The Hardest Words

Tears are streaming down my face.  I’ve worked all day; I’m tired and forlorn.  My daughter and husband are vacationing at a camp in Ocala, my boys are amusing themselves with Mindcraft or WOW or something similar (all my kids are teenagers).  I’m on Facebook and catching up on news of how my Orlando family, friends, and community are doing.  I’m feeling unwell, off-kilter, numb, emotional (forgive me, I am menopausal), overwhelmed. I live here.  I am a mile and half away and I grew up a half-mile away from “the place.”  My school where I teach, the high school I graduated from, the schools I attended and my children attend or graduated from are just around the corner from Pulse.  I live here.  My husband works a half-block from Pulse.  This is my neighborhood.   I just can’t fathom.  All I can do is love harder, take action against the hate, and forgive the thoughtless posts on Facebook about people’s guns being taken from them.  This.  This is so much bigger.  I keep busy.  I lift weights after school.  Heavy weights make my heavy heart feel better and bigger and there is more space to take in the unfathomable.  I have faith.  Be blessed in all you do.  Be strong in your convictions and your forgiveness.  Speak out for the wrongs and right them where you may.  Be fierce in your love and gentle in your words.  Love is all.


Drive, Pull, Explode, Breathe


Saturday was my first CF competition ever.  I’ve been going a year, almost every day because my principal last year suggested that stressed out teachers seek out professional help.  I competed in the Open with just 4 months experience in early 2014, and placed 36th in my advancing age group for the Southeast region, but Saturday was my first real competition.  This photo captures the moment so well.  Drive, pull, explode, breathe…not a sound in the room except, “Go, Erika!”  There was no prize for 1st place, for the many PRs we all set that day.  I moved on from one tough event to the next.  The best gift was seeing each other for what makes us human.  Drive, pull, explode, breathe.

BTW, that’s my husband, Fred, my BIGGEST fan.  He tore a page out of my son’s PE journal to write, “Go, Erika!” Best.sign.ever!

Beware of Vikings Bearing Flowers

I was teaching theme to my first block 5th grade classroom on full moon Friday last week (also our Fall Festival that night).  The kids were crazy twitchy excited and over the week.  Through the window slats, I saw my husband approaching my portable, and he knocked on the door, and stepped into the classroom to give me flowers…just because (because 5:35 am is a verb).

As he handed me the flowers, I gave him a peck on the forehead and asked my class, “What is the theme of this?” and the girls all shouted:  “Romance! Love is a wonderful thing.”  Of course, I’m trying to teach them the difference between theme and topic, but it was worth the try.  As my DH left I notice one little boy in the back of the room looking stunned–his mouth open and eyes wide in disbelief.  My husband is big and strong and well, he is a Vikingesque man (we had just learned about Vikings in social studies).  I looked over at this little blonde boy (probably my most Vikingesque student) and said, “Don’t worry! He’s big, but he’s nice.  See, here, he brought me flowers!”

Another little lad quipped:  “He’s probably a teddy bear.  Vikings usually pillage.”  I did teach them that they were skilled craftsmen and farmers, too.

And the eternal-in-one-ear-and-out-the other-girl looks up and says, “Who was that?” only to hear a chorus of “her husband!”

My spacey girl says, “Oh, Mr. Mrs. Altensee!”  We all giggled and the student who feared my husband says, “Mrs. Altensee, his arms are almost as big as yours!”  What a way to end the block and what a jolly afternoon it was!

5:35 AM is a verb

It’s almost time to scurry, cook, awake the masses, feed the kitties, cut up veggies, pullout the crockpot, spread the peanut butter (hummus, etc.), slice the bread, nuke the bacon, scramble the eggs, toast the English muffins, blend the smoothie, feed the dog, create the mental grocery list, prop up the one who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, feed the guineas, sweet talk the rabbit, gather the little one’s (not really so little) soccer outfit, pack the lunches, prepare the coffee, set the table, check the dryer for a sock or underwear, stuff the bag, brush the teeth, pull the hair back in a ponytail, dress the teacher, load the car, chase the clock…

Last Night

Sunday nights are a whirlwind, but then isn’t everything?  My district and, therefore, my school and my oldest children’s high school, have the first of (ouch!) many benchmark writing exams (herein called “interims”) tomorrow.  My senior stays home tomorrow because he’ll have to stay in school for 4 periods without a thing to do or learn.  My sophomore will receive a grade on said test, probably because the principal feared parents would opt out if it wasn’t a requirement (I think somewhere this should be illegal since no one has seen this test or even knows what it looks like–this, being the first).  My 7th grader takes it at my K-8 and I administer it to my homeroom class.  All.morning.long.  Need I say more?  Oh, yes.  And then, on Friday, I’m grading it (which is actually good since I will get to see how my students might fare on the 2nd and 3rd and summative, high-stakes one in March after some more days of instruction.

