Saturday, March 31, 2018

My Next Writing Challenge

I was attempting to write everyday in March.
Today I've finished, 31 posts for 31 days.

February 28th I pondered the idea of doing a March writing challenge. I knew I couldn't do the official Slice of Life challenge on Two Writing Teachers. My life was crazy busy, writing posts were going to take up free time I didn't have. Trying to read a ton of other posts and comment would be next to impossible. Even trying to comment back to you fabulous folks on here has been a failure. Please know, I read every comment. I appreciate them more than I can tell you. Time is elusive and escapes me all too often. That being said, the challenge is complete. I'm so happy that I made this deal with myself and absolutely have seen a difference in my writing. It comes easier, ideas pop in my head all day, and while finding the time at the end of the day to write has been a struggle, the writing hasn't been. So, on to new challenges.

My friend Cindy and I talk each day. One of our favorite topic is what we're reading. As many of you know, since July I've been on a romance reading kick. I've been fascinated by my interest in this genre - I've never really read romance books before and I typically only read books for kids. That being said, I've found myself more and more drawn to reading these books, finding new authors when I read everything Kristen Ashley has written, learning about new topics because who knew that hockey players featured so heavily into many a romance series. What I'm more interested in, however, is how people see romance books and the people who read them. I've been told it isn't "real reading", that the writing is sub par, that I'm wasting my time, or just been given a look of judgement. Why is that? I should note, that these reactions are mainly coming from colleagues. My dearest hope is that they don't judge what their students are reading in the same way. Hopefully graphic novels and rereading of books are allowed in their classrooms, but I fear that they aren't. 

One day I will write the lessons I've gleaned from this new genre of reading, it would be a fun post. But for now, I wanted to share that this reading spree I've been on has inspired me to try fiction writing for the month of April. This will not be writing for my blog, but simply for me. Non-fiction writing comes easily to me - I can write about my day, parenting, teaching, etc. Fiction writing is difficult. Yet today, when I made the pact with Cindy to try and write for thirty minutes every day and report in to her, I got excited. I thought of some characters on the way to Champaign. I made a bulletin board an "inspiration board" in my bedroom by my desk. I sketched out several characters and an overall plot. It was a blast and I saw ideas everywhere I turned. 

So, let's see where this month takes me. I have no idea if it will be towards something real, or just writing for fun. I do know I'm beyond excited to try it and thrilled that I have my writing mojo back. And just because I'm writing for me, I hope to be blogging still at least once a week. So stick around, I'll keep you posted. And if you have any fiction writing recommendations, send them my way. I'm all ears. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Day of Nothing

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 30 of 31.

Our Spring Break was not filled with trips to sunny beaches, warm destinations. There was no travel involved, other than to a town or two over. Our break involved track practices, dentist appointments, vet visits, and time with family. All important, all worthwhile. My only qualm was that I did not have any uninterrupted time at home, until today.

Friday stretched ahead of me today gloriously empty. Luke had practice, but he had a ride there and back. Liam was at a sleepover. I needed to run to the grocery store at some point, but it could wait. I woke and walked each dog a mile, feeling grateful that the rain had finally left and the sun was shining. On my walk, as I do each day, I talked to my listened to message from my friend Cindy on Voxer and left her some as well. 

Upon returning home I debated what to do. Looking at my email inbox, I knew I needed to do some scheduling work for Nerdy Book Club that I had put off for two weeks. Two and a half hours later, I was finally done and my inbox was dramatically better, though not at inbox zero yet. Cindy and I continued to leave messages on and off for each other, brainstorming projects and sharing weekend plans. After I was done, I curled up with my dogs and a book. 

I read on and off for several hours, talking to my boys, having pizza for lunch, and straightening up a bit around the house. In another message with Cindy we hit upon a writing challenge for April (I'll write more about that tomorrow) that necessitated a trip to Champaign and the purchase of a bulletin board. We talked more on and off as I ran errands, grabbed some food at the store for dinner, and drove the thirty miles home. 

