Saturday, March 24, 2018

Goodbye Uncle Bobby

This week has been tough. As I have taught my students what it means to write an "age poem", I've shared with them that the joy of getting older also comes with the heartache of watching those you love age. And then losing them.

Some of my students have already experienced this. Several have lost a parent far too young. They know this bitter truth. It is one we all come to know and face with more than a bit of dread.

Monday morning as my students were beginning to write in second hour I glanced at an email from my mom with more than a bit of disbelief. My uncle, my full-of-life uncle, had just been given the sad diagnosis of cancer, and it was advanced. I read it. Reread it. Then I looked up and took a deep breath. The beauty and pain of teaching is that you can't do anything else but be there. And so, I went back to teaching, to conferring, as I prayed over and over in my head.

Thursday I was working in the back library during tenth period helping some students sort through the lyrics of a song for examples of figurative language. DJ pointed out that someone was calling my cell because my Apple Watch display announced that. I glanced down and told him it was my brother and he knew I was teaching, I'd call him back. Inside, my stomach began to twist. Why would Ryan be calling now? Just thirty minutes later and I had my news. Four days after his diagnosis, less than three weeks after first entering the hospital, my amazing Uncle Bobby was gone.

Loss doesn't get any easier the older you get. You come to expect it, sure. We all know we have a finite amount of time. And yet, I'm not ready to say goodbye. Bobby had sixty-eight years, but I wish he had so many more. And so, as I have in the past on this blog when I've lost a loved one, I'm using this space to say goodbye the only way I know how - through words. 

I'll remember...
following your blue backpack 
through the streets of New York.
The crush of humanity all around,
but as long as you were in sight,
I felt safe.

I'll remember laughing with you at family gatherings.
The twinkle in your piercing blue eyes when you said
something that drove Mumsie crazy.
How I longed to stay up later,
to be enveloped in that laughter that filled the home.

I'll remember coming to visit you in Indy when Chris and I married.
Meeting your friends.
Learning about intense games of Risk.
And the need for more game boards
when you grew angry after losing.

I'll remember your humor, for certain.
But also your zest for life.
And no BS attitude.
Listening to you play the organ for mass as you called out,
"Song number 342, but only verses 2,4, and 5" 
because you didn't like the others.

I'll remember your devotion to your calling.
How kids you taught would meet me and
share how you taught them about 
and you helped them feel strong. 
And I knew it was because you saw the 
value in kids. You didn't dismiss them.
You didn't dismiss anyone.
You listened.

I'll remember sitting up late with you,
Often with a beer, a Diet Coke, and a coffee
on the table in front of you.
Late hours passing,
yawns escaping before I could hold them back.
But I knew I wanted to listen just a bit more,
hear just a few more stories.
And right now I'd give anything to be back at that 
table with you once again.

My heart is breaking,
all of ours are,
but I'm certain you are where you are meant to be.
I'm not sure what heaven is like, 
but I hope for your sake they have 
Black and White cookies up there.
That it looks a lot like Bay Shore.
And I won't be shocked one bit if the 
Yankees win it all next year.

Goodbye, Bobby. Thanks for always believing in me.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Being Brave in Middle School

Middle School students who were in the Talent Show
I am constantly in awe of my students and today was no different. It was our last day before Spring Break, which also happens to be the day of our middle school talent show. That takes place during the last two hours of the school day. To accommodate for that, all class periods are shortened to seventeen minutes long. Yowza. My seventh grade colleagues and I have chosen last year and this year simply to keep our homeroom kids for the morning and celebrate this last day with them however we choose. 

I choose to celebrate with Percy Jackson and a blue food party. 

Now in elementary school we'd study Greek Mythology and have a similar celebration at the end of a read aloud of The Lightning Thief. In middle school my schedule is much tighter, but for the past two years we still did this movie/party on the day before Spring Break. It is the perfect way to wind down.

