Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Writing Wednesdays: Student Collaboration Inspired by Bluewater Billionaires

My seventh graders love to write stories. This year I’ve asked them to always have a writing piece they’re working on. Sometimes this might be directed by me, like writing a book review blog post. In other instances we don’t have a writing piece they are assigned, so they’re welcome to write anything they want. Here is where I find them pairing up and collaborating on a story together. I’m fascinated by it.

When I was in middle school, or even today, if you told me I had to pair up with a friend and create a fiction story for the two of us to work on, my anxiety would have approached the extreme. It is no secret to those who know me that I have a small issue with control. Having a writing partner where we’re working on the same document sounds like a version of hell on earth in my brain. That held true until I read the first book(s) in a new romance series this weekend.
This is not a series for my students, but for me. The Bluewater Billionaires is a series coming out from several of my favorite authors. 

Books one and two are out now. I read them, fascinated. See, there is a female lead for each book. All four are introduced in the first book because they are a core group of friends. So far, one book takes place after the next. As I read, I found myself falling in love with the characters and marveling at how the authors crafted these stories.

After reading for a day, I reached out to one of the authors, Claire Kingsley. How did they create this world together, but write their own stories? Claire explained that the four of them came up with the concept together - what the world looked like, who was in it, etc. They each created their own main characters and the storyline for their own book. They had a spreadsheet that kept track of all of the info on the characters that was shared among the four authors. And early drafts were read by the group for consistency. 

I love the possibilities of student writers trying this out. Right now my students love pairing up and trying to write a story together. That collaboration is fun, but what if this could be more? What if they could create the world and some main characters together, but then each write their own stories that build off the other’s? That could be powerful.

What do you think? Have your writers tried anything like this? What successes have you had with kids writing together? What pitfalls? And, of course, if you’re looking for some great books to read just for you, try the Bluewater Billionaires series out. It is a lot of fun. Then go check out all of the books by these amazing authors. You will be glad you did.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Attending Conferences

This past week I had the privilege of attending my state reading conference, the Illinois Reading Council’s annual conference, in Peoria. IRC is often filled with amazing teachers and wonderful featured presenters. Since it is held in October now, I often cannot go on years I attend the National Council of Teachers of English conference in November. This year, however, due to a small medical procedure that will be occurring either at the end of October or sometime in November, I had to cancel my planned trip to NCTE. IRC, suddenly, was available and I’m beyond grateful I could attend.

Thursday and Friday reinvigorated me as an educator. I began the conference with Donalyn Miller. Donalyn has been a friend for such a long time, but I am constantly in awe with her breadth of knowledge. In her session on Access to Books, she reminded us all to be advocates for our students. Who has access? Who doesn’t? What’s standing in their way? I leave Donalyn’s sessions wanting to champion charge across the country and ensure that every student has a school AND classroom library. I also want every school to have a wonderful librarian to inspire a love of reading.  I want to get rid of book deserts across this land.

I spent several sessions with Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. I’ve read and use the nonfiction and fiction signposts with my students, but hearing them talk about these strategies in person realigns my thinking and gets me ready to dive back in and do the work with my students.

Clare Landrigan talked about classroom libraries. She reminded us that we need to make sure our libraries are accessible to the readers we have. In her work with classrooms, she found many libraries to have over 85% of the books at levels above the students in the classroom. What does that say to those kids? How does that make them feel about reading when they cannot read the books in their classrooms?
Samira Ahmed reminded us of the work we have to do as a country to ensure that everyone felt welcome. She told stories of growing up here, what it was like to live as a Muslim American. As I prepare to explore the idea of the danger of a single story next week with my students, Samira reminds me of why that work is important.
And Cornelius Minor left me ready to take on the world. Through him I was reminded that being not just an ally, but an accomplice. Cornelius pushed my thinking. He said that sometimes we need to sit in the discomfort for a bit. On a personal note, Cornelius reminded me of what is important in the work I’m doing. That I might not always see the successes, but sometimes they bloom later. That alone made the trip worthwhile.

