Stepping into the forest of my mind

Stepping into the forest of my mind
Just as every journey begins with a first step, every story begins with the first word.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Storyteller

Why am I a writer?  That's a good question.  I have always been a storyteller.  Perhaps I get it from my father.  He would tell us stories by candlelight every night in the summertime.  Each night one of his four children would be the hero of the adventure, rescuing the others from imminent danger or leading the way back home to safety.  We would hold our breath during the climaxes every time, even though we knew the story would end happily.  Maybe that was it.  Life situations don’t always end happily, but in stories they can. 

The Storyteller
I don’t write fantasy, I write contemporary short stories, mostly YA.  No vampires or zombies or aliens.  While they are all fascinating stories, mine are grounded in possibilities.  Some protagonists have parents, some don’t.  But no matter what happens in the story, somehow the protagonist learns to deal with the life situation he or she is living.  That’s not to say that nothing exciting happens in my stories.  I LOVE adventure and I LOVE nature, so I usually combine the two to create action in the story.  I have children lost in a cave while the protagonist deals with feelings of loss and anger and another situation where a young protagonist is the only one home to rescue her grandfather from danger.  My characters deal with unwanted responsibilities and desires to make others happy.  While I realize that these are universal themes, I hope to make my stories unique in their situations.      

I love to learn, as I have said before.  I enjoy researching topics and speaking with experts for short articles I write for a local magazine.  Whether I am learning something new with the students I substitute teach or learning along with my classmates in a new online course I’m taking, I enjoy telling stories of my learning experiences.  That’s what I will be doing in my memoir about going to college with five children in tow.  My learning stories encompass how to study on the go, attending my children’s sporting events, creating chemistry presentations with the twins, and creating French videos with NON-French speaking camera crew—okay, my younger children. 

What about you?  Do you like to create stories or relay family anecdotes?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Learning How to be a Writer and a Saleswoman

I sold a few books the other night at Camden County Community College in New Jersey during the Resource Fair for Special Needs Children.  I am a writer and a part of a resource anthology entitled Easy to Love but Hard to Raise.  This book is about children with “invisible” disabilities [ADHD, PBD, SPD, OCD, PDD, etc.] and the parents and guardians and doctors who assist with their upbringing.

I also contribute blog posts about my experiences raising a daughter with ADHD and learning disabilities.  My most recent post is about Driver's Education.  You can read it at

Okay, so I write.  But this saleswoman hat seems a bit big.  It covers my eyes and ears.  I sit.  I smile.  I play with bookmarks and post cards.  I try to pull parents and guests to my table with my sappy spiel.  Most times, I just looked ridiculous in my oversized saleswoman hat.

            Toward the end of the night, I did engage other parents in discussion about our special needs children.  We compared notes.  We shared experiences, but I only sold a few books.  Any suggestions for next time I need to sell books?  I need to get better if I’m going to publish a memoir and become a saleswoman for that book. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Learning Illuminates Life

Changed my mind.  I don't want to go to school.
Life itself is a journey.  Recording life’s adventures is different from writing about them. 
I’ve been recording my family’s adventures for years.  Now I wish to write about my journey.  This is memoir.  This is what I hope to learn.   

            I think we all learn something new each day.  I know I do.  Whether I substitute teach in grammar school or high school, I’m learning how to control each mix of students, how Mrs. Jones performs the daily tasks, or how to present geometry word problems to the class.  Life is a learning journey.

I’ve been writing about my adventures in substitute teaching where I have to ad lib intelligence in all disciplines.  It’s like being on stage without a script.  I still expect to share a few humorous anecdotes while substituting, but I’d like to share my education journey through college as a non-traditional student—as a Mom with five children in tow. 

I’d also like to share my experiences in learning how to write memoir using these college adventures as the foundation for a book.  I’m signed up for a course, “Write Your Memoir in Six Months.”  It begins in January.  And I’m just as scared as I was when I began college as a non-traditional student.  My twins, my babies, were in second grade at that time, my son was in fifth grade, another daughter was in seventh and my oldest, who has learning disabilities, was in eighth. 

