Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow

When I heard that Amy Ignatow had a new series coming out, I was beyond excited. My fifth graders had been huge fans of her Popularity Papers series. Following the adventures of Lydia and Julie in their notebooks had become such an addiction, I preordered the next installment each time it became available. So when I heard about The Mighty Odds, it was only natural that I hit the "pre-order" button. Imagine my delight when I got the exciting gift of an ARC in the mail so that I could read this book just a bit early. 

Flipping through The Mighty Odds, I immediately noticed that there weren't as many drawings as there was in Lydia and Julie's journal, otherwise know as The Popularity Papers. That being said, there are still many sketches scattered throughout that will delight my new grade level of middle school students. 

The Mighty Odds follows the story of four classmates who are involved in a strange bus accident on the way back from the field trip. As a result, they each gain an odd superpower. One gets super strong thumbs, another can teleport a few inches to the left, another has their eyes change color unexpectedly, and a final student can hear your thoughts when you are thinking in directions. Odd, right? Also, it should be said, that three of the four are semi-outcasts. None of them associated together before this accident. Now they need to band together, form a group, and figure out what the heck is going on. 

What follows is a humorous friendship story with fantasy and action thrown in for good measure. When I hit the last page, I groaned. I wanted more, now! Waiting for the next installment in a series is torture - even more so when you got the first book early - so the wait is even longer! That being said, I have a feeling that The Mighty Odds will be a hugely popular book in my 7th grade classroom this year. Look for it to be released on September 13th. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why I Write


November 20, 2011 changed everything for me as an educator. That was the date I uploaded my first blog post to this blog. With it, I began my writing life. 

This. 
Changed. 
Everything. 

For the fourteen years before, I was a teacher who "taught" writing, but wasn't a writer myself. I could teach how to write a narrative, write an essay, keep a journal. Yet, when my students struggled, I didn't know why. When they stared at the blank page, I grew frustrated. When they complained about writers block, I was confused. I did not live the lives they did, and I couldn't meet them where they were. 

I wasn't a writer. 

I hadn't been for years. I wrote during my school career, of course, but not for joy. I wrote in elementary school what my teachers assigned. Ditto for junior high and high school. At one point I had aspirations of writing, but getting a paper back dripping in red ink, I decided it must not be where my strength resided. 

It was NCTE in 2011 that changed me. One night in Chicago I sat talking to Colby Sharp - someone I now consider a close friend, but a new friend at the time. I still remember him asking me what I was taking away from the conference. I paused and said that I realized I was a good reading teacher because I was a teacher who read. I could connect to my students through books. I could talk to them as reader to reader, but I couldn't do that through writing. I realized it wasn't the kids who had to change, it was me. 

That statement to Colby terrified me. I drove home from Chicago wondering if I could do it. Beginning writing on my own was scary enough, but I had also vowed to begin a blog. I knew if I didn't make my writing "public", I'd never keep it up. Also, I figured that writing about my classroom would help connect me to other teachers and through them, I could learn even more. I could never have imaged how true that would be.

Today I shared what blogging will look like in our middle school classroom with my students. I talked about why we will blog, what the purpose is for our classroom. But more than that, I talked about why I write. How it helps me to make sense of my feelings, to make sense of the world. Writing makes me whole. I am a better person because I became a writer almost five years ago. My only regret is that I waited so long. 

That's why I write. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Transitioning to Teaching Middle School

Three days done. All summer as I've talked to other teachers, friends, family members. They've looked at me a bit askance and asked how I thought I'd like teaching middle school. At the start of summer I would confidently say I knew I would love it. As time wore on, and more and more middle school teachers looked at me with trepidation as they asked, I began to worry. I had this, right? Well, it has only been three days, so time will still tell, but so far I don't like it, I love it. 


I felt pretty prepared for what middle schoolers act like - I have two currently living in my house. On any given week my home can be overrun with middle school boys. I know their humor, their clumsiness, their emotions. Happily, that is what I've found in our classroom as well.

The first few weeks of school are typically insane. Years ago my colleague Adrienne and I would remind each other that we needed to make it to Open House. Then the days at school would hit their grove and we could breathe. So the fact that I'm exhausted at the end of any given day does not shock me in the least. That will improve. But there have been so many bright spots this week.


I've gotten to see all of my former students. Whether they are in my class, or just popped by to say hello and wish me well, it was the best welcome to school ever.

