Category Archives: teaching

I have been waiting a really long time to write this post

I’m leaving Minneapolis. I got a job teaching English for a university in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

It's in the Middle East, smooshed between Saudi Arabia and Oman
Seriously, you guys. I'm moving to the land of sand and camels!

This will soon become an expat blog. I have rented out my house and the new tenants move in on July 1st, so I’m staring down the last two weeks of my life in the Twin Cities and trying to celebrate this transition in as many ways as possible.

Right now, as I prepare to put most of my worldly belongings into the hands of other people and I decide which books to bring with me, I feel like I’m buzzing.

This blog is going to get really interesting in the next few months, I think. I might have something to write about again!

Creative process meets information she can’t ignore

Oh, dear readers! How I have neglected you and this lonely dusty blog!

I would apologize, but . . . do I really need to? Whether or not I’m typing here doesn’t improve your digestion or bring a luminous quality to your skin. My favorite memory from Writer School applies: I learned that the world doesn’t need my book. There are plenty of books and book writers out there – the only way my book will make any difference to anyone is if I need to write it. And, then, maybe it will still only matter to me. There are even more blog writers than book writers, and personal blogs matter to their authors much much more than they mean to anyone else. It’s a big internet out there.

So now that’s established, here’s what’s up. I’ve been busy. Full-time high school teaching, late after school sessions with Yearbook twice a week, and a “let’s grab dinner tonight” social calendar filled with awesome people without whose face time and stimulating conversations I’d be completely bereft. Busy with attempts at some sort of regular spiritual practice time and feeling like a Little Dutch Boy trying to plug the leak of November darkness and dancing with SAD, often going to bed earlier than my best friend’s toddler. I’ve kept my head above water, because the alternative isn’t an option.

What all of this means: I haven’t been writing. I haven’t written anything significant to me since my show in August of 2010. I’ve been feeling terrible about that, have written a couple of little articles and short essays that haven’t been satisfying, and generally feeling like a not-writer. Imagine a 1960s era hospital waiting room with white walls, fake plants, overflowing ashtrays, and ugly orange furniture. Creatively, that’s where I’m languishing: the “I’m so busy, I can’t ever finish anything” artist doomface creative timesuck waiting room. The worst part about this room is that the cookies in the vending machine don’t taste very good and I can’t stop eating them anyway. Cookies do not offer creative satisfaction. They offer only a temporary comfort and expanding waistline. Stupid cookies taking away my skinny jean wearing abilities!

Anyway. I signed up for NaNoWriMo and was GUNGHO for two days. Then, I caught a bad cold, started feeling really sorry for myself, felt like a jerk for being behind schedule, then started to let depression* eat my face off for the past two weeks. All those anti-artist vampires started swooshing around me and I let them win. They said things like:

You can’t write. You’ve had your MFA for four years now and haven’t accomplished anything. You aren’t growing as a writer, you’re moving backwards. Plus: You’re not funny. You’re a hack. Nothing you write will ever make a difference in the world. Why would you even bother to write a novel? Who is going to read it? God, you’re such a waste of space. (blah blah blah ad nauseum.)

But the truth of what really happened is this: I got spooked. 3,470 words into a new story, I felt my heart open up and really start to fall in love with a new character – one whose story is finally not mine – and as soon as I closed my computer that morning, I was terrified that my heart was about to be broken. My last extended project, a memoir about living with an alcoholic, broke my heart. Why would this project be any different? Plus, I’m busy! Doesn’t that artist in me know there’s a LIFE to survive out here? Sweet spinning Jesus on a turn style, what do you want from me??

Then, today I read this article: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. It presents research about the difference between elite/high-achieving musicians and average ones – and how the difference between the most “talented” and the “average” performers was not how much they practiced or whether or not they were “gifted” but how they structured their practice time AND the rest of their lives. Here’s a brief summary from the post:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

Therein lies the reason I feel so stunted and underperforming as an artist: I’m not writing every day. I don’t have a rigid schedule within which I do the crucial and deliberate practice of putting words on the page. Therefore I am not improving.  No wonder I feel like crap about my (not)work. Then, THIS:

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Essentially, I know there’s nothing wrong with the busy life I’m living. I know that teaching eats up a lot of my time. But I could create some rigid, non-negotiable practice time to improve my skills at my creative practice. I could remove an activity or three from each week. I could practice letting my heart fall into something new and not breaking. It’d probably feel pretty good. So, you know. Let’s see what happens with that.

