June 5, 2016

When Those We Love Need Us

The sounds of footsteps in the kitchen and heavy sighing awaken me.  I jump up knowing I am needed.  I can barely make out his outline in the darkness, but he is there standing near the counter.

“Are you thirsty?  Do you want some water?”

His only reply is a steady gaze as if I am not there and I have not spoken.

“Let me help you back to bed.”

I gently nudge and guide him back to the comforting smells of his blanket and bed.  I wait until he is lying down, but I don’t leave quite yet.  I smooth back his hair and kiss his head over and over.  “I’m here.  I love you.  You are not alone.”  I sit in the chair next to his bed, waiting for his anxious breathing to relax again.  Then I quietly slip back to my own bed, knowing I will be up again.  It may be in 20 minutes, or it may be in 2 hours.

I picture him as he was just a few years back.  He had energy, he lit up my heart with his smiles, and he slept through the night.  Isn’t it something when you think about the ways in which living creatures are similar at opposite ends of their lives?   Of course I wasn’t there when he was not sleeping through the night back in his earliest years,  but I’m here now.  And when I think through all of the sweet moments in which he has shown me he loved me, I find that this is a simple way to give back.  Even though I don’t get enough sleep most nights.

When I find him standing in the bathroom mumbling at the shower, how can I be anything but loving?  When he turns to walk into the kitchen, but misjudges the doorway and walks into the wall instead, I am there.  Sure I chuckle when I see he is not hurt, but then I hug him and rub the spot that hit first.  When we have been outside and are on our way back in, I gently guide him around the parked cars and quietly whisper, “The house is this way.  The door is over here.”

I love him.  I fell in love with him on the long ride home from the breeders.  He had been rejected by a previous family, but that didn’t deter us.  He was so scared in his new kennel that he wet the brand new pillow my son bought him.  When we freed him from that kennel, he licked our faces.  That was all it took!  Sumo was a full fledged member of our family.

For now this is what our relationship looks like.  Whatever I can do to ease his confused mind and unseeing eyes, I will do.

April 25, 2015

Finishing the Year by Summing it Up!

This week I asked each of my fifth graders to write their own graduation speech.  We watched a few from Youtube, talked about important parts of a speech, brainstormed some possible themes, and, well, collected all of the tools a speechwriter might need.  Since then it has been writing time.

I’m a bit surprised but also pleased by the enthusiasm.  The students seem to be enjoying the idea of remembering and then summarizing their elementary school years.  I told them that I would love to have a few of them read aloud at their last music concert which is coming up in about four weeks.  All of them will be read aloud in class.  I think it will be a lovely way to share feelings about the big move to middle school.

In the past, I have been the teacher who has been asked to “say a few words” about the graduating fifth graders.  I never minded doing that, but at the same time wondered what the students would say if given the chance.  I’ll admit it.   I am really looking forward to this!

April 7, 2015

A Hard Day’s Work

Don’t make me plead with you to write.
Don’t make me beg you to compute.
I’m tired of looking at scrunched up faces.
You’re about as receptive as a newt.

You hate when I interrupt your chatter,
and try to begin something new.
But hey, it’s me.  Remember me?
I was hired to teach you a thing or two.

No matter the topic or subject,
no matter the hour of the day,
there’s always at least one student,
who would rather things went his way.

What is it you really want?
To sit and do nothing at all?
Is it really that none of this interests you?
Am I talking to a brick wall?

At the end of the day I’m exhausted,
tired of nudging and insisting,
tired of asking for what’s expected,
tired of too many who are resisting.

I go home blabbering senselessly,
how the day was so drawn out.
and I hope that some rest will be the cure,
yet I sleep with my face in a pout.

Will tomorrow be the same?
Will I regret getting out of bed?
Maybe not … tomorrow’s Tuesday,
and the dreaded Monday is dead!

March 30, 2015

The Lab Coat is Optional…

Get ready to do science!  You’ll definitely need your clip board and pencil so you can take careful notes.  A scientist strives to leave a trail that others might easily follow.   You won’t need safety goggles, but you might stick your reading glasses in your pocket. Instead of messy chemicals, we’re going to investigate words.

