Disability

Home is Where Your Heart Feels…

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. The following month, I enrolled in a graduate critical pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. We discussed literacy a lot there, too, particularly related to English language learners, and students who have been historically oppressed.

On Monday, I wrote some frustrations on how APS fell short in engaging students’ full experiences in connecting to literature and art. I asked, How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? Macedo asked, How can we continue to educate students while insisting on the separation of cognition and emotion? 

Regarding APS, I elaborated:

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

[…] But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art. 

So what is the alternative?

In the pedagogy seminar, and in my children’s literature course last spring in the bilingual education department (taught by my adviser, who was responsible for bringing Macedo to campus), we used student-generated, open-ended literature responses in the target language. These enable us, as teachers, to simplify a complex text to make it more accessible to our students; through the same process, we can also take a simple text and dig deeper into it through discussion cycles and semantic mapping.

Below are two maps from my seminar this summer, based on the discussion around a short poem by Francisco X. Alarcon. The first is on “Silences,” on the things that keep people silent or silenced; the second is on “Noise,” the things in life that distract us or drown out issues requiring our attention. Although “silence” and “noise” are opposite words by denotation, these concept maps are fairly similar:

Silences

Silences

Noises

Noise

So taking this, I read the book My Friend is Sad, by Mo Willems with my students. I projected it on the interactive white board so the English text was visible and read the story in ASL, making connections to the English text. We talked about opposites: happy and sad. In their journals, each kid drew and wrote about their favorite part of the story. The next day, two students (who do not have nicknames yet because it’s too soon in the year!) read and acted out the story. Then, we got down to mapping.

We started with the HAPPY map. Happy is a safe emotion. You can share stories and phrases and synonyms for happy with new people, and you don’t have to be very vulnerable. We referred to the story, and then we branched out. Some of the things that make us happy:

  • skateboard
  • snow board
  • play tag
  • yellow blanket

The next day, we talked about things that made us sad. The kids started out timidly with single words, and got a little bolder:

  • cry
  • baby
  • feeling scared
  • Mom took my iPod
  • JoJo broke my doll and the head came off

Then the floodgates opened:

  • No dad because he’s in jail far away. Then jail finished, still lives far
  • Go to a funeral and miss your grandpa. Hold your heart and carry his casket (This was in reference to my grandpa dying in April 2014, which a student remembered and shared. I was a pallbearer. I was not expecting this, and yes, I teared up.)
  • Want more money and patient working (The ASL sign for patient can also be translated as bearing, suffering, or enduring)

This. This is what my students produced on the first week of school

The Sad-Happy Maps

The Sad-Happy Maps

…from a book that looks like this:

IMG_20150825_072609

My students don’t always need upbeat. They don’t need hyper-engaging. They need real. They deserve authentic. Sure, My Friend is Sad is a really funny book (the lengths to which Piggie goes attempting to cheer Elephant are extraordinary, indeed). But the basic human desire to take care of one’s friend and to alleviate loneliness is totally accessible. They really just needed me to operate the markers. For now, anyway.

Migraine Monday: Depression Sucks

Depression sucks.

My neurologist took me off one of my migraine medications this summer. We scaled back slowly, but the withdrawal was still awful. I couldn’t sleep, and yet all I could do was sleep. I wasn’t hungry. Food was boring. I lost weight. My motivation was sapped, my energy drained. I cried.

All of this makes sense, I reminded myself. Withdrawal is hard. It’ll get better. 

Withdrawal is over. It’s not better.

My head is holding out, for the most part. I’ve had no major vascular episodes. I’ve had some tingly fingers and lips, a couple visual auras. At least two days with olfactory hallucinations. But no pain. I’ve lost, I would guess, 10 pounds, which my doctor told me to expect. I don’t weigh myself though…that’s opening a whole new can of worms, but my thinking on the issue provided a clue into how depressed I was getting (more on this for Fit Friday).

You see, depression sucks. It lies. It sucks my energy, saps my strength. It stalls my progress, regresses my growth. It plants dead and dying thoughts in my head and distorts my view of reality.

Worst of all, it makes me believe I deserve to feel as shitty as I feel.

