Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to participate in an experiment.  After two years of limited part-time employment, I am gearing up for the next level of engagement.

As you may be aware, from 2005 to 2014 I was a full-time teacher and administrator at a small private high school in St. Louis, MO.  For at least seven of those years I was a very hard-charging,  responsible faculty member who worked long hours both at school and at home.  I managed that position while being married to a seminary student turned mission-planting pastor and parenting three teenagers.  It was a very busy life full of challenges and rewards.

When chronic illness started to impact my effectiveness in that position, my husband and I began to watch and pray for God to open a path to something different.  This blog began when God answered our prayers and transplanted us in Ann Arbor where he has been serving as the Dean of Students at a small Christian university for the past three years.

When I joined him two years ago, I rested for six months and then began to experiment with different levels of employment.  I started with occasional private tutoring.  I added a summer ‘internship’ at an educational agency before transitioning to adjunct instruction coupled with private tutoring.  I’ve been doing well for the past year balancing those two positions.  I have taught a few hours a week in the classroom while supporting several private students that I meet in homes, in libraries, or in coffee shops.  I’ve loved this combination.  So, I’m continuing it this fall — at the next level.

Starting next Monday I will have three sections of college composition. (All the writing instructors in the room just gasped.) Now, to be fair, two of those sections are small at just 12-13 students each.  The third section is a more average-sized class of twenty-one. So, do your math and you will find that I am going to have 46 composition students.  That’s a solid load.  Most English teachers would say, “That’s fabulous!  What a joy to have forty-six writing students!” (My last year in St. Louis, a staffing issue created a situation where I had about 80 writing students!)  And, indeed, I am thrilled.  I am also thrilled that entering my second year as a private tutor, I have a solid student base that easily yields 8-10 hours of tutoring per week.  God has indeed engineered a sweet gig for me.

However, I am a little anxious. My health is more stable than it has been in close to four years.  With the help of my medical team I have eliminated biologic and anti-inflammatory medications.  That’s right; I take nothing for pain!  I am also currently weaning off the anti-depressants that I started taking seven or eight years ago.  I walk, do Pilates, practice yoga, and get in the water regularly. I see a physical therapist and a chiropractor,  avoid gluten and dairy, and am following my doctor’s instructions for taking homeopathic and nutritional remedies. I’m doing all the things, yet I still have a measure of pain in my hips, neck, and back.  I still have psoriasis. I still have chronic eye issues. I still get knocked down if I do too much.

So how much is too much?

That’s why this fall is an experiment.  Can I teach forty-six students in the classroom and meet with a handful outside of the classroom without spending every weekend in bed? Will I still fit in exercise? physical therapy? time with friends?  time with family? What will happen if something unexpected pops up — an out-of-state emergency, a family crisis, a family celebration? I don’t know.  Have I created a schedule that allows for these variables?  We’ll see.

I do know that the success of this semester is more likely if I continue to practice the disciplines that I have re-discovered in this time of stillness — Bible study, blogging, prayer.   It seems I struggle to fit them in, when in truth, they are the most impactful moments of my day.  Writing the prayer reminders on my mirror and my fridge is a help, but I still need to choose to act on those prompts and actually pray. My devotional materials sit out in plain sight, but I have to move toward them and take the time to engage each day.  My blog is constantly percolating in my mind and begging to be let out through my fingers, and when I allow it the space and time, I become aware of all that God is working inside of me.  When I do these three things — prayer, Bible study, and blogging — I feel centered and purposeful.  I feel at peace.

So, on Monday, I’ll step feebly forth.  I won’t try to kick any butts or take any names, I will just show up and see what God has in store in this next chapter.

Luke 12:32

“Do not be afraid, little flock,

for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

He knew.

I was just sitting here thinking how amazing God is. If I didn’t believe He was active in my life before, He is making it impossible for me to doubt it now.

You want evidence? Ok.  Here is today’s evidence.  About a month ago a Saudi Arabian student contacted me through my Wyzant profile.  Would I please help her with her graduate work in English literature; she needed help with three classes.  She didn’t tell me what the classes were, but I said, sure, I would meet with her and see if I could help.

