Writing Community

Connexion, Spring 2016, p. 7. Print. (article)

In the fall of 2003, I had the greatest job ever – teaching creative writing to third and fourth graders. My small groups of students got excited about lie poems, wish poems, stories, and everything else.  We wrote poems on crowns about when we ruled the world, we wrote stories on mobiles about flying things.  We told each other what we liked about each other’s poems and how we thought our stories could be improved. We suggested endings and titles and helped each other when we were stuck.

I was impressed by the community feeling in those little creative writing groups. At the same time, I felt a little isolated, teaching small groups in a corner far away from the rest of the school.  In trying to integrate my little writing groups with big ASFG, I hit upon the idea of a literary magazine.  And thus Strange Spaghetti was born.

The first issue of Strange Spaghetti was financed by me (I got reimbursed for most of it later.  I think).  We printed the text at the copy center but the cover had to be printed at Office Depot. I took the title from part of then-fourth grader Luly Godinez’s poem:

They made me a welcome party

With clowns and strange spaghetti

My husband printed a background of some strange-looking spaghetti for the cover.  We were only able to print about 50 copies – enough for the writers themselves.

We worked very hard on it, but I didn’t know if anyone else would be that excited.  But my students and their families were delighted.  “Do you have another copy so I can give my grandma one?”  “Could I get one for my big sister?” Other students and teachers asked how they could be a part of it, and I very much wanted to invite everybody and their grandmother into our writing community.  So I was really happy the following year when I got a grant from the Parents’ Association, which meant I could print more and open up submissions to all of elementary. I begged and cajoled teachers to find time in their busy days to send me their students’ writing. Most were happy to do so, and for several years Strange Spaghetti was a physical representation of the elementary school writing community.

There were many awesome and odd pieces in Strange Spaghetti. Students played with rhythm, as in Andrea Figuerroa’s Fish:

The title is fish

But there is no fish

Because there is no water.

I still read Juan Pablo Lopez’s My Little Baby Sister Camila to my 6th graders as an example of a great favorite person poem:

She is the money in my pocket

She is my favorite TV channel

She is the ice cream of my dessert

She is the 10 on my exam.

There was a recurring series of stories — Rodrigo Andrade and Julio Huato’s wonderful Ketchup Wars:

Humans began preparing their armies to go to Ketchupland to fight with mustard, onions, and pickles.

When I began working in middle school, a MS literary magazine seemed only natural.  I didn’t have to spend much time convincing Mr. Markman about the idea. The first Amalgamation came out in 2007. It contained lune poetry and something we called jagged poetry, as well as the insincere apology which has become a time-honored tradition in Amalgamation.

There were contributors who contributed year after year, like Sofi Benitez who wrote about toilet paper for Strange Spaghetti in the 4th grade, Chasing Rainbows for Amalgamation in the 6th grade, and went on to edit Sin Fronteras in high school.  Juan Unda contributed every year of middle school, writing about his dog Brownie in the 5th grade, and finishing up with a poem about Lars Ulrich of Metallica in the 8th grade.

While Strange Spaghetti was very much about primary school concerns, Amalgamation featured a very middle school point of view, like in Jose Paniagua’s heartfelt “Pimple”:

So

ugly

so

big

so

red

so

obvious

so

hated.

Natalia Hecht’s tragic “He”:

Sexy

Cute

Handsome

Adorable

Nice

King

Generous

Honest

Sincere

I didn’t understand.

Or then-6th grader Ana Paula Rueda’s jaded lune poetry:

Amazingly long day.

I don’t have fun anymore.

I’m too old.

This year, the last of my elementary creative writing students will be graduating from high school. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were asking me hopefully what we would write about today. It makes me happy to think of them going off into the world to write all over everything, forging their own communities while always remaining a part of this one.

Top 7 Best Practices for Video Conferencing Security

GoTranscript Blog August 13, 2020

With the advent of the coronavirus, many of our work and home routines moved online. Among other things, many of us started using conferencing software. Most people haven’t thought much about video conferencing security until recently. Most of us have used FaceTime or Skype to chat with friends or even employers, but now we are using video conferencing software for so much more. We need to pay attention to the information we exchange, the security involved, and avoid leaks and other problems. What should you be aware of to minimize the security risks for yourself and your conference attendees? 

7 Tips for Keeping your Video Conferences Secure

Conferencing security was important long before the coronavirus. During a video conference, data and information travel across networks. This makes it vulnerable to people who want to see it and shouldn’t. If security isn’t what it should be, every bit of information you exchange in a video conference can be recorded and broadcast, whether it’s military intelligence or corporate secrets. However, there are things you can do to minimize this risk significantly. 

1. Use Passwords

The first thing you need to do to ensure security during a video conference is to require and use passwords to gain access to your meeting. You need to create a unique meeting ID and password for each online session you have. This will protect you against uninvited attendees and ensure that the meeting name and organizer are secure. Ensure the passwords you create are strong and complex so that nobody can guess them easily. Strong passwords use a mix of characters (numbers and letters) and are at least 15 characters long.  

2. Use a Waiting Room

When sending out your meeting invitation, double-check the names of participants before sending, and review that list before your meeting starts. Remove anyone who is not supposed to attend. You can do this easily before the meeting by setting up a virtual waiting room. Most conferencing software has virtual waiting rooms as part of the package, but you can also purchase it separately. A virtual waiting room enables you to only admit people to your meeting whom you know should be there. 

3. Lock Your Meeting

Once all your attendees are in the meeting, lock the virtual room to prevent intruders from accessing either the meeting itself or sensitive information discussed at the meeting. With most software, once a conference is locked, no one can join even if they have the meeting ID and password. If you are concerned about late attendees, the waiting room discussed above can help – simply review who is in the waiting room and let them in if you know they are supposed to be there. 

