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.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Almost Halfway...

We got home from Chicago last night and I crashed. Hard. Last week I was home one and a half days out of seven. Crazy, but my only busy part of the summer. The days leading to that week found me working on my Scholastic presentation, purchasing books to give away, and then just the ordinary daily turmoil of being a mom to teens, trying to get caught up.

And now? The next forty-eight (yep, I counted them) days stretch out before me. Yes, I will still have to run kids to practices or games. Yes, I still need to figure out how to tear out some lilac bushes, how to fence in the yard for two pups, etc., etc. conferences, no vacations, no travel.

I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little bit excited about that. Or maybe a lot.

The last five summers have seen me attending at least two conferences a summer. Sometimes as many as five. I found myself rejuvenated in some ways - seeing friends inspires me. I also found myself completely exhausted when school began. I was jealous of friends who looked relaxed. I wondered what I was doing wrong. This summer I decided to flip that.

My friend Colby calls this his summer of saying no. Without knowing that, I was doing the same. No to many worthwhile conferences I wanted to go to. No to extra trips or vacations with family and/or friends when it would make my schedule too crazy. No, no, no.

You know what? It feels good.

I do have some #FOMO (fear of missing out) when looking at ILA, NerdCamp, ALA, All Write, etc. I really do love learning. But, I need some time off. I need to walk my dogs, swim laps, read books, and *maybe* write something that's in my head. Quite frankly, I need to breathe.

So, I have forty-eight days left. The end is coming closer and closer each day. I'm going to soak up this time for all its worth and then face the new school year ready to begin. I cannot wait. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Scholastic Summit 2017

And I'm back.The Scholastic Reading Summit was amazing. Seriously, if you haven't attended one, make it a goal. (Register HERE) For less than $200 (around $170, if I remember correctly), you get an optional breakfast with Mr. Schu as he shares his love of books, an opening and closing keynote (Chicago had Kwame Alexander and Kate DiCamillo), a morning and afternoon session with great teachers and authors, lunch, an afternoon snack, and a bag filled with several books and some research on reading. How awesome is that? AND there is a book fair where you can buy books. Seriously. There are four left this year, though one is sold out, I do believe. 

While preparing my presentation made me nervous leading up to the Summit, once I got there it was like coming home. The Scholastic employees rock. This is my third year going. The first year I went as an attendee. The last two years I've presented. I can say that as an attendee and as a presenter, the employees are always looking out to make sure you are well cared for. What wonderful people. 

We needed to arrive Tuesday night to go over the schedule for Wednesday. After that, it was time to catch up with amazing friends I hadn't seen since NCTE this past November. I love getting to see them, hear about the wonderful stuff they are doing in their classrooms, and talk about some books. 

Wednesday dawned early. I headed to Starbucks, then the breakfast. John Schumacher (Mr. Schu) is always fabulous. He showed all of us how he lives a life passionate about books. What a blessing he is. At the breakfast, and throughout the conference, I got to meet so many folks that read this blog, follow Choice Literacy and/or Nerdy Book Club. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your kind words.

At that point, it was time for my session. I headed to the room and the butterflies began. Funnily enough, once the room filled, the Scholastic folks that were taking care of me said it was time to begin, and the butterflies left. It was probably the most comfortable I have ever felt presenting. I had left myself a giant note near my computer to tell me when I was halfway through (45 minutes) and what slide I should be on. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I was at the 45 minute mark and was going far too slow! I sped up and kept rolling, finishing my last slide at the 90 minute mark. Phew! The folks that attended were so sweet. Many came up to share something that resonated with them, made them cry, or just what they enjoyed. As a person who doesn't do this presenting gig that often, I really do appreciate that. (My presentation is HERE if you want to see it.)
After lunch I joined Donalyn Miller, Jessica Lifschitz, and Dr. Zipporah Hightower for an Independent Reading Panel. In the crowd were former colleagues that I was delighted to see and good friends that I get to catch up with at conferences. It was so much fun.

