Slice of Life, the weekly series, Chapter 1

(This is part of a weekly feature called Slice of Life Project)

I had not meant to write. I was going to wait a week and get back into Slice of Life, in its weekly incarnation, in round two. But something in the newspaper caught my eye and I felt the need to reflect.

The news article was about the death of a local activist, Herb G., whom I remember clearly and dearly from my years as a newspaper reporter. I first met Herb and his wife, Charlotte, as a school reporter for the regional newspaper, and I could count on either one or both of them calling me or stopping in to the newspaper office on a regular basis. Charlotte-and-Herb or Herb-and-Charlotte — they were always referred to as one name, it seemed — were transplanted New Yorkers who came to our city to work in the social service sector.

But their heart and soul were in the areas of social justice and education. Everything they did was done through that lens. Local politicians used to roll their eyes when Herb and Charlotte came into a meeting. They knew they were in for a grilling. As a newspaper reporter covering the city school system, I was a main contact for them to get their message out. Our city was not quite as progressive as it is now. (And that, too, may just be a projection of hope of the present). The community was in the midst of an ideological struggle between the conservative old guard and the newcomers with families seeking to cast a broader net for all people. This does not mean the conservatives were heartless, but they often resisted any change. And they resented the influx of Hispanics and Asians who were arriving on a steady basis. The progressives eventually won out.

In those days, Herb and Charlotte were fearless in their discussions and debates. They demanded equal access to education for all children. They decried any implications of racial imbalance. They sought to nurture and cherish the various cultures of city residents. They were the first to call for action when racial epitaphs were written on public property and the last to end the discussions for learning. Their own children were long grown up, but they saw themselves as advocates for those could not speak, or were scared to speak, for themselves.

It would not be unusual for me to be caught in a conversation with Herb and Charlotte that might last a good hour or two. They knew they had me and they bent my ear as much as they could. And boy, they could talk. Charlotte often greeted me with a warm hug, even after I had left the school beat and was reporting in another city. She was about human connections.

Their message of social justice did come through for me. Now, as a teacher, I still think of Herb and Charlotte often as I try to show my students the bigger world beyond their insular community. Their message resonates today.

So I was saddened to learn that Herb passed away. Charlotte, too, died last year. Their legacy remains, I hope, in the ways in which the people they touched — including me — see the world.

Peace (in social justice),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 31 (the final call)

(This is the last segment of the Slice of Life Project)

Today ends the Slice of Life Challenge that began way back on March 1 and it seems an opportune time to reflect on what I have been doing.

I am both saddened and a bit relieved, too, as once I started writing about some aspect of my day, I felt some internal motivation to keep it up and not miss a day. In that vein of daily writing, I was successful, although the quality of the composition ebbed and flowed. I have loved the concept of slicing into a day and then bringing the focus from a singular event into something more global, more wide in view.

I think, at times, I may have brought that focus too close into my family life and I worried about it at times. I do try to protect the privacy of my family. This is the Internet, after all, and the audience is not just the participants of Slice of Life. My wife was a little uncomfortable with some things and she had some valid points. I guess I felt, as a writer, my family is the most important thing to me and the biggest part of my life, and so my Slice of Life had to reflect on those things. I did notice that I was paying attention to the small events going on around me. But I may have been writing, and not talking, about those things in my quest to write for reflection. That creates imbalance in life.

One thing I did enjoy was connecting with other writers and teachers who were outside of my normal network. It was intriguing to read and react to the slices of the other handful of writers. There were many truths about life being written on their posts — so many insights that were valuable. Some slicers were going through the death of a family member. Some were planning weddings. Some were dealing with sick and sad, or healthy and energetic children. Some examined friendships. Some were struggling or celebrating the communities of their classrooms. I felt honored to be part of their conversations. It did feel a bit strange that I was the only man writing in Slice of Life. I tried to get others involved, but I had no luck. In the end, it was not a big deal, just sort of odd. It makes me wonder about gender and writing, and what it all means.

