Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NCTE Houston and a Game Changer Giveaway

As I type this I sit in my home in Illinois where the weather has decided that fall was here long enough and winter has entered in with a flourish and a bit of snow. Having just returned from sunny California, this feels like a cruel joke. Originally I had planned on packing today and leaving tomorrow for Houston, NCTE, and a whole lot of friends. Instead after the death of my father-in-law last week, I've cancelled attending NCTE for this year and am choosing to spend time with family instead. It's the right choice, but it didn't come easily. Especially since I was going to be part of three great presentations and one breakfast. Since I can't be there, let me share a little bit about each below in the hopes that those of you attending can go check them out. 

First-Timers' Breakfast - 
Friday morning at 7am Grand Ballroom A
I LOVE that NCTE holds this breakfast each year to give the chance to first time attendees to meet with folks that are veterans of the conference and get some advice on how to make the most out of their time there. I was honored to be asked to host a table and am incredibly sad I won't be there. However, if you are a first time attendee, don't miss this breakfast Friday morning. There are amazing friends hosting each table, as well as Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell will be speaking. Check this out! 

My Classroom BookADay Books
C.58 Nerdy Book Club: Building Strong, Inclusive Reading Communities 
Friday  9:30am-10:45am 320 AB
Nerdy Book Club is a group I am beyond honored to be a part of and have been for many years. (FYI - if you want to write for Nerdy, please click HERE.) This year our presentation is on creating reading communities, which is a topic I'm passionate about. I was going to share the following ways I build communities in my classroom including:

  • Classroom Book A Day (Jillian Heise created this community, modeled after Donalyn Miller's Book a Day on Twitter. Learn more about it on Jillian's Facebook Page HERE.) My seventh graders consistently list our daily picture book as their favorite part of Language Arts. 
  • March Book Madness (nod to Tony Keefer and Scott Jones created this one. Find more about it HERE.) I have participated in this since the first year. My class gets pretty passionate about the brackets each year.
  • Picture book 10 for 10 (brainchild of Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek. Find more out about this HERE.) This is an area for me more so than my students - creating a community of educators that I can learn from. 
  • Global Read Aloud (Pernille Ripp's creation. Find more HERE.) Bringing the world together around a book is pretty amazing. 
  • Mock Newbery and Mock Caldecott's that I've written about here before.
  • And the easiest way I create a reading community in my classroom - books. Surrounding kids with books. Talking about books. Crying with them at the end of Andrew Smith's Winger. Debating the merits of the Divergent series. Having hushed conversations about how they've never seen themselves as readers, but the Bone series and the Amulet series has helped them to reshape that idea in seventh grade. Our conversations that move me to tears like this fall when we read Matt de la Pena and Loren Long's Love. A brave seventh grader saw the page with the piano that had the boy and dog under it. He spoke up, stating why that image did indeed show love, as well as the absence of love, and why he understood that. My students astound me on a regular basis.
Our reading community in our classroom makes me want to go to school each day, to talk with these amazing middle school kids, and learn from them. I am certain the roundtables in this Nerdy session will be filled with amazing ideas to enhance the communities you have.

D.30 Developing Identity, Empathy, and Community through Daily Picture Book Read Alouds
Friday 11am-12:15pm Grand Ballroom B
Oh, my heart. I was so excited for this session. Each educator will be paired with a picture book author and will share their experience with picture books and Classroom Book A Day at their tables. I had the honor of being paired with Juana Martinez-Neal and her brilliant book, Alma and How She Got Her Name. I read this book both last year in the spring and this fall, pairing it with THIS video from Hank Green. My favorite line from the video is You make you. I pair that idea with the line in the author note from the book, What is your name? What is your story? In middle school I want to empower my students that if they don't like who they've become, they can change that. They have the power over their actions. Picture books let me have these conversations on a daily basis and I'm beyond grateful to authors like Juana Martinez-Neal for writing books that contribute to that conversation. 

