Sunday, October 9, 2016

Meeting My Son

It was a day full of emotion and tentative words. A day of loud silences, tears, and hugs. It was the day my child told me she was not “she,” but was he.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but I also wanted to wait until my teen gave me allowance to address this. Let me set the scene:

Since my child hit puberty, he has had a rough time. There was some bullying and a lot of self-loathing. We even had a brief time where he was suicidal. I chalked all this up to typical teen emotions and a hypersensitive child. I, too, was hypersensitive, but I learned to quietly swallow everything and bottle it up. Emotions were not dealt with healthily, so I have always tried to cultivate a safe and open environment for my husband and child. Emotions themselves are not unhealthy—it’s how we use those emotions that can be toxic.

We got through the middle school years and coasted into high school. Life was somewhat better, but my child still floundered. For 10th-12th, we let him do an online public school because of his sometimes crippling anxiety. By senior year, life seemed to be leveling out, and my baby graduated June 2015—just shy of his seventeenth birthday.

Fast forward to July 2015. I had spent three days at teaching GAfE for a school near Muskogee. After that last day, I eagerly headed home. As I flew down the turnpike between Tulsa and OKC, I tried calling my teen to check in. No answer (which is actually pretty typical). Then I got this text:

I stopped at the McDonald’s halfway to text my response (I don’t text and drive!).

Then this one came in (a Google doc was also attached):

My heart dropped. I’m not a worrier; I’m more of a problem solver, but when you get a text like this, you can’t help but feel a level of anxiety.

There in the McDonald’s parking lot, I read the attachment, with some trepidation. It was lengthy but beautifully and honestly written. I have raised a talented writer. J

To summarize, my daughter was actually my son. He had begun some soul-searching in recent months and realized the truth of his gender. He logically and eloquently explained how he arrived at this conclusion and shared his new name. He also remarked how the movie Inside Out helped him explore his identity since the emotions and the character Riley seemed more open and not set on a two-gender dynamic.

I read slowly and thoroughly. This was my child’s heart and soul on paper, so I took my time to chew on and digest.

Then, I cried…and prayed.

Let me clarify: I did not cry and pray this wasn’t true. I didn’t rail to God and ask, “Why?!” Instead, I cried and prayed I would say and do the “right” thing when I got home. I cried and prayed because my rational mind immediately clicked through statistics for LGBT people in America, especially transgendered people. I cried and prayed because I’ve read the stories about the beatings and/or murders of transgender people. I cried and prayed because I knew my child was about to begin a hard journey—harder than anything else we’d encountered. I cried and prayed God would give me even more strength to be there for my son. Then, I started home.

I managed to compose myself before I pulled into the garage. I took a moment and a deep breath. The next words out of my mouth had the potential to nurture or destroy my future relationship with my baby. I don’t say that capriciously: My child and I have always enjoyed a closer than “normal” bond. I have no idea how I am so blessed because I’m not really a nurturing person, but my child is definitely attached to his mother.

I walked into my house and saw my child in our kitchen. I walked around to him and said one of the simplest and most profound sentences of my life, “Hello, Coby. It’s nice to meet you.”

I will never forget the look of relief on my son’s face and how he collapsed into me. I surrounded my sweet child with my arms and my love. In that space of time I knew nothing had changed and everything had changed.

It’s probably the only time I have been 100% proud of myself as a parent. I have no regrets and don’t think I could have handled that moment any better.

The last year hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbow-farting unicorns. Coby is seeing a therapist for the anxiety. The therapist also focuses on LGBT issues with her practice, so that has been wonderful. We did keep all this pretty quiet for much of the last year, at my child’s request, to protect him. I even did the balancing act of saying “daughter” at school and to friends and family and “son” at home because I respected Coby’s desire for privacy.

We did enjoy a wonderful summer break together. In the last few months, he’s been much more open and much more confident. I am so proud of who he is becoming.

Ultimately, I have once again realized not everything in life is about me and my feelings; this is about my child realizing who he actually is and about him becoming comfortable in his skin. This has been about me not giving a flying f*** how my family feels or how anyone feels about my child. This is about my son being happy. Period.

