Thursday, December 29, 2011

Poking the Sacred Cows

It's day six of my holiday break and I have finally acknowledged the large stack of paper on the floor next to my desk. I had been ignoring it, hoping it would magically grade itself, but alas, this has not been the case. It's still there, still huge, still daunting. In the meantime, I have cleaned the entire house, gone to the dump twice, moved our furniture around, stacked another cord of wood, winterized the chicken tractor, and killed seven mice in the attic, but now, it's time. Time to grade the mid-year writing assessments.

While I was completing all of these other acts of procrastination, I was mentally composing another essay for an upcoming deadline, a piece has been freaking me out, both as a writer and a teacher. In order to be successful in this piece, I must come clean about my homework practices. For non-teachers, that may sound like an easy task, but it's not. Homework is a time-honored tradition among teachers, a sacred cow best left undisturbed to chew its cud in the median. We go about our daily business in its shadow, so used to its presence right there in the middle of things that we don't even see it anymore. Even discussed delicately, teacher-to-teacher, it elicits fight-or-flight defensiveness in some and outright anger in others.

But it's good to sharpen your Ticonderoga #2 and poke that cow from time to time, isn't it? Otherwise, how  do you know if it's just resting or if it's been dead for a while and you just had not noticed?

As I am writing about homework elsewhere, I am taking on another sacred cow at my school over here - the writing assessment. These assessments make up the giant pile of menace stacked next to my desk, and as I don't want to get around to grading them, I thought I'd spend some time poking them with a proverbial stick.

Twice a year, we give the students a prompt, two days to prepare an outline, two class periods to write a four-paragraph essay. Based on the responses I have read so far, this year's questions went fairly well, and I actually like reading these essays once I am into the groove, but it's an endless task. So, if I have to question why I give homework, I also have to question why I spend four full days a year of class time and hours at home spent grading on these writing assessments.

The students don't enjoy writing them, I hate grading what's the point?

In order to answer that question, I went over to my office and pulled out a couple of my student's files. Because we give these assessments every year from the third grade on up, I can spread a students' entire writing education out in one place. I can see how handwriting, vocabulary, and syntax evolve over the entire length of one student's education. Most importantly, I can see their individual voices evolve as thinking becomes more complex, more sophisticated. It's fun to pull these files out when a student is frustrated with the slow pace of his or her learning, or an apparent backsliding in skills, and show them how far they have come in such a short time.

One of my favorite things about my job is the strategizing I get to do behind the scenes. As I teach my students for three straight years in Latin and/or English, I have the opportunity to do some real long-term planning for the future. I taught high school English before I moved to middle school, so I know what will be expected of them in a few short years. Many of them will go on to attend the very school I used to teach in, so I have very specific goals about where they need to be in terms of independence, organization and self-advocacy by the time they head off to high school.

In sixth grade, we coddle them as we ease them into the relative chaos of middle school class transitions and increased homework load. In seventh grade, however, I ease off a bit. I give them a little bit more rope and see what happens when they are expected to plan ahead or stay on top of a long-range assignment. In eighth grade, I really let them have their heads, and expect that they will know how to take charge of their education when no one else is looking out for them. Writing assessments are part of that process. I hand them the prompt and directions, and they are expected to prepare their notes or outline, find supporting evidence and plan their writing. I give them no other guidance than the prompt itself. Timed writing assignments will become a fact of life for them in the coming years, and it's fascinating to see their progress as they master the task.

When I was first hired, I was informed that the writing assessment was simply a part of what I did in English class, and I was too overwhelmed with the details of a my new position (including my first year teaching Latin, twenty years since I last cracked open a Latin text) to question any reasoning behind the tradition. But now, long settled-in and armed with perspective and experience, I think it's good to question why I do the things I do. This week's re-evaluation of my homework practices has been really enlightening - I have dropped some of the less effective assignments and shored up my reasoning behind the better ones. So much of what I do, particularly the most subjective aspects such as grading and assessments, leave me feeling uneasy at times, unsure of my standards, perspective, or reasoning.

In the end, some of those cows were long dead and really needed to get rolled out of the road, but I am quite fond of the ones that remain. When I return to school in the New Year, the students will notice a change. I will be more confident in my choices, and the road ahead will be much less congested. True, the writing assessments will remain, lying placidly in the middle of that road, but at least I will be able to explain why they are there.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Come One, Come All and See the Loadstone Rock!

Come on over to the Core Knowledge Foundation blog to read my latest post on teaching A Tale of Two Cities, "Drawn to the Loadstone Rock." I was going to put it up here, but they stole it away...come check it out!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Middle School Life

Before I was faced with the death of a former student, I was working on an essay about This American Life's broadcast called "Middle School." In the second segment, Ira Glass talked with Alex Blumberg, a This American Life producer and former middle school science teacher.

Alex Blumberg

I don't know if they learned anything. They are so consumed with learning all these other lessons about where they fit in, in the social order, and how their bodies are now working and--

Ira Glass

And who they're going to be.

Alex Blumberg

--who they're attracted to, and who they're going to be, that facts and figures and geography, and all the other stuff that you teach in school, it just doesn't even penetrate.

Ira Glass

Wait, are you saying we shouldn't even bother to have them in school? We should just basically put them to work in the factory for two or three years?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. I basically came away thinking you're sort of wasting your time trying to teach middle school students anything.
As you may imagine, I disagree. And the whole broadcast made me so, so sad. I was just so sad for the kids in that broadcast, particularly the kid who has no friends and was searching for some sort of place in a community. According to that story, middle school was a dose of purgatory he should not have had to deal with at such a young age. 

One of my students' parents asked me if I had listened to the broadcast, and when I said I had not had a chance yet, he said it was just the opposite of his daughter's experience, that she loved her middle school and did not feel as if she had to live through hell in order to make it to the other side. That should be what we - as parents, and as teachers - are aiming for, and yet I can't consolidate it, can't create a target that's easy to aim for.

Anne Lamott once said, in her memoir Operating Instructions, that the worst fear she had going into motherhood was the "agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades." No period in her own life, she explains, involved more "meanness, chaos… hurt and aloneness." 

That simply isn't the experience of my middle school, as far as I can see, and I don't think it's due to the fact that my school is private. It isn't the experience of my son's middle school, either - his is public. It's not a rich kid v. poor kid thing. I think it's because purposefully cultivate community. We have a formal character education curriculum. We teach virtues. And our students, for the most part, care about each other. My son's class is a community unto itself. He belongs, he enriches, he supports. As far as I know, that's the experience of most, if not all, of the kids in his class. 

