Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stay In Your Lane


I swam laps this week at the Y and in the lane next to me was a high school kid. In talking I learned that he is on a competitive swim team and his favorite stroke is the butterfly.

He was fast.

While I feel like I get stronger and a little better each time I swim, I couldn't help notice that he would finish two laps to my one. At the end of my workout he was at the end of his lane, waiting to race the clock again. I told him "Good swim." 

He looked up and replied, "You too."

I thought about that comment on my way back to the locker room. It was a good swim, even if he could have swam laps around me. The pool hadn't been crowded, I'd had my own lane, and I had swam one of my best times yet. It reminded me of middle school track and a lesson I needed to take from my younger self. I was often assigned the mile and the 800 for our races. Make no mistake, this isn't because I was speedy. My son, Luke, just finished up his middle school career in track. His fastest mile was right around five minutes. Mine would have been closer to eight minutes. I was assigned the races because no one else wanted to run distance. While I wasn't fast, I was an excellent pacer, still am. So, I'd head out and run. I knew I wouldn't win, but that didn't bother me. I liked being on the team. I'd focus on my own race and not worry about the people speeding past.

I think this is true in teaching too. Sometimes when I am online, or at school, I see what others are teaching and begin to look at myself. Am I doing enough? I work so hard, but maybe I'm not keeping up? It is enough to create some strong self doubt. Lately, I've been writing more. I'm looking at the topic I've been presenting on for Scholastic - the impact of audience in our classrooms. It's important and it is something I think about a lot, but then that voice comes in. Who am I to write about what I'm doing? 

It's at this point that I think I need to take a breath, look inward, see that what I'm doing does matter, and just concentrate on my own lane. Not that I can't speed up and beat someone to the finish line if I so choose, but when I'm looking left and right, you can begin to feel like you aren't enough, what you are doing isn't enough. Not cool and, more importantly, not healthy.

Teaching often reminds me of being a mom. I never feel caught up, I never feel like I've accomplished everything I want to do. And yet, we can only do so much. Like parenting, there are tremendous rewards, but it is also an exhausting profession. In it, and back in the pool, I'm going to try to channel my middle school self and just enjoy being there and doing my best. Everything else can simply fall into place.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Little Book that Could - RJ Palacio's WONDER


I wish I could remember how I got the ARC, I feel like it was from a friend, John Schumacher, but it has been years so I'm not sure. What I do know is that on February 8th of 2012 I closed the cover of a book that would change me. Wonder by RJ Palacio was a breath of fresh air. Auggie Pullman swept in and stole my heart. 

I immediately began to brainstorm, how could I get this book for all of my students? I moved quickly and by the following month, I had a book for every kid in my homeroom. We read it together as the year came to a close. When the year ended, and the day of the yearbook signing came, my students were the ones walking around and getting their copies of Wonder signed. I was in love.

That November NCTE was in Las Vegas. This was not a city for me. I love the conference, seeing friends, talking about teaching, finding books. But the lights, the crowds, it was overwhelming. I clearly remember standing in a hotel room that had a pool table, looking over the city, at the first, and soon to be annual, Nerdy Book Club gathering at NCTE. While I stood there, feeling a bit out of my element, a woman came and stood next to me. We began talking about families, the city, and I introduced myself. When she said her name was Raquel, otherwise known as RJ... tears jumped into my eyes. I wanted to gush, tell her all the book had meant to me in just a few short months, but I held back. Instead, we had a quiet conversation that I will remember for some time. One mom talking to another in a city that, I'm guessing, was overwhelming to us both.

Over the next few years I read Wonder aloud to some classes, and recommended it to more kids than I can count. As school wrapped up this year, my first in middle school, I saw the trailer for the movie. (Trailer HERE) The feeling of reading the book for the first time came flooding back. And, even though we had just wrapped up the school year only hours before, I began messaging my colleagues. Should we do an all school read around Wonder? I posted this blog post asking for ideas. Then I got a text from my former principal in our 4th/5th building (and in my district) - they were doing Wonder as a read aloud. The librarian from PreK-3rd contacted me, she wanted to do a school wide read too and wondered if we should join together. And it mushroomed.

