Friday, October 14, 2016

My Philosophy of Teaching

Too often, our students, staff, and schools hear the word no. My philosophy is yes. It is my job to say yes to preparing, empowering, and protecting. It is my job to say yes despite, to spite, and in spite of those around us and across the state who too often say no to adequate funding, no to opportunity seizing, and no to risk taking. In my work, the yesses are free; it’s the noes that cost our students the most. 

I say yes to my students and their learning. Yes to the student in my class who asks to revise her “Myself as a Learner” reflection because she just figured out what imagery is—even though the due date was two weeks ago. Yes to the curly haired boy in the front who makes a laugh escape my lips even when my mind forms a salty retort. Yes to the challenges my students lay at my feet: how to teach complex sentences when they aren’t quite sure what a verb is, how to engage them in reading Shakespeare when they are hungry, how to make them feel they are unique – even when they are crowded by thirty other students. And, most importantly, I say yes to teaching them as they are as they cross the threshold of my room.

But the yes doesn’t stop at the doorway of my classroom. Instead, the yes pops the hinges off the doors. The yes dissolves the walls that separate me from the English teacher down the hall, the elementary teacher across the country, and even the pink-haired student who sits by herself at lunch.  The yes of talking to my colleague about her struggling student allows me to ask myself hard questions about how I am supporting my own students.  The yes of reading GLSEN’s latest report on bullying of LGBTQ+ students prompts me to re-launch ONW’s Gender Sexuality Alliance and facilitate Safe Space training for staff. The yes of leading professional development motivates me to reject instructional mediocrity. The yes of applying for the Greater Kansas City Summer Institute compels me to compare my own practices in providing students feedback with other metro teachers’ practices and our reflections on the research.

The power of the yes has liberated me from the shackles of the no. I walked 40 miles with Game On for Kansas Schools to demand adequate and equitable funding so that we can say yes to preparing students. I co-initiated the ONEA Ally program to provide opportunities to new-to-district teachers so that we can say yes to empowering them. I attended the first-ever GSA Advisor Summit despite the risk of resistance so that we can say yes to protecting students. Now, it’s time for the next yes.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Top Five Lessons I Learned from Students and Sway

The past couple of years, students enrolled in PreAP English II at Olathe Northwest High School have read Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. This book is a short Malcolm Gladwell-esque look at why we humans do all of the stupid things that we do. The great thing is about this book is how it sparks so many valuable discussions about bias, labeling, politics, group dynamics, etc.  My work with students reading, writing, and talking about all of these topics have made me realize that my experience with students in teaching this text has taught me more than I would have ever learned just reading the book. Here are these top five lessons:

Lesson #1: Cheater, cheater: loss aversion eater!

Early in the book, the authors articulate a simple definition of loss aversion: "our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid potential losses" (Brafman and Brafman 17). They develop the readers' understanding of loss aversion through examples such as Captain Van Zanten's fear of "losing time" resulting in a the fatal crash of KLM Flight 4805 and customers' fear of "something bad happening" resulting in paying extra money for unnecessary rental car insurance. These examples, along with the many others the authors cite in the book, clarified what "loss aversion" means--but it really didn't hit home until I was face-to-face with high matches on similarity reports.

I'll be honest: my first reaction to these obvious instances of  plagiarism was "seriously, kids?". The snarky side of my teacher brain screamed, "Do you guys NOT know what does?". After talking with the other teachers, the students themselves, and administrators, I've come to a much deeper understanding of why some students plagiarize. It's not that they sit down, make a conscious decision to commit academic dishonesty, and then do so as a mental "screw you" to the educational establishment. Instead, my students are a lot like Captain Van Zanten. Sometimes, they find themselves in a situation in which their brains short circuit because of their preoccupation with losing something they value: points on assignments, meeting a deadline, or even their own personal time. This short-circuit in their brain clouds their thinking, which contributes to their faulty decision to copy/paste. Luckily, their faulty choice in this context doesn't result in the same kind of fatal consequences as Van Zanten's decisions. My job as a teacher has been to provide them to opportunity to reflect on what went wrong in their thinking and to ensure that they face appropriate consequences that communicate what academic honesty requires.