Attending professional development is hard. Sub plans alone are a lot of work. I was in constant contact with several students over the two days. Our classroom was a disaster area after Thursday when I went in at 5am Friday. I cleaned it and left my students a message on Classroom. Hopefully when I go in tomorrow, it won’t be so scary. I had parent emails, I’m behind on grading, and I didn’t see my family much for three days. And yet, what I gained is so much more. 

I had the opportunity to see fellow educators I only connect with online while also having time to collaborate with colleagues from my building. I was inspired by people in our profession that make me want to do more. And I was reinvigorated and pumped to come back and teach as I wrap up the first quarter this week and move into the second. I’m grateful to my district for recognizing the value of professional development and excited to see my students again tomorrow morning.

Thanks, IRC. Till we meet again...

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Goodbye, Colonel

Last November I wrote a blog post when Chris’s dad passed away, comparing the older generations in our lives to pillars, that they were the foundation that we build ourselves upon. I said, at the time, that growing up you have that first generation of “pillars,” your grandparents. For us, there was also a great aunt and great uncle who functioned, for all purposes, as an additional set of grandparents. Just under two weeks ago, we lost our last pillar. My great uncle who we called Colonel will be buried today.

Colonel, or Col as I tended to write his name,  is one of those people in your lives that is simply indescribable. On the surface, he was a farmer, an auctioneer, and loved his family. But if you’ve ever been to any of my family gatherings, you would have heard a story or two about him. You might shake your head in bewilderment, humor, confusion, or simply become incredulous. 

Those would all be appropriate reactions.

Last night some of us gathered for dinner and I was telling my cousin, Col’s granddaughter, that some of Col’s stories inspired events in my two books. I looked at my cousin and said, “You simply can’t make some of this stuff up, it is too unbelievable.” 

And that he was.

As it happens in our family, I’d guess most families, when someone passes the stories begin to flow. With Col, they flowed on a river of laughter and could have entertained us for months, if not years. 

There is the infamous Samsonite luggage and wingtips he wore on the canoe trips to Canada, where he was known by visitors to the north woods as “the Samsonite guy…”

There was dice playing at random hours.

Shirts that shrunk in the stomach only, “washing” his teeth, and “Kaboom!”

There was tall tales of strength, of impossible furniture moves.

There was the time that his wife, my Great Aunt GG, called my mom and said, “It’s finally happening…” when he began the long talked about addition to the home.

There were my days volunteering at the auction when he’d tell me to put some random piece of, what I believed to be, crap up and people would go crazy to bid on it. “That there is a dog, a mean ole’ dog, WOOF.” 

There was Chris’s Day with Col.

And more, and more, and more…

Our lives are built on these pillars and their stories weave the tapestry of memories for us to hold, long after they're gone. My Great Uncle Col was a man unlike any other. There is no describing him. Any words I type are simply inadequate to describe the person he was. And yet, I had to try. To mark his passing in some way is important. 

Today we’ll say a final goodbye, but in my head I’ll be thinking, “Ryskie, be a good boy and go get me a…” 

And while I’m sure there might be some tears, laughter will also bubble up. I’m guessing he’d be pretty pleased about that.

Goodbye, Col. The world is sure a bit dimmer without you. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Color Run - Brainstorming for a Fundraiser

Back in 2012 I joined a group of friends to run The Color Run. I’ve run many 5Ks in my life so far, but this was a favorite. The entire atmosphere was one of celebration. People were walking, dancing, racing, and jogging; yet everyone seemed to be out there to have fun. 

In the past few years I’ve seen many fellow educators mention having a “color run” fundraisers at their schools in lieu of magazine sales or the like. A group of teachers have joined me this year to explore bringing this type of fundraiser to my school. So, as I have done before, I’m reaching out to all of you. 

