Monday, November 20, 2017

NCTE 2017

I'm trying to decompress after a whirlwind four days. When I try to explain to teachers, to friends, who don't attend NCTE what is involved, they look at me like I'm crazy. I mean who sinks in hundreds of dollars of their own to go sit in professional development for days? (And I'm a lucky one, my district pays for some of it.) Yet, I am not alone. I have no idea how many people attended this year's NCTE, but judging by lines for the exhibit hall, it was a lot.

Today at school someone asked me to explain NCTE, what did I get out of it? I tried to sum it up, but it seemed inadequate. In having the conversation, however, I figured it might make a good blog post. With that notion in mind, here are my top takeaways from NCTE 2017:

Sessions > Exhibit halls
I was floored by the lines to get in the exhibit halls before they opened. I mean, Saturday morning there was a line beginning at 8am. Jackie Woodson spoke at 9am. If you have the opportunity to hear her speak, grab it. It's Jacqueline freaking Woodson! I sat in the room, let her words pour over me, and was grateful. Yes, I missed some books because I couldn't get there in time to be at a signing. I can buy the book later, I can't buy back the experience. 

Jason Reynolds
My students are obsessed with Jason Reynolds this year. I cannot keep his books on the shelves. I understand their feelings, after hearing him speak I am obsessed myself. The man is brilliant. He obviously has a way with words, he's a writer, but listening to him speak is hypnotic. Some of my favorite quote from his over the past four days include...

“When we talk about disenfranchised readers, we should really start being honest...these are kids who are often disregarded and discarded.”

"Maybe it's not just about a kid not finding 'the right book' ... maybe kids need the right person to give them the book."

"You don't gotta be a hero, you gotta be a human. You don't have to save them, you just have to see them."

"You can't make a connection with a young person when you've already disrespected them."

"We only think about brutality when we think about death but most of us survive. Think about the kids in your class who survived."

"This is what love looks like. it is our obligation to be honest with you. if i respect you, i should be able to tell you the truth. i should be able to make you uncomfortable."

“You cannot be more loyal to your fears than to your futures.”

I mean, seriously. Truth spilling over. Brilliance in the air. I wish I could bring every one of my students to hear him speak.

Connection
There are so many moments of connection while at NCTE, it's hard to even write about them... 

It is seeing friends that are so close to me, yet live so far away. It's getting tight hugs from those friends who know, without my saying a word, that it is needed. 

It's hearing Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher speak and being so inspired that I want to jump up, get in my van, and head home to teach immediately. They have a book coming out this spring and I can't wait.

It's the words from Matt de la Peña...
"Maybe the a-ha moment doesn’t happen the minute kids finish a book. maybe it happens when they see the moment in the real world."

"Just because you’re the teacher doesn’t mean you have to be the expert. kids can be the experts of the books they read."

"Books don't save lives. Readers save their own lives, using books as the tools."

“The canon of tomorrow is being written today in YA."
It's the new picture book by Matt, LOVE, that took my breath away. Out this January, this book will have a place in my seventh grade classroom library. Beauty.

It's meeting blog readers who come up, introduce themselves, and tell me that my words matter. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sessions = Worth it
If we've met, if I've shared my anxiety with you, then you are aware that speaking in public is difficult for me. This year I had three session to present in:

The Nerdy Book Club presentation where I talked about reading communities - in your classroom, in your school, and in your town.

The Voices from the Middle podcast session where Sara Kajder talked about how to podcast in your classroom and then the podcast team recorded a live podcast in front of the audience. (That was a bit stressful, but went well.)
Jess Lifshitz, Donalyn Miller, Sara Ahmed, Katie Muhtaris, Pernille Ripp, me, Katharine Hale
And the Storytellers session. This is, no exaggeration, my favorite session I've ever been a part of. These brave ladies all shared a story, a personal story, and connected their stories to our students. They made me think, they pushed my comfort level as I examined my own biases and whether I was willing to speak out, and they tore me up inside as I watched them up close, hands shaking, as they poured out their truths. My heart was filled to bursting.