Day after tomorrow, 98% of Crossroads Academy's student body will go shopping for gifts that will be given to children who will spend their holidays homeless, at The Upper Valley Haven. This is a tradition at our school. The students raise money through a penny drive, bake sale, and various other charity drives. After the money is counted, the students shop for presents according to the list we get from The Haven, and next week, a few of these students will deliver the gifts. 

Say what you would like about private school students, their parents, the tuition, but every time we shop for gifts, someone asks me or my boss about who these kids are and what they are doing, filling up carts with dolls and legos and markers and all sorts of other gifts. And every time we tell them, strangers hand us money. Every time. Strangers who can ill afford to do so, hand us cash in order to support the spirit they see in our students. 

And every year, I am grateful to be a part of such a group. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

No Vampires Were Present

I spent an afternoon thinking about what I teach and how in order to answer some questions from Education News' Michael Shaughnessy, and here's how that turned out:

1) Jessica, first of all where do you teach and what kind of students do you teach?
I teach at Crossroads Academy, an independent K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. We draw students from as far as an hour away in New Hampshire and Vermont. We base our curriculum on the Core Knowledge Curriculum created by E. D. Hirsch and the Core Virtues Curriculum created by our school’s founder, Mary Beth Klee. My students are a talented and motivated bunch; they attend Crossroads for the academic rigor, supportive environment, and focus on individual character. I teach English and composition in seventh and eighth grade, and Latin in grades six through eight.
2) Let’s first focus on writing–why do you see it as important and how do you encourage it?
I believe writing is one of the most important life skills I teach. The ability to persuade others through words will serve my students well, no matter what they do with their lives. I teach a very structured composition class focusing on exposition and persuasive writing, with the occasional descriptive or personal narrative piece thrown in. The students spend a lot of time on four-paragraph essays, moving from specific pre-writing tasks, through development of thesis, to full sentence outline, to rough draft, and finally, final draft and reflection. All work is done in class, in small groups so they have the benefit of my advice and editing during the process.
Last year, we began participating in NaNoWriMo as a way of fulfilling the student’s desire to write creatively and freely, without the strict structure of composition class. That has been a wonderful addition to our year, and about 75% of the middle school students write novels in the month of November. Many have gone on to edit and self-publish their novels as well.
I am a writer as well as a teacher, and I love to talk to the students about the process of writing professionally. They have shared in my quest for an agent, my successes and failures in publication, and often, I read drafts of my blog posts to them. They are, after all, my muses. Some have aspirations to write professionally themselves, and that just thrills me. If I am able to teach my students the value of words, the weight and power of language, the beauty of a particularly well-wrought passage, I feel pretty good when I go to bed at night.
3) Now, literacy–in this age of Half Moon, and Full Moon and Eclipse and Breaking Dawn and all this vampire stuff—what do YOU encourage kids to read?
I keep a well-stocked independent reading shelf in my classroom, and offer up extra credit points for those books. Students may choose their own titles, of course, but I have to approve their selections if they want credit. When a particular novel does not score credit, they get frustrated with me, but I stress that it’s not that I don’t want them to read the Twilight series, I just don’t plan to give them credit for it. I like them to stretch themselves, try new things. I even push students who generally read challenging material to move out of a particular genre if they are stuck. If they are readers of fantasy and science fiction, that’s great – I hand them H.G. Wells or Mary Shelley – but if that’s all they read, I will urge them to read something outside of their comfort zone.
4) Let’s put you in charge of a state—What would be your TOP TEN required books in high school?
Oh, how I hate these questions. It all depends; am I teaching these books or simply handing them over to the students? If I am teaching them, I go with novels that will ease even the most literal students into the realm of the figurative and give my students a broad base of cultural literacy – Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Song of Solomon, To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear… the usual. As I talk a lot about Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero, I also include The Once and Future King, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and short stories such as "A Worn Path." The journey is a theme we come back to over and over again, and as I also teach Latin, these books are really great dual-purpose texts. Finally, my students don’t get out of my clutches without a good dose of rhetoric, so speeches are definitely on the list as well – Kennedy, Lincoln, and Churchill are always on the menu.
5) How do you communicate to parents that writing, and reading GOOD literature is important?
This comes up so often that I wrote a “position paper” on the teaching of good literature at Crossroads Academy. Here’s a [very] short version of my position:
We must require students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens, Twain, or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. Students must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust. Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.
6) You have several blogs and commentaries- what do you see as needed changes in our educational system?
I’d love to see a shift from all this discussion about testing to discussion about what needs to be taught in order to prepare students both for higher education and life as productive members of American society. Now that I have taught in schools without a cohesive vision or agreed-upon curriculum and my current school, where the curriculum is well planned-out and executed, I am a firm believer in the power of content. Of course I teach critical thinking, and of course I teach my students to apply their content knowledge across disciplines, but without a solid foundation in literature, history, math, science, music, etc., there’s no solid footing on which to place and contextualize new knowledge.
7) Sometimes, some good movies come out based on half decent literature–The Three Musketeers seems to be continually be revived and I understand an Ayn Rand book has been made into a movie- are these good things or bad things?
Again, it depends. Thankfully, my students read The Iliad in the sixth grade, so they were not fooled – they know there’s no Sword of Troy, let alone a sword that got handed to Aeneas by Achilles. Without a grounding in the original story, they might assume that the Brad Pitt version is the real story, and that would just be sad. But that’s just a plot device, so whatever. It doesn’t bug me that much. What really upsets me are films such as the Disney version of Hercules. The story of Hercules is eviscerated. The entire reason he has to go out and complete the labors stems from the fact that Hera sends him in to a blind rage and he kills his family. He seeks to atone for his sins, and thus the labors. The Disney version is a sad, pallid version of the story, and I hate to imagine that children around the world would only know the film version.
On the other hand, there are film adaptations I adore. Andrew Davies’ Jane Austen films, of course, the recent BBC versions of Hamlet and King Lear are brilliant, and frankly, Atonement was a masterpiece. I can’t wait to see Julie Taymor’s Tempest, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I am not one of those sticklers who can’t enjoy a film because it’s not perfectly faithful to the novel; they are simply different beasts.
8) How do you motivate a student to read any specific author in depth- (I am currently working on Arthur Conan Doyle myself)?
I actually think it’s easier to get a student to read an author in depth than to read the first work. Once my seventh graders have read and understood Great Expectations, they are ready to move on to A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth grade. To round out the experience, I offer up double extra credit for certain independent reading books that enhance the literature we read. Right now, some of my students are reading either Oliver Twist or David Copperfield as an adjunct to their reading of Dickens in English class. Once they are in a groove, and if I am willing to dish out the extra credit, they are usually game. Last month our double extra credit was The Great Gatsby, as I wanted to be able to draw parallels between Daisy and Estella and Pip’s great expectations and Gatsby’s green light. That went well, and I used that as a launching pad to talk about “Bernice Bobs her Hair.”
9 ) I thank many English teachers now for exposing me to Hermann Hesse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cervantes and MANY teachers for encouraging poetry. Why don’t we hear more about great writers and poetry?
I think poetry freaks people out. Too many adults have had it shoved down their throats by a teacher who only taught it because they had to. I happen to love poetry, and one of the reasons I adore teaching middle school is that I often get to be the first person to hand them Frost, to show them the magic in Dickinson, to explain the significance of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider. Some years, I read a poem a day at the beginning of English class (I have a two-year rotating schedule, one year of poetry, one year of cultural literacy daily facts and connections). I am in the cultural literacy year of my cycle, and I have to admit, as much as I adore the cultural literacy lessons, I miss the poetry.
Students can tell when teachers are faking enthusiasm. If my love of poetry is genuine, if my heart soars when I read the words to them, they know. They feel it. And hopefully, with time, their hearts might soar as well.
10) I have nothing against Stephen King- in fact, let me say to him, that I think his writing HAS gotten better- but why do some pupils go overboard on reading his stuff?
I am not a fan of horror, myself, but I absolutely adore two of his books, Misery and On Writing. Misery is an incredible description of the healing power of writing and the magical mystery tour that goes on in some author’s brains. I don’t channel characters, as King describes in both Misery and On Writing, but I love reading about that process. On Writing is simply a wonderful account of a writing life. I love it the same way I love accounts by Annie Dillard or Carolyn See or Anne Lamott. Besides, King’s description of his process always motivates me to write. My thirteen-year-old writer son feels the same way.
I just picked up King’s new book, 11/22/63 because I needed a good “escape” book and it got a good review from Errol Morris at the New York Times. Besides, I was curious – King said he wanted to write this book thirty years ago when he was still teaching English but did not have the chops to pull it off…I like that sort of honesty in a writer.
11) Let’s close this interview, with the close of the Harry Potter series—Your thoughts on the work of J.K. Rowling, and perhaps her use of some themes from Charles Dickens ??
As I mentioned before, I use Joseph Campbell as a thread throughout the two years I teach my students. We start off with an introduction to Campbell in the first semester of seventh grade, just after they read The Once and Future King for summer reading. My presentation on Campbell uses Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter as exemplars, and I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have a story that everyone knows. Like mythology, Harry Potter serves as a useful touchpoint for so many concepts. I use Voldemort when I explain one-dimensional characters. I use the Latin translation of Harry Potter in Latin class. I return to the Harry Potter series over and over again in order to explain everything from the definition of Bildungsroman, to the biblical fall from innocence, to the use of Freytag’s Pyramid. Cultures have always had their stories – mythology, folklore, whatever – that bind us together as a people. Harry Potter is firmly entrenched in our cultural consciousness, and I, for one, am grateful for the addition.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fortes Fortuna Iuvat

