Tag: teaching

FINDING FOCUS: Helping

“I will make him an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18) is the Bible’s first description of Eve. In fact, when God created the woman (Adam’s name for her since he named all he saw), His purpose was to give the man a helper.

After all, there was too much important work to do–naming everything, dressing the trees in the garden, having dominion over all of creation–for one guy (even a perfect man, which Adam was at that point) to do it all. Eve was created to help him.
Is it any wonder so many women feel inclined to help?

You arrive for dinner at a friend’s house. The first thing you say after thanking her for the invitation: “Can I help you do anything?”

Dinner is over. You stack your silverware in the middle of your plate and reach for the plate next to you and the next one. The thought of setting them on the counter makes you cringe, so you rinse each one and tuck them into the dishwasher (unless it’s full of clean dishes).

Although our world is sliding into a state of selfishness, most women still possess that urge to help others. They notice a need, and they step to fill it. (This is one reason we can fall so easily into the auto focus trap mentioned in chapter two.)
Let’s take a moment to focus on the first woman’s pure, innocent desire to fulfill her role as her husband’s helper.

* * * * * * * *

Eve followed Adam through the garden, listening as he recited the names of each tree they passed. A small critter with a bushy tail scampered down the branch of the oak tree.

“Squirrel,” her husband said. “They like the nuts. Once I tried to count how many he stuck in those fat cheeks, but he hurried away and buried them.”

Eve reached toward the gray and brown fur. The squirrel wiggled his nose at her, ducked his head up and down. The hair on his face tickled the pads of her fingers. When he dashed back up the tree, the fluffy tail brushed against her wrist.

“He’s soft.”

Adam’s handsome face creased with a smile. He extended his hand toward her. “Let me show you how to harvest the vegetables.”

Eve held the broad fingers which dwarfed her own. Together, she and her husband stepped from the shade of the massive tree into a wide clearing.

Rows of green, leafy plants stretched in every direction. Corn stalks towered over her, the browning silk on their ears indicating ripeness. Bushes burst and bowed beneath the weight of green and purple gourds that Adam called squash. Her husband dropped her hand to demonstrate how to tell which ones were ripe and twisted off a smaller green one.

“We can roast the zucchini whole when they’re this size.”

Her lips formed the strange name. Zucchini. He handed her the squash. Its stem felt bumpy and the hide smooth.

The garden seemed endless. Beyond the vegetables, there were rows of berry bushes. The raspberry left a pink stain on her fingers. Tart exploded along with sweetness on her tongue. Carrying these by the handful didn’t seem practical. It would take too much time and too many trips to collect enough to satisfy her craving for another taste.

A pair of deer nibbled on the leaves of smaller bushes. They raised their heads when Adam approached, their ears flicking toward him.

With dewy brown eyes and smooth tawny pelts, the animals were beautiful. Adam spoke softly to the deer, rubbing the one with antlers behind its large ear.

Eve’s mind whirled with all the information. Her stomach gurgled and her tongue longed to taste everything.

Her gaze rested on Adam’s muscular frame. “Are you hungry now?”

She extended the handful of berries toward Adam. He turned from the animals which side-stepped away from the sound of her voice. His dark eyes grazed her face before he grabbed the raspberries and tossed the whole bunch into his mouth. A few of the seedy fruit missed the mark, dribbling onto his bare chest.

Eve flicked the stray bits away, frowning at the pink dot left behind. Adam pressed his hand over hers. Warmth seeped into her palm from his smooth skin. Tingles skittered up her arm, much like the squirrel had scampered up the tree.

Their eyes met.

“If you’re hungry, you can show me how to cook the squash.”

A longing welled inside her chest. She ached to help him take care of the garden. Her heart leapt at the thought of preparing food for them, seeing his eyes flicker with satisfaction as they did when he swallowed the raspberries.

“There are fragrant herbs to make things more savory.”

His hand dropped away, and he walked ahead. He would teach her what he knew, then she would find the best way to please him.

Warmth pooled in her stomach and radiated into her chest. Helping him be content would give more pleasure than eating her fill of sweet fruit.

Which must be why their Father God said everything was very good.

This Bible lesson was first published in FINDING FOCUS THROUGH THE LENS OF GOD’S WORD in 2016, copyright belongs to Sharon Hughson

What To Do With This Blog

Time for some honest reflection about this blog.

I started it for a college class. I moved it to my website to help my ranking in search engines.  But it has never gotten the following or engagement I hoped to find.

I won’t remove it because…there’s a TON of content here.

But, I’ve gone to posting once each week (and scheduling these posts as much as two months in advance), and I’m still not getting engagement. There’s not a niche this fits.

So, I’m going to change what I do with this blog. I’m also going to remove it from the “main page” of my website. It will return to a “blog” page (that is currently blank).

This Month

This month, I’ve re-purposed content from a Bible study book I published a couple of years ago into a “class” of sorts.
What do you think about that for the future of this blog?

I would start the month with a video (this month’s was first featured in my Facebook group). Then I’d follow that up with other sections from the book (possibly including comments from “real” students who participated in my online class).

Even though I’ve pretty much decided that I won’t do an online course again (because it’s taking a lot of time I don’t have away from writing), I’d still like the experience.