Lesson #2: Reflecting on implicit biases & vulnerability

To prepare for a Socratic Seminar about Sway, I asked students to read a short excerpt of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. The excerpt asserts that people have unconscious biases, but they can work toward changing their biases by becoming more aware of them. One method of achieving this goal is to take the at least one of Project Implicit Bias Test and reflecting on its results. So, of course, that's exactly what I asked my students to do.

Honestly, I would have been a happy camper to just read my students' reflections on their results. But, my students surprised me--which, at this point in my career, shouldn't surprise me at all. I had several students in every hour who were open and vulnerable about what the test revealed and what they thought about the results. A common theme was that students were surprised that the tests revealed some biases, despite their upbringing to treat everybody equally. Another common theme was they acknowledged the role that living in the "JoCo bubble" may play in forming their unconscious biases. It was refreshing to hear students consider the varying roles their backgrounds play in the way the see the world--both consciously and unconsciously.

Lesson #3:  It's about purpose and audience, stupid!

Every year, I torture myself over teaching writing. I chide myself for not grading enough or grading too much. I agonize over how much they need to write and how much I can read. I stay up at night thinking about what kind of writing I am asking them to do. This year is no different . . . with one exception. I am doing a much, much better job of asking my students in write for different purposes and audiences. I know that developing writers need to try different types of writing for different audiences--not just "academic writing."

Students are writing about Sway in a few different ways: informal quickwrites, blogs, and academic writing. Some of my students feel much more comfortable in the academic writing lane. They like having templates and sentence starters to help them compose. They are comfortable with their audience being the teacher. Other students find this kind of writing stifling, so the addition of their blogs this year has helped me open up audience more. For Sway, I asked students to write about five lessons they learned. We looked at a sample "Top Five" blog and talked about its structure--but I didn't give them a template or sentence starters. I am curious to read the final results of these blogs, but my observation in watching them blog last week is that many of them find their own voice in that freedom. I am excited to have parents and other students visit their blogs and hear their reactions!

Lesson #4: The "ouch" and "wow" of connections

One element of the summer reading assignment this year was to find five sources that connect to five different chapters in Sway. As I read students' submissions, I was underwhelmed by some of their connections: yes, both Allen Field House and Chapter 2 of Sway relate to sports. But for every "lame" connection, I found a really interesting one.

A student in my 4th hour found an article about how two KU fans paid over 4 million dollars for the "original" rules of basketball. He tied this gross over payment to an experiment delineated in Sway called the twenty dollar auction.

What did I learn from this besides people do stupid things with their money? I learned that as a teacher, if I want students to make interesting connections, I have to leave them some room to make some not-so-interesting ones as well.

Lesson #5: Claims, quotations, definitions, statistics, anecdotes . . . oh my!

A core part of the summer reading assignment was to identify claims and connect these claims to the evidence the authors present in the book. As I flipped through students' books this year, I was a little taken aback by the trouble some students had with the assignment. But, instead of just blaming them for being "stupid" or "lazy," I took what I learned from looking at their work and created a plan for reteaching (or just teaching) them those skills. In devising these lessons, I learned something myself: identifying claims and evidence isn't as easy as it seems. There is a lot of nuance in real writing, and I was asking them to filter through a lot of information and hone in on the key claims.

I can't say that 100% of my students are 100% confident with these skills even now, but I can say that the vast majority of them have learned a great deal. Many of them came in before/after school to revise their annotations to show improved learning. I found these one-on-one sessions even more valuable in bettering my understanding of what each student needed from me to apply these skills. I wish I could do more one-on-one work with all of my students . . . now I just have to figure out how to manage that!

At the mid-point of each year, the sophomore teachers gather together to discuss next year's summer reading assignment. The lessons my students taught me this year by reading Sway has strengthened my resolve to have students read non-fiction. It's time for our team to move onto another title, but I definitely want to find some that allows them to learn some of the same lessons they learned with Sway.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"Top 5 Lessons I Learned" Blog Directions

Your blog post should delineate the top five things you learned from your experience with the book Sway and related readings, writings, and discussion. Emulate the Top Five Social Media Lessons blog post we read in class to help you with your writing.

