On this 31st day of consecutive writing and posting, like so many others, I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect. I have to begin this post with thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for creating a challenge that is also an amazing community of thoughtful and welcoming writers and responders. Writing everyday is possible when there is a responsive community that makes the task feel both worthwhile and enjoyable–and keeps me accountable, if only because of my own sense of commitment.
This daily writing reminds me:
Writing begets writing: I always find myself most challenged in the first days of writing when it feels so hard to come up with anything to write about. I’m guilty of setting impossible standards for myself, paralyzing my writing brain. But I find that when I know I will write each day, I start to mine the ordinary for writing topics. This is such an important reminder for my teaching too. When my students expect to write each day, they begin to figure out what they want to write about. It’s important to establish a predictable practice.
Reading other writers is a treasure trove: I noticed tricks and structures that others used in their writing. I’m wishing I kept better notes about all the different approaches that I want to try on for myself and the ones that I want to offer to my students. And after reading some of theirs, I found myself inventing my own structures like Saturday Satisfactions.
Responses to my writing encourage more writing: I find more internal motivation to write when I know that someone else is reading it. It’s such fun to find another blogger returning to comment. And I often head off to that person’s blog to see what they are writing about…and how they are writing too.
Photography and writing (for me) are interrelated: When I find myself stuck, with nothing to say, I head out with my camera. And when photographic inspiration is not immediately evident, I have to figure out how to look in new ways. That search for an image also unlocks my blocked thinking about writing. I’ve found myself pondering a collection of photos to find a way into the day’s writing.
Writing for a public audience pushes me to find a positive slant: I don’t want to complain on my blog. I want to write my way into a more positive view of my world, my work, and the children I work with. Knowing someone else might be reading my writing pushes me to examine negative thoughts and look for potential solutions. I sometimes write myself into action.
I leave this post on the 31st worrying. Without this challenge will I write tomorrow? Luckily the Slice of Life Challenge is followed by National Poetry Month and I have already challenged my students to write a poem a day during the month of April. I know myself well enough to know that I will do it ONLY if I post the poem here, on my blog. So beginning tomorrow I will post a poem each day, continuing my writing practice for another 30 days!
Today was the last day for students to attend school in our hybrid AM/PM schedule. They will be remote for the rest of the week to allow time for parent conferences and then after a week off for spring break, the class will unite and become one whole class that attends school all 5 days together. I look forward to this coming together–and hope that the two halves of my class will complement each other.
The PM group is the half that NEEDS their fresh air break. They burst from the classroom doors when it is time, unleashing the energy that they have tried (not always successfully) to contain in the classroom. Today started no different. Most of the kids skipped eating a snack and headed straight for the playground equipment. But a couple sat on the grass to eat a bite…and before I knew it, they were chasing ladybugs.
And catching them.
Gently cupping them, they lifted them from the grass to bring them to me to photograph. (I love that they know that I will want to take photos!) They transferred these brilliant red polka-dotted beauties from the cupped palm to rest on the arm so I could get close for a clear, close up photo with my phone. Somehow they could find these tiny gems when they were not visible to others. Like jewelry, they wore these insects as they danced around the field. Sometimes the ladybugs rested patiently on the arm, other times they spread and fluttered their tiny wings in a blur of red.
These kids never stop talking. They kept up a torrent of descriptions and theories as they ran and collected these friendly insects. One theory they floated was that the number of dots was equal to the age of the bug. (Were they thinking days? Insects don’t tend to live very long lives!) Luckily I had just read an article on ladybug varieties, complete with gorgeous photos (who knew that would come in handy!), so I was able to talk to them about the large number of varieties of ladybugs that exist.
An impromptu break chasing ladybugs was the just right way to end this current mode of teaching. Moments like these remind me how much I enjoy the exuberance and energy of children–and the ways they fuel my teaching and my own learning.
I figured a listicle would be in my future sometime during 31 consecutive days of writing for the Slice of Life Challenge. And today is the day. So the following is my short list of satisfactions from this Saturday in particular.
Sleeping in. Somehow my body hasn’t quite adjusted to the “spring forward” command from weeks ago. I keep wanting to go to bed early each night and then find myself awake before my alarm clock. Even with no alarm clock set today, I found myself awake before my usual 5:30am wake up time. But it was Saturday, so after scrolling through some news on my phone I cuddled back under the covers and went back to sleep for a while. It felt heavenly!
Breakfast…with love. Most days I grab a yogurt, sprinkle a few berries and some granola on top, and voila, that’s breakfast! But today my husband made french toast–not the toaster kind–the real kind dipped in an egg mixture and topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of bacon and fresh grapefruit. Definitely a Saturday Satisfaction!