4. Be Careful with Meeting Links

Only send meeting invitations through secure channels and to participants you know. Don’t share them on social media or anywhere public! When you receive a meeting invitation from someone else, verify that you know and trust the sender. Watch out for fake meeting invitations and malicious links. 

5. Put Limits on Screen Sharing

Always begin your meeting with screen sharing for participants turned off in your security settings. Make it a regular practice to only allow the host of the meeting to share his or her screen. Once the session has begun, the host can allow participants to share as needed. This will help prevent “zoom bombing” – uninvited attendees hijacking your meeting and sharing inappropriate materials. 

Also, take care that confidential conversations at meetings are kept private and ensure that no one in your real-life vicinity can hear them. Take care not to share anything sensitive in your real-life background or on your computer with your meeting attendees. You may want to use a virtual background to be sure that no accidental sharing occurs. 

6. Consider Using Audio Without Video

If using video is not necessary for your meeting, think about making your meeting audio-only. This reduces the possibility of uninvited viewers using video to acquire sensitive information about your meeting attendees and your company. An added benefit to using audio without video is that audio-only meetings use less bandwidth, improving the quality of a meeting and the users’ experience. 

7. Secure Live Captioning

If you happen to be using live captioning for your meeting, you need to make sure that it is secure as well. Make sure that you know what happens to the speech captioning from the meeting – you will want to use a company that you trust to delete it instantly. For professional captions and subtitles, GoTranscript is an excellent choice. GoTranscript has 15 years of experience as well as a global team of over 20,000 expert transcribers, translators, and captioners. GoTranscript can also transcribe your meeting for your convenience. The security of your transcript is covered with 2048-bit SSL encryption. 

Final Thoughts

Anyone using video conferencing should have a basic understanding of how to protect communications during this process. Make sure you are aware of your security settings and your company’s protocols. Updating your video conferencing apps on all your devices will also help you keep things safe for yourself and everyone you interact with. 

Transcribing Lifesize Videoconference Meeting Recordings

GoTranscript Blog August 18, 2020

Video conferencing has been essential to the modern world, allowing businesses to exchange information internally and with clients and contractors worldwide. Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, video conferences have become even more crucial to the functioning of almost every type of business.

It’s easy for companies to utilize free tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts, which are available to anyone with an internet connection. With Lifesize videoconferencing, the benefits include improved video and audio quality and fewer technical issues. It’s also a perfect way to make your company appear professional and reliable.

Five Steps to a Perfect Lifesize Video Conference Transcription

Having a way to record and transcribe your videoconference meetings is also more important than ever. A transcript of your meeting offers the most efficient way to review what transpired at the meeting. It’s a lot more convenient than running through a recording of the whole conference again. The text is scannable and searchable, so you can quickly navigate to specific parts you need to revisit.

Besides, transcripts provide a means for deaf or hard-of-hearing members of your team to access the information. It’s important to note that transcripts and closed captions are also necessary to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements for equal accessibility. 

Step 1: Record Your Meeting

The first step in transcribing your meeting is making sure you record it. This is easy to do with Lifesize. When your call has started, and all participants are present, look for the small white circle icon at the bottom of the screen. It will be next to the options for turning video and sound on and off. Click on that small white circle, which is the “start recording” button, to start recording your meeting. When the meeting ends, click on the “stop recording” button, which will look like a small red square. This action will end the recording and automatically save it as well. 

Once you have recorded your meeting, look on your dashboard under “Recordings” to find it. When you have located the “Recordings Feed,” select the specific meeting you want to review. You can either download the file for yourself or share the link with colleagues and associates. Once the recording is accessible, it will be easy to have that recording transcribed. 

Step 2: Choose a Type of Transcription

When it comes to transcription, you could use an automated transcription service. It’s fast, but it’s also a relatively new technology. Automated transcription is highly inaccurate, especially when speakers overlap each other or have different accents, which is common in most meetings. Not only that, but you will have to do the formatting for automated transcription yourself. The processing time for automated transcription is quick, and the price is tempting. However, the numerous grammar and punctuation errors involved often necessitate intensive editing and proofreading. This additional work makes the whole process much more complicated and challenging.

A much better solution is using a human-based transcription service. This option offers many benefits compared to available automated transcription services. It isn’t free, but it’s much more accurate, and your information is in the hands of seasoned professionals, so you don’t need to “fix” anything. 

Step 3: Create an Account and Send Your Video Recording to the Company

You will need to create an account with the transcription company you choose. You can usually sign up with your email or with a social network such as Facebook or Google. You’ll want to choose a company with an easy way of receiving your important files. Most services offer a fast, simple, and secure system for uploading files, and they can also work with links to external services such as YouTube, Dropbox, and many others. 

Step 4: Choose Captions

Captioning is the process of converting the audio content of your meeting into text and displaying that text on a monitor or screen. Captioning is the best way for people with hearing problems to fully access the information from your video conference. Captions include not merely the spoken content but any sound effects as well. Choose a company such as GoTranscript – with over 35 million minutes captioned, you know your work is in capable hands.

Step 5: Enjoy Ultimate Security, Accuracy, and Convenience

Make sure the company you choose will keep your information safe and protected. For example, all of GoTranscript’s employees sign a confidentiality agreement. Besides, as a client, you can remove your completed transcription from the GoTranscript database any time you like.

Captions are only as good as the person creating them. You will want a company that aims for 99% accuracy in all transcriptions, beginning with hiring only the best transcribers, translators, and captioners, along with an efficient system of checks and reviews. All audio files are transcribed with great care and attention to detail.

Transcription services will send your transcripts to you in different ways. GoTranscript, for example, delivers the finished transcripts in MS Word format as a rule. If you require your files in another format, let them know in the comments section/transcriber instructions along with the file you’re uploading.

Final Thoughts

Lifesize provides a top-quality videoconferencing experience for all sorts of scenarios. A high-quality transcription will take full advantage of your recordings and increase your team’s productivity. With 99% accuracy guaranteed by GoTranscript, all you need to do is relax and let transcription professionals do what they do best!