I discovered the Slice of Life through my RSS feed (from A Year in Reading blog) and then, as I began to take part, some of the readers of my blog began writing their own slices. Some (like Bonnie and Nancy) added their links to the Two Writing Teachers blog. Others (like Karen) did not, but still kept writing.

I hope to use some aspects of Slice of Life for the Day in the Sentence (for example, I liked the Mr. Linky widget that was used so that people wrote on their own blogs but were all linked together at a single point). I hope that some of the Slice of Life writers will continue to join us in Day in a Sentence. Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers, are going to continue to offer a weekly version of Slice of Life, so if you are interested, you should check it out. (I will pass for tomorrow, just for a breather).

Peace to all of you who followed me here and keep on writing and reflecting!

Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 30

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Today, my slice focuses in on my writing.

Since November, when I was inspired while traveling home on a train from the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with a laptop open on my lap, I have been periodically writing some quickfiction stories (also known as flashfiction in some circles). I love the genre because it all about what you don’t write and what you don’t tell, and there is the challenge of developing a character in as little of time and space as can possibly be. I’m sure there are rules to the genre that I am dutifully and openly ignoring.

Some stories in my series have been stronger than others, and I mostly write them during freewriting moments in my classroom. An idea sparks the writing, and as my students write, so do I. I have not shared these with my students, however. Someday, I intend to go back and do some editing and revision and then see what remains. For the most part, these are rough quickfiction stories. But I like them a lot. (You can view the rest of the quickfiction here) I also realized that quickfiction lends itself to podcasting and so I have included the reading of my stories, too.

Here, then, are the four latest stories:

Winner
It seemed an odd place to leave an egg. Out here, in the middle of nowhere. How many people had come this way, I could not tell. There was not path, not even the wayward trails left behind by animals. The river was far enough away that it would attract more people than this little alcove of pine trees. The sunlight was filtered out almost completely. I had expected nothing but solitude and yet, there, hidden among the stones at the base of the largest pine tree, was a colored plastic egg. Purple with pink stripes. The discovery had stopped me dead in my tracks. Now, I inched forward, my eyes scanning the world for some signs of something. A voyeur with a video camera. perhaps? A child at play? Nope. Nothing. I kicked at the plastic item gingerly with my boot, as if expecting the egg to explode. It moved, shifted and then did a wiggling roll off the rocks and stopped near my foot. I reached down and picked it up. The egg was not empty. I shook it. Something was inside. Again, I looked around to see if I were being played for the fool. No. I was alone. The egg twisted slowly in my hands, and the halves released their grip. Inside was a plastic baggie. My first thought was that I had uncovered a drug run of some sort. A cache of cocaine or pot. Walking away would be the wisest thing to do. Yet, I had come this far and could not resist my curiosity. The bag opened up and a note dropped to the ground. I bent down and saw the thin outline of faded handwriting. I unfolded the paper and read: “Congratulations! You are a winner!” and that was it. Nothing about what I won or why I was winning or what to do to claim my prize. I carefully put the paper into the bag, and then the bag into the egg, and then twisted the egg closed. Holding the object in my fist, I scrambled east for about a quarter of a mile, deeper in the woods than ever before, and there, I found a hollow tree. I left the egg there and made my way home, a winner.