An egret sighting on the low-tide beach. I love an egret sighting anytime. I didn’t think it was going to happen today. I was more than halfway back when I noticed an egret fly in for a snack. I picked my way across the slick reef, trying to get close enough for an interesting photo. It didn’t stay long…there were too many people exploring the tide pools today…but I did get this straight on shot!
The exuberance of young people. I love watching young people on the beach. I am reminded of the verve and energy that teens bring to life…which reminds me of the importance of diving in, following my own passions, and embracing each day as it comes.
Living close enough to have the beach be my daily happy place. While I don’t go quite every day, knowing that I can access the beach with a short drive is a gift. When our beaches closed last year during the pandemic, I was heartbroken. It was hard to stay away, hard to see the ocean from a distance but not with my feet on the sand, and hard to find joy in my replacement neighborhood walks. Each day I revel in the wonders of living near the sea–and try hard not to take it for granted.
One of the things I like best about the Slice of Life Challenge is the way that the expectation of daily writing gets me thinking about what I will write each day. Something will catch my eye and I will find myself writing in my head, thinking about how to frame what I have to say.
Some days the writing comes fairly easily and I know generally where I am going with the writing. That is especially true when I’ve taken a photo that I know will guide my writing direction. Other days the writing is a struggle and I flounder around, flipping and flopping, grabbing onto this topic and that, finding it hard to land on what I want to say.
I’ve bounced from topic to topic today. I could write about interviewing an amazing group of teachers this morning for our upcoming Invitational Summer Institute. I love the way that this “work” is so energizing. There is nothing like teachers talking about what drives their instructional choices and clearly seeing their passion for students and their well-being to fill me with hope and possibility.
I thought about writing about two separate essays I read this week that serendipitously landed in my feed on consecutive days. One is an essay by Ann Patchett called How to Practice about downsizing belongings so that someone else will not have to do it after your death. This is an amazing piece weaving stories of belongings, why she has them and why she no longer needs them and the guilt that comes with getting rid of something that is still useful. The other called Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter is about groups of people, particularly refugees and those immigrating because of war and danger, who do not have the luxury of having items passed down for generations, of accumulation from childhood and how that shapes their view of belongings. My mind has swirled since reading these earlier this week–thinking about the different roles that belongings play in different phases of my life and why it is so hard to let go of some things, even when they have outlived their usefulness for me.
And now I am thinking about which of these articles is a mirror for me, reflecting my experiences and which may be a window into another way of thinking. Or maybe I’m just stretching for an excuse to include this photo from today’s walk of the clouds reflected on the shiny surface of the sand.
These days, I often find myself in search of joy. Sameness is numbing, isolation is suffocating, and uncertainty is paralyzing. And yet, we go on. My students show up in the classroom (on a limited, hybrid schedule), ready and eager to learn.
I realize, sometimes over and over again, that my restricted time with my students pushes me to rush things in the classroom. Instead of giving time and space to breathe, to engage, to explore…I find myself watching the clock, urging students on, never letting them get fully immersed, locked into that indescribable flow that I can’t explain, but I always recognize.
Joy, instead of being a constant classroom companion, has become a shadow that I catch sight of at the edge of my visual field. It flickers, momentarily in focus before it dissolves into the corners–just out of reach. If I can’t reach out and grab onto the joy, how can my students?
Somewhere along the way during this pandemic school year I lost sight of daily writing. The whimsy and playfulness of messing around with words and ideas in the low-stakes sandbox of the writer’s notebook had vanished. Students mistakenly believed that writing should be one and done rather than the messy, living, complex process that it is. I had to make a change.
So, at the end of January, I reworked students’ independent work–the stuff they do during the half the school day when they are not in the classroom with me–to include time for daily writing. I set up a routine–predictable but with lots of novelty and variety. One day students are invited to write to a photo prompt–often silly and far-fetched. Another day they write under the influence of our weekly poem study: they can use it as a mentor text, they can be inspired by the topic, they can grab a word and follow it–the choice is the writer’s. And on the third day, I offer an active sort of prompt. Last week, on our weekly Wednesday Zoom call, students participated in a short scavenger hunt. They were sent in search of 5 items, one at a time. Once found, they showed the item on the screen and wrote it in their notebook. That list then became the fodder for the daily writing. They could come up with a story connecting the items, use one and go in any direction, again…choice is key.