In the last few weeks a team of teachers and librarians from my district have gathered, trying to figure out how to fund this idea. No longer are we looking at one school, or two, or three. We are attempting a community read - all the schools in our district and our entire community. We want to bring our tiny town of over 5,000 people together around the books Wonder and We're All Wonders. We've just begin fundraising for the books to get them into our school. We're also going to be asking local businesses to join us, to have copies in their place of work for community members to stop in and borrow - read & return, or pass on. We're planning a Facebook page for community members to share their thoughts as they read, along with our students. We're going to also have a Twitter hashtag. The publisher is helping us with a discount for the books since we're giving them away. 

I'm overwhelmed.

This was my summer of saying no. Time to be home, be lazy, read, relax, hang out with my boys. But once this idea popped in my head, I couldn't say no. A whole community that knows Auggie? A community where parents, children, everyone knows what it means when someone says choose kind. A community that knows that everyone deserves a standing ovation? 

Sign me up.

So, if you have done anything like this before, shoot any advice my way. We're hoping to be done fundraising by the end of July so we can order the books in August. Books will be distributed towards the end of September so we can read the book in October for National Bullying Prevention month. And then, in November, some grades will be heading over to see the movie.

We're a tiny town in the middle of Central Illinois. I always say we're just a little hamlet, surrounded by cornfields. Draw a line between Chicago and St. Louis, and you'd find us halfway. There are two traffic lights in our town. The only skyscrapers we have are grain elevators and a water tower. We are small, but mighty. I love this town, my hometown. It is filled with good people. And when they get ahold of this book, when they begin these conversations, I cannot wait to see what unfolds. 

It will be magical. I cannot wait to be part of it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Quest for the Uncharted Lands by Jaleigh Johnson


If memory serves, it was fall of 2013 when I first encountered the world of Solace. A friend and colleague had just sold her house, two doors down from me, to a relative. His wife, she mentioned, had just written her first children's book. Would I like to read it? My answer was an enthusiastic yes. She gave me The Mark of the Dragonfly and I dove into this crazy fantasy world that Jaleigh Johnson had created. I loved Piper, Anna, and Gee. Their journey on the 401 was insane, heart racing, and made me flip page after page. I wanted more. (Here and here are posts when I read it aloud to my class.)
My student, Cal, with a Dragonfly tattoo 
Jaleigh Johnson both delighted me and crushed my spirits on an author visit not too long after. Yes, there were two more books coming in this world of Solace, but no they wouldn't be following the journey of the three characters I had come to love. The second book in the series, The Secrets of Solace, would take us into another part of this world, the Archivists' Strongholds. Here we encountered new friends - Lina and Ozben. Again Johnson wrote strong characters, and importantly to me, strong female characters. The friendship was one my students could recognize as genuine as we turned the pages, trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together as fast as we could read.

And then, this summer, the third book in the world of Solace came out. Yesterday I picked up The Quest to the Uncharted Lands and worried. I loved the world of Solace I had grown to love. I dearly wanted to read more about Piper, Anna, and Gee. I wanted to return to Lina and Ozben. Would I be as invested in these new characters. The answer was a resounding yes.

The war between the Merrow Kingdom and the Dragonfly Territiories is over. The two have joined together to send an airship over to the Uncharted Lands together and Stella's parents, both excellent healers, are on board. Stella desperately wanted to go, but the King has said it is too dangerous. Using her knowledge of alchemy, Stella sneaks on board and quickly learns that she isn't the only stowaway - there is another boy named Cyrus hiding as well with his own reasons for being on board. Stella and Cyrus quickly strike up a strong bond as they realize that someone on board doesn't want the ship to reach its destination.

What I loved about this book is that, like the first two, the female character is strong. Stella is wicked smart, brave, and does not wait around to be saved. She's also loyal and kind. I love that she pushes herself, questioning why she gets upset when learning about something with Cyrus. She doesn't shy away from difficult conversations. While I'm a fast reader, I had to put this book down several times, almost to catch my breath. Characters I loved were in scary situations and I just needed a moment to pull out of that world and reassure myself that I was ok and not on some crazy ship headed for mountains. 

