Friday, April 3, 2020

Small Celebrations

Leia, while I try to do some yoga...
It’s been a week. Today, while on a walk with my dog, I left a Voxer message for my friend Cindy, who lives in Pennsylvania. In it, I said, “I haven’t been with my students for twenty-one days.” At those words, I actually stopped walking. Three weeks. Three weeks since I last taught in my classroom. My gut tells me we won’t be going back to school this year. That thought breaks my heart. I love my students. I miss them so, even though I went through this week’s work from home and grumbled about the amount that isn’t done, I still miss them. I wish I got to have those conversations to their face instead of online. However, I don’t want to dwell in sadness, so here’s what I’m celebrating this week:

My New Website

As I’ve written about here, I’m writing romance books. A short story is coming out in an anthology this summer, I’m revising the two books. As a result, I’ve created a website HERE. If you travel over there, please consider signing up for my newsletter. The first issue will come out next week and it will be a place of happiness and joy in your inbox. Each newsletter will contain:

  • Reading recommendations: what I’m reading for myself (romance!) and/or what I’m reading for my students
  • Writing updates
  • What I’ve been cooking
  • Music I’ve enjoyed lately
  • Products I want to gush about
  • A general life update

Sign up for the newsletter is on the website

Student emails
I woke up on Thursday to an email from a student. I’ve pasted it below because it made me so happy…

Dear Mrs. Soko,

I have just finished the Blood of Olympus and let me say that I cried for about ten minutes because my super sized mcshizzle bad boy supreme died. I wanted to throw the book across the room. I was so sad. The thing is, I was reading at night, so no smashing the book to the ground screaming, "Curse you Rick". I loved Leo so much, he was by far my favorite person out of that story, so when he 'died' we had a river of tears in my bed. Then I finished the book, and even more tears ran down my cheeks because my heart melted in my chest. He survived and went to Calypso!!! That had to be the sweetest thing that happened to me reading this book. Like boys pay attention to what these guys are doing, you might pick up some tips to find love. 
     Just saying I loved that book so so so so so much. For real "Curse you Rick for putting me through a heartache."

With love,

I mean, doesn’t that just make you smile? I cannot even begin to express the happiness that filled me up upon reading that.

Read Aloud
We were reading Jennifer Nielsen’s False Prince when we were back in school. I had a lot of messages over our first week off, which was our spring break. Would I continue the story? Thanks to publishers changing their policies while we are under these new stay at home mandates, I’ve continued our read aloud on a private Flipgrid for my class. 

Last week and this week I’ve put up over three hours of me reading. It’s a bit awkward, but the views for each video told me the kids were watching. On Wednesday I left them at a bit of a cliffhanger. I’d already read the ten chapters for the week, though, so I thought that might be a good spot to stop until next week. Imagine my delight when I got an email from one of my students. She and her grandma had been listening together to my videos each day and they wondered if I’d mind reading a bit more this week. So, of course I did.

Look for the Helpers
As we all are aware, the last few weeks have been a struggle. My anxiety does not do well in times like these and my brain wants to rush ahead to worst case scenarios. However, in the midst of all of the bad, I keep finding pockets of good news. Whether it is the heroes that are saving us right now, the essential workers that are keeping our world running, former students who post pictures of themself in their protective gear heading to work, scientists that are searching for answers, and on, and on. Everyday people are stepping up. We have heroes who walk among us and they move me to tears. I am so grateful.

Finding Bright Spots

This is a picture of me with one of my students, T. She dressed up like me for our middle school talent show which was held on 3/13, our last day of school before spring break. I saw her after dismissal and told her I wanted a photo with her. We took it and then she left for break. A few hours later I’d learn that we were out of school for the next two weeks, which was extended until April 30th, which I fear will be extended for the remainder of the year. I had no idea when I took this with T that it could be my last photo of “school” for this school year. It brings me joy and also makes me grieve what we’ve lost. My boys are missing their track season. My oldest son’s girlfriend is a Senior. My cousins are Seniors in college. There is so much we’ve lost, not even delving into the lives that have been lost. 

Today I read so many students’ writing entries for the week. They’re angry at this virus. They ask me if we are coming back. They tell me how much they miss school. I hear them. But through their writing I also find the thread of gratitude for small moments. The awe when they talk about family members working in the medical field. The time they’ve enjoyed with their love ones. Their newfound appreciation for a normal school day. They are watching, being shaped by this moment in time, as are we all.

Each night I journal, keeping my own record of this time. I end every entry, no matter how scared I am in the majority of it, with a bright spot of my day. They truly are all around us.

Wishing you and your loved ones health and happiness. And please head over HERE and sign up for my newsletter. The first one should be going out sometime next week. Thanks! 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Our New Normal

This morning I sat on the floor of my office, responding to one of my student’s Flipgrid videos. Leia’s head was on my lap as Elle told me how much she enjoyed The War I Finally Won. My mom had recommended it to her the last time mom subbed in my classroom. Elle said, “I can’t wait to tell her I loved it...” and my heart broke just a little.