Here are the requirements of your post:

  1. Compose a first paragraph in which you introduce the topic in an interesting way (consider relating it to yourself) and preview the rest of the blog post.
  2. Include a numbered list of the five lessons you learned from Sway and related learning experiences.
    • Consider revisiting your focus questions, evidence connections, and Socratic Seminar packet as you brainstorm what you are going to write about.
    • Your lessons can be SPECIFIC TERMS (like "loss aversion"), SKILLS (like how to compose central claim statements), or IDEAS (like re-evaluating your own biases).
  3. Develop your ideas in at least one paragraph under each numbered lesson using anecdotes, definitions, quotations, definitions, etc. to help the reader better understand what you learned. You should include at least one correctly embedded quotation with in-text citation somewhere in your blog post.
  4. Conclude your blog post with a brief statement that ties your ideas together.
    • Note that the example post provides closure with quick sum up of the lessons as whole: "Use it, don't abuse it" (Lohmann 3).
  5. Somewhere in your blog post, integrate at least two correctly used power verbs (highlight them as shown in this post).

Monday, August 22, 2016


That first day of school.

As a student, those words sent shivers down my spine. As a teacher, those words absolutely terrify me. But the reason I'm terrified of the first day of school as a teacher might not be what you expect.

On the first day of school, I want to welcome my students. And get to know them. And build a sense of community. And let them know what to expect from my class. And I have to do all of this in between accomplishing all of the things I'm required to do like fire drills, tornado drills, distribute planners, etc.

This year, I attempted to accomplish as many as my goals for the first day of school by playing a tabletop game called Witness. In essence, this game requires players in groups of four to communicate and collaborate by piecing together clues to solve a mystery.

I've wanted to integrate tabletop games into my classroom the past couple of years, but quite honestly, that's pretty much as far as I went. Thanks to my sophomore collaboration team, my theoretical want became reality. Of course, this took a good ole game night to learn HOW to play the game and a materials session to put together WHAT we needed for students to play in class. (Thanks for Joshua Trevino for putting together to awesome graphic on slide #5!)

Anybody who has ever tried to use tabletop games in class knows that the most important part is the debriefing. Here are the debriefing questions I used with my students:

  1. What did you like / dislike about the game?
  2. How would the game have been different if you weren’t allowed time to write/jot down notes individually? How would the game have been different if you couldn’t talk to your group at the end?
  3. I picked this game because I think it gave  you a preview of what it takes to succeed in sophomore English and after. What skills did you use in this game that you think you will use to be successful in this class? In life?
Here's one of my first hour student's initial responses to the debriefing:

And here's another from 3rd hour:

And we can't leave out 6th hour:

7th hour ends my day with a bang:

My students' next step is to take their notes from the debriefing session and expand in the form of a blog post. Here are the instructions:
  • Write an at least three-paragraph blog post for a student who was absent the first day of sophomore English:
    • Describe the game and how it worked to the best of your memory. Remember your audience is a student who was absent, so use detail!
    • Describe your reaction (and any others' reactions) to playing the game. Include what you personally liked and/or disliked and why.
    • Reflect on the educational value of the game. Include what playing the game showed you about how people work together, how different people think/process information, and/or what skills the game required that will help you in this class and/or life.
A few of my students did a great job in their reflection on the game:  Damien thoroughly explained the game and what skills he thought it required; Victoria nailed how the game introduced key skills in my class; Kaia did a great job of writing to the audience identified in the prompt; and Hank compared this game to the old classic Telephone game.

Finally, I hope to have my students play this game again in the future to continue working on collaboration and communication skills. What ideas do YOU have for using tabletop games in the classroom?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Tabletop Game Approach to Teaching Rhetoric

First, a confession: it’s been over a year since I began toying with the idea of integrating tabletop games in my classroom, but I have yet to use even one.

Recently, I attended my second MNU Games and Learning Conference. So, the pressure is on now. No excuses.

A key part of the conference was time to play games from the Center of Games and Learning’s games collection. One of the games I played was Snake Oil.

How to Play the Game

The goal of Snake Oil is simple: convince a customer to buy a product in 30 seconds. The player who is the customer selects a card that provides a descriptor: anything ranging from “senior citizen” to “beggar.” The other players have six cards in their hands with words like “TV” and “glasses.” Players combine two of the words to create a product the customer would want.

