The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


      When we were house shopping four years ago, we sat down with the realtor, and she had a stack of papers with houses in our price range. As she laid them out on her desk, I immediately nixed about 8 perfectly good houses at excellent prices. Why? Because they were on main streets. I grew up in a neighborhood where the neighborhood kids and I climbed trees in my front yard, played kickball in the streets, and rode our bikes around the neighborhood and to the neighborhood park. Although I always loved school, my fondest memories of childhood are certainly not from school -- they are of my friends and I walking to the Foster Freeze down the street from my house and dumping piles of loose change on the counter to get ice cream cones. I figured that, if we would not be living the exotic expatriate life I had imagined for myself, then I wanted my children to at least experience the advantages of living in a suburban neighborhood in one of the safest cities in the country. Living on a main street really isn't conducive to that. 

      We looked at a couple of houses that just needed too much fixing up and were in neighborhoods I just didn't feel like matched my personality. Then, we drove down this street, and the realtor had to slow for a kid riding a bike in the street. A bit further down, a few kids were playing basketball in a driveway.  I knew almost instantly that I wanted to live here. At the very edge of town (so much so that we are technically in an unincorporated area of the county), the neighborhood is on the edge of woodsy rural area, and the local elementary school, less than a quarter of a mile away, is tucked away in a tiny nook of the hillside we view from our backyard. It has just enough of an anti-establishment feel to suit my tastes, and as the streets appeared to be brimming with kids, I imagined an elementary age Vinny (he was then only two years old) playing in the streets with his friends. 

     Up until now, that hadn't really happened yet.  But this week, Vinny made a friend.  He lives a few houses down and is a couple years older than Vinny, but they have become very fond of each other.  The two have spent the afternoons this past week riding up and down the street on their scooters, running from our house to his house, playing gleefully without sweaters in this early springtime heat wave. 

      I'm so glad he has a friend, but I just can't believe he has grown up so quickly. It seems like just yesterday he was a tiny toddler in my arms and my visions of him dribbling a basketball on the driveway were distant dreams, but that's precisely what he is out front doing right now.  Where does time go?

Monday, March 18, 2013

What "leaning in" looks like for me

To say this past week has been full would be an understatement.  I can hardly believe it has only been a week.
     Last Sunday, Marc and I were passing the baton in this game of tag team parenting that we know so well, literally unpacking Marc's stuff (from winter camp) to pack my stuff (for the charter schools conference).  On a side note, you would think by now we would own at least two decent suitcases, but truth be told, we have one really sturdy one.
     Monday, I had a frantically packed day at work. Not only was I trying to wrap up my sub plans for the week and prepare my students for the high school exit exam they were about to take on Tuesday, I was also, being the tenth grade level lead teacher, coordinating all the nitty gritty details of administrating a test that only 25% of the school takes. This gets complicated and somewhat stressful, to say the least, even when I am on campus, so knowing I was going to be away from campus just upped the importance of getting it all right. To top it all off, there was a department meeting during my prep period.  Unbelievably, my colleague and I still managed to hit the road for San Diego by 4:30.  (Be impressed).
     Fortunately, we got some great advice on the best way to take down during rush hour and actually managed to make it within three hours. We sat in very little bumper to bumper traffic, and since I enjoy the company of the teacher who came with me, I would almost call the drive pleasant. Almost.
    One of my administrators was invited to present at the conference, and he asked me to join him as a co-presenter. I was grateful for the opportunity, since I had been thinking about submitting an application to present, but I had a lot of grad school work due right around when the applications were due, so I never got around to it. Presenting at an educator's conference is actually on my buried list, and has been for quite some time. It is even in the top 50, and I wrote the top 50 all in the first day, right after seeing the first episode of The Buried Life on MTV, back in 2010.
     Well, anyway, he and I stayed up rather late preparing for our presentation. We are both perfectionists, although polar opposites in artistic preference and personality style, which makes for truly interesting collaboration (not being sarcastic here). We literally spent time discussing the angle of photos in the powerpoint slides. (I like to play with the angle button -- I think placing pictures at an angle is stylistically eye catching -- but he prefers them neat and tidy).  We are both flexible enough to compromise and laugh off our differences, so ultimately, the result was a presentation we felt well prepared for, and I think we were proud of the positive feedback.
      The weather in San Diego was absolutely beautiful, and although we spent most of the time inside, I have to say that it really did add to my enjoyment of the conference. I went to some great presentations where I learned a lot, and the keynote speeches by Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada were truly inspiring.  Michelle Rhee made a point that it's okay to not always be liked by everyone. I am a leadership-minded, outspoken individual, and in my career (okay, in my life in general), I have occasionally stepped on toes or turned people off with the things I have said or done. Over the past year, I've done a lot of self-doubting and holding back, frustrated with myself and the mistakes I've made in "teaching like my hair is on fire" (will explain this metaphor later). I will not say that I have no regrets (because that's not true), but Michelle Rhee made me realize that when a passionate woman is willing to put herself out there, she truly can make a difference.  That doesn't mean that there will not be mistakes and that there will not be pain, but, as they say, no pain, no gain. She also reminded me that the stakes are just too high to not occasionally take risks, because every student is someone's little boy or little girl, and every mom wants the best for their children, but not every mom has the same opportunities. Until that is no longer true, we must continue to, as Geoffrey Canada reminded me, refuse to accept failure. He spoke of what most educators unfortunately already know: that children in classrooms all across America continue to fail quietly while teachers try to excuse it away, instead of making each and every failure a crisis.
    When I thought of that word, "crisis," I was reminded of an award winning teacher I once heard about on TV.  He has a book called Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire (which, incidentally, I have not yet read). He explained that he decided to title the book that because he once, in trying to help a student with a science project, accidentally lit his hair on fire, but didn't even notice until the students started screaming. It's a great metaphor, if you really think about it. Saving those students who are quietly failing requires turning every failure into a crisis and without being too afraid to sometimes make mistakes... like accidentally catching your hair on fire.
     And so, slightly worn from long days of walking around the convention center, but invigorated, I returned home Thursday to attend class, pushing towards the prize of my master's degree, which is so close I can almost taste it. Friday, I worked another long, full day, then rushed home to make it to mother son bowling night with Vinny. Watching him and his little friends chuck those balls was just too cute. He's growing up so fast.

