Sunday, December 31, 2017

How We're Wired: On Notifications, Desktops, and Lateness

I've been thinking a lot about brains lately, how we're wired, what the impact of that is on each of us. It started when I saw this photo the author Jason Reynolds shared on Instagram a few days ago of his computer desktop.

I'm not exaggerating when I share that just looking at his desktop gives me some anxiety. For comparison sake, here's mine:

I saw Jason's desktop image as I was headed to the pool with Chris. As I dove in to swim laps, it popped back into my mind. Then another image from a few years ago came to my memory. It was shared around social media a lot then and I had shared it, truly thinking it was a joke:

There was no way anyone would have over 10,000 unread emails, right? I think I shared it with the comment that I was the icon on the left. To my shock many friends began commenting that they were the one on the right, but their unread emails were numbering around 20,000 or 30,000. Seriously, I got shivers.

As I swam, I considered this. Jason's desktop. My friends' unread emails. I thought of my dad, how he and I both hate the red notification bubble on our apps on our phones. I have notifications only turned on for my email and texts as a result. If I have notifications in any social media apps, I will know when I go to said app. I don't want to see it calling to me. 

So what does that mean? Is it just the way our brains are? This made me recall a text conversation with a friend recently. Her son commented that when I picked he and my oldest up, I was always on time while she was always late. She apologized in case Luke was upset. I explained that being late gives me massive anxiety. As a result, I'm always on time to five minutes early. But I thought more about that. I have friends who are always late, you just plan on it. I could care less if anyone else is late as long as it doesn't make me late, you know? But if that's their default, and mine is to be on time or early, how did we get that way?

I swam, and swam, and swam and the laps racked up. I thought of all the idiosyncrasies we all have. At forty-three I am perfectly comfortable, for the most part, with who I am. I know what causes me to get anxious, I know how to feel relaxed. I know how I learn best, how to be my most productive. I know I'm surrounded with people who think like me, and others who have opposite tendencies. We are all successful. I don't think that my habits of keeping a clean desktop, no notifications, or being on time are "right", and the opposite isn't wrong. We all figure out what works for us.

That being said, as my pool laps were drawing to a close, my mind turned to my classroom. How do we set up learning so that everyone can work in a way they are comfortable? With the habits that work best for them? I think choice is a huge part of this - choice in what they read and write, choice in where they sit, choice in working for long periods of time or breaking that chunk of time up and doing several tasks. But what am I missing? I'm not sure. I want the environment in my classroom, in our classroom, to be one that works for all students, whether they share my tendencies or not. This isn't something I've figured out, but something I'm still thinking about. If you have any ideas on this topic, please share with us all. One things I do know is that my friend Donalyn is right when she often says, "The smartest person in the room is the room." This new year I plan on returning to the classroom and thinking about this more with my students. I'm curious to see what they notice about how they are wired. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Lessons from Romance Novels and Kristen Ashley

Hmm, my reading life has undergone a bit of a change since this summer. I update Goodreads sporadically, adding a bunch of books at a time, dates inaccurate. I miss many that I've read, maybe remembering to add them later. And then, there are the actual books I've been reading. Definitely not reading for my seventh grade students right now, no way. As a matter of fact, if you were to look on my Kindle reader on my phone, you might notice some commonalities among the books I've been reading. Let's look...

Lots of books by Kristen Ashley. Lots of romance. Nary a young adult or middle grade book in sight.

It all began this summer with the recommendation from a friend of Ashley's book Breathe. I read it, was a bit surprised by the amount of "romance", having not read anything written for adults in this genre for about twenty years. That being said, I loved the book. I loved the quirky characters, the small town, etc. When I found out that I had accidentally read the fifth book in a series, and ever the completionist, I went back and read the series from beginning to end. And then the next series, and the next, and a stand alone book here and there. So while I've not been reading for my students this semester, I have been reading for me. While doing so, I've learned some lessons along the way. So, in no particular order, here's a few of the lessons I've gleaned from Kristen Ashley's books this semester.

