100 days and counting

May 31st.  That was our 100 days.  Since our house burned down my husband and I have both turned 40 and celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.  While our family trip to the Frio River over Memorial Day weekend was wonderful, I had inklings of cooking up something really wonderful for us– Then our house burned down.

A picture of a bag of cotton rounds with 5 remaining.

Only 5 left.

What makes passage of time real is, as always, the little things.  I’m about out of the cotton rounds that I use for my face stuff.  The package held 100.  The toothpaste is getting down there too.  And the hand lotion.  Replacing these things is a signal of how long we’ve been gone.

We removed the 1970s era fridge from the kitchen when it started leaking rusty something down the back.  And in moving the fridge from the tiny house into this house, we also moved the grill.  That’s been wonderful as I use the grill as an oven through the summer.  Even frozen pizza is pretty wonderful dressed up with some toppings and cooked on a pizza stone on the grill.  Purchasing of the America’s Test Kitchen Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook has been a real boost for my grilling ego because German pancakes/Dutch babies, cheesy pizza dip, and shepherd’s pie.  So that’s been good.

And we’re probably moving again.  Mentally I’m imagining us not home by Christmas and we can’t stay in this house for another 6 months.  Something expensive is going to break and then I’d feel guilty.  So we’re house/apartment/condo hunting, but thankfully there’s a company that does that work for us.

As often happens, as I was walking a phrase came to mind that encapsulates where we’re at:

Housed, but homeless.

Yes, we have a roof over our head, plumbing that works surprisingly well for how old it is, a lovely little backyard with a great patio and trees– really, many things to be thankful for.  And, I’m deeply grateful for the generous neighbor who offered the house before she was ready to rent it, and an insurance company that shows up and writes checks.

But we’re not at home.  We’re not in the space we had worked hard to try and make our own.  We don’t have our things.  And the things I wish I had are things like the wall of my grandfather’s sketches that I saw every time I walked down the hall, or the just-right casserole dish to make apple crisp for breakfast (it’s delicious and you should totally try it), or the marimba which my husband or youngest would play while we got dinner on the table.  Or our dog, who has been spoiled to pieces at my cousins and is happy as all get-out, but isn’t with her family who misses her.

Three boys facing away from the camera, standing on the rocky bank of a river, looking at the river. Green trees are in the background across the river.

Frio River

But we go onward because that’s the choice before us, with the help of friends and family.  And the kids are totally pulling for an apartment with a pool when we move.  Or a house super-close to school.

A Modern, Suburban Tale of Job

First, our house burns down. We’re safe, but our stuff needs to be decontaminated, we have to rebuild, and we’re living in a lovely home in our neighborhood that looks almost identical to what it did when it was build in 1950s.

Second, and I haven’t published this widely yet, we all came down with a version of the norovirus three days after our house burned down. Everyone in my family and our lovely hosts. We recovered, some faster than others, and while it was deeply unpleasant, it did eventually go on its way after time, a lot of bleach, and laundry.

Third, and the newest plague, is lice. Yep, those lovely little, six-legged parasites. Thank God for an attentive, experienced nanny and Mater’s Tales. The little one put up with a lot of pulling on his poor little head, but we’ve cleared him up. Sean and I are bonding over nitpicking. And my blessed in-laws are shampooing the older two with nitpicking to follow when they get home tomorrow. What an end to spring break.

A friend joked that boils are next, so I’m keeping an eye out for hand-foot-and-mouth.

So, we’re find our grace as we move ever onward.

Learn the rules?

I was playing with these cool blocks with my 8-year-old. He was making a horse stall and needed to expand it because the horse was crowded. But he got frustrated. These blocks only have one notch each, which is a very tangible design constraint. J could see what he wanted to do to expand the horse stall, but he couldn’t get the blocks to cooperate. If only they had all kinds of these… things [as he wiggles his fingers around a block, hoping the gesture communicates what lacks a word]. He persisted, talking the while, ked through it and, unsurprisingly, came up with a plan.

In reflecting on J’s experience with the constraints of these blocks, I was taken back to a Facebook conversation about this article. The author proposes a set of constraints that he would place on his students in a writing course. Basically, shrink whatever you write down into a sentence. He argues that these design constraints (my term, not his) would get to what’s most important and train students to be editors. The group of smart writing people I was talking with had varying takes on the idea, but seemed to coalesce around the notion that it would only be a useful exercise if the students chose it.

I won’t argue with either point. When I write, I’m often constrained by proposal or manuscript word limits. Occasionally I assign myself other constraints like time, form, or words. Self-imposed design constraints can be a very useful way to learn various skills that will serve a writer, designer, artist, musician, whatever, well.

Another way to think about these design constraints is through the lens of rules and grammar.  When I talk to teachers or preservice teachers about teaching writing, I hear variations on: “Students need to learn the rules before they break them.” I completely understand where this instinct comes from because the rules–what I’d call conventions or design/genre constrains–do matter, a lot.  Though they are far more dependent on audience, genre, and purpose than young writers are often taught in school.  This limitation is, in part, because standards often frame conventions as singular, not multifaceted.

For all these reasons, I resist the idea that the way to teach young people how to write is by teaching them isolated rules, and then thinking they’ll magically churn out perfect sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Pushing, pulling, experimenting with different design constraints, and testing them all out in the world on real audiences, that’s how the conventions begin to make sense and work.  Think of J playing with blocks, trying to make a horse stall, and talking his way into success.  Words or blocks– it’s all about the playing and experimenting.

Starting well

[Cross-posted on Literacy & NCTE.]

If you listen closely, you can hear it. That big, deep breath before we plunge into the cold lake of back-to-school. I present back-to-school workshops for teachers, and these workshops are often when teachers are dipping their toe in, testing the waters on a new school year. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right.   And I start well by using the same strategies I use as a college professor and used as a high school English  teacher, and these strategies are grounded in my beliefs about what it means to teach writing well.

  • Write, as soon as possible, if not first. If we start by writing, then that’s what our time together is about. I get it, there’s a great temptation (sometimes a mandate) to start with the schedule or norms or rules or assessments or forms or…or …or … But I want my time with teachers to be about writing, so we start there. Usually quick and sometimes short, we write–without a prompt–whatever words need to be on the paper.
  • From the start, I write with the teachers. The teachers can see my pen tapping and me staring off into space and know that all writers get stuck sometimes. I can show them my writing on a document camera and struggle to not apologize because it is too short and I crossed stuff out, so they can see that all writers start with drafty-drafts.  And they can see when I get lost in writing and forget to stop us or when I’m proud of a sentence or turn of phrase.
  • We talk about our writing from the beginning. We talk around our still unformed creations—these texts we build out of words and experience and memory and other texts and paper and pens and notebooks. By talking, we build our relationships with one another and our own and others’ words.  These relationships are the way we get through the moments when the writing gets hard or the revision is not working. Or when we figure it out and just have to share how good it sounds.

Admittedly, these strategies are not original, but good things never go out of style.  Whether I’m working with teachers or students, the pressure to cover content or standards often pushes aside these habits of mind that are, after all, at the heart of our discipline.  So, whenever I want to start well with a new group of teachers or students, we write and talk together first, building a community of writers who can explore the world together through words.