The Kind of Girl Donuts Talk To

Cricket Magazine, September 2020

“So…you gonna eat me or what?” 

I look down at my lunch.  I know my mom would be mad if she knew I only bought a donut. She’s always on about how a growing girl needs good nutrition, how you can’t learn with just sugar to fuel you.  She never mentioned this particular issue though: the donut is talking to me. Some people would be delighted about this, I guess. But me?  This is the last thing I need.

Long story, but in the 4th grade I was known as the girl who threw up on her hand. It took two years for me to live that down.  Now, in the 6th grade, I think most people have forgotten about it.  They haven’t teased me in months, plus Callie’s been over my house twice AND she invited me to her birthday party.  But this donut thing could set me back.  I don’t want to become known as the girl donuts talk to.

It’s tricky. I know I have the cut-rate brand of suede boots, the pink sweatshirt from Costco with the waffle pattern on it instead of the smooth version that Callie has. So I let her copy my homework when she demands it, but I don’t get good enough grades for her to ask all the time. My lunch is usually socially acceptable these days, now that I convinced my mom to stop packing it in recycled plastic bags and let me use some of my allowance at the cafeteria. I make sure to always get a sandwich and a drink, or maybe a donut; nothing weird or smelly, like fish sticks.

Nothing weird.

I look around. At least it’s pretty clean in the cafeteria; the teachers are always on the kids to put their recyclables in the right place, to put their dishes in the dish bin.  It’s loud in here at the beginning of recess, and a lot of times you can’t hear what the person next to you is saying, let alone a donut. But halfway through, most of the boys go to play soccer and it’s easier to think.     I saw Callie buy a donut yesterday, so at least yesterday a donut was acceptable. And I have to admit, I love powdered sugar, even though it’s a job to brush it all off my clothing before 5th period. But I never expected this problem.

I look around carefully.  Then I let my long brown hair fall around my napkin like a donut curtain.     

“Am I going to eat you?” I whisper.

“Yeah.  Are you? Because if you are, I’d like a few moments to compose myself.”

“I was going to,” I say. “Until you started talking.”

“It’s okay,” says the donut magnanimously. “What are donuts for? Go ahead.”

Callie, my so-called friend, is in the bathroom. She asked me to sit with her today, probably to help her with her math homework. Her flowered lunch box sits across from me, declaring to the world that I have friends, or at least one friend. If Callie hears a donut talking to me though, she’ll never let me live it down.

“Um…” I say.

“Yes?” the donut prompts.

“I think I’ll save you for later.”  He doesn’t protest, so I wrap him in a napkin and put him in my bag just as Callie sits down again.

“Elizabeth. Who were you talking to?”

“No one.”

“Yes you were.  Your lips were moving.”  She narrows her eyes.

I have nowhere to go but honesty.  “Do you see anyone else around? I was talking to my donut, I guess.” I roll my eyes. 

She laughs. “Give me half?”

Before I can say anything, she says, “Never mind. I’ll buy my own.” She gets up from the plastic chair and orders a cinnamon donut.  Apparently, they don’t talk.

***

After lunch we have math block. Mr. Margulies paired me with John for a project two weeks ago, which is the kiss of death socially. I don’t know why, really.  John has white-blond hair and blue eyes and is perfectly good-looking by official Callie standards. He’s nice, and he doesn’t smell. His grades are okay, but he’s not a genius. He has a great smile, actually.  But no one talks to him ever, except to tease him.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “Be his friend!  Stand up for him!” But I’m not like that. It’s not for me to topple the middle school hierarchy. It’s all I can do to keep my own head above water.

I speak as little to John as possible while doing our math project together. I can’t afford to have anyone think that I think he’s a member of the human race. He’s used to it.  He remains perfectly polite, even when I’m borderline rude. He even offers me a piece of gum every day, which I always decline.

“Scared Margulies will catch you?” he grins today. 

I snort inadvertently.  “Fat chance.” Margulies is strict; he’ll take you down for talking, but he couldn’t care less if you chew gum.  He’s weird like that.

“Take one,” John urges.  “It’s cinnamint.”  He grins again, and something about his crooked teeth makes me do it.  I accept a stick of gum from John “The Geek” Murphy. I can almost hear Callie’s gasp across the room.  But of course, she’s not even looking at me.

***

After school I walk home like always. Last year I used to stay late twice a week for math team, but then I realized that it’s only the geekiest kids who do that. It’s a relief to leave them behind, with their buck teeth, their violin cases, and their weird lunches. Even if it means I walk home alone.

At home, I open a can of cream of mushroom soup and settle down to watch Sponge Bob. It’s not rocket science, but I can’t concentrate. I know I have math homework. And my math homework is at the bottom of my bag, with the donut on top. And I can’t explain this exactly, but even though I might not be on math team anymore, even though it might actually make me cooler, I just CAN’T let myself get a zero for math homework.

My bag is in a heap next to the TV. I go to it.  Take a deep breath, then pull back the Velcro in one swift motion, like a spy opening the door of the bad guys’ lair.  Or something. Nothing happens.  Silence.

God, maybe I imagined the donut talking.  Maybe my troubles ARE as small as Margulies pairing me with John again, or what color my pencil box should be. Although, if there really was no talking donut, then I may need a psychiatrist.  Which my parents just Could Not Handle. I’m almost starting to hope the donut WAS talking.

I peek inside my bag, lift out the bundle of napkins. I half-expect to feel a heartbeat or something, but no. I put it on the floor. Could I just forget about the donut and do my homework? I open my binder and try to start the first problem, but my heart isn’t in it.  I have to know.

Carefully, as though it might bite me, I pull back the top flap of napkin.  “HELLO!” the donut says immediately.  I giggle.

The donut laughs too.  It looks a little squashed, but not too bad.  I’d still eat it.  All else being equal.

“How are things?” the donut says.  “You do your math yet? I never got that geometry business.”

