Tag Archives: middle school

WIP

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Finding inspiration in the La Sals and the red rock faces that surrounded us.

Work in Progress (WIP) is an accounting term that represents the value of the components of a product or idea in mid-production, items and materials not quite finished but necessary for a product’s completion. In the construction of a home, for example, WIP accounts for the inventory of nails, screws, hinges, drywall, and lumber that eventually become finished rooms. In writing, drafts are the WIP that wait in ‘inventory’ for their time to galvanize into completed essays.

At the end of April, I had four WIP pieces saved on my desktop. I also had had enough with my glitch-ridden computer, which had been operating strangely for some time. I took my laptop to be repaired, hastily transferring my files to a USB drive in the dark hours before my children awoke for school. A technician removed and reinstalled the operating system, thus restoring efficiency to my writing tool of choice. However, when I returned home, I realized that I hadn’t copied the WIP documents. Pre-dawn, pre-caffeine, my mouse bounced between two windows and highlighted the wrong files to transfer. My WIP essays were gone. I stared at my desktop and tried not to cry.

I tell my middle school students that words are just words: they only have the power that we give to them. Following Faulkner, I advise students that they must never hesitate to “kill their darlings,” and should look at their writing instead as a process toward reaching even greater literary heights. Revise, revise, revise! Don’t fall so in love with your words that you lose the ability to write harder, better! Yet, confronted with a loss of my own short-sighted creation – so many hours of drafting and research – what I would have given to see my precious darlings again.

A long-awaited trip to the outskirts of Moab, Utah, with three peers and 21 students wrenched me from the scene of devastation. We could not bring technology with us. It felt almost like a relief to put my computer out of mind for a few days, and focus instead on being a participant rather than an observer.

For the next few days, our group slept in tipis. We hiked, read, sloshed, played, and explored. Four sopping, scrambling teenagers fished me out of class three waves when our raft entirely and epically wiped out. I began to recover small bits of the ideas I’d lost and imagine new ones. The red rocks that surrounded us advised me to be strong. Coyotes yipped nightly salutations, while, by day, lizards suggested idyllic boulders on which to lounge. I wiggled my toes in the ruddy clay creek and the wind roared its approval. Cottonwoods applauded as I played in the sand. The desert revealed a much larger work in progress.

I came home to a blank desktop, opened a new document, and started to write.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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The Ort Report

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Ort: Noun. A scrap or morsel of food left at a meal.

Recently, I accompanied two other faculty members and our entire class of 17 middle school students to a 255-acre outdoor learning center called IslandWood on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  We spent three activity-driven days, exploring the island’s lush forests and challenging ourselves to learn from the natural world.  We hiked a lot and sampled native plants, such as stinging nettle leaves and salmonberry blossoms.  We spotted wrinkly, orange-bellied newts and thumb-sized green tree frogs.  We listened for the chipper call of the bright yellow American goldfinch, the state bird of Washington, and picked up a few songs to carry home with us, among them “The Ort Report”– arguably the most memorable tune we learned in our time at IslandWood.

I had never heard of an ort.  I certainly had not given much thought to tiny scraps and morsels prior to learning “The Ort Report,” which we sang after every meal served in IslandWood’s spacious dining hall.   Here are the words to the song:

Ooh, ahh, the Ort Report,
I said a-ooh, ahh, Ort Report,
Jiggy jiggy jiggy.
(Repeat twice, and don’t forget to swish your hands in the air during the jiggy part.)

The song’s mission is simple.  It introduces visitors to the concept of eating “just enough” – not so little that one is left hungry, nor so much as to prompt the loosening of any belts – and leaving fewer orts on our plates.  Though most of the students visiting IslandWood with us were fourth and fifth graders, who, because of their age, might be more prone to giggling, even our middle schoolers couldn’t camouflage their goofiest, lopsided smiles when we sang the song. That is brilliant marketing.

Not that the IslandWood dining hall markets anything except reduced food waste.  We ate family-style, each table served by a “captain,” who fetched heaping bowls of food from the kitchen and brought them to the table for us to share.  Once everyone received the first round of platters, Deborah, a tall strawberry blond who facilitates dining room affairs, encouraged anyone still hungry to claim second helpings.  IslandWood welcomed us to eat as much as we pleased, but issued gentle reminders – through Deborah – to eat “just enough,” so that we weren’t sluggish and inobservant in the field.  After meals, we sorted our plates according to food and liquid waste, compostable matter, and dirty dishes.  Deborah and a rotating group of student helpers then weighed the food and liquid waste, and revealed the findings to the diners, prefacing their announcement with “The Ort Report” song.  We (in all, roughly 200 visiting students and teachers from four schools) wasted about ten pounds of food and liquids after our first meal.  By the end of our short visit, we’d lowered our waste to two pounds.  Brilliant.

Deborah also taught us a lesson in fractions, whittling down an apple to a sliver of 1/32nds.  The apple represented the earth.  The sliver: the portion of the earth available to grow the overwhelming majority of foods we enjoy today.  Deborah prompted us to consider how much food gets tossed into the trash, un- or half-eaten, each day… at schools, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airports, and in our own homes.  I can’t speak for others, but seeing that tiny apple sliver in Deborah’s slim fingers profoundly reinforced the notion of leaving behind far fewer orts.

Several of the middle school students returned from the trip with an interest in changing food practices in our own dining hall. They serenade me with “The Ort Report” in class.  Their smiles and laughter remind me that it’s not too late to decimate the ort population and stop eating at “just enough,” even if it’s just a few of us making that personal choice.  I’d do almost anything to make their world a bigger, better, longer lasting place.  The journey begins at breakfast.