After all, teaching is one of my gifts from God, and I’ve learned to enjoy doing it via video (and I think I’m finally getting better at that).

After That

Do you remember me talking about a nonfiction book on grief? I did it here.

Well, I’m considering posting some of the content from the book in my blog and sharing it widely in circles where people who might want to read it could find it.

Mostly, this is another test. I want to know if people are interested in my content. If they think it’s valuable.

Also, the class I took on writing nonfiction book proposals discouraged me for completing this project. According to that agent, if I can’t prove to a publisher that I have a “ready made” audience, they won’t publish my book.

Would you be interested in reading that content here?

My Dilemma

The real problem is I don’t have enough hours in a day to do all the things I’ve undertaken. In October, my first collection of Christian romances will be available in print. This is a self-published project even though my publisher owns the digital rights to the stories.

In November, I begin the push to get REFLECTIONS noticed and purchased. This series is one hundred percent self-published, and every time I work on it I’m reminded why I want a publishing contract.

In fact, I’m generating so many reasons, come back later for a post on that.

Even when I don’t go online at Fiverr, I’m getting new orders. I’ve had to mark myself “out of the office” the last two weekends because I’d been getting two to four new orders every Sunday. I don’t even WORK on Sunday!

What am I doing on Fiverr? Mostly writing, but I also go to critique my first fiction chapter in August. It was GREAT! The author left a nice review and said my critique helped her focus on what needed changing. I hope it spurs more such orders.
I also recently ghost-wrote a short ebook on cannabis. Yeah, not really a subject I know much about (or wanted to) but during the research I realized my ignorance wasn’t very attractive.

Who knew hemp was among the oldest cultivated crops? Not me. I was vaguely aware that hemp rope was the best for seaworthy tasks, but I didn’t really think much about how it was made. Or why it was so amazing.

If you’re wondering about my Fiverr business, I wrote more about it in earlier posts.

The bottom line is that I don’t have time to take a day off. I don’t know why I’ve given myself busy mornings when that can be my most productive writing time.

And most of all, I wonder “What am I doing writing blogs? No one reads them anyway.”

But here YOU are. You’re reading this post.

What would you like to see on this blog?

FINDING FOCUS: Mentoring

Mentoring is God’s plan for passing along Christianity and the example of Jesus Christ himself.

This month, the blog will take a closer look at this important calling. As in the study book (no longer available for purchase), the study starts with a Portrait.

Mentoring is becoming a lost art. As you’ll see in the Bible study segment, we should be more serious about this focal point of Christianity.

What follows is my attempt to paint a portrait of one of the best examples of mentoring given in scripture. Because the details of the arrangement aren’t spelled out in scripture, plenty of license was taken in the fictionalizing of the account.

