Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding my Purpose

I’ve been struggling of late. It began at the start of the school year, before it even began. I watched friends I teach with get ready and was shocked that they had so much energy! They were talking about everything they had done since the end of the previous year. They seemed ready to start anew with a bounce in their step and a smile on their face. I looked at them with envy. I had anything but a bounce – I did have a smile. In fact, I felt a strong connection to Atlas. I was weighed down.

Frustrated, I reflected. I knew I had created this issue myself. Being a teacher is a full time job. Sometimes I wish it only took up my brain space during the time while I was actually at school, but it doesn’t. It can’t. Beyond teaching I also:

Write for Choice Literacy
Run Choice Literacy’s Twitter account
Read 10-15 blogs a day so I can share them for Choice Literacy and myself.
Schedule the Nerdy Book Club post for Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Write for my own blog.

This year I added to that pile. I agreed to co-chair a canvassing committee for our local referendum and teach CCD for my oldest son’s class at our church on Sundays.

Oh, yes, and I also wanted – and was trying – to write a book.

Beyond that, I am a mom to two amazing boys with two very full sports schedules.

I was stressed.

The school year began. My students are AMAZING. My stress increased. This year we combined reading and writing into one class – language arts. Previously I taught three sections of reading, one section of writing. Now I taught three classes each day – but all of that previous content needed to squeeze into those three classes.


I added on teaching our gifted students.


And more piled on.

I stopped excercising.
I stopped writing.
I stopped reading.

It hasn’t been pretty. I know myself. I say yes to too much, but not to myself. I want to help everyone, and can end up helping no one. It is frustrating. I can look at the list I typed above, know that I take on too much, but also know there isn’t one thing I would want to give up.


I don’t have any answers. The world I am trying to hold up on my shoulders has not gotten any lighter, and I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. What I have gained is some perspective on what my purpose is, which I think helps.

Yesterday I went door to door for three hours in our tiny town. My brother came with me, desperate for folks to canvass, I had asked him. It meant the world to me that he came. (Thanks, Ryan!) I wondered what it would be like – would people be angry? Would they be kind? It was enlightening.

Many people weren’t home, which is to be expected. Some don’t answer their doors, which I understand. But I got to talk to so many people.

People who were curious.
People who were excited.
People who thanked me for doing this work.
People who were confused.
People who were lonely.
People who were sad.

I left my shift grateful that I had been given the opportunity to reach out to my community, to help in some small way. Watching others come back to report on their shifts, I saw that they had similar experiences. It made me excited to go out again next weekend.


This morning I went to teach Sunday school, CCD. Talking to my former students, we discussed forgiveness and sin. I was able to tie in so many lessons I had tried to teach them last year in reading class. We talked about the book by Woodson, Each Kindness, that I had shared then. We talked about their moral compass. We jigsawed their chapter, presented information to the class, and then closed with a prayer for a student in their middle school who is struggling. One of the students came up at the end and gave me a hug. With a whisper she said, “I’m so glad you are my teacher again.”


I really don’t have any huge words of wisdom here, or any great insights into the life as a teacher. Mainly, I wanted to reach out today to any of you who are also struggling – whether it is because you are trying to do so much like I am, or for your own reasons. I think sometimes I forget to look at the bigger picture and realize that I am doing some good. The day-to-day craziness overtakes me and I feel weighed down. This weekend I have tried to step back and see my purpose, and that helps.

Now you know why I haven’t posted as much as I normally would. I’m trying to regain a bit of balance, which means some things have shifted to the back burner. Writing, unfortunately, has been one. Reading Ruth’s post yesterday (HERE) has reminded me that I need to pull it back in, and I will, but right now I am headed on a walk. I think that is where I must begin.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Short Research Projects

I love short research units. As a student, I groaned when my teacher would announce we were doing a research project. This week we finished our first research project of the year. In was structured like this:

  • One week - pick something you are interested in. 
  • Figure out how you will teach that topic to a small group. 
  • As a group, record what you've learned. 
On the end of the first quarter surveys, the research project was selected as the favorite thing we've done in the entire school year - not just language arts - by over half of my students. Crazy. Here are the results. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Celebrate this Week - My Students

I’m joining up with Ruth Ayres for her weekly link-up, Celebrate This Week. Check out all of the posts linked up at her blog HERE. Thanks for starting this, Ruth!