This is my desktop on my laptop, a inspiration board for my book.
F.04 Why Middle Matters: Writing from the Middle Level Classroom: Overcoming the Fear and the Seemingly Impossible
Friday 2pm-3:15pm 320AB
This final sessions taps into a passion of mine that I credit completely to NCTE. It was after returning from my first NCTE that I began writing publicly, starting this blog. I cannot put into words how terrified I was of hitting publish for the longest times. That led to writing for Nerdy Book Club, then several submissions into professional development books, then writing for Choice Literacy. Nonfiction writing led to dipping my toe into trying to write fiction and in April of this year I began writing a romance novel for adults. It was just supposed to be for me, to be fun, and almost 83,000 words later, it absolutely is. Becoming a writer lets me talk to my student writers on a different level. I understand their struggles so much differently. I now have a writing club at lunch on Wednesdays and any student is welcome to come in, bring something they're working on, and eat and write with me. Writing completes me and brings me peace. This roundtable was going to be a chance for anyone who is anywhere in the process of writing to ask questions. If you have any, please send them my way.

So if you are headed to NCTE in Houston, please check out some of these sessions. I know from the planning that they are going to be fabulous. If you have any questions for me, send them my way. Hugs going out to all of my NCTE friends. I'll miss you desperately this year, but can't wait for Baltimore next year. Have a great time, everyone. 

GIVEAWAY - In honor of NCTE and two folks I was looking forward to seeing - Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp - I'd like to giveaway two copies of their new book, Game Changer. This book is so important in our profession right now. It talks about access to books and why it is critical to students. Believe me, you need this book! If you want to be entered in the drawing for a copy, please put your name and email in the Google Form below. I'm honored to have contributed to this and in awe of everything they accomplish with this beautiful book. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


It’s been a week. Or a few weeks to be more accurate. As I have done in the past, as I advise my students to do, I’m writing my way out of a time of great upheaval. We have lost one of our pillars.

I think of my parents, of Chris’s parents, as our pillars. The foundation of our family is built upon them. When we first married, there were even more of these pillars holding us up - my grandmothers, Chris’s grandmother, my great-aunt and great-uncle, and a couple that were so ingrained into our family, you wouldn’t know we weren’t actually related. Over the years, we’ve lost most of the pillars of that first layer, my grandparents’ generation. And, last weekend, we lost the first pillar from our parents’ layer.

Chris’s dad found out this fall that he was having some health issues. They progressed far quicker than any of us ever dreamed and, early Saturday morning before heading to watch Luke run State, we got the news we were not prepared to hear.

When I’ve lost someone I’ve loved over the years I’ve often written poems or essays about them, sharing what I’ll miss, what memories I’ll hold close, but right now this is just too fresh and I can’t. I’m not sure when I will be able to.

Len was a pillar of our family and without him, we are all less sturdy than we were just a week ago. The world is a little less colorful because his humor and love of a good pun has gone. He was solid steadfast, and true. Like my own dad, he would absolutely hate anyone being maudlin or overly sentimental in his memory, so I’ll keep this short. The people we love are gone all too soon and often we are unprepared to say goodbye. I’m grateful to have known Len for so many years; grateful Chris got a chance to head to California just over a week ago to see him; grateful for his love of movies, sports, and Frank Sinatra that he passed to Chris who has, in turn, passed on to Luke and Liam.

For those of you I was going to see at NCTE, I apologize in advance, but I’ll be missing you this go around. I’ll be celebrating the great things in education from afar this year. This loss has been hard, but it has also been filled with reminders of how amazing people are - from family who we always love, to kind students and families that have left me sweet messages or more, to an author helping me out with a special gift since I can’t see them, to Southwest Airlines refunding my NCTE ticket cost, to NCTE refunding my registration, to friends understanding why I had to bow out, to...to...to.

Today more than ever, I’m filled with hope. While our foundation has cracked, the people who built that foundation for my family fill me with strength - whether they are still here or have already gone. And while it hurts like hell to lose them, I am grateful for the lessons they taught me while they were here and the lessons I will continue to absorb long after they are gone.