Has anyone attempted this type of fundraiser at their school? If so, I need serious tips. Our elementary schools do a fundraiser every fall that is a walk, so I do know what some of the challenges can be. We would do our run in the spring to avoid competing with the elementary. However, here’s the stuff that’s swirling in my brain:

→ Do you have a rain date as a contingency?
→ How many kids do you have out there at a time? The entire building? Grade levels?
→ How long is your run?
→ What prizes do you give out for raising money?
→ What incentives do you offer the kids? Any by grade level or classroom?
→ What else do you have planned for the day beyond the run?
→ What do you do about sponsors? Do you have levels?
→ How do you collect the money? 
→ What am I missing?

I am super excited! I think this could potentially be something fun for the kids at the end of the year, but I really want to plan ahead. Feel free to email me if you have a lot to share. I appreciate any advice you can send my way!

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Writing Wednesday - Looking Ahead to NaNoWriMo

Back to posting about writing and it feels so good. My own revisions are going slowly. Very slowly. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea if this is the “right” way to revise. And yet, I continue. My hope is that through perseverance, I will get where I need to be. 

Time will tell.

And yet, I’m super excited about writing. I love the stories I have written, but know they can be better. I love the stories I still have in my head, characters that keep talking to me, waiting for their turn. And I love talking to my students about writing.

This year all of the language arts teachers at my middle school will be participating in NaNoWriMo. I am SO EXCITED about this. I’ve done NaNoWriMo with my classes before when I taught fifth grade, but never in seventh. And I’ve never done it where an entire building is writing together for the month. I have to believe that magic will happen. 

For those of you just thinking about joining in your first year, I suggest heading over to their website HERE. This book also looks super helpful. Some tips from my experiences before:

→ Begin talking to your students about this in October. The website has guided lessons for the week or so before you begin, but it’s important that they hit November ready to write. 

→ Think ahead, will you be grading this? I looked more at productivity and had them select a page of their writing to critique at the end, but mainly this was a project my students did for themselves. 

→ How can you make this special? I’m going to be holding writing lunches for anyone who wants to come in and write while they eat. Our local bookstore will be hosting some writing nights too. 

→ Something I’m trying this year is having my students create a Google Sheet for pre-planning of their story. I wrote about this HERE

For those of you that have tried this before, what tips do you have? As for me, I’m diving in with my students. Whether my revisions of book one and two are done or not, I’m pledging to try to get 50,000 words into book three this November. YIKES! We shall see. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

So Many Open Tabs

How I am choosing to relax tonight, reading a book.
Today I reached lunch hour and raced out the door to my building on my way to my Jeep. My mind going a million miles a minute, I briefly wondered why I felt anxious. As I watched my colleague, Mel, drive home in her car, I thought of Mel’s computer. I constantly tease her that she has too many tabs open. I laughed thinking that was how my brain felt today, there were too many tabs. So many tabs.

I’m not sure if this is a female issue, a teacher issue, or a mom issue, but I always have a lot on my mind. While I am teaching, I’m always thinking in my head that we have “x” amount of time left in class, what I still have to teach, and what connection I can give the kids to the concept I’m sharing. As I do that I’m scanning their faces, deciding who is paying attention, who isn’t, who looks confused, who looks sad and what I can do about it, etc. I read somewhere that a teacher, on average, will make more than 1500 educational decisions in a day. I believe it.

Today, on top of normal teaching, I had a ridiculous amount of other “stuff” on my mind. We were beginning our day with a lockdown and relocation drill. I debated how to lead my students through it without causing any anxiety. I sat there huddled in the corner of our classroom with them and prayed that this was a drill that they would never need to use. During breaks between classes I scheduled a doctor appointment for Luke to ensure he just has a virus and not strep or an ear infection. I communicated said appointment to Luke, my mother-in-law, and Luke’s school for that afternoon. I texted the vet about Rosie’s allergies and made an appointment for her after school. I messaged the mom of Liam’s Homecoming date so that I could go order the flowers during lunch. And Chris and I texted about a low tire pressure on my car.

Throughout the morning when I wasn’t teaching I also sent emails about a few meetings I need to have coming up at school, reached out for information about a fundraiser this spring. Messaged some parents about school concerns, emailed other parents about things I’d noticed, answered some student communication, and got the lessons ready for tomorrow.

