This is Where I Leave You, A book review

This is Where I Leave You

I spent the last few evenings and most of today sitting shiva with a family in mourning. I’ve never done this shiva thing before, nor had I been a part of this family before. But after the past few days – about four for me, but the standard seven for the Foxman family – I feel all their losses and yet somehow encouraged to take life on again, with all its twists and ironies and downright injustices. I just finished This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.

Judd Foxman’s marriage is falling apart just as he receives word from his sister that their father is dead. The family is being called together for the funeral and – surprise, surprise – this non-practicing Jewish father decided on his deathbed that he wanted his family to observe the seven-day mourning ritual that consists of sitting in low chairs all day long and having guests call on them to express sympathy. The family will be living together, taking meals together, sitting together, greeting visitors together. For seven days. All together. In one house.

Meet the Foxmans: Judd’s only sister, Wendy, is married, with children. Their older brother Paul is married – to Alice – without children, regrettably. The youngest sibling, in and out of situations the others find preventable, is Phillip, still trying to get his life together. Mother, the newly widowed Hillary Foxman, is somewhat of a celebrity therapist, having written a book of some acclaim on child-rearing. With a professional on child development raising the children, everyone should be strong, settled and emotionally intact, right? Of course not. What kind of novel would it be if we couldn’t all relate to the miscommunications, the bad judgment calls, the words and actions we can’t take back?

Tropper tells his story well. He gets his characters, especially the main ones, into your head realistically. I kept mentally comparing this family and their tribulations to my latest Netflix binge: Parenthood, only this is better. His use of language makes me stop and admire his analogies, his metaphors. They’re not high-brow; they don’t make you feel you need to be preparing for discussion or writing an English essay translating the symbolism, but it’s there, nonetheless, so that you can nod your head knowingly at the little ironies, the little analogies that life presents so truthfully. At least in well-written fiction.

I did what I do when I discover a new writer I like. I checked for more books. And yes, he’s written others, so off I go in search of Everything Changes.

Disclaimer: Until I went searching for an image of the cover to go with the review, I had no idea this novel had been made into a movie. I don’t get out much. I actually had envisioned Jane Fonda as Hillary to some degree in that way that when you read a book the characters can morph a bit but are based on someone you can pull up in your mind’s eye. However, I had Dax Shepard as Judd in my mind, and, as it turns out, he plays Wade. I knew I felt a Parenthood connection. I just connected it wrong. Kinda gotta see the movie now …

It’s been a great four years

A milestone graduation that takes a while to sink in

It wasn’t the first day of school this year when they walked into the newsroom, some of them 3rd hour, some of them 7th hour (some of them multiple times during the day) and declared, “This is my last first day of high school.” That elicited a chuckle, sure, and it signaled things to come.

It wasn’t second semester even when I sometimes noticed scholarship applications were being worked on instead of yearbook spreads and news stories. It wasn’t when that activity gradually transitioned to prom dresses and getting measured for tuxedos. At least they were also covering promposals.

It wasn’t even the day the grad caps and gowns came in and we decided to get a photo of them trying them on to use on a page in the yearbook. Well, OK, the feeling started creeping in then, just a little. These guys are about to graduate.

But really, even this last week, in all its busyness and semi-chaos, it didn’t hit me. Finding out graduation was to be indoors instead of at the stadium because of a soggy football field and impending storms (which never impended) was disappointing, but it still didn’t feel like the end of the year. The on again and off again of “field day” plans, the sadness, in a broken-hearted, last-straw kind of way that they couldn’t wear pins in memory of lost classmates because it would take away from the National Honor Society honor cords – those things still didn’t give me that feeling of finality, that this year was over and this group of kids was moving on.

After all, this is my ninth rodeo. But – and this is a rather big BUT – I’ve had most of these seniors in class for four years. Most of them were enrolled, victims of, my first introduction to journalism class. My prototypes.