Godspeed, Len. You will be missed.

Monday, October 29, 2018


Years ago, when my boys were toddlers, I remember clearly realizing I would never be caught up. I could run ragged all day long - at school and at home - and never would I be able to sit down and say I was done. There was always something.

These days with two teenage sons, it is different. They are not as reliant on me as they once were. For the most part, they can take care of their own needs. And yet, today was a day where I felt like I was juggling and always coming up short, those darn balls dropping on the floor.

There is school with kids in my classes with needs far greater than anything I know what to do with. Kids that I look at with my heart breaking, feeling that I am inadequate to help them find the right path that I know they cannot see, no matter how hard they try. 

There is the constant learning. I mean, this is my twenty-second year in education, how is it we are never done? Today I've spent no less than two hours after school trying to figure out a new app that should save me time on assessment later. I spent another hour trying to learn how to progress monitor students with a new assessment tool. My brain is a noodle and I simply hope I am ready for tomorrow.

There is the fact that my husband is out of town for just over four days. We're almost at the halfway mark and I am once again reminded of how much he does here and how hard it is to be away from someone you've known over half of your life.

There is the non-stop errands - groceries, post office, calls to the orthodontist, etc. The favor from one son to cook dinner for his varsity Cross Country team in a few days time (How much pasta does one make for eight boys? Thoughts?) and a quick text from another telling me he's ran after school and is now headed to see my parents with his friends.

And yet, there are Voxer messages from my friends, texts of a photo from the ocean from Chris, a possible answered prayer, messages of love from students, puppy cuddles, and books to read. Still more balls in the air, but I seem to be breathing a bit easier.

Happy Monday, my friends. And a reminder - I'm leading at online class for Choice Literacy on Student Research Writing. I'd love to see you there. Find out more HERE

Also, planning ahead to NCTE, I'll be hosting a table at the First Time Attendee Breakfast and presenting at the following times all on Friday. If you're going to be there, please let me know! 

Have a great week!

  • 9:30-10:45


  • 11-12:15

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    Wednesday, October 17, 2018

    Online Course on Student Research Writing and an Update

    First, a quick update. Apologies on the lack of blogging. I promise, it does not mean a lack of writing on my part. I'm completely submerged in the fiction romance story I've been writing. While I can't promise that it's great, it is a whole lot of fun to write. This past weekend I crossed the 77,000 word mark and I still think there is about a third of the story yet to be told. Once I finally finish, then I'll be printing it off to begin revisions. It is sad how excited that makes me.

    Beyond that, I've been consumed with teaching, my boys, watching said boys run for Cross Country (middle schooler is done, high schooler is entering the end of the season), and various other things have filled up my time. Oh, and I've decided I want to learn to knit. Please feel free to send any advice in that regard my way.

    However, I wanted to pop on here and let you all know about a cool thing Brenda Power over at Choice Literacy is doing. She's had a bunch of us create online courses. If you enroll in one you will be taken through a twelve day course with that instructor. You will be able to access the course for two additional months and you are given a membership to Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy for three months to access all of their videos and articles. I think it is an extremely cool idea and I'd love to have you join me or one of the other amazing courses they are offering.

    To find out more about what the actual structure of the courses would be look HERE.

    To see the courses currently being offered, click HERE.

    I hope you are all well! I apologize for being so absent from this space. My school year is off to a terrific start with a great bunch of kids. I hope to be back soon to share what we're doing. Hope your fall is gorgeous and relaxing! 

    Sunday, September 9, 2018

    Thinking About Motivation

    It's the start of the year and I have a whole new group of students for the first time in three years. Moving from fifth to seventh grade in my district allowed the chance to reconnect for the past two school years with the majority of my former students. This year? This year has been a chance to start fresh. At the same time I cherish that feeling and despair because I'm getting to know so many readers all at once and, quite frankly, they're all over the place. This past week during my final class of the day I reflected on our time of independent reading to start the class. It's only ten minutes, but in the first ten days of the year so many of them didn't have the stamina to make it that ten minutes. On Thursday? Day eleven? The ten minutes flew. The room was silent, save for my conferences, and a few kids even groaned when I asked them to come to a stopping spot. I cheered internally. 

