Sunday, August 31, 2014

The End of Summer Harvest

I recall the summer when we planted two zucchini plants and ended up with more zucchinis (and, therefore, more zucchini bread, baked zucchini, fried zucchini, and chopped zucchini covertly slipped into all non-zucchini dishes) than we bargained for.

This year, for reasons not fully examined, we planted not two, but four zucchini plants, which results in things like this:

Moreover, despite a slow start in early summer, our raspberry bushes are now lavishly producing, and we pick ripe berries by the bowlful.  My oldest daughter, who is more ambitious than I am, looks up websites with titles like 1000 Things to Do With Raspberries.  I bake raspberry pies with my three hand-on helpers and invent ways they each can participate in the measuring and rolling and crimping.

And then there's that one corner of the garden, that corner where my husband absentmindedly tossed a gourd late last fall after it had sat (and then withered) on our front porch as a seasonal decoration.   Well, that little corner of the garden has sprung to life with gourds.

Almost literally.

It started off so innocently with one child's vision to create two button-eyed gourd characters.  

Then it grew.  A nuclear family of gourds emerged.

The group multiplied in uncanny ways.  A gourd grandmother, a gourd baby, a gourd ghost -- even a gourd dog -- were added into the mix. 

It's like an extended family reunion is taking place on my kitchen counter.

Eventually, the garden will stop producing and I won't need to brainstorm yet another possible way to feed my family zucchini.  We'll no longer have an influx of raspberries and fingertips stained red from their juice.  The gourds will be disassembled and tossed into the far corner of the garden, that same garden where we'll probably plant too many zucchini plants next summer, too.

But for now, we relish in the harvest.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

You taught me this, you know.

I still remember the evening, many months ago, when my friend and I worked side-by-side in my kitchen to prepare a large meal for guests.  While we were still prepping, she grabbed one of the dirty pans and started to wash it in our sink.

"You taught me this, you know," she said, looking over her shoulder.  "You once said that you always clean as you go while cooking so there's not too much clean-up at the end.  I've always remembered that."

I don't know why I recently recalled this exchange, but I did and I'm glad.  There's something gratifying about teaching someone something that they find useful, and there's something encouraging about hearing this spoken aloud.

That thing you do?  Well, I've learned from it.

When I bake pies, I always roll the crusts thin enough to cut the excess from around the edges and bake a cinnamon and sugar pie crust cookie.  My mom taught me that.  When I paint a room, I always edge with a one-and-a-half inch angled brush.  My dad taught me that.  When I stack dishes in the dishwasher, I always jam it too full.  My husband has tried to teach me about that.  Repeatedly.  (It's a work in progress.)

Every day, both in my personal life and in my profession, I'm teaching something, whether it's instruction for my students on how to analyze rhetoric, or instruction for my daughters on how to handle a conflict, fold laundry, or shut the screen door when they go outside rather than leaving it open and creating a direct thoroughfare for flies to enter the house.

(Because, obviously, flies only have enough brain capacity to fly into a house on their own volition, never back out.  Out requires great amounts of swooshing and close calls when that pesky bug is just an inch away from freedom, but for some unannounced reason, darts back into the screen and remain trapped.)

Today, I'm going to think about lessons that I've learned.  I want to be like my friend who gave voice to her thoughts; I want to share with others how they've impacted my actions and my life.

That thing you do?  You taught me that, you know.  Thank you.

Image compliments of Chapendra (

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Monday, August 25, 2014

It's the End of the Summer as We Know It

There's no graceful way to end summer and begin the school year.  For the past week we've hovered in the space between summer and school, our toes curled over the edge, waiting to take the plunge.  It happened for me this morning when I taught my first class on campus, and it'll happen to my two older girls tomorrow morning when they climb onto the school bus.

It's a shock to the system, but we're ready.

Besides, we lived large this past week and fully enjoyed the final fruits of summer.  Joel and I spent an evening sampling great bites at a local wingfest and listening to an 80's cover band.  In other words, musically speaking, I was entirely in my zone.  Culinarily-speaking, Joel was entirely in his zone.  It was a happy night, a glorious union of applewood smoked bacon and Tainted Love.

