A Deer Killing Story: Moving from Experience to Narrative

Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft.  They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters.  Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.

Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote.  It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience.  How did this happen?  Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.

Here’s an example:  A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.

When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky.  The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.

In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey.  Unfortunately, they have no luck.  As it grows dark, they decide to go home.

As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them.  Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck.  “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby.  “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.”  The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch.  The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.”  Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.”  Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died.  I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”

It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.

No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative.  By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.


Why I Write

In 2004, I left Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. I was recently divorced, a walking crisis of faith, and I entered a program primarily peopled with students who were much younger. They both wrote and partied hard. I was reeling from a life rent-in-twain, reexamining every truth I’d ever held sacred.  Getting out of bed every morning and walking to the coffee shop around the corner was a victory.

I graduated from that program and returned to Kentucky in 2007. I came back with a new understanding of myself, the world, and my place in it. I now look back on those three years with all the grace that a decade of distance can bring to wilderness moments.

Another Michener Fellow, Jesse Donaldson, has recently published a book of essays, an extended argument to convince his wife to move from Portland where they presently live to Kentucky where he grew up.  Each essay is titled as one of the 120 counties in Kentucky. On October 22, Donaldson launched an ambitious book tour to read his book in every county in the Commonwealth. Yesterday he came to my classroom to read a portion of his book and to talk to my students about writing. He brought with him another Michener Fellow, Greg Koehler, a Texas poet, who was along for a portion of the tour.  

I teach writing in a creative and performing arts program at a large urban high school.  Students who audition and are accepted into the program stay with me for four years, so I am exceptionally close to the juniors and seniors, who were the audience for Greg and Jesse’s reading.  

Tuesday morning: my classroom was dim, lit by festival lights strung across the room.  Fifteen juniors and seniors sat in a semi-circle. Jesse read from his book and talked about writing with such wisdom and generosity.  My students listened intently.  I was aware of how proud I was of them, so smart, that they understood what good stuff Jesse was dishing out and were honoring it with their attention, their interest.

After Jesse talked, Greg took over and read a poem called “Kentucky River Dirge,” a poem he had written during our time in Austin, based on many of the conversations he and I had had about my longing for home, my own nostalgia for the land of my birth, and our mutual love for soil and all the metaphorical power of the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. (Thank you, Wendell Berry.)

As he read the poem, I heard lines I had forgotten I uttered, emanating from a time and place I no longer visit, in a voice I no longer use.  In a moment, I was both 50 and 40 years old, both graduate student and high school teacher. Both the wrung-out, strung-out Austin Liz, and the contented, comfortable Kentucky Liz.

Of course, to my students, these lines were merely poetry. As if.

To me, they were sodden afternoons at the Crown and Anchor, so many cigarettes, so many Texas backyard midnight parties, so much reeling from the lost tethers of church and family, a reminder of my struggle to find footing by telling those stories of tobacco and smokehouses. Greg transported me, not only a decade back into my life, but to my childhood as I followed my father to the field, burning tobacco beds to receive the seeds, to my mother’s own stories of sleepwalking along the roof of the smokehouse.

And there I sat, in all my respectability, in my lanyard and my ring of keys, listening to an anthem of a person I once was, rolled out in language. Hanging in the air, among the lights, among my students. Actual words. Hung on lines of poetry, tied together in an activity we call writing. An activity that I ask my students to engage in daily.

I wanted to pitch myself headlong out of my chair and roll around on the floor. The revelation of this moment, the wrecking juxtaposition.  Worlds colliding. My precious students, my old friends, my memories, all occupying some metaphysical space in Room 303.

But even more profound was my wish to impress upon my charges that writing had the power to do all this, to transcend time and resurrect people we once were and allow us to live in both present time and at any time in the chronicled history or in history that has yet to exist.  


Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.



Lesson Plan: Mirror, Mirror

In the essay “On Becoming a Poet,” Mark Strands says, “A poem may be the residue of an inner urgency, one through which the self wishes to register itself, write itself into being, and finally, to charm another self, the reader, into belief.”

Today in my Literary Arts 1.2 class, my learning target was to register ourselves, to write ourselves into being, and, of course, to use the kind of language and details that would charm a reader into belief.

First, I led the class in a poetry transcription of Charles Simic’s fabulous poem “Mirrors at 4 a.m.”  and afterward, we discussed images: “rooms webbed in shadows,” “the empty bed,” “the blank wall,” and of course, the surreptitious (authentic vocab moment) wiping of the “hanky” over the brow.   We talked about mortality, existence, time and eternity, but my objective was not analysis. The poem was just a spring board for self examination and self rendering.