Air stagnates in the women’s section at the rear of the Ephesian synagogue. I open my mouth to join the recitation and nearly gag when the body odor of an elderly woman in front of me wafts my way. Lord, help me!
Yes, that is a prayer. I find myself uttering three- and four-word petitions all day long. And the gracious Lord I serve hears and answers.
In this moment, I don’t heave the contents of my stomach onto the women around me. Nor does a retching sound emerge in place of the scripture. God has answered again.
My tongue forms the ancient words from Deuteronomy. Feminine voices embrace me on every side, joining and blending with the deeper tones from our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons.
I tilt my head to the side, searching for my husband Aquila. My father is dead, my brother remains in Rome, uninterested in the Way, and the Lord has never blessed me with sons, only two daughters, both married.
Aquila is more than enough. We serve Jesus Christ together, just as we make tents together.
A male voice begins the first song of degrees. Other voices join in. I twitter out the high part my mother taught me so many decades past. The soprano notes complement the lower voices of both women and men.
A woman behind me joins on the high harmony. My heart leaps as I’m transported back to childhood, learning the part with my younger sister.
I turn my thoughts toward the Lord, voicing each word from my lips to his ears.
“The Lord is thy keeper,” we sing (Ps. 121:5). Praise Him for keeping us safe when Caesar evicted us from Rome.
“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil” (Ps. 121:7). Yes, Lord, you have preserved Aquila and me too many times to recount.
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1).
Tears clog my throat. King David, author of this psalm, wrote of the tabernacle, but I have never seen the temple in Jerusalem. I squeeze my eyes closed to ease the burning.
When the singing ends, several men pray aloud. Their voices make a tuneful backdrop to my own thanksgiving and supplication.
The rabbi reads from Isaiah. It is one of the three books outside of the Torah that this synagogue has available, along with sacred scrolls.
A stranger, dark skin naming his origin from parts to the south, perhaps even Egypt, stands and speaks. The tone of his voice is cultured, smooth like cream. His words are fine. He expounds on the passage from Isaiah’s prophecy before speaking of other prophecies.
I nearly topple over when the man mentions the teaching of John the Baptist. I straighten against the hard seat, nothing more than a plank of wood set atop cinder blocks.
He speaks of the Messiah. My heart thrums in my throat until his honeyed words are nearly drowned by the pounding. Does this man know of the Way?
Many members of the synagogue are believers, but others claim Jesus of Nazareth was not their Messiah. The topic is dangerous to discuss in this Jewish place of worship.
I couldn’t discern whether the young man knows the Way. His focus seems to be validating John as the forerunner, the prophet to make straight the path before Messiah.
A chorus of murmurs from the men interrupts his fine speech, keeps me from hearing what more he says.
Several other men stand to read or recite scripture. No one else expounds on the passages. After another hymn and prayer, the rabbi dismisses the gathering with the traditional Shalom blessing.
Outside the domed building, I breathe deeply, watching the men file out. Aquila comes, head bent close to Benjamin, one of the members of our house church. Aquila’s leanness makes him appear taller than the stout cobbler. They exchange nods before Aquila extends his hand to me.
I take it, amazed that it can be cool and warm all at once. I press my back against the wall of the synagogue, raise on my toes to speak directly into my husband’s ear.
The crowd leaving the worship service is quiet, but the street around us teems with commerce. It is Ephesus. The trading never ceases.
“Who was that man? The one who spoke of John?”
“Apollos, an Alexandrite Jew.”
“Does he follow the Way?”
Aquila shakes his head, a slight move. I stare into his rich, brown eyes and see the motion wasn’t a denial. He thinks the younger man might be a believer, but it is dangerous to assume this. Apollos hadn’t spoken openly of Jesus, like Paul the Apostle had done when he visited here a few months past.
“We should invite him to break bread with us.”
Aquila nods. He scans the trickle of worshipers still emerging from the synagogue. A royal blue cloak swirls at the doorway, and the dark-skinned man emerges. Behind him, the rabbi shakes his head vociferously. My stomach clenches at the sight of the synagogue leader’s stern visage.
My husband shuffles toward the two men, waiting a respectful distance apart. The rabbi looks at him expectantly, but Aquila nods toward the stranger. Apollos stands half a head taller than my husband. Their lips move, but the bustle of the city and my distance from them makes hearing the conversation impossible.
Soon, Aquila is nodding. Both of them step toward where I’m waiting, hands folded over my queasy stomach. Lord, don’t let this be a mistake.
Trivial conversation follows us through the crowded market and into the quieter trade district. I fall behind the men, trying to listen to snatches of their conversations.
Lord, protect us if this man is not sent from you. Grant us wisdom to teach him Your Perfect Way. Move in his heart. Touch our tongues and lips. You promised your Spirit’s aide.
I could not hear much from the men, but I know the Lord hears every syllable of my fervent prayers.
A faint odor of tanning hides greets us when Aquila swings open the door to our home. It is nearly impossible to keep the stench away when our trade requires us to handle cured hides and skins every day.
The men sit on the couches in the center court of our small shop. My feet glide soundlessly across the mosaic and into the storage room. I fetch a skin of new wine and three cups. I place some bread and olive spread onto a large platter beside the cups, and carry all of it to the men.
I pour wine for both men, meeting Aquila’s eyes when I hand him his drink, ducking my head when I pass a cup to our guest.
Aquila swallows before asking, “What do you know of John’s baptism?”
Apollos sips his beverage, reclines on the pillow-covered arm of his couch. “His immersion of believers in water prepared men and women to become part of something greater.”
They discuss this subject. I swallow a mouthful of drink, but the knot in my stomach won’t allow more than that. I continue to pray until I feel a nudge from the Spirit.
“What of Christ?” I say.
Both men turn to stare at me. My husband’s eyes widen. Apollos holds my gaze, sipping from his cup before setting it on his thigh.
“Has Messiah come?” The dark man’s eyebrows press together, creasing his wide forehead.
I keep my eyes pinned on our guest, but I still see the slight shake of Aquila’s head. The witness of Christ within me prods me to ignore the wordless warning from my spouse.
“Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. He called an assembly from the body of those baptized by John. We were baptized by Paul the Apostle in Corinth a few years past.”
“I heard rumors about this Jesus. Why do you say he was the Christ?”
Aquila and I take turns quoting prophecies of old which Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled. Prophecies everyone agrees spoke of the coming Messiah.
Aquila asks questions and nods at our explanations. His attendance on my words sends a flush to my cheeks. This man is a powerful orator. If he follows the Way, many people will turn from the path leading to eternal destruction.
Light fades. I bring a lamp from an inner room and light the wicks floating in pots encircling the terrace. A sense of peace envelopes me, a blanket of assurance as real as the curtain of darkness falling around us.
Today I have discovered another way Aquila and I can serve the Lord together. A young man will be saved from destruction. In turn, his persuasive speaking will convert many more to the Way.
Thank you, Lord.

You can still join the LIVE study in my Facebook Group by clicking here. That’s where you can download a FREE copy of the book and interact with others who are interesting in finding their God-given focus for life.

***This excerpt was first published in 2016 in the first edition of FINDING FOCUS THROUGH THE LENS OF GOD’S WORD, copyright belongs to Sharon Hughson

A Glimpse Inside What I’m Writing Now

The cover for the second book in the REFLECTIONS series will be unveiled soon.

A Laboring Hand is the story of Jesus told by Martha of Bethany. And it’s a story that’s had a profound effect on the author writing it.

I’ve always teased my sister about being bossy, but Martha has taken flak from preachers for a couple thousand years about her tendency to be bossy. We’re familiar with this scripture from Luke 10, right?

38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:
42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

But what did it look like in Martha’s life?

Here’s a glimpse from A LABORING HAND, chapter four.