Someone recently asked me why I would bother to give up so much time to volunteer for various projects in my town. I'm sure they were questioning my sanity and knowing how busy my schedule likely was, without adding in various committees and other responsibilities to it. But, the truth is that I love being part of this community. I love watching kids grow up here, becoming part of the lives of my students. I love knowing that a year spent with children when they are young might have lasting impact when they have grown. I would teach regardless of where I lived, but in a small town like Monticello, you get a chance to see first hand the impact you can have on a young person's life. So yes, even though I am busy, I give back. I'm glad to do it.

Today is one of those days each year that I celebrate. It's Homecoming weekend in our town. That means my Facebook feed is flooded with photos of children getting ready to go to the dance. While I always love looking at the pictures, this year was more emotional than most. You see, five years ago I looped with a class. I had finished my year with them as a fourth grade teacher and, after ten years at fourth grade, I moved up to fifth grade. While I love every class I have taught, I felt like those kids were mine by the time they left me as fifth graders. This year those same kids I taught when they were nine and ten are now ninth graders and headed to their first dance. It didn't seem possible, and yet, there they go! 

So this week I celebrate my students - the ones I looped with and the ones I have taught throughout the last eighteen years. Those students who still see me and give me a hug, tell me what they're reading, send me a message online, or throw passes to my son in flag football. I love watching all of you grow and am so proud of the people you are becoming. If you are headed to the dance tonight, be safe and have fun. 

With love,
Mrs. S

Blast from the past - here are those fabulous ninth graders as fourth graders and fifth graders. WOW! 

Fourth Grade

Fifth Grade

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Arcady's Goal by Eugene Yelchin

In 2012 I watched the tweets roll in for the Newbery Award. I clearly remember seeing that Eugene Yelchin had won an honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose and I quickly felt a sense of panic. I didn’t know this book. Ever grateful for the internet, I quickly opened a new page on my browser and ordered a copy immediately. My students returned from Art and I shared the winners with them and assured them that the copy of Yelchin’s book would be here within the week.

Reading it, I was fascinated. Here was a historical fiction book that was short and had bits of humor intertwined with a compelling story. I knew many students would enjoy it when I brought it into the classroom, and I was correct.

This past year Breaking Stalin’s Nose was on our state award list of nominees. Students in my school earn incentives from the librarian for reading books off of that list. Yelchin’s book was picked, initially, time and time again because it looked short. What the students were fascinated by, however, was the story. As a result, I was excited to here that he had a new book coming out, Arcady’s Goal, and even more thrilled when the publisher offered to send me an advanced copy.

In Arcady’s Goal we return to Soviet Russia under Stalin’s rule.  Arcady has lived in an orphanage as long as he can remember—his parents were enemies of the state. These state run orphanages are the things of nightmares. Food rations, cruel guards, barbed wire fences—not where you want children to grown up. The only joy Arcady has is soccer, where he excels. One day the inspectors come to visit the orphanage and everything changes for Arcady.

I was fascinated by this book because Yelchin shares another bit of history I was ignorant about. Reading the author note at the end fascinated me. The long reaching arm of Stalin still can be felt today by descendants of these so-called enemies of the state. I think I will need to book talk this book much as I do Breaking Stalin’s Nose, with a lot of building of background knowledge. Then the students will be able to grasp the story much better. 

I have a feeling this one will be popular with my class. They will want to root for Arcady. His feelings of confusion and anger throughout the book are heart tugging. My only complaint is that I didn’t want the book to end. I felt the need to stay with Arcady awhile longer. Check this one out, my friends, you don’t want to miss it.

Arcady's Goal Blog Tour
10/6 – Kid Lit Frenzy
10/7 – Eat the Book
10/10 – Nerdy Book Club
10/14 – The Busy Librarian

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Slice of Life - Public Speaking

Today in reading class we refamiliarized ourselves with the non-fiction portion of our classroom library. No matter how often I book talk amazing non-fiction books, my students continue to gravitate towards fiction. And I understand that, but I don’t want them to miss out. There are so many truly amazing non-fiction books; we just have to keep discovering them.