We shared stories - the first chapter in Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln? by Kate DiCamillo, School's First Day of School by Adam Rex, and bits of Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Do 7th graders like to sit surrounding their teacher and listen to picture books? Seemed like a yes. 

I have amazing colleagues. I've been blessed in this regard for all of my teaching career, but the move to middle school has not disappointed. I'm so grateful for the support and kindness by everyone in my building. 
Homeroom. Need photos of other two groups still.
The room has been filled with reading. I wasn't sure if seventh graders would slip into reading zones on day two just because I asked them too. Fifth graders often will, but middle schoolers? Yep. Several took home their second book to begin this weekend.

They are creative. I bought a bunch of magnet poetry to stick on a whiteboard. After my son, Luke, removed "breast" and "butt", he declared it good to go. I looked at it, wondering if they would think it was a little kid activity. I decided just to leave it up and see if anyone noticed. Oh boy, did they ever. There are two study halls in my room - when other kids go to band or chorus. Each day a group gravitates towards the board - making silly poems about "chocolate sausages" (head in palm) or something else. Today a group of kids called me to read their poem. We decided to share it on Twitter because they wanted the world to see it. Freaking. Awesome. Kids. 


I've been in the building at least 50 hours this week. I've worked 2-3 hours each night at home. And yet, the smile is stretched across my face and my heart is happy. Middle schoolers rock my world. Who would have thought it? 

Monday, August 15, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? Summer Goal Reflection 8/15


I love joining Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers each week to share my reading life. 

It has been two weeks, but I've read some fabulous books. More importantly, as of this morning, my summer is officially over. I head back for meetings today and tomorrow, the kids arrive Wednesday. I wanted to share the books I've read, but also a quick wrap up on my summer goals I had set back in May.




Fabulous books. I plan on writing more about a few of them in the upcoming weeks, but The Mighty Odds is one my students will love this year. Full of Beans is fabulous and great for those fans of Turtle in Paradise. Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom was powerful and March: Book Three made me emotional and in awe. Still a Work in Progress is one of the most important books I've read this year.

As for my summer goals, I consider them a success, yet I didn't meet them at all. 
  • Run 100 miles. Not even close, but my goal had been to get fitness back in my life. In the 81 days of summer I: Walked 81 miles, ran 37, and swam 12,000 meters. Not bad. 
  • Read a book a day (81 books). Success, 95 books completed as of this morning. 
  • Journal 2-3 times a week. Miserable fail. I've journaled a handful of times this summer. 
  • Blog 2 times a week - close. Missed two posts, but much better than I had been doing.
My goal is to continue to work on balance as this school year starts off. Hopefully will continue to swim twice a week, run twice a week, blog twice a week, and find time for reading and writing. I'm excited to begin! 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Reading Autobiography

Moving to middle school this year means so many new adventures. I want to try out more that I've never done before. The kids will be older, wiser??? Will I be? One thing my colleague and I decided to try the first week in language arts is reading autobiographies. 

I've heard Teri Lesesne talk about these many times. She wrote about them in her book Making the Match. Teri has also kindly written a blog post about them recently for anyone that wants to know more. (Check it out here.) 

I think these are a brilliant way to really get to know my students and their true feelings around reading. While I've taught many of the students I will have this year as fifth graders, I'm sure I will learn more about them through this writing reflection. 

Like any other assignment in my class, I did this work as well. This allows me to figure out the best directions to give my students and think about where they may get hung up. I'll share mine below in case it helps you visualize your reading autobiography. I will be sharing with my students that their autobiography will, of course, be shorter than mine because they will be stopping in 7th grade. This could lead to conversations that we've had in previous years when doing our football field writing activity at the end of the school year. Where do they visualize themselves when they are my age? What are they doing to get there? (More about that here.)

