Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Impossible Task

In 1990 after my third year as an elementary school classroom teacher, I attended a 4 week intensive "Invitation Summer Institute" led by Dr. Fran Simone of the WV Writing Project. I eventually became involved in the leadership of that group and in the National Writing Project. Along with 39 others, I was asked to write an essay about my NWP experience to celebrate the 40th summer of holding these summer programs, which started in Berkeley, CA and spread around the country. They published my essay today: Here it is:

I (along with 39 others) was asked to contribute 500-1000 words summing up what NWP means to me. I’m not sure I could do it in a book length piece, though maybe I could do it in a haiku:

Young struggling teacher
Lifted by Summer Institute
Retired Director

No, doesn’t come close. Okay, who is my audience? Is it young teachers entering the profession, floundering as I once did? Feeling overwhelmed, small, under a microscope, everyone expecting that college and student teaching has created a professional who knows the answers, but finding that it’s not as easy as it looks, and that these eager or bored or angry or sad or hurting or confused faces cannot be fooled; they know when you are confident and when you are uncertain, and they crave your certainty, your control, they want you to have all the answers, to make it easy for them, and ultimately you learn you’re all in the same boat, learning together, but the lessons are painful and lead to sleepless nights.

What can I tell the young teacher attending a summer institute for the first time—that it’s never completely under control? To have ideals, but not hold yourself to them? To understand that if you’re doing the best you can, that’s good enough? To try to create community? To listen to students, especially the ones who are the most difficult? To give everyone a voice? To write, write, write, and share, share, share? To understand that there will always be far too many demands and expectations, objectives, and content standards, and that schoolwide, districtwide, nationwide goals will come and go and ultimately you should strive to make your classroom a place where learning takes place most of the time? It sounds somewhat defeatist; but it was my Truth. And every student I have met years later has smiled when she asked, Do you remember me? Yes, even the young man last week who was picking up the garbage can from my driveway.

Or am I speaking to the NWP veteran? The Director who has spent a career in the university setting and was asked to take on this extra project and found it taking over his life and career, guiding his research, pushing him toward leadership, management, budgeting, administrative roles he never envisioned. Or am I speaking to the classroom teacher who found a home in her local writing project with like minded teachers who supported each other as writers, who listened to and responded to each other’s stories of divorce, deaths, and illnesses, of births and embarrassing moments, of likes, dislikes, travel stories, fantasy, or poetry. Who got asked and answered, Yes, and found, as I did, it was not like at school where you learned that saying yes could lead you to doing other people’s jobs, to jealousies or politics, to uncomfortable positions making presentations of new strategies or curriculum that someone else decided was best for your school or district or was purchased from a textbook company and you were to follow the script and tell others to be true to the Program. Somehow the writing project was different; the teachers were working together, supporting each other, asking questions, exploring new methods that they truly believed in, and….what is it, what’s so different about this? Oh! They’re listening to ME! They think I have ideas worth listening to! These amazing teachers who have so much to teach me think I have value? I’ve never heard that before! Yes! I will present my classroom demonstration at that workshop; I will help write that grant; I will attend that national meeting. Oh my goodness, here are these amazingly smart people from all over the country, and they all listen to each other, they all work together, they all write, they all ask questions, none of them claims to have all the answers! Yes, I’ll serve on a national committee; are you kidding? You want me, an elementary school teacher to co-direct the Rural Sites Network? Yes, I’ll write an article, participate in a study. Just say yes became my rule of thumb when it came to NWP.

