Sunday, September 19, 2021

Bright Spots and a Giveaway

Friday was our twenty-second day of school. Twenty-two school days. Somehow that seems like not enough and too much at the same time. This school year is like no other. Like last year, the pandemic casts a long shadow. Also like last year, there are moments every day of normalcy that take my breath away. But we’re in school for full days, unlike last year. We also have all activities back, unlike last year. We’re masked, vaccines are here, and each day we learn more about a virus that I wish I’d never heard of.


It’s a lot.


However, I’m choosing not to focus on the things I cannot change. I’m also choosing each day to look for bright spots. Do you need some too? Here are a few I can share with you.


My three classes have read a crazy amount of books so far this year. Since our first day of school, August 18th, I’ve read twenty-six books. Out of my sixty-seven students, all have finished a book. Several have finished more books than I have. We’re all over the map in our reading tastes and habits, but several kids have shared how much they’re loving independent reading. 


Some, like a girl in my fourth hour class, showed Alex Gino’s Rick to me and said she’d never connected to a book more. A boy in the same class said he’d never read Riordan’s Lightning Thief, but since I’d gone on and on about it, he decided to give it a try. Now he’s on Sea of Monsters.


Their comments, the messages I get from other readers, make it all worth it.


On Thursday, I shared with my tenth hour class that I typically headed to the grocery store in Savoy after school. I explained that it was a twenty-five minute drive, which I didn’t love, and it was grocery shopping, which I really loathe, but then it was done for the week. Several kids piped up, reminding me that I could go pick up Starbucks. I love that they already know me a little bit.


Finally, another bright spot was that this week I was monitoring the hallway between fourth and fifth hour. My fourth hour class stays for fifth hour study hall, unless they’re going to choir. As I stood there, talking to the teacher next door, a girl in my class came up and gave me this:






What I cannot express fully is that one, this kid is one I’ve been working hard to connect with. And two, the night before I had to come up with a title for book four that I’m publishing this winter. The cover designer was ready to finish the cover. The book is written, but I hate coming up with titles. Hate it. Chris and I had brainstormed. Nada. I finally pasted the entire book into a word cloud. Dreams was the most used word. I quickly thought of Small Town Dreams. Looking online, I realized Nora Roberts had a book with the same title. Now, it’s rare to find no other book with your title, but I’m not using a title that Nora Roberts used. So I thought up other titles with “dream”. Nothing. Finally, I did a search in the book for the word “dream” to see how I used it, and one exchange between the two protagonists has Nate telling Elle to follow your dream. Bingo. So, one email to the cover designer later and I had a title.


And the next day a student that I was trying to build a relationship with handed me a note with the same words written down? 

Whoa.


She’d handed me the note and headed back in, not waiting for me to read it. So I headed in and quickly told her the story. Her beaming smile made my heart happy. 


A bright spot for sure.


I hope you’re having lots of bright spots, wherever you are. One constant bright spot in my life since April of 2020 has been my Friday afternoon book club. One of our members, Jennifer LaGarde, has a book coming out with Darren Hudgins this month. This is an excellent resource for those of us in the classrooms or in libraries. I’d like to donate a copy to one of my blog readers. Check out Jennifer and Darren’s book HERE. If this book sounds like one for you, enter below. I’ll pick one winner next Sunday and email you if it’s you.


Hope you enjoy a lot of bright spots this week.



Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Back to School Eve

 


I wrote a letter to myself today. That sounds a little strange, but I was in a professional development workshop. We were to think of one or two people who had taken a chance on us both professionally and personally and send them a note stating, “Thanks for taking a chance on me.” That’s it. No explanation. 


Both of the people who I thought of professionally - Brad and Karen, for the record - are people I have no easy way to contact. No emails. We’re not Facebook friends. I don’t have their cell number.


So, I picked myself, kind of. I picked my writing email - Kat Ryan. I thanked myself for taking a chance on me.


My husband might have just rolled his eyes.


I disagree.