When the instructions for indoor graduation were emailed out, I scanned the list. In the previous five or so years, this would be the third time to have it indoors, and I’d had the same post for the last two, guarding a door on the north end of the auditorium so guests didn’t go in or out that way. Easy job, good view, cooler than sitting closely together in the seats. But I wasn’t on the list. With limited seating, you can’t go unless a senior gives you one of his or her coveted five tickets or you have a job. I needed that job.

I emailed the senior sponsor in charge and explained my plight. You see, I AM a senior parent. I have 12 seniors graduating and lots of others I’ve grown very close to. It was a mixup, and another teacher had been put on the list twice. I got my spot back.

But you know, I still didn’t tear up at my kids walking in to Pom and Circumstance, nor when they walked across the stage to receive their empty folder and shake the principal’s hand. It was tough to get through the playing of the commissioned piece in honor of the four students who should have been graduating with them that night, but that’s four other stories, one of which I’ve written about previously.

Even when they tossed their hats in the air, I was only happy for them. Even when searching for them outside, and finding only five of 12 to hug, no tears, no choking up.

No, that started happening this morning, two days later. Grades are in, the yearbook still has to be finished so I’ll still be meeting up with my yearbook seniors, but here on Saturday morning with my coffee, as I scroll lazily through Facebook and see the pictures from Thursday night, I read through the comments. It’s the moms and the way they share each other’s pride in their children’s accomplishments. That’s what sends me over.

I don’t think I have to say anything else.

Alphabetically so you don’t argue about whom I love best, I will miss you tremendously: Tate, Taylor, Tyson, Alexandra, Natascha, Lizzie, Megan, Tommy, Hayden, Haley, Bridget and Hailey. As Tate said, it’s been a great four years.

DigiComm Wrap-up

So many blog posts started taking shape in my mind the past couple months. Lack of time – or mental capacity when I had time – kept me from bringing any to completion. But I still want to share some successes we had this semester in Digital Communications class. Therefore, I’ll share the high points in a few brief summaries as a sort of wrap-up for this sixth semester of a class I kind of made up and got approved. It’s a combination of communication skills and digital skills with a sampling of situations and apps where they intersect.

Apping Manifestos

I explained what a manifesto is and provided examples such as The Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech or Apple’s advertisement, Here’s to the Crazy Ones. We looked at the Holstee Manifesto and the different forms it’s presented in: a poster, a video with animated words and a video with happy people on bicycles. Then I challenged them to write their own manifestos. They could use Pinterest to see some other examples and play around with point of view, parallelism and other such things.

After coming up with their words and sharing through Google Docs for feedback from classmates and myself, they used a presentation app, HaikuDeck being the popular choice, and created a slide presentation for their manifesto. They needed to select photos, from creative commons to go with their words and decide how many lines to go on each slide for the right effect. One young lady used PhotoPeach instead and was able to put music to her presentation.

The fun part (not really, they hate presenting) was presenting to the class. I just asked them to present the slides and tell us a little about why they made the choices they did. This seemed an easy way to introduce presentation skills to a fairly small class so they could do something more complex later.

I was quite impressed with what they came up with and the fact that several seemed to enjoy the project. Now they have another presentation resource in their bag of tricks, a little more practice writing for and presenting to an audience.

Creating with Canva

During a week with lots of interruptions for testing, I chose an easy app to learn that has lots of possibilities for use. It was almost as much fun as coloring. Canva is very user-friendly and allows you to create graphic designs to use as profile or cover images for social media accounts, book or magazine covers, invitations, advertisements, images to use for blogs or Pinterest posts, menus, just all sorts of things you’d need to design an image for. The app has just about any dimensions for any task you can think of. I showed off the new Twitter header image I’d made the night before.

I asked that they play around with it, consider creating a presentation cover slide for their Passion Project or something else specifically for their project or just anything they wanted, but they had to write a blog post telling about it. Easy-breezy and relaxing and low-stress. Perfect for testing season.