Now it's early evening. Chris is home, kids that aren't mine are leaving the house, and I'm ready to cook some dinner and maybe have a Fat Tire to celebrate an amazing day of nothing, but one that was filled just the same.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Food is Love

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 29 of 31.

The other day I was rereading a book from Kristen Ashley called Sweet Dreams. I got to this section:

I just had a similar conversation with Luke the other day. His friends were coming over to play D&D and I asked what I could make and he said everyone had to bring their own sacks. I looked at him and said, "You don't get it, I like cooking for you all. What can I make?" He grinned and asked for chocolate chip cookies. 

Tonight my parents came by for dinner. My dad had a birthday awhile back and we hadn't really had a chance to celebrate with his knee surgery and all. When thinking of what to make, I thought of what they love.

I made guacamole knowing how much my mom loves it.

Homemade pizza because that is a win for everyone, except Liam. (And he was gone anyway.) I use this dough. 

A fruit crostata because I can use any fruit we have, my dad loves it, AND it is one of the few desserts Luke will eat. (Recipe HERE)

I do believe that, once again, my romance books have an excellent lesson inside. Food might not be love, but making it for others absolutely is. And I don't think love is only found in the act of making it, but in the consideration of what dishes they would like to eat and remembering the stories that go with each. For example, I will never forget the first time I had guacamole. It was at my grandmother Mumsie's house. My mom and my Aunt Margaret were eating it. If they could have licked the bowl clean, they would have. I can see them sitting on the couch, laughing, munching on chips like it was yesterday. In reality, it was over twenty years ago. 

Tonight we sat down together, my mom putting salad on Luke's plate. My dad turned to Luke and told the story of my mom and dad, newly married, visiting the same restaurant over and over, trying to figure out how to make the salad. Going home, experimenting, heading back to try the salad again, determined to get it right. Food is love. Food contains stories, memories. And when you cook for those you love, it is something special indeed. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Best Part of Parenting

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 28 of 31.

Chris and I became parents back in 2002. One thing I've learned over the years as a mom to Luke and Liam, a teacher to many, is that parenting is a crapshoot. I have seen some amazing parents that have children that have lost their way. I've seen some fabulous kids that have essentially raised themselves. Crapshoot. 

That being said, we've raised Luke and Liam the best we know how, but also know that we can only do so much. They are the captains of their own ship and will determine their own course. I won't speak for Chris here, but there are a few guiding beliefs that have helped us along the way...

Hands Off
This one is big for me. My start of teaching in my district was in a Kindergarten-4th grade building. I'd walk down the hall on 100 Day thinking what a fabulous job some parents did on their kids project. My reaction to that was that school was Luke and Liam's responsibility. Sure I'd help them study, if they asked. If I knew if they had a test coming up, I'd ask how they were doing. But that's it. This has backfired, absolutely. They've failed tests. They've had grades they wished were higher. My goal, however, was that they cared about their grades, not us pushing them to succeed. So far, with a 7th and 9th grader, we seem to be on the right track. Time will tell if this will continue to work, but we don't argue about homework. The amount of late assignments they've had over their school career for both kids could be counted on one hand. And when they bomb a test, as one did recently, they are far more hard on themselves than I am. 

My students would tell you, I'm not a yeller. While yelling might work for some, it absolutely doesn't work for me. I remember a student once told me that they hated getting in trouble with me because they knew I was "disappointed" in them and that was the worst. Pretty much how I parent too. Yelling can be tuned out, if I'm upset I whisper. And Chris would say I use a heavy dose of Irish Catholic Guilt to get a point across. Works for me.

