During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.
Out of the clear blue, this message popped up on Instagram from Monique, my sophomore student eleven years ago. Eleven years ago I didn’t know that she had failed almost all of her freshman year classes in California, and I didn’t know she would only spend one year in Texas. All I knew was that she had an amazing gift in the written word and that we shared a love of English. Now she works as the Head of Community Relations for Get Lit Words Ignite in Los Angeles and empowers young people to use their authentic voices. Monique is a freelance writer and an agent for social change. She teaches writing workshops globally, speaks at conferences, and leads seminars. Her hustle landed her in Houston to close out the March for Our Lives summit.
Maybe you have heard of March for Our Lives?
In Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the site of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Seventeen students and teachers were killed and seventeen more were injured. In the aftermath, a group of students channeled their sadness, pain, and rage into action, and created one of the largest youth-led movements in history. Monique would be a guest speaker closing the summit. Her topic— “Dealing with Trauma in Healthy Ways.”
In 2018 Monique spoke to the California senate influencing their decision to pass Senate Bill 933, a $50M arts education bill. As her proud former teacher, I just happen to have a YouTube clip. Meet poetry-in-motion Monique Mitchell, or as I like to call her, the next Maya Angelou.
When I met up with Monique in the lobby of the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush International, she embraced me with an energy of love and light.
We sat down in the hotel restaurant, perused the menu, and ordered a drink. “It’s been so long. Tell me. What’s going on with you?” she asked.
If you happen to have me in an intimate one-on-one setting and ask me how things are, I will tell you without the gloss. It just so happened when Monique said, “Tell me. What’s going on with you?” I laid out my truth—the current shit show of my life, Acts I-V with the grand finale of me quitting my job the week before. (That blog post remains unpublished and password protected).
And you know what? I believe in God’s perfect timing to bring people into your life when you need them. Monique counseled me with her radiant joy and the insight of a licensed professional, and she made me feel like the thousands of students I’ve taught over twenty years stood behind me cheering me on. “What are your Wildly Improbable Goals?” she asked.
Most people my age stop talking about goals, not that I don’t have any. I just keep them to myself, you know, in case I fall on my face. “Well,” I hesitated, “I have been accepted into graduate school. It’s an MFA program in Creative Writing. I have to figure out the money part. I don’t like the idea of student debt at my age, and the university is private.”
“That’s awesome! Don’t let the money stop you. You’ll find a way. So what will you do when you graduate?”
“Well, I hope to publish at least one book.”
“No,” she cut me off, shaking her head back and forth. “Don’t use those limiting words. Instead of ‘at least one,’ you should say ‘the first of many.’” The student had become the teacher. “And where do you see yourself ten years from now?”
“Well, with my masters, I could teach Creative Writing at the college level. Before we moved to Houston, I taught Creative Writing at my last high school, and those were my favorite classes ever.”
Monique sat for a moment processing all the words that had passed between us. “Tomorrow is the new moon,” she said. “A new moon represents the ending of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. For a while I’ve been writing out my intentions on each new moon. You can google the dates. I had been wanting to move to Africa and spend time writing a book, and I wrote down my goal on a new moon, and a path opened up for employment in Ghana.”
I stared at her halfway disbelieving, simultaneously knowing of her upcoming move and contemplating all of her success stories. “Are you serious? That’s amazing!”
She searched my eyes and found the connection. “When you set your new moon intentions tomorrow, open your journal entry with ‘I now declare all of this or something greater for my highest good and the highest good of all involved.’ Speak in the affirmative like ‘I now receive’ or ‘I am thriving in my master’s program.’”
Before we parted ways that July day, Monique hugged me one more time and said, “We are blessed to be here. The world needs your voice. I love you!”
And oh my gosh, I love that girl, too. On 12/12 she heads off on her next most excellent adventure to Ghana, which reminds me of a wildly inspirational memoir I just finished—The Heart of a Woman, by the wildly talented Maya Angelou, who had one wildly improbable goal after another. Her story begins in 1957 Los Angeles, hosting Billie Holiday in her home, and ends in 1962 Accra, Ghana. Coincidence? I’m telling you, Monique Mitchell is the next Maya Angelou.
And as for me, I received a little scholarship, applied for financial aid, and found my way. I’m now officially registered at Houston Baptist University for classes that begin with a retreat to Galveston on January 5, in the new year, the new decade, seven days after my 50th birthday. How wildly improbable!
