Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Writing Wednesdays: Lunchtime Writing


Today was our second Writing Wednesday of the school year. Last year I had a handful of kids that asked if they could write with me at lunch time. Most days I rush home for my thirty minute lunch period. Ostensibly I head home to let out my dogs, which I actually do, but in truth I head home because I need thirty minutes during my day where no one is talking to me. It allows me to recharge and have energy for the second half of my day. All this is to say that when I agreed to have Writing Wednesdays last year, that was giving up something that meant a lot to me. 

Last year a small group would come. Spreading out around the room, kids would write on Chromebooks while I wrote on my laptop. We’d eat as we typed, the room filled with the noise of keys clicking and the Coffitivity app in the background. I told the kids I write best at coffee shops, so we brought that vibe to the classroom. Towards the end of the year we stopped meeting. Spring fever had hit and they wanted to be social with their friends. 

One of my students from last year must have told this new group of students about Writing Wednesdays because a few weeks ago, a student asked if we’d be having them. After talking to a few students, I decided to give it a go.

Last week and this week brought around fifteen students to my room for lunch. Again, we write almost the whole time, just taking the last two minutes to share, if we want, what we’ve been working on at the end. Now out of 125 seventh grade students, I teach 75 of them. I love that students I don’t even teach have attend Writing Wednesdays because they simply want to write. Today I sat with one and we discussed how to make a chapter longer, what types of things he could add. 

Towards the end of our time together, we were discussing what we were working on. I shared that I was attempting to write a short story for submission to a publisher for an anthology. That made us pause so I could explain what an anthology actually was. When the students learned that other authors would write short stories too and they’d all be packaged in one book together, a boy said, “Is Jason Reynolds writing one?”

I grinned and replied that the anthology was for adults and in the romance genre. Since Jason doesn’t write in that genre, he would not be one of the authors.

The boy replied, “I bet Jason would be a great romance writer. He can write anything he sets his mind to.” Other writers nodded as they grabbed their cafeteria trays to return them before seventh period began. 

I watched them go, grateful for this short time I have with these young writers. Grateful they have authors they admire and believe in. And glad that I got the chance to have Writing Wednesday again, even if I did have to give up my lunch period to do it. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Learning with My Students: The Danger of a Single Story

For the past two weeks my students and I have been learning about the danger of a single story. We began this inquiry with Chimamanda Nogzi Adichie’s Ted Talk on the topic. I’ve watched this Ted Talk over fifteen times over the last seven years. Each time I walk away with a new understanding from Adichie. Some of my favorite quotes include: 

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” 

“The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar.”

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”

With Adichie’s words laying the groundwork, my students and I began to delve into stereotypes. Who is it that we simplify into a single story? Why do we do that? How can we begin to see them as more complex? 

Over the last ten school days we’ve explored race and religion, gender, disability, athletes, and more. Sometimes these conversations can be hard because I have no idea where we’re going, I just want to give my students a safe space to explore this concept. We’ve watched the videos, written down our thoughts, and talked. We’ve also looked at the novel we’re studying together, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and compared the work we’ve done during our quick writes to the story that’s unfolding. The Socs and the Greasers absolutely fall into stereotypical categories. As the book unfolds, Ponyboy pushes past those first beliefs. We talk about how that can happen to all of us, how we can make assumptions, but in reality people are far more complex than that.

Today we delved into the notion that a single story can be also used to attempt to define a place. We watched the first six minutes or so of these two videos from YouTuber Louis Cole (video one and two). After each video, I had the kids write for a few minutes what they were thinking about Kenya. Then I shared THIS video and my students realized they began to create a single story in their heads about Kenya after the first video without even realizing it. 

Adichie said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” How easy is it for us to fall into these simplistic beliefs about people, places, based on one story. We know we are all more complex than that. 

After talking about Kenya I told my students that this happens all of the time. I simply need to glance at my Facebook feed on any given day and can see “single stories” in regards to a wide range of topics. Tonight it was our state, Illinois. People cannot wait to leave it - taxes, corrupt government, weather. And, as Adichie stated, those stories may be true. But, I would argue, there is more. Just as there is with any group of people, any place, there is good and bad. Taxes, I’d argue, are critical to anyone who cares about schools, roads, libraries, or a host of other services. Even setting that aside, I love where I live. I’m surrounded by beauty.


I love living in a small town. Monticello truly exemplifies the “it takes a village” mentality. This can be seen in our remodeling project at the high school. The site superintendent and his crew have welcomed both high school and elementary students to the site and taught them about what is going on. You can read about that HERE or see a tweet from a high school teacher below.


My state is more than the single story about high taxes. It is more than the amount of our governors that have spent time in jail. It is also a place of beauty, a place of community, a place where we look out for each other. Years ago we lost a young farmer in our community. An article was shared online then about how the farming community came as a tribute for this young man gone too soon. I bookmarked this article then and return to it when I want to be reminded of the good that can happen, in the midst of hard times. 

After the last two weeks I have been reminded once again that the single story is dangerous. When we base our opinion of a group of people, of a place, based off of little information, we are in danger of losing the complexity of who we are. 

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” 
- Adichie

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.