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.



Today, Anna Arcuri (my fantastic TA), has prompted us to think about setting intentions to guide our work/writing/living today. Here’s her prompt:

    • The writer of “Intention Setting 101” Melissa Eisler, defines intentions as “heart-driven and evoke feeling and purpose … Setting an intention is a way to bring your heart and mind into alignment.” Think of a positive intention you can set for yourself today during class. Write about what you need from yourself, your peers, and/or Cindy and Anna; then write about how you will achieve this intention.

I’ve been thinking about intentions a lot this year and have centered them around the word “abundance.” It’s at the top of my calendar, so I see it every day, but sometimes it becomes “wallpaper” that I don’t see anymore, even though I’ve written IN BLUE SHARPIE. Intentions can become wallpaper, too, I’ve discovered, so that I’m sometimes thinking, “Abundance, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Today, though, I looked at it purposely and wondered how it would shape my day. I wondered how every time fear for the future arise (it’s ever-present for me), I could let abundance frame my thinking.

What does it mean to teach from a place of abundance? What does it mean to write from a place of abundance? What does it mean to lead from a place of abundance? What does it mean to walk through my life that way?

It means that right now, at this present moment, I am (mostly) safe, I can see beauty all around me on this sunny day, I have the privilege of working with my students for the next 50 mins. at a very important stage of their lives. I have the opportunity to help them think about this moment as more than just leading to the next one. But first I have to believe it myself.

How will that knowledge guide my work today? I will gift them with abundant, generous listening. I will draw from my abundant experience to try to help them write their way into ideas that the rest of us can learn from. I will give them what I can to help them live abundantly, too.

we are the champions

TODAY’S AFTERNOON PAGES PROMPT is brought to you by Kelsea, Lexi, and Devontay. Here it is:

Watch this video first…and then…

It’s National Poetry Month! Therefore, please write a poem in the format of your choosing. In your poem, address these questions:

How would you advocate for your students? What are specific ways you might be able to be a ‘champion’ for them? How might you go about advocating for students that might be ‘ignored’ in the educational system because of things such as race, class, gender, ability, etc? You do not have to address all of these questions in your poem unless you want to; focus on the ones that you are most interested in.

(what follows is the first draft of my poem.)



Champion: n., One who wins

Champion: adj., Victorious, winning

Champion: v., To hold another up so that they can be victorious

Teachers embody most parts of speech.

They can win:

at reaching their students, at teaching out of their minds

They can reign:

sit at the head of the class with their makeshift crowns and duct-taped scepters against the odds of insufficient funding, inadequate pay, disinterested parents, uneducated policymakers

Or (and this is it; the heart of the crux of the center of the thing) they can

hold others up–(support, not attack; enable, not thwart;

[students, colleagues, administrators, parents, community members, policymakers — all were students oncewhathappened

Teachers embody most parts of speech.

Teachers can champion champions and champion us all.


what’s the use?: of poetry


Yesterday, the English Ed. program threw a big party and invited the LA spoken word poetry troupe Get Lit to it to share all they know about reading the world to read the word. Today’s giant understatement = a really good time was had by all.

In the course of the afternoon, one of the poets, Monique Mitchell, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Poetry As Insurgent Art [I am signaling you from the flames.]” A beautiful line from this poem is this one: “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.” So our Afternoon Pages prompt for today is to address, if that is the case, how poetry would respond?

Here’s (the highly unedited) response I wrote yesterday:


How many days has poetry

saved me?

How many days have I fastened myself

to a word, a line,

gripped it like a grapnel,

Hung on tight

so I could just hang on?

I collect poems like I 

collect(ed) rocks, stamps, crossword puzzles

when I was seven, seventeen,

and even now in the lamplight

before I go to sleep.

I add words to the list of WORDS that

I keep on my cell phone

those I will use now and someday.

Some people say, “Waste not, want not.”

Some people say, “A penny saved is

a penny earned.”

But I say, waste words anyway.

I say, spend them all.

Eat them like cereal from the china bowls.

Slurp them from the good silver.

Serve them up like grilled cheese on the crystal plate.

Use your words (use my words)

this moment, now, not some distant someday.

What if the most important guest 

you imagined to impress

never comes?