All she knew from my profile is that I have an MA in English, that I have taught high school and community college English, and that my specialty is composition.  She didn’t know that for all the years that I was teaching in St. Louis I was immersed in African American culture or that much of my graduate work focused on African American literature and literacy practices. She couldn’t have known of our links to the Jewish community through Cultural Leadership or of the fact that I had taught Holocaust literature as part of my senior seminar class. She had no way of knowing that one of the college-level classes I have taught for years is poetry. She couldn’t have known these things.

But God did.

He knew before she sent me that first message that I would be fascinated by the three syllabi she would hand me: Literature of the Romantic Era, Literature of the Holocaust, and Twenty-First Century African American Literature.  He knew I had background knowledge and a love for these subjects that would allow me to do more than merely proofread her essays.  He knew that I would be energized by entering into a conversation on Wordsworth’s use of blank verse.  He knew that I would be so interested in the portrayal of hegemony in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada that I would likely purchase the book after reading about it in my student’s writing.  He knew that when she asked me if I could help her narrow down her research topic for her Master’s thesis my pulse would accelerate out of joy!

He knew.

And he connected us.  That is the only explanation for a young woman living worlds away from her home studying in a language not her own to be working side by side with a middle aged midwesterner in a small apartment in Ypsilanti.

The only reason.

Only God sees into her life and sees into my life and knows that we would make a great team.  Only God draws together two so seemingly different people for a common purpose.  Only God knows that I will likely benefit more from this relationship than she will.

Only God.

Ephesians 3:20-21

 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Students of the Week

Eleven days since my last post?  How can that be?  What did I do with eleven days?

Well, a quick glance at the calendar tells me I’ve done a lot with eleven days.  We spent three of those days traveling to see a grand baby.  Two days were spent hosting our daughter and her boyfriend for a quick visit.  And the rest of the days?  Well, friends, I’ve seen a lot of students.  Wanna meet some of them?

Let’s see, maybe we’ll start with the youngest.  About six weeks ago, a mother contacted me and asked if I would work with her two daughters on writing; they are in the the third and fifth grades.  I told the mother that I typically only work with older students — as in high school and college — but she persisted.  So, I met these two little Chinese girls who I could easily carry around in my pockets with me, and I fell in love.  They are precocious — the fifth grader’s writing is laced with sarcasm and hyperbole; the third grader is wise and obedient, wishing that all of her classmates would see the error of their ways and comply with her teacher’s wishes as she does.  We work on writing and grammar and I try to absorb some of the academic pressure that their hardworking parents are piling on top of them.

Next in terms of age is a student that I have had almost from the beginning.  She is a a seventh grader who works closer to eleventh grade level.  The pressure from her Indian immigrant parents to do better/work harder is palpable, but she is able to resiliently shrug off what she can’t carry.  She steps to her own beat.  She wants to please her parents, of course, but she also knows what she does and doesn’t like.  Our challenge this past week was ignoring her deep ‘need’ to change the wallpaper on her laptop so that we could work on test prep exercises.  Yes, the seventh grader in her shines through.

I have another sister pair.  They are the fifth grade and eighth grade daughters of  a Taiwanese mother and an American father.  They have lived in China, Chicago, and little old Northville, Michigan.  They are bilingual, as are many of my students.  They are also quite bright.  Their parents, like so many others I have met this year, want their children to succeed academically, which means they will need supplemental instruction in Standard English, not because they don’t speak it very clearly, but because their parents don’t consistently model Standard English structures.  This seemingly small factor, can impact standardized test scores and hinder clear written communication.

I know; I started by saying I don’t typically work with younger students, then I introduced you to five.

I’ve got a couple of high school boys that I see weekly — same scenario as above — bright guys with international parents who need additional work in English.  These boys are taking honors classes, playing sports, and participating in myriad other pursuits, then sitting with me for an hour doing test prep, writing essays, and talking about sentence construction.  I don’t think I had this kind of work ethic in high school!

I also have adults.  I must say I love my adults.

