Dear Vincent

This quotation by Vincent Van Gogh inspired me today: “I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort and disappointment and perseverance.” 

Here’s the Afternoon Pages prompt it inspired:


Dear Vincent

Write an open letter to Vincent Van Gogh, describing your experiences in writing your UGP. Tell him about your efforts and your disappointments. Ask him for advice on how to persevere. As a fellow artist, conclude your letter by proclaiming the step you will take next, right now today, to progress toward making your UGP into a “beautiful thing.”


As if often the case, I’ve written a prompt that I need to respond to myself. I’m writing a UGP of my own it turns out, in the form of a proposal for an award that I really, really would love to get, but that’s highly competitive. So the stakes are high and the chance of a reward is low.

I’ve decided to go for it anyway, and I’ve made efforts toward doing the research that will help me write the proposal. I’ve gotten 3 references to agree to speak up for me, I’ve talked to experts in the field that will inform the proposal, I’ve inquired more about the format, but beyond making a bulleted list to make it through the first round, I haven’t done much actual writing.

(Wait! That’s not true. At a workshop last week, I wrote for 10 whole minutes. 10.)

And I’ve done a whole lot of thinking and hoping and doubting (lots of doubting) that the proposal itself–much less the project–will ever come to be.

Dear Vincent, how can I persevere without losing an ear in the process? What did you do? Earn nothing but keep painting anyway because you needed to answer the call of your longing. What can I learn from you? Maybe just to follow the call of proposing work that matters and is in some ways the next step in the trajectory of work that I’ve tried to do since I became a teacher.

Next step: E-mail former recipients and write for 25 mins. without stopping. Lofty goals indeed!



don’t write, gallop

play by your own rules

What are your rules for working toward flow as a writer? How will you enact them right now, today, as you work on your Teacher As Writer badge? How do you help yourself just “shut up and get on with it”?

You know how you teach what you most need to learn? Well, sometimes you write Afternoon Pages prompts so that you can address them yourself. Ah, the joys of being a teacher.

This one is perfect for today, though, because I have SOOOOOOO many writing projects on the burners that I’ve run out of burners to put them on. Although it seems like this is the perfect recipe for having lots of spaces to start, it can actually lead to overwhelm.

Yesterday, though, I went to a CSU Writes workshop on “Writing for Speed,” and I heard one of Virginia Woolf’s rules that I immediately took to heart, which is to “write a gallop.”

There’s a long story behind this advice, which she apparently delivered in a speech called “Professions for Women,” but the gist of it is that to move forward on any piece, you have to write at a gallop in order to outrun your inner critic. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re full-on sprinting at all times because horses actually gallop at different speeds, but it does mean you’re out then eir on the track, “unhinging drafting from editing,” as the workshop facilitator Kristina Quynn explained.

Then Kristina made us do it. Just sit and write for 5 mins. without stopping. She even suggested that we put a paper over our screen as necessary if we found the urge to edit.

Then we edited for 5 mins. later.

It was generative. I’m going to do it again. So should you.

There’s a cool little coffee shop near campus called Mugs, and Tuesday morning, I saw this sign over their cash register:


Thus I of course thought of the following Afternoon Pages prompt:

If a coffee shop has a motto and “words they like,” so should we. We’ve thought a lot about why it’s worth it to teach now. What should our class motto be in this regard? What are the words we like–as in, the words that should ground our thinking as we proceed throughout the semester? 

I can’t make a class motto myself, of course. That’s for these wonderful young educators to do, but I can speak to “words I like,” or one word, to be more precise.

We just read an interview with Paolo Freire from 1985 issue of Language Arts, and one of his words is “love.” He explains that we must “love students, in spite of everything. I don’t mean a kind of soft or sweet love, but on the contrary a very affirmative love, a love which accepts, a love for students which pushes us to go beyond, which makes us more and more responsible for our task.”

I recognize that it’s unfashionable to talk about love when the terms “education” and “global competition” are bedfellows in almost every political conversation, and yet, we must, mustn’t we? We aren’t reluctant to talk about our love of literature or writing or teaching in general, but we teach people, too. Shouldn’t we love them? It’s the only way, really, to push through the hard work we have to do.