Headless
The head came off as soon as the body slammed down the bottom of the stairs. The head rolled against the wall, careened across the floor and settled into the dust beneath the couch. Sam came barreling down the stairs, unaware that the head was gone. He picked up the GI Joe that was sprawled in an unhuman-like position near the last step — one leg this way and the other leg, that way, and the arms behind the back — and he ran his fingers along the neck. No head. Sam glanced around, making sure his grandmother was nowhere near. GI Joe had been a gift, just 15 minutes ago, and now, the head was gone. He didn’t want to deal with her anger. Again, he rolled his fingers over the nub where the head had been. Then Sam got down on his hands and knees to look for the missing appendage. He found other lost treasures — a moldy jelly bean, a paper clip, an old credit card. But no head. He could feel tears starting to well up inside him, and it made him embarrassed that he would be so sad over a doll. He heard a sound. Sam looked around. The sound seemed to be coming from underneath the couch. It sounded like a head, rolling. Sam got a bit scared. Ghosts and spirits scared him. He knew they were real. Maybe the ghost of GI Joe was mad at him. Maybe the head was coming back to life. He heard his grandmother in the kitchen. He had to move fast. Sam slowly approached the couch. The sound got louder. He got more frightened. Footsteps. His grandmother. Sam lifted up the fabric covering of the couch and the head of GI Joe came rolling out at him. He jumped back. His grandmother called his name, spurring him to reach out and take the head in his hands. In an instant, he had popped the head of GI Joe back onto the nub of the neck. His grandmother came into the room but ignored Sam completely. Instead, she was scolding her cat, Scout, who had emerged from the other end of the couch in a catnip-inspired panic and was tearing his claws into the side of the cushion. Sam looked at GI Joe right in the eye and smiled.

Blood
Blood on your hands is an odd sensation. The color strikes you first — the coating of red drippings. Your first instinct is to avoid the splatter but it is unavoidable. Ask any police detective with a DNA kit. Blood goes where blood wants to go. Kimball stared at his hands with these thoughts in his head, frozen by the sight. It occurred to him that this had happened before, in some freeze-frame memory from the past — his brother, perhaps, and the hunting knife accident. The bone coming up through the finger. Then, as now, things unfolded quick even as time slowed to a crawl. The blood kept dripping. Now, too, he could smell it. Iron or some metals. Something in the blood that seemed not quite right. Kimball felt the blade drop to the ground. His mind was turning black but he heard her voice cutting through the fog. “My god, Kimball, what ….” before everything faded to dark.

Performance
If they had asked her, she would have declined. She would not have willingly accepted this mantle nor this well-lit space on the stage — doused in floodlights and a thousand eyes on her every move — if she had had a choice. She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing emerged but her silence, and this silence glued her to her spot. The conductor raised his arms, baton dancing in his fingers. All around her, instruments moved, shifted, ready for the moment of life. She, however, remained still. If they had asked her, she would not be here. She could see the outline of her father and aunt, seated a few rows back. She felt caught in a net. The conductor moved and a musical explosion erupted around her. She noticed the violin now on her shoulder. The bow was balanced perfectly in her fingers. The conductor’s eyes now shifted to her. If they had asked her, she would not be at this place at this time. He nodded. So she played, imagining all of her notes like broken bones scattered on the stage. The violence of her sound was the only sweet revenge she could think of. For, of course, they had not ever asked her, nor would they ever.

Peace (in shorter stories),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 29

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It astonishes me to think about how many blogs are part of the natural progression of my week as a teacher and writer. Perhaps, there are too many blogs. But each one does serve a different purpose. Each one is a different platform.

Come, then, on a little tour of the blogs that I used in the last week or so.

I won’t include Kevin’s Meandering Mind because if you are here, then you already know what a creative mess it is and how unfocused it is. I like this blog a bit cluttered, I think, because that gives me freedom to think. I can share teaching practice; poems, stories and songs; things that I stumble across that seem interesting; and collaborative projects like Day in a Sentence.

When I am not writing here as a teacher, I am sometimes writing as part of a collaborative blog called TeachEng.Us that Ben, a friend from the National Writing Project and regular of the Day in a Sentence, started up as a way to bring together teachers of writing to share some strategies, best practices and technology hacks that they have found useful. I just filed away a post about using hyperbole and tall tales in the elementary classroom. I like being one of many writers in that blog community and I am learning from the experience of others.