The first is a twenty-year old whose first language is Farsi and second language is English.  He has struggled his whole life with reading and comprehension, so we are meeting twice a week to work on these skills.  He hopes to be one day be successful in college.

Then there is the thirty year old Brazilian woman living in California.  She and I meet online once a week to improve her writing.  She already has an American MBA, but she wants to become a blogger to promote her startup and to discuss issues of marketing.  Yes, as you can see, all of my students are slackers.

My other thirty year old is from Romania.  After twelve years in the country, she decided to become a nurse.  We spent four months preparing her for the pre-nursing exam. She passed the test and was accepted into a program. She’ll start in January, so we are meeting weekly to continue to improve her English skills.

My personal favorite at the moment is a young woman from Saudi Arabia.  She is here on the government’s dime to get a degree in English literature so that she can return to her country and teach in a university.  She’s taking three graduate level classes — Romanticism, Literature of the Holocaust, and 21st Century African American literature.  She reads, thinks, and writes about these very different topics.  I get to talk her through some of her ideas and make sure that her writing reflects what she is thinking.

This week I will meet a Hispanic man who is about to graduate from the University of Michigan.  He needs some support preparing for the Michigan teacher certification test, you know, since English is his second language.

Guys, I get to do this.  Each week I get to sit across the table from (or in front of the screen with) a person who I never would have come into contact with if I didn’t have a degree in English, years of teaching experience, and an online profile.

I am learning from each of them, perhaps more than they are learning from me.

Just a part of my life in this next chapter — way more than I could have ever hoped for.

Ephesians 3:20-21

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

At bat

I stood at the plate yesterday afternoon; my bat was in place, my eye was fixed on the ball. I swung and connected. It was a grounder to third, but I ran like nobody’s business and made it safely to first base. Phew!

When I showed up at the home of my ACT student — a high school junior who had just spent seven hours at school — I could see the reluctance in his eyes.  He remembered; so did I.  We hadn’t gotten very far last week.  But we were both ready.  I had come with a plan, and so had he.  I had several strategies for our hour cued up on my laptop, but he beat me to the punch.  “I did a practice test last night and scored it; here are my results.” Bam.  It was a line drive to center field and I advanced to second.

I sorted his missed items into categories and we attacked them one at a time.  I relentlessly tried to get him to understand what an appositive is, how to correctly show possession, and to understand the difference between active and passive voice.  He hung with me.  As the clock turned, his (and my) apprehension turned to satisfaction.  As I started packing up, he said, “I’ll do another English test before I see you next time.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “That was a great strategy.  Good job taking the extra time to prepare for our lesson.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked to my car.

This morning, I met with the college-level student with whom my faux pas occurred yesterday.  I arrived fifteen minutes ahead of her, I reviewed her lesson plan and goals, I gathered our materials, and I thought through our lesson. She arrived smiling and ready to work.  Together we read and took notes.  She gave me a summary and a main idea then answered questions.  She connected with the ball and all the runners advanced as she safely made it to first.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen.  The bases were loaded.

My last student of the morning came to the plate.  He was a bit distracted.  He’s been working on a research paper for over two weeks — Leonardo da Vinci — and he’s had about enough.  He’s eleven years old and he’s hung in there through research, note taking, MLA documentation, outlining, and even drafting.  All the hard work is done, and he can taste the finish.  He knows that when this paper is done we will move on to reading a novel, and he is ready.  He eye is no longer on the research paper; it’s on the book.  Our task for today was that I would type while he read his draft, editing as we went.  Shoulda been a piece of cake.  The pitcher wound up and threw one straight across the plate. My student was looking up at the stands. Strike one. The second pitch was just like the first, but my student didn’t even see it coming.  He shook himself off, steadied himself and stared at the pitcher, but it was just a little too late to start paying attention.  The curve ball came and he struck out. It’s ok.  He needed a break any way.  He got another turn at bat the following hour.

So I’m sitting on third waiting for the next player to warm up.  I’ll see him today at 4:30.  He’s another junior preparing for the ACT — nicest kid you’d ever want to meet.  He’s really my designated hitter.  His eye is always on the ball, he’s always warmed up, he sees the situation and is prepared to deliver.  I’m thinking I’m going to score a run.