Speaking of wildly improbable, you’ve reached the end of my 75th post. Thanks so much for reading, supporting me, and sharing in my formula: Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope
(If you have another few minutes, I happen to have one more short film produced by Lexus for the holidays starring the wildly talented Monique Mitchell. Grab a box of tissues.)
“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.
In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.
The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:
Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.
That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…
(You understand where this is going.)
As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.
“Happy Friday, you guys!” I say as each class begins.
A chorus of voices, practically singing, respond on cue, “It’s
Fun Fact Friday!”
Fun Fact Friday just sort of happened this year. One Friday
during the Fall semester, I said, “Fun fact,” and in the pause, all eyes spun
toward me, and I had a captivated audience. I proceeded to tell my students a
little something about my life. They loved it, and now every Friday their
voices ring out, “Fun Fact Friday!”
Last Friday’s Fun Fact:
“So this is my twentieth year to teach,” I said. “I have a
fact from about twenty years ago during my first few years of teaching when I
was young, right?” I try to make eye contact with all of them as I speak. “So
when I first started teaching, I taught seventh graders for five years. Then I
taught freshmen for a couple of years and sophomores for most of my years, and
this is my third year to have juniors. Anyway, do you remember having really fun
assemblies back in middle school?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down.
“Well, at my school, we had a traveling trampoline show with four or five trampolines in the gym, and music, and people jumping really high and flipping. It was the best assembly ever. The kids loved it. Anyway, at the end, they asked for volunteers to come down and flip.” I raised my hand as if to portray how a person volunteers.
“And so I did. I ran down from the bleachers and jumped up
on the trampoline. I’m not sure the last time I had been on a trampoline or the
last time I had flipped, but I was a gymnast when I was younger, and twenty
years ago I was still young, right? So I took a couple of bounces and went for
it.” I paused to add a little drama. “And do you know what happened?”
Their faces conveyed expectation.
“I landed on my face.”
“Awww!” They responded in unison, mouths twisting, heads shaking back and forth, half-way disbelieving the horror and fully empathizing.
“This was a big middle school, and I fell on my face in
front of about 500 students AND teachers AND administrators.” I shook my head
up and down to verify the truth. “But
do you know what I did?”
“You quit your job?” One boy jested.
“No.” I laughed and shook my head back and forth. “No. I got up,” I said pointing first at myself and then upward. I looked at my kids looking at me, I felt my face flash red reliving this embarrassing moment, and I resolved to use it. “I got up,” my number one finger punctuated those words, “and I did it again, and do you know what happened?”
Their faces bore uncertainty and fear of the worst-case scenario.
“I landed that—.” I censored myself before I said shit, at the same time cut off by a thunder of student cheers. “And that’s what life is all about,” I continued, caught a little off guard by their response, louder now, “You will fall down on your face throughout your life, but you have to get up and try again.”
In my head there’s this story about me teaching The Tragedy of Macbeth, and well, it’s complicated.
My story starts at the beginning of this school year (new job, new school) during the planning phase. The last minute planning phase. I had been hired a week or two before fall classes began. I remember planning my syllabus, quickly, with a small degree of flexibility, in a very similar way to that of the teacher before me. I knew that I would be teaching something Shakespeare, and I knew it would be a text I hadn’t taught before. Our book room contained two choices: Hamlet or Macbeth. While I had read Hamlet many moons ago in college, Macbeth I had enjoyed more recently performed under the moon in the park. Eenie meanie miney moe, witches and murder, I picked Macbeth.
I’m hoping one of my high school classmates might be reading this post today because I have a question: “Did we read any Shakespeare senior year?” My memory fails. However, I do remember my friend Jacki, back in junior high apostrophizing, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” or was it, “Out, out, brief candle”? Either way—somehow these lines are equally familiar, and somehow they have stuck with me over time.
After dog paddling my way through the deep waters of last semester’s curricula for my two advanced placement courses, I started studying Macbeth over Christmas. Where was a tutor when I needed one? Not only did I read but also I listened to the audio and watched the movie and researched commentary and googled lesson plans. Lucky for me, I had a two week “vacation” from school. All of this, I did for my two AP Literature classes when I needed to be planning for my four AP Language classes as well.