Looking at words and spelling as a scientist might is just plain brilliant.  For children, and for all of us really, it means there are not absolute right and wrong answers.  It means that there are understandings that can be explained with the evidence gathered.   It means that the current understandings may at some future point be altered should new evidence surface.   It also means we can let go of the false notion that there are exceptions when discussing spelling rules.  A scientist would not accept exceptions.  A scientist keeps researching, collecting data, comparing, and looking for a way to make sense of a spelling that doesn’t seem to fit their current understanding.

For example, I have asked students in groups of two to investigate words with <ch> and <tch>.  Step one was to have them write a hypothesis describing when to use <ch> and when to use <tch> in a word.  Next they were to collect a sample of words to examine.  The students brainstormed and used resources to make long lists of words.  As they collected the words, they sorted them into two lists.  The heading of one list was the digraph <ch>, and the heading of the other list was the trigraph <tch>.  This was the easy part.

Now I asked them to make a list of things they observed about the two columns of words.  Students are used to being told what to look for.  This type of scientific thinking and questioning needs a bit of encouraging.  But within 15 minutes groups began noticing very useful things.  Here is a compilation of observations made by the groups so far.

1.  Both <ch> and <tch> can be found at the end (final position) in a word.
2.  <ch> can be found at the beginning (initial position) of a word, but <tch> is not.
3.  When <tch> is in the middle (medial position) of a word, it is because that word has a suffix.
4.  Sometimes a consonant precedes <ch>.
5.  A vowel always precedes <tch>.
6.  Sometimes a vowel precedes <ch>.
7.  Sometimes <ch> in a word is pronounced /k/.

There is more to observe.  Only one group so far has noticed that when a vowel is in front of the <ch> digraph, it is actually two vowels – a vowel digraph.  None of the groups have noticed in what way the vowels preceding the <tch> trigraph are alike.  But then again, they are not finished with their investigation.

After there has been a chance for the word scientists to share and perhaps challenge the findings, I’ll ask them to rewrite their hypotheses for using <tch> versus <ch>.

Would it save time for me to just tell them what I think their hypothesis will be?  Hmmm.  Talk to any scientist about their work.  Are they at a loss for words?  Are they enthusiastic to know more?  Can they tell you about the pitfalls they encountered in their research and how they came to a more solid understanding through investigation?

I have already internalized an understanding about <ch> and <tch>.  It is time for my students to do the same – for themselves.  Science rules!

March 27, 2015

Happy Birthday!

This is a poem I wrote for my daughter when she turned 15.  Today she turned 30, and I feel just the same.

Happy Birthday, dear Jaime.
Today you were born.
Yet our lives were connected
long before that bright morn.

From the moment I knew
you had formed and were growing,
I sang and I loved you long before I was “showing”.

I thanked God every night
for your laughing big brother,and my heart bulged with joy
at the thought of another.

In my prayers I asked God
every night of the week, for a healthy pink girl
with a soft, silky cheek.

In the tense anxious moments
before you breathed air,
“Please God, … a girl …”
I said one last prayer.

Jaime Judith you are
and how I’ve enjoyed you…
your smile, your mermaid dance,
your made-up songs, your every hairdo.

There were tea parties, braided hair,
and wide skirted dresses,
singing, dancing, drawing,
and cleaning kitchen messes.

It’s been thirty years
The time’s passed in a whirl.
I thank God every day
for my beautiful girl.

March 25, 2015

I Saw You Feel Sick Today …


sad, watery,

tired, and pained,

revealed the discomfort first.


heavy with ache

bowed low over your desk.


tucked inside your shirt,

seeking warmth.


hunched over,

fighting off the chill,

but instead giving in.


foggy and cluttered,

giving up the struggle

to focus.

And then,

you headed home,


a warm mattress,

 a snuggly blanket,

and a loving parent.

March 23, 2015

Scholarly Behavior

A man in France is slowly but surely teaching me about true scholarship. I say slowly because I am slow to let go of old habits.  I say surely because I feel the change happening.

