Definitely not as exciting as pancakes, but…my first column!

Back in January, I sent in a few writing samples to The Denver Post to be considered for the Colorado Voices Panel, a group of local writers who publish columns throughout the year which focus on regional issues. I was ecstatic when I got the phone call offering me a spot…still pinching myself.

My first column came out this last Sunday, Sept. 6. My daughter grabbed the paper off the driveway before Howard that morning. She jumped on her “skuut” bike ready to head to breakfast with me, Ben, my brother Andy, and his girlfriend Amanda. Leave it to a three year old to keep your ego in check: she was definitely more impressed by her funny face pancakes at the cafe then her mama’s mug in the paper.

Anyway, if you are curious, feel free to read it here. Perhaps while eating pancakes?


Interview with a Preschooler: Second Edition

Last year, before Linnea’s first day of preschool, I interviewed her. Thinking it would be fun to continue the tradition, I asked her the same questions the night of her first day back this year, her second year of preschool. (Note: No editing involved in her responses; I simply recorded exactly what she said–for better or worse, minus our home address.)

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up? “A doctor. A ddd-ahhhhhhh-ccccccc-ttttt-eeerrrrr. It’s just the way I like to be. I want to help people and not do harm.”
  2. What’s your favorite color? “I don’t have a favorite color. I have lots of favorite colors. I like the rainbow.”
  3. If you could go anywhere , where would you want to go? “The Y.” (And after seeing a look of confusion on my face…) “The Y-M-C-A, mama.”
  4. What are you excited about for preschool? What are you looking forward to? “Not a lot of stuff. Just one thing. Ummmmm, I like my Orly. That’s my kid I go to school with. It’s my second year of preschool and I live very close to it. I live at [insert address here]…” (She *might* have inherited my motormouth tendencies.)
  5. Can you tell me a story, Linnea? “Once upon a time, there’s a little once upon a time. And” (watching me writing…) “x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x. That’s all.”


Poetry Written With Kids

I Remember 

We each wrote our own poem entitled, “I Remember” over the span of about fifteen minutes. Because, I believe teachers and students can learn and practice side-by-side, I wrote one and this is what I shared:

I remember the beak of my stuffed animal, Skuttles, soft against my chin.

I remember the dust cloud in the rearview mirror as we drove in a rusty, pick-up on dirt roads.

I remember the cadence of my mom’s voice as she called, “Come and geeeeeeet it!”

I remember the glow of lightning bugs twinkling on and off like birthday candles in the sky at dusk

I remember bare feet in squishy mud and the dry corn husks hitting the sides of my body as we played hide-and-go-seek in the fields.

I remember the pulling back of my hair as my brother created a ponytail in hair tangled from the angry wind and wild playing.

I remember my chocolate lab’s bloody, mangled leg as he ran up the hills, desperate to flee from the truck that struck him.

I remember the tears of my siblings, and the still foreign word, “divorce”.

I remember kicking a blue and white soccer ball against a hard, wooden fence.

I remember the sun setting against a rounded hill, the acoustic sound of buzzing insects, and the stained smiles of youth.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at _______________

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem in 1954 called, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Using his poetry as a model, we each wrote our own poem on a topic of our choice. We did not share on what we had chosen to focus. Instead, we all took turns guessing. The topic of my poem is listed at the very end of this post, in case you want to venture a guess…

  1. The tears, the machine, the ultrasound
  2. The still animal amid goggles and metal tools
  3. The empty “I love you”
  4. The faint whispers of a past in the shadows
  5. The holding in arms that are as comfortable as one’s own
  6. The chards of something once whole
  7. Birds singing, flowers blooming, green leaves budding; the cadence of nature.
  8. The hand to chest, an anthem in ears
  9. The beating of musical drums
  10. The red of lips’ seduction
  11. An authentic self living in passion, free of judgement and society’s cruel glare
  12. The holding of hands
  13. Peace

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Heart

Teaching Freely

We sit in a circle in a classroom that overlooks trees and homemade play structures with boulders and sand. I greet each child with a handshake, introduction, and a tour of our digs for the week ahead. Some parents mill about unsure of when to leave. Others are through the door after a quick wave or hug. The children take to one another immediately. They smile, look through their goody bags, and answer my silly questions about pets and potential siblings.