Our day began on a high note. Kids could wear hats to school if they brought a dollar. The donations were going to a local family who have two sons. Their youngest is in Pre-K and has been facing some health issues. When the announcements came out this week that we were doing a fundraiser for him, I showed my homeroom some photos of the four year old from his mom's Facebook page and simply asked my kids to bring in donations if they could. They did, including an extremely generous donation from one of my quietest students. My class and I gave her a round of applause, which embarrassed her, but also made her smile. I was in awe once again of the kindness of my students.

Then it was time to eat. Grabbing some blue food and drink, my kids headed over to settle in for the movie. While the sounds of Percy battling a Furry surrounded me, I pulled up the Age Poems my students wrote to grade. I read about hard times growing up, the fear of divorce, the struggles with friendship, how kids don't feel heard, how lock down drills frighten them, their confusion of the world around them, and their confusion of their own brains. Mostly I read how my seventy-five students feel that they're straddling the world of childhood and young adulthood and are so confused by it. I was beyond proud of them for finding their voice and pouring their souls bare on the page.

After the movie, and after drying some tears as I graded, we were on to the Talent Show. I was a shy kid, that is for certain. No way could I get up by myself and perform in front of my peers and a bunch of parents, but these kids did it. I was in awe of kids that tried this for the first time just as I was in awe of kids that had no fear and had performed last year. I also felt joy in watching the majority of the student body as they supported their classmates as they tried something that was hard. 

It was the perfect way to kick-off Spring Break.

Watching my principal, Ms. Handley, embracing the role of "cowbell" player for the 7th grade percussion ensemble didn't hurt either. 

More cowbell, Jeanne. More cowbell. What a fabulous day.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Quick Write Inspiration, Thanks to @NatGeo

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 22 of 31.

Quick writes are a daily part of our classroom workshop in seventh grade. Anything is fair game for a quick write: picture books, poems, images, infographics, prompts, articles, songs, videos, and more. Our quick writes are truly quick, around three minutes. We revisit them, revise, and extend them into longer writing pieces when we have time.

Today our quick write came from my visit to Instagram the day before. I often tell my students that two Instagram accounts I suggest they follow (if they are on that platform) are @natgeo and @usinterior. Well, yesterday on the Nat Geo account, I saw this image:

National Geographic

This was the caption:

natgeoPhoto by @amivitale With a heavy heart, I share this news and hope that Sudan's legacy will awaken us to protect this magnificent and fragile planet. Yesterday, wildlife ranger Joseph Wachira, 26 comforted Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on this planet moments before he passed away. Sudan lived a long, healthy life at the conservancy after he was brought to Kenya from @safari_park_dvur_kralov in the #Czechrepublic in 2009. He died surrounded by people who loved him at @olpejeta after suffering from age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds. Sudan has been an inspirational figure for many across the world. Thousands have trooped to Ol Pejeta to see him and he has helped raise awareness for rhino conservation. The two female northern white rhinos left on the planet are his direct descendants. Research into new Assisted Reproductive Techniques for large mammals is underway due to him. The impact that this special animal has had on conservation is simply incredible. And there is still hope in the future that the subspecies might be restored through IVF. 

In 2009, I had the privilege of following this gentle hulking creature on his journey from the snowy Dvur Krulov zoo in the Czech Republic to the warm plains of Kenya, when he was transported with three of his fellow Northern White Rhinos in a last ditch effort to save the subspecies. It was believed that the air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. At the time, there were 8 Northern white rhinos alive, all in zoos. Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind. Follow @olpejeta and @amivitale to learn more what we can all do to #coexist.

I had the kids write off the image first - what story did they see being told? We wrote, then shared what we were writing with a neighbor. Then I read the caption to them. This did lead to some interesting conversations about what IVF was and how in the world that would work - if the other two White Rhinos left were older, what would they do? More than anything, my students (and I) were captivated by the last sentence in the caption. 

Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind. 

That might earn its own quick write when we come back from break. Heartbreaking what mankind has done to the earth. 

Do you do quick writes with your students? If so, what are your favorite sources for inspiration? 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

This is Forty-Four

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 21 of 31.

