Race to the finish

1 Dec

For the last year, I have been the chair of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. This award is a little different from most of ALA’s Youth Media Awards who’s winners will be announced on Monday, January 25, 2021. For the last month, the entire committee has been reading madly because we had to turn in a list of five finalists today, December 1st.

I turned in the names of our five finalists yesterday, along with an annotation for each book. I heard back almost right away and was asked for a quote for the press release. Fortunately, the email contained an example from a previous press release. I had to come up with a big picture look at five very different titles.

Later yesterday afternoon, I was teaching a reading lesson and asking students to do some big picture thinking about their reading. I was surprised how what I was asking them to do resembled the work that I had done just that morning, so I told them about it. It was a real-life application of what we were doing in class.

The press release announcing our finalists will come out late this week or early next week. When it does, I will happily talk about each of the books with my students. I also promised them that I would share the big picture thinking I had to do for the press release.

Little potatoes

24 Nov

Little pitchers have big ears. It’s an old adage, and I love old maxims like this.

More than once over the 30 years of my teaching career, I have had students say something to me that I think is brilliant and, when I ask them where they heard it, they tell me they heard it from me. It’s nice to know they listen. Teaching remotely, I have a gallery view of little pitchers before me. I also have a gallery of little potatoes. You see, I have reformatted the old axiom. I now believe that not only do little pitchers have big ears, I also hold that little potatoes have big eyes.

“Ms Gillespie, what are those books behind you?”

“Ms. Gillespie, what is that art on your wall?”

“Ms. Gillespie, what are those white bags I see?”

This last question came last week. My sister sent me an Advent calendar -and the means by which I could hang it. I did so, and my efforts did not go unnoticed.

Since remote learning began, I have tried to be mindful of what students see behind me. I just never realized how some of them would scrutinize my living room. I have decided to turn this to my advantage and plant things in the background just to see who is looking, and, I hope, to spark some new conversations.


17 Nov

The man was sitting on the low brick wall that curved into the park from the entrance. I saw him from a distance, my homeless person senses tingling. There are a number of tents and car-homes on permanent deployment near the park and the residents spend a lot of time in the park. For the most part, they are friendly, as this gentleman was.

Wearing a hat and face mask, my hearing is sometimes impaired. I clearly heard him say, “Do you have five,” but the ending was cut off. I assumed his last word was dollars, and I smiled with my eyes as Richard and I began to walk past silently.

“Just five minutes,” he continued. “I am doing sketches and you are interesting to me.” Well, flattery gets you many places, so I stopped.

“Well, I haven’t felt interesting for a while,” I laughed from a safe distance away.

“That’s a basset hound, right?” he continued. “We had a basset growing up.His name was McGee. We gave him that name thinking we were getting an Irish Setter, but we got hom. He was a good dog.”

“This is Richard,” I said as I watched him sketch, looking from Richard and I back to his sketchbook, his hand moving all the while. I gave him a little bit of Richard’s story and he shared some stories about McGee. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and, from the way he spoke, I got a sense that he’d had a hard life, or had some developmental issues. He wore no mask and I still had no clue as to whether he was an occupant of the encampment around the park. He was just a friendly guy.

“I’m done,” he announced suddenly, holding his notebook up for me to see. There were several sketches of Richard, from different angles. We wished each other a good day and Richard trotted forward – he’s a fast walker – as I heard the man ask someone else if they had five minutes. I heard the ending clearly that time.

Sunday in the park

10 Nov

Yellow leaves
With a splash of red
Kids dare-deviling their bikes
Down and up the gully
Taking air as they hit the top
Families and dog-walkers
And even one cat walker
Keeping her pet far from the crowds
Under the canopy
I pass one, two, three groups
Doing tai chi
And another practicing kendo
The muddy off leash area
Is full of the sort of dog
That loves to chase a ball
We stick to the path,
Where it is easier to spot and
Tree a squirrel
Ducks in the algae covered pond
Hold the attention of
Small children
And older folks
More than one family is dressed
For a photo shoot
Amidst the fall splendor
Other families and friends
Gather round laden picnic tables
Or sit on lawn chairs
Socially distanced
Their voices and laughter
Ringing across the park.