I passed out small mirrors.  I’ve used these hand-held numbers before to assist students in writing about their hands, but this was the first time we have ventured to the face.  After everyone had a mirror, there was much giggling and groaning and bang fluffing and chin jutting. Then we got down to business.

Employing top to bottom description, we wrote for five minutes on each element of the face, starting with the 1) hair, 2) forehead, 3) eyes, 4) nose, 5) mouth, 6) chin and jaw, and finally, 7) the whole face.   The whole activity took about 40 minutes, and it produced about two pages of description of some element of the face. I urged them to reject the easy description, the cliched, the hackneyed, and take up residence in the unique pores, moles, freckles, and follicles of their face.

Using this fodder as a zero draft, students then created a poem (any length, any form) that addressed, defined, described, or gave voice to one of the abstract words on the board:  self, existence, mortality, personality, identity, purpose, destiny, character.   

Or they could write anything they want.  That’s always an option.   Here are a few of the results:

#1  Leila, Grade 10

#2 Ruby, Grade 10

#3 McKenna, Grade 9

#4 Autumn, Grade 9

#5 Sarah, Grade 9









Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Twenty Reasons Why I Love Teaching

February 14-22 is #LoveTeaching week, a social media campaign designed to change the narrative about teaching and focus on the overwhelming and abundant positives about this job.  For the last four years, I have been involved with an online professional learning community with three other teachers: Stephanie Smith, Austen Reilley, and Amy Gilliam.  Between us, we cover elementary, middle, and high school classes.  When I heard about the #LoveTeaching campaign, I immediately posed the question to my posse, and here are the twenty things we love most about teaching in no particular order.