Passion Project Presentations

The big finale for the semester is the presentations for the Passion Projects. Each student chose, about five weeks into the semester, a topic he or she was interested in and developed a project. Twenty percent of the week for the remainder of the semester was to be dedicated to researching, learning, creating for the project. It was tough getting them to figure out what they were passionate about and then getting them to think of a project that they’d like to do. No one asks them to do what they’d like to do at school, so it required quite a mind shift. Some good ideas came out of it all, some of which worked and some had to be changed up somewhat. But even that provides experiential learning, which is one of the goals.

Most of the projects were about what I’d expected, since I’d been kind of keeping tabs on each student and their progress, but a couple of them really blew me away. I hadn’t realized how much they’d been working on them outside of class.

Truly, I was proud of all of them, even a couple who didn’t really get presentations ready. For those, I had them go ahead and tell what they could about their projects and then field questions from me. Then the class, who’d already seen the other presentations and had caught on to the pattern of questioning and learning more, began asking questions, too. We were able to demonstrate to those two that even though they hadn’t gotten presentation slides done, they really had done research or work on the topic and had learned something. No one did nothing.

Three explored food, but each in different ways. One researched and experimented with gluten-free baking for health reasons. One explored the artistic side of food preparation and presentations and took photos. Another focused on baking desserts that involved candies. She concluded that baked desserts with additional candy were too sweet.

One student made an interactive book for children; one practiced a particular type of cartooning. One artist was invited to paint a wall mural but upped the ante by learning how to video and edit that video to upload to YouTube. It turned out to be quite impressive. Another learned how to use a DSLR camera and took photos of what he considered to be forgotten places on the outskirts of our city. His mentor was one of our yearbook students. A former classmate of mine who is a published poet was mentor to one of these students who worked on his poetry. His original idea of mixing lines from older poems to form something new turned out to be harder than he’d anticipated, though the idea itself was interesting. However, he did get good advice and feedback and wrote and shared an original poem of his own.

Three students did different versions of creating fantasy teams, one football and two soccer. For these projects, they researched real athletes, either college or professional, and chose from them to create a team, decided on a team name, colors, mascot and more.

One of the surprises was a quiet student who always has nice fingernails. She’d told us she was going to try some different nail techniques, but in her presentation, I first thought she was showing us examples of what she wanted to try. No. These were her own nails. She’d done them so many different ways, and they looked every bit as professional as those you see scrolling through Pinterest. When she detected our interest, she told us more of what she had learned about keeping nails healthy, the pros and cons of what nail salons do.

Another student who had really had a hard time deciding on something to do, but knew he liked sports and he liked games, created a new sports game. He wanted something competitive but that could be played at any age. He combined a couple other familiar sports to create a new one and tweaked the instructions a bit. Though it seemed simple on first description, once again, as we began to ask questions and show some interest, he got more interested in sharing with us. He told us that reading up on rules and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t for his idea was a bit more complex than he’d figured it would be.

All in all, this was a very successful round of Passion Projects. They all wrote blog posts about the experience. I’ve tried to link a few throughout here. One, who found a mentor to teach her to crochet, told her audience how much she got from being allowed to choose her own project, set up her own goals and then present about it. She said everyone should get to do Passion Projects.

Reflection and Self-Assessment via Google Form

I have shared before that I am not using points or percentages this year. With my principal’s blessing, I am providing feedback instead of grades, hoping students will worry less about “how much is this worth?” and more about learning and gaining skills. There have been ups and downs, but all in all, I’d say it was more positive than not.

The real world still requires grades, however, so for each class (I have five preps) I prepared a Google form that asks specific questions about the work done in that class, how much of it they did, how often they accepted feedback, improved the work and resubmitted, what they got out of lessons, and more. One of the recurring themes in the Digital Communications class was that several got more comfortable with presenting in front of people. They realized they could do it, that they could get out of their comfort zone and be OK. One even specified about learning to look audience members in the eye and not lean on anything.