I just found out that there's an "Elizabethan proverb commentary" website out there. I discovered this while perusing the weekly Bestiaria Latina digest. Oh, shut up. I fully understand that the sentence I just wrote puts me in a difficult position, high horse-wise. I had planned to poke fun at the aforesaid community of Elizabethan proverbists, but isn't mocking the Elizabethan proverb commentary while admitting that I receive weekly email digests from an organization called Bestiaria Latina just a wee bit of situational irony?

Oh! Oh! Teachable moment! Situational Irony: Miss Havisham is all in a lather because her daughter Estella won't show her love, but Miss Havisham is the very person who raised her to have no heart. Doh. 

In case you feel less than educationally topped off today, the featured proverb at the Elizabethan proverb commentary is fortes fortuna iuvat, which translates as either "fortune favors the brave," or "Fortune favoreth bolde adventurers, nothinge venture, nothing to have: spare to speake, spare to spede," depending on your era of origin. Me, I prefer the modern version, but it's nice to know that if I land in 1564, I will have a couple of proverbs at the ready.

Fortes fortuna iuvat. Teaching isn't usually the sort of job that results in publicity, let alone a shout-out in the New York Times, but it's been a great ride. The combination of that piece and my new blogging gig over at the Core Knowledge Foundation leads me to believe in the power of the Betsy bracelet. As a new friend noted, it's a good week to be Jess Lahey.

K.J. Dell'Antonia wrote a really nice piece about my blog and my teaching, and response has been overwhelming and quite varied. She linked to my blog, so a huge number of readers went there and emailed to tell me what they thought of me and my teaching style.

I'm a lumper, so let's do some lumping. Most readers were supportive and believe I made the right move, allowing my kids to go back and deal with their failures. However, some thought I humiliated my students by "punishing" them for failing to learn the material the first time. Some got bored of criticizing stuff in the New York Times and moved on over to my blog for fresh fodder. As there are pieces on rabbit pee and I swear once or twice on that blog, they found concerning things to email me about. Yes, that's right, I ended that sentence with a preposition on purpose, deal with it. A couple even linked over to my Core Knowledge blog post and sent me messages about my irresponsibility in allowing students to read Catch-22 (relax, my students know that the more mature books on the top shelf of the independent reading bookcase have been a wee bit excised by yours truly in order to allow them to read great literature while not being subjected to R-rated sex and violence) and questioned a whole host of other issues I won't bother to go into.

My assessment? People have a lot of opinions.

My answer to all of these readers? My students trust me. I work very hard to make sure that they know I care about them, they are secure in the fact that I have created a safe and constructive classroom environment, and they understand why I am challenging them rather than simply that I am challenging them. And if they are a little embarrassed by their failure to prepare, well, that's good. They should be. How they react to that embarrassment is what matters. I came oh-so-close to failing Civil Procedure in my first semester of law school and I was completely humiliated. I may have cried in bathroom and I may have eaten my body weight in chinese pork dumplings, but I also confronted my failure. I asked the professor to show me precisely what I'd messed up on my exam (in law school, one three-hour exam decides the grade for the entire semester) and I never made those same mistakes again. I made plenty of other ones, but I never made those particular mistakes again. I also never ate those particular pork dumplings again.