Lax Technology Rules
This began as a summer rule, I didn't care how many hours they played video games as long as they did some type of chore everyday, read for thirty minutes at a minimum, and exercised. We had a checklist and I didn't want to battle them all summer long. While they will absolutely play for hours online, they are just as likely to have a Nerf war in the neighborhood, shoot hoops, go for a run, or watch a movie. I have only a few hard and fast tech rules for them:

  • No Grand Theft Auto. This is my oldest son's least favorite rule. Yes, they have first person shooter games. However, when I went to GameStop years ago with Luke so he could buy this game, the employee was one of my former students. He immediately said no. Then he and his boss began to describe what could be done in the game. This still gets a hard no for Luke even though he could now buy it himself. 
  • Cell Phones are mine. I used to monitor their cell phones nightly. Then weekly. Now, whenever I feel like it, typically monthly. While my youngest hates this rule, and we've battled about it, I told them I'm flipping through text message, photos, and social media so that I am their excuse. If someone is sending them something they aren't comfortable with, they can say their mom checks their phone. With both boys I've seen them use me as the excuse why someone needs to stop something in a group text or social media. I'm glad to provide that service.
  • Cell phones are charged at night outside my room. They can have alarm clocks to wake them up, phones go to a dresser outside my room at night so they sleep.
Encourage Their Passion, not Ours
This was a lesson we learned this year. Luke played basketball from 5th-8th grade. He was a decent player, but last year in 8th grade he told us he was done at the end of the season. Chris is a huge fan of basketball and hated to hear that. I was shocked because he was a good player, why would he give it up? But, as we reminded each other, it isn't about our feelings, it is what Luke wants. So 9th grade basketball has just come to an end and Luke didn't play. We were worried he'd regret it, but he didn't. 

Their passions vary from time to time, but have settled into something similar for both boys. They love running. Luke had immediate success in this sport when he began in 7th grade. Liam is starting to improve here at the end of 7th. They both love music - Liam in band playing drums, Luke in the songs he listens to and discusses with Chris. They are obsessive about video games and play online with their friends constantly. They both have fabulous imaginations - whether in creating their own videos, playing D&D, or in their writing. 


Being a parent has absolutely made me a better teacher. I've tried and failed more often than I can count. I know that while we might have these rules, the boys don't always love them. They will absolutely try to break them. But as a middle school teacher, I'm able to tell my middle school parents that it gets better. That it is good to let them fail if you can, that they need to care more than you do. And I also can watch my friends with young children parent and tell them it gets easier, it really does.

Today I was driving to pick Liam up from track practice. As I drove down a quiet street I saw a pack of runners headed towards me. Glancing at the pack, I realized Liam was one of them with his neon blue shorts on. I was puzzled, his practice was over. Then I wondered what fool was running without a shirt on, waving like crazy. Of course, it was Luke. When Liam jumped in the car twenty minutes later I asked why he'd been running with Luke's crew. Luke, as a freshman, had been the youngest (besides Liam). The rest of the kids were juniors and seniors. Liam grinned and said they had asked him to run with him and encouraged him along the way, especially his big brother. That's the best part of parenting. Seeing them grow, watching what they will become. They get to choose that, not us, and it is an amazing sight to behold. 

Crazy runners - Luke  (no shirt), Liam (blue shorts)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The More Things Change...

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 27 of 31.

Today I thought a lot about that old adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So much of who I am has remained consistent over the years. Today I sat in the dentist waiting room as Luke had his six month check-up and I read, just as I have since I was a kid. On our drive there and back I blared Pearl Jam's Ten, much as I did back in high school. When faced with Easter candy to purchase for the boys, I immediately grabbed my favorites - solid chocolate eggs.

However, time marches on and things do change. I can see that in my boys. When faced with a thirty minute car ride to Champaign, they no longer ask to watch a DVD or bring toys to occupy their time. As I ran errands today, Luke stayed in the car watching YouTube or texting friends. There was no hand held in mine as we raced across the streets, looking both ways, and squeezing each other's hands three times to represent I Love You over and over again. At one point today I looked over at his profile in the car and his dark brown eyes looked back. If I go back far enough, I can remember back fifteen years to the first time I held him. How are we here already?

