The Need for Story

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Telling my story at the Flatz where EMBARK Peekskill is making its new home

When I was a child and my sisters and I had sleepovers, I loved the moment when someone said, “Jan, please tell us a story.” I don’t remember the fabric of the stories I wove, all I know is that my sisters and friends often begged for more. And I was delighted to deliver.

I got to tell a story to a bigger audience last night when I participated in a story slam at EMBARK Peekskill, our wonderful performing and literary arts organization. It was an amazing experience, and not just because I had the opportunity first to take a storytelling workshop taught by master storyteller and teacher Judith Heineman. It was wonderful because it was a night of stories.

Eleven people shared their stories. Though the stories were all required to have the same theme—it was meant to be, or not—every story was unique. One was about a talisman that held a marriage together, another described a child’s discovery that his father ruled as much with his heart as with his fists, and yet another told of how the teller came to write a song for his deaf wife. No two stories or storytellers were alike, and yet I would wager that everyone in the audience connected to at least some small thing in every story, and probably something much bigger in several.

I didn’t win one of the evening’s prizes, but I came away with something much more valuable: a renewed sense of belonging. Several people approached me about my story relating to how we realized our son’s true vocation. These people did more than compliment me on the telling of my story; they shared stories of their own that related to it. Their responses made my heart giddy. Stories remind us that we are all in this—whatever this is—together.

The late Alan Rickman said, “It’s a human need to be told stories.” I would add that it’s a human need to tell them as well.

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Sharing the stage with the other storytellers, our mentor, and the co-founders of EMBARK

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A Midsummer Night’s Dilemma Turned Dream

Like eighth-grade English Language Arts teachers around New York State, I am reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream with my students. I confess to being more than a little anxious when I learned that Engage New York—“the official web site for current materials and resources related to the Regents Reform Agenda”—included this play in one of its eighth-grade modules. I worried that having to read and analyze this comedy with my eighth-graders was going to be, well, lamentable. Shakespeare can be challenging for those of us who studied English in college; I could only imagine how difficult reading and analyzing his work would be for students who struggle with English for any number of reasons: they are not readers, they struggle academically, they speak another language at home.

Reading Engage New York’s curriculum guide for this unit didn’t make me feel any more sanguine. The guide is hundreds of pages long and includes 27 long-term learning targets, all of which are to be realized in one quarter, or ten weeks of instruction. Even in a perfect world where I got to see my students five days a week for 42 minutes a day, this would be impossible. Factor in the interruptions that beguile teachers everywhere—announcements, assemblies, fire/bus/lockdown drills—and the goal seemed laughable.

And yet ….

I realized that I wanted my students to read Shakespeare. I wanted them to be exposed to the Bard’s brilliant language. I wanted them to read stories that, despite being written hundreds of years ago, reflected their own lives. I wanted them to have the cultural knowledge that in our society often seems reserved for students in the most affluent school districts.

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I wanted to teach Shakespeare and I was expected to teach Shakespeare. But how could I do this?

I talked with my co-teachers—I teach inclusion classes that include general education and special education students—and we figured out how to do it: with a lot of scaffolding.

Our students created character cards to help them keep track of who’s who in the play. We devised tricks to help us remember names: Demetrius has Hermia’s Dad’s permission to marry her; and Hermia, well everyone loves Hermia. As for Helena, isn’t her life a bit, well, hellish? You get the idea.

We watched a wonderful Nutshell Theater abridged video of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to get the gist of the story. At just over three minutes in length, we are able to refer back to it as often as needed. (You can find it on YouTube.)

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We are reading a Scholastic mini book that I wrote years ago, before I began teaching. The 20-page mini book is somewhat similar in style to a comic book. It includes both modern day English and quotes from the play. As we read it, students are gaining a deeper understanding of the story and getting a taste of Shakespeare’s language.