*For the advice-loving and suggestion giving among you, you should know that I’m doing EVERYTHING that I need to do to take care of my mental and physical health. I’m in no danger, I just like to complain sometimes.

PLUS: I’m up for LOVELINKS this month. You should totally vote for me.

Who can resist a cute kid with a great hustle?

The question isn't "Do I post a photo of La Tour Eiffel" but "Which photo of La Tour Eiffel do I post?"

Dearest readers, I need your help. This spring, I’m taking a group of students to France for a 12 day trip. We’re visiting the Loire Valley, doing a six day family stay in Brittany, and visiting the major sites in Paris. It’s a great trip we’ve planned — my 8th student trip! — and we have 20 kids enrolled.

There are a number of students who want very badly to participate in this trip whose families have been hit pretty hard by the recession. Some have had to decide to skip it this year and hope France is still there when they’re in college, but a handful are going to push through and raise the necessary amount of money they need to pay their fees.

Would you deny the children a chance to see this view? Think of the CHILDREN!



I’m not trying to make miracles with this travel program. AND. Our French department has worked tirelessly to promote this trip and the importance of second (and third!) language learning and travel. Given the interest we’ve gotten in a trip that has a $3K pricetag and the fact that I teach at an inner city school that is not filled with trust fund babies, I’d say the convincing is working. Travel isn’t just for the wealthy, though sometimes it seems that way. We have a few tiny little scholarships to offer our kids, and our student travel organization has two partial scholarships to offer their spring travel programs – of which there are at least 50. Slim pickings. I want each of these students to have the experience of living with a French family and using the language they’re learning in authentic ways. I want them to experience pain au chocolat on site. I want them to know what post-climb at the top of a spiral staircase vertigo really feels like. Because friends, I tell you – there is nothing more heart-giddy-making for me than watching real live discovery on the face of a young person. Kids who travel are kids who get curious, and curious kids make curious adults who endeavor to make the world a better place.

I want my students to get out there and start working to raise funds for this trip in creative new ways. Traditional fundraising campaigns like book sales and wrapping paper and cookie dough have a terrible profit return for the amount of work that they require. Plus, we’ve been restricted from selling anything with sugar in the top 5 ingredients – school candy sales are totally verboten. AND: I believe that there’s no experience more satisfying than one you’ve busted your tail to create for yourself. I want to teach them to take initiative for their desire to do something awesome and life-changing. I want them to learn that developing a solid work ethic helps them achieve goals they haven’t even imagined yet is a great feeling that can be had over and over again. Sure it’s not a fundraising campaign to save dying hemophiliac puppies or to prevent the death of well-dressed yet socially awkward llamas in war torn countries – but they’ve got the right to ask for help.

This is a push up your sleeves and tie on your apron campaign.

So I’m getting creative. I’m holding a meeting for all of the students who’re having a hard time coming up with funds for their trip. I intend to educate them in the fine art of guerrilla fundraising. We’ll be discussing how to educate people in their family/parent’s friends/church people circle about the trip, what the trip means to them and their educational future, how much money they need by when, and what kind of work or services they’d be willing to offer. (This is where my comedy friends need to get their minds out of the gutter, because I know some of you just had a bad thought. Shame on you! These are kids!)

My role is part motivational speaker and part idea generator and part rabble rousing community organizer — because with teens, that’s the only way to light a fire under their behinds that’s hot enough to get them moving. I want each student to work their networks (not approaching strangers or being risky, of course, and always discussing their activities with their parents) with a self-created flyer that defines their goals and the work they’re willing and able to do to take this trip to France. So here’s where I need your help. So far on the list of activities they could offer, I’ve got:

  • babysitting
  • raking leaves
  • shoveling snow
  • washing windows
  • housecleaning
  • errands
You haven't lived until you've had to shuttle 20 kids around town using the Paris Metro during rush hour.

But otherwise, I’m kinda stumped. It’s fall, they’re back in school, and they need approximately 2 grand in the next four months. In your experience, what kinds of chores, tasks, or other “I’d rather someone else do this and it’s worth a contribution for the greater good” kinds of work would you hire a kid to do?

The success of any given student’s endeavor is obviously dependent on their ability to hustle and pull the heartstrings of people just like you and me. They’ve gotta let people know what they are working for, give the doe eyes, show up, do what they agreed to do with a smiley face, and say THANK YOU for the opportunity to bust their tails at the end of the job. I don’t think this is impossible – and I’m sure that if they don’t try something, they won’t raise a dime. And it’s never too early to learn a good work ethic, right?