See, putting your writing out there in the world is hard. It’s asking to make yourself vulnerable. It’s letting others judge you, and judge you they will. 


I mean, let’s be real here. I’m writing romance books. The world already decries romance books as light, fluff, mommy porn, etc. Do I think everyone will like my books? Nope. 


But I’m beginning, just beginning, not to care. I’m proud of myself for trying, for taking the leap. (I also have read Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quote a time or two.)


Tonight, as I do every night, I talked to God. Every night I thank them for different things. Often, it’s for my heart, which might seem strange. 


My heart is large. Not medically so, at least I hope not, but with empathy. Some might think this is a good thing and it is, in a way. It also makes life harder, I think. I feel things. A lot. I get my feelings hurt easily. I worry, I mean, hello anxiety. Watching the news is hard. I want to help everyone. Reading social media is hard. Friends post little digs about things they don’t believe in or agree with. Which is their right, but sometimes I struggle with the comments.


It can hurt. 


But I’m learning, with age, to appreciate my big heart. I think it’s what helps me write stories. Reading the edits from my copy editor tonight found a comment where she told me that my superpower is world building. That she felt like she knew the town my characters were inhabiting two books in and wanted me just to keep writing more and more. I feel what these characters are going through. I think about them a lot. I can’t stop, to be honest, and so I write their stories down.


Tonight what I’m feeling is empathy for my students.


It’s Back-to-School Eve. Tomorrow is our first day of school. I’m so excited and cannot wait to meet a new group of students. Some kids, I’m certain, are also pumped. They’re ready to see their friends. They’ve already set out the back to school clothes. Some are dreading it. Summer is freedom, school can be a cage and they are trapped birds. And for some, the start of the school year is filled with anxiety. They don’t want to be expected to share, to participate, to be vulnerable. 


I get that. I do. 


And so, tomorrow I will greet them all. I’ll love them as much as I can. I’ll work hard to meet them where they are and help them grow beyond their wildest dreams. And I’ll remember how hard it is to put yourself out there and ask nothing of them that I wouldn't ask of myself.


And mostly I’ll treasure their hearts, whether normal sized or far too big like mine. Because we need all kinds of people in this world. Our beauty lies in our differences. I’ll work to teach them that too.


Have a great school year. 


Friday, July 23, 2021

A Safe Place


It’s July 23rd and I should be sitting at this desk and furiously working to finish my novella that is due to my editor in seventeen days. *cue panicked rocking* However, school begins in twenty-six days and my brain turned to the school year as it’s wont to do at this time of year. 


AHHHHHHH.


And so I found myself at my desk wondering if I should ignore the impending school year or if I should type out this blog in the hopes that once I do, I’ll be able to focus on getting my novella written for the rest of the day.


You can clearly see that’s where I landed. We’ll see how it works out for me.


I think the school year was on the brain today because next week I get the chance to meet with my new AP. She scheduled times for all staff to come in and meet with her. As I looked over the list of topics she would like to discuss, I debated how to describe my classroom. I thought about what’s important to me, how it’s reflected in that space. I thought about my first twenty-four years in education and I thought about the last one. I’ve just begun to process it and I think I will continue to for some time.


In a normal year I have the students fill out surveys at the end of the school year. I ask them what they got out of our year together. How they felt about coming to school each day, how they felt about coming to our room. I have a list of words that I see repeated from survey to survey, year to year, when they describe how my classroom makes them feel:


Loved

Safe

Home

Family

Kind

Caring

Wanted

Safe-space


Of course, they talk about books, they talk about writing. They talk about the creative process and sometimes, when I’m lucky, they talk about how they grew as readers and/or writers. That is all so important, but it’s this list I come back to year after year.


I examine a new batch of reflection and see if I notice the same words repeated. It tells me they know they can be themselves in my room. It tells me that no matter what else is going on in their lives, I’m helping to provide what I can in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Without that, what’s the purpose? These words tell me that they get that I’m here for them and will keep them safe.


Which is what screwed with my brain big time last year.