Never Say Never
In the last few years I've had great friends who have given me some grief for my single minded devotion to reading for my students. I love middle grade and YA books, so I'd tell them it was no hardship. Truly, it isn't. I do love those books. But when they'd tell me to read romance, to read something for adults, I'd say no, romance wasn't my favorite genre. Now, I've reconsidered. Reading these romance books has reminded me not to box myself in, but try all sorts of books - and remind my students to do the same. You never know when you will find a favorite book or author that you wouldn't have "met" before.

Series Reading
I love reading books in a series and I remember being appalled when a friend's daughter was told "series reading" was not allowed to "count" in their middle school classroom. I'm not sure if that teacher is a reader because that makes zero sense to me. Kristen Ashley writes a lot of books that can stand alone, but are part of a series. I have always hated finishing a book because I grow to care about the characters and don't want them to be done. Seeing them appear in other books not only gets me more attached to the new book, but makes me fall into that world faster. The same is true for my students. 

While I'm the teacher who totally cheers on series books, I also am a huge advocate for rereading books. This is why I buy so many books vs. checking them out from the library. My favorite books are ones I return to again and again. I read crazy fast the first time through. As a result, I will go back and read an entire book (or series) again. And then I will often go back and read parts of books - especially if I'm bored and standing in line somewhere. These books are on my phone, so I can pull up sections and read while I wait. (Speaking of never say never, I hate reading on an e-reader..., but not for these books.) 

Character Driven
Another colleague and I have talked about plot driven vs. character driven books. This colleague is a plot driven reader, while I often say if I love the characters, I'm hooked on the book. Ashley's books reinforce that notion for me. I told my husband that her characters reminded me of Gilmore Girls, with super racy romance thrown in for good measure. I love quirky characters that I can completely visualize. I feel like I know these people - their likes, favorite foods, clothes, etc. My students know that I cannot stand a long exposition in a book (a term I only learned when moving from 5th to 7th grade last year.) No fear here, Ashley jumps right in at the start of every book. The character's voice pulls me in immediately. Through these books I've learned more about myself as a reader.

Pop Culture
When I was in high school as a freshman, the mini series Lonesome Dove was on TV. My sister and I watched it many times. I bought the book and read, and reread it, until it fell apart. We mapped out the cattle drive on an atlas. I looked at where they'd be at certain points in the book/ show. I immersed myself in the story. 

Ashley's books allow me to do that too. She talks about restaurants the characters go to, clothes they wear, songs they listen to. For the most part, they are real places, real songs, real items. I can look them up, check out some images, listen to some music, and the character's world is built even stronger. On Ashley's website she even includes recipes from some of the books. She also adds many images that inspired her to her Pinterest page. In this era of technology, I need to remind my students of these resources. I want them to realize that they could look up things mentioned in their books, if they'd like, and that might give them a more immersive experience while reading. 

Life Lessons
I joked with my classes the other day about romance books. Many of my students are currently reading YA romance. After a book talk from one student, a boy said he wouldn't read "x" because it's for girls. I reminded him that there are no boy books, no girl books, just books. I also pointed out that YA romance books might teach you some lessons about how to be a good partner in a relationship.

After coming home to begin my break, I read Ashley's newest book, The Hookup. I laughed when one character explains to another what it means to women when a man will come in, hold a baby, change a diaper, etc. She says, "Men don't get it. If they knew how much women like it when they took care of babies, the moms wouldn't get anywhere near their child." See, even husbands could learn something here. Maybe then they'd quickly grab the crying baby in the middle of the night, or take the dogs out in the morning. Life lessons indeed.

