, not anything, not ever.

I remember meeting him at the bus after work, placing my leaf of a hand into the powerful mitt he wrapped around a mallet to beat rubber into molds for earth-moving tires for 8 hours that day -- and every other day. It may be the only memory I have that we shared, just the two of us. I know him mostly from the stories he liked to tell and retell until we knew all the words and could sing along. I can't remember why I ever thought that was annoying, but as a teen, I did. He had dropped out of school in the early grades to work in the tobacco fields, later reading his son's textbooks a chapter ahead of them as they went through school so he could help them with their homework. In his growing up days, before life took him from a log cabin to Versailles, wisdom was passed along through stories. He had landed in Akron, OH, blustering with industry, far away from the old homeplace. He knew how to adapt. My father and his brothers all went to school, grew to be accomplished men, fathers, and republicans, never having to labor as Pappy had. Their bank accounts may have been larger, but their hands never grew to the breadth of his.

Pappy owned rental property, part of what carried them through the depression when Goodyear cut its workforce back to one or two days a week. Rather than laying men off, the union made the company keep everyone on at reduced hours, living on oatmeal but not starving. That was back before all the laws were changed to favor shareholder rights and workers still had a say, before the country forgot about Roosevelt and what he stood for, Eleanor going into the coal mines with the workers, and Eisenhower's grim predictions about the military industrial complex. Pappy was a rubber worker but he was also a handyman, wallpaper hanger, painter, whatever it took to keep things running while Granny stirred Fels Naptha into the laundry and had a hot meal waiting after every job. They were cast into those roles in their youth and lived them well and by all appearances, happily, a hard concept for all the female grandchildren to understand as we grew to take our roles in life as moms, a business owner, writer, professor, artist, dentist and activists, and new-dealers (save one), living an egalitarian life even Roosevelt couldn't have envisioned.

When Pappy's rental property changed hands, everyone was pressed into service painting. Gender wasn't an issue. If you could hold a brush or a broom, you were in. It was my Pappy who taught me to paint. Only dip the brush into the can part way, don't scrub at the wall, smooth strokes, paint into where you have just been to reduce brush marks, the first coat is more important than the last, and never try to paint with a dry brush. My first job was to paint a closet. He put me onto the task with a bucket of paint thinned to white wash and a sawed off broom. Latex paint either hadn't been invented yet or was under some kind of cloud of new-fangled suspicion, because we used the old, smelly kind. That first experience resulted in the closest I think I ever came to hearing Granny use profanity, as she later dipped my ponytail into turpentine, yanking the brush through my thick hair and mumbling under her breath. But that was just the first in a series of painting lessons.

This past weekend I painted the basement hallway and stairs a warm ivory, thinking of Pappy as I do each time I pick up a brush. I carefully applied the base coat so that subsequent coats would go on smoothly using oil based primer (which is still the best), meticulously brushing into where I had just been, not counting on the finish coats to cover up mistakes on the base, repeatedly dipping the brush only partway in, trying not to streak with a dry brush.

Just the smell of paint brings Pappy to my mind. I don't think he would have approved of all the disposable products available in the paint department these days, but he probably wouldn't have been too critical of the job I did on the staircase. He had a way of looking over flaws, part of what carried him through 103 years. I think he would have been damned proud of the fact that I found a $5 gallon of paint at Home Depot to do the job.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Back to School in Houston

Today I visited three elementary schools in Sheldon ISD. My thoughts about foreign language skills fresh in my mind, I asked every group, "How many people here can speak two languages?" In every case, the majority could! I let them know how much I admired their skills. I think it's important to let kids know that being multi-lingual is an amazing opportunity, not an embarrassing disability.

I had a great time sharing poetry with a whole lot of help from my friends -- call and response with attitude! In each school I was impressed with how attentive and involved the principals were with what was happening. In each school, kids had prepared questions leading to some fun discussions.