It’s no secret that I struggle with anxiety. Everyone who knows me knows this. I don’t keep it a secret on purpose. We, as a country, need to do a hell of a lot better in talking about mental illness. It’s not my fault that my brain is wired this way. I acknowledge it, develop ways to deal with it, and work to set myself up for success.


A pandemic can mess with that just a bit.


I knew, if I was struggling, many of my students were too. So I worked to make the classroom a safe space for them in the midst of this all. And make it a place to learn and grow.


It was a lot.


This year I hoped and prayed things would be different. I could take away a layer of the anxiety that I called the Vid, and move back to normal.


Delta, Delta, Delta, I don’t want to help ya.


So, I’m looking at starting a new school year not where I’d hoped and prayed we’d be. And you know what? That’s going to have to be ok. I’m doing what I can to be safe. My entire family is vaccinated, or those that are old enough to be are. I hope for my friends with young kids that the authorization comes soon, I know that will make so many of them feel better. As I walk into the classroom for my twenty-sixth year in education, I’ll do so knowing I will teach kids to read and write better than when they entered the room. I’ll work to help them tap into the creative side of their brains. And I’ll remember that now, more than ever, I need to make sure my classroom makes them feel:


Loved

Safe

Home

Family

Kind

Caring

Wanted

Safe-space



Have a great school year, friends. Stay safe.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Cheerleaders




We have a variety of cheerleaders in our lives: our spouse, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc. I lost one of mine at the beginning of the month and have been reflecting on her role in my life ever since.


My grandma grew up never far from her sister. Ag and GG were well known in the area I live. In fact, when I was growing up my sister called them “Grandma and the other one.” Mainly because the two were so similar, you could call them both Grandma and it would effectively call them both over. 


While I remember the two of them that way for my entire childhood, it began long before. They grew up, got married, and then lived only fields apart. My grandma had two kids, so did GG. My dad and his brother, Tim, grew up with their cousins - Ellen and Jim - more like siblings than cousins. We lost Jim a few years back. And, at the beginning of June, we lost Ellen.



Ellen had lived in Arizona my entire life. I remember as a kid it seemed to be an exotic place, so different from the fields and plains I know like the back of my hand. Every summer, around July, Ellen and her children, Abby and Joseph, would travel back to Central Illinois for a week or two. We’d joke about the heat - how the humidity here made it feel even hotter than the normal dry desert heat of Tucson. I’d watch my Great Aunt GG glow with excitement as she would dote on this family from so far away.


As I got older, Ellen and I began to talk about school. She taught in Arizona, so we’d have conversations when she’d come back about the teaching of reading in the lower grades and the beauty of the program that is Reading Recovery. She told me about the strengths of her school and their students, I told her about mine. I remember when her school was trying something different - she and another teacher would be teaching a multi-age classroom. We talked about what the potential advantages were and her eyes would sparkle with excitement of what was ahead.


As a young mom, Ellen told me on her frequent trips back how impressed she was with how Chris and I were raising our boys. She’d comment on how relaxed I was as a parent, to which I’d assure her that wasn’t always the case. She would share parenting advice and ask why I’d made the choices I did. And I still remember how she glowed when she became a grandma. Nothing was more important to Ellen than her family. She loved them so.



But while Ellen encouraged me as a teacher and mom, it’s nothing compared to how she rooted me on as a writer. I remember when I began my blog I got an email from her telling me she read my posts and was so proud of me. Then came the trip home where she shared that she was in her classroom one day on a Friday. I believe it was after school and she had a moment to sit down and read her email. Choice Literacy’s Big Fresh newsletter had come out that day, with my first article for them shared within. Ellen said she read that summary, then reread it, then clicked on the link to make sure it was me. She told me how she ran to find a colleague to tell them that I was writing for Choice Literacy. I hadn’t told anyone in my family, not thinking it was something they would care about. Ellen did. 


On her next trip home she told me that she was still reading all of my articles and didn’t I think it was time to write a professional book? We talked about it. I said I was talking to someone at one of the educational publishers, but didn’t feel like I had a book in me. She said she was certain I did.