Words unspent are wasted,

(as with your vast life)

without poetry,

worlds unsaved.


not-knowing is welcome here

not knowing

For today’s Morning Pages prompt, we marked up a page entitled “Not Knowing” from Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He suggests (and this is my favorite line) that “new discoveries and realizations happen at the interface between what is known and what is not known” (p. 73).

Dwell in that for a minute: all the things that we say we value in schools as English teachers–“creativity or imagination or poetry”–come from hanging out in that “interface.” What a lovely, terrifying thought.

So why isn’t “not knowing” more valued in school? And what are the benefits and pushbacks that occur when it is? I have to say that one of the scariest things for me now, even as a teacher with three decades in the profession, is the fear of what students will write on my course evals if I model “not knowing” as an essential part of learning and teaching. In the past, a handful of students have implied that “not knowing” means I don’t know what I’m talking about. Hypothetically, I hope they’re right because that’s the point that I should hang up my hat, but I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t associated costs. Students write evals –> committees write evals of professors –> professors receive (or do not receive) raises, earn (or do not earn) tenure, get (or not get) promotion, etc. Furthermore on course evals, there’s no question that asks to what degree an instructor successfully models curiosity and uncertainty (i.e. not-knowing); rather there’s just the question that rates whether or not a professor is knowledgeable about the subject.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. Still, the absence of the former question seems messed up.

JKZ’s claim, though, comforts me. If we don’t dwell in that “interface between what is known and what is not known” for at least a while, we don’t get poetry, we don’t get creativity, we don’t get imagination. Have we failed our students then? Have we failed the world?

“welcome” to the 80% club

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Speaking to a crowd of teachers, Brene Brown explains the intersections between shame, vulnerability, and learning. She says that 80% of the folks she’s studied over the years can remember a shaming incident by a teacher that occurred to them in school. The good news is that 90% can remember a teacher who has made a lasting, positive impact on their lives by coaxing them toward the positive vulnerability that’s essential to learning. Today, I want to focus on the 80% club and the moment that popped instantly into my mind when I considered whether or not I had earned a membership.

I’m in a small-town high school gym, and Coach Keith is choosing the team for tomorrow night’s game based on what he sees in this practice. I am diving for a loose ball when we collide at half court. My teeth jar together as Sherri Linihan’s chin comes down hard on the side of my head. I’ve run into a cinder block wall. My ears are ringing, but we are deadlocked, and I am not letting go.

Not doing it.

I see red, I feel it surging up inside, but I am not letting go. Not doing it.

Out of my peripheral vision, blurring now, I can sense more than I can see Coach Keith striding toward us. His thick white shoes, his long, long legs in royal blue polyester coaching pants, just like the ones hanging in my Daddy’s closet. He crouches down beside Sherri and me still squirming together on the floor. He leans in close and says, “Don’t you cry, you big baby. Don’t you do it.”

And you can better believe I don’t. And I don’t let go of the ball either. These are battles you do not lose if you want to make the team. I am not losing. I am not doing it.

Looking back still disorients me. My ears still ring.I still see red. I feel my fingers on the rough rubber ball (grasping grasping) trying to scoop it in close to my body so that I can get the upper hand and roll away away (gasping gasping).

I remember now what I still want to forget. Letting go.

Rolling to the side. Reaching my hand to the top of my head, feeling the stickiness before I see it. Seeing red, on my hands this time, streaming through my fingers after I pull my hand away.

My head throbs, my jaw hurts, it hurts it hurts, but I do not cry. I do not worry about blood or stitches or slipping down the grey tunnel as the harsh fluorescent gym lights flare away. I worry about being a big baby and what my dad will think if I don’t start in the Friday night game.

This is what it feels like to belong to the 80% club. The power of shame does not dissipate. It does not lead to learning.




see me / see you

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After watching this TED talk by the “8-Foot Bride” (aka musician/performance artist Amanda Palmer), we’re writing to the questions at the bottom of this post today:

This Afternoon Pages entry is the first in a 3-part series on a vulnerability that we’re writing to in relation to being a Teacher as Writer, who’s also a CO301D student, who’s also completing a UGP.

