Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Student Led Research Projects

Missing these kids.
I saw someone online recently call this time of staying at home The Pause. Not sure if they made that up or it is a common term, but I liked it. I have to say, as I see some friends and segments of the country angry at our political leaders, I feel the opposite. I am happy to do my part, to sit back and let the scientists and doctors try to fight this while I work on not spreading the illness. While I type that, I am also very aware that I wrote that from a point of privilege, I can sit back and let them work because I have a job that is being done from home. I don’t know what the answer is for those that don’t, but I also think we have nothing left to fight for if we’re sick and die, so I’ll stay home.

With that being said, teaching has been interesting during The Pause. I’m still connecting with kids, still talking to them online on a regular basis. It’s not the same, but it has benefits. I’ve loved getting to know them in their home environments. Parents have appeared in Flipgrid videos, Zoom calls. We’ve had some experiences together that have made me laugh out loud. There are absolutely elements of what we’ve been doing that make me want to continue them once school returns to normal. Fingers crossed and praying to anyone who will listen, that’s in the fall.  

As we wrap up the school year, my colleague and I were looking at our last research project. Due to the dates of the school year and remote learning, we’d have less time than usual. Also, a lot of the lessons would be too difficult to do over this type of teaching. Not to mention our district asked us to look at what we taught in this time frame, take half, then take half again. How could we do this project? I thought a bit about how we often give the question - How do humans impact the planet? - then let them pick their own topic to research under that umbrella. Looking at this year, I wondered what if we removed the umbrella? 

As I wrote about in a previous post (HERE), our class during remote learning has had components that could be found in a typical week in class.

  • Daily reading - read independently for 30 minutes a day. Record your reading on the sheet online, similar to our Status of the Class.
  • Daily writing - write for 10 minutes a day. What they write is their choice. One day’s worth of writing shared each week.
  • Weekly interaction - Google Poll question and Flipgrid to respond to. Optional Zoom meeting on Wednesdays. This takes the place of our conferences. 
  • Optional read aloud to follow along with in Flipgrid.
  • New learning - in April they had a poetry assignment each week. Typically this involved a set of poems to read and respond to, either by writing about them, answering questions, or writing their own poem. In May, this will be their research topic.
This week our poll question was this: 

Starting next week, you will research a topic you want to learn more about. You will share this learning on a Google Slide presentation that you will upload to Kidblog to share with us. What is a topic that you would like to spend ten days immersing yourself in to learn more about? 

Now, their poll question isn’t due until Sunday, but here are some of the answers so far:

  • Who is the best baseball player of all time?
  • How do you make the best icing?
  • I want to research and learn more about volcanoes.
  • How do you make the best homemade bread?
  • How do I improve the most as a runner?
  • Livelihood of Justin Thomas(Pro Golfer)
  • Who is the best college softball player of all time?
  • How do you learn to play the piano?
  • What do you have to do to get to a major league sport?
  • How to make the best Brownies?
  • What is the impact of plastic on the environment?
  • Who is the best softball player in the world?
  • Why are pigs so smart?
  • How much good has Corona caused?
  • How do you train a dolphin?
  • Who is the best basketball player of all time?
  • I might research what the best bakery in the world is. Let's be honest with ourselves, it is probably the one Harry Styles used to work at. (I laughed out loud here. Love these kids and miss them something fierce.)
  • Where is the best beach in the world?
  • Why do professional photos look the way they do?
  • What is causing global warming?
  • Who are the greatest musical artists of all time?
  • What happens to you if you do not sleep?
  • Who is the best football player of all time?
  • Who is the best cheerleader?
  • I would want to learn more about adaptations.
  • What are dreams?
  • What is the best way to study the bible?
  • What is the Burlsworth award?
  • Who is the best eventer ( a person who jumps with horses) of all time?
As a result, I cannot wait to see how these kids research these topics and share their learning with us. I think has the potential to be amazing and something we come back to each year.  I've attempted to include my sample below. Hope it helps!

Friday, April 17, 2020


Today came the announcement that I was dreading, but expected nonetheless. Our governor suspended in-person learning in our schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. I sat with that for a bit. 

I will not see my current class in our classroom again.

We will not have another quick write together.

They won’t get to have the fundraising run we had been planning for May.

We won’t get to wrap up the year together with a celebration on the last day while we stand in an empty room and I give each one of them one last tearful hug.

My heart is a bit broken.

I had asked each class on Wednesday in our weekly Zoom calls how many of them thought we would go back to school this year. Not one. Kids said they hoped we would, but realistically didnd’t think so. 

Either did I.

So, it came as a surprise to me that this hit me so hard. I knew it was coming. Heck, I’m grateful for it. If one kid in our district got terribly ill with this virus because we resumed school too early, I would feel horrible. I hate staying home and not teaching, but I will gladly do it to help our healthcare workers and protect our community.

It still stinks.

