Friday, May 26, 2017

And that's a wrap...


Wednesday finished up my 21st year in teaching, 19th in public schools, 17th in my district, and 1st year in middle school. To say I love the middle school students would be a colossal understatement. I love their humor, their honesty, their vulnerability. These kids are real, and you better be too or they will have no time for you.

As I have in the past at fifth grade, I asked my students to make a poster of how many books they read this year in middle school. We talked about how many of them knew the amount they read was higher, but hadn't kept up on their running list. We talked about how there is no comparison of their numbers with their peers because some kids count picture books, some don't. Some students read exclusively loooooooong novels, others fly through graphic novels. The one thing I wanted them to reflect on was their life as a reader for this year in seventh grade. All three classes, and every student, felt they had grown a lot in the past year and their reflections they turned in would support that. 

So, here they are, my beautiful seventh grade group, now eighth graders. These seventy-two kids read 2925 books this year. I'm on day two of summer and I already miss them. I love that I will get to see them next year in the building. I can't wait to see what they accomplish next. 



Thursday, May 25, 2017

Need Advice - One Book, One School


Reaching out to friends that have more experience than me. Yesterday was our last day of school for the year. Of course, that means I started thinking about next year. I went home yesterday and saw the trailer for Wonder.



Oh. My. Gosh.

I still remember reading this book. The class that just became Juniors yesterday in our district were in my fifth grade class. I did a Donor's Choose project at the end of the school year so that we could read it together and they could have their own copies. I knew then that this book was special and could inspire children everywhere. I was right.

Now, the movie is coming out in the fall. From what I've seen, I think it looks amazing. So.... I began dreaming. 

I've never participated in a one book, one school program, but if there was a book made for that, it would be Wonder. The potential I can see for this book being read by almost 400 students and teachers in our middle school this fall, for kicking off the year with the message of #choosekind, well, I think it would be amazing. 

Where you come in is that I have no idea how people do this. If you have any experience, please either weigh in below or contact me. What I'm wondering is: 

How do you get 400 copies of a book? 
Did you have kids purchase them?
Did the school?
Did you do a fundraiser? Donors Choose or what?
What else did you do beyond reading the book together. 

My mind is whirling, but I'm grateful to mull this over as I relax at home this summer. Yay for some time off and thanks for any advice. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder


There are authors that are an integral part of our classroom. Laurel Snyder was one such author in my fifth grade classroom, and now my seventh grade classroom as well. One student described her writing as honest. To my middle school students, that's important. This year I was conferring with one child about Laurel's Bigger Than a Bread Box. They were describing why they loved it so and then paused, flipped back to the beginning, pointed to a scene where the main character, Rebecca, must get in a car with her mom and brother. They are leaving her father who stands outside the car, crying, begging them not to go. My student pointed at that scene, tapped it, and whispered, "She gets it." 

Laurel's writing wraps tendrils of stories around my students as they read, not letting go once they are done. Her books speak to their hearts and souls in a way that they absolutely treasure. Her new book, Orphan Island, is one that does just that. I brought the advanced copy in this past November and so many children have read it since then that it is literally falling apart. 

Here we have a remote island where a group of nine children live on their own. I was obsessed with the Swiss Family Robinson as a kid and this book spoke to those memories perfectly. These nine children aren't sure how they came to live on the island, they only know that everything is perfect there. They are fed, there are structures built for living by those who came before. Every need is taken care of and it's a happy life - you only have to abide by one rule. Once a year a canoe arrives with a young child in it. That child will come to live on the island and the oldest member of the island will leave in the same canoe. They aren't sure where the canoe takes them, only that it is time to go. The next oldest child will become the Elder on the island, teaching the new child how to adapt until it is there turn to leave. This is the rule and this is how life is. Until it's Jinny's year.

Orphan Island opens with the arrival of the canoe. Deen, Jinny's best friend and the current elder, must leave in it. Ess, the new member and Jinny's responsibility for the year, gets out and Deen gets in, although Jinny begs him to stay. With her best friend gone, Jinny is lost for much of the year, trying to figure out how to raise a child and deal with her own morning of growing up herself. It isn't until her canoe arrives that Jinny's internal struggle becomes apparent not only to herself, but the other kids on the island. 