Only when I saw my local writing project in danger did I say no to NWP. No, I can’t right now, I have to lead at the local level. And that was truly the hardest work, at least for me. How can anyone ask busy teachers to do more? And how can an outsider really operate in a university? But those are simply questions, the answers are, in the end simple: It’s never completely under control.  Have ideals, but don’t hold yourself to them. Understand that if you’re doing the best you can, that’s good enough. Try to create community. Listen to the teachers, especially the ones who are the most difficult. Give everyone a voice. Write, write, write, and share, share, share. Understand that there will always be far too many demands and expectations. Oh, I left out one important ingredient…celebrate success! Congratulations on 40 years of changing the lives of teachers through holding Summer Institutes and improving teaching and learning throughout the world, NWP!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Non-Religious Prayer

*2 Day Diet Report at end

I was musing (isn’t that the promise of this blog?), about how I ended up so incredibly busy working the last couple months, even though I’m now fully retired. Somehow my musing led me down the rabbit hole of religion and my beliefs (or lack of). Because the way that I have approached the creation of the project that has consumed so many waking (and dreaming) hours, AWARE: Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment (, is not very different from the way “true believers” approach their lives.

Though I don’t attribute my mission to an outside force, or God, I do feel an inner compulsion that is probably very much like the feeling religious people express when they say they were “meant” to do something or any of the many ways that idea is expressed.

When I consider the compulsion that drives most of the human population to attribute their success or failure, their purpose in life to an outside force, who are willing to give money and time to create organizations, buildings, cities, and even whole countries (and dreams of all humanity) dedicated to worshiping or celebrating that force, I can’t help but believe that there are, at the very least, biological and physical properties that these ideas derive from.

What I mean by that is that the practice of religion or the practices of religion have real benefits for people whether the beliefs of religion are scientifically observable or confirmable or not. For instance, we know that prayer, or meditation, has value whether the mind is focused on a supreme being or on clearing the mind of clutter. Singing and dancing in large groups or chanting has benefits and can result in states of euphoria whether this occurs among groups of worshipers or attendees of rock concerts or dance events.

So, to me, it’s no big surprise that soon after retiring in the months following the chemical spill into the Elk River which tainted the water of Charleston, WV and 9 surrounding counties, after attending meetings and rallies and lobbying on Earth Day, I began to feel as if there was something important I could contribute. In retrospect, my dreams and fantasies about how I would accomplish this were wildly optimistic. Like someone who reports having received a “vision from above,” it was very difficult for people I talked to about this to convince me that success would be difficult, slow, or unlikely.

Stories abound in all human endeavors of people who believe: in their religious visions, their business endeavors, their scientific pursuits. Rarely is it smooth sailing from vision to reality.

On Thursday, July 3rd, a scaled down version of AWARE’s first event (my first idea for helping raise money for environmental organizations involved a stadium or the Civic Center) will take place at the Woman’s Club of Charleston. There will be some popular local bands, singer-songwriters, and a few artists selling work. There will be snack food and a cash bar with wine and beer. How many people will show up? Hopefully advance ticket sales do not tell that story, because that number is small. How much money will actually make its way to the groups I hope to help? It’s all in the hands of….no, not a magical power. It’s in the hands of a small group of people who are dedicated to the idea that it’s important to be ACTIVE in environmental issues, and the many other people who have heard of this event, seen the posters, handbills, e-mails or Facebook invites, and are balancing the possibility of going out on a Thursday evening before a holiday for a good cause.

Yes, it’s in their hands…your hands. I hope to see you there if you’re in the area! And, I offer this blessing, as blessings and prayers, I believe, need not be solely for the religious to dispense or benefit from: May your life be enriched through generous giving of your thoughts, time, and resources to finding ways to help make our planet a cleaner, healthier, and more beautiful place for all life.

*My 2-Day Diet Progress Week 34, June 30, 2014

I took a week off from blogging last week, but maintained 177 at weigh in both last week and this week. I seem to have reached a plateau for the past month or so, and will now stop posting weekly, but I will continue posting once at the beginning of each month for at least the next 6 months. I'm still hoping to reach my goal of 165 pounds and maintain that weight, but for now I am very satisfied with my weight and as long as I remain below 180 will remain so.

Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 62
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in.
Current waist size: 37.5 in.
Weight end of this week:  177 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week:  no change
Total Gain/Loss:  -32 lbs.