    As we came together for the mini-lesson I pointed out what I had noticed. Wondering how honest we'd be this early in the year, I asked what had changed for them already. Hands shot up and their answers varied from: 

    • I hadn't read all summer
    • It was hot before
    • I like this book
    Finally ending on...

    • You help me find good books 

    • It's easy to read in this room.
    I groaned inwardly. See, I fear those last two responses because they make me, or the room, contingent for creating the desire to read. This happens each year - kids read an insane amount with me, but can I insure it happens when they leave me? Well, in twenty-two years, I haven't found the foolproof answer. Donalyn Miller writes about this in Reading in the Wild and through her suggestions, my kids being readers once they leave me has become more likely, but still not 100%.

    I want 100%.

    What I've come to realize is that I might not ever get 100%. Or maybe I'll lay the ground work, but another teacher will help that child get there. I need to be ok with that and move on. 

    Internal motivation to me is so important. I work all year on reflection, goal setting, drive. I look at my students and know I need to teach them Language Arts, but I'm also constantly trying to help them become their best selves, to learn how to dig deep. Moving to middle school taught me that they are farther along their path and sometimes that scares me. 

    I want to help them find the right path.

    Lately I've been thinking about why kids push themselves. My boys are in Cross Country, as I may have mentioned a time or two. They've pushed through injury after injury, training in the early hours of the morning into the late hours of the evening. I think most sports are similar. What is different, however, is that when I go to their meets, the spectators are family members. That's it. There is not a student section rooting them on, the town isn't turning out to cheer for them. Family members - and not even grandparents, frequently. Mom, or Dad. Maybe a sibling or two. The kids don't get down about that, they aren't jealous of other sports. They succeed - and they are one of the most successful programs at our school - because it matters to them. The fact that most people in town have no idea what they've accomplished does not factor into their drive. They do this for themselves. 

    They aren't alone. Luke recently went to a volleyball game. I asked who was in the crowd. Again, most spectators are family. Same for girls basketball, often true for track. I'd guess similar results for softball and baseball. So kids have the potential for internal motivation, right? How can we translate that into the classroom? I think about it all of the time.

    Twenty-three years in and I don't have all of the answers. I think if a time ever comes that I believe I do, I should probably leave the profession because then I will have lost all reflective qualities that I know to be important. Until then, I'll keep striving for 100%. I'll keep buying books. (Sorry, Chris.) And I'll celebrate small successes like a student being on book four of Amulet in eleven days after telling me he hates reading. Small successes pave the way. 

    Thursday, August 23, 2018

    Building Relationships at the Start of the Year

    Today was day two of our school year. In two days we've organized supplies, signed up for Google Classroom, created KidBlog accounts, read two picture books, had two book talks, and learned how to do attendance and Status of the Class. That isn't what really matters, though. It's the stories.
    Yesterday I told stories. I told them who I was and what I valued. I talked about what I struggle with, including anxiety. I shared this slide with them and talked about ten things they needed to know about me. Then I asked them to write their name on an index card and share with me ten things I should know about them. It was enlightening. 

    I read All Are Welcome yesterday and we talked about our classroom being a safe space in the school where they should all feel at home, feel safe. I shared that The Lightning Thief is one of my favorite books and told them how Riordan came up with the story. We talked about his son's struggle to feel successful at school with ADHD and dyslexia. I saw some nods.

    Today I shared I Want My Hat Back and we laughed. I book talked Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy and several scribbled it on to their "to read" lists. Then I told them I wanted them to write a essay entitled Who Am I? that tells me what I need to know about them. To inspire them to tell their stories I shared that I had a video I wanted them to watch. I said it was about an actor that I have a crush on, but that my husband was ok with that. They laughed. None of them knew Jason Momoa's name, but when I said he was in Justice League, many shouted out Aquaman. I congratulated them on knowing me so well already that they could guess which actor it was.