One of the best things I’ve done all year long, and I wish I’d done it sooner, was having them reflect and assess on a Google form. I’d asked them to write something before, giving them guidelines, but they mostly felt lost and didn’t know what I wanted. The result was a huge variety of responses, very few of which really addressed what I was after at the depth I wanted. They told me they liked the Google form, so it’s here to stay.
In the coming week, we’ll be finishing everything, establishing final grades and celebrating seniors with graduation ceremonies. It will be hard to focus on getting done what really needs to be done, because my mind, for weeks now, has already been looking forward to next year, to things I can do better.

What goes around …

sushi-1327636_640

Sushi by ecowa via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

You’ve heard it before. It’s usually about karma. Today it’s about sushi – I think.

Maybe it’s about hearing me when I’m talking and confirmation of that.

It goes like this:

It’s kind of an easy day in DigiComm (that’s digital communications class, if you don’t know). Students have been learning to use Canva.com to create images to go with their blog posts. Some have played around with it, made some cute stuff, but here, mid-April, with EOIs (that’s end of instruction tests, if you don’t know) going on mornings and afternoons, we never know who’s going to be in class and who isn’t. Who’s going to be stressing about a test and who has it all behind them. So I planned easy for these testing weeks.

BUT, I still want them to get that the idea that blogging is for an audience, not just to answer a prompt to appease a teacher. Therefore, one of my constant refrains is, “you can blog about it!”

Young lady broke her phone the other day – really busted it up. I said, “You know, you could write a blog post about that.”

Student came in from another class yesterday, where he says they weren’t doing anything (remember that stuff about EOIs and never knowing how many you’ll have in a class?), so could he stay in mine and use a computer? Sure, if you’ll write a blog post first. You see, I had him first semester. He knows the score.

Anything that happens in your life can be a slice-of-life type of blog post, if you write it in an interesting way. Write for your audience and all.

Enter a certain tray of spicy crab meat rolls.

I was debating with one student about the merits – or lack of merits – of sushi. She corrected me on several of my misunderstandings about this type of food and vowed to take me to eat sushi one day, a sort of experimental, research-oriented passion project for me.

I stepped out of the room for a few minutes to make some copies, and when I returned, a tray of these little beauties had materialized (I have no idea where they came from and, no, I have not asked). They all wanted me to try one.

“You could write a blog post about it,” they young lady with a broken phone suggested.

What goes around, comes around. I ate the crab roll. It was good.

Now I’m writing a blog post about it.

Sweepin’ the ‘stakes

This week my newspaper and yearbook staffs attended Spring Media Monday at the University of Oklahoma. It was a really sweet trip, for a number of reasons.

No. 1: I geeked out when I learned that Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, was the keynote speaker. Of course, that was a month ago, and I’d been looking forward to it ever since. He didn’t let me down.

I went to introduce myself to him before the program started and was surprised he seemed to recognize my name. Could have been that I’ve subscribed to, and been a fan of, the SPLC Report Magazine for years (it’s my favorite) or it could be that I’ve been in contact with the SPLC a couple of times over the years with student press ethical or legal issues I wasn’t sure how we should handle. Or it could have been that I tweeted a couple times in the previous weeks about how excited I was that he was speaking. He favorited my tweets.

LoMonte spoke inspiringly on student rights, how the Tinker and then Hazelwood cases have affected those rights over the years and the work being done now on behalf of students, state by state, to solidify press rights at both high school and college level. Inspiring.

No. 2: Students and I attended learning sessions on everything from graphic design to writing headlines and cutlines to creating documentaries and copy editing. The kids reported they had learned some cool stuff. So did I.

No. 3: The best part is always the awards ceremony at the end of the day. First director Melanie Wilderman very, very quickly announced the winners of individual submissions in the three Oklahoma divisions. It’s rapid fire. I was poised with the notebook and pencil, ready to scribble down our placings as others did the clapping and cheering. We racked up eight first places, two staffers grabbing two each, and one pair of designers sharing for an awesome Star Wars spread. There were seconds, thirds and honorable mentions in between.