It's part of my job to teach my students to be brave and view their failures as learning opportunities. To buck up and return to the place of their defeat and ask for help.

I'm just grateful I get to be in that place when they show up.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Things Fall Apart

I don't say this out loud very often, but I love my job. I love going to work every morning, I look forward to seeing my students, I love the subjects I teach. I know. I'm so lucky. I took a twisty road on the way to this life, but I am ever so grateful for it.

But last week sucked. Last week was an unfortunate confluence of failures, doubt, anger, and frustration.

Before I explain, I know that right now, there are millions of people who would be grateful for a crappy, low-paying job, let alone a wonderful, low-paying job. I tread carefully on the patience of the un- and under-employed when I talk about my workplace frustrations. But last week, I wanted to walk away from the classroom and dance a little jig on my way out the door.

Last week, I was reminded of just how challenging middle school students can be. They are creatures of extremes. One minute, I am teacher of the year in a students' eyes, and the next, that same student is tossing his books on the floor with an angry flourish, speaking daggers to me as I ask him to conjugate amare. He won't even fall for my magical thinking; forcing him to publicly declare "amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant" did not result in anyone feeling the love.

Luckily, these extremes dictate that with each frustration comes an equal and opposite jubilation. In exchange for one students' daggers, another student might thrust his hand in the air, eager to impress me with his recollection that catachresis is "an elaborate metaphor that makes a surprising or unusual comparison, like those daggers in Hamlet!" One moment like that can spackle my depressions beautifully.

But last week, down was up and up was down and I became convinced I had no business being in my classroom, inverted as it was.

Context: All three of my Latin classes had tests, and I knew going into it that there was potential for bloodbath. This was the sixth graders' first big assessment of everything they have learned so far this year, and the upper grades were being tested on really tough concepts such as the passive voice (e.g. The chair was moved by me) and indirect statements (e.g. Catullus thinks that the girl loves the sparrow). Hell, this stuff is hard in English, let alone in Latin. I knew it was challenging stuff, but I also knew that I had prepared them well. Worst case scenario, I could curve the tests and then those tests could be repurposed as the instrument by which they learn the material in the end. Often a poor result on a test is just what some students needs to get serious about figuring out what they were supposed to have learned in class.

The sixth grade tests went pretty well for students who had been invested in the class since day one, but for the handful of students who thought all they had to do was memorize and regurgitate some endings, the test was a rude awakening. Part of my job, as a middle school teacher, is to move students from regurgitation to interpretation and application by the time they head off to high school. The first time we ask a sixth grader to make that move toward a higher level of thought, they tend to freak out.

And they freaked out. They freaked out on a grand scale. Unfortunately, that vibe went out into the ether, the seventh and eighth graders followed suit, and I was left with a pile of tests that looked as if they were bleeding red ink.

Two days later, in English class, I handed out tests on subjects and predicates. Crossroads Academy is heavy on traditional skills such as grammar, so my students gain an unusually in-depth knowledge of English (and hopefully Latin and French) grammar. This particular test was on subjects (complete and simple) and predicates (verbs and complete predicates), and was a test I have given for four years now. It's a cakewalk even considering the two questions that always catch the students who do not read carefully. Here's one: find the simple subject and the complete subject in "To the left of Ursula's house is an orchard of peach and apple trees." I will give the answer at the bottom of this post. Grades on this test tend to be high, and the students love that I change up the names every year so they all appear in the test in silly and entertaining scenarios.

I checked my records, and the past three years, the mean has been 86, 93, and 92. In other words, it's an easy test. This year, the mean was a 78. Not because the students did not know the concepts, but because fully half of the students failed to follow the instructions. I saw this on the Latin test as well. 20% of my Latin students failed to follow the instructions in full.

What's up with that? 

When I handed the tests back at the end of the week, my students were duly embarrassed, and in the end, their epic fail served as a learning experience. I required each English student to re-take the grammar test in class and debrief me on the answer to each question. I rewarded them with the points I was going to have to curve the tests anyway. In Latin, I handed out blank tests and, in well-planned out pairings, asked the students re-take the tests as an open book exercise. The pairings were required to not only find the correct answer, but to explain why all of the other options were wrong. It went really well, and in the end, one of the students who had initially failed said, "You know, now that we have gone through every question, this test really wasn't that hard." And her classmates agreed. Even the student who had pointed out that her test grade was the second-lowest grade she had received in her entire academic career admitted that she simply wasn't paying close enough attention to her translations.

Combine those failures with the ongoing headaches and time suck related to some students' lack of organizational skills, and I was exhausted. As far as I was concerned, I was just going to have to either quit or change my approach altogether. And change is hard. Like learning to become left-handed in old age.

What I needed was an equal and opposite jubilation to cancel out - or at least soften - the blow.

Friday afternoon, seventh period, I got just what the doctor ordered. My students will be performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet and I Henry IV next week, and I had to test them on their line memorization. Not their blocking, fight choreography, costumes, props, or interpretation, just their memorization. My expectations were low - the week had made me wary of disappointment - but this is what I discovered, there in my classroom, amidst the colossal wreck of the week: A heartbreaking Juliet, a brilliant Prince Hal, a terrifying Montague, a charismatic Hotspur.

They emoted, they transformed, they transcended, they understood. It was as if the students had conspired to give me a gift, just the thing I had been yearning for but did not even know existed.

As I plan my lessons for this week, inspired to start all over and make a fresh start, I am making a few adjustments. I had planned my daily cultural literacy lessons around British Victorian literature - Frankenstein, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Dracula - as we are reading Great Expectations in seventh grade and A Tale of Two Cities in eighth, but I've changed my mind. I think I will make room for Yeats, The Second Coming, Chinua Achebe, and Ozymandias, what with their widening gyres, lone and level sands, and things falling apart all over the place.

Because surely some revelation is at hand. And I am ready to return to the place of my defeat.
Thanks, Sarah P. (whose novel, Julia's Child, comes out soon. All of you should buy it and read it, and not just because the title is perfect. It really is a hoot. The simple subject, as the wise Sarah Pinneo pointed out, is "orchard," and the complete subject is "an orchard of peach and apple trees." The instinct is to go for "house," and all that junk at the beginning of the sentence, but "house" isn't what the verb, "is," refers to. What "is," is an orchard.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


     I woke up today, to the first weekend not scheduled to the hilt with visits, dinners, work obligations, or family obligations. I love all of these things, but there have been a lot of them lately, and we really needed a weekend home, as a family.