And then I’ll be right back up to the plate with another student at 6:00.  Maybe she’ll strike out, maybe she’ll get a hit, heck, maybe she’ll even hit a homer. I hope so, this kid has been putting forth her best effort and has been called out time after time after time.

Maybe it’s good I got a little taste of struggle this week — a little reminder of what it feels like to fail.  I didn’t like it. Nobody does.  I need to remember that parents and students don’t hire me to come help when everything is going great; they call me because they need help.  It hasn’t been going well.  They need an encourager to come beside them and say, “Good job!”  “You’ve got this!” “Stand like this. Hold your bat this way. Relax into your swing.”

“Come on, knock one out of the park!”

Success is so sweet after struggle, but getting from struggle to success takes determination and support.  That is what I am learning from my students.  They keep walking up to the plate because they want to hit the ball, but they wouldn’t get there without their fans cheering them on or their coaches stepping in to give guidance or their teammates believing they can.  I forget that I need that support, too.  I forget that I need my fans, my team,  and my Coach. This week has been a good reminder.

Romans 5:2-4

“…we rejoice in our [struggle], knowing that struggle produces endurance,

endurance produces character, and character produces hope,…”

Play Ball!

I am not too proud of myself at the moment.  I’ve had a series of less-than-stellar performances and I’m starting to feel like I’m going to get put on the bench.

Last Thursday I had a dud of a session with one of my students.  We were working on ACT prep and we just weren’t making progress.  We kept getting stymied and bogged down in words.  When I left him, I was frustrated and so was he.

I left him to go to another student.  She and I worked for an hour and a half on an outline for a research paper she is writing.  We referred to the teacher’s model, we attended to his rubric, and we created a finished product.  Her mom messaged me the next day — the outline earned a 60%.

This morning I worked with a student on reading comprehension.  We were pouring over college-level text that involved math. I am not inept when it comes to math, but I am rusty.  Very rusty.  We each read the text silently creating notes at the same time.  We compared our notes, then I asked her some higher order thinking questions about the content.  Without getting into the gory details let me just say that my student became acutely aware that I was out of my comfort zone.  I could have left it there.  I didn’t.  I asked a colleague, in the student’s presence, to help me understand what I did wrong.  And I didn’t just ask once, I blathered on and on, joking about my inability to set up a proportion correctly. That doesn’t sound like a horrible sin, but I had been told before working with this student that I should not reveal that I was a newbie — the student is very intelligent and needs to know that I am qualified to do this job. I  blew it.

The colleague pulled me aside and reminded me that this student’s success is contingent on the fact that she trusts our credibility. That’s when I remembered the explicit instructions.

It was time for me to go home, so I clocked out and walked to the car feeling a physical sensation I haven’t felt in years.  A dull ache was in my throat and through my chest.  I had blown it.  I couldn’t take it back.  What if this student didn’t want to work with me any more? What hardship would that cause for the agency?  What will it take to rebuild her confidence in me.

Really, I was a mess.

I texted the colleague expressing my grief.  When I got home and realized she hadn’t texted me back, I started to draft an email about how devastated I was at my failure, etc., etc.   That’s when I heard the ‘ping’.  My colleague texted me back! “Don’t worry about it!  It’s all part of this crazy steep learning curve!”

We texted back and forth for a few minutes and I began to breathe more regularly, to release the tension in my muscles, and to prepare for the student that I have this afternoon — the same ACT student that I tanked with last week.

I have had a lot of successes as a teacher.  I know I am capable, but lately I feel like I’ve been falling a little (or a lot) short.  I don’t cut myself much slack.  I expect to hit it out of the park every time I get up to bat, but even the best hitter in the MLB isn’t getting a hit even half of the time.  I don’t expect my students to get a hit every time they are at bat either, but they still get discouraged when they strike out.

They often want to throw the bat, stomp to the dugout and sulk. That is how I felt today.  I was sure I would collapse on my bed when I got home and cry for a while — I know better!  How could I make such a novice mistake!!