I left NCTE with far more than I brought - inspiration from authors I love; the push to keep examining myself, to be truthful with my beliefs, to listen to others who are speaking up; ideas to put into practice; the nudge to return to writing, to honor my own voice; and love from friends that made me feel whole. If I saw you over the four days, thank you. If I didn't get the chance, until next time. What a gift of the past four days, my students and I will all reap the reward. Bounty.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Best Part of Teaching Middle School This Week...

I'm a year and a quarter into my middle school experience, though this time as a teacher. Actually, I'm old enough that my first experience - as a student - with seventh grade wasn't even called middle school, it was junior high. 

I digress.

In my move to middle school I have had friends, parents, and colleagues ask if I regret it yet. Middle school kids get a bad rap. Some of it is earned, I am sure. It's a volatile age. Their hormones are a mess. Middle school is a time to figure out who you are and what you stand for - in doing that work, you are bound to have some emotional meltdowns. But, can I be honest? Middle school kids are real. There is no BS in the middle school world, they call it like they see it. And this week? It has been filled with everything that makes middle school a beautiful place.

Character Lessons We began the week at a low. There was a need for some character building, which came All. Week. Long. After some unsportsmanlike conduct on behalf of a handful of students, some unkindness to others in the hall by others, I started layering our lessons with chances to talk about character. We discussed this quote:
\

And watched these three videos:


After watching each, over three days, we talked about the message of the video. Sometimes we talked about the lessons we could glean from them, other times we reflected on what we don't know about the weight others carry around on their shoulders. I wanted to open their eyes to what is around them, what they don't see. It was a week rich in conversation.

Reading Community
Our community of readers is new. Many of these kids came having no difficulty in reading, but they don't live and breathe the conversations around books, authors, and illustrators that I know can hook them for life. While each week of the thirteen we've spent together so far offers glimpses of what is to come, two experiences this week made me smile. Both were thanks to author Jason Reynolds. 

Yesterday in my first hour class Slater came up to me as I was entering attendance. He asked a simple question, was Jason Reynolds trying to torture him with the endings to his book. I paused and asked what he meant. Slater went on to explain that he's read four of Jason's books over the past week, and each had an ending that Slater considered "untidy." He said, "I get that he's trying to make me think, trying to make it realistic, but can't he just tell us what's going on once in awhile? Are all of his books this way?" When I admitted that every book I've read of his would likely fall into this category, though I still have two to read, Slater just grinned. I asked if he was going to continue his Reynolds reading binge and he replied with an "Absolutely." 

Today in 8th hour I was doing "status of the class". While I check the kids in, they can sit and read or talk quietly. The room was filled with a low murmur, but I could still easily hear kids telling me what book and page they were on as I called their name. Without warning, a boy named Haiden slammed his book shut as he jumped up and said, "WHAT? You've got to be kidding!" I looked up as the class looked to him. At first I was puzzled, Haiden isn't the type to shout. But then I murmured, "Ah.... Long Way Down?" Some other kids nodded at my comment. Biniam, who had loaned Haiden the book, reached out for it while asking if he wanted to talk about the ending. At the same time, Kalea begged Biniam to borrow the book. He passed it on to her. Community. 

Humor
One of my favorite parts of teaching middle school is the humor of these kids. Today in 10th hour, I was grinning. It's the end of the day. The kids are tired. After getting up at 4:30am to walk my dogs and swim at the Y, I was exhausted. And yet, they rocked. We had many items to check off our to do list today. It was a full class, without a lot of instruction time, more of work time. In the front of the room on a couch were two girls. One, KC, was offering up life lessons. She went on to explain to all of us her thoughts on a variety of topics including:
  • Why girls shouldn't date to make themselves happy, they need to be happy with themselves first.
  • Why she planned on staying single for life.
  • How dating would only be fun if you're allowed to wear sweatpants.
  • The benefits of her headband to corral her hair, which is named Cameron (her hair, not the headband).
  • That putting extensions in your hair is a pain, but worth it.
And more. I laughed. I teared up at times. I told her that, hands down, a picture I took of her a few weeks ago (see below) is my favorite picture of the year. It makes me smile and fill up with love every time I see it. She had me show everyone in the front of the class.
I mean, that face and smile? Make. My. Day.