I asked Ben, my 12-year-old son, what he planned for this vast expanse of unscheduled time, and he said, without even looking up from his book, "Write." 

You see, it's November. NaNoWriMo time. National Novel Writing Month, and he means business. Fully half of my students (29 outof 50) are signed up to write their novels this month, in word counts raging from 10,000 (6th graders restricted by me due to their organizational challenges) to 30,000 (Ben) to 50,000 (Me). I have to get my butt in gear as it’s the 5th and I am behind on my word count. 

Last year, 28 students "won" NaNoWriMo and were presented with a gift certificate at one of a few self-publishers. The coupon offered up the promise of a bound galley, with free shipping, and their very own ISBN. According to Ethan, the ISBN was about the coolest part of the project. Two examples of completed galleys are pictured above. One student, Sophia Higgerson, is editing her galley and plans to sell it online. As their loyal teacher, I had to read the books. Sophia would only lend me her galley for 24 hours, so last night, I tucked in with A Promising Child. It opens:

Frost stayed late in the winter of 1899. He froze carriage wheels in the streets and curled his way across every building so that the windows shamelessly revealed the kisses he had bestowed upon them the night before. So subdued was Frosts' hostess, New York, that she still lay in the arms of Morpheus when she was meant to wake up and face the coming spring. 
And the days dragged on; morning after frigid morning followed by freezing night; Frost would not relent. Businessmen refrained from going to their work before noon, as carriages were not warm means of transportation; ladies would not leave their houses to visit friends for fear that they would die of cold before they reached the inviting entrance halls that sat like warm, golden ovens, waiting to bake any visitors golden brown.

Sure, the opening paragraphs reveal the author’s affection for British Victorian novels, Edith Wharton, and Leo Tolstoy. She channels the stiff yet lavish atmosphere of Wharton’s turn-of-the century New York and captures the sense of longing and loss that pervades Anna Karenina. Such evident imitation would make for a book review rife with labels such as “derivative” and “imitative,” but in this case she is to be forgiven. At least by me. I lent her both Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence, last year, when she was an eighth grader at Crossroads Academy.

That’s right. Sophia Higgerson was thirteen when she wrote those opening paragraphs. 

And then there’s my book, a steaming heap of putrescence, a rapidly decomposing collection of words that is worth little more than the record of its stunted word count and horribly problematic narrative structure. I think there might be a couple of good phrases in there, if I’m lucky. The beginning is no “Twig: population 189,” that’s for sure.

But then a bit of magic descended on P.O. Box 214. I opened my box and there was Teri Carter’s name. Hallelujah.

Teri is a talented writer I met, along with about ten other talented writers, over at Betsy’s blog. We became followers of each other’s blogs, and before I knew it, I was sending Teri drafts, urging her on to write, receiving photos of her new puppy. Ah, the internet. Writers as far away as the U.K. and Australia, writers of memoir, opinion pieces, literary fiction and erotica, women I have never met, have become friends. Smart, kind, talented writer-type friends. These writers are meeting in Chicago, and I can’t go. I was terribly bummed out, but I am all better now.

From Teri: "On the one side, The Forest For the Trees, in honor of where our small but sarcastic support group got our wheels. Betsy gets her due. On the flip side, the letters FTF (yes, you guessed it) with an open book-in-progress on one side and a closed book on the other. A reminder that we can - we will - get from here to there.

I’m feeling the love. Thank you Teri, thank you ladies, thank you Betsy. Raise a glass for me out there in the windy city. I will be at home, finishing the fucker. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Barbaric Yawp, O My Soul.

It's family movie night, so I showed my kids The Dead Poet's Society tonight. Ben's 13, loves to write, wants to be an much more perfect could a young Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard paired with Robin Williams be for a young wannabe writer and actor?

Unfortunately, about halfway through the film, Finn started complaining of an upset stomach and headache. He started doing that moan and groan thing little kids do, and then he said,

"Mommy, I think I'm gonna barf."

Just as Robin Williams was introducing his children to the words of Thoreau, ripping out that boring palaver in the Prichard text, with all his sucking of marrow, Finn was emptying the contents of his upper gastrointestinal system onto the sunroom, dining room, living room, and hall floor. We made it to the bathroom and he hurled the rest of his guts out into the toilet. was messy. And, as Ben added, when he brought me towels to clean up the mess, smelly.

One towel was so gross that I put it straight into the wood stove. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Incinerate.

Finn decided he needed to eat some noodles in order to feel better (we were having reheated venison stew for dinner) and, looking from the film to the bowl and back to the film, I said yes, that's a good idea. "Eat some novels so your tummy will feel better."

Novels, noodles, whatever. Same diff.

Finn feels better now, having purged his stomach and refilled it with egg novels, and Ben's transfixed, watching the scene where Robin Williams' character John Keating teaches Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) to sound his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.

I watch my elder son watch this scene, and I know he will, in fact, yawp. Not egg novels, like his little brother, but from the marrow, from the deepest part of his soul, the yawp of words into the universe, "...Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, / Till the bridge you will need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul." 


Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wrath of Achilles and Rabbit Pee

If Narcissus had not gotten waylaid by that glassy pool and had lived to see the advent of blogging, the "Stats" function on Blogger may just been his Waterloo (hell yes, pun intended).

Ah, Stats, how I love thee. I could spend my days checking on the number of hits I receive, the traffic sources, referring sites. I like to picture readers in far-flung locales reading my blog over a morning pain au chocolat or masala dosa or steaming bowl of pho. I wonder about my one reader in Saudia Arabia, that new reader in Singapore.

My favorite feature of Stats, however, is the search keyword category. I can see what search keywords led to a hit on my blog. Until yesterday, my favorite search term was "attractive well-dressed teacher." While I appreciate that the accumulated content of my blog somehow satisfies those search parameters as long as the searcher does not put quotes around the term, it does raise some troubling questions. Was that searcher hopeful when he or she located a hit on that term, clicked on the fourth one down, only to be disappointed by my profile photograph? What was the purpose of this search? Did he or she find what he or she was look- wait - oh, wait - Tim read over my shoulder and told me - oh, really? Oh....gross.

Nevermind. I have a new favorite search term - terms, actually. I checked my stats last night, and under "Search Keywords," I found two of interest. "Wrath of Achilles" and "Rabbit Pee." The first, I get. Maybe some student was looking to crib some essay on The Iliad and came across my story about weasels and chicken death. Sucker. Serves you right for cheating.