If you’re not familiar with Macbeth, here’s a quick refresher. The story is set in medieval Scotland in the midst of civil war. Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman and a war hero, cousins with and loyal to the king. Three witches appear at the beginning of the play with a prophecy for Macbeth. He will become king, they say, which causes Macbeth to consider the logistics of the new title and the possibility of murdering the king. He feels conflicted over the potential betrayal on many levels, but his wife Lady Macbeth mocks his masculinity and manipulates him toward the deed. In this tragedy, murder begets murder, and the Macbeths both succumb to guilt, insanity, and karma. Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands to her own demise.
I found an introductory lesson to Macbeth in the New York Times. Students would participate in a brief experiment about symbolic cleansing which would segue into research on one of the following significant 20th century psychological studies:
Classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov
Conformity by Solomon Asch
Operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner
Human obedience by Stanley Milgram
Abuse of power by Philip Zimbardo
False memories by Elizabeth Loftus
Throughout the play, we would discuss how psychology drives human motivation in connection to the Macbeths as well as ourselves. The more I studied and the more I planned, the more I realized all of my students MUST read Macbeth, especially considering the cheating scandal from last semester. Macbeth provided the perfect opportunity for an extended lesson on right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and the psychology of human behavior. My AP Language syllabus did not include Macbeth, but I made the executive decision to add it, simplifying my life by teaching the same lessons to both courses for the third nine-week grading period.
And so, to introduce the tragedy, I made two sets of note cards: Group A and Group B. The group A cards said, “Think about an unethical act from your past—like betraying a friend, stealing, or cheating on a test.” The group B cards said, “Think about an ethical deed from your past—like returning lost money, volunteering to feed the homeless, or helping hurricane victims.” My experiment wasn’t exactly scientific. Instead of a random distribution of cards, I targeted my known cheaters with Group A. Then I asked students to consider their responses silently without discussing and bring their cards to my desk where they would choose either a paper clip or an antiseptic wipe, and I would tally statistical information based on their cards and their choices. We followed the activity by reading a New York Times article titled, “Study Finds That Washing Eases Guilty Consciences.”
Instead of the traditional multiple choice test, I opted for a couple of quizzes along the way and a couple of major projects with presentations. In groups, students researched one of the psychology studies previously mentioned and presented their findings to the class in connection to our play. Individually, they had lots of creative options and freedom to choose. And, to tell you the truth, I wrote today’s post just to show off how my students shined when given the opportunity.
Students wrote poetry and performed scenes and sang songs and played ukuleles. One student created an animated video of Macbeth murdering King Duncan using Legos and Play-Doh blood. Now the visuals decorate our classroom and serve as reminders that we don’t need any Lady Macbeths in our lives. But honestly, in the end, my students taught me. They rose to the challenge, and they showed me who they are, and I hope that thirty years from now they will remember reading Macbeth.
P. S. Did you see my flowers? They came from twin girls with an attached thank you for the inspiration.
P. P. S. Fun fact. Did you know that Shakespeare wrote the first knock-knock jokes in Macbeth?
P. P. P. S. Here’s my favorite Macbeth soliloquy.
P. P. P. P. P. S. This is Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death. For Macbeth who has just murdered quite a few people and lost his wife due to his own ambition, sure, life is meaningless. He doesn’t have the things in life that make it meaningful: friends and family and love.
P. P. P. P. P. P. S. Happy Monday, everybody! Make it meaningful!
The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.
Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.
After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.
So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.
So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.
Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your Best—No Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”
“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.
“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.
Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.
Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.
Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester. The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.
In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.
I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.
I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”
I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”
(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).
There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”
There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.
There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?
When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.
*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
The last time I stood upon a stage and spelled words before an audience, I was twelve years old. I could spell decently. I mean, I was no Ashley Adams, champion year after year, competing her way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington, D. C. But, I did enjoy spending time with my dictionary, perhaps more than the typical child. And, I could spell my way out of my homeroom and onto the stage with the other Academy Elementary finalists. Go me!
And thirty-six years later, I found myself on a stage once more, bright lights in my eyes, teachers in a line to my left and to my right, an audience of students before me. Stepping up to the microphone for my first word, the cheers drowned out the word uttered by the student judge. Flattered and taken by surprise with the audience response after a semester at my new school, I turned to the judge sitting stage left and asked, “Will you repeat the word?”