As we have begun telling people, I have been amazed by the beauty and goodwill from some of our family (not everyone knows yet), our friends, and my students. While I have never minded letting Coby fight his own battles, I will say if anyone harasses my son for simply being who he is or if they deny him his right to live his life, this momma is ready to take on those people. Let me warn you, it won’t be pretty—for you. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

My First Week (+ 1 Day) 2016

Recently I began my twelfth year of teaching (not counting the 1 ½ I taught part-time). I’ll admit to not being exactly thrilled to start a new year, for several reasons. I’ll share two:
1.     Last year took a lot out of me. My faithful readers know I have lupus. Last year exhausted me both mentally and physically. I spent pretty much all of June simply resting and trying to recover…it didn’t really help. I am currently trying to get back on my infusion instead of being stupid and trying to do without it.
2.     I did not prepare for this year like I normally do. Usually I have most to all of my year planned on Google Calendar by the time school starts. This year I had the first day planned—that was it. However, I did spend the summer researching and really thinking about myself, my privilege, and changing my curriculum. My problem was I felt overwhelmed by the myriad of issues I could cover. There’s so much going on in the world, so much that needs changing.

So, teachers reported back, and our “welcome back” speech didn’t feel welcoming. It felt the opposite…but I was determined to keep a good attitude for my students.

We did get some much-needed time in our classrooms. I appreciated the quiet so I could putter around and put finishing touches on my room. It was ready before we reported back, but I find it calming to spend time in my classroom—and I hope my students feel the same.

Students came back on a Friday, which was weird. Really weird. Once again, I welcomed students to their junior year and AP Language, and said, “Let’s read a story.” Just like last year, we read “Examination Day” by Henry Seslar. I always get such odd looks from the students. After finishing the last line, I asked students to turn to a neighbor and discuss why in the world their AP teacher would start the year by killing off a child. I gave them a couple minutes to ponder, then we talked as a class.

I stressed the importance of thinking for themselves, of taking risks, or opening their minds. We talked about who is easier to control: dumb people or intelligent people. I told them I had to desire to control them. I wanted them to question everything, even me.

From there we looked at “Pretty Good” by Charles Osgood and a satirical letter, thanking a teacher for focusing so much on test scores. I used these to further the conversation about grades, learning, thinking, etc. We finished the hour with a class bingo just to get the students up and moving.

Several throughout the day remarked I was the only teacher who welcomed them to the new school year, who talked about grades, and who wanted to give them room to make mistakes.

During the next week, we did some assessments so I could gage what they learned/knew/remembered from last year. Our pre-AP program (at least for 9th and 10th grade) is much too weak, so I had a good idea where students would be. Our department lacks alignment, so we don’t know who’s covering what literary terms as which grades, students aren’t really doing research papers, they aren’t doing much writing, and are doing little analysis or other AP prep.  
We began the week with a “Who Am I?” five-slide presentation. I asked for their name and a picture and a slide each telling me their likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. These presentations really helped me begin putting names with faces!

We did a “pre-test” of literary terms and basic essay format, then went over it as a class so I could see what I needed to review or teach.

We finished the week with students blogging over a topic of their choice. I simply wanted to assess their content and voice/style. There were some weak and skimpy blogs and some truly beautiful work. In fact, I posted one of them as a guest blog. (Caution: the student wrote eloquently and honestly about rape, providing some mature and healthy talk about the subject. You can find it here:

Overall, they did well, and I already see much potential in this group. We shall see as the year progresses….

My Reading for Pleasure Class Responds to The New Yorker

I recently read an article on Twitter (where I generally get most of my info) from The New Yorker entitled “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” by David Denby.

I was irritated from the first paragraph: “A common sight in malls, in pizza parlors, in Starbucks, and wherever else American teens hang out: three or four kids, hooded, gathered around a table, leaning over like monks or druids, their eyes fastened to the smartphones held in front of them. The phones, converging at the center of the table, come close to touching. The teens are making a communion of a sort. Looking at them, you can envy their happiness. You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness—in a superb book or a series of books, in the reading obsession itself! You should probably keep on wishing.”

“Monks or druids”? So, the implication is teens are praying to their device or the device is holy to them? I know teens are attached to their device, but I doubt any of them would appreciate the simile.

Who’s to say teens aren’t reading on their devices? I read all the time on mine. Maybe it’s not a “superb book or series,” but I do read on my device. “You should probably keep wishing” especially pisses me off. It’s so disdainful and patronizing toward the very people Denby writes about. Classic case of an adult writing about teens and yet completely missing the mark on who they are as actual people!

So, being the pot stirrer I am, I thought I’d share the article with the 28 teens in my Reading for Pleasure class. Wow, those were some angry people. I told them they could leave me comments in Google Classroom. Below, I copied and pasted their comments with minimal revisions. Since they were informal comments, I didn’t specify “English rules.”