I've been mulling over why my students have connected so deeply to this book this year. I think it's because many of my seventh graders find themselves exactly where Jinny is - one foot is left in childhood, the other stepping squarely into there teenage years and beyond. Seventh graders are ready to play with toys one moment, and craft the perfect photo for social media the next. They are in a state of constant conflux, living in two worlds and figuring out where they belong. They know it's time to move forward, but they often look back to their younger years, longing for a time when everything felt safe, known.

Orphan Island will be released on May 30th of this year. If you haven't read it yet, remedy this immediately. I will be purchasing replacement copies for my classroom because I have a feeling that next year's seventh graders will see themselves in Jinny too. This book is one we will treasure for years to come.

Schedule for Blog Tour

May 15: LibLaura5









May 20: Book Monsters










Sunday, May 21, 2017

And Just Like That, It's Over

No, not the school year, yet. Wednesday is our final day of school. Yesterday our middle school track season came to a close. I think if I was a teacher of middle school students, but not a parent of two of them, I might not understand the implications of this. Sports are just sports, right? Over the years I've heard many teachers, and parents, comment that they think student athletes get too much attention, sports has too much emphasis in our schools, etc.

I couldn't disagree more.

No, sports are not the pinnacle of one's life. As I've told my boys often, school is their priority. I've also told them that life is long and that how you do on a sports team - at any age - won't be your greatest achievement. That being said, my boys have gained immeasurable gifts from the teams they've been on.

Three years ago Luke joined the track team as a sixth grader. Sixth graders compete for seventh grade spots, so he really only got the chance to throw discus and shot at our home meets. Last year he decided to begin running as well. We were surprised to see that he was good at it and he headed to State to run the 400. He did well and got 13th, if memory serves. This year he switched to the 800 and still made it back to State. While he didn't get in the top 8 spots, which was his goal, he got 12th and shaved almost 4 seconds off his time - 2:10.8. I reminded him that to be 12th in our state as a runner is huge. He nodded.

When we got home I noticed that he was a bit quieter than usual. Asking if he was bummed that he didn't place where he wanted he commented it was more that the season - and middle school track - was over. It was my turn to nod, and step away before the tears came on.

Middle school has come to a close for Luke all too quickly. These three years have absolutely flown by. As he made that comment, memories flashed through my mind - some involving school, yes, but more involving moments outside of school. I could picture his baby face in 6th grade when he joined track, his first school sport. The basketball team in 7th grade. His crazy coach that had as much energy as one of the kids. Their exuberance in making it all to way to State that year. The time he would spend after track practice was long over with his throwing coach, working on getting the shot put to fly just a bit farther. Running through the fields on Cross Country this year. Standing and shaking the hands of the kids behind him as he won sectionals. And now, his last day as a middle school athlete is done.

By the time he and his brother are finished with high school in our town, I'm sure I will have racked up countless hours spent as a spectator for them - in sports, band, and more. But the lessons they have gained from their teammates, coaches, opponents, and learning their own drive is something that cannot be measured. Yes, sports are important - all extracurricular events are. They help kids discover who they truly are. They teach them life lessons. They help form unbreakable bonds. I will morn for a moment the times that have already passed, but I can't wait to see what the future has in store for my boys. I will also remember when my students come in from a loss, or at the end of the season, the weight of that on their hearts and, I hope, treat them with the kindness my boys have had many times over.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Learning from my Middle School Students


Facebook has a feature that I both love and hate. The "On this Day" app reminds you of what you've posted in the previous years on the same date. Through it I'm reminded of just how quickly time has gone, how much my boys have grown. At the same time, I love it. Memories stay fresh. And sometimes, like today, I see a blog post I've written and shared and it all comes flooding back.

Last year on this day I wrote THIS post. One year later I can look back with a wry smile. I'm six days away from making it through my first year of middle school. There are parts of that post that were right on the money, and other parts I completely missed.

See, while people thought I might be wrong, I do miss my homeroom. I have a homeroom, of course, at seventh grade. I do love those kids. I get to have them a bit more each day than the others (4 minutes). There are days that we don't switch. They always cheer and we plan out our time. That being said, it is not the same as elementary school. There were days in elementary school where we'd only have one special. Those days could drive you to madness - if you needed a break, you rarely got it. But I loved the unhurried nature of those days. Rereading that post from last year I almost laughed out loud. Thirty extra minutes? I had time to read with the kids? Now, I'd have to steal the time to confer, because I'm always out of it. I'd have a million balls in the air, just trying to keep it all moving before the next bell. So yeah, the leasiurely pace of a homeroom at the end of the year when routines are established. I miss that.