For the last few weeks prior, I met with the other lead youth instructor (a screenwriter) and an intern from Naropa University (a poet) to develop curriculum for the creative writing summer camps. We are hosting the summer programs at an independent school in Boulder that is filled with children’s artwork and signs touting the benefits of mindfulness.

And as I sit watching these kids write wildly, some lying down, other hunched at wooden tables, I realize I am here for selfish reasons. I feel free. Free to teach in a way unlike the norm in traditional settings. Here, I sit by their side, writing along with them. Here, I make jokes and laugh when they laugh. Here, there are no bells, evaluations, or standardized tests. Here, they call me “Libbi”. Here they write next to my young daughter.

We have uninterrupted time to learn, play, practice, and be together: Writer to writer.

How the system broke my heart (and how my students mended it)

I originally wrote this story back in April in an old notebook on a Sunday afternoon, amid tears. I meant to rewrite it here in the space of my blog, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure why. I simply hesitated and put it off, positive I would post as soon as I was. Subsequently, I experienced a serious bout of writer’s block because I couldn’t possibly write on another topic until I got this story out. I am posting it now because I hope it can help others in similar situations, and selfishly, I know writing it will help put it behind me for good. This experience has also profoundly shaped my perspective and my heart. In simple terms, it has made me stronger.

So, it goes…

A sign is posted to the left of my doorknob which reads,“You enter this classroom as a student who is respected, empowered, challenged, and loved.” Originally created by my teaching soul sister, I adopted it as my own because it spoke to my philosophy of education. It does not feel natural to teach without this extension of love.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 13, the first day back from a restful spring break, my principal strolls in my classroom. She stops just past the doorway, picks up a small piece of trash and meets me halfway while asking whether this is my plan period. I have just finished three hours of teaching, reenergized to be back with my students, and reply yes with a smile. I meet her eyes and she says, “I just wanted to let you know your contract is not being renewed.”

Instinctually, my hand went straight to my heart, my spine elongated, shoulders back. Fifteen minutes later on the phone to my husband—amid sobs—I would explain it felt like I was punched in the stomach, literally punched, my breathing turned rapid.

I only processed pieces of that ten minute long conversation with my former principal. Snippets rang in my ears. Something about budget cuts, an apology, personal days, and the affirmation that I am a great teacher. I tried hard not to cry in front of an administrator who had yet to show any emotion with me. Damn, did I try. But, they came. In a professional tone, I apologized for the tears. In an attempt to be reassuring, I think, she said she would be emotional too. She then encouraged me to reapply for my position if the budget was approved and stated she would also be happy to write a letter of recommendation. And then with that, she left. Headed down the hallway to share the same news with another probationary, first year in the district, teacher.

Later that week, in meetings with the department chair and union reps, I would learn the decision was made unilaterally. My evaluations and peers agreed I was doing great work with the students and they loved me. It didn’t change the fact that my teaching spirit was crushed. Sadly, I have learned, this happens all the time to teachers new to a district. A fellow English teacher colleague of mine said his contract had been non-renewed five times, five times. He is my age—about 30.

The rest of that day was the hardest. I still had three more classes to teach and I had lost all my appetite for lunch. I made a cup of tea and found the name, “Benners” in my call log. I shared the news with him, and he shared the shock. When my husband got home that afternoon to find me painting with our daughter, he gave me my first embrace of the day. Because despite my need to be comforted, I chose not to tell anyone at my school that day. I simply sat in my classroom, lights off, door closed. I wrote, meditated, prayed, read blog posts from other teachers with similar experiences, and cried some more.

Eventually, I reapplied make-up, put on a smile, and greeted my students determined to be the best, damn teacher I could be, just as I had vowed when I began teaching seven years ago. I knew in my soul that it wasn’t about my principal’s power or budget cuts, it was about them—my students. And what matters is that despite everything else, they are the ones who make me feel respected, empowered, challenged…and loved.

Someone very close to me who understands my love for teaching, upon hearing the news, prayed I would receive kisses from God. I learned that later when, during a phone conversation, I shared just how intensely my students had been showering me with gifts of kindness and admiration the rest of that week. They did not know I was undergoing such a difficult trial in my career in public education, but perhaps they felt it. I was and am grateful for all of the loving reminders I received that ultimately mended a teaching heart, broken by the system.

Now that over two months have passed, I feel lighter. I enter a new chapter, carrying forth the stories of my students, and nothing more.