¨If kids are avoiding eye contact, they are avoiding books even more¨ Two separate things...... just saying.” –Jackson

“I still read.” –Joshua

“There are two reading for pleasure hours in this school! If kids didn't want to read then why would they sign up for these classes? MAYBEEE if there wasn't as much homework and stress put on our grades then we would read more. The generation that wrote this article is the same generation that is putting the stress onto us to have jobs, get perfect grades, be the perfect person, finish all of our homework! These people have no place to say that we don't read when they don't give us time to read. *drop the mic*” –Blaine

“We definitely read. But I feel as though it's not necessarily stereotyped into like 'the nerdy girl reads' or 'the moody, emo kid reads'. It's more like the people who those wouldn't expect. And what the heck does eye contact have to do with reading more? There is no correlation. I don't usually make eye contact and I have five books in my bag right now. And personally I happen to enjoy the scent of old books. It makes me think of winter nights and hot cocoa. Also, this article was made in February. I'm less angered knowing that this is at least 2-3 months old. But still angered.” –Chloe

“I think reading is needed at times to calm the mind. Many teens don't read as much as we're supposed to. I understand that teens are on their phones way more than reading books or magazines, because they are into the ‘it,’ thing. Many parents are addicted to their phones also, reading helps you learn new words, and compare to other people's problems to yours. Reading is important for everyone and not just on cell phones.” –Emily

“The sad thing is that a lot of people not just teens. Adults and kids as well so it's not only us teens but a few people now a days so they can’t blame us. I love reading but I don't like being forced to read and that is why most teens have strayed from book life. Then those of us have jobs and we have to worry about grade and homework to we don't get much time to read anymore.” –Cameron

“Yes! I believe that there are a wide majority of teens who are not engaged in reading nowadays. HOWEVER, the one thing that killed the idea of reading as a hobby was when we were obligated to finish a novel that was chosen by our teacher. Contrary to popular belief, reading is an excellent way to free our minds and travel to an alternate world where we envision ourselves as a character. It allows us to get away from the dark places that absorb the world and it's also a great way to pass the time.” --Zack

“alright buddy. i am a teenage girl who doesn’t care about her clothes. i don’t care what a book smells like, i care about what is written and we are busy. i work 20 hours a week plus extra curricular activities that practice almost every day plus the extra clubs and i have still have time to read almost a book every couple of weeks. my mother asks me for books because she knows i have read more and i know what’s good. and not just the young adult either. I’ve read classics and nonfiction and i do it on my own will. those who don’t read just haven’t found what they like.” –Karstin

“^ true. especially when the funds we receive from said jobs (usually 2-3 3-4 of them at once) are barely enough to afford rent and have practically none left over to eat LET ALONE to buy a book.” –Chloe responding to Karstin

“My first thought is do adults read seriously anymore because the only time i see my dad reading anything is either when its a Facebook post, a text, or a email? The eye contact thing also really irks me how do those relate just because I'm shy doesn't mean I don't read. I read because I want to and there is something different about reading it takes you to a whole other side of reality. I took reading for pleasure this year to finally to get the time and chance to explore different books and broaden my horizon and no there isn't assigned reading I do it because I would like too.” --Hannah

“I feel like this is demeaning towards kids. What you are reading doesn't matter. If it has a cover and a back and words in between, it's a book. What I read helps me deal with the real world, and I am sorry that it is not considered 'a real book' but in my opinion it is more real than anything the older generations would consider to be 'a real book.’” --Ashtyn

“Teens read just as much as any elementary student may! Reading is a way in which any teenager can let their mind wander into an extraordinary adventure. Age doesn't dictate how much a person reads, or how much a person should read, and it's unfair to assume that teens don't appreciate reading anymore. I don't read because I am told to, I read because I enjoy it! Also, just because some teens may not necessarily be as social as others, it doesn't mean that they don't enjoy reading just as much as anybody else!” --Kali

“i love reading and their is nothing wrong with joining sports or clubs i am pretty sure there are people out there who can read at least once a week if not once a day. I have a phone too and i go and check my social networks, but i don't stare at my phone waiting for someone to post something every ten seconds. I mean my mom has four kids and she still manages to get most of the stuff she wants done completed.” –Mackenzie

“I would like to disagree I know many kids who love to read for fun and rather read than do outdoor activities. I love to read book and then there are websites on the internet that you can read books on. HELLO E-BOOKS! Yes we are all busy but there are many of us who will pick up and book and read 20 minutes into it. Also I would like to point out the sexist accusations. Maybe I'm a girl who does sports or a video gamer. Then there might be some boys who care about their friendships. Also I would like to point out we have a harder time reading because some of us go to school 7 hours and then have homework an hour for each class which is 7 HOURS and not to mention I have a job where I work 5-6 hours. Then I have band in the morning which I have to wake up at 5 in the morning. Even though I have school, band, and work I still read at least a couple times a week which is a lot more than some adults.” –Kailee

