Writing Identities


Our classroom has evolved into a community of writers. This is particularly evident in my classroom during our 8th period. Five student writers are in the middle of writing a speech as part of a national competition. Each writer has her sights set on placing in the contest.

Before I send them off to work on their speech drafts, I teach a quick mini-lesson. Thursday, I emphasize the importance of adding elements of narration to their speeches. I also reminded them that their voices are their identities and what makes their writing so special. Then I tell them that when I read their final drafts I should be able to figure out the author of each speech just by their writing style. At first, my five writers look at me blankly as if what I said was simply hyperbole, so elaborate.

“Now that we’ve come to the end of the third quarter, I’ve read enough of your writing to know you as a writer.

There is Katy, the professor: She writes from an old soul perspective. Her thinking is deeply analytical and her vocabulary is robust.

Then there is Hannah: She writes with a paintbrush. Her compositions are full of imaginative figurative language and imagery.

Juliet is her own worst critic: She is a master of symbolism who writes from a vulnerable and mystical place.

Next to her is Ann: She is Miss Detail. Her writing is logical and fully developed.

Evelyne rounds out the group: She is one of my most gifted writers, a natural born storyteller who eloquently captures the inner thinking and struggles of her characters to create a memorable narrative.”

My writers blush and nod as I describe their writing identity. I’ve surprised each of them, but in a good way. We are a writing community, I say again. We know each other on a whole new level.


Change is Blooming

I’ve shed the melancholy of winter

No longer walking head down into the icy wind.

Spring’s longer days and warm hues

brighten my mood.

Chin up, I take notice that

change is blooming.

Students commit to colleges.

Days grow longer.

Birds build nests.

Baseball stadiums welcome fans.

Candidates share platforms.

Temperatures rise to balmy.

Graduates accept new jobs.

Sweatshirts replace down coats.

Diners eat al fresco.

Exercisers fill the trails.

March transitions into April.






Enduring Friendships

“As days become years, friends become FAMILY.”  –Birthday card greeting

Tonight I was out to dinner in D.C. with several of my girlfriends celebrating a birthday. We’ve been friends for years, since our adult and college-aged children were in kindergarten.

Our friendship formed on the elementary playground where we met daily; we bonded at youth soccer games and school performance; we established close relationships at PTA planning meetings and carnival fund-raisers. Many parents can point to these early friendships we make with other parents of younger children.  The bonds run deep.

One way we maintained our sanity as mothers of young children was to celebrate each other’s birthdays. No. Matter. What.  The birthday girl selected the restaurant of choice and one of us made the reservation and drove to dinner.  Those early birthday dinners were such a treat for me.  Not only did they get me out of the house for an evening, but they also surrounded me with other like-minded women trying to raise kids without screwing them up. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone.

Over the years we have experienced  highs and lows, but the birthday dinners have continued. Tough times included divorces, illnesses, suicides, unemployment. But there have been many celebrations too —  new puppies, promotions, travels, and career changes.

Tonight we toasted one of the sweetest members of our group.  We laughed and shared a beautiful meal together. Our enduring friendship and shared memories make us more than friends. We are family.


Early to Rise

“Uplift” chimes on my iPhone at exactly 5 a.m. I fumble my hand around on the side table until my index finger is able to tap the glowing snooze button.  Ten more minutes of sleep is a gift this March morning.

A repetitive jingle interrupts a college party I’m at where both my principal and great aunt are in attendance. “Uplift” repeats its refrain causing my husband to stir and pull the covers partly over his face. I press snooze again but keep myself from falling back to sleep knowing I have morning duty which requires an earlier work arrival.

I coach myself to sit up after I count to twenty. 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…

Slowly I drift back into sleep.  A heavy fog rolls into my consciousness and my eyelids close like heavy drapes. While I linger in this twilight phase, my superego reminds me I will deeply regret falling back to sleep. With a semi-conscious will, I manage to pull back the covers and step out of bed.  Immediately, my skin tingles with goosebumps.

I grope around the floor feeling for my sweatshirt, socks and Uggs. Then I grab my phone, book and water glass and tiptoe out of the room, cautiously.

There is no other word to describe both my physical appearance or movement other than to simply call it graceless.  I’m barely clothed, carrying a haphazardly stacked pile to the bathroom, swaying slightly off balance as I shuffle along the cold wood floor in bare feet.Related image

Medically, I might actually be considered dead.  My heart rate hovers in the low 40-beats-per-minute range.  I awkwardly slip on my pajama bottoms, socks, and sweatshirt then pull the hoodie up over my disheveled hair.  The night light illuminates my reflection in the mirror. Smudges of day old mascara and eyeliner form raccoon markings around my eyes.  The goth-look reflects my mood, gloomy and sullen.

It is necessary that I transform from the hideous Mr. Hyde to the gentile, well-mannered Dr. Jekyll before 7 a.m.

I steady myself, gripping the handrail as I stagger down the stairs. Five a.m. is pitch black for a reason.  Shadowy figures lurking about dimly lit homes should be left alone until the sun rises.

I reach for the serum, the elixir with the power to return grace to the graceless, charm to the charmless and wits to the witless.

I am one K-Cup away from salvation.

Dry, An Apocalyptic Prophecy

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Our school’s literary magazine announced their latest student writing/art contest today.  The first prompt students are asked to consider: What if our Earth was faced with its last drops of water?  

Ah, nothing like an apocalyptic prompt to get the creative juices flowing.