Last night was a whirlwind, that is for sure! I was planning, planning, planning for my “Text Structure” unit.  My district posts some great ideas on our newest website, but not really lessons, just 10-15 videos.  I have the curriculum I could use, but how do you teach text structure in a week?  So, I finally finished deconstructing the standards, but I haven’t come up with the formative assessments for the learning targets for the unit.  I definitely have all the wonderful nonfiction books at my disposal, and I’m still trying to gather articles that show different text structures, and, oh yeah, then there’s the anchor charts.  Gosh, I love anchor charts, but I can’t do that on Sunday night because my paper and markers are at work.  I have yet to get my lesson plans in, although I have a clear idea and a Powerpoint (yay, me for having my Powerpoint done) for the afternoon after the test.  Did I mention that I have papers to grade, too, which I never got to.

Yep, Sunday nights are a whirlwind?  We have family in town and <sigh> it’s one of those complicated things–you know, to visit because someone is upset (and has been for about 20 years), and it doesn’t really matter that it’s not my side of the family to get all these things arranged <laughing nervously> because, well, I have the same situation on my side of family.  Anyway, it is good to see kin, even if it is weird that no one wants to eat or has time to eat and I’m sitting at the diningroom table typing Powerpoints and power notes for the afternoon assignment.

And so, last night was a whirlwind and my last thoughts as I went to bed (after I insisted on reading 50 pages or so in Wonder, which made me cry and cry and cry at one particularly touching part from the perspective of Via).  I must write.  I need to get these ideas and characters swirling in my head onto paper (or rather, the computer, because I don’t really write on paper anymore).  There’s Sun Trolls begging to be finished, and my newest character, Osa, talking and doing things in my head.  There’s that NCTE position paper I would love to research and finish, the letter to school board over the long hours I put in and the impossibilities of this year (will I look like a whiner?) that must not be impossibilities since I am working all the time to make possibilities, and finally, the lesson plans and unit plans (I hope I get to use them next year, but they may switch me).

Finally, the whirlwind went to sleep.

PLNs are Yoga of the Mind

I find myself getting up earlier every day, which didn’t seem possible since I get up already at 4 am to workout.  Recently, I decided I didn’t need to intense workout sessions everyday, so I practice yoga for about 40-45 minutes before the onslaught of 4 breakfasts and 4 lunches and sometimes starting crockpot dinner.  I get up and check my work email because that’s where all my wordpress subscriptions come to and then, on to Twitter.

Today, I got up and read a number of posts, retweeting them, as usual.  On my Twitter feed, up jumps a new tag #b4530.  Oh, I gasp.  Oh, I don’t even need a translator…a new PLN on my time.   Nothing but my sweet new little laptop, the silence of the sleeping house and the gentle mew or hiss of the cats as the come in and out and in and out while our sweet old little Sheltie sits next to me patiently waiting to take her spot on the yoga mat.   You mean there are actually more people like me?

Fast forward to 445, as I am present in the moment of yoga following my PLN encounter, and as usual, I attempt to imprint that that moment of clarity into my heart and mind and bring it into my teaching day, somewhere.  What a strange new world we live in!  I feel so isolated in my day-to-day teaching practices in a school that hasn’t quite caught up to the moving-at-the-speed-of-light common core (and all the questions and battles being raised and fought over accountability), but I feel even more connected and quite fierce with the conversations and the learning from PLNs.  Oh, the ideas, the community, the (let’s be frank) nerdiness!  I absolutely love it and now I can get it at #b4530!  Just like yoga connects me with my day and arms me to be Reading Teacher Extraordinaire, so too do PLN’s discussions and provocative content.

Summer sighs

Summer sighs,

weary of the hum of air conditioners

and barbeques and back-to-school harries.

Above us to the north,

the evening cloud bank advances:

a storm is on its way.

As we slip into our silent Sunday splash

the warm pool drowning out Monday’s urgencies

and the dove cooing:  tooooo sooon, toooooo soooon, 

a red-tail hawk floats overhead

silencing the birds on the wire–

the mockingbird no longer mocking

the blue jay no longer scolding

the dove sits still and

from the stormy sky

crows weave in and out of formation.