And I made another one, didn’t I?  My last post was about trajectory and how success is often related to how well we are able to adapt, bounce back, get back on the horse.

So I’ve had a few rough spots in the last week.  Who hasn’t?  I’ve said from the beginning that working with students is as much about lessons for me as it is about lessons for them.  Why would I be surprised when my learning gets a little uglier than I am comfortable with.  It happens for my students all the time.  And yet they continue to walk to the plate, pick up the bat, put their eye on the ball, and swing. I can learn a lot from these kids.

So, here I am picking up the bat and walking back to the plate.

Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed; His compassions never fail.

His mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23


Meet Blain: he wants to be a nurse.  He is currently enrolled at a local university.  He is focused, hard-working, and goal-oriented, but he has a problem.  Although he is fascinated with the human body and has no difficulty at all with medical terms or anatomy, he hasn’t been able to get into the nursing program.  Why?  Because he doesn’t know what a predicate nominative is.

In order to get into his school’s nursing program, he has to pass a standardized test called the Hesi A2, and he has passed it — all the sections except grammar.   His school requires that he get 80% or better on the grammar section of this test.

I know what you are thinking.  You are way back in paragraph one thinking to yourself, “what is a predicate nominative?  and what does it have to do with nursing?” Exactly.

Meet Conner:   He would really like to go to MSU’s James Madison School, or maybe Miami University of Ohio, or even Butler University.  He’s a delightful kid.  He plays soccer on a travel team, is respectful toward his parents, and is willing to engage in four hours of tutoring each week — after he’s already put in full days at school.  Why? Because his ACT score isn’t quite high enough to get into the programs he is interested in.

Then there’s Joe.  Joe’s parents are both career police officers. They have positions of authority within local law enforcement agencies.  He wants to follow in their path.  He just returned from a visit to the US Naval Academy — his dream school.  His eyes are gleaming with hope and possibility.  He wants to do just what his parents are doing — contribute to society by serving and protecting.  When I met him the first time in the foyer of the local library, I looked up at his imposing stature to see a smiling face topped off with a military haircut.  He was at once intimidating and engaging.  He was born for this.

But he may not get into the Naval Academy.  For good reason, the Naval Academy is very selective.  It is a four-year education paid by the United States government to prepare the future leaders of our Navy.  Like West Point and the Air Force Academy, it must select only the brightest and the best.  And although Joe has law enforcement in his DNA, he has experienced some learning difficulty.  He has done YEARS of interventions to improve his reading issues, but still, he struggles to get the standardized test scores that he needs.

Is he discouraged? Nope.  He greets me every week at the library, smiling.  He leans with me over an ACT prep book as we practice item after item, discussing rules and strategies.  He knows he has to work to achieve his goal.  He knows he has to have a backup plan, so he is also considering other military schools and ROTC programs.

Three guys I’m working with right now (names changed, of course) — all pursuing their dreams, all trying to overcome an obstacle in the path.

That obstacle? Testing.

I’m not against testing.  We have to have some way to determine which students fit in which programs.  Not everyone can be successful at Harvard — probably only those who score in the top 1-5 % of everyone in the nation. Not everyone can or should be a nurse.  And, when it comes to national security, I, for one, am glad that the armed forces have high standards for ‘officer material.’   Testing is one way to help individuals, and schools,  determine who has the aptitude or education for any of thousands of programs.  But it’s not the only way.

The three gentlemen I described above are all trying to raise their test scores, yes, but they are stacking the deck in other ways.  Blain works part-time as a pharmacy tech which gives him access to medical terminology and the world of health care.  Conner takes all AP classes at his high school and has worked hard enough to earn himself a 3.5. Joe? He is part of his community’s police explorer’s program.  He is taking every opportunity he can to expose himself to the career he hopes is in his future.

Do I believe they will succeed?  In one way or another, yes, if they are willing to accept that the definition of success is not fixed.  Certainly Blain may become a nurse, Conner may get into his top choice university, and Joe may go to the Naval Academy.  However, some or all of those goals may not be achieved.  Each of these guys may experience trajectory. And, I’m learning, the vehicle for that trajectory may be a test.

