On Pain and Joy

This blog is possibly not the place for this post, but I don’t keep any other blog active right now, and it’s going to relate in part to my library work, so here goes.

Over the last few years, the migraine headaches I’ve had periodically all of my adult life have really kicked it up several notches.  Generally, this isn’t a huge deal–if I can take medicine quickly enough and get into a dark room and close my eyes, it’s nothing more than an hour or two of inconvenience.  But sometimes, increasingly so, it means missing days of work. Missing my kid’s events. Missing gatherings with friends (which are rare for my introvert self to begin with).

And it means pain. I have a super high pain tolerance in general. When I got my appendix out, the doctor was shocked that I wasn’t in more pain–I had only gone to the doctor at all because it was on the right side and my instincts told me to get it checked out. When I had the worst case of strep throat that anyone in the clinic had ever seen, I felt great!  But these migraines do not mess around.  I can’t describe the pain, but I can say that it makes me feel desperate for something to do to make it go away–I feel like I’d do just about anything. My husband sometimes squeezes my head with his hands, and the pressure makes the pain go away for a few seconds, and what a gift that is.  Last night, with a pain level at around 8/10, I kept shifting my body position, irrationally thinking that maybe I’d hit on something that would lead to being pain free.

And then, around 11:00, it just lifted.  Not sure why–I’d taken my second dose of imitrex hours before, with no discernable effect.  I made myself lie as still as possible, as if this were in fact the result of having hit upon some magical combination of head placement on pillow and where the covers hit my chest and precisely how the cat was curled up against my side.  And I thought about how happy I am, and about how I needed to write this blog post.

Because I AM happy, or content, or at peace.  However you want to put it. I don’t think I’m happy because pain makes me appreciate the absence of pain when it comes, but I do think that’s part of it. I think I’m happy because more and more, I feel like I’m living in the present, and you can’t really ask for a much better present than the one I live in most days.  If you haven’t been to my library, let me describe to you the most important part of it: kids who love.  Love to read; love to laugh; love to make stuff; love to ask questions; love to tell you what they think; love to goof off and test your limits but with good hearts; love to live.  No, they don’t love every minute–they get mad and they sulk and they get bored, and that’s okay.  I don’t mean they are perfect, and I don’t only enjoy them when they are easy to be around.  I kind of appreciate an openly grumpy middle schooler because authenticity is better than a fake smile in my book.

What I wanted to write about, or just note for myself, is just the idea that the present moment is everything.  When I’m in pain, that means trying to breathe through it and not fall into believing it will last forever.  When I can tell myself that all I have to do is handle it for this second, I can do it; I run into trouble when I start wondering how many hours it’s going to last.  When I’m at school or laughing with my daughter or a friend, it’s easy to just be in the moment.  When I’m reflecting, like right now, I guess it means just feeling the warmth of all the love and good in my life.  There is so much to be thankful for, and right this moment, I feel it deeply.  And this moment is all there is.


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Augh.  I wish I had posted something right when school started, because I composed a mental post about what a great start to the year it was and how wonderful it is to be back amongst the kids and my faculty friends.  Alas, I didn’t write it down, but trust me that the year started off fabulously and is chugging right along.

In our first rotation with 6th-grade reading classes, we did an activity about book preferences and as part of that, had them write the titles of their favorite books on sticky notes and stick them to this giant whiteboard we have out in the main area of the library.  (Sadly, I did not take a photo.  It looked cool.)  Today, I finally got around to doing something with that data.  I started by sorting into genres and popular titles, at the end of which I had this:


While the pile for Harry Potter had 18 stickies, there was no other clear favorite–the kids like a wide variety of books!  Yay! So, what to do with this information?

My idea was to create an “If you liked. . . you might also like. . .” display, using the titles provided by the kids–for both sides of the display.  So, for example, 8 kids named Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper as a favorite, but a bunch of other realistic fiction titles along the same lines were named.  I also of course threw in some of my own recommendations, and then have left space for kids to fill in their own suggestions.  I’ve got a few more categories to do, but this is the basic idea.  Kids can add to the lists at the bottom.


So that was my day!  :)

I’m hoping to get in the habit of some reflective blogging, but these days I’m pretty worn out (happy tired, but tired) at the end of the day, plus I’m trying to make up for the fact that I read zero middle school literature over the summer by reading a lot in the evenings.  Some fabulous stuff has come out recently, and maybe I’ll try to do a review post for the school blog soon.

My main reflection at this point of the year is that on Sunday night, as I was going to bed, I was excited for Monday morning to come and to see what the week would bring.  The energy the kids are bringing to the library this year is phenomenal–they are crazy excited about books and the makerspace, and one can’t help but be heartened by it.