Come; join me on my journey into writing memoir.  Please offer your advice and support.  Pray I have the courage to complete the task in front of me.  Thanks for stopping by my new Adventures in Writing blog.  Please stop by again.  ~ Victoria Marie Lees

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Starting the School Year with a Substitute

No one can plan for medical emergencies or when babies are born.  Several times I have been a substitute for the first week or two of school.  This particular time, a history teacher’s wife was having their first baby.  You can’t miss that.  You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you do. 

Substitutes at the beginning of the school year need to trudge through the deluge of returning paperwork before they can even get to the lesson plans. 
In September, especially at the high school level, there is usually a discussion about 9-11.  What I didn’t realize was that these sophomore students were only pre-schoolers at the time.  They did not understand what was going on.  Therefore, it was necessary to tweak the teacher’s lesson plan a little. 

Instead of having the students write the required essay about where they were and how they felt about 9-11, I attempted to lay out the facts through famous photographs and the personal details of my day so that students could begin to understand what actually happened.  I had the students brainstorm why they think the particular targets were chosen by Al-Qaeda; i.e., the financial system [twin towers in New York], our national defense [the Pentagon], and, of course, the leader of the United States [the White House].  After our discussions, then I had the students write their opinions about the topics discussed. 

I liked having the same subject matter for the whole day.  It gave me the chance to get better with each class period.    
For this history class, I had the opportunity to look at the 100-question citizenship test for the United States and the students and I got a chance to work together to see how much we knew.  I was surprised at how much I didn’t know.  Together we learned more about our government, the political party platforms, and what it means to be a citizen in the United States. 

This is why I enjoy substitute teaching.  It keeps me on my feet and learning. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Pleasure of Reading to Children

My greatest pleasure, when substituting for the younger grades, is reading to the class.  I was lucky enough to enjoy this privilege when my own children were in grade school.  My children would choose their favorite stories for me to read to the class, usually Dr. Seuss or Bill Peet books.  Other times, they wanted me to read one of my works-in-progress, a new children’s adventure short story.  For those, I’d bring in visuals, magazine photos of bats or caves, or family camping photos of locations we’d visited.  Sometimes my son or daughter would draw pictures to go along with my children’s stories.
            Whenever we have extra time in class or if the teacher says that the substitute can either read a story to the class or allow free play time, I choose to read to the students.  And I don’t just read.  I sing, as in the poetry of the words of the story.  In the youngest stories there is usually a cadence, a flow that a reader can capture for the children.  Dr Seuss and Bill Peet (and many other authors) excel at having a rhythm to their story words.

            Then there are the possibilities in the stories.  What happens next?  Always give the children a chance to think about what could happen next and what it would mean to the protagonist [main character] of the story.  This works on students’ critical thinking skills.   

            Reading a good story to students can relieve tension in the classroom, both the teacher’s and the students’.  After a session of structured teaching, reading can allow teachers and students the chance to relax and ready themselves for the next subject. 

If you’re ever lost for something to do when substituting, or if the students are becoming rambunctious while you struggle with lesson plans, pluck a book from the classroom bookshelves and bring the students to the carpet.  Reading gives both children and adults a chance to imagine the possibilities.                  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Gift of Thanks

The joy of substituting, every once in a while, you reach someone and help them to understand concepts in review when the teacher leaves work. 

High school geometry.  Multi-step word problems.  My two nemeses.  However, once I stopped pacing the teachers’ lounge grumbling about word problems and no answer key I looked at the pile of worksheets.  Remodeling a home.  Hm, my husband and I have done this several times.  First problem, a fence around the home.  Perimeter.  I can visualize this.  A floor plan of the home with the dimensions.  A need for new floor tile.  Area.  I can do this. 

Once I figure it out, I can help others.  Diagrams.  Figures.  I didn’t want to just give the students the answers.  I wanted to help them see how we get each answer and why we do the steps we do.  Visuals.  Understanding that the fence is not right up against the home but so many feet away from the home, either side, front and back.  And, of course, the floor space in particular rooms, hallways, or entranceways was not rectangular or square.  It had narrow spots, fireplaces, appliances. 
I wanted the students to show all the work so that the teacher could see how we got our answers and thereby the students could see the thinking that goes behind the answers.   