While the daily writing is not amazing, students are finding a rhythm. They are developing fluency. And they are having some fun with it–joy is beginning to creep in. We are paying more attention to language, examining what we like when we read. Just last week, students picked one of these daily writing pieces. They picked not the best one; the one they love so much they don’t want to make any changes. Not the worst one; the one that feels flat and uninspiring. They picked one they were willing to work on, to improve, to make better. They used a Praise Question Wish protocol to respond to the writing in pairs. We studied a couple of mentor text excerpts from familiar pieces we had read in class. And armed with these tools, students went off to revise.
Most of these revised pieces are still not where I want them to be, but they are moving in the right direction. And better yet, they are moving toward discovering the joy of writing and language, expression and choice.
I am actively seeking joy in the classroom. Joy that fills me with wonder and energy. Joy that brings a smile to my students’ masked lips–that is visible in their eyes and felt in the air. Joy that takes me back to what I know is important in teaching and learning, despite pandemic restrictions and schedules that squeeze time into unrecognizable shapes. And I want writing to be a part of that joy, for me and for them.
As December winds down I start to notice people displaying their “Best Nine” on Instagram. And every year, my “Best Nine” simply doesn’t represent what I deem to be my best nine photos. Since the “Best Nine” uses an algorithm based on numbers of likes, they often include a flashback birthday photo or anniversary collage. I get why those draw the likes from family and friends–but they don’t get at what I am trying to represent in my photography.
So today I took a walk back through time, exploring my Instagram postings and selected a “best” photo for each month, based on composition, color, clarity, and other aspects of photography that I have been working on.
My January choice came from a trip to Berkeley for some National Writing Project work. Walking back to our hotel near sunset, I couldn’t resist standing in the middle of the street to capture the arrow, the light, and the colorful sky. This photo seemed to be suggesting all the good things ahead as we entered the new year…well before the realities of 2020 set in.
I’m fortunate to have a week off each February–a perfect non-holiday break during the winter. This year we decided to spend our time in Yosemite National Park–a place neither my husband or I had ever visited. We were treated to amazing views, strenuous hikes, and even some snowshoeing. One of my favorite experiences was finding a place to take photos of the sun setting on the iconic granite cliffs like El Capitan. We knew we had found a great spot when we found quite a few fellow photographers lined up to capture the magic. I love this view of photographers, all queued up for sunset shots of the beautiful Yosemite valley.
March brought the lockdown. Schools closed, travel stopped, and even beach access was restricted. Morning walks felt like an escape. And my backyard became the object of my photography. I discovered the wild garden of abandoned plants thriving just beyond our notice. That gorgeous fuschia that I was given as a gift had found a second life in the backyard…and became a focus of photography when home was the only place, day in and day out.
April brought the sadness of Spring Break with no place to go. Yes–I know I am so fortunate to live in a place where people go to spend their vacations. But staying home still feels hard, especially when work and home are the same place…and then a break just means more time at home, trying not to work! We turned Spring Break into small road trips, exploring our own county. This picture was taken from the side of the road above the Lake Hodges dam–a man-made reservoir in our area. I love the abundance of green–something we don’t see much of in our parts!
By May that morning walk felt like Groundhog’s Day all over again. How do you see the same path, at the same time, in a different way? I kept noticing the same seed pod hanging from the same tree morning after morning. So, of course, I had to take a photo. I loved the fuzz, the morning light, the long bean-like quality of the pod. And transforming that photo to black and white brought out the surrealist qualities of the image.
June brought more of the same. School was ending but I was still home. In between writing report cards, responding to student work online, and Zoom meetings with colleagues, I wandered my back yard with my camera. Sometimes a close look reveals a surprise inside. These white flowers that grow in my backyard seldom attract my attention, but on this day in June I was drawn to look closely…and to my delight, found a spider settled into the center! (And I may have screamed when I noticed it there!)
Most years July finds me in different places, often traveling for work or vacation–or at least at the university for our writing project’s Summer Institute. But this year all that work was virtual, taking place at my kitchen table–the same place I had worked every day since mid-March! Luckily, the beaches had reopened and all the regulars were back! I wandered all my old haunts, often timing my walks with low tide. I love photographing our local egrets and delighted in this image of the splash after the egret dove that sharp beak down for a quick snack.
I always try to squeeze in personal time in August, often spending time with my sons or on a trip away from home with my husband before the demands of the new school year begins. We did venture a bit beyond our county…taking some day trips just beyond the county line. We found beaches we had never visited and appreciated new perspectives…like watching surfers at Huntington Beach from the pier. Action is hard to capture in a still…and I like that you can see the movement in this one.