I washed my hands and began to chop the handfuls of pungent herbs I would add to the beans. The pestle in my hand smashed the beans with rhythmic efficiency. Mary pressed together more flour, salt and olive oil, intent on baking more bread.

“The stone was hot.” The words had barely left my mouth when Lazarus limped in followed by a boy carrying a jug on his head.

“Leave it in the shade outside,” I waved a hand to the boy. “We’ll draw out into my pitchers half-filled with water. That will make it last.”

Laz nodded to the boy, gesturing to a place further along the house, away from the cooking fire and the chimney. I heard the jingle of coins.

“It’s already watered.”

“What proportion?” My brain estimated the amount of drink a dozen thirsty men would need.

“Fifty percent.” Lazarus slouched against the wall. Weariness etched his features, but I knew he wouldn’t rest. He was more eager for the visitors than any of us.

“We can safely add another twenty percent. Will you see to it?”

“I’ll need to draw more water.” Mary’s hands hesitated over the dough. “They’ll need what I drew for washing.”

“They aren’t zealots.” I returned to my chopping. “They won’t care about washing before they eat. Could you reach me the bowl of olives?” I gestured to the line of pottery on the wall overhead.

Mary shoved Abba’s weaving stool into place and stepped up to grasp the bowl. “I intend to wash their feet.”

I froze. Why would she insist on doing that? It was a servant’s job, and since we didn’t have servants, none of our guests ever expected this service.

“They’ll just get dirty again when he leaves on Sunday.”

“But they’ll be clean for Sabbath.”

Like that really mattered in a small synagogue like ours.

“There isn’t enough water.” That would solve it.

“I’ll draw more.”

“The bread needs baking. And the floor should be swept and the cushions beaten. Plus, we’ll need to get out all the extra rugs.”

Lazarus sighed and pushed away from the wall. “I’ll get started on the cushions.”

I shook my head. With only one arm, it took him much longer to clean them. “I’ll do it. Draw out the wine.”

Laz blinked at me, sharing a look with Mary. It was an apologetic look. He’d tried to aid her plan, but the bossy big sister nixed it. Something gnawed at my heart, but I ignored it. There was work to be done.

Soon enough, the laughter and banter of a crowd of dusty men filled the room. I welcomed them with a small bowl of water and a clean linen cloth. Well, it was clean for the first man or two.

Yeshua reclined at the head of the table on the largest cushion. My parents had often shared it. John bar Zebedee, one of the Boanerges, sat on it with the master while the others filed onto other cushions, some choosing to lean against the wall on the rugs Lazarus had pulled from his room and ours. The dirt floor could hardly be seen once all of them sprawled around the room.

Mary and I circulated with pitchers of wine. Once we finished, I began to distribute the bowls of spiced beans and packets of bread, still warm from their place on the hearth. I turned to ask Mary to assist me, but she’d folded herself cross-legged at Yeshua’s feet, staring up as he started to talk.

I blinked hard. What on earth was she thinking? Was this her rebellion since I hadn’t let her get water for foot washing? She was certainly positioned in a way she could wash his feet if she had the supplies.

I continued to serve. His authoritative voice, usually so soothing, fueled the ire inside me. He could make her help me. I glanced at Laz, but my brother was watching the master and scribbling on a piece of parchment. Mary never once looked my way, even when I nudged her with my ankle as I passed to refill John’s cup.

With a careful eye, I glanced at every cup and bowl. They would need continual watching. Matthew raised his cup in my direction, and I sidled through the sprawled bodies to fill it, nearly tripping on another man’s filthy feet.

They weren’t drawn out of the way, so I turned and topped off his cup. He stared through me, as if I were invisible. I was used to that from working in the Pharisee’s home, but usually Yeshua’s friends were more gracious.

The unrest stirred inside me as I shuffled around, refilling cups and then fetching more bread to replenish the diminishing stacks. Soon, I would need to bake some more.

And that’s when it was too much. I strode toward Yeshua with my pitcher and jabbed my sister with a meaningful kick. She blinked.

As I filled his cup, I said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

A hush descended in the room. I heard the wine trickle against what was in his cup. Our eyes met.

“Bid her to help me.” Couldn’t he see how much work I was doing? Why should she just be sitting there?

“Martha.” His voice was quieter than it had been, almost gentle.

At the sound of my name from his lips, the turmoil loosened inside me. Why had I waited so long to ask for his assistance? His dark eyes filled with understanding and concern. He would help me because he cared about me.
“Martha, you’re anxious and worried about many things.”

The comfort turned to a prickle of conviction. Worry was sin. My father had told me so.

“But one thing is needful.”

One thing? I wanted to jerk my hand around at the crowd of hungry men who needed food, drink and places to sleep. There were many things that needed to be taken care of. I knew he could see that.

Yeshua sighed. His fingers rested on the handle of the pitcher beside mine. They were square and scuffed. Working man’s hands.

“And Mary hath chosen that good part.” His voice rose slightly, but not with anger or impatience, and his hand dropped to his cup. “And that won’t be taken away from her.”

Everything warred within me as I struggled to comprehend his words. Mary was sitting there while our guests needed things. How was that better than helping me meet their needs?

“A certain man,” his gaze scanned the rest of the room.