I have a central classroom weblog called The Electronic Pencil. This is the fourth year that I have had a blog for my classrooms, and it seems a lifetime ago that I started one up using an old Manila-based platform that was given to me by the National Writing Project to experiment with blogs and writing in the classroom. When NWP ended its Manila project, I jumped over to Edublogs. I know some teachers have each kid with their own blog, but I still prefer to have all of my students as members of one larger blog. It connects the four classes that I teach as writers. I also regularly use it as a launching pad for Internet exploration for my students. The Electronic Pencil is like a safe haven for them, I think.

Last year, I convinced the members of my teaching team to use a weblog for a daily homework site, so that parents and family members and students could access homework assignments and project guidelines and resources from home any night of the week. It also provides a year-long glimpse into our curriculum across the content areas, which is interesting for us as teachers to reflect upon. Also, if students are absent, they no longer have an excuse of not knowing what they have missed. The blog has been a huge hit with parents and with students. And my team easily understood how to post to the blog. A bonus: our principal loves this concept of using technology to reach out to families!

Last year, I began a podcasting project called Youth Radio. I wanted my students to use podcasting and the concept of voice and audience to connect with other elementary students from the US and the world. Now in its second year, the Youth Radio blog has ups and downs of activities, but I think its potential remains enormous. The difficulty is always in finding the time and place in the curriculum for the podcasting work. As a result, I often double-post from The Electronic Pencil to Youth Radio, and vice versa.

Finally, this year, I wanted to find another outlet for getting news out about the Student Council at my school, including a venue for publishing an online version of our student-written and student-produced newspaper. (I created the Student Council to give students at our school a voice and am the main teacher-advisor). A blog seemed a natural fit and again, I turned to Edublogs and created this site. My intention is to give more authority to students for posting to the blog, but that has not yet happened, I admit. But, again, the central office and the principal love this concept of using the technology.

Peace (in communication),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 28

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

It is just so strange to hear my words and thoughts and melodies coming out of someone else’s mouth. It’s a sensation that I must come to grips with but still, it can be a struggle.

As the main songwriter for my band, The Sofa Kings, I write with my voice in my head. But in the band, I try to pass the songs along, so that others have a chance to be the singers on our original material, too. And now that we have a new singer — she has a wonderfully powerful voice — we are trying to even the field a bit more than before. Which means that I am giving up some of the songs that I have traditionally sung.

The other night, I listened as she sang, and although I could hear places where I wanted her to go with her voice, I could tell she is starting to make the songs her own, even in the short time that she has been playing with it. It’s both a fantastic feeling and a bit unsettling. It’s like giving up a child that I have nurtured, even though I know she will care for my words and melody with love and passion. I trust her. I do. But there is some separation anxiety that happens, too. I have refused to pass along a couple of songs that have some deep emotional attachment for me. There are some songs that are more important to me, personally, than others. I can’t and won’t give them up.
We are giving her a crash course in our originals because we have a gig coming up in just a few weeks. This is a show being put on by the man who recorded our band for much of last year. We are the headliners of the show and, to be honest, we are still trying to find our new sound, following the decision by our keyboardist-singer to leave and pursue some solo recording. I am now playing keyboards on some songs, along with sax and guitar, and it all feels a bit uncertain. However, the other night, something started to click and come together in a nice way. I think we will be fine.

Peace (in music),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Chapter 27

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Today’s Slice of Life is a convergence of communities.

I write this as part of the ongoing Slice of Life project being guided by Two Writing Teachers but I also want to invite anyone and everyone to contribute to this week’s Day in a Sentence feature. After first settling in Australia, and then traveling off to Israel, the Day in a Sentence is back home here.

In some ways, the Day in a Sentence is a nice companion to the Slice of Life and I hope there continues to be some cross-over between the two writing communities that I am part of in this Internet world. The Slice of Life, which is nearing its end, is a collection of bloggers who are reflecting on their days through their posts over the course of a month. The Day in a Sentence is a weekly entry into reflection and sharing through a single sentence or writing prompt. (see some of the archives)

Day in Sentence Icon

If you are a regular Day in a Sentence contributer, I invite you to head over to Two Writing Teachers and follow some of the Slice of Life threads. If you are a Slice of Life friend, I warmly invite you to contribute some words to our Day in a Sentence feature.