To end the day John Schu interviewed Kate DiCamillo. I had to duck out early to try and beat some of the traffic home. I hated to do that because Kate's new picture book that is coming out this October, La La La: A Story of Hope was likely part of the conversation. I just read a friend's advanced copy of this on Tuesday night and loved it. It is beautiful!

Now I'm home, surrounded by dogs, and grateful for the experience that was the Reading Summit once again. What a fabulous two days. 

PS - quick note. If you are on Twitter, check out @benandbeccalee for some fabulous pictures from the Summit. There are some that really capture the look and feel of the whole day there. Enjoy!

Monday, June 19, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 6/19 Summer Reading Plans

Lordy, I'm falling off the blogging wagon. It's 6/19 and this is my third blog post of the month. Oops! I haven't been doing much writing in general. I've done a lot of reading. A lot of dog-walking. Some laps have been swum. Lunches with friends. Shopping trip with my mom. Nights out with folks I haven't seen in awhile. Summer has been good. 

This week is a bit crazy, my craziest of the summer. I head up to the Scholastic Reading Summit tomorrow, the Summit is Wednesday. Then it is time to head home for a day, then a weekend trip with family. Liam has a basketball tournament today through Wednesday as well. And then? July stretches out with nada on the schedule. I am so excited about that, I can't even describe it.

At any rate, summer reading means summer #bookaday. My goal is the equivalent of one book a day for the summer, which is 81 books. Today's the 19th (and yes, I had to look that up. Love summer and loosing track of the days) which means I should be around 26 books. I'm ahead of the game right now at 41. Here's what I've read:

I've got two main goals with summer reading: read the books I haven't gotten to that are sitting on my shelves AND fill in some of my reading gaps. One of those, I found while teaching middle school this year, is romance books. Man alive, I had a large group looking for romance books. My response of, "Do you count Divergent? I mean Four..." was met with skeptical looks. I should understand, that was all I wanted to read from around 7th-11th grade, but I haven't read much since. So, I'm reading some "kissy books" as my friends Tony and Colby like to call them. Of late, I've found several great ones. Some might be too mature for my readers, or for the start of the year 7th graders, but many of them are fabulous. 

How's your summer reading going? Hope you've found some great books! And if you're coming to the Summit in Chicago, see you soon! 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Scholastic Summit Chicago - Slide OCD

Next Tuesday I will be heading up to Chicago for the Scholastic Reading Summit. Tuesday night will be for polishing up some final things and then Wednesday is presentation day. It will be at that moment that I will wish for a cloning device or Hermione Granger's Time Turner. I mean, have you seen everyone that will be there? I don't even know the schedule, but I know there will be amazing friends presenting when I am in the morning and I will wish I could see them too. I know that in the afternoon session I will have many sessions I want to attend, but only one I can get to. Such riches, but such a great problem to have.

My current problem, however, at almost a week out, is a condition that two of my friends call slide OCD. See, I created my slides for my portion of the presentation two weeks ago. Possibly I was too ahead of the game because that gave me time to think. And wonder. And decide I needed to add just one slide, and then another, and another, until I'm currently looking at 79 slides for a 90 minute presentation. Ugh.

But beyond the slide issue, and the fact that speaking in public makes me unbelievably nervous, I'm happy with my presentation. I ran through it tonight to see how much I needed to cut and I began to tear up about four times. I doubt that would happen during the presentation, but I'm just so proud of these kids. It's been three weeks since I last stood in my classroom with my students and I miss them. Don't get me wrong, I still have many days of summer left and no desire to speed it along, but I love my seventh graders. I like the people they are and the people they are becoming. I'm excited to share our journey into connecting through audience as readers, as writers, and what impact that has on my students. I can't wait to share the tools we use to make those connections. And I'm also excited to learn from the people who attend - to find out what ideas they have and apply some when I see my new group of students next fall. I'm already thinking about them and getting excited for the new adventures that await. 