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Eupepsia

“Food is a feminist issue – and not just because historically women have been the ones to cultivate it, harvest it, preserve it, can it, budget it, shop for it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it, and/or mass produce it in assembly-line work at the Frito Factory…”– Bonnie J. Morris

There are usually two publications I read immediately upon receiving: The Sun, a monthly magazine that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of human narratives and experiences, and Gastronomica, a quarterly journal that celebrates the wide and varied spectrum of all things related to food and food culture.  I received the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica weeks ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when because during that time I started working as an instructor-in-training for a group of bright, sweet middle schoolers.  I spent those weeks training and training, and devoted what little time I had outside of training to planning and planning.  When I finally granted myself the permission to stop planning and read the current Gastronomica issue, I experienced a series of unsettling revelations.

In the issue, a writer named Paula M. Salvio presents her study of food blogs written by women and the commonalities that appear between them.  According to Salvio, the larger body of work written by female food bloggers can be distilled into two categories: 1) “narrative references to postwar cookery books with specific references to a discourse of comfort,” and 2) “narratives of domestic discomfort.”  Dyspepsia roiled as I read about the bloggers who apologize for their lapses in writing (I’ve totally done that before – in fact, I’m kind of doing it now) and bloggers who interweave autobiographical details, positive and negative, into their exploration of food (ditto).  She concludes with the uplifting suggestion that female food bloggers are actively creating a culture in which to connect and support one another as we face the stresses of challenges of work and domesticity.  This comforted me for about a minute, until I realized that not only was I a stereotype of both narrative categories, I had also forsaken my culture of food peers through an unintentional gap in my writing.

Panic whacked me upside the head.  Suddenly, I couldn’t recall the last time I cozied up with a recipe or made anything but the most perfunctory, quick fix meal.  When was the last time I lingered in the cookbook section at Barnes and Noble?  When was the last time I thought, I should cook something in beer today!  It’s been over five months since I opened my Google Reader, overflowing with posts from bloggers whose writing and photography have historically been my threads of inspiration.  When did I stop paying purposeful, measured attention to my central passions?

The middle school faculty met with parents a week prior to the start of school for orientation.  I found myself face to adolescent face with enormity of the responsibility of my new position.  I also caught a glimpse of its potential, and I liked what I saw.  I have the freedom to create my own curriculum, heavy on writing – to my good fortune.  I can use my talents to inspire young minds, something my grandfather urged me to do since I was a teenager. (My mother would have burst into proud tears to learn that I am finally pursuing the profession she urged throughout my life.)  Quirk and spunk are assets in an environment such as this… I only hope that students embrace this notion sooner rather than later.  But if my goal is to foster open creative expression among my students, then it must be something I practice too.   If I want to help them unlock the dynamics of style and prose, shouldn’t I commit to following a similar path of discovery?

Food is a feminist issue.  Everyday, I wake before dawn to squeeze in a run, then rush home to assemble school lunches, shower and get ready, ferret Kai out the door, and deliver Rory to her babysitter-du-jour, barely making it to work on time.  I duck out of meetings to retrieve Rory from the babysitter and transport her to afternoon kindergarten, only to return to classes and meetings that last until dinner.  What’re you making for dinner? I ask my husband, keenly aware that I will be preparing dinner myself and/or phoning in an order for take-out.   I’m not willing to concede to failure in any role.

And why the constant stress?  It was so freeing to read Peter Mayle’s honest assessment of a writer’s occupation in Toujours Provence.  “There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world,” he writes.  “A thousand words a day, or nothing: it makes no difference to anyone else but you.”  Though Mayle is obviously not a female blogger, I think his notion of anxiety caused by self-imposed deadlines holds validity.  In an online sphere of such immediacy, we create constructs that spur us to produce more and with high frequency.  But, without an editor or a book deal, who’s really keeping track?  Who are we actually disappointing when inspiration wanes?  Does quality of work suffer? Mayle also points out the intense pleasure that a writer receives from having his/her thoughts and ideas heard (or read).  “What makes it worth living,” he writes, “is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met.”  This is why we write, what we miss when we don’t write, and why we press ourselves: our urgent compulsion to produce and our need for validation are irrevocably intertwined.

A feminist issue and a labor of love: I skip meals, but wouldn’t dream of letting my children skip them.  I am their mother – and mothers mean comfort, often in the form of food.  In my case, food means creativity.  I lapse in my writing, but can’t fathom damming the flow of ideas for good.  I might divert a stream of creativity to the classroom for the sake of inspiring young minds, but I’m lost if I can’t find a tributary that reconnects me to that which gives me such vital sustenance.  I embrace the recent ebbs in the current of my days – and welcome an entirely new group of opportunities.  Maybe this isn’t an apology, but rather a joyful song.

I survived the first days of school.  I enjoyed them, in fact: hearing my students’ laughter as they used teamwork to unravel human knots or mused whether zombies actually exist in real life.  My return to the creative fold reassures me that my beloved trifecta of cooking, writing, and reading hasn’t died, as I silently feared; it was only taking an extended siesta as I diverted necessary energies to the demands of an exciting new beginning.  Slowly but surely, my appetite returns.  I made lasagna last weekend… with honest-to-goodness marinara sauce that I slow-cooked with a friend’s garden-grown tomatoes.  I read Gastronomica cover to cover, and, thanks be, I’m still writing.

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