Tuesday, March 20, 2018

first, they gotta have a vision

So, everybody's talking about school lately.

I almost hashtagged school.


And I verbed a noun. Hashtagged.

I've been thinking about school and thinking  about my students and about their parents, and about all of my nieces, and the children of my friends, and I wonder how you guys let them walk up and down stairs without worrying about them, much less actually let them get on big yellow buses in the morning to spend whole days out of your sight.

I'm serious-- there was a period of days a while back when I would lie in bed at night and pray for my nieces and I kept having this recurring image of them walking carefully down the stairs in their homes (whatever happened to ranch homes, Nathan and Lucy, and Diane and Duke?? You guys couldn't get sprawling compounds somewhere?). I prayed for those girls about those steps for days.

Anyway, school.

I've been thinking, as teachers do, about how to help my students become more successful. But the way I'm thinking about their success has more to do with how to help THEM become more successful rather than how successful *I* do as a teacher. Always, there are things I can do to improve my practice, but part of this season's improvement on my part is figuring out how to help them improve their part. Maybe it springs from my teacher's heart as a believer, but I don't think it helps my students to tell them everything. I think that the things they will remember the longest and the purest are the things that they discover  on their own.

Like page numbers.

I kid you not-- I need to ask my old English teachers, but these guys refuse to look up chapters in a book. They also tend to want someone to call out dictionary pages. If someone asks, "Swaney, what page is this story on?" I will tell them without fail to look it up. Well, unless I'm in a hurry. Okay, sometimes I tell them the page number, but you know what I'm saying.

So they're here and they look at us with these eyes and they trust us. Man, it levels me when I think of all of the unmerited trust these guys have for us when they first meet us-- first day of school and they don't even know me, but they look at me with hands folded and eyes open and listening for where I want them to write their names and the date and do I want them to write the name of the assignment? Trust. I'm the expert. I could tell them virtually anything and they give me the benefit of the doubt.

Like, once I told my kids that back in the day, we used to have stationary bikes in ISS (in school suspension) and if you were sent to ISS you had to take a shift on the bike. I told them that this was how we powered the school until they (who is "they"??) finally hooked us into  the grid from Atlanta.

Anyway, I've been thinking  about how to help them become more proactive. They come equipped with brains to learn. They are born with them and they show up in my classroom with them. They are hard-wired for it. Learning makes  you feel good. There are all kinds of factors (learning disabilities, etc.) that get in the way sometimes, but their brains still respond to learning in a positive way-- it's science, I tell them.

Sometimes, we have to get past the quarterback in their minds that stands at the door and threatens to throat punch any new attempts at information. This guy stands on their noses and yells back at them "YOU CAN'T DO THIS!!! IT HURTS!!!! IT'S HARD!!!! LET'S EAT ICE CREAM!!!"

That same guy plays on a couple of teams in my own brain, too.

So here's where I'm at-- there's a verse that says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29: 17). Without a purpose, without a direction (a vision-- a plan), people aren't sure which direction to start walking, or which book to read first, or which choice to make in regard to...almost anything.

And now we're talking about purpose.

Telling a student that he'll be glad he has a diploma one day isn't inspiring. Even discussing his game plan for [insert name of Ivy League school here] doesn't present enough of a sense of "YAHOOOOO" to really make anyone work consistently for their goal.

Purpose "is closely linked to ‘flow’ - the state of intense absorption in which we forget our surroundings and ourselves. If you have a strong sense of purpose, you’re likely to experience flow more frequently. And as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has shown, flow is a powerful source of well-being. The more flow we experience, the happier we feel" (Psychology Today).

So, today is March 20 and I have been thinking about the brain and happiness and purpose and vision and flow in an intentional way for about six months now.

And suddenly, because of school shootings (another this morning in Maryland), the world is starting to notice that our students are unhappy. And scared. And lonely. And being mean as crud to each other. Welcome to what teachers and parents and students already know.

For me, I think I'm on the brink of finding a solution. And it has everything to do with the way the Creator made our brains.

First, they gotta have vision.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

stuff freshmen say...

Preplanning starts in one week, so I decided that I needed to go be in the space alone for a little while today.

I'm sitting in my classroom, trying to decide what needs to be done first. I came armed with iced coffee with a shot of espresso and extra cream, but I also have a head cold and a pounding headache, so I have the strongest feeling that not one chair or desk will be moved today.