I recognized the beginning of a parable. Usually I loved his stories, they always carried so much spiritual significance. I couldn’t listen though because his words stung my heart.

I filled cups, my eyes lowered. Tears burned at the back of my eyelids whenever I blinked, but I widened my eyes, pulling my shawl which had dropped to my shoulders, up to cover most of my face.

Mary sat at his feet doing nothing, but Yeshua said she’d chosen the good part. The words kept echoing all evening.

Even now, as I’m writing all this, they sting me somewhere deep in my soul. Was there something wrong with my desire to make the men comfortable? Did Yeshua not want a meal and refreshment while he was talking?

What do you think? How had you imagined Martha in this moment that gets so much negative attention? Should women be more like Mary?

If you’re excited to learn more about the REFLECTIONS series, make sure you’re a member of my newsletter. I’ll be running special (including FREE audiobooks of A PONDERING HEART) to my subscribers FIRST!
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Not Seventh Grade Again!

I have repeated seventh grade nearly a dozen times. So when I got a text while substituting in a seven grade life science class to work in a seventh grade math/engineering classroom the next day, this was my first thought.

Two days of seventh grade?!?

If you follow my posts, you know I prefer teaching in high school English or literature classes. My truest nightmare was an advanced math class at high school with non-existent lesson plans.

As far as middle school goes, the only job I won’t take is PE. Well, I turned it down at my favorite high school when they asked me to take a PE/health position for two days.

The truth is, I completed the seventh and eighth grade curricula every year I worked at St. Helens Middle School as a special education instructional assistant. Well, I may as well have. I was expected to be able to tutor or teach my SPED students in any class they struggled.

But science and math on back-to-back days? Was someone trying to kill me?

Or maybe change my short hair to baldness?

Welcome to Life Science

I’m minding my own business on a quiet Monday night. Reading a book and trying to recover my equilibrium after wrestling with two uncooperative romance manuscripts all day.

I need to pick up two subbing jobs each week. I really need to do this now that I’ve purchased a $600 airplane ticket to New York City and my brother is telling me I’ll need $1000 in spending money for the four days I’m there.
A click on the Safari app on my iPad takes me to the Frontline employee absence website. The last three times I checked, there was nothing. This time:

Full Day Science at Scappoose Middle School.

I decide to let it ride. Because…science.

A minute later the phone rings. Yep. The absence system offers me the job.

I feared a movie. Instead, it was six 50-minute sessions reading the same two articles to seventh-grade students.
These are the same ones who played hide-and-seek under the lab counters.

I wish I was kidding.

Everyone Needs Math in Their Life

I’m slightly more than half-way through this science fest when my phone rumbles with an incoming text.
A teacher I worked with at St. Helens Middle School is sick. Could I cover his classes the next day?

Ugh. Math?

But I see getting my second day of work outside the house done in short order. Won’t that help me focus on those stories better?

They’ve just started a unit on finding area in one-dimensional shapes. I could do this in my sleep.

Except trying to get them to sit still and listen to the instructions is like herding cats…across a flooding river…in a blizzard.

Don’t Forget to Engineer It

It boggles my mind that there is even time for an elective in a five period school day. They have to take math, science, PE and health, and humanities (a combination of language arts and social studies). I guess that does leave ONE class period open. Most students have band, choir or art. I guess there has to be a place for everyone else.
So engineering.

Enter thirty seven graders who would rather be bending pipe cleaners and straws into some sort of structure. Sit them at a desk.

Here’s the plan for the day: Watch a video about the Mayan engineering feats and write down twenty-five facts. Turn them in at the end of class.

Or if you get them done beforehand, get up and turn them in. Or ignore the film and chat with your friends. If the sub calls out a fact (to help you out because I’m nice that way) be sure to ask “What?”

It was the longest 43-minute class period of my day.

My Saving Grace

You heard me right. Each class lasted 43 minutes.

That was the saving grace for the day. Sure those seventh grade bottles of hormones squirreled around and talked when they should have listened. Yes, they asked me a dozen questions I had already answered during their unauthorized chatting time.

But, the final bell sounded at 1:30, a full two hours earlier than normal.

Which means, after standing outside with the same squirrels until they boarded their buses, I was free to leave two full hours before the end of the normal school day.


AND…wait for it…

I still got paid for eight hours. Because in the sub teaching world, there are half-day jobs and full-day jobs. Anything more than four hours is considered a full day.

Score!

In reality, I don’t mind a little seventh-grade math and science. At least I can speak intelligently about the lessons. You know, since I’m a repeat attender.

What was your favorite subject in school? What grade in school horrifies you the most?

A Test by any other Name

Assessments. I’m not sure we had these back when I was a kid. I mean, we had them but everyone called them tests.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel the new name (in use in the education system for a couple decades now) more accurately reflects the purpose of these “tests.” As an English major, concise and clear language appeals to me.

However, I suspect that was NOT the reasoning behind the change.

There’s this black hole called test anxiety. Therefore, if we don’t mention tests, the anxiety will be alleviated.

I’ve seen this hungry beast (test anxiety) in action. People forget everything they studied. Draw a blank after reading every question. Nervous fingers click the pen: out, in, out, in, out. Fingernails, erasers, collars become fodder for repetitive chewing.