A score that is earned during four hours of testing on a Saturday morning can make the difference between attending the University of Michigan or attending Central Michigan University — both are great schools, both have thousands of success stories to their credit.  That score could also determine the difference between $10,000 or $1,000 in scholarship money — substantial to almost every college-aged kid that I know. The score could force choices that each of my students can’t right now imagine they are going to have to make. That score could cause — trajectory.

Will they be able to navigate that trajectory? My gut says yes.  Why?  Because each of these guys has not settled for the initial test score.  Each saw the score and said to himself, “OK, what now?” He didn’t curl up in a corner and decide that his goals were unattainable.  He made a decision to take action.

That decision tells me that he will take future bumps in the road with finesse.  If he doesn’t get into his desired program, I am confident he will research and find one that better fits his needs.  If he gets into his program but somehow determines that it wasn’t a good match after all, he will regroup and prepare for a transition. If somehow he gets into the program, completes it, and then discovers that his interests lie in a different field altogether?  No problem — he will have navigated difficulty in the past and will be prepared to ride the next, if bigger, wave.

What a joy it is for me to join these gentlemen on their journey, to watch their resilience, and to learn from them how to navigate trajectory.

Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds,

because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James 1:2-3

Let me introduce you!

Wanna meet some of my kids?  Not my children. My students.  And, oh yeah, they aren’t all kids.

The first student I tutored here in Ann Arbor we’ll call Krista.  Her mom reached out to me around Christmas.  Krista is a freshman with ADHD.  For those of you who know freshmen, that last sentence is a little redundant.  Krista and I initially met to study for her first high school final exams, and we have continued to meet to study and to write papers.   In fact, we recently spent several hours writing an essay comparing loss in Maus  and Night. We followed her teacher’s rubric, we got her thesis approved, we outlined, drafted, revised, and edited.  Then came the email from her mother.  “Krista got a D on her paper.  Thoughts?”  D? Are you kidding me?  I am an experienced teacher, a former English department chair, a former curriculum coordinator!  I walked with her through that paper, holding her hand!  She got a D?! For a moment I thought I had lost Krista as a client.  For over a week her mother didn’t reply to my emails other than one-word responses.  I understood.  She had hired me to help her child do better in English, not to help her earn a D!!  Yesterday, finally, she reached out and asked if I could help Krista with her next paper.  I was so relieved to get another chance!

About a month ago I was sitting on my couch in the evening when I received a tutoring request that went something like this, “I am a high school freshman.  I could use help in my English class.  Would you be willing to work with me.”  A freshman?  Sending his own email? Asking for help? We exchanged a half dozen emails and I met him that weekend.  He is the son of parents who immigrated from India.  In fact, last year, they went back to India for a year so that Saj (fictional name) could study there and experience the culture.  He is very bright.  Our first assignment was preparing a recitation and analytical speech about Oedipus.  We worked for a couple hours on this project –first planning, then writing and practicing.  Yesterday we spent an hour getting familiar with the new PSAT and SAT since Michigan just adopted these assessments after years of using the ACT.  He asked me for homework so that he can practice before I see him next week.

About six weeks ago a mother contacted me.  Her daughter is only in sixth grade, but she is very advanced and has always had an English tutor.  Would I be willing to write a curriculum for her — reading comprehension, writing, analysis, vocabulary, and grammar?  Well, sixth grade is a little young for me, and I would have to drive about twenty minutes to get to this student, but I agreed.  Again, she is Indian.  Her parents are highly educated, as are Saj’s.  And, I will admit, this girl is indeed, ‘very advanced’.  I show up every week with comprehension questions on the book we are reading together, The Book Thief.  I also give her questions about literary elements — irony, symbol, metaphor, narration, characterization.  I keep trying to find something she can’t answer.  I have not yet succeeded.  I’m not sure what she will study in high school — I’m using up all of my material!