And the rabbit pee...some frustrated housewife was probably looking for a way to remove rabbit pee from her children's clothes and came across my post about using shredded report card drafts to create raised garden beds. I can tell you from experience that OxyClean or Shout works well, as long as you treat it as soon as you can after the rabbit has committed the offending act. If the pee sits untreated, it's all over. Now, if you have been feeding your rabbits beets, as I have been this harvest season, and they pee on, say, a really nice white blouse you were hoping to wear to Back to School Night with the new pants you got at the consignment store, forget about it. That shirt may as while go in the compost heap because that stain is never coming out. Unless your kid is working on a Civil War project for school, and he needs a shirt that looks as if it's been through a battle, so he can earn points by talking about Civil War infirmary practices, then simply wash the shirt without treating the stain. The smell will come out and the bright red stain will remain, and you will look like some sort of hero for creating the perfect walking wounded costume. Your son might even say thank you under his breath. Unless he's almost thirteen, in which case you will have to remind him to say thank you.

Huh? Oh, yeah - search terms. So I noticed last night that four people have arrived at my blog looking for the "Wrath of Achilles", and six wanted more information about "Rabbit Pee." I hope I have provided useful information for at least a few of those readers. I am going to stick with the assumption that no one was searching on both terms - "Wrath of Achilles" and "Rabbit Pee" - at once.

Because that would just be weird.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Breaking Radio Silence

Yeah, yeah, yeah...long time no write.

The school year has started but it's all jarring and interrupted by holidays, trips to the Hulbert Outdoor Center for teambuilding, emergency faculty meetings called to deal with week will actually be my first full week of classes, and it's about time.

I am currently on Lake Morey in beautiful Fairlee, VT, and the rain. It is incessant. We come to Hulbert each year in order to bring our small middle school together and foster leadership in the 8th grade. So far, so good. We spent yesterday on teambuilding exercises in the pouring rain, and I heard not one complaint, not one peep of discontent. Well, until two sixth graders went for the same football and collided. One kid is fine, one kid has a lump the size of said football on his little addled head.

I am in charge of the 8th grade girls' cabin. It's wet, it's smelly, it's loud with the hot whispers of pre-teen angst and gossip. Despite all that, we fell asleep last night to the call of two owls, and that makes up for a  lot.

Today, more team building and the high ropes course. One year ago, I wrote an article about what this experience means to our school, and as I head out for breakfast, I will post it again, for good times' sake. The full piece, with photos, is here.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

In the common day of my Crossroads Academy classroom, I encourage my students to wander into their own regions of supernatural wonder. I teach my students to understand the journey of the hero – Aeneas, Moses, Arthur, Huck Finn – in order to prepare them for their own quests, their own battles, their own victories. The journey of these heroes – and of my students – inevitably leads into the wilderness, where the true exploration of heart and soul takes place.

In order to allow our students to embark upon their own heroic journeys, we take them into to the wilderness of the Hulbert Outdoor Center for three days each fall. Under the firm but gentle tutelage of the Hulbert instructors, and with the encouragement of their classmates, Crossroads students challenge themselves to go into the dark places they must visit in order to make the big discoveries about themselves.

Crossroads Academy is a small, independent school with a very large mission. We educate children in kindergarten through eighth grade according to the Core Knowledge Curriculum set out by E.D. Hirsch, and the Core Virtues Curriculum outlined by Mary Beth Klee, our the school’s founder. Our academic curriculum is interwoven with an education in the core virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, and, through the study of these virtues, our students are continually challenged to assess who they are in and what sort of people they want to become. We explore the meaning of character as it is expressed through history and literature, but there is no better place to explore one’s individual interpretation of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence than at Hulbert Outdoor Center.

Hulbert allows us to build a strong and trusting community in a matter of days rather than the months it would take in a normal classroom environment. We assign cross-grade teams for the three days, teams that get together for lunch over the course of the school year in order to re-connect and reflect on their Hulbert experience. Older students partner and mentor their younger schoolmates on the ropes course while the younger students are encouraged to establish their place within the larger community.

In our surveys of their experiences at Hulbert, students reflect on the things they learned there:

“One of the most important things I learned at Hulbert that I can use at school is the ability to believe in myself.” Seventh grade student.

“By the end of these three days, I feel I have learned so much about each and every person in my group. I also feel that I have made bonds with the people in my group, which cannot be broken. Also, I feel that during these three days I have learned how to be the best team member I think I can be.” Eighth grade student.

“I learned that you shouldn’t ever underestimate anyone, including yourself.” Sixth grade student.

“I learned that I can be a strong leader, but that there are also times when I need to hold back and let other have a chance to lead. It took empathy to understand that others besides myself wanted to lead as well.” Eighth grade student.

It’s not just the students that learn about themselves. Students are able to get acquainted with their teachers informally, outside the rigors of the classroom. Often, students are nervous about being away from home, and the support of their teachers in the cabins at night fosters a special trust that cannot be created in the classroom. Teachers take part in the ropes course and teambuilding exercises, and it never fails to thrill the students when their French or math teacher comes barreling down the long zip line. I have learned so much about my students – their fears, hopes, and dreams – through my participation in our annual trip to Hulbert.

After their successes in the physical and emotional challenges presented to them at Hulbert, my students are well equipped for the academic rigors ahead. The bond of trust formed in teambuilding exercises at Hulbert extends into the classroom, and holds our school together as a community. Our students arrive at Hulbert individuals and emerge as part of a larger community. When we return to the common day of our classroom, my students are ready to learn. They trust me, they trust their classmates, and they are more able to take the intellectual leaps of faith I ask of them.

Each year, in our budget meetings, the Crossroads Academy staff looks at the expense of Hulbert, the luxury of three whole days in the woods when the budget is tight. Ultimately, we all agree. The trip pays for itself daily in returns of diligence, fortitude, perseverance, and a spirit of intellectual bravery. I am a better teacher and my students are better learners because of the foundation laid by Hulbert staff in the opening days of our school year.

The character instilled in those three days at Hulbert is a boon to our school, and even deep into our school year, those three warm days and cool nights they spent in the wilderness together continue to bind our community. Crossroads Academy students go into the woods in Fairlee in order to find themselves, but emerge having found their place in a community of heroes.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rather an Extraordinary Girl

Pip has been gone for ten days, and it's been hard for all of us to face the possibility that he will never come home. The kids listen for the jingle of his bell, and the neighbors are on high alert. We spent two days walking the woods in pursuit of a false lead and have reluctantly begun to mourn his loss.