I’m sure many of you read Neal Shusterman’s latest book, Dry, which addresses this exact hypothetical catastrophe just on a smaller scale.  If you haven’t read his novel yet, I urge you to go out and find a copy to read. As you take in the devastating effects of water scarcity, I encourage you to linger longer in your morning shower, keep a cold glass of water in hand, and apply and re-apply chapstick to your lips while reading. Shusterman vividly captures the cataclysmic breakdown of society, the deterioration taking only a few days; it will scare the wits out of you. Image result for dry book

The opening scene begins with Alyssa turning on the kitchen faucet to fill her dog’s water bowl, but instead of a cool flow of water, she encounters a coughing and sputtering sound followed by a hiss.  A sign that the tap has run dry.

We’ve all experienced a similar inconvenience, like when the utility company shuts off the water lines to our homes while making repairs to the pipes in the street.  We don’t worry that the water won’t be restored to our homes. Fresh water is a given. Our local, state and federal governments are in charge of providing this crucial resource. We never have to worry about water simply running out, right?

At first, Alyssa believes the water will come back on, too. That there is a plan and the problem is only a temporary hiccup.  No one in her community panics at first. They falsely trust their municipalities to restore water no matter what the cause.  In Dry, there is no water to turn back on; it was never shut off in the first place. The reservoirs have run dry after years of drought, and a contingency plan was never fully developed.  The panic sets in, and a fight or flight mentality takes hold.

Climatologists predict severe and extreme climate conditions are inevitable due to global warming; these include droughts, floods, and violent storms.  The likelihood that the world will experience a catastrophic humanitarian crisis as a direct result of the impacts of long term drought is probably. 

Fiction becomes reality.  

Which leads me to the second prompt the literary contest is promoting: If humans went extinct, what would happen to the earth?


Globe Trotting, Vicariously

My husband, Dan, has been traveling the globe over the past few weeks with trips to Prague and Shanghai.  

For most of our 24 years of marriage, his tech industry jobs require him to travel all over the world.  Here is a sample of where he has been: Denmark, Argentina, Hong Kong, France, Thailand, Sweden, Israel, Japan, England, Germany, China, Brazil… I follow his travel adventures through texted pictures, Facebook posts and detailed recaps over weekend dinners once he returns to home-base with me. Through Dan I learn about new cultures, architectural designs, and beautiful landscapes.  I don’t envy the long hours he logs on airplanes and in cars; however, I do appreciate his exposure to new experiences and geographies.  I can’t lie when I say,  I wish I could drop what I’m doing and tag along with him, but when you are a teacher, taking time off other than the predetermined winter and spring breaks is nearly impossible. Recently, when Dan asked if I wanted to head to Prague with him,  I longed to say, “Yes, let’s do it!” but I knew that response was not reasonable or professional.

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One of the rare times I was able to travel with Dan occurred several years back.  He was scheduled to travel to Australia and New Zealand for three weeks.  The trip felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me.  I wasn’t teaching at the time but rather at home taking care of our two grade school aged children. Fortunately, my amazing parents stepped in and encouraged me to take the time to travel with Dan by volunteering to care for our kids the two weeks I’d be gone.  

Dan departed ahead of me, and then one week later, I met up with him in Sydney. We hung out in Australia for several days before heading to New Zealand where we traveled to Wellington, Aukland and the stunning Christ Church.  The Land Down Under left a lasting impression on me and I’m thankful Dan and I were able to explore a new continent together.

One day I won’t be teaching, our children will be out of college and on their own, and if Dan is still working in the tech industry, traveling all over the globe, I plan to be by his side–traveling the world together. Until then, I’ll need to satisfy my wanderlust by traveling vicariously through Dan’s global journeys.

The Power of the Book Talk

Image result for tasting the skyMy students are in the process of selecting books for their new book club groups.  The Power of the Human Spirit unit examines characters, real or imagined, who must overcome tremendous challenges through courage and perseverance. Our eighth grade CLT developed a comprehensive, annotated book list for students to guide them in their decision making.  Many of the books on our list I have read, others I have not. One unfamiliar book, Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat, is a memoir about a Palestinian girl living through the Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath. The book jacket is drab and the image of a child is fuzzy and out of focus and quite literally made me question whether or not to even keep it in my classroom library.  

Lucky for me, one of my fabulous English colleagues, who clearly is less superficial than me, read the memoir and loved the illuminating and powerful story.  She knew her students would find Barakat’s memoir equally moving, so she selected a particularly harrowing and heart-pounding moment early in the book to read aloud from to her students.  Then, my colleague does what all amazing co-workers do, she shared the book, her book talk and offered advice on how to sell it to my students with me.

In a nutshell, this is the excerpt she directed me to read (paraphrased):

The scene begins with the first Israeli bomb attacks on Barakat’s home just as she and her father are returning from their village.  They hurry into the house and warn the rest of the family to turn the lights off and quietly move to the trench in their backyard to hideout. Other villagers begin running past the trench, fleeing the impending doom of a ground attack. Barakat’s family decides, they too, must flee, but when her family takes off running with the rush of people, little 3 ½ year-old Ibtisam is tying her one shoe she was able to slip on her foot.  When she looks up for her brothers and parents, everyone is gone. 

My students are immediately hooked.  

“I want to read Tasting the Sky, Ms. Juengst.”  

“Can I take the book home this weekend to read?”

And from one of my most reluctant readers, “I think I’d like to read that book for my book club.”

The power of the book talk creates an urgency to read.  Sometimes the urgency even becomes competitive and students must negotiate to determine the reading order when book copies are limited.  Fortunately for our eighth graders, my middle school owns many copies of Tasting the Sky so no book emergency for now.