Here is how Day in a Sentence works:

  • You think about a day of the week or your entire week
  • You boil it down into a single sentence (no special prompts this week)
  • You post your sentence here by using the comment link on this post
  • I collect all of the sentences, collate them and publish them on Sunday
  • Feel free to hyperlink to podcasts, or photos, or other files, if you want
  • That’s it!

Here is my sentence for the week:

I’m realizing that I need to spend less time on the keyboard and more time in real life, and so, a little withdrawal is necessary.

Peace (in community),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 26

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

There was a bit of a silent revolt in my classroom yesterday.
It was the second day of our standardized testing — three sessions of reading comprehension known as MCAS — and they were met in the morning with a schedule for the day that included the testing and then a session of Math Lab, which is an additional math class they get twice a week instead of recess. They could not believe that we would be doing Math Lab after all that testing. One of the other teachers had hinted that perhaps we might skip Math Lab and they latched onto this like crazy glue.
First, they tried to bargain with me.
Then, they started to plead with me.
Finally, they got together and began to write.
They developed a petition, had everyone in the class sign it and then presented it to me in the most dramatic reading imaginable.
This is what they wrote:

“We, the people, signing this today want to state that we were promised recess but instead, we got Math Lab. Just think of us, sitting there all morning, taking MCAS. And you are just going to break our little hearts and tell us that we can’t expend our energy outdoors, in a recreational way?
Signed,
(the class)”

I told them that I would take their petition under advisement and so it sat on my desk during the four hours of testing.
During our morning meeting later in the day, I then announced that, due to the persuasive nature of the petition, there would be no Math Lab today and instead, we would have extra recess time. A cheer went up.
What I didn’t tell them was that this had been the plan all along and that I had only written Math Lab up on the board so that I could surprise them later in the day.

Peace (in action),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 25

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

We’re starting to see the history of our city through the diamonds of baseball. And, like most things, it begins with a book.

Last weekend, the local Little League held a Baseball Equipment sale. Families donate things that don’t fit anymore and then they come to find things that do fit. It’s a nice reciprocal trade agreement that benefits the kids. But there are also usually a bunch of odds and ends that I always find fascinating. I picked up a couple of baseball books that I know the boys are loving. As I was perusing the book table, one book in particular caught my eye.

It is called The Last Hurrah: Baseball in Northampton and in it, writers and historians Brian Turner and John Bowman explore the world of the early days of baseball in our city, from the various semi-pro leagues that sprouted up around town in the early days to the legends of the day that still spark the imagination.

The book was developed as part of a series at the local historical society. Inside, there is a wealth of photographs of baseball teams and baseball diamonds, and all sorts of characters who made their way through the area in the days before baseball took hold as America’s Pasttime.

One interesting fact: Northampton is the oldest place on record to indicate that one of the teams was integrated with black players. The writers used historical evidence to place a black player on the Northampton Meadowlarks in 1878 (his name was Luther Askins). This is not too surprising if you know that Sojourner Truth lived here and was a local leader. Frederick Douglas was also a regular visitor. Still, this is the kind of fact that makes me proud to be here.

My son was also interested in Stu Miller, a local boy who went to pitch in the Major Leagues. And then there was also the story of Buck Weaver, who played in Northampton before going off to the Chicago White Sox and then being implicated, along with others, of throwing the 1919 World Series as part of the infamous Black Sox.

It’s pretty fascinating stuff, and it made it all worthwhile when the older son, after digging into the book for quite some time, announced: “I guess this place isn’t so boring after all.”

History is all around us. You just have to know where to look.

Peace (in the ballfields of yore),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 24

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Our family’s church is raising the roof. Literally. Figuratively. Musically.