It’s just withdrawal. You’ve felt worse. You were suicidal back in junior high, and at least it’s not that bad. Sure, your sleep is disrupted, but at least you’re sleeping more than four hours a night, and you’re getting naps. You’re not eating much, but it’s summer, and you don’t get terribly hungry in the summer anyway, and your roommate is making you eat dinner at least, and your pants fit better now don’t they?? The structure of the school year will snap you out of my funk. You feel okay. Okay is okay!!

Okay is not okay. I deserve to feel better than just “okay” for the rest of my life.

And here’s the kicker, at least for me: at least three people very close to me are depressed right now. One of them, I counseled and helped get back to the doctor to re-start medication. And things are looking up. Another one? We remind each other to shower and eat when a really bad day happens. Because sometimes someone needs to remind you to shower. And the third? That’s my sister. We’ve been doing this together for over a decade. I can see it and help it in other people, but for myself?

Self care is hard. Because depression lies.

So I called my neurologist this week. I started with him. If he wants to stick with the medication change, I’ll go to my regular doctor and see about my depression/anxiety medication. I don’t deserve to live this way, sleeping on half a bed while the other half is covered in laundry and library books, eating only waffles and coffee, counting my days in naps and avoided phone calls. Okay is not okay.

No one deserves to live this way. My medication withdrawal has passed. Time to stop withdrawing from life.

What Kids “Get”

Content note: social class, classism, art, accessibility

Poor Kids Get Art!

That was the thrust of the piece by Rachel Lu in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the ribbon cutting of the Whitney Museum in New York.

I agree. Poor kids do get art. But the First Lady never said they didn’t:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

The First Lady understands the both the broad and nuanced implications of power, privilege, and marginalization; this is her lived experience.

From Rachel Lu’s piece, and her lived experience:

I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute [sic]. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been.

Once. She took underprivileged kids to an art museum once.

Later, as she showed them Monet’s haystacks:

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group […] But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

Here we have some reflection, followed by pity. She also takes credit for opening the students’ eyes to Monet specifically and Art in general. It reminded me of the short-term mission trips popular among my peers during my evangelical days, a kind of privileged tourism. Those poor kids, were it not for me, would never have understood [blank].

Lu’s single experience taking a group of children to the Art Institute of Chicago was enough evidence to counter the First Lady’s assertion that poor children of color do not see museums and other centers of culture as welcoming places. That is the epitome of privilege: my opinion supersedes your lived experience. In fact, the way Lu positions herself as the gatekeeper in that scenario, as the White, middle-class volunteer with the time and the knowledge, keeps the art she loves inaccessible.

In my own field, the astonished Deaf Kids Get Poetry! should give me pause. Of course they do. As a gatekeeper, I need to make sure that I am not making the literary form even less accessible than it already may be. My students proved to me this year that they get poetry–in English, in ASL, signed or spoken. My students chose their own poems this year. I helped them crack the code, but the “getting it” was in their own power. When it came to translating, I know my students see the world differently than I do. I may have the grammar, but they have the images.

My students also “get” condescension. They are tuned in to the adults around them. They know when someone doesn’t expect much from them. They know when a face or a voice is insincere. They would “get” Rachel Lu, even through an interpreter.

I have my own problems with the First Lady’s remarks. Institutions like the Whitney should be doing outreach not with the hope of reaching the next great artist or the next First Lady, but because all children should have access to the arts as a form of expression, culture, and identity. Art should be seen not just as a tool to “rise above,” but also to simply be. Art should not be reserved for the privileged galleries, although some of it is housed there. Art needs to be in the streets, on our hands, on our lips. Kids get art, they get poetry. It’s the adults who fail to understand what that means when their privilege gets in the way.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Migraine Monday: Tampons and TMI

This morning, I felt like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every morning, I feel like Data. I wake up and do a complete systems check, focusing on usual offenders to see how I’m feeling.

Today, I did not pass inspection.

The left side of my head hurts, specifically behind my left eye, and my C2 vertebra. My hips are tender. I have cramps. But after a weekend of digestive failure, my upper and lower GI tracts seem to be functioning at satisfactory levels and I can eat and drink without stabbing pains or bloating.

Also, I have cramps.

