Continuing to Re-Learn

Lisa Genova wrote the movie, Still Alice, several years ago. In her recent TED talk called “What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she concludes that continuing to learn throughout life seems to be very important in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease. This makes sense intuitively as well because if I am always learning, I stay fresh and current…like a constantly sharpened pencil never getting dull.

For me, though, it’s more like learn, learn, forget, re-learn, re-learn.

Another short, four-day writing camp ends and I have learned many things — I hope the students came away with something, too. For at least ten summers, I have taught teens in the summer at the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Spartan Writing Camps. For years, I led a camp called “Digital Writing,” but more recently I have been widening the focus to “Creative Writing.” I like the flexibility that such a class affords and often I include some digital writing as part of the camp.

One techie thing I re-learned was how fun and useful Storybird can be. It’s a great tool for sharing longform stories, picture books, and poems. I also was reminded that their notion of a poem is something you create with the words they provide (like refrigerator magnets); choose “picture book” to share a previously written poem and you can add photos to go along with the poem. And who did I learn all of this from? A teen named Elaina. Seeing her enthusiasm for the website, I asked her to teach the camp about it with a 10 minute introduction. She jumped right up and did an amazing job. Five more students were using it in minutes and ended up presenting their final project with it. This bright 13 year old even inspired me to create the following haiku on Storybird.

On the last day of camp, I was able to get Lansing’s new Poet Laureate, Dennis Hinrichsen, to visit our camp. That simple act re-taught me a couple things to start: it doesn’t hurt to ask and even relatively short notice is sometimes enough notice. Dennis did a marvelous job explaining the context of a couple poems and reading them. He answered students’ questions for quite awhile and in a very genuine, personable manner.

At the end of his talk, Dennis said he was willing to work with someone on their draft in front of the group. None of the 35 students or two other teachers took him up on his offer. So, I went to the computer, found two of my pieces of poetry, and was reminded of that exciting, queasy feeling called risk. He spent over 20 minutes workshoping them (for free) and both poems were markedly better. I enjoyed watching him talk through his suggestions and questions, while engaging and challenging the students.

NOTE: Dennis would like to talk about poetry in classrooms around the tri-county area in the fall. If you are a K-12 teacher in the Lansing area, shoot him an email at I highly recommend him for his rapport with young people and his insights into poetry.

I also learned what it means to power through. I had surgery to remove a benign growth on my parotid gland (near my right ear) on the Wednesday before the Monday camp began. My four days to recover were shortened since I needed to stay overnight in the hospital due to the mass being infected and surgery lasting five hours (instead of 2-3 as expected). I also had an extra trip to the ER on Sunday due to inflammation and swelling. All of which is to say that I was in less-than-favorable condition to lead 11 sixth-eighth graders in much of anything.

Here’s what I looked like when I came home from the hospital

The stitch started at the top-front section in front of my ear, went under and behind my ear, and then petered out on my neck. I’m not sure if I grew my beard so I wouldn’t have to shave or to hide the gruesomeness of it all.

I, of course, used the surgery as an example of taking life and turning it into creative writing: “What if instead of just taking out the growth, they put in a tracker or made me bionic in some way?” That inspired at least one story. Fortunately, I had wonderfully creative and cooperative 6th-8th graders. They jumped on everything on the camp agenda and cut me some slack when I needed to relax a bit. When you throw in that it didn’t rain, we all got ice cream, and they actually pay me to lead the camp, leading this camp felt like a success (thanks to regular pain meds and a bunch of antibiotics).

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Hannah Schulte. She pinch hit for me on Tuesday morning when I had a doctor’s appointment. She’s a recent, Spartan graduate looking for a teaching job. She was in my class regularly a couple years ago and I was very impressed. May the Force be with her.

Trying To Be Civil, Instructive, & Still Pissed

If you know me and you follow the link, below, you’ll know I wrote this letter. It’s theoretically to President Trump. I’d be happy if he read it and took it to heart. It’s what I would say to him if I met him. I don’t really believe he’s going to read it, so it’s really for you and for other people to read. It’s more of a reasonable approach than everything I mumble to myself about how the guy is ruining our country and there aren’t enough brave, insightful Republicans in Congress to stand up to him. Yes, I’m ticked. However, if I was standing in front of the guy, I’m not sure I could bring myself to show my true anger. Writing this first letter helped me re-learn civility. It has its place. I hope to write a letter a month for this new blog. And I suggest you read the amazing other letters on the website.