“I find it funny that this author claims that teenagers do not read when it can be proven with several people that this claim is untrue. The reality of the matter is that though the majority may not be engrossed in reading, there are the minority who still find enjoyment in books. The idea of placing ALL teenagers into one category is simply ridiculous and infuriating.
Age should not dictate how much a person reads or what a person reads. Naturally, older generations will read different literary works than what we read in the present day.
This article simply is the opinion of a entitled, pretentious, and ignorant man. To claim that ALL teenagers are focused on social media over reading is a statement that has no factual basis but rather is just based on his personal and quite frankly, stupid opinion.
I am a firm believer that it is easier for someone to make assumptions of others than taking a hard look at themselves. If they did, they would see they are throwing stones when they live in a glass house. There were people in his generation who didn't read so he can't act like it's just our generation who has starting this trend. This trend has been around longer than we have and it's blatantly insulting to add this false claim to the many others surrounding our generation.
In conclusion, I believe that this author is severely misguided and needs to open his eyes and take a look around rather than assume and therefore, make false statements.
You know what they say about when you ‘assume things.’
That is all.” –Megan

There are so many other sentences from the article that bothered me, but I’m not a teen. I thought it best to let them speak for themselves.

I will say while Denby focuses on teens, I wonder how many adults actually read for pleasure, since he seems fixated by the “joy” aspect. But, it is always so much easier to blame those damn teenagers and try to remove the splinters from their eyes rather than remove the logs from the eyes of our own generations. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Guest Blog: Real Talk About Rape

Below is a blog from one of my students. I let them write about any topic they wanted so I could assess their content. This student gave me permission to repost. It is a powerful statement about rape, so I'm keeping the student anonymous for their protection. I did not make any corrections because I'm not worried about sharing a "perfect" piece. If you are sensitive about rape, you may not want to read this post.

Reprinted with permission from my student. The student retains all rights to this work. 

These students are going to change our world.

     A man came into a class one day, to talk about the consequences if you break the law. He asked the class, “when should a minor be tried as an adult?” In seconds, hands started going up in the air and was spitting out answers. He wrote all of them on the board, except one. A girl, a victim probably, said “rape.” The man was so confused and did not take it in as consideration. “You mean violent rape? He said. “No, I mean rape, it is all the same.” as she responded. He looked to a boy who said “rape only if he used a weapon and hurt her.” And he took that inconsideration, because he did not deeply think that it is still rape, violent or not. She still said no.

     The thing people do not get, is that rape is rape. Violent or not, it was still rape. With a weapon or not, it was still rape. It does not matter if his violent needs was his hands, or his weapon was a knife, a gun, or his guilt, she still said no. Just like how it does not matter if a murder was “violent”--it was still murder. You can kill someone with drugs, cars, guns or fear, but that wouldn’t matter how you did it because it was still murder. If it was for your defense or not, it was still murder. Therefore, just because she was intoxicated, doesn’t mean you are allowed to consume her body for your sexual needs. Just because she said no, does not mean tie her down and make her follow your orders as her dominant. Just because she is showing her legs and her shoulders, does not mean she is asking for it. Girls and women all over live with the guilt and blame themselves for letting it happen, while the dominant’s heart is continues to throb and pound, and beat a thrusting rape into another family.   

     “There is no difference between being raped and going head first through a windshield except that afterward you are afraid, not of cars, but half the human race.” The rape joke is that, jokes are suppose to be funny, and rape is not a joke. Haha, you should’ve seen it coming. The “joke” is as wrong as it sounds. Because it is not a joke. It is not a joke to be face down, having your clothes stripped off by someone else’s hands and being consumed of your body that you probably saved for a special someone. You should have just said no, they said. It is not that hard to say no, they said. “They” because they never have been forced to be a submissive to a stranger, or maybe even to your best friend. There are teenage girls everywhere that is being taught that it is okay, especially for the younger girls who think they do not have a voice to speak, when they do. And it is wrong to support your son when he is being convicted of rape. Raping someone is not a sickness you can get, or a drunk thought and call it a mistake and then apologize, because “rape” is a choice you make. Violent or not, it is a choice you decided to make for yourself, just like how killing somebody is.

     "Rape: v. unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent—compare sexual assault, statutory rape" (

Monday, July 4, 2016

Unveiling the ELAOK PLN Website

In December 2015, I had a conversation with my dear friend and fellow ELA educator Sarah Crichley (@Scrichley).

(She’s one of my favorite people with whom I collaborate. When we discuss ELA, the ideas fly.)

I can’t find our exact text conversation, but it went something like this:
            Sarah: Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a place where teachers could share lesson plans.
            Me: Hmmm, let me think about that. I think we could actually make that happen.