Pip charmed his way into our home. He followed me around Robie Farms, rolled over on his back and looked over his shoulder with a come-hither invitation to fall for him. He bestowed his affection on me and I was grateful, so when he withdrew his love, I felt jilted. Dumped.

In the meantime, our dependable house cat, Clementine, remains constant. We adopted her five years ago from the Upper Valley Humane Society despite her overbite, toothlessness, and bow legs. Her appreciation is tangible. Every night, she meows plaintively at the top of the stairs with impatience, then moves to the end of the bed nearest the door as I conduct my evening routine, and finally takes up her position on my pillow when I slide into bed. She's restless at first, frustrated with my book for monopolizing the prime real estate in front of my face, but when I finally get rid of the extra reading pillow, she settles in. She stalks purposefully up on to the pillow, then lies down in the shape of a comma, her back against my ear. I fall asleep to her soft down and the soothing purr of her contentment. Like a puppy soothed by the tick tock of a blanket-wrapped clock, she has become my white noise machine.

In the thrall of Pip's sexy and alluring newness, we stopped seeing Clem. I have grown so accustomed and dependent on her presence that she became part of the set dressing of my life. The irony is that without Clem, I would be lost. In order to sleep, I need my bed, my husband, and Clem. If she left...well, the wounds would be deep.

Which brings me back around to the novel Great Expectations. It's the first text I teach in the fall, so it's been on my mind a lot as I plan the coming academic year. I have stuck with this book year after year because my students love it. They connect to the characters, and as most teachers know, that's half the battle in teaching literature. The boys tend to see themselves in Pip, a the main character, who falls in love with Estella, an untouchable, beautiful and cruel first love. The girls, however, are divided. Some girls, the ones who have discovered the social power of emotional manipulation, see themselves in Estella. Others, the girls who have been manipulated, taken for granted, overlooked, see themselves in Biddy, Pip's childhood friend. Estella and Biddy act as foils in the novel - Estella is all regal, refined beauty, while Biddy is plain, understated comfort.

Pip's journey from poor orphan to educated gentleman is punctuated by his love for these two women. Biddy was there at the beginning, a fixture in the life he abandons for a brighter future. Along the way, he's blinded by his yearning for Estella's affections, and wrecked by her cruel disdain. But in the end, Biddy is the constant, the home he returns to when he realizes he's strayed from his true path. His realization comes too late, however, for Biddy has moved on and married a man who appreciates her for her understated yet and comforting embrace. Pip realized a little late that the thrall of a cruel woman may be heady and exciting, but happiness more often lies in the comfort of a reliable, uncomplicated love.

This morning, I received an call from a neighbor who was sure he'd trapped Pip in his house. I raced out the door, jumped in the car and sped up Pout Pond Lane, almost out of my head with excitement. I closed my eyes as I reached the second floor landing, too anxious to look.

The moment I opened my eyes, I knew. This was not Pip. It looked a lot like him, but this cat had five pounds on Pip and a birthmark on the tip of his nose. There was no recognition in his eyes, no bald patch on the back of his neck, no come hither glance over his shoulder as he rolls over for a belly rub.

I couldn't contain my disappointment as I made small talk with my neighbor. He was disappointed, too, and as we watched the cat head out into his territory in the general direction of his house and family, I teared up a little.

But when I got home, Clementine was sitting on the dining room table, watching the door for my return. Her bowed front legs splayed out at odd angles, and there was a drop of drool on her chin, but she was waiting for me to come home. And tonight, when it's time for bed, I will fall asleep to her comforting softness, grateful for her constancy.

Addendum: I took the photo of Clem (below) and realized she was not acting like herself. She was grumpy (see photo) and making frequent, yet unproductive, trips to the litter box. I watched her for a while and when it became clear that she was insanely uncomfortable, I took her down the road to the vet. Our town vet diagnosed a UTI, and sent her home with antibiotics. She'll probably be fine in a couple of days. Tim thinks there are darker forces at work, however. His theory is that our newly neutered Pip, who still had plenty of testosterone roiling in his blood, took advantage of our poor Clem, gave her a UTI and the took off, in true tomcat style.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Debriefing: Kill Your Darlings and Absence of Pip

As I lay in bed last night, thinking about how on earth a deadline can come down to the last couple of hours, I calculated - estimated, actually - how many words, how many sentences I write for every one that ends up in the final draft. I actually think my ratio is high; I think I keep in more of my darlings than I kill, but lordy, there's a lot of time spent writing stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor.

Is this normal? I think it is. According to all those books I read, all those interviews, all those advice blogs, I have to write shitty first drafts and put in the hours, and write when it hurts, and write when it's crap. And I do that. I do - and I can't think of any other endeavor where there's so much time and attention put into stuff that ends up in the virtual trash can.

My favorite writing program, Scrivener, won't LET me throw stuff away permanently. Those people, they know writers. They know that we get pissed off and throw stuff away and regret it later. They know that sometimes I write with a purging hand, that sometimes I write with a 5-lucques olive martini by my side, that sometimes my cat accidentally deletes things...the Scrivener people, they are wise. I urge you to check them out.

In the meantime, it's actually really nice for my words to be in my agent's hands, to have time away from them while I prepare for the new school year. I am heading in today to make my classroom look great for the first day of school. I have an old, trashy copy of The Odyssey that I will take apart and use for the background of the main bulletin board, then put images from an old copy of a gorgeous mythology book over the top. I'm going all Martha Stewart on that converted-trailer classroom. There will be laminating. There will be decorative borders.

I also have some sad - no, not sad yet - news. Pip has been missing for about five days. I know he's probably fine, and I have not given up hope yet, but I think the neighbors are getting a little sick of my "Heeeeeere kitty kitty kitty" each morning and evening all up and down the street. I will go exploring in his territory today in case he's trapped somewhere. Keep the faith. He's wily and, as a barn cat, I remain hopeful that he's out there somewhere foraging and courting all the female cats in the area.

More news when I hear from said agent, or if - when - Pip shows up.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Day After

Well, I made my deadline, but I think I have brain damage. Very early this morning, I scanned for errant red or green squiggly lines, checked the formatting one last time, and hit 'send.' I thought I'd feel relief when I hauled myself into bed, but for the next two hours, all of my grammatical, syntactical, and continuity errors showed themselves in my mind's eye.