Then we settled in a little tighter, gripped our chair edges and leaned forward just a bit. The overall newspaper (and online and magazine) ratings go like this: merit, honors, highest honors. The slide appeared above for our division, displaying those with merit, then honors – I never understand the cheering for this level of ratings. I guess if you’re a struggling publication, learning your way, but we’re darn close to professional. In my nine years, we’ve never had less than highest honors, because we understand how to report, use AP Style and basically design news. We always have room for improvement, but we know the basics well. Then comes the slide for highest honors, and there we are with a few Oklahoma peers.

Next up: Of those with highest honors, two or three are selected for All-Oklahoman. Again, the Demon Pitchfork has always been awarded this honor, so it was no surprise to see our name on the slide. But then it was time for a little breath-holding – in rapid-fire fashion.

The last point of interest is when one paper is selected from those ranked All-Oklahoman to be the Sweepstakes winner, and this is what we fight for every year. As we are struggling to pull together stories and meet deadlines, we ask ourselves if the story is good enough for Sweepstakes. When we get to Late Night, that once a month evening of pizza, party and procrastination, we are supposed to get the pages all designed and work out the bugs. But we realize belatedly that no one got art for three stories, so we lament that we’ll lose our opportunity for Sweepstakes. At the day-after press deadline meeting when the editors talk about what went well and what didn’t, the elephant in the room is Sweepstakes. Will that text-heavy page 3 ruin our chances? Will the blurry sports photo on page 9 kill us? And what about the misspelling in the opinion page headline? We’re doomed.

But not on this day. This day we celebrated that we did more good than goof. The Demon Pitchfork won Sweepstakes.

The importance of this accomplishment was summed up by one of the co-managing editors the next morning (the other had a vocal music competition elsewhere – why are these kids so busy?!), when he told his staff that the last time the Pitchfork won Sweepstakes was when he was a freshman, the year before he joined staff. It was a major goal, one he’d been able to help the rest of the staff realize. There was lots of pride, but there was still work to be done. He read off some of the judges’ specific ratings and suggestions for improvement.

I love Media Mondays, not only for what the kids get to participate in and the accomplishments we get to celebrate in our work, but for getting to connect with people from around the state who do what I do. Most schools have only one journalism teacher – a singleton. These are my opportunities to share stories, ask advice and just connect.

If you are a journalism adviser and have not connected to your state organization, you should really do so. Scrounge up the funds from somewhere, and find a way to make that connection, go to those conventions. Those are your connection and they are memories your students will have for the rest of their lives.

Who’s bossy?

A few years ago I started getting comments now and then that I reminded the commenter of Tina Fey. I knew vaguely who she was as this was about the time she was becoming well-known for impersonating Governor Sarah Palin. I took this as a compliment. I think Fey is a nice-looking woman. We share some physical characteristics, mostly being brunette and of small stature – though I’m not as small as I once was. I also like to think that my wit and sarcasm play a part in the connection. If it’s a newspaper late night and we’re eating pizza and breadsticks and someone’s brought brownies, Fey’s other character, Liz Lemon, probably springs to mind as she loves to eat. I even had a former student gift me with season one of 30 Rock on DVD. #hooked

So on a recent Girls’ Night Out excursion with three of my besties, I was tickled to get my hands on a copy of Bossypants, Fey’s 2011 book about her life thus far.

Bossypants

Oh, wait, perhaps I should quickly define our version of Ladies’ Night Out. Once a year, the four of us drive to the city (“the city” is how Okies refer to Oklahoma City), to enjoy an annual event for book nerds. The Friends of the Oklahoma City Library System has a huge sale of used library books every February, taking up two big rooms at the State Fairgrounds. We load up various tote bags and wheeled apparatuses, drive the hour and 20 minutes, stand in line for 45 minutes, then bust into one of the rooms where we move between rows of tables with hundreds of other book nerds. Some of these are crazier than we are, as they are pushing or pulling wheeled trash cans, huge plastic bins, and suitcases. You can tell the newbs, standing wide-eyed in the aisles wondering how they’ll carry all their books to the checkout line that’s snaking around the room already. Ah, best night of the year. After up to two hours of “shopping”, we go out to eat. That part’s normal.