IMG_2264 IMG_2269 IMG_2271 IMG_2297

IMG_2457 (The first four pictures were all gifts from students. This last photo is taken of me and the school mascot. The students and staff voted me as staffer-of-the-month in May. I ended the school year feeling very appreciated by my students and colleagues.)

Slowing Down

“If you’re having difficulty coming up with new ideas, then slow down. For me, slowing down has been a tremendous source of creativity. It has allowed me to open up — to know that there’s life under the earth and that I have to let it come through me in a new way. Creativity exists in the present moment. You can’t find it anywhere else.”

Natalie Goldberg

A dear friend once told me that happiness is about floating down the river of life. If in doubt, just float, he would encourage.

Lately though, the water has been choppy, and the idea of floating hasn’t been as appealing. So, I am trying to be more at peace with what life brings my way, and perhaps, through that openness, I will find the inspiration to write more consistently. Writing, for me, is both cathartic and creative. So, here is my commitment to…slowing down. Slowing down to see the stories right in front me, and not being afraid to write them down.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open. ”

-Natalie Goldberg

Where I’m From: Poetry Writing Exercise

In class, we read and discussed “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon to start our mini unit on poetry. To help all students see that they too can be poets, they wrote their own “Where I’m From” poem (side note: I first saw this exercise suggested in the Springboard curriculum).

Students shared theirs. I shared mine. And a classroom visitor even volunteered, leaving some kiddos speechless with her raw emotion.

To promote the sharing of writing, here is the first draft version I read to the class:

I am from the endless, weathered cornfields of an open land. Gravel roads and dust clouds in the rear view mirror.  The one finger waves and effortless smiles.

I am from the muddy lakes and rivers of a state conservative in its politics and speech. From the “How do you do” to “It’s all in God’s plan”. Hard, wooden pews and bonfires in the dark.

I am from the cold, white-tiled, church basements: punch bowls and pink-dyed wafer cookies with lemonade in styrofoam cups. Sundays half-gone from a morning spent inside.

I am from bare feet, sunsets over hills, and a band of grasshoppers stringing an ode to the summer dusk.

I am from the split branch of Diane Leigh and Mark Eric, the creation of close-knit family cohorts, vying for allegiance.

I am from endless support, endless love. The backdrop for a life of fighting the will to please and for undoing the difficulty to handle change.

I am from lessons learned: love thrives in presence, words live in action, and shoes–most definitely–should be worn when riding a bike.

Life as a 3.5 Year Old: A few pictures


photo 5

Left: Linnea will go on any road trip/drive so long as a stop at a park is involved, and swirly slides are a major plus.

Right: She made this painting for her Papa D who recently had surgery.

photo 2 photo 3 photo 4

Her current loves: fire hydrants! (an exclamation point seemed necessary given her facial expression), “cooking” and having us taste her concoctions (have you tasted “wheat germ” on its own before?), and painting (she made heart valentines for her classmates at preschool). And she is laughing out loud during Mo Willems’ books, a tried and true fave.

Surviving spring testing

This is my favorite time of year, and I long to be outside: gardening, picnicking, and even scabbing a few knees while playing with my running buddy.

For now, though, I feel like I am holding my breath until the standardized testing is complete in the public high school where I teach. We began testing this morning and ended at 2 p.m; students will resume tomorrow. And the stress that comes with the tests seems to sap energy during the work week for other spring-related activities.

I knew that I would be a bit drained no matter what (active proctoring=never sitting down among other reasons). So, to combat that feeling:

-I aimed to have a relaxing weekend at home with my family (it didn’t hurt that the weather was fabulous–83 degrees at one point here in Colorado); we played at the park, stopped by a local bakery to go on a picnic, had a game night, did some spring cleaning, played with sidewalk chalk, went on a run, got Linnea her first, very own library card (big stuff!), and napped on Sunday afternoon with a book by my side.

-I also tried to create a peaceful classroom the day before the test (yesterday/Monday) and to do that intentionally, I tried something new…

I read this post, and was inspired by the work of my teaching friend, Mary. Meditative techniques are strategies I have dabbled with in the classroom the last few years. I never considered, however, to make it a consistent practice with the guidance of an app while I, too, participated.

Most streaming websites were down in order to get ready for the online test, but I did find one recording that encouraged students for five minutes to be aware of their breath and scattered thoughts. Some students laughed at awkward silences while others earnestly kept their eyes closed and legs crossed. I must admit, I too, felt the awkwardness at times (mostly with my ninth graders). But, there I sat, at the front of the room, eyes mostly closed, taking deep breaths and allowing the silence to get comfortable in the room.