I was brought up in a very ordinary schooling system.  There was always information someone wanted me to know.  I memorized it and was tested to be sure I knew it.  If the questions I asked were not easily answered, there was some promise of seeking the answer at a later date.  I got used to that routine, and without consciously thinking about it, changed my question asking to the sorts for which the teacher had an answer.  Some teachers inspired me to dig deeper than others, but no one really taught me to be a scholar.

For the last two years, I have been taking spellinars through the Real Spelling site.  The creator of these spellinars is Michel Rameau.  With his knowledge and guidance I am seeing and understanding what no one has ever shown me about the language I speak and write.  I’m learning its history and the interesting facts about why words are spelled the way they are.  And Michel is also teaching me to be a scholar.

The biggest difference, as I am now embracing it, is at the very heart of learning.  No one ever said it out loud, but I recognize so clearly that schools are answer driven. The teachers ask questions for which there is usually one right answer.  The students are graded on how well they answer all of the teacher’s questions.  We teach students to analyze questions and we help our students learn how to answer them.  But the big, really big thing we are missing, is that the questions we ask are our own preplanned questions.  They are not questions that rise up out of a child’s curiosity upon examining information.  They are not initiated by the child and guided through investigation with the teacher.  The child learns facts and information in this way, but not any true scholarship behaviors.  For true scholarship is question driven.  It is thought provoking and allows time for processing and dreaming and experimenting.  It most certainly does not come in a one-size-fits-all prepackaged kit, complete with teaching manual!

But of course, there’s the rub.  Now that I have been able to experience real scholarship, and understand how it can personally ignite learning, I have to make it work in the confines of an answer driven school setting and the current craze to constantly fire test questions at students and collect and measure them based on their answers.  What a challenge!

But after twenty years of teaching, I get it.  The question IS more important than the answer.  The question will be the thing that guides our curiosity and motivates us to search for evidence to support or disprove the basis of the question.  The answer is temporary and in some cases even momentary.  It all depends on how much time we spend on collecting data.  When new information comes along, the answer can change.

So how does my new scholarly way of thinking change the way I talk with my students?  Instead of saying, ” The answer is …”,  or “That is correct,” I say something like, “At this point, and looking at the evidence we have collected, my current understanding is that …….”.  When I phrase it in this way, it leaves the original question open to further debate, further analysis, further contemplation.  The goal is no longer for the student to have the correct answer.  The goal is for the student to provide a response that is based on evidence he/she has compiled.  As a teacher, I don’t necessarily grade based on what I think the answer is.  I look to see how well the student has proven or disproven their position with evidence he/she has collected.  It doesn’t matter which subject I’m teaching, and it doesn’t matter what age the students are.  My fifth graders recently took a lesson on the <igh> trigraph to a second grade classroom.  It was all about collecting evidence.  They sorted words into two groups:  those that had a consonant in front of the <igh> trigraph, and those that had an <a> or <e> in front of the <igh> trigraph.  After reading the words in the two groups, the students were able to say, “Based on the evidence we have gathered, if the word has a consonant in front of the <igh>, the <igh> represents /i/ (long i).  If the word has an <a> or <e> in front of the <igh>, the <igh> represents /a/ (long a).”

March 23, 2015

Two Kinds of Unexpected

“Are you sure you don’t want us to go get the car?”

“No.  I can make it.  Besides, it’s too cold to wait.  Let’s just get going.”

The two couples headed into the crosswalk.  Our daughter and her husband Ryan were up front.  We followed, Jeff leaning on my right arm.  The walk signal was short lived and the four of us quickened our pace.  I could feel by the tug on my arm that I was a half step ahead of my husband.  I slowed my pace a bit.  It was hard to do, knowing what was about to happen.

The weather had been much warmer earlier in the day.  Jeff decided not to wear his jacket, a decision he was regretting now.  It hadn’t been bad when we went into the restaurant for Jaime’s birthday dinner, but a leisurely meal had given the nighttime an opportunity to settle a chill on the city.

“How much further?” Jeff asked as his feet clomped along.  We caught up to Jaime and Ryan for a moment and waited together for the traffic light to change.

“We just have to cross this street and then walk a half block more,” I answered.

Just then the walk light lit up and the four of us stepped out into the road.  Again I found myself pulling my husband.  “Calm down,” I told myself.   “Slow down.  The cars can see you.  They will wait.”