It’s crazy. Once you finish your education, how often do you face tests? Okay, that will depend on your profession, but those with test phobias aren’t likely to even go there.

As an educator, assessments can be a valuable tool. They assess (thus the name) what a student knows before a unit of study and what they learned after one. Provided they don’t suffer from the dread of examinations.

Because, let’s face it, the name change isn’t fooling teenagers. Maybe the younger kids can be trained away from test anxiety with an array of assessments levied rather than sitting for tests.

Many secondary schools have begun basing grades exclusively on assessment scores. While I understand the mentality behind this ( they shouldn’t pass Algebra if they haven’t learned 60 percent of the objectives), it invites teenagers to fail.

Teenagers are generally opportunists, seeking the easiest way to get where they’re going. Why do you think all the video games have cheat guides and cheat codes? This isn’t a claim that teenagers cheat on test—I mean assessments—but that they will shirk the assignments leading to the assessment because “they don’t count toward the grade.”

Yes, I’ve actually had students tell me they weren’t doing the work I assigned because it wasn’t going to be graded.


“But it prepares you for the assessment, which is your grade.” I’m using a reasonable tone of voice as I say this.

Shrugs. “I know how to do it.”

“Then why not do it. Practice makes perfect. It can only help.”

Sometimes an argument ensues. Other times, the response is another shrug.

As a substitute teacher, what can I do?

“The expectation is that you’ll spend class time working on this.” Yes, I admit, the teacher voice is starting to leak out by this point.
Because the majority of teenagers don’t care about an absent teacher’s expectations. Even if they know you’re going to let the teacher know that they didn’t work on the assignment.

Nine chances out of ten, the student wouldn’t be any more productive for the regular teacher.

Which makes me wonder: what are they learning about following guidelines? Will they have a better work ethic for an employer since they’re working for a paycheck?

Is there a better way to encourage students to apply themselves to the assigned tasks? Many aren’t even concerned about their grades.

All of this came to mind today while a classroom full of freshmen took an assessment in their English/language arts class.
What are your thoughts on tests versus assessments? What should “count” toward high school grades? (Maybe we should do away with them altogether, but then colleges will have to change their admission standards.) What’s your brilliant idea for encouraging students to learn?

THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby stalks me from one high school language arts class to the next. In St. Helens, he prowls through the junior classrooms and in Scappoose, his story resounds with the freshmen.

This disparity in curriculum gave me pause.

After all, I’ve taught students between the ages of twelve and eighteen for many years. There is a huge difference in the analytical abilities of freshmen (fourteen or fifteen-year-olds) and juniors (sixteen and seventeen-year-olds). Can Gatsby’s theme and content bridge this gap? Will freshmen understand the depth of Fitzgerald’s message in the same way juniors do?

The proof is in the pudding. And I won’t be around to see the end product.


Freshmen

In the freshmen classroom, the project due at the end of the reading is a theme timeline.

This is an art-heavy project. Students will identify the (a) theme of the book and create a timeline of events that support that theme. As I talked about in a recent post about theme, it must be evidence-based using words from the text rather than experience-based.

If these students can prove their interpretation with sufficient text examples, they will have nailed a theme. I believe there are many, but Nick Carroway does a fair job of stating an obvious one in the first paragraph of the novel.

You can’t judge a person because you don’t know what they’ve been through.

Everyone judges Gatsby as a successful and wealthy man who loves throwing parties. He’s affable and generous, and everyone is happy to take part in his excess but none of them show up to pay respects at his funeral.

So what sort of person was Jay Gatsby really? I’m not sure we really know. A poor man who sought his big break and found it, but all the success in the world couldn’t overcome his insecurities. His life ended before he could reap the benefit of finding true love with Daisy.

Juniors

The juniors are focusing on the symbolism in Fitzgerald’s classic novel. There is plenty to be found.

The one chapter I read with these students had several symbolic things in it, but many of the students missed their significance. Even when I stopped and asked leading questions, they blanked out.

I fear the teachers will be disappointed at the outcome of this assignment.

Like theme, symbolism is one of those things that gets emphasized in high school (and college) literature classes. Symbols can be subject to interpretation. I spoke more about that in this post about Blue Being Blue.

In my mind, symbols take more time to recognize. The harder you have to look for one, the more unlikely it is to be one. When analyzing a novel, only obvious symbols should be considered (as far as I’m concerned).

I believe symbolisim requires deeper reflection on a text, so perhaps the varied focus of the curricula explains things. The choice of this text for students at different intellectual stages of development might make sense in this case.

Literary Takeaways

No one argues the state of The Great Gatsby as a classic. It should certainly be part of a robust literary education.
Or should it?

As an author, I rarely give thought to symbolism in my writing and thought of theme is something done during revisions. Since I write genre fiction, that’s to be expected. Nothing I write will be considered a classic. No one will teach my short stories or novellas in their English class.

I’m sort of glad about this. Even speaking to readers about my books can be disheartening if they don’t “get” what I wanted to say. The thought of some English teacher claiming the technology in the follow up novel to “The Demon Was Me” represented evil as much as the demons makes me cringe.

Mostly because I didn’t even want my demons to represent evil. They were being trying to survive, and the way they did it destroyed regular people. Can you see a deeper truth in this? One that might be important for young adults (the intended audience) to understand?