So today we began by grabbing a basket for each table and diving in. Teams explored each basket, flipping through books, and selecting just one per table to share with the class. A spokesperson from each table came to the front of the room, placed their book under the document camera, and shared with the class why they thought it was a book worth noticing. Students around the room recorded titles on their To Read list at the back of their notebooks, and the next person would come up. No big deal, right?


In each class I had students – brave students, brilliant students – tell me they were afraid to come forward. That it was scary to talk to the class. These weren’t necessarily my shy reserved kids, but students from all groups. I think if I was another teacher, I wouldn’t get it. There was no pressure – hop up, give a quick blurb, sit back down. But I get it. Just as being a reader and writer gives me a different perspective on how to teach reading and writing, being a person with anxiety about public speaking helps me see these kids.

Talking to one of the boys about speaking to a crowd, he confided that it terrified him. I looked him in the eyes and said, “It terrifies me too, and I’m doing it again tonight.”

I think he thought I was nuts. Well, let’s be honest, they all think I’m a bit crazy on a regular basis.

Tonight I was asked to come speak to the PTO about the referendum on the ballot for our school district this November. A friend chided me on this engagement, said I’m volunteering for too much. Trust me when I say I was not volunteering to speak in public, I dread it that much. But I keep doing it. I already know I am speaking again at NCTE in November, just forty-five days away, not that I’m counting. So I shared with this fabulous kid that information, my speaking engagement this evening, the one coming up, and said I knew he could do it.

He looked at me with complete confusion and said, “Why would you do that to yourself? And you hate to fly; you will have to fly in November? Why?”

I smiled and shared my secret. I refuse to let anxiety hold me back, to keep me from doing things I want, or need, to do. I refuse to let it rule my life. I will speak in public, fly in planes, even though I’m terrified. Each time I do, it is just a little bit easier.

Isn’t this all part of building relationships with our kids at the start of the year? Letting them see through the armor we wear as teachers. Letting them know we have fears and flaws. When we show them that we are human, they begin to let us in.

I can’t wait to see my students tomorrow. To let them know I did it and it was great. That my audience was, as always, so kind and caring. They didn’t mind my red cheeks as I spoke, or that my voice shook a bit. I will tell my students that the audience’s kind eyes and nodding heads helped me as I spoke so they can remember to do that for their classmates, and then we will move on and find some more amazing non-fiction books. There are so many to discover on this journey together. What a year it will be.

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Celebrate This Week - Living in the Present

I’m joining up with Ruth Ayres for her weekly link-up, Celebrate This Week. Check out all of the posts linked up at her blog HERE. Thanks for starting this, Ruth!

This blog series each Saturday – looking for celebrations – is so important. On a week where the pressure piling up seems to be too much, when people tease me to stop volunteering for things because they know my plate is too full, when I think of everything I haven’t taught and not of what I have, I know I need to celebrate.

My students and I watched Kyle Maynard’s No Excuses video on Thursday. (I shared it in the last blog post HERE.) Towards the end of the video Kyle says that he was getting discouraged climbing the mountain because he kept looking up to see how far he had to go, instead of looking down to see how far he had come. With tears in his eyes, he looks at the camera and says he thinks he does that in life as well.

That comment got me. I know I do that. I bet a lot of us do.

I think that is why this weekly post is important. It is a chance for each person who writes to look down their own mountain. To realize how far they have come. At the start of a school year, especially this year, I need that.

Last night my oldest son, Luke, had his first middle school dance. Four of his friends came over to eat dinner and then head to the dance with him. I had a moment of panic when they all first arrived, realizing that in three years they will be going to Homecoming dances, and in seven years they will be in college. My breath caught in my throat. How has time moved this fast? How is it possible that I’ve had twelve years to be a mom, but in another twelve he will be on his own? I’m not ready. No part of me is ready for that.