We stepped up onto the sidewalk.  No more curbs to maneuver.  A straight stretch now.  My mind began to wander.  I shivered, trying to throw off the outside cold, but inside I was filled with excitement.  I began looking for the entrance to the pub.  Jeff held tight to my right arm, and even though his gait was uneven, there was still a predictability to it.

“Man, my left leg is really dragging,” Jeff said.  I heard him say it, but I kind of ignored it, seeing how close we were to the door.  We were almost there.  I looked up at the window and recognized a couple we had just seen at the restaurant.  My eyes were anxious to see who else could be seen through the window.

Instead, my eyes jerked from the window to Jeff.  I felt his grip on my arm loosen and saw him spin around and fall onto his back, his head hitting the cement hard.  “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!” I heard myself say.  Was I pulling again?  Was I rushing him?

Ryan took hold of Jeff’s arms so he could pull himself up, but that isn’t something Jeff can do anymore. Next thing we knew, someone came running out of the pub, and between the two of them, they lifted Jeff up and gave him a minute to gain his balance.

Jaime just stood there watching.  This was something she knew had been happening every once in a while, but had not witnessed firsthand.  Her face held a combination of shock and sadness and compassion.

Ryan and the stranger helped Jeff in through the doors and over to a chair.  Jaime and I followed.  As much as she wanted to follow her dad and make sure he was okay, I whispered that I would take care of dad and that she should just … and as she turned her head she heard shouts of “Surprise!  Happy Birthday!” and saw that the place was filled with her friends.  She looked at them and smiled, but I could tell that she hadn’t had time to process what had just happened outside.  She began walking through the crowd, greeting each of her friends with a hug, but when she saw her brother who was here from California, she hugged long and hard, and let the tears that they would talk about later, flow.

March 17, 2015

There When I Need Them

I don’t know if you believe in this stuff or not, but I do.  Yesterday I was looking through a folder of old writings I had saved at school.  I came across an email my daughter sent to me.  It was in regards to having a Christmas celebration at my dad’s house, which now belonged to my nephew since my dad had passed away six months earlier.  She just didn’t feel right about going to his house like we had every year since she was little and seeing the Christmas tree in the wrong corner and the walls the wrong color and his recliner with him in it gone.  As I read her email lots of feelings came back.  I was hesitant too.  But in the end we went and it was fine.  We were fine.  So as I finished reading this old email and pausing to feel the memory, I glanced up at my computer screen.  There, filling the screen was my dad.  Not in some eery unearthly way, but in the iPhoto screen saver way.  With as many photos as I have on my computer, what are the chances that his picture would be in the line up just then?  I said aloud, “Hi dad.”

Later, my daughter sent me a message and showed me the piece of writing she completed yesterday.  In it she captured some beautiful and tender memories of my mom.  With her permission I posted it last night.  When I read it, I felt my mom’s presence and her radiant smile.

So there you have it.  I felt a connection to both my parents yesterday.  And today I came home to find an envelope on the counter.  It’s the envelope I have been waiting for for two weeks.  My hands were shaking.  I picked it up.  I put it down.  I picked it up, flipped it over, felt its weight and bulk and put it down.  I left the kitchen.  I came back and picked it up.  I put it down.  I walked out of the room again.

Why so nervous you wonder?  In September I was nominated for the Herb Kohl Fellowship Award.  By the end of November, I had submitted the required six pages of questions and answers along with three letters of recommendation.  Only 100 Wisconsin teachers are recipients of this award each year.  It includes a $3000 grant for the teacher and also $3000 for the school.  The winners were to be informed in early March.

I walked back into the kitchen and picked up the letter.  I turned it over and began peeling it open.  My hands were really fumbling and my heart was like a thousand butterflies taking off at once.  I knew that this late in the month it was going to be an “I’m sorry” letter.  But as I pulled the letter out, my eyes fixated on the word “pleasure” in the top line.  “Pleasure!”  Nobody gets pleasure in delivering bad news!  I flipped the page around and read, “It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been selected as a 2015 Herb Kohl Fellowship recipient.”  The relief and joy are still being processed.  Fist bumps are the order of this day as are intermittent screams of “All Riighhtt!”  I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the order of the day tomorrow as well.