I asked students how it went: Some athletes made connections to practices when their coaches had them envision success. Some asked to do it again. And some said it made them sleepy. Regardless, it seemed to at least have an effect on all, and I intend to continue this practice in some fashion in my classroom… to combat the frenzy, distraction, and stress.

As I prepare to end a school day that was filled with testing and no teaching, I think of an article I read over my lunch break. The writer and educator, Nancie Atwell–whom I admire a great deal–makes a case for more reading in schools. Her words ring true as I consider the many kiddos who chose to sleep over picking up a book.

I hope that my students will not allow all the assigned reading on these tests get in the way of reading for themselves.

Because tonight, in order to restore my own energy, I will sit on the back step with my daughter, two cups of tea, and a pile of books.

On being sentimental

I bought the book, “Mein Esel Benjamin” in an art museum in Germany my junior year of college. I chose this over others because 1: It was only 5.90 Euros; 2: It was about a donkey with the same name as my then-boyfriend, now-husband and the jokes seemed endless, and 3: That little girl’s face was adorable.

Riding back on the train from Cologne to Trier, I read the story and lingered over the pictures. I realized then I had actually bought the book for a possible, future child. So, on July 9, 2006, I dated the inside cover and wrote the location of the purchase. I was sentimental already and hadn’t even become a mother.

Linnea and I read this in its entirety for the first time on Monday night before bed.  The passing of time hit as soon as I skimmed that inscription, looked at those chubby cheeks, and read on…

I was waiting for my three-and-a-half-year-old to stop me, “Speak Ennnnnglish, Mama” just like she started to do recently whenever I spoke German to her. Instead, she listened and helped me turn the pages.

There is a part in the story when the little girl, Susi, follows her pet donkey out of her house, down the street, and to the beach. They play with rocks, look at the water, and then decide to go back home. Only, Susi doesn’t know how to get home and she becomes sad. The sadness only lasts one page, however, and the donkey (way to go, Benjamin!) leads her safely home into the loving arms of her “mama und papa”.

As soon as the page was turned and Linnea saw that the little girl and her pet would be safe, she let out an audible gasp and sat up higher on my lap. She started to giggle, letting out all the breath she had, noticeably, held in.

This wasn’t the first time my daughter showed signs of sadness during a story. Even at 18 months, Linnea would tear up at the exact same part of a book about a dog named “Biscuit” who had to say good bye to his ducky friend. She would sit in silence, letting the story soak in before tears cascaded down her plump cheeks.  And her sadness would dissipate only after explaining the happy pictures at the end.

This sensitivity shines through life outside books too. She gets sad when others are sad–regardless of whether or not they exist. Once L.E. offered a leaf and a pat on the back to a little girl who fell down at her preschool.

cousinsAnd if she is anything more than sensitive, it would be sentimental. When we had to say good bye to her cousins after a visit during Christmas time, she would walk to the door slowly, turn around and rush right back up the stairs to give more kisses. My sister was laughing each time she did this (it lasted for a while…) because she would say, “Oh my God, She is SO your daughter.” Let’s face it–I was rushing up those same stairs to give more hugs too. It seemed we both could not let go of the moment; we held on with our affection.

Play_photoAnd when we took her to see the children’s play, “Charlotte’s Web” in February as a Valentine’s gift, she cried. Only, she didn’t cry because of dear, old Charlotte; she cried because the play was over. She wailed, over a steady applause, “I don’t want it be over. I want them to come baaaack.”

Because of all of these experiences with our tender-hearted gal, you would think Ben and I would learn to soften the news of upcoming changes. Instead on a recent Sunday morning, we told our calendar-lovin’ daughter that it was a new month. “February is behind us and March is here. It will be springtime soon,” we exclaimed with gusto. We were met with a furrowed brow, a hesitant voice, and yep–even a few tears…over it being March. (oops, on our part.)

I wonder how parents do this well, this balance between living in the present and appreciating changes as they arise. How to fully embrace a child’s nature to be ___[fill in the blank]_____ while also encouraging them to go with the flow, as needed.

Maybe there is no such balance.

And in which case, we will carry on as usual, while remembering to simply laugh when we need to let the breath back in.