Beside my desk is a huge corkboard that is about to be rotated to the back wall because it is pinned and glued and stuffed to overflowing-- it's one of my favorite things in the room. On this board are old football ribbons, tiny pictures doodled on sticky notes, prom pictures, birthday cards, snarky notes ("Advice to freshmen: If you wanna get cool with the upperclassmen, you def need to do illegal stuff and throw lots of parties. Fights are good, too. Like Mrs. Swaney says, 'Always run toward the fight!'"), a thank you note from a precious struggling freshman (who is now a sophomore in college) that simply says, in trembling script, "Thank you for teaching me." There's a keychain from Korea, a list of idioms from other countries on an index card (I have no idea what assignment that was attached to)-- "To live like a maggot in bacon! German for 'to live in luxury' :), and a newspaper clipping where I came in third after Peggy Hanahan and Mike Ryan for "biggest heart" on the teacher superlatives one year.

At the bottom of the board is an envelope with one of  my favorite things I've read from one of my freshmen. I can't remember what year it was written, but the name of the student is on the front and I will not soon forget him-- he was amazing. Here's what it says:

Dear upcoming freshman,

Now, I am writing this letter because I have to give you advice. Now I'm going to give you advice on what I was asking people older than me in high school or that were out of high school. Like, "how do you get girls?" or "how can I be popular?"

Popularity: Popularity is not all it's cracked up to be. There's more drama and more fake friends usually when you're popular. You let it all go to your head and you leave your real friends in the dark.

Popularity is not the same as middle school. If you were popular in middle school, there's a chance you won't be popular in high school. But on this note, the best thing to do is just be yourself because it's only high school and soon you will be out and no one will remember what you did four years ago.

Schoolwork and sports: School work will always be hard and boring, but that's only if you make it hard. If you have the mindset of "Let me get this done so I can pass and have no worries" then you will be fine.

Once you have your grades up then sports will become easier because you wouldn't have to worry about school work. Always take the chance to make up work, too, because you don't want to do it at the end of the year.

Drama: Every teenager's worst nightmare is to have drama. Try to stay away from drama because it will eat you up on the inside. You might understand how that feels and it's a word I can't write on this paper.

Gang Influences: NO! I'm telling you this is not the way to go. In high school they do not play and you can get hurt bad. It's not like middle school where kids think it's a game...It's not a game, okay?

Swag: Your own swag is your swag. Me, I'm more of a Bred 11s with some camo pants, a t-shirt and a snapback light skin curly headed kind of dude, but that's me. You might be different. But like I said, be yourself.

The rest you can learn on the way and tell that to the freshmen next year. Just remember this letter because trust me you can learn from it. I hope you have fun for the rest of your experience in high school.

Most sincerely...

You know, I quote my students all year long with a hashtag #fqotd or #stufffreshmensay -- freshmen are hilariously funny to me. But this reminds me again that one of my favorite things about freshmen is that they are old enough to have a fun conversation with, but young enough to still say almost everything they think. This transition time in their lives...their skin is freaking out, they haven't figured out their hair yet, and their voices are changing. They are hyper aware of all of their flaws in many cases, but just waking up to being aware that being different can be amazing, too. And if you can catch them juuuuust right....they'll blow your mind with their wisdom.

I think my headache is fading....

Thursday, April 14, 2016


normally, i have a thousand words.

i've used lots of them in the last few days so my brain might have turned into oatmeal in the last half hour.

here's the short  list:

a. Amazing police officers stopped by our house on Saturday morning and there is no doubt they were led here-- they were looking  for a crib for a family in need. A family whose baby needed a safe bed to sleep in. Suddenly, the crib I haven't been able to let go of or even talk about letting go of was set free from my heart. I'll write more about this later.

b. Their story, and the story about Ben's crib, kinda went viral. Because people want to hear stories with happy endings. Police officers with gigantic hearts, truly taking care of our community-- defending us, protecting the littlest ones of us. Yes, yes, yes.

c. A bunch of women I have never met sang out, "Me, too! Me, too!! My heart has loved a tiny one who outran me to the Father!!" There's so much comfort in the company of this sorority. We'll see them again! We will!! Rejoice!!

d. I've met a bunch of  journalists who want to report goodness!!! These guys want to proclaim HAPPY and HOPE. Channel 2, Fox 5 Atlanta, Channel 11. They're looking for JOY.

e. I'm reading Shawn Bolz's Translating God. Holy smokes, YES.

f. God has more for us than we could ever know.

g. He's good.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Let No Debt Remain

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except your outstanding debt to continually love one another, for the one who learns to love has fulfilled every requirement of the law.
Romans 13:8 TPT

I wonder, sometimes, if believers have begun to look down on love.

I hear believers talk about it-- not to be permissive, not to indulge or enable, not to be deceived. To avoid something we call "cheap grace" (can grace be cheap??).