So, after going out to eat with my husband, I had to post for KC on Instagram. And yep, she made me start laughing while I sat there at the bar. 




The week had highs and lows. Frustrations and celebrations. But middle school kids? They are the best. My heart is full. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Whoa...It's Been Awhile

Dusting off the blog, peeking around in the corners, wondering if it is still functioning. I wish I could give you a better reason for not posting for nearly two months, but truthfully it is just one thing that could be put on the back burner. I detest the term "busy", we're all busy. Life is full of priorities and while writing is often one of them for me, this fall it has not been.

There's so much to share. 

Seventh graders still rock. 
The One Book/ One Community project has come and gone.
It was amazing.

My boys have had a Cross Country season full of successes,
And some heartaches.

Neither one is playing basketball this year for our school,
One by choice,
One not.
Parenting is not for the faint of heart.

I have three NCTE presentations in 
T-minus twelve days.
I haven't created a single slide.

Crap.

I've read very little in the way of Children's Lit.
Lots of picture books.
Jason Reynolds' Long Way Down.
That's it.

I have read a ridiculous amount of romance books.
Kristen Ashely's Rock Chick series.
Pure indulgence.
I'm ready to travel to Colorado.
Henleys are amazing.
Yum.

I digress.

This fall has been filled with positives in the classroom,
and disappointments.
In twenty-one years it hasn't gotten easier to handle
frustration in the choices children make.

I can talk until I am blue in the face about being kind,
choosing kind,
that character matters,
that our actions show others
who we truly are.

We had one of those days today.
I am so disappointed.
And yet,
tomorrow is a fresh start.

We're watching this video.
We're going to discuss what greatness means,
where you can find it,
and what lies within.

I'm hoping to leave the classroom inspired once again,
but,
silver linings,
crappy days do inspire the fingers to,
once again,
return to the keyboard.

Pull up a coffee,
tea,
or I can share this Fat Tire with you. 
Thanks for reading. 

It's all uphill from here. 
This I have to believe.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes...

Just one reason I'm grateful to my students' parents,
delicious muffins...
I've long held the belief that politicians should spend some time in schools, to see what we are doing on a daily basis before making laws and mandates that make our job even harder. After talking to friends this week in nearby districts, and some in states far away, I would like to amend that request to ask parents to visit our schools as well. Maybe sub in a class or two. Pause, reflect. I've been blessed in my twenty+ years with amazing parents of my students. My friends have not been so lucky of late. Some general guidelines that would be beneficial include:

Remember that you are always being watched. Your kids look to you to learn who they should become. The way you talk about their teachers matter.

Come to us first. We can absolutely screw up, we're human. But let's approach this relationship as the partnership it is. Talking about us on social media, in the stands while you watch your kids in sports, or even just at a local restaurant, can sabotage our important partnership.

We love your kid, but we love the rest of the kids in the class too. I get it, I'm a parent. When I sent Luke to kindergarten, I wanted to pull aside his amazing teacher, Mrs. Coleman, and explain all that was wonderful about Luke, but all that worried me too. I stopped myself. Mrs. Coleman had nineteen other kids in that class. Each one of them was so important to their families, but needed to be equally important to Mrs. Coleman. As much as I'd love to give your child individualized attention all day, every day, I need to be a teacher to all of the students.

I do have a life outside of the classroom. My husband will laugh if he reads this, I work far too much. That being said, I go to my boys' sporting events. I occasionally go out on a date with my husband. I do answer parent emails when I'm at home, but that isn't a requirement. If your child's teacher does, great. If they don't, also great. They've balanced the work/home life better than I have.

Make your child responsible for their own learning. Long ago I decided to let my kids fail. I know, nice, right? I'd already taught for seven years by the time that Luke entered Kindergarten. I made that 100 day project in first grade all on him. If they forgot to study for a test, I didn't remind them. Lunches, band instruments, homework all left at home, I didn't get it. I figured failing at the lower grades would be good lessons. Not the end of the world, no huge lecture, just natural consequences. (Side note, the book Love and Logic taught me the majority of this.) So far, we're doing ok. My boys are not at an A+ average or anything, but they do well. They know that their grades are theirs, not mine. My value as a parent does not rest in their GPA. I try not to own their successes and failures in the classroom just as I don't make their successes and failures in sports about me. This is their life, let them figure it out while you are still their to help them pick up the pieces. 