ANYWAY, one of my better finds was Bossypants, and it was the second book I picked up to read (following Michael Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life, which I devoured the day after the sale). Fey is hilarious. She discusses real life topics, but through her Fey lens. Though she tells it just the way it was, her quirky humor made me laugh out loud. At 10, she wanted to shave her legs, but her mom wanted her to wait. I heard my own mom’s voice as she described her mother’s response, that it was too soon and she’d regret it. Both Fey and I had looked down at what she calls “dark shin fur”, and wondered what the heck we’d regret. We didn’t look like our blonde counterparts. It wasn’t fair. Both our mothers wanted to avoid discussing uncomfortable topics. Her mother had given her a Modess My First Period kit, complete with products and a pamphlet titled Growing Up and Liking It. My own mother had given me a set of books from the Life Cycle Library. I still see these books at the occasional used book store or garage sale and have flashbacks.

Throughout the rest of the book, in that same humor for which she is known, Fey tells readers about her high school years, first loves, going to college, looking for that first job, getting on Saturday Night Live and then her own 30 Rock. She discusses being a mother, being a daughter-in-law and being Tina Fey. And she pulls no punches.

Fey says what we are all thinking but we’re afraid to say. Sound familiar?

That’s what I keep hearing about Donald Trump. “He says what we’re all thinking, but are afraid to say.” Well I don’t like what Trump is thinking or saying, but I like that Fey gal.

Tina Fey for president.

Wellness day for my spirit

hammock

I’ve taken a day off. I can do that, apparently. I was a good girl and didn’t take a sick day last semester, which has earned me a “wellness day.” I’ve decided to use it for wellness. I just decided this.

My day began with coffee and the laptop. I still can’t sleep late, so I was up by 6 a.m. and no one else was posting to Facebook yet, so I trekked on over to WordPress and took a look at my neglected Reader. Among other bloggers, I read John Pavlovitz’s blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said. In this post, he recognizes a descending darkness, a division and anger so many of us are experiencing, bitterness and hatred that are becoming commonplace. He encourages us to not sit back and be silent, but to be bold with truth, be bold with love, to love loud.

I can extrapolate and apply his thinking to my own little world. It’s this time of year, I often get frustrated. Springtime is popping up; the weather has been wonderful here in southwest Oklahoma compared to Februarys of the past. The crocus are blooming. I’ve been to a couple baseball games, and we’re winding the school year down to the final quarter. These things should make me happy, but they never fail to make me feel inadequate.

As I sat at the ballpark in a hoodie earlier in the week, I watched the pitcher strikeout another opponent, but my mind was wondering if we’ll have enough staffers to cover all the spring sports adequately, if my sports section even fully realize spring sports are moments from being in full swing because they are still trying to complete writing and design work for winter sports. This leads me to the fact that we are still short several spreads for the last deadline with another deadline around the corner, and no way I can see of getting another 50 pages finished in that timeframe. After I beat myself up about not being able to manage those tasks well enough, I shift over to newspaper and realize late night and the March issue deadline is just days away with not enough work completed as well. *beats self up some more.

When I woke at 5:30 a.m. on this day I took off so I could spend it any way I wanted, my mind immediately shifted into gear and started pointing fingers at all my other shortcomings as a teacher and adviser. Putting it in text makes me feel worse, so I won’t do that. I’m betting we all do this, so I feel nods of agreement even if I don’t go into detail.

However, Pavlovitz’s post has me wanting to squash the darkness, the negativity, even what I’ve self-generated, and love loud. I will fake positivity until the positivity is real.

What do you do when you need to lift yourself and others out of the negativity?