    We watched this video of Jason's that through the power of story, shares who he is with us. We let the words float over the classroom, then watched a bit again. This time we noted what we learned about Momoa from this movie. Then we jotted down what we wanted to share about ourselves. 

    As they began their blogs, I walked around and helped. There were several who struggled to begin, knowing the feel they wanted, but not how to achieve it. We had reminders on some overall writing rules. Then, in my last class, I had them pause. I asked how many had writing come easy to them. A handful of kids raised their hands. Then I asked how many had an inner voice that told them that their writing was horrible. Hands tentatively shot up. I reminded them that I'm trying to write a book and I told them every day I sit to write, my inner voice tells me that my writing is no good. I shared that her name was Helga and I often tell her to go away, but she keeps returning. And then I shared the secret, that you just have to keep writing anyway.

    As we wrapped up for the day, I continued walking around, rubbing shoulders, checking to see if I knew everyone's name. One of the kids came over to me to show his first paragraph and then said, "I can't wait to come back tomorrow." Kind words, sweet writers, relationship foundations being established...it is going to be a good year.

    Oh, and if you're ever having a bad day, watching Jason Momoa's Canvas of My Life multiple times throughout the day can make it a great one. Sigh.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2018

    Lessons from Being a Reader and a Writer

    Twenty days until I'm back at school, twenty-two until the students return. This means that my brain starts examining everything around me for lessons that can be pulled into the classroom. And honestly, it's not hard. There are lessons everywhere.

    I've always said it is easy to be a reading teacher because since I was young, I've always been a person who reads. Being a reader is so woven into my identity, I cannot imagine myself without it. It is what others identify with me too. Just this morning my kitchen was filled with four high school boys - they had gone on an early morning run for Cross Country with my son and come to our house to make pancakes. As I walked in and began talking to them, one (a former student) immediately pulled out his phone and began telling me about who his new favorite author was. It happens all the time. People in town will see me and ask for book recommendations. Former students delivering pizza to our house will confess they have't read for a few weeks and apologize. Former students come up at track meets and ask for what to read next. Being a reader is who I am.

    I've not always been a writer. Actually, as a kid, it is what I fantasized about. Yet, years of having papers returned with blood red ink took their toll. Grammar rules and punctuation confounded me. I gave up. It was only in starting this blog that I found my writing voice again and slowly began to share. You wonderful folks that read it have been beyond kind and helped me find my wings to try this new fiction venture I've been at for the past few months. I'm learning.

    Last year on July 23rd, I placed an Amazon order for my first romance book ever - Kristen Ashley's Breathe. I quickly found out that it was the fourth in the series, so I ordered more. In doing so, I never realized I was beginning something that would change the way I read and wrote. Here are some lessons I've learned over the past year, lessons I will bring into the classroom.

    In regard to reading...

    A Genre Rut Isn't Bad
    Since last July I've purchased and read one hundred and seventy romance books. Good Lord. How often have I reminded my students to read outside of their favorite genre in the class? Quite a few. I never require it, but I often ask if they are bored. Well, I can say for certain that I'm not. And I'm reading, a lot. Most of these books run from 300-700 pages, so that alone adds up. But then, there is the other reading I'm doing - young adult, middle grade, picture books - I've read those too, just not in the volume I used to. Reading these romance books has made me laugh out loud more than once. I've connected to other friends who love the same genre, which has been wonderful. Sticking with a favorite genre has brought my joy, and I want my students to know that too.

    Rereading and Skimming Favorites Brings Comfort
    I remember presenting at a conference last summer and a teacher told me one of her colleagues didn't allowed books reread to "count." I'm guessing I looked at her with horrification written all over my face. I've always reread books. I know not everyone does, but it is what makes me calm. I can pinpoint certain books for certain time periods of my life. High school and college - I likely reread Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove over fifty times. When I was pregnant with Luke and Liam it was The Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Now it's anything written by Kristen Ashley, but especially The Rock Chicks series - which I've read in its entirety four times since beginning them last summer. I've dealt with anxiety for years and rereading old favorites is like revisiting friends. When my heart is racing, I can pick up those books and I immediately calm down. Sometimes I just need to read a passage, sometimes the whole book, but it absolutely counts as reading. 