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I’ve reached the point of summer where I feel entirely rested.  I’ve taught a few camps and have one more next week, but for the most part, summer has meant resting, reading, working some on the house, spending time with people I love, binge-watching television shows, reflecting about the last few years, and starting to think about how I want to do things differently in the year ahead.  The chaos and pain in the world lately is in sharp contrast to the relative peace in my life and home, and I feel both grateful for that and sad about it.

Last night, my husband and I went to see Ray LaMontagne in concert. We’ve been fans of Ray for a long time.  My husband prefers his old stuff, and is happiest when it’s just Ray and his guitar, but I kind of love the dreamy, psychedelic new stuff just as much.  But what might have struck me most was just that experience of watching someone clearly doing what they love to do.  Ray said something about not being intentional with the music, but instead letting it come and be what it wants to be.  This is how I experience writing–trying to get myself out of the way and let the words come, rather than wrenching the words into some vision I have.  I’m not sure exactly how to translate this to librarianship, except just the idea of being authentic and genuine with the kids, and also supporting them in being their genuine selves.  I miss the kids during the summer. Don’t get me wrong–I love having a break and especially love my summer sleep schedule–but I miss their energy and quirks and curiosity.



Ray LaMontagne and My Morning Jacket


I like to try to learn something new every summer, and this summer, I’m working some on mindfulness and breathing.  Not quite as visibly rewarding as sewing or electronics projects, but I’m hoping it will help with my physical health!

So, not a very exciting post, but summer is about recharging, and I’m feeling good at the moment and hopeful about the year ahead.  It’s going to be a strange one, I think.  I suspect we will need to go into it at full power to make it through November.  (If you think middle schoolers don’t care or talk about politics, think again!)


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Professional Development

This coming Friday, I’m giving a short presentation to the Parent’s Association (PA) of my school about professional development (PD).  The PA pays for faculty PD, and as I was driving home today, I was mentally drafting what I might say, how I might show my gratitude and also help them see how useful PD is.  I get SO much out of PD.  I can’t imagine what my job would look like today without the conferences, classes, and resulting connections with fellow educators made along the way.

My first thought is to ask the parents to think of a positive memory that stands out from their own education, something warm and fuzzy.  My own memory that came to mind isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but it is where my mind went:

Sixth grade.  I, like many other sixth graders, was a bit of a mess. My English teacher, Ms. Kravitz, was consistently a bright spot for me–she was a reader with tastes similar to mine, and we used to swap books.  At some point early in the year, I was reading a book called City Kid by Mary MacCracken.  This is a true story, written by a special education teacher, about a student in her class who starts fires.  Ms. Kravitz would give you extra credit if you encountered a vocabulary word in your personal reading, and I guess there was one in that book, which she ended up borrowing from me after I was done, and thus began our book swapping relationship.

You might be thinking that this was when I knew I’d be a librarian, but that didn’t happen until I was in my 30s.  I wish that were what this story was about!

The story is instead about Chris B.  Popular boy in my class.  Oh, the crush I had on that boy–he was smart, funny, cute, and charming.  Once, when Chris got in-school suspension, I, who never ever acted up at all, considered getting in trouble on purpose so that maybe, as we sat together all day in a classroom, he would speak to me.  Forget love–I would have been thrilled had he said so much as “hi” or “suspension sucks, doesn’t it?”!

On the day in question, Chris misbehaved in class, and Ms. Kravitz reprimanded him in some way.  I have no idea what the details are.  What I do know is that I wrote him a note saying “Ms. Kravitz is such a bitch.”

A bit later, it’s the end of the day, and everyone is packing up to head out to the buses or carpool.  Mrs. Somers, my math teacher, comes into my homeroom and says to Mrs. Rogo, my homeroom teacher, “Wait. Don’t dismiss yet. There’s been a note.”

Reader, I died.  I knew it was my note.  I looked at Chris, who of course ignored me. I looked at Mrs. Somers, who was looking right at me.  They knew.

Next thing I remember, I was standing in Ms. Kravitz’s room, apologizing for writing the note.  I didn’t say why I wrote it.  I didn’t say, “I don’t really think that! I just wanted Chris to like me!”  Maybe she knew.  I have no idea.  I have seriously tried so many times as an adult to find her on Google, just so I can apologize authentically.  As it was, I mumbled the words and then ran as fast as I could to catch the bus.

When I got home, I cried so hard, I could barely breathe.  I felt so bad about what I’d done. I worried about how much trouble I was in, but more importantly, I had hurt this teacher I loved, who had been so kind to me and connected with me in a way no other teacher had, and there was no way to fix it.