Oxygen Masks
Overall, my five month reading binge of forty-seven of Ashely's books (many over 500 pages) have reminded me of the lesson from the flight attendants when you get on the airplanes - we need to put on our oxygen masks first. For at least the past seven years my reading life has been completely geared toward my beautiful students. This doesn't, by any means, mean I need to stop reading for them. The constantly tell me that the reason they read so much in our classroom room is because I read what they read, I can talk to them about the insanity of the end of a book, the pain of waiting for the next one, the love (or hatred) of a certain character, etc. So yes, I'm still planning on reading YA and middle grade. But I'm adding back in books just for me. Books that I can become addicted to. Books that I wait for, impatiently, even though Ms. Ashley writes at a crazy fast pace. My oxygen mask is firmly back in place and not going anywhere again.

And I need to plan a trip to Colorado.
Or maybe move there.
Oh gracious, what fun reading.

If you want to try any of Kristen Ashley's books, I highly recommend starting with The Rock Chicks series and reading them in order.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Finding the Silver Linings in the Day: Mock Caldecott

My day began on a sour note for a Wednesday, one of my favorite days of the week. I rose at 4:30am to the sound of the wind howling outside and a Golden Doodle puppy, Leia, crying for a nearby room. She likes to get up around then each day, just to see if I'm still around. Whatever. Taking her out I considered the time and decided to head to Champaign to swim before school, especially since I missed Monday.

I walked both dogs, got ready, and hopped in the van to head to Champaign. Glancing at the display in my van, I was happy to see that it was only 5:20am. Plenty of time to drive over, swim for a half hour, head to Starbucks, and drive back. As I approached the edge of town I noticed my van was sounding strange. Straining to get it above 35 mph, it clearly brought back bad memories of me trying - and failing - to learn how to drive a stick shift. I glanced at the RPMs. Hmm. I know zip about cars, but I don't think the RPMs are supposed to approach 4. I pulled over, restarted the car, drove on thinking all would be well, but nope. Irritated, I returned home and curled up on the couch to read a romance novel. Something good had to come from this early hour. 

School began and the day looked up. Our quick write was off of an older video on Steph Curry. (HERE) I wanted to talk about work ethic, about overcoming adversity, and this fit in well. We completed our study of sentences with appositives and talked about a required blog on their genre book for second quarter. And then it was time for our Mock Caldecott selection of the day.

I've worked with Margie Myers-Culver for the last few years on a Mock Caldecott unit. I'm blanking on whether this is our 5th, 6th, or 7th year, but it's been awhile. Each fall/winter we select around twenty books we feel are Caldecott contenders for that year. Sharing them with kids, we analyze, discuss, and rate the nominees. Shortly before the ALA awards we have the kids select their top picks and then Skype to share what we selected with each other. I love it.

Today's selection was How to be an Elephant by Katherine Roy. First we talked about her book I had shared with these same classes back in fifth grade, Neighborhood Sharks. We compared the two books and a student in my last class mentioned they'd absolutely be able to recognize some of her illustrations if asked. Another kid spoke up, "I'd recognize Klassen's illustrations for sure. 

And one to my right looked over and said, "After the Fall was by Santat, right? And so was Beekle? I'd recognize his stuff." I grinned. 

We looked through the book. Conversations ranged from umbilical cords, gestation periods, birth in the wild, habitat, olfactory systems, and more. I was fascinated by their thoughts. 

I drove home from school with a van functioning like normal and a light heart. My day started out on a bad note, but it was all uphill from there. Now just to cook dinner and squeeze in some more reading time. I cannot wait.

If you'd like to see what books Margie and I selected for this year's unit, I've posted the list below.

AlexanderHolmesOut of Wonder
BarnettKlassenThe Wolf, The Duck, & The Mouse
ChinGrand Canyon
CooperBig Cat, Little Cat
CordellWolf in the Snow
EggersHarrisHer Right Foot
EngleCuratoAll the Way to Havana
FreedmanThis House, Once
HerkertCastilloA Boy, a Mouse and a Spider
JacksonTillostonAll ears, all eyes
LuykenThe Book of Mistakes
NaberhausNelsonBlue Sky, White Stars
PerkinsCollierHey Black Child
RoyHow to Be an Elephant
SantatAfter the Fall
SlaterFan BrothersThe Antlered Ship **
TavaresRed & Lulu