Here’s a link to my letter at Letters2trump

Aaron is on his way

Aaron left on Friday for New Orleans by train. He’s staying in a hostel for four nights and experiencing Mardi Gras in all of its craziness. Then, he’s headed west through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, possibly Arizona, and other SW states. This time, he’s blogging about it himself. Check out his thoughts on his blog.

Father of the Bride

There’s something surreal about being the father of the bride. Everything has been swirling around me for days and weeks and months, but very little of it has anything to do with me. During that same time-period, people have been asking me what it feels like and one even asked me to blog about it. So, here goes my best shot at trying to get it across in words and pictures.


Part of why it seems surreal is that it’s been so overwhelming. There’s too much to absorb. If I tried to take it all it, I might blow up, so I tend to take a few deep breaths and just deal with the thing in front of me. But, just for you, I will try to explain the big picture: Rachel and Robbie have been together for around eight years, way back to their days at Lansing Community College’s Theater program, then Columbia College’s Theater program, and moving out to Seattle together; she’s our first born and Judy and I have had no experience in wedding planning (except our own, which was 31 years ago); weddings cost a lot (whatever number I thought things should cost, it was always double that number); cost shouldn’t matter because I wanted the day to be very special and memorable, so I tried to set it aside (and an unexpected gift from a friend helped make that possible); we were all planning the wedding in the middle of our hectic lives (Martin Short was unavailable as Wedding Planner); we all like & love each other and still feelings get hurt in the process of making decisions; we had trouble with our caterer from Grand Rapids and his lack of experience… You get the idea.

Another surreal aspect was that our son, Aaron, married Rachel and Robbie. She asked him and he agreed. On the one hand, it made perfect sense. Aaron is one of the most spiritual people I know and the three of them have become very close over the years. They are all very down-to-earth, open-minded types, so I was curious what they would plan together. There’s also the fact, though, that sometimes they still seem like kids to this 54 year old. It’s just like the flashbacks in Father of the Bride with Steve Martin, whether I want it to be or not (we all watched the movie, by the way, the night after the wedding). In the end, Aaron’s presence up in front added the energy and personal touch to the wedding that everyone was talking about afterward.

In a way, it felt weird to not be involved in the planning of the actual ceremony. We trust Rachel, Robbie, and Aaron, but Judy has been a church organist most of her life and I’m a naturally curious person. I decided early on, though, to let it go…one of the thousand times I reminded myself it wasn’t “my” wedding, it was theirs. I did, however, give one piece of input: my friend, Marianne Forman, had posted an excerpt from the Preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, which I thought may fit with Rachel and Robbie’s take on things; I suggested it and they agreed; then, they had me read it in the ceremony. Here’s the excerpt:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

I love the line “and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Rachel mentioned it too. There’s something about living your life poetically that seems life a worthy goal (one of my muses, Bob Rentchler, aspired to it). And I know people were listening because my brother-in-law asked me for alms afterward. Figures.


Another aspect of the overwhelmingness of it all, was the extreme joy I feel due to our daughter finding someone so special that she wants to commit to spending the rest of her life with him. Their hope and love radiated throughout the evening and in the many photos that were taken of the night; Judy’s cousin, Rob, created an amazing slideshow of the ceremony and reception already…many thanks, Rob. As you can see in the photos, the joy was palpable. Many of the people who came told me they could feel the love between the couple (and the officiating pastor dude). My prayer is that that feeling strengthens them for the journey ahead.

Finally, I created a photo montage of my own that played during the reception. It has some humor along the way because without humor life is just no fun at all. This father of the bride would not have survived the wondrous wedding process without it.

P.S. I woke up at 2 am this morning with a poem in my head. It was inspired by the wedding couple, my lovely bride, my son, and memories of my Dad. Though I must say it is really meant for you, reader. Peace.


I love you most
When I think of you laughing.
Laughing your unexpectedly loud
Reaction to life’s little joys.