My only complaint about this book? I didn't want it to be over. I am praying that Johnson will one day return to this world and write more about Solace, especially if it would mean returning to the characters from any of the three books. I think she could write an entire series from where The Quest to the Uncharted Lands left off, and I would LOVE to see that.

So, if you need to add to your summer reading list, and you have yet to visit the world of Solace, I have a series for you. A bit sci-fi, steampunk, fantasy, adventure, mystery, and a friendship story all rolled up into one. Try it out, you will not be disappointed.
And if you ever get the chance to have Jaleigh Johnson come to your school, jump on it. I've been blessed several times and my students love learning that she's a gamer and played D&D with her older siblings when she was young. It's easy to see where the origin of the storytelling gene came from here.

Also, as a neighbor, she never complains that my boys and all their friends tramp through her yard, firing off Nerf Guns, in their never ending battles. I keep waiting for one to turn up in her books. Maybe when we go back to see what Cyrus and Stella are up to next? Please????

Monday, July 10, 2017

Who You Surround Yourself With...


Today is my oldest son's birthday. As I was thinking of everything I love about him, one quality that came to mind was his loyalty to his friends. That made me sit and marvel at the friends both of my boys have made. They are interesting kids. Kind. Nerdy about the things that they love. Each group is quirky in their own ways, but kids I like to have around. I know I have preached to my boys since they were small that who you surround yourself with matters. They will influence you, you will influence them. They have chosen wisely.

My parents gave me that advice when I was young. I listened, sometimes, but knew it to be true. When I became a teacher, many moons ago, my mom (also a teacher) repeated it. My cooperating supervisor did as well. I clearly remember her telling me that there would be teachers who would never have anything positive to say about education, administration, fellow teachers, and/or students. But there would also be so many teachers who you could bounce ideas off of, turn to for advice, a shoulder to cry on, and laughter between classes. I'm glad to say that I've found so many of those teachers over the years.

What I could have never counted on, back in the late nineties when I began, was finding so many educators to connect with online. That some of my closest educator friends would teach hours away from me was unheard of, yet that's where I am. Many are gathered today in a small town in Michigan where another NerdCamp is ready to begin. There over 1500 teachers have traveled to talk about kids, reading, story, and making our classrooms a better place. Those are my kind of people. 

So whether it's your third year in education, or your thirtieth, I hope you've found some people to surround yourself with. As I prepare to begin my twenty-second year, I can picture mine. My local colleagues who I text to vent about politics. The ones who come in my room, lay on my couch, and quickly catch up when we have a moment. The one who brings me lunch, even though we're in different buildings now, so we can catch up once a month. The ones who make me laugh so hard in the halls between classes that I have to lean over and catch my breath while tears stream down my face. Just as important are those that live hours away, but send me Voxer messages daily. I catch up with while walking Rosie, and then Leia, each morning. Two miles per day where I hear what they are doing in their classrooms, what they're reading, and they push my thinking. Because of all of these educators, I am a better teacher. 

It is said that teaching is often an isolating profession. We are surrounded each day by people, for certain, but they are a bit younger than we are. I have found that it can be isolating, true, but we can also find so many opportunities for connections within our own buildings and in the wider world if we look for them. What a fabulous experience that can be.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pushing Through

Summer 2016
Last summer I was on vacation in my favorite spot, Daufuskie Island. Prior to our trip, I had been trying to run 2-3 times a week. Both of my boys were going to try a new sport that fall, Cross Country. In solidarity, I laced up my shoes. It wasn't pretty. I'm not in great shape. I walk daily, but running was a struggle. Yet, I continued plodding down our street and trying to improve. Ugh. Then, we went on vacation. The heat and humidity were enough to make me throw in the towel. Yet, I knew I needed to do something, anything. At forty-two (then), I knew fitness was important. I was beginning to wonder, however, if running was not the path for me.

On day two on the island I biked past the lap pool. I paused. I love the water. I loved swimming as a kid. Every summer I usually find myself at a pool and swim a few laps. Maybe that would be the ticket? I went back to the house and grabbed my goggles.