In fourth hour we watched Jarrett Krosoczka’s Ted Talk. (HERE) In our discussions and quick write afterwards, we talked about everything Jarrett overcame. I relayed the advice that we should all be kind because we never know what other people are dealing with. Some kids shared some struggles of their own. I thought of everything I’d been juggling all morning as well as a doctor's appointment that was making me nervous for tomorrow afternoon. We decided that we would all try to be just a bit kinder as we moved about our day. 

Side note, this is not exactly what my appointment is regarding, but as my PSA for the day I wanted to share THIS article about women’s health from one of my favorite authors. I think it is important. 

Study hall came and went and then I was rushing out of the building to lunch, all those tabs open as I did. Driving to grab my lunch before heading to the florist, I ran through my morning and laughed thinking of all of those darn “tabs.” I am under no illusion that I am unique in this respect, but today was a great reminder to me to take some time for ourselves. Let our brains slow down once in awhile. Because my goodness, I surely hit 1,501 decisions today, or maybe 1,502. 

Have a great week!

Sunday, September 15, 2019


Well, that was a bit of a pause. This is my twenty-fourth year in education. Twenty-four times I’ve started out the school year, been blindsided by the wave of exhaustion, the overwhelming list of things to do, and I still don’t expect it. Year after year I think that by being super organized, preparing ahead of time, I will be able to start the year off without a hitch.

Nope. Nice idea in theory, in practice it has yet to become a reality. 

In the last six weeks I’ve had several doctor appointments and a crazy amount of tests for a small health issue, had to get stitches after cutting my thumb during a team building exercise, Luke has had x-rays and an MRI along with multiple appointments for a stress fracture, Liam has had an x-ray and appointment for something termed ‘jumper’s knee’, and then there’s just been teaching and life.

I’m exhausted. And stressed. 

And yet, we just finished our twentieth day of school. I love my new classes. At the home football game on Friday night I got to see so many of them out with their friends. They got to meet Chris. They are already sending me messages about how much they love this school year, how they’re enjoying reading, how they’ve been inspired to write, etc. It’s awesome while also feeling like it is never enough.

Today as I drove home from Champaign where I was revising my first book, I listened to Colby and Alaina Sharp’s most recent podcast for Partially Proficient. (Click on the link to learn more.)

Alaina talked about always feeling like she hasn’t done enough and to that, I can relate. (As well as saying “yes” when kids ask to go to the bathroom, but I digress.) Teaching is a tough career. I can work myself to the bone, do great things, and I can always look and see what else I could have done. I can help 73 kids become more enamored with reading, but I will wonder why I couldn't reach the last two. I will pour myself into the job, then get home and feel like I don't have enough left for Chris and/or the boys. Or I will spend more time investing myself at home and beat myself up for not doing more for school.

It is never enough. 

This used to be something I struggled with daily. Make no mistake, I still do at times. Especially at the start of the year. But I’ve tried to become more comfortable this year with just being ok in the moment. I have worked to make myself more vulnerable - to tell my own children or my students how I’m feeling. Sometimes, as I did with one of my sons just moments ago - I just simply tell them why something they did hurt me. No big discussion, no high emotions, just stated truths. I tell them what I’m doing and why it matters. I tell them what I’m shooting for and am ok if we fall up short. The cool thing I’m finding is that I’m becoming less stressed. That my own kids and my students are showing more ownership for their actions. And, and this is key, especially in the classroom I feel like it is more of a group effort to get things done, not just me out there on my own piloting the boat. 

So, as I continue this journey into a new school year, I’m reminding myself that it’s ok to step back a bit and let the kids help. I’m trying to be kind to myself. I know we are always modeling behavior for our children - at home and at school. I want them to see that there is no need to beat yourself up when you are trying your best. And I’m telling myself just to let go, it will be ok, to enjoy the moment. Because living in the present is something I always strive to do. I fail and fail again, but someday I know I will get it.

Hope you are all having a great start to your school year and you are treating yourself with kindness. We’ve got this.