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It has been wonderful to watch eighth-graders get excited about Shakespeare. They bemoan—and relate to—the antics of the four young Athenian lovers. They laugh at Shakespeare’s jokes, whether it’s Lysander telling Demetrius that since he has Hermia’s father’s love, he should marry him, or Bottom decrying that his friends are trying “to make an ass of me,” unaware that Puck has just placed an ass’s head on his shoulders. I have to admit, they are also delighted to be able to say the word “ass” without fear of repercussion. After all, they are simply quoting Shakespeare.

We are about to begin the more challenging task of reading the play using only Shakespeare’s language. I am nervous and excited in equal measure. It is going to be difficult. My students won’t understand everything, but neither did I the first time I read the play. (And I am still learning as I read it for the umpteenth time.) But they will enjoy the story. They will be exposed to Shakespeare. And they will see that they can handle the most difficult of tasks if they just break them down into manageable chunks.

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We will not meet all 27 of Engage New York’s long-term learning targets. But we will meet some of them. Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.” I am delighted to slowly explore Shakespeare with my students.

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Birds Fill My Fig Tree

Sometimes a fig is more than just a piece of fruit.

Sometimes a fig is more than just a piece of fruit.

An image from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar haunted me as I began my summer vacation: A young woman stares at a fig tree where each piece of ripened fruit represents a different choice. “I saw myself sitting at the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.” As I thought of all I wanted—and needed—to do this summer, all of the choices I had on how to spend my time, I felt the same sort of paralysis begin to set in.

I have a lot I want to do in the next two months. I want to read, write, and run. I want to spend time with my family, hang out with my friends, and play with my pup. I want to paint the living room, file months of paperwork, and develop a year’s worth of photos. I want to wash the windows, weed the yard, and wipe down the baseboards. (Being home in the daylight shows dirt in places you never thought to look.)

My head spinning with my own figurative figs, I knew I had to do something so that I didn’t end up paralyzed by indecision like the young woman in the novel. So I made a list of all I hoped to accomplish in the next nine weeks (more than three of which I will be out of the state or out of the country).

Initially, the strategy backfired. The list was so long that I was tempted to shred it and go straight into zombie-mode for the summer. (Wine at noon, anyone?) Then an image from another influential book flew into my head: It was from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In it, Lamott tells the story of her brother waiting until the absolute last minute to start a paper about birds that he’d had several months to write. The ten-year-old was overwhelmed, close to tears, and not sure where to begin. Their father sat down, put an arm around the boy’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

I’m going to follow Mr. Lamott’s advice this summer and focus on one exciting experience or one tedious task at a time. Instead of shriveled or rotting figs, I’m going to have happy birds. Maybe the birds will eat the figs. And maybe I’m taking these metaphors too far. But you get the idea. One day, one hour, one moment at a time. Happy summer everyone!

Bird by bird, fig by fig

Bird by bird, fig by fig

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Blessings

Double rainbow at Hamlin Speedway

Double rainbow at Hamlin Speedway

I confess: too often I neglect to count my blessings. My excuses are many. I’m busy. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m disappointed. But they are just that: excuses. Because even when I am busy, tired, overwhelmed, and disappointed, I have an abundance of blessings. I got to count some of them this weekend.

My 21-year-old son was getting ready to spend the summer in Las Vegas studying stagecraft, his passion. He’d spent two weeks out there last summer, and the director of the program he’d attended called me in the fall to ask if he’d be coming back. “He’s so talented,” she said, “and he’s like a sponge, he learns so quickly.”

“He’d love to come back for the entire eight-week program,” I said. “It just depends on what we can afford.”

“He’s got so much promise,” she said. “We really want him back. So you tell me what you can afford between zero and $10,000, and we’ll find a way to make up the difference.”

This woman’s generosity—with both scholarship money and recognition of my son’s talents—moved me beyond words.

Nolan worked and saved for the next six months to pay the portion of tuition we said we could to pay. My husband and I saved to pay for his flight, room, and board.

The trip that had once seemed a long ways off was almost here. Nolan was scheduled to fly to Las Vegas Sunday afternoon.

One thing Nolan wanted to do before he left was to watch his friend Tyler race, something he hadn’t been able to do because he always worked at the dinner theater on weekends when the races were held.