Knowing I need to treasure every moment, I asked if Luke wanted to grab lunch before returning to Monticello. He quickly agreed and asked to get sushi. I think the waitress was a bit in shock as he ordered a plate of vegetable dumplings and four different sushi rolls. My boy, he certainly does like to eat. Luke isn't the chattiest of kids, never has been, but it was an awesome morning just the same.

Returning home, Luke headed to track practice and I grabbed Liam to go help my mom move some furniture. I was lamenting in my head, and my heart, how parenting changes so much. The relationship we have with our kids flies by and they are so anxious to grow up while we stand by, wishing time would slow just for a moment. At that moment Liam and I were trying to pull a box spring out of my uncle's pick-up truck and bring it to the garage. I heard my dad shout, "Hold up. You will hurt your back." I turned around grinning as he tried to push me out of the way so he could grab the box spring instead. He chastised me, trying to help, while I pointed out that his knee was just replaced a month ago and this was not happening. In the back of my mind I thought of the fact that forty-four years in, my dad is still trying to take care of me, that I'm still his little girl. 

Hmm. Maybe things don't need to change so quickly after all. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Happiness Is...

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 26 of 31.

It's spring break here, which means our house becomes even more of a revolving door than usual. Liam has left for two different sleepovers since Friday. Luke has had a variety of kids coming in and out. I wrote this poem yesterday while Luke and five friends sat in our dining room playing Dungeons and Dragons while I read upstairs. Listening to them play, hanging out with my pups and reading, I was filled with joy.


Happiness is...

The sound of teenage boys
dice on a table
murmured stories
shouts of laughter
piles of sneakers by the door.

The sun streaming through a bedroom window
dogs sprawled on my bed
romance book on my phone
hours of spring break stretched out ahead of me.

The smell of chocolate chip cookies
wafting up from the kitchen
warm out of the oven,
placed on a plate
to be devoured in minutes.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

They are the Best of Us

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 25 of 31.

NY Times
I've long argued that children are the best of us. In my twenty plus years of teaching, I've encountered a lot of kids and a lot of adults. And while I've absolutely encountered kids who are far from perfect, I'd take them on my team in a minute. 

Adults confuse me. We fail to stand up when needed. We fail to speak up, often, because we might alienate others. We latch on to our beliefs, but refuse to listen to the beliefs of others. We give ourselves a side and blindly follow anything associated with it.

Yet, that isn't the worst thing we do. We dismiss our children. A friend often tells me that children are the most disenfranchised group in our society, and I think she's right. Even when they stand up, attempt to be heard, they are dismissed as not having the experience we do, not having any knowledge of what they're talking about.

I disagree. I think so many kids can speak up, on a wide range of issues, from a place that is pure. They haven't been jaded from life as so many of us are. They still believe the best from the world, from us. They believe that they can change the world for the better, where many adults have given that up as a childish dream. 

Watching the kids from Majory Stoneman Douglas over the past few weeks, I'm filled with awe. I don't care what your feelings of the Second Amendment are, I'd hope you could see kids that have faced the worst of humanity and are trying to make the world a better place in the only way they know how. I'd hope you could see them speaking to crowds so large that the majority of adults I know would be filled with anxiety. I'd hope you'd support them, encourage them to raise their voices.

We can disagree on a wide range of issues in this country and I think that's ok. We need discourse, true discourse, and we need to learn from each other. But when I see those kids speaking up, when I see kids across the country marching for their beliefs, I'm filled with pride. Not because I agree, or disagree, with their stance. I'm filled with pride because they're using their voice. I'm filled with pride because they're taking charge of their future. I'm filled with pride because they are acting in a way I believe our forefathers that founded this country would be thrilled with.

I mean, Emma's silence? Chilling.

And Naomi? She's eleven. ELEVEN. Unreal.

If you haven't seen Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt perform their mashup, Found Tonight, please watch below. They see the kids. They respect them. We all need to. 