“There,” I point out, “there!

There is a pattern! Triads!”

And, just as quickly as they are gone,

A great eagle soars and alights

upon the great oak above our pool.

Stillness rises restlessly.

I’m not here, the birds seem to say.

I was so irritated

I was so wickedly irritated

that I needed to clean the pool to get in

and look what magic appeared

as summer ebbs and the workweek begins anew.

Keeping It Real

It’s 4:35 p.m. on Monday afternoon.  I have T-10 minutes till dropping my oldest off at cross-country, T-20 minutes till picking up my youngest from soccer, and T-60 minutes from my beloved and much needed crossfit class.  I’ve been up since 4:09 a.m., done 2 loads of laundry, made 5 breakfasts, 5 lunches, done 35 minutes of yoga, and worked 8-1/2 hours (an hour over my actual contract time).  As usual, like clockwork, the Florida summer showers are starting–lightening crackling, black clouds amassing, and my little Shetland sheep dog barking at the “thunder gods” in the backyard.  It is real time.  Always real time.

This year in school is so intense.  I’m so exhausted and excited all at once.  I have this amazing group of students and Common Core actually invigorates me, challenges me.  I’m so inspired, but yet so forgetful.  Why can I keep a tight schedule at home, not keep time in the classroom?  How do I translate real time to my classroom, or is it real time and my home time is really not real time?  Two magical worlds.  24 hours in a day.


I’m teetering between my faux George Foreman grill, my sauteing brussels sprouts in my soon-to-be (hopefully) renovated kitchen sans working oven, and my incessant thinking:

They say gingers have a freckle for every soul they steal, and I knew this to be true.


I am lost and drowning with neither ship nor shore.


My family led the service for the circus train after Bob’s accident.


It was an ordinary exchange on a stormy day.  Uma Dumas and I met on the grassy plain as the whole graying sky, procession of clouds and all, watched.

I want to write.  I am helplessly snatching time here and there.  Vegan and meat tacos warming and my paleo steak waiting to be cooked, as my husband meets a man in the town next to us to buy an amp for $40 for our first gig, and it’s Nina’s birthday (my 15 year old).  Everything just as it should be in the house, but I am locked inside my head, listening to the beginnings of stories I want to write, writing and rewriting their beginnings in my mind as I stir this or that and hurriedly hasten the “ready” for just the right time for us all to come together.  Will my beginnings come together?  Will my beginnings be as magical as what created this magical, busy family?  Beginnings feel so difficult because there must be endings to beginnings.




The luxury of teaching at a K-8 is having my youngest come to my room for last minute homework help and completion (if he forgets).  Unfortunately, I have harbored and cultivated a procrastinator.  Now that my son is in algebra (he’s 2 years ahead in math) and is in 7th grade, I have decided this year and tonight (Tuesday of Week 2 of a new school year) that this procrastination thing has got to stop. So…

I fed him lots for dinner (he just made varsity soccer and he is starting to develop his teenage endless hunger);

I made him a glass of ice water and gave him a Tylenol (his head hurts from being out in 95 degree weather for 3 hours after school);

I suggested he come and sit on my big bed and work while I did (I can help him a little until his big brother gets home);

and (of course) I threatened him (his father said he’d pull him out of soccer if he procrastinated and completed it the day it was due in my room).

Here are the excuses:

“But my head hurts” (I know, says I, you’ve been running around after school playing soccer in Florida.  You’re dehydrated)’

“Maybe, since it doesn’t count, I should just go back to 7th grade math, because I’m way ahead (If you are struggling and don’t get it, says I, but not if you just don’t want to do the problems and practice everyday because you’ll have that in honors 7th grade math, too);

“Yeah, but my head hurts and you don’t care” (I do, says I, but you still have to do  your homework)’

and (of course, the argument about to ensue):

“I’m doing it…why are you telling me to do it” (What problem are you on? asks I, thinking surely we’re past the first 10).

Here I sit, completing my SOL for next Tuesday, while my brilliant, but procrastinating, son chants while working on the third problem, “Why don’t you love me, Mother of Mine.  Why don’t you care about me?  My head really hurts.”   And, finally, the ultimatum:  “I’m going to the dining room table to do my homework because you don’t care.”  He’s going to the dining room table that is littered with pieces of our lives (see “Bacon Thief”).   And he’s back again, slamming his three-ring binder on my bed.  And he’s crying.  And he’s sad and frustrated.

It all makes me want to go to bed and procrastinate the 25 problems for algebra and the essay for civics until tomorrow.