Then I drove from Tulsa to OKC with the wheels of my brain furiously churning. To use another analogy: I kept opening new tabs in my brain as the ideas came and exploring their feasibility. Of course, that’s how my mind works all the time. I am an INTJ—for better and worse.

I decided on a Google Site because I’m familiar with them, and they’re so easy to use. I know Sites has a “filing cabinet” page setting, where you can add text and upload documents. I knew I would need something fast for me and simple to use for all teachers.

So, I started a Site, and immediately created a separate page for each grade, pre-K through 12th. My plan is to have a brief introduction/overview for each grade level. I need to make contact with more elementary and middle school teachers to bring that part of my vision into reality. I reached out to a few, but I’m afraid my email may have gone straight to their junk folders.

Once that took shape, I decided each of those pages needed sub-pages for the virtual filing cabinets. (I love folders and sub-folders and sub-sub-folders…organization gives me a thrill.) I also added a separate sub-page at each grade for pre-AP. AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition have separate pages rather than being sub-pages.

From there, I began gathering a team of ELA educators who could/would help me. Of course, I first pulled from my tweeps. I knew these would be people who felt comfortable with technology and who had a passion for education.

Next, I researched some lesson plan templates to find something we could use for all submissions. After I looked at what others were doing, I decided on key components and sent the template to my team for feedback. I also asked them for feedback on the rough site.

Then, oklaed reached a sitzkrieg with OK’s jack*ss legislators while we impatiently waited for them to approve the standards. Of course they were going to pass the standards, but, tiny baby Jesus, they sure threw up red herrings, pseudo-roadblocks, and beat the dead horse of their fake issues into jerky and glue. I think they focused on every little stupid thing they could to detract from the real issues: the defunding and dismantling of all infrastructures in our state.

Once OAS was finally approved, I could begin putting together “exemplar” lessons. Unfortunately, the craziest part of the school year happens at the end of February till May. I stayed behind on grading and developing the website; however, I did have another brilliant idea (well, I think it’s brilliant): adding pages for Fine Arts. My music teacher friends use analysis and “ELA” techniques in their classes. The marriage made sense.

Over the new few weeks, the ideas continued to hit me: adding Creative Writing, Reading for Pleasure, Journalism, Speech/Debate, and Yearbook. Lastly, I approached a school librarian about adding Media Literacy. So, I guess the marriage turned into an ELA harem.

My final addition came from Lara Searcy (@MrsSearcy112) who works with pre-service ELA teachers at Northeastern State University. We thought it would be helpful for some of her baby teachers to post units they’ve put together for school. It gives them another audience and provides some seriously detailed lessons for career teachers.

Now, I am ready to unveil the website and begin taking submissions:

This will obviously be a work in progress. It is tiny right now, but my vision is to have a repository of lesson plans geared toward the Oklahoma Academic Standards. I have already uploaded some lessons for 8th-10th pre-AP. I have also written some intros for 8th-12th.

I have included pages for testing info and test prep ideas for each grade band. I also thought it would be helpful to include links to each grade’s standards. On the “Vertical Alignment” page, I have a link to all the standards and a couple of documents to help if your district is working toward alignment.

The lessons will fall under the Creative Commons license: No selling the lessons (even though we all deserve over-time pay for the hours we spend on lessons). This is teachers helping other teachers do what we do best: teach.

I want to publicly thank Claudia Swisher (@ClaudiaSwisher, ELA Mafia Godmother) for her introduction to Reading for Pleasure:

Thank you, Jason Stephenson (@teacherman82), for your intro to Creative Writing:

Thank you, Tara Zimmerman (@Tara_Hixson), for your intro to Media Literacy: 

Thank you to my team of editors:
            Sarah Crichley
            Kimberly Blodgett (@KimberBlodgett)
            Michelle Waters (@watersenglish)
            Shanna Mellott (@lsmellott)
            Meghan Loyd (@meghanloyd)
            Claudia Swisher

I also need to thank a couple students who took pictures I could use for the website: Camrynn Cooke and Hannah Pitts. Camrynn’s are on the “Home” page and were taken in OKC. Hannah’s is of the lovely Library of Congress and is on the “11th Grade” page.

Ultimately, I hope Oklahoma teachers see this labor of love (and blood, toil, tears, and sweat) and find it to be a helpful resource. I did not have a lot of mentor teachers along my path, but I have always had teachers say I could raid their filing cabinets (virtual and actual). In that spirit of generosity, I give you the ELAOK PLN lesson repository website. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

You're Not Alone, Teacher

Come closer. I want to tell you a secret. Something I don’t share with many people. Something I really only mention casually to a few.