On a related note, yesterday, I was listening to a podcast interview between Krista Tippett and neurologist Richard Davidson, where Davidson unequivocally states, “I’m not afraid to speak about love. I think that the way I think about it is that love is a quality which obliterates certain kinds of boundaries.”

What got left out of that cognitivist movement in education, according to Davidson, is attention to the parts of our brain that connect to our emotions and our capacity for empathy, kindness, and yes, love. He explains,

the brain does not honor the kind of anachronistic distinction between thought and feeling. Thought and feeling are absolutely intermingled in the brain, and so there are no areas of the brain that are exclusively dedicated to one and not the other.

So in the end, hard science agrees that Freire is right.

As per Davidson, “Cultivating the qualities which will promote resilience — yes, in some sense it’s soft, but in another sense, you couldn’t get much harder in terms of what really matters.”

So “love.” Perhaps I have a motto after all.


Afternoon Pages: The Song That Gets Me Through.

….and we’re back. Almost every semester for the past couple of years, I’ve asked my students to write in response to this prompt (after I introduce them to fabulous Chaka Khan, who THEY DON’T KNOW THEY KNOW ABOUT–and she’s just someone you have to know about):

What is your personal theme song/fight song/or get-you-through-the-hard-times song–the one that you play on repeat when you’re feeling most vulnerable? Why is that song the ​song? How does it tap into your strongly held convictions about what it means to be a whole human being? Write about the song’s significance to you personally; then if you can, write about any connections you can make to your own teaching.

Mine changes every so often, and then I hear Chaka, and I remember, really, is there any other choice?

Well, yes, some semesters there has been, and since I already knew this was coming, I’ve been thinking about where I am now, compared to where I was this time last year, and I’ve gotta say, that this time, it’s the fabulous Elton John, singing the fabulous, “I’m Still Standin’.” (Find lyrics here.) What a year, what a song, what a chorus:

Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I’m still standing after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
Over the past year, I’ve heard, and I’ve told myself that if we let bad experiences define us, those who instigated the bad experiences move on, and we only wind up giving them our power. They win.
Well, guess what? Not this time.



Why am I teaching now?

Today’s Afternoon Pages entry addresses this very question in homage to Sonia Nieto, who edited the book Why We Teach Now. That book is an incredible testament to why teachers at all levels of experience have decided to enter and stay in the classroom for their entire professional life spans. Read it. Grab a box of tissues first.

I’m still here, too, though there were definitely a few times (and every year, a few days) when I wasn’t sure I would be. I’ve journaled off and on since high school, and a recently I found an old journal where I wrote about how just wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this job. It took me straight back. I was teaching Senior English at the time, and you know the score: if you don’t pass, you don’t walk in graduation. Every year, some students didn’t; no matter how much I cajoled, came in before school to provide extra support, met with them in one-on-one conferences, they just didn’t do the work. And even though, progress reports went out every six weeks, some parents were inevitably “surprised” at the end that their little darlings would not pass.

One year, the parents complained to everybody and god that I was unfairly treating their son, thus the dreaded conference with them, the principal, the counselor, the ass’t principal and me where we were laying everything out on the table and I was making my case.

Let’s just say I left in tears… (TO BE CONTINUED).

afternoon pages: “What do you, too, believe?”

And we’re off! This marks the first Afternoon Pages entry for the Spring 19 section of CO301D where we read, write, and learning about the profession of teaching. We’ll start almost every class period this way, so if you’re reading this and you aren’t in our class, you’re going to get a firsthand view into what soon-to-be teachers are thinking. As a bonus, if you’re so inclined, you can follow along with our prompts for the semester here on our class website.

As I told the students on Tuesday, no one else in the profession can speak from their position at this moment in time, so as usual, I’m eager to hear what they have to say.

Today’s prompt is this:

In “The Careful Cultivation of Belief,” English teacher Sherri Medwin challenges readers to consider that the core beliefs that guide our work need “careful cultivation…, rich soil and ample space to extend to extend [their] young shoots,” and a “network of roots to sustain [them] through inclement weather.” What are your core beliefs in regard to teaching and education? How do you anticipate that these ideals will guide your work with students when you have your own classroom?

One of my core beliefs, actually is embedded in the seemingly straightforward lines preceding this prompt, and that is that preservice teachers DO have something to say about the current state and the future direction of education; in fact, they are uniquely positioned to do so. They’ve most recently been in the classroom, they think they want to go back in a different role as teachers themselves, and we should all be curious about why that is the case.