With all the packing he had to do, Nolan couldn’t go to the racetrack Saturday afternoon with Tyler and his dad. Since Hamlin Speedway was 90 miles away in Pennsylvania, it looked like Nolan wasn’t going to get to see Tyler race after all.

“Why don’t we hustle to get everything taken care of,” I said, “and then we can all go watch Tyler together?”

Nolan smiled. “Really?”

“Yes! Dad and I would love to see Tyler race. And we want to spend time with you before you go.” He didn’t know just how much we wanted to spend time with him, and I didn’t say. I felt my need to spend every last minute with him coming off of me in waves; I couldn’t put words to it and didn’t want to, for fear of scaring him away.

The sky darkened during our afternoon of laundry and packing, and there were reports of thunderstorms.

“What if it rains?” Glenn said.

“Let’s just go,” I said. “No matter what, we’ll be together.”

We piled in the car a little after four and headed to Pennsylvania. I was giddy with excitement as we drove across New York State. I love going on road trips with my family. We laugh, we talk, we tell stories, we bond in ways that the busyness of everyday life seldom allows us to do.

We talked about anything and everything—the current craziness at my job, Glenn’s latest audio find, what Nolan would do if offered a job in Vegas. (“Without snowy winters, I could buy a motorcycle!” Gulp.)

It rained on and off during our drive. We read the dark clouds like tealeaves: the racing would go on, it would be cancelled, it would be delayed.

We found our way to Hamlin Speedway, an oval one-fifth mile clay track that was quite literally dropped into a farm field. Tyler said the races were delayed, but they were still scheduled to take place.

We got dinner from a tiny food shack and sat on a wet wooden bench to eat. I looked up as I bit into a really bad hamburger. A double rainbow filled the sky. I instinctively thought to make a wish, but I stopped myself. What more could I wish for?

A short while later we watched Tyler come in first in his heat. But before we could watch him compete in a full race, the skies opened up on us. His event was cancelled.

“I’m sorry you drove all the way here for nothing,” Tyler said.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to see you race,” I told him, “but I’m not sorry we came.” And I wasn’t.

As we drove Nolan to the airport the next afternoon, I thought about that double rainbow. If I had made a wish, it would have been for Nolan to find work that fulfilled his passion and suited his talents, but I knew instinctively that I didn’t need to make that wish; Nolan was already making that happen on his own.

It turned out that the double rainbow was simply one more thing of beauty in my day, my weekend, and my life. It was another blessing, one of many that I took time to count.

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An Apology to My Students

I’m sorry. Last Tuesday I spoke to you before the start of the English Language Arts Common Core Assessments. I reminded you that you have worked hard and learned a great deal this year. That was the truth. You have grown so much as readers and writers that I can’t help but be proud of you. After singing your praises, I told you that as long as you used what you had learned this year, you would do well on the upcoming test. I believed that was the truth, but it turned out to be a lie, and for that I am sorry.

I didn’t expect there to be so many challenging vocabulary words. You have lots of tools to figure out word meaning, but even your knowledge of roots and how to use context clues could not help you figure out the meaning of words like “ephemeral.” I’m sorry about that.

I am also sorry that the readings were often both difficult and boring. One way we learned to handle challenging text this year was by talking about it. Of course that wasn’t an option with the test. But still you worked hard and plowed through passages that many adults would be unable to comprehend. (I admit that even I am not a big fan of excerpts from 19th century novels.) I thought you would be challenged, not sucker-punched. I’m sorry about that.

As for the multiple-choice questions, I apologize that there were more numbers there than you’d expect to find on a math test. Question and answer choices like “The main idea expressed in lines 18-20 is best supported by A. lines 22-28, B. lines 30-42, C. lines 44-48, D. lines 60-72” had my head spinning. I know we have talked ad nauseum this year about going back to the text to find your answer, but these questions seemed designed to make it impossible to figure out—or remember—just what answer you were searching for. I’m sorry about that.