We’re now in week three of staying home, week two of remote learning, and I’m not sure about this new normal. To be blunt, I can do this. I see memes online about how hard this is on teachers. I’m not one to ever pick up the teacher as martyr card. I’m at home. I’m talking to my students. I’m finding ways for them to continue learning online. That isn’t what makes this hard. I watch friends online post about making the decision to separate from their family because they work in the hospital. My former students post photos of them in protective gear heading to work at said hospitals and beg people to stay home. That’s hard. This, I can do this.

What is hard on me are those quiet words in a Flipgrid video from students, or typed in an email:

Mrs. S, I’m ready to be back.

I hate being stuck at home.

I miss you and our classmates.

Mrs. S, when do you think we can all be together again?

That’s hard. I think many teachers have soft hearts. We carry the weight of our students with us. I worry about them. I think about them throughout every day and when I lay down to sleep at night. It’s a struggle.

And so, I find myself in this new normal and learning what works for us. In case anyone is looking for suggestions, here’s what my 7th grade Language Arts teacher and I have decided to do for our students. 

Daily reading and writing
We want them to continue to read for enjoyment, to write. We gave lots of suggestions as to where they can find books online, through our local library, through companies providing free books online, and through our local bookstore. 

For writing, I suggested journaling each day, but in case they don’t want to dwell on our present circumstances, they can also write fiction, sketch and draw, write reviews, etc. They need to “turn in” one day’s writing by Friday each week.

Weekly check-ins

This is in a variety of ways. 

Flipgrid: We post a video each week for them to respond to on Flipgrid. This week mine was a book talk on Dragon Hoops, which I just finished, and Stamped, which I’m currently reading. I also told them what I’ve been doing for fun and asked them to respond through Flipgrid or email. I then reply back to them.

Google Classroom poll question: I give a poll question each week just to connect. Last week was in response to our read aloud, did they want me to keep reading or pause and add more chapters next week? This week I asked them if they liked our weekly connection on Zoom or if they’d rather I skip it? Overwhelmingly they have asked me to keep the Zoom.

Zoom: As I mentioned above, I have a weekly Zoom. I teach three classes, so on Wednesdays I have a weekly Zoom, one for each class. I told them upfront it was optional and would only last 15-20 minutes. Importantly, I came to it with an agenda that I had written down. I quickly gave them all a course on Zoom, asked them to mute themselves unless they were talking to avoid feedback from everyone else.  I used it mainly to touch base, tell them how much I missed them, see if anyone had questions, and we did a quick share at the end to see what they were up to. 

Read Aloud

I was reading aloud The False Prince when we were last at school. We were around chapter 20. When the mandate went out that we were out of school, several kids reached out to ask what we would do about the read aloud. Looking online, it seems most publishers have relaxed their usual rules and have allowed online read alouds, assuming that you aren't posting them publicly. So, I’ve created a Flipgrid just for our read aloud. I read a chapter at a time and upload the video. It’s interesting to see how many views are on these videos. Several kids told me they lay in bed and listen to me read, that it helps when they’re stressed. That both gave me joy and brought me to tears. 

Weekly Focus
Next week as we had a bit of new curriculum, we will add a “weekly focus” to our online learning. For April, it will be poetry. The kids will get a set of poems for the week with the directions to read the poems, respond to them, and on Friday either share their thinking or a poem of their own.

Children First
Our district’s mandate, and the direction from our state, has been that we need to not operate as business as usual. Our priority is connecting with kids. Being there for them. Then, keeping their minds active. I appreciate that. We do need to be putting kids first here, not trying to cram in everything we would normally be teaching.

My district, like many others, had been providing meals for students. Today they are starting a checkout program for our Chromebooks. They’re purchasing hotspots for folks without internet. They’ve copied our plans and have copies at all of the schools for kids with no online access. I personally have two of my seventy-five without internet, but the parents connect with me through their phones. We want to reach everyone.

Everyday I wake up and pray that our new normal will end soon. That this virus will decide it’s done enough harm and be gone. Whenever that happens, I hope we find a new appreciation for our schools, for days spent with students, and for the solid feeling I get deep into my toes as I lead a class. I miss it more than I could ever say.

Sunday, March 29, 2020


Every morning, I awake.
For a moment I’m filled
With a feeling of hope.
Of a time from before.

Who knew I would long
For hugs,
For leisurely trips,
To the grocery store,
To days spent with students.

Who knew how much I depended
On seeing their faces each day,
On my bookshelves to browse,
While giving book recommendations.

There are days I awake angry.
Frustrated by the lack of time in the classroom.
At the loss for my students.
Sad at the notion of what this means for Seniors,
For those that are retiring,
For families celebrating milestones apart,
And missing out on those normal connections.

Then I watch the news.
I’m filled with anxiety,
But also hope.
Look at all of those people stepping up.
Those in the medical fields that are fighting 
On the front lines.

My eyes fill with tears as 
Images of former students
Bravely donning their protective gear
Fills my feed.
I think of everyone working in essential jobs,
Leaving home each day
Making sure our country is still running. 
And I pray.