The best part is that I feel as if my parents are celebrating with me.  They feel so close right now.

March 16, 2015

My daughter has touched me with her writing

Today I’m sharing the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.  It was written by my daughter during the better part of today.  With her permission:


Her hand lightly strokes my hair while she tells me about books, crafts, food, my mother. The slight dip in the center of the mattress gently pushes us toward each other, and we sink deeper into the happy floral comforter beneath our bodies. Tiny specks of dust float above us, caught in the golden rays that stretch across her bedroom. I listen to her voice and the soft whir of the ceiling fan. I imagine my mom tucked up next to my grandmother in this exact same position, knees pressed into her thigh, head bowed beneath her arm, face tilted slightly up to watch the blades spin ’round and ’round.

“I always knew when your mother was guilty. She couldn’t bear to look at me. ‘Don’t make mad eyes at me, Mommy!’” My grandmother laughs and I snuggle closer to her. I love picturing my mom at my age, her big brown eyes and close-cropped bangs, chin quivering at the thought of her mom being angry with her. “Speaking of your mother, it’s time for us to get up. She’ll be here soon and we haven’t even started making the meatloaf.”

Like an old slideshow projector, my mind clicks and pulls up another memory of my grandmother.

She digs around in one of the heavy wooden drawers in her built-in buffet cabinet and comes out with a bottle of Aleene’s Tacky Glue. Other people might store dishes, table linens and fancy silverware in their built-in, but not my grandmother. Her buffet cabinet is strictly for craft supplies, which she often unloads onto her large dining room table. I watch her blonde-white curls in the thin strip of mirror that separates the drawers from the cabinets. They bounce as she pushes the drawer closed and turns around. She hands me a styrofoam ball, a skein of pink yarn, scissors and the tacky glue.

“You’re going to start by cutting long strands of yarn, which you’ll glue to the styrofoam ball. Then we’ll take a few little pieces of yarn and gather the long strands into sections to create the body.” She pulls out a yarn doll that she made before I arrived and points out the sections as she speaks.

While I cut yarn, she inspects her doll, using her fingers to smooth the hair and adjust the small metal belt buckle that she fashioned around its waist. Just behind her, an army of American Girl dolls stand at attention, dressed in replica marching band uniforms from my mom’s high school days. A stack of photos sits beside them – a flip-through fashion show. Swimsuits, jumpers with tiny heart buttons, school uniforms, formal dresses, all made by my grandmother and modeled by her dolls.

Click. Change.

I pull the final load of clothes out of my car and lug them up two flights of stairs to my new room. Everything is exactly as it has always been. Her handmade clothes hang on one side of the double-door closet. The base of the lamp on the bedside table is the same man’s face made out of almond-sized slivers that I’ve stared at since I was four. The blinds I always peek through, marveling at the closeness of neighboring houses and hoping to catch a glimpse of the people inside, give me the familiar rush of excitement and a queer sense of mystery.

My first job out of college is an hour from my parents’ home and five blocks from my grandmother’s. She happily agrees to take me in while I settle into my new routine and search for an apartment of my own.

I wander downstairs, drawn by the scent of lasagna and the comforting creak of floorboards in the kitchen. On the walls, hand-painted signs that read, “Skinny cooks can’t be trusted!” and “Judy’s Bake Shop”, are intermixed with blue ribbons and certificates from the State Fair. Her hard-won Spam apron hangs from a hook by her refrigerator. Above it, a framed photo of her, proudly sporting a Spam sweatshirt and holding blue ribbons, her apron draped over a chair and a case of Spam at her feet. She grins into the camera, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

I walk into her open arms and rest my head on her shoulder. She pats my hair, leaving a light dusting of flour behind, and kisses my temple. “Perfect timing. Lasagna is almost done, the bread only has a few minutes left, and I have a surprise for you in the freezer.” I immediately perk up and know without looking that she made a batch of her famous English muffins for me. I squeeze her tighter. “This is why you are my most favorite grandma-ma in all the land.”

Click. Change.