For example, I might pitch “TV glasses” to the “senior citizens”: “Have you ever trouble seeing that TV from across the room? Ever been frustrated by misplacing the remote control? If so, our new TV glasses are for you! This simple device allows you to view and control your TV on your glasses! Simple to set up, easy to use: buy TV glasses today!”

After players pitch their products, the customer selects whose product they were most persuaded to buy before the next player takes on the role of the next customer with a new customer card.

How to Teach the Game

While the history of snake oil is interesting enough to warrant playing this game with students, its application to teaching rhetoric is what really strikes my teacher fancy. I can easily identify several different common core state standards that my students will strengthen as they play the game:
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.4
    • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
  • Speaking & Listening: 9-10.3
    • Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • Writing: 9-10.1.b
    • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns
  • Literacy Learning: 1
    • Engage in literacy learning through a collaborative and community effort and in an integrated fashion, rather than as discreet skills in isolation.
The last literacy learning standard integrates key skills from the Framework from 21st Century Learning, too often ignored in the high school "core" areas.

How to Modify the Game

I have no doubt in my mind that my students would enjoy—and learn from—playing Snake Oil in small groups. I also have no doubt the inherent silliness of some of the cards would distract them from the educational experience.  To combat this distraction without taking away the fun, here are three modifications to the game to maximize learning:
  1.  Have students play in groups of six: four students who would play in each round and two “judges” who would decide the ultimate “winners.” During rounds, judges would take notes of the best “rhetorical moves” by each player to help them select the winner.
  2. Create rhetorical appeals cards to turn up the heat: In addition to drawing a customer card—or in the place of drawing an customer card, players must tailor their pitches to the appeal(s) on the card. This modification will make students sweat as they try to tailor their pitches to specific appeals!
  3.  Create fallacies cards and work together: Turn the game into a cooperative game by selecting one customer card for the entire group. Then, place a hefty stack of fallacies cards face up in the middle. Individual players can use their word cards to create products that the team then pitches to customer together. The goal? The team integrates fallacies into their pitches in the order of the cards until they are all gone.

How to Debrief

One of the most important things I’ve learned about using tabletop games in the classroom is that debriefing after playing the game is the most important step for learning. Mark Hayse and Lauren Hays taught me that debriefing sessions should start with experience and then move to reflection. The Greater Kansas City Writing Project taught me that students must have an opportunity to write about their learning. Therefore, I will use journaling as a tool for debriefing, in addition to discussion. Here are some prompts from them that I will use to maximize learning in my classroom:

  • What did you like/dislike about this game?
  • In ____ (30 seconds or 3 sentences), summarize and describe the game as you would to a friend.
  • What skills did game players need to use to play this game? In what other contexts would these skills be needed?
  • What did you learn about _____ (the rhetorical triangle, appeals, fallacies)?

I won’t lie: writing this blog post was part guilt assuagement. I wanted evidence of what I’ve gained from my professional development in games and learning. But even more importantly, I wanted something to hold myself accountable. Now my plans for integrating games are public, so this fall, I’m doing it! Join me, and don’t be shy about telling me YOUR ideas and reflections!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

GKCWP SI Portfolio

The Writers Place

Creative Introductions: Poems of Introduction and Response to Creative Introductions

Seven Blind Mice: Reaction

Scribe Notes: 6.15.16 Zoom Notes

Reflections on Orlando: Permission

Nicole's Poetry Exercise: My Life as a Flair Pen

Rankine's CitizenReading Response

Power of Place: Out of Place

Shelly's d6 Tables of Creative Creation Exercise: Byron's Vociferous Gun is Unloaded 

Casey's TIW Exercise: Write a letter convincing somebody to date you (commitment fear evident)

Teacher Inquiry Workshop: Tired & Haggard (Research Paper) and Presentation

Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are BlackReading Response

Literary Luncheon: Offering

Poem Inspired by AC Cleaning: Poem for Rowan

Myself  as a . . . Writer, Reader, Teacher, Learner and Second-Language Learner

GKCWP KC Tour: Blue Hills Goes Black

Taking Action: Rewind, Remind, Renewed

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My Life as a Flair Pen

I am flying like a green rocket
through the air
and across the page.
I am smooth and matte but bisected,
composed of hard plastic
and alcohol-soaked felt.
I am from a far-away island,
bombed and occupied and
then reconstructed.
I am forgotten in the bottom of bags
and wedged under car mats
but nowhere to be found.
I am lush yet practical and cathartic,
birthing irregular circles that sprawl across whitespace,
delivering well-intentioned commentary on nascent thoughts,
bearing stream of consciousness upon the page before sleep.