All I have to do today is help set up for our town's library book sale and take a riding lesson with my son Ben, but I am hoping to do a coherent blog post later on today.

Time for coffee.

Did I mention I made pickles earlier this week? It was therapeutic and the sight of those jars all lined up in the cellar stirs a Little House in the Big Woods sort of contentment in me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pip's Expectations.

A place to nap, some mice, a bowl of water, and love. He's quite taken with my neighbors, as they are with him, so here's hoping he chooses us. Muses always have the choice to depart, you know.

He's settled in beautifully. Thank you, everyone, for asking. I'd love to have time for a blog post today, but my August 3 deadline is barreling down on me and it's all I can do to write fast enough for that project. News on how it's going will come soon, I promise.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

A couple of years ago, I was lost. I had written one book that my long-suffering former agent had shopped around to everyone who might be interested. Alas, it did not sell. But in the tradition of green writers and first books, all those publishers were right. That book did not deserve to be sold. It sucked. It had some really nice chapters, and some really wonderful passages, but overall, it was, well, a first book. But bless her heart, my agent had faith in my voice and no writer could hope for more than that.

Once I abandoned hope of publication for that book and pimped out its component parts to every magazine willing to fork over a few bucks, I did not know what to write about next. What would I say now that the schtick I had developed over two years was no longer relevant to me? I liked the narrator of Education of a Flatlander. She was funny. She was me, only more so. She is the voice I am supposed to be writing, but every time I tried to write something I felt might be marketable, I wrote in this weird, forced voice that just wasn't me.

The first piece I wrote in a voice that worked was an article for the Valley News on my life as a middle school teacher. It flowed and it worked, and I loved that piece. I wished I could write like that every day.

But when Tim suggested the obvious, that I write about teaching, I was skeptical. Who the hell wants to read about my teaching life? My life as a chainsaw-toting, mistake-making, homesteading wannabe seemed like something people might want to read about - something I certainly like to read about. But teaching? Huh.

Then I looked at my bookshelves. They are filled with memoirs about real experiences. Memoirs that are true, memoirs that tell a story, memoirs that have a real voice, and it turns out I don't care that much about the context. Farming, hiking, adoption, travel, goat herding, teaching, cheesemaking. I love all of it, as long as the person writing loves their story and can write in a true voice. E.B. White said it well, in a letter to his brother: "I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace." Whether it's the death of a pig or the birth of a new career, it's best to stick with a voice that works. Tim tends to be right about a lot (don't tell him I said so), so I reserved final judgment until I'd had time to think about it.

One of my favorite chapters from Flatlander was called "Tarry, Good Beatrice," about the day I drove up to Robie Farms for milk and cream, and found myself attending the birth of a heifer. Lee Robie let me name the calf, and because I had been re-reading and listening to lectures about about Much Ado About Nothing, I named her Beatrice. I had been torn between farming and teaching, but that day, I realized that I did not actually want to be a farmer, and really craved a return to the classroom. The Robies had taught me a lot about farming, and that day, watching Beatrice come into the world, they taught me that despite my love of the barn and dirt and farm implements, my true love is for language and my students.

And so I returned to the classroom, the place I am meant to be. I started writing about that life, and you know what? Tim was right. As long as my voice is honest, it does not matter if I am writing about my attempt to live the life of a homesteader or about teaching Shakespeare. I keep writing, mining my experiences and playing with ideas in an attempt to see what's there. Just as Tim predicted, those words are starting to come together into something that looks a hell of a lot like a book.

Fast forward three years, to a second phone call with my new agent. I posted a while back about my first phone call with her - all that excitement and anxiety culminated in a discussion that was encouraging, confusing, exciting, and, well, anticlimactic. Over the past couple of months and a new book proposal, she and I have had a chance to get to know each other. I think we might just be a good match. Actually, thanks to Friday's phone call, I know we will. The polite questions and restrained enthusiasm of our first phone call gave way to jokes, encouragement, brainstorming, and light swearing. I knew from talking to her former authors that she is hot shit, that she really knows her stuff, both as an editor and agent, but now I really get it. The reality writers read about over and over again in every blog and book on publishing (but would like to think doesn't apply to their book, to their writing) is that a book has to sell. It has to fit into a category, fulfill a need, be definable according to the other books on the market. I can write my ass off and churn out some of the best writing of my life, but if she can't sell it, it's not going to be a book in the tangible book-and-covers sense. It's a hobby. Which is fine; writing will always be a joy to me, but I want to be a writer. A professional writer. The sort of writer who makes some money from the act of arranging words on paper. A writer that eventually gets to hold her very own words in her hands in the form of pages and a cover.

I have not sold this book yet, but I do have the confidence of this agent who knows what it takes to publish a book. She has faith in my voice, but now she needs proof that my book is something she can sell. And so I have a deadline: three chapters in three weeks.

So it seems appropriate that I celebrated the birth of a new book and a new chapter in my life with another visit to Robie Farms. 

Beatrice the heifer birthed her very own calf this season, and I was eager to see it. New calves have incredibly soft coats, velvety and clean, like infants' peach-fuzz hair. They smell sweet, of milk and shavings. At least until they start laying down in their own poop, and then they just smell like the rest of the barn. Their long, prehensile tongues licked our hands and left trails of slime on our forearms as we moved from stanchion to stanchion. Every couple of feet, when we stopped to visit with a particularly friendly or pretty calf, a friendly, buff-colored cat rolled at our feet, begging for a scratch or two before we walked on. When we moved, he moved, trotting along behind us, mewing and batting lashes at us. When we left the barn, he followed us up the driveway to the car. As we were leaving, I mentioned to Lee Robie that he had quite the barn cat. Most barn cats are aloof. They understand that their job is to keep the mice in check and in return, someone might squirt some warm milk in their direction. This cat, though...he craved attention. Lee laughed. He said they call him the "Cow Kitty" because he follows behind the cows and herds them when they move from the pasture to the barn for milking. Cow Kitty needs a family, Lee said, and he instructed me to take him home. 

I don't need another cat. Tim's allergic to the cat we already have. He'd kill me. It's preposterous. I really couldn't. 

But I did. 

Cow Kitty, like Beatrice, needed a new name, and after hundreds of submissions (Bob, Percy, Ice Fang, Sugarball, Draco, Hairy...) Benjamin landed on the right one: Pip. 

The first chapter of my new book is about teaching Great Expectations, and its characters occupy my thoughts as I attempt to make this August third deadline. Now Pip - our Pip - occupies my home as well. And that seems just about perfect.