After class, while I was still knee deep in organizing and labeling worksheets, the lovely Bangladesh girl from class came up to my desk. 

“Um,” she said softly, “I want to…thank you…for helping me in geometry class.”  A smile of understanding lit her face.  It glowed. 

I smiled back.  “You’re welcome.”  Helping others understand.  Isn’t that what teaching is all about?    

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All the Classroom’s a Stage: Third Grade Thespians

Children are natural born actors.  Think about it.  Aren’t children always looking for an audience?  A two-year-old follows you around to give her rendition of “tantrum” or a nine-year-old offers his soliloquy on “the importance of being a whiney-pants.”  Children practice acting daily so that when they finally reach elementary school, they are more or less professionals.  Professionals get paid, Victoria Marie, you might say.  But yes.  These elementary school actors are paid.  Think barter system here. 

            The melodramatics of Collin; he is forever falling on the floor.  No one is around him.  Nothing is on the floor; no bookbags, pencils, papers, or workbooks.  If I miss my cue—the overly loud thump is my cue, but he usually waits for me to be looking at him—he switches pantomime.  Now he holds his head all the time, when he’s not thumping it on the desk to get my attention, of course.  As for payment for these particular performances, he simply wishes to miss math to be able to sit in the nurse’s office with ice on his…whatever he decides hurts by the time he walks [perfectly well, I might add] down the hallway to the nurse’s office. 

Yes, the thespians are usually boys in elementary school.  While the boys prefer stunt work without dialogue, you’ll find the girls in award-winning supporting roles—with plenty of dialogue.  Girls have an uncanny knack for playing the assistant—especially when you don’t need an assistant.  Angelina is cute as a kitten, but she was always around my hips today.  Every time I glanced at her chair, it was vacant.    

What dialogue do female assistants use?  Why a running commentary of what everyone else is doing in the classroom.  And I mean everyone!

“Johnny ripped a little piece off Susie’s worksheet and crumpled it and then when he walked by Tommy, he shoved it down Tommy’s shirt,” the actress chatters on.  “And then Kyle started picking at his big dragon eraser and he’s making a mess all over the floor and …”

Female thespians look for verbal appreciation for payment.  A “thank you” can go a long way in helping a young actress feel appreciated, although it does absolutely nothing to help her stay in her seat and complete the class work.

Now don’t forget.  Actors desire more than one person in their audience, if they can help it.  A classroom full of giggles helps build confidence—but does nothing for furthering the lesson plan the poor substitute is trying desperately to decipher. 

For me, well I perform before a captive audience.  Not only do I need to read the audience instantly, I also need to adlib intelligence in all subjects.  I guess there’s a bit of thespian in us all. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Need for a Fourth Grade Math Tutor

From competence to incompetence.  The difference a substitute day can make.
Like I said before, I always try to demonstrate to students on the board how to do the mathematical steps, but when the steps are changed—and no one tells me—then I’m the one who needs the help.  I don’t know.  I could do long division in the old days, but now?  With the “Everyday Math” methods, I need someone to demonstrate to ME how to divide like a fourth grader. 
I wrote on the board 879 divided by 37 in the standard division bar method and proceeded to explain to the class how 37 can’t go into 8, but it can go into 87. 
“Now,” I said, “how many times can…”
A young lady started waving both hands in the air.  I thought she had a medical emergency.  It ended up that I was the emergency.
“That’s not how Mrs. Jones does it.”  She told me.
“Okay,” I told Miss Smarty Pants, offering her the black marker [no chalkboards anymore, remember?].  “Then show me how Mrs. Jones does long division.”             
My eyes started to dry out as I tried to decipher the drawings on the board.  Hieroglyphics were easier to understand.  
“What’s this right hand line down the side of the division problem?”  I asked Miss Pants.
“That’s so you can divide into the whole number,” she told me.
“But I thought that’s what we were doing with the standard, curved division symbol.”
She just rolled her eyes and began writing round numbers down the outside of the right hand line.
“Um,” I tried to regain the upper hand in the class as snickers rang out when the students watched my brow become one big furrow.
“Why are you estimating?”  I asked.  “Don’t we want the correct answer?”
“Estimating’s easier,” Miss Pants assured me as she rewrote the problem as 40 into 800 and then estimated the answer as 20.
 “Easier for whom?”  I desperately needed a few Tylenol.  I watched as she next took 40 into 80 and then added up figures outside another vertical line.  The board was covered in mathematical computation.
I am a firm believer that the more steps there are in a problem, the more chance for error.  But I certainly couldn't tell Miss Pants that.  The substitute teacher had now become the student. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Grammar Geek Turns Algebra Nut