Then the phone rang.

No, it was not Ms. Kravitz.

It was Mrs. Somers, my math teacher.  All I remember of what she said was, “It’s going to be okay.”  And that gift–that reassurance, that forgiveness, that awareness that sometimes kids who have screwed up need to be reminded that screwing up is part of growing up–has stayed with me.  I didn’t decide then to be a teacher, but something in me was forever changed by that objectively small gesture. Mrs. Somers was just a regular teacher to me–I liked her, but were it not for this incident, I might not remember her well at all.  Yet even a “regular teacher” cared enough to make that call.

Now what on earth does any of that have to do with PD?

My thought is that, for me and maybe for most of us, the things that we remember fondly about our own education might be easy to imagine happening today.  The connections with teachers; the a-ha moments of discovery; the triumph of getting over the hurdle of learning something challenging.  And in many ways, life for a sixth grader today is much the same as it was for me–crushes, doing stupid stuff to impress peers, being curious about the adult world.  But in other ways, it is so incredibly different, and those ways greatly impact education, or at least they should.  Even after 10 years of working in a school library, I continue to be floored at times by how access to information has changed the game of education.  The internet is, when you stop and think about it, totally insane!, but for kids today, it’s all they have known. And every day, researchers discover new things about our brains and about learning and thinking and creating.  One of my favorite classes in graduate school was a class on the psychology of learning, and I imagine the syllabus for that class would be very different today because of how much more we know.  And at the time I was taking the class, I was struck by how different the content was from the education course I took as an undergrad! PD is the best way I know to tap into some of that new knowledge.

To that end, I’m currently taking this course on Making Thinking Visible with four colleagues. I had learned some about thinking routines from a Project Zero (PZ) conference I went to last spring, as well as from some other colleagues who have done PZ summer institutes.  (PZ is, in short, a research group at Harvard that is doing really cool stuff around how kids develop habits of mind and coming up with ways to help kids become sensitive to opportunities for deep thinking.) I had noticed, in a class earlier this year, that students who had done PZ thinking routines in their humanities classes the year bef0re had a different, really powerful way of discussing their ideas and responding to their peers, and it really intrigued me. I wanted to learn more, and thanks to the PA and my school, I get to take this course.

I’m learning a ton from the class–really enjoying trying out the routines with my students and also having fun bouncing ideas off my colleagues and other folks from around the world who are also taking the course.  It’s not all smooth sailing–learning and trying something new means messing up, not unlike the sixth grade me. It means being vulnerable; feeling incompetent at times; getting out of my comfort zone. It would be easier to just keep doing things that seem to consistently work, and there are definitely days/lessons where I fall back on that or where that is entirely appropriate. But the real fun comes in stretching and trying something new.  Most of the PD I’ve done has focused on respecting and listening to and trusting the minds and hearts of the kids, and helping them to find and share their voices. Maybe education has always done that to some extent, but my sense is that Ms. Kravitz and Mrs. Somers would have loved to see these changes in the landscape.

I’m not sure what I’ll say to the parents on Friday, but writing this post has helped me start to think about it!


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If you look closely at the images above, you might be able to see a green plastic bubble maker that was donated to the Makerspace this past summer, as part of a pile of old toys that could be taken apart or repurposed.

I think the bubble maker was originally broken, but I’m not sure about that. What I do know is that one student who is part of the library’s Make It activity found it and saw the potential in it for something greater–some kind of moving vehicle.  Yesterday, after months of tinkering, that old bubble maker, now attached to battery packs and motors and wheels and wires and lights, had finally been turned into a working car.

The story is in the tinkering. There were several days where the student worked an entire 55-minute period and made absolutely no visible progress, because every idea failed. (I say no visible progress because of course, every failed attempt was part of figuring out what would eventually work, so it was progress!)  He would come to every class with an idea of something to try, and sometimes there were baby steps forward, and sometimes it felt like nothing would ever work, but at the end, he’d smile and stick it all back in his box and resolve to try something again next time.  Some days he’d work on something else, because he needed a break from this project.  At one point, he learned to solder because he hoped that soldering the wires from the multiple motors and battery packs might hold it all together, but alas, that did not work, and it all fell apart right before the bell rang. (The solution to that problem ended up being the breadboard that is on top, which also allowed for the addition of lights, including one he took out of his old alarm clock at home.) There was a lot of testing, and moments where something that worked the week before suddenly didn’t work and we couldn’t figure out why.

He took it home over winter break, almost done, with ideas about his next steps and a few supplies, and yesterday brought it back, working!  WORKING!  And he still has ideas about how to improve it!