“It’s pre-algebra,” I say. Am I arguing with a donut?  Why is this my life?

The phone rings before the donut can respond, and I run to get it. My mom freaks out if I don’t answer the phone right away in the afternoons; she feels a lot of guilt about working, not providing me with siblings, etc. Not enough guilt that she’s bought me a cellphone or anything, but whatever.  She should chill.

“Hi, Mom!” I say.

“Whatever,” answers Callie’s voice. “Listen, Elizabeth?  Are you and Geek Boy finished with your project for Margulies’ class?” 

“Almost,” I say.  I didn’t want to be seen meeting with him outside school. So we are actually all finished.  But I don’t want to seem smug.

“Show off,” she sighs anyway.  “Well, what did you do for number six?” And I spend 20 minutes explaining number six to her. 

When I get off the phone, I could swear the donut is smiling.  “What?” I say.

“Nothing,” he says.  “I’m impressed.  I told you I never got that math stuff.  Until you explained it – and so nice, too!  You didn’t even make her feel stupid…somehow.”

“She’s not stupid. She just doesn’t really care about math.”

“And you didn’t tell her the answer either!  You’ve got patience. And real whatchamacallit – interpersonal skills.”

“Well, thanks,” I say. I never thought of dealing with Callie as a skill. More like something you’re forced to do in wartime.  Maybe most 6th graders don’t think of their friends that way.  I don’t know.

“You got a lot of skills, kid,” continues the donut. “You need to start owning that. Get out from under that Callie’s thumb. She’s got you wrapped around her finger, so to speak.  You’re a nice person.”  He shrugs.  Don’t ask me how, but he does.

“How do you know?” I ask. I never really thought of myself as a nice person.

“Look at you!” says the donut. “You won’t even eat your own donut!  I’m going stale here!”

“I feel weird,” I tell him.  “Eating someone who’s talking to me.  Who’s helping me.”

“Glad to be of service,” says the donut.  “But I AM a donut. And if I may say, a delicious donut.”

“I’d still feel weird.”

“I understand,” the donut says.  “I notice you have that problem a lot.”

“What problem?”

“You know.  The one where you feel weird about things, so you don’t do them.  Even if you want to. You like math?” he says, changing the subject suddenly.

“Sure,” I say.  “It’s got rules, steps.  You follow them correctly, you get the right answer.  It’s clear.  I like that.”

“So why dontcha go to math team anymore then? You loved it.”  I start to protest, but then I close my mouth.  I don’t know how he knows it, but the donut is right. 

“And that guy you like.” 

“WHAT guy I like?!”

“The math guy.  The blond one. He’s nice.”
            “I don’t like him!” 

“No?” says the donut mildly. “My mistake.”  I stare at him for a moment.  He continues, “My cousin Annabelle liked him, a lot.” 

“Who the heck is Annabelle?”  And how dare she like MY geeky math partner?

“Thursday’s lunch,” says the donut.  “She looks a lot like me. Ask him.”

I stare at the donut in disbelief.  “So you’re not the only talking donut around?” 

“Of course not. Most people keep it quiet.”  He somehow shrugs again. “Actually, most people just eat us.” 

“You really want me to do that.” 

“Elizabeth.  Sweetheart. I’m a donut.  I taste really good.  Dip me in coffee, or maybe, you’re a little young, hot chocolate.  It’s what I was made for.  Do it; you’ll like it.  And the sooner the better. Tomorrow I might be stale.”

I can’t believe I’m doing this.  But I go into the kitchen and open a packet of hot chocolate. With marshmallows. I put up some water to boil.  I pour it in the mug. Then I go back to the living room and get the donut. 

“Are you composed?” I ask him.

“I’m ready,” he says.  “And Elizabeth?  If you wrap masking tape around your hand with the sticky side out, it helps with the clean-up.”

He’s right about that too, it turns out. 

***

Then I get on the phone.  We exchanged numbers at the beginning of the project, but I didn’t think I’d ever use his.   

“Hey,” I say, when he answers.

“Hey yourself, Elizabeth.”

We talk about math for a little while, then about pizza, and cooking.  His dad, who’s always after him to play badminton with him, for some reason.  His little sister. Finally, I get up the courage to ask him.
            “Hey John?”

“Yeah?”

“Just wondering – you don’t have to, but I was wondering…” I pause. “Could you tell me what you had for lunch on Thursday?”

“Chicken salad sandwich that my mom made,” he says without hesitating.  Then, “Oh…well, I bought a donut, but…I saved it for later.” 

“I see.” 

There is silence. 

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?”

“Just…”  If I do this, I know, I can never go back.  Callie won’t talk to me anymore; probably no one will anymore but John.  Well, donuts might. 

What has Callie ever done for me?  John smiles at me every day, and gives me gum.  And did his fair share of the math project. And makes me happy.

I take a deep breath. “Do you want to go for pizza after school tomorrow?”

“YES!” he says, surprising me with the strength of his answer.  “I mean, yes. Sure.”  If donuts can shrug, I guess boys can grin through the phone. “Annabelle told me to let you come to me.  I didn’t believe it would work though.” 

“Annabelle…..how?” I ask, flabbergasted. 

“I don’t know,” he says.  “But I guess we can discuss it over pizza.”

Pizza doesn’t talk.  Right?

The Power of Chickens (and Dictation)

University of Arizona Poetry Center Blog, November 3, 2020

https://poetry.arizona.edu/blog/power-chickens-and-dictation

We’re working on reading comprehension when my student Alex says that he likes chickens. It’s not completely out of the blue since I did just ask him to tell me what he wanted to read about, but it feels like the blue because it’s been extremely hard to get Alex to talk to me since I’ve known him, which has been about three weeks.