The air is sticky and hot. So thick, it gets caught in my throat when I try to swallow. Even with the air conditioner pumping, our bedroom is sweltering. I peel off my work clothes and slip into denim shorts and a gray tank top. It’s an improvement, but not by much. I’m late and already coming up with familiar apologies in my head. “I’m sorry, but the traffic!” “I’m sorry, work was crazy!” “I’m sorry, I always assume everything will take me five minutes and I should know better.”

I pull up to my aunt’s house and see my grandmother’s cloud-like curls in the doorway. “Mark, I’m leaving!” she yells to my uncle and then steps outside. She is dazzling. The stripes on her shirt glitter under the afternoon sun, and her large bauble rings send out blinding flashes of light. Living in Florida has changed her. Losing her husband has changed her. She’s reinvented herself into a sparkling phoenix, rising from the ashes of her past life.

Our first stop is Leon’s, our favorite custard stand. She winks and asks if she should order three scoops of butter pecan, but she settles for one. We share the same custard story we always tell when we come here, filling in for each other as we go.

“Those three scoops of butter pecan dripping all over your hands -”
“I was licking as fast as I could!”
“And your eyes got so big!”
“I made such a mess in your car!”

We laugh, licking quickly at our cones. When we’re finished, we walk over to the glowing neon sign so she can take a picture. “Just in case I never see Leon’s again.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, a smile still faintly on my lips.

“Who knows if I’ll be back to Wisconsin again.”

“Grandmother, of course you’ll be back again. You’ll be here for my wedding next October.”

“You just never know,” she replies and then shakes her head. “Okay, let’s get out of here. Karaoke is starting in a few minutes and I don’t want to miss it. What are you going to sing?”

I laugh and wrinkle my nose. “We’ll see.” I say, sure that I won’t be singing, but an hour later, I’m standing next to her with a microphone in my hand, staring up at the words to “Stop in the Name of Love” and grinning ear to ear. “Don’t you love doo-wop?” she whispers, her hand wrapped confidently around the microphone, her rings catching the colorful DJ lights.

Click. Change.

She’s sleeping when I arrive at my aunt’s house, sitting up in a recliner with a travel pillow under her swollen arm. Her head is rolled down to the left, her chin resting against her brand-new cheetah pajamas.

“Doesn’t she look fabulous?” my aunt calls, coming into the living room to greet me.

She doesn’t look fabulous. She looks old. She looks sick. She looks very tired. I do my best not to sob when my aunt hugs me.

We sit next to my grandmother for a few minutes and watch her sleep. A tube of oxygen runs from a tank by the door, across the floor, up the side of the chair, around her ears and into her nose. A rattling sound slips out every time she breathes in.

Pam tells me about the last few days. How radiation wasn’t helping, how much pain my grandmother’s been in. How little she trusted the doctors in Florida, about the RV ride back home. Silent tears slide down our faces when she talks about how little time my grandmother has left. Three days ago, we still thought her cancer was treatable. “She’ll be back to singing in no time!” the doctors in Florida said. But the truth is that the cancer is everywhere. There’s nothing the doctors in Wisconsin can do.

My aunt heads back into the kitchen and my cousin appears. We hug for a long time, pulling back to see identical feelings reflected in each other’s eyes. My grandmother stirs and we both reach out to hold her hands. I think about those hands, all the things they’ve done. All the magic they’ve created. My mother’s hands look so much like hers. My hands look so much like my mother’s.

She opens her eyes and looks at both of us and we all begin to cry. She’s not ready and neither are we. “I love you to pieces.” she says and squeezes our hands.

Click. Change.

It’s fitting that she slips quietly away in the midst of an unlikely fall tornado. My mother and I are gathered around her, along with my aunts and uncles. We want so badly to anchor her here, but she floats away, her spirit swirling up with the angry winds. She wasn’t ready to go and we weren’t ready to let her. We hold onto her body, willing the warmth to stay.

Pam’s eyes are shallow pools of water and when she looks at me, her eyes overflow. “Switch places with me,” she says. “Put her hand on your cheek.”

I do. I feel the weight of it, resting against my cheek. I feel the comfort that hand has always brought me and I tell myself, remember this. Remember this. And I do.