       Somehow, in the midst of all the work I am terribly behind on, I found time to read the minutes to the last local school board meeting and email one of the school board members, to sign up for Educators 4 Excellence, and to write a letter to my Congressman.
       Then, Saturday, Marc and I headed out to the Holi festival.

I may never have caught my hair on fire, but I can now say that I have had it covered in powdered colors. I do a unit each year where my students study India, which has, in previous years, involved a Saturday trip to eat lunch in Little India.  When I found out that there would be a Holi festival in Little India this year, I assigned extra credit and encouraged my students to attend.  So, yesterday, I danced bhangra yoga around my students while I sprinkled bright yellow dust over their heads and gave them tips for starting conversations with Indian people to learn more about life in India.

      Today, I promised myself that I would get serious about action research report.  I've been staring at the research and trying to make sense of it all for several weeks now. I have results. I have an idea of what it might look like in writing, but I just need to make it happen. I thought that, if I really devoted my afternoon to it, I could make a serious dent in it.  Sigh.

      My research report is essentially a twenty page paper in which I describe my action research project. It is divided into the following sections:
- Intro to my topic
- Background (review of professional literature about my topic)
- Procedures (what I did, where I did it, the data I collected while doing it, and how I analyzed the data)
- Findings (the results)
- Discussion (what I think the results mean)
- Conclusion

      The intro, background, and some of the procedures were essentially "done" when I did my research proposal a year ago.  Or so I thought...    My plan today was to spend just a little bit of time "polishing" those sections, and then to explain the data analysis and move on to write up the findings. I figured that was a totally do-able amount to get done in one Sunday.

      Boy was I wrong.

      When I really started to look at it all today, it needed much more revision than I realized.  Things in my action research project ended up looking somewhat different than I had initially imagined them, and although the differences between the proposal and the implementation were slight, they were enough to involve loads of revision on the sections that I thought were basically "done."

     Between the time I got home from church today to the time I clicked "save" and closed the file before starting this blog tonight, I spent probably six hours on the darn report today, and all I did was revise. I didn't even get to starting the part I thought I was going to finish today. On the plus side, I feel really good about what I have so far.  On the downside, I know I still have a lot of editing to do -- it is supposed to be a 20 page paper, and I'm already on page 19 with half of the required sections not yet written. Graduate school is significantly harder than I had imagined.

      But I'm fired up and feeling good. Feeling... empowered. Last night, I read this great article in Time magazine by Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, "Why I Want Women to Lean In."  She reminds women that "no one has it all. Nor can they. The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense. Being a working parent means making adjustments, compromises and sacrifices every day. For most people, sacrifices and hardships are not a choice but a necessity—and tougher than ever because of the expansion of working hours. In 2009, married middle-income parents worked about 8 1⁄2 hours more per week than in 1979. Just as expectations about work hours have risen dramatically, so have expectations of how much time mothers will spend focused on their children. An employed mom today spends about the same amount of time reading to, feeding and playing with her children as a nonemployed mother did in 1975."

