January 23, 2014 Photo (023/365):  "One"

It's difficult to feel creative when the polar vortex prevents you from really exploring. The walls of work and home feel restrictive. Everything seems so cold, gray, and uninspiring, yet it's easier to stay inside, distracted by work and routine, repressing the urge to see differently, to think differently. Outside my window, this singular icicle stands out against the tangled branches. It is attached and structured, yet its unique form continues evolving independently. Inside it seems to be bubbling with potential for continued growth. The beauty of the icicle amid the chaotic tangle of branches reminded me of the book I finished reading today, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. The Hairball is a metaphor for the traditional business model, "a tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems, all based on what worked in the past--that exercises an inexorable pull into mediocrity". MacKenzie's insightful and entertaining book offers ideas for avoiding the loss of one's creativity and vision, techniques to resist getting sucked into the "Giant Hairball" of corporate life.

Although the book is primarily intended for business people, it begins in an elementary school where the author is shocked by how young students seem to have lost their inventiveness and even their willingness to admit their creativity. As an educator and instructional coach, I view the book as an endorsement of the "Genius Hour" philosophy. Students and teachers need time to work on their own passion projects; to read and learn and create something that will contribute to their own education and success while also benefiting the organization. I recommend Orbiting the Giant Hairball to educators who crave Genius Hour time, as well as to administrators who want to nurture teachers' and students' innovation, and in turn, increase their productivity.

Finally, recognizing people's need to be creative, to explore, to take risks, to learn and to grow, to write their own verse, Apple's new iPad Air commercial features Walt Whitman's "O Me, O Life" (recited by Robin William's in Dead Poet's Society). The commercial gives me goosebumps! Earlier this winter, I challenged my American Literature class to think about what their verse would be. We may not have a Genius Hour (yet?), but our ten-minute "Trust the Gush" writing activity allows us the freedom to express ourselves without restrictions, to awaken and foster our own creative geniuses!  "What will your verse be?"

O Me! O Life!

Typewriter - C'est ma vie!

Today's Gush is inspired by Walt Whitman's O Me! O Life! and by Robin Williams' brilliant interpretation in one of my favorite films,  Dead Poets SocietyIf you haven't seen the film, do yourself a big favor! It is the story of a New England boarding school alumnus who returns to teach at his alma mater. His unconventional methods inspire his students to think for themselves, to love literature, to write, to express themselves, and to carpe diem, seize the day:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: 'O Me! O Life! ..of the questions of these recurring; Of the endless trains of the faithless -- Of cities fill’d with the foolish; Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) Of eyes that vainly crave the light -- Of the objects mean -- Of the struggle ever renew’d; the poor results of all -- Of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; Of the empty and useless years of the rest -- with the rest me intertwined; The question, O me! so sad, recurring What good amid these, O me, O life?  Answer. That you are here --that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.' What will your verse be?"

- Professor John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society

Here is my verse, my gush: (revised from a poem composed in February)

C'est moi

I am...a teacher, a mentor, a colleague, an innovator, MLH, Tech Coach, American Literature teacher, Madame, prof de français. Does my career define me?

I am...a traveler, a sailor, a reader, a writer, a photographer, a linguist...Sometimes I speak, write, think in English. Parfois je parle, écris, pense en  français. Do my interests define me?

I am...fair with freckles, a blue-eyed brunette, petite, curvy...Does my physical appearance define me?

I am...creative, intelligent, innovative, generous...Do my attributes define me?

I am...sensitive, impatient, self-critical, a perfectionist...Do my faults define me?

I am...a wife, a sister, a daughter, a niece, an auntie, a godmother, a friend...Do my relationships define me?

For the first year of my life, I didn't have a name: I was Jane Doe. Miraculously, I was adopted, given my name: Melinda Marie Larson.

  • Melinda: gentle, sweet

  • Marie: the French variant of Mary "Star of the Sea," A name for a girl who grew up on the water, for a woman still most content upon it. I was named for my maternal grandmother. I was named for Mary, the Blessed Mother.

  • Larson: A noble surname, ethnic and geographic, “Son of Lars,” Scandinavian for Lawrence — a laurel, fragrant, ever green, a wreath to adorn the heads of heroes...I am child of noble victors, of Door County Scandinavians.

My name is the gift itself. I wasn't born into the Larson family. I was adopted, chosen, given this name.

In high school, I was Mindy; in college, Mel. When I started teaching, I was Mademoiselle.

In 2005, I got married. I became Mrs. Eric Horne.

I struggled with social convention, with "taking my husband's name."

He was considerate and appreciative. He was disappointed. He, too, desired to share his name with me. I added a hyphen, and the gift of another name.