Learning from them every semester is my privilege, and this one is no exception. If we can “listen someone’s way into existence,” as Mary Rose O’Reilley says, I’m eager to have that chance once again.

Morning Pages: “So what’s your major?”


It’s been a heckuva long time since I chose my major, but I remember 2 things about that process. My parents were both teachers, and what high school senior wants to be their parents? Not I.

So in the last month of my senior year, I’m standing by my English teacher, Mr. Ford’s, desk, and he asks, “So what do you want to major in next year?” And my answer goes like this:

CINDY: [slams fist on Mr. Ford’s desk] I don’t know what I want to be, but I will NOT be a teacher.”

MR. FORD: [nods knowingly]


Fast forward to college, and three-ish majors later, I decided to major in English Education. Never fear, I called Mr. Ford at midnight on the eve when I decided and the phone call went like this:

CINDY: Guess what? I’ve decided to become an English teacher!

MR. FORD: Tell me something I didn’t already know. Now I’m going back to sleep. [unceremoniously hangs up phone]


The rest is history. I wanted to be an English teacher because I loved books and writing, and I wanted to pass that on to students who I would inspire so they could change the world.

In 1987, I followed through and became a full-fledged English/theatre teacher at Owasso High School in Owasso, OK. My motivations to become a teacher haven’t changed substantially, but man oh man, how the times have. Shortly after I started graduate school in 1996, content standards came down the pike, then NCLB, then came make-or-break standardized tests, followed shortly thereafter by the shuttering of schools and firing of teachers when they didn’t make the grade.

In the midst of it all, I because a literacy researcher and a professor of English Education. I gained language to frame the driving force behind my practice that had always been in my bones: social justice, equity, access, critical literacies. Like Sonia Nieto, whom I quote in the sketchnote at the top of the page, I believe in a “discourse of possibility, that is, a way of thinking critically but hopefully about teaching and learning…” (2015, p. 5).

In the course of my lifetime, I can’t recall a more challenging time to be a teacher than today. I don’t just mean this in the abstract sense that we live in an educational era characterized by standardization, testification, corporatization, and all the other              “-ations.” Rather, I speak from a place of personal struggle.

A little over a year ago, my husband lost his job after dedicating almost 3 decades in education. The party line was that he lost it for “political reasons” and the complaints of angry, powerful parents. But the bottom line is that he lost it for educating from his heart, for being true to his unswerving commitment to “do what’s best for kids and teachers,” and for pushing back when power and policy got in the way. In the process, both of us almost lost our hope in education, that is, in our life’s work.

That spring, I had to get up every other morning and go “inspire” my students who were studying to be teachers that making a difference in students’ lives was making a difference in the world. I had to rally the troops around the idea that even though teaching was hard, it was worth it. I had to promise that teaching from a place of social justice was noble and possible and essential no matter what. But inside, I was dying. Inside, I didn’t know if I believed that anymore.

The arc of this narrative is unkind. I’ve just begun writing about it, and the tone is dark, the protagonists forever damaged. Perhaps the most important reality, however, is that we’re re-learning the “discourse of possibility” and remembering how to again embrace a view of education as “an unfulfilled but consequential ideal in the quest for equality and social justice” (Nieto, 2015, p. 5).

Turns out you can’t forget what you deep-down believe. That’s why teaching is still our major. Even now, after everything, we cannot help ourselves.


Morning Pages: “What do you, too, believe?”

For today’s Morning Pages prompt my awesome new group of CO301D students is addressing these questions. In solidarity, I am, too:

What are your core beliefs in regard to teaching and education? How do you anticipate that these ideals will guide your work with students when you have your own classroom?

Every year when I introduce students to my classes, I announce how many years I’ve been a teacher. This year’s total = THIRTY-ONE. Dang. That’s a long time.

I’d say my core belief that guides my teaching has remained mostly the same since 1987, though I’ve refined it over the years.

I believe in the value of every student and that they have something to share through the things they make/write/think/discuss that can shape the rest of the world. 