In the first week, I tried my best “would you rather” questions with him. Yes, I now know that he’d rather have three noses than one eye, but I couldn’t get a reason out of him. I also know that he’d prefer wings in place of arms to roller skates in place of feet because they’d be more practical. (Incidentally, every kid I asked this of said the same thing. I don’t understand it, but apparently kids today are frighteningly practical, and largely don’t care about flying.)

In the second week, I attempted to ask him about his interests, but my knowledge of Minecraft dried up pretty quickly. I did try, but he responded suspiciously, “How did you know I liked Minecraft?” He had, of course, told me during our first session.

My polite inquiry, “Oh, what kind of piano music do you play?” was met with an angry “He just started!” from his mother off-screen.

So I’ve discarded any attempts to get to know him in the third week, and I’m trying to just focus on the social studies and science work at hand. But it’s difficult when he often doesn’t respond to simple questions like “What are you doing right now?” or even “Are you still there?” To compound the problem, he usually keeps his camera off. My husband has told me that it’s clear what student I’m tutoring when he hears me shouting “Alex? Are you there? Alex!” despairingly into the void.

This is why it’s so thrilling when Alex tells me that he likes chickens. “Live chickens,” he clarifies helpfully.

I laugh. “So you don’t want any chicken recipes then?” I say. “Got it.” I find a reading selection that mentions chickens in passing, but I’m not getting any indication of interest from him. “Do you have any chickens?” it occurs to me to ask. Lots of people in this town do, because there are a lot of hipsters, but I can’t see Alex’s businesslike mother raising them.

“Yes!” he answers. I don’t really believe him, but I’ll go with it. “I have 5000!” he continues.

I suddenly realize that this isn’t the time to demand accuracy or truth. This is the time to take dictation.

“We need to get this story down!” I say excitedly. This may not be a school assignment, but it is important. Quickly, I open up a new Google doc and share my screen with Alex. Amazingly, I hardly have to prod him at all. The kid who took ten minutes to answer the question about what was interesting about his week is suddenly on fire. With very little prompting, Alex dictates a fascinating story about 5000 chickens and 5000 cats and how he makes them battle. When I refer to his amazing fiction-writing skills, he corrects me and says that his story is true. I’m not going to argue. We’re both laughing a little and the words are flowing out of him. He even agrees to give it a title and, after I type his byline, I share the document with him.

There is actually research that supports the strategy of using dictation, especially for students with learning disabilities. For example, in “Learning Disabled Students’ Composing Under Three Methods of Text Production: Handwriting, Word Processing, and Dictation,” MacArthur and Graham found that dictated stories “were significantly longer, were of higher quality, and had fewer grammatical errors than handwritten or word processed stories.”

As a teacher, I’ve found that letting students dictate their ideas – even when they differ from the lesson at hand – can be an awesome way of getting to know the student AND getting them excited about telling a story. I saw a mischievous, creative side of Alex that I wouldn’t have had access to if I hadn’t been willing to go with his idea and I hadn’t been able to pull up a Google doc. The best part? I got an email from his teacher later in the week asking me to share the story with her – Alex had pasted a link to it in a chat with her. He hadn’t explained what it was, but he clearly wanted her to see it. For a kid who has trouble expressing himself in words, this is huge. 

So maybe it’s okay that kids today want roller skates instead of wings. I feel differently, but I’m still totally there for them when they want to tell me about their chicken battles. I don’t have to completely understand their stories – I just have to be ready to write them down.  

MacArthur CA, Graham S. Learning Disabled Students’ Composing Under Three Methods of Text Production: Handwriting, Word Processing, and Dictation. The Journal of Special Education. 1987;21(3):22-42. doi:10.1177/002246698702100304

Balanced Literacy

Connexion, December 2014, p. 2. Print. (article)

“I changed the beginning to make it more interesting.  Now people will want to find out more.”

Another hand goes up.  “I added what the monster sounded like. Now the readers can hear it in their heads.”   We’re in 6th grade language arts class, and this is Writing Workshop.

We spent the first couple of weeks doing five-minute “quick writes” about various topics, making lists of “ten yellow things” and “ten things that scare me.” We wrote about ourselves and about other people.  We made sure to add sensory details so the reader could imagine how things smelled, tasted, sounded, felt, and looked. We wrote about experiences we had, and experiences we didn’t have. We wrote stories in which impossible things happened.

When we weren’t writing, we read.  We read about people climbing into cows, students being turned into apples, and a case of bedhead that went horribly, wonderfully awry.  We read non-fiction too, about bugs, mysterious disappearances, and how various authors work.

And we talked to each other. We talked about what we were going to write and what we already wrote. We asked questions about each other’s pieces and about our own pieces. We told each other what we liked about each other’s pieces, and what we didn’t understand.

After writing and building relationships in our community for several weeks, each student chose a piece to publish. And then we had to revise, and revise some more.

Pieces will be published next week. Drop by room 25 to read our work!

 

Amalgamation – the Middle School Literary Magazine Story  

Connexion, March 2012, p. 4. Print. (article)

It all started with strange spaghetti.

Sentences like that make me happy, which is why I was teaching creative writing to third and fourth graders in the first place.  Third and fourth graders are the most creative people you will ever meet.  They’re not afraid to write things that are silly or bizarre, which is what makes their writing sound original and fresh.

So original and fresh, actually, that as a creative writing teacher, I felt compelled to publish their work.  Since there wasn’t yet a school literary magazine for students younger than high school, I decided to make one.  Dawn Lussier, the ES principal, was supportive, and the magazine was a success.

By the time Strange Spaghetti (the title came from a great student poem in the first issue) had been around for a couple of years, I was working with middle school students as well.  Having seen how happy and proud younger students were to have their work published, I wanted to give middle school students the same opportunity.  David Markman, the middle school principal, liked the idea too. Since the title Strange Spaghetti was already taken, I came up with Amalgamation, which means a mixture – which seemed like a good analogy for middle school students, as well as for their writing.

For the first issue of Amalgamation, I had the opportunity to teach a creative writing class to every grade in the middle school.  By middle school, students have usually become a little bit more timid about showing their ideas to the world, so it was fun to encourage them to show the world their creativity.