I am Melinda Marie Larson-Horne.

A Thousand Words

November 14, 2013 Photo of the day: "Trust the Gush!"

As bell work in all of our Pewaukee High School English classes, students spend ten minutes each day reading a book of their choice. Although ten minutes is never enough, the time is meant to establish a culture of life-long readers by taking time to read for pleasure. Reading and writing are the cornerstones of any language arts course, yet constantly prescribing what students must read is counterproductive to developing a passion for reading. Likewise, it became evident that after six weeks of teaching students how to write a well-constructed, persuasive paragraph using the Pewaukee High School "IT'S CLEAR" format (Indent, Topic Sentence, Context, Lead-In, Evidence, Analysis, wRap-Up), we had taken much of the joy out of the writing process. Student writing had become so formulaic that individual voice, style, and passion had been sacrificed. How could we also establish a culture of life-long writers by encouraging students to write for pleasure?

On the last day of the first term, my colleague, Nan (who has been my mentor as I teach American literature this year -- my first English class since 1994), attended the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English convention where she heard Professor Tom Romano speak about the writing process. Dr. Romano instructed teachers to encourage their students to write what's on their minds and in their hearts: "A good writer has a distinctive voice. A great writer has an inimitable one. Regardless of subject or place in time or space, good and great writers share one trait—they are true to their personalities, spirits, and characters. Craft an authentic voice in your own writing. Then revel in the candor and insight, the absorbing and entertaining stories, the clear thinking, the good, maybe even great writing!" 

Therefore, during the second term, in addition to ten minutes of free reading, we began devoting ten minutes of each class for students to write what they are thinking, feeling, contemplating, worrying about, celebrating, and anticipating because, after all, this is what writers do! The activity has been named "Trust the Gush!"  Each day, we provide students with an image, quote, letter, or idea that may elicit a visceral and/or creative written response. Students are not required to write about the inspiration, but they are encouraged to keep their writing (either on paper or digitally), to "welcome surprises of language and meaning." Students have also created blogs to share their "gushes" with classmates and/or an audience beyond the classroom. 

The student response to this activity has been overwhelmingly positive. Although we recognize that it is necessary to learn to write for a variety of subjects and purposes, it has been wonderful to see what students can write when allowed to "trust the gush!"

Nan also recommended A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie. The book is a "collection of anecdotes, lessons, quotes, and prompts...[that] provide a delightfully varied cornucopia of inspiration —nuts-and-bolts solutions, hand-holding commiseration, and epiphany-fueling insights from fellow writers...who have gone from paralyzed to published." 

This book has served as inspiration for many student gushes and has also encouraged me in my own writing, which brings me to the real purpose of this post. I know you're out there, dear readers and followers of my blog! I know this because many of you have mentioned that you look forward to my posts each day and because my Blogger stats indicate that there are about a thousand hits on my blog each week. As my 2013 Project 365 enters its final fifty days, I am already planning for next year's project. I have learned so much this year about photography, writing, social media, and most of all, about my own aesthetics. I have blissfully reconnected with my visual and verbal creativity. What began as a simple photo of the day has evolved into inspiration for my own "gushes." Sometimes the images inspire the writing while other times, like today, the writing inspires the photos. I have several ideas for next year, but I haven't quite decided what I will do in 2014. I do know that I want to continue taking pictures and writing, but I'd love to know your opinions. Do you read what I write or do you just look at the pictures? Are you tired of flowers, landscapes, shorelines, clouds, sunsets, pages of books, my nephews (these seem to be recurring themes)? Should I choose a topic for each day of the week or perhaps focus on a specific idea or color for a week or a month? Rather than a quick post each day, would you prefer a more carefully crafted weekly post?  I welcome your suggestions. During the holidays, I will curate this year's photos into collections and decide my direction for a new year of observations and reflections. Will it be "A Year of Writing Dangerously" or will a picture be worth a thousand words? 

Life Happens

October 25, 2013 Photo of the day: "When Boats Fly" 
(guest photographer, Eric Horne)

The thermometer on my dashboard read 27° this morning as I drove to school in the dark. All signs indicate that the 2013 sailing season should be over, but for us, the season never started. When Eric sent this photo of our sleek, white boat against the clear blue sky this morning, my heart sank a little. For the first time since we've owned her, perhaps for the first time since I was ten years old, I didn't go sailing at all this year. Life just got in the way. 