  1. When I get my roster for the new school year. I love to pull up our school’s internal directory and check out the kids that will be coming to me in the new year.  Hey, I know that kid from Tardy Table. That kid looks adorable. That kid looks sad.  That kid needs a hug. I have brightness, I have diversity, I have challenges. I have a room full of potential.
  2. The energy of the first day of school. There’s nothing like it.  Everything is possible.  It’s a clean slate.  Teachers and students strive to make the best impression. Everyone is fresh and new, looking and feeling their best.  The pencils are sharp and abundant.  Spiral notebooks crisp and ready to be filled.
  3. My classroom. I love my room, and I want my kids to love it.  It’s warm, inviting, colorful, clean, organized, and there’s always a pot of coffee brewing. I love the three wide windows that let in the morning sun, and I love the energy when kids come in before first block to hang out, joke, gossip, or talk about sports, news, and movies.
  4. My colleagues. Teachers are some of the coolest people I know.  They are tough, sassy, and curious. They are wise to human nature yet eternal optimists.  Always hopeful, always enthusiastic, always learning.  They are my witty, wonderful tribe.
  5. The teachable moment. I have written before that there are few more transcendent moments in a teacher’s life than when she’s standing in front of a group of students, explaining something, and everyone in the room is sitting on the edge of the seats. It’s a beautiful moment of showmanship delivered by a professional, without a lesson plan, without a standard.  It’s the zenith of a teaching life. It’s as good as it gets.
  6. When the light goes on. This is similar to the teachable moment, but it’s more profound because it’s a singular moment of revelation when a kid finally puts it all together. The clouds part and the angels sing.  The ah-ha!  The eureka! When the creases fall out of the kid’s forehead and the eyebrows go up, and she says, “So that’s what you’ve been talking about all year!!” Bingo.
  7. When the lesson plan beat drops. Some days the lesson you’ve planned is interrupted by a fire drill or you run out of time for the lab or there’s a full moon.  But then there are days… Oh, those days when it all comes together.  When the copier, the stapler, the projector works, when your bell ringer is on fleek, when your mini-lesson slays, when they inhale the reading selection, when everyone kills it during the activity, and the socratic discussion nears sublimity, and you have just enough time for the perfect exit slip which they finish with relish and reflection, and then the bell rings.  Oh, and you have planning next.   #GOLD
  8. That kid. You know the one. He’s the shy kid in the back who never does well on tests, but he’s the only one in the room who knows the answer to some deep, existential question about the human condition.  She’s the quiet girl in the corner who shares her poetry with you one day, and its ferocity tears your face off.  He’s the kid who never remembers his homework, but you hear him play the cello at the coffee shop around the corner, and you are transported.
  9. That other kid. She’s so mad at the world.  He’s angry with everything and everybody.  She’s raising her eight brothers and sisters in a double-wide trailer. His parents are in jail. She has no quiet place to read or do homework. He’s moved eight times in the last school year. Help me, this kid is saying to you, but he’s not using those words.  The words she uses are “this is stupid,” “I hate this class,” “you’re the worst teacher in the world.” This kid will break your heart.
  10. Oh, and that other one too. He’s the class clown.  She’s wise to all the futile exercises of the adult world.  And you can barely keep a straight face when you say, “That was completely inappropriate,” because you know in any other circumstance what that kid just said would have been the funniest thing ever in the history of funny things.
  11. When you are more than a teacher.  Maybe it’s the unity of the team or the club, maybe it’s the competition, or maybe it’s the out of classroom experience that draws you closer, but your relationship changes and deepens when you share in their lives outside the realm of your classroom as a sponsor or a coach.
  12. When they seek out your counsel. There are few better moments than when a student seeks out your opinion on a non-school matter.  When they respect your opinion and value your judgement enough to ask your advice on their future, their relationships, or their jobs, that is one of the highest callings.
  13. When you call parents to tell them how proud you are of their child. There’s no better phone call to make then calling a parent, especially one who may never have had a positive phone call from the school before, to say their child stood up for someone less fortunate or their child made good choices that day or their child improved by a letter grade or their child turned in all her homework for the six weeks.  Those calls are the life blood of our work.
  14. When parents tell you how much their kid loves you and your class. My friend and colleague Elizabeth Beck calls this kind of comment “a teacher paycheck.” There is nothing more rewarding than knowing you have made a positive difference in the life of a child.
  15. When students come back and tell you how much they loved your class. Ditto from #14, but better. Especially when they cite specific lessons, short stories, poems, moments from your class that they remember.  There’s nothing better. Really.
  16. When I read an essay and hear a thinking mind behind it. Yes, that’s the goal, but sometimes a correct essay isn’t always one of original thought. So many kids, like so many adults, repeat the same worn-out adages of convenience, the bromides and platitudes of popular opinion, but woah, when there’s evidence of a whirligig mind—musing, reflecting, speculating—yeehaw, I love teaching.
  17. When your kids leave love notes on your white board.  There’s nothing better than a group of high school kids covering your white board with pictures of pigs and alligators and frogs with messages like “We love you, P-Dog.”
  18. Keeping up with your graduates on social media. I have the good fortunate to have nearly a hundred former students as friends on social media. I love watching them grow, travel, earn degrees and new jobs, new loves, get married, have babies, adopt.  When I see them happy and successful, I am happy and successful.
  19. The energy of the last day of school. Like the first day, there’s nothing like it.  A buoyance in every step, a lightness in the air.  Celebrations are soon to follow. The graduates look so pleased, the parents so proud, the teachers so ready for summer. The ocean calls out your name like a lover.
  20. Summer. I’ve never met a summer I didn’t like.  Time to take classes, read books for pleasure, rejuvenate, plan, escape, and come back for the next exhilarating year.

#TeachingIs Messy (And I Like It That Way)

During National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4-8, 2015, the Center for Teaching Quality invites all teachers to share their #TeachingIs story in an effort to dispel the popular myth of bad apple teachers and failing schools. Bill Ferriter, a CTQ blogger and 20-year veteran teacher in North Carolina, recently posted “#TeachingIs According to Twelve-Year-Old.  He had asked his 6th graders to describe their best teachers, and one of them responded:  “The best teachers are close and personal with the students, even if it is messy.”

That “even if it is messy” socked me right in the gut, because – can I get a witness?— teaching is all MESSY. From the first bell of the first day to the free-at-last bell on the last day, things rarely go as planned. Technology fails.  An announcement over the intercom destroys a quiet meditation of literature. A fire drill interrupts a science lab. The student who critically needs to understand a formula is absent on the day you cover it. If you have bus duty, it will rain. If it’s sunny outside, you mysteriously will be relegated to gym duty.

Teaching is messy because life is messy. Humans are flawed.  The teacher who recognizes that vulnerability in both herself and her students will succeed. Flexible teachers will endure. Teachers who can seize the day and capture a teachable moment that has arrived unbidden and unplanned become exemplars in their field. Teachers must recognize the vicissitudes of a school day as an opportunity for students to learn instead of a failure of the teacher to teach.