It is truly ok if you don't know everything going on at school. Since moving to middle school from elementary school last year, I've talked to so many parents about this. There is less communication from the teachers, from the school. I asked why they (the parents) were struggling with that. I had an eighth grader at the time, so I knew what they were talking about, but I was curious. A lot was they were worried, they wanted to be as involved in their child's schooling as they had been. As much as I applaud their desire to be a part of their child's life, I pointed out that we are doing this in stages. A step back from the involvement in middle school, another big step back in high school, because we want them to be independent in just a few years to go to college. Hugs, parents of middle school kids. You've got this! 

And remember, we want to help you. If you are struggling at home with your kid, talk to us. If you are confused about what's going on at school, send us an email. I am so grateful for the parents I've worked with over the years. To say I've felt like part of their families would be an understatement. These people have my back, and always have. I appreciate them more than they know. A strong parent-teacher relationship is vital, and I wish everyone got to have that experience. 

Sending love to all parents and teachers as we begin the 2017-2018 school year. Parents, we are grateful every time you send that awesome email, at just the right time, to send thanks for no reason at all. You have no idea what that can do for our mood. Teachers, you are more important than ever. Reach out to the parents for help when needed. Remember why you dove into this profession in the first place. You are changing our world, one student at a time. 

And, on a selfish note, sending out thanks not only to all the parents of my current and former students - the ones who send me great messages, the ones who send me muffins and Starbucks, the ones who support me at home, the ones who smile and tell me they appreciate me - you all make my days, and years, so much easier. 

To the teachers my boys have had, thanks. You've helped me tremendously by pushing them, never letting up, and making them the people they are meant to be. So glad you've been on this journey with us.

To everyone, let's make this our best year yet. I firmly believe in public education. It is the way forward, it is the great equalizer. Let's move forward together and see what we can accomplish. I am certain this will be my best year yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Cover Reveal: Most Valuable Players by Phil Bildner

There are few authors I love as much as Phil Bildner. Phil was a teacher, so he gets it. He gets how hard we work. He gets how much a note from an author can mean to a student. He gets what a positive portrayal of classroom life can mean in his books. Yep. He gets it. So I already love him for that, but then he writes this Rip & Red series and I loved it. I mean really loved it. Loved Mr. Acevado, loved the friendship between these kids. Loved that the books are just realistic fiction, hanging out at school, on your teams, and with your friends kind of books. The kind of books that each one of my students can see themselves in. 

That would be enough reason to love Phil, right?

But then, my students started reading the books. And loving them. And they'd tweet Phil and he'd always, always, tweet them right back. We tweeted out one day that we were learning about point of view. Phil sent me a Voxer message on my lunch hour explaining how he thought about point of view as he wrote so I could share it with them. 

Seriously? 

And then two boys I had in fifth grade (two years ago) tweeted him that they couldn't wait for book two, Rookie of the Year. He sent it to them via my email. 

What???

They read it and told him what they thought. This year, when they entered my room as seventh graders, they (Spencer and Logan) were looking for books on the first day of school. Spenc said, "Hey, Mrs. S., what about that cool author. You know, Phil? What has he written lately?" Two years later, he still matters to these kids.

There, that would surely be enough, right? 

But then, there's my son, Liam. Who struggled a bit to find his reading groove. Who read A Whole New Ballgame in my fifth grade class and immediately declared it his favorite book. Who read the first copy of Rookie of the Year when I brought it home from NCTE in 2015. In the summer of 2016 I saw Phil's cover reveal for Tournament of Champions. I showed Liam and he flipped. He couldn't wait to read it. He tweeted Phil and Phil sent him the manuscript. Seriously? Who does that? Phil made Liam (and Spencer, and Logan, and countless other kids) feel special. Though miles away, through text messages and tweets, and -- most importantly -- his books, Phil connects with kids. So for those reasons, and a million more, I'm thrilled to share the cover of the next book in the Rip & Red series with you today...Most Valuable Players. Look for this one in the spring of 2018, which my students will tell you is way too far away. With that, let me share some words from Phil. 
***********************************************************

Phil: Sometimes the universe speaks to us in wondrous ways.