And I think so much of it comes from feeling manipulated-- a world that has felt shamed and judged by us throws this in our collective face: "You're supposed to love me, not judge me!" and we say, "Yeah, well, you're not supposed to sin!"

I know-- that's kind of harsh and not every believer feels that way, but I've just been thinking a lot about how adorable we all are to the Father.

Because He is our Maker.

In my little studio space in the attic above the garage, I have a pile of what I like to call "artists proofs," but which are actually just cast off prints that didn't make the cut in my beloved printmaking classes in college.

I kept these prints for all kinds of reasons-- like, for a few of them I just loved the deep, deep burnt orange of the ink, even though I was a completely disobedient printmaker who didn't like the flat perfection that we were going for as much as I loved the grainy, almost spongy texture that came when the ink was too dry or too wet on the roller. The color, so rich, but in no design at all. Just vivid blocks on cheap newsprint.

A couple of the pages are unfinished first run-throughs of a jungle scene for a children's book I had (and still have) on my mind, and if you've ever done a linoleum cut then you'll understand why I couldn't bear the idea of throwing those away. If you've ever run copy after copy through a press at two in the morning on paper that cost $5 a sheet and you're too broke to even buy a cup of coffee, you'll understand why those papers are never getting thrown away.

Several of the pages are from the hours I spent experimenting on the old school letter press. I never knew until the first time I was alone at the letter press that one of my favorite ways to write poetry is while I'm setting letters and words with these little lead pieces of the alphabet, placing them backwards across the scene and tightening them with an old tool that so many girls before me had used in that same basement studio. Here's one:

singing sweet
lyrics, saying LOVE
holding wishes
against their chests
and hope
in their

Anyway, I can't throw any of it away.

All of  those scraps of paper are mine-- I love them. I would bring them all inside. They're safe, protected in portfolios. I'm keeping them for who knows what, but I made them. I could never throw them away.

Sometimes I realize that I am a scrap of paper in the hands of my maker. But I am exquisite paper-- quality stuff. He has mixed the most perfect colors in me. He put me together with intent, with purpose, and He never planned to throw me into the scrap heap, even at my lowest. Because I was always His.

Let no debt remain outstanding except the debt to love. Every one of us is His perfectly crafted piece of art. A holy expression of His joy, His beauty, His faithfulness, His generosity and sweetness. What if we began to see ourselves as a beloved, cherished piece of original artwork? What if I saw you as His prize?

Right now, some friends of mine are waking up in the holy land-- yesterday, my dear friend Toni told me in a message that she was undone to be walking where He walked and my heart nearly explodes with the YES of what she is feeling-- to be where He physically chose to live on earth is like nothing...nothing is like it. It is holy. Sacred.

And to think, He physically knit me together. He has touched me-- His own hands formed me, and formed you. He's calling us back-- the artist is calling us back. It is holy. Sacred.

You are wholly loved. Sacred. His own.

Let no debt remain outstanding, save the debt to love who He loves. To treasure what He treasures. Who He treasures.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

bloom and grow forever

I said I'd write tonight. I spent the  day with two of my nieces yesterday, spent today reading  Greek mythology for school, and spent the evening grocery  shopping because I have decided this is the year I'm going to take care of  myself at school, and that means that there must be breakfast at this house.

Now I want to go to bed, but I said that I would write tonight.

So I'm taking some advice that I would give to one of my students if she  knew that she needed to write a journal entry before bed but she was so sleepy she almost tripped and fell over a washcloth in the  bathroom. I would tell her to write what's been on her mind.

So here goes.

I've been thinking of the body of Christ. My little town has been going through a series of crises over the  last couple of months-- violent crime from bored/angry/misguided/who knows? youth has sprung up and the good men and women of this once fairly sleepy town have responded in so many and varied ways, and so many of them beautiful.

Honestly, they've just amped up efforts they were already pouring themselves into. Feeding the hungry, praying for the church, housing the homeless, offering Him worship, crying out for justice, caring for the elderly, loving the unlovable, giving their money, cheering on the discouraged.... so many jobs, so many faithful ones.

Anyway-- and  this is a little scattered, I guess-- I've been thinking about the body of Christ and why we're here and all of  the nuggets of gold He has been dropping  into my heart over the last  couple of months. Like, when my dear friend Kenny Peavy came to lead us in worship in my living room last month and he poured out words about the kingdom. Kenny said something like this: People are walking around all day looking and longing for the Kingdom-- for Jesus Christ-- and we walk up and bam, there it is! The Kingdom of God!