Richard, the first three days

3 Nov

I saw Richard for the first time as I pulled into the parking lot of the Wilsonville Petsmart on Saturday. He was walking on the sidewalk with one of the volunteers who had driven to and from Bend, a six hour round trip, to pick him up and hand him over to me.

What struck me first was his size – he is double the size Lucy was! I was also relieved to see that his skin wasn’t as bad as I feared. Oh, it’s bad, but his treatment seems to be working.

He greeted me happily when I got out of the car and came over to say hello. He just rolled with it when he was put in another strange car (mine). He settled into the back and was calm on the drive home. Arriving home, I got the parking spot right in front of my place. When Richard got out of the car, he went straight up the stairs as if he knew this was his new home.

He peed in the house once on Saturday.

Fortunately, I am learning to read his signs and there have been no accidents. There have been lots of walks. In Saturday, we just walked around the block in each direction. Sunday, we took a walk to Laurelhurst Park and Richard was like a kid in the candy store. Squirrels! Dog friends! Smells! His enthusiasm was infectious.

Yesterday, was the real test: would he disrupt my classes. Of course he didn’t! I took him on a long walk at lunch so he slept through most of them. He barked once during my last class – that’s his sign that it is almost time for dinner – then settled down after some snuggles.

Yes, Richard seems to be settling in.

There Might Be A New Man in My Life

27 Oct

I gave away the food, first.

I had neighbors with dogs and figured they might be able to use what I no longer needed after Lucy passed away.

Next, it was the wooden boxes I’d kept covered with towels and used as steps to help her up to the sofa and the bed. I left those on the street corner. it’s what we do on my SE Portland neighborhood. They were gone within an hour, as I suspected they might be.

I left the toys and her bed on the floor for a couple of weeks, not yet ready to see them go. Eventually, I got the courage to bundle them up and put them in the trash. They only had value to me.

I kept her fleece blankets, unwashed, on the sofa longer. I knew I’d wash them eventually and put them away in a cupboard. I just didn’t know that day would come so quickly.

Late last week an email came from the president of Oregon Basset Hound Rescue, asking for a foster family for Richard, a 10-year-old basset with severe ear and allergy issues. Well, for years I’d said that once I had no dog of my own, I’d foster. I had to walk my talk. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly, but Richard is probably coming to stay with me.

He has some pretty strict care protocols that his family couldn’t maintain. And they were struggling to afford the care of the specialist he was seeing. His issues sounded a lot like Fiona’s, who saw an ear and allergy Specialist for years. I am very familiar with ear care – in fact, my old vet said I was probably the best cleaner of dog ears she’d ever met.

I am now waiting to find out if this family is really ready to give up their dog. Given the nature of this year, I am worried I might be disappointed and they’ll change their minds. Despite the endless stream of bad news this year, I am looking forward to something positive in 2020.


20 Oct

The morning was chillier than I expected. As I took the first steps on my journey I considered turning around to get a hat and mitts. It was sunny, despite the nip in the air, so I decided to keep walking.

As I neared the end of the street, I saw my neighbor walking her dog. I pulled my ballot from my pocket and waved it at her.

“On my way to drop this off!” I called from across the street.

Bear, her dog, jumped for joy. I crossed the street to share in his delight at the day. When Lucy was with me, we always said hello from a distance. My heart ached with missing her, but it was refreshing to finally get to greet him. His owner and I chatted for a bit before I recommenced my journey.

For as long as I can remember, I have dropped my ballot off at the public library. Although libraries are only open for pickups, they are still collecting ballots.

But dropping in the book return wasn’t going to have the same feel as sliding my envelope into the ballot box that used to sit in the library. It seemed to lack the gravitas that came with having a special place for ballots, so I looked into my options.

I knew there was an official drop box a the Macdonalds across the street from the library, but that too seemed to lack the gravity that this election holds.

Continuing my research, I discovered that the Multnomah County Elections Office was a mere 1.4 miles from my house, one-tenth of a mile closer than the library. My plan began to form.