When Mary Van Akin, the rockstar publicity manager at Macmillan, emailed to tell me the cover reveal for the fourth book in the Rip & Red series would be on Katherine Sokolowski's, Read, Write, Reflect blog, I did a little happy dance around my living room. 

In the email, Mary asked me to send Katherine a few paragraphs introducing the latest installment. I told her I would the next morning, even though I hadn't given much (any) thought into what I was going to say. Fortunately, a perfectly timed Facebook message -- within minutes of Mary's email -- from Peggy Schuh took care of that. Peggy's a retired public middle school math teacher who now mentors new teachers in North Indianapolis.

As a 
​g​
rand
​​
mother and mentor for beginning teachers
​,​
 I want to thank you for your Rip and Red series. I have teachers in 
​three​
 different 
​e​
lementary schools and 
​three​
 
​different m
iddle 
​s​
chools. I've spoken with the librarians at each of the schools
,​
 and as a result
​,​
 they have ordered the series. 

M
​y​
 
​ten-
year old 
​g​
randchild 
​-- ​
who is quite the basketball player
​ --​
 absolutely loved the books. He's wondering if there will be a 
​b​
ook
​ four​
 where we find out what kind of dog Rip gets. His vote is for a 
​B
assett 
​H​
ound since he has one! 

Mason does play
​-​
by
​-​
play all the time when 
​he's ​
playing
​,​
 and we think your depiction of that and the game strategy is right on!  

Thanks!!

Creating​
 the Rip & Red series has been the highlight of my writ​ing career. It's an indescribable feeling knowing that these characters have touched so many lives.

​Book four in the series is called MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS. It will be out next May. Today, I'm thrilled to share the cover with you.

Oh, in the Rip & Red books, Rip's real name is Mason. When he plays basketball, he loves doing the play-by-play. When I first read that Facebook message, I thought Peggy was referring to Rip, but she was actually referring to her grandchild, Mason.

Boo-yah!​
Phil
***********************************************************
Thanks for letting me reveal the cover to the fourth book, Phil! I can't wait to show it to my seventh graders today. And friends, if you haven't experienced the Rip & Red series, remedy immediately. Much love for these books coming from my students, my son, and me. 


Monday, September 11, 2017

Sixteen Years Later...

For the past few years I've taught a short research unit on the events on 9/11/01 with my students. Realizing several years ago that my current class, at the time, had only been a year old, it dawned on my that the date didn't mean the same for them as it did for me. Coupling that with the notion that some had never talked to their parents about where they had been that day, we began to learn about it together. 

This year's group of seventh graders just wrapped up their inquiry today. We read 14 Cows for America together and they worked on a blog around the topic of 9/11. Some wrote fiction stories taking place then, some wrote informational pieces, others shared poetry. I wrote my own poem, thinking back on these faces that I looked into on the day that shook the world.



Here's my poem from today. Sending peace and love to you all. 

The Day That Changed My World...

The day that changed my world 
forever,
When I realized that evil does,
indeed,
Lurk within the hearts of men.

The day that would make many children
Say goodbye to parents.
Families forever altered.
So much loss,
So much heartache.
Senseless violence.

And yet,
Goodness triumphed.

Heroes prevailed.

They could be found in
Boats,
Towers,
Fields,
Planes,
Classrooms.

Heroes can truly be found everywhere,
If we know where to look for them.

Sixteen years ago,
I stood in front of a classroom.
Nine year old children,
Staring back at me.
I had gone to the door,
Heard the whispered news,
Images filling my mind,
Horror clutching my heart.

But, like teachers everywhere,
I shoved those images aside.
Knowing that my role was one of calming.
To ensure that life,
For now,
Went on as normal for these kids.