“Decordicate?” I asked with a grimace, brows furrowed.
“Decordicate,” he affirmed.
I turned back to the audience. “English teachers don’t know all the words,” I said into the mic before proceeding. “Decordicate.” I repeated, looking again to the two judges, who nodded in agreement. “D-E-C-O-R-D-I-C-A-T-E.” I spelled.
“That is incorrect.”
Okay, so I wasn’t so lucky. With disappointment, I crossed the stage, descended the stairs, and slumped into a front row seat, clapping for co-workers still competing and internally spelling their words while trying to remember mine. With my iPhone back in my classroom, I would have to wait to look up “decordicate.”
The next teacher had to spell “chocolate,” by the way, and the next “paranoia” and the next “scenery.” The winning word was “reminisce,” a favorite pastime of mine. I can spell those words. Oh well. This spelling bee supported two causes: an Engineering Club fund-raiser, $2 a ticket with a few hundred kids in attendance, plus a canned food drive, one item per student for our local food banks. A win-win. I can’t be bitter.
Once back in my classroom, my student Cheyenne who represented my advisory class in the recent student spelling bee asked me, “Was it D-I-C?”
It took me a second to understand her question. “I have no idea,” I responded with phone in hand. “Let me look it up,” and I Googled.
“Showing results for decorticate,” said Google.
“Enunciate,” said my inner dialogue. No one was there to hear.
“D-E-C-O-R-T-I-C-A-T-E,” I spelled for Cheyenne, emphasizing the T while reciting from my screen. “I missed the T. I heard D.” Her smile revealed empathy as she left for lunch.
I read on. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine at medlineplus.gov, “Decorticate posture is an abnormal posturing in which a person is stiff with bent arms, clenched fists, and legs held out straight. The arms are bent in toward the body and the wrists and fingers are bent and held on the chest. This type of posturing is a sign of severe damage in the brain.”
According to The Free Dictionary, decorticate means “to remove the bark, husk, or outer layer from; peel.”
Anyway, I learned something new. I hope you did, too.
Each Monday in homeroom advisory, the students and I answer a couple of questions as a team-building exercise. One at a time, we relay a detail or two about our weekends and practice the art of communication. Some say more than others. Some endeavor to entertain. Everyone participates. The school dictates the other query through a leadership class for senior students in charge of facilitating activities for the 9-12 homeroom.
Last week as advisory started, a soft-spoken senior named Diego wrote on the board, “Are you a good communicator?” He turned to face the class and proceeded, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by his why. Something stuck my heart as he spoke.
From my rolling chair at the front of the room, I rolled left and right for the ultimate vantage point, listening to my twenty-three kids, digesting their responses to understand, and preparing mine to note my observations. I perceived a clear division between the extroverts and the introverts. The extroverts expressed satisfaction with their abilities while the introverts beat themselves up, half of them echoing Diego, “I’m not a good communicator…,” followed by whys. Each time my heart sank a little lower.
Student after student said things like, “I know what I want to say. It just doesn’t come out of my mouth,” and, “I just get nervous and end up not saying anything,” and, “When I work with a group, the loud people take over, and I might have something to say, but I miss my chance,” and “It takes me awhile to think, and I usually think of the perfect thing to say later” and “I just don’t care enough to say anything.”
After the tenth or eleventh time of hearing, “I’m not a good communicator,” I contemplated the purpose of the activity as well as my heart condition for my fellow introverts: Have I been the kid who’s hard on myself due to failed conversations? A thousand times, Yes! Do we really want kids to leave here feeling terrible about themselves? No! No! No!
I carefully crafted my conclusion to change the course. “I communicate better in writing than verbally,” I said, pausing for eye contact. “I’m a quiet person, too, and I like to think before I speak. As I listened, I was up here thinking that I have a problem with this question.” I hesitated with a purpose. “I don’t think any of us should beat ourselves up over a personality trait.” I took another second or two to let that sink in. “Some people love to talk. Some don’t. Doesn’t communication go two ways?” At this point I became aware of some approval in the form of nodding heads. “It seems we could’ve talked about the meaning of communication first. Some people are really good at conveying their ideas, but they might not be as good at listening. I think all of us have room to improve.” And from there, I chatted about my weekend…but the question bugged me all week.