That experience led to me become a 6th grade language arts teacher.  I love it, but I no longer have time to teach creative writing classes to other grades.  The up side is that Amalgamation has become a mixture of writing from science, social studies, Spanish, and even math classes – a true amalgamation in every sense of the word.

 

 

A Delicate Situation

Bokser, Amy. “A Delicate Situation.” The New Normal. Eds. Matt Minor and Kevin A. Duncan. Middletown, DE, 2017. 78-85. Print. (personal essay)

“We will never have a baby,” I keep saying, waiting for someone to prove me wrong.

Instead of a baby, we have a sketchy Mexican adoption lawyer. We’re Americans living in Mexico, so our agency in the US connected us with a local lawyer who asked us to meet him at the mall. Now, in a bizarre twist on the famous mall game “That’s Your Boyfriend,” my husband and I sit together on a bench, muttering about every man who walks past, “That’s our lawyer.”

“That’s our lawyer,” I joke about a fat guy wearing sunglasses, black guayabera stretched across his hairy chest, and gold chains. He walks over and introduces himself.

He has a deep, almost hypnotic voice. We learn that when he’s about to lie to us, to bring up some new issue or say the opposite of what he has previously said, his voice gets deeper. He favors the preface, “As I told you before.”  As in, “As I told you before, none of my birthmothers are tested for HIV.”  But that comes later.

The lawyer matches us with birthmother #1. In her photo, she wears glasses and a cross around her neck. We receive a file of “psycho-social information,” from which we learn that she has no known diseases and likes “doing things with her hands.”

Could we meet her?  “Well, as I told you before, that would be a very delicate situation.” The agency requires piles of reading for prospective parents about open adoption. Apparently, they don’t make the lawyer do the same.

Then suddenly, he tells us that she’s excited to meet us, and we make a date. The day before our meeting, he calls to tell us she has miscarried.

Did he know she had miscarried when we made the date?  How do we mourn this loss when we don’t know if the mother really existed?  I relate these questions to a co-worker.    She tells me, helpfully, that it is common for a miscarriage to make you temporarily paranoid.

My students are reading The Giver, a futuristic novel in which birthing is a job and newborns are assigned. I don’t share my students’ horror when they find out about the familial logistics.  We wind up having a long discussion about adoption.  After class, one of my students waits for me.

“Miss,” she says.  “I want to tell you something. I’m adopted!”

“That’s so cool!” I tell her, glad for her that this is my immediate reaction.

She smiles shyly, and says, “I know.” Her evident pride warms my cold ice cube of a heart.

“Can you keep a secret?” I ask her.  She nods, all serious. “My husband and I are going to adopt a baby.”

“Miss!” she smiles up at me. “THAT’S so cool.”

“I know!”  I say, and we both laugh.  “But you can’t tell anyone until it happens.”

“I won’t,” she promises. She’s eleven.  But I never hear it mentioned again.

My co-worker teaches yoga after school.  She’s all about positive thinking and creating our own realities.  “What about people in concentration camps?” I inquire. She has no response.

The lawyer finds us birthmother #2. She’s four months pregnant, twenty years old.  Pretty.  Her last name, Nieves, means ice cream or snow.

Don’t believe the fairy tale.

We meet her over breakfast. She doesn’t smile very much, but that can hardly be expected.  She agrees with the lawyer that she wants to finish her schooling.  She and I order the same thing:  hotcakes and a small orange juice.  It’s a sign! I can’t eat any of my hotcakes.  But I’m happy to say that she wolfs them down.  And she doesn’t order coffee.  Or sushi.

Nervously, I tell my co-worker about her.  I want the telling to make her real, but at the same time, I’m afraid it will make her disappear. My co-worker listens kindly, then invites me to a yoga class for expectant mothers.

Next meeting. The birthmother is noticeably larger.  She has forgotten to bring paperwork about medical tests. She doesn’t look much happier than she did at our first meeting. Our agency caseworker assured us that the birthmothers receive counseling, but further inquiries reveal that the “counseling” is done by our lawyer.

My husband takes out his camera, asks if he can take a picture. The lawyer is not in it. The birthmother, on the other hand, vogues and preens for the camera.  She sticks out her pregnant belly and laughs.  Actually, she glows.

But at our next phone conversation with the lawyer, we dare to ask about the medical tests, one of which is a test for HIV.  “Does she look sick to you?” he asks.   I’ve begun to wonder if he knows what HIV is, so I start to explain. “It’s a delicate situation,” he interrupts me, “to ask her for those tests.” The tests that are guaranteed on the agency’s website? He brushes me off.  “She’s a little depressed,” he says.

The next time I check the website, all mention of those tests has disappeared.

Our next appointment arrives. She tells us about some self-help books she likes, and we write down the author. She tells us the name she’s picked out for the baby, but when we ask how to spell it she says it doesn’t matter.

She has brought the medical tests. We look through them afterwards in the car.  There is no HIV test.

The caseworker is defensive on the phone.  “The birthmothers are screened for HIV,” she says.

“Screened?” I reply. “By the lawyer?  The way he counsels them too?  So if he doesn’t think they’re HIV positive, they don’t get tested?”

“You can ask him for the test,” she says.  “But I can’t force anyone to do anything.”

I appeal to the lawyer’s better nature when we phone him.  I explain that we got HIV tests; we had to get a whole battery of tests to get approved to adopt. We got psychological tests too, both in the US and Mexico. There’s so much I can’t control in this situation; I want to have peace of mind about one thing, to know that my baby is healthy. “Your baby?” he replies. “This is her baby until she makes the decision.” Predictably, I begin to cry.   His voice grows deeper.  “Do you want me to tell her you do not want her baby if she does not get this test?”

My husband picks up the extension. “Of course we don’t want you to say that. But the test is important.”