Where I was wrong, however, was that relationships can be just as strong, if not stronger. These kids are two years older. They've experienced more. They've had friends betray them, sometimes family as well. Some have had their first heartache. They are genuine. They don't put up with BS. If you are fake, they know. But they also can see what is true. I tend to call my students "hon", or say "I love you guys" a lot. I didn't realize that I did that as much until I moved to middle school. I briefly wondered if I should change, but struggled to do so. Now, I think it's good I didn't. In talking to a few students the other day one mentioned that they felt like their heart rate slowed down in our classroom. She's having a rough year and I asked why she thought that was. Her head briefly touched my shoulder and she whispered, "I'm safe. It is like home." 

Which brings me to another thing these kids have taught me. They are brave. I stand in awe of what they are up against, yet they face it with such dignity, such grace. No book prepared me for talking to kids about depression, sexuality identity, coming out, transitioning, parents making poor choices, drug use, and more. At first I was worried, what if I said the wrong thing? I don't have all the answers. Gradually I realized that my students don't really need the answers, they just wanted to know that I was there. That I still loved them, even when they didn't love themselves. They needed help figuring out where to look for help - which we figured out together. Their parents needed to know that an adult at school loved and supported their kids as much as they did. I've watched my students and been reminded of newborn giraffes - taking unsure steps, figuring out how to move forward, then doing so with ever gaining confidence. They have made me so proud. Watching the kids at my school support each other through these stages of growth, however,  has made my heart soar.

As I've said before, and will say again, middle school kids get a bad rap. Because it is such a volatile time, they can be short tempered. They certainly have more on their minds than school and sometimes you have to just acknowledge that and remember what you were like at that age. Because if you respect them, if you treat them as equals, they have so much to teach us. I really think they might be the best of us all. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Force for Good...

Grandma on the left, GG on the right.
If I have my dates correct, today marks the fifth anniversary of my great aunt GG's passing. Today I thought about my great aunt as well as my grandma. The two of them were so close, you rarely saw one without the other. It has been almost fourteen years since I saw my grandma, five since I saw GG, but I can still remember their voices. I remember the grip of their hands on mine. I can recall their love a good story and a great pair of Birkenstocks. If you needed to know the gossip going around their small town, you could head to their auction building on Sundays and someone there would fill you in. In the years before social media, that's where you found out what was what. That being said, I also never heard them tear anyone down. I never saw them be unkind to another. They owned their mistakes, just as their owned their success. They were believers in hard work, the importance of family, and doing the right thing.

They were a force for good in their community.

This week I've wondered what is to be gained from social media. That's saying a lot, coming from me. I have been a fan of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for years. (Snapchat's allure alludes me, although I do have an account.) By giving everyone a voice, we've devalued our words to some extent. Words are powerful. Our message is powerful. What we put out there into the world creates a perception about who we are. I don't think of myself as a luddite, but I'm beginning to wonder if it was better when I didn't know what everyone thought. When I didn't have to watch people tear apart someone, or something, without the whole story. When I didn't see vitriol spewed forth as it was equal to the truth. 

Before anyone worries, none of this negativity has been directed at me, I'm just sitting alongside many, watching it pour forth in my community, in my state, in my country, and wondering where my place is.

I've tried so hard in the years that I've lived my life online to be what I think my grandmother and GG would be proud of - to be a force for good. There is, of course, the negative side of teaching, of living in a small community, of being a parent to two boys, and on and on and on. I could choose to share that. I could tear others apart when they do something I don't approve of. I could run to Facebook and Twitter when I see something I think of as wrong, but I'm not sure where that will get me except in a world where I only look for the negative, where I see myself as the judge and the jury of what is right and what is wrong. I choose not to dwell in that world. 

Instead, I will continue to find joy in the everyday. I will recognize that most of us are trying our best. That we all can screw up, apologize, and work to do better. That we all would be happier if we just look for the small moments of good. 

Today my students were beautiful. They shared their books, writing, and lives with me. I'm honored to be there for that. We talked about the importance of read aloud in middle school. Today parents sent me sweet words about how I impacted their teen this year. They thanked me, but I should thank them. They too are choosing to lift others up instead of tearing down. I see that and I celebrate it.