That first day I swam maybe ten laps (twenty lengths). It was slow going. The next day I decided to try 20 laps (40 lengths) because that would be 1000 yards. I did it, with many breaks, in about 50 minutes or so. The rest of the week, I continued to trek to the pool each day and squeeze in a swim. I found I was actually looking forward to it.

Returning from vacation I swam at my local pool in the mornings before they opened for swim lessons, two to three times a week. When the school year began, I turned to the YMCA, about twenty miles away. First after school, then waking up at 5am, I found myself continuing my swimming practice. There were two times during the year that I was interrupted from my weekly ritual for illness, but I persevered.

This summer I've continued to swim, three to four times most weeks. My longest swim to date was 2000 yards (40 laps, 80 lengths). The time was 56 minutes, not too far from my first swims that were half that distance in a similar time. 

My sons both enjoy running. My oldest has gone to state now twice in track, once in Cross Country. I used to love to run, but like all things in life, that has changed. What I love about swimming is what I enjoyed about running. The solitude. The feeling of competing against myself. The time to find my center.

This week I grew frustrated. This has probably been my best summer for fitness since I was a teen. Two mile walks each day with my dogs, swimming over two miles a week, and I've recently added PiYo DVDs to the mix, yet the scale doesn't budge. If anything, it has jumped a bit in the wrong direction. I exhaled. Loudly.

Then I pulled myself together. My clothes are looser. My anxiety is much more manageable. I feel stronger, happier. Swimming has brought me back to the person I was when I was young. The preteen who loved counting the strokes to breathe, letting the laps add up as I plowed through. Maybe the numbers don't matter as much as the pure enjoyment of knowing I'm doing what is best for me. 

And that's a lesson I think I need to take into the fall. My seventh graders came to me last year, some as kids who had been identified as readers that struggle for years. The defeat is easy to read in their body language, or outright in their writing, if you look for it. I tried hard not to focus on the numbers, but focus on the child. When I jumped in that pool last summer, I would have quit if someone said I needed to swim 1000 yards in 27 minutes. I just enjoyed the journey. Now, that's easy and I'm looking to improve. 

What can I do to meet my students where they are? To make their journey as readers and writers in seventh grade one they look forward to, one they want to jump in and try, even if it's tough? It's something I am always thinking about. The only sure way to grow as readers and writers is to be actually doing that work, just as I had to put in the work in the pool. So how to get kids to want to read and write? Choice in their books and writing topics helps. So does access to books, strong relationships, a supportive classroom community, lessons that engage. And, like I did this week, I think addressing frustrations head on and not letting the "data" get you down is key, but continuing to push forward. I'm excited to meet this new batch of kids next month and dive in to our year together. I think we're going to have a great one.
Summer 2017

Monday, July 3, 2017

Using Your Voice


I've been doing a lot of thinking around audience this summer, it was the topic of my presentation at the Scholastic Summit and I've been writing around a few ideas. For the past few years I've made it a mission to give my readers and writers an audience through our classroom. The size of the audience can vary. Sometimes they choose to share with a friend, sometimes with the class, sometimes with the school, sometimes with our town, and sometimes with the world. Our method of sharing can vary from a peer conference, to a book talk, to Padlet, to Flipgrid, to Twitter, to... you get the idea. But one tenet has always been important to me, that my students get to make that choice for themselves.

See, I was a shy student. My mom attended parent-teacher conferences through my senior year not because I was doing poorly, not because the teachers requested them, but because she was convinced without attending them, they might not see me. I was that quiet. However, in my own way I did make noise. I tried to do right when I could, speak up when I could. That belief has followed me until today, do what you can, when you can, in any way you can. My friends know that it was out of character for me to begin blogging, to begin presenting at conferences. That is not me. However, I took tiny steps forward and the reception was kind, the water was warm. People encouraged me, cheered me on. Comments here, on Twitter, and on Facebook, made me want to try harder, to do more, to speak up - even though it scared me.

That is what I want for my students too. To try to speak up. To share their heart. I can tell them it's scary. I can tell them that it was hard for me too. But I will be with them every step of the way, and so will our classroom community. 