Fortunately, I can function, and I am able to work today. I have a baby-migraine and cramps, but not a knock-me-on-my-butt migraine or a make-me-pass-out menstrual nightmare. I have experienced those as a one-two punch before, and it’s unbearable. Today is bearable, and I’ll take the win.

Like Data, my pragmatic filter leaves little space to leave out such information about various bodily functions when my basic functionality is on the line. When my ability to even get out of bed is at stake, there is no TMI.

When it comes to teaching my students about their own bodies, and helping them understand that there is no shame with their own body processes, the TMI line blurs a bit then, too.

Granted, there are some definite, hard-and-fast boundaries between my life and my students’ lives. My first two years of teaching, I taught a kiddo (now a sophomore in high school) I shall refer to as Sherlock. He was a very, well…investigative fellow. I once left the classroom for 15 seconds to grab worksheets off the printer in the classroom that was literally four steps away from mine. I returned to find him standing on my rolling desk chair, reading my email off the Smart Board. He was also known for such observant quips as, You should really try 5-Hour Energy so you don’t crash at 2 p.m. every day, and Did you give up coffee because you burp less during calendar now. He was also very impulsive and inquisitive and lightning quick and would rummage through other people’s things while they were present, that is, until the day he discovered my tampon drawer. He was horrified. I never again had to remind him not to open my desk drawers, that it is inappropriate to ask a woman if and when she is going to have babies, and not to tell classroom visitors, My teacher Ms Danielle doesn’t have babies but she has houseplants.

Back to the tampon drawer. The year his mother was pregnant, he suggested I have a baby. When I said that was a very personal topic, he then suggested I buy a baby. Sherlock was always up in my business. My friend James doesn’t have a middle name, so he used to write NMI for his middle name on documents (indicating No Middle Initial); Sherlock’s middle name should be TMI.

But here I sit, six years later, ready to show my tampon drawer to one of my kiddos. On purpose. She started her period this year, and she’s pissed. She started out excited about her first bra. She and mom went on a special shopping trip to buy one, and she told us about it at morning meeting the following Monday. I was cheering her on–no body shame here! We’re growing up, and we’re strong and awesome! She didn’t show anyone, and so it still stayed mostly private. And that was it. One announcement, boom.

Then she got her period. No one was expecting it this soon, none of us were really ready for it, and mom didn’t have the signing vocabulary to explain what was happening. She wants the purple pads, but they’re not the right kind. None of the other girls have theirs yet. She cries the whole week before she gets it and doesn’t know why she’s sad. It’s awful, and it makes her mad. So I’m going to show her my tampon drawer and tell her that this week is my turn. Because my period makes me angry, too. For the last seventeen years I have experienced severe dysmenorrhea that, as of my surgery in October 2013, does not correlate to what is actually physically going on. It’s frustrating as heck and when my GP and two specialists can only offer a shrug and an IUD, I shrug and take it. And then the week before my period I turn into a dinosaur who bloats out of her clothing and tries to staple people’s mouths shut. And that’s just the PMS, while on treatment, and I have the clarity to talk myself down. I don’t know how I functioned in my pre-meds days. I really really don’t.

So, she’s angry about her period. I’ll offer a little empathy and a peek in my tampon drawer. And then I’ll take some Aleve (which works for both the migraine and the cramps, at least to take the edge off, anyway). It may be TMI, but it might just be the TLC she needs. Because if I’m 30 and I think this is all BS, I can’t imagine what 3rd grade must feel like right now.

Migraine Monday: The Long Way Down

April is my favorite month of the year. And I spent the entire month sick, almost better, and then even sicker.

I was sticking to my usual “head down and power through” approach to life as a means of pushing through, taking various decongestants and antihistamines in an attempt to take the edge of my symptoms, until a coughing fit got so bad it scared my students.

Bear in mind: I have taught this class for two to three years. We’ve been through some challenging times together. Ponyo and I used to take weekly trips to the de-escalation room, and her classmates remember those days. Ponyo, TLK, Freckles, and Elsa have been with me since the beginning of the migraines, through the ups and downs of various treatments and substitute teachers and days when we couldn’t get a sub and they shuffled off to another teacher for the last few hours of the day. They have seen me on some very bad migraine days when I’ve needed someone to pick me up because I could not drive. TLK can tell I have an aura before I tell anyone. When Sir New Dude arrived to our class in March, and we were introducing ourselves and saying whether we were deaf or hard-of-hearing, I was about to explain that I am hearing but I have auditory processing challenges when TLK interrupted: She’s hearing, but she gets migraines and then she says “What?” a lot. But she hasn’t had a bad one since… ((looks at the calendar)) January. Her last bad one was in January.

