Oct 5 2013

On Middle School

Confession: My past life was spent as a middle school teacher. I worked primarily with 7th graders, the middle of the middle. Typically, this elicits that intake of breath people make when they want to say something but may gag too. I got lots of sympathetic looks and comments.

But. You know what? I loved it. It was stressful, and smelly, and exhausting. But it was awesome. I was part of watching identities form and young people getting a larger sense of the world and brains forming new ways of thinking. I was part of some great stuff. And in part, it was something I realized not everyone could or would do it. And more, not many could or would do it well. I used to joke that if you could teach middle school you had a civic duty to do it. I kind of think it’s not a joke now.

Recently, Magda of AskMoxie posted about the challenges of parenting a middle schooler. And, my friend Kathryn of Designing Around had a similar post.

It made me think about some things.

I have experience in this arena and, more, comfort there and those seem to be a rare enough commodities. Every parent enters the realm of middle school adolescence (whether in a traditional school setting or not) and it’s new waters every time. Being an adult that sat in that mess with 1000 middle schoolers and lived to tell the tales is special.

That experience could be useful to the world even if I’m not in the classroom and even if I’m not parenting a middle schooler (yet).

As I went on maternity leave I was finishing co-authoring an experience-based article on social dynamics in middle schools for a journal my school published with the University of Chicago. My co-author was a fellow history teacher for the 8th grade. We spent as much time talking about dynamics as we did talking about teaching history. That’s a lie. We talked about social stuff WAY more.

I have copies of the journal in my house. But I wasn’t doing much else with it. So, when these flares of “WTF” went up about middle school, I wanted to do something, say something, share something. So I sent the article to Magda as a reference point for what I might be able to share. Here are the disclaimers I sent too:

1. I taught at a very progressive school.
2. That means there was a premium put on social/emotional health and growth.
3. I realize not every kid gets to go to a school like the one I taught at and very likely not every kid would flourish there but I do think there are universals…the autonomy/dependence thing, the different heights of boys and girls, the wild span of brain development, the pressure and fear parents feel, etc.

Here’s our article on the way kids define social structures in middle school. I’m pretty proud of it.

Powerful vs Popular
Schools: Studies in Education © 2012 The University of Chicago Press

My co-author was an 8th grade teacher (and phenomenal blues musician). We envisioned a series of articles examining what the hell is going on in middle schools (and in middle schoolers). Then I had a baby and decided to transition to a job at home and Rob headed to LA. Timing sucks sometimes but I’m not convinced we’re done collaborating.

And, perhaps some future posts are a-comin’. I’m always happy to talk, swap notes, share experiences, or talk parents off cliffs. Seeing two strong, smart, awesome moms I know in real life and not in real life look at middle school life with their eyebrows up  makes me want to talk about middle schoolers more. To say, as I said before, middle school is not the age to survive or get through but instead a complicated root system that requires attention and diligence and time, time, time.

Jul 3 2013

San Francisco. Now What?

Writing about living someplace new is a tad easier when the new place is farther and further and more foreign. Iceland and rural France have been our homes away from home so far. Navigating language and cultural differences feels real and pressing when they surround you and you’ve got a passport stamp and all that.

This summer, we’re staying in San Francisco. I couldn’t be more excited. I mean, this is my view (or some version of this, fog dependent) every morning.


A domestic adventure like this makes writing about immersion in a new culture a bit different because, heck, my friend came over for dinner last night and it’s a city both Brett & I have visited and love.

That doesn’t make it any less exciting or new. We’re still figuring out how to travel for 5+ weeks with a kid, we’re still figuring out how to support one another’s work with altered schedules and arrangements. And San Francisco? Radder than rad.

There’s plenty of exciting happening here. Heidi of SpitfireGirl is here and I’m excited to finally, finally meet her. I’m lucky to be attending Alt SF in a couple weeks, too. That’s one of the magical things that happened. We knew we were coming here before Heidi and I launched the SpitfireMom series and I knew I’d get in to Alt and it all just kind of worked out.

And, I’m certain I’ll share things here this month that are different here than in Oak Park. Composting is mandatory, there are so.many.hills, and there is most definitely things that are just, well, different.

More, I’m eager to share more of WHAT we do when we’re away (we work and live, not just vacation), WHY we do it (hello life of intention), and HOW we do it (massive planning, a dash of luck, and heaps of faith in one another even when we’re disagreeing).

We figure if we can figure out how to make this possible maybe it’ll help or inspire others to try it out or connect us to others who are doing something similar in whatever way makes sense in their worlds.