And then there was Jesus. Most students had prepared one question or maybe two. At the end of the assembly there was the usual gathering of kids who had more to say about their own writing or other cool stuff to talk about. Jesus came up with his small notebook and asked me a question. I talked to other students and Jesus stepped forward again -- he had another question and when I responded, he carefully wrote down the answer. More interaction and I noticed, there was Jesus again.
"How many questions do you have?"
"Okay, let's hear 'em." And he seriously asked each, writing down the answer.
One of his questions was, "What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?"
"A reporter," I answered. "You know, for a newspaper."
"Like the Houston Chronicle?" Jesus asked.
"Yeah. Exactly like that."
Jesus wrote that down. I asked to take a picture of Jesus' notebook and he agreed. I had to enhance the photo so that his careful note taking showed clearly in the photo.

A reporter needs to have the tenacity of a pit bull and and an unquenchable curiosity -- the urgent need to get an answer. I never made it as a reporter, but today I think I met a young man who really has the stuff.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Hable Espanol?

Here's something I don't get and it's come up in casual conversation twice in the last two days -- once with a guy buying aspirin for his bad knees in the check-out line at Drug Mart, me holding my soon to be new hangers. "All these people speaking Spanish. They should just learn to speak English." And not a soul around us was speaking anything but English. It was pressing on his mind enough to blurt out his viewpoint to a stranger (me) in line, along with the entire story of his knees, soon to be replaced but not without major fighting with the insurance folks. No, he hadn't seen Sicko, his son is a physician.

Another situation of "what I should have asked."

What's the harm in learning some Spanish? Taking it one step further, what's could possibly be the benefit? Some people (Fox News?) treat English as if it were a religion and any other language as pure blasphemy.

The USA is the ONLY industrialized country that routinely graduates students who are NOT fluent in another language. So, what's the problem with that? Doesn't most of the world speak English? Ah, no, as a matter of fact, they don't. More people speak Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish than speak English as a first language. Add in the second language speakers and English scoots ahead of Spanish and Hindi, but doesn't even begin to approach the over 1 billion people who speak Chinese. In fact, only 5.6 % of the world's total population speaks English.

Doesn't it kind of make sense that if we English speakers are engaging in a global marketplace our future citizens should be able to talk to their business partners? I've seen enough spy movies to know that translators don't always give it to you straight. If the news from abroad is any indication of our ability to make our needs known(China re: toys and dog food, Iraq re: the war to name two) we could benefit from some better communication skills. Where we going to get those? At some school that throws in token hello-how-are-you language courses only at the HS level?

Ten years ago I visited a classroom of second language learners in Stockholm (the Swedes take in a lot of political refugees). In the classroom, the Hindi kids sat here, the Bulgarian kids there, over there the Arabic speakers, and in this corner the Cambodian kids and so on. If the kids had a question on the lesson, they turned to their neighbor for clarification in their mother tongue, to their teacher to whom they spoke in Swedish or to me in English. I was there to teaching the writing of poetry in English -- their THIRD language. The children were in fifth grade. They all wrote poems in English. Nice poems. Funny. Adorable poems.

In this country an ESL school has a stigma -- instead of being seen as a place where students can get some extra language skills along with fractions and phonics, they are seen as second class. What kind of backwards thinking is that? No one ever died an infection of foreign language or was denied a job for diversity of language.

When I was growing up outside of Detroit post WWII many many of my friends had a grandmother in a back bedroom who didn't speak English. DPs they called them. (these women, always made the best cookies, perogies, and pasties btw). The parents might have had a lingering accent, the kids spoke perfect English but were also defensively conversant enough in that other language so that the parents couldn't pull the wool over their eyes. Hamtramack had street signs in Polish, Greektown in Greek, so that the DPs could get around, helping one another out in their selective groups while they assimilated into a new culture and struggled with the language. We all thought we were very cool learning to swear in those languages plus of course yiddish which was the funnest of all. The thing is, we grew up with a hands on, day in, day out awareness that not everybody in the world talked the same and diversity in language and cookies could be a very good thing.

As I visit International Schools I am so impressed with the students' mastery of languages and can't help thinking that they have an edge up over our home grown kids. Do you think the next generation of engineers might have an advantage if they can talk to both the executives and the folks working on the factory floors, no matter where that factory is or what language is being spoken? Yeah. We are not helping our kids by insisting on "English only," we are holding them back. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for hearing an unfamiliar language; we need that kind of reminder in places like Mentor, OH, that there is a whole world of people out there who aren't exactly like us. And that's okay, and they are okay people, and we are all struggling to make ourselves understood.