I taught math, social studies, science, and reading.
I hugged kids as they fought with their friends.
I told stories from our picture books.
I smiled,
Laughed.

And yet,
Inside my brain was racing.
Inside my heart hurt.
Inside my stomach ached.

I watched my beautiful students,
And wondered about what world
I was sending them home to at 3:05pm.

I remained calm,
While outside my classroom,
I knew the world had irrevocably changed.
I had changed too,

We all did.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Small Celebrations

Celebrate - writing outside with my students...
Today I had several moments that made me stop, reflect, and feel gratitude seep into my pores. My friend, Ruth Ayres, often does a weekly celebration round up on Saturdays. But, knowing Ruth, she'd say to celebrate whenever you felt moved to. Thus, today's post. I haven't had a lot of time to blog of late, so when the urge strikes, I'm diving in. 

Today I celebrated...

Sunrises
Walking two dogs, separately because it is easier, is good for me and super frustrating at the same time. Thirty minutes of moving every morning is awesome. Thirty minutes when I need to be rushing to swim in Champaign, or get ready for school, can be panic inducing. However, moments like this make me grateful to be where I am.

Seventh Grade Readers
I know I need to soak this in. Teaching the same kids I taught before for two years in a row is a blessing I don't ignore. I already know these kids. I know their quirks. I know what they've liked in the past. But still, some are just now hitting their groove as readers. Today one told me they read 100 pages yesterday because they just couldn't stop. Another kid told me the book I gave her, Salt to the Sea, was so good she was recommending it to her mom. Two boys told me that All American Boys was the most important book they had ever read. Another kid turned when he heard them say that and disagreed, saying the March graphic novel trilogy was. And two boys have been quietly recommending the book Fallout to my entire first hour. 

Picture Books
This year I decided to try Jillian Heise's idea for reading a picture book every single day of our school year in all three classes. It is hard, but I hoped it would be worth it. Today I had one class remind me that we didn't read one yesterday because we didn't switch classes due to Benchmarking. They had talked as a class and decided I needed to "make that one up" at some point this week. Another class came in with kids already talking about the picture book I posted on Instagram last night, Come With Me. Was I going to read it today? (Yes) Did I need Kleenex or a hug before reading. (Nope, I was ok, but it was beautiful.) 

Seventh Grade Discussions
Man, these kids are wicked smart. I love not planning a discussion, knowing I want to introduce them to some topic related to 9/11, show them the video/article/ book and see where they go. These kids have insights that I'd argue most adults don't have. And then, the bell rings and they don't want to leave. Today I had to remind several kids in my last class that we could talk tomorrow, that it was dismissal. Absolutely the best.

Cross Country
I love this sport. I've loved running on my own over the years, but the stuff this sport teaches captures my heart. Liam had a meet today. He's been really striving to run his two miles in less than 20 minutes. Not easy for him, but he's tried. So far he's had one race at 20:46, one at 20:47. So close, but no. Today I saw him nearing the finish line. I looked at the clock. He could make it, but needed to hustle. We cheered, other parents cheered, strangers cheered, and he did it! 19:44. So awesome. His pride in that time was the best. On the way home he shared that he had a new goal, below 19, and he was gunning for it this Saturday. Awesome. 

Sons
My kids can be a pain at times, of course, but what I truly like about them getting older is enjoying the adults they are becoming. Whether it was standing in the kitchen as we made dinner tonight talking to Luke about high school and dances, or talking to Liam about school and how he "accidentally" stayed up an hour later last night to read the last 100 pages so he could start Patina by Jason Reynolds today, my heart just grew. Watching Luke shout out to Chris that he had taken the best (and largest) ribs for himself, Chris yell back from the kitchen, while Luke and Liam burst out laughing at the table, I was filled to the brim. Gratitude.

And, shout out to the lady that taught me to look for the everyday celebrations. Ruth has a new book coming out and I cannot wait to read it! (Check it out HERE) She's looking at our writers and how you can reach them all - especially ones coming from a place of trauma. This will be a book you don't want to miss. 
 
Imagination Designs
Blog design by Imagination Designs Images from the Just Because kit by Laurie Ann