Last year I pulled together a mentor text set of poems and songs about age. Then I wrote my own. Sharing this with my students, they crafted their own poem as well. You can read more about that here. This year I'm doing a version of that study again and decided to write another poem, this time at forty-four. Here it is.

This is Forty-four
I feel the pull,
The tug.
Years pass, time marches on
And here I stand.

I’m no longer that self-conscious teen,
Wanting so badly to fit in,
That she refused to speak her mind.
To speak up.

I no longer worry what others think of me
Or, at least, not as much as I did.
I feel more comfortable with who I am,
I see my value.

I look back and my heart aches for that girl.
I wish so much I could tell her to find her strength within.
But I can’t.

And so, I tell my students.
I tell them they are the only ones with the power to make themselves.
I tell them that they are amazing.
That they still have the power to set themselves on the path of their own choosing.
And I watch.

They have so much potential in front of them,
Will they see it?

From my spot, forty-four years down the line,
I know how quickly life moves.
Twenty-one years of marriage
Fifteen years of motherhood so far,
I am blessed.

I find joy in watching my boys run,
My heart fills up as they accomplish their dreams,
But it breaks when those dreams are crushed.
To love, to try, is to put yourself out there.
They can get hurt
They have gotten hurt
And it brought me to my knees.

Forty-four years means I’ve lost,
A lot.
I’ve watched my grandparents fade away.
I’ve lost relatives, friends, far too young.
And I’m just as crushed now,
As I was years ago,
When I get that message that begins…
“The doctor says…”

My heart seizes up,
My brain screams “NO!”
But this is part of growing older,
A privilege not afforded to everyone.

Forty-four years,
Hope to have forty-four more.
Here I stand.
Chasing the years,
There is still time to live.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

To be Loved

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 20 of 31.

I was born in 1974 which means Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a fixture in my young life. I remember watching the show when I was small. I remember he was quiet, kind, but really I just watched it because it was fun and made me laugh.

It's only as I became an adult that I developed an appreciation of what Fred Rogers created with that show, what he stood for. I love how he believed in what he did, which you can see in his speech to Congress in 1969. I love how he put kids first.

Today a trailer was shared for a film coming out this summer called Won't You be My Neighbor? I cried as I watched it. Some quotes that stood out to me include:

I've always felt that I didn't need to put on a funny hat or jump through the hoop to have a relationship with a child.

Love is at the root of everything. All learning. All relationships. Love, or the lack of it.

Children have very deep feelings, just the way everybody does.

The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.

That last quote spoke directly to my heart. Today I was talking to a class of students. I told them I was struggling after learning some sad news about someone I love. My seventh graders, an age group many feel are only concerned about themselves and their friends, listened with compassion. Some murmured things like, "I'm so sorry, Mrs. S." I turned them loose to write their poems. As I turned my back on my class, putting some items up, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A boy stood before me with tears in his eyes and whispered how sorry he was to hear my news. He stared straight in my eyes as I looked back. I thanked him as he nodded and moved away. I think if I told most teachers that this kid had taken the time to come up and have that moment, they'd be shocked. I felt loved.

All of our kids need to understand that we love them and the potential that they have within. What I'm struck by the most in moving to middle school from elementary is the amount of kids I see giving up. Life has gotten harder since they were young. Mr. Rogers got this. His words, his looks, his tone, poured love through the camera right to us. I try hard to do that everyday in my classroom. When I'm lucky, that love comes straight back to me.

Here's the trailer. Enjoy!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Public Shaming

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 19 of 31.

It seems we haven't absorbed our lessons from Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. Public shaming is still as prevalent as ever, even though many point to today's teens as being the true guilty parties. What I've reflected on, however, is how ubiquitous the notion of shaming can be, even if sometimes led with good intentions. For example, in teaching English, we often say that to be a teacher of readers, one needs to be a teacher who reads. Yet I've been with friends where you begin to wonder what is "enough" to be considered a teacher who reads. If I read one book written for kids each week, is that enough? Or does it need to be five books a week? More? Even when I lead with good intentions, my constant sharing of what I read (which I do and have done), am I shaming someone who doesn't read as much as I do? How do I balance that?

