Sunday, October 31, 2021


I was so grateful I had thrown on last night's shirt and yesterday's shorts before I blindly trudged to the kitchen to make some coffee.

"Mom! What are you doing up so early?!?"

The clock read 6:35 as I stood in the kitchen wiping my eyes while Charlie-Bear bounced around me, anticipating his morning bowl of Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice. Once my eyes slowly focused, I saw Mom there, dressed in her travel clothes, shoes all tied, and coffee cup in hand. 

"You know me," she smiled as she made her way to her Activia blueberry yogurt atop the placemat on the kitchen table. "When I have something to do, I like to get an early start and ease into the day."

"Mom, we said we weren't leaving until 9:00." I was still dragging from the previous afternoon's endurance test of a full of day teaching and an evening of parent-teacher conferences. Thank God I had the sense not to go to Pickles to unwind with my fellow teachers.

I don't blame her, though. I actually should have seen this coming. After all, we have had this road trip planned since late September and had drawn a tiny gray Explorer on the calendar and had written " John and Chris" to remind us of this special day. 

"Well, I have to eat, walk Charlie, and shower," I muttered, thinking I had already screwed up her day.

"You go right ahead. I am just taking my time and pacing myself."

An hour or so later, I was hustling my 92-year-old mother down the stairs as I carried her cane, purse, and additional travel bag behind her. I opened the Explorer passenger door and gently shoved her across her seat as a bit of sweat dripped down the side of my head. I had read the entire day's weather forecast. Rain. Lots of it. I was zipping around the back-side of the vehicle when Mom called out to me, "My cane! I don't have my cane!"

"Shit," I mumbled when I realized I was still carrying it with me. I rushed back around to the passenger side to lodge the cane beside Mom and the door. "I am so sorry. I guess I am just excited to get on the road."

"I am, too, but just slow down, please," she demanded, flipping some 92-year-old shade at me as I smiled while shutting the door.

An hour later, we pierced the downpour as we drove north up Route 7 along the Ohio River. The misty, cold fog enveloped us while the seat warmers kept us cozy from the elements. Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars played as a glorious backdrop to the GPS woman who politely requested we take the next exit that would lead us to more rain, more fog, and less coffee in my CCHS insulated travel cup.

Road trips offer a respite to a soul which has traversed a long and hard life, to a soul looking for comfort atop spinning wheels on the highway's pavement, to a soul searching for meaning in the tranquility of an ever-changing landscape.

This road trip was all about Mom; I was chauffeur and passenger. My eyes were fixed on the blurry road behind the swish-swash of the windshield wipers. My hands gripped the steering wheel firmly as I anticipated the occasional larger-than-normal, send-us-sliding wet spot. My heart listened to her unspoken thoughts which drove the purpose of this road trip.

Two wet hours later, Mom and I arrived somewhere between Cleveland and Roger's Flea Market - Twinsburg, Ohio.  We drove throughout a city I never dreamed we would have visited. While Mom adjusted her clothes, sipped some Gatorade, and folded the Mapquest directions she used to track our trip, I searched for the home of her friends John and Chris Hannig. 

Mom and Chris used to take long walks up and down the road in front of our homes in Bellovedere for longer than either of them could possibly count. Every morning the two would tie up their shoelaces, stretch their calves on the wall beside the sidewalk of our house, then begin their trek up and down the hills. The talks about family, life, 18th Street Center, and the church would become their own road trip of friendship which would continue for decades.

To be closer to their ever-growing family, Chris and her husband moved to Twinsburg a little over two years ago, right when the Covid pandemic began. Back then, we were so isolated as uncertainty gripped our world. Mom and Chris never really had a proper send-off, one full of tight hugs and "love you's."

Over the past few years, Mom and Chris have kept in contact through numerous phone calls and Hallmark cards. John and Chris have been back to visit friends in Wheeling occasionally, but that long drive is not easy to undertake as often as they would like. This past summer, I had asked Mom if she wanted to visit John and Chris when the weather would be milder than the oppressive August heat. She smiled and said she would love to do that.