And a bonus photo for August. I couldn’t resist including this image of an osprey in action. If you look closely you can see the fish in the very sharp talons as I watched this bird swoop down, pick up the fish and fly off to enjoy its lunch. Luckily, ospreys are regular visitors to my favorite walking beach and I get to see them when my timing is right!
In a typical year, September is the time when tourists return to their homes and we can once again find parking places at our local beaches! The weather is perfect in September–warm and sunny, and the days are still long. It is definitely the time of endless summer…and this light captures that sentiment perfectly!
How many pictures can you take at the beach? Apparently hundreds and hundreds based on my camera roll! I take pictures of landscapes, surfers, and seabirds…and when the tide is really low and I look closely, I can photograph sea life in the tidepools. I love the colors of this sea anemone in its natural environment that I discovered in October.
November–was that really just last month? It becomes clear that that I spend much of my down time at the beach. I walk and breathe and photograph. I notice all the regular characters–the people I pass day after day, the landforms that appear and disappear depending on the tide level, and the birds. Oh, the birds. I love these royal terns. They always remind me of Groucho Marx and until someone taught me that they are royal terns, I called them Groucho Marx seagulls because of their big eyebrows! I love the animated conversation caught in this image. That near tern certainly has something to say!
With December comes short days and changing light. Trees drop their leaves (even in sunny San Diego) and weather is more variable than the usual night and morning low clouds with daytime temps in the 70s. An early morning walk (yes–those are still a staple after all these months!) revealed the most gorgeous sherbet-colored sunrise skies, the perfect backdrop for winter trees.
So instead of a “Best Nine,” I present a best of 2020 in 13 photos. Here’s to a fresh canvas beginning tomorrow. What images will paint your 2021?
During our first Make Cycle of the SDAWP Invitational Summer Institute, we are each answering the question, “What would you hold?” The make requires that we represent the answer to that questions with a photo of something precious held in our hands.
After too much thought and second guessing, here is my photo.
I’m sure that a photo of me holding my camera isn’t surprising to many of you. But I want to press beyond the camera as a tool to make pretty pictures. It isn’t the camera itself that is precious. In fact, sometimes it isn’t even my camera that I use for photography…sometimes my phone works just as well (or even better). But the camera represents a practice that I value. Taking photos encourages me to slow down, to pay attention, to notice the value and beauty in the ordinary…and it gets me writing.
I try to get out with my camera every day: walking, breathing deeply, letting my thoughts roam. With my feet moving and under the influence of fresh air, I can let my worries float away and use my senses to tune into the world outside of my head. I seldom take photos of people, instead I try to capture moments that capture my attention. (The exception would be the many photos I take of my grandsons–none of which I post on social media to protect their privacy.) I often find that the photos I take become metaphors to express ideas I am thinking about.
With my camera I get low, checking out the vantage from the bug’s perspective. I find myself thinking about times when teaching and mothering and living feels like pushing the world up a very steep hill. Images of mythology fill my head and the strains and stresses of the day unkink, letting those tight muscles that run across my shoulders begin to relax.
Out on the playground with my students I get to bring my passions to my students. Photography also helps my students look in new ways, and like it does for me, that looking generates ideas and language for writing. This photo was an example of looking for natural frames for photos–a composition technique I wanted my students to explore.
With camera in hand, I learn…and sometimes I mourn. Regular walks on the beach bring the realities of environmental damage front and center. I see the daily human impact, the excesses of our disposable lifestyle, and get up close and personal with death and destruction. I am forced to pay attention to the lessons nature is teaching and encouraged to learn more as I walk with the rhythms of the tides and the seasons, appreciating the beauty and noticing the destruction.
And I see the power of small children making a difference. Little efforts, like teaching students to compost their leftovers from lunch will help them make the world a better place. (My students thought this photo was gross–but when I explained what it represented to me, they found it more interesting.)
My camera also lets me celebrate life’s pleasures and express my gratitude. My husband is an amazing cook and nurturer. Some days result in food that doubles as works of art!
Mostly, though my camera helps me make space in my life. Space for observation, space for an exploration of the senses, space for listening and learning, and space for making and creativity. It gets me outside and keeps me moving. It helps me connect with others–in person and online. It reminds me to play, to take action, and to appreciate all that life has to offer.
In my profession, May roars, leaving me windblown and mud spattered in the wake of the urgency to squeeze in every last bit of learning, every memorable project, and all the performances, displays, meetings, and endless, but somehow necessary, paperwork before school ends in mid June.