I also must apologize for telling you that RAPP—Restate, Answer, Proof, Proof—would help you answer all short response questions. I told you that you always had to have two pieces of proof, or evidence. I didn’t know that the state would ask you a question with only one piece of proof. (That’s all any of the teachers could find anyway.)

I am sorry that you worked hard all year and went into the test feeling confident. I hope you don’t lose that confidence. You have learned so much this year. Sadly, one of the things that you have just learned is that the adults in your life can fail you. I apologize for my part in that.

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Scaring Myself Silly

Learning to embrace fear is way out of my comfort zone. After my father left when I was five, my mom struggled to raise five children on her own. Since I didn’t see how strong—only how overwhelmed–she was, I was terrified that she was going to leave, too.

My mother never left me, but neither did my fear. I missed out on an important part of my adolescence because I was too afraid to rebel like other teens. I missed out on a possible Ivy League education because I was afraid to go to my Dartmouth College interview. I missed out on years of writing because I was afraid to tell my college advisor that just because I was good in math didn’t mean I had to be the math poster child for my gender and generation. I even missed out on being the East Coast version of my TV hero Mary Richards because I couldn’t stay single; I was afraid to say no and hurt someone.

Ironically, fear is what propelled me to embrace fear. I am now middle-aged. And though I am not afraid of dying any time soon, I am afraid of dying before I am done with dreaming; I am afraid of dying before I have had a chance to realize my dreams.

So I am learning to embrace fear.

I have been flirting with running a marathon for a couple of years now, but I am afraid I won’t be able to run the full 26.2 miles. Who am I kidding? I am afraid that I won’t be able to walk after doing some of the long training runs. (This is no exaggeration; you should see me take the stairs after a 10- or 12-mile run now.) But I am even more afraid that I will never run a marathon. So I swallowed my fear and signed up to run the New York City Marathon this coming November, a few weeks after my 57th birthday.

I love to tell stories. And I love to listen to The Moth. I would love to tell a story on The Moth. I’m not there yet, but I did tell a story in front of about 20 people—friends and strangers—at a story slam in my town recently. I was shaking. But it was as much from joy as from fear.

I want to learn Spanish. I want to travel. I applied for a fellowship to attend a Spanish-language immersion program in Costa Rica this summer. Fear of failure is a biggie for me, yet I applied knowing that there was a fair chance I wouldn’t get the fellowship. And I applied knowing there was a fair chance I would get it and have to spend two weeks with a family I don’t know in a country I don’t know where people speak a language I don’t know.

I just learned that I got the fellowship. I am thrilled. I am also terrified.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I plan to continue scaring myself silly.

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Start Now

This year I am putting an end to the depressing cycle of hopefulness and disappointment known as New Year’s resolutions. I did not write down five or six or ten things that I was going to do (or not do) this year only to beat up on myself tomorrow, next week, and next month when I broke each of the resolutions. Instead, I have chosen a mantra for 2015 that I hope will have all of the potential benefits of resolutions with none of the downfalls. That mantra is Start Now.

There is almost nothing that I cannot start now. I can expand my mind by picking up a book. I can eat better by choosing a banana over a piece of chocolate (or at least eating the banana first). I can nurture friendships old and new with letters, phone calls, and emails. I can become stronger by lacing up my running shoes or registering for that yoga class. I can spend more time with my family by putting aside my laptop when my son says, “Do you want to watch a movie?” And I can become a better writer by picking that laptop back up again.

Unlike resolutions, my mantra does not invite failure. Every moment is an opportunity to start anew. I think of the many resolutions I’ve made to take better care of myself. Then, the first time I slipped up—skipped a run, ate the entire 12 ounce bag of peanut M&Ms, felt too tired to floss—I would throw up my (chocolate-covered) hands in defeat. With my new mantra, slipping up doesn’t mean beating myself up. It means giving myself a chance to do better. Starting now.

Don’t worry about breaking New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are so yesterday (OK, the day before that). Do you want to be smarter, kinder, in better shape? No matter your goal, you can achieve it as long as you remember this mantra: Start Now.

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