This afternoon I went to my school. I drew my map for my custodian of where everything goes and I closed up my room. I stood there, before I left, and took it all in. April 17th, over a month before the end of the school year, and my room is done. I hate this.

Then I walked in my house and sat down to have some lunch. Glancing down at my phone I saw lots of notifications - emails, videos, Padlet poems - from my students. I began replying, got into several conversations, and my heart lightened. Our classroom is closed, but we are still together, still learning. They are still taking my breath away by some of the poems they are writing. I’m still in awe of them on a regular basis.

Doesn’t mean that this sight didn’t hurt just a bit.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

What Remains

Yesterday I had a Zoom book call with a group of friends. Educators and librarians, we are scattered across the country. One in Washington, two in Texas, one in Ohio, one in Pennsylvania, and me in Illinois. In our group we have amassed years of working with students, helping to nurture readers. In this call many confessed that they have been struggling to read during this pandemic. We talked about what school looks like during this time and how kids don’t know that their reading life will ebb and flow. I felt the talk of books wash over me and couldn’t help but compare this call to my Zoom calls that morning.

Every Wednesday I hold an optional check-in with my three classes. As I wrote about before, these are short calls, twenty minutes or less, where I simply check-in, make a few announcements, then ask if anyone has anything they want to share. I teach around twenty-five kids in each class, but the amount of kids that come each week varies from six to twelve per class. Sometimes I wonder if there is any benefit to holding these meetings, but a large part of each group asks me to continue them, so I do. 

Yesterday as I was reviewing the homework with my first group, I was also thinking through what school has become in my head. My students are often fascinated when I tell them that I can be teaching them while thinking through issues in my head at the same time. I tell them I’m certain this is a prerequisite skill of being a teacher, yet I digress. 

As I glanced over their faces, I thought of what we’ve lost. We can’t sit together, working through text as a group right now. I can’t shop my shelves with a student, browsing titles and book talking each one. We no longer gather together around a video, writing and discussing what it means, pushing our thinking. A lot of the community piece of our classroom is gone and, to be honest, that breaks my heart. 

And yet, yesterday reminded me that what we built together for twenty-seven weeks is not gone completely. In these three fifteen minute chats I had moments like:

A student showing a quick glimpse of his family’s greenhouse. I purchase my lettuce from his mom each week, so we all celebrated to see those beautiful green beds.

Several students cheering when I held up Ben and Erin Napier’s book, Make Something Good Today, as I shared my deep love for their show, Home Town. Apparently I’m not the only fan.

Cats, dogs, stuffed animals, Moms, Dads, and baby brothers joined our chat to say hi.

When I shared what I was reading and writing, I told them I just finished going over the edits from my publisher on the romance short story I had written during NaNoWriMo and it should be published this summer. An entire class applauded me. I teared up.

I told them I was surprised that so many had already gone to our Padlet to write their Age Poem for this week. Then I told them that I cried reading them and someone said, “Of course you did.” 
Finally, at the end of each call I always say, “Miss you guys, Love you.” I heard back so many, “Love you too, Mrs. S,” that I left each meeting in tears. At one point I just rested my head on my dining room table for a bit. It’s a lot.

So, in these times where I am without a classroom, when so much has been stripped away, I have to look at what remains and celebrate it. And what remains is love. I love these kids with all of my heart and am beyond gratified to see that so many of them feel the same. We’ve got this. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

This is Forty-Six

Every year I do a week-long unit of "age" poems with my students. They read several mentor texts, then write their own. I have several of my own on this blog. This year's poem is certainly a departure from the ones that came before. Here's hoping my poem for forty-seven will be similar to forty-five and before instead of this one.

This is Forty-Six
Barely two weeks after I turned forty-six
Life changed.
Conferences were cancelled,
As well as sporting events.
The governor announced
Schools would close.
At first for two weeks,
Then until April 30th.
At the time of the writing of this poem,
It is unknown if that will be extended.

Fear swarmed me.
Anxiety spiraled out of control.
This virus,
Changed everything.

I couldn’t go shopping 
without thinking it through.
We stocked up,
Trying to make less trips to the store.
Curbside shopping,
And dining,
Became the norm.

Before, I could see my parents,
My family,
My mom and dad,
Chris’s mom, 
Only across town, 
But now only seen through the computer screen
As we have regular Zoom calls.

My students,
Now taught online.
Reading a book aloud 
Without them gathered around,
Seems all-kinds of wrong.

And yet, 
This is forty-six.
Inside of the walls of my house,
I have what I need.
Chris is working from home.
The boys surface from their rooms
To run, 
To eat,
To visit, 
Then return to their online worlds
Where they can catch up with their friends.

I look at the calendar,
At blacked out events.
Track meets cancelled.
Appointments rescheduled for months down the line.
I wonder when life will ever return to normal,
And ask myself what normal is anyway.

One day we will leave our homes.
Businesses will reopen.
School classrooms will fill once again.
I will get to see my family,
And hug them tight.
Never again to take for granted
The joy to be found
In being together.

