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 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.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tick Tock...

Twelve days ago my superintendent posted this on Twitter:

What this means is that my brain begins to return to the classroom and my new students, even if my body isn't quite rested enough yet to do the same. And yet, registration began. I pulled up my new class lists and got excited to see some familiar names, sad that I didn't get to teach other kids I knew. It is the dance we do every July.

As I begin to think of the school year and getting ready, I also see fabulously decorated classrooms, fancy bulletin boards, gorgeous worksheets posted online. Each time, my heart sinks a bit. When I was in grad school back in 1997 I had a teacher named Barb Dress. She told us that our only job of "decorating" the classroom was to ensure the shell was ready for the kids to come in, but it was their room. No premade posters, no gorgeous bulletin boards, none of it. She said we needed to be working on the feeling that being part of our classroom community would give kids. How did we plan to build our classroom family? How would kids feel accepted? How would they know it was a safe place?

Last week I spent several days with former students. There were kids at my house to hang out with Luke and Liam, and they were there at all of Liam's basketball games. I thought of each of them, how some don't fit the "vision" for a model student, but how much I loved them and worried about them as they prepare to begin this next school year. I started thinking about community, belonging, why they had a successful year, or why they hadn't. And then, I thought of sports.

My boys have been a part of many sports teams over the years: soccer, flag football, basketball, football, swim team, baseball, cross country, and track. They had amazing experiences in all of them, but the ones that they still talk about are when the coaches elevated the team family over winning. Even in the more individual sports, the team comes first. In those teams, the family of the team is cultivated. Issues are not ignored, but addressed immediately. Team building is central to their time together, not an after thought. These are the teams that my boys have excelled when they were a part of. The seasons that they cannot wait to begin and are sad when they are done. These are the coaches my boys will work the hardest for day in, day out, all season (and off season) long.

I need to remember this in the classroom. Student learning is, of course, why I have a job. But the community, the family of our classroom, comes first. The kids need to know when they walk in our room that they are wanted and accepted here. That they might have had a bad experience in the past, but this year is their fresh start. I need to let all kids know that we lift our classmates up, never tear them down. Thirty-six days left. I cannot wait to get started. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Reflecting on Teaching and Balance

My Wednesday morning yoga location.
Thursday and Friday of this week I'm going to be lucky enough to present to five groups of educators on a variety of topics. Through all of those presentations, one thing will remain the same, I want to leave them with gratitude. My gratitude to these teachers on the work they do. My gratitude to them for caring enough to get professional development during the summer when they could be with their families. My gratitude for fighting the good fight, caring about kids, and being a safe place for their students to land. I'm also leaving them with a word of caution...

Remember to always strive towards balance.

For years, my life was out of balance. I let my love of teaching consume me, consume all of my time. I grew to love writing, yet I only ever found time to write if it was about my classroom. I loved learning, so all of my free time was spent finding conferences to attend. I love children's books, but never found any time to read just for me. In everything I did, I looked for ways to use it to help me grow as an educator. Needless to say, this is not healthy for me.

To some, this might work fine. To that I say, more power to them. For me, I needed to find "me" again. The person I was beyond teaching. It reminded me of being a parent of a newborn. My identity was wrapped up in becoming a mom. Somehow, once my children didn't need me as much, my identity switched to that of a teacher. And I am a mom, and a teacher, but I needed to rediscover who I was beyond that.

Enter yoga. 
Enter dates with Chris. 
Enter time with my boys. 
Enter adventures with friends.
Enter writing a romance book. 
Heck, enter reading endless amounts romance books. 

2018 has been a year of discovery for me, and it has been hard, and it has also rocked. I'm grateful for it. I feel like my priorities are better in line with who I am than they have ever been. I'm still learning, still growing, but I'm getting there. 

As a result, I want to pay my gratitude for this year forward. Kristen Ashley is the writer of romance books that I credit for helping me on this journey. Reading her Rock Chicks series had me laughing and crying. It was a pleasure to read a book just for fun, with no need to find which kid I was going to hand it off to, no lesson to tie in, just read for the sake of reading. To thank her, and thank the amazing folks that read my blog and attend the sessions I'm giving at Scholastic and All Write's Summer Institute, I'm giving away six ebooks from Kristen Ashley. You pick the title, as long as it is by Ashley, I will send it to you. I will pick one winner from my blog, and one from each session I give. Enter on the form below. Winners will be selected on Monday, June 25th. 