I think students in today’s classrooms would be more engaged if more contemporary novels were taught in classrooms. My experience teaching a group of middle school students Hunger Games proves this point. They were low readers, many with language disabilities, so they missed much about theme and symbolism, but they could plot out the story and relate the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. Doesn’t appreciation of story have a place in a language arts classroom?

Fitzgerald is a notable wordsmith. His descriptions are lovely and borderline purple prose. Since he puts so much of himself into a story, readers feel intimate with the characters. But most of his stories are lacking on plot.

Maybe teaching one literary classic per year would suffice in high school English classes. Introduce reluctant readers (which most young people are these days because…technology) to a few masters. Let the assignments practice important life skills: like disseminating essential information and conveying ideas with clarity.

Because how often have you needed to identify a theme or recognize symbolism in your day-to-day life? It’s nice to want kids to broaden their horizons and look outside the box for beauty, but if they can’t balance their checkbook or hold down a job, does that truly matter?
What classics do you believe are essential for every young American to read? What skills should be taught in language arts classes?

Two Honors Classes Prove the Truth about Theme

Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?

Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)

As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.

Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.

During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”

Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)

On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).

Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.

First Period

The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.

I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.

The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.

After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.

                    “Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”

Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”

Fourth Period

This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.

After I read the story to them, that is.

This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”

In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.

“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”

“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”

“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”

All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.

The Truth about Theme

Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.


At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.

Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.

Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.

The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.

One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.

Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?

Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.

Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?

Why I’m Glad I’m Not a Kid: Part One

Recent trips into the classroom at one public school where I work has inspired a series of blog posts. In fact, it’s reminded me to be thankful I’m not a kid these days.

My main job is to be a writing superhero. My alter ego works as a substitute teacher in local middle and high schools. There are plenty of things there to inspire my creative side, as many blog posts attest.

Unfortunately, all is not magic and unicorns in the realm of public education.

I’ve known this to be true for many years. It’s the main reason I decided NOT to pursue a degree in education when I went back to college in 2010. But in the final weeks of the school year, it was reiterated to me.

Why am I glad I’m not a kid?

Because education in the 21st century is all about meeting regulations and ranking well on state assessments.

Back in my day, school was about learning to read, write, do sums (and other math you never use in real life) in a social environment where you were expected to get along with everyone.

Learning at School?

Isn’t school supposed to be for the purpose of learning?


And not learning how to bully others. Or make excuses for late homework. Or perfect the art of doing as little as possible.

Believe me. Spend a few days in the average public middle school, and you’ll start to wonder.

Who decides what kids are taught in school?

Did you say the teachers? You’re wrong if you did.

Not even the school board has the ultimate power over curriculum.

Nope. Big Brother gets to say what will be taught in school.

Or else.

The fact they require kids to spend weeks and months learning things that do NOT help them understand their culture or prepare them to be an adult isn’t even the worst of it.

It’s not?

High school teachers and counselors in our school district have been heard to say, “Middle school doesn’t really count.”

So, what are they doing there? Why are we wasting six or seven hours of our time hanging out in classrooms?

Every day of school should be preparing kids to be responsible adults. Primary school should focus on the basics of reading. Once they get to third grade, throw in the basics of math. Without those two things, they’re not going to be able to succeed in the upper grades.

Nor will they be able to fill out a job application or make a budget.

Citizenship in School

I’ll be the first parent to tell you that it isn’t the school’s job to teach my kid to be a decent human being. Sorry. If you wait until your kid’s five to start teaching courtesy, discipline and respect, it might be too late.

It is NOT the school’s job to teach my child values or how to treat other people.

School needs to be a safe place to learn the complexities of social interactions.

How do I react if I have to work with a stranger? What if I get stuck with someone I don’t like? What should I do if my teacher doesn’t like me?
And the answer is NOT tell my parents and have them call the school to put me in an ideal situation.

That’s not life. School social settings should prepare kids to face the interactions they will have in the workplace. We’ve all had to work with someone we didn’t know or didn’t like.

I might be the only one who’s ever had a boss that I didn’t get along with, but I’d like to think it’s a common occurrence. And my mom didn’t rescue me from that person because that’s not what being an ADULT is about.

Staff at school should model ideal behaviors, sure. They shouldn’t tolerate bullying. Yes, they should keep kids from beating each other up because school is supposed to be a safe place.

Natural consequences should be allowed to fall on students in cases when it doesn’t mean bodily harm. For example, if you’re late too many times to work, your boss will fire you. There should be consequences for being late to class.

And I don’t want to hear your excuse. You either have a note from an adult…or you don’t. That’s all I need to know.

We’re only hurting the future of our society by failing our students in school. They deserve to learn to read, write and do math, and they should be held accountable for obeying the standard of conduct required in the schoolhouse.

Politics in School

I’m not saying that learning and citizenship don’t happen in schools these days. But those aren’t the priorities.

Government has their fingers in the U.S. educational system, and they like to generate red tape. Schools rely on the government for funding, so they have no choice but to march to the regulatory drumbeat.

Or they can shut their doors.

What happened recently to remind me of politics in school?

A teacher who taught both of my sons and I’ve worked closely with for a decade is transferring to a different position. I didn’t know asking her about it would open a can of worms.