Children truly are the best of us. Now we just need to rise to the standard they have set. They are telling their stories, we need to listen. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Goodbye Uncle Bobby

This week has been tough. As I have taught my students what it means to write an "age poem", I've shared with them that the joy of getting older also comes with the heartache of watching those you love age. And then losing them.

Some of my students have already experienced this. Several have lost a parent far too young. They know this bitter truth. It is one we all come to know and face with more than a bit of dread.

Monday morning as my students were beginning to write in second hour I glanced at an email from my mom with more than a bit of disbelief. My uncle, my full-of-life uncle, had just been given the sad diagnosis of cancer, and it was advanced. I read it. Reread it. Then I looked up and took a deep breath. The beauty and pain of teaching is that you can't do anything else but be there. And so, I went back to teaching, to conferring, as I prayed over and over in my head.

Thursday I was working in the back library during tenth period helping some students sort through the lyrics of a song for examples of figurative language. DJ pointed out that someone was calling my cell because my Apple Watch display announced that. I glanced down and told him it was my brother and he knew I was teaching, I'd call him back. Inside, my stomach began to twist. Why would Ryan be calling now? Just thirty minutes later and I had my news. Four days after his diagnosis, less than three weeks after first entering the hospital, my amazing Uncle Bobby was gone.

Loss doesn't get any easier the older you get. You come to expect it, sure. We all know we have a finite amount of time. And yet, I'm not ready to say goodbye. Bobby had sixty-eight years, but I wish he had so many more. And so, as I have in the past on this blog when I've lost a loved one, I'm using this space to say goodbye the only way I know how - through words. 

I'll remember...
following your blue backpack 
through the streets of New York.
The crush of humanity all around,
but as long as you were in sight,
I felt safe.

I'll remember laughing with you at family gatherings.
The twinkle in your piercing blue eyes when you said
something that drove Mumsie crazy.
How I longed to stay up later,
to be enveloped in that laughter that filled the home.

I'll remember coming to visit you in Indy when Chris and I married.
Meeting your friends.
Learning about intense games of Risk.
And the need for more game boards
when you grew angry after losing.

I'll remember your humor, for certain.
But also your zest for life.
And no BS attitude.
Listening to you play the organ for mass as you called out,
"Song number 342, but only verses 2,4, and 5" 
because you didn't like the others.

I'll remember your devotion to your calling.
How kids you taught would meet me and
share how you taught them about 
and you helped them feel strong. 
And I knew it was because you saw the 
value in kids. You didn't dismiss them.
You didn't dismiss anyone.
You listened.

I'll remember sitting up late with you,
Often with a beer, a Diet Coke, and a coffee
on the table in front of you.
Late hours passing,
yawns escaping before I could hold them back.
But I knew I wanted to listen just a bit more,
hear just a few more stories.
And right now I'd give anything to be back at that 
table with you once again.

My heart is breaking,
all of ours are,
but I'm certain you are where you are meant to be.
I'm not sure what heaven is like, 
but I hope for your sake they have 
Black and White cookies up there.
That it looks a lot like Bay Shore.
And I won't be shocked one bit if the 
Yankees win it all next year.

Goodbye, Bobby. Thanks for always believing in me.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Being Brave in Middle School

Middle School students who were in the Talent Show
I am constantly in awe of my students and today was no different. It was our last day before Spring Break, which also happens to be the day of our middle school talent show. That takes place during the last two hours of the school day. To accommodate for that, all class periods are shortened to seventeen minutes long. Yowza. My seventh grade colleagues and I have chosen last year and this year simply to keep our homeroom kids for the morning and celebrate this last day with them however we choose. 

I choose to celebrate with Percy Jackson and a blue food party. 

Now in elementary school we'd study Greek Mythology and have a similar celebration at the end of a read aloud of The Lightning Thief. In middle school my schedule is much tighter, but for the past two years we still did this movie/party on the day before Spring Break. It is the perfect way to wind down.