Your laugh reflects your passion,
For when you let go
About things you care about,
You really let go.
And life’s “little joys”
Are suddenly not so little.

Your laugh reminds me
To deeply appreciate
This gift we have called Life.
And to laugh at the absurdity
Of our pride.

Yes, I can hear your laugh,
Almost angry in its volume,
But remarkably joyous,
Not holding back
In its quick, clear message…

“Swallow your pride,
Don’t hold that grudge,
Look in the mirror
With love for all —
Yes, that means for yourself, too.
Forgive your brother,
Your sister,
Yourself —
Life is too short
For our fleeting reflections
To be any less
Than reflections of love.”

Sure, it’s a long message
For a laugh.
But I hear it, because
When I think of you laughing
I love you most.


The title of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference was “Story as a Landscape of Knowing.” A thought-provoking concept and it was enhanced by the perspective of the opening panel. They all dealt in someway with the notion of story as a window and/or a mirror. When we read (or write) a story, are we looking out at the world to discover, learn, and explore (a window) or are we taking a self-examining stance and looking more deeply at our lives and decisions (a mirror)? Either way, stories give voice to an experience — either the author’s or the reader’s.

One voice that was emphasized at the conference was that of multicultural authors. Matt de la Pena was on that original panel and I ended up following (almost stalking) him during the conference. I wanted to know more about this distinctive perspective that I had not yet read. He, and the other panelists, had challenged me to re-think my choices around texts I use in class — and to use my choices to promote more texts that lift up the experiences of people of color.

So I attended a luncheon (sat in the back in the extra seats for those who hadn’t paid) where Matt was the guest speaker. I heard his story of struggling to read in elementary school. And how one book (The Color Purple) sparked his love for a character and he began to appreciate the relationship between author and reader. He talked about how being of mixed race initially made him feel he couldn’t choose either race because he felt he would be choosing one parent over the other. He spoke of his silent, traditional Mexican father and his father’s amazing transformation when books opened his mind. I agreed with Matt’s statement that “You can never be a great writer until you are a great reader” — both in amount read and ability to read. The story of his journey to become an author engaged me, in part, because I was learning so much new information about culture, writing, and his life (looking out the window) and hearing my own story of coming to books and the difficulties of the father-son relationship (seeing into a mirror). I was able to get my photo taken with Matt…

IMG_5014 - Copy

I wanted to hear more about the way Matt approaches the stories he writes, so I went to another session that featured both he and Jacqueline Woodson, the poet (she had just won the National Book Award the day before). I was intrigued by the round-table sessions after their talks, so I came early and sat at Matt’s table.

An aside…
a couple days earlier, I suddenly lost my voice. I was fine when I went to bed that first night in D.C. and then the next morning, it slowly disappeared until I had no more than a bit of an annoying crackle sound. This was troublesome for at least two reasons: part of what happens at these conferences is that we network with other teachers and authors, which is easier with working vocal chords; and also, the next day, I was supposed to present/talk for around 15 minutes as part of a panel. My lack of ‘voice’ made me a listener much more than usual and necessitated my choosing my words very carefully (not bad effects really). Fortunately, my voice came back, briefly, and I was able to present. However, by Saturday afternoon when this round-table session occurred, I was back to a whisper.

I did have a few take-aways from the talks and the round-table discussion. Matt mentioned that though the session was about multi-cultural texts, it all starts with a good story. These books should be read, not because the main character is a person of color, but because the readers can identify with the characters and plot; it’s that notion, again, of holding up a mirror to the reader’s life — and it just so happens that at the same time, the window is open and the reader gets a glimpse of a culture with which he or she is not accustomed. As teachers, we need to give a voice to that main character of color for those students who may be of that same color, but that it’s so much more than that, too. We are letting the characters remind all of our students of our commonalities across cultures. Of our universal story.