Poem for Rowan

The cottonwood seeds my daughter says
make our cul de sac liminal gather around
the outside of our air conditioner.

Like a cocoon, the puffs of fluff
congregate on the metal webbing,
converging into a solid layer.

I unwind the green hose,
fighting against its kinks and untying its knots,
until water spurts from the nozzle.

The white cocoon softens in the deluge,
graying as the dirt melts into the fibers,
and then breaks into continents.

Each continent floats downward,
toward the leaf-crusted concrete;
some tiny islands loiter at the metal crossroads.

I press my thumb harder into the nozzle,
forcing the water to coax
the remaining islands out and down.

A halo around the machine, what was once the fluff
that revealed the faerie circle hidden in our cul de sac
splayed out, drowned.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


“Accept what people offer. Drink their milkshakes. Take their love.” Wally Lamb

But what I was really asking: “Daughter, even though you are 20 now and even though you have your own house and even though you pay your own bills, do I still have something to offer you?”

When my mother had nothing to offer my brother and me, my grandma offered to raise us. I picture her making this offer clad in her red apron with black piping and grease stains, standing in front of the stove. She offered herself every night at the kitchen table, the same one in my dining room today. She offered herself up in too-sweet tea. She offered herself up in green beans with butter and bacon. She offered herself up in the double breading on the fried chicken. She offered herself up in the warmed-up can of Spaghettios in front of my brother, who was too picky to accept her other offerings. She offered so much of herself up that we never left the kitchen table hungry.
But what I read: “Yes, mom, I still value what you have to offer me, despite the fact that I am 20 and despite the fact that have my own home and despite the fact that I don’t ask you for money to pay my bills.”

I consider the evolution of offerings. My grandma offered me a mother in childhood and adolescence. As an adult, she offered me advice on how to mother. When she died Thanksgiving morning, the turkey was ash in my mouth. It gave me a taste for discovering what my mother had to offer me.

But what that means to me: “Blood is undeniable. I am you as you are your grandmother and your mother.”

While my mother did not offer me a permanent seat at her kitchen table, she did offer meatballs and sauerkraut once or twice a year. I observed the ritual she performed in her kitchen, beginning with her selection of music. Her eyes scanned the options, but ultimately, they fluctuated between Kool and the Gang and Tina Turner. The queen reigned, of course, and Tina’s guttural cry kick-started the sway of my mother’s hips. She combined the meat, egg, seasonings, and rice in a large bowl with her hands, squeezing, choking, and squashing to Tina’s rhythm. Then, her fingers pinched portions of the mixture and rolled it into perfect balls between the palms of both hands. A final squeeze in one hand transitioned the ritual to the next stage of cooking before we consummated the ritual at her kitchen table, Tina’s voice pulling up a chair to join us. The meal wasn’t breaded or deep fat fried or sweetened like the dishes my grandma offered, but briny and pungent. Mixed with mashed potatoes, the meal formed a gray, mountainous lump. Like the lump in the back of our throats that kept us from saying all of things we thought about saying, or asking all of the things we thought about asking. I shoveled mammoth bites onto my fork and then into my mouth to force that lump down my esophagus. Tina provided us all the soundtrack of lump-swallowing.

My children grew up eating double-breaded fried chicken, and they watched me prepare Thanksgiving dinner, donning the red apron with black piping my grandma wore. We sat down to eat meals at my grandma’s kitchen table. But they also grew up observing my ritual preparation of meatballs and sauerkraut, even though the pungent smell drove their father out of the house. The Rent soundtrack played in the background as they tasted the sour brininess, my oldest savoring every bite. Together, we sang along with “You’ll See,” “One Song Glory,” “Light My Candle,” “Today 4 U,” “Tango:Maureen,” and it seemed the notes dissolved the lump in my throat.

