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.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'll Drive

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 17 of 31.

By far my favorite mode of transportation is the car. Now for those of you who know me in real life, this is probably not shocking. I abhor flying. It isn't just the intense fear of crashing, or the lack of control I have when the plane begins to taxi. I even abhor the airport. The waiting with no further movement. I can't stand sitting in the gate area, feeling more and more anxious as the flight draws near. Even upon landing, there is no relief. I want to be off that plane immediately, but know that we'll have to wait. And then, there's baggage claim.

Yep, no fan of travel by plane. 

Trains are better, somewhat. I actually enjoy the movement, the light rocking as it goes over the tracks. You don't have to arrive ridiculously early, hurrying to the train station just to wait. No, my issue with travel by rail is the unreliability. If we lived in Europe, I'd use it regularly. Here, nope. There is no assurance you will be even remotely on time and that is unbelievably frustrating.

So, travel by car it is. It isn't without its headaches - road construction, weather, and accidents. However, I love time in the car, which is a good thing when you have kids in sports. 

Today Chris and I needed to divide and conquer. Liam had a basketball game thirty miles away, Luke had a track meet sixty miles away. I immediately volunteered to drive to the track meet. I knew that the drive would not bother me like it would Chris. His six foot seven frame does not enjoy being folded into a vehicle for any length of time, much less the five or so hours of bleacher sitting at a track meet. This does not impact a five foot two frame, so off I went. An hour each way, an audiobook to fill the miles, it was awesome. And watching one of my two favorite runners made the in-between time pretty good too.

Yep, when given the choice, I'll gladly drive. And while I do love the view of the ocean, or a mountain rage, the plains of Illinois are pretty amazing too. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

What a Week!

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 16 of 31.

Friends, it has been a week. 

On a typical year at this point of March, teachers across my district would be breathing a sigh of relief. We would have reached that point of spring where children run amok, Daylight Savings and the start of Spring Break. This year, that is not the case. It is after Daylight Savings of course, my body and mind haven't recovered from that horror of last Sunday. However, our Spring Break does not begin until next Friday. I'm not sure why we are a week later this year, I'm guessing it has something to do with Easter and how we typically get the Friday before that, and the Monday after, off as well. Maybe they decided just to push the two together for the savings of a day? Maybe the continuity would be off to return to school, only to leave again? I'm not sure. What I can tell you is that it has been a week.

To say that discipline this week in my middle school has been interesting would be an understatement. To say that behavior has been such that one might raise an eyebrow would also be true. But here's what I've noticed. Kids that are typically fine are a bit of an emotional mess. Adults in my community seem to have lost a bit of perspective. People are believing strongly in their own "rightness" and struggle to even have the desire to even listen for a moment as to another person's truth.

Deep breaths.

I'm not perfect, so far from it in fact. And as my teachers from middle school and high school can attest, I wasn't back then either. I've always tried to be kind, but often fail. I try to see the point of view of others. I try to look at the positive, not the negative. I try not to wallow in gossip and talk about people behind their back. I try to take the high road. It's not easy.

So, in looking back on this week I can easily see the moments that have added to the grey hair on my head and the wrinkles on my brow. But, sitting here at 6:15pm on a Friday with a Fat Tire beer, I'm going to reframe my week. Yes, it has been a week. However it has also been filled with moments I want to remember:

  • Discussions about Jane Goodall and what a "glass ceiling" even is.
  • A group of educators from Japan and China visited and asked my students wonderful questions.
  • A colleague from the high school came and observed in my room and I enjoyed talking to him.
  • My students had fabulous behavior in my class.
  • Reading over writing that took my breath away, these kids have grown so much.
  • Watching a student cheer before he pulled it together when he realized he won a writing contest.
  • Laughing with colleagues over a stupid comment when we were having a stressful conversation.
  • Talking to a boy in last hour today about the first two books in a series as he grabbed the third off the shelf. Three other kids coming up to talk to us about the series because they loved it so.
  • Hugging a student that had struggled to make the right choice, but did.
  • A conversation with a former classmate and friend in the grocery store that reminded me that I'm not alone.
I can choose to focus on everything that went wrong this week, my disappointment in the choices of adults and children alike, but really so much went right. That's what feeds my soul, so I'm choosing to reflect on that instead. I hadn't realized it until now, but it actually was a fabulous week full of joy. I just needed to change my perspective.
Cheers! Happy Friday! 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On Writing

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 15 of 31.