Let me back up a bit. Our church — The First Churches of Northampton — is an historical site in our downtown. Some version of the church has been a centerpiece of the city for almost 350 years and the congregation was the home to religious firebrand Jonathan Edwards. The building has burned down a few times, yet the community has remained. The church plays host to a variety of social service agencies and its rooms are often used for musical and artistic acts through the years. It is an integral part of this place.

Last year, however, the roof on the church began crumbling in the sanctuary, and engineers started to notice structural damage to parts of the building. The sanctuary was quickly closed and the entire massive pipe organ was dismantled and put into storage (what an operation that must have been). The cost for repairs? $2 million. Yes, that is two million dollars, much more than the church community can afford on its own.

So, some folks are organizing a huge music concert in early April called Raise the Roof at the nearby Calvin Theater in hopes of raising awareness and earning some money for the project. I had tried to get my band involved but it was too late. My children, however, will grace the stage of the Calvin as part of their children’s choir. (lucky ducks).

My own connection to this church is not quite as strong as the rest of my family. I am not religious, by nature, although I am spiritual.  I fall a bit on the agnostic side of the world (hoping I don’t fall off the edge.) This church is such a wonderful community of caring people and the sermons are always so interesting and insightful such that I always feel at home there.

The music director has allowed me to compose and then produce choral pieces for the choir and pipe organ. I have played my saxophone with the choir, too, on more times than I can remember. The pastor organizes family football games in the winter that are loads of fun. It is a given, and it is accepted, that some kids may cry during the service, and that is just fine for everyone. It is a sign of a healthy congregation, the pastor reminds us. The church even developed an environmental covenant to advocate for respect and responsibility for Earth. These are all things that I adore and love about our church.

Yesterday morning, as I sat through the Easter service, I reminded myself to appreciate this warm and loving community and to support its campaign to “Raise the Roof” and get the sanctuary back up and running. My appreciation of the congregation and its people constitute my slice of life today.

Peace (in spiritual paths),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 23

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

“Daddy, when is Bella coming home?”

The query comes from the back seat. We are on our way back from the store. Today, I kept the music off. He fills the gap with conversation, just as I had hoped. My afternoon had been spent in meeting trying to rejigger our class schedules next year to make more time for math while not losing too much of our other content areas. My brain was too full of school stuff. I needed family time.

“She’s not coming home, honey.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s in heaven.”

Bella was our family dog, and we had to put her down in December. Every now and then, the little one still wonders about why Bella isn’t meeting us at the back door with wagging tail or greeting him in the mornings at the bottom of the stairs. Or barking her head off at every animal or human walking near our house. We even miss (kind of) the tuffs of white fur scattered around the house. (I still use her pic as my avatar)

“Dog heaven?”

“Yes. Dog heaven.”

Silence.

“What does she do there?”

“She plays. She runs. She watches over us.”

“In Dog Heaven?”

“Yes.”

“Hey — that’s just like the book!”

When Bella was dying, I brought home a book called Dog Heaven as a way to explain where our dog was going and why we could celebrate her spirit in our lives even after she was gone. The older boys got it, but for the youngest one, it was and is too abstract. Thus, the questions — the same questions — emerge from time to time as his mind tries to grapple with loss. Every time he counts out our family or names each of us, Bella is right there in the mix.

I ask, “Do you miss Bella?”

“Yes. But she’s in Dog Heaven. Right?”

“Right.”

“Is she happy?”

“Yes. She is happy now.”

“She’s not sick?”

“No. She’s not sick anymore. She’s happy. But we can still miss her. I miss her.”

Silence.

“I’m hungry. I need a snack.”

A few hours later, in an eerily similar conversation with my middle son, he presented me with a craft that he had made at an after-school program in which someone from a local animal shelter teaches children about caring for animals.

“I made this,” he said, showing me a cute little cat craft. It had the name of our elderly cat — Coltrane, for John Coltrane, the legendary saxophonist — painted on the front.

“So, when Coltrane goes to heaven, we can remember him,” he added.

My kids amaze me every day.

Peace (in understanding and remembering),
Kevin