“As I told you before,” he begins.  So I hang up.

The baby is due this week.  The lawyer originally said we could meet them at the hospital, but now, as he told us before, that’s not a good idea.  He has shown us a blurry sonogram, explaining what we know is not true, that better sonograms just aren’t available in Mexico. The HIV question has been put on hold. We’ve talked to pediatricians about testing once the baby is born.  We wait.

The phone rings.

My husband answers it.  The worst is not even what he says afterwards; it’s the broken sound of his voice. My husband is an optimist. He’s the counterpoint to my sarcasm; the base to my acid.  And now he’s broken. I hug the pieces.

The lawyer says he is sorry. The birthmother has disappeared. He gives us, for some inexplicable reason, what he says is her cell phone number.  We call it, and it rings and rings.  We send a text into the ether. Where it stays.

We take a long weekend, vacation at the beach.  We sit on a white bench on a boardwalk and cry as we promise each other to enjoy life more from now on. We’ll go out to dinner.  We’ll make more friends.  We’ll buy a Wii, fly to Barcelona.  We’re not giving up, but we are going to be happy while we wait for that baby.  Happy!

We switch lawyers. It turns out the agency works with another Mexican lawyer.  This one is based in Tijuana, half a country away.  “She’s a little flaky,” the caseworker warns.

But the lawyer hooks us up quickly with birthmother #3. She’s seven months pregnant and can’t afford to keep it; her parents know and are supportive of her decision.  The lawyer starts to tell us more.  But I zone out. I don’t really care what she does in her free time.

Months pass.  We don’t tell anyone. I smile brightly at school and teach my students about intransitive verbs.  We don’t get a Wii, but we dive heavily into The Sopranos.

The baby is due any day. And yet we’ve made plans to go to Barcelona next month, because who are we kidding?  We will never have a baby.

I’m at school, prepping.  My students are starting a new novel, one about magic and Greek gods.  But I can’t concentrate.  The baby’s due date was yesterday but we’ve heard nothing.  And I know something is wrong.

I call my husband from my classroom. He has just gotten off the phone with the lawyer. He doesn’t sound broken; he sounds flat.  Like nothing; like he is no one.  “She had the baby,” he tells me without preamble. “It was a boy. Her father decided that they would keep it.”

We do not have a baby, I realize.  We will never have a baby.

I realize that until now, I never really thought those words were true.

I scream, I rant, I yell curses. I turn away from the classroom door, where I can see students walking by. “So what the hell are we supposed to do now?” I hurl into the phone.

“It’s funny you should ask that,” says my husband, though he sounds anything but amused. “Because they have this other baby…”

It takes me about ten minutes to do the 25-minute drive home from school.

The other baby is two weeks old.  In the photograph they email us, he is very hairy.

“He’s kind of strange-looking,” says my husband.

“That’s because he’s a baby,” I say.  I will defend him! His eyes are closed.  He has a very distinctive forehead; kind of a widow’s peak.  I think I love him.

Birthmother #4 can fly down tomorrow with him and the lawyer.  She has to fly with him because he’s legally hers. If they don’t do it tomorrow, they won’t be available again for two weeks.  I say the only thing I can say:  I want him.

My husband isn’t so sure.  “They’ve jerked us around so much,” he says. “Maybe we should think about it. Try our plan of enjoying our lives. Or at least wait the two weeks.”

I take a breath. “I don’t want to wait, really sad, for the next baby.  I don’t want to spend any more months crying. We need him.  We need this baby.  And he…” but I can’t speak anymore. It seems my vocal cords are tied to my sarcasm cords. And there’s no more sarcasm left inside me.

We wait at the airport the next day. Despite our nervous jokes to the contrary, they walk towards us. The birthmother smiles awkwardly, hands us a tiny bundle.  Her face crumples for a moment as she tells him good-bye.  The lawyer is matter-of-fact.  And then we are alone with the most perfect small person the world has ever seen.

His eyebrows.  Like little silk square root signs. His lashes are about 64 feet long. He looks serious, like a tiny head of state. A blister in the middle of one small red lip. He sleeps and sleeps.  We have a baby.

I won’t make you hear about the next three years of paperwork and court meetings before our adoption is finalized. I won’t even tell you about the police raid on the first lawyer’s office, or his escape and the fact that he’s still at large.

And I won’t tell you much about C, who is mad with excitement about his sixth birthday this month. He loves ninjas, fast shoes, and making art, and will eat broccoli only if a speed competition is involved.

I’ll just tell you one more thing about my student, who still likes to stop by my desk to look at photos and chat about my son.  “You love him SO MUCH,” she said one day, dreamily.  “He’s like your gift from God.” And the sarcastic person inside me tried to disagree.

But I couldn’t.

 

 

 

Secret Weapon

Joining the Sisterhood. Eds. Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. 175-176. Print. (poem)

Our temple was just
off the service road —
walls adorned with tin
menorahs, parking lot
overgrown with weeds.

My brother said
if I went there by myself
he would kill me:
I believed.
He was old enough
to go to Hebrew school.
He told me about something
called the Holocaust.
I knew that, like Christmas
it wouldn’t happen
to people like us.

We would walk there
five whole blocks
to “gather hay” —
picking grass
wild onions
and a leaf
that smelled so noxious
we took it home and dried it
for our Secret Weapon.

He said that Jews
were killed in showers.
Gas came out instead of water.
I took baths.
Kids were burned in ovens.
A fat man came down the chimney
across the street.

I helped my brother
make more Secret Weapon
in the coffee cans
rusting in our backyard.
He said one whiff of that
and the Nazis would have run
in an instant.

He also told me there were
dragons in the world
monsters in the desert.

Our temple is now
an insurance office
aluminum rectangles
nailed over the menorahs.
They paved the parking lot
of course. I would not
go there by myself.

So it’s a good thing
my brother planned ahead.
The coffee cans are waiting
in my parents’ yard
more potent with each season.
I have seen the Gila monster
the Komoto dragon
and that everything he told me
is true.

