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God Will See.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Last year, I gave my then-sixth grade students a test on verbs. Admittedly, this is harder than it sounds, as this unit covers everything from transitive and intransitive verbs to progressive forms to perfect tenses and everything in between.

The results were abysmal.

That might sound mean, but it is true. The students knew it, and so did I.

Through no fault of their own, they really did not have a foundation in grammar, and, as they admitted to me this year, they were mostly guessing on the exams.

Yes, I mean exams, plural.

The students took one verbs test the regular way. Then took the same test open book, and some students did even worse the second time. Finally, some were given a copy of the test to take home to work on, in an attempt to help them understand the concepts.

It was a low point in a year that was marked with struggles, which these particular students have worked really hard to overcome.

Fast forward to about three weeks ago ...

"All right seventh grade, we're going to start a new grammar unit today. On verbs."

Ten stricken faces.

"Verbs?"

I told the students that we were going to forget about what happened last year. They had a foundation now, and they had worked hard. We were going to start over.

I started teaching them the verbs unit again, the seventh grade version this time, in much the same way I taught it to them last year: a mix of notes, examples, activities, and practice sheets. This unit is long, and I could tell we were all getting stressed as test time loomed closer and closer.

Until finally ...

"Your grammar test on verbs will be Thursday, October 26, guys."

Thursday, October 26 came. Fourth period. Ten kids took their seats. Everyone took one deep breath in and then let it out. They started.

I monitored this exam more closely than any other in the past. I stood over the students, watching them work. Sometimes I'd stop and see a student having chosen the wrong response. Please change it to E, change it to E, change it to E, I'd think. I'd make a round around the room, come back to that student, and find that she had changed it to E. Slowly, the finished exams started trickling in.

I super secretly took out a note card and copied the answer key from the master book onto it so that the students couldn't see that I was grading their tests as they handed them in. I looked at the first one, and I panicked as I saw that this student was getting EVERY QUESTION WRONG. Imagine my relief when I realized I had accidentally used the sixth grade answer key and not the seventh grade one.

Shew.

I looked at the first test, then the second. Then the third and the fourth. The fifth. The sixth. Class ended, the kids left. I kept looking.

When I graded that last test and wrote 88% at the top, I sat back in my chair and realized ...

They had passed. All of them had passed.

I cried. I couldn't believe it.

And all I could think was T-E-A-C-H-E-R.

At the end of September we had a professional development session where my principal had us watch a video of a speech by Jonathan Doyle, who was speaking on the role of the Catholic school educator (but I really think his message could apply to a lot of different positions and careers).

It changed my life.

Jonathan Doyle said that, as educators, we have to own our purpose and understand that there's a reason God has put us where we are. He said we must understand the story we're really in. Meaning, we can tell people that our job is teaching English, or we can tell people that we are partnering with God Almighty to raise His children.

WOW.

He referenced the movie A Man for All Seasons, in the scene where Sir (now Saint) Thomas More is talking to Richard Rich. Basically, Rich wants to be in a position where he's highly visible and highly regarded by others.

Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: lf I was, who would know it?

Thomas More: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.

Interestingly, I received an email this morning from a priest friend of mine, in which he recounted this story:

Have you ever wondered how Michelangelo finished his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Was it really that he accomplished these paintings by himself alone?

Quoting Michelangelo himself: 

"After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-size figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”

Working on scaffolding was physically demanding, and Michelangelo created image after image on an ever increasing scale. He eventually exerted all the power of his mind and spirit, using themes and motifs from past sculptural works in his glorious fresco masterpiece. The four-year ordeal proved physically and emotionally agonizing for the reluctant artist… Perhaps what has struck me the most was his response when someone asked him why he was so serious painting those images even on parts of the ceiling where no one could notice. 

And I also asked myself, “Yeah, why bother to exert your effort to paint something that eventually only a few could notice?”

Michelangelo’s reply to that inquiry was:

God will see.