I have depression. Not the pseudo-drama or sadness when people quip, “I’m so depressed.” No, I have clinical depression. An imbalance in my brain.

I know—many people do. Who cares if I do? I think what makes this important is I am a teacher. We are supposed to be superheroes; however, it is imperative we begin talking about our private demons so we can further support each other as a community.

You are not alone.

Yes, that sounds trite, but too many times in my life, I have felt alone in dealing with my depression (or my auto-immune diseases). Logically, I know I’m not: I have family and have learned to trust a few friends with this. However, mental illnesses do not deal in logic.

If you’ve read any of my blogs, you know I enjoy writing. I don’t really journal, but in 2003 I began writing poetry. I have no illusions (delusions?) I’m a “poet,” but sometimes crafting a poem distracts my brain and gives me solace. These are two of the first poems I wrote about my depression:

Depression rolls in
like the tide
Pulling me into its grip

I sink down
feeling the water
close over my head
Blocking out the
sights and sounds
of life
Blotting out the
light of the sun
Bringing only
isolation and darkness
to my drowning soul

I don’t fight to rise
but close my eyes
and let the
current carry
me away

I don’t have the
energy to care
if I swim
or drown
I’m too weary to fight
So, with a gulp
I become one with the water
And welcome the peace
of nothingness

Trapped in
the middle of a
vast space
Treading water
Fighting to keep
my head above
the waves

I go under for a moment
but break the surface,
gasping and desperate
for air

I’m under again
Long enough to
begin assessing the
new world waiting
to welcome me
My eyes search for
something to
keep me from
going back up
My lungs ache and
reality jerks me
to the top
Wheezing and panting
I drag breath deep into
my soul

I remain on the surface
Searching for life,
for something to rescue me
Tired, I doggedly
cling to the bright water
Fighting for every stroke,
every moment
Knowing my demise is nigh,
I hold tenaciously
to the remaining seconds

The sparkling water
and dancing sun recede
Dark murkiness
covers my head
Shadows pull me
Further from salvation
Wrapping me in

I bid good-bye
to the world I knew,
Release the last
breath trapped
in my lungs,
and rest on
the spongy bottom

I close my eyes,
breath sharply in,
and welcome
the sleep of

I’ve read some of what other people have written about depression. I keep seeing the drowning metaphor. That’s the closest analogy I have found to help someone who’s never found themselves in the grips of the D-word. Well, maybe it’s more like drowning in slime, thick goo. You feel weighted down, achy, unable too move—or even care about moving. Every breath is a truly heroic act. Simple tasks like showering and dressing become monumental. You have spells where would sell your soul to get some sleep. Lying awake while black little ghouls pluck at your brain, planting bizarre thoughts in your painfully awake mind. Sometimes you sleep with a light on just so you feel like someone is there with you. Then, you don’t want to do anything but sleep; and some days you lie in bed, digging into your depths to find one miniscule reason to even get up. Your spouse and child are not enough. On the most hideous days, you tell yourself they would be better off without you as an albatross around their necks. They love you too much to be honest, but you know their lives would be better without you dragging them down.

So, you do contemplate gulping in that water, releasing that last sweet breath, and finally finding some peace.

Yeah, that’s pretty close. It’s easy to capture this because I’ve been fighting it off and on this school year. Personally, my family is dealing with many issues. Professionally, I’m having the hardest year of my career. I’m ripe for the monster to claim me. But wait, “monster” isn’t quite right. It’s not a loud, snarling beast—something I can easily see, hear, and avoid. No, depression is stealthy. Maybe like a movie serial killer: slips in, tortures you mercilessly and gleefully, makes you beg for mercy before you finally succumb to the gentle kiss of his knife.

In hindsight, I’ve had depression most of my life. According to my grandmother, I was born an adult, and I have carried a lot of my family’s burdens on my shoulders. I had to be strong for everyone. Hell, I still feel that way. At an early age I learned to mask my feelings. I am not placing any blame on anyone (truly I feel no anger anymore), but for most of my life I was taught emotions like anger and sadness were from the devil. Things to be prayed away. If you continued to feel those, your faith must not be strong enough. Rather than ask for help or healthily deal with my pain, I learned to push it down or hide it or question what I was doing wrong. It was all my fault. So, I had insomnia and nightmares and couldn’t figure out why the darkness called to me so often. Why that silky siren’s song refused to leave my brain.