To unpack:

  • I want to help my students know that I really see them as students, yes, but also as individuals with lives beyond my classroom. EVERY SINGLE ONE of them–not just those with whom I most easily connect or who are comfortable making themselves explicitly known. All of us have these narratives looping through our brains every minute of our lives, and I’m still amazed by what happens when those narratives intersect in the classroom.
  • I want my students to recognize what I take as a given before they even walk in the door of my classroom: they are makers and writers and thinkers and discussants whether they know it or not. I feel lucky for the opportunity to support them in constructing knowledge and articulate it for themselves and the rest of us. It’s my privilege to learn alongside them in the process.
  • I believe my students have the power to have an impact on the world and to make it a more just and peaceful place. I’ve seen it happen every year for over three decades. My job is to help them in the process.

And I’m excited for the chance to do that again this semester. It’s going to be a good one.

yo querida


Dear Me,

Yep, there you are on the choir page in the yearbook. Junior year. Choir attendant. Tea-length lavender dress, matching shoes with bows that you bought with money from your part-time job at the donut shop. There’s a curling iron burn on your forehead under those spectacular bangs. You tried to trim them yourself, but you cut them crooked, so you had to straighten them up, and they kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter.

Since this picture was taken, a lot has gone right: you’ve revised your world view, married the guy who is still your best friend, had 3 sweet babies, taught high school English, coached basketball, earned 4 degrees, published some stuff, moved to CO, and become a professor.

A lot has gone wrong, too, depending on how you define the word wrong. People say that everything happens for a reason, but you don’t really believe that anymore; what you believe is that the saying helps other people feel better, as if it’s some sort of talisman that will ward off any pending doom in their own lives. What you do believe is that after long, long periods of healing, anger, grief (all the so-called bad emotions, that are actually intelligent ones), you ultimately decide what your purpose will be moving forward to the extent that you can, and that sometimes moving forward means walking away.

If you were my student (and I suppose you have been), I would say, “Lighten up on yourself, lovey. Learn how to breathe sooner. Learn how to be here in this beautiful, terrible world instead of looking forward to what might be better or paralyzing yourself when you think of what could go wrong.”

What do you have to tell me, younger Cindy? What do you wish I could regain from my youth?

You won’t become who you told Ms. Rhoads, your junior English teacher, you would be. (The band you and Cara were going to form just didn’t work out with her turning into a lawyer and all.) You will become what you told Mr. Ford, your senior English, that you never would be: a teacher. You will become someone who’s basically okay in the world–with who you are, with what you’re doing, and with the people in your circle who you so dearly love.

My advice for you, older Cindy is this: Believe that things can still happen, that the present is bright for the most part and all it’s cracked up to be. You should live there more than you live in the past or the future. You should laugh more and write more poetry and be, really be, with your friends. It will be okay.



what will be your legacy?

Today’s Afternoon Pages prompt comes to you courtesy of Taylor, Rachel, Brooke, and Meg, as follows:

The journey to becoming a teacher is a long one. Along the way, we are posed with many questions about who we want to be as a teacher. How would you want your students to think back on their experiences in your classroom? How do you want to be viewed in the classroom? What will be your legacy?

I recently listened to a podcast, which I highly recommend, called “The Greater Good Project.” It’s connected with the Greater Good research center out of Stanford, who has all kinds of resources, many of them focused on mindfulness practices.

In the podcast, a young woman in her 20s talked about writing a “rubric” for her life. DID YOU HEAR WHAT I JUST SAID? A rubric for her life so that she could measure how she was living up to her own expectations. I can only imagine the descriptors: “I am ‘partially proficient’ in maintaining close relationships.” She said it helped. I find it mildly horrifying.

But it did make me think about mission statements. Yes, mission statements. If you’ve ever had to participate in the process of writing one, you’re probably moaning and groaning by now because they can become so vague as to be meaningless. But what if we wrote our own personal mission statements to guide our teaching, to guide the way we work with students on a face-to-face basis? What if that’s what shaped the legacy we might leave behind?

Most mission statements are short and pithy, but I only have time to write a long one.

My mission is to really listen to my students, to really see them. I want to celebrate who they are right now and to help them (and myself) be here in this moment, expending our life energy to learn together. I want to help them get better than they think they can be. My mission is to help students learn how to plan a lesson, but also to think about the frame surrounding it. I want to help them consider how the work they do every day with students and colleagues has the potential to help all of us read, critique, rewrite and therefore eventually change the world.