When we bought our boat in 2006, a year after we were married, we spent a lot of time cleaning and tuning, making her own...and it was fun! We spend hours deliberating about what to name her. I can't mention her previous name; that would be bad luck!  We narrowed it down to two favorites: "Blew Eyes" (the obvious homophone of the wind and my own baby blues) and "Sail la Vie." As a French teacher, I enjoyed the play on words, and in the end, it seemed like the most inspired name. The French expression, "C'est la vie!" literally means "That's life!" Colloquially, it has taken on the equivalent of "S*** Happens!" How appropriate for a sport that relies primarily on the elements (wind, water, current), combined with an expensive vessel that inevitably malfunctions at some level and of course human miscalculation, and well, you get the idea!

While she rests in her cradle for the next several months, I will surely contemplate whether this is all worth it, weighing the pros and cons of owning a boat as the sailing season seems to get shorter and shorter, or in this case, non-existent. Sailing is a lot of work, a lot of expense, a lot of discomfort...yet it's also exhilarating, sometimes peaceful, a bonding experience...a part of who I am!

This sailing season was definitely a [w]itch, 
but there's always next year...Sail la Vie!


October 23, 2013 Photo of the day: "Beyond..."

There is a mysterious road almost hidden in the trees off of Lake Drive in our neighborhood. The entrance is marked by weathered pillars, and underneath the overgrown foliage, is a sign that reads "Est. 1909." Each time I walk by, I am at once intrigued and intimidated. I peer down the dark, leafy path, hoping for a glimpse of what lies just beyond the bend. 

Sometimes, I imagine a rundown "summer cottage," one of the stately homes where wealthy turn-of-the-century families from Milwaukee or Chicago summered on Okauchee Lake. When the seasons changed they packed up their finery and closed the house for the winter. As the years passed, the family moved on and the house was abandoned. 

Other times, I picture a rundown shack where someone lives in seclusion, hiding from prying eyes like my own. Is he the "Boo Radley" of Westshore? 

Since further down Lake Drive is a former speakeasy, a hideout for Al Capone and his gang, I sometimes imagine a former gangster's lair where hidden secrets are waiting to be discovered.  

There isn't a "No Trespassing" sign on the pillar, so I suppose I could satisfy my curiosity by simply walking down the road. Being tech-savvy, I could consult the satellite view on Google Maps, but I deny the urge. Sometimes the truth is dull in comparison to your imagination!

Capture the Color

I was honored when Catherine at La Mémoire Vive nominated me to participate in Travel Supermarket's Capture the Colour Contest. The challenge is to post five photos, each featuring one of the following colors: blue, green, yellow, white, red. Each photo should include a caption featuring links and sensory memories. Here are my choices. With the exception of the last photo, all of these pictures were taken with my iPhone.

BLUE: Hydrangeas in Chatham 
Cape Cod, Massachusetts - 2010
  • Sight: Stunning blue hydrangeas bordering weathered cedar shakes
  • Sound: Seagulls screeching and seals barking
  • Smell: Fresh sea air
  • Taste: Friday night lobster boils
  • Touch: Cold, hard sand under my bare feet
GREEN: Vineyards at Hillebrand Winery
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario - 2011
  • Sight: Lovely landmark hotels and horse-drawn carriages 
  • Sound: The deafening roar of the majestic Niagara Falls
  • Smell: Fragrant blossoms in the impeccably manicured gardens
  • Taste: Crisp whites and syrupy Ice Wines
  • Touch: The cool spray of the Falls on your skin
YELLOW: A lock with our initials: M<3E 
on Le Pont des Arts, Paris - 2011
  • Sight: Expressions of love, the spires of Notre Dame, the Ile de la Cité
  • Sound: The clicking of padlocks and camera shutters
  • Smell: The dampness of the Seine 
  • Taste: Fresh baguettes and delectable pastries
  • Touch: Creaking wooden footboards, cold metal keys tossed into the river
WHITE: Sailing off of Newport, Rhode Island 
(taken at the Castle Hill Inn, 2009)
  • Sight: A live postcard of New England 
  • Sound: Wet sails snapping in the wind, "Coming about!"
  • Smell: Freshly mown lawns
  • Taste: Salty spray and tart limes
  • Touch: Hard, slouching Adirondack chairs
RED: Our wedding - Nobel Victory Memorial Chapel 
Delafield, WI - July 22, 2005
  • Sight: Smiles and tears, my husband's handsome face 
  • Sound: Ode to Joy, Canon in D, Ave Maria, The Prayer, "I do!"
  • Smell: White roses and stephanotis
  • Taste: Sweet white icing and bubbly Champagne 
  • Touch: Soft embraces
The Capture the Colour Contest encourages participants to nominate five bloggers to continue the project. These women are wonderfully observant and creative. I hope they will share their lovely, colorful photos! A big merci  to Catherine for nominating me! Visit Catherine's charming blog, La Mémoire Viveto view her beautiful photos.