I want those days in Detroit back. I want to share them with my kids and my grandkids. Do kids need good English language skills to succeed today? Of course they do. NOT developing these skills WILL put a definite cramp on future employability.

But putting self-imposed limitations on language learning is like restricting your snack diet to Oreos. They're okay, but there is so much more out there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Now the real work begins

The editor sent an email today that she's sending edits on Informally Yours. This book was such fun to write. Two years ago Allan Wolf and I thought of the idea on the plane home from IRA -- a book of boy/girl love poems. We had known one another since the 1995 National Poetry Slam where his team beat my team to take first place because I went overtime and we lost by .6. Not that I dwell on such petty trivia, you understand, I barely remember it. Right. It was like missing a lay up in the final moments of a championship game.

Anyway, Allan and I have been friends ever since. Not calling friends, but speaking when we see one another and respectful, feel free to call for advice friends. Now, after writing this book, we REALLY know each other. In order to write our adolescent love poems, we had to talk about all the geeky, paralyzing, heart stopping memories stored in our own experience databanks. Confessions. Revelations. OMG, you've got to be kidding me stories. Like the time I was sitting in the movies with a date and he passed me the sweet tarts and his hand brushed my knee and I almost threw up. I don't think I've ever eaten a sweet-tart since. The first line of the resulting poem is: Do not bolt screaming, clutching all your stuff.

That's the thing about memories. You think you put them to bed and the pesky things keep crawling back down the stairs. Bunch of intruders, memories. Like the time I went overtime on the stage of the National Poetry Slam and . . . STOP IT. GO TO YOUR ROOM!

I'm sitting here waiting for Allan to call so we can discuss the pictures for the book. This is the first time I've sold a book with the artwork. These are photos that Allan and I took and I doctored up on photoshop. The editor said she has made her comments on the manuscript. It's time for the editing to begin. This is the work of writing. The weighing, tossing, pruning, straightening. Something to look forward to.

And the truth about that sweet tart story? I had been widowed once and divorced and was out on my first date and it suddenly occurred to me that there weren't parents at home to set the boundaries. Who said adolescence ends at 18, or 16 or whenever it is supposed to be over?

Maybe adolesence is like the past. It's never really over. Not in my line of work, anyway. It's listening on the staircase, making sure I get it right.

I wonder if the phone will EVER ring?

Friday, August 24, 2007

safer, smafer

In Florida they have a law named for Jessica Lunsford, the poor girl attacked and killed by a neighbor, a repeat offender, a kind of scum lower than whale poop. In response to this attack (which did not take place on school grounds during a busy school day by a school contractor, let's remember) the Florida legislature has created a law requiring anyone who is paid to come to a school to be fingerprinted and have a background check.

Okay, so far. Sounds fair. Sex criminals shouldn't hang with kids. Makes sense.

Except these fingerprints have to be taken in the county where the work is to be done or a certified location elsewhere. Oh, there is NOT ONE certified place to have fingerprints taken in OH and sent to FL. PA either. TX has one, but only in Dallas. And the background checks are country specific, meaning you can't get statewide permission to visit schools, it's on a county by country basis. $85 a print.

Besides, getting a background check in OH is useless since OH can only check OH offenders and FL can only check FL offenders and never the twain databases shall talk to one another. Wasn't Homeland security supposed to do something about this? Pedophiles never move, presumably, to do their dirty work? Oh, there's a federal database, but that only tracks federal crimes, which pedophilia is not (unless the offender crosses state lines with the kid AND gets caught).

And this law only applies to paid contractors of the school. This means if you come in to repair the copy machine or (just say) provide a poetry assembly, you need to have the background check. If you volunteer in the library or to chaperon an overnight trip, you do not.


A person could volunteer to spend the night with a group of kids on a field trip and NOT get a background check, but a different person needs one to do an assembly for 400 kids?