More on avoiding a jetlagged toddler, talking with clients about why it’s ok you are going away, how to create and embrace work schedules that allow for family fun, and why tinfoil is a parent’s best friend soon!

Mar 4 2013

On Words: A Love Letter

For National Grammar Day, I am thinking about my lifelong love affair with words. Not commas or semicolons, true, but without words where would grammar be?

As a kid, I remember thinking Gallagher’s bit on English was re-vo-lu-tion-ary. Perhaps this, from George Carlin, is more apropos now, even though it came out the year I was born and even though jumbo shrimp is played out.

My dear friend and go-do-it evangelist Jill recently tweeted some love to Visual Thesaurus, a site I shared with her because of our mutual love affair with words. Visual Thesaurus creates relationships between words via a word map. On a snowy drive home last week I was thinking about these relationships between words. The connection between, yet ultimately different usefulness, of a word like irritate versus a word like annoy is what make me love language. I dig a site like Visual Thesaurus because it, well, visualizes those relationships and lets me wander from a word to its next door neighbor, then down the street to a different part of speech to see what’s up in that ‘hood.

And those connections and differences, whether subtle or not, got me thinking about etymology. I recognize and appreciate that the origin is not the whole story. Evolution and use matter oh so much too. But I believe, here, in the creation story. The creation of a word.

Perhaps because English is such a never-returned-cuppa-sugar language, learning about from whence a word came matters to me. Knowing that Shakespear coined over 500 words or that there is a collective sigh when the OED awards YOLO for the American word of 2012 while the British get the delightful omnishambles makes me a-flutter. Or contemplating why they added OMG so quickly but it took so damn long to add substitute teacher. I love the OED’s Twitter feed, which crowdsources (though it’s not a word in the OED) wordy stuff, looking to see if its nerdling followers have some insight into an origin.

When I taught, it was about exploring a word like algebra with my world history students and noting how obvious it is that such a word, exploring mathematics, comes to us from Arabic, from a culture rooted in math & science while English danced with the Dark Ages (and helps explain Arabic numerals to kids who didn’t realize they were using them). Or just what makes an atheist different from an agnostic when we talked about religion. The roots mattered. They explained. (And yes, we talked about words that didn’t start with -A-.)

Now, it’s about my everyday writing life. This blog, my work, emails, and Facebook and Twitter. Despite how digital it all is, I’m still firmly rooted in words. I work to explain to clients why a word shift or change or a tense choice impacts the message, that what we’re building is meaning through words and that those words matter.

And, sure, it’s about as dorky as you can get. I respect that. But I’ve come to realize my love of language isn’t all that different from what I’m looking for in my relationships with real, live people. I’m looking for backstory. I love knowing a word’s story in the same way I love knowing why a friend reacts the way they do to a compliment, or why a particular partner is oh-so-right for a friend based on who they were before they met. Backstory is the backbone, the history I am privileged to get to learn. It makes me a better friend a better partner, and I think a better writer. I want to know the story behind the people or ideas I write for with the same urgency I want to know the backstory of a word I want to use to talk about them. Perhaps it’s over-therapied of me to draw out how that search for insight into the people I know and love could, and would, also inform my obsessive relationship with etymology. But, well, that’s my backstory and I’m sticking to it.

So, happy National Grammar Day. Whether you avoid the words or dive straight into the deep end, may you find meaning and connection and whatever else it is you’re looking for.  And, in looking to see what other etymology resources are out there, I found this. Enjoy!

Apr 12 2012

Delayed Gratification

Many moons ago I received a grant from my old school to write about middle school life with a favorite colleague. We take middle school seriously. It’s not the age to survive or get through but instead a complicated root system that requires attention and diligence and time, time, time.

So it’s funny that writing about it took a similar level of delayed gratification.

My colleague is a well-respected Chicago Blues musician. Yes, while most of us try to eek out one career, he has two. He’s also a brilliant chef. And a great writer and a great pal. Scheduling writing was hard. We received the grant in spring 2010. That summer I was living in Iceland for a month (you can read about it here) and he was be-bopping all over the place. We figured out ways to write together using every Google thing imaginable (which I explored here). Had Google Teleport been an option we would’ve tried that. We got a good base and then were slammed with typical start of school insanity (note: I spent the first week of every school year for a decade wondering how the hell to teach). Things settled down and then I let on that I was, ahem, many months pregnant. So we edited when we could as fast as we could. Baby came, baaaaaam, life is totally different. Time moves at a different pace. Things like focusing and paying attention are tasks unimaginable at times.

But we pulled it together, had our piece peer edited. And edited. And edited again.

And today! Today I saw this:

See that?

On page 73? That’s me.

I’m published!