Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Silver Linings

Skyping with Margie
Today could have been terrible, horrible even. I could have pulled an Alexander and believed I had the worst day ever in store, but I knew that if I could just get to school, it wouldn't be true. I've had some back issues for the last week. Yesterday afternoon the sore lower back decided that it would be a fine time to not only seize up, but that the addition of irregular muscle spasms would be terrific. Pain. I woke up this morning and it was the same, if not worse. My husband recommended I stay home. I decided to go to school. Home or school, my back would hurt. At school I would have 75 distractions to get my mind off of it. 

It was the right decision.

It was an awesome day. A day where we Skyped with Margie Culver about our Mock Caldecott winners. A day where we connected over story - Malala's story to be exact. A day where I introduced the kids to a new - to them - author, Neal Shusterman. A day where I got to share how disturbed I still am about Unwind, six years after reading it. It rocked.

But my favorite part of the day wasn't from a lesson, or any great insights from my students. It came in my 8th hour. I stood up to talk to the kids, to prepare them for their Skype visit. As I stood a muscle spasm went across my back, literally taking my breath away. Not wanting the kids to notice, I tried to keep my face neutral and just took a quick breath. Jayden piped up from the side and asked me how my back was doing. I was touched he remembered from yesterday and was observant enough to know that I wasn't doing great. I told them that getting old wasn't for the weak and we moved on. 

Jayden's comment made me look back over the day, to realize what I had been too busy to notice. They're always terrific, but forgetful. I often find myself absentmindedly straightening chairs, picking up pencils, charging Chromebooks when they leave each day. Today they cleaned up after every class. One boy grabbed the books out of my hand when I was putting them away and kindly told me to sit down. Many kids asked if I needed something done, if they could refill my water bottle, run something to the office, anything. My own sons had grabbed the books I was bringing into school today and took them from me, carrying them to the room. There quiet actions reminded me once again, middle school kids do care. It might not be in the flowery demonstrative ways of an elementary student, but it's there. I get less drawings with hearts and rainbows, less spontaneous hugs around the waist, but there love still shines through. Even, as in my 4th hour class today, if I need to give a lecture, the relationships we've established are an undercurrent in our community. The quiet comments in the hall, the kid that stops back by to apologize, it makes it all worth it.

Silver linings are there all the time.

Our class Mock Caldecott winners are below...
1st/2nd hour: Snow White -winner. Honors on the left and right.
4th/10th hour: The Night Gardener is the winner. Honors on the left and right of it.
8th/10th hour: The Night Gardener is the winner. Honors on the left and right of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Power of Books

Yesterday I jumped on to Twitter to send a friend a message and saw our president elect's tweets about Congressman John Lewis. To say that I was dismayed would be an understatement. I don't have a lot of respect for our president-elect, but I do have great respect for John Lewis. To say Lewis is, "All talk, talk, talk - no actions or results" was beyond the pale. I sat looking at my computer in shock. Then, I decided to act.

If you know me personally, you might know that I abhor conflict, I cannot tolerate a lot of negativity. I could tweet my dismay, I could complain, but instead I thought of Lewis. I thought of what I learned about him from the amazing March trilogy of graphic novels he penned with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. I recalled that they are constantly checked out in my classroom. So I figured I'd buy another set for my class. While purchasing it, I also decided to buy a set for my house for my boys and husband to read. Then I shared on social media that I felt it was a great day to purchase this series. I assumed that others, like myself, would want to do something positive. So many friends wrote me back that they were going to order a set themselves. My heart swelled with pride that more families were going to know Lewis's story. 

As the day wore on I saw that first Lewis's memoir, then the March trilogy, were now out of stock on Amazon. At one point, the trilogy was the #1 book of the day. Apparently the increase in sales for it was 106,700%. Yowza. I hope there were folks flooding bookstores as well to purchases these fine books. What a celebration of an amazing man. 

If you are looking for some books to purchase, I give the March trilogy my highest recommendation. It is a series that I think everyone in our country should read. I'm sharing all of the books I ended up purchasing in my own "protest" below because maybe you, like me, feel powerless and want to do something. Here are some books that need to be in our classrooms. We can all learn a lot from the power of books. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Middle School Students Rock

Great advice from the YMCA where I swim.
I know that I've done this to some wonderful teacher years ago. You know, when you ask what they teach, they reply middle school, and you say something like..."I'm sorry..." or the like. I couldn't imagine teaching that age group. Why, I'm not sure. My boys were young, so I had no frame of reference. Well, I guess I do have a frame - I was a middle school student myself. Maybe that's where we are all coming from?

Honestly, I didn't love middle school, but I also didn't hate it. Sure, I struggled with self confidence. I couldn't figure friendships out at times. I really had no idea where I fit in. But that only got worse in high school. In all honesty, if I could go back to a time that took away high school and dumped me straight from middle school into college, that would be awesome. At any rate, not sure where my previous negative attitude towards the middle school aged kids came from. 