Will we mess up, of course. But when we do, we will talk about it. We will come together, brainstorm what we could have done, and support each other in growth. We don't want to silence voices, but lift those up. There is far too much silencing and negativity online. That is not what I want for my students, or for myself. 

And we will begin in the way I always do, with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt. I look at it all the time. It reminds me that it isn't the critic whose voice I need to be listening to, the person who wants to spew only negativity isn't helping me grow. Instead, I look ahead, aim high, and keep moving forward. I hope my students can join me down this path, we have so much to share. 



Friday, June 30, 2017

Reminders to Myself as a Middle School Teacher

Today I saw a photo that took my breath away. Apologies for the quality, it's a copy of a copy of a photo from 1993. In it is my husband, then boyfriend, Chris. We had just started dating. I was nineteen, he was twenty. In three years we would get married. My mind began to whirl.

I clearly remember being nineteen, feeling old and in charge. I knew where I wanted to go and knew how I was going to get there. I had learned some hard truths over the high school and early college years, but I had come out stronger. I felt like an adult. 
As I looked at that photo today I realized my oldest son, Luke, is only four years from my age in it. At his age, I had heartache. There were friendship betrayals. I was without mooring, no idea what I wanted to be, how I would get there. I was desperately afraid of both leaving home and never leaving my town. I was certain I would end up alone.
Parenting is not for the weak, and neither is teaching. What I wish I could tell my children, I really can't. No one could have made my path any easier. Where I ended up, I earned. I worked hard. I screwed up. I got back on the path. But when I look at these two kids, I don't see their twelve and almost fifteen faces, I see the faces of the young boys I once knew. Who begged for another picture book before bed. Who left action figures all over our house. Who reenacted WWE matches off of our living room couch, diving on to a giant stuffed dog, and pinning it to the ground. 

How did we get here?

Last night I was stuck. I needed to record a podcast for Voices from the Middle (Great podcast, subscribe if you haven't!) at 5pm. Liam needed to be at his Cross Country practice outside of town at 5. It was about a thirteen minute drive from our house. Chris was golfing. My parents weren't home. His friends weren't available. I looked at Liam and explained my situation. I told him I needed him to go to practice early, like twenty minutes early, so I could get back to record. He said no problem.
Liam on the first day of preschool.
I dropped him off at the park and pulled away, looking back as he sat down at the picnic tables alone. In my mind, I saw his three year old self, crying every day for the first three weeks of preschool, begging to come to school with me instead. We finally read The Kissing Hand and I drew a heart in Sharpie on his hand each day. I still remember the day his teacher sent me an email, celebrating that he hadn't cried that day. But, she cautioned, I might want to watch him. She thought something was wrong with his arm, his hand had rested on his chest most of the day. I burst into tears at my computer, startling my student Nate, who was standing with me. I tearfully explained that I told Liam to put his heart on his chest if he needed me and he would feel me right there, just like in the book. 

Heading back to the park last night at 6, I saw Liam standing and talking to some 8th graders, and then some high school kids, that I didn't think he knew. Where was my painfully shy boy? He had disappeared in this new seventh grade body.

What I hope I never forget as a middle school teacher is that these gangly bodies I see before me in class are giant versions of their preschool selves. They can feel self-assured in one moment, and doubtful the next. Looking back at myself, I know they will sometimes fear the future, while wanting to embrace it at the same time. And I pray I will remember that their parents are watching this happen before them, as bewildered as I am, wondering where their little children have gone, while their heart breaks just a bit more. 
I'm beyond excited to see my boys grow. I cannot wait to see where they end up and what they accomplish. I know this is the path forward, and I embrace it, but sometimes spin around wondering just how we have gotten here already. 

I'm also grateful that I had two middle school aged children when I began teaching middle school. It let me remember that I wanted to teach as I parent, with rules and guidelines yes, but mainly with support, understanding, and a lot of love. Kids can learn in a variety of classroom environments. And I do want them to grow as readers and writers. But they are also on the cusp of figuring out who they will become. To do that, they need support and a gentle nudge. They need to know they can come back when they need to, but that they are also ready to move on to that next stage. I can't wait to watch them soar.
 
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