We spent the afternoon at Chris and John's new home. John gave me a tour of the house, showing me his workshop, Chris' craft room, and their beautiful backyard with a gorgeous rocky hillside. Mom and Chris spent nearly an hour "girl-talking" as they savored the time to look at furniture placement, the organization of the kitchen, and the pictures of the family both she and her husband treasured. 

We broke sourdough bread over a meal together. We enjoyed warm apple pie and ice cream while reminiscing about the past, catching up on "Wheeling" gossip and family news as they continued a friendship that has transcended the years and miles in between.

We left late that afternoon, hoping to avoid the darkness which arrived so soon in the fall. The rain had begun to subside to a soft drizzle as I transported Mom's purse, travel bag, and Chris' care package of muffins, pie, and leftover sourdough bread to the Explorer. Mom and Chris hugged more than once before John gently helped Mom across the driveway and into her seat. 

"Hey, Mom. Do you want that blanket now? It is going to be a long ride home, and I want you to be warm."

"Oh, yes. Give me that blanket. That'll be nice." She pulled my dark blue Doctor Who tardis blanket up around her as I turned on the motor. I started to back out and reminded Mom to wave goodbye to John and Chris who stood at the top of their front stairs waving back to us.

"That was really a nice visit, Mom," I said as we all waved goodbye to one another.

"Yes, it was."

Sometimes the worst part of a road trip is the inevitable return. When the trip begins, a sense of adventure enraptures the soul. Still, the road back wraps itself in the unknown, offering a feeling of contentment, a sense of loss, or something more hovering invisibly in between the gas tank fill up and bathroom breaks.

The rain disappeared completely as Mom and I headed back home from her road trip. Nearly halfway home, somewhere amid a mountain area of Ohio, the sun began to sink but left a remnant of the day. "Mom, look," I pointed to a collection of clouds that sought to hide the setting sun, a sun we never saw that day until now. "It's a rainbow. Isn't that beautiful?"

Mom peered up from her quiet seat beside me to smile.

Sunday, October 10, 2021


Alrighty, then. Let me think about this:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I have been teaching-gulp-31 years. That's right. I have been getting up every morning more or less at dawn to arrive at school somewhere between 6:45 and the first bell at 7:30. I have been blessed to have spent those years inside a classroom with an incredibly diverse collection of high school students in North Carolina and here in West Virginia. You know what? It is my passion, and I love it.

The willingness to change, to adjust to the ever-evolving needs of students, to reinvent when projects do not work anymore, to envision new possible outcomes to stories that have yet to be written. This has been my non-secret secret, and it has been my mindset to avoid the complacency and frustration that can easily edge its way into the heart of any profession, especially teaching.

I have taught seniors for longer than I can remember. I have recreated more rubrics, searched for new content, planned more original lessons from scratch that an outsider may actually say: Hey. Come on. Can't you do the same thing every year? How hard is teaching? The irony is that I have always wanted to be able to have so many locked-in, pull-them-out-of-the-folder lessons that I never have to plan anything again. I actually have the dusty, torn folders as evidence of this. Fortunately, that dream has never come to fruition.

Every year I have a vision for my class and my students, but what I do have is a collection of tried and true basic "recipes," that with minor (and occasionally major) tweaking can be used in different and unique ways for the different and unique students in my care every year.

A couple weeks ago as I was planning my rhetorical analysis unit for my seniors, I happened across an old folder that had PAPA SQUARES written in faded pencil across the tab. My colleague Besty Knorr shared this idea she had discovered on one of the many educational websites she peruses for new ideas. With her permission, I "stole" the idea, changed it, adjusted it, and envisioned how the story of my students doing this project would develop into something educational and memorable.