I also have a couple adult students.  First is Cherise.  She is an RN who is studying to become an Advanced Practice Nurse.  She works in a pediatric clinic in Ypsilanti and is hoping to be the lead practitioner when her supervisor retires.  She has files of knowledge on nursing, but her writing skills are limited.  I wish I could videotape our sessions — she spends time explaining medical terminology to me; I spend time explaining sentence structure to her.  We are two middle aged women leaning over documents making a way to convey meaning.  She’s a quick study.  I show her parallel structure one time, she points it out in the next sentence.  I remind her that academic writing is in third person, she locates the personal pronouns she needs to delete.

My other adult is Carla.  She dropped out of high school to have a baby fourteen years ago.  She works in purchasing for a manufacturing plant in the area, but she wants a career change.  She wants to work in the criminal justice field.  A community college admitted her and she is taking a composition course online.  But she’s never written a paper before! We met to discuss her first paper, walking through sentence by sentence until she was comfortable with it.  We also discussed her next assignment — a research paper.  She lives thirty miles away, so we have only met once, but she emails me her documents and I make comments and ask questions in the margins.  I coach her — you need more research, make sure you are including your opinion, don’t forget to document your quotes.  She’s doing all this work in the evenings after working all day and while parenting a teenager.

And that’s not all.  There’s  a brother and sister I meet with weekly, a couple of students I met with just a couple of times each to do test prep, and twin sisters that I assisted with a huge research paper.  They contact me online, I meet them in libraries or at their homes.  For a moment or a season we are connected for a purpose.  Sometimes I think I am helping them, most of the time I think they are helping me.

That’s the kind of work I like to do — the kind where I feel privileged to show up and blessed when I leave.  May you have that kind of work to do, too.

Psalm 90:17

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;

establish the work of our hands for us —  yes, establish the work of our hands.

Just Fifteen Minutes

It was just fifteen minutes of my afternoon. I sat inches away from a woman I had never met before as she brushed tears away from her eyes. Just fifteen minutes.

In those fifteen minutes I learned that she has a PhD in China, but is studying for a PhD here.  She is forty-five years old.  She moved here, leaving career and family, so that her daughter can go to high school here in the United States and subsequently meet the criteria to attend an American university.  Why is she crying? Because her own mother is fighting cancer back in China and she can not be there to help.  Because it is difficult to do PhD work in your second (or third) language.  Because it is extra difficult when you are 45 and raising your daughter alone in a country that is not your own.  Because that difficulty is compounded when you see your daughter struggling to fit in and find success in her American school — your daughter who is studying in her second language.

She doesn’t know me, but she found me on a website — a website that shows my photo, some of my credentials, and some student testimonials.  She contacted me yesterday and wondered if I would read some of her daughter’s writing — would I help her get published?

I read her request and thought to myself, “Oh, boy, another child prodigy.” I judged her.  She was one more parent who believes her child is amazing. (I am one of those parents, too, by the way.)  I told her I would be happy to meet her, but it is the policy of Wyzant  (the tutoring site I use) that she has to enter payment information before I can meet her.  I stick to this policy because it makes my record keeping simple; I never have to collect my own payment, and no one ever owes me any money.  It is clean.

She countered, “Wyzant won’t accept my Chinese credit card. I would be happy to pay you in cash or check.”

I replied, “I only accept payment through Wyzant, but I am happy to meet you tomorrow to see if we are a good match for each other.”  We set up a time and a place. Period.

Well, Wyzant didn’t like that.  They disabled my account about an hour before I was to meet her.  They sent me a notification saying that “based on some recent email correspondence, it appears that you have violated the terms of use.  We have deactivated your account.”


So I can’t access any of my student contacts?  Yikes!  I called them to inquire and the operator said she would “create a ticket” and that they would contact me within 24-48 hours to let me know if I can be re-activated or not.

Or not!?!?!?!?!?

Guys!  I have a dozen or more students that I see fairly regularly.  Yes, this has been a slow week, but I have six appointments scheduled for next week and no way of contacting these people if my account is not reactivated.