Selah. Pause and think about that.

We carry around with us the  power of  God. We carry around the answer to all of  the pain and sadness of the world. The One who can mend broken hearts lives in us. Our lives of  freedom and redemption are  proof of His ability and willingness to take  and redeem anything at all. He has shone His light deep into  us. And we have the treasure of His presence and His power in these jars of clay, evidence that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. He has taken up residence in us. His kingdom...it's here. And holy smoke, what can happen when the Kingdom draws near. What could happen if the Church were to say Yes? One mighty, holy Yes.

My friend Hayley sat on my front porch in the middle of a riotous display of God's power through thunder and  lightning, and she said, "Lord, You have my YES."

Yes. You have my yes.

I've been thinking about what happens when an army of believers  who have given Him their YES and who have determined that they will embrace the Kingdom of God within them, let His light shine through our faces and noses and elbows and toes, letting every word  drip with the richness of His life within us-- what would happen if that army rushed on the city? Climbed the walls? Loved every single kid they came in contact with? Prayed for instead  of cursing  their leaders-- even  the corrupt, weak, fearful leaders; the ones who have lost our respect? What would happen if the people of God held His Word aloft as our only weapon--the mightiest weapon for which there is no counter?

What is required of us?

We must submit to Him. I must submit to Him. He is worthy of it all.

We have to know Him.

We have to study His word, we have to listen close for His voice because His sheep know His voice, but I will tell you, it takes practice to recognize His voice in the middle of a world where things are hardly ever quiet and every single person you know has an opinion and many of them add "thus saith the Lord" to their opinions.

We are at a critical place (I speak to myself; I share my journal with you) where we have to invest in so much time with Him in the secret place where we are more used to the light of His glory than the light of our iPhones, televisions, and computers.

We have to run toward Him in worship-- musicians, non-musicians, it doesn't matter. His word says that He is looking for worshipers (John 4:23-24). I don't know about you, but if my God is looking for something that specific, then if I don't know anything else about what He wants, at least I know  THAT. What does it mean to worship Him? It's to give Him our attention, our words, our ideas, our hopes, our everything. It's to sit before Him in the quiet or in the loud and put our eyes on Him and tell Him how good He is and how much we love Him...and then wait for Him. Not metaphorically. Wait.

We have to come alongside Him-- figure out what He is doing and do that with Him.


These are some of the things I have been thinking about.

He has planted us-- we  are called to be oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor (Isaiah 61:3).

I want to be one of those oaks whose limbs bend and sway with the wind of the Spirit and whose roots grow deep into the soil of His presence and His goodness. I want Him to cut me down and use me to build. I want Him to call me up out of the dirt to stand with arms outstretched in worship. I want to bow or sway or burn, but for His kingdom. I want His Kingdom established on earth as it is in heaven because I love Him and it's what He wants. I want Him. There is nothing more important.

Night and day and day and night, let incense arise.

Bloom and grow forever.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

welcome :)

It's been ages since I updated this blog.

I think about it almost daily, honestly. "I should write about this" and "Hm...interesting... I should record this on the blog..." are thoughts that fly into my mind and sort of escape by the time I make it home. Time, worship rehearsal, Facebook, the house, front porch conversations, art, reading, grading-- these things compete. The reality is, though, that I should be writing.

[all the writers nod in total guilty understanding]

But here's what I have been thinking of the last few days-- every year, my blog registers a surge in readership around the beginning of the school year. Parents and students do what we all do (I did it in college, too!) : google your professor, look up that teacher, see if you can find a mugshot, hope to find academic honors, get the inside scoop on the person who will be waxing [hopefully] eloquent from the front of the room for the next nine months.

Anyway, I'm not advertising this blog on my school website-- this is my personal blog, but if you guys are as nosy as I am, you'll find yourself here eventually.

I understand and welcome the research, so I thought that this year I'd make it a bit easier to get to the bottom of some things! :)

1. The first thing to know about me is that I'm pretty much exactly the way I seem. Some of you will meet me for the first time tomorrow night (freshman open house at our school) and you will wonder if I'm always this hyper. The answer is YES-- if I seem like I'm having a great time, I really am. Being crushed together in one place with one goal is one of my favorite things, whether it's in our classroom (because it's not just mine-- it's yours, too) or in a living room packed with friends who are worshiping or studying. I love being part of a pack. And that means that I love community. And that means that I like being with people who like each other. And that means that I am going to do my best to help create an environment in our classroom where we like each other. Mutual respect-- it starts with me because I'm the grownup. You're welcome :)

2. You won't find any mugshots of me online. That doesn't mean I'm perfect, it just means God has been watching out for me for a very, very long time. My life is a constant example of His grace and goodness. And my life is also pretty much an open book-- when you google my name, you'll see that I am very active in church (I lead worship with a team of passionate believers)-- but I will love and accept you no matter what your belief system is (I guess I draw the line at cannibalism, though). I kind of like mean people because usually they're ridiculously sweet under all that anger, too, so don't count yourself out if you're a turd.