Those of you in the classrooms and schools, thanks for all you do. This is a tough profession, but rewarding beyond belief. If you have time off this summer, please carve out time for you. You are worth it! 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Where Did the Time Go?

Goodness, I haven't blogged since May 10th! A lot has happened. Lacking the time and originality to write a lengthy post, I'll just do a recap here:

End of the School Year
Holy moly, the end of the year snuck up on me. Counting my two years teaching Kindergarten in a learning center, it was my twenty-second in the classroom. We wrapped up the year with my annual "purge the classroom library" day where I begged kids to take books to keep that weren't being circulated from my classroom. We talked about our favorite books, our favorite pieces of writing, and made summer plans.

On the last day, which was a shorter day, we watched The Greatest Showman and ate bagels. It's a rough life. While it seems like forever ago, today only marks the 21st day of summer. Crazy how much I miss those kids already.

Voices From the Middle
I'm part of a group that records podcasts for NCTE's Voices from the Middle. In May we got to record an episode with Jewell Parker Rhodes to discuss her amazing middle grade novel, Ghost Boys (Episode 33). Then four students read Cynthia Kodohata's fabulous middle grade book Checked and recorded an episode with her (Episode 34). They had a blast! You can check out those episodes HERE.

My boys are busy. Luke ran a special invite meet as a Freshman and got a PR for the mile, 4:36. Then the bad news came, stress fracture. So he's been out of running for six weeks and still has three more to go. Not easy when it is your favorite thing.
Needing to constantly tape his shin should have been a clue...
Liam began summer with a bang - chipping his front tooth at the pool, fainting at the pool, and braces. We're hoping that the rest of the summer remains calm. They will be in 10th and 8th grade next year, respectively.

Fiction Writing
I'm still plugging along!! I've reached 41,000 words. It is not easier, in fact it is likely harder the further I get. The idea of ever having this book published terrifies me. This is a romance book, so if I went that route I'd likely self-publish, but my inner editor, Helga, is not kind. Fortunately my friend, Cindy, took on the task of reading what I have so far and her kind words have helped. I still love my characters, Max and Emma, and I love creating their fictional world. 

Summer Conferences
One week from today I'll be presenting at the Scholastic Summit in Chicago. Then, next Friday, I'll be at the All Write/ Summer Institute conference presenting four times. I cannot wait! I wrote a blog post for the Summer Institute folks and it is up - you can read it HERE. And if you're coming to either conference, let me know! I'll love to say hello.

Thanks for bearing with me as my writing has been sporadic  I hope to get another post done before I take off next week. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Plastic in Our World

This post is part of an inquiry project my students are working on. We've been looking at our impact on the environment. Students are writing blogs and giving presentations on the area each has chosen to study. This post will serve as a mentor text blog post for my students. Thanks!

Two years ago my eyes were opened. A friend shared the video below about plastics in our environment and I began to wake up. Each year eight metric tons of plastics find their way to our oceans. Those pieces of plastic also make their way into us - through our water supply, the food we eat, and other items in our environment. As you can see in the video below, 93% of Americans have some trace of BPA in their bodies. BPA is a chemical that is used to make plastics. That is terrifying.

After watching Jeff's video, and others like it, I began to educate myself on the dangers of single use plastic. Items in this category include plastic grocery bags, which take over twenty years to break down in the ocean or landfills. Humans are purchasing an insane amount of beverages in plastic bottles, over one million bottles per minute, 91% of which are not recycled. This made me reexamine my own life and what my plastic consumption was like.

What I have found is that reducing your use of plastic is not easy. Whether it is in eating my normal string cheese, individually wrapped in plastic; grabbing a drink on a road trip; or even cleaning up after your dogs, we use plastic. What is important for all of us is to reduce the amount we use, recycle when we can, and make sure we get our trash where it is supposed to go.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition is making strides in this area. 

Thanks to education from their site and sites like it, I have worked to refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle. I use travel mugs and water bottles made from aluminum, have purchased biodegradable dog waste bags, and bring my own bags to the grocery store. I know I can do more, we all can, and I pledge to work to do so. What about you? What are you doing to help our planet - in regard to plastic or another issue that is impacting our world? What are you passionate about? Please share. Together I am certain we can make a difference.

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