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My Reading Autobiography
I was born with a love of reading. Well, maybe not born with it, but close. My parents read to me each day when I was a young. My mom said that as a toddler I could be found “reading” in the space under a slide in my playroom. I still remember when I was just about three having my mom read, and reread, the book A Baby Sister for Frances by Russell Hoban. My sister, Colleen, had just been born and it was the first time I felt like a book was written just for me.
In preschool I found a new favorite book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Man, I loved that book. It made my imagination run wild. My preschool was literally on a farm - it was called Farm School. There were woods on the property that we were allowed to play in. My friends and I liked to go in the woods and pretend to be “wild things” by roaring our terrible roars and gnashing our terrible teeth. Through this book, and books like it, I learned the power of story to take me away from my real life.
In second grade I found an amazing book, The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone. It was so funny it made me laugh outloud! I’d set up my stuffed animals in my room and pretend to be a teacher, sitting in front of them and reading aloud like my teacher did in class. My first grade teacher, Ms. Tuck, came to my second grade classroom and asked me if I’d like to read to her new class. Even though I was nervous to read in front of a group of kids, I took my favorite book. As I used funny voices and different intonations for Grover, the first graders laughed and laughed. I decided then that I wanted to be a teacher and make kids love a book like those kids did.
In fifth grade I discovered that you could get addicted to books, and that might get you into trouble. I’d be so compelled to keep reading my books - even when in science or math - that I’d hide them under my desk. That did not go over very well with my teachers. During fifth grade books like The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson taught me that books can break your heart and make you cry.
Middle school was all about reading for fun. I didn’t want anything heavy or serious. I think that was because school was getting harder, my friends were filled with drama, and I wanted reading to be a place to escape. I read, and reread, this series called Couples. Each book was written by a different author and focused on a boy and girl that were dating in this group of friends. In each book they’d break up at some point and in the end they’d either get back together or you’d find out that they weren’t meant to be.
In high school, and then college, my reading began to take a nose dive. I still loved to read, but I was being assigned more and more novels to read for class. I had a hard time with some of them because they were on topics I really didn’t enjoy. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was a murder mystery. It terrified me and I hated every moment of reading it. Once in awhile I’d find books on my own, like Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and would fall back into my reading routine. While that book was crazy long, I still read it at least 20 times while in high school and college because I loved the world McMurtry created. My sister and I even mapped out the cattle drive in the book on an atlas my parents gave us. College was even tougher for me because the amount of reading I was assigned each week was often well over 400 pages! Thankfully, my reading life before college made that mangable.
In my twenty years in teaching, my reading life has changed dramatically. At the beginning I began reading for myself again, after eight years of a lackluster reading life in high school and college. I fell back in love with books, like the Mitford series by Jan Karon. It was about ten years into teaching that I began reading a steady diet of kids books again. I realized I couldn’t recommend books to kids if I wasn’t reading any. The first book that made my heart leap was The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I loved Percy and wished that I could dive into the books. Along the way I’ve found many favorite authors, John Green has become an addiction. Anything he writes, I devour. One of my favorites from him was The Fault in our Stars. I sobbed an ugly cry on that book. Each author and each book allowed me to share my reading life with my students and I our classroom was alive with reading.

Reading has always been a part of my life, and I know I’m blessed as a result. I’m a more empathetic and caring person because of the books I read. While the amount of reading I’ve done on a regular basis has ebbed and flowed over the years, my love for it has always been there. My passion for getting students to read is because I know I’m a different person because of the stories I’ve read, the characters I’ve met, the worlds I’ve inhabited. I can’t wait to find my next favorite book - and to share it with all of you.

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What activity are you beginning with this year? When do you begin? I'm headed back tomorrow, the kids arrive on Wednesday, and I cannot wait!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Necessary Journey


I was running errands yesterday and stopped by a small butcher shop. The butcher was joking with me, asking me how big my boys were, how much they ate. He asked about my school year and if I still was enjoying elementary aged kids. I paused, then told him I was moving to middle school next year to teach seventh grade language arts. The man stopped, looked at me, and said, "Did they force you to move?"

Of course I assured him that my district did not, in fact, force my grade level change. What floors me is that this is not the first time I've been asked this question. 

Today I read Kate DiCamillo's new book Where Are You Going Baby Lincoln? This is an extension of her Mercy Watson series, a series called Tales from Deckawoo Drive. In it Baby Lincoln is compelled to go on a trip. She doesn't know why, she doesn't know where, she doesn't know what she will do. She only knows this is a necessary journey. 

As the book progressed, Baby Lincoln is filled with uncertainty. Is she doing the right thing? Why would she leave everything she knows behind? To go on this journey means being in unfamiliar territory. She has to meet new people, rely on the kindness of strangers, find new ways to do things she's always done. 

I loved this book.

To say I related to Baby Lincoln would be an understatement. After twenty years in education, all at the elementary level, I'm going on my own necessary journey. I'm leaving behind the familiar, the dependable, and what I know. It's scary. I could fail, but I know it is what I need to do. 