So three weeks after my spring break throat tickle had turned into a never-ending cold, when I descended into a coughing fit that originated from the core of my being, and even my students knew that offering my water bottle was pointless, it was pretty obvious I needed to see a doctor. Sir New Dude said, You need to go to the doctor. I replied that I planned to go to the Quick Care after school. TLK, the master of the Very Serious and Authoritative Quiet Voice, looked me in the eye and said, No, you need to go to the doctor now. I explained there were no subs. We don’t need a sub. We know what to do. We will not fight over the computers or the iPad. We’ll read everything we’re supposed to. If there’s a problem we know who is in charge. You need to go to the doctor right now.

I finished my work day, and after two hours at Quick Care and another hour at the pharmacy sorting out the mis-prescribed drugs to which I was allergic, I went home with cough syrup for my bronchitis, and instructions to use my steroid inhaler for my lungs (as well as for my sinuses as prescribed).

Seriously, who gets bronchitis in April???

The next day (Wednesday), I had an IEP meeting I could not miss, so I went to work. At the Eleventh Hour, I got a sub for the Thursday’s department field trip. Wednesday, I took my cough syrup with codeine at 5:30 p.m. and slept for 18 hours. Eighteen hours. I woke up every six hours coughing, so I took another dose and crawled back in bed. I spent Thursday doped up and lounging in bed with a book. I ate, I napped. Friday, too. All I did was shower and change into different PJs. Saturday? More rest.

On Sunday I started to feel a little more human, and I put on real clothes and went to church. Pretty sure I napped after that.

Last week I only took the cough syrup at bed time, obviously. I can’t really teach in a stupor. And I averaged only one coughing fit a day. But I was exhausted by the time the kids left my room at 3:30. And I was in bed by 8 every night. I’ve been off the meds since Wednesday.

I went two weeks without writing more than a few tweets and some blackout poetry. I did some very basic teaching. Solid teaching, but nothing fancy. My food intake consisted of waffles and coffee and toast and cereal and some butternut squash soup with wild rice (a big batch I could eat all week).

I have never been sick this long or taken so long to recover. That this has come at the end of the school year–a time when I already struggle to drag my sad, sorry ass out of bed to dunk my head under the shower tap and throw on some clothes–makes it even worse.

While I was taking it easy, I decided to catch up on some autistic advocacy reading and disability community conversations, and I saw a tweet (in a different context) that made everything click for me: Treatable doesn’t make disability disappear. 

My very successful migraine treatments don’t change the underlying condition of chronic migraine. My counseling and medication don’t change the underlying structure of my depression and anxiety. My invisible disabilities are still there, and they still require energy from my body and my mind. And when I get sick…. well, it’s a long way down. Because a cold or a cold+bronchitis is really a cold+bronchitis+invisibilemigraine+invisibledepression+invisibleanxiety. At the end of a very exhausting school year.

And after the long way down, it’s a really long way back up.

Cute, Part 3: Poetry

Content note: poetry in the elementary classroom

I’ve written before about my dislike of the adjective “cute” in regards to my students. Sometimes, it’s used as a disability consolation prize. Most of the time, “cute” is more about how the adults feel than about how my students feel. They’re getting older now, some of them are 10 and 11; “cute” is becoming more condescending. Context matters, of course. Several friends pointed out on my previous blogs posts on this topic that context matters, and that “cute” can be a compliment. It can be, but I maintain that for people who see my students every day, who know them, who have seen them from many angles, “cute” is a non-compliment that ignores the many dimensions of their personalities. It’s the “Hihowareya” fly-by of the school environment.