I tell my boys constantly that what they send out into the world comes back to them. They can choose to be a force for good, to be a positive person, to make a difference through kindness. I hope they follow that advice. It worked for my grandma and GG. And, when I remember to turn away from the stream of negativity, it works for me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Ten Days Left

My last class picked up at the end of the day. 1st time all year!
Ten days. The end of the school year is a time of struggle for me. After over twenty years in the classroom, I've come to terms with it. The beginning of the school year is filled with anticipation, possibility. The end of the year is time for reflection. I am filled with pride as I see how my students have grown. At the same time, the end of the year looms large and I worry over everything we can't possibly accomplish before we run out of time. 

Ten days. It feels like both an eternity and not enough. Seventh graders have as much energy as kindergarteners on a sugar high. Their sights are set on the days of summer that stretch ahead of them. Time at the pool, hanging out with friends, and sleeping in. I get that, I really do. I clearly remember being in junior high. I don't know that I was ever sorry that a year came to an end. While I was sad to leave my elementary teachers, by junior high my friends took priority. Everything else was just standing in the way of more time with them.

That doesn't mean I'm not sad to say goodbye to them. This year and next will be years I will treasure. Both years will be classes I've taught before. That fast tracks everything for that year together. Relationships are stronger, connections deeper. They can drive me crazy much quicker - we've already done this dance together before. But I'm more understanding, and so are they. I will miss them when they are gone. 

This middle school experience has been a new one this year. There are things I miss about elementary school. Colleagues I still text, sad that they aren't down the hall anymore. Students pass in and out of your room at a middle school, at an elementary school they are yours, all day. There are positives and negatives with that switch. By and large, though, I love middle school. 

Today I conferred with a lot of kids on a presentation they are creating to show their learning on our pollution inquiry unit. I had the chance to talk to several readers about their books and recommend some new ones. One group of kids sat with me, all of us on a device, as we searched for information on the nuclear emergency in Washington yesterday and how it applied to their presentation. Another group shared facts they were learning about water pollution and Flint, Michigan. Still another group came to see me and asked if I could explain the CRAAP test again to make sure their sources were valid. I loved watching their passion for learning and can't wait to see their final presentations in our last days together.

Today the eighth graders in our building came down to perform a poem that they had memorized. Former students waved, made comments about my Starbucks cup in hand. I talked to another eighth grader in the hall as I walked out for lunch, heading home to take Leia out. She told me about the book she was reading, her plans for summer, her excitement for high school. And finally, I went into cover an 8th grade class for a few minutes today. Seeing kids literally stand up and cheer as I walked in, give me high fives, my heart swelled. I caught up with what they were doing, got to wish them well, and head back to my classroom.

Ten days. It isn't enough, but it will have to be. The end of the year will be here before I know it. And while I miss the family feeling of my elementary school classroom, today I realized that the entire middle school is like that family. It's a larger classroom, in some respects. I'm going to be sad to see these 8th graders go on to high school, but I am confident they are destined for some great things. And my current group of 7th graders? I can't wait to watch them grow. 

Ten days. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tell Me About Sex, Grandma - Review

Last week I saw a picture book mentioned not once, but twice. First, I believe it was an author I adore, Laurel Snyder, who said she read it and thought it was an important book. 

I ordered it. 

Then, I saw it mentioned on Betsy Bird's blog this week. I waited with anticipation.

It arrived last night. I put it aside to read during the day today. 

I was not disappointed.

So, let's start with the title. An attention grabber for sure. But when I see that two other books in the series are: Divorce is the Worst and Death is Stupid - all part of the Ordinary Terrible Things series, I can see what types of topics we are covering here. The layout - collage with kraft paper, text looks like it was written with a marker on the paper - could inspire students to create their own books. And then, we have the content. Let's start with the Kirkus review:

