Writing Identities

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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.  

Natural Phenomena

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I’m not a very religious person, but I am quite spiritual. If there is a higher power, I believe it is rooted in the energy and cycles of nature. Just as authors use weather events to establish mood and foreshadowing in their narratives, I “read” nature for signs of deeper meaning.

Take the night my grandfather died.  I was sound asleep in my bed when I woke around midnight to a powerful gust of wind that blew through my open window. It was so strong, it detached my curtains, carried them halfway across my room, and deposited them in a billowy pile on my floor. No storm followed.  No lightning. No heavy rains. The intense rush of air was merely an isolated event.

The next morning, my dad called to tell me my grandpa had died in his sleep.  We cried and briefly discussed the circumstances of his death. After I asked how my mom and Grandma were fairing, he mentioned the approximate time of Grandpa’s death. Midnight.  Even though I lived hundreds of miles away from my grandpa, I believe his spirit was responsible for the freakish blast of wind that blew through my room that night. He came to say goodbye to me.

Imagine my concern today when at 4:30 p.m., foreboding skies appear in the east. Soon winds gust to 50 miles per hour. Heavy rains ensue, blowing sideways and then transitioning to hail.  The storm blows out quickly. What remains are high winds and colder temperatures.

I watch the wild scene play out from inside a local eatery. The gods are trying to tell me something. A late March storm like this is unusual and extreme.

A prickle of worry develops.  What fates await.

The Joy List

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The guys who produce the Minimalist podcast also write a regular blogpost.  One recent blog I read stressed the importance of creating a “I Must (daily) List.”  They included topics like read, write, be grateful, show compassion, eat healthy, and so on.

Here is my twist on the Minimalist blogspot list:

What brings me JOY

Dancing with my sister in dive bars

Educational conferences, like NCTE and ALAN

Down vests–navy from Uniqlo

       Saucony running shoes, size 7.5

Dinners with family that go late into the night

Seat heaters cranked up to 5 on cold mornings

Little gold earrings, the smaller the better

Afternoon reading sprawled on the couch

Whole milk lattes from Swing’s Coffee

Ultimate (Frisbee) weekend tournaments

Athleta leggings and soft tees

Twelve-year-old Frye harness boots

Green smoothies: kale, spinach, mango, ginger

Memories with Grandma

Memories with Grandpa     

Long runs in D.C., M Street to the Monuments

“I love you’s”

 Pink Lady apples, sliced thinly   

Cable knit winter hatspom pom on top     

And Whole Foods

honey roasted,

freshly ground

peanut butter.

 

Mic Drop Wednesday

A long forgotten, black swing dress

paired with cozy brown tights

and my favorite suede boots

sets the tone for the day: upbeat.

 

After the perfect blow dry

I grab my stuff and head to the car.

No rain yet.

Instead

the sun streaks pink in the east.

 

I scoot out onto the main road

and drive without interruption.

No red lights,

flashing school buses,

or ped crossings to slow me down.

 

The freeway merge

is all about acceleration.

 

I’m in the flow

when the opening riff of

“American Girl” begins.

Immediately,

I turn the volume to max

and sing:

Well she was an American girl

raised on promises.

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there

was a little more to life

somewhere else.”

 

A string of “best songs ever”

continues through my commute

ending with Peter Gabriel

serenading me

into my parking space.

 

Student spirits are positive

throughout the day, too.

There is excitement for our next unit,

but reading remains

at the heart of our lesson,

a community of readers

lost in their fictional worlds.

 

(phone ringing)

“Hello?”

“There is a large box of books

a parent dropped off for you in the office.”

(Seriously, can this day get any better?!)

 

The faculty meeting is cancelled,

two extra hours of planning gained.

 

A final check of emails reveals

Not one, but two

parent notes of former students,

sharing high school successes

and thanking me for my support.

 

By the time I head back

to the parking lot

my walk is more of a swagger,

Gratitude and satisfaction wrap

around my core like a cashmere throw.

 

I press the car ignition

and settle in for the drive home.

An old Feist melody plays

One, two, three, four

Tell me that you love me more.”

…and I’m out!