      I keep seeing all these Facebook shares telling moms to put down their phones, their computers, their to do lists, and just enjoy their children. I did not ignore my children today. I took them to church. I laughed with them and joked with them while I took them grocery shopping with me. I ate lunch with them. I helped Vinny print new sheet music and find piano tutorial videos on YouTube. I listened to him play the same three songs about 500 times. I took my niece and my daughter on a walk and sang "Bippidi Boppidi Boo" for like half an hour. I had my niece over for a sleepover and gave them a bath together and got them in their jammies and tucked in to bed. 

      I'm not a bad mom because I left for a conference for a few days or because I poured six hours into my computer today. I'm just leaning in towards my future and theirs.

Read more from the Sheryl Sandberg article above at:

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Much Ado About Drama

Vinny's wisdom sometimes blows my mind. To process it... I must write it.  I hope you will read it. 

Wednesday night, I was preparing for a discussion I was supposed to be semi-leading on arts in education, and I thought that Supertramp's "The Logical Song," would be a good intro.  Vinny heard me listening to it and was captivated.  He has been watching it over and over again on YouTube since. 

(The rest of this will make much more sense if you listen to the song before or while you read it).

We had a pretty interesting discussion about the song that night, but right now I want to talk about what happened tonight.

      He hands me his tablet. "Mommy, can you help me find the song about the guy who thinks life is a miracle and then gets sent to jail for being crazy?"  Um... what?  Eventually, I figured it out. So, he's watching it and he says, "When I grow up and become a director, I'm still going to think everything is a miracle, but don't call the cops on me, okay?"  This was just too funny.

     Then, we're eating dinner and he says, "Why doesn't he know who he is? Doesn't he have a name?"
I decided it might be interesting to take this deeper.  "I don't know. Who are you?" 
"I'm Vinny."
"Are you?  Or is Vinny just your name?  Is it really who you are? Aren't there other Vinnys?  What makes you... you?"
"I'm an actor."
"Well, isn't that just what you do? Is that really who you are?"
"I don't know.  Maybe that guy's confused because he doesn't know what he wants to do when he grows up."
"Maybe. Or maybe he already grew up and still doesn't know what to do."
Vinny then thinks for a minute and says, "He really should be an actor, because then you can be whoever you want whenever you want."

     And with that, Vinny told me who I am.

     What is life without acting?  How does one survive life without the magic if?  How do you not tell so-and-so off for being such a you-know-what unless you are able to imagine what you would do if you were that person in that person's given circumstances?

      At Bible study a couple of weeks ago, someone brought up the golden rule ("Do to others what you want others to do to you"), and then someone else said, "I prefer to think of it as, 'Do to others what you think they would like done to them,' because not everyone is like me."  Wow. What wisdom in that statement. I stored that thought in the back of my memory until earlier this week, as I was frantically grading an intro level character analysis assignment that my drama students did last week. The final question on the page was, "Do you like your character?  Why or why not?" 

      A few students had asked me what that meant. "What do you think it means?" I replied. 
       One student responds, "Like, would I be friends with this person?"
       "Sure," I replied.
       Another student suggests, "Or maybe it's more like, do I like being this person?"
       "Sure," I replied, again.
      "Well, which is it?" the first student inquires.
       "Yes," I replied with a sly grin.

      They gave me that look that students give you when they really dislike the fact that you are making them think. 
     As I graded the papers, it became clear that many of the students do not "like" their characters yet, and for understandable reasons. They were only at surface level at this point. We'd only really begun identifying consistent traits. Now that we've begun to dive deeper into their characters' backgrounds and histories, they are starting to "get" their characters. As they process their characters' circumstances with their own individual personalities, they react in ways they find surprising themselves.
       One student, a rather sweet and gentlemanly boy, was initially bothered by Benedick's utter disdain for women. I know this kid and his family rather well, and I'm not surprised he dislikes Benedick's attitude. This kid is surrounded by amazing women, so it is no surprise he treats women well. As I've pushed him to understand his character and to create a background for himself, he's started to get into it. At the end of rehearsal yesterday, totally out of the blue, he looked Beatrice in the eye and called her a wh****.  He was kind of joking, but I am fairly certain it stemmed from a character development exercise I'd used to begin class. He caught everyone so off guard that he rendered most of the class speechless.