Kirkus Reviews (February 15, 2017
A small child asks Grandma what sex is and gets a wise response.Higginbotham follows titles on death and divorce with a refreshingly different take on a child’s sex question. A speech-bubble conversation, occasionally interrupted by eating and play, accompanies narrative answers, stated simply but directly and stressing the child’s right to be curious. This is not a biology lesson or physical description; it’s ethical and emotional. “Sex is private.” It includes motion and feelings that grow and change as a child grows up. With whom and how “belongs to no one else but you.” The child reiterates the lesson: what’s most important is the personal choice: “I am the one-and-only, top-boss, in-charge decider about sex in my life for my whole life.” Set on kraft paper, the collage illustrations have been assembled from a variety of materials including magazine pictures and photographs. The pair are black: the child has a reddish Afro and Grandma sports beaded hair (and very cool shoes). Images of Grandma’s row-house neighborhood and comfortable apartment, decorated with religious images and looking out on trees, tell readers more about their world. Several pictures reinforce the final message that the internet is not a good place to find answers to this question; ask a savvy grown-up instead. With its strong message about sexual assault, this is a necessary addition to sex-education collections. (Picture book. 4-9)
To say that I love this book would be an understatement. If you are looking for a book to hand off to a child so they can figure out what sex is, this is not your book. There is no clinical descriptions or illustrations here. (I will say, It's Perfectly Normal and the younger versions: It's Not the Stork and It's So Amazing would be great if you're looking for that.) What this book does well is empower. It reminds kids that they are in charge of their body. It tells them to pay attention to signs that they are uncomfortable. It points out that looking for pictures or more online will not get you what you need, and can make you feel uncomfortable. This is a book that is a great jumping off point for younger readers. As for the two older ones in my home, they will be required to read it. I don't think we can talk about sexual assault early enough or often enough. 

This book will find a home in the picture book collection in my classroom. That being said, if any local parents want to borrow it, please let me know. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Small Acts of Kindness

I am, and I'm certain I'm not alone, guilty of seeing the negative far too often. Recently I was frustrated after talking to an adult - the small mindedness of others can shock me. I find myself spiraling down a path of negative feelings and judgement that just isn't productive or helpful. When that happens, I begin to look for small acts of kindness. They are always there when you look for them. 


Teacher Appreciation Week
Our middle school teachers have been spoiled this week by parents, a student volunteer club, student council, and more. Monday they stocked our fridge with drinks, a local coffee shop brought coffee, a new bakery brought treats, as did some amazing parents. It was glorious. Throughout the week they have been handing out gift cards. And, one of my favorites, is the snack cart the student council brings around during our prep time. (see the photo above) These awesome kids greeted me today with a smile and lots of fun snacks. I was thrilled to grab one of my favorites - cheese sticks - from them before I returned to grading. 

Poetry
We wrapped up a poetry unit in April. At the end of the month I asked my students to turn in one free write poem from their work over the month. I'll be honest, I was not prepared for the raw emotion that middle school kids put in their poems. I was honored to read them, grateful that they'd share these parts of themselves with me. I saw kindness in their love for their friends and family, as well as their trust in me. Their beautiful poems gave me hope for the world once more.


Friends
Middle school kids can get a bad rep. It's an age known for drama, unkindness, and ego. However, I've seen the opposite this week several times over. My heart has filled with joy as I've watched kids giving other students the freedom to express who they are. Unlike some adults, the kids have been accepting and kind. 

I smiled at a track meet as I watched kids cheer on each other, and on their opponents, showing joy beyond measure.

And as I stood at the finish line, timing the boys' races last night, my night was made. I loved that my son and his friend raced in the 800 for our conference meet. My son got first, his friend got second. Luke caught his breath and then headed back to check in for the 4x400 relay that was up next. His friend went to find his parents, but stopped, grabbed all of Luke's warm clothing from where they had gotten ready for the race, and brought them to me before heading to see his parents. And when Luke finished his relay? His friend was back to debrief the race and give him suggestions to improve. His unselfish nature and pure heart brought tears to my eyes and made me grateful for his friendship for my kid.

Words
I saw this image on Facebook tonight. It spoke to me immediately. I've been in a funk of late. I'm not sure why, and thus this post, but my emotions are close to the surface. I've tried hard to ignore them, to look for the good in everyone instead of focusing on the negative, but I've struggled. My students have helped me more than they know. Whether it's to come in, tell me they love the book they're reading; to pat me on the back as they pass in the hall; or, like a boy in my study hall today, just quietly say, "Hey Mrs. S, have a great day. I love being here." I mean, how lucky am I? 

I love my students for recognizing when I need a kind word. It made me remember that I need to do that for my colleagues too. I think we're at the point of the year that we could all use a hug. Parents realize this and are honoring educators everywhere this week. We need to be kind to each other too. Instead of complaining, dwelling on the negative, maybe we need to lift each other up. I saw one colleague do that for another today. Without being asked, they stepped up. I've so enjoyed getting to know my new colleagues. One of my friends likes to say you can see the glow of a good person when you look. I certainly did today and it made me grateful to be where I am, to do what I do, to work with the people I am blessed to work with every single day. 

Yep, there is negativity around if I look for it, but there is also kindness spilling over. I need to look for it more. It makes all of the difference in the world.



 
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