 

The Paper Cutter

[personal essay]

My sister cuts beautiful dancers out with the paper cutter. They dance around her bulletin board and around the room that we share.  My sister is the best artist in the world, I think.  I want to use the dancers for paper dolls, but she always tells me not to touch them.

My brother cuts tigers and elephants out with the paper cutter. He glues them onto posters for school where he does research about these animals, and they peer out from behind trees and jungle vines. They look perfect to me, like real wild animals in a jungle. I want to pet them. But he won’t let me touch them.

“Can I use the paper cutter?” I ask.  The paper cutter is my dad’s, and he does let me use his things sometimes, like the Ten Yen puzzle where you fit shapes together in a plastic square.  Just last year the Ten Yen puzzle was only for big kids, but now I’m allowed to use it too.  So it’s not impossible that he’ll say yes.

But a lot of times he says no, or my mom says no, or sometimes someone else says no.  Like last year, when we went to the Grand Canyon, and I was sure we’d get to ride donkeys down into it like they did in my favorite show, The Brady Bunch.  But it turned out you had to be seven to ride the donkeys, and I was only six.

Or the year before that, when we went to family camp.  They had a lake and canoes, and I wanted to go out in a canoe so bad! I’d seen a canoe in the book Stuart Little, which my mom had read aloud to me.  In that book the mouse gets a tiny canoe and fixes it up beautifully only to have someone else destroy it.  But he has dreams of the perfect canoe, and so did I. I had excitedly run down to the lake with my parents, only to be told that you couldn’t set foot in a canoe until you were six.  I was five and a half!

That time I’d gotten so mad that I’d run away, all the way down the path and back to our cabin, which turned out to be two miles away.  Apparently there was an announcement on the camp loudspeaker that I was missing, which I hadn’t heard since I was too far away.  I’d gotten in a lot of trouble that time, which really didn’t seem fair because it wasn’t my fault that I was always the youngest. Just like it wasn’t my fault that my brother and sister got skateboards for Hanukkah but I didn’t, so I always had to ask them when I wanted to use one.  A lot of life was unfair, but you never knew.  Maybe I could use the paper cutter.

“You can use it with me,” my dad says, and he picks me up and puts me on his lap so I can cut out a heart, which is my favorite shape.  He shows me how to click off the plastic cap. He helps me guide the little pen-like device, and it comes out perfect.  I admire the heart, pleased. It’s so much easier, and cooler, than using a scissors to cut all the way through the page. I don’t like things to take a long time. “You always click the cap back on, because it’s really sharp,” he warns me. “That’s why it works so well.  So you must never, NEVER touch it when I’m not here, Amy.  Do you understand?”

I nod my head that I do, and he smiles at me.

But a few days later I find myself cutting out hearts again.  I want to cut out lots of them and put them all around my bulletin board. It’s taking so long.  And then I remember the paper cutter.

My dad is at work.  My mom is busy washing the dishes, and I know she won’t want to stop to help me. My sister is out playing handball at the park, and my brother is locked in his room doing homework or something.  It’s just me, me and the paper cutter.  I’m big now, I’m seven, and I’m sure I can handle it.  I go to my dad’s office.

The paper cutter is there on his desk, just sitting there for anyone to see. I sit in his chair and I pick it up.  It’s so smooth, so modern.  I’m so grown up just touching it!  I take off the plastic cap, carefully, and click it on again. I like the sound.  Click on, click off.  I draw a few hearts on the paper under his desk blotter.  Then I click off the cap again.  I put the tiny blade to the paper and start to cut.  It’s going great for about half the heart.  I have to pick up the blade and reposition it on the top of the heart.  I’m concentrating so hard on doing it right, like a big kid would.  I’m concentrating so hard that I must be pressing really hard too, because SNAP!  The blade breaks in half.  And I’m staring at a broken paper cutter.

I stare at what I’ve done, aghast.   The beautiful, wonderful, big-kids-only paper cutter.  I want to go back in time and just use a scissors; a scissors will be fine.  But I broke it.  And I wasn’t supposed to touch it.  I start to breathe faster, thinking about how much trouble I’m in.  I broke something important AND I broke a rule. What’s going to happen to me?  My parents don’t punish us much, but it seems like they punish me the most.  The time I ran away at family camp my mother actually spanked me when she found me at our tent.  Just once, and then she threw her arms around me and hugged me. Am I going to get spanked this time?  My eyes fill with tears, but I blink them back. Maybe I can hide the evidence.  I look around for a place to put the broken paper cutter.  Maybe I could…

“Amy?” says my dad from the doorway.  “What are you doing?”  I guess more time’s gone by than I thought. He’s home from work.

“I’m…” I say, and then I really do start to cry.  “I broke the paper cutter,” I wail.  “I know I wasn’t supposed to use it.  I just wanted to cut out a heart, like Julie gets to, and Danny gets to. I’m sorry…”  Now I’m sobbing, because I feel terrible about breaking something that belongs to him. And breaking a rule.  My dad is going to be so angry…

I can’t even look at him.  I bet his face is going red and he’s about to scream, or worse, use the scary-quiet voice he uses when he’s really angry.  I’m just sobbing and trying to clean up my mess when I feel his arms go around me. “Don’t cry, Amy,” he says.  “It’s okay.”  I’m so surprised I do stop, and look at him. “You broke a rule,” he says, “and that’s not right.”

“I also broke the p-p-p-p-paper cutter,” I start to sob.

“It’s just a paper cutter,” he says.  “It’s not a person.  It’s not your finger. I’m so glad you’re okay.”  And I start crying again, and hugging him.  And he hugs me and kisses my head, and I keep crying, about the injustice of it all, how I can’t do anything they’re allowed to and I’ll never be as big as they are, never.   And my dad just hugs me, and doesn’t yell at me at all, and maybe he does understand, just a little bit.