     It is easy to dislike those who do things we don't understand. It is harder to try to understand them. Even when we do, we might not dislike them any less, but it just puts us in a place of looking at the world, at life, and appreciating circumstances.

     So, what do you do when all you've ever learned tells you to be sensible, logical, responsible, and practical, but you just don't feel like being dependable or clinical or intellectual? Do you become cynical?  Do you let them make you presentable?  Give in like a vegetable?  

Or do you become an actor? 

     I'm raising my kids to be actors.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Goodbye February

I feel like I should have all sorts of interesting things to say, but I don't really.  As usual, I just have some amusing reflections.

Tiana is so... Tiana. Most strong-willed kid ever. It's funny, we sort of let Vinny name her after the Disney Princess Tiana, because we were toying with the name "Giana" (I wanted something nice and Italian to match Vinny), but he kept saying, "No, Princess Tiana."   Besides that, I kept getting irritated at the fact that it is rising in popularity and that everyone I would say the name to would say, "Oh, I have a (cousin, niece, goddaughter, etc.) named Giana, and we call her 'Gigi.' "  I dislike the nickname Gigi profusely.  I dislike it for numerous reasons. For starters, I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but it sounds a little bit like a phony name that an exotic dancer might use.  Second of all, when Vinny and his cousin were born and became the first great-grandchildren on my dad's side of the family, his mom thought it would be soooo cute to have them call her "G.G" for "great-grandma."  I was not a fan of this concept.  I didn't like it because, before they died when I was a teenager, I called both my great-grandmothers just "grandma" like my mom and dad did, and I always called my dad's mom "Grandma," and I wasn't about to start calling her "G.G" at that point. It just felt weird. Neither of the kids latched on to it (they both just call her grandma), and she was not happy. I think she still signs Christmas cards "G.G" Whatever... but I certainly wasn't gonna let my daughter be called Gigi. Giana had to go.

      I was washing my hands in the bathroom at prom the spring before she was born and one of the students asked me, "Does she have a name yet?" I said, "We think it's going to be 'Giana," and she misheard because of the water running and said, "Tiana?  That's a beautiful name!" I mentally gave in at that moment. "Yeah... it is," I replied. From that moment on, she was Tiana. And so very much like the movie character she truly is.  My mom and I were talking about little strong-willed Tiana last night and I said, "She is going to be one determined woman. She will be able to get whatever she wants in life."  For now, however, she is just an incredibly determined two year old, which means that, if she doesn't want to get dressed, and you are the one attempting to dress her... heaven help you.

The yellow is last year, the green is this year. 
      Last week I was feeling rather disappointed in myself in the fact that we have spent above our budget in almost every category.  I set very strict budgets this year that would allow us to really truly only spend what we earn, and we didn't quite make it this month. We didn't go further into debt either, but I was not pleased at our spending... until I clicked the button on that allows you to see a comparison to the same month the prior year.  We have actually spent less this month than we did in every area last year.  That is what comes from at least having a strict budget, I suppose. The most significant difference was in shopping. We basically haven't shopped. We essentially barter for everything we need - although not directly. If we need something material, we sell something used of ours, then we take that money, and buy whatever we need used. Its a wonderful advantage over traditional consumerism. While we may not have stayed under budget this month, we did improve, and for that, I am pleased.

      There are all sorts of exciting things happening on my career-educational front these days, but I'm not even really ready to process them all yet. My happiness action research project is, so far, appearing to actually have really worked... as far as the data I have analyzed at this point suggests. I still need to look at the actual correlation in chart form to see if there really is a trend, but I am optimistic.  I am also applying to speak at an educator's conference, which is both an item on my buried list and an assignment for school. I am excited about the potential of getting accepted, even if it is a crazy last minute shot, since the applications are due Monday.  Yikes.  (And I'm blogging instead of writing a proposal... right?)

Vinny and I went exploring last Sunday.  It was a lot of fun spending quality time with him out in nature.  He is growing up to be an interesting young man. I'm glad I got these pictures of him when I did.  His long hair can get kind of messy, but when it is brushed to the side just above his eyes, I think it's adorable. Unfortunately, he decided definitively this week that he was done with long hair. Yesterday, my mom took him to get it cut.

 This weekend I feel kind of bad because Vinny wants to have some sort of adventure, but it just isn't in that cards.  I have grades due on Tuesday and that proposal due on Monday, and the whole thing is just too overwhelming to try to plan some big excursion this weekend.  Oh well... maybe next weekend.