I’ve found that I love demonstrating those long algebra problems on the board for the students when I substitute for math classes.  You know the problems.  They go all the way across the page.  Whether combining like terms, “please excusing my dear Aunt Sally,” or solving for x, I could do them all day long.  Upper elementary school to high school.  It’s the only part of algebra I’ve retained from college.

            I feel so competent when I know more than [or at least the same as] the students.  Being visual myself, I find the best way to instruct in math class is showing each step to the students and answering any questions they might have.  Because I know the processes, I can pull the problem apart. And I remember the rules.

            I recall taking a basic skills algebra class in college to prepare myself for college level math.  I had found it interesting that my younger fellow students all had an “Aunt Sally.”

            “It’s such an old-fashioned name,” I told the professor when I approached her with my own question.

            The professor smiled.  “No, Victoria,” she said.  “It’s a metonym, a way to remember the algebra steps.  Parentheses, exponents, multiplication/division, addition/subtraction:  Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.”

            “Interesting.”  I blushed.  I had merely remembered the steps.  When my son finally entered upper elementary school, he learned P.E.M.D.A.S.  Same processes.

            Solving for x builds on the simplifying process to answer the equation.  The thing to remember when solving equations is to do the same mathematical processes to each side of the equal sign.  The object is to get the variable on one side and a number, the answer, on the other side of the equal sign.  To separate a variable from numbers, you perform the opposite mathematical process; i.e., subtraction when it is addition, division when it is multiplication. 
            Sorry.  I do like teaching something I know.  Of course, I probably wouldn’t give up my grammar geek status for algebra.  But it is a fun process, once you get the hang of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cluttered Desks, A Substitute’s Nightmare

               Substitutes don’t have time to mine the teacher’s desk for classwork or the correct textbooks to use for the lesson plan at hand.  Students need to be on task, and the substitute needs to appear competent.  If not, the efficient system of education breaks down.  Students think it is a “free” day, and the substitute feels ineffectual.  
Many times—especially in the primary grades—the series books of Reading, Grammar, and Spelling all look the same with no distinguishing titles written on the front cover, just glorious colorful images.  The books all seem closely related in activities and structure.  Grammar and Spelling exercises are laid out in a story format, and the Reading books have their own set of vocabulary and context clues set up in sentences.      
I’ve unearthed the correct textbook on a table by the whiteboard after combing a cluttered desk for fifteen minutes—fifteen long, noisy minutes as students who have nothing to do chatter along and the time allotted for that subject rushes by. 
As I have explained before, it can be dangerous—time wise—to ask elementary school students which or where books or papers are in the classroom because; a. they don’t know, or b. they need 45 minutes to explain Mrs. Jones’ system of organization.  And then you can’t get them to stop midway into the explanation because the student will cry or say you are rude for interrupting or that they haven’t gotten to the important part yet.
            It can be equally dangerous—work wise—to ask the high school students.  They also might not know, but they would rather have a free period than do classwork more often than not. 
            How do you get around this problem?  Try to arrive extra early, before any duties begin, and ask grade level or same subject matter teachers if they know where something in the lesson plan is or where the teacher left off working the day before or what an acronym in the lesson plan means.  If you don’t have time before class begins, in high school look for a student you know to be trustworthy to ask questions pertaining to where the teacher left off or routine classroom procedure.  Only as a last resort, go with a majority of the students to clarify lesson plans.  I still believe you should refrain from asking the elementary school students unless absolutely necessary. 
Many times the teacher does not plan on being out the next day so things are not organized on his or her desk.  It’s like my husband and his garage.  HE knows where everything is [most times], but I think a tornado hit the inside of our garage.