The school has decided to combine language arts and social studies for middle schoolers. This isn’t a new or unusual thing. We had it before when the students could have a humanities block—two class periods for this class.

That isn’t what’s happening. Teachers will be expected to cover the learning goals for both subjects in one hour.

Furthermore, they’ll only receive one day of training on how to do this.

I hope the trainers are handing out Time Turners or some other magical device that will stretch one hour in to two (or ten).

How can students be expected to learn twice as much content in half the time? How can teachers be expected to teach twice as much content in half the time?

The biggest problem I have with this: the school is doing this because of budgetary constraints. They will use fewer staff to teach in this way.
Because money is what education is all about in our world.

I’m sure schools were funded the same way when I was a kid, but there weren’t common core standards and annual state assessments back then.

We went to school to learn how to be a productive citizen of the United States of America. That’s why the founding fathers pushed for public education for all people.

Kids these days are getting the short end of the learning stick. And our country will reap its dues when these under-educated people are running our country in a couple decades.

Are there things you’ve noticed about kids in school that make you grateful to have grown up in an earlier era?

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Back in the Classroom

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to play school. She didn’t care if she was the teacher or the student, she just loved school. That little girl jumps for joy every time I get a call to substitute teach.

If you know me at all, you understand I have a LONG history of spending time in the classroom. My longest employment was with the St. Helens School District, where I worked as a classified substitute and temporary classroom aide for six years before getting a regular job.

My first two years were as a cashier in the cafeteria at a grade school (while still taking the temporary overload classroom aide positions). Finally, I managed to land a job as a special education instructional assistant at the middle school. I was there for seven years before leaving to pursue this writing gig.

Now I’m back in the classroom. Because this writing gig feeds my soul and keeps my hands and head flying in numerous directions, but it doesn’t pay well. Not with all my contracts being for royalties only. And I don’t push or publicize my self-published titles.

The Position

When I began pursuing my English degree, I planned to get a restricted substitute teaching license when I finished. That was 2010. At the time, there was a shortage of substitute teachers and some of our best subs had degrees in anything BUT education.

All that changed in 2012. School districts all over Oregon were down-sizing (had been since 2007). Suddenly, there were more licensed teachers than positions. The substitute pool became bloated with all these graduates who couldn’t score their own classroom.

Most of the districts rescinded their use of the restrictive substitutes. People who had these licenses were allowed to continuing working until the expiration. No new licenses could be issued.

When I graduated in July 2013, that was still the state of things in the substitute teaching world.

This fall, the substitute pool was depleted. Not enough people floated in the thing to cover vacancies.

The major school districts went on a recruiting campaign. They sent out a flyer to all the school reinstating their use of restrictive substitute licencees to fill classroom teacher roles.

The secretary at the middle school where I worked kindly forwarded the email to me. Her note: “There are plenty of people here who would love to see you subbing in our classrooms.”

Alrighty, then.

soitbegins

The Process

First step: Attend a half-day conference-like event at the NWRESD (Northwest Regional Education Service District). They supply subs to most of the districts in northwestern Oregon.

At this event, you found out how the process worked, completed an interview and filled out an online application form. They would notify you within a week or two if you were selected to continue in the program.

Hurray! I was selected.

Step two: Register for the ORELA Civil Rights examination and pass it ($95).

Then November happened. As you know, I was writing a novel in three weeks and taking a week-long vacation to the Oregon coast for Thanksgiving with my sister.

Step three: Attend a full-day training session at the NWRESD offices.

This is where we learned about the expectations of the job. Also, they gave tips and tools for surviving in a crazy classroom. The best part was acting out different scenarios.

Yep. I can still perform the role of snotty, rebellious teenager with pizzazz.

We also filled out all our employment forms and had our photos taken for an identification badge. I still have yet to see that badge, so who knows if the paperwork is even ready.

Step four: Complete the fingerprinting and background check process ($74)

I performed this step the Monday before Christmas, but the state never acknowledged it until a month later.

Step five: Submit the application with the appropriate fees and information (including certified transcripts). The fee had to include a $99 expedite fee or else you wouldn’t see your license until June. Just in time for it to expire. The application fee was $129.

Step six: Get a bunch of emails from the state acknowledging every slip of paper they get. However,the email stating what is still required – which is what the HR gal said they would send – never came.

Ever.

Two month after I sent the application (does that sound like expedited service to you???), I got an email stating my license was issued. There would be no paper license mailed and I should print the email for my records.

The Payoff

When I wrote this post, I had been in the classroom four separate days. However, I haven’t completed a payroll cycle yet.

I’m hoping theirs a payoff. It seems like the figure was $150 per day (before taxes, of course), I haven’t seen any actual money.

If you do the math, you can see that I’ve spent close to $300 to get the license. And it expires June 30, 2016.

Here’s hoping the renewal process involves fewer hoops and red tape. The next license will be good for three years.

I’ve discovered a renewed ear for teenage dialogue already. Getting back among my target audience is one of the primary reasons for going through all this rigamarole.

The State sent me a questionnaire about the fluidity of the process. Do they really want me to complete it? I think my numbers will skew their data toward the negative end of the scale.

The good news: I’m out of my office and in the classroom, interacting with teenagers.

I’ve missed these guys.