And May is rich. Students have blossomed into their most curious, creative, innovative, and independents selves. They seem to peak as the rains ease and the skies warm, classroom routines providing the inner rhythm, the back beat, that allows imaginations and a year’s worth of learning to come together in perfect synergy. The classroom is busy in May, with students leading the charge…both eager for school to end and reticent leave the comfortable place the classroom has become.
But there is a week in May where time crawls to a snails’ pace. State testing, mandated in public schools, demands that my students spend hours demonstrating their learning. During those times I hear each click of the clock reverberate against my eardrums. The room is unnaturally quiet as students work through question after question designed to test their mastery of third grade. The work is not too hard for my students, but it is too long…and requires them to operate very differently from our typical classroom routine.
It seems almost from birth, our students were encouraged to collaborate. They’ve learned to work in groups, sort out misunderstandings through discussion and conversations, negotiate roles and responsibilities, turn to each other for support and critical feedback…until it’s time for the test. Then they are asked to be quiet, to read and understand complex questions independently, write and revise without feedback, and sit for long stretches of time.
The minutes drag as I roam the room. I check to make sure these first time test takers are progressing through their tests rather than spending inordinate amounts of time on any one question. I search their faces, ready to intervene when signs suggest they are ready to crumble. I remind them to use their tools, to take a breath, to stretch, and to check their work. That clock slows to a snail’s pace, each click requiring the coil of the snail’s body to snap forward, oozing its slimy self toward its destination.
After the second day of testing I can feel the mood shift. Novelty got us through day one and two, but day three feels heavy. The hands of the clock are now mired in sludge. Students need more encouragement to keep moving forward. I need to summon some super powers to settle the boiling tummy, churning with uncertainty. A walk and a talk helps, we are able to settle in again.
I’m proud of my students. They did it. All persisted, all persevered, all finished the tests in front of them. And honestly, that is accomplishment enough at this stage of the game. Now we can get back to the real learning–the noisy, messy, complex, interactive projects that bring joy to the classroom. I’ll be the one who is windblown and mud spattered and reveling in the mess.
After 60 days of daily writing, it’s time to reflect on all I’ve learned from writing every day. My first 30 days were entries classified as “slice of life,” vignettes and stories from life as I lived it. The second 30 days were poems, one each day of April as part of my classroom poem-a-day challenge.
The first and most important lesson learned is that daily writing makes daily writing easier. The more I write, the more I have to say. That is not to say that writing is easy. In fact, writing is work. Every. Single. Day. I have my share of “writer’s block,” but when I expect to write every day, I look for strategies to push through it. Throughout my day I find myself paying attention to words, images, interactions…everything I encounter is potential fodder for my writing.
A tiny, furry caterpillar scurrying across the sidewalk grabs my attention and I stop to take a photo or two, knowing that there’s a story or a poem or a musing about life somewhere in that fuzzy body. I’m reminded that attention to tiny, perfect things primes me for daily writing.
I’ve also learned that my students need me to give them tips, techniques, and inspiring mentor texts to nurture them as writers. They need to see me as not just their teacher, but as a fellow writer who also experiences challenges and successes, who starts and stops, and even stalls sometimes during the composing process. My scribbles and scratch throughs show that writing takes effort and that it is worth the effort. Being a writer in a community of writer breathes wind beneath our writerly wings.
I’ve learned to see revision as a gift rather than a chore. Writing doesn’t have to be perfect as you lay the words on the page. Revision invites opportunities to revisit and re-see, allowing for new ideas to reshape that thinking on the page. I especially love what revision offers my students. Once they push past the idea that “done” is the goal, they are willing to rework their writing, especially when they have specific techniques to experiment with and concrete feedback to focus the reworking.
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile. Robert Cormier
I leave this post saying now what? 60 days of blogging challenges have kept me accountable to my daily writing. Will I write tomorrow without a challenge to motivate me? Will I invent a new challenge to keep myself going? Can I keep up a daily writing practice without posting publicly? And what will keep my students writing? They will spend time over the next week or two curating their poems: selecting and revising to create a book that showcases ten of the poems written in April.
Habits are hard to form and easy to break, so I’ll be working to keep this writing habit alive…for myself and for my students.
Though it’s still April, we’re already dealing with what will soon become May gray. It’s that pervasive marine layer that characterizes spring and early summer here in Southern CA. But we really can’t complain. The weather is mild and the ocean always welcomes.
Today I noticed the royal terns hanging out on the beach. Before I knew what they were, I called them Groucho Marx seagulls. They have big dark eyebrows and a bright orange beak. Distinctive, distinguished, comical.