So I do what I can,
Which is to stay home
So others can do their jobs.
Connect with my students,
Trying to offer them any reassurance,
Or a bit of normalcy
That I can.
And I know that one day soon
We will return to as it was before.
My hope is that we will all be the better for it.
And appreciate our lives anew.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Finding the Bright Spots

Yesterday I had a Zoom call with each of my classes. It was not mandatory, of course, because not all of them have easy access to the online world. Also, many of them have parents working from home. I presume they also might have calls they need to be on or things they need to do. That being said, it was so good to see the kids I could. 

In each class roughly half of the students came in. I taught them the basics of Zoom (mute your device, the chat on the side, etc.) They shared what they’ve been writing. We talked about our current read aloud that I’ve been recording for them on Flipgrid. I told them I missed them. 

A friend asked which week so far of staying home have I preferred, Spring Break or this version of school. Without a doubt it would be this week. Last week I had a lot of time on my hands. I immersed myself in all things COVID-19. I read, and freaked out, and read some more. It was not good for my mental health.

Things are worse in the United States and across the globe this week for sure. My anxiety is still present. However, I’m distancing myself from the reports as much as possible. I know it’s bad. I know that the numbers are getting worse. But, and I think this is what’s key for me, I’m doing the best I can. I’m staying at home, as is my entire family. We aren’t seeing anyone, even six feet apart. When I had to go to the grocery store this week, I took all of the precautions I could and also tried to ensure we wouldn’t need anything else for two weeks. 

It’s not enough.

This virus scares me. But I have friends who are on the frontlines. They’re doctors and nurses doing the best they can to protect us. I feel like staying home, seeing everyone in a few weeks or months is the absolute least I can do here. Not everyone is able to because their work is essential, so we will be glad to help out since we can.

Each morning I still get out to walk the dogs. I live in a small town and rarely see anyone. When I do, I cross the street or they do. It’s a weird new normal. Today, as I walked, I left a message on Voxer for a friend in Pennsylvania. As I was finishing up I heard, “Mrs. S!” Stopping in the middle of the street I looked up to see one of my former students sitting on her front porch, just back from a run. I stood there, probably thirty feet apart, and talked to her for just a minute or so. After leaving her to finish my walk, I marveled at how much happier I was. I miss my class. I miss my family. I miss teaching. And if I, an introvert, feel this way, I cannot imagine how my extrovert friends are doing. 

Yesterday during my Zoom call I told my students I was starting a Padlet for them. Not required, but I wanted them to add photos of bright spots of their day. That even in the midst of this horrible time, we can find a bright spot. Each night as I get ready for bed, I write in my journal what that day was like. I always end on a bright spot. I’m sure that a month ago I wouldn’t have counted a conversation that lasted less than three minutes as a bright spot in my day. I certainly do now. Times have certainly changed. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

When Everything Is Out of Your Control

Hey all, today is day two of our spring break, but it isn’t anything like I thought it would be. I figured I’d be getting back late last night from Michigan where I would be presenting at their annual reading conference. I thought I’d settle down with some books, get some writing done, rest and recharge, ready to come back from break and tackle the fourth quarter of school.

Well, best laid plans and all.

Instead I, like many of you, am at home. I read news articles far too often, need to get off of social media, and constantly worry I am not doing enough to protect my family from a virus I don’t understand. 

To put it bluntly, it sucks. 

I worry about my students. I worry about my family, the one I live with and the extended family spread far and wide. I think about friends and their kids. I worry about our economy and local small businesses. 

I worry, a lot.

My students all know that I struggle with anxiety. There are certain things that trigger it, but a guaranteed trigger is the feeling of a lack of control. And you could say we’ve hit that in a big way right now. My teenage sons are convinced I am the most overprotective mom out there because I don’t want them hanging out with their friends. I’ve tried to explain the concept of social distancing, but they point to the CDC’s recommendation of ten or less, so why can’t they? I’ve allowed my oldest to see his girlfriend, the youngest to run with his friend, but that’s it. Even with that I worry I’m being too lax. 

I’ve talked to friends who are doctors, nurses, and scientists. They all say this is something to take seriously. Stay home. 

And the worry increases.

What I’ve found is helping is keeping busy. I began to curate a Padlet for my students that has cool things authors are offering online. (Like Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Mo Willems, just to name two.) Yesterday I drew with each author’s video linked above. I also learned professionally from Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. I connected with educators around the world. I did yoga from home thanks to our local yoga studio moving online. 

It helped.

Each day I’ve made sure to get out and walk. Today I decided to make sure I was supporting local businesses by ordering some books online and picking up a curbside lunch from a local deli. I also mailed payment for appointments I cancelled due to this ridiculous virus to the folks that would have lost money otherwise. It’s not enough, but I’m trying.

I saw this poem and shared it on Facebook this morning. It encompasses my biggest hope. This virus is horrible, but maybe if we face it together we can come out stronger on the other side. 

Stay healthy, friends. This song is speaking to me just a bit. Hope you have a book, journal, or some music to pass the time with.