Allow me to give you a crash course in PAPA  squares. PAPA is a way to help students test their own understanding of a piece of rhetoric (argumentative writing or speech). PAPA is an acronym for Persona, Audience, Purpose, and Argument and is the foundational understanding for any type of analysis. Yada-Yada-Yada. Each student creates a folded, interactive square with moving flaps out of a gigantic sheet of card stock on which every side and flap has some individual part of the analysis. 

The finished PAPA square.
Caution: This is not as easy as it looks.

My English IV students had already read and analyzed George W. Bush's 9/11 speech, and they begrudgingly awaited the standard typed essay to follow. I was so excited to tell them we would have plenty of time for that later and that we were going to make-TA!DA!-a PAPA SQUARE! I proudly displayed my own square I had made years ago with its colorful flaps and text written on the inside and backside and flipside. I found it amazing and glorious, but from the look on their faces, they found it insurmountable and frightening. 

I know my students come to the table with different abilities. Any educator worth their salt knows this and creates assignments that allow individual skills to shine while developing those which need growth. Some students are great writers, some have tremendous artistic skills, some excel at math and measuring, and some can barely use safety scissors. You know what? All of this is perfectly fine when we are making PAPA squares.

When the day arrived and my students see PAPAsanity on the smartboard as the agenda for the next two days, we all settled in or attempted to flee, meticulously measured and cut paper, tossed scraps aside, learned to laugh at our own imperfections, struggled with starting over or fixing mistakes, helped one another, distracted one another. We embraced the chaos, and that is perfectly fine.

"Draw a 3" x 5" rectangle." What do we do? "Draw a 3" x 5" rectangle." Wait. Mine is different than his. It is smaller. "We are using inches not centimeters." 😀

Hey! Can we ADD-HD people move back to this table? We work better together. "Ummmm-OK? I am not sure that is a good idea, but..." 😟 Great! Come on back here!

"I am moving on to Stage 3. If you are not quite finished with Stage 2, I promise I will come back to help you. Just keep moving forward." Wait! What are we doing? I am still on the first stage! 😲

Are we supposed to be writing this in pen? "Yes. Blue or black ink as it says on the slide."  Wait. What? I have been writing in pencil. What do I do?  "Write it in pen." Does anybody have a pen? Oh, wait. I have one. 😭

Two days later, we all looked at our PAPA squares, taking pictures for the back wall where I have displayed the Live a Great Story flag I bought this summer. I had placed it back in the back of the room as a reminder to all of my seniors to embrace the daily experiences they have and find a message among all of the moments of exhilaration, stress, mediocrity, and even chaos. They were so happy to be finished with this project. Unfortunately, I had to break the news to them that there was one more part to this crazy PAPA square project-the essay.

The groans! The complaints! The eye-rolls!

I laugh in the face of adversity, particularly when I am confident a story is going to have an epilogue that unifies the message better than the actual ending. 

"We all did this PAPA square together. We all finished it, right? Here is the thing: we all had different obstacles, though. Some struggled with writing, some struggled with measuring and cutting, some struggled with their teammates, and, hey, I absolutely know that some of you struggled with me. I struggle with myself sometimes myself because I can be annoying. Now it is time to tell your story, in your own style, about the obstacle you overcame to complete this project. I want your story to have a meaningful message for anyone, even someone who has no idea what a PAPA square is or has never set foot in this class."

At this moment, PAPAsanity became something so much more than a rhetorical analysis or a folded cardstock square with colorful designs. PAPAsanity became a vehicle for these young people to attach meaning to what could have been just another meaningless project in school to them. These kids dove into this personal account by writing about some incredible lessons they learned like "(being able) to recognize one’s faults and problems (as the) only way a person can improve." Or even acknowledging (that) "there will be times you aren’t understanding (but do) not give up when things are at their worst."

I love teaching for moments just like these. I can live my own great story engaging a classroom of teenagers from beginning to end on a project like PAPAsanity while at the same time being a small part of the great story my students share about their own lives. 

Do you want to hear some more about PAPAsanity
Check out my next podcast!