And most of all, I'm excited to talk books. I always bring a few books that connect to my presentation, share my love for them, and give them away to the folks that were kind enough to come spend the morning with me. After much deliberation, here are the books I'm sharing this year:



If you are in the Chicago area, there is still time to register for the Summit if you haven't. Just head over HERE. And if you aren't in the Chicago area, no problem. There might be a Summit near you. Hope to see some of you in Chicago! 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Stocking a Seventh Grade Classroom Library

New classroom, last summer.
Last year at this time I clearly remember looking around my new seventh grade classroom and feeling overwhelmed. I had just packed up my fifth grade classroom and had gone through every single book in the 3000+ collection, debating what to leave behind and what should come with me. My goal had been to sort out at least 1000 books to leave for the new teacher taking over for me in fifth grade. She was younger and I wanted to set her up for success. As my fifth graders and I sorted, I texted colleagues in middle school - should I take Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing? (no) Should I take the Amulet graphic novel series? (yes) It was hard. It wasn't a sort on reading level as much as it was on interest level of seventh graders. When my students were done, I had left over 1500 books behind.
Fifth grade library packed up.
Sitting in my new classroom I was overwhelmed by the lack of shelf space, the decision on how to organize, but also this new age group I needed to purchase books for. When I began to consider seventh grade, I thought of my son who had just finished that grade level. He was still young at times, but at other times he was a true teen. He switched between middle grade books and young adult as one might switch channels. I knew I needed a balance of both in the room.

Fast forward to the present. After spending a year in seventh grade, I am fascinated by the difference in fifth and seventh grade readers. In fifth grade kids will try to read YA at times. (Divergent, Hunger Games, etc.) I often would try and get them to wait. Once they begin reading YA, they really wouldn't go back to middle grade books. I would grieve for all of the books written so clearly for ten and eleven year olds that they were missing out on.

Seventh graders do not leave middle grade behind because they are also reading YA. In fact, not only did they shift between maturity levels easily, it was also common for a student to be finishing up a YA book one day, reading a graphic novel the next, and supplementing both with a handful of picture books. It was refreshing.

The biggest struggle I had this year was which YA books to put in the classroom. Romance? Violence? How did I decide what fit in a seventh grade classroom and what didn't? 

First, I read the book. Which I would think would be common sense, but maybe not. I needed to know the books anyway to help kids make selections, but especially in YA, I knew I needed to read them. I looked on Titlewave to see what ages the reviews indicated for the books, and I made my own assumptions of what I thought 7th graders were ready for. With two sons - one in 6th, one in 8th, I knew the age pretty well.

What I discovered this year is that kids do an excellent job self-censoring. When I would book talk a YA book, I would always say if I felt it was more mature and why. I would also give a book that it reminded me of. No one was required to read any specific book, but it helped kids to make decisions. I know even at the end of the school year a boy in one class picked a book I had in fifth grade, but was probably more of a 6th/7th grade book. There were a few story lines in it that I wasn't sure about for him. I stopped by, asked him what he thought so far, and he told me he wanted to try it, but wasn't sure if it was a good fit or not. I told him to let me know if he had questions, but he would be able to decide as he read. The next day he quietly returned it to the shelf and grabbed another book instead. He made the decision for himself. 

As a parent I'm a big believer in letting my children read whatever they are comfortable with. There are books Luke and Liam have read that have pushed the boundaries as to what's reviewed for their age level, but I would much rather them read about it, ask questions, and think things through then encounter something for the first time in real life and be thrown for a loop. We've had great discussions over the books they've read, and others they've read and not talked about with me at all, which is their right. (I'm looking at you, Downside of Being Up.
The seventh grade library at the end of the year.
As a teacher, I work really hard to put books into our classroom library with purpose. I pick books that I feel will be the perfect book for a seventh grader - but not every seventh grader. At the beginning of the year I was worried if I would know which books were a good fit for our classroom and which weren't. It turned out to be easier than I thought. If you look at our classroom library now there are books that are mature, and books that you'd find in a fourth grade classroom. There are picture books, graphic novels, novels, and nonfiction throughout the room. There are books to read when you are having a bad day and books to make you dream. Seventh graders do have one foot still in childhood and one in the world of young adult, but they don't get there in a single step. I think that the lives of a sixth grader through at least ninth grader are made up of steps over that line into adulthood and then several back into childhood, over and over again. They make that final leap when they are ready. Our libraries need to reflect that as well.