Jonathan Doyle also said that God comes to us disguised as our life. Everything matters. Just keep going.

His point? We're doing much more than teaching. He quotes C.S. Lewis:

"God claims every square inch of the universe, and Satan counterclaims it."

We're in a daily battle for souls, and our classrooms are the front lines.

Doyle said that God Almighty could show up in our classrooms next week, of course He could He's God. But if God doesn't show up in person, how will our students experience God? It's us. It's teachers.

God, make me a better teacher today than I was yesterday. And help me to remember that the things I do and say to my students have eternal consequences. 





Persuasion.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

It is no secret that I love Jane Austen. I love her, and I love all of her novels. Most people would probably name Pride and Prejudice as their favorite of the Austens. However, I'm not able to do that. The best I've been able to do thus far is put the books in an upper three (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma) and a lower three (Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey), which is not to say that I dislike any of them.

The other day, however, I was forced to pick up only one Austen, and, to my surprise, I just said it -- Persuasion.

You see, Persuasion is the novel that features Jane's oldest heroine. At the ripe old age of 27 (pretty much a spinster in Jane's time), Anne Elliot had given up on love and was destined to live her life alone. Jane Austen herself never found love and also never married (often mutually exclusive in her time). Indeed, Anne Elliot was the Austen heroine most like Austen herself. Anne and Jane were both spinsters who watched people around them settle down, marry, and have children.

The truth is, I think I've always seen a little of myself in Anne Elliot. I would love to be the witty, confident Elizabeth Bennet or the self-assured, playful Emma, but the truth is I am probably most like the introverted, mature Anne.

This past Friday, my dear friend Maggie took engagement photos for Joe and me. Her specialty is photos taken outdoors in natural light, and her photographs are beautiful. (I am so fortunate she is taking my wedding photos as well.) Maggie took some photos in Ritter Park, but then, because she is such a good-hearted friend, also indulged my desire to have photos taken at the Cabell County Public Library, even though that is not something she usually does. Maggie, knowing that my love for Jane Austen is real and eternal, told me to pick an Austen novel for the photos. Just one.

I picked Persuasion.

We used it in several photos, but my favorite was one where Joe and I were sitting in an aisle, surrounded by books, with him holding Persuasion and both of us looking at it. Although I am smiling in the photo, this was the moment during our photo shoot where there were tears welling up in my eyes, and they were real and big.

You see, as I sat there in the stacks, beside Joe whom I love, who will be my husband for life, and looked down at the copy of Persuasion he was holding, I was overcome. Overcome thinking about Anne, about Jane. Anne, who got her love in the form of Captain Wentworth in the end, and Jane, who wrote the world's greatest love stories but never found love herself.

Anne and Jane, who have gotten me through so many times in my life. Times when I thought, like Anne did through most of Persuasion, that love wasn't in the cards for me, and I was destined to be the favorite aunt instead.

Sitting beside Joe, who was holding Jane's story about Anne while I looked down into it, hit my heart in such a way that I still struggle to describe it, days later. My heart was so full that it came out of my eyes, I think.

Incidentally, Maggie gave us one sneak peek photo in advance of the others we are to expect in about a month. She got it to us Friday night, the same evening she took the photos. Which one did she choose to send?


Thank you, Anne. And thank you, Jane, as always.

T-E-A-C-H-E-R

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Saturday night I had the pleasure and privilege of watching my dear friend Story star as Annie Sullivan in Marshall University Theatre's production of "The Miracle Worker."

I have seen all of the shows Story has been in (and have the autographed programs to prove it!), but this one was truly, truly something special. First, because Story was playing a role that was just perfect for her. Second, because Story was a star. And third, because Joe got to see Story perform, and he also got to meet her for the first time.

Story's mom, Jenny, had seen every performance, so by the time we attended on closing night, Jenny had seen the show from almost every angle. This time, the last time, she wanted to see it from the front row. Now, this sounds like a normal thing for someone's mom to say, but you must realize that this production was in Marshall's experimental theatre, so sitting in the front row basically put you on stage in the show. It was truly a wonderful and unique experience to see the show from so close a view.