Plus, once I returned from campus this afternoon, I loaded the van with towels and sand toys and drove the girls to a small lake about 15 miles from our house.  This trip to the lake was one of the few entries still languishing on our summer bucket list, and by golly, we were going to scratch it off even if we did so during the proverbial eleventh hour as summer drew to a close.

I'm so glad we did. 

As the girls played, their minds were fully in the present.  No worries about getting lost in the hallway or wondering who you'll sit with at lunch can exist when you're busy digging moats in the sand and catching salamanders in buckets.  As I watched them, my mind was fully in the present as well.  (Apparently, no worries can exist when you're listening to your children talking to salamanders.  Goodbye, little salamander.  I'll miss you, but I'll come back and visit you again.)

And that's how a summer ends.  One day it just stops, whether you feel prepared or not, and then you take the next step.

Goodbye summer.  We'll miss you, but we know that you'll come back and visit us again.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Artistic Liberties

Title: Artistic Liberties

Subtitle:  My daughter assures me that this is a dinosaur.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Best Advice for New Teachers

Next week, I'll start my fifteenth year of teaching and the tenth at the university.  (That sentence makes me sound significantly older than I currently feel.)  Yesterday I was asked to share my best teaching advice to a group of new graduate students in our department.

As I prepared, I thought back to the start of my career.  How I felt nervous every morning.  How I doubted myself.  How I felt like a fraud as I stood at the front of the classroom, just slightly ahead of my students in life.

One semester, one academic year at a time, thousands of students have appeared on my rosters.  There's now a healthy buffer of experience and age between me and them.  From these fifteen years, I drew out three pieces of advice, both practical and philosophical, to share with these new teachers.

Stay ahead, even if it's by one step.  Regardless of the age level or subject matter taught, the work load can be staggering if it's not managed well.  For new teachers who are simultaneously planning a course while they're teaching it (an inevitable reality for every teacher at some point), it's wise to build enough buffer between what you're doing now and what you must do next.

One way to achieve this is to tackle grading resolutely.  Face that stack of essays head on.  Stare down the assignments, speeches, and exams.  This aggressiveness with grading has helped me to return work in a reasonable time frame (something appreciated by students) and it's also prevented me from drowning in a backlog of paperwork as new paperwork is continually submitted.

Act confidently even if you feel insecure.  In my public speaking classes, I teach my students how to present confidently even if they feel otherwise.  I've applied this principle to my own teaching, especially when I was a novice, so that my tone, posture, and demeanor displayed the confidence I wanted to naturally own.

By saying this, I'm not suggesting that teaching is mere theatrics or a disingenuous act.  But I am acknowledging that there's an element of performance to teaching.  Someone who's confident, even if it's a quiet confidence, can command a room. 

Act confidently, new teacher.  Eventually you'll feel confident, and even better, eventually you'll be confident.  You'll own the role that feels so foreign at the start.

Be proactively for your students.  This is the most important nugget of advice.  At the heart of teaching, there must be a genuine care for the well-being, both academic and personal, of students.  I used to wonder what my students thought of me.  I worried whether they liked me.  As the years have passed, that thinking has been flipped.  I aspire to like my students, to enter the classroom each day thinking well of them.

(Because, honestly, whether in teaching or in life, the amount of thinking that others do about us is not nearly as much as the amount we think others think about us.  This is good to accept.  It's not all about us.)

As a teacher, much like as a parent, being for them means that I invest great time and effort.  It means that I serve, support, pour out, and give something of myself.  At the same time, it means that I say "no" and "you can do better" and "try again."  I challenge my students to write, speak, and be the best they can possibly be because, ultimately, I want them to excel, not merely to be placated or awarded for averageness.

People know when you're for them, when you have their best interest in mind.  Students are no different. 

After presenting to the graduate students, I visited the four classrooms on campus where I'll teach this fall.  It's my start-of-the-semester ritual: checking out the rooms and technology, making sure the number of desks matches the enrollment, praying for each student who will sit in those chairs -- for their safety, for their studies, for their physical and emotional wellness, for their choices.

I've often thought it: these students end up on my rosters, and if only because of this, I consider them entrusted to my care.  Here's to the fifteenth year.

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