I have spent hours in my new classroom this summer, organizing, putting things away, thinking. It isn't real yet, of course. It won't be real until the kids enter the classroom. When we begin sharing stories, writing stories, and creating our own community - then the real stuff begins. I am certain I'll miss some of the elementary experience, but I had no choice. This was my necessary journey. 

This summer I've had many wonderful experiences. I've gone on family vacations, spent time with friends, relaxed at home, and attended conferences. At my last conference this summer - the Scholastic Summit - a friend asked if we wanted to walk across the bridge. This would allow us to cross from Kentucky to Ohio. Someone asked him why and he said, "It's a necessary journey." 
Our blurry "necessary journey" across the bridge.
We didn't need to walk across the bridge into another state that night, we could have easily stayed in our hotel. But the laughter as we walked, the conversation we had while we had this experience together, brought me such happiness. Sometimes I think we say no to things that are not part of our plan, things that make us have to try something new - to put forth more effort than we'd like. But these journeys, they can be what bring us the most memories, the most joy. 

I think Baby Lincoln and her necessary journey will stay close to my heart this school year as I begin my 21st in education. Her story will remind me that these scary experiences, the unexpected times, the hard stuff we face - it is all part of our journey. And sometimes we have to get through that to reach the good stuff. I want to remember that not only am I on a necessary journey, but my students are as well. Together, we're going to make this year the best ever. I cannot wait to get started. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sending Out Thanks to My Book Angels

My district starts up again soon, just two weeks from today. (Not that I'm counting.) That means parents are out buying school supplies, often bemoaning the cost of said supplies on Facebook. I get it, I truly do. With two boys, who are in a sport every flipping season, I know how pricey the start of the year is. I realize that some of the supplies might not make sense to you, you haven't taught 80 kids who will lose every pencil they brought within the first semester of the school year. It doesn't seem logical. So please know I am empathetic to the crazy amount of $$$ that racks up at the start of the year. 

Books waiting for a shelf - thanks to my husband for building two! 
What I don't think most folks realize is that while kids bring some supplies, and the district supplies others, teachers are the third side in this triangle. I'm sure it varies classroom to classroom, but many teachers spend an obscene amount of money on their classroom. Each year at tax time my husband reminds me that my classroom is not a church, there is no need for a 10% tithe on my salary to go there, and yet it does. The biggest part of that budget goes to one area, books. 

I'm a big believer in our classroom libraries. To have a healthy classroom library, there should always be books coming in and books going out. At the end of each school year I weed the library - getting rid of about 2-3 books per student, because I want to give them to the kids. Usually this is around 200 books, more or less. Each year I buy new books, looking to fill holes that reside in the collection. In my new classroom the library amounts to about 2500-3000 books. It's an insane amount, but this is how I get them to read. They are surrounded by books.
New books!
This summer, however, I've had help adding to the library. I've long held to the notion that what we put out comes back to us. I purchased books to give away at my presentations this summer. I've given away books to friends, teachers, relatives. Someone asked if I was crazy, shouldn't I use that money or those books for my room? My only answer was sometimes others needed the books more than me. Well, what I've put out has come back ten fold. My friend Teri sent me a gift card to buy books for my classroom. My friend Donalyn toured a book fair with me, buying books for my new group of kids. Publishers have been generous, sending books my way. I opened up my Facebook message on a rough day last week when I was stressed about my health. Imagine my surprise to see a local business owner, Bridget Peters, offering to buy books for my classroom. A former - and soon to be current - parent, Michelle Butler, sent me a message to ask if I had any books I'd like purchased for this year. (Note, Michelle knew that I have a constantly updating "wish list" that I share with parents. I highly recommend this to all teachers. I've told my parents that if they want to ever donate to the classroom, what we need is books.) All told these folks have contributed over 100 books to my students this summer. Whoa. 
New books waiting to be entered in my system. 
I don't know where to even begin with my gratitude. So I guess I'll keep paying forward the love of reading. I'll keep buying books for my students. I'll keep handing off books to people in my sessions, to friends, to colleagues, to readers. And I'll remember the kindness of my friends, even during hard times. For now, I'll get back to organizing my classroom library. Fourteen days. I'm not ready, but I'm crazy excited to be talking reading and writing with kids once again. Here we go.

***Thanks to all that sent me messages about my last blog post. My mammogram results were terrific and I'm now focusing on the new school year.***

 
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