Over the years, I learned that there is not only an evolution of offerings, but also an evolution of accepting them. I have stopped piling bites on my fork and into mouth in order to accept the fullness of the flavor and allow the lump to remain in the back of my throat. Its presence invites me to recognize my mother’s offerings:


her mouth

her eyes

her freckles

her taste for music

her thirst for more

her appetite for life

Monday, June 20, 2016

Out of Place

I’ve found my place in being out of place. Of course, being out of place didn’t feel like my place at first. At first, being out of place made me feel just displaced.

My freckles made me out place in the sea of white, unblemished skin around me. Despite the wrinkles, even my teacher’s skin was uniform and spotless. Even my teacher, the only one in the room who loved reading as much as I did, was separate from me in this way.  Her unmarred hands displayed a book and its title dropped from her mouth: Freckle Juice by Judy Blume. I felt my own language betray me as the student next to me pointed and declared, “It’s about you!”.
I dissolved into my desk and chair until I was sure the only evidence of me was my spots. I was sure I was gone until the next time the word “freckle” exploded out of my teacher’s mouth and another student contorted around to gawk and taunt. I was sure that the next student to turn would be astonished to discover my desk empty, but adorned with a peculiar polka dot pattern.
Neutral walls. Hard desks with attached chairs. Water-stained ceiling tiles. My new classroom resembled my old one a few hours away. The students around me, indistinguishable from those sitting uncomfortably in same desks 200 miles away, leered at me in a familiar fashion. I had been transplanted from one small town to another.
My language’s sting of betrayal dulled, and I had since locked myself in an embrace with Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. So locked in embrace I was, in fact, that I almost missed the stare-down from the gangly girl sitting caddy corner from me. Accustomed to gawking and leering, this particular form of examination was foreign. Was that curiosity I saw in her eyes? I felt panic rise from the bottoms of feet to my knees and hips. Once it reached my armpits, it pooled there for a moment before bubbling over and down my arms. The panic poured over my fingers, which grabbed onto the seam at the bottom of my skirt. And then, for no reason whatsoever, my arms lifted the bottom of my skirt above my desk and back down again. The second my skirt was returned to my lap, I saw the caddy-corner girl giggle with glee, but I still hoped nobody else saw me.

Being out of place made me want to be invisible. That is, until I wanted to leave my mark. My out-of-place-ness positioned me in the place of stubbornness.

The cold hardness of the tile on my bottom and the backs of my legs. The warmth of the sun from the window against my back. These are the things that occupied the space of my mind moments before Mr. K coaxed the secret out of me, the secret that distanced me even further from the other students and my high school teachers in the small town of Ottawa, KS.
In his Sociology class earlier that day, my class read about a culture in which tradition dictated teens take on the responsibility of motherhood. My myopic peers railed against the idea, filling the hollow basement classroom with a cacophony of judgement. I, in turn, railed back, challenging them to assess how their culture impacted their assumptions about motherhood. Or rather, in their eyes, I got pissed off for no reason.
Yes, Mr. K, I was upset today in class. Yes, Mr. K, there is a reason. Yes, Mr. K, I am pregnant. The unleashed secret didn’t send shockwaves that blasted others away, but rather tiny emissions that nudged them to toward other things.
The office was spare, white, uninviting. In reality, the office may have been painted in warm tones and furnished with a homey couch, but in this memory, it was spare.  Just as spare and white and uninviting as Main Street and the roller rink and the Walmart on the other side of town. Her face has been lost in the years, but her words--they are still present: Well, I mean, don’t you want to transfer to the alternative school, Angie? I knew what she meant: You don’t belong here anymore. I also knew that my school, my place of learning had nothing to do with the fetus I now carried. And I’d be damned if I was gonna let them put me where they thought I belonged.

An essential component of being out of place is refusing to go to the place others think you belong. It’s about finding the comfort in others’ discomfort; it’s about claiming your place among all the places you don’t belong.