As a person whose profession is teaching, I've absolutely been publicly shamed. I've been blessed in twenty-two years of teaching, I am aware of it happening only three times - once in a letter to the editor, twice on Facebook. (Darn social media) It didn't matter if the facts were there, or even correct. It didn't matter what my side of the story way. People spoke hatefully about me and it hurt. Seeing people I knew and trusted do the same, simply made it worse.

And here's what I realized today, it hurt and I am an adult. Watching people judge my actions, without all of the facts, hurt. I thought about it, a lot. I doubted myself. I wondered if I was in the right profession. I was sick to my stomach. I know my intentions are good. I still felt like crap. I wished people would come talk to me first before venting on a public forum. I wish they wouldn't feel the need, or want the power, of letting the mob vilify someone else. What had I really done to them? But eventually, I was able to let it go.

As teachers, I think - unfortunately - many of us have experienced this. It sucks. If parents had any idea what it does to our psyche, I have to hope they'd think before they shared. Or, at the very least, just bashed us when they got together with friends the next time, not on social media. So, my fellow colleagues, why do we do this to students? You know what I'm talking about...

Some version of this...

Or the same idea, using technology...

Today I heard a colleague's child come in after school. The first words out of their mouth were the color they were on at the end of the day.

What the hell.

I taught the primary grades. I didn't want my students rushing home, ready to see their parents for the first time since the early morning, and the most important thing they had to share was their behavior. Where's the joy for learning? The cool books shared at school? The crazy games played? The friendships formed?

My boys are now in 9th and 7th grade. I hated the behavior charts when they were in classes that had them. I was certain they were on the way out, they'd been around for awhile, but years later and they're still here. I do not get it.

To me, behavior charts are all about control. If the class is quiet, compliant, then the teacher is doing a good job, right? UGH. Where's the learning? There are times, of course, that we need our classes to be quiet. There are also times that kids can get too loud, been there too. But, to me, behavior charts aren't the way to get your class where it needs to be. Relationships are. Getting to know kids. Talking to them. Creating engaging lessons. Does that mean every child will behave all the time? Nope. But I'll take that. I'd rather work with kids individually. I'd rather develop plans with them, tell them why I need them to not do "X". Otherwise you end up with kids like the boy who is now a senior in our high school and confided in my back in fourth grade that he felt he was a "bad kid" because he was often on red in the lower grades. (Nope, he just couldn't sit still.) Or the girl who could tell her mom the names of all the "bad boys" in class when they had to move their clip again that day. (Side note, how often is it our boys that are "on red." Something to think about, coming from a mom to boys.) 

Behavior charts are just another means of public shaming and as adults, we know how hurtful that is. Do we really want that to be the focus of our students' days? When they reflect back on their time in our classroom, do we want them to simply remember how often they were on "red"? Or do we want them to remember how we made them feel. What they learned about. How much they loved school. I still remember every person who said a hateful comment about me on Facebook. I remember how they made me feel. I don't wish that on any child so please, get rid of public shaming in our classrooms. Our kids deserve better.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Mornings

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 18 of 31.

I love Sunday mornings. While we do go to church, we prefer to go on Saturdays at 4:30pm or recently, Sundays at 4pm. That leaves Sunday mornings free. This morning I got up, quietly woke Luke and asked what mass he wanted to go to. He picked 4pm, so that meant the morning would be a quiet one.

It began with the dogs and a short walk for each at 7:30am. Upon returning home, I realized I had some time before anyone else would be up. That meant I could feed the dogs, make pancake batter, let it rest, and read a book or two. (Current romance book read is the Last Call series by Sawyer Bennett. So good.)
The rest of the morning was filled with coffee, dogs looking for dropped food, and pancakes. 
A fabulous start to my day.

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