Now, I am guessing that they are just going to give me a stern warning with finger shaking, “Do not under any circumstances meet with clients who do not have payment information on file.”  Right, right, I know.  I have told almost half of my clients that I will not allow them to pay me cash because I have signed an agreement.  I really want everything kept within the boundaries of the website — it’s clean and safe and organized.

I had no intention of circumventing that policy.  I had no intention of charging this woman for a  fifteen minute meeting. In fact, when I met with her today, I helped her understand that she could open a PayPal account with her debit card and link it to Wyzant.  Because of the language barrier, that might have been difficult to convey through email correspondence.  We needed the face-to-face.

But not just to set up the payment information. We needed the face-to-face so that I could get off my high horse, stop judging her based on a couple of sentences in an email, and have some compassion on a mom who is feeling overwhelmed and all alone.

I’d do it again.  Ok, I might be a little more crafty in how I communicate time and place now that I know that Big Brother is reading my emails (or that he at least has some kind of algorithm to identify rebellious rule-breaking tutors).  Sometimes we have to be a little flexible. I don’t typically break the rules, but I do find ways to bend them a bit when needed.  I didn’t know this mom’s situation last night.  I wasn’t really trying to bend any rules.

But today, for fifteen minutes, two women connected without the blessing of Wyzant, and I’m not sorry for it.

I John 4:11

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

What to do, What to do, pt. 2

Remember way back in November when I broke my unemployment by working as an election agent?  I had been unemployed for four months or so and I agreed to sit in a press room at the county court house and report election returns via my smartphone.  It was my first post-teaching gig.  I had actually applied for that job while I was still living in St. Louis and interviewed for the position on the day that we moved in to the little house by the river.

The same agency that hired me for that position called me this morning.  They want to hire me for the months of March and April to drive about thirty miles one way, buy stuff, and then go donate that stuff to a shelter.  It’s not great money, but it’s 20-25 hours of work each week for eight weeks.  I was tempted to say yes.  I mean, they sought me out.  Why not?

Well, there are a few reasons.  The pay is not great.  If I am going to commit to something for 20-25 hours a week, it has to be worth my while.  I emailed the hiring agent and told her this.  She replied by telling me that they would compensate me for mileage — which would add up to a decent sum.  They would also pay for my travel to Cincinnati for training.  This would include lodging and meals for St. Patrick’s Day weekend.  That’s tempting, especially since the grand baby is in Cincinnati. But still, is it worth 20-25 hours of my time for six to eight weeks?

The second issue is that three of us are sharing one vehicle right now.  I know —  it’s practically un-American.  We have one car and one television.  (Actually, we have always only had one television, but that’s a story for another day.) We are working it out with only one car, but it takes some pretty fancy stepping including a Google Calendar specifically for car usage.  Taking a job that’s 20-25 hours each week in a small town thirty miles away would really bog down that calendar and make it very difficult for others to ‘share’ our one vehicle.

The third issue is that I am now a certified math story-problem grader (impressive, I know) and I am scheduled to start grading the short answers of unsuspecting third through eighth graders in early March. That, my friends, will earn me about the same amount of money as the purchasing position without leaving my home.

The fourth issue is that I am building my tutoring clientele.  Last week I did eight hours of tutoring.  This week I have six hours scheduled.  Tutoring does pay enough to make it worth my while.  And, it’s doing what I love to do. And, it uses my gifts.  And, it allows me to interact with students and their parents.

The fifth issue is that I have also applied for a short-term full-time proofreading position that starts the end of March and goes through July.   That position is for a textbook company.  It would give me something to do while students are on their summer breaks, and it would give me some excellent experience in proofreading.  Now, I haven’t been offered this position, nor have I even interviewed, but if I take a position buying things and donating them to a shelter, I won’t be available for a proofreading position.

So, what should I do?  Step one: I contacted the textbook company and inquired about their hiring timeline.  Step two: I will keep tutoring!  Step three: I will grade those math tests! Step four: I will pass on the purchasing gig!

My very first post on this blog was entitled ‘What to do, What to do”.  I’m still asking that question, but I am getting some clarity as I move through this next chapter. 

Psalm 90:17

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us.

Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.