So please – in the comments, if you’ve got a creative idea I can add to the above list, share it by the end of this weekend and I’ll pass it along to my students. Thank you so very much.

Grappling with bystander responsibility: an essay

Do you remember high school? What about the fights that broke out in the lunch room? Remember how chaotic and stressful the school environment felt after seeing one? Yeah. I wrote about that.

My student Belinda got into a fight last year. It wasn’t a prissy, slappy, name-calling fight, either. It was a reality television-worthy, punch- throwing, eye-bruising fight that didn’t end until Belinda’s opponent had ripped the weave out of her hair and waved it around in front of the student spectators…

Read more of this essay at the Teaching Tolerance website. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. A place to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools. Check them out!

Teaching as performance: an essay elsewhere

When I set out to write, produce and perform my original one woman show about the classroom experiences of a Minneapolis French teacher, Pardon My French, for the Minnesota Fringe Festival last summer, I had three goals that would help me know I’d been successful:

  1. Have fun
  2. Have supportive friends in the audience
  3. Avoid puking on my shoes in front of everyone

. . .

Find out what teaching and performance have in common over at the Minnesota Playlist

Hey summertime! C’mere and gimme a kiss!

There will be cloud gazing this summer.

Oh friends! My wonderful blessed summer vacation that I’ve been dreaming about for months is finally here. As the final bell of the 2010-11 school year rang out at 3:00 p.m. yesterday, I was on the balcony making sure the kids didn’t do their traditional “dump all of the papers from their backpacks onto the commons floor below” thing. The security roundup worked in my area, but I think that could be because I was standing near our school liaison officer. That blue shirt and shiny star badge are pretty impressive – especially since he’s one of the nicest guys ever. The other faculty and myself shepherded the kids down the stairs and out the door before extensive vandalism seemed like a good idea, and I went back to my room to face the stack of finals I have yet to finish grading.

All of the negative press teachers got during the Union crisis in WI must have left everyone thinking that “all summer off” must mean that we teachers are all sporting swimsuits and drinking frothy daiquiris at the beach from the minute we hand in our keys. I know none of MY fair readers would think that I’m a frothy daiquiri drinker and the little lake beaches here are filled with the kids I just sent off into the world, so I’ll bet you’re curious about what we do with our 10 weeks of unstructured time. Wanna know what teachers do during the summer? We do more work. For free. Or in some cases, for a small fee we’ve paid for the privilege of being trained.

Week of June 13th – 4 days of teacher training.
Week of June 20th – 4 days of summer school substitute teaching.
Week of July 18th – 2 more days of teacher training
Week of August 1st – 3 more days of teacher training
and back to work on August 19th. Ploof!

Boy does summer go fast when you look at it that way. I do have a few weeks of intense writing time, a road trip to Toronto and Montreal with my dad, my 20 year HS reunion, and a handful of visits with friends planned, so I’m not complaining. I’m more baffled at myself for setting it up that way – but I do like to keep busy. After spending all day every day with at least 130 people, summer can feel very isolating and lonely — well, after I’ve slept for a week and caught up on my rest, which should happen the week of June 27th – except that’s the week that my best friend, my surrogate husband, and my goddaughter are moving out of state. I’ve scheduled that week for a long round of alternating denial and weeping. Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments may also make an appearance, as I’m the dramatic sort.

So anyway. I just wanna give sloppy smooches to summer right now. I have to stop writing this post so I can get to school before the staff breakfast and finish my grades. My goal is to finish grading and packing up by 12:30 – all the better to enjoy my afternoon lunch date and workout session before I go to a retirement party. w00t!

I’m melting!

I love it when they love me back.

Oh friends. The school year is almost over, and I got the sweetest note ever from one of my graduating seniors.

I swear that I didn’t pay her to write this.

I’ve written a guest post for Teaching Tolerance, as I made it past the first vetting process for new teacher bloggers, but I don’t have a guarantee that they’ll use what I sent them. It was a story about a fight and bystander/spectator violence. Daily life in the classroom is tough, and the things I have to say about teaching and equity education feel mostly like unanswerable questions. We’ll see if they use what I wrote. I hope they like it.

It isn’t hard to prepare good lessons and stay reasonably organized while presenting them. Developing curriculum and achieving benchmarks? Of course, piece of cake. But being a real live, breathing, sweating, authentic human being in front of 150+ people every day? Man, that is hard work. It’s hard to know whether or not I’ve been successful most of the time. Then I get thank you notes from students about to graduate and I dissolve faster than a plate full of macaroons at a tropical tea party.