The joy on this kid’s face at each successful step–not just the joy of getting it working in the end, but of solving each tiny problem that came up along the way–is why we have a Makerspace in the library.  I don’t know how close the current version is to whatever original vision he had, but the beauty is in the process.  Bravo!


And on a side note that really isn’t a side note, because it’s the same concept of perseverance at play, check out the kid in the background of this photo.  He was working in Scratch, and one of his accomplishments over break was figuring out how to make his game harder: he programmed it so that the speed of the ball in pong was the same as your score, so that as your score increased, so did the difficulty of the game. So clever!

(Note: this post is cross-posted on my library’s website.)

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Writing the title of this post, I thought, “people are going to think this is a post about working in a school with privileged kids,” and so I was going to change it, but then I decided to leave it.  I could write that post, and I’m sure I’d have things to say, but tonight, what I want to write about is the privilege I feel in working with kids.

Maybe it’s partly the privilege of working with people, period.  Unless you work in isolation, having any full-time job means interacting with people, every one of them (including yourself!) flawed.  Inevitably, you develop connections with those people–some strong, some less strong; some functional, some less functional; some amusing, some frustrating.  Typically all of those things with the same people! You make each other laugh; you get on each other’s nerves; you push each other to grow.  You can’t help but connect, and it’s often pretty wonderful.

With kids, it’s a bit different.  It’s the same–you definitely connect–but it’s also different.  With middle schoolers in particular (for me, at least), part of the beauty of the work is getting to witness and be a part of a piece of life where nobody has it figured out, where the expectation is that everyone is going to be fumbling along and having moments of greatness, moments of confusion, moments of joy, moments of sorrow.  There are days where I see these kids wrestling with this huge task of growing up, and I just am overwhelmed with admiration for them. They break my heart, and they fill my heart, sometimes simultaneously. They believe fiercely in social justice, and they hurt each other. They want to believe the world is kind, and they want to fix the broken parts, but their fears and desire to fit in can work against that. They are discovering how complicated this whole living thing is, and realizing that the adults don’t have it figured out either. How scary is that?

It’s a tumultuous time.  I was at a workshop last week where the presenter said that most people say that their hardest year was when they were 13, but when asked why, they can’t remember.  They have blocked it out!  But as hard as middle school is, it’s also pretty magical.  I see kids deeply engaged with their questions about how the world works.  If you ever want to have hope for the future, talk to a group of 12-year-olds about social injustice–they are fired up about it, and they have limitless ideas for fixing this planet and the people on it.  Watch a kid wrestle with their identity and come out the other side, confident in who they are and hopeful about their future.  See how fiercely kids will defend their friends, and how proud they are when you catch them quietly doing the right thing.

They are vulnerable and strong; afraid and confident.  They are beautiful.  It is a privilege to spend my days surrounded by their chaos and goofiness and potential.  Maybe if all of us embraced the middle schooler inside of us–remembered that it’s okay to be confused and conflicted and curious and idealistic, that it’s okay to believe in possibility and okay to feel defeated by what seems impossible, that we don’t have to have it all figured out but can instead just live in whatever moment we are in–we’d all be better off.  If you forgot to pack your gym shoes or bring home your science binder (or the adult equivalent), or you weren’t as kind to someone you love as you would like to be, or you weren’t as patient as you could have been, it’s okay.  You get to try again tomorrow, and the next day, and nobody expected you to be perfect anyway. Just keep trying.

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Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin

I spent a good chunk of my day today immersed in Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin, a nonfiction account of the history of United States involvement in Vietnam leading up to and during the Vietnam War.  I could not put this book down.

Folks (kids and adults alike) who have read any of Sheinkin’s other books will know already that he pulls you in with action, suspense, dialogue, and description, all while presenting information that is meticulously researched and factual. Most Dangerous does all of those things, of course, in telling a story that is both horrifying and necessary for kids today to know.

I feel like I should have known the information in this book already. It is, in part, the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in major newspapers, revealing the pattern of dishonesty on the part of the United States government (primarily the office of the President) in relation to actions in Vietnam. So, the information was out there in 1971.  But I know that I did not learn about this–either in high school or college.  This is a book for young people, but really, it’s a book for any of us who might have approached history class as just a set of facts/dates to memorize, rather than a story of who we (as a country, but also just the greater human race) have been–things we’ve done right, ways we’ve messed up, how we can learn from our mistakes. This is history at its best–written in a way that is accessible, yet thoughtful; challenging, yet hopeful.

I cannot recommend Most Dangerous highly enough.

Note: I read an ARC.  The book comes out Sept 22.

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