I’m not endorsing sloppy teaching, which should not be tolerated by the students, the school or the teacher himself. What I’m endorsing is the awareness of the chaos of life and the teacher’s ability to capitalize, even embrace, that disorder.

The central rub of creating a free-market business model for education is just that: there are no single products being produced. There are 49.8 million different products being produced, with 49.8 million different combinations of mechanical, chemical, thermal and physical properties. What creates malleability in one student doesn’t faze another. An exercise that serves as a positive catalyst for one may create spontaneous combustion in another.  A smart teacher understands the individual needs of her students, meeting them where they are instead of forcing them to fit a tidy mold that ultimately may harm their ability to learn and to grow.

Yes, we should understand and appreciate the power and utility of teacher-initiated and student-specific data. Yes, we should understand and appreciate the need for quality assessments and authentic measurements for student growth.  But at the end of the day, teaching is much more magic than it is science.  It’s as much astrology as it is astronomy and as much an intuitive art as it is a designed and measured product of craft. The teacher who recognizes the beauty and the untidiness of each little soul in her classroom is the teacher who understands the essence and power of education.

I am one of those teachers who love the idea of organization. I love school supplies— new ink pens, reams of pristine paper, tight binders, boxes of folders, clips, tacks, staples, containers. I own three label makers. I start every year with a multi-colored, 15-drawer rolling organizer, fresh boxes of tissue, a can of sharpened pencils. But seemingly, by week two, those items – the trappings of school culture – are just that: external props for the serious business of learning and growing and life.

If the curriculum map states that on Tuesday you will synthesize competency-based outcomes for 21st Century learners and a student who has just lost a loved one, who is quietly crying as he raises his hand, asks an off-task, off-topic, off-map question, it would be cruel and unusual not to quietly and seriously address that question.  The fluid intuitive quality of this side of teaching is not taught in Colleges of Education; it’s only learned by experience in the painful, learning-as-you-go dance between goodwill and clumsiness.

I would be lost without a curriculum map, I would not be able to function without my vertically-aligned instructional blueprint that charts my 175-day path, but I will never turn my back on that moment when I sense a shiver run through my classroom.  When I know a tipping point of epiphany is about to happen that will throw that map out the window, that will unscope and unsequence my careful design, I will take it messy every single time.

Teachers Who Plant the Forest

During my second year of teaching, I taught across the hall from Jenny, a firecracker speech-drama teacher whose energy was rivaled only by her laughter and unruly curls.   She was a fantastic teacher, popular with students, and she directed a spectacular musical every spring and coached an award-winning speech and drama team.

One day I was standing in the hall outside her classroom, and I overheard a conversation between Jenny and a student. I’ll call the student April.  I knew April because she was failing my junior English class. A child of severe poverty and parental dysfunction, April read at a second-grade level and was the victim of a host of behavioral and cognitive disabilities.

“I want to be a lawyer someday,” she said to Jenny, who, in return, was effusive with encouragement, citing several examples when April had exhibited some lawyer-like quality.

I stood in the hall and rolled my eyes.  When April left, I walked into Jenny’s room.

“Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to her?” I said.

“In what way?” She was truly puzzled.

“Why would you tell a kid who can barely read that she might be a lawyer?  She doesn’t even have a good chance of getting out of high school,” I said.

“We don’t know that.  Who says?”

“Her ACT scores?”

“Well, if she does become a lawyer, I don’t want to be that one old crone English teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. I want to be the one person who thought she could do it, the one person she thanks when she passes her bar exam at the top of her class,” Jenny said.


That was 1994, and I’ve thought about this piece of advice for 20 years now. Teachers can be positive even in the face of vast deficiencies or they can be in the business of harsh reality in the guise of doing students a favor. It’s a pedagogical and philosophical choice.  You can deliver the big bad news to kids about their future, a future you don’t really know, or you can just allow the world to unfold as it does, but always be standing on the side of encouragement, even when you know the outlook is bleak.

And maybe the outlook isn’t as bleak as you think.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to April. Perhaps she didn’t graduate high school. Maybe she dropped out and got a job as a janitor. At a law firm. And maybe one of the attorneys needed some help on the weekends and asked April to file papers, and while filing those papers, she started picking up on the language of the law, and she expressed an interest in getting her GED, then she got an associate’s degree as a paralegal, and then she decided to finish an undergraduate degree, then was accepted to law school, and viola, here we are, a dozen years later, and there’s April walking across the stage to accept her degree of jurisprudence with the image of Jenny firmly in her mind saying, “I think you would make a great lawyer some day.”