Her fever was high, not so high that I needed to rush her to the doctor--but high enough that I set a timer to ensure a continuous stream of Motrin in her blood. She was miserable, but she was also sleeping. And the time had come: my Philosophy final was one hour away, and the trip from Ottawa to Emporia State University took me 50 minutes. My blue book was packed in my bag; various philosophers were tucked in my head. I wasn’t sure I could take my final holding a sick baby--hell I wasn’t sure my professor would even allow me to take my final holding a sick baby. But I did because he did.
She slept curled up between one arm and leg in the wooden theater seat until the last question of the final. As other students in backwards baseball caps walked past this alien sight on their trek to the exit, I could see the puzzle on their faces but I was too focused to piece it together. I could feel her restless movements synced to the final letters of the final words of the final sentence. Just in time.
Dr. Somer’s opening ceremony, calling off our names in his booming voice, began that first day. Our desks were lined up, much like they were in high school, and most of us were ill equipped for the literature he would hurl at us. Student by student, he announced our last names, preceded only by Mr. or Miss. When his eyes reached the Hs, I was first:  Miss Hedges. Despite the first-day jitters of my second year at ESU, I corrected him: Mrs. Hedges.  He repeated it, placing forceful emphasis on my title: MRS. Hedges.
The litany of names, punctuated by MRS. Hedges, provided predictable rhythm to the semester. This rhythm was accompanied by Dr. Somer’s violent gesticulation, my discovery of beat poetry, and our silence in the wake of our professor’s tears. We slipped into this rhythm so naturally, so easily that I almost felt I was in my place. But the daily articulation of my title reminded us all that I wasn’t quite.

Sometimes, you can find your place in being out of place because you are also out of space. Then, having your own space is divorced from finding your place, even if that’s being out of place.

The expansive building of brick and glass overpowered the surrounding fields. When Olathe Northwest High School opened it doors for the first time, 800 students passed through its doors. A decade later, the building still sat amongst fields, but its population exploded. Unused rooms filled, used rooms repurposed, and additions constructed. My students had transitioned from calling me Ms. Hedges to Ms. Powers, and I had transitioned from being the matriarch in a family of four to being a single mother of two girls. But in this moment, I boxed my classroom supplies, pondering the incredible amount of packing and moving my family had experienced in the last year. From hauling all of our soot-covered belongings out to the dumpster parked in the driveway to transporting boxes of donated clothes collected at the school to packing up our meager assets in the rental house to relocate back into our reconstructed house, my family lived in transit. My oldest daughter began driving to explore her place outside of our family, while my youngest hunkered in corners to read. I found refuge in my classroom, but even that was temporary. Sorting my clips and files and books into piles of keep and discard and give away, I willed myself to keep my ratio of keep to everything else low. But my will deteriorated each time I picked up a book to reminisce about its lessons while my fingers caressed the sharp edges.
            I dodged backpacks and feet and elbows as I rounded a corner, lifting the handle of my cart up ever so slightly to avoid finding my back wheel stuck in the crack between the tile and carpet. A woman on a mission, I returned little more than polite smiles to my coworkers’ acknowledgement of Hi Angie! and students’ greetings of Hey Powers!. I skimmed across the surface of the school, cart in tow, for the next three minutes until I reached my destination. The room--not my room but a room in which taught--had the same white walls and hard desks as so many of the classrooms I’ve occupied. The same white walls and hard desks that my youngest daughter now occupied in her freshmen year at Olathe Northwest High. I wedged my cart into the doorway, parked it in place, and surveyed the room: for the next 50 minutes, this room was the place 26 students and I would find ourselves out of space and out of place together

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Yesterday, I granted permission to the tears. I allowed them to well up and over the ledges of my eyes and pool where my cheek and sunglasses met as I commuted. I allowed them to collect there, even granting just a couple passage down my chin and my neck for two long minutes. In those two long minutes, I blocked out the sight of other cars, the drivers who might see my vulnerability, my humanity. In those two long minutes, the soothing voice on the radio introduced me to a man whose friend Omar sheltered him when nobody else--not even his parents--would. Omar was killed by Omar, and both had a mother and father.

The day of, I refused to grant permission to my tears, instead batting them away with vigorous blinking and choking them down with considerable will. I read only half articles and spoke in only fragmented conversations because I could not bear to confront my own vulnerability, my own humanity.