Right now, my class is diving into the thick of our spring open house preparations. The open house is a month from yesterday. It may seem like we have a lot of time, but with only four days of school a week, and field trips, parties, therapies, and other interruptions thrown into the mix, we really do not have a lot of time to get ready. I decided to focus our energies into literature and poetry study. We just finished our first-ever novel, so we are doing open-ended wrap-up projects: the students each chose their favorite character and completed a character web, descriptive paragraph(s), and illustration. The kids finished their writing today, and the mini-essays are so different. Ponyo focused on one specific event that only took up two pages of the entire novel, an interaction between the main character and her little brother, whose relationship during the rest of the novel reminded me of Ponyo and her younger brother. TLK chose the father, and talked about actions; every action he picked (killing a one-horned buck, surviving smallpox) was centered around the love for his family. Sir New Dude also chose the father, but focused on character traits like bravery and strength.

We are reading and writing poetry. They picked a favorite poem from a wide selection of books I offered, and they will be presenting it in a few different ways. The students will each work with me to translate it to ASL and record it. The students who wish to read it in spoken English may do so (three students asked if they could, so I added this). They will illustrate the poems they picked. We are also translating a song and recording a music video. Working with them, hearing and seeing them give voice to each poem, looking at their illustrations, digging through the meaning they attach to the ideas has been simultaneously surprising and totally expected. It fits with how I understand their minds and hearts to work, but the nuance and depth they bring reminds me how often we (and I include myself here) do not give enough credit to young people for their ability to make connections to the world and each other through text.

Sir New Dude and TLK selected “Grasshoppers” from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. TLK follows SND’s lead for reading aloud; the roles are reversed for signing. They each wear one hearing aid, so they sit side-by-side, their aided ears together when they read it. SND is a fast reader, so he is practicing listening and waiting for a partner; he has a tendency to steamroll people in regular conversation, too. As a hard-of-hearing kid, it might be a compensatory tool for controlling his environment so he doesn’t miss anything–if he’s the one talking, he knows what’s going on. When they were drawing, they searched YouTube for nature videos of grasshoppers jumping, some in slow motion. Using science to understand art–beautiful. 

Freckles chose a poem from Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson titled “failing.” Right away he told me, This kid needs to learn math but it’s really about life too. I asked him why he liked the poem. He said it felt good. The kid in the poem laments the adult answer of, Just ’cause; Frecks was nervous, but when I told him he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying adults make him feel frustrated, too…well, you can probably guess what he told me. I added a few pencil marks on the poem and asked him to read it again. After he did, adding the pauses and a breath, he looked at me and said, Yeah. That was good. That last line was even sadder when I breathe. Frecks gets poetry. Of course he does; there’s a reason he was drawn to that book–his whole life is poetry. I am not trying to be profound or emotive. I mean that the first two stanzas of the first poem in that book could have been written about Freckles and his noisy brain that no one ever calls cute but everyone is always telling to be quiet and sit down and stop singing.

Elsa picked a poem from the book Food Hates You, Too, called “Toast.” It’s about bread getting eaten and being dead. She drew a really morbidly hilarious picture of dismembered bread being eaten by worms, and two angel breads going to heaven. All those people who tell me how cute she is are missing out on a wicked sense of humor. That toast was gross, man. And so, so funny.

Ponyo’s poem is from Heartsongs, by Mattie J. T. Stepanek. She stares at the picture of Mattie during poetry time. While other kids were drawn to a book, or a specific poem, she was drawn to the poet. She spent 20 minutes today watching subtitled clips from Oprah on YouTube. Mattie was a boy with muscular dystrophy who started writing poetry when he was 3; he died when he was 13 before my students were even born. He was a peace activist and poet who became quite famous in the late 90s when he wrote his Heartsongs books. Ponyo drew a picture of Mattie instead of a picture of her poem. She originally picked the book because she was going through a goofy sweetheart phase, and the book is called Heartsongs. But when she learned about Mattie, and read the poems, the sweetheart stuff stopped. Completely. But if I ask her why she loves it, she doesn’t know. That’s a bit more complex than “cute” can give her credit for.


Note: The above titles are linked through Amazon Smile. If you purchase the books through those links, I don’t get any money, but the CADASIL: Together We Have Hope Foundation does get a small contribution. CADASIL is a hereditary stroke disorder that leads to dementia, but as a relatively new-ish discovery, is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. As such, it does not get the attention or research dollars of better-known conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. All Amazon links I provide will support this foundation. Or, if you have a favorite charity, take five minutes to change your Amazon account settings to Amazon Smile!