I was taken in by so very many things that were said and done in this show. For example, Annie's lines:

Everything the earth is full of, Helen.
Everything on it that's ours for a wink.
And what we are on it. The light we bring to it and leave behind in words.
You can see years back in the light of words.
Everything we feel, think, know, and share in words.

I teach English, so I traffic in words. My life is words. I live for words. Amazing.

While many things about the show were very moving, there is one part where I just started crying and couldn't stop. Just. could. not. stop. I don't mean a few tears falling. I mean like sobbing, unable to get the words out to explain why I was crying.

It happened right at the end. Helen has just realized that the "w-a-t-e-r" letters Annie has been writing in Helen's hands stand for an actual thing, which is water. Helen "asks" Annie to tell her the names of many other things, including ground, pump, step, mother, and papa.

And then.

Oh, and then.

Helen "asks" Annie who she is.

Annie doesn't sign "A-n-n-i-e." (Which is what my family calls me, actually.)

Oh no, she does not.

What does she sign?

"T-e-a-c-h-e-r."

I lost it.

The thing is, I actually took a sign language class in elementary school, and, while I can't remember most things, I have always remembered the alphabet. So before Annie/Story even said it out loud, I "read" what she signed in Helen's hand:

T-e-a-c-h-e-r.

I was crying before Annie said the word.

Teacher.

Oh.

OH.

When the lights came up, and I was still crying, Joe looked at me and said, "You're crying! Are you okay?"

And I said, sobbing, "That's it. That's exactly it. That is exactly what it's like to reach a student who is hard to reach. That is exactly how it feels."

I told Story that, too, after the show, and she said she just knew that I would love that part. (Of course she did.)

Who are you?

Not Anna.

T-e-a-c-h-e-r.




A God Close By

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a former student. (He sends one every so often, about every month or so.) I love hearing from him, as he always shares not only what is going on in his life, but also his insights into things.

In this email, he told me about a situation where he really felt God speaking to him in a real way. The catch was, it was over something relatively small in the grand scheme of things. He wrote, "Now I know this is so insignificant in the whole scheme of life and the world ... but it was really nice to see Jesus and talk to Him and see that He can do wondrous things. It still amazes me. We know He can do amazing things, but we always like to be reminded."

I responded and told him how amazing this was, and how I really feel that Jesus really loves to be in the little things.

This past Thursday, my coworker asked if I'd like to grab breakfast with her during our mutual free first period. This was something we did a lot last year, but we hadn't done at all so far this school year. Truly, I had (have) a lot going on, and I wasn't sure I should go. I'm also trying to eat more healthful foods. But I told myself that this breakfast would be a nice way to catch up with this woman whom I view as a mentor and friend and check in with her about our mutual students.

Fast forward to lunch time, when, due to a triple-booking on my part, I didn't eat because I was busy helping a student with something he needed, followed by recess time of assisting two other students whom I had also offered to work with.

Suffice to say, it was a busy day. One of those days where I ran around nonstop, covered someone else's class, etc. We all have days like that. It was particularly hard because I had a pretty bad allergy-related headache (which I'm sure is causing a lot of people trouble right now!). I also just had a lot I needed to get done. I was stressed because I had an appointment scheduled for 4 p.m., so I'd have to rush out the door right after school instead of getting things done and feeling settled for the next day.

Fast forward to late afternoon when I received a text from the person I had an appointment with saying she had a migraine and asking if we could reschedule.

As I sat at my desk chair after school, it hit me that these situations I wasn't sure of (like breakfast) or what might usually be an inconvenience (like a rescheduled appointment) were actually God's way of preparing me for my day. My usual breakfast would have left me beyond hungry at lunch time, but the unusually large breakfast allowed me to stay full longer than I normally would. That appointment being rescheduled gave me the time I needed after school to accomplish a lot of things on my list, which made me feel a lot better.