Tonight I took Rosie to the vet. Seems my dog has bronchitis. Who knew? She'll be fine, she's curled up next to me as I type. It was a new vet and when she asked what I taught and I mentioned 7th grade, her reply was, "I'm sorry." 

At first I began to laugh it off, but then I realized that I didn't want to. Not that I was irritated at her at all, but it dawned on me that I could help change the narrative of what a middle school kid is like, at least to this person. So I told her how much I love these kids. How I chose to teach them. In describing a few stories of my students to her, she began to smile and nod.

I drove home from the vet with a light heart. Rosie would be fine, but it was more than that. I thought of my students Skyping today. How so many were nervous to do it, to talk in front of the computer, but did it for me because I asked. I thought of the sweet comments from them upon finding out I was getting a new puppy this spring. I thought of their kind Christmas gifts, all showing that they pay attention, that they truly do know me. And I thought of the sweet comments upon seeing them on Tuesday. The hugs, word of welcome, and comments about being back together after our two weeks off made my day. 

I love these kids more than I ever thought I would. They are so much better, have so much more potential, than people realize. Kids will truly make our world a better place. I see it every day and am beyond grateful to do what I do.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Ahead

It seems that I repeatedly see comments on Facebook that people are ready for 2017, that 2016 cannot be gone soon enough. I can understand the sentiment. 2016 was filled with many negative, or sad, highlights. But it was also filled with joy, with love, with amazing memories I will treasure.

That being said, I love a new year. Just as I love the start of the school year, I also love the start of a new calendar year. To me it is full of possibilities. I don't do much in the way of resolutions - I think we've seen with #nerdlution that I'm rubbish with those. I'm great for about the first two weeks, but after that, nothing. What I do instead is pick a word. This stems from Ali Edwards blog (HERE) where she began to pick one little word as her goal for each year back in 2006. I always pick a word. Sometimes I even get my word written on jewelry to remind me of my goal for the year. Some words I've used in the past are:


This year my word is present.

This is something I've been struggling with. I'm so busy, as we all are, and I take too much on. I fill my time with a million tasks and don't pay attention to what's in front of me. Even things I love - reading and writing - aren't great if that is the only thing I fill up my time with. So I'm working on it.

In 2016 I didn't pick a word, I'm not sure why. But looking over the year I was already working on present, or presence, but didn't realize it. I read less. Now I know I'm always telling my students to read, but I read a ton. I think, at times, I read for the sake of reading. I'm trying to slow down, to savor books more. I'm trying to go out, be with friends, not just stay in and read. I no longer do Goodreads book goals, but looking at my stats I know I was a moderate success in taking some time back from reading. I read 382 books in 2015 and 283 in 2016. Next year I hope to read less. Bizarre goal, but a necessary one.

I've written less. I count beginning to write publicly as a transformation in my teaching. I absolutely became a better teacher when I began writing. But then writing took over. I blogged 4-5 times a week, wrote for other places besides this blog, I wanted to write a book. Writing was what I filled my time with (when not reading). In 2016 I looked at my goals. I don't want to leave the classroom. I don't want to speak to crowds regularly. I don't want to be a consultant. Thus, I don't need to write a book. Maybe one day, but not now. Teaching is my goal, it is what I'm here to do. So, writing a book went to the side. Looking at my blog, you can see I no longer update 4-5 times a week, or a month even at times. And while I wish I blogged more at times, I love what I'm doing more.

Present. I think I laid some good groundwork in 2016 in this regard, but I have more to do. So thanks for being ok with less posts, but I promise to still be here. My goal in 2017 is one post a week, maybe two, which would be an improvement. I'm guessing I'll make it some weeks, fail on others. More than that, what I do want to fill 2017 with is:

Time with family and friends
Dates with Chris
Watching my boys do what they love
Books (in moderation)
Writing (in moderation)

I need to restore my balance, which is so hard as a mom, as a teacher, as a person living in this age of constant connection, but I'm working on it. 

How about you? Do you do resolutions? Do you pick a word? Let me know in the comments. Wishing you and your family a glorious 2017. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Nerdy Book Club - Nerdy Awards

Attention, attention. We need to have a quick meeting. 

Time is running out quickly. The award ballot for this year's Nerdy Award closes at midnight on 12/20. That would be in just over seven hours! I know, I know. Where has the time gone? I just submitted my votes and thought I'd remind you all. Have you submitted your nominations? If not, here's how to do it in a few easy steps. 

--> Vote for Nerdy

Also, in more Nerdy business, Donalyn Miller posted on the blog yesterday evening. (Her post is HERE.) We're needing to switch things up a bit over at the site. Instead of having a new post every day, there will be a new post five days a week. There are a variety of reasons Donalyn cites for this change, but a main one is we need folks to submit posts! Our readership is strong, growing each year. However many folks seem to be under the impression that once you post, you are done. If this might be what you've believed, please know that we'd love you to post again. Head on over to You Want to Be a Nerdy Blogger (HERE) and sign up! 