For now,
We shelter in place.
Working to flatten the curve.
In awe,
And filled with gratitude,
To all who are out there 
Keeping us safe.

This is forty-six.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Small Celebrations

Leia, while I try to do some yoga...
It’s been a week. Today, while on a walk with my dog, I left a Voxer message for my friend Cindy, who lives in Pennsylvania. In it, I said, “I haven’t been with my students for twenty-one days.” At those words, I actually stopped walking. Three weeks. Three weeks since I last taught in my classroom. My gut tells me we won’t be going back to school this year. That thought breaks my heart. I love my students. I miss them so, even though I went through this week’s work from home and grumbled about the amount that isn’t done, I still miss them. I wish I got to have those conversations to their face instead of online. However, I don’t want to dwell in sadness, so here’s what I’m celebrating this week:

My New Website

As I’ve written about here, I’m writing romance books. A short story is coming out in an anthology this summer, I’m revising the two books. As a result, I’ve created a website HERE. If you travel over there, please consider signing up for my newsletter. The first issue will come out next week and it will be a place of happiness and joy in your inbox. Each newsletter will contain:

  • Reading recommendations: what I’m reading for myself (romance!) and/or what I’m reading for my students
  • Writing updates
  • What I’ve been cooking
  • Music I’ve enjoyed lately
  • Products I want to gush about
  • A general life update

Sign up for the newsletter is on the website

Student emails
I woke up on Thursday to an email from a student. I’ve pasted it below because it made me so happy…

Dear Mrs. Soko,

I have just finished the Blood of Olympus and let me say that I cried for about ten minutes because my super sized mcshizzle bad boy supreme died. I wanted to throw the book across the room. I was so sad. The thing is, I was reading at night, so no smashing the book to the ground screaming, "Curse you Rick". I loved Leo so much, he was by far my favorite person out of that story, so when he 'died' we had a river of tears in my bed. Then I finished the book, and even more tears ran down my cheeks because my heart melted in my chest. He survived and went to Calypso!!! That had to be the sweetest thing that happened to me reading this book. Like boys pay attention to what these guys are doing, you might pick up some tips to find love. 
     Just saying I loved that book so so so so so much. For real "Curse you Rick for putting me through a heartache."

With love,

I mean, doesn’t that just make you smile? I cannot even begin to express the happiness that filled me up upon reading that.

Read Aloud
We were reading Jennifer Nielsen’s False Prince when we were back in school. I had a lot of messages over our first week off, which was our spring break. Would I continue the story? Thanks to publishers changing their policies while we are under these new stay at home mandates, I’ve continued our read aloud on a private Flipgrid for my class. 

Last week and this week I’ve put up over three hours of me reading. It’s a bit awkward, but the views for each video told me the kids were watching. On Wednesday I left them at a bit of a cliffhanger. I’d already read the ten chapters for the week, though, so I thought that might be a good spot to stop until next week. Imagine my delight when I got an email from one of my students. She and her grandma had been listening together to my videos each day and they wondered if I’d mind reading a bit more this week. So, of course I did.

Look for the Helpers
As we all are aware, the last few weeks have been a struggle. My anxiety does not do well in times like these and my brain wants to rush ahead to worst case scenarios. However, in the midst of all of the bad, I keep finding pockets of good news. Whether it is the heroes that are saving us right now, the essential workers that are keeping our world running, former students who post pictures of themself in their protective gear heading to work, scientists that are searching for answers, and on, and on. Everyday people are stepping up. We have heroes who walk among us and they move me to tears. I am so grateful.

Finding Bright Spots

This is a picture of me with one of my students, T. She dressed up like me for our middle school talent show which was held on 3/13, our last day of school before spring break. I saw her after dismissal and told her I wanted a photo with her. We took it and then she left for break. A few hours later I’d learn that we were out of school for the next two weeks, which was extended until April 30th, which I fear will be extended for the remainder of the year. I had no idea when I took this with T that it could be my last photo of “school” for this school year. It brings me joy and also makes me grieve what we’ve lost. My boys are missing their track season. My oldest son’s girlfriend is a Senior. My cousins are Seniors in college. There is so much we’ve lost, not even delving into the lives that have been lost. 

Today I read so many students’ writing entries for the week. They’re angry at this virus. They ask me if we are coming back. They tell me how much they miss school. I hear them. But through their writing I also find the thread of gratitude for small moments. The awe when they talk about family members working in the medical field. The time they’ve enjoyed with their love ones. Their newfound appreciation for a normal school day. They are watching, being shaped by this moment in time, as are we all.

Each night I journal, keeping my own record of this time. I end every entry, no matter how scared I am in the majority of it, with a bright spot of my day. They truly are all around us.

Wishing you and your loved ones health and happiness. And please head over HERE and sign up for my newsletter. The first one should be going out sometime next week. Thanks!