Today, my tears granted my body permission to sob--a deep wracking sob--the kind of sob that echoes in an empty room. My tears allow me to see my daughter, hunched in the corner of the bathroom, texting me, “Mommy, I love you . . . Call them mommy. Now.” My tears allow me to see my Uncle’s body, splayed out next to the bar, with my face on his cell phone, vibrating, until only, “Missed Call.” My vulnerability, my humanity overwhelms me until my tears run out and I pick up my pen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Poems of Introduction

My Initial Reaction to Writing a Poem of Introduction

Is this sufficient?
activist socialist anti-conformist humanist unionist populist
feminist pacifist atheist liberalist existentialist absurdist

You want something more--
more personal, you say?

Myers Briggs:
Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perception
Input, Intellection, Learner, Achiever, Focus
True Colors:
Green, Orange, Blue, Gold
Still not enough?
Something more--
something beyond labels, you say?
Be patient:
and then maybe you’ll see.

Then The Typical “Where I’m From” Poem of Introduction

I am from a dog-shaped cookie jar,
from Nintendo Track and Field and sardines in mustard sauce.
I am from Main Street, Olive Street, Labette Terrace, Ash Street
(and don’t forget Main Street again).

I am from sauerkraut and silence,
from hard dumplings and game nights.
I am from Uncle Charlie perched on a motorbike
and Grandma Vivian in her rocking chair.

I am from the cold distance of Germany
and the stubborn righteousness of America.
I am from pitchers of too-sweet tea,
from cucumbers soaked in salt water.

I am from Catholics and Baptists,
from Episcopalians and Seventh Day Adventists.
I am lost at sea and in faith
(and rediscovered as an Atheist).

I'm from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Eric Clapton on vinyl,
from Dire Straits and Tina Turner on cassette,
from Pantera and Pearl Jam on CD,
and from Jack White and Alt-J on vinyl (again).

I’m from the woods my brother and I lost ourselves in,
from the sting of grandma’s belt after we were found,
from the gurgle of my parents’ waterbed draining,
and from the fiery inferno that consumed the dry wall.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bathtub Poem

The anemic gray bubbles
nibble at my edges
encased in the white acrylic bathtub.

They nibble at the tension,
caress the tissue,
unfurl the fibers.

They weigh down my eyelids
and I go blank
until I see black.

I'm floating--
gray bubbles fade to celestial bodies,
warm water evaporates in a vacuum of air.

I sense the tethers once securing me:
lines stretched to the North, South, East, West,
ropes pulled thin by eager independence,
strings snapped in all arrays,

Each snap tugged me to the left, right, front, back:
an inch, a centimeter, a millimeter,
rocking me with a maternal rhythm.

My eyes, fixed to the distance,
focused on some ethereal destination,
only wavered after decades of snaps.

The strange weight of the final tethers,
only two, extend
to the East and West.

The lines tauten and
the fibers elongate
until one snaps.

And I am a planet
spinning off its axis
defying the laws of nature--
but not the law of the last tether.

The last line gives me gravity
transforming my spin into a rough rock
until my eyes can fix on the distance again.

The last tether reaches beyond the distance
and I release it without a snap.

Spinning, I have no gravity:
I am free from those laws.

My eyes are no longer fixed
but closed, secured.

And I go blank
until I see black.

Then the anemic gray bubbles
nibble at my edges.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


The gymnasium bursts--
Tiered gardens sprout black and blue buds
(Youth is full of sport)
Crackles and giggles and glee punctuate the buzz of the mic
(Youth is nimble)
Claps and stomps and cheers celebrate already fading glories
(Youth is hot and bold)
Sweet songs of goodbyes herald new beginnings
(Youth is wild)

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow . . .
Out, out, brief candle!
(She dons a black dress and colors her delicate face)
Life's but a walking shadow,
(Her countenance shudders as the door creaks, black heels stretching to meet the asphalt below)
a poor player,
(Her legs carry her forward with automation, countless cars cascading in all directions)
that struts and frets this hour upon the stage,
(Her eyes steel, set upon the structure ahead: stark, white spire shooting into the vast blue)
and then is heard no more.