Btw, while we're on the subject....you might indeed find dirt or mugshots or hear rumors about your teachers, but I will tell you this-- if it makes it to you, it's not a scandal and you didn't discover it. Your teachers are [mostly] good men and women who are trying their best to do right by you. We've all made mistakes, right? Your parents, your friends, YOU... let's just do this: try to treat others the way you want to be treated. You don't judge your teacher for what you've heard about him/her, and we'll try not to judge you based on what we've heard about you. Let's deal with the person standing in front of us. Deal? :)

3. I like English Literature a LOT, but I LOOOOVE teenagers and I feel called to be in your lives. I feel part of what I was created for was to be an adult in your life that does her best to find the gold in you. If that involved reading a good story together, or figuring out why an author chose THIS symbol over maybe THAT symbol, then all the better. I'm nosy, so I'll ask you to write about things that make you sad or that make you happy. I will also want to know if you've ever been in love :) I want to know what makes your heart sing and what makes you laugh or cry. And I think sometimes you care about what I'm feeling, too. I love that about teenagers. I want to help you get ready for life-- I want to help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up and how to work through all kinds of problems. Many times, writers have done the work of figuring out some life lessons we can learn from, and I feel that I glean new stuff from old classics every year-- often, through some insight brought to the class through the voice of a 14 year old genius (A4, class of 2017, I'm looking at you guys). And that's why I teach high school.

4. Did I mention that I'm nosy? I have one word for you: journals.

5. The classroom: My classroom is very much conversation centered. We'll talk all year. Which means that you need to do the reading that is assigned-- hopefully, having your own mini-computers this year will help with some of that. Anyway, in order to have a good conversation, all participants need to feel liked and respected, so we'll start there-- I like humor, but I avoid sarcasm because sometimes people don't know for sure if they're being respected or being made fun of. I don't allow people to talk about people who are not in the room, unless it's Lady Gaga or you're related to one of the Real Housewives and you have dirt. You know. Stuff like that. It's all about respect and information-- you saw that I'm nosy, right? :)

OH! Some of you lucky ones will have a class with two of us in the room-- it's an experiment Mrs. Overby and I are doing, and you lucky things will be the object of all of our studies. You should know that you can completely distract us, especially if you laugh at us. We're pretty much hysterically funny. Mrs. Overby is like no one you've ever met before. I'll let you figure that out for yourself.

6. I will straight up quote you. If you make me laugh, you will find yourself being quoted (anonymously) under the "freshmen" or "overheard" label (see the right margin of this blog-- you should check those out. My favorite is the one where one of my boys said the dumbest thing about sneezing). I don't typically start right away. But it'll happen.

7. Both of my degrees are from Agnes Scott College and I love, love, love my college. If you're a smart young woman, I will likely push ASC on you for the next four years. My little seven year old niece understands that first she will go to Agnes Scott but then she told me this summer that she needs ME to understand that she will spend some time ALSO playing soccer at University of Georgia and also, btw, War Eagle (she has a lot of adults in her life with agendas... :) ).

8. My husband teaches English at Rockdale. And he's awesome.

9. To parents: You guys have my respect. I cannot imagine how much courage it takes for you to release your precious ones into the world every day. They are your jewels. You have fought for them and fought with them and fought over them and will go down fighting for them until your last breath. Thank you for trusting us with your sons and daughters. My heart is to be the answer to your prayers for your child's teacher this year. I'm not bionic, but I want to do my best to honor you and to honor them. I know you're doing your best, too.

There's so much more to know, but we have the next few months to find it all out. Plus, I'm going to tell you all of the class rules for the first week of school. You think I'm kidding?

You're welcome to read anything on this whole blog and find out other stuff. There's some sad stuff here, and there's some funny stuff here. You'll figure out pretty quickly that I'm a Christian and that it's the most important thing about me, but please don't be scared if that's not the way you think. My call is to be loving. I'm trying my best to follow my Savior's example in that. You'd love Him if He was behind the podium in my classroom, and if He lives in me...you need to feel loved by the person behind the podium, no matter who you are.

We'll have fun this year!!!!

Mrs. Swaney

(this is beautiful)