Shortly after that trip we got the hard news that Ellen had a diagnosis, ALS. I knew already what this meant, we’d already had a friend of our family that passed from it years ago. My heart broke for Ellen, for her family, but they stepped up. They brought so much attention to this disease and fought for awareness, for funding, for education, for a cure. I was, I am, in awe.


For the last few years, Ellen and her family dealt with the progression of this disease with such grace. From miles away, I’ve watched and prayed. It’s not enough. It’s never enough.


This past November, my first fictional short story was published in an anthology. My cousin Abby, Ellen’s daughter, sent me a message as they tried to get Ellen’s computer hooked up so she could read it. That text meant more to me than I can ever express. In a time where it would be absolutely ok to block out the outside world, to turn inward, Ellen was still finding ways to show me how excited she was about my journey.


The thing is, we all need cheerleaders in our lives. When times are hard, when imposter’s syndrome is real, those cheerleaders remind us to keep going, keep fighting. Ellen Mooney was one of mine. She was a proud mom, wife, grandmother, teacher, sister, cousin, and so much more. Life is a little harder without her in it, as it always is when you lose those you love. 


Hug your loved ones. Appreciate every moment. Dig deep and lead with kindness. And if you have a spare dollar or two to donate to the ALS Arizona chapter in Ellen’s name, I’d be so grateful. 


Love to you all.






Sunday, May 23, 2021

Don't Blink


Our oldest son Luke graduates from High School today. This is for him. 


Don’t blink, they say

As you take your baby home

Driving so slow

Worried about how safe he is in a car seat.


How can you be trusted

To raise this little one

Into the adult they’re meant to be.


Don’t blink, they say

As your toddler cries at home

Frustrated that his body can’t yet

Do what his mind dreams up.


You wonder if you’re doing

This whole parenting thing correctly

It doesn’t come with a manual and answers after all.


Don’t blink, they say

As Nerf wars go on

And on, and on.

Years melting away as little boys become teens.


When did you start having to look up

To the little one that made you a mom?

Your heart breaks a bit more each day

As his independence soars.


Don’t blink, they say

High school goes by in a flash.

Miles ran, friendships formed

You face down each obstacle with grace.


Pandemics come, dreams change

Challenges present

And you work through them

And work through

And work through


Don’t blink, they say

Graduation day is here

The future is wide open

Chase your dreams

Follow them,

Listen to them.

You are meant for greatness.


We blinked. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

For Mary Lee


A good friend of mine is retiring at the end of this month after thirty-seven years of teaching. Mary Lee Hahn has made the difference in countless lives of students. There is no way to pay tribute to the impact of a teacher like Mary Lee, but I wanted to honor her nonetheless. To know Mary Lee is to know of her love of poetry. And while I bow to her ability with the written word, I thought I’d write a poem and share it on my blog today. For Mary Lee. For My son, Luke, who graduates this weekend. For the students who’ve shown up and done the work, day in, day out, during the most bizarre school year ever. And also, for the ones who haven’t, for whatever reason they have.


This poem is for all of them.


I see you.

Sitting on the stoop, 

Backpack packed,

Excitement strumming through your veins

Off to your first day of school.


I see you.

Mask on your face,

Uncertainty in your eyes.

Desks in rows

A room devoid of it’s personality

But you brought your own.


I see you.

Standing in front of a classroom

Staring at a computer screen

Attempting to connect to children

Wherever they are

With words, stories, and heart.


Wasn’t it you

Whose imagination took my breath away

Wasn’t it you

Who had stories spilling out of your head

Wasn’t it you

Who had love flowing out from every pore.


Six feet of space

Around us

Cannot stop the love

That surrounds us.


This year

Is not one that any would have imagined

Or asked for,

But it is what we’ve got.


And with it

A new community grew

And became more

Than we could have ever imagined.


It was more.

More.

More.


Congrats on an amazing teaching career, Mary Lee. You've always given more. Wishing you the best.