As I became a teen, I grappled with faith because what I’d been taught sure as hell was not working. I began finding solace in self-harm. I rarely ever cut myself because I had a nosey mother (thank you, Mom). I refused to add any more issues to my family. So I flirted with harm but rarely broke the skin. Physical pain is so much simpler than mental pain. Causing myself pain helped me focus on something I could control. There was beauty and release as the nerve endings communicated the exquisite sting to my brain. My mind gratefully latched onto that single breathless moment. For those sweet seconds, I was free.

Yes, it sounds incredibly screwed up, doesn’t it? Again, the mind is not logical when a mental illness takes hold. I’ve even written a poem or two about it:

I drag my nails
across my skin
Just to see the
red welts rise
God, the pain feels good
Releasing something dark inside
Feeding some insatiable beast
Lodged in my breast

He looms in my mind
At times quietly watching
At times ravishing my mind
and soul
At times I control him
At times he has full control

My words seem to come from
another mouth
My tears stream down
another face
My silent screams tear through
another brain
My nails rip down
another body

My life seems surreal
I watch another woman
become a terrified child
hunched in a fetal stance
Eyes closed, blocking out the
overwhelming world
Someone else tries to control
the pain inflicted by careless others
by inflicting pain on herself

Good little girl…
Focus on the beauty
of the physical pain

Sweet little girl…
Forget the emotional pain
ravaging your soul

Innocent little girl…
Pretend you have everything
under control

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering if this is a ploy for attention or sympathy. Isn’t that why anyone posts on the Internet? Truly it’s not. When I share about my mental or physical illnesses, I state info matter-of-factly. I even feel bad when people express sympathy. Yes, I appreciate that kindness, but I know so many others are worse than I. Most days I KNOW I am truly blessed.

So, I’m sharing this lengthy post to make connections, especially with teachers.

I want you to know it’s okay to have bad days. It’s okay to not grade papers or write lessons or answer parent emails in the evenings or on weekends. It’s okay to take time for yourself. Go take a bath or read a book or go on a hike or watch a movie or simply take a damn nap. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Go find someone right this minute, look that person in the eye, and say, “I need help,” or “Will you listen.” Talk to that person.

Admitting your limitations is not a sign of weakness. Knowing, accepting, and working with those weaknesses is actually a sign of strength. To be able to look yourself, or someone else, in the eye and say, “I am not perfect. I need to lean on someone right now,” shows astonishing strength.

Teaching can feel amazingly solitary. Sure you work with other people, but once that door closes, it’s you and 30-something students in that room. Each of those students needs you to be your best. You have a moral and ethical obligation to be en pointe and educate as many of them as you humanly (or superhumanly) can. I know. I have the same imperative.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a human, with all your strengths and weakness, with all your beauty and ugliness.

So, when you find yourself in those moments—when you’re floundering or drowning or slogging through or trying to find a reason to get out of bed—I hope you remember you are NOT alone.

It is okay to be you…and not THE teacher.

Everyone will understand—and we’ll still love and support you. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Intro to Genius Hour

So, my sweet friend Meghan Loyd (@meghanloyd, beat me to blogging about Genius Hour. If it were anyone but her, I might need to beat her up.  Sometimes I’m so competitive. J

Even though it’s old news (thanks, Meghan—that was said with a tone, of course. HAHA!), I want to blog since I’m tackling this with my AP Lang. and Comp. students.

Pre-Genius Hour: I honestly don’t remember where I first heard about Genius Hour. Recently, I was talking to another teacher about this. He had heard about it at a GAFE Summit. I’ve taught GAFE classes, but not attended a Summit. Oh well, I do know it was around last summer. I began teaching at a new school; and as ill prepared as my students were for an AP ELA class, my plate was more than full first semester. Over Winter Break, I spent some time planning my second semester. I was desperately looking for ideas for my sophomores (sigh…) and remembered Genius Hour. Thus began my journey.

I googled “Genius Hour” and found the Genius Hour website ( and A.J. Juliani’s series of brief videos. The website includes many resources to get started with Genius Hour. I spent much of the break watching videos, reading articles, researching what other teachers had done, and writing my “instructions.”

Day One: (I should be including some links here--I contacted the owners for permission to include their work in my blog.)

I shortened some of the info since my students are older, and I’m diligently training them to be more independent. This is my plan for “Intro Day”:
  1. Has anyone heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time? Each Friday for the next several weeks, we will engage in Genius Hour. I am hoping to put part of your education back into your hands
  2.  Give students about 5 minutes to Google “genius hour” or “20% time.” Discuss what they found.
  3. Go over instructions
  4. Let students brainstorm for rest of hour
  5. At some point early on, discuss how to backwards plan (I ended up not doing this, but I’ve discussed this with some students individually)
  6. Set up blogs/journals (I set a deadline for this—helped as needed on their first “official” day) 
I explained I would take a lot of their time with AP test prep; therefore, I wanted to give them something to eagerly anticipate at the end of each week. Yes, we’ve been prepping all year, but after Spring Break, I start intense training sessions: three essays over three days. We do this for several weeks. It’s exhausting, but gets them ready for the test—and improves their writing…if they take it seriously.