I’m nervous that I’ve made myself vulnerable to some extent by even considering the topic of vulnerability with my students. In the past, my high school students and every so often my university students as well have some observation that we should “just stick to the facts, ma’am” instead of making personal connections to class content or to one another. I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I have just always found the question peculiar because I thought that was partly what this learning and literacy thing was all about–personal engagement and interaction, right? It’s perfectly fine that some students don’t share this view, but every time it surfaces, I think about the false divide that has been created by the schooling system as we currently know it (yikes–passive voice abstracting systems, even though WE are the system) that separates the “student” and the “teacher from one another and also from the reality that we are human beings. There is an intersection here. 

But you know what? I’ve decided to show up, as Brene Brown puts it in Daring Greatly, not just as the “professor,” but as a human being in my classes. Because, guess what? I want my identity to animate my teaching. This is my life energy. This is my students’ life energy. Shouldn’t it count for something?

This intention is also based on the work I’m doing with teachers in the CSU Writing Project around our working theory of action on “sustainable teaching.” From experience, I know that it takes so much dang energy to pretend to be someone you aren’t in the classroom, for students and teachers alike.

This doesn’t mean that I’m never afraid on any given day. I’ve just learned (and will always be learning) that if I give into that fear of letting my students see me–if my students give in, too–we will have missed an opportunity to tap into the beautiful, dangerous experience of being writers, teachers, and learners with one another.

And wouldn’t that be a waste?

What does it mean to really see someone? What does seeing someone require? What does it mean to be seen? What does being seen require? What does any of this have to do with being a learner, a teacher, a writer, and a human being inside and outside of school?

wobble #5,239,084,710,928,347

Yeah, that’s a lot of numbers up there. I could put a “squared” or “cubed” numeral at the top of that, too, because, well, at least in my case, that’s what it’s like to be a writer on any given day. True, there are the occasional days of flow, too, and boy do those feel great, but more often not, what happens is that I pose/wobble/flow in a single session. Just as Antero Garcia and I have written, the P/W/F cycle is recursive, not linear.

The good news is that no matter how many experiences I have under my belt as a writer, no matter how many times I may want to throw my writing utensil du jour across the room (this can get dangerous and expensive, BTW), I know what’s coming:

pose (I can do this! Write an AP entry, an article, a letter, an e-mail or blogpost, a chapter, a book) –> wobble (I’m definitely going to do this, and it makes my head hurt and my eyes twitch. A lot. Also, there’s a grumpiness factor, and a lot of staring at the screen) –> (with enough faith, trust, and pixie dust, this will happen, too.)

I love the phrase “write toward light” because it conveys for me both:

1, Light = flow (ergo it exists)

2. Light is a stance and a subject and an aspiration for me. I want my writing to matter and be about things that matter in ways that matter. I want to add to–which sometimes means pushing back against–the conversation, whatever it may be.

3. Light flows, absent of particles and debris. While I sometimes use my daily pages just to whine and vent so I can unclog those pipes, I do want to write toward something that flows clear and clean and true.

The phrase reminds me that the wobble is worth it, so the astronomical number keeps going and going and going. Hopefully, so do I.

starting from scratch

Today’s Afternoon Pages ask us to think about starting a school from scratch.

In my mind’s eye, there would be beauty, actual aesthetic beauty, in the place. It would not look like a prison; it would not look like a big box store with walls. There would be LIGHT, lots of light because if plants need it to grow, probably it’s good for people, too. (Students and teachers are people, by the way, with faces and bodies who need to see the sun.) There would be other living things: plants, therapy dogs, a garden. There would be high ceilings in common spaces and low ceilings in cozy ones. There would be movable seating on wood floors and color on the walls, which would be filled with a rotating array of student art and writing. There would be floor-to-ceiling windows on some walls that open to the outside when possible. There would be music and zero bells. Also, probably ice cream.

As I visualize the physical space, I realize that spaces implicitly reflect our beliefs about the purposes of school. If you allow that schools have identities, then the spaces also convey and reflect values. They silently communicate who gets to be a learner, whose voices matter. Voice enables the enactment of identity.

Do you visualize yourself as a dynamic learner? Then you need a dynamic space in which to learn that reflects who you are and might become.