Now every school district has had to hire a full-time person to monitor these background checks on the paid contractors. These employees must have the patience of an acorn or limitless refills on their meds to put up with irate contractors calling to try and figure out complex systems designed by the wonderful folks who brought you the tax laws, complete with commensurate sections and sub-sections. One more salary not going to educate kids.

The good news is that other state legislatures are so worried about being viewed as negligent in protecting kids from dangerous (say) poets who come to deliver programs to large groups of kids that they are in fact racing to put their own state-specific, non-comprehensive background check laws on the books.

None of which would have saved Jessica.

These laws mirror the complex entry systems designed and sold to schools that harried school secretaries bypass with a little buzzer. Think about it. Other than the Chechnyan rebels, has there ever been a school shooting perpetrated by anyone who would have not been buzzed in?

The fact is, danger for kids most often lurks among those they know. A fact that has never stopped private enterprise from making a killing off of systems purchased by nervous institutions. Gee, I'm feeling safer already.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Reading

I was all over the place this summer in books -- Africa, Pakistan, Peru, Chile, colonial America and perhaps the most frightening land of all -- adolescence. I didn't have a summer reading list and I'm not facing a quiz. I can't figure out if this is an advantage to being out of school or a loss because I only read what I want to.

A Long Way Gone, Memoir of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah -- This is an amazing account of a boy recruited into the army in Sierra Leone and his subsequent return to civilization after UNICEF bought him out at 15. The imagery is so strong and the writing poetic -- it's hard to believe it was written by a second language speaker. They kept the boys fighting by getting them addicted to blood and speed. Asked in an interview on the Daily Show if it was harder for him to become a killer or harder to rejoin society and he said the rejoining. Several books I read this summer served as reminders of the violence that lurks under the skin of us all.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini -- This is by the same author who wrote The Kite Runner and is just as spell binding, visual and haunting. It is a girl's story this time. Two young Afghan women overcoming cruelty and death to find friendship. Last year I read three or four books about Afghanistan and finally had to take a break -- the situation there is so desperate, particularly for women and children. What made this novel memorable for me is the intricate descriptions of the places and cultural detail.

Left To Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza Did not like this book. I'm afraid to say that as it is about the Rowandan genocide and the author's survival. By saying I didn't like it I run the risk of sounding pro-genocide. Maybe it was the endorsement by Wayne Dyer. He has this industry of books and tapes which all say "visualize it, pray for it, and it happens." When heartless "other" publishers didn't pick up her story, he did. And he provided her with a translator (whose work was horrendous, putting her story into American slang) who saw to it to inject his "visualize,pray and it happens" philosophy throughout. Frankly, I just saw the book as a vehicle for him to promote his own stuff.

Twisted by Laurie Halsey Anderson I liked this one okay, but I wanted to love it as I did Speak and that didn't happen. This is a young adult novel in a boy's voice and I never quite suspended by disbelief that this was really a guy talking and not Anderson talking like a guy. There are plenty of positive reviews floating around and it wasn't awful, I was just disappointed. I thought it was a little too neat how the protagonist snaps at his abusive dad, dad says "oh sorry I was such a dick for your entire life," and then they are immediately okay. Where are the years of therapy?

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathanial Philbrick Why wasn't my history book in school as engaging as this guy? I don't usually read heavy non-fiction like this -- and this book is heavy in detail, but what a lot to learn about the stubborn souls who chose to venture and stick it out in a brutal environment. This book didn't help my cynicism about human nature one bit. The settlers had arrogance and modern weaponry on their side (along with small pox). Not very appealing to claim as relatives. But the native americans had some ego problems too -- leaders who sold each other out with designs on one another's territories. This book has more detail than you can imagine -- did you know there were two dogs on the Mayflower? A spaniel and a "slobbering mastif." Since Michael's mom raises mastifs, this descriptor made me laugh. That was about the only laugh in the book, but it was a muddy, bloody, sad but glorious read. It makes you wonder what like could have been like for all if alliances were kept and the native people honored, faiths and spirits united to bring community wealth instead of wealth to a few.

Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples This is also a young adult novel, but one of those that should not just be relegated to school libraries. It follows a young desert girl in Pakistan whose love of freedom, the desert and her camels must be tempered as she learns to obey. There is no neat ending to this one, she is tamed and forced to marry the older man her family has chosen for her. I loved Fisher Staples book Under the Persimmon Tree and this one did not disappoint. Although Shabanu has been out for almost 20 years, it increases in relavancy due to political situations. Now I need to quickly read the sequel Haveli so that I am ready when the third book in the trilogy comes out next month.

Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende I just love Allende. I love plunging into the mystery and spirit world of her stories. What a story teller she is. But this book really charts new ground for her as she follows the true story of a woman who helped to establish the first spanish settlements in Chile. It begins in Spain, moves to Peru and then across the desert and mountains into Chile. The cruelty to the indigenous peoples is documented in horrific detail right along with the intimate details of her relationships with serial lovers. I remember hearing Allende speak one time in Chicago where she said as she advance in years she has come to regret every man or desert that she passed up. In this book, she passes up nothing. It is fantastic.

Cesar's Way, The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems by Cesar Millan. This is really a spring book that I bought to help in house training Suzi. It didn't help with that, but I loved this book and think that every teacher should read it to help with classroom management. He notes that only humans will follow a neurotic, unstable leader. In the dog world such a leader would be deposed immediately and probably killed. Lesson there. I love the way he describes the "calm, assertive" leader. Every pack needs a leader or they go a little nuts, the idea is to establish yourself as the leader and take the anxiety out of the pack. Now, what teacher couldn't benefit from a reminder on that score? Loved it.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Driving through Somerset County

Coming home from visiting Kelly and family today we hopped off the turnpike to take winding route 30 through PA. Coal country. Laurel Highlands. 2909 elevations. Towns too small to make the map. Whoever heard of Shanksville? That is before September 11 when Flight 93 dropped out of the sky into a field there. At the Coal Miners Tavern we picked up a Somerset County Visitors Guide with a yellow-eyed eagle on the cover. In fact it is titled the Flight 93 Somerset County Visitors Guide, the rest of the sites in the country having been parsed into eight pages in the 32 page booklet. That's what happens when planes fall on your side of the mountain.

I learned from the booklet that flight 93 took off 42 minutes late on that day. I studied the list of names and tried to picture flight attendant Lorraine Bay in her uniform. Wondered how old Andrew was or Honor Elizabeth and who was missing them on this perfect August day -- a day not unlike that day weather wise.

We also passed a fellow walking for peace from Chicago to D.C. The road was narrow and we were passed him before fully absorbing who or what had just whizzed past. Since then we've found the young man on YouTube -- Mario Penalver
Michael said at the time we should turn around and give him some money for his trip, but regrettably we did not test the turning radius of the car and the alertness of oncoming drivers and stop on the narrow road.

Why do we turn off of main highways? To see something different? To get away from it all?

But there is no getting away, is there? Not really. There it all was in Somerset County, somewhere left of nowheresville. Pieces of the whole mess. The downed airplane. The puffed up patriotic eagle brochure asking for donations for a monument. The details, the names, the memories. And the young man walking to end the subsequent war unjustly blamed on the events of September 11. And how many sons and daughters of coal miners are over there now?

That crater in a corn field is as wide as the planet and as deep as a mother's pain -- but instead of healing, it just seems to keep on growing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

This Can't Happen

This cave in, this hurricane, this almond-sized explosive device found in the breast of my daughter Kelly. This can't happen. That's what I said when I heard about the lump, what I said on the phone, what I said to friends, and what I continued to say until 3AM on the morning of her surgery when for one agonizing hour my tired mind wrestled with the possibility that maybe it could happen. Tragedies happen.

But this tragedy did not happen. The surgery was quick and slick as an oil change without the efforts to upsell an air filter and winter wipers. The pathologist called before we got home to tell us that the lump was free of cancer.

The burden of worry that I wouldn't allow to happen was lightened in stages yesterday rather than in one swoosh. The sun kept getting brighter, the music of the day a little more bouncy until relaxing by the swings with the kids last night a moth fluttered by pulling the last of it into the twilight.