Autumn is my favorite season, and a cool, sunny morning is an invitation to celebrate, so, ballot in hand, I set off before school, to walk to drop my ballot off at the Multnomah County Elections Office. The crisp air helped keep my pace brisk and before I knew it, I had arrived. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who wanted to get their ballot n as soon as possible. A masked woman arrived with her ballot as I turned. A camera crew stood in front of the building, recording a different woman in a red mask, as she dropped her ballot. Cars pulled up and people leaned out to drop their ballots in the curbside box. I felt inspired. I felt hope, too.

On the walk home I was buoyed as much by those feelings as by the beauty of the day.

Back to School Night 2020

13 Oct

Despite the fact that I was home, I was still nervous for last night’s BTSN. It was going to be a weird one.

Two weeks ago, we had to make a video to send to our Admins – a virtual version of our in-class presentation. This was the week that Lucy was failing and then passed and I was in no frame of mind to make a video. I put it off til the last minute and did a couple of run throughs before changing my shirt and recording the final cut. I sent it in without previewing it. The kids get me unedited, the parents should see the real me, I thought.

We were scheduled to meet with parents last night, from 7:25-7:55. We’d set up the Zoom meeting, but my teammates and I, worried we’d be inundated with questions from the parents of the gifted students we teach, sent out a question form last week along with links to our videos and the Zoom link. We figured we could sort through the questions and address the top ones first. By 7 p.m. we had only one question. It presaged the evening.

Like students in a Zoom meeting, the 60+ parents were remarkably quiet. The flood of questions never arrived. It was, in fact, more like a trickle. And there were more than a few awkward silences. We let some stretch. We filled a few.

As we ended the meeting, we reminded parents that, if they had any other questions, to send us an email. So far, I don’t have any. I wonder if the Math teacher can say the same.


6 Oct

Thirteen is supposed to be a harbinger of bad luck. I’ve never had much trouble with it, though. My unlucky number is 14. All my dogs have died the year they turned fourteen. Although Lucy seemed like she might escape the 14-year curse, she didn’t. I lost her on Wednesday.

The house feels pretty empty now and I find myself at loose ends with no one to take out for a potty break between Zoom classes. I catch myself talking to her, saying the funny sayings and singing the funny songs that were our norm. I walk into a room and look around to find her, then I remember.

Yesterday morning, the vets office called to let me know that her remains had arrived and I could pick them up whenever I felt ready. I walked over after my last class ended. The box with her ashes seemed so small and it came with a flat box that contained a clay cast of her paw. I felt the tears well as I was handed the package. I didn’t dare open the package until I was home

Lucy has joined Clara, Louie, and Fiona on the shelf in the living room. Her scent still permeates her spots in the house. In a few weeks, I might wash her blankets, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet. I need to let it linger in the house a little longer and take some solace from it.

Somedays I’m good, others, not so much

29 Sep

Good teachers plan ahead. So, like a good teacher, I previewed the slide deck we’d been sent for our daily 20 minute Advisory class. Wednesday’s lesson included two short videos about mindfulness. I looked at the clock and thought It’s close, but I have time to preview bits of each before class begins.

And thank goodness I did. In the second video, a cartoon character says “I’m pissed”. Now, many people might not be troubled by that phrase. I admit, I have used naughtier language than that. But there was no way in heck, I was showing that video to my sixth graders. I didn’t want the parent fallout. A quick search – following a “heads up” email to my 6th grade colleagues – found an equally effective video without questionable language.

Good teachers pivot. Quite frankly, I am tired of hearing that despite the truth of it. In the olden days we said “monitor and adjust”. So, like a good teacher, as I was presenting my lesson on Friday, I made a quick decision to model using the iPad I had not yet set up. I was feeling really good about online teacher after a successful first week and wanted to stretch myself.

In no time, I was good to go. Except that may writing was backwards. Kids offered suggestions. I went back to my chart paper. I pivoted a lot. It wasn’t comfortable. I chart papered my way through the next two classes, all the while wondering what I had done wrong. As kids worked, I sneakily Googled a solution to my problem. None was to be found.

After my last class, I realized my error, and, simply turned the iPad over. VoilĂ ! My iPad now functioned as a document camera. Today, I will use it, but I will be sure to have a test run before my first class begins.

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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