We also talked about America’s lip service about creativity and innovation, but public schools do their best to drain that from students. I told them they needed a reason to get out of bed, other than compulsory attendance. We discussed that sometimes you are lucky enough to enjoy your job, but sometimes a job is a paycheck—they need something to feed their souls. This is where Genius Hour can help: maybe they will find their passion.

Week Before Spring Break: I won’t criticize how the week before Spring Break is handled in my school. Suffice it to say, between the activities all week and the break, I went two weeks without seeing students. That’s not a hyperbole. I did assign work because that’s a lot of time to give up, especially in the spring. Plus, right after the break, I did not see my morning classes for three days due to an ACT cram session. Okay, enough prefacing.

I used that time to help students brainstorm, “sign” their contracts, plan their upcoming Genius time, submit preliminary info through a Google Form, and work on their proposals. I was not able to sacrifice class time for students to present their proposals to their classmates, but they’re already talking to each other and their parents.

Through the early stages, my one restriction has been can their idea be sustained until May? I’ve also brainstormed with students on how to do their weekly updates, how to measure their successes/failures, and how to do a final “project.”

Some are in love.

Some are terrified of the freedom, but with a little handholding, they’re opening up.

Some, definitely the minority, are not taking this seriously. But, they’re the students who should not have been in AP English because they hate to read and write. They’ve spent the year doing the bare minimum. Maybe this will eventually excite them to life’s possibilities. Maybe not. Students reach an age where the more you push, the more they resist; therefore, I’m picking my battles.

The Night Before: I received this tweet

First Work Day: Last Friday, April 1, was our first workday. I spent much of the time encouraging, checking up on, setting up blogs, discussing how to submit weekly updates, acting as a sounding board, and simply listening to my students express joy and excitement. I shan’t update every week, but after school is out, I will have a link to my class website with a page dedicated to some of the projects. In the meantime, let me share the myriad of ideas pouring from my crazy children:
  1. A “Crash Course” (like John Green’s videos) on bees.
  2. Several students learning to code for different reasons (make a video game, to make a program that deals with books/reading, etc.)
  3. Learn Russian
  4. Learn Mandarin Chinese
  5. Improve their Spanish
  6. Tackle a different hobby each week to find one the student actually likes
  7. Try out Pinterest projects and record success/failures
  8. creating a list that will provide students who are about to start college or a new chapter of their lives with activities, routines, or ways to help them relieve any fears they may have about moving forward”
  9. A student is trying techniques to conquer her shyness
  10. Several students are trying to become better photographers
  11. Two are working on a mural
  12. A few are working on their art
  13. One is foraying into a psychological experiment
  14. One is trying to make biofuel at home
  15. One is trying to recreate a smaller version of a (moving) Lego car engine
  16. A few are working with their chemistry teacher to do some more risky experiments (yes, I will need to do something nice for any mentors)
  17. One will be trying family recipes and compiling them, with pictures, into a cookbook
  18. One is testing the how relaxing coloring actually is (legitimate after a week of AP practice!)
  19. A couple are working on conquering levels of video games and tracking their progress
  20. Two are working together to work out and keep scientific track of their progress
  21. One is working on improving his dancing skills
  22. One is working on sewing her own prom dress and making other clothes
  23. One is creating her own travel brochures with hacks she’s picked up
  24. One is working on learning more about forensics
  25. A couple are exploring the world of reality TV by making their own videos (should be hilarious)
  26. One is a future teacher and will be working on lesson plans for her 2nd graders (so adorable)
  27. One is planning his “old folks home” that does NOT look like or feel like a prison (there’s a library named after me—don’t be jealous)
  28. One is planning a park for children with disabilities so they can feel included and safe
  29. One is working on a website to record people’s personal stories. It’s called the Heart Museum.
  30.  One is working on a first-person perspective video on what it’s like to be bullied. She thinks that will have more impact on students. I’m inclined to agree.
Folks, this is only a taste. When given a chance, students can and will again tap into their innate creativity. They’re already discussing continuing this over the summer and want class time again next year. If I’m blessed enough to get at least one section of 12th AP, they will have that chance. Some of these projects are simply stress relievers or ways to relax; some of these could become lifetime passions; some of these could be their life’s work.

I am simply thankful for “discovering” this idea and for the chance (and autonomy) to take this journey with my students.