Our day began on a high note. Kids could wear hats to school if they brought a dollar. The donations were going to a local family who have two sons. Their youngest is in Pre-K and has been facing some health issues. When the announcements came out this week that we were doing a fundraiser for him, I showed my homeroom some photos of the four year old from his mom's Facebook page and simply asked my kids to bring in donations if they could. They did, including an extremely generous donation from one of my quietest students. My class and I gave her a round of applause, which embarrassed her, but also made her smile. I was in awe once again of the kindness of my students.

Then it was time to eat. Grabbing some blue food and drink, my kids headed over to settle in for the movie. While the sounds of Percy battling a Furry surrounded me, I pulled up the Age Poems my students wrote to grade. I read about hard times growing up, the fear of divorce, the struggles with friendship, how kids don't feel heard, how lock down drills frighten them, their confusion of the world around them, and their confusion of their own brains. Mostly I read how my seventy-five students feel that they're straddling the world of childhood and young adulthood and are so confused by it. I was beyond proud of them for finding their voice and pouring their souls bare on the page.

After the movie, and after drying some tears as I graded, we were on to the Talent Show. I was a shy kid, that is for certain. No way could I get up by myself and perform in front of my peers and a bunch of parents, but these kids did it. I was in awe of kids that tried this for the first time just as I was in awe of kids that had no fear and had performed last year. I also felt joy in watching the majority of the student body as they supported their classmates as they tried something that was hard. 

It was the perfect way to kick-off Spring Break.

Watching my principal, Ms. Handley, embracing the role of "cowbell" player for the 7th grade percussion ensemble didn't hurt either. 

More cowbell, Jeanne. More cowbell. What a fabulous day.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Quick Write Inspiration, Thanks to @NatGeo

I'm attempting to write everyday in March.Today is post 22 of 31.

Quick writes are a daily part of our classroom workshop in seventh grade. Anything is fair game for a quick write: picture books, poems, images, infographics, prompts, articles, songs, videos, and more. Our quick writes are truly quick, around three minutes. We revisit them, revise, and extend them into longer writing pieces when we have time.

Today our quick write came from my visit to Instagram the day before. I often tell my students that two Instagram accounts I suggest they follow (if they are on that platform) are @natgeo and @usinterior. Well, yesterday on the Nat Geo account, I saw this image:

National Geographic

This was the caption:

natgeoPhoto by @amivitale With a heavy heart, I share this news and hope that Sudan's legacy will awaken us to protect this magnificent and fragile planet. Yesterday, wildlife ranger Joseph Wachira, 26 comforted Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhino left on this planet moments before he passed away. Sudan lived a long, healthy life at the conservancy after he was brought to Kenya from @safari_park_dvur_kralov in the #Czechrepublic in 2009. He died surrounded by people who loved him at @olpejeta after suffering from age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds. Sudan has been an inspirational figure for many across the world. Thousands have trooped to Ol Pejeta to see him and he has helped raise awareness for rhino conservation. The two female northern white rhinos left on the planet are his direct descendants. Research into new Assisted Reproductive Techniques for large mammals is underway due to him. The impact that this special animal has had on conservation is simply incredible. And there is still hope in the future that the subspecies might be restored through IVF. 

In 2009, I had the privilege of following this gentle hulking creature on his journey from the snowy Dvur Krulov zoo in the Czech Republic to the warm plains of Kenya, when he was transported with three of his fellow Northern White Rhinos in a last ditch effort to save the subspecies. It was believed that the air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. At the time, there were 8 Northern white rhinos alive, all in zoos. Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind. Follow @olpejeta and @amivitale to learn more what we can all do to #coexist.

I had the kids write off the image first - what story did they see being told? We wrote, then shared what we were writing with a neighbor. Then I read the caption to them. This did lead to some interesting conversations about what IVF was and how in the world that would work - if the other two White Rhinos left were older, what would they do? More than anything, my students (and I) were captivated by the last sentence in the caption. 

Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind. 

That might earn its own quick write when we come back from break. Heartbreaking what mankind has done to the earth. 

Do you do quick writes with your students? If so, what are your favorite sources for inspiration?