    Friend Recommendations are Everything
    Romance reading is a new genre for me and there is a ton out there, so recommendations are key. When I mentioned to a former student's mom last August that I had read a book by Kristen Ashley, she immediately began telling me to read Rock Chicks. My friends Cindy and Karen have given me recommendations as I leave them Voxer messages on a regular basis. Ditto to colleagues online and in real life, talking books adult to adult has become an even bigger part of my life in the past year. This is what I want for my students and I can model it in my own life. 

    In regard to writing...

    Finding Large Chunks of Time to Write Is Important
    I started writing this fiction novel on April 1st. In the past one hundred twenty-one days, I've written 60,587 words. That seems both not enough and an unbelievable amount at the same time. What I've learned is that I can make time for writing, even when I'm busy. I've also discovered that large blocks of time work best for me because I can get into a flow and write so much more. That being said, stealing 15-30 minutes here and there if it is all I have is worth it to keep a habit going.

    Write What You Know
    My story takes place in a town of 10,000 people called Highland, located in Central Illinois. There is a beautiful park outside of town that the male protagonist, Max, works at. In town locations that factor into the story include: a pizza place, a brewery in an old barn, the middle school, the library, yoga, a cafe, etc. The female protagonist, Emma, works at the library and loves to read, especially romance and young adult books. Her best friend, Maggie, works as a language arts teacher at the middle school and loves Pearl Jam. My point is, if you know me in real life, you know how heavily influenced my story is on my own life. Not to the point that it is my story, it's not. But you can see elements of me in lots of it. You can see people I know, pets I have, phrases I use, favorite actors/ actresses/ bands/ songs/ etc. Inspiration is all around you, and to write, I have to use it. I need to teach my students this because they believe if the story doesn't pop in your head fully formed, they can't write it. Sometimes you just need to look around.

    Keep a Notebook With You
    Which brings me to this. I used to have a quote hanging in my classroom and wish it was still there because I don't remember it exactly or who said it. It was something like, writers don't lead more interesting lives, they live their lives with their eyes wide open. My life hasn't suddenly become more interesting because I write fiction, but man alive, story possibilities are everywhere. For example, I went to Meijer the other day to pick up some groceries. The store was dead and three cashiers were standing at one check-out. They were all around my age and began telling me about one of their boyfriends who didn't want them to dress in revealing clothes. The cashier had a lot to say about that and the conversation ended with all of our hands up in the air as she said, "If you've got it, flaunt it." I have no idea how it all happened, but I wrote it down.

    My Inner Editor is Evil 
    I call mine Helga and she's awful. She will pop up and tell me that I cannot write, that someday I really should figure out how to use commas appropriately, that no one would ever want to read this drivel, and so forth. I can't stand her. She grew from years of feedback as a kid where no one told me anything I did well as a writer, but every single thing I did wrong. To combat this for my students, I tell them about Helga. I tell them why she is in my head. And then I find something awesome about each one of their stories and talk about it. Hopefully one day Helga will go on a vacation and not come back, but I doubt it.

    Sharing Your Writing is Scary
    I think, before I ever began a blog, that I discounted how scary it was to share your writing. I wish I could apologize to all of my former students for that. The first person who saw my current story was Cindy. This week I sent it to Karen. To say it made me nervous would be an understatement - would they just confirm all of Helga's comments? Fortunately, they have not. It helped to ask for specific things in terms of feedback. It helped that they were ridiculously kind. This is an important note to remember in the classroom - the more that my students are invested in a piece, the more they've poured of themselves into their writing, the harder it will be to hear criticism back.

    And so, my journey into reading romance books has had lasting consequences in my classroom. It has reminded me of lessons I shouldn't have forgotten, but did. And hopefully it will make me a better teacher to a new group of students in just a few weeks.
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