The majority of my students, whether in fifth grade years ago or now in seventh grade, come to me with an acceptance as readers. Some tolerate books, some devour them, but the journey to being a person who enjoys reading isn't impossible. 

Writing, however, is another story.

For a long time I thought it was because I didn't write. As their teacher, I can talk to them about reading a book again because I have a book hangover. I can share about my love of series, my hatred for exposition, and how I connect with some characters so much I dream about them. When kids struggle with comprehension, I am able to give them suggestions from my own life. And yet, for a long time, I couldn't give them advice as a writer.

When I went to school writing was similar to math in my brain, there was a right way and a wrong way. I was convinced I was in the "wrong way" category. I didn't get grammar. Spelling, forget about it. Diagraming sentences made my head hurt. Writing just simply wasn't for me. It's only been in the last few years that I've began to write and had any pride in what I created. Don't get me wrong, it still isn't my strength. Rereading something I have written fills me with anxiety and a wish that I could somehow do it better. What I've found, however, is that the more I write, the easier it gets.

And so I challenge myself to months like this. Months where I go into the kitchen at 8:10pm, ready to go upstairs and read, only to realize I still need to write a blog post. Months that contain days like today where I have no idea what I'm going to write, but make myself start knowing that an idea will come to me. That's what I share with my students. When we gather together for a quick write and I start the timer telling them, just begin with something, knowing that the act of beginning, the act of not allowing yourself to give up, will build and result in writing. It takes awhile, many of my students do not enjoy trying something, at first, that they are not automatically successful at. But when they keep at it, keep trying, amazing writing can occur. The secret is that you just have to write. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Jane Goodall - Short Inquiry Unit

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 14 of 31

We have to remember that each single one of us matters. We have a role to play in this life, just as every small species does. But for us, each day that we live, we make some impact on the planet, and we have a choice as to what kind of impact we're going to make. - Jane Goodall

National Geographic
For the past three days in my class we've been studying the life and impact of Dr. Jane Goodall. While I knew who Jane was as a scientist, I hadn't realized the extent of her impact on our world until we began to study her. For three days we have shared resources, learned about the best way for each of us to take notes, and are writing up a blog of what we've learned. I'm sharing what resources we used here, including a write up of my own learning. 

Jane left England at the age of twenty-three to follow her lifelong dream of studying animals in the wild. From the time she was young, she had a natural curiosity about animals and their instincts. In many of the sources we shared this week we learned about her natural propensity to watch. There is the famous anecdote where she studied the chickens in the henhouse, watching for hours, and waiting for an egg to arrive. Jane learned early that by observing and fading into the background, she could observe an animals natural behavior.

The Jane Goodall Institue
What I was most impressed by in our study of Jane was her drive. In The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, Jane says, "This is where I belong. This is what I came into this world to do." Jane knew early what her life's mission would be, to be with the animals in their natural habitat. For years she followed that mission, and yet, when the mission needed to change, she did just that. In the 1980s when she discovered that chimpanzees were becoming endangered because of humans, Jane left her beloved chimps in Gombe and went out into the world, speaking on behalf of the animals that couldn't speak for themselves.

Jane is a trailblazer. She entered the jungles of Tanzania untrained, and discovered truths about chimpanzees that even scientists in the field for years hadn't learned. By watching and observing she learned they were tool makers and had similar emotions to humans. I was surprised by all she learned from them, including how to best be a parent. She says that by watching mother chimps with their young she learned to develop a bond, be close, and let them know that they can rely on you. She did this all at a time where women in the field of science were rare. She broke the barriers down.

LA Times
I admire Jane Goodall greatly. She is tireless in her efforts to make this world a better place. Even now at the age of 83, Jane hasn't slowed down. She's still out trying to make the world for a better place for all of us. 

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