Friday, December 8, 2017

It's Been A Week

Lordy. Today is one of those days...No, scratch that. This week has been one of those weeks where I want to take all of the folks with all of those opinions about what we do in the classroom and make them job shadow me 24/7. Then, we're having a chat. At the end, I expect a raise. A big one. Make no mistake about it, I don't mean my principal, my superintendent, or my school board. Nope, they get it. I mean politicians. Parents who like to criticize teachers on Facebook. Reporters and journalists that like to spin negative stories. Yep, those folks need to come hang with me because it has been a week.

It began Monday, innocently enough. There was a behavior incident. I had to have a chat with several kids. Everyone was honest. Got to the bottom of the issue in no time. However, I was left a bit disheartened. We had a lot of bystanders, but no real positive leaders it seemed. I thought on that.

Tuesday I shared my friend Pernille's heartbreaking blog post about some bullying her daughter is dealing with. (HERE) We talked about what Pernille's daughter should do. We talked about why we always focus on changing the behavior of the victim, not the bully. What does that say? We talked about the need of bystanders to step up. 

Wednesday and Thursday we wrote. We pondered the quote in the front of our room - Tell your story. If you don't, who will? ~ inspired from the words of Don Graves. Kids wrote narratives and turned them in for rough drafts.

Last night I spent five hours reading over those drafts. They say seventh graders are hard, that they won't connect with their teachers, won't trust their teachers. They are wrong. These kids, these beautiful kids, wrote amazing drafts. I asked them to consider the multitude of stories contained inside each of them. I said one story was begging to be told this year. To pick that one and write it. 

Holy. Crap.

I sat last night and wept. I read about depression. I read about loss. I read about friendship. I read about family issues. I read about laugh out loud moments. I read about times when you feel that you are not enough. I read, I read, and I read.

Then I emailed. Many stories required an immediate contact to home, to check in. Many families and I chatted throughout the night. I wrote a paragraph response to each child, sharing some suggestions for their final draft. Often, I just shared that I was there for them.

Today I headed back in to the classroom. We were decorating trees for our advisory class. I was grateful to begin the day on a light note. As the announcements rolled through the intercom, one of my students whispered to me, "Mrs. S., there is a big tear in your jeans." 

My head spun to her, "What? Where?"

"Umm, your butt area..." 

Good grief. I felt behind me and yep, there sure was. I grinned at her as she promised not to tell. I assured her I was fine, pulled my thankfully long shirt down over my behind and said I'd change at my prep period during third hour. Gracious.

Classes began. We watched Kwame Alexander's Take a Knee (HERE) and had interesting conversation about discourse in our country. Moving on, we listened to some music while they began to spread out to work on their drafts. As I moved around the room during one class to confer, I told them how impressed I was with their writing. One boy looked up and said, "I'm feeling better now. It's like you took some of this load for me." 

I stopped immediately and stared at him. That's it. I truly did feel weighed down last night, and today. Some of these kids had hard truths to write about. I began to wonder as I read if I could handle it all. But maybe, just maybe, by writing they are giving up some of that burden to me and I will carry it so they don't have to. That I can do, and will do for these kids.

So to those folks that wonder what we do all day, every day, this week is a good example of just that. I am supposed to teach them to read, to write. But really, it is so much more. I'm trying to teach them to be thoughtful and caring citizens. To do that I have to help them see their mistakes, learn to be leaders and not bystanders. Teach them that if they see something, they need to say something. Show them that we can talk about topics that have a lot of emotion, but listen and respect the opinions of others. And finally, I need to show them, my amazing students, that they can hand over what is too hard to carry alone to someone that loves them. That we can move forward together. That is what I do, what we do, and I'm grateful for it. 

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.

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. 

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.


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.

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,
silver linings,
crappy days do inspire the fingers to,
once again,
return to the keyboard.

Pull up a coffee,
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. 


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. 


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

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

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


 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.

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.