Stranger things have happened.  The data gatherers haven’t invented the measuring stick that can calculate those returns. As Kentucky poet Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work. The thing about teaching is that you never know. Are you changing the world or just moving beans around?  Because regardless of what the bottom-line guys and the quantifiers say, good teaching can’t be measured, the outcomes can’t be predicted, and the true result isn’t known for decades.

But good teachers plant the seeds anyway, no matter the soil they are handed, and hope that the wonder and curiosity and passion they feed their students will be enough for alifetime of water and light.   We invest in the millennium.



The Power of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1

(This story occurred at Lafayette High School in Fayette County, Kentucky.  All other names and places have been changed to maintain confidentiality of the persons involved. )

On Wednesday of last week, I noticed two of my students, Nicki and Victor, discussing something back and forth.  They appeared to be arguing over a piece of paper Nicki had in her hand.  She’s probably found a note from another girl in his book bag, I thought.

It was the last period of the day about three minutes before the bell.  I was tired and wanted to go home too, but I wandered over.

“Is there a problem here?” I said.

“I’m going to give this to Mrs. Prather,” Nicki said to Victor, who rolled his eyes.  Nicki stuck out her hand with the note. “Here. Victor found this in the hall, and he thinks it’s nothing, but it might be something.”

I took the paper and unfolded it.

“Dear Dad,” it began.  It was a letter of heartbreak, chronicling a life of neglect, a father in jail and an absent mother.  No signature, written lightly in pencil.  The thing that caught my eye, as it had caught Victor and Nicki’s, was the writer’s intent to end his life this weekend.

I have nothing to live for. No one wants me.

“I thought you could do something,” Nicki said.

“No name on it.  It could be anybody’s.”

“That’s what Victor said.”

“There are 2000 kids in this school. Did you just find it in the hall?”

Victor nodded.

I re-read it.  “It might even be an assignment for English.”

“I know,” Nicki said.  “But it might not.”

Just then the bell rang. My students filed out.

I re-read it again and noticed something.  In the middle of the letter, the writer mentioned how the only person who cared for him was “Mr. Kraft.”

On the way to my car, I stopped off at the counseling office.  One counselor was still in her office.  Kendra was busy, a stack of files on her desk.

“This is a long shot and I don’t even know if this is serious,” I said. I gave her the note, and she read it.

“Wow. Who is this Mr. Kraft?”

“I don’t know.”

“He could be anybody. A teacher, a boss, someone at church.”

“Yeah, I know.”  I looked at the clock.  I was anxious to get home. “I just thought I’d pass it along to you.”

“Thanks.” Kendra eyeballed her stack of work. “I’ll see what I can do. Maybe this Mr. Kraft is a teacher in our district.”

With that, I left school.  If the note was authentic, his life – the details that the writer had mentioned— was more than any child should have to endure.  Because I teach writing, I read a lot of student stories, and they all carry the burden of some kind of pain – poverty, divorce, addiction, depression, alienation, bullying.  Some are real. A lot are merely venting exercises.

Driving home, I hoped this kid was just writing to get the pain off his chest. I hoped he wasn’t serious about ending his life.   I asked God to keep him safe, whoever and wherever he was.

The next morning, there was an email in my inbox from Kendra. She and another counselor, Stephanie, had found him.

“I just wanted you to know. I did some investigating and I found a Mr. Kraft at Wilson Downing Middle School. He’s a seventh grade Social Studies teacher,” she’d written.  “I emailed him, and he knew who the student was. The counselor at Wilson Downing had actually contacted Stephanie last week.  The student is being taken care of.”


During my first year in Fayette County, the district brought Manny Scott to speak in Rupp Arena to its 6000 employees.  Mr. Scott was one of the original Freedom Writers, a group of kids who had been labeled “unteachable” until teacher Erin Gruwell used writing journals to transform their lives and chronicled their journey in the bestselling book, The Freedom Writer’s Diary.

Manny Scott is now a sought-after motivational speaker, and the day he came to our district, his message was titled “The Power of One.”  His message to the teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators, the adults was simple: You have the power as an individual to change someone’s life. (Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/11/17/2937224_rise-from-poverty-inspires-motivational.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy)

The story of this note proves Mr. Scott’s maxim.  Last Wednesday, the power of one, or a series of ones, saved a child from his own despair.