Here’s a link to Matt’s talk at the session

Here are some other photos I took on the trip

The session in which I sat as part of the panel was titled “Integrated and Innovative: Five Stories of Technology-Rich Instructional Partnerships.” The link will take you to our slides for the session. My part had to do with our recent “Humans of Greater Lansing” unit. That unit was partly about giving a voice to the nameless faces we see everyday and don’t have a chance to get to know. Most of the students (including Dean Hanton and Jeremy Hyler’s students) were glad to have the opportunity/excuse to get to know more people from our communities. Fashioned after the Humans of New York website, this endeavor/experiment/unit was a semi-risky and powerful step toward community-building, which we plan to repeat later in the school year. We also hope to have our students discuss their experiences with it via an online space. I definitely pushed our students to use skills they don’t get a chance to use often: approaching quasi-strangers, asking questions, listening, asking follow-up questions, and using their phones for school.

Here are some other highlights from my trip:
* At one of the National Writing Project (NWP) sessions, I learned about a website that uses a video game to teach argumentation. It is geared toward middle school students and is sponsored by the Gates Foundation and MacCarther Foundations. GlassLabGames uses its Argubot Academy game to get middle school students to understand the parts of an argument (things like a claim and evidence) and use that knowledge to “win” the game. They are on the cutting edge of engaging students while giving those students immediate feedback (which games do well) in a safe environment. I really like how games are failure-tolerant environments. We need to let students risk more while they are learning; I’m hoping to pilot their work later this year or next year.

* At another NWP session entitled “Teaching Young Men of Color,” I was very impressed with the speakers and their messages. One of the speakers, Sam Reed, was from Philadelphia and spoke about teaching young men of color to code-switch (using a different set of behaviors to deal with the different contexts in which they find themselves). I think young men of color (and all of us) could be empowered to know that code-switching is a smart, survival skill instead of some sort of cop out. I also appreciated Sam’s “asset versus deficit” approach. He suggested we do an asset analysis with all of our students: focusing them on what they do well and building on those skills. He called their assets their “kung-fu,” which I loved. Sam’s use of the Genius community, especially Rap Genius (though more geared toward high school), his use of humor as in-the-moment story, and his strong message of leadership from youth, I found inspirational.

* I was lucky to get an invite to a free breakfast that Chris Lehman had suggested via twitter. The session after the breakfast was about how to use Wonderopolis in the classroom. It seems like a good way to promote curiosity in the classroom on an on-going basis. It leads to inquiry and more research on the question of the day. I made a new friend, Dalila E., from Pennsylvania who uses it and loves it at the elementary level and I hope to find a way to get my classes on board too. It reminded me of the DoNow inquiries, but without the social justice layer.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll end here. I felt lifted up by the stories I heard and the voices I heard on this trip. I thank the Red Cedar Writing Project and the East Lansing Public Schools for making this trip financially possible. There is really no way to fully share the information and energy that comes from attending conferences. If you haven’t taken the time, money, risk, and energy it takes to do it, I highly recommend you do so soon. There are no guarantees, but (especially if you go with a group of awesome colleagues like I did) it can re-energize you for the exciting, challenging job and magic-act we do daily.

Dan says what I was trying to say

Earlier this week, I woke up early and tried to write a letter to the editor about my current feelings about teaching. I couldn’t clearly express myself. And then, today, I read a Facebook post by my teacher friend, Dan Laird (of Leslie Public Schools).
Thanks, Dan, for getting it down just right.

“The Republicans can say it in ads a million times over (and they will), but their claim that Gov. Snyder has financially improved education is false. The financial burden on teachers has increased dramatically in the last four years. Through legislation, we pay more for our health care, we pay more to maintain the retirement we thought we had, we pay more for no reason than to pay more. Some of this financial burden was deemed unconstitutional for other public employees but somehow still perfectly fine for teachers.
If you are one of those people that have been trained to hate teachers and could care less about our financial woes, then you should care that the money that has been bled from us (and counted by Snyder in his education numbers) is not being used to help your children. Per pupil funding has declined costing districts like Lansing close to $7 million PER YEAR! The domino effect has created frozen department budgets, cut programs, and high need to lean financially on local communities to help maintain facilities and keep doors open though ballot initiatives.
Throw in the Snyder’s shady push for unregulated charter schools and it is clear that Snyder cares more about making money from the Michigan education system than he is about putting money into it.”

The Answers

Life is not about the answers
So stop looking for them

You are enough
You know what needs to be done

The right answers change
Life is a leaf in a hurricane

Since you can’t catch it
Let it go

Where it will
And, boy oh boy, it will.