That's enough Nerdy business for now. Thanks for popping over for our informal meeting. Grab a donut on your way out and please head on over to nominate your favorite children's books from 2016. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Yarn with Jason Reynolds


Each day my seventh grade language arts class follows a predictable routine: 10 minutes of independent reading, a move to the carpet with a quick grammar lesson, followed by a quick write, a mini lesson, and workshop time. It helps my students know what to expect each day. What we write about, our grammar focus, and the topic for mini lesson units all change, yet the structure remains. Today for our quick write we listened to a podcast.

This was our first time writing from a podcast this year, but when I listened to the latest episode of The Yarn this weekend, I knew I wanted the kids to hear it. I loved that Jason Reynolds shared that his path to publication wasn't without pitfalls. My students love his book, Ghost. Many have begun to read As Brave As You as well. I love that he told them the importance of rap lyrics and poetry. I love that they listened, and absorbed, how he believes in their generation. So we listened. For their quick write they wrote down things they heard Jason say that they liked. I loved watching them sit and all bend over their notebooks at the same line. I loved watching them furiously scribble, trying to get down exactly what he said. I loved it because that was what I did when I listened for the first time. So much goodness packed into nineteen minutes.

I was talking to a colleague later about the experience. She asked what I did if kids didn't write down any quotes, if they refused to participate. I think, as teachers, we have to let some of that go. My students do get graded on quick writes - about once every two weeks they turn in their notebooks, I grade them for having completed the correct number of quick writes and then grade more closely one quick write from that date span they have chosen to have me look at. So yes, there will be a grade. However I don't think that's what's important here. If a child doesn't choose to write, that's on them. I won't chastise them, shame them. Maybe they're having a bad day. Maybe the lesson didn't connect for whatever reason. But I choose to remember that out of 70+ kids today, one didn't write anything. One other child wrote very little. The other 68+ filled more than a page each. I choose to celebrate that. 

After the podcast I asked each class to share some things they felt compelled to write down. All three classes had similar lines strike a cord with them. They include:

  • "Running is the acceptance of suffocation." (This blew their minds.)
  • " that have become accustomed to suffocation." 
  • That Jason writes from 7:30am-2:30pm five days a week. One kid commented, "He's writing now!"
  • Didn't read a novel until he was 17 years old.
  • Read, and listened, to a lot of rap music. Rap lyrics tied to poetry.
  • "It's the stories that build our culture, it's the stories that build our lives."
  • "You can't be what you can't see." 
  • "I want young people to feel cared for."
  • "If you see something, say something."
  • "You can't live your best life if the rest of us can't. That's a reality." 
  • "Your life is made better when my life is made better."
We talked in each class about writing some of Jason's words on chart paper and hanging it in the classroom. The words resonated. The kids soaked them in, and so did I. Thanks to Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker for putting this out into the world. My students, and myself, walked away from listening with so much to discuss. 

Listen to the podcast. I'm sure you will agree that it is well worth your time. (HERE)

Finally - don't forget to vote for The Nerdies! Voting for 2016 nominees closes 12/20. Hurry and nominate your favorite children's books - up to five in each category. Vote HERE

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Picture Books in Middle School

Fifteen weeks in and I still feel like I'm finding my footing in seventh grade. There are certain parts of the day that feel no different than elementary school. Other portions make me wonder if I've landed on another planet. It's hard. My brain hurts. I never feel like I have enough time. I question on a daily basis if I'm teaching the right lessons, the right units. I wonder if what I'm doing is helping the kids grow or holding them back. But I try. Some days, I find a bright spot. Today was one of those days.
I've done a Mock Caldecott for the last several years with Margie Myers-Culver. This year we are teaming up again. The students will have much less time, and it will be a more independent unit, but I'm excited to begin. 
Today I began by handing out a packet where the students could take notes and analyze the titles that we selected for this year's Mock unit. I explained the timeline of the unit and said that we'd begin together with one of my favorite picture books of the year, Jon Klassen's We Found a Hat. There were several cheers, I had read the first two books in the trilogy - I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat to these same kids in fifth grade. The kids circled up, made observations about the book, and scribbled notes down recording their thoughts. 
I then gave them some time to grab a book from our nominees and read it alone or with friends. I wondered how seventh graders would react to this assignment. They were a trip. Many told me it was their favorite day of the year. I heard shouts from the back corner as two girls experienced They All Saw A Cat for the first time. Three boys in one class told me that Secret Subway was amazing. Many kids in all of my classes chortled with laughter at This is Not A Picture Book.
At the end of fourth period I paused for a moment. Taking the time to look over the room I realized I wasn't as far from the world of fifth grade that I sometimes imagined. These kids of mine were sharing, laughing, and enjoying picture books. Their joy filled the room and made my heart just a bit lighter. Picture books, they are for everyone. 
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