Every single person who passed that note down the chain was needed.  From Victor picking up the note, to Nicki to giving it to me, to me handing it off to Kendra, to Kendra tracking down Mr. Kraft, to Mr. Kraft having created a relationship with a child that went beyond Social Studies, to Stephanie who contacted the child’s counselor, to the counselor connecting with the child and executing services on his behalf.

The power of one plus one plus one equals all of us.

Sitting in my chair, I looked around at the 40 desks in my classroom.  Every single desk represented a precious life, a unique story, a life full of joy and hope and promise.  Every One was important. Every single one.

Why It’s Important to Pronounce Students’ Names Right

Fifteen years ago, I taught at a high school in a mountainous area of eastern Kentucky.  Kids who qualified for free or reduced lunch made up more than 70% of the student body.  There was zero diversity; nearly everyone was poor and white.

In these classes, I had very few Johns or Marys,  but I did, once, have four Michaelas,  spelled Mikkalya, McKalya, Machala, and Michaela.

(Incidentally, one of my colleagues, who had just moved to Kentucky from California, admitted to me that she was thrilled to see names like Latosha and Tionna on her rosters, thinking how diverse her class populations would be; she was stunned when she walked in the first day and saw that everyone was white.)

One day in the teacher’s lounge, another colleague railed about student names.

“It’s ridiculous! Who names their kid that?”

“Crackheads,” another teacher said.

“And they get furious if I mispronounce it,” she said.  “Why should I be expected to know every crazy name like this?”

After teaching for 19 years, I have had my share of Blaydes, Jaydiens, and Sh’naes. And I strive very hard to learn how to correctly pronounce their names and then call them by their name every chance I get.

Maybe the parents believed giving their baby a unique name would be at least one distinction in a life where no other achievement would be forthcoming.  For whatever reason a child has been given a name, when she walks into your classroom, that name represents who she is. Whether they love or hate their name, whether they are the embodiment of the otherness their parents had hoped they would be or not, their name equals their identity.

As teachers, who hope to use our influence to lead students to greater self-awareness, we must begin by honoring our students’ names— ergo their identity—by pronouncing their names correctly.   Butchering a kids’ name is an alteration of their identity, and it creates nearly a colonial imbalance of power.

I once had a student who was born female with a female name, and with the support of her family, decided to transition as a male with a gender-neutral, non-traditional name.  All her teachers had met with the family and had agreed to make the name switch on a designated Monday.  She went home identified as one gender with one name; he came back to school identified as another gender with a different name.

On that day, I wrote his new name on the board as we were dividing up into reading groups.

“Whose ‘Skailer’?” said another boy in class, who pronounced it, “scale-er.”

“That’s me, and it’s Skailer,” said the transgendered boy, who pronounced it “sky-ler.”

“No, it’s ‘scal-er’,” said the first boy.

“Says who?”

“Says phonetics.”

“It’s my name,” he said.  “I guess I know how to pronounce it correctly.”

English teachers might wail at this story, wringing their hands and bemoaning the corruption of the English language and the necessity of preserving the purity of the mother tongue.   But I’m not one of them.

The Common Core has my back, stating that students should understand that  language “usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.”   Students should be alert to political doublespeak and sloppy language that showcases slopping thinking, but I do not believe teachers should stand their linguistic ground on the backs of the poor girl whose teenage mother had stars in her eyes when she named her daughter, “Auroar’eh Eshtellha.”

Teachers, be proactive. As soon as your rosters are available, print them off and review the names.  Seek out faculty who may have had the student the previous year.  It’s a rookie’s mistake to stand up in front of a class on the first day of school and call roll, botching every name on the list. It embarrasses the kids and makes you look like an idiot.  Instead, seat the students in alphabetical order, and while they are occupied with filling out a getting-to-know-you worksheet or an intake form, you can creep quietly around the room with a clipboard, point to each student’s name, and ask, “What would you like for me to call you this year?”  Some of them may prefer a nickname that bears no resemblance to their given name.  Then write the name phonetically or in a way that will help you remember how to say it correctly, and repeat it over and over and over to yourself until it sticks.  Use it every chance you get.  Greet them by name when they walk in your door every day, and say good-bye to them by name as they leave.

You and your students—all your Dollyeias, Kirandas, and Brook’lyns— will be happy you did.