And then, I took a breath, and realized I don’t have to be yet.

Often, it seems, I’m caught looking ahead – up that mountain – or even sometimes looking back with the feelings of nostalgia. What I need to work on is the present, to truly be present. It is pretty awesome, even if I – and every other parent out there – am overwhelmed with life. So I took a breath.

In breathing I could enjoy the realization that they aren’t grown yet – last night Nerf Wars were battled, gross discussions were had over pizza,  and I was reminded once again that they’re still kids.

Picking up these kids – my son and his friends – from the dance was awesome. As we drove home through the dark, they shared stories from the dance, who danced with who, who was too afraid to ask, and more. I smiled as I dropped kids at each house and my heart filled with gratitude. Being a mom to a middle school kid is pretty terrific. I love that they are still willing to confide in me, to ask for advice. I love that they have conversations with me about choices others make and question why. And I love that when his friends, these former students of mine, get in my car they still automatically tell me about what they are reading. I’m glad I wasn’t looking ahead or behind last night because the present is a pretty great time on its own.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

It Takes A Village

I know I am getting older when I make comments to my husband like, “Kids these days…” and discuss the worry that they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are entitled, or a plethora of other worries that pop in my mind. It isn’t necessarily my students I am referring to, I could just as easily be talking about my own boys. No matter how much I have tried to raise them to appreciate what they have, to be compassionate, to be giving – I worry that it isn’t enough. It is never enough.

So while I have a whole fabulous flipchart listing all of my Common Core State Standards that I must teach in a given year, I often add my own standards ahead of those: to teach empathy, to teach compassion, to teach gratitude, to teach the need to reach out and help another human. I want my students to realize there is more world out there than our tiny little town would have them believe. That there is goodness and ugliness. That small acts can make a difference. We’ve done this through discussion, picture books, our current class read aloud, and more. This week, we jumped into the world of YouTube.

It began with an older article from my Comprehension Tool-kit Texts. It was from Time For Kids and discussed the state of education for girls across the world. My students were horrified to learn how many children don’t go to school across the globe, but want to. In each class, at some point in our discussions, a child would say, “So other kids would do anything to trade places with us, wouldn’t they?” The looks of realization as they understood the education they have take for granted really moved me. We talked about Malala and her story. The kids wanted to know more.

The next day I shared with them three videos I came across last year. (I shared those videos in a blog post HERE.) The kids were so quiet, especially about the families that scavenge in the dump in Africa. We talked about how it reminded some kids of the book Trash. (Which was quickly checked out by others who now had to read it.)

As we read the articles and watched the videos, the students recorded evidence to the prompt, I am lucky because… on a graphic organizer. Our plan is to write an essay after we are done gathering evidence from all of our sources this week. The discussions they have had on the carpet after each video have been incredible.

Today I introduced them to one of my favorite YouTubers – John Green. I shared the following two videos:

They were floored by the conditions people half a world a way live in on a daily basis. In response to Green's first video, Looking Away, a child made a connection to people looking away from Auggie in Wonder. They decided it was all about feeling guilty for what you have and someone else doesn’t. They wanted to do more. I informed them that I donated to Green’s campaign for all of them. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to run home and demand that their parents donate.

Tomorrow we will wrap it up by staying in Africa, but moving to Tanzania. I picked my son, Liam, up from fourth grade basketball this week. His coach had all twenty kids sitting around him while he talked about Kyle Maynard and his No Excuses platform. Listening to Liam’s coach talk about Kyle, I knew I wanted to share his story. I will tomorrow with the following video:

Watching Liam’s coach, I was filled with gratitude. It truly does take a village to raise our children. I will work my best at home to install values in them, to help them appreciate what they’ve been given, to create the desire to give back. But when other teachers and coaches do this work too, we all win. What a fabulous reminder of that I had this week.

Friday my students will craft their essays. Why are they lucky? What should they appreciate about the life they have been given? I think this chance for reflection is exactly what we need as we move forward this year. Will it make them all suddenly be fabulous students who consistently put forth their best effort in all ways, I doubt it. But the seed will have been planted, it is up to them to continue to grow.
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