And after that realization, I thought back to my student's words ... "Now I know this is so insignificant in the whole scheme of life and the world ... but it was really nice to see Jesus ..."

I know that breakfast and an appointment are not the most important things in the world either. Indeed, I read a blog post tonight (that led me to reading many more posts on this same blog) about a young lady in my area, a 14-year-old, who passed away from cancer today. Absolutely heartbreaking. A child dying of cancer is absolutely an important thing in this world. And I in no way mean to act like God should be spending His time worrying about my daily inconveniences.

I also think that, like my student taught me, it's okay -- dare I say, it's good -- to see Jesus answering small daily prayers, or even acting in your daily life to answer prayers you didn't even realize you needed to pray, like in my case. I do think God likes to be involved in all aspects of our lives, big and small. He has that time. He is above time. He is time.



Please join me in prayer for this young girl who died of cancer today. I don't know her or her family, but I do know her name is Katie. 

The Currency of Human Contact

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

In the wake of yesterday's tragedy in Las Vegas, there have been an awful lot of articles, posts, and opinions all over the internet. Really, it's to the point where I am scaling back my already-scaled-back time on social media.

This evening, I saw one thing online, though, that really got me. It was this:


So many people expressed their agreement with this.

And I agree, too.

As a Catholic school teacher, we are lucky to have those extra opportunities to teach empathy in our classrooms through our faith formation classes and service learning.

But the more I thought about when I teach empathy, the more I realized --

it's novels.
it's short stories.
it's poems.

I teach empathy to my precious kids through literature.

I have better discussions with my students over literature than I do any other time of the day.

In "The Kid Nobody Could Handle," Kurt Vonnegut taught us to identify those who feel unloved and reach out to them, because everyone needs a connection.

In Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt taught us that some decisions that people have to make are not always black and white.

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton taught us not to judge people by what they look like on the outside.

In "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe taught us how to sympathize with someone who has lost his love.

And, of course, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee taught us what can happen when we allow prejudices of any kind to infect our society. She also taught us what it means to be honest, fair, and good.

My friends, we teach empathy through literature. We teach empathy through examining these beautiful and broken characters and putting ourselves in their shoes.

And thank God for it. Thank God for these writers whose magic words allow me to have these life-changing conversations with my kids. (No exaggeration.)

The realization that I teach empathy through literature both warmed by book-loving heart and it also gutted me.

Because I remembered:

A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with my "little sister" J. As I often do when I see her, I was asking her about school.

Me: What are you guys reading right now?
J: Nothing really.
Me: What do you mean?
J: Well, we get these sheets, and we read them and answer questions about them. And then we get another sheet.
Me: What are the sheets about?
J: Like history and stuff.
Me: Wait ... you mean you get passages about things, read them, and answer questions? Like on the standardized test?
J: Yeah. We fill in the bubbles.
Me: Okay. But, like, what are you READING?
J: Nothing. We haven't even gone to the library yet this school year.

I do not mean this as any sort of indictment against teachers or how they run their classrooms, as I know just how many regulations and restrictions teachers face from the state. I simply share this information because it made me sad. Jailuh is in eighth grade. I teach eighth grade. So far this school year, my eighth grade students have read Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Patricia McKissack, among others. They are gearing up for a fall of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, W.W. Jacobs, and Guy de Maupassant. And it's not because I'm awesome, trust me. I am mediocre at best. It's just that my job is teaching English.

But, guys, I tell you, reading this stuff with the kids -- it's BEAUTIFUL.

I don't know any other way to describe it. It makes my life.

The conversations we have about plots and characters and ideas are just amazing. And, like I said, it's how we learn empathy. It's stories.

"Stories are the creative conversation of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." -- Robert McKee

Our children love stories. We love stories. There is no amount of passages we can read or bubbles that we can fill in that can take the place of stories.

"Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion." -- Barry Lopez

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